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A Wild Bear Chase - Chapter Two

by Aritheanie

Stepping into First Edition’s trading floor felt almost like stepping back into a happier time. I lingered in the patch of shadows by the doorway, taking in the room quickly, noting changes that had occurred since I was last here.

The two large bookshelves that dominated the wall closest to the entrance, facing the counter, still held the odd few pieces of silverware Phintias prized: family heirlooms from Hammerfell, dated all the way back to the time of Tiber Septim at least.

I then spotted a newer addition, one that made my breath catch for a heartbeat as I blinked back sudden tears: in pride of place on the next shelf, at the same level as his family silver, Phintias had set up a novice’s alembic, of the kind favoured by alchemical students the continent over; a very familiar one, somewhat battered by wear and time.

I had to force myself to look away from the shelf and its contents, and continue scanning the room, running through my calming exercises. Breathe in, breathe out. Exhale and inhale. Those exercises had been seeing all too much use lately.

The sight of the familiar dark wood shelves behind the counter brought on yet another rush of nostalgia tinged memory. In these shelves reposed a large array of common reference volumes and general reading to satisfy the most voracious bookworm. More importantly for seekers of knowledge and antique curiousities, they also housed a selection of Phintias’s rare bibliophilic finds, not to be sold for love or for money. However, he did not begrudge their loan, after a fashion: he didn’t mind if you wanted to read the books, so long as you handled them very carefully, under his anxious supervision, and did not attempt to remove them from the shelves on your own, or even breathe wrongly on a fragile page.

Woe betide you if you handled a volume carelessly however — there is scarcely any way faster to put you in Phintias’s bad books. Phintias was a mild mannered soul, very polite, but even he had his limits, and he was a true son of the Ra’Gada. Lest anyone doubt that fact: On my second visit to his store, a student from the Arcane University had attempted to handle one of his precious books with hands still stained by some noxious remnant of an experiment, that was like to spread onto the paper. The resulting roar of rage could be heard in the street through the thick stone walls, so the gossip ran; and of course no one could’ve missed the sight of the hapless young man being literally ejected from the premises via a boot to the backside, accompanied by a very loud diatribe on the proper care and handling of books.

Needless to say I made extremely sure I was always clean and neat visiting his shop thereafter!

More volumes — newly arrived from other parts of the province, perhaps from even further away, were stacked on the long cluttered counter. I stifled a laugh. Phintias never did manage being perfectly neat with anything other than books, and age hadn’t improved him in that aspect. Smaller bookshelves covered the other walls, also filled with printed goodness. I took a good long sniff of the air, redolent with the unique scent of books and paper: musty, vaguely sweet and grassy, melding with the light honey perfume of the good beeswax candles that gave a mellow light to the many-windowed room. All in all the room still retained the impression of being a library, particularly since Phintias had a few comfortable chairs and a table readied in a corner, under one of the clerestory windows along the walls; a convenience for waiting customers to leaf through prospective purchases.

Good old Phintias himself was there behind the counter, as usual. He’d picked up some more grey hairs, and his hairline had receded in truly alarming fashion in the years between then and now, but here he was, still quietly happy amongst his beloved books and wearing that ridiculous brown quilted doublet. Desert born and bred, used to the heat and shifting sands of the Alik’r, Phintias’d never quite felt at home with the much cooler climate of Cyrodiil, and would insist on wearing thicker clothes than the rest of us born to milder climes, never mind the fact it was Sun’s Height, one of the hottest months of the year.

As he was somewhat distracted by a volume he had open in front of him on the lectern, with his head bent low over a page he was examining with a glass, he didn’t bother to look up as he launched into his standard new customer greeting spiel: “I’m Phintias, owner and proprietor of First Edition —” At this point he looked up with a practiced smile, which soon faded into a puzzled frown as he struggled to determine who I was. “Pardon me, dear lady, but have we met?”

I smiled at him — or tried to, since the muscles of my face felt frozen, even as I forced my shaking knees to move into the better light. I couldn’t tell if I’d succeeded or not, or what expression even was on my face; but it was unlikely to have been happy, given the expression on Phintias’s face, which was verging on mild alarm. Probably wondered if I were in distress.

