“Shameful! If any of you were in Skyrim you would be lucky if they called you milk-drinker. Now plank!”
Oh, Xeri how I’ve missed you. When they approached the northern end of Bruma, Nerussa couldn’t help but grin at that familiar—yet dreadful—militant voice. As they rode into view, Iona flinched at the sight of ten young Nords clad in little more than tattered rags holding themselves in plank positions, their muscles quivering as their bleeding knuckles pressed into the frozen rocky ground.
Their tormenter, the tall Dunmer with slicked back white hair and features as harsh as her commands gave a brief glance over her shoulder, but didn’t miss a beat. “You are all a disgrace. Thankfully, this Altmer has brought me a real Nord warrior. To the trees!” With a wave of her hand, the Nords scrambled from their plank positions to the cluster of thin-trunked trees lining the road that led to town.
Nerussa barely seemed to notice, but Iona was horrified as the young men and women began to kick and hit the trees as hard as they could, alternating between their forearms, their fists, and their shins. The repeated crack of their unarmored skin against the trunks of the trees sent a shudder down her spine. Her own training had been difficult, but she had never seen anything like this. In Skyrim, her training was done in full armor, and they practiced hand-to-hand combat against burlap dummies—and each other. But this, this looked like torture.
“What are they doing?” she asked as she and Nerussa dismounted their horses.
“They’ll kick and hit the trees until they crack the trunk of the tree,” explained Xeri.
“What happens if they hurt themselves before they crack the tree?” she asked.
“They’ll heal themselves and keep going,” replied the Dunmer her voice growing increasingly irritated.
“That so cruel,” she exclaimed as she looked at the men and women, looking pained and humiliated while they thrashed against the trees.
Nerussa cringed. During their journey, she had been so focused on her plan, on how she was going to approach Xeri and Evangeline, that she simply forgot to warn Iona of the cardinal rule when dealing with Xeri Tharys. Never question her methods.
“Excuse me?” Xeri stepped up to Iona and glowered, narrowing her eyes so that they were just thin red slits looking angrily at the Nord who dared challenge her.
But Iona was unwavering. “That looks more like torture than training.”
“And if my pups are ever tortured, maybe it won’t seem quite as bad,” replied Xeri though Iona still looked doubtful. Xeri shook her head. “I train them to work through pain and more pain. I don’t know what kinds of sweet rolls and snuggles you’re being prepared for up north, but down here, I prepare my boys and girls to suffer. Because they will. Besides, can you think of a better way to get a Nord to practice magic?”
Without giving Iona a chance to respond, she quickly turned to Nerussa and looked her over. “You’re alive,” she said, a slight grin just barely escaping her lips before she scowled again. “I told Elspeth to send for me.
“And I told her not to,” said Nerussa calmly. “When are you going to learn, Xeri? The steward’s directives always trump those of the housecarl.” She knew how to handle the obstinate old Dunmer warrior woman. At the very least, as the long-awaited steward she had the upper hand.
Xeri grunted and shook her head. “Let me clean this place up,” she said. “I’ll meet you both by the main gate.”
Iona sidled up to Nerussa as they walked their horses over toward the stables, her jaw still slightly agape over what had just happened. “That was Elspeth’s mentor?”
Nerussa nodded. “Mentor. Guardian.” She paused and gestured in the direction of the group by the trees. “Those kids are lucky.”
“Lucky?” she replied in disbelief.
“They get to go home at night,” explained Nerussa. “Elspeth was with Xeri all the time.”
“She didn’t even ask about Elspeth!” Iona was simply baffled.
“She’s empathic. She would have known if I came bearing terrible news.”
“She doesn’t seem very compassionate,” protested Iona.
Nerussa shook her head and smiled. “It’s an elven thing and Xeri happens to be particularly astute in that regard. It’s not empathy or sympathy; the best way to describe it is…basically she experiences emotions as if they were her own. If it helps, she knows exactly how all her charges feel about her. She can feel their hostility toward her.”
Iona found this oddly comforting until she realized that Xeri probably could not care less about how others regarded her and that she probably thrived on such hostility. At that moment, Xeri caught up and stomped just ahead of the other two women as they neared Bruma’s main gate.
“I want to hear about your visions,” said Nerussa as her stride met Xeri’s. “And I need to see Evangeline.” She nodded cordially at the guard who let them inside.
