After bathing and changing her clothes, Elspeth went back to her room to sit for a moment and collect her thoughts. She took the amulet from her pocket and examined it. Apart from its sentimental value, it was very beautiful. It was a brushed silver circle engraved with a Nord knot pattern and held a dark sapphire. Her hands trembled as she held it—she had been so excited to give it to him and now she was terrified. After the purge she hadn’t given much thought to men. She went back to Bruma, enacted a minor rebellion, fought with Xeri, and was consoled by Runa. Then Xeri threw her back into training, isolating her in the mountains for months on end. The trauma of the purge was replaced with—or rather, accompanied by—renewed physical strength and vigor.
In all that time, however, the pain of losing Andil’s affection and friendship wasn’t touched. It was assumed she would mourn his death but nothing was ever said about the pain he caused before he died. As a result she simply let herself believe that her increased physical strength had also endowed her with the ability to control her heart. Yet, here she was, feeling vulnerable. She swallowed hard. Recovering the amulet was more than a gesture of friendship; she knew that returning it would inevitably involve giving something of herself to him as well. This scared her so much that she briefly considered asking Brelyna to return it for her. But when she realized how ludicrous such a request would sound—and that he would come find her anyway—she took a deep breath and went up to his room.
She found him reading on his bed and when he looked up and saw her standing in the doorway, he smiled and looked a little relieved. “You’re here. I didn’t think you would be back for a while.”
“Why would you think that?” she asked.
“I asked Tolfdir if he’d seen you and Enthir overheard and said you went to Riften and would be back, maybe in three weeks. I wasn’t sure if I believed him but no one knew where you were.”
Elspeth pursed her lips and shook her head in annoyance. “Oh for the love of Talos! He knew exactly where I was.” She closed the door and walked over to the bed where Onmund had made room for her to sit.
“How did he know where you were?” he asked as he leaned over for a kiss.
“He sent me on an errand,” she explained as she took the amulet from her pocket. She turned over his hand, which he had rested on her leg, and placed the amulet there.
“My amulet! I didn’t think I would see it again.” Later Elspeth would tell Lydia that she wished she could take back that moment and give him the amulet again, just to see the look on his face. In his life, Onmund had experienced few acts of kindness and now his heart swelled for the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. He paused to catch his breath and ran his thumb around the knot pattern. “My grandfather forged this and gave it to my grandmother on their wedding night. When she died, my mother was reluctant to give it to me. But she did anyway.” He paused and looked back up at her. “I don’t…I know they always disapproved of what I wanted in life, to learn magic instead taking over the forge or even becoming a farmer or a hunter. But no matter how poorly they may have treated me, they’re still my family. I didn’t consider that until after I’d made the trade.”
He placed the amulet in a small box on his bedside table. When he turned back, he put his arms around her. “Thank you,” he whispered, nuzzling her ear softly before pressing his lips to her mouth for a long kiss. She put her hands up and cupped his face—running her fingers along his cheekbones, the first thing she ever noticed about him, the first part she ever wanted to touch. Elspeth could feel her heart racing as she as she undid the strings on his hood. After tossing it on the ground, and with trembling lips, she dropped her mouth down, gently biting his bottom lip and nibbling his jaw, his ear, his neck.
With each nip, he grew a little more assertive, a strong hand rubbing her back and the other tracing the curves of her breasts and hips through her robe. But when he grasped just below the shoulder blade—the sensitive area where the storm wizard had injured her—she yelped and pulled away, startling him. “What’s wrong?” he asked nervously.
Elspeth took a deep breath and swallowed as her shoulder throbbed. “I’m okay,” she reassured him although by the look on his face, he wasn’t convinced. “Lydia and I met a storm wizard earlier and I got nailed with a rather powerful lightening spell—and you know, when they don’t kill you, they tend to linger.” She took this opportunity to kick off her boots and pull her legs up on to the bed.
Onmund still looked doubtful and when his eyes wandered over to the box where he had put his amulet, doubt turned guilt. “Oh Elspeth I’m so—“
But she wouldn’t hear it. She interrupted his apology with another long, lingering kiss and then leaned back on the bed, bringing him with her. He grinned and kissed her neck, trailing his lips across her collarbone. She sighed and rolled her head back while he slowly undid the strings on her robe and slid his hands under the fabric, gasping as he touched the skin underneath. Elspeth leaned up on her elbows, letting the robe slip off her shoulders and kicking her legs out.
Onmund looked her over as she stretched back. “Oh gods,” he whispered, “look at you.” Elspeth’s heart leapt and she rolled over and tugged at the sash on his robe and then watched as he quickly kneed up on the bed and undressed.
His robe hit the floor with a thud, but she barely noticed as she was staring at him, wide-eyed and astonished. Having lived in the communal quarters of Arcane for several years, Elspeth had seen more than her fair share of mages without their robes on. In her experience, they tended to be thin with soft bellies and sloped shoulders. Even the strong ones, like the battlemages and spellswords, were wiry and sort of gangling. Not Onmund. He was lean, but his stomach was carved and his arms and legs were strong—very strong. Elspeth wanted to grope every muscle, from his calves all the way up to where the top of his back met his neck.