“You used to have to chase me out at closing t-time nearly every night for years, master Phintias. I nearly blew up your basement once, when I was ut-attem — trying to help you with one of your alchemical experiments. And I can’t remember how many afternoons you sat me down at that table over there trying —” My voice cracked embarassingly at this point, as Phintias’s face paled under his dark complexion, eyes wide and wondering, mouth partially agape — “trying to drum Asliel Direnni’s 30 Basic Principles of Alchemical Combination into my head.”

“No, it can’t be surely — Arli-girl, oh Arli, Arli, Divines, you — how —?”

Looking back, it was a minor miracle that all that came out as amazingly smoothly as it did, given my emotional state. Rohssan might have been my first teacher and later my emotional bulwark and agony aunt through the greater part of a decade, but Phintias had been my mentor through the best years of my life; had seen me, my intellectual abilities fostered and cared for as surely as he tended his books. He’d encouraged my explorations of alchemy in his basement, pushed my mental horizons with brain teasers, word games and discussions of philosophy and history drawn from the volumes on his shelves.

It was he who had encouraged me to give the fullest expression possible to my arcane talents, pushing me to join the Mages Guild and Arcane University despite his own reservations about magic.

He’d been gleeful when we celebrated my making Journeyman rank in the Guild with rounds all around at the Merchants’ Inn, and the morning after a truly memorable night was probably the only time in its history that First Edition had opened late for business.

Clesyne and I never knew our father — he left us before we were born, and our stepfather isn’t worth the spit it took to call him that. But I knew — know, that I did — do — have a pa all the same.

And I’d left him wondering what had happened to the young coltish Breton girl he’d taken under his wing, who’d suddenly vanished after something the Guild had tried their damndest to cover up. Vanished without so much as a word, for seven long years, because I was so afraid I’d now be nothing but a disappointment to him.

I’d hid, going along with Clesyne because she was older, was stronger at that point, and it was easier. Easier among people who didn’t know me from Before. Before, when I was a mage, a highly skilled one, and a rising star within the Guild. Before the Incident that took it all away and knocked my sense of who I was flat and smashed it into pieces. Before I lost my magical skills. Before I lost an integral part of myself, something that defined my earliest memories. Before abstract spell diagrams and books and scrolls stopped making sense for me.

Before I kept losing my words.

Right now, however, Phintias was in front of me, face blank in shock, in disbelief that the prodigal had finally returned to him. Minutes passed without a reaction and I could feel what courage I had in coming here begin to shrivel. I took a step backwards to the door. This was a mistake, a horrible mistake, shouldn’t have come here —

He broke the silence first. “You cut your hair.” His voice, normally strong and even, was quavering noticeably. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak and not ruin it all. Right now all Phintias knew was that I’d gone, not why —

“Oh Arli. Silly goose. Come here.” He spread his arms wide in welcome, much as he had for a young 19 year old girl, more than 10 years ago. I went, and as I felt his warm arms closing around me, I broke down and cried like a baby, babbling all the while. I’d missed this shop, missed him and the comfort he gave, like the sharp ache in a hollowing tooth, and the hurt was just leaching out now, after almost a decade.

He held on to me, even as he locked the doors and pulled me towards the corner with its chairs and low table, rocking me gently, and didn’t stop, making soothing noises and tangling his fingers through my short loose combed hair, much as he had all those years ago.

“I can’t. Can’t. Not anymore. Can’t. No nore words. No —” books, I would have said, but what came out instead was hooks. “Can’t bead. Can’t pen proh-properly either — dound zo s-s-s-stupid —!” I screamed, short, ugly, strangled, much as my thoughts were strangled by my accursed damage. “Me. Cursed. Always. Punished.” I looked up into his face and promptly buried my own back into his broad chest, even as I felt a tear fall into my hair and trickle along my scalp. Bad enough I was bawling; I didn’t want or need to see him cry, too.

“Shh, shh. Shhh. I know, I know all of it. Don’t cry, little bird. You’re not cursed. Certainly not divinely punished.” I drew back from him in surprise.

“You… knew?”

Phintias’s smile was sad. “I did. Come now, did you really think Rohssan wouldn’t finally have told me after I pestered her for information, as free-brother to free-sister? I’ve known what happened to you for some years now.”

