“Well done!” said Lydia when they were outside of Dragonsreach, “Not even an hour in Whiterun and you’re already on the Jarl’s payroll.”
“Is that a good thing?” Elspeth was skeptical although pleased to have made some coin. Xeri had seemed unimpressed by Jarl Balgruuf, but then, Xeri was unimpressed by most people.
“Yes. He’s a good Jarl, if overcautious at times.” They walked down the steps toward the Gildergreen. “Are you hungry or do you just want to go home and sleep?”
Elspeth considered this and wondered if it would be presumptuous to ask Lydia if she would feed her while she slept: “I’m exhausted. But I know from experience that if I go to sleep this hungry, I’ll regret it.”
“We’ll go to the Bannered Mare,” said Lydia and gestured toward town. “So, you were there when they were going to execute Ulfric Stormcloak? Was that…exciting?” Lydia’s eyes were wide with curiosity.
In the aftermath of having escaped a dragon as well the Imperial army’s headsman, Elspeth hadn’t really considered the political significance of what she had experienced in Helgen or if anyone would care that she had sat next to Skyrim’s most divisive political figure on the way to his—nay, their—execution. So, she thought about the question and wondered if exciting could possible describe her feelings—most of which, at this point, were not fully formed or understood. Finally, she said, “Well, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as being there for my own execution.”
Lydia nodded along and then stopped suddenly, “Wait! What? Your execution? What are you talking about?”
Elspeth turned and said, “I was there when they captured the Stormcloaks. I was trying to stay out of the way but they arrested me too. They didn’t ask me any questions. They just took us all to the block.”
“Oh my goodness!” Lydia was shocked, “I’m so sorry. Are you—I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m fine now. Really.” She wasn’t exactly fine but the look of distress on Lydia’s face was too much to bear. “I should probably tell you that the soldier who helped me out of Riverwood was a Stormcloak. I wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for him.” Elspeth looked away, unsure of how Lydia would react to this. Runa hadn’t indicated Lydia’s political inclinations in their discussions but the impression she’d gotten from Gerdur was that Whiterun implicitly, if not explicitly, favored the Imperials.
“Of course!” She smiled warmly, “I’m just so glad you’re here—I’m grateful to anyone who helped you.”
Elspeth felt a sudden rush of relief upon hearing this. As they walked along, Lydia indicated various houses in the city, in particular those of the clans Battle Born and Grey Mane, families with long, long histories in Whiterun. They had been close friends for a long time and were now torn apart, having taken different sides in the war. The Battle Borns favored the Imperials and the Grey Manes, the Stormcloaks. As children, Lydia and their daughters, Alfhild Battle Born and Olfina Grey Mane, were inseparable. When the division between the families became bitter, Lydia tried to maintain friendships with both. However, since it had been the Battle Borns who took Lydia in after her mother died, she was closer to them. And so Olfina pulled away. It made her sad, although she used her position in Balgruuf’s court to maintain casual contact with the family—mostly through the family’s matriarch, Fralia.
When they arrived at the Bannered Mare, it was busy but not crowded. Elspeth liked it immediately although she wasn’t particularly in the mood for revelry. Lydia scanned the room and they were waved over by a couple sitting at a corner table—as if they were expected.
“Lydia!” exclaimed the woman who stood up hugged her after they’d made their way over. “I was wondering if you would show up tonight. Who is this?”
“This is Elspeth. This is the woman I’ve been expecting.” Lydia gestured to the couple, “Elspeth, this is Alfhild and Idolaf Battle Born. Let’s sit. Elspeth has been awake for two days. She saw a dragon attack Helgen!”
Alfhild and Idolaf looked excited about this. Idolaf was wearing an Imperial uniform and this made Elspeth uneasy, despite her somewhat pleasant experience with the imperial “healer” on her journey from Riverwood. Alfhild started filling Lydia in on some town gossip, which Elspeth tried to follow—but she was so tired. It was easier simply to look around at the various people and try to avoid making eye contact with Idolaf. They were interrupted by a woman named Saadia who took their food orders: grilled salmon, braised cabbage, and ale for Alfhild, beef stew and mead for Idolaf and Lydia, and for Elspeth, a bowl of tomato soup, roasted leg of goat, a baked potato, grilled leeks, and mead. The others were impressed.
