The bodies were piled so high she had to climb over them, digging her hands and kicking feet into dead flesh. There were so many bodies. And she was alone. Yarah had tumbled and fallen into the void while Elspeth kept climbing. Up ahead, a tall figure in a Thalmor robe stood waiting. His lips never moved but his voice echoed in her head. We were just looking for you—
Elspeth woke with a start, trembling and drenched in cold sweat. The dream was an old friend with a new twist. She fell back on to her pillow and kicked off her covers as feelings of dread and anxiety crept into her gut. After a few moments, she shut her eyes and forced thoughts of Thalmor and the University and the Purge out of her head, trying to focus on the night before, on Onmund and the ease with which he’d taken her in his arms, and on the solace that she found there. The terror from the images abated, only to be replaced with a new and somewhat frivolous—although not less intense—feeling of anxiety.
She stood up and dressed and by the time she got to the tap to wash, she had alleviated her unease by convincing herself that he was probably just being nice. Although this settled the nervousness in her stomach, it did not actually make her feel better.
“Hello Elspeth!” A jovial voice rang through the wash room. It was Aine. She looked weary but she was grinning as she finished up her business. “Onmund is in the alchemy lab.”
“Oh?” said Elspeth trying to hide her excitement. “Was he looking for me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably.” She winked as she exited, leaving Elspeth—once again—feeling like she had to remind herself that he was just being nice. Lydia would have smacked her on the back of the head had she known such thoughts were traipsing through her mind.
She went upstairs to the lab where she found Onmund cradling his head in his hands, “Good morning,” she said cheerfully, but not too loudly. He looked up and smiled wanly, “Hello. How are you?” His eyelids were still somewhat heavy looking and his face betrayed the pain in his head.
“I’m fine. You look terrible.” Elspeth cringed inwardly as soon as the words left her mouth.
Onmund, however, didn’t seem to mind. He laughed and said, “Thanks. I always drink more than I should at the Hearth, but last night was excessive.”
“I thought Nords were supposed to be able to hold their mead.”
“Haven’t you figured out yet that I’m really not a very good Nord?”
Elspeth laughed, “Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“I did.” He smiled again and locked his eyes to hers, “Quite a bit, actually.”
This made her stomach flutter. He had the most amazing smile. She looked at him quizzically and asked, “Do we have torchbugs and chitlin here?”
“Yes. Help yourself to whatever you need.”
Elspeth started gathering ingredients and supplies: chitlin, torchbug thorax, garlic, honey, mortar, pestle. Taking care not to be too loud, she mashed the thorax and chitlin together with the garlic and then mixed in the honey. Onmund looked on with suspicious amusement. She looked so very serious as she worked. Finally, she scooped up the ingredients. “Here. Eat this.”
Onmund was suspicious. “It smells awful.”
“Just swallow it quickly. Do it.”
He took the spoon and swallowed. He made a terrible face, “What was that?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to see if I could get you to eat something gross.”
“Are you kidding me?” Onmund was slightly less amused now.
“How do you feel?”
He paused for a moment and smiled. “Better, wow. Pretty good actually. Did you learn that at Arcane?”
“No. The head of the fighter’s guild in Bruma taught us that. I think he tried to sell it once, but the chitlin breaks down too fast to be effective. Apparently you can only use it about once a month or you develop a tolerance to it.”
“It’s too bad. We could make a killing here. Do you want some tea?”
“Yes.” Elspeth’s anxiety was starting to return. She was unsure of what she was going to say next. Tea would help. At the very least it would give her something to do with her hands. She frantically searched her mind for something else to discuss but nothing seemed to come as effortlessly as Shazir’s Amazing Hangover Elixir.
Onmund brought two steaming cups of tea. “Now, were you going to mix potions, or did you just come here to cure my hangover?”
Elspeth had an abundance of potions and no real need to practice alchemy. All she wanted was to sit and laugh with him but for some reason decided he probably shouldn’t know that. She wasn’t insecure or even coy. Years of little more than training and studying with only a handful of confidantes at her disposal had left her with an abundance of conflicting advice and very little experience in matters of the heart. So, she lied. “Um…do you have any adept Alteration books?” she stammered somewhat, now with her anxiety in full effect. She wasn’t a great liar and she desperately needed Lydia’s confidence and irreverence toward courtship rituals.
