“Other mages may claim to be as good as magic as J’zargo, but they cannot be as charming as he. Thus, J’zargo always comes out on top.” He gestured toward Onmund, who was stirring something over the fire. “That is why this one should listen to J’zargo.”
“J’zargo,” replied Onmund, his patience growing thin, “I am not adding moon sugar to my grandmother’s venison stew.” And as J’zargo peered into the bubbling pot, Onmund moved to nudge him out of the way. “Go away. I don’t want you shedding in it either.”
“Leave Onmund alone,” said Brelyna. “He doesn’t need your advice or your moon sugar.”
“Need we remind you that Onmund is the one dining with a woman tonight,” teased Aine. “J’zargo is playing cards with Aine and Brelyna. Again.”
“J’zargo wonders if Lydia likes fondue.” He said, ignoring his friend’s ribbing.
“You should go ask her,” came a voice from behind. It was Elspeth. “She’s downstairs in her room.” Aine and Brelyna’s eyes brightened at this news. J’zargo was also delighted to hear this, although he tried not to show it. “She’s sleeping now, but she will be looking for you guys later.”
“Good!” said Aine as she Brelyna gathered up their things to leave. “Come on J’zargo, let’s go.” J’zargo cocked his head to say something but before he could open his mouth, Aine said sternly, “Now.” J’zargo furrowed his brow but relented and followed the women, leaving Elspeth and Onmund alone.
The Hall of Attainment’s dining area was not exactly the most romantic eating establishment in Skyrim, but with most of the students done for the evening, it was quiet. Onmund had set a small table in the corner, where he sat Elspeth down and poured some Honinngbrew mead. “I buy this whenever Dagur has it,” he said.
“It reminds me of Whiterun,” said Elspeth as she took a sip. Onmund smiled and walked back toward the cooking area. He brought back two large bowls of stew and set them down.
“This is my grandmother’s recipe. There is not a better venison stew in all of Falkreath hold,” he said as he sat down across from her.
Elspeth laid her napkin in her lap. “Is that where you’re from?” She was less nervous now, her earlier anxieties assuaged by food and drink.
“I was born and raised there,” he replied.
“Is it hard being so far from your family?” asked Elspeth.
“Not at all,” he said. “I consider it a blessing. My family was convinced coming here was a death sentence, or worse. It took years of insisting that this is what I’m meant to do.” He paused and drank some of his mead. “I write to them once a year to let them know I’m alive, but I haven’t seen them since my grandma died. And they made it pretty clear I really wasn’t welcome there anymore.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Elspeth quietly.
“Don’t be,” he said. “I’m not.”
“So, there is nothing you miss from home then?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that,” he replied. “At Dead Man’s drink in Falkreath City, Valga Vinicia used to make the most amazing open face lamb’s tongue sandwich—”
Elspeth swallowed her stew and furrowed her brow. “Is that a food or an illicit sex act?”
Onmund laughed and continued, “—which I can’t get Haran to make for me at the Frozen Hearth.”
“Well of course not! She’s not that kind of woman. And, she’s married.” Elspeth shook her head in mock-disapproval, which made Onmund laugh even harder.
“I do wonder about my sister’s little girl. She’s about five now. I would have liked to have known her.” Onmund paused and took a sip of his mead. “What about your family?” he asked.
For over ten years, Elspeth had kept the secret of her identity with little discomfort. Xeri had established the story so seamlessly in Bruma that even keeping it from Andil was easy. Arriving in Skyrim had brought weight to the lie but not until that moment had it felt even remotely unbearable. Onmund wasn’t making small talk; he was genuinely curious about where she came from. And his face betrayed a kind and trustworthy man, one to whom Elspeth want to reveal all her secrets. Not only that, she believed that Onmund would have loved Frostcraig Village—with the atronach guardians around the perimeter and dremora guarding the entrances to various rooms in the Spire. When she was a little girl, there were mages everywhere and they all loved teaching her spells and enchantments.
