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【书籍搬运】The Black Arrow, 黑矢

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英文名:The Black Arrow

作者:Gorgic Guine

翻译:小嚣鬼

原文出处:http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Oblivion:The_Black_Arrow

一个关于复仇的故事,一个真正的弓术大师

第一部分

我年轻的时候被雇佣到沃达女公爵的避暑城堡里当男仆。此前我对那些顶着贵族头衔的人的生活方式知之甚少。他们当中有有钱的店主、商人、外交官和公务员,他们在古根城有大量的事务要忙,也有专门用于取乐的富丽堂皇的城堡。而这些社会圈子都是我的亲戚们所无法企及的。

我的表兄弟听说在离开城镇很远的地方有一座城堡,那里正在招收仆人,然而因为路途遥远基本上没什么人去申请这份工作。我虽然已经成年了,但没有任何家业要继承,于是决定去看看。在瓦伦林地的丛林里赶了五天的路以后,我见到一队骑马的人正朝我的方向走来。这是一支由五个三个男波兹莫人、两个女波兹莫人、两个布莱顿女人和一个丹莫男人组成的队伍,从他们的着装看来像是一群冒险者。 我们互相介绍以后,那个名叫Prolyssa的布莱顿女人问我:“你是要去莫利瓦吗?” “我不知道那个地方,我只是在找沃达女公爵的住处。”我回答道。 “我们会带你去她家大门口。”那个叫Missun Akin的丹莫人边说着边把我拉上他的马。接着他又说:“但如果你够聪明的话就不要告诉Her Grace是一群莫利瓦的学生护送你来的,除非你已经不愿意伺候她了。” 我于是坐上Akin的马一起出发了。路上Akin向我解释说,莫利瓦是最靠近女公爵所住的地方的村子,村子里有一个名叫Hiomast的弓箭手,他自从漫长的兵役退休以后就定居在那里。他颇负盛名而且箭艺超群,退休以后开始招收那些想跟他学习箭艺的人做学生。当这位伟大的老师的口碑传播开来后,越来越多的学生来到莫利瓦向大师求学。那些布莱顿女人就是一路风尘仆仆从高岩的西部区域赶过来的。而Akin自己则是从晨风省的大火山附近横穿大陆旅行过来。他还向我展示了他从家乡带来的乌木箭,我此前从未见过任何东西有像那样的黑色。 波兹莫男人当中那个叫Kopale的开口说:“就我们所知,这个女公爵是帝国人,并且她的家族在帝国建立以前就在这儿定居了。所以你可能会以为她已经习惯了跟瓦伦林地的平民相处。但事实摆在眼前,她看不起村子里的人和学校里的大部分学生。” “说不定她还想控制在她丛林里的所有买卖呢!”Prolyssa笑着说。 我非常感谢他们向我提供了这些信息,同时我发现自己正越来越担心与这个心胸狭窄的女公爵的初次会面。当我透过树叶间的缝隙第一眼窥见那座城堡时,我心中的恐惧丝毫没有得到缓解。 这座城堡和我在瓦伦林地里曾见过的任何建筑都不一样。这是一幢由石头和铁构筑而成的巨大的建筑物,在它的碉堡上的城垛呈锯齿状排开,像极了一只巨兽的咽喉。城堡附近的树木大部分在很早以前已经被砍伐掉了:我能够想象得到当时所引发的流言蜚语,和那些生活在沃达公爵领地内的波兹莫农民不得不面对的恐惧。原来树木繁盛的地方如今变成了一条宽大的灰青色护城河,环绕在城堡外围,这让它看起来更像是一座完美的人工岛屿。这样的景象我只是曾经在别人从高岩和帝国中央行省带来的织画中看到过,但在我的故乡却从来没有。 “大门那有一个守卫,所以我们就在这跟你分开了。”Akin说着把他的马停在路边,然后又接着说:“对你来说最好的结果就是没有因为跟我们结交而受到责难了。” 我谢过那些跟我一起来的人,并且祝他们在学校里能交上好运气。然后他们就骑着马继续前进,而我则步行在后面尾随。不用几分钟时间我就到了城堡的前门,紧接着我意识到它是跟那些高大而华丽的栏杆连接在一起以确保城堡内部安全的。