Elspeth was still humming the last song that Jon sang as she and Lydia walked home. She was tired, stuffed full of food and mead, and content. She hadn’t laughed that hard or that much in a long time and she wondered if someday, when all this questing was over, when her so-called time was done, if she could make Whiterun her home.
At Breezehome Lydia smiled wanly and said, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to walk around and get some air.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” said Elspeth, “but is everything okay?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “But those parties always make me dizzy. I need to unwind a little.”
Elspeth wasn’t entirely convinced but she didn’t want to pry. She was exhausted and eager for her bed; it was one of those nights she knew she would be asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Elspeth wasn’t sure what woke her up, but it was the grunt and cough from the hallway that got her out of bed. She tiptoed out of her room and down the hallway. On the steps she saw the outline of a figure that was entirely too wide to be Lydia. Someone had broken into Breezehome. She turned quietly and grabbed the decorative bowl on the dresser and then, sneaking closer to the intruder, she raised her arms and brought the bowl down, smashing it on his head. There was a huge crash as he tumbled down the stairs.
Elspeth heard a loud gasp as Lydia staggered out of her room wearing only a bearskin and holding a lantern
“Lydia!” Elspeth shrieked, “Someone broke in. I’ll go get a guard! You make sure he doesn’t get away!”
“Hold on!” said Lydia. She rushed down the stairs and held the lamp over the man that Elspeth had sent tumbling. It was Hrongar.
Elspeth looked at Lydia and down at Hrongar and then back up at Lydia again and said, “Well!” Then she shook her head and joined Lydia at the bottom of the stairs. She found another lantern and wandered into the alchemy lab where she called out, “Check him. Does he need elixir?”
Hrongar was starting to moan and move around. Lydia knelt by him and observed him for a moment. “I think a cool, wet cloth will do,” she replied. “Maybe some blisterwort for the pain.” Elspeth procured the supplies while Lydia helped to ease him to a sitting position.
“Gods damn,” he cried, “What happ—who hit me?”
“I am so sorry, Hrongar” said Elspeth as she sat next to him. She put the cloth to the back of his head and handed him some blisterwort and a cup of water.
“She thought you were trespassing. I told you not to wake her up,” said Lydia, shaking her head. She sounded annoyed, although her eyes betrayed her concern for him.
Hrongar glared at her. “I’m sorry I frightened you,” he said, although his eyes were still on Lydia.
“And I’m sorry I knocked you out.” When Elspeth saw that they were ignoring her in favor of frowning at each other she took a cue to leave. “I’m going back to bed,” she said as she started back up the stairs.
“Wait Elspeth,” Lydia said, her voice cracking, “I’m sorry.” She sounded distressed.
Elspeth was naïve about a lot of things. However, she knew better than to concern herself with the intimate lives of others—even those of friends. At Arcane, that sort of thing only led to trouble. Also, she’d learned the hard way that there was only one kind of secret liaison she should take personally and this wasn’t it. She smiled and shook her head, “Please don’t be sorry. Just make sure he’s okay and we’ll talk in the morning.” Elspeth sauntered back up the stairs into her room and giggled when she got into bed. She knew better than to meddle, but really hoped Lydia would regale her with stories at breakfast.
Lydia was still sleeping when Elspeth woke up and so she put the kettle on and started rummaging through the pantry for some food. They were low on supplies and so she munched on an apple and wrote in her journal while she waited for the kettle to boil. She looked up when she heard Lydia come down the stairs. Elspeth got up and poured two cups of tea. Lydia smiled when she took the cup but when she sat down, she immediately started to apologize again.
Elspeth cut her short, “It’s fine. I’m serious.”
“So you don’t care?” Lydia looked relieved.
Elspeth shook her head, “I didn’t say I didn’t care. I said you don’t have to apologize. You can tell me all about it later.”
Lydia looked at her and laughed; she started to say something but was interrupted by a loud knock at the door. Elspeth went over and answered. It was Hrongar and she greeted him loudly and cheerfully, “HELLO! Did you forget something?”