“I do. As a matter of fact, I think I have most of them. I’ll be right back.”
She let out a deep breath after he left and started cleaning up her mess. Why was talking suddenly so difficult? Elspeth, who had no problem trading barbs with court stewards and other officials, was suddenly finding it immensely difficult to form words in front of a very nice mage. Of course, she never had to flirt before. Andil’s affection for her had been uncomplicated and obvious. She never needed to draw him to her because he had always been there. Well, until he wasn’t. Elspeth was deep in these thoughts as she cleaned up supplies. So when Onmund brushed up from behind she was startled and, with the maneuver that quite possibly landed her a spot on the Imperial deathcart, she spun around and struck; the side of her arm and elbow caught his rib cage.
Elspeth’s face fell in horror as he dropped the books and keeled over. “Oh my gods, I am so sorry,” she exclaimed as she grabbed him to stop him from falling forward. And then she felt guilty for letting out an inappropriate gasp of pleasure upon feeling his back through his robe. She helped him over to a chair and knelt by him, looking into his face for some assurance that he was not injured and also not completely furious with her. She squeezed his arm, “Are you okay? I am so, so sorry. I have to stop doing that.” She was so embarrassed that she hadn’t noticed that Onmund’s gasps of pain had given way to stifled laughter.
Indeed, flirting was going incredibly well. “I’m normally very careful, I just have this response when I’m startled….” she started to explain.
“You know, if you wanted me to be uncomfortable, you could have just left me with my hangover,” Onmund teased. When he saw the look of sheer mortification on her face he grabbed her hand and said seriously, “I’m fine.”
The touch of his hand had sent the flutters from Elspeth’s stomach straight up to her chest. She was oblivious to his light-hearted attempts at teasing, and his now serious face and tone turned her nervous energy from anticipation to confusion. Elspeth didn’t seem to understand that, to Onmund, everything she did was adorable—even if it left him keeled over and with the air knocked out of his lungs. “Okay,” she said quietly, almost imperceptibly, worrying now that the sheer sound of her voice might suddenly knock him from the chair. “But I should probably go now.” She picked the books up from the floor. “Thanks for these. I’ll bring them back when I’m finished.” She backed away and turned to leave, wanting to run straight out of the College and never return, the search for Nerussa be damned.
“You know,” said Onmund as if she wasn’t desperately trying to escape, “Now that my appetite has returned, I will probably cook dinner instead of crawling into bed when I’m finished here.”
“Okay…,” she said slowly as she turned back around, still slightly mortified and entirely oblivious.
“Will you be here tonight?”
She nodded, “I’ll be around tonight. Maybe later though, if Lydia needs me for anything.”
“Good, I like a late dinner. I’ll meet you in the dining room around 8 and cook something for you.”
Elspeth resisted her immediate impulse, which was to ask, “Why?” She happily accepted the invitation and left, her head buzzing with renewed excitement. She practically skipped down the stairs to her room, where Lydia was stretched out on the bed, reading an expert level destruction book. Elspeth laughed when she saw her, “How did you get in here?”
“Tolfdir saw me waiting in the courtyard and let me in. He said he wants me to have a room here. I think I am going to take him up on it.” She paused and said carefully, “I know you can take care of yourself. But with all this mysterious Psijic Order stuff going on, I feel better being here.”
“I’m not going to argue with that.” Elspeth was thrilled at the thought of Lydia staying at the College. “At the very least, you’ll keep Nirya from talking to me. What did you say to her last night?”
“You know,” said Lydia, “it was so satisfying at the time but I’m really not proud of myself. Had it been anyone but an Altmer from the College, I could have gotten into trouble.” She sighed. “I told her that Winterhold was still a Nord’s city and that as a housecarl from the court of Jarl Balgruuf, I could make sure that anything that happened outside the College would see her sent to The Chill.”