I was a total fool. Of course. Of course he’d have known eventually; I’d only avoided him but I hadn’t changed my name or appearance nor made a serious effort to go to ground, and he did have an extensive network of contacts at his disposal. And there was Rohssan’s and his shared links to the a’mazihe, a fellowship comprised of Redguards of the Lhotunic persuasion. In any place where the Redguard diaspora had settled, a’mazihe were to be found, their members widespread through Tamriel. I’d likely been watched over from afar and not known it, and the thought brought on a fresh bout of tears as my legs crumpled under me, Phineas grunting as he steadied my descent.

Phintias sighed as he got us both up, releasing me once he’d plopped me into a chair, but not before giving my shoulders a firm squeeze. I heard him hurry away and up the stairs as I struggled to control my breathing, which was well into the hiccoughing stage now. Pressing the heels of my palms into my eye sockets, I rubbed my face hard. The usual aftereffects of a crying jag — stuffed nose, itchy eyelids and general discomfort in the cranial region — were making my head pound even worse. It felt good though, in its own way; the estrangement I’d chosen had wounded me more than I realised. To have it over and done with now was cleansing. It was a heady feeling, this new lightness.

More bustling about behind me, the sounds of water sloshing about. Soon, a large brass basin of water arrived, lightly scented with peppermint. I looked up as it clunked down on the table in front of me, still feeling light-headed — I chose not to look at Phintias just yet, even as he tossed me a small washcloth, which landed in my lap, before moving away again.

A little while later the delicate clink of china heralded a pot of tea arriving, with two cups and saucers. At this point I decided I’d have to stop ignoring Phintias’s presence: it was bad manners verging on insult, ignoring a Redguard being hospitable. I lifted my head up from where I’d been staring at a spot on the ground, and immediately noticed he’d changed out of the brown doublet for a burgundy shirt. Oh. Right. I’d messed up his clothing. I felt my cheeks flame, and again cursed my distant ancestors for the Breton pale complexion, which notoriously showed a person’s embarrassment at the drop of a hat.

He snorted, likely deducing the cause of my sudden blush. “Ah, wash your face girl. Haven’t I told you before you shouldn’t cry? You haven’t the right colouring for it; makes you look horrible when you’ve been bawling something awful.” My answering chuckle might be clogged still with more snot and tears, but it felt good to laugh with him; yet another thing I’d missed.

“I’m sorry.”

An eyebrow tilted upwards. “Now what are you sorry for? My doublet’s lasted this long; I doubt any amount of your tears or snot soaked in it will destroy it now. It just needs a wash and it’ll be good as new, see?” He was being deliberately facetious about it; it was obvious how his smile didn’t reach beyond the bare upturn of his mouth.

“Not — not that, not just the skirt —” Damn! — “shirt, I mean, oh Nine help me…” I couldn’t help clenching my fists; it was that, or throw things, or scream, and my throat hurt enough I seemed a veritable bullfrog judging from sound alone. I stopped at his raised hand.

“Shh. Don’t, not right now. I do want to know, in your own words, why you thought you should stay away, never mind why it took you seven years to come back — ” here his expression, unusually open, showed a deep hurt, and the guilt cascaded over me again — “but not right now. You sit quietly and drink your tea, and then we’ll start over, shall we?”

The tea was strong, black, very sweet and made more potent with the inclusion of a good shot of Colovian brandy, if I had the scent and taste aright. I savoured the burn and warmth as the drink went down and hit my stomach, and then stared into the bottom of the cup. The silence was warm, a cloying breathing thing around us until Phintias cleared his throat.

“Rohssan explained some of what happened to you. Just — why did you leave in the first place, why stay away for so long?” There was something plaintive about the question, and I had no defence, really; it’d been much too long, and the only truthful reasons here I could give was that I’d been a coward and running.

“Why stay when tt-there was nothing left?” I spoke slowly, trying to get my words out of my uncooperative mouth. “I was… afraid. Afraid you’d be different now, because I was, am. Afraid you’d pity me for being broken. You did so much for me, helped so much.” I paused. “You broadened my mind, you know? All these — “, waving a hand at the bookcases, “and… I couldn’t enjoy them together with you, like we used to.”

Phintias looked pained but resolute. “I never got the chance to try, did I?”

I looked at him, feeling absolutely miserable. What could I say? How could I explain? “No. At first I d-didn’t want you there to see me like that. Those injuries — awful. No one knew just how I lived. People died. I should’ve died, so everyone told me when I woke up six months after. Said was — amazing. I say curse. You didn’t see the first few months, that first year after — how I struggled to even make myself understood.” He looked as though he were about to say something before I cut him off.

