By the time she reached the Keep, Elspeth, having resigned herself to her fate, was feeling mostly exhausted and numb. As she walked slowly up the staircase, she looked around. The impressive stone and metal features of the grand foyer, which had earlier excited her curiosity, now felt grim and harsh. She looked up at the throne as she passed but only Raerek was there, talking to some guards. He regarded her with a courteous nod until he saw what she was wearing and where she was heading. His face fell, but he just stood there staring as Elspeth continued on to Ondolemar’s quarters.
“Now isn’t that just lovely,” he remarked as she entered. He remained seated and simply gestured toward the chair opposite him.
The casual way he regarded her did little to put her at ease. She only barely acknowledged him as she took her seat and crossed her legs and arms tightly to herself, holding her body upright, her face betraying the dread that was creeping back in and hung in her gut like a steel ingot.
He grimaced. “I was hoping to avoid this, but your pained expression is ruining my appetite.”
Appetite for what, she wondered. But before she could respond, she felt a slight compression grip her head. As expected, her mind was now slightly more attuned to the effects of his spell—his thrall—and her natural ability to resist magic emerged. He narrowed his eyes as it took a little more effort on his part, while she closed hers and breathed in deep, determined to give in just enough to make it through the evening without vomiting again. The spell only managed to take the edge off the worst of her angst, however, and she sat uneasily across from him staring at the food that had been set out. Roast pheasant, grilled leaks, baked potatoes, and the oldest vintage wine she had ever seen. It would seem that the Thalmor spare no expense.
Ondolemar looked back over at her and raised his eyebrows before he started eating. “I am delighted this keep hired a Breton to cook. They know better than to dump everything into a pot with a salt pile and stir. Such is the way with Nord cuisine,” he said, as if the word itself was just as distasteful. He paused and looked up at her. “You still seem so very unhappy. Are the Thalmor really so off putting to you?”
Yes, she thought but remained quiet. She looked around and stopped to stare a moment at the partition that partially obscured his sleeping quarters, the sight of which caused her stomach to knot before he cast his thrall a little stronger. When she looked back over, his face had regained some, but by no means all, of its earlier appeal. “I don’t….” She paused and swallowed before continuing. “I don’t usually take this sort of…task,” she said. She had never heard of a Jarl giving this type of task though she suppose Igmund had no idea what he had sent her to do. She didn’t want to consider the possibility that he did know; she disliked the man enough and she still needed him.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked, sounding a bit perplexed. He poured himself another goblet of wine.
“Um….” Elspeth couldn’t make herself say it. She just looked down at her clothes, across the table at the elaborate meal, and back toward the bed, where she set her eyes.
Ondolemar was in the middle of a large gulp of wine when he realized what it was Elspeth thought she was brought to do and he choked a bit, trying to keep from spewing the liquid all over the table. He swallowed and put the napkin up to his face before letting out a wicked, condescending laugh and cutting his thrall short. No one had ever laughed at Elspeth like that before. In fact, she’d only ever heard such a laugh once, toward Andil when they were young. And Elspeth cut that down quickly and saw to that he never heard it again—as least not as long as she was around. Her stomach seized again and a shot of humiliation colored her cheeks but only briefly before she realized that while Ondolemar maybe frightening, she was not going to let him embarrass her. She stared back at him angrily.
“Excuse me,” he said, clearing his throat. “I didn’t invite you here to bed you.”
Elspeth felt a rush of relief so strong that she nearly fell over. As she recovered, she straightened herself up and took a sip of wine, a twinge of her appetite slowly returning. “So, the clothing and the dinner and the 4E 181 vintage, are just for my…entertainment?” she asked.
“Although, I must say,” he continued as if she hadn’t said anything at all, “I do find myself rather inexplicably drawn to you. You have a sort of comfortable familiarity.” He sat back and brought his hands up to his face, looking back at her over his pressed fingertips. “Quite frankly, I am sick of the usual scraggly and stupid adventurers Igmund sends my way—and it’s always adventurers—he wouldn’t deign to send his citizens to me. And who could blame him? Anyway, I’m bored with my soldiers and I’m sick to death of Nords.” He pushed his lips into a crooked pout and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I take it you’re not actually from Markarth then,” she replied.
“As if this craggy, wretch of a city could give birth to a superiorly bred Mer such as myself. No, I’m not from Markarth,” he said sternly. “I was born in Summerset Isle, where I lived until appointed as a Justiciar. I worked in Cyrodill until several years ago. Then in High Rock.” He paused and looked intently at her. “I rather liked High Rock actually. Then, after a…falling out with one of the senior Justiciars, I was assigned to this wretched place.”