One day, when it was not quite so dangerous, she would tell him the truth. But for now she took a deep breath and began her story—and for the first time, the truth pounded in the back of her mind as if begging to be released. “My parents were refugees who fled Cyrodill for the camps in Morrowind at the end of the war.” If by refugees you mean exiled champions and by camps you mean an unincorporated village property in the Jerall moutains that has been in my family since the Oblivion Crisis. “I lost my parents when I was ten and that’s when Runa and Xeri, two other refugees, brought me to Bruma to study and train.” My father died and my mother let his housecarl take me to Bruma to prepare me to fulfill some bizarre vision (the likes of which she never could or never would explain) that she had the night I was born.” “Xeri was my mentor—she trained me to fight. She descends from a long line of wise women and warriors from Morrowind.” That’s actually true. “She pushed me very hard and was sort of….” Elspeth paused for a moment.
“Well, I was going to say insane, but that works.” Elspeth grinned, feeling relieved to be moving to the truthful parts of the story. “Runa is a Nord and Lydia’s aunt. If not for me she might have returned to Skyrim, but she stayed because she was terrified of what would happen if she’d left me to be raised by Xeri alone. She was the nurturing one.” She drank some more mead. “I guess Lydia is my family now.” She ate a few more bites of her food and then asked, “Was it strange at first? To be with all these elves and mages?”
“Oh my gods, yes.” Onmund shook his head. “In my family you get up with the sun and go down with the sun. I could not believe the hours that mages kept. At first I thought it was an elven thing—but then I would see Tolfdir wandering the halls in the middle of the night. And when he has favor to ask of me, it’s usually around 3AM.”
“Really?” Elspeth laughed. “What do you say to him?”
“For Tolfdir? I can’t say no to him; he helped me adjust and has taught me a lot.” Onmund sat back and grinned. “Brelyna and J’zargo and I were all in the same cohort. And we were so eager and so very green when we arrived. We must have driven him crazy. But he endured us with patience. Even J’zargo. I think Tolfdir is the only instructor who hasn’t thrown him out of seminar at least once.”
“What are the other instructors like here?”
“Very smart, very talented. Not all of them are great at teaching. Collette is probably the best teacher we have and no one takes her seriously.”
“Because she teaches restoration?”
“I think that’s part of it, but I think it’s also her,” explained Onmund. “I think if Phinis or Faralda taught restoration, they would get a bit more respect, which is unfortunate.”
“What about Enthir? I keep hearing about him as the guy who can get things. But I don’t really understand what he does.”
“No,” said Onmund. “That’s about all he does.” Onmund’s face darkened and he looked down.
“Is something wrong?” Onmund started to shake his head but she raised her eyebrows and gave him a look that was both knowing and inquisitive; it was a look she’d relied on her whole life and one that made it difficult for people to keep things from her. “I may have entered an agreement with Enthir. He had something I needed and so I traded something of mine. It was a mistake and now I regret it.”
Elspeth frowned sympathetically. “What was it?”
He sighed. “It was an amulet and it belonged to my family.” He looked really sad.
“Can’t you get it back?” asked Elspeth.
“Enthir doesn’t go back on trades,” explained Onmund. “I need to get enough coin to buy it from him before he sells it or trades it away. And that’s assuming he’ll sell it back to me.”
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Elspeth.
Onmund looked up. “No,” he exclaimed, realizing that he casting a pall over their evening. “It’s really not a big deal.” He smiled at her and asked, “Have you been up to the roof yet?” Elspeth shook her head and Onmund started cleaning, suddenly very excited. When he was finished, he took her hand and let her up the stairs. “I hope it’s still clear out.”
He opened the door at the top of the stairs. From outside they could hear laughter and Lydia shouting, “You’re out of your element J’zargo” and then the sound of wet snow pummeling fur. Lydia and Aine were just outside the door and when they saw Elspeth and Onmund waiting, they nodded and gestured for them to go in the opposite direction while they left to keep J’zargo occupied.