当那个看门人知道我来这儿是为了打听女公爵的住所时,他同意我让我通过并且发信号给对面站在空旷草坪上的守卫,示意他放下吊桥让我能够通过护城河。 那边还有一个防卫措施:前门。这是一块畸形的铁块,在它的顶端有沃达的盾徽,且还用更多的铁条进行了加固,门上还镶嵌一个贵重的金色锁眼。那个站岗的人把门打开,随即一条通往那巨大阴郁的灰石城堡的通道在我眼前铺展开来。 Her Grace在她的休息室接待了我。她披着一件很简洁的红色长袍,整个人看上去很消瘦而且脸上爬满皱纹,像是爬虫一类的动物 她对我说:“你清楚在帝国的贵族女士家中担当下级仆人应该做什么吗?”声音像是用旧了的皮革。 “不清楚,Grace公爵” “很好。从来没有哪个仆人刚来就知道他们应该做什么,而我也特别讨厌那些自以为是的家伙。你现在被起用了。” 在城堡里的日子是百无聊赖的,但作为一个下级仆人的工作却很简单。大多数时候我除了避免出现在女公爵眼皮底下外都无所事事。在这种时候,我通常会沿着路走上两英里去莫利瓦. 在某些方面,这个村子并没有任何特别或者不同寻常的地方——瓦伦林地有成千上万的跟这里一样的地方。只是大师Hiomaste的箭术学院就在山坡附近,所以我经常会带上午餐到那里看的学生们练习射箭。 Prolyssa和Akin有时候会过来跟我小聚。跟Akin谈话的内容很少会偏离射箭技艺太远,因此尽管我很喜欢Akin,我还是觉得Prolyssa是个更吸引我的伙伴,不仅仅是因为她是在布莱顿人中长得漂亮的人,而且因为她看起来除了射箭外还有一些其它方面的爱好。 一次当我们走在森林中的时候她对我说:“在我还很小的时候在高岩见到过一个叫大翎毛 杂技团的马戏团。已经没有人记得多久以前他们就在那附近了。有机会的话你一定要去看一看,他们中有演戏剧和杂耍的,还有你能见识到的最令人惊异的杂技家和弓箭手。那就是我的梦想啊!有一天当我有足够的能力的时候成为他们当中的一员。” “你怎么知道自己什么时候会变成一个足够出色的弓箭手呢?”我问她。 她没有回答。当我转过身来的时候,却发现她不见了。我开始四处张望,同时感到茫然不知所措,直到我听到她的笑声从我头顶上传来。她当时正坐在一根树枝上,对着我笑得牙齿都露了出来。 “我也许不会作为一名弓箭手加入他们,可能会做个杂技家。”她说道:“又或者两者都是。我知道瓦伦林地是一个我能知道自己想要学习什么的地方,在树林这里你有很多出色的老师可以去模仿,比如说那些猿人。” 她又继续绕着树干往上爬,用左腿支撑着她往自己的右边弹跳。就这么一瞬间,她就跳过了旁边的一根树枝。我发现现在很难继续跟她说话了。 “你说的是Imga吗?”我结结巴巴地说:“你爬这么高不会觉得害怕吗?” “我知道这些话已经被人说烂了。”她说着又跳到了甚至更高的一根树枝上:“但诀窍就是绝对不要往下看。” “你先下来好吗?” “也许我是应该下来的,”她说道。她现在正站在离地面三十英尺高的一根很窄小的树枝上,双臂张开好让自己能够保持平衡。她对着在路的另一头几乎看不到的那扇门做着手势,说:“这棵树实际上距离女公爵的城堡很近呢,我现在就要过去了。” 当她翻着筋斗从树枝上跳下来的时候,我倒吸了一口气屏住呼吸直到她膝盖微弯着安全着地为止。这就是杂技表演,她解释说。这件事发生在早已预料到的不幸发生之前。我当时向她表示对她将会成为大翎毛杂技团里最耀眼的人的信心。当然,现在我知道那永远也不可能了。 我记得那一天我必须早些回去。平时我很少会需要接连做同一类工作,只有当女公爵有客人来访时,我就必须留在城堡里面。并不是说我会有什么特别的工作,只不过是要我在饭厅里立正站着罢了。管事跟女仆都忙着把食物端进饭厅,之后又忙着清洗碗碟,而我们男仆就是一种作为出于对客人的礼节的纯粹的装饰。 但至少我是一名即将上演的杂技表演的观众。

第二部分

城堡里上一次举行宴会的时候,女公爵出乎意料地邀请了莫利瓦的市长,而大师Hiomaste也在她的其他客人当中。仆人们都在聒噪地谈论着。虽然不太符合常理,但市长之前已经来过这里了,然而Hiomaste的出现则让人难以想象。她营造出这种和谐的氛围到底意味着什么呢?

