Her father’s greenhouse was cool and bright, half sunken into the ground with stained glass windows reflecting brilliant color against the sand-colored stone. Medicinal plants grew in deep clay pots, the smell of leaves and blossoms mingling with cool wet earth and pungent herbs. It was here that her great uncle rested, and it was here where he would spend the last of his days.
It was strange to see him so thin and pale, his skin like well-worn leather pulled tight against the bones of his cheeks. He resembled nothing so much as a skeleton, animate only with labored breath. His was a cruel disease – not content to strip the old man of the rangy muscle that he’d worked for all his life, it had also taken his vitality and strength of will… what was left seemed little more than an echo of the man she’d known, recognizable only by moments. This emaciated elder seemed a stranger to her now, and she couldn’t help but mourn for the loss.
She reached to grip his bony fingers, her head bowing against the desert breeze that gently stirred the slender stalks of Angelica at the foot of his bed. His door was open; she’d left it so. Hakeem Sulayman had always been a man who enjoyed the wind and sand and unrelenting sun – as beautiful as her father’s estate was, there was something bitterly cruel, that he should die so far from the elements he’d called home. At least she could do this much – she could give him the wind, dulled and muted to barely a whisper. It was something.
He stirred, his rasping breath turning to a cough; his eyes suddenly snapped open, beetle-bright and fixing her with a hard stare. Reflexively, she dropped his hand, meeting his gaze squarely.
“I’m not dead yet, girl!” The words were rumbled with the force of his displeasure as he glowered at her fiercely. He looked more like himself than he had in months. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you better than to mourn the living? Your face is as long as an elf’s, looking at me like you’re going to start caterwauling – what, have you become a spoilt milksop in my absence? I trained you to be a knight, girl! Act it!”
His voice was like two stones grinding together, made weaker by sickness, yet his spirit seemed intact; Daniyah hid a smile as she bowed her head, letting his grouching and criticisms pass through her ears as if they were so much wind. “It’s good to see you awake, Sir.” She paused, lifting her gaze to regard him once more, memorizing the weary lines of his face again. “ – I had hoped you might recall what day it is?” Her tone was mild – but there was a touch of mischief, inaudible to a stranger’s ear, that Hakeem could no doubt hear.
With visible effort, he drew himself to sit up, sputtering indignantly and gripping her shoulder for support as he went. His weathered brow seemed to droop over his sunken eyes, heavy with age, but he managed a baleful stare as he eyed his once-pupil and scoffed. “Of course I know what day it is – do you know, pup?”
This time, she couldn’t quite subdue the grin that tugged her crooked features, and chose to hide it beneath instead by rubbing her scarred cheek with a weathered hand, as if thinking. “It is Ovank’a, the twelfth day of Morning Star – a day of devotion to Stendarr among our Alik’r friends. I had hoped you might pray with me – we could surely use his mercy for the year to come.”
It wasn’t so unusual for him to lose track of the days; he’d never been troubled by days or even years, but had insisted that Daniyah know each holiday that bore relevance to the Redguard. Even the strange desert folk of the Alik’r, whose culture tended to assimilate more from the outside than was considered ‘proper’, received their careful diligence in study. She had retained that knowledge in the time since. It had been rather more useful than she would have guessed as a surly youth in an old man’s tutelage.
It didn’t bother her to offer reverence to Stendarr; even as a child, her mother had worshipped the Imperial gods, while her father was more rigidly adherent to the traditional pantheon. Suitably, she found herself with favorites among both – she offered deference and prayer to HoonDing, Tava, Leki the Swordsaint… but Stendarr had no approximation in mythos of her people. His compassion for those less fortunate was a virtue largely ignored by Redguard culture, yet it was impossible to overlook the lessons he offered to a knight whose travels were guided by her principles.
The old man cleared his throat and eyed her with a withering stare, grimacing and smacking his gums in displeasure. “You come all this way to trouble me for a prayer? Dammit, girl! Don’t you know better than to bother your elders over such trifling things?”
