Apart from her head and neck, Elspeth had no feeling in her body as she awoke. Staring up, she saw Lydia and an Altmer woman looking back down at her and felt Lydia’s warm hand on her forehead, which settled only a tiny bit of the panic in her head.
“We found her,” Lydia whispered as she brought her head level with Elspeth’s on the pillow. “This is Nerussa.”
Nerussa didn’t look like many elves Elspeth knew. While her almond shaped amber eyes and pointed ears were unmistakably Altmer, her golden skin had pink undertones and her silver blonde hair was swept up in a style reminiscent of Cyrodill nobility, rather than high elf. She was watching Elspeth with a look of awe and affection that she found unsettling, but that was the least of her concerns. “I can’t feel my body,” she said, her voice was raw and panicked.
“That will wear off soon,” came a man’s voice from across the room. Elspeth craned her neck slightly and saw two Nords, a man and a woman, standing on the other side of the room, their posture stoic and expressions harsh.
His remark did little to assuage her anxiety, however. “Who is that?” she asked Lydia.
“He’s the one who poisoned you,” she responded scathingly as she looked back and scowled.
“He’s also the one who saved you,” said the woman sternly as she pushed her red hair behind her ears and leaned back against the wall with her arms across her chest.
Lydia’s lips twitched as if she were struggling to hold back something mean. Before she could say anything, however, Nerussa intervened. “Elspeth,” she said. “This is Trygve Wartooth, Thane of the Rift and his housecarl, Iona. Trygve’s father provided me with protection and shelter after I left Markarth. When he died, Trygve resumed that commitment.”
She nodded slowly as she observed them. Both were tall with broad shoulders and stern faces. If either cracked a smile, they might have looked stunning—Trygve especially. He had dark brown tousled hair and light eyes. His features were soft though not delicate.
Elspeth’s body was recovering a bit of sensation and she inched her way up along the bed, while Lydia propped her upright. There was a long uncomfortable silence before Nerussa spoke again. “Start from the beginning Elspeth,” she said. “I want to know everything.”
“Well….after I tried to cross the border through Morrowind, I was arrested and—”
“Not that beginning,” interrupted Nerussa calmly. “Trygve and Iona know who you are, so don’t concern yourself with that.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Okay…I was born on the 5th of Sun’s Dawn in 180….” Elspeth talked at length about growing up in Frostcraig Village and the sanctuary her parents provided to elves and mages who continued to support Evangeline and Bedyn after their exile. Despite the numbness still gripping her body, her tone was chipper and animated, as if the story that had been captive her whole life had been begging and was now finally being released. Lydia simply smiled, happy to hear more details of her childhood, while Nerussa took everything in, committing the information to memory as if she were preparing for the most important exam of her life. Trygve and Iona listened although appeared only mildly interested.
“How did your father die?” asked Nerussa, as Elspeth relayed the story of leaving the Village for Bruma with Xeri and Runa.
“His party was ambushed by bandits on the way home from visiting my grandmother’s headstone,” she explained.
“Bandits?” she said slowly, her eyes narrowing in disbelief. She looked toward Lydia who looked up and away awkwardly. “Well…I wish I had known,” she said as she touched Elspeth’s arm affectionately. She stood up and rubbed her hands together. “You seem weary—why don’t you take a break and rest for a bit? I’m going to get some tea. Lydia, will you help me in the kitchen, please. Trygve, check the wound again and put a fresh bandage on.”
She gathered up the bloody bandages and the broken arrow from where Trygve had left them and led Lydia to the kitchen. She tossed the debris aside and began to prepare a kettle. When Lydia shut the door, she turned around quickly and frowned. “Bandits?” Nerussa asked; her tone was incredulous.
Lydia paused and stepped away from the door. But before she could respond, Nerussa was pressing her. “Come on,” she said. “What do you know?”
“The Thalmor killed Bedyn,” she replied. “But Elspeth doesn’t know that.”
Nerussa pursed her lips in frustration. “Why not?” she asked sternly.
“Xeri felt….” Lydia shook her head. The secret had been a source of tension between Xeri and Runa for years before it was passed on to her. “Xeri tried to raise Elspeth with a very…academic understanding of the Thalmor. She didn’t want her to be motivated by vengeance or burdened with anger and grief.”
“I swear, you Nords and your fierce stoicism have nothing on the Dunmer warriors. They’ve made emotional deprivation an art form!” she exclaimed as she hurried around the kitchen looking for cups. “And how did this academic understanding work out for her?” she asked; her voice was quiet, but her tone was thick with derision.
