An hour into the trip to Winterhold they hit a huge snowstorm, which slowed the carriage down considerably. When they finally arrived, even Lydia was uncomfortable, her muscles having become stiff during the long journey of starts and stops.
“Next time, let’s walk,” suggested Elspeth. “We’ll be just as cold but at least then we won’t have to stop.”
“There’s the Nord spirit I knew my aunt instilled in you!” Lydia chuckled and then glared in the direction of the city. “Ugh…this place is so dismal.”
Lydia had told her all about the storms that culminated in The Great Collapse and had devastated Winterhold 80 years ago, but Elspeth was still shocked at how bleak the city appeared. In all that time no one had made any attempts at restoration and only a tavern and a single merchant remained within the sparsely populated city. The college, however, was unscathed by the collapse and it towered over the city—visible even in the storm. Elspeth found the contrast between the imposing college and the desolate city utterly depressing.
They were tired and hungry so they opted to visit the college in the morning. Dagur, the proprietor of The Frozen Hearth, the local inn and tavern, was happy to welcome them and even more so when Lydia mentioned that she would be calling on the Jarl for work. “We have so few people come who are not affiliated with the college,” he explained. “Jarl Korir will be pleased to make your acquaintance and certainly has tasks that have accumulated over the years.”
The inn was quiet with only three patrons sitting and drinking by themselves. After a while, Eirid, Dagur’s daughter, sat down at their table and asked if they would play cards with her. She was a sweet little girl who, despite having the Jarl’s son as a playmate, was obviously very lonely. “He always wants to play ‘Hunt the Elf,’ and he makes me be the elf,” she said sadly.
“Dagur and I have discussed putting an end to this game,” came a voice from behind them. It was Haran, Eirid’s mother and Dagur’s wife. “The Jarl despises the college and the mages. Many of them are elves. We don’t need him breeding resentment toward our best—nay, our only—customers.” She grinned as she swept around the table, happy that someone was distracting Eirid.
Lydia smiled back and said, “Well, Elspeth and I are always happy to meet new people in the cities we visit.” She turned to Eirid and said, “We can teach you lots of games too. And Elspeth tells great stories.” Eirid was delighted to hear this and they stayed up well past her bedtime playing Beggar thy Neighbor and Old Maid. Elspeth admired the ease with which Lydia and Eirid interacted. She sounded so much like Runa and it made her a little homesick.
It was still snowing the next morning when they woke up and Elspeth really didn’t want to get out of bed. She puttered around the room after donning the robe she purchased from Farengar. It had been well over a year since she’d worn an enchanted robe and the increased energy felt foreign and somewhat uncomfortable. When Lydia returned to the room she looked Elspeth up and down and laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said although Elspeth only appeared annoyed, not hurt. “You just look so…tiny and unimposing in that thing.”
“Yes, well there’s a reason Xeri made me put the battle before mage,” said Elspeth as she shifted around uncomfortably. “I really prefer armor. And steel.” She paused and added, “Don’t tell Idolaf.”
Lydia smirked and looked quizzically at her, “Really?”
“No, I just feel naked without them,” she explained as she gathered up her bag. “You know, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“Are you kidding? When am I going to have another chance to inspect the college?” Lydia was actually very excited at the prospect of seeing the college. She had always been fascinated by magic but apart from Battle Cry and a novice healing spell, she never had the aptitude for it—at least not according to Farengar who managed to teach her the healing spell before unceremoniously declaring her incapable of practicing magic. In return, Lydia declared him incapable of teaching. They’ve not gotten along since.
The storm was still going strong when they left the inn. At the entrance to the college Faralda, a tall Altmer woman with striking facial features and pale, pink hair, met them. Elspeth found her absolutely stunning. “Welcome to the College of Winterhold, a safe haven for mages in Skyrim, a place of wisdom and arcane knowledge.”
“I’m Elspeth Aurilie, Farengar Secret Fire, Balgruuf the Greater’s court wizard sent a recommendation for me.”
