I was young when the Duchess of Woda hired me as an assistant footman at her summer palace. My experience with the ways of the titled aristocracy was very limited before that day. There were wealthy merchants, traders, diplomats, and officials who had large operations in Eldenroot, and ostentatious palaces for entertaining, but my relatives were all far from those social circles.
There was no family business for me to enter when I reached adulthood, but my cousin heard that an estate far from the city required servants. It was so remotely located that there were unlikely to be many applicants for the positions. I walked for five days into the jungles of Valenwood before I met a group of riders going my direction. They were three Bosmer men, one Bosmer woman, two Breton women, and a Dunmer man, adventurers from the look of them.
"Are you also going to Moliva?" asked Prolyssa, one of the Breton women, after we had made our introductions.
"I don't know what that is," I replied. "I'm seeking a domestic position with the Duchess of Woda."
"We'll take you to her gate," said the Dunmer Missun Akin, pulling me up to his horse. "But you would be wise not to tell Her Grace that students from Moliva escorted you. Not unless you don't really want the position in her service."
Akin explained himself as we rode on. Moliva was the closest village to the Duchess's estate, where a great and renowned archer had retired after along life of military service. His name was Hiomaste, and though he was retired, he had begun to accept students who wished to learn the art of the bow. In time, when word spread of the great teacher, more and more students arrived to learn from the Master. The Breton women had come down all the way from the Western Reach of High Rock. Akin himself had journeyed across the continent from his home near the great volcano in Morrowind. He showed me the ebony arrows he had brought from his homeland. I had never seen anything so black.
"From what we've heard," said Kopale, one of the Bosmer men. "The Duchess is an Imperial whose family has been here even before the Empire was formed, so you might think that she was accustomed to the common people of Valenwood. Nothing could be further from the truth. She despises the village, and the school most of all."
"I suppose she wants to control all the traffic in her jungle," laughed Prolyssa.
I accepted the information with gratitude, and found myself dreading more and more my first meeting with the intolerant Duchess. My first sight of the palace through the trees did nothing to assuage my fears.
It was nothing like any building I had ever seen in Valenwood. A vast edifice of stone and iron, with a jagged row of battlements like the jaws of a great beast. Most of the trees near the palace had been hewn away long ago: I could only imagine the scandal that must have caused, and what fear the Bosmer peasants must have had of the Duchy of Woda to have allowed it. In their stead was a wide gray-green moat circling in a ring around the palace, so it seemed to be on a perfect if artificial island. I had seen such sights in tapestries from High Rock and the Imperial Province, but never in my homeland.
"There'll be a guard at the gate, so we'll leave you here," said Akin, stopping his horse in the road. "It'd be best for you if you weren't damned by association with us."
I thanked my companions, and wished them good luck with their schooling. They rode on and I followed on foot. In a few minutes' time, I was at the front gate, which I noticed was linked to tall and ornate railings to keep the compound secure. When the gate-keeper understood that I was there to inquire about a domestic position, he allowed me past and signaled to another guard across the open lawn to extend the drawbridge and allow me to cross the moat.
There was one last security measure: the front door. An iron monstrosity with the Woda Coat of Arms across the top, reinforced by more strips of iron, and a single golden keyhole. The man standing guard unlocked the door and gave me passage into the huge gloomy gray stone palace.
Her Grace greeted me in her drawing room. She was thin and wrinkled like a reptile, cloaked in a simple red gown. It was obviously [sic] that she never smiled. Our interview consisted of a single question.
"Do you know anything about being a junior footman in the employment of an Imperial noblewoman?" Her voice was like ancient leather.
"No, Your Grace."
"Good. No servant ever understands what needs to be done, and I particularly dislike those who think they do. You're engaged."
Life at the palace was joyless, but the position of junior footman was very undemanding. I had nothing to do on most days except to stay out of the Duchess's sight. At such times, I usually walked two miles down the road to Moliva. In some ways, there was nothing special or unusual about the village - there are thousands of identical places in Valenwood. But on the hillside nearby was Master Hiomaste's archery academy, and I would often take my luncheon and watch the practice.
Prolyssa and Akin would sometimes meet me afterwards. With Akin, the subjects of conversation very seldom strayed far from archery. Though I was very fond of him, I found Prolyssa a more enchanting companion, not only because she was pretty for a Breton, but also because she seemed to have interests outside the realm of marksmanship.
