November 2021 Prompt: A Thing To Be Grateful For; an Elder Scrolls tale
The sun was hot on Morga’s face, but the wind blowing down the slopes of the Druadach Mountains was icy. She smiled as the wind tousled her long, raven-black hair; it was a welcome respite, even if the work was exhausting. Picking up her basket of potatoes and balancing it on one hip, Morga made her way back down the shale-lined mountain path.
A stern-faced woman in dusty, steel-blue robes, grey hair pulled back into a braided bun, stood at the bottom of the path. The old woman’s arms were crossed, one of her feet taping impatiently as Morga drew near. The piercings in the woman’s nose and brow glimmered in the early morning sun.
“What in the name of Mauloch are you doing out of bed, girl?” snapped the old woman. She snatched the basket of potatoes from Morga once she was within reach. “And you certainly do not need to be carrying that!”
Despite the old woman’s tone and demeanor, Morga could not help but smile fondly.
“Oh, Asagra,” said Morga wistfully, “you do spoil me so.” The older woman rolled her eyes.
“Makhel!” Asagra boomed, calling to her sixteen-year-old grandson, Chief Ugorz’s thirdborn and second son. “Come and help your auntie with this!” she added gesturing to the potatoes.
Morga caught the sleeve of the Chieftain’s mother. “No, Asagra, let him be,” she said quickly.
“I shall do no such thing,” Asagra snapped at Morga. “He’s an able-bodied boy who isn’t pulling his weight, while his auntie who had a baby three days ago is out picking potatoes!” The old woman’s eyes widened wildly as she saw Makhel beginning to turn away, pretending as though he had not heard his grandmother. Throwing down the basket, spilling potatoes everywhere, Asagra stormed after her grandson.
Morga flinched as she the old woman grabbed the boy by his ear, pinching it between two long-nailed fingers. Others had paused in the courtyard of the stronghold, watching the Chieftain’s mother manhandling his second son. Inevitably, their eyes flickered to Morga, wondering her involvement in the ordeal.
Wishing the ground would open and swallow her, Morga knelt to begin picking up potatoes. She prayed none of her husband’s other wives were nearby.
“Morga! Stop that this instant!” Asagra bellowed.
Makhel was flung into the dirt beside her. Morga knew better than to give the boy a sympathetic smile, but she did it anyway. The children were all just caught in the middle of the on-going war between their father’s wives. Morga caught sight of the burning hatred in the boy’s light blue eyes as Asagra hauled her up.
“He’ll finish that,” growled the old woman. “Maybe then he’ll remember that it is not wise to ignore his grandmama!”
As they headed back towards the Chief’s Longhouse, Asagra snarled at any clansmen that looked at Morga funny. The younger woman was always grateful for the favoritism shown her by her husband’s mother, but it always made Asagra’s absence more difficult.
“You should not be out of bed,” Asagra was scolding her, again, her arm looped loosely around Morga’s waist. “Your little one is only three days old; you need-”
“I need to remain useful,” Morga interrupted.
The old woman scoffed. “Says who?” she demanded.
Morga’s feet stumbled as they planted in the dirt, causing her to nearly topple over if it had not been for Asagra’s firm hold on her. Her blood ran like ice through her veins, and she felt ill as she saw Dulah – her husband’s second wife, and Makhel’s mother – storming towards them. Instinctually, Morga began to back away, pulling Asagra with her.
The old woman’s eyes darted to the approaching Dulah and back again to Morga. “I see,” she said quietly. “This again.”
“Still,” Morga corrected hoarsely.
“Go back to the Longhouse,” Asagra instructed her softly, “I’ll put Dulah back in her place.”
Hating to play into the hostility of the other wives, but also fearing for her safety in the face of Dulah’s wraith, Morga did not hesitate to flee.
“Flee in my wake,” Dulah roared after her, “leave your nursemaid to face me, you cowering wench!”
Ugorz’s Forge Wife was a formidable, towering woman, and she dwarfed Asagra before her. The size difference did not prevent Asagra from whipping the taller woman with her staff, bringing Dulah to her knees. Refocusing her attention to the path before her, Morga collided with a form in front of her.
Begnar, Ugorz’s firstborn, grunted in annoyance with her. He hastily shifted his leather vest, clamping it awkwardly to his side.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Morga stammered. Noticing his awkward stance as he attempted to edge past her, Morga caught his arm, adding: “Wait, are you injured? Did I hurt you?”
Begnar removed his arm from her grasp, like one would rid themselves of something deeply unpleasant to behold. He shook his hand, as though to be rid of the sensation of her touch upon his skin. He scoffed in the disgust of her assumption.
“As if you could ever hurt me,” he snarled, turning awkwardly away from Morga to shove past her.
Morga glared after him; he was nothing but a boy, a child of nineteen years, but he was well on his way to being nastier than Mauloch’s breath.
“Bastard,” she murmured to herself, watching the awkward way in which he retreated through the shadows of the Stronghold.
She was beginning to fell the effects of her over-exertion thus far; light-headedness settled over her, as well as the nausea of fear. The trickle of warm blood running down her inner thigh was just an added reminder now.
Inside the Chief’s Longhouse was dark and warm. But most importantly, quiet; meaning she could slip to her quarters unseen. Today she was grateful for Laurig’s laziness and that their husband was away on a rare hunt with his Hunt Wife, Magrol. Remembering she needed to clean herself up, Morga detoured to the bedchamber of her husband so she would not disturb her sleeping children.
Much to Morga’s surprise, when she swung open the iron-banded timber door, she saw Laurig sprawled in their husband’s bed. Alone. Of all Ugorz’s wives, Laurig – his first wife, and Shield Wife – was the stickler for traditions. And it was a tradition that barred the wives from being in their husband’s chambers without him. This was his sanctuary.
Leaving the door open – let her be found by Dulah, or better yet, Magrol and Ugorz upon their return to Dushnikh Yal – Morga went to her own chamber at the far end of the Longhouse. She slid the iron bar across her door behind her and set about to cleaning herself up. It was typical of most Chieftain’s Longhouse set-ups to have each of his wife in their own small set of rooms near his on one side of the house or the other. However, Morga had been placed in a single storage room on the far end of the house upon her arrival, with Magrol, Dulah, and Laurig all between she and Ugorz. And whilst the other three had enjoyed a set of rooms, a bedchamber as well as a small sitting room, Morga was only allotted one.