“When did you last eat?” asked Lydia.
“I had some bread and cheese for lunch. Before that, I had breakfast in Riverwood.”
“So Elspeth!” said Alfhild excitedly, “You saw the dragon? We heard rumors of a dragon while working the farm earlier.”
“I did. It destroyed Helgen. It was pretty terrifying.”
Alfhild nodded. She looked as if she wanted Elspeth to tell all but was holding back her enthusiasm.
“Wait,” said Idolaf. He sounded confused about something. “Lydia said that you were coming by way of Morrowind, through the Rift border to avoid all the problems around Pale Pass.”
“Yes…” said Elspeth, unsure of what he was getting at.
“How did you wind up in Helgen?” He sounded genuinely perplexed, not suspicious.
“I took a wrong turn apparently,” explained Elspeth, trying not to sound as defensive as she was starting to feel.
“But that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, if you were to stay on either main road you’d still hit either Riften or, if you went north, Shor’s Stone…before you wound up in Helgen.”
“So?” asked Lydia, also feeling a bit protective on Elspeth’s behalf.
“So, I just don’t understand how one would find herself all the way in Helgen before hitting a major town.”
“What difference does it make?” asked Lydia, hoping he would just stop talking.
“Elspeth doesn’t have to explain to you how she got here,” said Alfhild. She turned to Elspeth, “Don’t mind my husband. He’s incredibly nosy.”
“I’m not being nosy. I just don’t understand how one would get all the way to Helgen just by taking a wrong turn.” He turned to Elspeth, “Did you just pass right by Riften?”
“Idolaf!” said Lydia, now highly agitated. “She got lost. And now she’s here. That’s all that matters.”
“I was arrested,” said Elspeth. She was entirely too exhausted to care. And suddenly, all eyes were on her. She looked toward Lydia who was shaking her head as if to say, ‘You don’t have to do this.’
“What?” asked Idolaf.
“I had just crossed the border and I heard fighting. I hid to avoid a confrontation but some Imperial thu—soldier found me. Then I found myself on the cart on the way to the chopping block with Ulfric Stormcloak and a bunch of his soldiers.” Elspeth looked directly at Idolaf as she finished her story. Telling it made her feel stronger somehow, even though it probably meant that would be branded a criminal from here on out.
Idolaf, however, was speechless. He just stared at her.
Elspeth was not sure what she was expecting him to say, but his silence made her uneasy, so she continued, “They took my name and some other information. Then they called me to the block and just as the headsman was about to take my head off, a dragon landed on the tower behind him. One of the other prisoners helped me up and we ran. We made our way through Helgen’s keep and he directed me to Riverwood.”
Idolaf covered his face with his hands. Both Alfhild and Lydia looked a little pale.
“Elspeth, I am so sorry you went through that,” he said, “and I would not blame you for hating the Imperial Army right now.”
She was surprised to see him acting so remorseful and suddenly felt an inexplicable need to reassure him, “I didn’t come here to get involved in the war. I would like just to forget it. And I’m sure the general has more to worry about than the fate of an unlucky traveler.”
Alfhild looked at Elspeth carefully and said, “I think that’s very generous of you Elspeth.” She scorned at Idolaf, “The lot of you legionnaires are brutes…will you never admit that?”
Idolaf shook his head and said, “War is…”
Alfhild scowled intensely as if to say, ‘Don’t you give me another one of your ‘War Is’ speeches!’
He stopped and sighed, “No, you’re right. There is no excuse for this. Again, I’m sorry. I expect, however, that you will have no more trouble with the General.”
Elspeth offered him a weak smile, “I hope not.”
“I am so sick of this war,” said Alfhild, almost shouting now, “Jon had the right idea—enrolling in the Bard’s college instead of joining the legion. How did the Imperials even set up an ambush in the Rift? That’s Stormcloak territory.”
All eyes were on Idolaf, who was bewildered at this question. Then after a few moments, he raised his eyes and said, “Maven Black Briar.”
“Maven Black Briar?” asked Lydia.
“They must have staked out her lodge.” He took a deep breath. “And she probably had them remove whatever common rabble they found around the perimeter.” He looked at Elspeth, his face full of guilt.
