“An Imperial, and Breton, and a Nord are drinking at an inn. They each get a fly in their mead. The Breton pushes his tankard away in disgust. The Imperial reaches into his glass and plucks the fly out. The Nord plucks the fly out, shakes it violently over the glass, saying, Spit it out, ya bugger!”
Yep, thought Elspeth, we’re going to die. She could hear Benor laughing beside her and starting another joke. “A priestess of Arkay and a Vigilant of Stendarr walk into a tavern….”
This was the Gods’ punishment for her reckless zeal and stubborn determination. At the Drunken Huntsman, Jenassa had offered her services when she asked for directions to Northwatch Keep, but no, Elspeth wanted to keep the mission anonymous and find someone outside of Whiterun. She supposed that wasn’t reckless or stubborn, but she probably should have taken her up on it. She meant to hire Belrand, the spellsword from Solitude, but he had been contracted for a month-long job in the Pale. When she asked where she might find someone discreet, Sorex Vinuis sent her to Morthal to find Benor, a scrappy young Nord who occasionally took odd jobs. She met him at Moorside Inn where they brawled and had a drink. He appeared tough, but had no defensive or offensive magic ability and so she politely declined his offer to accompany her.
“Anya!” he hollered, as he trotted up from where he’d fallen behind. “Anya, am I a mage now?”
“What?” she said, trying—and failing—to suppress her exasperation.
Benor seemed not to care, however. “My armor feels very strange against my skin.” He squirmed a bit and frowned. “Do I have magicka now?”
“It’s enchanted to help protect you against destruction magic. You’ll get used to it,” she reassured him.
“If you say so.” He grinned although his tone suggested that he wasn’t convinced.
Every time Elspeth had tried to leave Morthal, he was there, waiting to go along with her. With little time and patience left, she relented but not until after spending the rest of her coin enchanting his armor and buying every last useful potion, poison, and ingredient from Lami, the local apothecary.
He wanted to be a guard, but he had yet to be appointed to the town watch. He liked to talk. A lot. Elspeth recalled how Ralof liked to talk, but he knew how to pace himself. Benor did not. And he didn’t ask her any personal questions. Normally, this was her preference, but now she longed for a chance to control the tenor of the conversation. He didn’t appear to need much sleep either, which would have been wonderful if he would have stopped talking on his watch long enough for her to rest. Finally—and when he wasn’t looking—she shoved some tundra cotton, leftover from the Resist Magic potions she mixed for him, into her ears and managed to catch a couple of uninterrupted hours of slumber.
“I’m the best warrior in Morthal, and that’s no boast.” After the 345th time he said this, he proved it when a troll came bounding down the path toward them. Elspeth cast a powerful fireball and just as she was aiming another one, Benor fired an arrow into the Troll’s face. She had to draw her spell back as he ran up and cracked its head open with his axe. The Troll was down and Benor, without missing a beat, continued his story about the time when he was ten and the caravans were leaving town and he followed them halfway to Dawnstar before his da realized he was gone, and they offered him moon sugar, which he didn’t eat because he just wanted to look at the Khajiit because he liked to watch their tails sway in the wind and have you ever noticed that Argonian tails don’t quite have the same sort of swing?
If she could get him to stop talking, maybe they wouldn’t die after all.
In three days time, they arrived and camped overnight a safe distance from the Keep. The following morning, they approached slowly and hid behind a small hill. The winds off the Sea of Ghosts were frigid but the day was surprisingly clear. Three guards were visible from where they sat and, using a Detect Life spell, she saw three more behind the wall.
“We’re going up against Thalmor,” explained Elspeth. “These wizards are mad beyond reason. They understand only violence.” Benor nodded enthusiastically. “I need you to be absolutely quiet as we begin our attack.”
“Oh, I can be quiet,” he said. “When I was a little boy, my grandma used to have me and my brother play The Quiet Game. I never won the game, but I was okay at it.”
Elspeth dropped her head. “Benor,” she whispered. “Talking about being quiet is not the same as being quiet. You need to keep your mouth shut. If one of us is in danger, then you can shout.”
He nodded furiously and silently to let her know that he understood.
“Okay,” she said. “When you see me along the wall by the entrance, I’ll signal you to nail that guard and the one up there with your poisoned arrows. Aim for their faces, like you did with the frost troll and that saber cat.” Elspeth was still amazed that he got the saber cat it the eye. If they were going to get through this, however, she had to believe it was more than luck. “As you draw them out, I’ll get them with spells before heading in to get the other ones. When those guards are down, you come in after me. And make sure the potions I gave you are accessible. Got it?”