Her favorite two additions to the set up were that firstly, to get to her one room, Morga had to pass through an extra storage room that was being underutilized. And secondly, both Dulah and Laurig had three rooms in their possession.
In her singular room, the baby still slept soundly in the bassinet beside Morga’s bed, while Lorka and Nunuk – Morga’s eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son – lay snuggled together, their hands intertwined. The other children of the family slept in group bunkrooms in the basement of the Longhouse. But unless invited by Ashaka – Magrol’s youngest – or they specifically asked to, Morga was not in a habit to allow her children to sleep without her. They rarely requested to sleep with the other children; Lorka was beginning to recognize the hostility of her elder half-siblings, as well as understanding the reasoning behind it. Nunuk was still of the age to cling to Morga, a habit she was more than willing to indulge.
Putting on a fresh nightdress, Morga climbed back into her bed, snuggling into Nunuk. She had not intended to go back to sleep, she still had much to do around the Longhouse, but her eyes were growing increasingly heavy with each lulling breath of her children.
When she awoke, Morga stretched out in her bed. There were no little bodies beside her, and the bedding was cold against her skin. Rolling over, she draped her hand into the cradle beside her bed. There was no little warm chest rising and falling in sleep.
Her eyes shot open in alarm.
A dark form filled the chair in the corner of her room and Morga felt her heart beginning to hammer in her chest. She wiped the sleep from her eyes, propping herself onto her elbow. A warbling coo came from her visitor’s lap; they had her baby.
A deep voice was murmuring in response to the baby. As her vision adjusted, Morga saw it was Ugorz. Not Dulah.
“I did not mean to wake you,” Ugorz said in his quiet rumble he reserved for the presence of his children, “but I could not resist seeing him – and you – any longer.” His thumb traced the contours and ridges of his newest son’s face, the dark brows, the button nose, the strong chin. He caressed the infant’s shock of raven hair that crowned his little head.
“And does he meet the Chief’s standards?” Morga asked.
Ugorz smiled at her – the type of smile only she received from him. “You know he does, my love,” he said quietly. “Just as perfect as Nunuk, and Lorka before him.”
“Come, sit here with me?” Morga requested, patting the bed beside her. She could not keep her proud smile from spreading across her face. Asagra had always told her that Ugorz treated his children with her differently than his other wives. As though the age gap kept them from being threats to his position as Chief. Even though on more than one occasion, Ugorz had expressed his desire to Morga to see Lorka or Nunuk as Chieftain one day over his seven other children.
Her husband gave her that indulgent smile once more. “I really shouldn’t, Mother was chomping at the bits for my attention the second Magrol and I dismounted.” The chair creaked with the freedom of the Chieftain’s weight. “Not to mention Laurig and Dulah will be wanting my attention, and both will be quite salty when they learn I’ve made a point to come to you first.” The bedframe creaked as Ugorz sat down beside Morga, their son cradled haphazardly in the crook of one arm. “Though, they will not be getting the attention they desire once I do get to them,” he added with a growl.
So, Asagra had gotten a word in with her son, then.
He sighed heavily, leaning back into the pillows, and sliding an arm around Morga.
“I found I needed something lighter first before dealing with those harpies, however,” he said as she nestled into his side. Ugorz kissed the top of her head gently. “Mother said we nearly lost you with this one,” he said quietly.
“I was in her capable hands,” said Morga firmly. “You can see for yourself I am quite well.”
“Still, I would have never forgiven myself.”
Morga did not know how to reply to Ugorz’s statement. Even though he was a different man with her compared to Laurig, Dulah, and even Magrol, he was not prone to declarations of feelings. He was an Orc Chieftain, after all. Ugorz never needed to tell Morga she was his favorite of his four wives, she could tell in the way he treated her. He doted upon her more than anyone had ever implied an Orc Chieftain would dote upon a wife. Especially his fourth wife.
Having been raised in an Imperialized Orsimer family in Skyrim’s capital of Solitude, Morga had been in for a culture shock upon her marriage to Ugorz. His mother had traveled across Skyrim to spend six weeks in Solitude with Morga prior to the marriage to educate her on the ways of Orcish Clans and Stronghold living. She had thought it would be incredibly glamorous marrying a Chieftain of a strong clan; much like wedding Skyrim’s High King. Morga had been shocked when Asagra had informed her that the Chief already had three wives. She was to be his fourth wife, his Hearth Wife, the wife to show extravagance and how well the clan was doing that he could provide for four women.
Morga had arrived in Dushnikh Yal with the expectation of despising her husband – she already held resentment in her heart – as it was made clear to her by Asagra that Chieftain’s were not known for being tender with their wives. They were there to perform their duty – in Morga’s case, keeping the Longhouse tended to – and to produce the next generation of Orcs for the clan. She had also expected to form a deep and sisterly bond with Ugorz’s other wives, while enjoying the status of ‘Auntie’ with their children. She was not prepared to learn that Laurig and Dulah were around a decade her senior, and Magrol was six years older, while Ugorz himself was nearly two decades Morga’s senior. Laurig and Dulah had been wed to Ugorz for ten years, with Magrol having joined four years later. When Morga arrived in Dushnikh Yal six years later, she was very much the outsider to the other women. The seven children between the three women were not permitted to call Morga ‘Auntie’, nor treat her as thus.
The only welcoming parties was Ugorz himself, and his mother, the clan’s Wise Woman, Asagra. Magrol and the younger two of her daughters did show her kindness, though secretly and only when Laurig and Dulah were not present. She kept telling Morga to just keep her head down and play Laurig and Dulah’s game, but things never changed between them. Ugorz recognized the hostility in Laurig and Dulah and had begun going out of his way to treat Morga on the slightest occasion. It eventually grew into a daily occurrence and Morga seeing herself becoming Ugorz’s sought after companion and favored wife. Morga had thought Laurig and Dulah would calm when they saw their husband’s obvious preference towards Morga, but if anything, it grew far worse. The hostility gulf widening between the women. The resulting environment had caused Morga to fall in love with her husband, despite the hostility from Laurig and Dulah, as he took every opportunity he could find to brighten her days.
