Elspeth woke to something hard pressing into her back and something wet running down her neck. She turned and found Lydia, still in her armor, draped over her—her left bracer jammed between Elspeth’s back and the blanket. “Lydia!” she exclaimed as she rolled out from underneath her friend. “Wake up!” She got out of bed, grabbed a cloth, and started wiping her neck.
Lydia sat upright and looked around in utter surprise. “What happened?” She blinked and rubbed her eyes furiously.
“You fell asleep,” explained Elspeth. “And you drooled all over me.”
“Oh,” said Lydia. “That’s okay, you should probably get used to Nord slobber all over you.” She wiped her chin with the back of her hand. “What time is it?”
Elspeth looked at the clock. “It’s just after 4. We must have slept all afternoon.” She looked around and saw a small piece of paper on the floor by the doorway, which she picked up and read.
Come to Kralder’s house at 5 o’clock this evening. Tell no one apart from your housecarl.
It was unsigned. Elspeth handed it to Lydia and asked, “Who is Kraldar?”
“He is a nobleman who lives in town,” she explained. “I met him the other night at the Frozen Hearth. He claims to be a friend of Savos and I am going to assume that’s true because I can’t imagine a Nord in this town saying such a thing otherwise.” She folded the letter and handed it back to Elspeth. “He’s an affable fellow. Reminds me a bit of Jon Battle-Born, only not quite as….” Lydia’s voice trailed off.
“Sullen?” asked Elspeth.
“Yes,” Lydia laughed. “We should probably go soon. Let’s get some food first.” She stretched some more and adjusted her armor.
In the dining hall, they saw Onmund, J’zargo, Brelyna, Aine, and Nirya. They too looked tired and famished as they greeted Elspeth and Lydia with weary smiles and nods. Lydia looked around at the mages, her eyes suddenly bright and excited. She walked up behind Onmund and clapped her hand on his shoulder, which made him flinch. He turned and looked up at her warily.
“Well!” Lydia exclaimed as she looked at the rest of the mages. “I think some of you owe Elspeth, Onmund, and me a drink for saving your bottoms yesterday.” The mages did not appear to disagree and so she continued, “except for you J’zargo.” Her eyes narrowed and she looked intently at him. J’zargo looked crestfallen for a moment before he recovered his usual haughty demeanor. He tried to protest but Lydia interrupted. “J’zargo owes Lydia two drinks.” The mages laughed. “I will see you all at the Frozen Hearth tonight, yes? 7 o’clock.” She looked around at the group as they nodded in agreement. Lydia and Elspeth filled their bags with some food and left. By the time they arrived in town, it was nearing 5 o’clock and so they went straight to Kraldar’s house.
At Kraldar’s they were greeted first by his housecarl, Thonjolf. Kraldar welcomed them into his home and gestured toward a small table by the fire at which Arch-mage Savos was sitting. “Savos asked if he could hold a private conference with you,” explained Kraldar. “I am happy to oblige. Not all of us are suspicious of the College.” He smiled warmly. “Thonjolf and I will be at the Frozen Hearth while you confer with Savos.”
Elspeth looked over at the Arch-mage. The light of the fire betrayed worry in his face; his eyes, normally the fierce eyes characteristic of the Dumer, now appeared burdened. She studied his face some more. Then she turned to Lydia and said, “You should go back to the Frozen Hearth. I’ll meet you there.”
“Are you sure?” Lydia wasn’t particularly worried; Elspeth would be safe with the Arch-mage, but it was unlike Elspeth to dismiss her. Elspeth gave her a reassuring nod and Lydia left with the men.
Elspeth joined Savos at the table. He moved to give her room and poured her a tankard of mead, which Elspeth gladly accepted. After she had taken a sip and settled comfortably in her chair, Savos began speaking. His voice was tense, but he wasn’t holding anything back now. “I’m afraid I haven’t been very honest with you, Elspeth.” He paused. “I hope you understand the difficulty of my position.”
Ancano, Elspeth thought to herself. She nodded slowly, not entirely certain that she wanted him to continue. But she knew he would and so she braced herself.
He took a deep breath and resumed speaking, his tone was less tense now but very deliberate. “Arch-mage Relamus actually mentioned you in his correspondence. Several times in fact. Not by name, but I am certain it was you. He said he’d found a mage talented enough to learn his Bane.” Elspeth continued to nod slowly. Normally she would have swelled with pride at such knowledge, but now she was filled with dismay.
“I also know that Relamus had been contacted by the Psijic Order, and that one of your instructors, an Altmer called Illario, was an apprentice of the Order. Obviously, this was before the incident at Arcane.”
“Is that why the Psijic Order is contacting me now? Because I survived the Purge?” Elspeth’s dread and anxiety were starting to make her feel sick.
