TITLE: Of Fire Ants and Hooms
Of Fire Ants and Hooms
By Shissal Asurani
“Shabael-Ilu, you once asked me why I consider you a close friend."
"In those short few years of living together in the Ashlands, there's one thing that sticks out in my mind to really prove it, and that was that time you intervened when the leader of the Sennahanib tribe challenged me to a duel. Do you remember that?"
"There are many memories I prefer not to recall."
"Oh, come on! It was actually pretty funny, looking back on it."
"You have an odd idea of what makes things 'funny', outlander."
"That's what started it, you know."
"Fire ants in the Ashkhan's hides. You were lucky you were not killed that day, Phand..."
It was a dawning day, one that made the nix-hounds sing to the sun to make it come up, and the guar danced and wrestled with each other in the mud. Just like Ashlanders will sometimes wrestle in the mud, and in truth, no one even batted an eye when some of those guar stood up, took off their skins, and revealed heavily tattooed ash-gray skin underneath!
“Ashlanders who wrestle in muddy guar skins?" Shabael-Ilu asked in astonishment. "Now I know you are making this up."
"I'm not," Phand assured him. "You remember it, after all! Besides, if you think of a mud-wrestling guar-mer is a tall tale, just wait until you see one mud-surfing. Now let me finish!"
Yes, some of the guars took off their skins and revealed themselves to be Ashlanders. They were the guar herders of this particular tribe, living with the guar in such close contact that it was said some of them even forgot to take their clothes off and so became guar themselves. This tragedy was never revealed until mating days.
So it happened this fine young morning that Phand entered the guar pen uninvited, riding between the horns of a black and red shalk--
"One does not ride shalk," Shabael-Ilu, cut in again. "It is impossible."
"Funny," said Phand. "That's the same thing the Ashkhan said!"
So it happened this fine young morning that Phand entered the guar pen uninvited, riding between the horns of a black and red shalk. Phand rode around the ring three times until the Ashkhan and his warriors stopped him with spears bristling. "Why are you riding my shalk?" the Ashkhan demanded.
"Because she is a fine steed," Phand replied. "Her resin keeps Resdayn's fire from biting my flanks, and she has an excellent gait to her when it is time to get going, besides."
"You are outlander," replied the Ashkhan sternly. "You will not understand the gaits of the mud shalks until you have spent three days in prayer and three again getting gaining enlightenment through the pipes of nargiles. This is the way. You are not of the way and so could never know."
"What are nargiles and how do I sing to one?" Phand merely asked in response. "Not that it matters. I rode your shalk and it sang a wonderful tune to me without the jurak smoke!"
"Now you insult my wife," said the Ashkhan--
"So that was what that fight was about," said Shabael-Ilu. "To think I spoke for you!"
"It gets better!" answered Phand with a grin.
So the Ashkhan demanded his shalk back and mounted up on her to prove his skills were just as good as the outlander's when it came to taming Morrowind's creatures. Emerging from his victory as he was with the smoke of nargiles wreathing him, the Ashkhan was unprepared for the shalk's bite. He claimed Phand had given her a new bridle, and demanded they duel for honor in six days time.
So after three days of seeking new heights and three days of smoking pipes, the Ashkhan and our glorious hero faced off in the fighting ring, with muddy Ashlanders and some muddy guar who might have been Ashlanders or may have been shalks without their fire standing shoulder to shoulder about them. The Ashkhan started bellowing, and when this did not daunt Phand he started stamping, and when this still didn't daunt the outlander, he suddenly squalled like a bitten woman and did a little a dance.
"The sealed-nargile house withstands the ants!" shouted Phand--
"That does not even make sense!" spluttered Shabael-Ilu. "The Thrice-sealed House withstands the Storm. It is a teaching that the Three Good Daedra guide us through all adversity."
"No, it goes just as I said it," admonished Phand. "Who is telling the story here, you or me?"
The guar and the Ashlanders stood in shalks as the Ashkhan gyrated and beat at the fires biting into his hindquarters. For though the guar had not seen it, Phand had seen through the vapors clouding the Ashkhan's mind. Before the moons that came after the earlier day, he had convinced the shalk to douse him in her fire-mixing arts instead of her kin. Wreathed in her knowing, Phand picked up the sparks that had been been trying to overrun their yurt and had blown them across the resting place of the Ashkhan.
And so when the Ashkhan lay that morning before their duel, he had felt the wrath of his poorly treated shalk. And so the Ashkhan was bested in the duel, and Phand won himself several skins of false guars.