Ugorz pinched Morga’s side gently. “You seem quite far away all of a sudden,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Morga said, “I was just thinking of when I first arrived in Dushnikh Yal and how far we have come since those days.”
Ugorz sighed heavily. “A thing I never should have done,” he said glumly.
Morga sat up a bit straighter. “And just what does that mean?”
“Most Chieftains wed their wives in close succession,” Ugorz began. “A common practice so the future children grow up together as blended siblings, the wives forming a tight bond. Animosity and favoritism do not usually develop among the wives.” Morga bit her tongue at this part; she wondered if anyone had ever asked the wives. “But when I met you, I did not care that Laurig and Dulah had been in their stations for a decade,” he continued. “It never even crossed my mind that they would be even worse to you than they had been to Magrol. I never dreamed they would see you as a threat. I told myself that if Magrol had found her way, so would you.”
“So, because of the pettiness of your first two wives, you regret bringing me to Dushnikh Yal?” Morga asked pointedly.
“I regret very much not having properly prepared you for what life might be like here. That I did not deal with Laurig and Dulah properly.” He shook his head. “I thought if I took better care to treat you especially well that it might make up for Laurig and Dulah. Instead, I just made things worse for you, feeding their jealousy.”
“You forget I did want to come,” said Morga gently.
“Based off a lie my mother told you.”
“She never lied, Ugorz,” Morga chuckled.
“Did she not tell you that Laurig, Dulah, and Magrol would all accept you with open arms?”
“She did,” Morga conceded. “She also said it would likely take time.”
Ugorz snorted. “An understatement, I think.”
“Magrol came around, didn’t she?” Morga tilted her head in the endearing way that Ugorz loved. It caused her dark waves to cascade over her shoulder. “Maybe we just underestimated how long Laurig and Dulah needed.”
“It’s been ten years, Morga,” Ugorz laughed sadly.
Morga could not help but to agree, but she could not bring herself to say it to her husband. Ugorz had enough to worry about taking care of the entirety of the clan, he did not need to worry himself with the pettiness of his wives. So, she said nothing.
“Do you know how many nights in the last ten years I have laid awake at night imagining if we just left?” Ugorz went on. “Left the others to fight it out, let Begnar and Makhel work at killing one another, leaving Morla or Betnah to be Chief.”
“I don’t believe you capable of just walking away from your clan,” Morga said quietly. She had spent every night of the last decade imagining she was somewhere else. Sometimes Ugorz was with her, sometimes not. But it was not a thing Chieftains did. They only left their seat as Chief in death, usually by the hand of one of their children.
“But are you happy here?” Ugorz pressed.
Exhaling sharply, Morga considered how to reply.
No one had considered her happiness when her father – on his career deathbed, facing execution by Skyrim’s High King – had all but put her up for auction to the local Orc Strongholds, hoping to gain enough gold or goods in which to barter for his life from his king. She could not tell her husband that some days she felt little better than livestock. She could not tell him that at night, when she was alone, she still prayed to the Eight. That she begged Stendarr to strike Laurig, Dulah, and sometimes even Magrol, down with his mercy.
Sighing, she simply took Ugorz’s hand and said: “I am happy enough, my love.” She could tell by the look in her husband’s eyes that he knew there was more to it than that. “We have three lovely children,” she pressed on, “how could I possibly wish for the thing that brought them to me had never happened?” She just wished her current situation would change.
Ugorz nodded his head slowly, following Morga’s lead to drop the subject. She was dying to know what was going on in his head that had brought this type of talk on, but Morga was tired of convincing him she was where she wanted to be when she would give anything to be anywhere else.
She tickled the nose of their little son, who was finally waking. “Now, what shall we name this little one?”
The next morning, Morga awoke early once again. She roused her children and swaddled the newly-named Azrog – Azzie, as Nunuk had taken to calling him – into a back carrier.
“Where are we going, Mama?” Lorka asked, taking her mother’s hand as they slipped from the Longhouse unseen.
“Just to pick some wildflowers for Grandmama, my little lark,” said Morga. Though this time it was, Morga was also checking that her cache of supplies was still hidden in her favorite meadow of the mountainside, higher than even the potato fields.
Last night’s talk with Ugorz had gotten her worried. Not that he knew of her emergency plan, she doubted he would hardly blame her, but that someone else might have discovered it. It was almost as though he had been spooked by something. And Morga was certainly not about to leave herself and her children vulnerable to Dulah’s never-ending cruelty.
The mountainside meadow stretched before Morga and her children and she finally released Lorka and Nunuk’s hands.
“Pick lots of blue ones for Papa, as well!” she called after the pair of them as the scampered off into the long grass. Lorka and Nunuk’s voices echoed across the meadow, reverberating against the rocky mountain slopes that surrounded them.
Once the pair of them were engrossed in their flower hunt, Morga turned her attention to her task at hand. To the west, framed by a pair of massive cedar trees, was a picturesque view of the Dushnikh Yal settlement. The tree on the right had a pile of rocks near the base of the tree and hidden in those rocks were Morga’s emergency provisions. As calmly and casually as she could manage, Morga shifted some of the rocks. After a few layers, she saw the glimmer of her silver linen scarf and her heart rate slowed considerably.
It was still here.
A closer inspection revealed everything was still in place. Every gold coin she had squirreled away, every piece of salted and dried meat, every bundle of clothing. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Returning the supplies and rocks to their original location, Morga turned her attention to gathering some wildflowers herself. Once she had gathered enough for her ruse, Morga settled herself on a stump to feed Azrog while she watched Lorka and Nunuk leaping in and out of the tall grass, like dolphins on the sea. Lorka had to crouch now to keep her head below the top of the grass, but Nunuk was still small enough to disappear completely with little effort.
It was peaceful here.
The sun was pale, veiled by a thin sheet of lacey, grey clouds. Fat, fluffy snowflakes were appearing seemingly out of nowhere, floating lazily through the cold air. The air felt fresh and clean blowing down from the mountains. It was her own, true sanctuary as no one from the Stronghold would venture this far up the slopes.