Savos looked intently at her. “Elspeth, what I am going to tell you might be difficult for you to hear.” He paused and sat back in his chair—not to relax but to give himself a moment to consider his next statement. “The Psijic Order, although elitist in their own right, have always opposed the Thalmor. And many believe that they are taking steps to make that opposition known. But they have no army. They have few, if any, battlemages or spellswords. So, they’ve been looking for someone, a warrior…or a champion. That’s what the Imperials might call such an individual, yes? Someone who they might advise.” And with this statement he gestured toward Elspeth.
Her eyes grew wide. “Me? Why me?”
Savos smiled. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you happen to be a very powerful destruction mage.” He sighed. “So many things were changing at the University. Relamus was starting to resist the Thalmor’s control over him. He hired Illario to teach Mysticism. Illario was the Altmer who wrote the definitive tome on the apotheosis of Talos. This infuriated the Thalmor.”
“Relamus made it sound like the Order wanted to take over everything,” explained Elspeth. “They were going to support the University if the Thalmor withdrew their support.”
“Yes,” agreed Savos. “But, the administrative issues were not their primary concern. And the Psijics are very particular. They are not inclined to lend support to political causes. But, they were interested in you. I don’t think they knew who you were then, but they do now. I believe casting that spell alerted them.” He closed his eyes and put his face in his hands.
“What? What is it?” asked Elspeth; her voice was trembling with a mix of curiosity and fear. What was he holding back now?
Finally he looked up and said, “Elspeth, some of us believe that the Thalmor in Imperial City were aware of the Order’s plans. And that the incident at Arcane was not intended to punish the University for its defiance over the Mysticism ban—although the timing was certainly convenient. They…we believe they were targeting the powerful mage the Order was seeking.”
Elspeth’s eyes grew wide and she was filled with a sense of terror unlike she’d ever felt before. She swallowed hard and as the full realization of what Savos was telling her set in, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh gods,” she exclaimed. “It was my fault. They were looking for me!” She practically choked on these last words.
“I’m so sorry, Elspeth,” said Savos, wishing desperately that he could console her in some way. But consolation wasn’t what she needed. She needed the truth.
Elspeth was no stranger to survivor’s guilt. From the moment that Andil’s mother had taken her aside and said, “It should have been you,”—reminding her that Andil would not have attended Arcane had it not been for her urging—she’d felt its pain. But this, this was more than she could bear. She stood up and looked around, finally declaring, “I have to leave.” She thought of the College, of Onmund and Tolfdir and the other mages she was only beginning to become friendly with. “I can assure you that Lydia and I will be out of Winterhold within the hour.” She stood up and started to back away slowly. She was shaking and found it difficult to steady herself.
Savos stood up abruptly and bellowed, “No! You will do no such thing.”
“Ancano saw me cast that spell,” she protested. “The Thalmor know I’m here. They’ll purge the entire College if I don’t leave!”
“Elspeth, sit down,” he said, his tone a combination of pleading and insisting She sat back down and looked at him. His eyes had regained their fierceness. “First of all, let me assure you that the College of Winterhold is safer than Arcane University was. We have access to power you can’t even begin to imagine. Power that the Relamus had surrendered when the Thalmor put him in charge. They left the University vulnerable on purpose, so that he would always have to depend on them.” He cleared his throat. “The Thalmor know better than to attempt a purge on my institution.”
Elspeth shook her head. “I can’t. If anything happened….”
“Urag told me that you are looking for someone. You came here on a quest and you will complete that quest.” Savos was adamant. “I will not let the Thalmor terrorize and control me they way they did Relamus.” His tone then softened a bit. “And if you are, indeed, the one that the Psijic Order is looking for, then I want the whole College behind you.”
“But what about Ancano?” Elspeth was still not convinced. “Won’t the Thalmor know it’s me now?”
“If that is the case, then you are the one in danger, not the College. And personally, I would rather have you here.” Savos said, his tone now matter-of-fact. “As for Ancano….” Savos shook his head in exasperation. “I think he’s little more than a thorn in my side than a threat to you. The Thalmor just don’t have the kind of power here that they had at Arcane. Elenwen and her council came by to confirm our adherence to the ban on teaching the apotheosis of Talos, which is really the only part of their ban on Mysticism that applies here. He showed up later, unannounced. Since then, he’s had no contact with any justiciars or other Thalmor operatives since he arrived. He brought no soldiers to accompany him, which is virtually unheard of in Skyrim.” Savos paused and took a sip of his mead. “All my sources say that he is something of an outsider. That doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous. You should still proceed with caution.”
“Okay,” Elspeth said weakly.
“Mirabelle and I will keep an eye on him,” he assured her. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have a College to run.” He got up and they left Kraldar’s house together. Before they parted he said, “Come to me if something urgent comes up. In the meantime, however, I think it’s best you proceed with your studies and research as normal.”
