The Real Barenziah, Part II
Barenziah grew like a weed transplanted to a Skyrim garden, a ward of Count Sven and his wife Lady Inga. Outwardly she thrived but there was a cold and empty place within. "I've raised her as my own daughter," Lady Inga was wont to sigh when she sat gossiping with neighboring ladies come to visit, "But she's a dark elf. What can you expect?" Barenziah was not meant to overhear these words. At least she thought she was not. Her hearing was far keener than that of her Nord hosts. Other, less desirable dark elf traits included pilfering, lying and a little magic, just a small fire spell and a little levitation. And, as she grew older, a keen interest in boys and men, who could provide very pleasant sensations and, to her astonishment, gifts as well. Inga disapproved of this activity for reasons incomprehensible to Barenziah, so she was careful to keep it as secret as possible. "She's wonderful with the children," Inga added, meaning her five sons, all younger than Barenziah. "She'd never see them come to harm." A tutor was hired when Jonny was six and Barenziah eight, and she studied academic lessons along with him. She would have liked arms training as well, but the very idea of a girl training to arms scandalized Inga and Sven. Barenziah was given a bow and allowed to practice target shooting with the boys. She watched them at arms practice when she could, practiced with them when no grown folk were about, and knew she was as good or better than they. "She's very proud, isn't she?" the neighbor ladies would whisper, and Barenziah, pretending not to hear, would nod in agreement. She could not help but feel superior to the Count and Countess. There was something about them that encouraged this disdain in her. She grew to learn that Sven and Inga were distant cousins of the last rulers of Darkmoon, and then she began to understand. They were poseurs, imposters, not rulers at all. At least, they were not raised to rule. This thought made her strangely furious at them, a good clean hatred detached from resentment. Barenziah came to see them as disgusting and corrupted insects who could be despised, but never feared. Once a month a courier came from the emperor, bringing a small bag of gold for Inga and Sven and a large bag of dried mushrooms from Morrowind for Barenziah's consumption. She was always made presentable, as presentable as a skinny dark elf girl could be made to look in Inga's eyes, and summoned into the courier's presence for a brief interview. The same courier seldom came twice, but all looked her over rather as a farmer looks over a pig he's readying for market. In the spring of her sixteenth year Barenziah thought the courier looked as if she were at last ready for market. Upon reflection Barenziah decided that she did not wish to be marketed. The stable-boy, Straw, a big blond boy, clumsy, gentle, affectionate and rather simple, had been urging her to run off with him for some weeks. Barenziah stole the bag of gold the courier had left, took the mushrooms from the storeroom, dressed herself as a boy in some of twelve year old Timmy's casual clothing, and one fine spring night they took the two best horses and rode hard through the night toward Whiterun, the nearest city of any size, which was where Straw wanted to go. But Morrowind also lay east and it drew Barenziah as a lodestone does iron. In the morning they abandoned the horses at Barenziah's insistence. She knew they would be missed and tracked, and she hoped to throw pursuers off the trail. They continued afoot until late afternoon, keeping to side roads, then slept for several hours in an abandoned hut. They went on at dusk and came to the Whiterun city gates just before dawn. Barenziah had prepared a pass for Straw, stating an errand to a temple in the city for a local village lord. She herself sneaked over the wall with the help of her levitation spell. She had reasoned that by now the gate guards would have been alerted to look for a young dark elf and a Nord boy traveling together, but country boys like Straw were common enough. Alone and with papers, he would be unlikely to draw their attention. Her simple plan went smoothly. She met Straw at the temple, which was not far from the gate. She had been to Whiterun on a few previous occasions. Straw, however, had never been more than a few miles from Sven's estate, his birthplace. Together they made their way to a run-down inn in the poor quarter of Whiterun. Gloved, cloaked and hooded against the chill of the morning, her dark skin and red eyes were not apparent and no one paid any attention to them. They entered the inn separately. Sven paid the host for a single room, a large meal and a jug of ale, and Barenziah sneaked in a few minutes later. They ate and drank together gleefully, celebrating their escape, made love vigorously on the narrow bed, then fell into an exhausted sleep. They stayed a week in Whiterun. Straw earned a bit of money running errands and Barenziah robbed a few houses at night. Barenziah continued to dress as a boy. She cut her hair short and dyed her flame-red tresses jet black as a further disguise, and kept out of sight as much as possible for there were few dark elves in Whiterun. Then Straw got them places as guards for a merchant caravan that was traveling east. The sergeant looked her over dubiously. "Heh," he chuckled, "dark elf, ain'tcha? Like setting a wolf to guard the sheep, that is. Still, I need arms, and we ain't going near enough to Morrowind that ye can betray us to yer brothers. Our home-grown bandits will as lief cut yer throat as mine." The sergeant gave Straw an appraising look, then abruptly spun back to Barenziah, whipping out his short sword. But she had her knife out and was in a defensive stance. Straw drew his own knife and circled to the man's rear. The sergeant dropped his blade and chuckled again, "Not bad, kids, not bad. How are ye with that bow, dark elf?" Barenziah demonstrated her prowess. "Aye, not bad, not bad a'tall. And ye'll be