Lydia was so furious that she let the door to Breezehome slam behind her as she stormed inside, forgetting completely that Elspeth was probably still sleeping in her room upstairs. She was in a terrible mood. The night before they had come home to a cold house and she had to hold back her disappointment lest Elspeth discover that she’d invited Onmund to Whiterun and he hadn’t yet arrived. She didn’t even want to consider that he might not be coming at all. And now this. She could probably forget about being welcome in Blagruuf’s court ever again But that really wasn’t her concern right now. She threw down her satchel on the table and paced the floor, trying desperately to calm herself. Two seconds later, the door slammed again as Idolaf came charging in, screaming.
“Have you lost your mind Lydia!?!” His face was red and she could see the vein in his forehead throbbing.
He had some nerve, she thought. “My mind? Have I lost my mind?” She was livid. “I’m not the one who just left the market after berating an old woman!”
“I wasn’t berating her,” he protested. “I was merely trying to explain—“
“Oh come on! Olfrid was bullying her,” she interrupted. “The fact that you just stood there while he called her names and threatened her isn’t helping your case.”
“He didn’t threaten her!” he shouted. “And you didn’t have to hit him.”
“I didn’t hit him!” She wanted to. Lydia wanted to pound Olfrid to the ground when she saw him shouting at Fralia Grey Mane, but she settled for shoving him back toward the Wind District.
“Are you finally picking a side now? Is that what this is? After everything my family has done for you?”
“This isn’t about picking sides and you know it.”
“I’m not so sure about that. You—”
“The Battle Borns are like family to me,” Lydia interrupted. “They were there when I had no one and I have never stopped being grateful. But that doesn’t mean I will just stand there and let—”
“Oh please! You’ve been barely tolerating Olfrid for years.”
Lydia was silent. That was somewhat true; over the years she had learned things about the man that had left her image of him tarnished. But this had nothing to with that. “You have a lot of nerve talking to me about being grateful Idolaf,” her voice had lowered and she spoke slowly now, betraying her disappointmentas well as anger.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his tone both angry and exasperated.
Lydia swallowed against the tightness in her throat. This was going to sting but she didn’t care. Olfrid and Idolaf had gone too far. “When you were a little boy and your father pissed away all his money on mead, who made sure you always had food to eat?”
He looked at her, sheepish at first but then he turned defensive. “The Battle Borns were always generous with me, and your mother—”
“It was Fralia!” she interjected harshly, slamming her fist down on the table. “It was Fralia Gray Mane who never went to bed unless she knew for certain that Idolaf had a hot meal. Every night she went to your house, even if it meant confronting one of Grímnir’s drunken rages.” She shook her head and before she could stop herself, she shouted more. “Gods, even your inebriated father treated her better.” Shit, she thought. She didn’t mean to go that far.
But Idolaf just stood there silently, struggling to ignore lump growing in his throat. There was no one in all of Skyrim who could cut into him like Lydia could and she knew it. He glowered at her.
Lydia softened a bit as she watched him struggle to keep his face from breaking wide open. She understood, to some extent, why he needed Olfrid’s approval. And if say, he’d married Olfina it would be Eorland’s approval he would crave so desperately. But Idolaf was better than this. He had to be. “What happened to you?” she asked, her voice now pleading with him. “What happened to the little boy who used to come running home from the tundra with fists full of wild flowers for his tante Fralia?”
Idolaf’s face hardened again and he looked sternly at her. “That little boy grew up and learned that sentiment and nostalgia do not mix with politics. And I pray to the Eight that you figure that out.”
Lydia rolled her eyes but before she could respond, Afhild stormed in. “What’s going on here?” she asked. “Lydia, did you hit my father?”
“No,” she said. “I got between him and Fralia and told him to back off. When he didn’t, I physically turned him around and shoved him away.”
Afhild just stood there stunned, her eyes angrily looking back and forth between her best friend and her husband. Finally, she clenched her teeth and shouted, “Well better Lydia than Eorland! What were you two thinking, Idolaf?”
“She was harping on about Thorald. She wouldn’t leave us alone!”
“Oh I have no doubt that Fralia Gray Mane forced two big Nord men into a shouting match.” She pursed her lips and stared at him.