A low, rumbling vibrated through the air. Morga could feel it in her bones. She sat up a bit straighter, Azrog squealing in alarm. The sound of stones crashing together and crushing everything in their path set Morga’s heart hammering. She shot up from her seat, clutching an even more alarmed Azrog too tightly and causing him to shriek in displeasure.
Morga’s eyes scanned the rocky, snow-covered slopes above them, looking for the landslide as she screamed for Lorka and Nunuk. She felt the warmth of their small bodies as they rushed to her, gripping her skirts in fear. She knew she could never hope to protect them from a rockslide, but they would at least not be frightened and alone in the end. Her free hand rested on Nunuk’s head, and she stroked his soft hair, keeping his face nestled in her skirts. He was trembling violently. In a low voice, Morga began to sing the song her mother had once sung to her at bedtime.
There was no rock movement above them, however. It did not matter where she looked, but Morga could not see the movements of rock, nor the tell-tale dust cloud.
“What on Nirn-” she began in wonder.
“Mama,” Nunuk stammered. “Mama,” he repeated loudly, shaking her skirts, his voice shrill with fear. “Mama, look,” he wailed.
Morga tore her gaze from the mountains above and looked down at her son. He was facing behind her, his small, mittened hand outstretched, pointing down the mountainside. Toward home. She felt lightheaded, dread spreading though her, as she looked back over her shoulder toward the Stronghold.
The portion of the valley that had once been occupied by Dushnikh Yal was now a mountain of rock and shale, dust rising sickeningly into the air from the desecrated settlement.
Morga blinked in disbelief.
“No,” she whispered in horror.
“But… Papa?” Lorka asked, having turned to see, her voice quavering with the start of tears.
“I’m… I’m sure he’s alright,” Morga said weakly.
Hastily, she bundled Azrog back into his carrier and slipped it back onto her back. Nunuk was whimpering as Morga took both his and Lorka’s hands and hurrying back down the path, their wildflowers discarded and forgotten.
“He’s fine, I’m sure he’s fine,” Morga whispered to herself as they descended. “Ugorz has to be fine.”
If her husband lay dead below, Morga would be without a home. It would not matter which of his children emerged as the new Chief, Morga would be cast out. Her children would be safe with Begnar as Chief; while he listened to his mother’s poison about Morga, he had always been kind to Lorka and Nunuk.
Makhel on the other hand… There was not a doubt in Morga’s mind that she and her children would be in danger.
As the path opened onto the small Orc village, Morga stopped. Pulling Azrog from her back, she handed him to Lorka.
“I want you to take your brothers and hide behind those trees,” Morga began, kneeling before her daughter. “If anyone comes, you stay hidden. Only come out if I come back, or for Papa or Grandmama. No one else, understand?”
“No one else,” Lorka repeated, nodded solemnly. The poor girl had gone from care-free child to adult in the matter of a few hours.
“If high noon comes and I have not returned, you head north for Markarth.”
“Lorka…” Morga said firmly, holding her daughter’s gaze.
“Very well,” Lorka sighed, her eyes sliding to the ground. Morga pulled her close for a kiss on the cheek and hastily whispered the location of the supplies up the mountain to her.
Lorka stared, wide-eyed, at her mother, but eventually she simply nodded her understanding. Clutching Azrog to her and pulling a tearful Nunuk behind her, Lorka disappeared into the trees. Morga watched her go, her heart heavy, praying she would return to collect them shortly.
Dushnikh Yal was devastated beyond Morga’s recognition. If she had not lived there for the past ten years, she would have had no idea an Orcish Stronghold hada stood proudly there less than an hour ago. All that remained was the massive gate and its adjoining watch tower. Near where the Chief’s Longhouse once stood, Morga could just make out the top of the roof’s peak where the clan’s banner had flown. The banner was ripped, severing the clan’s sigil echatere’s head from its body.
How fitting, thought Morga as she surveyed the damage.
She could not see a single member of the clan. The air was utterly still, everything was silent. There were no frantic cries of fear or anguish. No shouts for help from those trapped beneath the rubble. There were no sounds at all.
Did no one survive this? Morga wondered. Had it caught the clan that unaware?
Picking her way across the rubble and boulders, Morga made her way towards the watch tower. If someone was there, it would mean the clan had been blind-sided and they were likely all dead. If the tower was empty, it would mean they had been attempting to evacuate and there may be some survivors.
Slipping, sliding, and stumbling she made her way through the loose rock. The clan’s banner still flew at the watch tower, the fabric cracking in the rising wind and relative silence. Rounding the bottom of the tower, Morga spotted the first body she came across. It was whomever had been on watch, half crushed by a massive boulder against the watch tower’s base. It was Betnah, Laurig’s daughter, who had been on watch that morning.
Drawing nearer to the poor girl, Morga saw she was still breathing. Scarcely, but she was breathing.
By the Divines, Morga thought, hurrying her pace. The girl’s breath was ragged, gasping. She would not survive.
Morga knelt beside the dying girl. “I am here, little one,” she said gently, placing a hand carefully on Betnah’s shoulder.
Betnah’s eyes fluttered open. The hardness she had learned from her mother and auntie was present for only the briefest of moments when she saw who it was, but it melted quickly away. Tears streamed from her eyes, mixing with the blood dripping from her temple, matting her hair to her cheek, as she reached blindly for Morga.
“Thank Mauloch,” Betnah wheezed. “I thought… everyone dead.” She clung to Morga as she held her the best she could. “Lorka…? Nunuk…? The baby…?”
“All safe,” Morga said gently.
“Thank Mauloch,” Betna said again.
Betnah coughed violently, her lungs rasping as blood spattered the rocks before her. “I’m so sorry,” she wheezed. “I should have never listened to my mother.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Morga said softly, stroking Betnah’s raven hair.
“We were so cruel,” Betnah sobbed, choking.
“It’s alright. I forgive you, my darling.” Morga held the girl tightly. “None of that matters now, Betnah. I just need to know one thing: did you sound the alarm?”
Sobbing and coughing blood, Betnah shook her head. “Horn… broken… no sound.” Her chest rattled; the end was coming. “I ran… I tried…” She coughed more, shaking violently. “Don’t… leave me… Auntie…”
“I’m here, Betnah,” said Morga through her own tears. “I will be here until the end, little one.” She had never achieved the status of ‘Auntie’ with Betnah, nor any of Ugorz’s other children. It felt cruel that she received it for the first time in this moment. Morga smoothed the girl’s hair absently as Betnah trembled once more.