He nodded again.
“Talos guide you,” she said, nodding back toward him. His eyes widened slightly at the mention of Talos. Then he smirked and readied himself for her lead.
Elspeth crept slowly up to and along the wall of the keep. On her signal, her new companion started firing arrows and when the first two guards ran out, Elspeth was able to finish them off with destruction spells before she went in to the courtyard with Benor soon following. The guards didn’t use as much magic as she anticipated and they made short work of them before heading inside the Keep. The biggest surprise, however, was Benor. When he needed to be, he was steady, serious, and proficient.
“There will be wizards in here,” she explained. “I have better natural magic resistance than you do, so I’ll try to draw their fire. You come from behind and crack them in their heads.”
Inside, they stood with their backs against the wall, listening carefully. After a few moments, Elspeth gestured that they should sneak forward. But before she could move, she felt Benor grab and squeeze her wrist. “You’ve been a good friend to me,” he said quietly. “That means something.”
“What?” asked Elspeth, baffled by this sudden expression of camaraderie. “Benor, I brought you someplace where you and I are most likely going to die.”
“You gave me a chance,” he explained. “No one else does.”
She decided that this was not a good time to remind him that he really didn’t give her much choice. His comments tugged at her heart and while she was not particularly in the mood for such sentiment, she felt the sides of her mouth twitch a bit. But she shook it off. They had to stay focused. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s do this. If we take it slow and stealthy, we might actually get out of this alive.”
Elspeth led the way down the long narrow hallway and through several well-lit storage rooms. Her heart was racing. While her boots stepped softly and her armor made almost no sound at all, Benor’s step was careful but heavy and keeping him close to the wall without his armor scraping the stone proved to be difficult. Finally, she decided to go ahead and signal him forward when she was certain he would not cause a disturbance. It was going to be a very long trek through the keep.
The first Thalmor they came upon was a wizard sitting at a table reading. Seeing him sitting there quietly in his robe and hood—it made her heart seize in her chest. No! she thought. She allowed Ondolemar to destroy that part of herself that could claim to be honorable. She absolutely could not be scared of them. Not anymore. She and Benor had killed all the soldiers outside. They could do this.
When she scanned the room, she also saw a soldier, and signaled “two” to Benor who nodded and readied his axe behind her. Then she cast an impressive fireball right to the wizard’s head. He tumbled off his chair as Elspeth rushed forward, sword drawn, and sliced his gut open. Just as the soldier tried to descend on Elspeth, Benor came barreling in the room and cracked him over the head while she swung around and jammed her sword into his neck.
They moved to the doorway and listened carefully to see if anyone would come investigate the mess they made. When no one arrived, they continued on, first down a narrow hallway and then into a wide stairwell, where they found two more soldiers. Benor was able to pick one off from the top of the stair with poisoned arrows, while Elspeth charged forward, tossing a fireball and catching her foot on the edge of the armor belonging to the soldier Benor had just killed. She stumbled and slammed face first on the stone floor. Even as she howled in pain, she managed to flip herself over but before she could get up, the soldier was over her. Just as he raised his axe, however, a well-aimed arrow caught him in the back, causing him to lurch and giving her just enough room to hit him with lightening. Elspeth scrambled to her feet, nodding appreciatively at Benor as he came running down the steps.
They followed another narrow hall and Elspeth detected three people in the upcoming room. They were soldiers, sitting around in what looked like a tavern, with tables and a counter and bottles of wine and mead set out. Recalling Benor’s jokes from their journey, Elspeth found herself wanting to laugh inappropriately. She caught his gaze and he grinned but then quickly resumed a combat face. He was good at this, she though and then she felt bad for doubting him earlier. If the city watch continued to refuse his petition, maybe mercenary work would suit him.
With their helmets off, the soldiers in tavern-like room appeared to be a bit more relaxed. The angle of the door prevented a nice arrow shot. So, after scanning the room carefully, Elspeth took the lead, casting fireballs throughout and causing general mayhem while Benor charged in. He went right for the soldier behind the counter while Elspeth took on the two soldiers closer to the door, which proved to a little more difficult than she imagined as they forced her into a corner. She heard a crash of lightening from the other end of the room and after she’d killed her soldiers, she jumped up and saw a wizard coming for her. She cast a fireball and a ward in succession and lunged forward, sinking her sword into her chest. This killed her but not before she cast one final lightening spell, from which Elspeth collapsed as her ward ran out.