The weather was still clear and when Elspeth stepped out she looked up and saw the Northern Lights, vertical streaks of green and orange light spanning the night sky. She gasped when she saw them and squeezed Onmund’s hand. “Runa told me all about them, but this is the first time I’ve seen the lights.”
“My mother called them Kyne’s lights and said that they are messages from the goddess herself, but my grandma said they come from the planes of Aetherius and written on them are the secrets of magic the gods are ready to share with the races on Nirn.” He led her to an area enclosed by benches.
“It seems your grandma was a little more supportive of your interest in magic,” said Elspeth as she sat down.
“Yes, she was a bit more encouraging. She brought me to the temple in Falkreath and introduced me to Runil, who taught me my first spells,” he replied. “But she was still a Nord woman. She wanted me to take over my grandfather’s forge when he died and wasn’t happy when I came here and like the rest of the family, made her feelings quite clear.”
When he looked away, Elspeth wondered if amulet he spoke of earlier belonged to his grandmother. She thought he was upset again, but he put his arm around her and smiled as he pulled her close. They looked back toward their friends and saw them heading down to the Hall of Attainment. Lydia was last to leave and she paused and waved them good night with an exaggerated gesture and a grin intended to indicate her wholehearted approval. Elspeth laughed and when she turned back to Onmund, he leaned in and kissed her. And just as she had imagined, his jaw was strong but his lips and tongue were soft. They kissed for a long time and when they stopped, Onmund took her hands in his and pressed his forehead to hers. Elspeth took a deep breath. She didn’t want to let go. Ever. They sat there quietly, each taking a few more quick kisses until Elspeth started shivering. He pulled her hands into the folds of his robe and suggested going back inside.
They walked back down to Onmund’s room, laughing about how Elspeth’s acquired Nord tendencies did not extend to temperature resistance. “I’ll never understand why I can create fire in my hands, but I can’t warm the rest of my body,” she said. “We could have stayed on the roof all night!”
“I didn’t want to stay up there all night,” he protested. “It’s getting cold.”
“I thought Nords loved the cold, standing in the cold, sitting in the cold, drinking in the cold….”
“Only good Nords,” he replied as they turned on to his floor, where Tolfdir was wandering around with a stack of books and papers in his arms. Onmund cringed and tried to turn them around. But it was too late. Tolfdir had seen them.
“There you are, my boy,” he called out. “I was wondering if you could help me prepare the morning seminar on Ironflesh aspects. It’s going to be quite a lesson. Oh, hello Elspeth.”
Elspeth greeted Tolfdir before turning her face away, desperately trying not to laugh.
“I was just going to walk Elspeth downstairs,” explained Onmund, also trying to hide his reluctant amusement at Tolfdir’s impeccable timing.
“Did she hurt her knee?” asked Tolfdir, as if there were no other reason to walk someone to her room.
“Ah…no” Onmund stammered, not exactly sure what to say next.
“I have to give him a book,” said Elspeth as she turned him around. “Good night Tolfdir. Don’t worry, he’ll be right back.”
When they were out of earshot, Elspeth burst into a fit of laughter. At her door, Onmund tried to apologize but she wouldn’t let him. “Thank you for dinner,” she said, taking his hands and pulling him close.
“You’re welcome,” he said, before leaning in and kissing her again. “I will find you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she said. “Shouldn’t I give you a book?”
Onmund shook his head as he walked away. “He won’t even notice.”
When he was gone, Elspeth rolled her head back against the doorway and walked over to the washroom, where she turned on the tap and splashed frigid water on her face. She was restless and not even remotely tired. She thought back over the evening, which made her smile until she recalled the amulet. She surmised that trading the amulet hurt far more than he let on and as she dried her face, she decided to see exactly what kind of hours these mages kept.