Another day, another mountain of bodies. She climbed, digging her hands and kicking her feet into Elven armor bloodied and scuffed by battle—the once gleaming uniforms of the Aldmeri army piled, stacked like garbage. She climbed higher and higher. But she wasn’t alone, not this time. Her companions had her back. At the top of the heap, a tall figure in a Thalmor robe was waiting—as he always did. But now he cowered, silently fearful as Elspeth approached, a glass claymore in her hands. Oberon. The weapon of the last Champion of Cyrodill. The weapon of her ancestor. There would be no mercy. She raised the blade and with a steady arc, took the Justiciar’s head clean off. She picked the faceless head up from the ground and turned to her companions. Come, she said. It’s time to gather more tribute.
Well that’s different, she thought as she roused from a heavy sleep and stretched out under the covers of quite possibly the most comfortable bed she’d ever slept in. Lydia was next to her, curled into a ball and snoring lightly. It was just after 6AM. Trygve was gone, most likely hunting or possibly just walking around outside the city gate. She was wide awake and it would have been prudent to start the day, but she was just so comfortable that she turned over on her side and dozed off again. Two hours later—though it felt like only 10 minutes—Lydia was shaking her shoulder.
“Time to get up,” she said, smiling.
This time she was groggy. “No,” she said sleepily. “I am going to stay here. I can slay the mighty dragons from bed.” She retreated under the covers and gripped them tightly to keep Lydia from whipping the blanket away from her.
But her friend simply giggled as she brought Elspeth’s armor and a clean set of woolies to the side of the bed. “Don’t tell me you’re not famished.”
To say that Elspeth was feeling a bit peckish was an understatement. “Indeed,” she replied, peering out from under the covers. “Housecarl, I bid you, bring me eggs and cured meat and porridge and a slightly warmed Honningbrew mead with which I can wash it down.”
Lydia snorted. “You’re terrible at giving orders.”
“You know,” said Elspeth as she kicked the covers off. “I’d like to respond that you are terrible taking orders except I know that’s not true.” She sat up and as she started to dress, her face darkened as her thoughts wandered to the night before and all the things that Potema said about Xeri and power.
“What’s the matter?” Lydia asked as she organized her satchel.
“Something Potema said has been nagging at me,” she explained. “She knew about Xeri and my training.”
Lydia flinched. No matter how many times that Andurs, the elderly priest in Whiterun, explained that the spirits of the dead did not lurk in the corners, scrutinizing the living—that the passage of knowledge between the Mundus and the plans of Aetherius and Oblivion was a more complicated, mystical process, this notion never ceased to unnerve her.
“That was strange enough,” Elspeth continued after a brief pause. “But it didn’t bother me nearly as much as her comments suggesting that I’ve always wanted power.” She let out a deep breath and gripped the back of her neck with her hands. “You know, I’ve entertained the most absurd fantasies of single-handedly destroying the Thalmor. But I thought they were just fantasies. I mean…what if it’s not just about dragons? What if the Psijic Order knows about this? I mean, it sort of makes sense…Illario was a scholar of Tiber Septim who was also Dragonborn…what if I’m supposed to want and do more. What if—” She collapsed back onto the bed and covered her eyes with her arms. Her head was spinning; it was simply too much.
Lydia wanted to remind her to focus on the task at hand, but that was starting to sound so inadequate. At some point, she would need to start thinking beyond that. “Well,” she said after a moment, “let’s not think about that on an empty stomach.” She pulled Elspeth up to her feet and they made their way down to the dining room where Trygve was pushing food around on his plate and looking up at the entrance every couple of seconds. For once he seemed rather pleased to see the women and smirked as he beckoned them over.
Elspeth sat down and immediately took a thick slice of bread from the plate in front of him and slathered it with honey and butter. One of the palace servants, Erdi, a lanky Nord woman, brought two plates heaped with eggs and cured meat and two mugs of hot tea. When she refilled Trygve’s mug, he smiled warmly and she touched his shoulder affectionately as she walked away, once again displaying the intimate familiarity that characterized so many of his interactions in Solitude. Watching him smile after Erdi made him look so much more human and Elspeth cursed herself for finding that strange.
When he turned back to the table, however, his countenance had resumed its typical seriousness. “Are we leaving today?” he asked.