And then she fell still and no more sound came from her.
Morga leaned the second daughter of her husband back to rest against the wall of the watch tower. With her fingertips, she gently brushed the girl’s eyelids shut.
“May Arkay shepherd you to Aetherius, Betnah,” Morga whispered.
She stood, wiping away her own tears and looked at the devastation of her home with fresh eyes. The clan had had no idea the rockslide was coming. There would be no survivors to find.
It broke her heart even further, but Morga forced herself to turn away from the ruin of her village and head back up the path towards where her children hid.
“Lorka,” Morga called, “I’ve returned, darling.” Silence. “Lorka? Nunuk?”
Searching through the small grove she had indicated to Lorka earlier, and the surrounding brush, Morga found no trace of her children. She looked up to the sky above, the sun only just nearing its midday peak. Perhaps Lorka had been spooked and had headed back up the mountain path.
Morga took the climb at a much brisker pace than she would normally have and found she was panting like a horker when she reached their clearing. Her eyes scanned the clearing, it was empty. A hollow feeling began to carve itself into Morga’s stomach, dread seeping in.
She turned towards the pines that had once framed the picturesque view of Dushnikh Yal. A tall figure stood beneath the pine on the right. Morga felt her brow twitch.
“Mama!” wailed Lorka from where she stood beside the figure.
Morga’s blood turned to ice as she saw a hand reach from the shadows and grasp the girl’s shoulder, pulling her forcefully back. Reactively, Morga jerked forward, her hand rising toward Lorka. Who had found them? she wondered, boarding on panic.
Laurig, Ugorz’s first wife, stepped forward then from the shadows, her handing remaining on Lorka’s shoulder possessively.
“Looking for something?” Laurig called, her voice dripping with acid. In her other hand, Laurig held Morga’s bag of provisions wrapped in her silver scarf, as well as Azrog’s carrier.
Morga’s heart lurched as she saw her four-day-old son being held with no further care than a sack of laundry.
“My, you have been busy,” Laurig growled. “You have a small fortune of gold coin in this bag,” she said accusatorily, “you must have been saving for some time. What did you think you were going to do with this?” Morga remained silent. Laurig scoffed, “Did you think you could actually run away?” The other woman smirked sickeningly. “A pity that Ugorz is dead,” Laurig continued, “I would have loved to show him this.”
Swallowing uncomfortably, Morga took a steadying breath. “What do you want, Laurig?”
“I want a piece of whatever sweet new life you think you have laid out,” Laurig snapped.
Morga studied the other woman, wondering at her strange demeanor. She seemed unconcerned about the natural disaster that had just destroyed her home, slain her entire family in the blink of an eye. Come to think of it… how had Laurig survived? Betnah – her own daughter – had said she had been unable to get the alarm sounded. The clan had been blindsided.
“But… Dushnikh Yal…” Morga started.
“It’s destroyed, girl,” Laurig laughed. “You saw it with your own eyes.”
“Fine,” Morga said shortly, “let my children go and I’ll give you gold to go wherever it is you want to go.”
“I said I’m coming with you,” Laurig snapped. “And we’ll need room for three.”
Morga blinked in confusion. Who else could possibly be joining them? She posed the question to Laurig.
“You really think I would leave without my children?” Laurig scoffed. “I always knew you thought very little of me, always looking down your Imperialized nose at me, but I never would have thought you would find me callous enough to abandon my children.”
Morga stared at Laurig. Did she think Betnah and Begnar were safe? That they had managed to escape a rockslide? Why did she not seem surprised, alarmed, nor shaken by any of this?
“Laurig…” Morga said quietly, “you know no one made it out of the village… don’t you?”
Laurig released Lorka’s shoulder, waving her hand in irritation at Morga. Lorka took the opportunity to snatch Azrog’s carrier, pull Nunuk from the bushes, and flea to Morga. Morga knelt and caught her children in her arms.
“I know it didn’t go as planned,” Laurig said shortly, her voice brimming with an arrogant smugness. “But Betnah and Begnar will be waiting for us.”
“Laurig,” Morga said again, standing slowly and gently nudging her children behind her, “Betnah is dead.”
She saw Laurig faulter for only a moment. And then the older woman was storming towards her, reaching for Morga’s throat with her clawed gauntlet. It was then that Morga noticed Laurig was dressed in her armor, not her normal everyday clothing she had always worn around the village.
Morga threw up her forearm, blocking Laurig and knocking her arm to the side. She shoved the other woman away from her, pulling a dagger easily from her own belt. Laurig looked startled by Morga’s strength and by the sudden appearance of the blade. They had all always been assuming she had just been a dainty flower that had been kept in a glass jar in Solitude, always underestimating her.
“How dare you spill such filth,” Laurig howled, “such lies.” She did not dare to approach Morga a second time, eyeing her outstretched hand that clutched the Orcish dagger, but Laurig’s eyes were wild, like a cornered cat.
“She is gone, Laurig,” Morga said again. “I held her in my arms as she died.”
“No.” Laurig shook her head violently. “NO.”
“She was crushed by a boulder at the base of the watch tower,” Morga said.
“No, Mauloch would not allow it.”
Morga lowered her dagger; whatever Laurig had thought was going to happen, this was clearly not it. “She is no longer in pain,” Morga said quietly. She could see the tears in Laurig’s eyes glistening as they threatened to spill.
“There was no sign of him, or anyone else for that matter,” said Morga. “Betnah said she had tried to sound the alarm, but the horn was broken.”
“Everyone… everyone else… they’re all dead?” Laurig fell to her knees in the snow-covered grass.
“Yes,” said Morga. “We came to pick flowers; we were the only ones Betnah saw leave. Aside from you, apparently.”
“I… they…” She slammed her fists into the frozen ground, howling. “That damned Dremora!” Laurig shrieked.
Morga froze; she had been about to step forward to offer Laurig a semblance of comfort, but her words froze her in fear.
“What Dremora?” she whispered.