She pulled herself down toward him as he kneeled over her, holding himself up with his hands. Until this moment, she had been able to ignore how nervous she was. But when she looked up and she saw that that the playfulness in his eyes had given way to longing, she couldn’t ignore it any longer. This longing was not only for her body; it was for something more. There wasn’t a single part of her didn’t want and he wasn’t holding back. And in that instant, she felt the burden of all her fears—what it would mean to give every part of herself over to someone again. But she also felt, deep in her heart, the chance to let them go. And as much as it terrified her, she wouldn’t resist. In fact, she couldn’t.
She ran her hands up along his arms, pulling him down gently on top of her, curious fingers exploring the muscles on his back and chest. He kissed her, more aggressively this time, and then let his eager mouth and hands wander, biting and massaging her skin. He moved lower, running his tongue along her breasts and stopping to nuzzle the soft skin at the top of her belly. He stopped there to listen to her breathe as waves of excitement and nervousness washed over him. He had never wanted anyone or anything so much, and yet, if given the chance, he could lie there forever, feeling her chest rise and fall against his cheek. Elspeth let out a light sigh and hooked her legs around his, gently nudging him up with the inside of her calf.
When he lifted his head to hers, she tugged at his loincloth, her hands shaking with nervous excitement. As she slid the cloth down his leg with her foot, he touched the inside of her underclothes gingerly and slipped his hand in, removing them as she arched her back and let out a soft moan. Then, kneeling between her legs, he gently pushed her thighs open, and eased into her carefully, letting out a quiet groan when their bodies met. She was warm and tight and perfect. He moved slowly at first, stepping up his thrusts with hers and then, when they were in near perfect rhythm, he moved faster, driving himself deep into her—listening to her sweet cries of pleasure grow louder.
With every thrust, her body swelled with ecstasy—vibrating through her spine and along every nerve right through the tips of her fingers and toes. Elspeth had never before been able to let go, not completely, not like this. Every time that she’d lain with Andil, she had been distracted, always keeping an ear to the door, praying to Mara that no one would catch them. He had tried so hard to help put her ease but it never worked—such were the fears of someone who had never, in her whole life, had anything private.
Now she closed her eyes and allowed her mind to float as all her tension, all her fear, all her grief was carried away and in their place there was only bliss. When he brought her to climax, her entire body quivered and she hooked his waist with her legs, bringing him down and letting him crush her as she stifled shrieks of pleasure into the curve of his neck.
While she caught her breath, Onmund arched his back and clutched her hand as he let himself go—his body stiffening and then shuddering. He stayed there for several moments, breathing deeply as he trembled above her. And when he pulled out of her, instead of smothering her with kisses as she was anticipating, he leaned back on his ankles and placed his head on her belly, tracing the curves of her hips, waist, and the tops of her thighs with his fingers. It was as if he knew she needed a moment to breathe and with this single act—a gesture that seemed so insignificant compared to everything they’d just done together—her heart was gone. She was overwhelmed and though she tried, she couldn’t hold back the tears that filled her eyes.
He sidled up beside her, but when he saw the tears, his face fell. “Did I hurt you?” he stammered.
“No,” she said, her voice trembling, “not at all.”
“Then what’s wrong?” he reached up and wiped the tears from her face before pulling his blanket up. He sounded worried.
She smiled warmly at him, “I’m okay. It’s just a lot—” She paused. “Onmund, you were wonderful.” She kissed him softly before burrowing down into the blanket and nuzzling his chest. “Besides,” she said. “I’m a Breton, we cry over a nice aged cheese.”
“Mara be praised,” he laughed quietly. “I’m a little new at this,” he whispered as he wrapped his arms around her.
“Really?” Elspeth was surprised. From the stories Lydia told—most of which involved a bedroll in the grain mill at Battle-Born farm—sexual experimentation seemed like a rite of passage for adolescent Nords, for both young men and women.
“Yes, well my interest in magic didn’t really appeal to the Nord girls I grew up with,” he explained. “And when I got here, I felt like I was behind all the more naturally talented elves and with J’zargo making everything a competition, I was a little obsessed with studying and casting. I didn’t do much of anything else.”
“I see.” She nestled into his arms; the pain in her shoulder had subsided but the exhaustion from the day’s adventure was now catching up to her. She dozed off, slipping in and out of sleep, while Onmund traced knot patterns on the back of her neck and shoulders with his fingers. Watching her sleep gave him a sense of peace with the world and he wondered how J’zargo had made something so pleasant seem so odd in his stories.
He touched her face and when her eyes fluttered open he asked, “How did you get this?” He was referring to the scar on her jaw. It was barely noticeable, unless you were looking closely.
“This?” Elspeth’s hand touched her cheek. She had never shared that story with anyone although she supposed Lydia had heard about it from Runa. “It’s from a fight I had back in Bruma.” She paused and took a deep breath. “With Xeri.”
“Your mentor?” Onmund was confused. “What happened?”
