“The Archivist’s career . . . is one of service. He exists in order to make other people’s work possible, unknown people for the most part and working very possibly on lines equally unknown to him, some of them in the quite distant future and upon lines as yet unpredictable. His Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim to provide, without prejudice or thought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge.”
~Sir Hilary Jenkinson, “The English Archivist: A New Profession” (1947)
After almost a week away, Elspeth dreaded going back to the archive. She lingered over breakfast before finally heading over to the Arcanaeum and when she arrived she saw Urag and Aine waiting by Urag’s desk looking enthusiastic about something. Well, Urag looked mildly pleased whereas Aine appeared positively giddy. Assuming that she was excited about the books and the prospect of Orthorn returning, Elspeth felt just a bit sorry as she imagined having to tell her otherwise.
“Oh, I figured as much,” she said when Elspeth explained that Onmund was not able to convince Orthorn to return. She did not reveal, however, that he also hadn’t tried very hard. And that he had been somewhat discouraging.
“We have something for you,” said Urag with a sly grin. He looked almost mischievous, which made Elspeth somewhat uncomfortable and so she turned her attention to Aine, whose enthusiasm was not quite as disconcerting.
“I found her.” She took a small piece of paper from a folder on the desk and slapped it down in the desk. “I found your mage.”
“Wha…?” said Elspeth as she reached for the paper. “Are you certain?”
“We compared the note to the letter several times,” said Urag. “The script is identical.”
Elspeth covered her mouth with her hand as she slowly sat down. She inspected the note carefully, not quite ready to believe it was the clue she was seeking.
Tolfdir, I believe this is the manuscript you are looking for. ~Harinde
The script matched so perfectly that Elspeth didn’t need to confirm it with the original letter. She just knew. It was a simple note, one that might not have made it back to the archive in the first place. Perhaps Tolfdir forgot to remove it. Or perhaps it had been used to mark a place in the file. Perhaps. Either way, it was in Elspeth’s hands now. She sat and stared at it for several moments before she turned to Aine and Urag and, with a trembling voice, thanked them and asked to speak to Urag alone.
Urag pulled Nerussa’s original letter from the lockbox on his desk and handed it to Elspeth before pulling a chair up to join her. “I remember Harinde,” he said. “Lovely Altmer woman. She was admitted as an apprentice but she did not practice magic. She spent all her time down here.” Urag looked at the letter over Elspeth’s shoulder again and tilted his head. “She was interested in the Divines. And she worked down here every day. All day, just compiling notes.”
Elspeth remained silent for a few moments. Finally, she asked, “Do you know what happened to her?”
“I do,” said Urag. “After she exhausted the archive I sent her to Solitude to investigate some of the old radical religious groups like the Talos Cult.”
“The Talos Cult? Is that like the Imperial Cult?” Elspeth asked, recalling the former name given to the worship of the Nine Divines.
“No, the Talos Cult was a small faction back during the reign of Uriel VII. They plotted to murder him and seat one of his sons on the throne. They believed the divine Septim blood ran thicker in his sons.” Urag leaned back and scratched his beard, as if trying to recall something. “Harinde seemed especially curious about the sub-cults of the Divines and the hero cults of the various Septims, such as the Hörme. I sent her to see Sybille Stentor at the Blue Palace. Haafingar has seen a number of those cults come and go. And the Imperial library in Castle Dour has quite a bit of information.”
Elspeth nodded at Urag as she ran her fingers along the edge of the original letter before tucking it into her journal. “Thank you again,” she said quietly as she stood up to leave. “I should go talk to Savos. I guess I will be leaving for Solitude shortly.”
She walked slowly toward the Arch-mage’s quarters, ambivalent about her newly acquired knowledge. Savos was alone, much to her relief, and he too recalled Harinde although he didn’t say much more about her than Urag had. Elspeth had also hoped he would know more about the Psijic Order—perhaps indicating that she should stay or letting her know when she should return, but on this he had little information.
“The Order could return in a week or they could come in a year. I’m still trying to figure out how they are related to that Orb. The book you retrieved should help, but it could take months or even years to translate some of those symbols. As much as I would like you to stay, I think you need to move on this quest of yours. The Order will find you if they need you.”