“I intend for us to leave immediately,” Xeri replied. “Bruma has so far escaped close Thalmor scrutiny, but that can always change.” She paused for a moment and then asked, without bothering to look back at Iona, “Is your Nord coming?”
“No,” said Nerussa. “I’ll send her back to Skyrim.”
“Does she know about Elspeth?”
“Yes,” replied Nerussa, but before Xeri could object, she explained. “It’s fine. Iona is housecarl to the Thane who has been protecting me, Trygve Wartooth. You’d like him—well, as much as you’d like anyone. He’s a scout. Stealthy and deadly with a bow. I sent him back to Whiterun with Lydia and Elspeth.”
Xeri frowned but didn’t protest. “Very well,” she said although she disliked the idea of Elspeth having more than one companion—groups drew attention and that meant trouble. But she wasn’t going to argue with Nerussa. Not now. There would be plenty for them to quibble over on their journey to Frostcrag.
She led them to a small house on the south edge of the city. When she opened the door, a large Nord woman, tall with broad shoulders, greeted them. Her silver-streaked ebony hair was tied back in a loose bun and her face, though thin and wrinkled, was warm and kind. Iona smiled. After her interaction with Xeri, she was pleased to be in the company of kin.
“This is Nerussa. The Nord is Iona; she’s a housecarl,” said Xeri flatly as she hurried up the stairs, leaving them in the entrance of the house.
“Hello, I’m Runa,” she said as she shook their hands and led them to a small dining area. “Please sit. I’m making rabbit stew.” She looked around eagerly. “Is Elspeth with you?”
“She’s in Skyrim with Lydia. We’re leaving for Frostcrag Village immediately.” Xeri responded as she came back downstairs, her arms laden with satchels.
“You have to eat first,” Runa protested. “And I want to know how Elspeth is doing.”
“Runa, we can’t waste any—” Xeri was firm and Nerussa anticipated an argument as Runa stepped forward. But when the Nord crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, the Dunmer backed down immediately and simply nodded. Nerussa, who couldn’t recall anyone silencing Xeri before, was impressed.
Runa set dishes out and served stew, freshly baked bread, and ale. She waited quietly but as soon as Nerussa ate her last spoonful of food, Runa inundated her with questions. Did Elspeth seem to like Skyrim? Was she getting along with Lydia? Did she look thin?
Nerussa chuckled quietly though she was secretly wanted to take this woman in her arms and kiss her. Whatever capacity for compassion and tenderness Elspeth retained under Xeri’s tutelage was likely a result of her influence. “Elspeth looks fine,” she said, leaving out that she was poisoned and unconscious when she first saw her. “She and Lydia appear to be quite close. She’s met a nice young man, a Nord from the College—”
“Mara’s mercy! A Nord mage?” asked Xeri sardonically. “I didn’t know they allowed such things in Skyrim.”
“Shut up Xeri,” said Runa, quietly but firmly. She turned back and smiled warmly at Nerussa. “Does she seem…” Runa paused, thinking carefully about what she was asking. “Content…at all?” Runa had hoped and prayed against all logic that Elspeth’s journey north would bring her something—comfort or some sense of purpose—that she never had in Cyrodiil.
Nerussa took a deep breath. “She went through a lot to find me. She’s a survivor and I think your Lydia is very protective of her. But Elspeth is…weary. And for someone so young….” Her voice trailed off. She couldn’t think of what else to say. She’d sat with Elspeth but a few hours and in that short time she’d seen a young woman whose heart carried more than its fair sure of burdens. And Nerussa knew that she would continue to bear more.
“I expected as much,” Runa replied, her voice tinged with sadness. She wasn’t surprised, but hearing it nevertheless made her heart ache.
“All right!” Xeri’s harsh voice pulled them away from their thoughts. “We’re leaving in half an hour. Runa, Shazir will run drills with the pups. And you know what to do if anyone comes looking for the dissident elves.” Runa nodded and began to clear the table. “Iona,” Xeri continued, “if you won’t be accompanying us to Frostcrag, please feel free to stay here until you are ready to return to Skyrim. Runa will see that you are fed well before your journey.” She paused and looked at the housecarl intently. “Thank you,” she said finally, “for bringing Nerussa to me safely.” She gave a courteous nod to indicate her sincerity, though her countenance betrayed little warmth.