“Ah yes, we’ve been expecting you. Farengar spoke very highly of your abilities in his letter. And this must be your housecarl, Lydia.”
“Oh no,” Elspeth protested. “She’s not really my housecarl—”
“Yes, I am,” insisted Lydia.
Faralda rolled her eyes and said, “Either way, we’re not inclined to allow housecarls. However, Jarl Balgruuf has always been a friend of the college. You will be allowed to accompany Elspeth in her quarters and in the common areas.”
“Thank you,” said Elspeth and Lydia nodded.
“Tell me,” she continued, “what is it that you expect to find within the college?”
“I hope to hone my abilities, particularly in the schools of alteration and illusion. I also hope to do some research in the College’s archive.” Xeri had given strict instructions to downplay her purpose and so she tried to keep her intentions varied and somewhat vague.
“Very well,” said Faralda. “Farengar confirmed your abilities and you will have ample opportunity to demonstrate them. I’ll lead you across the bridge. Once you’re inside you’ll want to speak with Mirabelle Ervine, our master wizard. Please follow me.” As they walked along, Faralda ignited the stone wells along the path and they lit up with a spectacular blue glow that enabled some visibility through the storm, which showed no signs of letting up.
Mirabelle Ervine was waiting in the courtyard. She looked at Lydia with some suspicion but proceeded to show them around without hesitation. “The College of Winterhold has been a fixture in Skyrim for thousands of years,” she explained. “The prominent feature here is the Hall of the Elements. It’s our primary location for lectures, practice sessions, and general meetings.” She gestured upward. “The Arcanaeum is located above the hall and the Arch Mage’s quarters above that. Now, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your living quarters.” She led them across the courtyard. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to implement more stringent entry procedures, due to some problems with the local Nords.” She studied Lydia’s face as she explained this, as if expecting a defensive reaction, but Lydia just nodded in agreement.
“Faculty and senior scholars are housed in the Hall of Countenance while apprentices and visiting scholars stay here in the Hall of Attainment.” Inside the Hall of Attainment, Mirabelle led them to Elspeth’s room. “You’ll be sharing common space with your fellow mages. There is a dining room and kitchen and alchemy and enchanting areas on the top floor. This bed, desk, and storage areas are yours. Here is your room key. Our daily lecture will begin in about a half an hour.”
Elspeth quickly put her things away and they left to attend the lecture. “This is incredible. At Arcane, I shared a room with five other mages,” she said as they made their way to the back across the courtyard. She looked around. “They had a better alchemy garden…maybe there’s a green house around here.”
The mages were clustered in small groups inside the Hall of Elements. When they entered, the room went silent as the mages turned to stare at Lydia. She was easily the tallest person in the room and striking in her armor. Elspeth snickered and leaned in toward her, but before she could say anything, they were approached by an older Nord mage who introduced himself as Tolfdir. “Welcome Elspeth and Lydia!” His manner was affectionate and he shook their hands enthusiastically. “Phinis Gestor, our instructor of Conjuration is about to give today’s lecture. After that, I will introduce you.”
Phinis Gestor stood in the center of the room atop an elevated fixture with a stone well and began his lecture. “At this time, I would like to make a few statements regarding policy here at the College. Please refrain from practicing Conjuration spells in view of the town of Winterhold. Atronachs have a tendency to frighten the locals. Undead….Well, I don’t even think it needs to be said. While Drevis appreciates the spellcasting skill that went into somehow cramming several hundred apples into his pillow….He would ask that it please not happen again. He has suggested that, should he find out who is responsible, he is well versed in making things disappear. Permanently.”
While Elspeth was listening to the lecture, she sensed someone behind her and so she turned around. And at that moment, the question of whether she would see another face as sweet as Ralof’s in all of Skyrim was answered. It was a Nord and although his face was partially obscured by his hood, she saw that he had beautiful high cheekbones and the most playful blue eyes that she had ever seen. His grin set her stomach aflutter. When she smiled back, he started to approach but was interrupted by Tolfdir who decided it was time to introduce Elspeth and Lydia to everyone in the hall.