“I think we should,” said Elspeth. For a moment, she was tempted to ask why he was in such a rush to leave, when so many seemed happy to have him there. But she thought better of it as she recalled the awkward encounter with the Altmer the day before. “I want to go to the college and see if we can’t find out more about how the dragons are being resurrected.”
Lydia smiled and nodded enthusiastically, while Trygve looked reluctant though he did not object. He returned to his tea and continued to glance up occasionally at the room’s entrance, but breakfast was mostly quiet with an occasional guard or guest passing through. Erdi refilled their mugs with tea and goblets with water and smiled when Elspeth took a second and then a third plate of food. Trygve and Lydia were talking about supplies, and whether they should bother with the shops in town if Ma’dran’s caravan was just outside the walls, when Falk Firebeard strode into the dining room.
“Dragonborn!” he exclaimed as he sat next to her. “I trust you slept well and are finding everything to your liking?” As Elspeth swallowed and nodded, he continued. “Jarl Elisif is eager to make your acquaintance as Dragonborn. Also, I’ve taken the liberty of arranging a meeting with General Tullius. He is expecting you at the castle in an hour. And it will just be the general and perhaps a couple of officers. No Thalmor. There aren’t any justiciars or emissaries here today.”
Elspeth looked at Falk sharply and then to Lydia, who was shaking her head. She looked back at the steward and took a deep breath. “I really do not wish to involve myself in the Legion,” she said slowly.
“I understand you had an unfortunate interaction with the Legion,” he said. “But I think you will find it prudent to introduce yourself. And do not worry about the Thalmor. Tullius has little if any contact with them.”
“No.” Her tone was insistent, although with his reassurance regarding the Thalmor, Elspeth had to come up with a better reason for her resistance to meeting with the general apart from simply not wanting to. “What does the General want with me anyway?”
“Personally, I don’t believe that Tullius cares at all about the return of the Dragonborn. Or the dragons for that matter,” Falk explained, his tone betraying some annoyance on this last point. “His second in command, Legate Rikke, is a Nord who will be most eager to meet you, I am sure. And the men and women under his command will likely be curious about the Dragonborn. Meeting with the general will do much to assuage their curiosity and any fears they might be harboring about the dragons, which will strengthen Legion morale.”
“I’m not convinced that Elspeth should be concerning herself with Legion morale,” Lydia protested.
“No, I suppose not,” Falk replied. “Still, I think it would behoove you to—”
“Elsepth,” Trygve interrupted, “you need to meet with the General.”
“But why?” Elspeth demanded as Lydia scowled at him harshly.
“Listen to me,” he said. “I know what they are capable of. You need to meet with the General, you need to firmly and assertively state your intention to remain neutral with respect to the war, and most important….” He paused for a moment and shifted so that his face was squared with hers. “You need to demand that Tullius issues an order protecting you and your companions from future interrogation. He’s not just a general, he’s the military governor of Skyrim and he has that authority.”
Trygve looked back up at Falk who was nodding slowly in agreement. “I’ll have the legion’s administrator draw up the papers.” Elspeth paused for a moment, as if trying to form an argument, but eventually appeared to concede. At that point, they expected Falk to leave, but instead he sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Elspeth, Lydia tells me that you were arrested near the Morrowind border, but that you were coming from Cyrodiil.”
Elspeth nodded, not entirely certain why he was suddenly curious about how she entered Skyrim. Before she could ask, however, he continued. “You are from Bruma, but spent your the first half of your life in a refugee camp in Morrowind.” As he spoke, his tone raised slightly, as if he were suspicious of something.
“That is correct,” she said, eyeing him curiously. She wasn’t certain why any of this was remarkable. “So…?”
“Well, most Cyrodiil citizens who fled to the borders were back within a year,” he explained. “But your family stayed for over a decade.”
Lydia stiffened and looked at Trygve, who was looking at Elspeth intently, as if just by staring he could will her to spin a believable, yet blatantly untrue, yarn. The Dragonborn was a good at a lot of things, but lying wasn’t one of them.
Thankfully, Xeri had prepared her for such questioning. “True,” she replied. “Our camp abutted a farming village that had lost many residents to an illness and readily accepted the assistance of my parents and the others in their company, which including a Dunmer warrior woman. The camp was, more or less, incorporated into the village and they decided to stay.”