He paused, as if expecting her to respond in kind. But she continued to sit silently. “Take a bite of that pheasant,” he encouraged her. “I guarantee it is the best someone of your station will ever put in her mouth. Go on.”
Elspeth took a small bite of her food. It was delicious and she conceded to herself that he was probably correct. She continued to eat slowly, taking small bites and keeping her eyes on him.
He smiled, satisfied at his ability to make her obey even the smallest commands. “You intrigued me almost immediately,” he explained. “I can tell you have quite a bit of power, skilled in destruction probably or one of the other lesser schools. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have fallen to an illusion spell quite so easily. You carry an ebony weapon, which tells me you are fairly strong for your size and probably decent with a blade. So, maybe you specialize in restoration. Yet, you wear a decent set of armor so you probably don’t rely on wards although I bet you can cast a strong one.”
He wasn’t wrong about her, but she wasn’t certain why any of this was remarkable. When she didn’t respond, he continued. “Either way, you have, or want people to think you have, an interesting balance of skills. You are quite young, which leads me to think that you were well trained, to be able to strike that balance at such a young age.”
A terrible thought crossed her mind, that he somehow knew…something. Maybe he knew everything. But just as her face darkened and her brow furrowed, he cast his thrall again. “Stop making that face.” He sounded annoyed.
“All right,” she agreed, her anxiety once again abating.
“And yet, you came over filled with such angst.” He leaned in closer and looked her right in the eye. “What is it about the Thalmor that terrifies you so?”
Elspeth picked up her goblet and finished the wine to buy some time to think. She had no idea what to say. There was nothing in his spell pushing her to respond but yet she felt compelled to say something. Finally, she looked up and said, “I think the terms of the Concordat are unjust. And I am sympathetic to those who wish to worship their god in peace.” Then, after a deep breath she said, “And I fear that you and others like you would use that sympathy against me.” It sounded forced and rehearsed and she prayed it would be just convincing enough.
“Very well,” he sighed and sat back again, as if disappointed in something. “I do have a job for you. Just a mundane task, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Okay,” she said, somewhat pleased to be moving along. The sooner he gave her something to do, the sooner she could excuse herself.
Ondolemar sat up straight and smirked. “I need your help rooting out Talos worship in the city. You are going to Ogmund’s house on the northeast side of town and find me some evidence. An amulet or some other talisman will do just fine.” As he finished speaking, he pulled his spell off quickly so that she would feel the full weight of his directive.
Elspeth felt the familiar seizing in her stomach and simply froze. “Excuse me?” She could feel her voice tremble.
“You heard me,” he replied. “It won’t be difficult. Ogmund is the bard at the inn and won’t be home until later.”
The casualness with which he delivered this information took the last bit of air straight out of her lungs. He looked so smug that she wanted to smack him, but all she could do was grip the sides of her chair. She knew how the Thalmor treated Talos worshippers and she wouldn’t be a party to that. She shook her head. “I won’t,” she croaked.
“Of course you will,” he said calmly. “You came in here willing to give me the most intimate part of yourself. Why should I believe you hold your politics in such high regard?”
“This isn’t about politics,” she protested, her voice raw. “This is about someone’s life.” Elspeth felt every last nerve in her body start to collapse. It would have been so much easier if he just wanted to fuck her.
“Well isn’t that just the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “I wonder if the Nords would do as much for you.”
So many of them already have, she thought, which only strengthened her resolve. “You’ll have to get someone else to do this,” she declared as she stood up. But when she tried to move, he hit her with a thrall so strong she nearly collapsed forward.
Elspeth fought the spell as hard as she could but all she got for her trouble was a headache as she staggered back into her chair. When she looked up, Ondolemar was grinning at her. Even in her enthralled state, it occurred to her that this wasn’t a job for him. It was a game and he was enjoying every minute of it. And he was so powerful, he could hold her in a state unable to leave the room and yet, just aware enough to begin to feel the anguish prompted by his demand.
“You will do this for me. You need something from Igmund or you would not have come here tonight. And if I tell him that you were uncooperative and obstinate, not only will he refuse your request, he will likely ban you from Understone Keep or all of Markarth. Because when people make trouble for me, I make trouble for him.”
She felt the effects of the spell drain from her head. The contempt she felt was palatable but she was speechless. This went against everything Runa had taught her about Talos and the Nords. But she was stuck—the best she could manage was to entertain fantasies of Xeri beating the information out of Igmund. And that wasn’t going to happen either.
“Let me see if I can make this a little easier for you” he said as if her resistance were something that could be sweetened with a small compromise. “If you do this for me tonight, I might not turn him in.”
Elspeth felt bile rising in her throat. “Are you insane?” she asked.
