The marketplace laid itself out in three parts: trades and crafts nearest to the city, the meat-market nearest the docks, and the grocers and spice-traders middling between. A clever design, both in the neat draining of the meat-market’s gore into the sea, and in cunningly tempting customers with a gauntlet of distracting trinkets between them and their necessities.
Moraelyn observed from the wayside alley, mapping the layout while he rested on a low garden wall. A glassblower spun delicate fancies and ornate perfume vessels before an appreciative audience of children, a furrier brushed out a cloak trimmed in what was claimed to be summer ermine but which was clearly squirrel, a jeweller strung vivid blue faience beads into a lady’s necklace. The markets were busier than usual this morning, not that he’d been inside this particular city long enough to know all of its tides and tendencies. With any luck, he wouldn’t stay long enough to learn. All these tall, straight edges felt as inherently wrong to the eye as a broken limb, after the endless steppes and forests on either side of the thrice-cursed, interminable mountains, and the guards were bored enough to notice every passerby.
He slid down, as gingerly as he could without making his discomfort obvious. Four weeks, four blasted weeks he had crept and crawled across the Druadach ranges, cutting his hands on the jagged flint and slate, freezing in the wind. Eighty-five leagues should have been eight days’ hard ride, twelve days to account for subterfuge and border patrols, before that rockslide had taken his mare and damned near killed him. If he were a superstitious mer– and he was, by the Three– he’d say that Skyrim couldn’t resist slinging him one last mauling for old time’s sake, bitter bitch-of-a-hell that it was.
He watched his step, slipping between the carts and carriages, picking his way down the hill to the marketplace near the docks. The damp stayed on the cobblestones from dawn to midday and back, treacherous as a Breton courtier’s tongue. His ankle ached at every other step, as much as he tried to disguise the limp. A travelling surgeon had made sure the bone was set correctly, binding the joint with rawhide and cloth to keep it still, but could only offer laudanum tinctures for the pain. He’d declined; no matter how strong the pain, or how weak the laudanum, he remembered his fatal weakness for opium too well.
He wouldn’t trap himself like that again. He took a long pull on his palm-flask under the cover of a passing bullock dray, cold juniper gin searing him to the gut.
The sounds of beckoning stallkeeps and clattering brass scales drew his attention in too many directions at once. Fine horseflesh stomped and whinnied, rattling their traces, impatient for their new masters. A series of tiny whines emanated from a basket of pups, each more darling than the last. Even if one could stopper their ears and render themselves blind, all about were the smells of luxury and industry to draw the mind from bread and meat: sweet-burning incense and oils, molasses-thick tobacco cut through with saffron, the wax-musk of new leather, the clean laundry smells of good vellum and fine linen. Lingering near a potter’s stall to admire her glazework, he had to remind himself repeatedly of the purpose of his being here.
He shifted his basket from one arm to the other, mindful of the two men in grey by the blacksmith’s bellows. Nondescript in stance and feature, they talked amongst themselves, drew no attention. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about their appearance at all, in fact, which was half reason enough to pique Moraelyn’s wariness. There was almost always something amiss about men with faces too unremarkable to take note of; he’d thought much the same the first two times he’d seen them.
His eyes skated to his reflection in the gutter, making certain for the dozenth time that the wood-ash powder still hid his facial tattoos, trying not to scowl at himself. It had been some time since he had last visited a decent barber, or coloured his hair. Bright veins of silver slashed pale comets into the once-fine ebony, now more like black agate, almost white at the temples. The beard he so hated had grown well past stubble, too. Lords, what a ruin…
Admirable self-control brought him past the crisp new greens, the bright array of fruits and vegetables, with only a moment of temporary distraction by a bushel of tender fiddleback fronds to slow his progress. Saints, traversing the markets while still so ravenous was turning into one of the worst ideas he’d ever had; everything looked so enchantingly good. The jewelled gleam of pomegranate and new-peeled persimmon made his mouth water, even the little grape-leaf packages of lemon pieces dipped in sugar. And oh, oh, Saints help him, was that the smell of the spice traders’ tables, piled high and bright with coriander and firefern, tephra pepper and turmeric… He adjusted his hood and headed towards the sea.