“Believe me, you wouldn’t have friend me when I first woke up, after. Hell, I didn’t like me either. Mood swings worse than a pregnant woman. I’d be angry, then depressed for no reason. Nothing said around me made sss-sense for long, my ff-focus was so bad. Hands shaking all the time. Could hardly do anything for myself.” I saw his eyes dart from my face to my right hand, which was trembling noticeably at the moment and threatening to slosh tea into my lap, and back. I set the cup down, harder than I ought but my hand was starting to grow unwilling to respond, a familiar numbness in the limb creeping up again.

“I tried to die, lots of times, you know? It was the only thing I knew at the time. I’d wake up and all I’d tt-tthhink of was how to try and die today. Hurt more people trying. My healers, my twin. They learned to lock up all the poisons and tie me to the bed after the third time. Every time it didn’t work, I just wanted… out.”

My poor mentor was clearly only growing more and more horrified as I went on, but I found suddenly that I couldn’t care. Something dark and mean in me was actually enjoying the shock on his face. He wanted to know everything? Wanted to share in my misery? He damn well would by the time I was done, more than I’d even told Rohssan, and welcome to it! I had to pause for breath here, before shouldering through. “Everything on paper stopped making sense; words and lettering looked like so many squiggles on a page, still do. You can’t understand what it’s like: normal one day, waking up the next all wrong and 6 months of life gone? I understood what everyone around me was saying here,” tapping my temple, “I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but talk and…” I trailed off, watching poor Phintias look as though all his beloved books had suddenly turned into dust on him.

“Did Rohssan tell you? I only managed to speak as well as I do now in the last three years. People laugh and call me simple, because I fall the word I want in mm-midsentence. I’ve spent nearly tt-two years just relearning how to speak full sentences in Cyrodiilic, never mind Bretic or Altmeris, and even now it’s still not quite right, may never be. I’ve spent just as long, l-longer, trying to how to read, and nothing. I have blank spots in my memory that won’t be filled.” I giggled. Finally letting loose was being like on a moon-sugar high of epic proportions. “Did you want to know just when and how I realised I couldn’t cast spells anymore? I tried to sat myself alike and realised I couldn’t speak the words and make the right gestures at the same time. I tried and tried and tried…”

“Stop! ENOUGH!”

I jerked back at the force behind the word. Phintias was on his feet, looking rather wild around the eyes. I shrank back from him — as he was, he looked more than a little maddened. He must’ve noticed then, because he lost all his fire and sagged back into his chair. “Enough. Please.” He was quieter now, older, saddened, weary; I felt all of three inches tall and equally fragile. Why had I lashed out at him? He didn’t deserve what I’d just thrown at him. I looked down at the floor, counting cracks in the flagstones, not daring to look further at him. Pity from him now, at the last, would be more than I could stand.

He reached across the small table, wrapping his large warm hands around my smaller, calloused ones, which were still fisted, to my numbed surprise. Prying my fingers loose from their death clench, he tutted at the blood under my nails and in my palm, snatching up the washcloth and dipping it again into the by now cold wash water to wash the marks off. I kept looking at the floor even when he stood up to place my hands back into my lap.

“Arliene. Girl, come on now, look at me.” He was openly pleading now but I simply couldn’t look him in the face.

He said something else, but I only heard a buzzing in my ears. I might have gone on ignoring him, but couldn’t stop the relentless, if careful pressure around the side of my face, that tilted my chin up to face his. I stared back at him, searching for signs of— what? Pity? Anger?

“Don’t be like that. Now, why you ever thought I might pity you is beyond me.” He surprised me and it showed. “You think you’re the only one who’s ever suffered this kind of head injury?”

Dumbly, I shook my head no. He smoothed my unruly hair back from my face, and then further up the left side, tracing the bared path of the great scar there, the only physical reminder of the injury that had almost killed me.

“Clesyne does.” My older sister, labouring under misplaced guilt for reasons obscure. It might not be often, but I’d surprised the flash of pity-filled guilt in her face often enough to be sure of what I was seeing, and, as I now realised, to resent her and everyone else who carried that look deeply. Just how deeply, I hadn’t realised until now.

