Bone, Part I
"It seems to me," said Garaz, thoughtfully looking into the depths of his flin. "That all great ideas come from pure happenstance. Take for instance, the story I told you last night about my cousin. If he hadn't fallen off that horse, he never would have become one of the Empire's foremost alchemists."
It was late one Middas night at the King's Ham, and the regulars were always especially inclined toward philosophy.
"I disagree," replied Xiomara, firmly but politely. "Great ideas and inventions are most often formed slowly over time by diligence and hard work. If you'll recall my tale from last month, the young lady -- who I assure you is based on a real person -- only recognized her one true love after she had slept with practically everyone in Northpoint."
"I put it to you that neither is the case," said Hallgerd, pouring a topper on his mug of greef. "The greatest inventions are created by extraordinary need. Must I remind you of the story I told some time ago about Arslic Oan and the invention of bonemold?"
"The problem with your theory is that your example is entirely fictional," sniffed Xiomara.
"I don't believe I remember the story of Arslic Oan and the invention of bonemold," frowned Garaz. "Are you sure you told us?"
"Well, this happened many, many, many years ago, when Vvardenfell was a beauteous green land, when Dunmer were Chimer and Dwemer and Nord lived together in relative peace when they weren't trying to kill one another," Hallgerd relaxed in his chair, warming to his theme. "When the sun and moons all hung in the sky together--"
"Lord, Mother, and Wizard!" grumbled Xiomara. "If I'm going to be forced to hear your ridiculous story again, pray don't embellish and make it any longer than it has to be."
This all happened in Vvardenfell quite some time ago (said Hallgerd, ignoring Xiomara's interruption with admirable restraint) during an era of a king you would never have heard of. Arslic Oan was one of this king's nobles and very, very disagreeable fellow. Because of his allegiance to the crown, the king had felt the need to grant him a castle and land, but he didn't necessarily want him as a neighbor so the land he granted was far from civilization. Right in an area of Vvardenfell that is, even today, not quite civilized to this day. Arslic Oan built a walled stronghold and settled down with his unhappy slaves to enjoy a quiet if somewhat grim life.
It was not long before his stronghold's integrity was tested. A tribe of cannibalistic Nords had been living in the valley for some time, mostly dining on one another, but occasionally foraging what they liked to call dark meat, the Dunmer.
Xiomara laughed with appreciation. "Marvelous! I don't remember that from before. It's funny how you don't hear much about the Nords' rampant cannibalism nowadays."
This was obviously, as I've said, quite some time ago (said Hallgerd, glaring at part of his audience with civil malevolence) and things were in many ways quite different. These cannibalistic Nords began attacking Arslic Oan's slaves in the fields, and then slowly grew bolder, until they held the very stronghold itself under siege. They were quite a fearsome sight you can imagine: a horde of wild-eyed men and women with dagger-like teeth filed to tear flesh, wielding massive clubs, cloaked only in the skins of their victims.
Arslic Oan assumed that if he ignored them, they'd go away.
Unfortunately, the first thing that the Nords did was to poison the stream that carried water into the walled stronghold. All the livestock and most of the slaves died very quickly before this was discovered. There was no hope of rescue, at least for several months when the king's emissaries would come reluctantly to visit the disagreeable vassal. The next closest source of water was on the other side of the hill, so Arslic Oan sent three of his slaves with empty jugs to bring some back.
They were beaten with clubs and eaten before they were a few feet outside the stronghold gates. The next group he sent through he gave sticks to defend themselves. They made it a few feet farther, but were also overwhelmed, beaten, and devoured. It was obvious that better personal defensive was required. Arslic Oan went to talk to his armorer, one of his few slaves with specific talents and duties.
"The slaves need armor if they're going to make it to the river and back," he said. "Collect every scrap of steel and iron you can find, every hinge, knife, ring, cup, everything that isn't needed to keep the walls sturdy, smelt it, and give me the most and the best armor you can, very, very quickly."