The face Laurig turned up to Morga was streaked with dirt-washed tears, her eyes blazing with heart wrenching anger. She covered her face with her hands, falling forward with her knuckles against the frozen ground.
“That stupid, stupid, beautiful boy of mine,” wailed Laurig.
Morga bit her bottom lip; this was getting more concerning the more Laurig said. She looked up to the sky, as though the Aedra might appear to tell her what to do next. But she noticed the sun, it was already beginning it’s slip downward in the sky, sinking to the west, over the mountains. They were running out of daylight to get to Markarth.
“Laurig,” Morga said firmly, “we’re losing sunlight, we need to go if we’re going.” She had no desire to bring this monstrous woman, especially if her son had been in league with Daedra, along with her and her children, but Morga also found she could not just abandon her here. But the other woman did not move.
Stepping forward, Morga gripped the older woman’s arm and hauled her up, unceremoniously. She still had her dagger in her hand, and she made certain Laurig could see it.
“We need to go,” she hissed. “We have no shelter; I will not allow you to further endanger my children by forcing us to travel through the mountains in the dark.” Laurig finally met Morga’s eyes. She nodded, decisively.
Morga led the way across the clearing, finding the animal track that led to the north. She had mapped this out more than a dozen times; she had even met a few Reachfolk hunters and confirmed that this track led to the main road to Markarth. Laurig had begun to question only once how Morga knew where to go, but she had let the question, and following accusation, go unfinished. A thing Morga was grateful for. She knew how Laurig would spin it, that she had been plotting her escape for years.
As the light grew golden, and they were still a few hours from Markarth, Nunuk began to complain of his feet hurting. Morga had been surprised he had made it as far as he had. The main road was at least in sight, but they still had a tricky descent to conquer.
“Morga, stop,” Laurig called from her position at the back of their small pack.
Morga stood from bending to pick Nunuk up. She gave Laurig a scathing glare at her interference.
“Let me take him,” Laurig said again. Morga hesitated. “I have no reason to continue down the path you and I were once on,” she said when Morga did not speak. “Dulah is gone, Ugorz is…” she cleared her throat. “You were clearly the smartest of us and were prepared for… something… to happen. Let me help.”
A part of Morga was screaming at her not to trust Laurig. But, on the other hand, it had been Dulah that had extended her cruelty to Morga’s children, Laurig had simply always ignored their existence. She had never harmed them, had never allowed Begnar to share in Makhel’s antics. She also had to consider how quickly they were losing light. They would be able to travel faster if they were not having to keep the face of tiny feet.
Nodding, Morga agreed. She slid Azrog’s pack from her back and watched Laurig unquestioningly slip him over her own shoulders but keeping him on her front. Laurig knelt in the mud before Morga, Lorka, and Nunuk. She beckoned to Lorka.
“Climb on, little princess,” she said gently.
Lorka looked to her mother, questioningly.
Morga nodded encouragingly and watched as Lorka climbed onto Laurig’s back. Morga then hoisted Nunuk up onto her own back. The two women walked side-by-side as they continued down the track as it descended into a small valley that cupped the main road. The air was heavy with the smell of coming snow and ripe Juniper berries.
This was Morga’s favorite time of year: the onset of winter. And now it would be tainted by the death of her husband and his family. The loss of her home. The loss of her children’s home. The loss of their inheritance.
“It’s funny,” said Laurig quietly after nearly an hour of walking in silence.
“What is?” Morga asked.
“That your children are the only ones of Ugorz’s blood to survive. The only ones to walk the face of Nirn. The only ones with a claim to Dushnikh Yal.”
“Why is that funny, Laurig?” Morga demanded, unable to keep the disgust from tinging her voice. The woman had lost her own children, after all.
Laurig smiled; a sad, strained smile.
“My son overheard Ugorz and Asagra talking one day,” she began, her voice low as the children had fallen quiet in sleep. “He was telling her that he regretted the age gap between your children and the rest, as it meant that Lorka, or even Nunuk, stood no chance of taking over the clan one day. That it would be firmly in the deathlock, ruinous grip of Begnar or Makhel by the time they came of age to make a challenge. And with Dulah or I behind them, no one would stand a chance to take it from them.”
Morga kept silent. There was nothing she could say that would convince Laurig that she had not known of Ugorz’s desire to keep the clan out of Begnar and Makhel’s greedy hands. He had told her of this desire many times, that if he could hand the clan to a successor of his choosing, he would choose Lorka with little hesitation. But Lorka had not realized Ugorz had ever spoken of the matter with his own mother.
Laurig was continuing: “Naturally, Begnar took offense to his father’s opinion,” she said, as though disagreeing with one’s parent made consorting with a Daedra and slaughtering one’s own family perfectly reasonable. “When he told me of what he had heard, I agreed with him that he must do something. He must show his father that he is strong enough, worthy of his legacy.” Laurig shook her head. “What I did not expect,” she scoffed, “was for him to tell me that he had summoned a Dremora, with Makhel’s help, and made a bargain. The Dremora would slay Ugorz in a manner that would not be obvious, and Begnar would simply slide into the role of Chieftain with Makhel as his right hand.
“If he had just been patient,” Laurig hissed, “his time would have come. The time when he would have been strong enough to challenge Ugorz for the seat. But no, my idiot son wanted to be like his father, becoming Chieftain in his prime. Begnar was never strong enough to have taken Dushnikh Yal from Ugorz, it has always been Makhel that was destined to. But we both know Makhel had potato sacks for brains and he had remained ignorant that he was at least twice as strong as his elder brother.
“Whatever was supposed to happen, was not to happen until nearly midday,” Laurig went on. “I was to leave the village with Betnah and Begnar for some reason, only to return within the hour to find Ugorz dead. I disabled the horn so in case Betnah was not on watch duty, no one else would be able to call aid to whatever was supposed to befall Ugorz.”
“Betnah knew of this?” Morga interrupted.
Laurig laughed harshly. “Not a chance in Oblivion,” she scoffed. “That girl could not not follow protocol if her life depended on it. Betnah knew nothing of her brothers’ idiot plan.”
“None of this explains how you escaped,” Morga pointed out.
“I saw you leave the village,” said Laurig with a shrug, “I was curious where it was you always go since you are not a wife with duties outside of the Longhouse.”