“I think it worked out fine until she was a student at Arcane University and came home one night to find all her friends and teachers dead,” said Lydia.
“Oh!” she gasped as she put her hands over her mouth. “That poor child!”
“She’s not a child,” said Lydia defensively.
Nerussa looked at her and scowled. “Spare me,” she said. When she saw how hurt Lydia looked her face softened a bit. “I’m sorry. Xeri Tharys creates warriors. I have seen her take the weak and the timid and make them fierce. But she’s not so good at making people. Thank Mara for women like your aunt although I suspect that Elspeth still has much to learn.”
Lydia nodded in agreement. “Are you going to tell her?” she asked. “About her father?” Xeri had sworn her to secrecy and there had been days when it had been a struggle not to tell. Lately, however, it was less of a struggle. After witnessing Elspeth’s experiences with the Thalmor of late, Lydia now feared the emotional and violent fallout such information would inspire.
“No. It’s not my place,” she said as she gathered up the tray of cups and gestured for Lydia to get the door.
In the bedroom, Elspeth was propped up on the pillow looking somewhat uncomfortable although she was rubbing her hands together and moving her feet, indicating that the feeling in her limbs was returning. As Lydia handed her a steaming mug of tea, Elspeth gestured for her to lower her head. “These two are very serious, no?” she asked. Lydia nodded and frowned. There had been little said among the three Nords in the last hour, but Lydia knew she did not care for either and was eager to leave them and make their to Whiterun with Nerussa.
After Nerussa passed the rest of the mugs around, she sat down next to Elspeth again. “Now, tell me what you’ve been doing in Skyrim since you arrived.”
Elspeth relayed everything, stopping only to confirm that the Psijic Order had called upon her and that she did, in fact, devastate an entire fort of Thalmor soldiers and wizards. Nerussa attempted to hide her satisfaction at this, but her eyes betrayed her approval. Elspeth also told her about Arcane University, the Purge, and of the possible connection between that and the Psijic Order’s interest in her.
“I have something for you,” Nerussa said eagerly when Elspeth finished speaking. She unlocked a chest at the foot of the bed and brought out a sword. “This was Bedyn’s first sword, Thornblade. I recovered it in Chorrol before I escaped Cyrodill.” She held it out to Elspeth, who took it from her and inspected it.
It was a one-handed sword with a textured hilt and an old knot pattern that started on the cross guard and ran all the way down to the sharpest point she had ever seen on a blade. It’s enchantment was unusual, but after a few moments she was able to decipher it as one that could weaken materials such as steel, leather, ebony and so forth—good for disintegrating an enemy’s armor.
“Xeri and I presented that to Bedyn on his 15th name day,” Nerussa explained. “It’s been in your family for over 200 years, but no one wielded it before he did. Count Indarys of Cheydinhal gave it to Maeve Sigeweald after she rescued his son from an Oblivion gate. However, she preferred a glass claymore she enchanted and took to calling Oberon. Later, when your father joined the Blades, he acquired an Akavari blade that your mother enchanted for him. But Thornblade saw him through many fighter’s guild tasks.”
“Why didn’t anyone else use it?” she asked.
Nerussa sighed and shook her head. “Because until Bedyn came along, the Sigewealds took a turn from the path of the warrior and followed that of wealth and gluttony. And madness,” she added. “They kept the surname, because of Maeve’s fame. But only Bedyn earned it, thanks to your grandmother and Xeri.” She smiled and squeezed Elspeth’s arm. “And by the looks of it, I expect you will bring great honor to your family’s name as well.”
“Not if no one knows it,” said Trygve who seemed to be growing annoyed and impatient.
“Trygve!” said Nerussa. “Your father knew that I had once been in the service of the Sigewealds and I do apologize for not informing you sooner.” She looked at him harshly until he backed down, nodding in concession.
Elspeth cocked her head and looked at Nerussa some more. She assumed that meeting her would inspire curiosity, but it hadn’t. “You were my family’s steward for over two centuries. I feel like I should have more questions but I don’t, I just….” Her voice trailed off.
“I have no doubt that between your parents and Xeri, you are well informed,” she replied. “Quite honestly, between Maeve and Bedyn, there really isn’t much to tell.” She studied Elspeth some more. “You look so much like him, it’s simply astonishing.”
“It’s as if my mother wasn’t involved at all,” she replied, parroting the sentiment that was expressed loudly and often among the mages in Frostcraig Village when she was a girl.
