“It’s Thane’s armor,” Balgruuf explained, gesturing toward the mannequin in the war room, on which Elspeth’s new armor hung. “I had Eorland forge it. It’s leather with Skyforge steel pauldrons and chainmail accents. So it’s strong, but light and flexible—which is good for you battle mage types, I hear. And the trim on the breastplate is gold, for Whiterun.”
Elspeth just stood there and stared. It wasn’t quite as elegant as the Elven armor that she’d worn in Cyrodiil—the armor that the Imperials took from her—but it was incredible all the same.
Balgruuf, Hrongar, and Irileth had gathered into the war room with Elspeth, Trygve, and Lydia as the Jarl presented Elspeth with his gift. Lydia avoided looking at Hrongar, but for the most part, the tension that might have been apparent between them was diffused by the Jarl’s enthusiasm.
“I think she likes it,” Hrongar observed.
“I…thank you!” Elspeth said finally. She beamed as she approached the mannequin and ran her fingers along the pauldrons.
“When was the last time you made a woman smile like that?” Irileth shot Hronger a dirty look as he said this, but the Nord seemed not to notice or care. “And hey, she’s taking her clothes off. That’s always a good sign.”
Trygve’s eyes widened and he looked absolutely mortified as she began to remove her leather armor. “Elspeth!” he exclaimed as he turned and pulled Lydia toward him so that they stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a partition between Elspeth and the rest of the room.
“I’m sure Balgruuf has seen a woman—a warrior—in her woolies.” Lydia said as she turned to help Elspeth buckle her new cuirass and fasten the paudrons. As Elspeth slipped the boots on, Lydia stepped back and gestured for Balgruuf to look.
“Wonderful,” he said, nodding approvingly.
“I think it just needs to be adjusted a little. I’ll take it to Eorland now.” Lydia lowered her lips to Elspeth ear and whispered, “I really, really need to get out of here.”
“I can imagine,” she replied as she started to undress again. Lydia and Trygve gathered up the armor and hurried away. Elspeth paused for a moment, looking at the worn leather armor—still crusted with mud and dragon’s blood—and simply carried it downstairs. Hrongar chuckled quietly as he watched her, still her in woolies, walk downstairs after his brother. He turned to return to his quarters, but before he could leave, Irileth grabbed him by the arm and shoved him against the wall.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” she asked; the derision in her tone was clear.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responded as he narrowed his eyes at her.
“Don’t play stupid,” she said. “I know what you’re trying to do.” She lowered her voice and her face softened, but only just a bit. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out with Lydia, but stop trying to compensate for your own relationship failures by trying to control your brother’s love life. It never ends well. I don’t know if we will ever recover relations with Lord Greensley of Wayrest.”
Hrongar frowned. “I didn’t know that was his wife,” he protested. “I thought it was his daughter.”
“That wouldn’t have made it any better you fool.” Irileth sighed and shook her head. “Besides,” she said as she glanced toward at the stairway leading downward. “She’s not his type.”
“She’s a woman,” he replied. “That’s his type.”
Irileth rolled her eyes as she turned and left. She’d have to find a mission for him. As she wandered back toward the throne room, she noticed that Lydia and Trygve had made a hasty retreat, but Elspeth was still lingering, talking to Proventus at the table just outside Farengar’s quarters—looking something like a muscular rag doll with her grey woolies sagging around her shoulders and thighs. Irileth chuckled inwardly. Certainly, the Jarl would appreciate the Dragonborn’s apparent irreverence and casual social graces. Beyond that, however,…no. Hrongar simply needed to get away from Whiterun. Either that, or a lobotomy.
Irileth nodded to the Jarl as she resumed her place by the Throne. After some time had passed, he let his gaze wander. Apart from some guard chatter and the occasional sound of his children’s bickering, it was quiet. His eyes settled on the Dragonborn and he noticed that she kept looking away from the steward, her face a mix of confusion and discomfort. Balgruuf excused himself and strode over to the table. As he approached he could hear Proventus nattering on about Jarl Siddgier and the apparent rumors circulating around Falkreath hold and The Rift that the former Jarl, Dengier of Stuhn, was not deposed because of ill health and old age but because of an Imperial plot.