“Aren’t you funny!” he said, “My brother is requesting your presence at Dragonsreach within the hour.” He paused and looked past Elspeth at Lydia who was looking away, toward the back of the house. “I’m heading to Rorikstead,” he said, directing his gaze back to Elspeth. “Have a safe trip if I don’t see you.” It sounded almost forced and he turned away quickly, without checking to see if Lydia heard him. Back at the table Lydia had her face buried in her arms. “I’ll tell you everything on the way out of town, I promise.”
Elspeth smiled, “No worries. Are you ready to leave here? Balgruuf needs us for something.”
Balgruuf greeted them warmly when they arrived in the throne room, “It’s so good to see two you again. I understand you are leaving Whiterun soon, but I have a task for you, suitable for your particular talents, Elspeth. That is, if you can make the time.”
“Of course Jarl Balgruuf. What can we do for you?” said Elspeth even though she had no idea about which talents he was speaking. Lydia nodded in agreement.
“Come, let’s go find Farengar, my court wizard. He’s been working on a matter related to these dragons and…rumors of dragons.”
Balgruuf escorted them over to the wizard’s quarters where Farengar was studying some documents and muttering. “Farengar,” said Balgruuf, “I think Elspeth and Lydia will be able to help you with your dragon project.”
“Oh yes, Elspeth,” replied Farengar, “She is capable. And no brute mercenary either. A thinker. A bit of a scholar that one. She hasn’t left for the College yet?”
“Apparently not,” said Balgruuf wondering if Farengar even noticed the women standing there, “Go ahead and fill them in all the details.” As he turned to leave he winked at them and shook his head as if to say, ‘Good luck with him.’
“What do you need us to do Farengar,” asked Lydia, sounding somewhat impatient.
Farengar ignored Lydia and directed himself toward Elspeth, “So the Jarl thinks you can be of some use to me. Oh yes, he must be referring to my research into the dragons.” Farengar had a strong lisp and a manner of speaking that was both awkward and pretentious. Elspeth could tell he wasn’t trying to be arrogant; he just didn’t really know how to converse in any other fashion. It was just like so many mages that she once knew. He continued, “Yes, I could use someone to fetch something for me.” He paused and narrowed his eyes, “Well, when I say fetch, I mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be there.”
Much to Lydia’s dismay, Elspeth went on to ask Farengar about the dragon project. Finally, after at least a half an hour of lecturing, he indicated that the ancient stone tablet, the dragonstone, which was said to depict a map of ancient dragon burial sites, was believed to be in Bleak Falls Barrow.
As they left Dragonsreach, Lydia shook her head at Elspeth and said, “I guess if he’s going to be your husband, you’re going to have to converse with him.”
Lydia giggled at the look of pretend horror that Elspeth was demonstrating and continued, “He’s going to fill your belly with magic Nord babies and—”
As they passed by the Gildergreen, Lydia’s teasing was interrupted by the squeals of Lars and Mila who were waiting for their dragon story. Lydia went ahead to prepare for the trip to Riverwood while Elspeth scrambled to come up with something to tell the children that she hadn’t told the grown ups. She decided to tell them about the brave little boy named Haming who helped get survivors to the keep. Because he was little, he was able to fit into small spaces and open passages that were blocked from one side because of the damage. Elspeth felt a twinge of guilt and sadness as she realized that she didn’t know if Haming made it out of Helgen at all. The children, however, listened to her with rapt attention and Lars looked terribly disappointed when she said that she had to go.
At Breezehome, Lydia had filled their bags with supplies and after Elspeth found Gerdur’s armor, they headed out to Riverwood. They were both quiet as they walked along the stream and past the meadery. Elspeth walked with purpose, her face forward and serious while Lydia looked around nervously, waiting for a barrage of questions. But the questions never came. Finally, Lydia looked at her and said, “You really aren’t going to pry, are you?”
