Mirabelle shook her head in exasperation. She was in no mood to deal with J’zargo’s pranks and she’d only just met Elspeth and already the new mage appeared to be a nuisance. Why were the powerful ones always the most trouble? She looked at them again. J’zargo looked bored and unrepentant, which was typical of him. And Elspeth, well, Mirabelle studied her face some more. She looked sort of pained and sad, and Mirabelle softened a bit upon seeing this. “All right,” she said eventually. “You will split the fine and we will forget about J’zargo’s…experimental scrolls and Elspeth’s violent—albeit somewhat understandable—reaction.”
“J’zargo maintains he did nothing more than make a small error but will pay the fine to appease the administration.” His tone was defensive.
“Thank you J’zargo,” said Mirabelle. “And if you will excuse us, I would like to talk to Elspeth.
J’zargo got up and left the room quickly. When he was gone, Mirabelle observed Elspeth some more. As Master Wizard, she handled most of the College’s day-to-day tasks, which often involved disciplining students, particularly the younger apprentices. Most were either unapologetic and haughty as J’zargo had been, or wholly and sincerely remorseful. But few came into her office with as much angst as Elspeth appeared to be carrying. Not only was she unsure about how to handle her, she couldn’t figure out why she felt compelled to say anything at all. She recalled Farengar’s letter, which mentioned that she studied at Arcane. Mirabelle had thought her name sounded familiar but she never could place it. Finally, she crossed her hands over her ledger and asked, “Elspeth, when did you complete your studies at Arcane University?”
Elspeth was quiet for a several moments before answering. “I didn’t,” she said; her voice was flat. “All the students and teachers were killed before I could finish.”
Mirabelle sucked in a gasp of air and put her hand to her mouth. Now she remembered. She had seen Elspeth’s name on the incident report the Thalmor distributed when they completed their investigation. The report had been gruesome and Mirabelle had only glanced over the names of the women who had been the first to report the incident to the authorities. In any case, she was starting to feel compassion toward her. She collected herself and, rather than press the issue, changed the subject. “Urag tells me that you’ve recovered some important books for him. Books that were stolen and that he was prepared to have written off as lost forever. He is quite pleased.”
“Yes,” Elspeth grinned. Urag was so grateful for the returned books that his initial disinterest in her request had taken a turn. In addition to granting full access to the archive, he had noted some events and individuals mentioned in Nerussa’s letter that might help her narrow down her search. This didn’t change the fact that she had hundreds of boxes to inspect and thousands of papers to pore over, but it gave her a place to start.
Mirabelle nodded. “Let’s just assume that the cost of replacing the books would be roughly equivalent to your share of the fine and we will call it even.” She narrowed her eyes. “Just this one time.”
“Thank you.” When Elspeth took her leave, she found Faralda waiting in the hallway. She directed Elspeth to the Hall of the Elements where Tolfdir was gathering select apprentices and scholars.
In the Hall of the Elements, Elspeth was surprised to see Lydia among the mages. She was standing with Onmund. “What are you doing here?” she asked as she approached them. She nodded and smiled at Onmund, trying to look more composed than she had the night before. Looking around, she saw J’zargo and Brelyna standing off to the side as well as two other mages, Nirya, an Altmer, and Aine, who appeared to be either a Breton or an Imperial, or perhaps a mix of the two.
Lydia went to respond but was interrupted by Tolfdir who addressed the gathered students. “The College has undertaken a fascinating excavation in the ruins of Saarthal nearby; it’s an excellent learning opportunity and I have chosen this group to accompany me for the next phase of the investigation.” The mages buzzed with excitement. Except for Onmund, who, Elspeth observed, looked a bit apprehensive. Tolfdir continued, “Saarthal is not far, but the journey is dangerous and I’ve asked Lydia to accompany us.”
The mages were not quite certain what to make of Tolfdir’s intention to bring Lydia along and they just looked around uneasily, until one made his feelings clear.
“J’zargo is a highly skilled sorcerer, trained in the destruction school of magic!”
