We both had a good night's sleep, but Laurenna woke up first that morning, before the sun was up, making eggs for us. "Eldorf," she asked, "did you notice those scratches on the door? There were several of them before, but there are more of them now." I had hoped she wouldn't have noticed the scratches until I had a chance to replace the lock, but her eyesight is as good as my own. "Yes, dear, I saw them. I'm going to replace the lock today."

"What is causing that?" she asked. I wasn't sure. They had started to appear shortly after my work for the spymaster had started.   


"I'm not sure, but I think it may be some third-rate apprentace from the Thieve's Guild practicing on our lock. Not to worry, I'll be fixing up a new one today."

Laurenna gave me a smile and we had some really good kwama eggs and bread.

After breakfast, I headed to several of the merchants in Balmora, and found a suitable lock from one of them.


After fumbling with the tools for about 20 minutes, I managed to successfully put the new lock on the door, and after testing it myself, made sure it was good and strong. It would take a powerful spell or an expert lockpicker to get this open.

As I was finishing up on the door, one of the children came by to say that some old guy was looking for me. "Old guy?" I asked. "I thought I was the old guy around here." The child grinned and said it was the guy hiding out in the bed and breakfast up on the next row of houses. That could only mean Caius Cosades, the Emperor's spymaster, had work for me to do. If the kids in town are going to start calling him an old man, Caius should really lay off the skooma for a while. His addiction to the moonsugar extract was going to age him faster than was good for his own health. 


After wiping the doorgrease from my hands, I told Laurenna I'd be up the next row of houses for a bit, and be right back. She said not to be too long. I said I'd probably be back in a few minutes, since Caius usually just gives the mission and sends me on my way.

I walked to the next row of houses, and knocked on his door. Caius answered it, his eyes a little bloodshot and appearing a little woozy.

"Eldorf, old man, how are the dragons?" he said.

"They're fine, thank you." I joked back, hoping he'd get it. He didn't, of course.

"Ah, well, I have a mission for you." he said. No surprise there, I thought. "I need you to head up north to, uh, oh, um...." he lost is train of thought for a moment, "...not Caldera, um, oh, yes, north to Ald'ruhn. We need an Ashlander informant, and I've heard of such a fellow there. His name is Hassour Zainsubani. Seems he left the wastelands to become a wealthy trader."

"I see." I said. "What am I to do there?"

"Take these 100 drakes." he said, handing me the coins. "They say that Ashlanders like to give and receive presents. Find out what Zainsubani likes, and get him a gift. After you give it to him, see if he'll tell you about the Ashlanders, you know, customs and that sort of thing. Oh, and ask him if he knows anything about the Nerevarine cult. Then report back to me."

Seemed simple enough, I thought. Then, I remembered the doorlock being scratched, and the disturbing dreams that both Laurenna and I had been having lately.

"You know," I said, "several people in a number of towns are having bad dreams lately. In fact, both Laurenna and I have been having them, some really odd set of things popping into our heads. The odd thing is, that when Laurenna and I compare them, they're exactly the same, involving some strange-looking guy in a golden mask, dead people, and so on. Do you know anything about this?"

I had figured that as the spymaster, he'd at least be able to give me a handle on what was going on around here. Instead, I received a very stern, and sober look from Caius. "You're worrying me, Eldorf." he said. "You're not going loopy on me, are you?"

"No, of course not." I replied. "I thought you'd....."

"A word of advise." he interrupted. "In Morrowind, if you have disturbing dreams, the Temple says you're crazy, and they'll want to lock you up. Not only that, but if you have disturbing dreams and think they mean something, then the Temple thinks you're some sort of a prophet or witch, and they'll want to lock you up even more."

He put his hand on my shoulder "Take my advice, Mr. Dragonmeal: Keep a lid on it. I don't need one of my operatives rotting in prison when he needs to be out doing the Emperor's work."

He broke a weak smile, trying to reassure me, but I could tell he was serious.

"Don't worry." I said. "I'll keep a lid on it for you."   


"Oh, a trip?" Laurenna asked. "Where are we going? Should I dress up?"

"No, in fact, you're find just like that, as Ald'ruhn is a little dusty this time of year."

An hour on the stiltstrider found us in Ald'ruhn, right in the middle of one of their famous ash-storms.

We made our way to the inn, fighting the dust and wind all the way.  


We found Hassour Zainsubani in the lower section of the inn, enjoying a brandy.

I introduced myself and Laurenna to him. "Ah, this is your wife?" he said, "She is very pretty." He took another sip of his brandy, then continued "Your reputation preceeds you, Eldorf, the Wise. I do not wish to be ruse, but if you have business, speak it, for I am at leisure, and would prefer to be alone with my thoughts."

"Perhaps this gift may help with your leisure." I said, as I handed him 1,000 drakes.

"You are most generous and thoughtful, Eldorf." he said. "How may I help you?"

I told him I wished to learn more about the Ashlanders and their customs.  He explained about gifts, how useful it is to gain favor with others, and how important it is to obtain the right gift, that it should be tailored to the receiver.

"How should one act when entering a camp?" I asked. "It comes down to courtesy." he replied. "You see, an Ashlander may challenge a stranger who enters a yurt without invitation. Customs differ, depending on the tribes, but essentially, you should leave when told to do so, and they may forgive your trespass. Now, listen carefully to this: Be very careful about ashkhans - tribal chiefs - and wise women - tribal seers and counselors. Some are welcoming, but some may be hostile. Be courteous, and leave if they tell you to do so, or you may be attacked."

