This chapter is dedicated to the memory of my Grandpa Joe.
They decided to stop for the night in Windhelm. Lydia wanted to break up the long carriage ride and Elspeth hoped to see Ralof. The weather turned very cold, very suddenly as they approached the city and Elspeth was envious of Lydia whose natural cold resistance made her impervious to the winter winds. Once again, she was immensely grateful for the cloak the Idolaf had given her and she wrapped it around tightly as she and Lydia disembarked the carriage by the stables and made their way over the immense stone bridge. By some accounts, Windhelm was the oldest city in Skyrim and Elspeth was overwhelmed by the old stone walls and archways as they walked up to the entrance.
As they walked into the city, Elspeth saw two large Nord men who appeared to be harassing a Dunmer woman. As they approached, they could hear one of the men shouting, “You come here where you’re not wanted, you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink and you refuse to help the Stormcloaks.”
“But we haven’t taken a side because it’s not our fight,” she protested.
“Maybe the reason they haven’t taken a side is because they are all imperial spies,” said the other.
“Imperial spies!” she responded in disbelief. “You can’t be serious.”
“Maybe we’ll pay you a visit tonight, little spy. We got ways of finding out what you really are.”
Elspeth was furious for this woman. She looked at Lydia whose eyes were angrily fixed on the men. They stepped up their pace to confront them but before they could, another large Nord pushed himself between the two men. “Rolff, I think your brother is looking for you.” He wasn’t much taller than either of them but in his armor, he was far more imposing. The men glared at him but after a moment they backed down and walked away slowly, still scowling at the Dunmer woman.
“Thank you, Brunwulf,” she said.
“Take care Suvaris,” he replied as he shifted his gaze toward Elspeth and Lydia. He narrowed his eyes and asked Lydia, “You one of those ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ types?”
“What?” Lydia was taken aback at the question, “Of course not! I think Skyrim should welcome everyone.”
“And you’re right, at least as far as I’m concerned.” Brunwulf looked at Elspeth and smiled, “Listen, don’t let Ulfric or some of these other short-sighted Nords bother you. Most of us are happy to welcome newcomers.” He extended his hand, “I’m Brunwulf Free Winter.”
“I’m Elspeth and this is Lydia of Whiterun,” she said they shook his hand.
“You two look resourceful. Are you looking for work by any chance?”
“Sure,” responded Lydia, “We could always use a little more coin.”
“A group of bandits raided a nearby Dunmer settlement and Jarl Ulfric can’t be bothered to do anything about it,” explained Brunwulf. “They’re at Uttering Hills Cave.”
“We’ll take care of it first thing tomorrow morning,” said Lydia.
As they walked on to Candlehearth Hall, Elspeth turned to Lydia and said, “You know, when I was younger, I used to comfort myself by thinking that not all Dunmer were like Xeri. But when I see something like that, I wish they were. Xeri would have cut that prat’s head right off.”
At the tavern they got a room for the evening, where they left their bags, and changed out of their armor before heading upstairs. The upper level had tall ceilings and a large stone fireplace on which a candle—said to have been lit centuries before and never burned out—sat. The hall was full and Elspeth was pleased to see, despite the confrontation earlier, that the crowd comprised both men and elves.
As if she could read her mind Lydia leaned over and said, “It’s nice to see that even in Windhelm drink and song can bring everyone together.”
“For now,” said Elspeth. She was wondering how long it would be before the revelry gave way to drunken belligerence.
“So cynical!” said Lydia, smirking.
“Perhaps,” agreed Elspeth. “But even the taverns in Bruma couldn’t go a night without a brawl started over politics.” She looked around for a place to sit and approached a table with two men in Stormcloak garb and a couple of empty chairs. “Can we sit here?”
The Stormcloak soldiers smiled and nodded. Their names were Viik and Jakov and they were happy to have somecompany. When they were settled in with some mead and food, Elspeth inquired about Ralof.
“How do you know Ralof?” asked Jakov.
“We met in Helgen,” she responded.
“You were in Helgen!?! When the dragon attacked?” Viik asked in disbelief.
“Yes I was. Ralof helped me escape. Is he here?”
“Wow,” he said, leaning back. “I’m impressed. Unfortunately, Ralof isn’t in Windhelm. He’s been assigned to a camp in the Pale. If you join up, I can bring you to see him.” He winked at her.
“Not this time,” said Lydia, “We’re just passing through. We have business in Winterhold.”
Jakov started to say something but was distracted by someone making a ruckus behind Lydia. He rolled his eyes and said, “Oh good, Rolff Stone Fist is here to brag about his adventures in the Grey Quarter bothering the elves.”
“You don’t approve?” asked Elspeth.
“I just think that we should focus on making Skyrim independent from the Empire and restoring Talos, not acting like loutish fools, especially around people just trying to live their lives—even if they happen to be elves.” Jakov threw back the rest of his mead; he seemed somewhat uncomfortable although no one was showing any disapproval.