假如出席的人都是有些端庄与修养的,宴会将进行得非常完美。Hiomaste和女公爵都表现得非常安静,而市长则打算组织大家一起讨论关于国王佩拉古斯四世的新子嗣乌列,但这个话题显然没有激起大家的太多兴趣。一起参加了宴会的还有Villea小姐,她是公爵的姐姐,看起来更加苍老但比女公爵要快活开朗一些。席间大部分的谈话内容都被她引导到关于古根城的犯罪和流言蜚语上。 “多年以来我一直都在鼓动她搬出来到村子里住下,好远离所有不愉快的事情,”女公爵说着,目光看向了市长的双眼:“最近我们不停地讨论着为她在莫利瓦的山丘上盖一座城堡的事情,但是你也知道,那地方太小了。不过幸运的是,我们有了新的发现。从这里往西边走上几天的路程有一块广阔的原野,就在河的边上,那地方再合适不过了。” “这听起来很完美呢,”市长微笑地看着Villea夫人说:“什么时候把你的贵妇人身份也盖起来?” “就在你把你的村子搬迁到那地方的时候。”沃达女公爵回答道。

市长又转过头来朝她看去,想看她是不是在开玩笑,但很明显她不是。

“试想一下如果你和村子跟河流靠得很近的话能给你带来多少商机吧。” Villea夫人饶有兴致地说道:“而且大师Hiomaste的学生要到他那杰出的学院上课也变得容易了。所有人都能从中受益。我也明白如果发生在我妹妹的领土上的入侵和盗窃一类事情的减少对于她来说是多么大的宽心。” “Grace,你的领土上并没有盗窃或者私闯一类的事情。”Hiomaste皱着眉头说道:“你并没有那片丛林的拥有权,或者你想要获得?我不知道村民们会不会被说服然后离开,但至少我的学院将继续留在它原来的地方。” 宴会一直都没有真正恢复到愉悦的氛围当中。Hiomaste和市长都表达了他们对这件事情的歉意。那群人现正在休息室里举杯,而那地方完全没有我的事,其他仆人也一样。那天晚上墙的另一边没有一丝笑声传来。 翌日,尽管晚上女公爵又安排了一场宴会,我还是从日常工作中抽身出来打算去莫利瓦。但我还没有踏上吊桥,守卫就把我往回拽,他问我:“你想去哪儿,Gorgic?你该不会是打算到村子里吧?” “有问题吗?” 他指着远处如飘散的羽毛般的一团浓烟说:“今天很早的时候那里突然着火了,现在还烧着呢。着火的地方明显就是Hiomaste的学院。看来是某些过路的强盗的杰作呢。” “斯丹纳尔保佑!”我惊叫起来,赶紧问他:“学生们都活着吗?” “没有人知道,那时候天色还晚,大部分人都在睡觉,如果真有人能活下来,那就是奇迹了。我听说他们已经找到大师的尸体,或者说是大师身体残留的部分。而且他们也找到了那个女孩,就是你那叫Prolyssa的朋友。” 我一整天都沉浸在震惊当中,我的直觉告诉我:是那两个贵族老妇人Villea夫人和沃达女公爵把惹怒她们的村子和学校烧成灰烬的。这种想法是多么的让人难以置信。晚餐的时候,她们非常简短地提了一下莫利瓦的大火,仿佛这压根儿不是什么新闻一样。但我确实看到了女公爵嘴角洋溢起微笑,那是我第一次看到她笑,是我至死也不会忘记的微笑。 第二天早上,我下定决心到村子里看看自己能为生还者做点什么。当我正要穿过仆人门厅走向那豪华的大厅时,我忽然听到前面的一群人传来的声音。守卫们和大部分的仆人都聚集在这里,他们都把手指向悬挂在大厅中央的女公爵肖像。 我顺着他们手指着的方向看去,那里有一根黑色乌木制的尖锐物刺穿了肖像的心脏。 我马上就认出来它是Missun Akin的箭矢,我曾经在他的箭袋里面看到过。他告诉我这些乌木箭是在Dagoth-Ur的内脏里铸造出来的。我的第一个反应就是心里悬着的一块石头终于放了下来:那个对我很友好的并且曾经让我坐上他的马护送我来到城堡的丹莫人在火灾中幸存了下来。而我的第二个反应则跟大厅里所有的人一样。这个破坏肖像的人是如何通过守卫,大门,护城河还有那魁伟的铁门的? 在我之后没多久女公爵也到了大厅。她那上扬的稀疏的眉毛让她看起来显得怒不可遏,哪怕她的良好教养暂时帮助她抑制了部分的怒气。她毫不迟疑地给所有仆人都安排了新的任务,以确保城堡在任何时候都受到保护。我们也被安排了常规的调动和精确而频密的巡逻工作。 尽管有了这些警惕和防范,第二天早上大家还是发现一根黑矢贯穿女公爵的肖像。 