*With sincerest apologies to Steve Earle.
They stayed in bed for most of the day. Elspeth couldn’t even be bothered to get up to eat she was so sore. And when Lydia went in to wake her, she did so because she was excited to show off the massive bruise that covered her upper left thigh. When they finally got up, they made tea and ate cheese and bread and spent most of the afternoon chatting, lying on Elspeth’s bed because it was far more comfortable than the downstairs benches and chairs. As a result, they did little to prepare for the trip north and decided to postpone it for a day or so.
“We don’t have to go to House Battle Born tonight if you don’t want to.” said Lydia suddenly.
“Why wouldn’t I want to go?” asked Elspeth, a little confused by this. She’d been looking forward to meeting the rest of the Battle Born clan. She’d also heard that dinners and parties at their house were entertaining and felt that it would be an appropriate way to bid farewell to Whiterun.
“There is a lot of talk of politics…” explained Lydia.
“So?” she replied, “People talk politics everywhere in Whiterun.”
“And, sometimes your mother comes up in conversation.”
“My mother?” This was very surprising. Anyone who had followed the events of the Great War and the signing of the White-Gold Concordat knew of Evangeline Sigeweald. In recent years, however, whatever notoriety Evangeline garnered had become associated with elves and mages.
“I’m used to people not liking my mother, I went to Arcane University,” Elspeth explained. “Although a lot people liked her there. They just couldn’t talk about it. I suppose anyone concerned about the Thalmor would have an opinion, but I assumed that Nords would have other, more pressing concerns. Do the Battle Borns not like her?
“Jon really likes her. He said The Thalmor Mistake was the greatest thing he’s ever read. Although, sometimes I think he’s just being contrarian to upset his father.”
Elspeth had met Jon Battle Born several times now and was pleased to hear that he had strong opinions, and was thus capable of more than hanging around the market looking sullen. “That book is hard to come by. What does rest of the family think?”
“Well, the general consensus is that she was treated unfairly and for that there is sympathy but….”
“But what?” Elspeth was dying of curiosity. Apart from Xeri and Runa, she had no opportunity to discuss her mother with someone who actually knew it was her mother they were discussing. Normally she had to leave conversations with a restrained shake of the head or a simple, agreeable nod, to avoid causing suspicion by becoming excessively enthusiastic or defensive.
“Well,” Lydia paused, “Olfrid feels that she just made things worse for herself, particularly after Hammerfell. And that her actions there are rightly considered a betrayal, if not outright treason.”
“That’s all,” Lydia found Ofrid’s mentality shameful, particularly in light of the Sigewealds’ service to the Empire. She could not understand why he wouldn’t admit to Titus Mede II’s ongoing abuse of authority and kowtowing to the Thalmor just to secure his seat as Emperor. Everything with him was all or nothing. Even Idolaf admitted that his own support for the Empire was motivated more by practical concerns for Skyrim’s future than devotion to Mede.
Much to Lydia’s surprise, however, Elspeth started laughing. “Oh Lydia!” she said, “I have heard so much worse said of my mother. Insurrectionist. Traitor. Not to mention some choice comments involving the consumption of feces.”
Lydia breathed a sigh of relief. Xeri had mentioned that she and Runa attempted to instill values that were not formed in reaction to Mede’s and the Thalmor’s treatment of the Sigewealds. Elspeth knew her family’s history, but Lydia was not sure the degree to which Xeri and Runa were able to protect her from unpleasant political opinions.
Elspeth responded as if she could read Lydia’s thoughts, “Xeri had this idea that she could remove me from the world and create a sort of paragon, so that when my time came I would meet my challenges untainted—by what, I have no idea. She tried; she really did. But she couldn’t shelter me from everything.” Then she looked intently at Lydia, “And neither can you.”
Lydia looked down at her lap; she was unsure of how to respond. She couldn’t tell if Elspeth meant to be hurtful, if she was questioning her ability or merely stating facts. She shook her head and was quiet.
Elspeth sensed that Lydia did not take her comment in the spirit it was intended—which not to insult her, but merely to remind her that such attempts at protection were futile—and so she continued, “Look, if you can just keep me from offending every Jarl and his steward between here and Winterhold, you’ll have done your duty.”
Lydia looked up and laughed, “I rather like the idea of you offending every Jarl and his steward between here and Winterhold. And if we ever make our way south, we’ll stop in Falkreath just for the pleasure of offending the Jarl.” Lydia sighed, “Okay then, we should get ready.”
Lydia and Elspeth were the last to arrive at House Battle Born that evening. Two young children, Lars Battle Born and Mila Valentia, enthusiastically greeted them as they walked through the door.