The meat-market was thick with stalls and enterprise, loud with the cries of store barkers and the noise of livestock. By the south corner, a stockyard auctioneer hawked shaggy, narrow-hocked cattle for far too high a price, while a band of pry-skins and knockermen worked the hide from a dead carriage-horse. Further to the east where the hill sloped away, a sea-butcher smoked his pipe while his apprentices cleaved meat from bone with silent efficiency. Their stall-hooks dripped heavy with the rich, wine-dark flesh of wolf seal and bantam-whale, tied bundles of bright sea-snake and lancefish hanging like intestine, loops of intestine hanging like ropecoil. On the docks themselves, where the ocean mist fell to kiss their stock with salt, fishermen and whalers off the Sea of Ghosts chatted amiably amongst themselves as they unloaded their hauls. Stray wharf cats milled ecstatically around the dockworkers, twining around the coiled moorings to sing for cast-off sprats and fish-guts, or else batting at the many keening gulls.
An Altmer in an oil-stained whaler’s sash labored at a cleaning table, assembled from an old door slung across two barrels stood on their ends. He seemed weary to his bones, despite the hour being only noon. A great dogtooth shark lay beneath his heavy knife, its body twice too long for the table. Its head was severed and set to the side, the stinging barbels clipped off for safety’s sake, gaping its bristling needle fangs to the sky. The Altmer paused to wash off the table with a bucket of seawater, sending the vivid red blood down between the dock’s boards.
Moraelyn watched him work for a moment. “Tight chains and full lines, wayfarer.”
“Well met.” The Altmer hefted his blade well, chopping loose the left fin in a few strokes. “Whaler?”
Moraelyn nodded, stepping slightly to the side to avoid the splash of blood and brine. “Here and there, of a sort. I was a flenser.”
The Altmer glanced up at that, keen green eyes now carrying some speck of curious respect. “Oh?” He set the knife down, twisting the second fin loose from its socket to lie beside its brother. His hands bore rippling scars from fingertip to wrist, following the veins into his sleeves. Magicka burns, there was no mistaking them. “Who’d you cut for?”
Moraelyn leaned against the makeshift table. The sea air felt good on his face, icy as it was, thick with salt and iron. “The dock crews for the Abecean Whaling Company, until East Empire’s dogs crushed them out. Topal Bay, for a while.” He ran a finger down the deceptively smooth-looking skin of the shark’s pointed snout, tracing the line between pearly white and storm-marbled slate. The black eyes stared out, featureless and empty, like black mirrors. “A great size to the beast. Your own catch?”
“M-hm. Fresh this morning, if you were after a pound. Only just stopped twitching an hour ago. Took him while he was chewing on one of our blackfish.” The whaler straightened, puffed his chest. He pointed with his thumb to a jagged gap in the liver-red gill-slits. “See here? Threw a harpoon from the deck, caught him right here in the gills, easily twenty paces.” He rolled the shoulder of his blade arm with a faint wince. “Took an hour to haul him up, mind. He did not care for it at all.”
Moraelyn laughed. “I’m sure, I’m sure. And you must have quite a skill, to throw a harpoon that far and that well.”
“Well, you know…” He rubbed a gore-smeared hand self-consciously on his breeches, tucking down his chin to hide a smile. He nodded to a once-clean crewpatch on his sash, a white diamond crossed with iron blubber-hooks. “I’ve been sailing with the Diamond for nigh-on 10 years, I’d say. She’s the finest whaler on the seas today, not that you can tell these old tub-runners that. Quickest clipper by a damn sight, though, that’s for sure.”
“It must be,” Moraelyn murmured. “I’ve never heard of any ship that could travel half around Tamriel and back in a single day.”
The mer blinked, shifted. “Come again?”
“If you recall, I worked in Topal Bay. I daresay I should be familiar with this beast by now, it likes the estuaries there.” Moraelyn petted the shark’s cold cheek, the neutered stumps of its barbels. “I don’t doubt you caught it this morning, it’s peerless fresh as you say. So how does a Topal Bay fish turn up on your table?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered tersely, setting back to his work. “Don’t think I care for your tone, either. We run a perfectly honest ship, you can check our itineraries.”
“Ease yourself,” Moraelyn soothed, coming to stand a little closer. “Do I look like a guardsman to you? …What I have is a proposition.”
The butcher’s knife hacked a long slit into the belly, from gill to tailfin. “Piss on your proposition.”
“All I want is transport: one passenger, one destination. Not far. Nothing illegal–well, nothing bad. Nothing especially taxing, even.” Moraelyn let his coinpurse fall onto the dock, kicking it beneath the table to hit the mer’s boots as he pretended to examine the shark’s teeth. “Two hundred,” he said softly, “one before, one after. Fair?”