事情就这样持续了一个礼拜的时间。虽然女公爵一直都安排了至少一个人在大厅里戒备,但不知何故,箭矢总能够在守卫们转眼瞬间射中女公爵的画像。 大家又设计了一系列复杂的信号,好让每个巡逻的人都能即时回报他们在守夜时发现的任何动静和干扰。起先,女公爵安排她的城堡主管负责在白天接收仆人和守卫的巡逻报告,而守卫长则负责晚上。然而当她发现自己无法入眠的时候,她要求所有人都直接向她回报信息。 城堡里的气氛从原来的阴郁变得像笼罩在恶梦一般。女公爵Her Grace开始变得杯弓蛇影,草木皆兵。那天一个长途跋涉的旅人正走在城堡前面的路上,他完全就是一个无辜的人,却不幸地卷入了这样的暴力事件当中,这不能不让他认为自己在无意中发现了一场战争。而在某种程度上,他是正确的。 然后在接下来的每天早晨,前厅里都会有一根箭在愚弄她。 后来我被安排负责在早上守护肖像数个小时,这真是一个糟糕的任务。我不希望自己是发现箭矢的那个人,于是我坐在一张方向相反的椅子上,目不转睛地紧盯肖像画。我不知道你是否有过无情地盯着一个物体的经历,但这确实会带来一种奇怪的效果,就是让你的其他感觉都仿佛消失了一样。这就是为什么当女公爵冲进来时我会感到特别震惊的原因,女公爵的肖像画和她之间的那段地面被弄得一团脏乱。 “门外路对面的树丛后面有什么东西在动!”她吼叫着一把把我推开,拿着她的钥匙在那把金色的锁上摸索着。 她因为疯狂和刺激而颤抖着,而钥匙看来似乎并没有顺利地插到锁眼里去。我想要帮她,但女公爵已经跪在地上,眼睛对着锁眼往里看,想确认钥匙能够插进去。 正好就在这个时候一根箭矢射来,只是它并没有再射到肖像画所在的地方那么远了。 几年以后,我在晨风省为一些贵族提供娱乐的时候,竟然又遇见Missun Akin。他对于我从一个卑微的家庭仆人跃升到有些声望的吟游诗人留下深刻的印象。而他自己则回到灰烬之地,就像他的老师Hiomaste一样,回归到简单的生活,打猎和传授箭艺。 我告诉他Villea夫人据说已经决定不离开城市了,而莫利瓦村也已经被重建。他听了这个消息后很开心。只是我想不到一种合适的方法去向他询问我真正想要知道的事情。我想知道那个夏天的每个早晨,他是不是都在那棵Prolyssa曾经爬过的树后面——就是城堡门外那条路对面的那棵,向着城堡里射箭,那箭矢穿过大门,越过草坪,跨过护城河,穿过锁眼最后射在女公爵的肖像画上,直到那一天女公爵自己被箭矢射倒了。我想要印证自己的想法是否正确,但这明显是不可能的,我觉得自己像一个傻瓜一样,所以我没有问。 那天我们分别的时候,他向我挥手再见,然后说:“我很高兴你活得这么好,我的朋友。很高兴那天你把椅子移开了。”

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The Black Arrow
by Gorgic Guine
A story of revenge, and a true master archer


Part 1
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 Valenwoodbefore 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 a long 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 Imperialwhose 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.
 

Part 2
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?"
"Why not?"
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 [sic] 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."

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