keen of eye by night and of hearing at all times. A trusty dark elf makes as good a fightin' man as any could ask for. I know. I served under Symmachus himself before I lost this arm and got invalided out of the Emperor's forces." "We could betray them. I know folk who'd pay well," Straw said later, as they bedded down for their last night in the old inn, "Or rob them ourselves. They're very rich, those merchants are, Berry." Barenziah chuckled, "What ever would we do with so much money? And we need their protection for traveling quite as much as they need ours." "We could buy a little farm and settle down." Peasant! Barenziah thought scornfully. Straw was a peasant and had peasant dreams. But all she said was, "Not here, Straw, we're too close to Darkmoor still. We'll have more chances farther east." The caravan went only as far east as Sunguard. Tiber Septim had done much in the way of building relatively safe patrolled highways, but his tolls were steep, and this particular caravan kept to the side roads as much as possible to avoid them. This exposed them to the hazards of robber barons, both human and orcish, and roving bands of brigands of various races, but such were the perils of trade and profit. They had two such encounters before reaching Sunguard, an ambush which Barenziah's keen ears detected in plenty of time for them to circle about and surprise the lurkers, and a night attack by a mixed band of Khajiiti, humans and wood elves. The latter were a skilled band and even Barenziah did not hear them sneaking up in time to give much warning. The fighting was fierce. The attackers were driven off, but two of the caravan's guards were killed, and Straw got a nasty cut on his thigh before he and Barenziah killed his Khajiit assailant. Barenziah rather enjoyed the life. The garrulous sergeant had taken a liking to her, and she spent most of her evenings sitting around a campfire listening to his tales of campaigning in Morrowind with Tiber Septim and Symmachus. Symmachus had been made a general after Mournhold fell, the sergeant said. "He's a fine soldier, Symmachus is, but there was more than soldiery involved in Morrowind, if you take my drift. Well, you know about that, I expect." "I don't remember," Barenziah said, "I've mostly lived in Skyrim. My mother married a Skyrim man. They're both dead, though. What happened to the lord and lady of Mournhold?" The sergeant shrugged, "I never heard. Dead, I expect. All Morrowind's under military rule now. It's pretty quiet. Maybe too quiet. Like a calm before a storm. You going back there?" "Maybe," Barenziah said. The truth was that she was drawn to Morrowind like a magnet. Straw sensed it and was unhappy about it. He was unhappy anyway, since they could not bed together, as she was supposed to be a boy. Barenziah rather missed it too, but not as much as Straw did, seemingly. The sergeant wanted them to sign on for the return trip, but gave them a bonus when they parted and letters of recommendation. Straw wanted to settle permanently near Sunguard, but Barenziah insisted on continuing to travel east. "I'm the queen of Mournhold by rights," she said, unsure whether it was true, or it was a story she had made up as a child. "I want to go home. I need to go home." That at least was true. She had run out of mushrooms and was very hungry for them. She found a few for sale in the Sunguard marketplace, but they were not as good or satisfying as the ones the courier had brought. After a few weeks they managed to get places in a caravan heading east. By early winter, they were in Riften, and near the Morrowind border, but the weather had grown severe and they were told no merchant caravans would set forth until mid-spring. Barenziah stood atop the city walls and stared across the deep gorge that separated Riften from the snow-clad mountain wall of Morrowind beyond. "Berry," Straw said gently, "Mournhold's a long way off yet, nearly as far as we've come already, and the lands between are wild, full of wolves and bandits and orcs and still worse creatures. We'll have to wait for spring." "There's Silgrod Tower," Berry said, referring to the Dark Elf town that had grown up around the ancient tower that guarded the border between Skyrim and Morrowind. "The bridge guards won't let me across, Berry. They're crack Imperial troops. They can't be bribed. If you go, you go alone. I won't try to stop you. But what will you do? Silgrod Tower is full of Imperial troops. Will you become a washerwoman for them? A camp follower?" "No," Barenziah said thoughtfully. Actually the idea was not entirely unappealing. She was sure that she could earn a modest living by sleeping with the soldiers for money. She'd had a few adventures of that sort as they crossed Skyrim, when she'd dressed as a woman and slipped away from Straw. She'd only been looking for a bit of variety. Straw was sweet but dull. She'd been startled, but pleased when the men she picked up offered her money afterwards. Straw had been unhappy about it though and would shout for awhile, then sulk for days afterwards if he caught her at it. He was very jealous. He'd even threatened to leave her. But the Imperial Guards were a tough and brutal lot by all accounts and Barenziah had heard some very ugly stories during her travels. The ugliest stories had come from the lips of ex-veterans around the caravan campfire and were proudly recounted. They'd been trying to shock her and Straw, she realized, but she also realized that there was some truth behind the wild tales. Straw hated that kind of talk and hated having her hear it, but there was a part of him that was fascinated by it. Barenziah had encouraged Straw to seek out other women, but he said he didn't want anyone but her. She told him she didn't feel that way, but she did like him better than anyone else. "Then why do you go with other men?" "I don't know, dear." Straw sighed. "They say dark elf women are like that." Barenziah smiled and shrugged. "I know. I guess that's all the explanation there is."