“Where are you going?” Lydia woke to find Elspeth getting dressed. It was just after 1AM.
“I can’t sleep,” she replied. “I’m just going to step outside for some air.”
Elspeth was miserable. She had barely spoken on the walk to Windhelm. Then the only room available at Candlehearth Hall that evening was the one she’d shared with Onmund the week before. Lydia, knowing she was a poor substitute, wanted nothing more than to comfort her friend and she found herself doing something she swore she’d never do again. She was calling on the blessings of Mara, praying for her plan would work.
Leaving Winterhold, they’d stopped with Onmund at the Frozen Hearth for some food and to say good-bye to Dagur and his family. She’d sent Elspeth over to Brina’s to buy lock picks under the pretense that Brina wouldn’t sell Lydia any more. Elspeth narrowed her eyes, suspicious of this request, though she went over without asking any questions. After she left, Onmund, whose gaze didn’t leave Elspeth’s back until she was gone, turned around and found himself under Lydia’s most terrifying stare. He gasped, trying desperately to remember what he had done or said to offend her. Then he realized that this must be what J’zargo feels like all the time.
But Lydia wasn’t angry with Onmund. Nor was she trying to put him on the spot. She was recalling the very last exchange she and Xeri had before she left Breezehome.
“Whatever you do,” she’d said. “Don’t let her fall in love.”
Lydia scoffed. “I don’t think I have any control over that.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself,” she protested. “I never did.”
Helping Elspeth find Nerussa would remain her priority. However, that was the moment in which Lydia became determined to show Elspeth a life that Xeri never allowed. She had been charged with helping Elspeth navigate Skryim’s culture. And they would. All of it, every pleasure and passion Nords were capable of. But even Lydia couldn’t have planned or predicted Onmund.
“Are you serious about this?” she asked.
“What?” Onmund was confused.
“Are you serious about her?” She gestured toward the door.
He nodded. “Yes,” he said, rather quietly.
“You know, we’re not coming back to Winterhold until those elves call Elspeth again. If and when we find this woman, we are supposed to bring her back to Whiterun.”
“Elspeth told me that,” said Onmund, still confused.
“All right,” she said, after a bit of a pause. She took a key out of her satchel and gave it to Onmund. “This is the key to Breezehome. Meet us back in Whiterun.”
Onmund’s eyes widened and he wasn’t quite certain how to respond. Of course, he wanted to be with Elspeth more than anything, but he was a bit taken aback by this gesture.
“Look,” she said. “You’re a Nord, so you probably have that whole Nord work ethic thing, where you’re going to need something to do, earn your keep. I get it.” She smiled. “There is plenty to do in Whiterun. Even for a mage. The court wizard has more work than he can handle and no one will help him more than once because he’s insufferable. You, however, might be able to deal with him.”
“Thank you,” he said, still somewhat surprised by all this. “I’ll go as soon as I can.”
“Let’s not say anything to Elspeth right now,” she advised. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but she needs to be focused.”
“You’re a good friend,” he said and then smirking, “And I’ve never known a housecarl to look after someone’s heart.”
“There is no one more important to me in all of Nirn,” she explained as she looked up and saw Elspeth in the doorway. “But if I don’t get a namesake out of this, I won’t talk to either of you ever again.”
When she woke again, it was 7AM and Elspeth had still not returned. This made Lydia anxious and so she quickly dressed and went out to find her. In the main hall, she found Elda Early-Dawn, Candlehearth Hall’s proprietor, weeping quietly at the main counter. And from Nils, the cook, she heard the devastating news. Susanna the Wicked had been slaughtered the night before. Lydia gasped and ran outside, now in a panic.
She found Elspeth on the west side of the city, crouched down and inspecting something on the ground.
“There is a trail of blood leading from the graveyard where they found her,” she explained without even looking up. “The snow is so dirty over here from all the foot traffic so it’s hard to see.” She continued to follow the trail of blood with Lydia following, eyes gaping.
“How did you get caught up in all of this?” asked Lydia.
“The guards asked for help, so I volunteered to gather evidence,” she said. The blood ended at Hjerim, a house in the far north-west corner of the city. It was locked and with people milling around, they opted not to take their chances picking it.