“So, how long do you intend to keep my steward from his duties?” he asked, jokingly.
“I have summons from the holds,” she explained. “Proventus was providing me with some…um, background on each of the Jarls.” As she looked up at him, she scratched the side of her head and pressed her lips into a smile that seemed forced.
Balgruuf studied her for a moment. She was grinning but otherwise looked weary and perplexed. “Well, I would very much like to weigh in on this discussion. Proventus, why don’t you return to your duties.”
“Of course my Lord.” Proventus nodded farewell to Elspeth and quickly removed himself from the table.
“I had hoped to get a sense of where each Jarl stood on the war and any other pertinent information,” Elspeth explained as Balgruuf sat across from her. “Now I know that Jarl Elisif’s father was a merchant with interests in the East Empire Company and that Idgrod Ravencrone’s husband is considerably younger than she is….” Her voice trailed of as she he let out a deep breath and raised her eyebrows at him.
Balgruuf chuckled quietly. “Proventus is a capable steward—a meticulous administrator, but the nuances of navigating politics are not his strong suit.” He leaned forward on his elbows and looked at the missives Elspeth had in front of her. “What do we have here?”
“This is addressed to me directly,” she said, holding one up. “Falk Firebeard needs to speak with me about a task Lydia and I handled when we were there before. The rest simply seek an audience with the Dragonborn at her earliest convenience.” She fiddled with the paper in her hand as if she were nervous about something.
“May I?” asked Jarl, gesturing toward the pile of letters in front of her.
Elspeth nodded and slid them across the table. When he was done looking through them, he furrowed his brow. “Jarl Siddgeir of Falkreath didn’t send one?”
“Oh he did. But I put it aside, intending to burn it.” As soon as the words left her mouth she realized how inappropriate they were. “I’m sorry,” she said, rubbing her forehead with her hand. “I just—” She stopped when she realized that there was no suitable way to explain that she would not be paying a visit to the Jarl who spent the better part of his childhood breaking her beloved’s nose.
Balgruuf simply grinned and shook his head. “You don’t need to explain,” he said as he placed the missives back in front of her. “In fact, I would not make answering these summons a priority.” She seemed surprised at this and so he continued. “The dragons are your priority—obviously you already know that. But with the current state of the war—” He stopped and leaned forward again, taking a moment to consider his statement carefully. He didn’t want to condescend to her, but she was young and she had sought counsel. “Elspeth,” he said finally, “people are going to want things from you. And I don’t care of they are Jarls or Generals, or if they fancy themselves Queen or…King….” His tone lowered almost to a groan, as if it pained him to say this last word. “I would advise you to see the Jarls or their stewards when business brings you to their cities and not before then.”
Elspeth nodded appreciatively but then her face darkened again and she lowered her eyes, looking away from him. “What is it?” he asked. He hated seeing so much worry on such a young face.
“I’m worried about the Thalmor,” she said. The she took a deep breath and paused to pull at a snag on her sleeve. She really hadn’t intended to confide this, but realized that as a Jarl, he might actually have some advice. “I’m afraid to go back to Solitude,” she admitted finally.
“Ah…well, the Thalmor aren’t as prominent in the city as they used to be. Falk Firebeard tells me that their emissary, Elenwen spends most of her time at the Embassy. If you’re worried, have Lydia or the Thane of the Rift talk to Firebeard first. He has a way of knowing where people are in his city. He can help you avoid them.”
Elspeth breathed a sigh of relief and grinned at this news. Balgruuf was pleased to see her smiling—Hrongar was right; she was terribly cute. He wanted to tell her to smile more, but in truth, he hated when people did that. Instead, he decided to ask about her recent journey.