Idolaf had no response to this. “I’ll see you at home,” he said finally, turning once more to glare at Lydia before leaving.
After he left, Afhild sat down at the table and buried her face in her arms. “Look,” said Lydia, “I’m sorry if—“
“Don’t apologize,” she replied as she pulled her head up. “I wasn’t kidding when I said better you than Eorland. Or Vignar! Could you if imagine any of the Companions had heard that?”
Lydia actually had to stifle a giggle at the thought of Farkas tossing Olfrid across the market. She sat down on the bench. “So, will I ever be welcome in the Battle Born home again?”
“Oh you know how it goes. Mother would throw father out before she’d let you feel unwelcome.” She laughed uncomfortably and put her face in her hands again. “What am I going to do about my family?” she groaned. “I don’t even want to think about how much Jon is going to drink tonight. He takes this feud to heart in ways I will never understand.”
“He’s a poet,” said Lydia. “He takes it to heart because that’s where he feels it most.”
“True,” she agreed. Lydia squeezed her friend’s arm, which made her smile a bit. “Anyway, by the time you get back from Riften, it will be as if nothing happened.”
But it did happen, thought Lydia. The resentment and anger were growing and it was only going to get worse.
“I should go,” said Afhild as she got up from the table. Lydia walked her to the door and gave her a brief hug. After she closed the door, she walked back and slumped down at the table, still sad and distracted and so she was startled when the door to the alchemy lab squeaked open. Elspeth was peering out from behind it, looking somewhat apprehensive.
“Oh!” said Lydia, “I didn’t know you were in there.”
“I was just working….” Her voice trailed off as she looked at Lydia. “That got really personal. Do you want to talk?”
“I want….” Lydia stopped and wiped away the tears that were forming. She looked at Elspeth intently. “I want to join the Stormcloaks.”
“No you don’t,” said Elspeth. “You just want to hear Jarl Ulfric give passionate speeches—wait, no, that’s me.” She smiled sympathetically. “You just want to settle a score with Idolaf for reasons that are emotional and not political.”
Lydia smiled weakly, but she still looked so dejected. “I just don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for Idolaf to hold his support for the Imperials with the same grace and civility the Gray Manes have in their support of the Stormcloaks. He’s always been confrontational and stubborn. But I’ve never seen him act so cruel.” Lydia took a deep breath and continued. “He and Avulstein Gray-Mane were best friends growing up. Without the Gray Manes he would have turned out just like his father.” She leaned forward and rested her chin on her fist. “His mother died giving birth to him and his father hated him for it,” she explained. “Fralia looked after him and loved him as well as her own children.”
Elspeth nodded; she understood. There was a special place in her own heart for women who took care of motherless children, as Runa had for her. There was an awkward silence and Elspeth, not knowing what else to say, suggested getting some food.
“Yes!” Lydia’s face brightened somewhat at this idea. She had been at Carlotta’s stand trying to do just that when she witnessed the confrontation between Fralia and the Battle Born men.
The women walked slowly to the market. It was a beautiful day, cold but sunny. The air was crisp and there was nary a cloud in the sky. The market had resumed its typical bustle, as if nothing happened although Anoriath looked a bit warily at Lydia when they passed by his stand.
“Oh Lydia!” said Fralia as they approached. “Lydia, I am so grateful for your help today.” She put out her hand, which Lydia took and held. “I know that you are very close to the Battle Borns.”
“It’s because I’m close to them that I will not let them get away with such insolence,” Lydia assured her.
“You’ve always been such a good, kind girl,” she said, patting her hand lovingly. And then, gesturing toward Elspeth, she asked, “Who is this?”
“This is Elspeth,” said Lydia, suddenly embarrassed, looking as if she had done something wrong. “She is Runa’s ward, from Bruma. I’m so sorry…I should have brought her by.”
“Don’t apologize…it is a pleasure to meet you,” said Fralia.
“The pleasure is mine,” said Elspeth, smiling warmly back at her. But Fralia’s face had fallen again, the sides of her mouth twitching uneasily.
“Is there something else you need?” asked Lydia. She looked around and leaned in a bit.