“Bah, Clesyne.” Phintias scowled. “That fool! I should tell her to save her pity for ones who need it, but I’ll not waste breath advising where it would be wasted!” He snorted again. “Pity, hah. You”, wagging a finger in my face, “don’t need that waste of time.”

“Do you know what I see in you, Arliene?” he asked. “I see a great rock outcrop in the desert. Scoured, cracked, battered by wind and sand and the summer cloudbursts, but still there, proud and strong all the same, a guide in the shifting sands.” He smiled, a paternal sort of pride that lit his face through the sadness. “Nothing to be pitied there, nor at all disappointing. You survived what should have killed you, and you’ve healed and learned to do without. Now you’re almost your old self again; and you did it on your own — no one could have learned to live again for you. You had to find out how yourself. You’ve found a new way to go on living. What else matters, in the face of that?”

What else, indeed. Life wasn’t about to get any easier, and surely Clesyne would give me a tongue-lashing when I returned for being abominably late now; but an old fear that had haunted me for years now was finally buried. Phintias saw me for how I really was: not the broken me who threw frustrated tantrums, struggled for words and mangled them and couldn’t read her own name, in a world where nearly everyone was literate, but the Arliene stuck inside bars of flesh and blood, no simpleton.

I hugged him again, tight. No words were necessary for a long while after.

Clesyne wasn’t happy when I finally got back to the inn. That was all right; I wasn’t feeling all that good either. “Where have you been? Julianos’s eyes, it’s too late to set out and still reach Weye before dark — have you been crying?” I swatted her hand away from my jaw. Phintias had kindly supplied a diluted measure of healing potion to counteract the effects of my emotional outburst before I left him, but my eyes must be still visibly reddened, since Clesyne had actually noticed it. My dear twin was many things, but ‘highly observant’ is not a description I would apply to her most days.

I smiled at her to try and ease off some of her building protective tendencies. Didn’t work too well though, from the looks of it: she was still regarding me with suspicion and anger, presumably on my behalf. Elder of the both of us by a full night and a bit, and she never let me forget it. Bossy, bossy woman. I think it almost killed her to let me off on my own for 6 months, the first time I came to Imperial City.

“Who was it?” Her voice was harsh and grating, obviously ready to haul off and maim whoever’d had the temerity to make me cry.

My head gave an extra vicious throb. “Eh, no one. Prrobably a lll…little too much sun, thaas’ all, it’s Fiery Night tonight remember. H-had a bit of a headache on the way back from Maro’s — you know how he and his partner get in their shop, and it’s stuffy in there too, besides the curing leather stink.”

Clearly she didn’t believe me, because her face grew harder. I hastily added, “I think tt-t-that and the weather set it off. My head did rather pain earlier, but it’s died down some, so I’m all right, really. ”

Clesyne’s jaw was clenched so hard I feared momentarily for her back teeth. Time to cajole her into more tolerable behaviour. “I’ll be fine with a bit more rest; it’s probably just all the travelling we’ve been doing lately, stress and lack of sleep you know?” I went slowly, as much to project assurance as to make sure my brain had no chance to tangle my tongue. Again with that guilty look on her face, not that I wasn’t above milking it for my own purposes. But really, the way she reacted, you’d think she’d asked to be half eaten by cliff racers and carried home after.

“You sure?” Divines, best head her off that track of thought. Clesyne in full mother-hen mode was not to be borne. I could just see her itching to tuck me into bed and force-feed me more soup and vile potions than I ever wanted to taste again, and worst of all, hovering inches from my bedside, waiting on me hand and foot and generally resembling the mythical Wrath of Sithis — implacable and unbudgeable. “Yes, I’m sss… sure! Trust me to know my own limits won’t you?”

“When have you ever known your own limits little sister?”

Now, really, that was laying it on a bit thick. “Oi! Enough already! Not so little anymore, have you noticed?”

My sister laughed. “All right, all right, I get it, you’re a big girl who doesn’t need her older sister looking after her.”

I stuck out my tongue at her as she brushed my hair away from my face again. Why does everyone I know get the urge to play with my hair? I like my hairstyle as it is — people notice me less and ask fewer questions when my hair’s over most of my face, for one thing; and being mostly unmemorable is a good thing in my line of work. “Answer me honestly though — are you really well enough to travel tomorrow?”