The armorer, whose name was Gorkith, was used to Arslic Oan's demands, and knew that there could be no compromise on the quality and quantity of the armor, or the speed at which he worked. He labored for thirty hours without a break - and, recall, without any water to slake his thirst as he struggled with the kiln and anvil - until finally, he had six suits of mixed-metal armor.
Six slaves were chosen, clad in the armor, and sent with jars to collect river water. At first, the mission progressed well. The Nord attacked the armored slaves with their clubs, but they continued their march forward, warding off the blows. Gradually, however, the slaves seemed to be walking uncertainly, dazed by the endless barrage. Eventually, one by one, they fell, the armor was peeled from their bodies, and they were eaten.
"The slaves couldn't move quickly enough in that heavy armor you made," said Arslic Oan to Gorkith. "I need you to collect all the cadavers of the poisoned livestock, strip their skin, and give me the most and the best leather armor you can, very, very quickly."
Gorklith did as he was told, though it was a particularly repulsive task given the rancid state of the livestock. Normally it takes quite a time to treat and cure leather, so I understand, but Gorklith worked at it tirelessly, and in a half a day he had twelve suits of leather armor.
Twelve slaves were chosen, clad in the armor, and sent with jars to collect river water. They progressed, at first, much better than the earlier expedition. Two fell almost immediately, but the others had some luck out-maneuvering their assailants while deflecting an occasional blow of the club. Several got to the river, three were able to fill up their jars, and one fellow very nearly made it back to the stronghold gates. Alas, he fell and was eaten. The Nords possessed a remarkably healthy appetite.
"What we need before I completely run out of slaves," said Arslic Oan thoughtfully to Gorkith. "Is an armor sturdier than leather but lighter than metal."
The armorer had already considered that and taken stock of the materials available. He had thought about doing something with stone or wood, but there were practical problems with demolishing more of the stronghold. The next most prevalent stuff present in the stronghold was skinned dead bodies, hunks of muscle, fat, blood, and bone. For six hours, he toiled relentlessly until he produced eighteen suits of bonemold, the first ones ever created. Arslic Oan was somewhat dubious at the sight (and smell) but he was very thirsty, and willing to sacrifice another eighteen slaves if necessary.
"Might I suggest," Gorklith queried tremulously, "Having the slaves practice moving about in the armor, here in the courtyard, before sending them to face the Nords?"
Arslic Oan coolly allowed it, and for a few hours, the slaves wandered about the stronghold courtyard in their suits of bonemold. They grew used to the give of the joints, the rigidity of the backplate, the weight pushed onto their shoulders and hips. They discovered how to plant their feet slightly askew to keep their balance steady; how to quickly turn, pivoting without falling down; how to break into a run and stop quickly. By the time they were sent out of the castle gates, they were easily very nearly almost amateurs in the use of their medium weight armor.
Seventeen of them were killed and eaten, but one made it back with a jar of water.
"It's perfect nonsense," said Xiomara. "But my point is still valid even so. Like all great inventors, even in fiction, the armorer worked diligently to create the bonemold."
"I think there was a good deal of happenstance as well," frowned Garaz. "But it is an appalling story. I wish you hadn't told me."
"If you think that's appalling," grinned Hallgerd. "You should hear what happened next."
Bone, Part II
"What do you mean the story gets more appalling?" Garaz was incredulous. "How in Boethiah's name could it get more appalling?"
"It's a ruse," Xiomara scoffed, ordering two more mugs of greef and a glass of flin for Garaz. "How much worse can a tale get which prominently features cannibalism, abuse of slaves, and the regular placement of rotting animal carcasses?"
"Don't you dare dare me," growled Hallgerd, annoyed by his listeners' lack of appreciation of his prose styling. "Remind me where we were?"
"Arslic Oan is the owner of a stronghold under siege by savage, cannibalistic Nords," said Xiomara, keeping a straight face. "After a lot of deaths and several unsuccessful attempts to get water, he had his armorer with the unlikely name of Gorkith outfit his slaves with the first ever bonemold armor. One of them finally makes it back with some water."