When their satchels were packed and the horses loaded, Nerussa thanked Runa for dinner with a hug that was intended, not only to express gratitude for her hospitality, but also for the nurturing and kindness she had surely provided Elspeth. Runa and Iona saw them off at the gate before heading over to a tavern to exchange stories of Skyrim over mead.
Their ride was mostly uneventful. There were a couple of snow squalls that ripped through their path, which slowed them down somewhat. But otherwise, they journey through the mountains was simply cold. They discussed Xeri’s visions and Nerussa’s escape and evasion of the Thalmor and her life in Skyrim.
It was late when they arrived at the Village perimeter. Xeri could see the familiar Atronach guardians in the distance. As they made their way up the main path to the Spire, several young Bretons approached them. They were wearing armor that was unquestionably
Elven but in a style that distinguished it from that worn by Thalmor soldiers. They looked like guards, but Frostcrag never had guards apart from the Atronachs before.
“Halt! What business brings you here?” The Breton who spoke was the tallest of the three.
Xeri seemed to forget for a moment that she was no longer a resident of the Village and hadn’t been for over a decade. “I’m here to see Evangeline,” she replied as if there were no reason to ask.
“All visitors seeking an audience with Evangeline Sigeweald must first see the recruitment officer,” continued the tall one.
“Excuse me, what?” Xeri sounded a bit defensive, as if the young guard should have known and expected her.
Nerussa leaned in and whispered. “Need I remind you that you haven’t been here in over a decade?”
But before Xeri could answer they were interrupted by a familiar voice. “Xeri, you’re back!” They looked up to see an Altmer woman hurrying down the path toward them.
“Irinde!” exclaimed Xeri. “Thank gods.”
Irinde dismissed the guards and led them up the path toward the Spire. “There have been some changes,” she explained.
“I’ll say,” agreed Xeri, gesturing toward the guards. “Have there been raids?”
Irinde shook her head. “No, but it is a concern. Our numbers have surged. We’ve had to implement more formal security procedures just to keep things organized around here.” At the entry level of the Spire, she stopped. “Before we go inside, let me show you something.” She led the woman around the building and Xeri let out an audible gasp as she looked over the village.
The buildings that had once functioned as simple dormitories had been torn down and rebuilt as large, efficient barracks. The field, which was once simply a recreational area, was now a fully equipped training area. Mages were running drills on one side and on the other they were practicing powerful destruction magic against a row of focusing crystals. Almost all the mages in the village wore armor. They walked with purpose and stood at attention. They were soldiers. The rumors were true—Evangeline Sigeweald was training an army.
Irinde observed as Xeri’s eyes grew wide and her face brightened. “She did it. I knew she could do it.”
“Let’s go inside,” said Irinde, gesturing back toward the main entrance of the Spire.
When they stepped into the foyer, Xeri gasped yet again. The main floor, which had previously held only a couple of book shelves, display cases, and a summoning altar had been completely transformed into a war room. There were tables for strategy sessions, maps, crates and wardrobes with weapons, armor, and potions. And the wall that had once displayed decorative tapestries were banners representing Evangeline’s allies: Hammerfell was easily recognizable, but the others were unfamiliar although they depicted symbols of various cultures around Tamriel from places like Morrowind and Valenwood. Xeri surmised that they were from independent militias but, having spent the last 10 years training Elspeth and other adolescents in Bruma, she was not well informed on state of Tamriel’s revolutionary armies. The center banner, the largest one was completely foreign to her. It was gold with a red and silver knot pattern around a blue circle.
Nerussa saw the look of confusion on Xeri’s face. She leaned over and whispered, “The Psijic Order.”
“The ones who contacted Elspeth?” On their journey, Nerussa told Xeri of Elspeth’s endeavors at the College. “Why are they here?”
Nerussa shrugged but before she could respond, their attention was diverted by a bevy of excitement from the summoning alter at the far end of the room.
“Nerussa! Xeri! Oh my gods!” Evangeline’s voice echoed throughout the room. “Out of my way!” she shouted as she pushed through a throng of mages who had gathered around the alter where she had been working. She rushed down the ramp that connected the altar area with the main room and threw her arms around Nerussa. “You’re alive!” she exclaimed, her voice muffled as she pressed her face into the Altmer’s robe, gripping her tight. “I am so, so sorry,” she whispered.