“Did the Greybeards name you Dovahkiin?”
“They did,” she replied. “Ysmir, Dragon of the North.” Elspeth had experienced a lot of bizarre things in her life, but nothing quite as strange as four old men shouting at her in that strange tongue that was slowly becoming familiar. But it wasn’t the words that bewildered her so; it was the sheer power of their voices and the strength it took to hold herself steady.
“And will you go by that name now?” he smirked. At first he was joking, but the thought of this tiny Breton proudly bearing the legendary title as she stormed across Skyrim, slaying dragons delighted him. He found himself wondering what she looked like when she fought, when she shouted.
Elspeth sighed. “Trygve referred to me as Ysmir Aurilie on the entire journey home.” She was still anxious about all the Dragonborn business, but she pushed that aside for now and laughed. “It somehow doesn’t seem appropriate.”
“Of course it is,” he replied. “Though others will appreciate your humility.” Gods, she was adorable; he was going to have to strangle his brother for pointing it out. At the very least, he’d be sending Hrongar to Solstheim soon.
“I hope so,” she said, as she straightened up and gathered her missives into a neat pile. “I should leave now. I think I am taking up too much of your time.”
“Of course you aren’t,” he protested. “But you should go home and rest. You’re going to need it.” He held his hand out as she stood to leave. It was meant simply as an affable gesture, but when she squeezed his hand and smiled at him again, his face flushed and stomach fluttered a bit. Balgruuf sighed as he watched her amble down the steps and down through the throne area, a curious grin spread across his face. His gaze did not leave her back until his brother sidled up and startled him.
“I know that look,” he joked.
Balgruuf glared, suddenly feeling very defensive in the face of his brother’s teasing. “Shut up Hrongar.”
Elspeth clutched her cloak around her as she left Dragonsreach. The weather was damp and cold; the morning snow had melted on impact with the ground and everything was just sort of soggy. She walked briskly, meeting people’s eyes and nodding politely as they looked on. She didn’t want to stop and talk; she just wanted to take a bath and crawl into bed with Onmund though she hadn’t seen him yet. Hopefully, he was somewhere in town and not all the way up at the camp.
Alfhild and Lydia were sitting and drinking tea by the fire when she arrived at Breezehome. Alfhild greeted her with a warm hug. “I would invite you for dinner,” she said. “But I assume you’ll be spending the evening with Onmund.”
Elspeth blushed a little and nodded. “Do you know where he is?” she asked.
“I do,” she replied. “He’s teaching magic at our home, much to my father’s dismay. You should see the look on Olfrid’s face when Lars comes down in the morning with his little light floating above his head.” She giggled and then sighed. “But really the lessons have been very good for him. Even Idolaf is impressed. His confidence has soared and he finally told that brat Braith where to stick it.”
Lydia grinned. “That is impressive,” she said.
“I’m leaving now,” she said. “I will tell Onmund you’re back.” She hugged Lydia and gave Elspeth an affectionate squeeze on the shoulder as she left.
When she was gone, Elspeth turned to Lydia. “You okay?”
“It was hard to see him,” she said as she gathered up some dirty cups and brought them to the washbasin. “But I am okay. I think…at least for now.”
Elspeth nodded and looked around. “Where is Trygve?”
“He came with me to see Eorland. Then he went into Jorrvaskr to talk about hunting, I think.” She shrugged and brushed her hands together. “He said he’d pick up your armor and bring it back later. Anyway, I’m heading over to house Battle Born. I suppose I won’t see you until it’s time to leave for Solitude tomorrow?”
“I hope not.”
After Lydia left, Elspeth washed up and dressed in a robe. As she put her things away, her stomach knotted; suddenly she was feeling somewhat apprehensive about seeing Onmund. When she left for High Hrothgar, he had been so excited about the Dragonborn. Now she couldn’t help but wonder how he would regard her, as a legend or simply as Elspeth. She was pondering this when she heard the door open and shut, followed by the sound of boots bounding across the floor and up the stairs.