He sneered as he stood up and from a shelf he brought over a large wooden box, which he opened in front of her. She peered in as he started rifling through its contents. It was filled with amulets. There couldn’t have been less than forty in the box. “No!” she cried as she winced and looked away.
“Oh please,” he said. “I don’t believe for a moment that you are really so delicate.” He dug through the box until he found a specific amulet, which he held up and admired as if it brought back warm memories. “This is the one.” He pushed the box aside and leaned back on the table in front of her. “Look at this,” he demanded. Knowing how many people were tortured and killed for those amulets, she felt guilty for recoiling and so she braced herself and looked.
“This belongs to Gisela,” he explained. “She lives right by Ogmund. I had my soldiers take it a couple of months ago. You can return this to her if you’d like. Tell her you found it in a cave or something.” He held it out to her. “I don’t have to follow up on all the amulets I acquire.” He smiled, a bright mocking grin. “She will be so very happy to have it back.”
She ignored the amulet and continued to glower at him. He placed his hands flat on the table, bending forward so that his face was just an inch from hers. “I will have Ogmund’s amulet tonight. You know that I, or one of my soldiers, can easily slip over there unnoticed. And I guarantee, if I have to do this myself, by tomorrow Ogmund will either be dead or wishing he was. And anything you do to try to stop me will have you thrown in Cingha Mine so fast you won’t know what hit you.” He paused and tilted his head. “You’re a sweet young thing. I don’t want to think about what would happen to you there.”
She slumped back in her chair and rubbed her brow with her fingers. A lump grew in her throat and tears filled her eyes as she realized that she was, in fact, going to steal Ogmund’s amulet. When she stood up, she snatched Gisela’s amulet. Grasping the talisman tightly, she took a deep breath and looked Ondolemar in the eye. “Talos forgive me,” she said before storming out of his quarters.
The following morning Igmund looked just as apprehensive and averse as he had the day before. He had no interest in the details of Ondolemar’s task; he was just eager to get them out of the throne room and to his court wizard, Calcelmo. Elspeth could barely comprehend what was happening. She hadn’t slept, her mind raced as the events of the evening played over and over in her mind.
Gisela, as Ondolemar indicated, was very happy to have her amulet back. “I thought for sure the Thalmor took it,” she explained. “I’ve been so scared all these months.” This made Elspeth wince inwardly and she tried to refuse the gold she was pushing toward her. But Gisela was insistent and Elspeth soon feared that she was insulting the woman. She eventually accepted it, vowing to give it all to Heimskr when they returned to Whiterun.
Retrieving Ogmund’s amulet proved to be slightly more difficult as it was well hidden and she might have given up had she not found the locked chest with the false bottom. It was so carefully and fearfully hidden that the guilt Elspeth felt when she removed it was unbearable. She turned it over to Ondolemar without comment. She just looked at him coldly, trying her best to feign stoicism, not wanting to give him the final satisfaction of having shattered her sense of decency and self-esteem.
The following morning, Elspeth, exhausted and somewhat bedraggled, let Lydia lead her around the Keep. Calcelmo was focused on his enchanting table and was less than pleased when Igmund interrupted and took him aside. His face went from general displeasure to the same aversion and fear Igmund’s held, though it softened somewhat when he saw how weary and sad Elspeth looked.
“Very well,” he said as Igmund excused himself and hurried back to the throne room.
Calcelmo looked the women over and said, “All right. I’ll give you the information you need, but I need you to do something—”
“She’s done enough!” exclaimed Lydia, who felt terrible for Elspeth, to say nothing of her own guilt for misunderstanding Ondolemar’s intentions and for not accompanying her to Ogmund’s—although this had been Elspeth’s preference.
He shook his head. “You idiots. Do you even know who I am? The most recognized scholar on the Dwemer in all of Tamriel, and you people keep bothering me!” He turned back down to his enchanting table. “If you aren’t going to help me, then I’m not going to waste my time helping you.”
“You’re that Calcelmo?” Were she not so burdened with guilt and exhaustion, Elspeth would have been star struck. “Look,” she said. “We’ve had a rather trying time, what is it that you need?”
“I’m sorry….” he said, his tone now a bit sheepish. “I’m in the middle of a very stressful project and then you come here looking for….” He stopped and reached into his pocket. “Here. Take this key. There is a giant spider in Nchuand-Zel. My workers call her Nihme, the poisoned one. If you deal with the spider, I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“Spider!” said Elspeth. “I can do that! I can kill a spider! What a nice, normal thing to do!” In her exhausted state, her enthusiasm bordered on the absurd and she nearly toppled over as she staggered away.
