“We shouldn’t have been disturbing Saarthal, no matter what you found down there.” Onmund responded to Lydia’s inquiry about the strange glowing orb that was now floating above the well in the Hall of the Elements. To Lydia and the rest of the mages, he tried to appear unwavering in his opinion but when she looked away, he winked at Elspeth.
“Isn’t the fact that you are studying at the College an affront to your ancestors?” asked Nirya sardonically.
“Yes,” replied Onmund, “yes it is.” He smiled. “And one I am quite proud of.” He paused and turned his full attention back to Elspeth, “Nords don’t trust magic or those who use it. Made it difficult for me growing up.” He paused and finished his mead. “And Nirya doesn’t let me forget it.” He tipped his tankard toward her, his mockery obvious. Elspeth smirked and glanced back down toward Nirya who looked irritated.
The other mages seemed unfazed, but Elspeth and Lydia were perplexed by her. She appeared to have no interest in their game and she hadn’t touched her mead. She just sat there, scowling and occasionally interjecting snarky comments. Why had she come out at all? In any case, Lydia was determined not let the high elf’s attitude ruin was becoming a very enjoyable evening. She was even enjoying J’zargo’s company, especially his stories of Elsweyr and how he came to study at the College.
“Mages in Cyrodiil are all about politics. The Synod and the College of Whispers and the Thalmor are too busy guarding secrets to bother to teach. Skyrim was not J’zargo’s first choice, but Winterhold is removed from politics, dedicated to study. This is the place for J’zargo to become great,” he explained. “Skyrim could not be more different from Elsywer but magic, magic is the same wherever you go.”
“Clearly you have never been to Morrowind,” said Elspeth. She didn’t bother correcting his assumptions about the mages in Cyrodill. Thinking about her former instructors was entirely too painful.
“I told you!” exclaimed Brelyna. “Magic IS different in Morrowind.”
“J’zargo does not see how that could be possible,” he protested.
“It just is,” said Elspeth. “Morrowind is the last place where the old magic was practiced. Levitation. Intervention. That magic disappeared when the Nevarine defeated Dagoth Ur and the Tribunal, but the air in Morrowind still hums with its residue.”
“You seem to know a lot about Dunmer history,” said Onmund, trying to bring Elspeth’s attention back to him.
“Well,” she responded. “My mentor in Cyrodill was a Dunmer. She had a way of dropping information into my head while adjusting my grip or fighting stance.” She grinned and looked back toward Brelyna again.
Lydia observed the interaction between Elspeth and Onmund. They were not connecting and she wanted to figure out why. As far as Lydia was concerned, he was doing everything right. His gestures were assertive without being aggressive and he was charming without being smarmy. All he wanted, it seemed, was to hold her attention for a minute, just long enough for her to understand that he liked her—plain and simple. The problem was Elspeth. Either she was completely oblivious to his interest or she was trying to ease her anxiety by not paying him too much attention. Knowing Elspeth as she did, it was likely both.
When he excused himself from the table to refill some of their empty tankards, Lydia leaned over and whispered, “You’re killing me, Elspeth. You need to pay more attention to him.”
“You’re the only person in this room he wants to talk to.” She looked up. “Here he comes, now do that cute half-smile thing you do and ignore the rest of us.”
“All right, fine.” Elspeth took a deep breath and when he sat down, she did just as Lydia advised. She started by apologizing, half jokingly, for disturbing his ancestors and he laughed and assured her it was fine. They both agreed that the problem was less research and more that mages had a penchant for making big messes of things. Onmund then entertained her with stories about his first attempts at mixing potions in his mother’s kitchen and the disasters that ensued, which inspired his grandmother to buy him an alembic, much to his father’s dismay. “I’m still not much of an alchemist,” he said. “They weren’t exactly thrilled when I moved on to illusion magic, but at least it was tidier.” He smiled. “When did you start casting spells?”
“I’m a Breton,” she said, “we start at our mother’s breast.” She took a drink of mead. “I’ve been casting lights and wards since I was wee, but I was six when I cast my first fire ball.” She grinned.
“That’s young for destruction,” said Onmund, raising his eyebrows. “How did it go?”
“I burned down a stable,” she said, enjoying the look of amazement on Onmund’s face. They continued in this vein for a while, happy to ignore the rest of their group’s conversations, until things got heated between Nirya and Aine.
“…you can’t be serious,” said Aine. Her voice had risen considerably, which was unusual for her and she sounded disgusted about something. “You really think that it was their fault?”
“That’s not what I said,” protested Nirya.
“Well, you’re going to have to explain your position again,” said Aine. “Because it sounded to me like you think the mages at Arcane could have prevented what happened.”
This immediately piqued Elspeth’s interest and she and Lydia and the rest of the mages turned to listen.
“The mages and the Arch-mage rejected a direct order of the Thalmor. If it was the Thalmor, and that’s never been proven—“
“Well of course, it’s never been proven you twit. The Thalmor ran the investigation!” Aine, who was normally very prim and proper, was furious.