It was only one jarful of water (said Hallgerd, pulling back in his chair and continuing the tale), and Arslic Oan drank most of it, passing the remains to his dear armorer Gorkith and the last dribbles to the few dozen slaves who still lived. It was hardly enough to sustain health and well-being. Another expedition was necessary, but they had only one suit of bonemold left, as there was only one survivor of the trip.
"One out of eighteen slaves made it through the gauntlet of Nords wearing that marvelous bonemold armor of yours," said Arslic Oan to Gorkith. "And one can only carry back enough water for one. Therefore, mathematically, as we have, counting you and me, fifty-six remaining people at the stronghold, we need armor for fifty-four. Since we already have one, you only need to make fifty-three to make the total. That way, three will make it back, with enough water for you and me and whoever's in the best condition to partake. I don't know what we'll do after that, but if we wait, we won't have enough slaves to fetch even a couple days' worth of water."
"I understand," whimpered Gorkith. "But how am I going to make the armor? I used all the livestock bones to make the first batch of bonemold."
Arslic Oan gave an order which Gorkith fearfully complied with. In eighteen hours -
"What do you mean 'Arslic Oan gave an order which Gorkith fearfully complied with'?" asked Xiomara. "What was the order?"
"All will be clear," smiled Hallgerd. "I have to chose what to reveal and what to conceal. Such is the way of the tale teller."
In eighteen hours, Gorkith had fifty-three suits of bonemail (said Hallgerd, continuing, not really minding the interruption) prepared for the slaves. Without prompting, he ordered the slaves to practice using the armor, and even allowed them more training time than their predecessors. They not only learned how to move and stop quickly in bonemold, but how to adjust their peripheral vision to see a blow before it came, and to sway to dodge, and where the sturdiest reinforcement points on the arm were -- the center of the chest and the abdomen -- and how to position themselves to take blows there, against their natural instincts. The slaves even had time for a mock battle before being sent out among the cannibals.
The slaves handled themselves admirably. Very few, just fifteen slaves, were killed and eaten out right. Only ten were killed and eaten when they reached the river. That was when things did not go according to Arslic Oan's plans. Twenty-one slaves with jars of water took off for the hills. Only eight returned to the castle, largely because they were blocked by the cannibal Nords. It was a larger percentage than he had anticipated surviving, but Arslic Oan felt righteous indignation at the paucity of loyalty.
"Are you absolutely certain you wouldn't rather flee?" he hollered from the battlements.
Finally, he allowed the survivors in. Three had been killed waiting for the gate to open. Two more died almost upon stepping into the courtyard. One was delirious, walking around in circles, laughing and dancing before suddenly collapsing. That meant five jars of water for four people, the two surviving slaves, Arslic Oan, and Gorkith. As the lord of the manor, Arslic Oan took the extra jar, but he was democratic with the others.
"You're quite correct," frowned Garaz. "This story is getting more and more appalling."
"Just wait," smiled Hallgerd.
The next morning (Hallgerd continued) Arslic Oan awoke to a perfectly still and quiet stronghold. There was no murmuring in the corridors, no sound of hard labor in the courtyard. He dressed and surveyed the scene. It appeared that the fortress was utterly deserted. Arslic Oan walked down to the armorer's quarters, but the door was locked.
"Open up," said Arslic Oan, patiently. "We need to speak. Thirty out of fifty-four slaves successfully made it to the river and gathered water. Admittedly, some then fled, and a couple didn't survive because I needed to correct their fickleness, but mathematically, that's a fifty-five percent survival rate. If you and I and the two remaining slaves made the next run to the river, we two should survive."
"Zilian and Gelo left last night with their armor," cried Gorklith through the door.
"Who are Zilian and Gelo?"
"The two remaining slaves! They don't remain anymore!"