"There's a circus in High Rock I saw when I was a little girl called the Quill Circus," she said during one of our walks through the woods. "They've been around for as long as anyone can remember. You have to see them if you ever can. They have plays, and sideshows, and the most amazing acrobats and archers you've ever seen. That's my dream, to join them some day when I'm good enough."
"How will you know when you're a good enough archer?" I asked.
She didn't answer, and when I turned, I realized that she had disappeared. I looked around, bewildered, until I heard laughter from the tree above me. She was perched on a branch, grinning.
"I may not join as an archer, maybe I'll join as an acrobat," she said. "Or maybe as both. I figured that Valenwood would be the place to go to see what I could learn. You've got all those great teachers to imitate in the trees here. Those ape men."
She coiled up, bracing her left leg before springing forward on her right. In a second, she had leapt across to a neighboring branch. I found it difficult to keep talking to her.
"The Imga, you mean?" I stammered. "Aren't you nervous up at that height?"
"It's a cliche, I know," she said, jumping to an even higher branch, "But the secret is not to ever look down."
"Would you mind coming down?"
"I probably should anyhow," she said. She was a good thirty feet up now, balancing herself, arms outstretched, on a very narrow branch. She gestured toward the gate just barely visible on the other side of the road. "This tree is actually as close as I want to get to your Duchess's palace."
I held back a gasp as she dove off the branch, somersaulting until she landed on the ground, knees slightly bent. That was the trick, she explained. Anticipating the blow before it happened. I expressed to her my confidence that she would be a great attraction at the Quill Circus. Of course, I know now that never was to be.
On that day, as I recall, I had to return early. It was one of the rare occasions when I had work, of a sort, to do. Whenever the Duchess had guests, I was to be at the palace. That is not to say that I had any particular duties, except to be seen standing at attention in the dining room. The stewards and maids worked hard to bring in the food and clear the plates afterwards, but the footmen were purely decorative, a formality.
But at least I was an audience for the drama to come.
On the last dinner in my employ at the palace, the Duchess, quite surprisingly, had invited the mayor of Moliva and Master Hiomaste himself among her other guests. The servants' gossip was manic. The mayor had been there before, albeit very irregularly, but Hiomaste's presence was unthinkable. What could she mean by such a conciliatory gesture?
The dinner itself progressed along with perfect if slightly cool civility among all parties. Hiomaste and the Duchess were both very quiet. The Mayor tried to engage the group in a discussion of the Emperor Pelagius IV's new son and heir Uriel, but it failed to spark much interest. Lady Villea, elderly but much more vivacious than her sister the Duchess, led most of the talk about crime and scandal in Eldenroot.
"I have been encouraging her to move out to the country, away from all that unpleasantness for years now," the Duchess said, meeting the eyes of the Mayor. "We've been discussing more recently the possibility of her building a palace on Moliva Hill, but there's so little space there as you know. Fortunately, we've come to a discovery. There is a wide field just a few days west, on the edge of the river, ideally suited."
"It sounds perfect," the Mayor smiled and turned to Lady Villea: "When will your ladyship begin building?"
"The very day you move your village to the site," replied the Duchess of Woda.
The Mayor turned to her to see if she was joking. She obviously was not.
"Think of how much more commerce you could bring to your village if you were close to the river," said Lady Villea jovially. "And Master Hiomaste's students could have easier access to his fine school. Everyone would benefit. I know it would put my sister's heart to ease if there was less trespassing and poaching on her lands."
"There is no poaching or trespassing on your lands now, Your Grace," frowned Hiomaste. "You do not own the jungle, nor will you. The villagers may be persuaded to leave, that I don't know. But my school will stay where it is."
The dinner party never really recovered happily. Hiomaste and the Mayor excused themselves, and my services, such as they were, were not needed in the drawing room where the group went to have their drinks. There was no laughter to be heard through the walls that evening.
The next day, even though there was a dinner planned for the evening, I left on my usual walk to Moliva. Before I had even reached the drawbridge, the guard held me back: "Where are you going, Gorgic? Not to the village, are you?"
He pointed to the plume of smoke in the distance: "A fire broke out very early this morning, and it's still going. Apparently, it started at Master Hiomaste's school. It looks like the work of some traveling brigands."