“Elspeth Aurilie comes to Skyrim from Bruma. She studied at Arcane where she specialized in destruction magic. And this is Lydia, her housecarl, who will be staying in town.” At the mention of housecarl, a murmur rippled through the crowd along with some snickering. Elspeth rolled her eyes; she was unsurprised that the mages were not terribly impressed and she wished Lydia hadn’t been introduced that way.
Faralda spoke up next. “Perhaps Elspeth will favor us with a demonstration of her abilities.” The mages nodded excitedly.
“Will you?” asked Tolfdir.
“Of course.” She turned and aimed an impressive expert level fire ball at one of the focusing crystals set along the wall of the hall. Tolfdir and the others nodded in approval.
“You must know something stronger than that,” came a voice from behind her. It was an older Dunmer.
“That was more than adequate, Drevis,” said Faralda.
“That was just entirely too effortless on her part. I mean, she used barely any magicka to cast,” he insisted. “Do you know any Master level spells?”
Elspeth swallowed nervously and her anxiety somehow betrayed her skill. He looked closely at her and said, “I think you do.”
“Modesty won’t get you anywhere here Elspeth,” said Phinis. “If you know a Master spell, demonstrate it.”
Elspeth took a deep breath. The Sorcerer’s Bane. It was a multi-element master destruction spell that Arch-mage Relamus had developed in the years before he was appointed to Arcane University. It was an immensely destructive spell. When cast, it enclosed the entire casting area and devastated everything in its perimeter. The problem was that it remained stationary and highly skilled and quickly moving enemies could generally remove themselves. Elspeth determined that it was created with the intention of destroying small areas such as farms and villages and their inhabitants. Not monsters. Not equally powerful mages. Not soldiers. Citizens. It was a war spell, likely created for the Thalmor and it made her sick to think about. Further, casting the spell drained all of her magicka and required dual casting, which stripped her of her weapon. Ultimately, it was a devastating light show that left her vulnerable and she never understood why Relamus insisted on teaching it to her and no one else. And he died before she could find out. He only said that she would know when to use it, even if it was merely to demonstrate her power. Is this what he was referring to?
She looked around. The building was made out of tempered stone and would be safe. And she wasn’t particularly concerned about the mages either. “Fine,” she said, “but I need someone to cast a master level ward. Someone who can keep it going as long as my spell is intact.” She could hear the other mages shuffling around impatiently and whispering in disbelief.
A woman approached and Tolfdir introduced her. “This is Collette Marence. She is our master restoration instructor.”
“On your signal, I will cast my strongest ward,” she said. “And the rest of you will be reminded of how essential and powerful the restoration school can be.” She sounded resentful and Elspeth wondered what she meant by that.
Elspeth took a deep breath, signaled Collette, and cast. The spell went up with a bit more effort than she was accustomed to and the lightening and fire elements combined to form a wall of white and blue fire. The glow was blinding and the temperature would have been unbearable without Collette’s ward. Unlike chain spells, which ended when the casting stopped, or explosion and bolt spells, which were single blast spells that ended on impact, this spell regenerated itself and the combined elements multiplied in strength before they died down.
When it was over, the room was absolutely silent. Collette and Lydia were beaming but the rest of the mages were stunned. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Nord mage that she had noticed earlier. He looked astonished but his gaze softened and he grinned at her again, which made her blush.
Someone from the back of the room piped up, “Why does she need that big sword?”
“Are you kidding,” said another. “Why does she need a housecarl?”
Tolfdir raised his head but before he could say anything he was shoved aside by an Altmer in Thalmor robes. He approached Elspeth and glowered at her, “Who taught you that spell?” His tone was angry and suspicious and his posture threatening. Elspeth was breathing hard and she felt her face go completely numb. He brought his face level with hers. “I said, where did you learn that spell?”
And that’s when she fainted.