Nirya continued, unabashed by this. “If it was the Thalmor, and I actually agree that it probably was, no one should have been surprised that there was a reaction. The reaction was pretty harsh, sure, but no one should sit back and pretend like they can’t believe something happened.” She shook her head as if was amazed that she had to explain herself.
“Pretty harsh?” repeated Lydia, slowly, in utter disbelief at what she was hearing.
“Well, what did they think would happen when Relamus hand delivered that petition to the justiciar’s office?” She asked smugly. “That they would change their mind? We’re talking about the Thalmor.”
The veteran mages were used to Nirya’s dismissive opinions and over-the-top arguments, where she would drive her points into the ground, regardless of how illogical and insulting they were. She was insecure and competitive and she liked to blather on about politics and philosophy. Moreover, she had become entirely too accustomed to not being challenged, simply because it was easier for others to roll their eyes and change the topic to sweet rolls than indulge her. It gave her a false sense of accomplishment that was now about to end.
Elspeth was furious. All her feelings of rage and sadness and terror—new and old—came to the surface at once. She slammed her tankard so hard the table shook. “Do you really think surprised is how people felt after what happened at Arcane?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Nirya rolled her eyes.
Lydia braced herself for a fight, but Elspeth kept talking. “Do you have any idea how ludicrous you sound? The Thalmor are treacherous, but you do not get to be dismissive and argue that the purge was nothing more than the logical consequence of a university petition.” Her grip around the tankard was tightening and her knuckles had turned white. “You don’t get to sit back and make broad generalizations about things you couldn’t possibly understand and then pretend it’s not a big deal. Do you have any idea what it was like at Arcane? Before and then after the purge?”
“Do you?” Nirya snarled. She knew perfectly well that Elspeth had studied at Arcane University. However, she was livid that Elspeth was challenging her like this.
Elspeth released her grip from her cup, stood up, and stormed out. After a few moments of stunned silence, Onmund went after her while Lydia turned her attention to Nirya.
Outside, Elspeth collapsed onto a bench. She breathed in hard; the cold air alleviated her immediate need to scream and she sat back, her feelings of rage giving way to something raw and empty. Onmund came out of the Frozen Hearth and sat next to her. He didn’t say anything; he just sat quietly.
Finally, Elspeth broke the silence. “Did you know that I was the one who found them? At Arcane. My friend and I went into town to study over brandy and wine and came back to….” Her voice trailed off as a couple of tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. He was at a loss as to what he could possibly say that would comfort her. But he felt compelled to say something. “I think you are the first person to ever make Nirya feel small.”
“That’s pretty cold comfort,” she said although her face had softened somewhat.
“Everything in Skyrim is cold,” he said as he placed his hand on her cheek, wiping a tear from her face with his thumb.
Not your hand, thought Elspeth as she took his wrist and pressed her face into his palm. He sat a little closer and pulled her into a warm embrace. She buried her face in his chest and cried, but not for fear or sadness or anger. Not this time. These tears were for a whole host of feelings she had not acknowledged in a very long time—if ever. They were for deprivation, for all the things she had been denied in the months following the purge: affection, intimacy, adoration.
After several moments, Elspeth calmed down and she and Onmund sat quietly and comfortably on the porch together. The door to the Frozen Hearth slammed shut and they looked up to see Nirya stomp down the stairs and walk angrily back toward the College. Onmund’s eyes were wide with what could only be described as mild amazement. “What is it?” asked Elspeth, not entirely sure why the sight of a woman storming out of a tavern would cause surprise. After all, she had just done the same thing.
“We can never get her to leave,” replied Onmund, grinning. “Shall we go back?” Elspeth nodded; she was getting cold and she assumed Lydia would be concerned. Inside, the mages were laughing and Lydia had a look of self-satisfaction on her face that was so unfamiliar it startled Elspeth.
“Ah, my Lydia put the fear of the Eight, those old Dumeri gods, and possibly some Daedric princes into Nirya. And made her go away. It was the most beautiful thing J’zargo has ever seen.” He batted his eyelashes at Lydia who then instructed him to refill the empty tankards. He smiled. “J’zargo is happy to oblige.”
“I’d like to say she’s not always so wretched but she is. We’ve just never held her accountable. It was just easier to ignore her,” said Brelyna. “I’m sorry.” Elspeth waved her apology away and smiled.
J’zargo returned and passed around drinks, making sure that Lydia’s tankard was wiped clean of dripping mead before he placed it in front of her. They resumed their game and storytelling and did not stop until several hour later when J’zargo’s head started bobbing up and down, Brelyna and Aine were slurring their words, and Onmund’s eyelids looked heavy and he appeared to be having trouble keeping his eyes open.
The mages and Elspeth walked back to the College together. Onmund was rather quiet now and when J’zargo staggered and fell by the base of the bridge, he and Brelyna rushed over—laughing as they gathered the intoxicated Khajiit up and helped him to the Hall of Attainment. The group left Elspeth by her room. Onmund had hoped to see her to her door alone, but J’zargo needed quite a bit of help. So, Elspeth and Onmund simply smiled at each other as he helped J’zargo, who was nattering on about housecarls and exercising his feline charms.