When she pulled back, her face was drawn, betraying over twenty-five years of guilt, regret, and sorrow. Nerussa smiled and pushed Evangeline’s dark auburn hair out of her eyes as she smiled warmly at her. “You’ve nothing to be sorry about my dear. Elspeth found me. Everything is happening as it’s supposed to.” Evangeline nodded and Nerussa continued, “We do need to talk, however.”
“Yes, yes…we have so much to discuss,” agreed Evangeline. “We’ll confer in my study.” She stepped back and smoothed her robe down after wiping her face with the back of her wrist, catching the tears that had welled up in her eyes.
“What are you looking at?” Xeri spat at several mages who stopped to gawk at the emotionally charged reunion. When they scattered away, she turned to Evangeline. “This place is incredible!”
“Yes, well after you left I immediately sent some magesto Hammerfell. Gaining their support was easy. General Decianus felt he owed it to me. Most of our recruits go there. We’ve also allied with some small militias around Tamriel—guerilla types who occasionally manage to distract the Thalmor. But we got a boon last year when we were contacted by the Psijic Order after the purge at Arcane—oh and I forgive you Xeri for not telling me that Elspeth survived that, only because I had no idea she was there at the time.”
Xeri looked awkward for just a moment before responding. “So, you know about the Order’s interest in Elspeth?”
“They told me that they’d hoped to find someone at the university, a particularly talented destruction mage—that probably should have been a clue. Anyway, after they failed to do that, they came here to see what sort of resources I might be able to offer. We’ve been collaborating since then. However, it’s only been in the last several months that we realized that the mage they were seeking was Elspeth.”
She stopped just outside the entrance of her suite and looked at Xeri intently. “Xeri, I thought it was the vision. I thought…I hoped that meant you’d bring her back here. But the Order seems to think she should be in Skyrim although no one can explain to me why.” Her voice quivered a bit. Evangeline had struggled for years to trust in the decision she made to let Xeri take Elspeth away. The past several months—after learning that Elspeth had made her way up to the College of Winterhold, that she had survived the purge at Arcane, that the Order had hoped she would lead their efforts against the Thalmor—had been almost unbearable. She held it together, for her mages, but it was difficult.
“Evangeline.” Nerussa saw the worry that had settled into Evangeline’s face and reached out to touch her arm. “Trust me when I say that Elspeth is exactly where she needs to be right now.” Evangeline nodded and led them into her suite, where an Altmer clad in a robe whose design reflected that of the large banner in the main room stood.
“This is Quaranir,” said Evangeline. “From the Psijic Order. Quaranir, this is Xeri Tharys, Elspeth’s mentor, and Nerussa, the Sigeweald’s steward.” She gestured for them to sit at the table, while she gathered goblets and poured wine.
Xeri frowned and gestured toward Quaranir, somewhat suspiciously. “Will he be joining us?”
“I think we need to figure out how the Order’s interest in Elspeth relates to your visions,” Evangeline replied.
“What makes you think it does?” said Xeri callously.
Evangeline’s lip twitched. She felt insulted, as if she had no business offering her perspective and Xeri was throwing her decade-long absence from Elspeth’s life in her face. Before she could respond, however, Nerussa spoke up.
“He should stay,” she said. “If the Order has an interest in opposing the Thalmor and in Elspeth, then it’s important that our intentions are in accord.”
“Very well,” agreed Xeri. She looked back over at Quaranir and asked, “What are your intentions with Elspeth?”
The Psijic sorcerer straightened himself up and looked intently at Xeri. His expression was severe, but his voice was calm and deliberate. “The Psijics are a monastic order,” he explained, “dedicated to the “Elder Way,” studying and meditating. We’re all trained in destruction magic, but we are not warriors. We’ve always opposed the Thalmor but thought we would fight them on a more…shall we say, ideological level—”
“Yeah, good luck with that.” Xeri grunted as she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back in her seat. She had no patience for wars of words, political debate, and other such nonsense. The Thalmor were a menace, an extremely brutal menace and they had to be stopped, violently.
“Xeri….” Evangeline’s tone was impatient and pleading.