Oh, for the love of Talos, thought Lydia. Elspeth was in no shape to do anything. “Wait Elspeth, I’ll take care of this.” She took the key and made her way up to the excavation site while Elspeth wandered around, leafing through Calcelmo’s books and trying to avoid looking at the scholar who was now observing her with a troubling mix of curiosity and angst.
When Lydia returned, they walked quickly up to the Dwemer Museum and into his laboratory, where Calcelmo led them through several chambers disabling Dwemer traps as he went along and reactiving them as they cleared the area. Finally, at the far end of a large workroom, he took another look before speaking.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve brought here?” His eyes were fixed intently on Elspeth.
“That wasn’t my intention,” she said.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
“Does that really matter?” asked Lydia.
“Harinde,” he began, exaggerating the name they all knew to be false, “gave me two names when she left. Two. If you know one of them, I’ll know you can be trusted. Now, who sent you?”
Elspeth gulped. This was it. She hoped with everything that she had that her mentor had not overestimated her own importance. “Xeri Tharys.” She assumed the other name was Sigeweald, either her mother or father, but that seemed entirely too risky to mention.
Upon hearing this, the tension in Calcelmo’s face lessened but only slightly. “All right,” he said quietly. “I can tell you that Nerussa left here several years ago. She went to the Rift, where she has been living ever since. As far as I know she is alive and doing well. Occasionally, she finds cryptic ways of communicating with me and I would appreciate it if you never mentioned that to Jarl Igmund.”
“Do you know how we can find her there?” asked Lydia.
“Talk to the Jarl’s steward,” he advised. “She should know.”
“What happened here?” asked Elspeth. “How did you find out her name?”
Calcelmo crossed his arms and took a deep breath. “She came here to work in the mines, a rather unremarkable undertaking here. She stopped by the Keep occasionally to ask about my research and use the library. I soon learned that she wasn’t trying to make her fortune, she had a project—something related to metallurgy and gemology. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming, but I didn’t mind. I understood that.” He stopped and smiled. “We became good friends.”
Metallurgy and gemology, thought Elspeth. This is becoming curiouser and curiouser. “Anyway,” he continued,” interrupting her deliberation. “We were down here talking one day and we went up to the throne room. We didn’t know that the Thalmor Justiciar normally assigned to this Keep was replaced. She’d let her guard down and he recognized her from the war. She was taken into custody immediately.” He stopped and looked down.
“Oh gods,” whispered Elspeth.
“Indeed,” he said. “Thankfully she was being held in the Thalmor’s quarters and not Cingha Mine while Igmund dealt with the Justiciar. My nephew and I managed to bring her back here. And she told me as much as she could between here and there.” He looked up and around. “Come this way,” he said as turned around and led them up and out to the wizard’s balcony, which had an astonishing view of the city. He pointed toward a break in the wall leading to a cliff-side path and ending in a waterfall. “The last time I saw her, she was climbing down that path.” He looked wistfully downward. “And down into the waterfall.”
“I suppose Igmund was eager to turn her over,” said Elspeth. “To win himself into the good graces of the Thalmor.”
Calcelmo turned back quickly and angrily. “Igmund gave me enough time to get Nerussa out of there. He created a bureaucratic nightmare to delay the Justiciar.” He narrowed his eyes. “That Justiciar told Igmund that if he turned Nerussa over without any record, any evidence, that he would arrange it so that every Justiciar assigned to this hold would turn a blind eye to anything remotely resembling Talos worship in this city. Justiciars would simply amble along. Igmund refused.”
Both women were stunned silent with this news and Elspeth’s bitter feelings toward the Jarl were starting to take a turn. “But why?” she asked, when she recovered from her surprise.
“Because Igmund knew that handing over someone the Thalmor was willing to make such concessions for could only end horribly…for everybody.”
Elspeth nodded. “Thank you,” she said.
“I have to get back,” he said. “Please give Nerussa my best.” As they walked back down to the workroom and through the laboratory, he turned again and asked, “Did Igmund have you do something for that Justiciar?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“It’s no wonder you didn’t trust him. I would have just had you kill the spider,” he said, a bit uncomfortably.
Lydia’s eyes widened in disbelief but before she could complain, he continued. “If you ever need anything in Markarth again, come to me first.”
It began pouring while they were waiting by the stables for a carriage and Elspeth just looked into the sky as the water poured over her face. Finally, she looked back up at Lydia. “Can we go by way of Whiterun and spend the night? I need…” she paused. “I need to sleep in my own bed. And have a drink with Jon Battle Born. And give Heimskr all my money, and possibly my first born child.”
“Of course,” said Lydia who thought this was a marvelous idea, although she dared not say why just yet. “What do you want me to do with that dress?”
“Burn it,” she replied as she boarded his Kibell’s carriage and they made their way home.