He burst into the room and hesitated for just a moment to look at her before he strode over and took her in his arms. He had never been so relieved. His excitement had abated and dangers of being Dragonborn were made quite apparent the day after she had left for High Hrothgar. He’d gone to the Western Watchtower to collect bones and scales and when he saw the sheer size of the dragon’s skeleton, he felt sick. After that, he threw himself into his work to keep from agonizing every day until her return. “I’ve been so worried,” he said before pressing his lips to hers.
His revelation inspired feelings of relief and she sank into his embrace briefly before she started backing away, tugging at the strings on her robe. “I didn’t even bother with underclothes,” she said mischievously.
“So, I see!” He scrambled out of his clothing and pulled her into bed. Their reunion was playful at first, but soon their eager, frisky touches gave way to slower, drawn out caresses leading to the most intimate of embraces.
When they finished, they held each other quietly for a long time until he asked about the Greybeards and High Hrothgar. Despite the comfort and security of his embrace—or perhaps because of them—by the end of her story her stomach was tight and her lips were trembling. All her usual defenses had slipped.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as he moved wisps of hair out of her eyes and traced the side of her face and jaw with his fingertips.
Elspeth swallowed and bit the inside of her lip. “What if I can’t do this?” she said finally. “The return of the dragons means…something. What if it’s too big for me and I’m not powerful or strong enough?” She thought back to Arngeir and how unsettled he looked when Trygve mentioned the name he’d heard at Kynesgrove. Alduin. Xeri had trained her to be capable and confident in her capabilities and she was. But what if she needed something more? For the first time in a long time she felt both ill prepared and vulnerable and it hurt to admit it.
“I know it must be overwhelming,” he replied, pulling her closer “But you can do this. You’re the strongest person I know.” Elspeth’s stomach dropped. His words were meant to be comforting, but they weren’t. They just seemed to reiterate what she imagined were the expectations of the rest of Skyrim: that, as Dragonborn, she couldn’t fail. And she couldn’t be weak.
Onmund nuzzled her ear and ran his fingers along her collarbone. “I have something that might help.” He sat up and turned to the bedside table, pausing to take a deep breath. He was nervous. He thought back to the conversation he’d had with Jon Battle Born and Zander—Jon’s friend with whom he found himself drinking on a regular basis. Zander warned him that he was being foolish, that it was too soon. Jon was more encouraging and said to ignore the Imperial—that under his affable demeanor was more baggage than Ri’saad’s caravan. In any case, Onmund had made his decision. It felt right and he wasn’t proposing marriage or anything—it was simply a gift. He took the small wooden box out of the drawer and snuggled back under the covers.
She gasped when he opened it; it was his family’s amulet. “I enchanted it,” he said. “I want you to wear it.
Elspeth was stunned. “I…don’t know what to say,” she stammered.
“Will you wear it?”
“Of course!” As he reached forward to place it around her neck, she clutched his hand. “Are you sure you want to give this away again…especially after….” Her voice trailed off.
“Elspeth, I am just going to pretend that you aren’t comparing my attempt to give you a gift with the time I stupidly traded this amulet away and that you’re just having an awkward moment,” he teased, as he placed the it around her neck. He untangled her hair from the silver chain and smiled. “Perfect.” The brushed silver against her pale skin looked beautiful. He was so happy he’d decided to give it to her. It had been a long time since someone had worn it.
“Thank you,” she whispered before kissing him tenderly. After, she leaned back on her pillow and held the amulet up to study it’s magic. She couldn’t see from the angle, so she removed it to get a closer look. It was an unusual enchantment but familiar; she looked intently and when she realized where she had seen it before she let out a strangled cry and dropped it on the bed.
“What’s the matter?” asked Onmund.