The guts were hauled out hand over fist, dumped into a basin and set down on the dock. When he stood, the coinpurse had vanished. “Fair enough.” The Altmer’s eyes roved over the crowd restlessly as he wiped his hands off on a rag. Two men in grey were debating the price of eel, but no guards seemed present. “Suppose it won’t be too hard to squeeze you aboard. Where did you want to go?”
“I’ve a need to be in Wayrest.” Moraelyn smiled. “In five minutes.”
He barked a hard, dry laugh. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” he asked. “No ship can make that trip. It’s three hundred leagues ‘round the Iliac horn from here–”
“–Which would matter if I were chartering a ship.” Moraelyn came to his side, looking out to sea. A storm seemed to be brewing further to the east. His hand rested educationally on the hilt of his hip-dagger. “I like you, skipjack, but I’m in something of a hurry,” he murmured. “Don’t be tiresome, I haven’t the time. Can you do what I suspect, or not?”
The mer dried his knife fastidiously, until the pitched steel gleamed in the sun. He dropped his voice to a cheerful mutter, all offence washing from him in a heartbeat. “Yeah. Yeah, of course I can do it. Sorry for the theatrics, you never know who’s listening.” He handed off his knife to a crewmate in a matching sash, waving for Moraelyn to follow him. “Come on. We can use the spare whaleboat in the blubber room. You’re rowing, though. I’ll need my head.”
The gangplank pitched gently beneath Moraelyn’s feet. He grit his teeth on the spike of pain from his ankle, on ancient old terrors he couldn’t afford to give into. The Altmer held open the door to a storage cabin; he soothed himself that he would not be inside for long. He knew whaling ships, knew the thousand-and-one ways that they were unalike to prison barques. He named them one by one as he crossed the deck: the grease that blackened the wood, the harpoons and blubber-gaffs lashed to the sides, the cooper’s grindstone bolted to the deck…
As he slipped inside and closed the door behind them, his mind mostly on his breathing and the stillness of his expression, he heard the most pleasant sounds he’d heard all day: two men in grey being shouted off the ship for trespassing. He allowed himself a smile.
His new friend dragged the oilskins off the whaleboat, a little like a wide canoe with room for twelve men sat two abreast. They climbed into the middle with haste, sitting across from each other. “Give me your hand,” the Altmer whispered, offering his own as he glanced back towards the door. “And grab the hull. We’ll have to do this quick, before the ship sets out and I can’t find it.”
Moraelyn obliged, the whaler’s calloused fingers feeling not terribly different to the wood. “No need to strain yourself for accuracy,” he said. He dug his nails into the painted hull, closed his eyes. “Within sight of the city would be enough.”
“You got it. All right, here we go…”
First was the static, crawling over every inch of him, humming unpleasantly in his bones. A whining, ringing sound filled both his ears and, somehow, his teeth. A disorienting rush overtook him, his stomach knotting itself as his body insisted he was falling at great speed, in several directions at once. He kept his eyes shut tight, his jaw clenched against the instinct to scream even as he fell faster and faster–
A splash of cold water hit his face with a sudden shock, soaking his hair and beating the wind out of him. His eyes opened to clear skies and bright sun, a sweep of empty, pebbled beach curving around them in a sheltering arc. The sound of the ocean echoed in the sheltered cove like an amphitheatre. In the distance, further down the strand, the shipyard of a great city bristled with masts and smoke.
“Here we are! The Jewel of the Bay. And not too far from shore, neither, I’ve done you a favor there.” The whaler gently pried Moraelyn’s fingers from their bloodless death-grip around his hand, laughing good-naturedly at the grinding bones. “You right, mate? You mustn’t do this sort of thing… Often…”
Moraelyn felt the stare, the flinching away. He wiped water from his eyes, saw his fingers come away gritty with wet ashes. He could feel the rest trickling into his collar, bearing his vivid red tattoos to the light, glaring-bright as shark’s gills. He sighed.
“You get your picture drawn much?” The mer eyed him differently now, too still and too wary. He seemed pale. His expression spoke of old warrant notices. “I’m sure I’ve seen those marks before.”
A cloth sack was tossed into the whaler’s lap with a pretty chiming of coin. The second half, as he had promised. Moraelyn gave the mer a thin smile, taking up the oars.
“I’m sure you haven’t.”This article first appeared in Volume 1, Issue 7.
“Mournhold” (Top)| Illustration courtesy of seeker-nox, DeviantArt
“Suran Pawnbroker” (Center) | Illustration by SpiritHide for Elder Scrolls: Legends, DeviantArt
“Vivec, Hlaalu Port (Concept Art)” (Bottom) | Illustration by RomanDubina for Skyblivion, DeviantArt