It was good to hear him grumbling; the illness might be slowly stealing away most of what made him himself, but today he was more lucid than had become normal. “Please accept my apologies, sir. Perhaps you ought to take this deficiency in my teachings to them that taught me?”
Had he been stronger, the clout of his hand might have been enough to hurt; but her head was hard and his strength was sapped as he cursed her soundly. She knew better than to grin, and did her best to look contrite as he snarled and raved. Only a friend could see that he was plainly enjoying every moment of his complaints – it was visible in the brightness of his eyes, the very faint twitch of his lips, too subtle for a stranger to note.
“Deficiency in your teaching? More like deficiency in that thick skull of yours, full of rocks and sand and bits of fluff! Back in my day, pups knew better than to yap at their elders – I’d tan you black and blue, if I thought it’d make any difference! Too damn stubborn and then some – should’ve told Mahomet you were too much of a mule for me to make any difference in, coming to my bedside and begging me to pray for mercy! Ha! If anything, needs to be less mercy, keep from encouraging pups like you to be cheeky with their elders and betters!”
She let him keep going, enjoying the familiar sound of his cantankerous snarls. She busied herself with unnecessary fussing, tidying his things. Though it hardly needed doing, there was comfort in action, powerless as she was to make him well again. She poured a mug of cool water and offered it mutely to the man, before refolding the spare wool blanket that rested at the foot of his bed. He accepted the mug with an indignant flare of his nostrils, and allowed his tirade to be cut short by thirstily drinking. She took the opportunity to sit beside him, and interrupted the silence.
“Great-Uncle… things aren’t going well.” She spoke abruptly, voice quiet; the words seemed reluctant. Aware of his gaze, she could almost feel the levity draining from his features. She hazarded a glance his way, frowning and already regretting that she’d cut short their familiar banter.
“Yes, girl? I’m listening. Say your piece and be done with it.” He’d never had much patience for dawdling, and his eyes were sharp even as the last hints of a smile faded from his lips.
There was a lump in her throat as she finally voiced her worries. “There will be war soon; the borders have been drawn, the people are straining beneath the burden. We have refugees deserting their homes, bandits and slavers growing in strength to pick at those who are fleeing for safety. What I am doing… isn’t enough. What is one grain of sand against a tidal wave?”
She was acutely aware that this might be the last time she could seek his counsel, and reached for his hand, impulsive. His skin felt like paper, and she held it gently, smoothing her fingertips over his bony knuckles. He squeezed her hand, but there was so little of the strength she recalled, she could barely feel his grip against the scars and callouses on her own battle-worn palm.
He leaned back against the wall, his features sagging somewhat. “Child… I am too old to stand with you, now. We both know this – and what are two grains of sand, against what will come?” Letting out a sigh, he shook his head before continuing, weary. “Praying for Stendarr’s mercy won’t right these wrongs; the Gods can’t stop us from destroying ourselves, girl. Men, Mer, Betmer – we’re all bound and determined to tear one another apart, and Stendarr stands for all of us. How can he take sides-? Better to cry out for HoonDing’s guidance, than the Imperial gods whose ears are full of pleas to take this side and that – and each of them in opposition to the next!” His ancient features creased in a grimace, and he made a tsking sound.
“Better to hope for victory, than for peace… so that our armies can again clear the vermin within our borders, without worrying of threats beyond them. So that we might rise in dominance, rather than be broken and fragmented.”
Daniyah frowned very faintly and twined her fingers with his. Hers were rough and marked by combat, little nicks and pale white scars, seasoned by wind and sand and cold metal gauntlets… they looked small, but strong, against her uncle’s hand. His hand was bony, softer than it used to be – creased by wrinkles and ridged with veins, weathered beaten and scarred, but with a memory of strength. She felt small in the presence of the man who’d trained her, who’d spent his life studying the old texts and learning what little he could find of the Ansei.
Still frowning, she shook her head, turning her gaze back to Hakeem. “I believe that the Covenant will prevail; we all do.” There was no question of that. “We have the might and strategy of our people, the brutality and force of the Orsimer, and the cunning political devilry of High Rock… against all that, how can other alliances hope to stand-?