Morga looked the opposite direction of Laurig as she rolled her eyes. Of course, Laurig’s nosiness had saved her life.
“How did ‘a manner that would not be obvious’ turn into a landslide that not only killed our husband, but everyone else?” Morga asked.
“At first, when I saw the village devastated from your mountain path, I thought it was simply the trickery of a Dremora,” said Laurig. “That the demon had decided that since Begnar was willing to murder his father in cold blood, without honor, he could be the Chieftain of a dead village, then. Chieftain of nothing. It was not until you told me that Betnah and Begnar had not made it out that I realized that truly, the Dremora had simply betrayed my son. He made a fool’s bargain and paid the ultimate price.”
The two women fell silent as they finally reached the main road. Morga was thankfully to have a quiet solace in which to try and make sense of all that Laurig had said. This entire thing had been orchestrated, albeit poorly, by Begnar. Laurig had even supported him, even though she had agreed it was foolish. Because of that boy, Morga now had nothing.
It did not take long before a merchant’s cart to come trundling down the road behind them. In exchange for a gold coin, the woman agreed to drive them into Markarth. Morga was grateful, she did not know how much further her legs had been able to carry her.
Inside the walls of the vast stone city, Morga led the way towards the Hunter’s Repose, a small inn just inside the city’s gates. She paid for a room and a hot meal for the four of them. While they ate, the bard in the dining room came to their table to entertain Lorka and Nunuk with silly songs and antics. When the bard asked the children if Laurig was their grandmama, Nunuk corrected that she was their auntie.
Morga considered how easily her children had transitioned into viewing this woman as a care giver. A family member to now be trusted, no longer feared. She reminded herself that Laurig had never posed the threat that Dulah had. Dulah had been the one to fear, Laurig they had simply avoided. Perhaps she too could learn to forgive Laurig.
The next morning, the sun shone brightly over the Druadach Mountains as Morga made her way to the stables outside the city gates. The Reachfolk hunter she had spoken to before, had mentioned that there were wagons leaving from Markarth’s stables, traveling to anywhere in Tamriel weekly. The key destination that had caught her attention, had been Wrothgar, a northern province of High Rock that was the ancestral home of her kin, the Orsimer.
As she had toiled away the years in Dushnikh Yal, Morga had entertained the daydream of escaping to Wrothgar and the fabled city of Orsinium. It would be where she would take her children. The place they would rebuild their lives. No longer in fear of being the fourth wife and youngest children of a clan Chieftain, but as free folk who could choose their own paths.
Finding the wagons she sought, Morga deciphered which was the one headed for Wrothgar. It was not difficult, it was the most rustic wagon of the bunch, driven by a burly Orc called Bazrok. She purchased their fare, they would be traveling with four others, and the wagon was set to leave at high noon. When she vowed she would not be late, Bazrok declared it a wise choice, as he waited for no one.
The morning had been quiet, and by the time Morga was tucked into the wagon, with Lorka and Nunuk on sandwiched between herself and Laurig, she felt as though an entire day had passed. Perhaps even a week, or more. She felt emotionally drained, Morga could not remember a time she had ever felt so exhausted.
Nunuk was chattering away with Laurig, it amazed Morga how he was drawn to her; Lorka had her head resting against Morga’s arm, her fingers intertwined with her mother’s; and Azrog was sleeping peacefully against her chest. They were safe and warm within the wagon and Morga allowed herself to lean her head back and close her eyes.
When she awoke, the sky was golden with the setting sun and the wagon was still. They were no longer moving, and the wagon sat empty of its passengers. Except for Morga. Even Azrog was no longer in her lap. She lurched forward, her heart hammering in a panic.
Stumbling out of the wagon, Morga pushed the canvas flaps of the covering out of her way. Snow crunched beneath her boots. The landscape looked much the same to the Reach where she had made her home, and yet somehow it appeared alien to her. She smelled smoke and panic fully gripped her.
Wobbly from sleep, Morga slipped and slid across the snowy frozen ground to round the wagon. Had they been besieged by bandits? A rogue tribe of Reachfolk? Cultists? The bottom of her stomach dropped at the thought of cultists. There were so many these days; Daedric Princes, the Worm, all the retched groups that plagued Tamriel as a whole.
Morga released a relieved breath as she rounded the edge of the wagon. There were no cultists. No bandits. No rogue Reachfolk. It was just where Bazrok had parked the wagon for the night. There was a roaring fire blazing, Bazrok and the woman from the other group were cooking over it. Laurig was telling an animated tale to the gathered children, Morga’s three, and two from the other group. The man from the other family was standing guard with the Echatere, watching the mountains that surrounded them for any sign of danger.
Having seen her arrival, Nunuk’s head popped up from Lorka’s lap where he lay on a bedroll listening to Laurig’s tale. Morga’s chest filled with a warmth she could not describe. She had never imagined a time and place when she would feel comforted seeing her children with Laurig like this. The blessings of the Divines worked in mysterious ways at times.
The remainder of the journey was quiet and uneventful. They arrived at the stone city of Orsinium the next evening in the golden hour as the sun began to set behind the mountains to the west. Their wagon joined a waiting line to enter the city; each wagon showing the building style of the various cultures scattered across Tamriel. There were Orcs heeding the call of King Kurog and returning to their ancestral homeland from across the Empire it seemed.
When their wagon finally reached the front of the line, Morga could finally catch a glimpse into the city itself. A guard in a double-horned helm approached the side of the wagon, a roll of parchment balanced upon a book in one hand, a quill in the other.
“Family name, count, and place of origin?” the woman said wearily. Morga could see the exhaustion on her face.
“Vortag,” said the woman from the other family softly. “Four members; two adults, two children. From the Oathbound Clan in Deshaan, Morrowind.”
They had traveled someway, Morga thought.
“Welcome to Orsinium, Vortag family,” said the guard. “Make your way to the Greedy Gut up the road, and they will take down individual information. They’ll provide you with a meal, as well as set up housing and job placement.”
The little children gave little waves to Nunuk and Lorka as the family exited the wagon.
“Family name, count, and place of origin?” asked the guard, turning to Laurig.