“I threw an alembic and it hit her in the head. And then she…reacted to that.” Elspeth saw the look of astonishment on his face and realized that she would not be able to depend on the short versions of her life stories with him. “After the incident at Arcane—” She turned abruptly on her side and looked intently at him. “What the Thalmor did was an act of terror. It should have nullified the Concordat and Mede should have declared war on the Thalmor. We were all waiting for it and when he didn’t and then accepted the Thalmor investigation of the incident, I sort of lost it.” She stopped talking to catch her breath. “We all did.”
He simply nodded. He remembered when the news of Arcane had reached the College and when the report was issued. Savos and most of the faculty denounced it, although never officially. He was no stranger to stories of Thalmor treachery, but until now that particular incident had seemed very distant and almost too big to comprehend.
“I was so angry and sad. I spent a lot of time at the taverns, screaming about injustice. Runa told Xeri to be patient with me. Then I moved my ranting from the taverns to the statue of Tiber Septim. The whole town heard it and the countess had the guards bring me in.”
“You were arrested?” His eyes grew wider and wider as each detail was revealed.
“No,” she explained. “I just sat in the steward’s office until Xeri came. She brought me home and yelled at me. When she said it was time to resume training, I said I was done with her and was leaving to find the dissident elves or someone else to help me fight the Thalmor.” Elspeth stuttered over these last details. Onmund assumed it was simply the difficulty of telling the story, but Elspeth was struggling to be as honest as possible without giving her relationship to the dissidents away.
“I had never defied her like that before. She said something awful…I don’t even remember what…and I threw my alembic and it hit her in the back of the head. She cast a paralysis spell on me and tackled me to the ground, holding her dagger to my jaw and screaming about how terrible I was. She was so angry. I don’t think she realized how deep she pushed the blade. Runa found us like this and she kicked Xeri off me.”
This stunned Onmund silent. Elspeth was a battle mage; she’d been hurt before and would be again. But the thought of her being hurt by someone she trusted filled him with rage—and then helplessness. She flinched as she watched the gentleness in his face give way to anger and frustration. She shook her head and touched his cheek, running her fingers along his face until some of its softness returned.
“I planned to leave that night, but Runa talked me down,” she continued. “Xeri was harsh and relentless, but she had never done anything like that before. And she never did again. We went back to the mountains to train, which actually helped. Then I came here to find out what happened to this Altmer woman.” Elspeth sighed. “It’s not quite the quest I hoped for, but it’s something. And it got me out of Cyrodill, which I think I needed more than anything.” She stretched out and looked at him intently, “I’m sorry I can’t really say a lot about that right now.”
Onmund smiled warmly and moved the strands of hair that had fallen in her face. “That’s fine. Everyone has their secrets.”
Secrets, she thought. Hers were becoming the bane of her existence. She rolled onto his chest and put her head down while he played with her hair. She was thinking about the difficulty of being completely open with someone with incomplete stories when she thought of something that she needed him to know. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Who is Enthir sleeping with?”
“What?” Onmund was perplexed by this sudden shift to College gossip, something he had little interest in. However, for Elspeth he was happy to oblige. “This week? Nirya, I think. Brelyna tells me these things and as soon as she does, I try to forget. Why do you care?”
“Oh, I don’t,” she said. “But someone was hiding in the closet when I got your amulet back—” This caused him to interrupt her with a fit of laughter.
Elspeth just smiled until he settled down. “Anyway,” she continued, “it sounds like people know, but it just occurred to me that someone else in similar circumstances might have given me the amulet to keep my mouth shut.” She stopped and considered her next statement carefully. “If given the choice, I think I would have chosen the storm wizard.”
“I don’t want to be someone who trades in secrets or collects them for leverage,” she said thoughtfully. “The only confidences I want to keep are ones that are entrusted to me, to protect someone’s privacy or to keep people safe.”
“Okay,” he said. He kissed her before she put her head back down on his chest. That Elspeth was an intense woman didn’t surprise or unsettle him. As she talked, he just felt close to her, which was rather nice.
After a few moments she looked up again. “So. Enthir and Nirya.”
Onmund wrinkled his brow, “I wonder if she’ll be less cranky now.”
“I doubt it. Would you be less cranky if YOU were sleeping with Enthir?”
“Elspeth, I adore you. But if you put that thought into my head ever again, I will walk out of this College and never return.” He scowled playfully. “And you will have to live with the fact that you sent me back to beg forgiveness from my parents and committed me to a life of hunting.”
“Hunting is an honorable vocation,” protested Elspeth.
“It is when you can hunt. I can’t.” He shook his head and sighed. “I’ll be married off to a large Nord woman. She won’t be cute like you but she’ll have great child bearing hips and we’ll have seven children and of course, I won’t be able to feed any of them because the only thing I can bring back from the day’s hunt is half-singed bunny rabbit.” He gripped her tighter as she giggled and buried her face in his chest. “Now see what you’ve done; my poor children are going to starve. I hope you’re happy.”
Elspeth smiled and lay quietly, running her fingers along his chest and listening to his heartbeat. “I am,” she whispered.