I shut my eyes and thought hard, assessing what my body was trying to tell me. I wasn’t lying about having a headache, just its source and timing. Even before the accident, I’d been prone to frequent headaches; it runs in families, I’ve been told, and mother did use to have some very bad spells around her time of the month.

In my case, my accident seemed to have caused what had been a fairly harmless, if irritating trait to worsen however. The occasional seizures from the initial damage had worn off after the first year, thank the gods, but the increased number and severity of the headaches was still a concern. The usual, minor ones were nothing, really — I could bull through those without benefit of pain relief or healing nowadays. It was the major ones I hated. Waves of nausea, terrible sensitivity to light and smells and not daring to move for fear of making everything worse. Each time it happened I’d be out for a good day or three, and slowed for a couple days after — meaning I’d be mostly useless for a week or so.

“We’ll see, ‘Syne. If I’m to have one of my fits, we’ll know it by m-morning.” That didn’t make her any happier, but it was the gods’ own truth: my body was hardly a predictable machine these days. “Mmbut right now I’m hungry. Sss… shall we eat? Yyou can ttell me how things went with the boss over dinner. Is Sal very angry over the damage to his items?” I signaled the serving girl for a serving of the inn’s special for the evening: venison, boiled to near tastelessness and then baked in a pie with spiced root vegetables in a sort of mush. Less exotic than the previous night’s offering had proved, but good all the same.

As it turned out, Sal was angry, but our hard luck story had mollified him somewhat. Clesyne had even managed to sweet talk him out of docking our pay, meaning we got our full wages, so we weren’t going to be cash strapped for the short term. The supplies were ready, Clesyne had even gotten us horses so we’d not have to walk, and best of news, even got a lead on our quarry — the latest news was that he was still in Bravil. She didn’t say who’d given her our lead, and I knew better than to ask. My sister had dealings in low places that it were perhaps best I know nothing of, for her peace of mind and mine.

The evening grew rather late, and I was beginning to long for the quiet of the upstairs rooms. The throbbing at my temples had been building all evening, from a nagging pinch to the characteristic tightening band around my skull, and I’d found it hard to summon the will to make conversation. As soon as I could, I escaped, saying that I was tired from earlier, and my sister made no comment. I could feel her gaze on my back all the way up the stairs however.

Blessed silence filled the room as I shut the thick wooden door after me. Velus cared for the comfort of his patrons, and it showed in the little details, like the muffling enchantments on the door and walls. Snuffing all but a single candle, I filled the washbasin from the large ewer of water ready to hand, then added the blended sweet oils the healer had recommended in general against headaches and megrims like mine; the familiar scents of clove and lavender wafted into the darkened air as I swirled the water about.

I washed my face and upper torso with the linens provided, longing for steaming hot water, instead of the tepid liquid I had. I wasn’t really in the mood to head down to the main room and request some, or even to ask Clesyne for help. To think, once upon a time I’d warmed my own bath water with nary a thought — but that was long gone now. I massaged my scalp and neck muscles vigorously, rolling my shoulders as I did so — they were knotted tight; and I could just about feel the warning signs of an impending massive headache arriving.

I rummaged through my bags, pulling out a bottle that was about a quarter filled with the potion Sinderion had compounded for me a while ago, the then latest result of his ongoing efforts against my… unusual malady, and which I had to dose myself with quite regularly, about once every two weeks. I doubted it’d hold off the headache entirely this time, but it might be enough to keep me functional on the morrow. I calculated my current dosage against how much I was likely to need, and how long it might be before I could visit the alchemist again: a smaller dose would have to suffice for now.

The taste, sadly, was no better than the last time. In fact I would’ve sworn that it was worse than I remembered. What had Sinderion put in there this round? Or had the potion degraded somehow, unlikely as it might be? Still, there was no doubt that it was at least mostly effective. Considering our potential routes, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for the nirnroots the mer was so obsessed with. I did still owe him about 40 or so samples of the root for his research, and there were some swamplands in the area, not to mention the banks and tributaries of the Niben close by I hadn’t searched.

I drifted into sleep, imagining warm afternoons combing streams and marshlands, listening for the faint high chiming of nirnroots amidst the rush of water.