Elspeth pondered everything as she walked slowly over to the Frozen Hearth, where she found Lydia chatting with Kraldar and Thonjolf. She nodded to them and asked for Lydia’s room key. And while Lydia finished her conversation and mead, Elspeth went into her room and collapsed, face first, onto the bed. When Lydia returned, she sat next to Elspeth. “What happened?”
Elspeth rolled over and relayed all the information from Savos. By the end, she couldn’t control the crying. Lydia just waited patiently.
“I don’t agree with Savos,” said Elspeth. “We need to leave tonight. We can go back to Bruma and find Xeri and then, I don’t know…do something…not here.”
Lydia shook her head furiously. “No!” she said sternly. “Savos is absolutely correct.”
“Let me tell you something about Skyrim,” Lydia interrupted her. “Skyrim is a dangerous place. Between the war, the Thalmor, the frost Trolls—no one is safe here. And magic, magic is dangerous. Things are dangerous all the time—not simply because this magical Order has taken an interest in you.” She put her arm on Elspeth’s shoulder and looked at her closely. “We came here on a quest and we are going to finish it.” She paused. “You know, Xeri didn’t charge me with protecting you. She wanted me to help you keep a clear head and temper some of your more impulsive tendencies. And this is what you are going to do. You are going to comb the void out of that archive. You are going ingratiate yourself in the College. And you are woo that Nord mage with the ancestor shaped stick up his prat.”
“You know, if you were really my housecarl, you couldn’t order me around like that,” said Elspeth facetiously.
Lydia grinned. She had been following Elspeth’s story for a long time. In her correspondence, Runa sent detailed accounts of her young charge, who trained diligently, day and night, under the strict watch of Xeri. And so, Lydia was determined to guide Elspeth as she had been instructed. But as dangerous as life could be in Skyrim, it could also be exhilarating. Nords knew revelry and passion like few others, and Lydia was also determined to have Elspeth experience some of that as well.
“Okay,” said Elspeth. After a few moments, she felt a little better. “We’ll proceed as normal.”
“Terrific,” said Lydia as she stood up. She walked over to the wardrobe and pulled out a folded garment. “I’m so glad we’re friends,” she said. “I got you this gift.” She handed it to Elspeth. It was a dress. “I hoped you would wear it tonight,” she said.
Lydia’s gift made Elspeth very happy. She didn’t often wear dresses, preferring tunics and wool pants for street clothing. But this one was lovely. It was pine green colored, which Lydia said was to bring out the flecks of green in Elspeth’s hazel eyes. She removed her robe and pulled the dress over her head. Lydia came up from behind and helped to tie the back, tightening the bodice—and that was when Elspeth could tell exactly how low the neckline fell.
“Oh,” said Elspeth as she observed the bare expanse of chest that was now exposed. “I see what you did there.” She put her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow.
“You look so pretty,” said Lydia, ignoring her objections. “It fits perfectly!” She took a comb from the side table and started fixing the tangles in Elspeth’s hair. “I am going to braid your hair soon,” she said. “Think about how lovely these blond streaks will look in warrior braids. Let’s go, the mages should be here by now.”
As they left Lydia’s room, Elspeth protested that while continuing her quest at the College was prudent—perhaps pursuing a love interest was not. In response, Lydia simply rolled her eyes. As they neared the common area of the inn, Elspeth suddenly stopped and ran back to Lydia’s room, shutting the door behind them. She fell against the wall, breathing heavily—as if she’d seen something terrifying.
“What?” said Lydia, “What is it?”
“He’s got really nice hair,” said Elspeth weakly. “It’s really dark brown and his braids are sort of…interesting.” She was blushing so furiously that she broke out in sweat.
“My gods Elspeth, what am I going to do with you?” Lydia smacked her palm against her forehead before she started laughing uproariously. “Wait,” she said suddenly. “You’ve never seen his hair?”
“Apprentices don’t take their hoods off,” explained Elspeth, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s a thing.”
“Oh, okay.” Lydia seemed skeptical. She waited for Elspeth to catch her breath before leading her back out. The mages had secured a large table. Lydia observed their seating arrangement; Onmund was sitting at the end of the table between J’zargo and the wall. She shook her head and muttered quietly, “This will not do.” When they approached the table, Lydia grabbed J’zargo’s shoulders. He immediately squealed and threw both arms over his head, as if he expected Lydia to hurt him, which sent the rest of the mages into fits of giggles. Much to his surprise, Lydia smiled warmly and announced that J’zargo would help her carry the first round of mead. And when he agreed and got up, Lydia practically shoved Elspeth into his seat—right next to Onmund, who was very happy to see her.
They chatted a bit until J’zargo and Lydia returned with tankards filled with mead. Lydia squeezed herself between Elspeth and Brelyna and dropped a set of dice in front of Onmund. “Roll.”