At first she couldn’t speak. The last time she had seen that enchantment was on the amulet of Talos she had stolen from Ogmund in Markarth. She felt her face go numb as she thought of the old bard who was mostly likely dead by now. Every ounce of grief and sorrow and guilt she’d felt, all those emotions that she tried to contain came rushing forward. She continued to recoil away from the amulet while Onmund looked on, confused and dismayed by her sudden change of mood.
She was so overwhelmed, she couldn’t form words to explain. Instead, she took it out on him. “Did you destroy an amulet of Talos?”
He narrowed his eyes angrily. “Yes,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “That’s how I learned the enchantment.”
“Onmund! You can’t just do that. Those amulets are rare and precious.” Her voice was shaking. How could he destroy an amulet of Talos? She felt sick.
“Fine!” He snatched the amulet away from her and dropped it back into the side-table drawer, slamming it shut. Elspeth watched as he stood up and began dressing, yanking his robe and boots on. “You know,” he said angrily, “most of the time I find the fact that you are a better Nord than I am endearing.” His lips twitched as if he had more to say but he just stood up and walked out of the room.
“Wait, Onmund!” she grabbed her own robe and pulled it on as she staggered after him.
When she grabbed the edge of his robe, he turned around and pushed her hand away. “No,” he said. “Leave me alone. I need to get out of here for a while.” She went to respond, to beg him to stay but the look he shot her was so harsh and so full of disgust that she simply stepped back slowly and sat on the edge of the bed.
Several hours later, she had wandered downstairs and was sitting at the table in the kitchen when the door opened. She looked up, hoping for Onmund but it was Lydia.
She smiled weakly, “How was dinner?”
“Fine. Afterwards, we went to the Mare. That Imperial friend of Jon’s punched Mikael after he said something about Olfina. That was fun.”
“Was Onmund at the Mare?”
“No. He’s not here with you?” Lydia tilted her head and looked at Elspeth intently.
Elspeth shook her head and when Lydia asked what happened, she relayed the entire story. She already felt terrible, and watching Lydia cringe didn’t help at all.
“Oh my gods Elspeth. Are you going after him?” Lydia asked as she poured herself a goblet of water.
“He said he wanted to be alone,” she explained. “But…I don’t know; we’re leaving tomorrow…should I find him? What do I say?”
Lydia’s eyes widened. She couldn’t believe she had to talk Elspeth through this, though she shouldn’t have been surprised. Runa had often expressed frustration at her charge’s inability to navigate these situations. She let out a deep breath. “Tell him that you’re sorry,” she advised. “But keep it simple…don’t give him any excuses for what you said.”
Elspeth furrowed her brow at first and went to protest, but after a moment she realized that Lydia was correct. “All right,” she said. “I’ll be back—not late, I hope.”
As she was getting ready to leave, Lydia took another glance around the house and noticed that the downstairs bedroom door was open and the room, empty. “Has Trygve been home yet?”
Elspeth had been so distracted that she hadn’t noticed his absence though it was well past his bedtime. “He hasn’t been back here.”
“Has he been at Jorrvaskr this whole time? Talking about hunting?” Lydia was incredulous and paused to think for a moment. “You don’t think…?”
Elspeth’s curiosity was piqued, but as she looked at Lydia she realized that this was not a conversation she needed to have right now. “You know…I can’t really concern myself with this.”
“I bet its Njada,” she said, almost bitterly. Though when she saw Elspeth looking at her askance, she shook her head and smirked. “Go on, go make up with your hjarta. We can grill Trygve in the morning.”
Toki was by the gate and confirmed that Onmund had left several hours before. Elspeth took Pickles and rode as fast as she could to the camp. She hurried up the steps and paused just outside the forge to take a deep breath before stepping inside cautiously. Onmund was leaning against the hearth with several empty mead bottles scattered about.
He barely looked up. “I said I wanted to be alone.” He spoke slowly and deliberately, as if trying to hide how intoxicated he’d become.
“I didn’t come here to see you,” she said, swallowing nervously. “I need to sharpen my weapon.” She’d hoped this would get him talking to her, but he just watched silently as she sat down at the grindstone with her sword.