“But it won’t be an easy victory, and there will be many casualties among those who support the war indirectly. We will be weaker for it if our farmers, our traders, our craftsmen and children, are cut down by the buzzards who profit off of human suffering… you should listen to the politicians in their grand halls, Uncle! Listen to the generals, to the soldiers – everyone is ready for this war, ready to make the first move and slaughter enemies beyond our borders, while within them, those whose backs bend to support it are abandoned to their own resources. And just when resources are scarcer than ever? Oh, certainly there will be some protection – but too little, too scattered, with everyone’s eyes on the outside! And I am only one woman, one grain of sand against all the chaos of the ocean itself; what can I do? I feel so damned powerless to make them see!”
His gaunt features had shifted to a sly grin; she felt her lips tighten in irritation. Either he wasn’t taking her concerns seriously, or he’d conceived of something she wouldn’t like hearing. For all that she scowled at him, he looked entirely too serene.
“So don’t worry about teaching a blind man to see. Don’t be one – be many.” As if it was the simplest thing in the world.
He continued, uninterrupted. “Perhaps it will still be little, against all that follows… but you’re right, aren’t you? You have conviction and truth on your side. So go to them, knight, and protect those who have been left – vulnerable, as you say. Make friends. Bring allies. Let others focus outward, and you? You focus in. There are those who aren’t useful to the war effort, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful to you – find them. Bring them together. Help the ones that need help, and let others focus on winning back the Ruby Throne.”
Her eyes narrowed and she could feel heat rising to her cheeks. She freed her hand from his and looked aside, rising restlessly. “You’re being absurd. I travel alone – you taught me to be independent! I keep my own company, am beholden only to my own truths – the truths that you helped show me, and the truths I found for myself!”
“Things were different, for me. Times were different. The world changes, and I had the luxury of bearing no banners. Can you hold to your convictions, and still ride alone? I don’t think so. It is decided. You will make your own path, and it is not the same as mine.”
Her mouth opened, then closed. She eyed the old man warily, grasping for arguments, but finding none to combat the uncomfortable option set before her. Frustration ruled her, if only for a moment, and she blurted-
“So what, should I start my own Order-? Raise fancy silk pennants and have trumpets bray my coming, like a peacock in spring? That isn’t my way; I work best alone- I couldn’t even keep a squire alive to complete his training! How can you expect me to do this thing, to bear the burden of this task?”
Bitterness, uncharacteristic of the scarred woman, had crept into her voice and she realized she’d gone too far even before she’d finished speaking. Hakeem reached out and pinched her – hard, for all his feebleness. She flinched away, looking aside; she could feel the rising blush to the very tips of her ears.
“So what, you wanted me to offer you some easy solution, something to comfort you instead of hard work-? I didn’t teach you to wallow in pity and doubt, pup! Stand up and bear the mantle, or give in – get yourself killed out of stubbornness, trying to fight alone. I’m not your teacher anymore, it’s on your own head whatever you choose… but you’re my last student, and I damn well except better of you than to flee from duty! I’d be ashamed of any knight I trained, backing down just because a thing is difficult!” His voice was sharp as a whip-crack, but – the effort of so hard a speech seemed to take something out of the man. He began to cough, a horrible rasping sound, shrinking against the wall, eyes closing as he labored for breath.
Daniyah’s lips thinned. The prospect was ridiculous – wasn’t it? But it wasn’t her way, to discard her mentor’s wisdom without at least considering it from all angles. He had an insufferable habit of being right, in the end. Biting back impulse, she bowed her head respectfully, and, with a tone far more level than she felt, spoke.
“I will think on your words, sir. I think I’d better go. You… need your rest. I should not have troubled you with such things.”
Hakeem waved her off, breath ragged and pained. If he had a retort, it was lost in his struggle just to breathe; she could feel the sting of her conscience as she slipped out the door, and waited just out of sight.
It was many minutes before his breathing returned to normal, and it took longer still for him to settle back into his bed.
Lips thin and brow furrowed, she closed her eyes and offered a prayer to Stendarr –
Mercy, please. May his passage be gentle.
Don’t let him suffer.