“Disrupt my Arcanaeum, and I will have you torn apart by angry Atronachs.”
The College of Winterhold’s librarian, an elderly Orc called Urag gro-Shub, had very strong feelings about preserving the integrity and quality of the library. Elspeth was not unfamiliar with such strict rules and regulations, but Grig-Mei and the other librarians at the Mystic Archives had not shared the Orc’s passion. She wondered if his insistence was motivated entirely by preservation or if it was also intended to disabuse his fellow mages of any notions concerning the cultural literacy of the Orcs. Either way, while throwing some brute Orc strength behind the preservation imperative may not disrupt any stereotypes, one thing was certain, the collection would remain pristine as long as Urag gro-Shub was in charge.
Several mages had arrived ahead of her and so Elspeth wandered around, inspecting the impressive collection. Most of the books were locked away and accessible only through Urag. The open shelves contained introductory magic and history books, most of which she had already read, so she sat down and leafed through a copy of Galerion the Mystic while she waited. After about a half an hour, they spoke and he was less than enthusiastic about her request.
“You mean to tell me that you have no thesis, no research proposal, no magical topic at all. You want to use the script of a single letter to locate a former mage who may or may not have left research notes behind?” His tone was gruff and distrustful although given his feelings about the Arcanaeum, she suspected he always sounded like that.
Xeri had discovered from someone in the Mage’s guild that Urag was trustworthy; at the very least he opposed the Thalmor and their attempts at influencing the College. Elspeth had originally planned to be more specific with him. Without giving away her own identity, she intended to tell Urag that she was looking for a mage who may have come under an assumed identity to evade the Thalmor. However, with Ancano on the school grounds that now seemed far too risky.
“Yes,” she replied. She had a bad feeling, suddenly realizing how dubious her request sounded.
“Can I read the letter?” he asked.
Elspeth paused. The letter was among a handful of things that Xeri had brought to Skyrim ahead of her. It was precious—the only evidence of Nerussa’s existence beyond her escape from Cyrodill. She was wary of showing it to anyone. But she needed his help and withholding it was not doing her any good. After a few moments, she took it out of her journal and handed it over.
A true archivist, Urag handled the letter with care, unfolding it carefully and placing it flat on the desk in front of him. He read through it slowly, nodding as he went along. Finally, he looked up and said, “This is a very unusual request. And I am not in the habit of indulging research that doesn’t advance arcane knowledge or enhance the practice of magic in some way.” He looked down at the letter again. “However, I’ve heard that you are an exceptional destruction mage. And that you have a housecarl. If you would be willing to do a favor for me, I will grant you full access to the archive. It’s a little dangerous, but I think you and your housecarl can handle it.”
“Of course!” Elspeth was elated. “Just tell me what you need done and Lydia and I will take care of it.”
“Some books have gone missing—stolen actually. The guilty parties are likely dead by now but the books should be in Bleakcoast Cave. Return them and I will grant you access.” He folded the letter and handed it back to her. Then he took a piece of paper and drew a very rough map. “This is approximately where the cave is located. You might ask the Jarl’s steward for more information, but that should take you to the right place.”
Elspeth gathered up the letter and the map and put them in her journal. She nodded toward Urag in thanks and left the library. In the lobby of the Hall of the Elements, Faralda approached her and said that Lydia was looking for her outside. Indeed, Lydia was sitting on the well just below the statue in the courtyard. She looked somewhat tired but immediately perked up when she saw Elspeth.
“I missed you last night,” she said. “The Jarl is in Dawnstar for several days. The only work I managed to find was to help the shop keep’s brother Ranmir settle his debt with Dagur. I finished my book and now I’m bored.”
Elspeth didn’t ask how she helped Ranmir settle his debt. In such a small town, amassing good will by doing favors for the local residents was smart and they would make up the monetary loss later. “Well, you’re in luck. I’ve got some work. The librarian said I could have full access to the archive, but I need to find some books for him. They’re in Bleakcoast Cave,” she explained as they walked across the courtyard.
Inside the Hall of Attainment they went to the dining hall where Elspeth prepared lunch while Lydia studied the map Urag had drawn. Shortly after they started eating, two apprentices, J’zargo and Brelyna Maryon, joined them but at the far end of the table. Elspeth had met them at breakfast. Brelyna appeared to be a very sweet—albeit somewhat insecure—Dunmer woman who specialized in Alteration magic. J’zargo, a Khajiit, was not quite as friendly, and struck Elspeth as overly competitive and somewhat arrogant. Both had complimented her on the spell that she performed, but where Brelyna was genuinely impressed, J’zargo had seemed threatened. Elspeth was disappointed that Onmund was not with them and was starting to wonder if maybe she had only dreamed about the Nord mage with the playful eyes and the strong jaw.
After several moments, they heard a loud, harsh whisper from the end of the table. “If you don’t ask her, I will!” It came from Brelyna. Elspeth and Lydia stopped eating and looked sternly at the two mages. They were the only people in the dining room, so she was most likely referring to Elspeth. J’zargo let out a deep breath and, with Brelyna at his heels, walked over and sat down next to them.