“Here we go,” said Onmund quietly while Elspeth and Lydia smirked to themselves.
“Maybe others do,” he shouted. “But J’zargo needs no housecarl.”
Tolfdir was unruffled by J’zargo’s outburst and addressed the Khajiit in his typical unassuming and warm manner. “Of course, of course! J’zargo, you are a capable mage. All of you are capable mages, which is why I’ve asked you to accompany me on the excavation. But there are reports of an increased number of frost trolls and ice-wraiths on the path. There are also stories of dragons—”
“Dragons!” J’zargo guffawed. “Khajiit do not believe in dragons.” He was adamant.
“You fool,” said Elspeth, now tired of J’zargo’s arrogance and obstinacy. “I was in Helgen. I saw the dragon destroy the village. Khajiit may not believe, but dragons exist. And at least one is in Skyrim.”
The mages looked over at Elspeth, wide-eyed and curious. No one said anything, however, and the room grew uncomfortably quiet for a few moments until Tolfdir finally broke the silence. “Very well then. We will meet in the courtyard first thing tomorrow morning and walk to Saarthal as a group.”
After Tolfdir dismissed them, Elspeth turned to Onmund and Lydia who were both grinning at her. “A dragon!” exclaimed Onmund, clearly impressed. “What were you doing in Helgen?”
“Are you kidding me?” For a brief moment, Elspeth forgot that some people in Skyrim would ask about Helgen, motivated only by sincere—rather than suspicious—curiosity. Onmund was one of them. She only realized this after seeing his face fall.
“I was just asking,” he explained, his voice somewhat deflated.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She took a deep breath and said, “I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was wrongly arrested….” Her voice trailed off in embarrassment.
Onmund was somewhat relieved that he hadn’t offended Elspeth, but was now feeling a bit wary of her. He excused himself to prepare for the morning’s journey and Elspeth watched him leave. She felt terrible.
“You really need that amulet, don’t you?” Lydia was looking at her, arms crossed. Elspeth couldn’t tell if she was amused by or disappointed in her. Probably both.
“I told you!” She frowned. “Did I forget to mention that I am physically incapable of flirting?”
Lydia offered a reassuring smile. “Come on,” she said, hooking Elspeth’s arm with hers. “Let’s go to the Frozen Hearth and wash away that self-loathing you are probably starting to feel with some mead and roasted goat.” She led Elspeth down the bridge. “There will be other magic Nords.” She paused, “Well, probably not. Of course, there is always—”
“Enough!” But she laughed in spite of herself, her mood lifted. And after a very nice meal at the Frozen Hearth with Dagur, Haran, and Eirid, Elspeth went to bed with at least some of her embarrassment abated.
The following morning, Elspeth and Lydia met Onmund in the courtyard. Onmund greeted them with a large smile, which immediately put Elspeth at ease. He also wanted a fresh start. Elspeth didn’t realize this and was simply happy that he did not appear to despise her. Soon, Tolfdir joined them and he inquired about the rest of the mages.
Onmund sighed and shook his head. “J’zargo insisted he didn’t need a housecarl and convinced the others to go with him.” Tolfdir furrowed his brow at this but did not respond.
“He couldn’t convince you?” asked Lydia.
“No,” he replied. “Although, he thinks I’m being led around by the nose.” This was not entirely true; J’zargo had actually accused Onmund of being lead around by his throbbing manhood but such comments were not appropriate in mixed company.
“Well,” said Tolfdir. “We will just have to meet them there or find them along the way—hopefully they haven’t met with any trouble.” He tone was sharp but not without concern. Elspeth wondered if the old man was capable of saying anything without at least a modicum of affection.
They made their way down the bridge and across town. As they left Winterhold, Elspeth and Onmund walked ahead while Lydia and Tolfdir fell slightly behind. Elspeth could hear Tolfdir start a story about his childhood in Solitude. Onmund looked back and then nodded to Elspeth as if to assure her that Lydia would be well entertained. The snow was light and the air refreshing. Elspeth felt somewhat energized and the cool air helped ease the tensions and anxieties that had plagued their previous interactions. Onmund was content too, but he was nervous about saying something off putting and so he waited for Elspeth to open the conversation.