I woke up sometime in the night, unsure at first what had woken me up. Fuck, my feet and hands were freezing. My head then chose to give a hard throb, as if someone had stuck a huge needle into my eye, which soon became a vicious pounding through the rest of my head, which was spinning like I’d just come off a ten-day bender involving a massive quantity of skooma and strong drink.

Rolling off the bed, my first coherent thought was to grab Sinderion’s potion, but my knees crumpled under me and I hit the floor hard, adding to my misery. Dull knives, throbbing through my head with my heartbeat like the world’s biggest drum, the pain beat a steady tattoo that made it hard to even think, much less move. Flashes of colour dotted my vision, bursts of colour in time with the pain.

A queasy feeling made my stomach flip, and I felt about for the chamber pot and retched into it, on hands and knees. A wet splatter on the floor made me aware that I had missed my mark in the dark, but I was too far gone to even care. The retching continued on and on, as my stomach purged itself of what felt like every meal from the past month. The purging just made my head hurt worse, however; and the increasing pain that felt like my head would explode from the pressure, simply made my stomach even more unsettled in a building cycle.

My right hand and arm had felt like it’d gone to sleep, and it now gave way under me. I fell forwards and landed in a pool of something wet and foul smelling, which set my stomach off again, though all I could manage now were dry heaves, over and over that hurt even worse.

I curled up right there, not caring, and prayed to all the gods and demons to please let me die; because life wasn’t pleasant enough to be worth facing this sort of indescribable pain.

The sounds of my moaning and vomiting must have woken up Clesyne at some point, because I felt her hand smooth down my back and up again in circles. I swallowed the saliva that had gathered in my mouth, and instantly regretted it as the pain shot up another notch, impossible as it had seemed.

“M-make it stop!” I whispered, though I regretted it immediately. Even the movement of my jaw was enough to set off another round of pain and retching. The faint sound of Clesyne casting a spell brought it all to a matchless peak of suffering and I think I might’ve cried out, before everything went black and there was nothing left but the pain…

I drifted back into consciousness, head still aching, but not as bad as it had been. I felt as though I’d been drowned in heavy syrup, weak, and dizzy. Wherever I was though, it was dim and cool, perfectly lovely and really, nothing was happening that needed me. I’d just close my eyes, rest a little longer…

I awoke again, finally mostly clear-headed after what seemed an eternity of fogginess. Cautiously opening my eyes, in case they were still sensitive to light, I saw not the flat beams of the room at the inn, but a vaulted ceiling, high and made of stone. Where was I and how did I get here?

I sat up with some difficulty, since I was still weak and shaky as a newborn foal, and looking about me, realised where I was. My brain obviously wasn’t up to much at the moment if it was still disoriented in these surroundings, considering how often I’d been a guest here. This was one of the healing rooms located in the great Temple of the One.

The air smelled faintly of healing herbs and potions. The room was darkened by heavy drapes, which light from the windows on my left edged in brilliance, and the sole door was opposite it. A cupboard with a lock on the doors was to the right of my bed, with a larger table next to it. The bed I was in was narrow, but the bedding was clean and soft, and there was a tin mug and a pewter jug on a stand next to the bed, in easy reach.

I shifted a little, then knelt up on the bed to get within reach of the jug. I looked into the jug, and it proved to contain water; at this point I became conscious of the fact my mouth felt like a desert. Lifting the jug, and then steadying it with both hands felt like a titanic effort; the stream of water as I poured the jug’s contents into the mug visibly shook, and I spilled a fair bit out of the mug before it reached my mouth. I was glad for the water though.

I set the mug back down, thirst quenched for the moment. I ran over what I remembered of events: dinner with my sister, then the blinding pain that had happened later in the night. Clesyne must’ve knocked me out with the strongest sleeping spell she knew of, and brought me here to the healers. But if so, where was she?

I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, and set my feet on the floor, marshalling my strength, before carefully attempting to stand up. A sudden rush of vertigo made my head and vision swim in circles, before I fell forwards, clutching at anything close by on the way down. The impact was jarring, I’d sent something crashing as I fell, and I could taste blood in my mouth — I’d bitten my tongue. Owww.

The door swung open and rapid footsteps moved in my direction, though I was too busy trying to persuade myself I was already the right way up to see who it was. All I saw were the hems of grey robes and a flash of sandals, before the person raised me off the floor and helped me back into bed.

“Really Arliene, must you do this every time?” A deep raspy voice chided me, long familiarity taking the edge off of the asperity that coloured his tone.