“It is difficult to admit, but J’zargo could use some help,” he said as he pulled out a pile of scrolls from his satchel. “I was wondering if you would mind testing these destruction scrolls.” His words were drawn out, his accent that of a typical Khajiit and so she couldn’t tell if he was being sly or friendly or just Elsweyrian.
“Sure,” she said, hoping her enthusiasm would allay whatever anxiety he felt about asking her in the first place. At Arcane such favors were common and so she was baffled by his earlier hesitation.
Lydia looked at the pile of scrolls he’d laid out, her eyes wide with curiosity. “Can I try one?” she asked. She loved casting scrolls and before she’d alienated him with her criticism of his teaching abilities—or lack thereof—she used to purchase them from Farengar at a steep discount.
He smiled. “J’zargo likes the housecarl’s enthusiasm! Yes! If Elspeth can also observe another person casting the scrolls, it would be most helpful to J’zargo.” As they gathered the scrolls into their satchels, he explained that they were specifically geared toward the undead and would be useless against any living creature.
The cave was not far from Winterhold but they packed for a night of camping since it would be late by the time they arrived and cleared it. Back in town they bought provisions for the trip and made their way south-east along the coast. The snow had lightened up considerably and they arrived quickly—meeting only couple of slow moving horkers, which were easily avoided, along the way.
The cave was a large open area with several small alcoves. After clearing out a pack of snow wolves and a snow bear, they came upon the bodies of a dead necromancer and two large chests filled with loot. In addition to the books, they gathered soul gems of all sizes, several amulets, loose gems, and some rather obscure potions. Birna who ran the shop in town was going to be thrilled at the variety and the quality of the items and would pay well for them.
It was late by the time they made their way back through the cave and so they built a small fire just inside one of the alcoves and settled in for the night. They shared a bottle of mead and some bread—saving the more substantial meat and cheese they’d brought for the morning meal. Elspeth yawned and stretched out on her bedroll while Lydia poked at the fire and bounced on her heels. She was smiling and obviously very excited about something.
“I love this,” she said finally. “I used to fantasize about being an adventurer as a child. And whenever Hrongar and I had to camp like this, I used to imagine us traveling all over Skyrim—not on court business—but exploring caves and deserted mines and raiding tombs, our purses growing fat—”
“I can’t imagine you looting ruins,” said Elspeth. “Exploring, perhaps. But not treasure hunting.”
“No,” she said, “I suppose not.” She swallowed some mead and sat back. “Speaking of ruins. There is a small one just south of here. If we leave early we can see if there are some undead guardians.” Lydia was determined to cast J’zargo’s scrolls.
Elspeth smiled at her enthusiasm. “You know, I am sure that Colette would be more than happy to teach you a lesser ward. And the College could use more Nords.”
“I want to learn to shoot icicles from my hands and conjure a pack of skeevers so I can go back to Whiterun and let them loose in Idolaf’s bedroom.” She sighed. “I wish Nords liked magic better and weren’t so suspicious of mages.”
Elspeth shook her head. “It would be nice if magic were more accepted here, yes. But Nords are correct to be suspicious of mages. We’re petty, snarky, superficial individuals…just awful.” She took the bottle back from Lydia and took a long swallow, finishing it off. “You would do well to remember that.” The fire had warmed the alcove nicely so she removed her cloak and used it to prop her head.
“You aren’t any of those things,” protested Lydia. “Onmund doesn’t seem like that. Neither does Tolfdir.”
“They’re Nords,” Elspeth explained. “And Xeri kept me away from other mages just long enough to prevent me from honing any socially awkward tendencies I might have developed. That’s why I can tolerate Farengar, but am not nearly as off-putting.” She paused and smirked. “And I’ll note your standard reply to his name as given.”
Lydia laughed and offered to take the first watch. At sunrise they left and made their way toward Journeyman’s Nook. It was less of a ruin and more of an ancient shelter but sure enough, there were several skeletons guarding it. They walked around quietly and when they were in range, Lydia cast the first scroll. It was a fire cloak, designed to envelop the caster and destroy any undead creature that tried to approach. Lydia smiled. The fire enthralled her as it gathered around her body as if in a loving embrace. Even Elspeth had to admit that it looked impressive. She charged toward the skeletons but as Elspeth looked on she suddenly felt something was wrong, that something was missing….
“LYDIA! WAIT, DON’T—” she screamed as she tried to get to the skeletons before the fire cloak could touch them
But she was too late. The cloak exploded and sent skeleton bones flying in every direction. And Lydia was down, screaming in pain. Elspeth ran to her. She pulled the burning steel armor from Lydia’s body. The armor had protected her torso and legs but there were injuries on her arms and neck. Elspeth quickly pulled a bottle of strong healing elixir from her bag and helped Lydia drink it as she packed her injuries in snow. The healing potion was effective but it was slow. Elspeth cursed herself and vowed to learn Healing Hands as soon as she got back to the college.
