Elspeth thought that Understone Keep, the home of Jarl Igmund of Markarth, was incredible. Where Dragonsreach had clean, straight lines and curves and the Blue Palace had a cool, luxurious feel, Understone Keep was an amalgam of ancient technology, stone, and fire. If Markarth were her city, she would visit the keep and never leave, forever exploring and tracing the lines of copper and stone with her fingers.
As they approached the Jarl, they saw three Thalmor—a Justiciar flanked by two soldiers—pacing the landing just below the throne area. Elspeth felt Lydia’s strong arm behind her. “It’s always something, isn’t it?” she whispered as she pulled Elspeth a little closer to her and squeezed her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she assured her. “I’m fine.” Elspeth appreciated Lydia’s concern, but the coddling was a bit much. It was unsettling to see the them, but not surprising. Ever since the Markarth Incident, in which Ulfric Stormcloak’s militia took The Reach from the Forsworn and attempted to restore Talos worship, they were a constant presence in the city, enforcing the White-Gold Concordat.
They approached Igmund’s steward, his uncle Raerek, a stern looking older Nord with a harsh jaw and a face worn down by years of war and bureaucracy. His face softened somewhat when they introduced themselves but he retained a serious posture as he gestured toward the Jarl, who greeted them with a mixture of suspicion and aversion. He sized them both up and looked around. When he moved closer to Elspeth, she could see that his eyes were full of terror—as if everything he said and did was born of quiet coercion. And perhaps, with the Thalmor literally at his feet every day, that was the case.
“You come highly recommended from Elisif,” he said abruptly. I will put you in touch with Calcelmo. He has notes for you but I need you to do something for me first.”
Recommended? Notes? Elspeth was utterly confused but decided to let it go with the hope that his rambling would eventually make sense. “Of course, Jarl Igmund.”
“You may dismiss your housecarl. She is not needed here.” His tone was insistent.
Elspeth looked at Lydia. This was am unusual request and she was unsure of how to respond. Lydia shook her head as if to say, “Not a chance in Oblivion.”
“Excuse me Jarl Igmund, but I don’t think—”
“I must insist.” He gestured to his own housecarl, a striking Redguard woman. “You will be fine with us here, it will only be for a moment.”
There was an air of desperation in his tone and Elspeth could see pleading in his eyes. She wanted to be angry, but she was starting to feel sorry for him. “Lydia, go back to the inn. I’ll meet you. It’s okay, really.”
“Are you sure?” Lydia’s brow furrowed. When Elspeth nodded to reassure her, she looked at Igmund coldly as she turned away and walked slowly out of the keep.
After she was well out of earshot, Igmund gestured toward the Thalmor agents, “Ondolemar has a task for you. You will do exactly what he wants and then I will arrange for you to acquire the information you seek. Go on. Tell him I sent you.”
“What?” Elspeth felt her throat constrict as a quiver of fear shuddered through her body. She could barely get the word out.
Igmund only barely acknowledged her apparent dread and replied, “I promise I am not trying to make things difficult for you. He’ll be much easier to deal with if you are by yourself.” Elspeth saw Raerek nodding in reluctant agreement. After a couple of moments, Igmund looked past her. When the Thalmor were at the farthest end of the platform, he leaned in and said quietly in her ear, “You should consider a pseudonym. His task might leave you with an unsavory reputation in this hold.”
Elspeth bit her lip and glared at the Jarl, not quite sure how to respond to this. She was getting so close. She needed the Jarl; she needed him to cooperate with her. But the idea of talking to the Thalmor was making her every part of her body wrench and tremble. At least her interactions with Ancano—after her unfortunate fainting incident—were buffered by the presence of Mirabelle and Arch-mage Savos. When she didn’t move, he leaned in again, “You will do this or you will never find Nerussa.” His tone was not cruel or threatening; it was simply matter-of-fact.
Elspeth clapped her hand over her mouth in astonishment. He knew her real name. And he’d said it. How she made her way down to the platform to the Thalmor is a mystery but soon she found herself standing in front of them. “I am looking for Ondolemar,” she said dryly, desperate not to reveal her fear and anxiety.
“You have the honor of addressing a member of the Thalmor,” declared the Justiciar. “Bask in it.”