She healed herself quickly and looked around frantically as she pulled herself up, the reverberation from the spell still stinging her muscles. “Benor! BenorBenorBENOR!!!” she cried as she stumbled and tripped over scattered tables and chairs. His body was propped up against the wall directly across from the counter. She readied Healing Hands as she came crashing down on his chest. But she was too late.
Elspeth closed his eyes and stood up, overwhelmed with something—she didn’t even know what. She felt like she was going to cry but somehow couldn’t. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. He had called her a friend and she shrugged it off. She felt terrible. Guilty.
She looked over the room slowly. The Thalmor took everything from her—the thought had played in her mind over and over in the months following the Purge and in the last several days. But now, this…the sadness she felt was bitter and raw and the loss felt quite unlike anything she’d felt before. She looked at Benor. He wasn’t hers. But he belonged to the world. The Thalmor didn’t take everything from her. They took everything that was good and honorable and they took them from the whole world. From everyone. And they had to be stopped.
The realization turned the raw bitter feeling in her heart to wrath and she snapped. Before this, her reckless enthusiasm brought her to situations. Now, it was going to push her all the way through one. She was done with the slow, steady pace that had gotten her this far and she suddenly found herself raging through the rest of the keep. No sneaking. No planning. No thinking.
She charged into a huge, two level room with several soldiers and wizards, throwing a frenzy of fireballs around and slipping into a mindless outburst of hacking and slashing. Her advantages were speed and the element of surprise and somehow she managed to slay two soldiers and two wizards. Later she would reflect on how incredibly stupid her tactic was, but for now she was running on pure fury. She pressed on, storming the halls…stopping to fight and then replenish her majickahealthstamina. Fight. Replenish. Fight. “That!” she screamed, as she ran her sword through the gut of the mage sitting at the table at the end of the next hallway, “is for Benor!”
“And that is for Andil!” After she took down the soldier guarding the closed door that led to the prison area.
At the two soldiers in the prison cell area she threw fireballs until they were writhing on the ground. “That is for all of Arcane University,” she screeched at the first as she drove her sword into her neck. “Even that bitch Dabienne.” She whipped back, but the second soldier was already dead.
She turned out of the prison area and when she saw the rack at the other end of the hallway, she stepped up her pace, entertaining fantasies of what she was going to do to the next Thalmor she confronted. But when she burst into the room, she took one look at the torturer and the prisoner in front of him and decided just to finish him. She drove her sword into his spine, quickly looted the key, and unlocked the shackles that held the prisoner’s arms to the wall as the rest of his body dangled.
Thorald Gray Man pitched forward, groaning and mumbling about friendly faces. Elspeth could barely hear him—her head was spinning. He rubbed his wrists and stretched as he stood up and stared at the tiny, half-crazed Breton standing in front of him. “Who are you?” he asked.
His voice grated in her head and as she came down from her rampage she was confused and distraught and even a little contemptuous. “I am no one to be trifled with,” she replied, somewhat harshly. “That is all you ever need to know.”
“What?” he asked, perplexed by this response. She looked up at him as a wave of lightheadedness overtook her. Fralia, he looked just like Fralia. Thinking about the Gray Mane matriarch and her pleas for help gave her mind a jolt and brought her back around.
“Oh!” she exclaimed as she trembled and tried to catch her breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I just killed a lot of Thalmor and….” Her voice trailed off as she looked back at the dead body of the torturer.
“You didn’t like it?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, still staring at the body. “I wouldn’t say that.” They were both silent. However, Thorald was too grateful and Elspeth too overwhelmed for feelings of awkwardness. “I cannot thank you enough for rescuing me from this place,” he said finally. “I suspect I’d never see the light of day otherwise.” He looked intently at her. “But why would you risk your life for a stranger?”
“Your mother and brother asked me to help,” she replied. “I came to bring you home.”
Thorald’s face brightened and then fell. “They’ll go looking for me and Whiterun will be the first place that they search,” he said. “It’s probably not safe for Avulstein either. Our best hope now is to fall in with the ranks of the Stormcloaks.”
Elspeth was disappointed. Bringing Thorald back to Fralia would have done much to calm her troubled spirit after all the grief and madness the end of her journey had brought. But she knew he was right. “I understand. But, what will I tell your mother?” she asked.
He paused for a moment and said, “Tell her, suffer the winter’s cold wind, for it bears aloft next summer’s seed. She will know what it means.”