Nerussa smiled warmly at her. “Tell me Elspeth, are you at all stubborn?”
Elspeth wrinkled her brow while Lydia sat up abruptly. “Yes!” she exclaimed.
“That’s Evangeline.” Nerussa smirked as stood up and rubbed her hands together. “This is it,” she said, her voice shaking with excited anticipation. “Everything is coming together. I’ve been waiting for this for years. I had just about given up hope and now…now you’re here.”
“Are you a visionary too?” asked Elspeth, wondering if perhaps Xeri’s visions were shared. Runa had always said they were incomplete as if they were bits and pieces of a larger picture being dropped into the Dunmer’s head at the whim of some greater force. She speculated that was perhaps this is why they were always difficult to decipher.
“Oh no, dear,” she said and then paused for a moment. “I’m more of a historian. Who has visions?”
“When I was born and throughout my childhood, Xeri had them,” she explained.
Nerussa’s face fell upon hearing this information and she pursed her lips. “What manner of gods would give Xeri Tharys a vision?” she bellowed, causing Elspeth to snicker at Lydia. After several moments, however, Nerussa calmed down and asked, “What sort of visions did she have?”
Elspeth looked up at her and replied, “She never could or, for that matter, would explain it very well. All she ever told me was that I was supposed to do something to help the Empire and that I should somehow follow my father. That’s why I left Frostcraig Village and why I was sent to find you.”
The Altmer’s face brightened again. “I think perhaps I am not giving your mentor enough credit.” She paused and scanned the room intently, as if taking some sort of inventory. “All right,” she said finally, “I’ve got a plan—”
“Xeri says we’re to take you back to Whiterun and send for her,” interrupted Elspeth.
Nerussa shook her head. “No,” she replied. “We must separate. I will take Iona with me to Bruma and find Xeri. Trygve, you will stay with Elspeth and Lydia—I think Whiterun is the safest—”
“Wait, what?” interjected Lydia as she stood up suddenly. “I don’t think it is necessary for Trygve to come back to Whiterun with us.” The notion of spending any more time with the taciturn Nord made her stomach turn.
“I’m sorry Lydia,” said Nerussa. “But I feel your emotional attachment to Elspeth has compromised your ability to protect her. And if it hasn’t, it will,” she explained. Her tone was not intended to be cruel, simply straightforward. Nevertheless, Lydia balked and her face looked as if it would break. It was clear that Nerussa had hurt Lydia’s feelings terribly.
“Hey!” said Elspeth defensively, “Lydia is an excellent housecarl. And I can take care of myself.”
“Indeed,” said Trygve sardonically. “You did a great job dodging my arrow.”
“All right!” said Nerussa. “Iona, what should she have done?”
“Well, the arrow was unavoidable. Trygve never misses and no one can hear him,” she replied smugly. “But her response was appalling. She dove into the satchel and she should have kept her head up, bringing the bottles up to her face as needed while her axe arm was kept ready.”
Lydia bit her lip and looked down, her face red with shame and embarrassment. She was loath to admit it, but they weren’t wrong.
“And yet, I live,” said Elspeth, who wanted to slap the look of self-satisfaction right off Iona’s face.
“You’ve been lucky,” said Trygve as he scowled at her.
“That’s right!” shouted Elspeth. “And until you survive a Thalmor purge and a dragon attack, you don’t get to dismiss luck.”
“That’s enough!” said Nerussa. “I don’t doubt that Lydia is capable. But this is important. You have no idea what the Thalmor will do to Elspeth if they discover she’s a Sigeweald.” She paused and swallowed against the raw tension rising in her throat. “No idea.” She walked over and took Trygve’s hand in hers. “Trygve, you swore to Birkir that you would protect me. Now I need you to dedicate yourself to her protection.”
“Of course,” he replied, nodding in deference. “To my father I made a promise. And that was to serve as well as protect. If this is what is needed, it is what I will do.” He looked back toward Lydia who was rolling her eyes at him. “Whiterun is ideal,” he agreed, ignoring her obvious disdain. “It’s central location is an advantage and my cousin is a guard there.”
“Who is your cousin?” asked Lydia.
“Toki,” he replied.
“You’re kidding!” she exclaimed, as if this were the most inconceivable thing she had ever heard. Toki liked drinking songs and taffy treats; how he could possibly be related to this humorless prat was beyond her.