"Alas, it was not a happy ending that would last," continued Phand. "For in the end, shalk are still shalk and tend to light everyone on fire no matter how kind, and ants will infest yurts that aren’t filled with the smoke of jurak every evening."
"That is not how I remember it," said Shabael-Ilu after a long pause.
"Well, I admit, the Ashkhan's wife was a bit of an embellishment, but I swear to you I rode a shalk!"
"If I didn't know any better, you had too much of the jurak yourself."
"She could mix a wonderful blend," admitted Phand with nostalgia. "Too good for the Ashkhan, but he only has himself to blame for letting himself fall to that little temptation. Still, I was the one who took the blame for your fire ants. Seeing as how you got to put salve on the Ashkhan's inflamed arse the whole rest of the day, I think we're even, mate."
Shabael-Ilu was silent for a few minutes more, hiding his smile. "...as long as we are relating stories, outlander, there is a different one I would tell to describe our kinship."
"But playing pranks is such great bonding! No, don't frown, I'm listening. You thought I could have done better with the Sennahanib?"
"I'm thinking of something entirely different," said Shabael-Ilu.
The winter came swift and cold to the Velothi Mountains, as biting as any in Skyrim, but mixed in the snowfall was the black ash of Red Mountain.
"I've never seen snow before," Phand had remarked, staring up at the sky spitting flakes at them. On a whimsy, he stuck out his tongue to catch one, but coughed and spat it back out immediately. He stared woefully at the black grit mixed in with the swiftly melting ice in his hand. "I don't think many people could say they've seen black snow before, either."
"I hate this weather," said Shabael-Ilu. Phand looked over him and tried not to laugh; the Ashlander was buried in furs to the point he looked like a shaggy ox. When Phand remarked so, he growled.
They were tracking the trail of a hoom across the Velothi foothills, and there was little time to argue. The sky eventually stopped spitting gray snow, leaving softened hillocks behind. The trail had gone from disturbed snow resembling some sort of Nibenese cauliflower to barely distinguishable whorls that Phand was surprised Shabael-Ilu could even pick out from the blanket the snowfall had left on the landscape. The crisp air invigorated Phand, and only through his respect to Shabael-Ilu did he keep his gambols to a minimum.
Even so, Shabael-Ilu’s bundle of clothing was clotted with snowballs by the time they set up camp under a sheltering cliff. Despite the laughter of his companion, the Ashlander had walked the whole way in the same trudging pace, head bowed against the wind, wheezing softly into his sleeve.
"I remember that!" cried Phand. "It was nice enough, I suppose--my first snowfall!--but I didn't think it was a time you enjoyed at all."
"It wasn't," said Shabael-Ilu.
Shabael-Ilu’s wheezing became worse throughout the night, and Phand had a hard time keeping his patience when he was woken up several times by the Ashlander's coughing fits. By morning Shabael-Ilu was subdued, not moving any more than he had to, and Phand ended up heating up their breakfast of stew cooked within a pot filled of snow. Shabael-Ilu leaned greedily over the steam, and it seemed to ease his breathing, for a while at least.
Another snow had fallen during the night, and the tracks of the hoom had disappeared. Phand despaired, remarking they should turn back and find a river to fish from before they ran out of rations, but Shabael-Ilu shook his head with a growl and continued on. Doubt soon growing to amazement, Phand followed the Ashlander as he pointed out other signs of the hoom's passing that Phand would never have thought to look for--the stripped bark from a tree, a copse of sheltering shrubs with branches broken, a slight fold in the land from an old river that the herds used as a byway. Then they finally turned a bend in the mountains, and before them in the valley were scores of little tan hummocks interspersed between the white hills of snow.
"I don't get it," said Phand. "We never did catch a hoom, and the scavenged corpse you chased the durzog off of was full of worms. Why is that your best memory of our adventures?"
"Because you trusted me," answered Shabael-Ilu. "The ways of the ancestors are being swiftly forgotten amongst my kin, who are more concerned with chasing their dreams and dancing flame-arts than they are in reading the hunt-signs. I did not have the stamina to make that journey alone, but through your preserverance, I have survived and will grow strong again.”
"Worms for breakfast!" exclaimed Phand with a laughing snort. "Well, it's memorable at least. And I suppose one memorable bad memory is better than a hundred forgettable good memories, especially when it's shared with a friend. I admit though, old pal, I could have done without that indigestion. Snow or no snow, I thought you natives would be a little better at making cooking fires!"
"Hm," said Shabael-Ilu, smiling enigmatically. “Perhaps one should better honor their fire ants, if Resdayn’s fete is what they desire.”