I travel often to Coldharbour, for that’s where the Hollow City lies, Meridia’s city, a heart in the midst of a heartless realm. It might seem strange that I would choose to return to the place where I sat beside the Last Ayleid King, until he breathed no more, where I saw Darien fade into golden light, where friends lost limb and life to clanfear, daedra, and dremora.
But I am more like Cadwell than I admit: At times, Coldharbour feels like home. For when we discover our soul, having lost it–or believing we had–when we follow our path to safety, to the restoration of heart and home, when we walk dark roads with those we trust, we find, in the quiet moments, that we long for the place where we knitted our trust with ally and friend. And then, a place like that–a battlefield where the fight was won, despite the cost–becomes a type of home.
And the Hollow City, even more. For there, I have friends who light up when they see me, and for a wandering soul like mine, that is a treasure worthy of traveling to Oblivion and beyond.
My friends fill the Shining Star Inn: Minstrel Idria, who plays for me the stolen lute I returned, found deep in a cave; Bernt, Nehilda, and the patrons of the Everfull Flagon, who never fail to thank me for the release I helped them choose; Hayya, the innkeeper, who always saves a loaf of bread for me, thick, warm, and smelling of sourdough.
Everyone in the Hollow City has lost–someone, something. We have all lost. For a while, maybe that is why I returned, to be among those who have lost their home, lost the ones they loved the most.
A flautist often played at the edge of the terrace, overlooking the cherry trees and the busy walkway below, her melody falling like faded blossoms over the streets and alleys. I paused, often, to listen.
Her song carried me back to Tamriel, to the frozen meadows of The Rift, where she gamboled often as a child in the snow, finding forts in giants’ footprints. With the swirl of a minor arpeggio, the child is caught, pulled into a planemeld portal. She spins through Oblivion–with her twisting scales, the portal pulls, wrenching muscle, fascia, tendon. We have all felt this, everyone of us who has found ourselves here by fate or choice.
We have all lost. If I had stayed at home that day, her flute plays. I lost my brother. My sister. We have all lost.
She played, and I remembered the evening, the last time I saw Twig’s eyes, bright with hunger. “I will get us bread. Stay, sleep.” I tuck the hay around her. “We are safe. Sleep.” If I had stayed. If I had waited until morning to steal or beg a loaf. A hungry night is not the end. But this was–her being stolen from me, the empty loft when I returned. “Take care of your sister,” my father said. “Always,” I answered, not knowing this would be my first lie.
The flautist played, and I heard the doubts of millions. If I had stayed. If I had gone. If only we hadn’t traveled to Redfur. The war, the bandits, the slavers, the daedra, the planemeld portals–all that rips from us those we love. We have all lost, and nothing we can do can change this. Nothing can erase that choice.
The flautist played. She pummels through the planemeld portal while fire burns her cabin, her brother and sister, caught in their beds, the beams collapsing, the snow stained black with ash.
The flautist stopped, her breath catching on a sob.
“I should have stayed,” she said.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have stayed.”
“To burn with them?”
“To prevent the fire. I’m to blame. The Daggerfalls wouldn’t have come, if I had stayed. I went to play, I was gone. I should have stayed. My life should have ended, with theirs.”
“Your song isn’t done,” I said. “Don’t stop here. It wasn’t your fault.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. I nodded.
In the Hollow City, the light of Jone and Jode sometimes pierces Oblivion’s black skies. The parapet shone silver.
She played hesitantly; her notes wavered. Her tears shone silver on her cheeks.
“It isn’t over,” I whispered, and she played on.
Minor turned to major, a fifth, a fourth, a third–a song. The night filled with color–purple, gold, blue, red.
“It isn’t done,” I said.
She played on.
Meridia’s touch traveled through the tones. We are so small–what can we do? Each a pebble, in a mosaic fixed by larger hands, the pattern oblivious to us, seen only by greater eyes.
A face gazed at mine, through the shifting colors–dark eyes, skin like moonlight. It was a face I would come to know well, but at the time, I only felt the pattern pull around and within.
The flautist played on, and in the swirling tune, two paths joined and sought the third.
“Don’t blame yourself,” said the flautist, lowering her instrument, her eyes clear. “Sometimes, what’s been lost can be found.”
“For you, too?” I asked.
“For me, too. It’s time for me to return home.”
Few leave, of those who’ve settled in Meridia’s city. The bonds of separation hold them there, together, refugees in the one golden center of the dark in-between. But the flautist left. I met her years later–or was it months, or decades, or weeks? Chronology eludes me. I met her later, in the frozen meadows of The Rift, where, in the footsteps of giants, I was also to meet the bearer of that face with the moonlight skin and the dark eyes, the one who would alter the lonely path I tread.