“Hjerim? That’s Friga Shatter-Shield’s old home. It’s been abandoned ever since she was killed,” explained the guard stationed by the crime scene. “Her mother, Tova, has the key.” He looked past them and gestured to a house up the street. “If she’s not in the Shatter Shield home, you can probably find her at Candlehearth Hall.” Elspeth couldn’t see his face through the mask on his helmet but his voice was filled with sorrow.
They walked slowly toward the house, both recalling the heartbreaking sight of the older woman in Candlehearth Hall, drowning her grief in cheap mead and wine. Elspeth knocked softly at the door. After a long pause, the grief stricken and slightly inebriated mother greeted them. Despite her apparent state, she was polite and welcomed them inside. Her face, drawn and withered, wore the lines of a hundred years of mourning and it clutched Elspeth’s heart so tightly that she simply could not speak to the woman. Finally, after an incredibly awkward silence, Lydia spoke up.
“We are so sorry for your loss,” she said. “But, if you don’t mind, we have some questions.”
“I would rather not talk about my daughter, if you’ll excuse me.” Tova shook her head and turned away. “I’m sorry. She was very dear to me, and it’s rather painful to think about.”
“Of course,” said Lydia. “We couldn’t possibly—but Elspeth and I…we want to find out who did this and we need your help.”
“Really?” Tova had heard again and again that the guards simply had no resources to spare for a formal investigation. Now, for just the briefest moment, her eyes twitched with the last shred of hope she had that her daughter’s killer would be brought to justice and she agreed to lend them the key.
It took them three tries just to get past the doorway; the stench in Hjerim was so overpowering. It was a sickening mix of rotting flesh and bones, and foul smelling alchemy reagents like Namira’s rot and hagraven claw. But apart from a blood-splattered trunk filled with the Beware the Butcher! pamphlets being circulated around the city, they found nothing remarkable in the house.
“Where is that smell coming from?” Lydia was crawling, inspecting the floor for loose boards.
“Here,” said Elspeth. She threw a mage light into a wardrobe and found its false back. “Necromancy,” she said as she stepped into the hidden room. “It looks like typical necromancy except….” Elspeth stopped and looked around. The room was filled with body parts and ingredients thrown haphazardly around. On an alter at the back of the room, however, the parts appeared to be placed meticulously.
“What?” asked Lydia eagerly.
“I think someone is trying to build a body,” she explained. “That’s just…I’ve never even heard of that being done successfully. Reanimating a corpse is one thing, but the types of magic you would have to call upon for that is….” She stopped and looked around. “This is like something out of a horror story, not a conjuration book.”
“We should probably report this,” said Lydia.
“Report what?” asked Elspeth. “Necromancy? We haven’t actually solved anything yet.” She shook her head. “We need more information.” Her voice was low, but firm. She had a quiet determination, the likes of which Lydia had never seen in her before. She didn’t simply want to help gather evidence; she wanted to solve the mystery. For a moment Lydia was confused but then she realized that this was Elspeth’s chance to bring someone to justice—someone who caused an immeasurable amount of grief. It touched that place in her heart left raw and empty by Mede’s refusal to bring the Thalmor to justice for the purge.
And so she followed Elspeth all around town, seeking out people who knew about the butcher or who might know of local mages with an expressed interest in conjuration. They talked with Viola Giordano, author of the pamphlets found in the chest in Hjerim and Nurelion and Quintus Navale, the local apothecary and his apprentice. They all agreed that the only individual with the power and knowledge for that type of magic was Wuunferth the Unliving.
“I’ve heard terrible rumors about Ulfric’s court wizard,” Viola had said. “It would not surprise me at all to find out he is mixed up in all of this.” She paused for a moment and lowered her voice. “But I don’t want to be the one accusing him of that.”
However, when they reviewed the particulars of the case over lunch, Elspeth was unconvinced of Wuunferth’s guilt. “It just doesn’t make any sense that someone as visible as a court wizard would act so brazenly in his own city.”
“So, you aren’t going to report him as a suspect,” asked Lydia.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to talk with him.”
At the Palace of the Kings they went straight up to the Wizard’s room, where they found the old Nord hunched over his enchanting table. “I said you could take all the snowberries and butterfly wings you want, but I am not giving you any nightshade,” he bellowed, but didn’t turn around.
“Excuse me?” said Elspeth.
“Oh…I’m sorry,” Wuunferth grunted as he turned around and saw the women looking askance at him. “I thought you were the Aretino boy. What can I do for you?”