“Dushnikh,” said Laurig, hesitantly. She glanced at Morga. “Just one-”
“Five,” said Morga loudly, cutting over Laurig. “There are five of us; two adults, three children. From the Dushnikh Yal settlement in western Skyrim.”
The guard looked between Morga and Laurig, confusion creasing her brow. “We’ve received word from various caravans coming through that Dushnikh Yal is gone,” she said.
Morga nodded. “Yes, there was landslide this morning,” she said. “Our entire clan was lost; my children, their auntie, and myself were the only ones to make it out.”
“A miracle from Trinimac, it is certain,” whispered the guard. The woman covered her heart with her hand. “We are honored to have you, Lady Dushnikh.” She looked around and waved to someone Morga could not see. “If you will follow me, I will escort you to the King’s Cornerclub.”
“Not the Greedy Gut?” Laurig asked.
The guard shook her head. “No, King Kurog has instructed me to watch for Dusnikh Yal survivors and to bring them directly to his favored pub.” Morga exchanged a glance with Laurig, who raised her brows in intrigue.
The walk through the stone city was breathtaking. The children were gasping at every turn, amazed by the sheer scale. The guard pointed out various points of interest as they passed by. There was the Greedy Gut on the left, the House of Orsimer Glories on the right, the Rime Hammer Forge, and then finally, the King’s Cornerclub.
Sitting at a table within the Cornerclub, was an older Orc woman in rose-colored robes. Her greying hair was pulled tightly back into a bun at the nap of her neck. A worn, dark wooden staff stood leaning against the table beside her. The gold accents in her gown glittering in the warm firelight of the tavern.
The woman looked up from the ledger she was reading, her sharp eyes shifting from the guard escorting them, to Morga, Laurig, and the children.
“Who have you brought me, Maraka?” the older woman asked.
“The last surviving members of the Dushnikh Yal clan, Forge Mother,” said the guard, named Maraka.
The woman at the table pushed aside the ledger, becoming them forward. “Please,” she said gently, “please, come and join me. Maraka, have the cook bring out all of best dishes for these poor souls.”
Morga sat at the table, Nunuk and Lorka between she and Laurig.
“We have received many reports from incoming caravans that in passing through western Skyrim, that Dushnikh Yal was no longer,” said the older woman. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“It was a rockslide,” Morga said before Laurig could bring up her son’s involvement. Let the boy’s stupidity and greed die with him. Let his mother remember him with some honor. “It caught the rest of the clan completely unaware. We only survived because we were out picking flowers up in the mountains. When we heard the rocks, we hurried back, but the village was completely swallowed with rocks.”
The older woman shook her head sadly. “Truly, a miracle from Trinimac,” she said. “Were you wives of the Chief?”
“Yes,” said Morga once more, “Laurig here was our Ugorz’s first wife, his Shield Wife. I was his most recent wife, his Hearth Wife. These are my children, Laurig tragically lost her son and daughter in the rockslide. Along with our beloved, and his other two wives, and other five children.”
“I am truly, truly sorry for your loss.” The older woman reached across the table, grasping Laurig’s hand. “All of you,” she added. “It is a great loss to lose one’s entire family all in a single morning.” She smiled at the children. “You are all most welcome here, and should either of you, or even him,” she motioned to Azrog in Morga’s arms, “wish to rebuild your stronghold one day, my son will assist you.
The woman smiled. “But how silly of me, I have not properly introduced myself. I am Forge Mother Alga, King Kurog is my son. We will get the children enrolled in school immediately. Lodgings…” the woman, Alga, pulled her ledger back toward her, a gnarled finger running over the lines as she searched for something. Suddenly she jabbed her finger on a velum page. “Ah! Here we are! Most of the new arrivals are being housed with the Guilds while we build more homes, but I’d like to keep you a bit closer. We’ll put you with Umutha, she is the Curator at the House of Orsimer Glories.” Alga looked back up, glancing between Morga and Laurig. “Would you like to stay together?”
“I would be honored to stay with Morga and help her with her children, if she’ll let me,” Laurig said quietly.
“We would welcome it, Laurig,” Morga agreed, nodding.
Alga nodded. “It’s settled, then. We’ll put you all with Umutha. She’ll be delighted by the presence of the children.” She smiled. “Now, what sort of skills do you ladies possess?”
“My mother was a bookbinder,” Morga said eagerly. “I loved to learn from her but have never had the chance to prove my skills.”
“As if Trinimac himself decreed it,” Alga cried. “Just down the street from here is the Daggerfall Bookbinders and Company, they would be glad for the extra set of hands!” She turned to Laurig, “How about you?”
Laurig looked a bit at a loss. “I have spent the last twenty years as a Shield Wife, I do not have any other skills than those I used to defend and protect my family.”
“Ma’am, if I may?” Maraka spoke up from behind Morga. She had not noticed the guard return. Alga nodded. “We could use another arms mentor in the training yards.”
Alga nodded. “A brilliant idea, Maraka.”
Once they had finished their meal with the king’s mother, Maraka showed them back the museum where they would be staying. Umutha was indeed elated to have children present and had hastily brought them on a small tour of her museum collection she was gathering in the lower level. Morga could hear the children giggling at the various tales and legends Umutha was telling them in her animated manner. She and Laurig were setting up the spare room that the five of them would be sharing during their stay in the House of Glories.
Over the coming days, Morga would come to feel the sense of comradery with both Laurig, and Umutha, that she had expected to feel with Ugorz’s other wives. It was strange, but it nearly felt more like home than home had. She came home every evening, her hands stained with ink, but feeling a sense of fulfilment she had not previously had. Travofia and Nammadin from the bindery both declared her one of the best non-traditionally trained binder and illuminator they had found.
Laurig was almost an entirely different woman away from the stronghold. She was truly flourishing in her role as mentor, both to her trainees in the yard, as well as Morga’s children. Her tone was always warm, and sisterly with Morga, her demeanor with the children gentle and nurturing. Azrog especially was taking a shining to her.
The children themselves were also flourishing in the city. Lorka was proving how intelligent she was with proper education, and Nunuk was showing the depth of his creativity surrounded by other children.
It had taken their lives being torn apart and upended, but it seemed as though they had come out precisely where the Divines had intended them to all along. It was truly a thing to be grateful for.