I have traveled from Elden Root to a small hut just outside Bergama, Alik’r in search of an old woman who, I am told, acts as a guide for those “With a need to fight in dark places”. This is the story of what happened when I found her.
“The Old Ways? By sand and by salt, don’t talk to me about ‘The Old Ways’. Men and swords and honour and war, war, war.”
The old Redguard woman spits on the dirt floor in disgust. Behind her, sitting on a shelf fixed to the wall of the old wood-and-dirt house, a monkey chitters and scratches its backside. I am amused to see that the woman’s voluminous trousers and the monkey’s little waistcoat are sewn from the same pink cloth: I hadn’t expected whimsy.
“Let me tell you what the old ways left us with. Compromise and death. Ra Gada? Yokuda? All gone. Gone like a cool breeze over hot sands. And who remains? Women. We sit and we watch. We squeeze out babies and teach them about honour and the old ways. And then? They listen to our stories, don’t they Steve? They listen and dream about The Old Ways and then, faster than an Emperor’s betrayal, they’re off becoming Yokuda and Ra Gada.
“But they listened too well, didn’t they, Steve? Off they march, our little sword masters to find their destinies. And just like Ra Gada and Yokuda, they end up beneath the sands, forgotten by all except their mothers.”
She spits on the floor again. The monkey behind her jumps in delight and mimics the sound. The old woman frowns and seems poised to spare a harsh word for the creature but, instead, takes a piece of dried fruit from the bowl on the stool between us and tosses it to “Steve”. The monkey catches it and settles to nibble on the treat.
“Dead, dead, dead. All dead. Two husbands and five sons, all given to the sands. The sand is always hungry. It’s always waiting for more, and oh how we’re happy to feed it! The Old Ways are always hungry for new blood.”
She trails off, her eyes fixed upon some moment in the past. Her face darkens; her expression falls. The monkey jumps onto her shoulder and places a golden crown upon her head. She smiles sadly and suddenly pins me with her bright, sharp eyes
“I save them. I try. Nothing means nothing, by salt and by sand. As if you need a c**k to wield a sword! Oh, Highrock! You never taught your women that trick, did you? Up there, the men die and the women wilt helplessly! Flowers in the sun!
Not us! I took up a sword with my brothers, slept in my father’s shield until I could lift it. Then every day after I fought with it. Breed and die? Breed and fight, by Morwha! I show you! Come, follow, come!”
She rises from her armchair and a little shower of cushions tumbles to the floor. She is unconcerned by them. Her movements are economical and quick, her frame narrow and light. I am surprised by the litheness of her motion; she must be 70 summers old. She reminds me of a bird. I follow her to a door hidden by a tattered curtain which she pulls to one side before motioning me through.
The monkey remains upon her shoulder.
“Some call it spoils. Nothing spoiled here, is there, Steve? All nice! All shiny! All piled up thirty years too late. Can save no-one now but the sand can’t have this! It’s mine! It’s Baba’s! My sons should have had sons by now; this all should have been for them. Old Ways! Here’s my legacy and it’s all gone already. Sod you, Tu’Wacca! Sod, sod, sod you! You’ll take no more from me - no more!”
While the old woman cackles and dances obscenely while invoking the God of Souls, I glance around the room she has lead me to. I blink in shock, trying to process what I am seeing, for it is piled high with all kinds of armour and weapons.
Full sets of glittering plate and gorgeously embellished leathers are staged on mannequins, yet piled around them on the floor are innumerable more items. Weapons are displayed haphazardly on walls, stacked on tables, or just piled against the walls on the floor. I do a quick estimation: there must be enough gear in here to fully equip sixty fighters at least.
“It’s mine. I earned it. I saved them. They gave me my name and I save them. No more mothers giving bodies to the sand. Bugger the Old Ways. Sod Tu’Wacca. This is mine… look…”
In the nearest corner to the door there is a simple chest which she kneels to open. Within is a far-less shiny, obviously well-used set of armour. She draws each piece out reverently, smoothing her hand over each as if greeting a lover. At the bottom of the chest is an ancient - yet beautiful - shield. She takes it out and straps it to her arm before turning to me and bracing as if expecting a heavy blow. Her voice, when she speaks, is barely a whisper. Her dark, sharp eyes glisten with the sudden sting of tears.
“I can’t save them. Mine are lost. All my men. All gone to the sand. Yokuda? Ra Gada? *** the old ways; none of that matters to them now. I am too late, too late, Bubu! By my father’s shield, I’ll save the others! I’ll take them in and bring them out again.
She raises both her voice and her shield and cries out:
“Siona al’Hegathe! Let it be forgotten in the sand like all the others, but they’ll none of them forget Baba Aegis and the sand won’t take me yet!”
And then she is spent. Suddenly she looks her years, defeated by grief and age, hunched over a shield she is too weak to lift. She replaces the shield in the chest and spits on the ground again.
Siona al’Hegathe ha ha! Sod you, Tu’Wacca. I’m hungry. C’mon, Steve. Let’s see what the cart brought us from Sentinel! What treats there might be, let’s see, let’s see!”
I leave her alone; I don’t even thank her for her time. I sense she has redrawn the veil between her and her past and I am on the wrong side of it. I glance back as I leave the humble two-room house. The monkey has donned a little golden crown and is dancing comically on the table while Baba Aegis - Siona - prepares a plate of fruit and cured meat.
I came to meet the Old Lady Tank of Alik’r; to understand what drives her to take up arms and defend strangers against the darkness: I close the door behind me and walk out into the sun setting over the sands.