As Lydia came around she was able to use her own spell to finish healing herself. She gave Elspeth a pained and puzzled look. “What was THAT?”
“I told you mages were awful,” she said. Her voice was seething. As Lydia put her armor back on, Elspeth unrolled one of the scrolls. Her face cracked in anger as she read the aspects. “He didn’t write in a ward for the caster.”
Lydia didn’t understand what that meant. “I’m sure it was just a mistake.” She was very upset about what had happened, but she wanted to believe it was just an accident.
“If this is a mistake—and I am not entirely convinced—it’s the sloppiest, most irresponsible mistake one can possibly make.” Elspeth was not optimistic. Could it have been a trap? The first thing you learned when writing destruction scrolls was to check that you’ve written a ward for each aspect of the spell. Surely a mage as skilled as J’zargo knew that.
The walk back was long since Lydia was still somewhat shaken and it was starting to get dark when they arrived back at the Frozen Hearth. Lydia reassured Elspeth that she was fine but Elspeth’s anger had only grown on the journey back to Winterhold. Once Lydia was settled back in her room, Elspeth stormed up the bridge to the College and by the time she reached the courtyard, her fury was accompanied by paranoia and she was convinced that J’zargo had, indeed, try to kill them.
She found J’zargo talking to Brelyna and Onmund in the Hall of the Elements. She charged over and without saying anything, grabbed J’zargo by the neck and punched him in the face. He staggered back and retaliated with a fireball, which she easily deflected. As Elspeth went to grab her sword and J’zargo went to cast a stronger spell, Onmund and Brelyna put themselves in the middle of the fight. Breylena was screaming at J’zargo to stop and Onmund grabbed and held Elspeth’s arms down. “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted, his face full of confusion.
“He tried to kill us!” she shouted back as she struggled away from him.
“J’zargo did no such thing!”
“Just tell us what happened,” pleaded Onmund. He was desperate to know why Elspeth, who seemed rather nice just yesterday, wanted to hurt his friend.
Elspeth threw her fist into her bag and brought out one of the offensive scrolls. She thrust it toward Onmund, who took it while she explained, “Lydia cast that. It destroyed the skeletons we met, but it also injured her.” As he read along, his confusion turned to anger and he looked at J’zargo with a mix of confusion and disgust. “These are the scrolls you wanted her to test? This is a mess. You didn’t write enough wards.” He looked again. “You didn’t write any wards!”
“J’zargo’s scrolls don’t need wards. They are for the undead. Perhaps Lydia is a vampire.” J’zargo was stubborn and his self-assurance would not be shaken.
“All destruction scrolls need wards you stupid cat.” Elspeth was livid.
Brelyna and Onmund nodded in agreement. Their disapproval was palpable and with this J’zargo relented a bit. “J’zargo may have been too hasty with this batch of scrolls.” It was as close to an apology as his pride would allow. Elspeth shook her head and turned to leave. She heard more shouting as she opened the gate, but she didn’t look back.
She walked slowly across the courtyard, her anger now giving way to guilt and sadness. Tears filled her eyes. Although she knew nothing would have deterred Lydia’s enthusiasm, she should have cast that first scroll. She paused at the door to the Hall of Attainment, thinking perhaps she should go apologize to Lydia. Then she realized that Lydia would never accept any such apology from her.
“Are you okay?” She felt a hand touch her shoulder. It was Onmund.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I would just like to get through one day without feeling like someone is going to kill me here.” She wiped her face with the back of her hand.
“J’zargo is far too arrogant to even consider something as base as murder to eliminate rivals,” he said as they arrived at the door to Elspeth’s room. “And his pranks aren’t quite as clever as that.” It was clear he was mocking his friend, but his tone was also sincere—he was determined to put her mind at ease. “But you have every reason to be angry with him.” He wanted to offer her a hug but for some reason, it felt wildly inappropriate. He was affectionate by nature but with Elspeth, it felt like too much too soon.
Elspeth smiled. “Thank you.”
They both stood there looking awkwardly at each other, not knowing just how nervous each made the other one feel. The day prior, Elspeth had pushed improper thoughts about biting his jaw out of her head. Tonight she also wanted him to stay and talk. Onmund had been drawn to Elspeth from the moment she entered the Hall of the Elements. Now he felt a strange mix of comfort and anxiety—he wanted to be near her. There was a moment he observed the day before, a comfort in the way she sat and sipped her mead that made him think that he could sit with her for hours, but he was terrified he would frighten her off with some dimwitted comment or other clumsy gesture.
After several moments, the events of the day caught up with Elspeth and she was hit with a wave of exhaustion that made her nauseated and dizzy. Her face was flushed and as much as she wanted to stay and stare at Onmund, she was grateful to break what was soon to become an uncomfortable silence. They were able to part gracefully and she went to bed that night praying to Mara that she would find her amulet somewhere in this desolate town.