Steeling herself against the terror rising in her gut that was sure to cripple her at any moment, she gave him a hard look and asked, “Jarl Igmund sent me for a task. Are you Ondolemar?”
“I am,” he said. “What is your name?”
“Anya,” she said, stuttering slightly.
“Hmmmm…this one is interesting,” he remarked to no one in particular. “Powerful.” He tilted his head with a gesture that was somehow both arrogant and warm. And apparently capable of eroding her anxiety. As he observed her, the numbness left her face and the knots in her chest and stomach began to loosen.
When Ondolemar stepped into the light, she gasped. He was stunning. His frown was not a typical thin-lipped Elven scowl. Rather, his bottom lip was a bit plump, giving him more of a youthful pout. His green eyes, which looked at her sternly from under the brim of his hood, were bold and gleaming—like emeralds; really, there was just no other way to describe them. And, his cheekbones—what was it with her and cheekbones? They were high and narrow and striking and gave his face a harshness just severe enough to remind her that he was Thalmor and therefore, vile.
But when he smiled at her, his face lost all traces of its severity and she found herself tranquil and inexplicably drawn to him. She was basking in something all right, though it was not his superior station. He was beautiful and reminded her of Undilar, the young Altmer who lived with them in the Spire and on whom she had her very first girl-aged crush. Her cheeks flushed and she felt a rush of warm nostalgia pour over her as she remembered how he taught her to play chess and cast spells and read enchantments.
“Indeed! I do have a task.” Ondolemar’s sharp voice brought her back from her memories He looked her over again. “Or several.” He reached into his satchel and tossed a fat coin purse at her. “Take this to Arnleif and Sons Trading Company and buy yourself something nice to wear. Meet me back here in two hours and we’ll discuss your task over dinner.”
“Okay,” she said. Dinner? This was most unusual, she thought. Nevertheless, Igmund said to do exactly what he asked of her and so she hurried out of the keep and over to the shop, where she bought the most expensive clothes she could find and a new pair of shoes. The spell wore off just as she entered the room she and Lydia had rented at the Silver Blood Inn and the transition from calm to reality was so sudden and jarring, it caused her stomach to seize up and her knees to buckle and she came crashing down on the floor.
Lydia jumped up and ran over to her. “Oh my gods, what happened?” she asked as she helped her over to the bed. “I’ve been worried.”
Elspeth took several deep breaths as she began to process her interaction with Ondolemar. Illusion was her weakest school of magic—it was no wonder she couldn’t tell she was under some spell. She stretched out on the bed and looked up at Lydia. “That Justiciar in the Keep cast a spell on me and it just wore off now.” Lydia looked horrified at this. “Oh, it gets better,” she continued. “I have to have dinner with him.” She tossed the rest of the coin to Lydia. “Here, you can enjoy meal on the Thalmor as well. Make sure you get the most expensive bottle of Black Briar Reserve they have.”
She smirked and then frowned a bit. “You should eat with me now,” she suggested. “I imagine you won’t have much of an appetite at the Justiciar’s table. Why do you have to have dinner with him anyway?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “But if anyone asks, my name is Anya.”
“You gave a false name?” Lydia considered this for a moment. “That’s probably not a terrible idea.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” said Elspeth. “Igmund warned that my task might leave me with an unsavory reputation. I can’t imagine what he meant by that…given how most Nords feel about the Thalmor, I suppose just associating with them is enough.” She rolled over on the bed and pressed her face into the pillow, trying to quell the anxiety that was starting to grip her again.
“Oh Elspeth,” Lydia said, suddenly very distressed about something. She looked at the coin purse and at the new clothes and covered her mouth with her hand.
“What?” She leaned up on her elbows.
Lydia just looked at her friend. Xeri had prepared Elspeth for so much, developing her skills in fighting, magic, stealth, lock picking, even pick pocketing. She saw to it that there would be no situation from which Elspeth could not remove herself. Except there was one thing Xeri did not, nay could not, prepare her for.
“Oh honey,” she said slowly, pausing over every word. “I don’t think he just wants to eat dinner with you.”
Elspeth sat up and looked at Lydia, utterly confused. Then, as the realization of the cause of her soon-to-be-unsavory reputation settled in, her face darkened. She tumbled off the bed, found a bucket on the floor, and proceeded to vomit before curling her body into a ball and pushing herself into the corner.