“All I can think about is Thorald…they say that he was killed, but I know better. Lydia, I know my son is alive!” In Elspeth’s experience, the assurance with which she spoke these words was unmatched. “Those Battle-Borns…they’re in with the Imperials. They know it too, and yet they lie to my very face!”
Lydia went to protest but she stopped herself. Really, there was nothing she could say in their defense.
“How do you know that your son is still alive?” asked Elspeth. Her curiosity was sincere and she hoped it would be received that way.
“Please, come visit me in my home tonight. I can tell you the whole story,” she pleaded.
Lydia just stared off into space, bewildered and troubled. Elspeth assured Fralia that they would stop by that evening. They wandered around the market for a bit and after buying food from Anoriath and Carlotta, they made their way home.
After dinner, Lydia seemed ambivalent about visiting the Gray Mane home. Elspeth didn’t push; she presumed that she was troubled by the possibility that Fralia was correct about the Battle Borns’ knowledge of Thorald and also that such a visit would indicate that she was choosing a side. She was relieved when Elspeth left, saying she was happy to go alone.
“Welcome to our home,” said Fralia as she welcomed Elspeth inside. She seemed disappointed that Lydia was not with her, but remained silent on the matter.
“Mother, what is the meaning of this? Who have you brought into our home?” She heard a man’s voice bellow from somewhere across the house, but couldn’t see who was talking. As she crossed the doorsill, a large man, dressed in scaled armor and carrying a massive two-handed axe came charging out of another room and stood firmly in front of Elspeth.
His posture was more paranoid than threatening and so she wasn’t particularly frightened. Still, she readied herself to cast, just in case.
“Alvustein!” Fralia admonished him. “She’s here to help us find Thorald. She’s a friend of Lydia.”
“Lydia!” he sputtered. “Lydia is practically a Battle Born. No. It was foolish to bring her here mother!”
“That’s not true. As a member of Balgruuf’s court she…she’s still been very good to our family.” Fralia protested. “She practically shoved Olfrid to the ground when he shouted at me today.” Fralia felt that she could trust Lydia. She also hoped that Lydia, or this Elspeth, might exploit their relationship with the Battle Borns as well. For her, it was worth the risk although she certainly understood her son’s trepidation.
Avulstein was forced to relent on this point. “Lydia is a true Nord,” he agreed. “But who is this one? We can’t trust anyone! Who knows what they’ll do if they find me here!” He strengthened his posture once again and Elspeth stood back.
“She was raised by Zette’s sister in Bruma!” explained Fralia, although Elspeth imagined this was meaningless to the armed and terrified warrior in front of her. “Please,” she continued to beg. “I can’t take any more of this. No weapons, please. Let’s just talk.”
And so they talked. Alvustein calmed down just enough to explain that he knew for certain the Imperials were holding Thorald. He just didn’t know where. He insisted that Idolaf knows and asked Elspeth to find something—a missive or other communication from one of the Legates or General Tullius—with proof of Thorald’s imprisonment. Elspeth listened intently. She was still laden with guilt over what happened in Markarth and of course, the sight of a distressed mother was more than she could bear. So she agreed to help. At the very least, she could confirm their suspicions and be done with it.
Outside, she walked up toward the Battle Born home. It was dark and quiet on the northwest side of the Wind district. She knew the Battle Borns were out for the evening—they ate together at the Bannered Mare every Middas. Slipping in the backdoor was easy but the locked office proved to be much more difficult. It was an expert lock and she was low on picks. She was focused and working slowly and when the bedroom door slammed behind her, she jumped and broke her last pick. Shit, she thought.
“Elspeth!” It was Bergritte. “What in Oblivion are you doing, trying to pick Olfrid’s office?”
She stood up, trying desperately to think of something. Of course, nothing came.
“Sit down!” she said sternly and Elspeth obliged, backing away from the door and taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
Bergritte’s face was severe as she looked at Elspeth. “There’s a rift here in Skyrim,” she began, “and can’t neither magic nor the passin’ of time make it right.” She sat down next to Elspeth and let out a long breath. She looked weary. “You know, I remember….” She stopped as if uncertain she should go on. But after a few moments, she continued. “Fralia labored for four days with Thorald,” she said. “There was a huge storm. Zette had been called away to Riverwood and the priestess at the temple was overwhelmed with sick people. Eorland Gray Mane, the very embodiment of Nord stoicism, was a mess. I sent him to the Apothecary for blisterwort, just to get him out of the house. He wasn’t gone but a half hour and Thorald arrived just as he came back home. I caught him, red and screaming and perfect.” She smiled at the memory. “He never gave his Ma any trouble after that. No. Thorald was a good boy.”