“Lydie!” They ran over and hugged Lydia around the knees.
“Is this your friend?” asked Lars.
“Lars thinks she’s pretty,” teased Mila.
Lars blushed, “I do not!” He scampered off.
“Hi Elspeth,” said Mila.
“Hello Mila,” Elspeth smiled and looked around. She recognized almost everyone. Carlotta, Alfhid and Idolaf, Jon was in the corner looking sullen. There were a couple of men that she hadn’t met. An older woman approached them. It was Bergritte, the matriarch of the Battle Born clan.
“Good evening Lydia! How are you?” She hugged Lydia and kissed her cheek, “And you must be Elspeth.”
Elspeth smiled, “I am. Thank you for inviting me to your home.”
“Well, thank you for coming. I heard that you’ll be leaving soon, but I hope you’ll come back when you’re in Whiterun again. Lydia, let me show her around and introduce her to Olfrid.” She strung her thin arm through Elspeth’s. Her manner was enthusiastic, yet warm. She was so friendly that Elspeth thought she might cry. She brought her over to a large, extremely well dressed man who was talking to the other man Elspeth did not recognize.
“Olfrid, this is Elspeth. Runa’s ward—the one who has been staying with Lydia.”
He held out his hand, “Welcome to House Battle Born. Any friend of Lydia’s is a friend of ours, provided you support the Empire.” He laughed heartily as they shook hands and Elspeth guessed that he was probably serious, despite his good humor. “Although,” he said with a slight look of irritation, “I suppose you are going to take the side of Whiterun, much like Lydia.”
“Oh, is that allowed?” asked Elspeth. Olfrid laughed, but it wasn’t exactly a friendly laugh.
“Sooner or later, everyone has to pick a side.” It was Idolaf, who was approaching them from behind.
“And this,” Bergritte said, gesturing to the other man, “is Hrongar.” She squeezed her arm and said, “I’m going to check on dinner.”
Hrongar put out his hand, “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, “You made quite an impression on my brother.”
“Your brother?” asked Elspeth.
Hrongar laughed, “Balgruuf the Greater.”
“Oh!” said Elspeth, who was suddenly a little embarrassed, “I didn’t know he had a brother.” Then she paused and asked, “What sort of impression? That I’m short and somewhat irreverent?”
“Yes,” he laughed. “How did you know?”
“That’s generally the impression I leave. I’m sorry, I haven’t seen you around so….”
“No worries,” he said, “Most people forget that the Jarl has a brother. Anyway, I just got back this morning. I was in Morrowind all month. Otherwise, I would have been happy to help you and Lydia yesterday. I heard you had a little trouble with a giant.” He winked, while Idolaf laughed.
“Hardly!” Lydia joined them. “Elspeth and I kicked that giant’s bottom all the way to Oblivion. And we didn’t need any help.”
“Did you use magic?” asked Hrongar.
“Here we go,” said Lydia.
Elspeth laughed, “Of course I did, why?”
“Don’t you think that’s cheating?” Idolaf chimed in.
Elspeth couldn’t tell if he actually thought it was cheating or if he was just giving her a hard time. She had been warned that Nords didn’t care for magic and were suspicious of mages. But she was perplexed. The Nords towered over her—how could she be expected not to use magic to an advantage? Without it, Bretons wouldn’t have much of a warrior culture. Or maybe that was the point.
“Idolaf, I’ve got a dead giant behind me and a fat bounty in my purse. I don’t care if it’s cheating. Dead is dead. Besides,” she said, pausing, “magic is far superior to steel.”
Lydia smiled, while Hrongar and Idolaf looked appalled.
“Oh, you think so?” said Idolaf.
“Attack me.” Elspeth said to him.
“What? Elspeth, I don’t think—” he protested. The others stopped their conversations; the children stopped playing. Everyone was staring at them.
“You don’t have to hurt me. Just attack me as if we were going to fight to the death. And then stop instead of stabbing me.”
“All right,” Idolaf sounded annoyed. He stepped forward and as soon as he put his hand on his sword’s hilt, Elspeth tossed a very weak lightening spell that hit him in the wrist. He pulled his hand away and gave her a hard look.
“The warrior always has to reach for his weapon,” explained Elspeth, “I’ve already got mine.”
Idoalf laughed and said, “Touché.”
“That was beautiful Elspeth,” said Jon from the other side of the room as he tipped his tankard in her direction. The rest of the group also laughed and Lars looked at Elspeth with wide-eyed admiration.