Elspeth thanked him and left to find Lydia. As she approached her room she heard Brelyna’s voice, panicked and apologetic. “Oh dear…that wasn’t supposed to happen. Do you…feel all right, you look a little um—”
“Why is she green?” demanded Elspeth when she saw Lydia, who by now had stumbled back onto her bed.
“I am so sorry, I went over this again and again, and I was sure it would have better results.” Brelyna looked at Elspeth. “It will wear off soon. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, I promise.”
“I know,” said Elspeth. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, but could you leave us alone please.”
Brelyna nodded and backed out of the room slowly. Elspeth shut the door and looked back at Lydia. “Are you okay?”
“Everything looks sort of green and shiny. It’s distracting, but I feel fine. What’s going on?”
Elspeth sat down in the chair by the bed. “We found her…or, I should say, Aine found her. Nerussa. Going by the name Harinde. After she left here, she went to Solitude.” Lydia’s eyes grew in disbelief and Elspeth continued. “So, we go there next, I guess. I talked to Savos about the Order and he seems to think that waiting around for them would be pointless.” She let out a deep breath as she slumped forward and put her hands over her face.
“Oh Elspeth,” said Lydia. She sat up and took Elspeth’s hands in hers.
They sat there like that until she looked up and whispered, “I don’t want to leave him.”
“I know.” Lydia paused. “You know, he’s good in a fight. Would you consider asking him—”
“No.” Elspeth sat up abruptly. “Absolutely not. This isn’t a set of stolen books we’re chasing and I won’t….” She stopped. Her voice was shaking. “I can’t do that. Not again.” She could barely get the last words out.
Lydia nodded. “Okay,” she whispered. She knew better than to push. Elspeth was the one who had convinced Andil to attend Arcane, and her guilt, which had only been exacerbated since arriving at the College, was a nut that Runa had desperately tried to crack—to no avail. It did, however, give her an idea.
“Besides,” she said. “I’m not ready to tell him about Nerussa. About my mother. It’s too soon and it’s too dangerous. It wouldn’t be fair to bring him along without that knowledge.”
“You’re probably right,” Lydia agreed. “Okay. Let me sleep Brelyna’s spell off. Then, before we go, I’m going to see if the Jarl has any last minute things he would like me to take care of.” She smiled. “You go spend some time with your magic Nord.”
Elspeth left and walked slowly up the stairs to Onmund’s room, stopping occasionally to clutch her stomach and catch her breath. She had no idea how she was going to tell him she and Lydia were leaving. And she had no idea what sort of reaction she should prepare herself for.
She took several deep breaths outside his door and decided to ignore her anxiety and keep things light at first. He was reading at his desk when she arrived at his room and he smiled brightly when he saw her. “I thought you were working in the archive today.”
“I can’t focus on archival work today,” she said. “I’m taking the day off. Care to join me?”
Onmund looked at the piles of books he had intended to read and then at Elspeth who was lying on her side on the bed. She looked so cute he could hardly stand it. “I need to finish some work first.”
“No problem,” she said. “I’ll just take a nap.” She kicked her shoes off and got under the covers. Onmund smiled and turned back to his book. He could hear her kicking and twisting around trying to get comfortable. After a few minutes, while he resumed taking notes on the first volume of Dwemer Inquiries, he felt something soft hit him in the back of the head.
“Oh,” he said as he turned around and saw her underclothes on the floor. “It’s going to be that kind of a nap.” He shut his book and stood up, peeling his robe off as he walked over to the bed. “Do you have any idea how much work I have to do?”
You’ll have plenty of time for work when I’m not around, she thought. But she didn’t want to think about that. “Go ahead. Finish your work,” she said, as if that was even a remote possibility at this point. “I will wait.”
“I don’t think so,” he replied as he crawled into bed.
Four hours later, they were eating an early dinner—well, Onmund was eating; Elspeth was drinking mead and pushing the food around on her plate, still trying to figure out how to break the news. She had no idea what to say, if she should just blurt out, “I’m going to Solitude” or if she should preface it with something. And if so, what? To make things worse, Onmund was especially cheerful despite having accomplished nothing all afternoon. Well, almost nothing. Elspeth had achieved a personal best, which was likely the source of his good mood.
