The two-day trip to Windhelm was largely unremarkable. After dealing with snow bears and wolves around Fort Krastav, they stopped to camp. They kept watch in shifts and meant to sleep in pairs, but wound up keeping watch in pairs—the desire for conversation and company outweighing the need for sleep, at least on the first leg of their trip.
“I like having a third person,” said Lydia as she and Elspeth passed a bottle of mead between them on their watch. “Especially someone like Onmund. With those spells, long range is his strength and he stays there. J’zargo was always all over the place. I didn’t worry about him dying—well, except for the times I wanted to kill him—but I never knew what he was going to do. And it was exhausting.”
“Yes,” agreed Elspeth. “We’re all very compatible.” Thinking about life in Skyrim without any responsibilities made her smile. And then, when struck with reality, it hurt. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin as she narrowed her gaze to the ground.
“Are you okay?” asked Lydia, noting Elspeth’s sudden change in mood.
“I’m fine,” she whispered and gestured toward Onmund, who was sleeping on the other side of the fire, indicating that discussing whatever was on her mind would have to wait. Elspeth and Onmund were still in the early, playful stages of their relationship. Onmund was attentive and affectionate and with him Elspeth was content in a way that she had never been before. But the moment she started thinking about the future, uncertainty and anxiety ate away at her. And it was nerve wrecking no matter which way she thought about it. The search for Nerussa could take her far from the College or the Psijic Order could keep her there and both were dangerous. She took a deep breath and buried her face in her arms.
“What’s wrong?” Onmund was up now and Lydia had taken over the bedroll. He sat down and put his arm around her.
She looked up and smiled weakly at him. “I’m just tired,” she replied, which was only partly true.
He pulled her close and kissed her. “Why don’t you go to sleep?”
“Don’t you want me to keep you company?”
“Yes,” he said. “If you rest your head on my lap, you can do both.” He took a bottle of mead from his satchel.
“Okay,” she said, although she really wasn’t that sleepy. It was nice, however, to rest her head while he played with her hair. His touch was so natural and undemanding. With Onmund there was no pretense and Elspeth occasionally felt twinges of guilt for her inability to simply let go and enjoy the moments as they came. She sighed and nestled in closer to him; she wouldn’t sleep but she could at least try to relax.
When Lydia woke up, they ate a quick breakfast and made their way to Windhelm. It was still early when they arrived at Candlehearth Hall and the inn was quieter than usual. The great hall was crowded, but the mood noticeably somber: the bard was not performing; there was little, if any, laughter, and no spirited arguments. Nothing.
“Why is it so depressing in here tonight?” asked Lydia.
“Friga Shatter-Shield was recently murdered,” said the Susanna the Wicked as she cleared their tankards away and gestured toward the older woman in the far corner. “Her mother Tova has been in here every night since then, drowning her sorrows in cheap mead and wine.” She shook her head sadly as she walked away. The news of the murder was chilling, and Onmund, thinking of his sister and her daughter, was especially troubled. Lying in bed that night, he told Elspeth that it was the first time he ever felt anything resembling homesickness since leaving Falkreath.
Lydia was waiting in the great room when they woke up the next day. After talking to Stenvar, a mercenary with considerable scouting experience, they decided to ride to Whiterun and walk to Fellglow Keep from there. It was the least adventurous of their options, but it would save three days of walking. They bought food for the trip and to bring back to Breezehome. It was late when they arrived and Lydia suggested going straight to bed and taking care of the books first thing in the morning. “If Alfhild gets a hold of us in the Bannered Mare, it could be days before she lets us leave again.”
Fellglow Keep was a little over three hours from Whiterun. They arrived early and after eliminating the mages outside and on the upper levels, they found Orthorn imprisoned on the lower level.
“Onmund!” he shouted, “Thank gods someone came! Please, please, please let me out of here.”
“Now,” said Elspeth when they had released him from his cell. “Where are the books you took?”
“Oh.” Orthorn sounded dejected. “I thought perhaps you’d come for me.”
“No,” replied Onmund, who was starting to sound irritated. “The College needs the books back. Tell us where they are.”