“We’re investigating the recent murders and we have some questions,” explained Elspeth as she tried to get a good look at him. Between his mage’s hood and his full beard, his face was almost completely hidden. “We heard you know a bit about necromancy.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said defensively. “I am a member of the College of Winterhold, in good standing! They haven’t allowed—”
“Oh please,” Elspeth said, interrupting him. “I am also a member in good standing. And I know that necromancy has never been explicitly forbidden at the College.”
“All right, I suppose not,” he agreed. “What does this have to do with the recent murders anyway?”
“It appears that the killer has a sort of lair set up in Hjerim,” she explained. “It looks like he was trying to build a body out of parts—” At this Wuunferth grimaced. “I know…but do you know of anyone who has expressed an interest in necromancy recently? Or of anyone powerful—or mad enough—to try such a thing?”
“I can’t say that I do,” he replied. “However, I think I can help you.” He walked over to his desk where he found and opened a small journal. “I’ve been noticing a pattern to when the killings happen. Now that we know they are tied to some necromantic ritual, I think I know when the next one might occur.” He studied the page for several moments. “Let’s see, he said finally. “From a Loredas of Heartfire until a Middas of Frostfall…it will happen soon. Very soon.” He looked back up at them, his face stern. “Keep watch in the Stone Quarter tomorrow night. That’s almost certainly where the killer will strike next.”
Late the following evening, Elspeth stayed by the blacksmith forge in the Stone Quarter, while Lydia patrolled the palace gate and the area around the inn. Despite the late hour, there were still quite a few people ambling around the closed market stalls. No one stood out as suspicious and after about an hour of watching, she needed to move, lest her muscles grow stiff from the cold. As she turned to walk the perimeter of the market, her cloak caught the edge of some boxes outside the forge. So it was by sheer luck that she turned back around and that’s when she saw the glint of the drawn dagger. She screamed and bolted forward, throwing herself at the man holding the knife. They tumbled over together and though he was strong, she managed to subdue him with a lightening spell before the guards came and dragged him away.
Elspeth slept soundly for the first time in several days and was in a pleasant mood the next morning when she and Lydia met with Jorlief, Ulfric Stormcloak’s affable and now immensely grateful steward. “So,” he said, shaking his head. “Calixto Corrium was the butcher. The man was always a little odd, but I never would have expected….” He looked back up at the women and smiled warmly. “You’ve done this city a mighty service, my friends. I believe you’ll find the guards to be a bit more cordial with you in the future. And of course, here is payment for your hard work.”
It was time to leave Windhelm now. Elspeth was a little disappointed that on her stops by the Palace, she hadn’t seen Jarl Ulfric. She had no intention of approaching him, but ever since their brief encounter in Helgen, she was somewhat curious. But then as they were leaving, a gruff voice came from a doorway to the side of the throne room.
“I’ll die before elves dictate the fates of men. Are we not one in this?”
She looked and saw Ulfric Stormcloak and another man entering the throne room. They walked past, barely noticing the women standing there. Ulfric stepped up to his throne and turned back. But rather than sit, he launched into a fervent tirade, his voice echoing throughout the hall.
“I fight for the men I’ve held in my arms, dying on foreign soil. I fight for their wives and children, whose names I heard whispered in their last breaths. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. I fight for my people impoverished to pay the debts of an Empire too weak to rule them, yet brands them criminals for wanting to rule themselves! I fight so that all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. I fight…because I must.”
Elspeth stood there, completely gripped by the speech. She was so engrossed that Lydia had to drag her away.
“I want to join the Stormcloaks,” she declared when they were outside.
“No,” said Lydia. “You’re being impulsive. Xeri would not approve.”
“I don’t care. I want to fight for that man,” she insisted.
“No, you don’t. You just want to hear him giving inspiring speeches.” Lydia wanted to laugh but she sensed that Elspeth was truly moved by the charismatic Jarl. “Besides,” she said, “I don’t think you will like the initiation rite. You have to bite the head off a live baby chinchilla.”
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s true,” she argued.
“Perhaps. But I’m still not letting you become a Stormcloak. Come on.”
Elspeth relented, but she continued to play Ulfric’s speech over and over in her head, committing to memory his tone, his cadence, and above all, his passion.