He went on to tell me about challenges, that some are for sport (in which case, it would be acceptable to decline), but if challenged for honor, it would be shameful to decline, and that a challenge may come from an offense in speech or action.

"What is the story with Ashlanders and foreigners?" I asked. "I would get that 'outlander' thing all the time, whether in town or in small villages."

Hassour sighed, realizing that he'd be talking about me directly, but proceeded to answer my question anyway. "It has to do with history." he said. "You see, most Ashlanders wish all foreigners and their false gods could be driven from Morrowind. At the very least, they wish that the foreign devils would leave them in peace. Ashlanders think it is shameful to attack unarmed persons, but they will kill without hesitation an armed person who offends them or their clan laws. No Ashlander is fool enough to make war against the Empire. However, if such a war might be won, many Ashlanders might cheerfully give their lives to win such a war."

"Does this have anything to do with the Nerevarine cult?" I asked.

"I believe it does." he replied. "They worship the Great Ashkhan and Hortator, Nerevar Moon-and-Star, who, in ages past, destroyed the evil, godless dwarves, and banished the treacherous Daogth Ur and his foul hosts beneath Red Mountain. The cult is of small consequence in Ashlander worship, and only among the Urshilaku do its followers have any influence. Other Ashlander tribes share the sentiments of the cult, but regard the Nerevarine prophecies with suspicion and skepticism."

"So," I said, "not all the tribes are as strong in their feelings about this cult. Interesting." I pondered this for a moment, then asked if it had a large cult following.

"Well, all Ashlanders in a tribe, young and small, are born into the Ancestor cult of their clan." he said. "The Nerevarine cult is different, though; it is a very small cult, with only a few wise women with the gift of prophecy, and a few holy warrior-heroes who guard and protect the seers. Sul-Matuul, Ashkhan of the Urshilaku, is the Warrior-Protector of the cult, and Nibani Maesa, also of the Urshilaku, is the Oracle-seer of the cult."

"What about these Nerevarine prophecies? What is it supposed to mean?"

Hassour grinned, as if sharing a pleasant joke. "Ah, well, I have heard it said that prophecies foretell the return of a reincarnated Nerevar, who shall drive the foreigners from the Ashlands, and who shall cast down the false gods of the Temple, and restore the true worships of the Ancestors. It is a dream that would appear to every Ashlander, but it is thought but a silly, ancient legend, and little more, by many Ashlanders - myself included."

Disturbing dreams - I remembered that Caius said to keep a lid on it, but I just had to ask. "Among several people in Balmora, my wife and myself included, have been having disturbing dreams. Do you think they mean anything?" I described some of the dreams we had been having. Hassour thought for a moment, then said "Perhaps it means nothing. It is peculiar, the tall figure in the golden mask. It puts me in mind of the golden helm of the Ordinators, but that does not seem to fit the, uh, spirit, and the dream. You know, my people take careful account of dreams, but only a wise woman can tease their meanings from them."

I thanked him for his time and ordered another brandy for him. "How is life as a trader?" I asked.

"Oh, I am too old to travel now." he replied. "I no longer care to risk the beasts and bitter blights of the wastes. Now I sit here, warm, and savor my imported Cyrodilic brandy, while my adventurous son, Hannat Zainsubani, assists me in my trade, seeking out sources of fine ebony."

"He sounds like he is following in his father's footsteps." I replied. "You must be very proud of him."

"He does follow in my footsteps." he replied, "But sometimes I wonder, he has been away so long, and not a word to his father. Surely he wishes me to die of worry, so he may inherit this fine brandy. He has proposed to chart the rarely visited ancient underground complex at Mamaca, west of Red Mountain." He took another sip of brandy, then leaned over to me and added, "If you should chance to see him in your travels, chide him, and tell him an old man longs for news of his son-and-heir."

"I shall surely do that." I said.  "By the way, where exactly is the Urshilaku camp now?"

"Well, they move with the herds of guar, but they're usually near the shore of the Sea of Ghosts in the north. Sul-Matuul is their chief. Be mindful of these things I have told you about courtesy, or you may find yourself with a challenge of honor. Here." he added, "You had better take these notes."


Laurenna was waiting patiently at a table while us men did our talking. "Well," she asked, "did you learn a lot today?" "Oh yes," I replied, "and I have a lot of reading to do as well.

Laurenna said she'd go freshen up, so I had a few minutes to read up on these notes.

The Ashlanders are the direct descendants of the Aldmeri peoples who followed the Prophet Veloth into the lands we now call Morrowind. The Ashlanders retain the modest nomadic life and simple ancestor worship of their forebears, and despise the soft lives and decadent worships of the settled Great House Dunmer cultures. The Wastes are harsh and unforgiving, and we are a hard people. But there is a beauty and honor in our simple lives, and the snobs of the Temple and Great Houses are fools to dismiss us as crude savages.      


The notes went on to essentially repeat what I had been told about courtesy, challanges, the Nerevarine prophecies, and so on.

Soon, Laurenna returned, and we decided it was time to head back to Balmora.

As expected, the ashstorm outside was still raging as loudly as before, with everything picking up a layer of the ash. I could understand the reason these homes were built this way - the rounded rooftops simply let the ash fall off instead of letting it accumulate on top, eventually crushing the roof into the dwelling.    


Laurenna and I arrived back at the stilt strider port 2 hours later, and even though there was a light rain falling, we both agreed it was much better than the ashstorm we had just left.

Laurenna headed back to the house and I headed to the spymaster's quarters to make my report.

Little did I know just what kind of a shock I was in for.  
















Coming up: A Shocking Revelation!