She stood up and opened the office door. After a few moments of shuffling, Elspeth heard her call out. “The Gray Manes made their choice. It was the wrong choice.” She came out of the office and stood over Elspeth, holding a folded slip of paper. Elspeth was confused but she took the paper and read
It has come to my attention that inquiries have been made as to the whereabouts of one Thorald Gray-Mane. It is my duty to inform you that Thalmor agents have taken possession of the prisoner and have escorted him to Northwatch Keep. I don’t think I need to elaborate. It is in everyone’s best interest if the matter is dropped entirely. I trust there will be no further inquiries as to this matter. ~Gen. Tullius
Elspeth looked back up, folded the letter and placed it back in Bergritte’s outstretched hand.
“They are traitors,” she said. “And if you tell anyone I said otherwise….” She crossed her arms and looked intently at Elspeth, who simply nodded.
“Thanks,” she whispered and she hurried out. She walked slowly down their steps, her mind spinning with thoughts of Thorald and the Thalmor. When it was simply the Imperials, it seemed like a simple errand. A favor. But knowing it was the Thalmor it suddenly seemed different. Personal. Something was now burning inside her and it simply relaying some information to Avulstein would not be enough to quell it. Within moments she came upon the Gray Mane’s door. Instead of stopping, however, she walked back down to Breezehome, her mind made up.
“You’re going to do what?” exclaimed Lydia.
“I’m going to rescue Thorald,” Elspeth said as she gathered every stamina, magicka, health, and poison potion in the house into her satchel. Also mead, dried meat, and some apples.
“No! We’re going to Riften tomorrow,” Lydia was starting to realize that there was no limit to Elspeth’s fervor. “We don’t have time for a rescue mission.”
Elspeth paused as she made room in her satchel for more supplies. “You’re not coming,” she said quietly. “I have a plan. I’m going to hire that mercenary we met at the Winking Skeever. To hear the publican tell it, he’s practically invincible.”
Lydia just stared at her, wide-eyed and terrified. “I…I can’t let you do this.”
“It’s not really your decision.”
“We have to go to Riften. We were only meant to stop here for a night or two and we have to get Nerussa,” she said. “I don’t know why you—”
“Look, we caught a lucky break in Winterhold and now we’re months ahead on that search. And Calcelmo says she’s living safely somewhere in the Rift. She can wait a couple of weeks.” She paused and swallowed. “Thorald may not have that much time.”
“Elspeth,” she replied, her voice softer now. “You don’t have to do something good to make up for—”
“That’s not what this is about!” she interrupted Lydia again, angry now. “At least that’s not all this is about.” She continued to organize and reorganize her satchel, moving bottles and lock picks around. “This is something I have to do. Maybe it’s guilt because of the amulet. Maybe it’s the grieving mother thing. But I don’t think so. I can’t explain it. But I’m going and you’re not going to stop me. Don’t try me Lydia. Please.”
“Okay,” she replied. Elspeth looked so fierce and determined, she could at least try to understand. “But why don’t you want me with you?”
“Because you need to stay behind and make it look like I just went up to Solitude for some simple errand.” She stopped and considered her next statement carefully. “Also, if I don’t make it back, I need you to leave a note with Idolaf, telling him what I did and then you need to get Nerussa and bring her back her back here. Or take her to Bruma yourself; I’ll leave that to your discretion.”
Lydia bit her quivering lip. Elspeth was serious and she had a feeling that whatever she did to try to stop her would be met with harsh resistance. “Fine,” she whispered, her voice shaking. Lydia struggled to contain her frustration. She wanted to knock her tiny friend over and lock her in the potato cellar. But she was tired of fighting with the people she loved. “I still say you don’t have to do this.”
But Elspeth knew what she had to do. She hugged Lydia tightly and after taking a final inventory, she left Breezehome, made a quick stop at the Drunken Huntsman, and took Bjorlam’s last carriage out.