“The Caller has them in the undercroft. Since you rescued me, I could take you to her, I suppose.”
“That would be good,” said Onmund harshly. “Now, let’s go.” The tone of Onmund’s voice was unsettling. She knew that Onmund didn’t care for how Orthorn had treated Aine, but she wasn’t expecting this much hostility.
There were more mages throughout the keep; they were easily eliminated. The undercroft was a large open room with several alcoves filled with altars and summoning circles. When they met The Caller, she didn’t attack—she merely scolded them for making a mess.
“We came for the books,” said Elspeth as they approached her.
“If you can find them, you can have them,” she said. “They are of no use to me.”
“Where are they?” asked Lydia, drawing her axe.
“Let’s see,” she replied and gestured to Orthorn. “If you hand him over, I’ll tell you where they are.” Orthorn went pale and started shaking his head.
Lydia and Elspeth went to protest but before they could say anything, Onmund pushed Orthorn forward. “Take him,” he said, almost casually. “Where are the books?”
The Caller’s laugh was menacing as she pointed to a chest across the room. When Elspeth and Lydia attempted to confront her, she pulled Orthorn between them.
“She’s going to kill me,” he cried.
“Indeed, I am,” she agreed. “Slowly and painfully.”
She started to move away, keeping a terrified Orthorn between her and the other women, but with her back turned to Onmund, she didn’t see him grab his dagger and stick her in the back. Elspeth was stunned, not certain if she was impressed with or terrified by Onmund’s cunning. The Caller collapsed and Orthorn ran to a door on the far end of the undercroft, an exit that appeared to be locked. While Onmund found the books, Elspeth looted a key from The Caller’s body.
When they were outside, Orthorn started screaming at Onmund. “What in Oblivion were you thinking?” Elspeth wondered this as well.
“I was thinking that the leader of a renegade group of mages could still do a lot of damage before the four of us took her out,” explained Onmund. “You’re alive aren’t you? Now, are you coming back to the College? Aine would like to know.”
“Aine?” Orthorn looked confused and slightly regretful.
“Oh, did you just forget about her?
“No, I—I don’t know. Do you think I should go back?”
“No, but it’s not my decision.”
“You always had a thing for her.” At this Elspeth’s stomach lurched. Onmund had acknowledged his old crush on Aine, but he was so hostile toward Orthorn, she was starting to wonder if there was still something there.
Onmund shook his head in exasperation. “Your problem Orthorn is that you are so used to following your prick around, you can’t imagine anyone doing otherwise.”
“So you’re not here following your prick around?” asked Orthorn sarcastically.
“Oh, I never said I wasn’t,” said Onmund. “Look, I have no idea why but Aine wants you back. If you think you can be decent to her or if you think you can stand the conventional magic studies at the College, then go. If not, don’t.”
“I think it’s best I wait before going back to the College. Aine aside, I’m not sure I want to be ripped apart by Urag’s angry atronachs.” He turned to Elspeth and Lydia “You got me out of that cage. Thank you.” Then he took off.
Lydia stepped up to Onmund where was standing. “Good riddance,” she said, looking toward the direction Orthorn had run. “Four is too many.”
“Yes,” said Onmund as he made room in his satchel for the books.
“Now,” she continued, “Did you plan that little maneuver?”
“Sort of. I never intended to sacrifice Orthorn. I just needed to distract her long enough to get behind her,” he explained. “I didn’t think she would give me a such clear shot though. I have you two to thank for that.” He looked up at Elspeth, who looked away when he tried to smile at her.
“Let’s go,” she said as she turned and hurried past them. She was really confused by Onmund’s response to Orthorn about following his prick around. The phrasing itself was fairly unsettling to her and their exchange left her feeling cold. Cold and a bit nauseated. It was a feeling with which she was familiar.
Onmund looked at Lydia who simply shrugged her shoulders. On the way back to Whiterun, Elspeth walked briskly and didn’t say anything. Lydia broke the silence by asking Onmund to teach her to taste for alchemical properties. And even Elspeth had to grin as she listened to Lydia try to distinguish between the varieties of mountain flower they picked on the way home.