"Blessed Stendarr!" I cried. "Are the students alive?"
"No one knows, but it'd be a miracle if any survived. It was late and most everyone was sleeping. I know they've already found the Master's body, or what was left of it. And they also found that girl, your friend, Prolyssa."
I spent the day in a state of shock. It seemed inconceivable what my instinct told me: that the two noble old ladies, Lady Villea and the Duchess of Woda, had arranged for a village and school that irritated them to be reduced to ashes. At dinner, they mentioned the fire in Moliva only very briefly, as if it were not news at all. But I did see the Duchess smile for the first time ever. It was a smile I will never forget until the day I die.
The next morning, I had resolved to go to the village and see if I could be of any assistance to the survivors. I was passing through the servants' hall to the grand foyer when I heard the sound of a group of people ahead. The guards and most of the servants were there, pointing at the portrait of the Duchess that hung in the center of the hall.
There was a single black bolt of ebony piercing the painting, right at the Duchess's heart.
I recognized it at once. It was one of Missun Akin's arrows I had seen in his quiver, forged, he said, in the bowels of Dagoth-Ur itself. My first reaction was relief: the Dunmer who had been kind enough to give me a ride to the palace had survived the fire. My second reaction was echoed by all present in the hall. How had the vandal gotten past the guards, the gate, the moat, and the massive iron door?
The Duchess, arriving shortly after I, was clearly furious, though she was too well bred to show it but by raising her web-thin eyebrows. She wasted no time in assigning all her servants to new duties to keep the palace grounds guarded at all times. We were given regular shifts and precise, narrow patrols.
The next morning, despite all precautions, there was another black arrow piercing the Duchess's portrait.
So it continued for a week's time. The Duchess saw to it that at least one person was always present in the foyer, but somehow the arrow always found its way to her painting whenever the guard's eyes were momentarily averted.
A complex series of signals were devised, so each patrol could report back any sounds or disturbances they encountered during their vigil. At first, the Duchess arranged them so her castellan would receive record of any disturbances during the day, and the chief of the guard during the night. But when she found that she could not sleep, she made certain that the information came to her directly.
The atmosphere in the palace had shifted from gloomy to nightmarish. A snake would slither across the moat, and suddenly Her Grace would be tearing through the east wing to investigate. A strong gust of wind ruffling the leaves on one of the few trees in the lawn was a similar emergency. An unfortunate lone traveler on the road in front of the palace, a completely innocent man at it turned out, brought such a violent reaction that he must have thought that he had stumbled on a war. In a way, he had.
And every morning, there was a new arrow in the front hall, mocking her.
I was given the terrible assignment of guarding the portrait for a few hours in the early morning. Not wanting to be the one to discover the arrow, I seated myself in a chair opposite, never letting my eyes move away for even a second. I don't know if you've had the experience of watching one object relentlessly, but it has a strange effect. All other senses vanish. That was why I was particularly startled when the Duchess rushed into the room, blurring the gulf for me between her portrait and herself.
"There's something moving behind the tree across the road from the gate!" she roared, pushing me aside, and fumbling with her key in the gold lock.
She was shaking with madness and excitement, and the key did not seem to want to go in. I reached out to help her, but the Duchess was already kneeling, her eye to the keyhole, to be certain that the key went through.
It was precisely in that second that the arrow arrived, but this one never made it as far as the portrait.
I actually met Missun Akin years later, while I was in Morrowind to entertain some nobles. He was impressed that I had risen from being a humble domestic servant to being a bard of some renown. He himself had returned to the ashlands, and, like his old master Hiomaste, was retired to the simple life of teaching and hunting.
I told him that I had heard that Lady Villea had decided not to leave the city, and that the village of Modiva had been rebuilt. He was happy to hear that, but I could not find a way to ask him what I really wanted to know. I felt like a fool just wondering if what I thought were true, that he had been behind Prolyssa's tree across the road from the gate every morning that summer, firing an arrow through the gate, across the lawn, across the moat, through a keyhole, and into a portrait of the Duchess of Woda until he struck the Duchess herself. It was clearly an impossibility. I chose not to ask.
As we left one another that day, and he was waving good-bye, he said, "I am pleased to see you doing so well, my friend. I am happy you moved that chair."