Prologue: Escape from Boulderfall

 

Previously: Dramatis Personae

From the diary of Lady Zahra (opened twenty years after her death):

Here is my truth, so you can hate me.

My name is Zahra; this part is true. Both of my parents were Redguards, but I never knew them. This is also true.

My earliest memories of life involve playing on the cold dirt floors of caves. I do not remember having toys or friends, though once, a caregiver made me a rattle of human teeth in a small gourd.

I had many caregivers, so many caregivers. My custody changed hands more than coin. The first of them taught me to read at the age of four, mainly in the tongues of Nords and Bretons. By seven I was learning the dead tongues, the arcane symbols, and by nine I was studying the language of dragons.

Aside from caves, I sometimes lived in forts, abandoned forts with broken towers and boarded up windows. Those were the times I actually slept in beds, and ate full meals with real meat and fresh bread.

Moving into a fort was ever an easy task, of course; the bandits often claimed them first. My caregivers, now my teachers, would war with thieves and murderers for those ruined halls and battlements. They would unleash a furious whirlwind of destructive spells - flames, lightning, frost - and rid themselves of their competitors. They would then harvest the skin, blood, flesh, and inner organs from the dead, and raise their skeletons to the guard the forts once more.

I asked why they couldn't just raise them with their bodies whole, and was told that such an endeavor could not be undertaken without sacrificing other lives in even exchange.

The year I first bled, I was eleven. The witches who cared for me told me I was a woman and initiated me into the world of magic, first teaching me to conjure fire, and later frost. They taught me the names of herbs and their purpose; they taught me heal myself and others, and to pour lightning from my palms.

I killed my first bandit when I was thirteen; I hit him with a bold of lightning to the chest. I killed again when I was fourteen, this time driving my dagger into a bandit's gut. The wound would have been less serious, if not for the poison upon my blade.

When I was fifteen, I began learning how to wield power over the dead. It was dull work; my creations had no minds or speech of their own, and were ultimately of little interest to me. I busied myself with alchemy, mastering many a different type of potion...potions to kill, potions to heal, potions to cloud the mind, and potions to awaken lust.

When I was eighteen, our fort was raided by hold guards. All of my teachers were slain, and I fled to a safe house at the cave of Boulderfall. There dwelled Psymia, an Altmeri nercromancer who took me in. For a whole year, she taught me nothing except how to lie and run errands. She would send me to the market of Shor's Stone at dawn for fruits and vegetables, and whatever ingredients were available. I swept the floors of the cave, washed my ragged clothes by hand (hers finer than mine), and cooked our meals. They were meager, mostly stews of cabbage, carrot, and garlic.

When I was not keeping house, I read. I read about brave warriors and their great adventures, I read love stories both happy and sad, I read about families and friends. I realized there was a whole world beyond the caves and the forts of my childhood, and decided I wanted to see it.

But I feared Psymia would not let me.


I didn't ask. I didn't even speak. I had killed before, several times by then. Bandits, wanderers, the occasional guard - I had faced them down or picked them off. I told myself Psymia was no different. She was just another threat to my safety, my happiness.

I raised my hands, and unleashed flame.


Engulfed, she died much more quickly than I expected. I remember that at first she was surprised, then confused, then appalled, and by the time she tried to fight back it was too late. She was too weak to summon frost or lightning to save herself.


Magic fire hurts only flesh, not fabric. With great pleasure, I stepped out of my mourner's rags and delicately peeled her robes from her body. Slipping them on, I marveled at how well they suited me. I would need to wash them, of course, but at least the customary robe the necromancer was finally mine.

Psymia was a miser. When I raided her belongings I found a considerable amount of coin hoarded over the years. At first I was annoyed, thinking of how she could have replaced my clothes long and bought us some proper food, but then I realized her thrift was my gain. I could go anywhere now. I could have anything.

***


It was strange returning to Shor's Stone in full light. The air smelled different, sweeter perhaps. The sun was definitely warmer, brighter, and even though it was a small town, with all the miners gone for the day, it was all so very grand to someone like me. I had been to town before on small errands, always very early, but this was my first real taste of civilization.

I roamed the single street, looking at the houses intently, imagining who lived there. I wondered what the people were like, if they had big families, if they loved their children, and if the whole town gathered around a fire at night and sang songs or told stories.

Ironically...I didn't stick around long enough to find out.


For the first time in my life, I took a room at an inn. It was midday, and mostly empty, but the innkeeper let me rent one anyway. I ordered cold mead and pie fresh from the oven. I bathed in a real bath house with soap that smelled of flowers, and rubbed my hair with scented oil.


My room was small with little light. I remember the bed was frail and the wooden walls smelled of smoke, but I didn't care. For the first time, for the one night, I had my own room.


I slept deeply, so deeply I dreamed of nothing.

Next: City Girl

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