"Well, that's vexing," said Arslic Oan. "Still we must continue on. Mathematically--"
"I heard something last night," whimpered Gorklith in a funny voice. "Like footsteps, only different, and they were moving through the walls. And there were voices too. They sounded strange, like they couldn't move their jaws very well, but I knew one."
Arslic Oan sighed, humoring his poor armorer: "And who was it?"
"And who is Ponik?"
"One of the slaves that died when the Nords poisoned our water. One of the many, many slaves that died, and we made use of. He was always a nice, uncomplaining fellow, that's why I noticed his voice above all the others," Gorklith began to sob. "I understood what he was saying."
"Which was what?" asked Arslic Oan with a sigh.
"'Give me back my bones!'" Gorklith's voice shrieked. There was silence for a moment, and then more hysterical sobbing.
"I saw that coming," laughed Xiomara.
There was nothing more to be done with the armorer for the time being (said Hallgerd, a trifle annoyed at the regular interruptions), so Arslic Oan stripped one of the dead slaves of his suit of bonemold and put it on. He practiced in the courtyard, impressing himself with his natural comfortably with medium weight armor. For hours, he boxed, feinted, dodged, sprinted, skipped, jumped, and generally cavorted about. When he felt tired, he retired to the shade and took a nap.
The sound of the king's trumpet woke him with a start. Night had fallen, and for a moment, he thought he had been dreaming. Then the alarum sounded again, far in the distance, but clear. Arslic Oan leapt to his feet and ran to the ramparts. Several miles away, he could see the emissaries and their vast and well-armed escort approach. They were there early! The cannibal Nords below looked at one another with consternation. Savages they might be, but they knew when a superior force was approaching.
Arslic Oan joyously dashed down the stairs to Gorklith's chamber. The door was still locked. He beat on it, cajoling, demanding, threatening. Finally, he found a key, one of the few scraps of metal that had not been smelted days before.
Gorklith appeared to be sleeping, but as Arslic Oan approached, he noticed that the armorer's mouth and eyes were wide open and his arms were folded unnaturally behind his back. On closer inspection, the armorer was obviously dead. What was more, his face and whole body were sunken, like an empty pig's bladder.
Something moved through the walls, like a footfall only... squishy. Arslic Oan expertly and gracefully turned to face it, completely in balance.
At first, it seemed like nothing more than a bubble expanding through one of the cracks in the stone. As more of the flesh-colored gelatinous matter emerged, it more clearly resembled part of a face. A flaccid, almost shapeless face with a low brow and a slack, toothless jaw. The rest of the body oozed out of the crack, a soft bag of muscle and blood. Behind Arslic Oan and to the side, there was more movement, more slaves welling up through the cracks in the stone. They were all around him, reaching out.
"Give us," moaned Ponik, his tongue rolling about his hanging jaw. "Give us back our bones."
Arslic Oan began to rip off his bonemold, throwing it to the floor. A hundred figures, more, pooled into the small chamber.
"That's not enough."
The cannibals had cleared away by the time the king's emissaries arrived at Arslic Oan's gates. They had not been looking forward to this visit. It was best, they though philosophically, to begin with the worst of the king's noblemen, so to end their trip well. They sounded the alarum once again, but the gates did not open. There was no sound from Arslic Oan's stronghold.
It took a few hours to gain access. If the emissaries had not brought a professional acrobat with them for entertainment, it might have taken longer. The place seemed to be abandoned. They searched every room, until finally they came to the armorer's.
There they found the master of the manor, folded neatly, legs behind his head, arms behind the legs, like a fine gown. Not a bone in his body.
"The first part of your story was complete nonsense," cried Xiomara. "But now it doesn't hold true on any level. How could bonemold be made again if the armorer who invented it died before he could tell anyone how he did it?"
"I said that this was the first time it was created, not the first time people learned the craft."
"And when did someone first teach someone else the craft?" asked Garaz.
"That, my friends," replied Hallgerd with a sinister smile. "Is a tale for another night."