After a long time, she turned forward and propped herself up against the wall. She didn’t look at Lydia; she just stared forward. Finally, after another very long silence, she said, her voice full of dread, “Again we see there is nothing I can possess, which the Thalmor cannot take away.”
Lydia crouched down and reached her hand out to touch her arm. She had no idea how to help; she only knew that her heart was breaking for her friend. She thought about how, when the history of the Thalmor’s terror is written, it will not tell of the most poignant casualties, of the young woman whose childhood was shattered, who was robbed of family, friendship, and now, love. As Elspeth sat there, curled against the wall, Lydia didn’t see the energetic, zealous fighter she’d come to know. All she could see was the little girl, the teenager, who must have, at some point, considered her life in exile, and later in training, and simply wondered, “Why me?” It was no wonder that Xeri wanted her to remain focus and detached. She still had so much growing up to do, so much to learn and this, well this wasn’t going to help. Or, it would. But it had to be the hardest way possible.
Lydia moved a little closer. “You don’t have to tell him,” she whispered.
“Are you kidding?”
She looked down at the floor. She had observed just how difficult it was for Elspeth to get close to Onmund with the baggage she already had. Even if she took this to her grave, it would drive a massive wedge between them.
“Maybe…he’ll understand,” Lydia was desperate to find something, some glimmer of hope in this detestable situation.
Elspeth looked at her as if she had lost her mind. “Would you? How understanding would you be if you thought your beloved might be trading sex for information when she’s out fulfilling her destiny? And after only a month together?”
Lydia pursed her lips. “I won’t let you do this then.” She stood up and raised her head. “I will do it for you.” It was the only thing she could think to say at this point.
“You would, wouldn’t you?” Elspeth let out an uncomfortable laugh and felt a rush of gratitude for Lydia’s unwavering dedication and friendship.
“There has to be some other way.” Lydia paused and looked around, “Why don’t we bring Xeri here. She could make Igmund talk.”
Yes, that wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention to us, she thought. “I don’t think so,” she said. “No. I have to do this. Igmund knows her. He said her real name.” Elspeth sat up and adjusted her armor. “Did you know that my parents were so shatteredwith guilt over losing Nerussa, they didn’t speak for a year after my mother returned from Hammerfell? A year. Runa said they would simply walk past each other in the spire, never even making eye contact. It’s a miracle I was born.” She sat forward and leaned her elbows on her knees, pushing her fingers along her skull and pulling her hair down the back of her neck as she let out a deep breath. “She is so important to my family. To all of Tamriel, really. To hear Xeri tell it, Maeve Sigeweald wouldn’t have made it through the Oblivion Crisis if it hadn’t been for Nerussa.”
Then she stood up abruptly. “Okay,” she said loudly as she tried to ignore the gnawing skeever feeling in her stomach. “Xeri seems to think that finding Nerussa is part of something bigger. Surely people have done worse for the greater good! I can do this.” She paused and started to remove her armor before throwing herself down on the bed face first. It was as if rationalizing had taken all of her energy away. “Ugh…how am I going to do this?”
“I don’t know,” Lydia whispered, completely at a loss. “Is there something we can get you? Some potions to resist his spells?”
“Honestly. I’m not sure I want all my wits about me now,” she explained, choking out a weak laugh. “A calm spell is probably exactly what I need. Although if I’m expecting it, it probably won’t work quite as well—such is the way of illusion magic.” She still couldn’t believe how utterly and completely Ondolemar had enchanted her.
“Will they make you more suggestible to…telling him things…secrets?” Lydia was coming back to the more pragmatic aspects of this predicament.
“No, not suggestible—well, maybe a little. Basically, they quell all the emotions that make it possible to fight and enhance those that draw you to someone so you don’t flee.”
“Okay,” said Lydia, somewhat reassured but still incredibly distressed. She walked over to where Elspeth was slowly pulling her clothes on, wrapped her arms around her, and kissed her cheek.
Elspeth looked at their reflection and sighed. “At least he’s pretty,” she said, trying desperately to diffuse some of her angst with humor.
“Oh Elspeth!” said Lydia sadly, pressing her forehead against the side of Elspeth’s head.
She straightened herself up and smoothed the dress down. “I’ll just close my eyes and think of Whiterun,” she declared, clutching Lydia’s hand in warm appreciation before she gathered her things and left for the Keep.