“Hello,” said Lydia as she plopped down on the bench next to Elspeth, startling her a bit. “I wound up talking to everyone in town. The Jarl is not happy we’re leaving. Anyway, he’s asked me to take care of some bandits. I’ll take J’zargo. He’ll like that and it will give you two another day together before….” Lydia’s voice trailed off as she noticed that Onmund had stopped eating and was staring at Elspeth, his face a troubling mix of dejection and anger. He didn’t say anything; he simply got up and left.
“Oh shit! I had no idea,” said Lydia. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Elspeth. “I just didn’t know what to say and so I didn’t say anything.” She chuckled, mocking her own social incompetence. “It’s typical of me.”
“Give him a moment and then go talk to him,” Lydia advised. “Eat something first. You look a little pale.”
By the time Elspeth returned to Onmund’s room, his anger had subsided a bit. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, pretending to read a book. He didn’t look up as she approached him. “I’m sorry,” she said, touching the sleeve of his robe. “Are you okay?”
He peered upward. “J’zargo is going to miss Lydia so much. I feel so sad for him.”
And it was this, Onmund’s attempt at diffusing the tension with levity that caused Elspeth to cover her mouth and burst into tears. He took her other hand and pulled her into his lap so that she was facing him. She wrapped her legs around his waist and buried her face in his neck as she sobbed. He held her tight for a few moments before asking, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I was afraid that you would be upset,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her wrist. She paused for a few moments before continuing. “And then I was afraid that you wouldn’t be.”
This hurt so much Onmund almost couldn’t respond. He took Elspeth’s face in his hands and positioned it so that she had to look him in the eye. “Have I given you any reason to think I wouldn’t be upset at you leaving?”
“No,” she replied. “My head has been spinning since Aine and Urag told me they found her. Suddenly, Lydia and I need to leave for Solitude. I didn’t really know what to think. About anything, actually.” Onmund nodded, trying to understand. She carried so much. All he could do, it seemed, was be patient.
They held each other quietly for a while. “Do you really have to go?” he asked. “Couldn’t Lydia go and take J’zargo, and then come back here and tell you what they found?”
If this were only just some College errand, Elspeth thought. She took a deep breath and shook her head. “Xeri sent me here. Don’t you remember what happened the last time I defied her?” Onmund let out a choked laugh as pressed his head to her shoulder.
“I need to tell you something,” she continued. “Do you know anything about Dunmer wise women?”
“Not a lot,” he replied. “Brelyna has mentioned them. I know that they are sort of revered in that culture.”
“Many of them are visionaries,” explained Elspeth. “They can see and sense the future and they take this very seriously. Xeri didn’t become my mentor out of the goodness of her heart. On the night I was born she had a vision that I was meant to do something important. She could never tell me exactly what, but that’s what she’s been preparing me for. And somehow this Altmer woman is related to that.”
“Leave it to me,” he said, “to fall for someone straight out of a wise woman’s vision.”
Fall for. What? Elspeth was overwhelmed. All the defenses she’d been honing over the past month came rushing forward and her immediate reaction was to harden and pretend she hadn’t heard it. While her heart wanted to respond in kind, her head wanted to curse him. As the tension in her gut raged, she did the only thing she could think to. She was speechless, so she gripped the back of his neck and head in her hands and kissed him.
“You’re coming back, aren’t you?” asked Onmund when they stopped. “The Psijic Order spoke to you.”
“Yes, but I don’t know when,” she explained. “Savos said it could be any time…a week, a year.” She shook her head, at a loss as to what to say to him, what to ask of him.
“Then I will just have to wait for you.”
“I can’t ask you—”
“I’m telling you.” Onmund wasn’t usually stubborn, but on this matter he was certain—at least, he was certain enough to try. His patience was a trait that had always served him well. Besides, he wasn’t interested in the casual encounters so prevalent in the College. Nor was he looking for the rapid trip to Mara’s temple that was so typical of his kin.
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Can I ask something of you?”
“Yes.” She was so taken with his composure and the ease with which he offered her his affection, she was ready to do just about anything for him.
Elspeth was seldom cold when they were together, but she was sometimes withdrawn. Until now he was fine with that. But this time, just as she was about to leave, he wanted her to give a little. “Don’t hold back tonight,” he implored.
And so she didn’t.