Elspeth’s eyes widened and she smirked at this. She loved Lydia’s irreverent side. “It’s really not like you to abuse your so-called authority like that.”
“Yes, well. Let’s hope I’m not compelled to ever again.” She sat up and put the book down. “Are you working in the archive all day?”
“Maybe. There aren’t any lectures or seminars today so I hadn’t given any thought to my schedule.”
“I’ve got some work from the Jarl. He wants us to recover the Helm of Winterhold from the Wreck of the Pride of Tel Vos.”
“Is the wreck far?” Elspeth asked as she changed from her robe into her armor, “I can’t be out for long.”
Lydia looked at her suspiciously. “I thought you said didn’t have anything scheduled.”
“I don’t have work scheduled,” said Elspeth as she hiked her boots up and fastened them, “Onmund is cooking dinner for me.”
Lydia clapped her hands, “I knew he liked you,” she said excitedly. “The wreck isn’t far at all.” She paused and then asked, “So, did you flutter those eyelashes at him? Or was it that adorable half-smile thing you do with your mouth?” Lydia was genuinely curious to see how Elspeth handled flirting in her absence.
“I cured his hangover. Then I punched him in the ribs.”
Lydia threw back her head and laughed, “Oh Elspeth, you are going to grow up to be a fine Nord one day.”
Outside, the weather was cold but it was clear and sunny, which made the trek to the shore easy. The wreck was on a small island just east of Winterhold. The Sea of Ghosts was one of the most treacherous seas on all of Nirn, but their journey would not take them far, not to the north or to the west where the sea was almost entirely covered with massive ice floes. Instead, they had two relatively short swims, the second of which Elspeth found most unpleasant. She didn’t mind being wet but the water was frigid and she was a Breton. Luckily, her fire-salt treated cloak retained some of its warmth, even when soaked.
As they approached the island they saw the glow from a campfire. They sidled along the edge of the wreck to get a closer look. There appeared to be only two bandits. The first was standing in plain sight, which made it easy for Lydia to take him out with a single arrow shot. The second was more difficult. He was incredibly fast and knew fire spells. He wore destruction robes and Elspeth wondered afterward if he had perhaps studied at the college. In the end, however, he was no match for both women.
The bandits had already done the work of clearing out at least some of the wreck and had loaded their chest up with gold, gems, ingots, silver candlesticks, and the Helm of Winterhold. There was a fire and food and so Elspeth and Lydia were able to warm themselves and enjoy fresh caught fish for lunch. The bandits also had a small skiff, which would make the return trip to the shore relatively easy.
“At least one of the Divines is smiling upon us today,” said Lydia as she finished her meal. “Zenithar, I think. Although, you’ve got Lady Mara at your back too it seems.”
In the end, they opted only to bring back only what they could hold in their pockets and satchels, which proved smart since they had no way to transport the chest from the shore back to Winterhold. “Next time, we’ll bring a pack mule,” said Lydia.
“I didn’t think they had pack mules this far north,” said Elspeth.
“No, you’re right,” agreed Lydia. “Although, I think there might be one in Riften.”
Back at the Jarl’s Longhouse, Korir was happy to have the Helm returned. He ignored Elspeth’s association with the College long enough to share a bottle of mead with them. When he bade them farewell, he promised Lydia work in a week or two. At the Frozen Hearth Lydia gathered her things and promised a rather unhappy Eirid that she would be back to play cards with her soon.
It was getting late by the time they arrived at the Hall of Attainment, where Tolfdir was waiting for them. “It’s nice to see that Skyrim still has some nice people, you give an old man hope!” he exclaimed as he gave Lydia her key and showed her to her room, which was just across the hall from Elspeth’s.
When Elspeth offered to help Lydia unpack and settle in, she just rolled her eyes.
“No!” she said, feigning harshness. “I’m going to take a nap. Then I am going to find Brelyna and Aine and borrow something to read. Then I might go torment J’zargo a little. Now, off with you. Go make yourself look adorable. I don’t want to see you again until tomorrow.”