“I don’t, Jeelius. Really. I just thought I’d —”

“Thought, nothing. The only thing you’ll be doing, until I or Tandilwe say otherwise, is to stay in that bed and rest.”

“But Jeelius, Clesyne — where is she? I should find her, we —” A scaly digit wagged in front of my eyes, threateningly. I blinked, and the finger remained there.

“Ah-ah-ah! You’re not going anywhere until I release you from my care, and don’t even think of trying to sneak out! I’ve your things safely locked up where you can’t get at them, and the stables have been notified not to release your horse to you for another three days.”

“Divines take it, Jeelius! What am I, your prisoner?” I was fuming and glared hard at Jeelius. Sneaky, bossy, meddling Argonian! Clesyne was out there on her own, and while I knew my sister could certainly handle herself on her own, the roads were dangerous for solo travellers, even the most experienced. I wanted to be out there, watching her back just as she watched mine, not stuck here for even longer growing fat and restless.

Jeelius didn’t seem moved by my glare, and returned it, with interest. “You’ve been here for four days now; we had to keep you unconscious for most of the first three, because you were in too much pain otherwise, even if you don’t remember it. We feared that if we hadn’t, the strain on your body would cause a brain storm, or worse.” The Argonian priest’s face was set in a thunderous frown that only grew blacker with each word. “Whatever you were supposed to be doing can wait until you’re better. You need to rest here and recover your strength, Arliene, not go chasing after your sister across the length of Cyrodiil!”

I opened my mouth to argue, then thought better of it from seeing Jeelius’s expression. His skin was mottled redder than normal, a sign of his extreme irritation. Obviously he was not in a mood to negotiate the length of my stay, and any further argument would likely result in lengthening it, rather than the opposite. I knew better than to argue with a healer either — they were sneaky, devious people who could and would have you following their wishes, whether you wished it or not; and certainly not in his own domain.

Jeelius looked down at me from where he stood by my bed, satisfied he had the upper hand for the moment. “Are we going to continue this argument? Or will I have to call Rohssan here to talk sense into you?” Oh, that was blackmail. At least he likely hadn’t gotten wind I’d started reconciling with Phintias. I wouldn’t have been able to withstand both of them at once, and he knew it. I sagged back into the pillow, suddenly very tired.

“No, Jeelius, you won’t. I’ll do as you and Tandilwe say. If only to get out of here faster.” He snorted. “No offense, Jeelius, but I don’t like healing rooms at all. I eye too much of them as it is.”

“Ah, such thanks we healers receive! Your ingratitude wounds me to the core.” His grin took the sting from the words however. “Now, you must be hungry. We did get some weak broth into you at times over the last few days, but I’m sure we can do better than that now. How about some salted wheat porridge? With ground liver in it,” he added.

“I’ll take the porridge, even if it mouth — tastes like pap, knowing your cooking; but I don’t want any liver, that’s just disgusting!”

“Liver is good for you,” Jeelius remarked.

“Feed me anything with liver in it, and I’ll vomit it out on your shoes, don’t think I won’t,” I warned him.

“Now I know you really must be feeling better,” Jeelius’s laugh was a long, faintly hissing sound. “You only start arguing about what you’ll eat or won’t eat, when your head isn’t killing you anymore, I’ve noticed. Pity. I had wondered if we’d manage to feed you more liver broth while you’re here. What have you been eating? You definitely need strengthening and better food, you’re too thin.”

I sputtered in outrage at his words. I did watch what I put in my mouth — I had to, considering certain foods and drinks would trigger my headaches, as far as I could tell. I didn’t need a bossy healer to tell me what I could eat!

“I have no expectations of your cooking, since you’re still the only person I know who can burn water without effort; but didn’t your sister cook you anything while you were on the road? I can’t imagine she’d have liked going hungry for days.”

“Jeelius!” I threw a pillow at him to stop his snickering. I might be a lousy cook, but I’d only burned water once! The damn lizard of a healer escaped through the door before I could send another missile after him, still laughing.

“No liver, Jeelius! I mean it!” I hoped he heard me through the door, but it was probably unlikely. Still, he could try it if he wanted. He might sneak it into my food, but woe unto him if I found out — his God wouldn’t save him from the pranks I’d pull on him.
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