“Nope.” Elspeth smiled.
“You aren’t even a little bit curious?” Lydia was a little perplexed at Elspeth’s apparent lack of inquisitiveness.
“Oh, I am madly curious,” she responded to Lydia who was starting to look anxious. Then she explained, “I just know having one’s intimate life scrutinized is terribly unpleasant.” After a few moments it occurred to Elspeth that Lydia, for some reason, could not simply divulge the details of her relationship unprompted and Elspeth couldn’t help but wonder how long had she been keeping this secret. Finally, she said, “Lydia, tell me about you and Hrongar.”
The weight that was released upon being asked about Hrongar was palpable. She took a deep breath and replied, “Hrongar left for several years to do some court missions and quests in Morrowind and Solstheim. High Rock. When he got back, Balgruuf assigned me as his housecarl.”
“I got the impression that Hrongar is also housecarl.”
“No one really knows what he does.” Lydia stopped and rolled her eyes, “Actually, it’s quite simple. When he’s in Dragonsreach, he supposed to act in a housecarl capacity. Outside of Dragonsreach, he’s a thane. But he never had his own housecarl until then.” Lydia paused to adjust her armor and weapon. Elspeth thought she might be stalling but she continued, “Before that I never had a thane. I had short assignments with visiting noblemen and ambassadors. I escorted a lot of missionaries around. But most of the time I just hung around the Dragonsreach. When I was assigned to Hrongar, everything changed. We had long missions all over Skyrim.” She smiled and continued, “It was fun. We spent a lot of time together. Alone.”
“Ah,” said Elspeth, “I see where this is going. So, you’ve got a secret relationship with the Jarl’s brother and he’s upset that it’s no longer a secret?” She was trying to make sense of the tension between them last night and this morning.
“No,” she sighed. “He never wanted to be secretive, but I insisted.”
“My mother saved Nelkir’s life when he was born. And then she died a couple months later. Balgruuf said he could never thank her enough. A couple years later when he made me a housecarl, I was so honored. Just so very honored. He never said as much, but I feel like he did it out of gratitude. So, in addition to violating all standard court protocol, I felt Hrongar and I were violating a promise.” She stopped and looked at Elspeth; her eyes were full of sadness and regret. “I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
Elspeth tried to offer a comforting smile and said, “No, it doesn’t make any sense to me but then, I’m not known for my adherence to etiquette and protocol.” Lydia smirked at this, which made Elspeth happy. “I do know a bit about promises though.”
“Now I’m no longer technically a member of the court and he wants to tell Balgruuf. We argued about that last night after you went back to bed and he left angry.” The look on her face was heartbreaking.
“What do you want? Do you love him?”
Lydia inhaled. There were tears in her eyes that she was trying desperately to keep back. “Yes. Well, I’ve known him my entire life. He’s like Idolaf; he’s always been there. I can’t imagine him not being…there. But what happens when Balgruuf admonishes us for our behavior? Is he going to forgive us after? Is he going to throw one or both of us out in shame? I couldn’t stand that.” Lydia was sobbing now. “And so I don’t know if my love for him is greater than my devotion to the Jarl.”
“I’m…sorry.” Elspeth had no idea what else to say.
Lydia shook her head and wiped her face. “You know, love in Skyrim tends to happen in one of two ways. People either fall fast and commit forever or they get bored and cold and their bodies find each other. And I don’t know what happens after that.”
“And you’re too scared to find out.” It sounded almost accusatory and so Elspeth quickly prayed to Mara this wouldn’t offend her.
But Lydia agreed and she smiled and said, “I’m just so glad somebody knows. Anyway, at some point I’ll either get the nerve to move forward or he’ll get the nerve to leave. And then, I guess I’ll know what happens.” Her eyes were still puffy but after that Lydia’s step seemed light and their conversation even lighter. The remainder of the walk was fairly easy, with nary a wolf or bandit in sight and they arrived in Riverwood just as the sun was setting.