Bergritte called the group over to the table and they settled in for dinner. After the food was served and tankards refilled, Olfrid stood up to welcome their guests. He motioned to Lydia and Elspeth, wishing them safe travels. Afterward they ate and chatted. Hrongar shared stories of his adventures in Morrowind, some of which were clearly embellished for the sake of Mila and Lars. When he was finished, Jon looked over and asked, “So, are you going to tell us about the dragon?”
“Yes!” said Bergritte, “I was so hoping you would. Olfrid’s been telling dragon stories since the children were babies.”
“Indeed!” said Olfrid, “Also, what were you doing in Helgen?”
Elspeth couldn’t believe she had to go through this again. She looked over at Lydia, who glared at Idolaf and Alfhild. They shrugged their shoulders apologetically. It was clear that they hadn’t shared the circumstances of Elspeth’s arrival with the rest of the family.
“Well…” Elspeth began.
“You know!” said Alfhild interrupting, “I think it’s time for small children to go to bed.”
Carlotta agreed, “It’s our turn, right? I’ll take them back to our house.”
“BUT I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE DRAGON,” protested Lars.
“ME TOO!!!” said Mila.
There was some confusion and discomfort on the part of Bergritte and Olfrid as to why the children had to be sent away. They weren’t hiding the fact of the dragon attack from them. What they didn’t yet know, however, was that Idolaf and Alfhild were not enthusiastic about sharing stories of Imperial brutality.
Elspeth had an idea. She got up and stepped to the side of the table, motioning for Lars and Mila to join her. She knelt down with them and said, “Why don’t you two meet me by the Gildergreen tomorrow after breakfast. I will tell you all about the dragon. I’ll even tell you some things I am not telling the grownups.”
The children looked at each other and smiled, “Okay!” They said goodnight to and went off with Carlotta.
When Elspeth sat down again, Idolf asked, “How did you do that?”
She took a sip of her mead, “I promised them a special story.”
“All right then,” said Olfrid, “What were you doing in Helgen? Lydia was planning to head down to the Rift when—”
“You know,” interjected Idolaf, I don’t think that matters.”
“Did you see the dragon swoop down from the sky?” asked Bergritte. She had a dreamy look in her eyes as if she found the idea of dragons somewhat exciting, maybe even romantic. This puzzled Elspeth.
“Well of course it matters!” said Olfrid harshly. “One does not simply step out of Morrowind and into Helgen. Elspeth, did you just walk past Riften?”
“Father!” said Alfhild, “Mother wants to hear about the dragon, not the wrong turns of Elspeth’s travels.” She and Idolaf were trying to help. It was a gallant effort, but Elspeth’s patience was spent.
She looked at Olfrid and Bergritte, took a deep breath, crossed her arms, and said, “I was in Helgen because I was arrested and brought there with the Stormcloaks. I saw the dragon land on the tower just as I was about to have my head chopped off by an Imperial headsman.” She paused and continued, “Basically, the dragon interrupted my execution.” She took a sip of her mead, “In a way, I am lucky he showed up when he did.”
For a moment the table was silent. Hrongar, Bergritte, and Jon were stunned and silent but Olfrid was angry, “Do you intend to tell us why you were scheduled to be executed?”
Idolaf, “Olfrid, I have talked to Elspeth—“
“Elspeth,” Olfrid was stern and repeated, “Do you intend to tell us why you were scheduled to be executed?”
Elspeth’s lip trembled, “After crossing the boarder into Skyrim, I ran into an Imperial ambush. Ulfric Stormcloak was there. I hid but one of the captains found me. They didn’t ask me any questions. They just brought us all to the end of the line.” She had tears brimming in her eyes. Lydia took her hand and squeezed it.
“You were with Ulfric Stormcloak!” said Jon. “What is he like?”
Idolaf shook his head at Jon, “I think the only thing that Elspeth was guilty of was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Right?” He looked at her and smiled sympathetically. Elspeth nodded and Lydia put her arm around her.
Olfrid looked sheepish for a moment, “Well, if what you say is true, I hope you will forgive my quickness to judgment and anger. And I hope your experience with the Imperial Army has not soured your support for the Empire.”
Elspeth was still upset. She shook her head and looked at her lap.
“However did you get away?” asked a now astonished Bergritte.
Elspeth smiled at the thought of Ralof, “The Imperials left me at the block. Another prisoner helped me. He cut my bindings and we ran though the keep together.” Elsepth looked right at Olfrid, who was, again, looking at her suspiciously. By now Elspeth didn’t care; she didn’t need or want anything from him. The rest of the table seemed to have nothing but sympathy. Despite their compassion, however, it was uncomfortably quiet for a bit. “Look,” Elspeth said finally, “If you are going to make me talk about Helgen, I am going to require more mead.”