“You’re an idealist!” said Elspeth in a tone that was somehow both accusatory and elated. “I know someone like that.” She gestured slightly toward Lydia and grinned, which put him back at ease although it was pretty clear he was done talking about politics. “Lydia!” Elspeth exclaimed. “Do you have dice?”
“I always have dice,” she said, reaching into her pocket.
“Let’s get the idealist drunk.”
They left for Uttering Hills Cave the next morning after breakfast. They were delayed somewhat by an Imperial named Adonato Leotelli, a writer of drama, who wanted—desperately it seemed—to converse about “the legends and history of Skyrim” of which he wrote. They declined his request to deliver his new book, Olaf and the Dragon, to the Bard’s college although Lydia promised to read it. She might read it eventually, but at the time she just wanted him to stop nattering on about Nord folklore.
It was cold and cloudy but considerably less windy than the day before. The route to the cave was fairly straightforward. They ambushed the lookouts positioned at the camp set up at the cave’s entrance. Inside, the first part of the cave was well-lit and wide open, which made stealth attacks on the first bandits somewhat difficult. Further inside, they discovered that the cave once housed a dungeon. Lydia and Elspeth took their time, working through the barracks, carefully noting all the possible hiding spaces, and waiting in the shadows when necessary. Several hours had passed when they finally confronted and defeated the bandit leader.
Back in Windhelm, they were approached by a couple of elves who thanked them profusely for assisting Brunwulf with their affairs. An Altmer woman said, “Brunwulf is also a war hero you know. He fought in the Great War against the Aldmeri Dominion.” The woman sighed and shook her head. “You would think that would mean something to someone like Ulfric Stormcloak.”
Brunwulf was pleased to see them and offered up mead while he got their coin. His house was tidy and pleasant Elspeth felt it lacked the inviting warmth and comfort of the places she visited in Whiterun and Riverwood. She surmised that while many in Windhelm held him in high esteem, they probably also kept their distance. “The elves in Windhelm have a great deal of respect and admiration for you.”
“I’m only doing what needs to be done.” Brunwulf smiled modestly.
“They told us that you fought in the Great War,” said Elspeth. When she was younger she’d been taught to question the official accounts of the Great War, the ones approve and disseminated by Imperial and Thalmor approved writers. As a result, she often sought out veterans for their personal stories.
“The Great War,” he said scathingly. “There was nothing great about it. Thousands died on both sides and where did we end up? Did we really save the Empire or did we just plant the seeds for Ulfric’s uprising and another war?” Brunwulf shook his head and took a sip of his mead.
“So, because the outcome is less than ideal, is there no room for honor and valor?” asked Lydia, trying not to sound too antagonistic. She wasn’t naïve about war and the precarious state of things in Skyrim. But she was someone who believed in and needed heroes.
“There’s no glory in war. It’s just something they tell soldiers so they’ll risk their lives.”
“The Altmer woman we met called you a hero,” protested Lydia.
“I’m no hero,” said Brunwulf sadly. “I’m just a soldier who didn’t want to die.”
Lydia thought about this while Elspeth simply nodded. She hugged her bent legs up to her chest and rested her head on her knees. She looked distressed.
Lydia looked over but before she could say anything, Brunwulf frowned and said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No,” said Elspeth. “You remind me of m—” She stopped suddenly and after a moment continued, “You remind me of someone I once knew. He used to tell war stories, but not of valor and honor. Even his positive stories were—” she paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “He told me that the worst thing he ever saw was when he was part of a raid on the prison camps the Thalmor had set up in Hammerfell. There were soldiers that had been there for over a year; they were starving. They brought them into a camp just over the border, where they had food spread out. He said he saw more soldiers die gorging themselves on the food than he had in the battle they fought to get them out.”
“Oh my gods,” said Lydia as she covered her mouth with her hand. Brunwulf just nodded, but inwardly he was very happy to have met the young women, especially Elspeth. In his experience, young people who grasped the terrible reality of war and conflict were few and far between. She gave him some hope and warmed his war-wearied heart.
They thanked Brunwulf for the mead and promised to stop in when they came by way of Windhelm again. As they made their way back to Candlehearth Hall Lydia asked, “Who told you that war story?”
“My father,” said Elspeth.
“I thought so,” Lydia said. Her voice was thoughtful and darker than usual.
“All of his stories of heroics came with a dark side. And when we got to Bruma, Xeri took over as storyteller. Needless to say her recollection was slightly more, um, spirited.” Elspeth paused and added, “But not less realistic.”
Back at Candlehearth Hall they settled in for the evening although neither felt much like sleeping. Lydia was mulling over Brunwulf’s opinions on war and Bedyn’s story. Elspeth felt nervous about the College. Whiterun, Riverwood, and Windhelm had been productive and interesting stops on her quest and tomorrow the real work of finding Nerussa, or of what happened to her, would start and she was starting to feel somewhat apprehensive.