Elspeth was too tired to respond and it was uncomfortably quiet for a few moments until Saadia brought their food. And then Elspeth thought of nothing but eating. The table’s mood quickly relaxed and the others began to discuss the meaning of the dragon attack and chat about people around town. Elspeth could barely hear them over the feeling of not being hungry any more. And the food was delicious. The tomato soup was probably one of the best things she’d ever put in her mouth. And the mead. Oh gods, the mead.
“Elspeth?” Alfhild, who was smiling apprehensively, pulled her from her food-induced haze “My mother will probably want to invite you over soon.” She paused and then, after frowning at her husband, said, “If you can stand the thought of dinner with Imperial supporters.”
Elspeth looked her and over to Lydia, but she was so tired that they appeared to be fading away. “yesofcoursethat wo—” and she slumped forward, falling dead asleep just next to her empty dish.” Lydia tried to rouse her gently, but she didn’t stir.
“Well!” said Idolaf as he gave some coin to Afhild, “Take this and pay Hulda. I’ll help Lydia get Elspeth home.”
“Are you sure?” asked Lydia, “You always pay.”
“Because Lydia, it is always a pleasure to treat you to a nice dinner.” He smiled and lifted Elspeth up out of her seat. “Oh my gods,” he exclaimed, “Even with her armor, she weighs about two pounds.”
Afhild and Lydia said their good-byes and she and Idolaf left and walked back to Breezehome. When they arrived, he brought her up to her room and left while Lydia dressed her in a nightshirt and tucked her in.
Back downstairs Idolaf was sitting at the table, “She is not what I was expecting.”
Lydia rolled her eyes, “Exactly what were you expecting?”
“I don’t know, someone more warrior-like. You said she started training as a little girl.”
“She did. Remember she’s going on several days without much food or sleep.”
“Yeah, maybe she’ll seem a little more spry tomorrow.” Idolaf paused for a moment and said, “Then again, she survived Helgen.”
“Yes.” Lydia wanted him to leave, but as he had been a semi-permanent fixture in her life and home since she was a child she had no idea how to make that happen.
There was a long pause. There had never been anything remotely resembling discomfort between Lydia and Idolaf before. Now there was tension. Finally, Idolaf broke the silence, “I feel terrible about this.”
Lydia was preparing a kettle, “Whatever for?” Her tone was sarcastic, but she was sincerely curious. Idolaf didn’t really do guilt.
He took a deep breath, “I’m sure I don’t need to reassure you that the arrest was a mistake.”
“No.” Lydia turned and asked sternly, “Do you need to reassure yourself?” She looked at him intently.
He sighed. “No. Collateral damage happens. It’s just—”
“It’s just what? Is it just unfortunate when you have to look collateral damage in the face and apologize? And buy her dinner?” Lydia was furious. And then, frustrated. She sat at the table and put her head down. “This is exactly what I am supposed to prevent.” For the first time in a long time Lydia was feeling insecure, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“There isn’t anything you could have done.” He paused and continued, “And I’m not sure what you are worried about. If there is anyone in Skryim who can help with her quest, it’s you.” Idolaf was confused. This was not the self-assured housecarl he knew. Why was she so anxious?
Lydia saw the look of bewilderment on his face and realized that she needed to get herself together. The weight of her responsibilities was bearing down on her hard and these moments of doubt could ruin everything if she wasn’t careful. Unbeknownst to everyone in Skyrim, the daughter of one of Cyrodill’s most controversial champions was upstairs sleeping and it was her job to help her. And she would do it, and do it with confidence—whether she felt it or not. “You’re right!” said Lydia, suddenly enthusiastic, “I’m sorry. I was worried when she was late and angry about the arrest. Now, I’m going to bed.”
Idolaf was taken aback by Lydia’s sudden change in mood but as she seemed to be feeling better, thought it better not to press on. After he left, Lydia anticipated that her anxiety would return but she actually felt a little better—as if keeping him and his Imperial politics away would give her some clarity. She went upstairs and looked toward the dark room where Elspeth was sleeping and smiled. All right. She was here. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would figure out how to keep Skyrim’s distractions away.