“The purple ones taste like burning.” Then she spent the next few moments coughing and sputtering. “Forget it! I don’t want to be an alchemist.”
When they were back in Breezehome, Elspeth went straight upstairs, saying only that she was going to bed. Lydia and Onmund were perplexed. “It’s four o’clock,” said Lydia. “I have never seen her go to bed this early on an empty stomach.” She looked thoughtfully at Onmund. She didn’t know what was bothering Elspeth, but she had a feeling it started at Fellglow Keep. “You should talk to her. I’m going to find Alfhild and then I’ll meet you at the Bannered Mare for dinner.”
After Lydia left, Onmund walked slowly upstairs, where he found Elspeth in her room, lying on her bed. When he entered, she turned away from him. The gesture stung, but Onmund remained calm as he lay down beside her.
“Hey,” he said, placing his hand on her shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
Elspeth stiffened under his touch but didn’t shrug him off. She shook her head.
“Don’t do this,” he said. He moved closer and put his arm around her waist and whispered, “Tell me what’s troubling you. Please.” Onmund knew that Elspeth held back from him, keeping her feelings in check and he had a tremendous amount of patience for those moments of angst. But seeing her so visibly upset broke his heart in a thousand different ways. He wouldn’t be able to let this one go.
Elspeth squeezed her eyes shut. There was something she wanted to ask him, but the words just hung in her throat. Nothing in her life had prepared her for these types of confrontations. Xeri had taught her to push her feelings aside and though Runa’s nurturing influence helped to protect Elspeth’s sensitive heart, there was a point at which detachment became habitual, something from which she had few means of wrenching herself.
When it was clear that he would lie there all night waiting, she took a deep breath and, hesitating over every other word, asked, “What did you mean when you sort of implied to Orthorn that you were following your prick around?”
Onmund was confused at first and when he realized how Elspeth might have misunderstood his comment sadness gripped his heart. He held her tight and explained, “Oh, I was talking about how I came there with you.”
“Orthorn was trying to put me on the defensive. I wasn’t going to indulge him so I just agreed with him. But I wasn’t talking about Aine.”
“You were so angry with him,” she said. “I thought maybe you….” She couldn’t go on.
But Onmund understood. “Aine is a friend and I hate how he treated her. But it wasn’t about her,” he explained. “I’ve spent much of my life defending magic and those summoners were just appalling. And that’s how my family and the people I grew up with view all mages.” He paused. “Knowing he left the college to do that, I was fairly disgusted with him.”
She was overwhelmed by feelings of relief. And foolishness. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” he replied as took her face in his hands and kissed her. “Can we go eat now?”
In the Bannered Mare Lydia was sitting with Alfhild and Idolaf. Alfhild squealed when Elspeth arrived at the table and gave her a big hug before looking Onmund over. “Oh my gods, Elspeth!” she exclaimed, “He’s adorable.” This, of course, made Onmund blush furiously.
“Lars is going to be heartbroken,” said Idolaf after shaking Onmund’s hand.
“He only just stopped asking when you were coming back,” said Alfhild.
“Awe…that’s sweet,” said Elspeth. “Send him over tomorrow and he can have breakfast with us before we leave.”
“So,” said Idolaf. “Lydia tells us she’s been studying magic. Is this true?”
“Oh yes,” said Elspeth. “She’s a very powerful mage now.”
“She’ll light the void out of your house,” agreed Onmund.
“I’m going to teach Lars to bring dead skeevers back to life,” Lydia said, thoroughly enjoying the look of horror on Idolaf’s face.
Saadia brought over some mead. Alfhild grilled Onmund on where he was born, his family, his interest in magic, his impressions of Whiterun. She skipped right over the war. Idolaf seemed a little wary of Onmund at first, but this soon abated. Elspeth sat back with her tankard. Having Onmund in Whiterun didn’t inspire panicked thoughts about the future like she assumed it would. Having him here with Lydia in the Bannered Mare and at Breezehome was comfortable and she was able, for the first time ever, to indulge daydreams inspired by Lady Mara without all the fear and anxiety that clouded those thoughts.