“No,” continued Quaranir, “she’s not wrong. Nerien, the Psijic who contacted Elspeth in Skyrim had been warning us for years that we needed warriors. We scoffed at him, for that is contrary to the old ways for it would make us prey to the dark forces.” With these last words his tone turned to slight mockery, the sound of disillusionment.
“You’ve turned from mysticism?” asked Nerussa. She was incredulous at the thought.
“No, not at all,” he replied. “We’ve just come to understand that it is inadequate for confronting the Thalmor.” He paused and took a sip of his wine before continuing. “In his correspondence, one of our scholars, Ilario, indicated that Arcane was just seething with anti-Thalmor sentiment. To Nerien he wrote that he had also had his eye on a particularly talented destruction mage though he never mentioned her by name. He said that she used to leave the University for weeks at a time for warrior training.”
With this everyone’s gaze turned to Xeri, whose earlier look of disdain was replaced with a one of smug self-satisfaction. She smirked and gestured for Quaranir to continue.
“Nerien intended to meet with her but before he could, the University was purged. Ilario and Relamus were dead. We assumed she was dead too. That’s when we came here.”
Nerussa leaned forward and looked intently at him. “And then you found Elspeth. Savos Aren told her it was the spell she cast, the Sorcerer’s Bane.”
Evangeline gasped. The Sorcerer’s Bane was used to destroy farms and villages all throughout Valenwood during the war. “Elspeth cast that spell? You never told me that!” she said angrily toward Quaranir, as she clapped a trembling hand over her mouth.”
“She cast it at the college,” he explained. “I believe she was just demonstrating.”
Xeri nodded, her face actually softening a bit. “Elspeth would never…” Xeri paused. Realizing just how little Evangeline knew about Elspeth made her a little sad. “In fact, she struggled with just knowing the spell,” she explained, trying to reassure Evangeline.
“Nerien felt and recognized it when it was cast,” Quaranir continued. “He approached her in Sarthaal where he sensed a great power was about to be unleashed.” He paused and sat back and rubbed his chin with his hand.
“And?” said Xeri impatiently. “Was a great power unleashed?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “She did find a powerful artifact.”
“When will you contact Elspeth again?” asked Nerussa sternly.
“When we have something to tell her.” Quaranir let out a deep breath. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly what that orb she found is. It’s powerful; that’s all we know. I don’t know if she should destroy it or somehow try to contain it. Nerien seems to think that because she found it, she must deal with it but I don’t know if that is absolutely necessary.” He looked worried.
Nerussa nodded in agreement. “Does the Order know that Elspeth is Evangeline’s daughter?” she asked.
Evangeline shook her head. “No,” she replied firmly.
“The Order supports the dissident elves and mages,” Quaranir explained. “But they are divided on the matter of whether we should intervene at the college and seek out the mage who survived Arcane. They think it’s just too dangerous. And as Elspeth is….” Quaranir’s voice trailed off uneasily for a moment before he cleared his throat and continued. “As Elspeth is Evangeline’s daughter—it would only be more so.”
Xeri didn’t like the way that Quaranir’s voice lagged over Elspeth’s name. She looked over at Nerussa who was also eyeing him. It was uncomfortably quiet for several moments until Xeri spoke up again. “Well this is all very well and good but what, if anything, does it have to do with my visions?”
“Yes,” agreed Evangeline emphatically. “And if Elspeth was meant to find Nerussa, why is she not here with her? If she was to follow Bedyn’s path, what does that have to do with Skyrim? Bedyn never went to Skyrim.” Evangeline stopped suddenly and tilted her head thoughtfully. “Nerussa, are there…are there Blades in Skyrim?”
“You know,” said Xeri as her eyes widened. “I never even thought of that. Perhaps Elspeth—”
“Ladies please settle down,” said Nerussa calmly. “I believe Elspeth is exactly where she needs to be. I also think that the Order’s interest in her could very well concur with Xeri’s vision although I do not believe that should be pursued aggressively just yet.” Nerussa spoke slowly and deliberately and looked carefully at Quaranir, who was nodding his head in agreement.
Nerussa looked at Xeri and Evangeline who were staring at her with rapt attention. She breathed in deep against the growing anticipation in her chest. “In order for you to understand, there is something I need to tell you…about Maeve Sigeweald.”