She got the stone moving and just as she was about to draw the blade across, he scrambled over. “Wait!” he said. He may have been drunk, but it was plain that she had no idea what she was doing. “You’re going to ruin the blade.” When he grabbed her wrist to pull her arm away from the grindstone, she stopped and turned so that he was kneeling front of her and she was holding his hand in hers.
“I am so sorry,” she said.
“I know,” he whispered. He pulled his hand away and rubbed his head before crawling back toward the hearth. When she sat next to him, he took a slow, deep breath. “If I told you that I was sixteen when I destroyed the amulet, would you feel better about it?”
She pursed her lips tightly. Indeed, that did make her feel better. But Lydia’s advice rang in her head. It wasn’t about her. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I was thoughtless and hurtful.”
He looked away, thinking back to the day he learned the enchantment. He had been so proud. He thought it would be his opportunity to combine magic and blacksmithing. His grandfather could forge the amulets and he would enchant them. What he didn’t know was that, having heard rumors of the Thalmor raiding blacksmith and other jewelry makers, his grandfather destroyed his Talos mold. When Onmund told his grandfather what he’d done, the old man was livid and smacked him on the side of the ear, called him a terrible Nord and said that he was an embarrassment to his kin.
All of that, however, paled in comparison to the pain of being shamed by Elspeth.
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” she said after a long, somewhat awkward silence. “I don’t expect you to forgive me right now, but I was hoping you’d come home.”
Onmund stretched his neck and looked around. Jon and Olfina were down in the camp. If he didn’t return to Breezehome, he would have to sleep next to the forge. He did that from time to time and it was always unpleasant. “Okay,” he agreed, his voice was raw.
The ride to Whiterun was uncomfortably silent. Back at Breezehome, Elspeth walked him upstairs. When she offered to sleep in Lydia’s room, he shook his head. No matter how hard he tried to fight it, he still wanted her beside him, especially if she was leaving the next morning. It was awkward at first—she usually slept draped over him and now they tossed and turned, until finally they settled down, their backs lightly pressed together, which gave Onmund the space he still needed and Elspeth the touch she wanted but dared not ask for.
When he woke the next morning, his head was pounding. He’d overslept and he was alone though he vaguely remembered Elspeth touching his forehead lightly with her lips and clutching his hands before she left. He smiled weakly as he looked over to his bedside table where she’d laid out the ingredients and recipe to her hangover elixir.
After he consumed the foul-tasting concoction, his headache was gone but he was exhausted and still sad. He wished she could have stayed longer. A couple of days of everyday life together would have helped immensely, though he supposed that was a lot to ask of the Dragonborn. Not wanting to think about this, he started to compile a list of all the things he needed to do—tasks that would hopefully keep him distracted.
Soon, however, the door opened, and Alfhild and Idolaf’s chatter interrupted his thoughts. They dropped in from time to time, usually to borrow and return things. He was too tired to be social and since no one would expect him home at this hour, he put his head back down. Try as he might, however, he was unable to ignore their conversation.
“This kitchen has never been so well organized,” said Idolaf. “Onmund is such a good little housewife.”
“Shut up,” Alfhild replied. “You’re just jealous that he got Lars to stand up to Braith.”
“You try to hurt me. It won’t work,” he replied. “He’s a good influence on Lars. That doesn’t make him right for the Dragonborn.”
Onmund was shocked. He liked Idolaf, respected him even. He thought the feeling was mutual. The door slammed shut so he couldn’t hear whether Alfhild protested or conceded Idolaf’s point. It wouldn’t have mattered, however. After the events of the previous evening, his comment was like a swift kick in the gut. He put his face in his hands and groaned. Half his time in Whiterun was spent tutoring Lars and helping to fulfill Idolaf’s never-ending weapon orders. He certainly wouldn’t find comfort or distraction in his work now. He had to leave Whiterun—for a little while anyway.