Elspeth looked back again. Tolfdir was still talking and Lydia was smiling, clearly amused and endeared by the old man. Finally, she turned to Onmund and made an attempt at small talk. “You and Tolfdir are really the only Nords in the entire college?”
“Yes,” he said. “We occasionally get some to study healing for a couple of months at a time. But magic is shunned by most here. If it can’t be swung over your head and used to crack skulls, most Nords want nothing to do with it. Magic is seen as something for elves and weaker races.” He paused and cringed inwardly, regretting that last bit. “No offense, of course,” he said, wanting desperately to redact that last comment.
“I’m not offended,” she replied, which reassured him. Elspeth saw that he looked visibly relieved and with the upper hand, she decided to bust his chops a bit. She narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m also not weak.” Onmund’s eyes grew wide but before he could wish for the ground to swallow him whole, she let out a giggle.
They walked on, now far more comfortable with each other. Elspeth relayed the tale of her unfortunate arrival in Skyrim but tempered it by talking about the warm welcome she received from Lydia and her friends in Whiterun. Onmund talked about his time at the college, which was now approaching four years. When he first arrived, he assumed he would stay indefinitely, practicing and studying magic, but he was starting to tire of college politics and Winterhold was starting to wear on him. He also shared his apprehensions about the excavation.
“Skyrim has a rich magical heritage,” he said. ““It deserves to be studied. But our ancestors should be allowed to rest in peace.” Elspeth nodded in agreement but before she could respond, she was interrupted by screams in the distance. She grabbed her sword and ran ahead with Lydia close behind, her axe drawn. Soon they caught up to J’zargo who was trying to hold off two frost trolls. His lightening spell was impressive, but his magicka and stamina were quickly draining and he fell over. Elspeth threw a fireball at the first troll and charged in, slicing its belly open with her sword. Meanwhile, Lydia charged forward, cutting the other troll with her axe. They looked around; the other mages were nowhere to be found.
In the distance, two more frost trolls were approaching and ready to attack. From behind her, Onmund cast an impressive incineration spell and started shouting at J’zargo to use fire instead of lightening. J’zargo staggered to his feet and drained his magicka with a wall of flames that knocked the trolls down and allowed Elspeth to finish them off easily with her sword. However, J’zargo’s look of self-satisfaction was quickly dashed as he was knocked over by an ice-wraith. And had Lydia not been there, it would have finished him off.
Elspeth and Onmund had three more ice-wraiths to deal with. They were annoying buggers, ethereal undead creatures that moved quickly and were nearly invisible in the snow. They circled around and around, and Elspeth grew dizzy as she tried to fight alternating between a fire spell and swatting at them with her sword. She and Onmund managed to kill two and Lydia ran up and killed the third. The fight had taken them far from the mountain path close to a slightly elevated rock formation. As Elspeth, still wobbly from the fight, tried to regain her footing along the rocks, she tumbled forward and crashed right into Onmund. They both fell over and Elspeth landed on top of him in a position that, until that moment, she swore only happened in the bawdy adventure-romance stories that Yarah used to give her to read. Onmund must have been thinking something similar because he laughed. And then, instead of trying to get up, he hugged her waist with his arm and lifted his head to her ear. “Are you okay?” he said softly. It was the most intimate thing Elspeth had experienced in a very long time.
“Yes,” she said as she blushed furiously. She looked back toward the path and upon seeing Lydia approach, scrambled to get up. She waited for Onmund and the three of them found Tolfdir with the missing mages—who had used illusion spells to hide rather than fight—and J’zargo. No one had been killed or seriously injured and so Tolfdir briefly reiterated the importance of staying together but did not lecture, hoping that the experience would suffice to support his assertion. After that, the group walked along, quietly and wearily. And within the hour, they reached Saarthal.