Trygve went to protest but was interrupted by Nerussa. “Again, that’s enough,” she said as she turned away from the bickering Nords. “Elspeth Sigeweald,” she said, returning her gaze to Elspeth. Elspeth turned and looked up, her face betraying the feeling of strangeness she felt at hearing her name. “That sounds odd to you doesn’t it? Have either of you told anyone in Skyrim?” The women shook their heads.
“Good,” said Nerussa. “Elspeth, you need to stop thinking of Elspeth Aurilie as a false name. You need to kill any notion of Elspeth Sigeweald and live as though she doesn’t and has never existed. That means no one outside of this room is to know. No friends, no lovers, not even the Psijics. No one. And this is not just for your safety but also for theirs. Do you understand me?”
Elspeth swallowed nervously and whispered, “Yes.” Although she agreed to it, this promise cut into her gut. She had hoped with everything she had that finding Nerussa would mean she wouldn’t have to be so guarded and secretive around Onmund and now it seemed that she had to be even more so.
“It won’t be forever,” Nerussa said, sensing her distress. “Now, all of you listen,” she continued. “This is not just a secret you would die for. It is one that you would kill for.”
“Aren’t we starting to get a little dramatic?” asked Lydia.
Elspeth braced herself for a harsh response, but Nerussa remained calm and looked thoughtful for a moment before she responded. “Although I will never understand why the gods chose her, I do not think we can underestimate the importance of Xeri’s vision. We need to have a little faith, I think. And really, I think it’s best to overestimate the Thalmor, than not—don’t you?” She looked across the room at the group, who simply nodded in unison.
“Stay in Whiterun until the Psijics call you,” she instructed. “I’ve never heard of this Ancano and while I trust Savos to keep an eye on him, if he’s Thalmor, he’s dangerous.”
With this Nerussa, Trygve, and Iona gathered provisions and prepared for their respective journeys. Trygve agreed to close up the house in the woods and use Honeyside should any business in the Rift arise. When Elspeth’s strength was fully recovered and all supplies were replenished, they left. Before they parted ways, however, the Altmer put her arm around Elspeth’s shoulders. “It pains me to leave you so soon, but gods willing, I will be in your service in the future.”
Trygve travelled exclusively by horse and although Lydia was reluctant to indulge him, she agreed that it was time for them to acquire a steed. At Riften stables, they chose a sturdy dapple-grey horse with white markings that she refused to ride until Elspeth named him. It was clear that this was merely an attempt to get under Trygve’s skin, and not some Nord equestrian tradition and Elspeth quickly named the horse Pickles so they could leave.
They finally departed for Whiterun just after noon, stopping only once to camp and rest. The journey was initially characterized by tension that seemed to lessen only as their weariness grew. However, Lydia and Trygve achieved détente—at least temporarily—when the three of them quickly put down a pack of bandits they confronted on the road. Lydia couldn’t deny that he was the best archer she had ever seen. He never missed, and his snatch and fire was a single continuous motion like that of a Bosmer. And more than once, Elspeth caught him raising his eyes in admiration of Lydia’s strength and control in melee combat.
It was just after sundown when they arrived in Whiterun. They stabled the horses and as they approached the gate, Elspeth looked into the sky. The moons were dark, which meant that Onmund would be in Breezehome or at the Bannered Mare, rather than the lunar forge. This settled the unease she felt as she reflected on the end of her task. She had done as she had been instructed, but rather than Nerussa, the Altmer steward who had overseen her family’s affairs for over two centuries, they’d returned to Whiterun with a high-minded and serious Nord—a veritable stranger—who was suddenly dedicated to her safety and well-being.
The notion filled her with a level of uncertainty that rivaled those moments during her adolescence when training was lonely and never ending and seemingly without purpose.
She was pondering this as Lydia put her arm around her shoulder. “We’re home,” she said. “And this time we might get to stay a while. Or not…as these things go.”
Home. A slight smile escaped Elspeth’s lips. The uncertainty she felt was giving way to a realization. In Cyrodill her life was an endless series of repetitive events interrupted by tragedy. In Skyrim, it was unpredictable with the possibility of upheaval and disaster around every corner. Yet she had found friendship and intimacy unlike any she had experienced before. Her deeds of late had brought her despair and guilt, but also a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Cyrodill was a place where she once lived. Skyrim was home. Whatever happened next…at least she had that.
(but not really)
Author Note: Holy crap, I wrote a novel-like-thing. I can’t believe it. Thank you to everyone who has been reading along and commenting. I could not have done this without you. Stay tuned for more adventures, Elspeth’s and others.