“Yes!” said Jon. “And some music.” He left the table in search of his lute.
Bregritte stood up and turned to her husband, “Olfrid, why don’t we go to bed and let them enjoy themselves.” She moved behind Elspeth and hugged her shoulders, “Don’t you mind my husband. We are so glad to have you here. Good night everyone.”
When Bergritte and Olfrid left, the room was noticeably more relaxed. Tankards were refilled and Jon started playing his lute. Idolaf sat down next to Elspeth and dropped two dice in front of her, “Roll.”
The game was rather simple. The number on the dice determined who drank and how much. The purpose of the game was obvious, but another advantage was that it didn’t require much in terms of attentiveness. They told jokes and filled Elspeth in on stories from their childhood. How Alfhild and Idolaf became a couple, and of the time that Lydia made Nightshade Chicken. “I didn’t think I was ever going to stop vomiting,” said Alfhild. There was much laughter and revelry and whatever discomfort Oflrid had inspired in Elspeth was gone. She had found her people and was sad to be leaving so soon.
“So,” said Hrongar after some time, “Elspeth! Are you betrothed?”
“Am I what?” She was thrown off guard, “um…no.”
“We’ll find you someone,” said Alfhild. “Then you can live in Whiterun forever.”
“Do we even have any Bretons in Whiterun?” asked Idolaf.
“Belethor,” responded Jon.
“No!” said Lydia, “That will never happen. I don’t care how many discounts he gives her.”
“Meh,” said Idolaf, “It’s only because she makes him feel tall.”
“Elspeth needs to fall in love with a Nord,” said Lydia. She looked over at Elspeth, “Can you imagine how happy that will make Runa?”
“Yes,” said Elspeth. She was starting to feel embarrassed.
“She can marry Jon,” said Idolaf. This made Jon extremely uncomfortable. He looked as if wanted to protest, but didn’t want to appear insulting either.
Thankfully Lydia shook her head and said, “No. Jon’s not her type. She needs a mage.”
“Ha!” said Idolaf, “A Nord mage. Good luck with that.”
“Well,” said Hrongar, “It looks like you’ll be marrying Farengar. Gods help you.” They all laughed at this and Jon passed the lute over to Hrongar, insisting that he sing something. Hrongar was more than happy to oblige and as they continued to toss the dice and drink, he sang.
Well, I took a stroll on the old long walk
Of a day -I-ay-I-ay
I met a little girl and we stopped to talk
Of a fine soft day -I-ay-I-ay
And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue
And I knew right then I’d be takin’ a whirl
‘Round the Chillfurrow Farm with a Whiterun girl**
“Wait a minute,” said Elspeth when he paused, “that’s not how that song goes!”
“Shhhhhhhhhh,” he said, putting his finger to his lips. “Why aren’t you drunk yet?”
“Yeah,” said Alfhild, “Your nose should have turned red hours ago.” She was starting to slur her words. All eyes were on Elspeth. As a Breton, she should have passed out several bottles ago. But she was wide-awake—and probably the most sober of the bunch. Idolaf accused her of drinking water.
“Maybe it’s a spell,” said Jon, “Can I learn that spell?”
Elspeth sighed and explained, “I don’t really get drunk…I was trained to build up a tolerance.” Her voice trailed off toward the end, realizing how completely ludicrous it sounded when she said it aloud. She looked up, away from the group.
Lydia choked on the sip she was taking and slammed her tankard on the table, “Do you mean to tell me that Xeri trained you to drink?”
Elspeth nodded, “Yes. A little ale every day starting when I was 13.”
“Is there anything fun that elf hasn’t completely ruined for you?” She was simultaneously amused and appalled.
“If there is, I have yet to discover it.”
The group went from looking at her in disbelief to bursting out in uproarious laughter. Hrongar had tears in his eyes, he was laughing so hard. But where Elspeth might have been embarrassed, she found herself laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. When they settled down, Hrongar finished his song, all the time giving Elspeth a sideways look that warned against correcting the lyrics.
We were halfway there when the rain came down
Of a day -I-ay-I-ay
And she asked me up to her house in town
Of a fine soft day -I-ay-I-ay
And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue
So I took her hand and I gave her a twirl
And I lost my heart to a Whiterun girl
When I woke up I was all alone
With a broken heart and a ticket home
And I ask you now, tell me what would you do
If her hair was black and her eyes were blue
I’ve traveled around I’ve been all over this world
Boys I ain’t never seen nothin’ like a Whiterun girl
**Just massive apologies all around. For real.