“Very interesting,” said Falk quietly.
“No, it was quite boring actually,” she said.
Falk raised his eyebrows at her and shifted forward as if he had another question. However, after a brief pause he said he would see them in Castle Dour presently and then bade them farewell.
“How did he know so much about me?” Elspeth looked at Lydia. Her tone was firm, though not accusatory or harsh.
“He just…” Lydia paused and shook her head in frustration. “He just has a way of getting people to divulge information.” It was a distinct gift the steward had, one he was known throughout the holds for. Even Balgruuf said as much.
“It’s a rare talent,” said Trygve. “One found primarily in courtesans and those who run the bordellos. Are now, Lydia, are you so certain that Firebeard doesn’t run the local brothel?” As he teasingly reminded Lydia of one of their previous quarrels, Trygve appeared almost cheerful, but a flurry of activity at the entrance of the dining room disrupted his demeanor. His face darkened and then turned to a distinct frown as Thanes Bryling and Erikur, as well as Sybille Stentor and Melaran emerged for their morning meal.
“Do you have a lot of experience with courtesans?” Lydia asked sarcastically.
Trygve took a long swallow from his water goblet before setting it solidly on the table. “And what if I have, Lydia? You don’t strike me as someone who would begrudge someone the occasional casual intimacy or judge those who provide them.” His stern look made Lydia somewhat uncomfortable.”
“I don’t,” she exclaimed defensively. “You just seem more familiar with courtesan…culture than I expected.” Elspeth laughed. It was almost comforting to have them bickering again.
“Hmm,” Trygve groaned. “I definitely see the appeal. It’s far less complicated than most relationships, don’t you think?” The palace courtiers were seated a table over, chatting, their dishes clinking and clattering on the table. It was clear Trygve was struggling to keep his unease at bay.
“But it’s all just a lie,” said Lydia. “I mean…I guess I can see the appeal but…” She drew her arms across her chest. She was trapped between wanting to be broad minded and kind, but also feeling a certain discomfort with the idea that a member of Elisif’s court was running the local brothel.
“Well, at least when a courtesan gives a false name, you know it’s false.” He swallowed the last of his water and looked at Elspeth as he set his goblet down. “Isn’t that right Elspeth?” He stood and tossed his napkin on the table. “I’ll meet you at the castle.” He left in a hurry, leaving the woman looking agape after him. His comment stung, though Elspeth tried not to let it show.
“He didn’t mean to say that,” said Lydia.
“Trygve doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.” Elspeth retorted. She leaned back and looked over to the sorcerer who seemed to be the cause of Trygve’s angst. “What is it about that elf?” she asked quietly, before shaking her head and gesturing for them to leave.
They met Jarl Elisif and her housecarl, Bolgeir Bearclaw in the throne room and the group walked together to the castle. Bolgeir was a burly Nord, tough in his appearance but quiet. The Jarl was pleasant enough, but without Falk nearby, she was distant, her expression almost vacant. As she walked from the palace to the castle, she garnered many pleasant looks but her stride lacked authority and confidence, lending even more credence to the notion that it was Falk Firebeard running the city.
In Castle Dour, they gathered in a small room. General Tullius was standing with Falk Firebeard and a tall and hardened Nord woman whom Elspeth assumed to be Legate Rikke. Several other legion soldiers were gathered around the room. One of them looked familiar. Elspeth narrowed her eyes in his direction and tried to recall where she had seen him. Was it Svenn, the one who had healed her on the way from Riverwood to Whiterun? He looked over and when he caught her gaze, it was apparent that he also recognized her.
“General Tullius, Legate Rikke,” Falk Firebeard began, “Allow me the pleasure of introducing to you the Dragonborn. She is also a student at the College of Winterhold and Thane of Whiterun, where she is known as Elspeth. And this—“
But before Falk could continue with his introductions, they were interrupted by the sound of a soldier letting out a strangled gasp before his knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor.
“Hadvar!” exclaimed the Legate. “Are you all right?”
Hadvar. That was the soldier with the list, the one who led her back to Ralof in Helgen. She grinned inwardly as she turned to look at the anxious soldier scrambling to get back on to his feet.
“I am…” he gasped. “I’m just….” But every time he tried to look up and over at Elspeth, he grew pale.
“I think Hadvar is just glad to see that I’m alive,” said Elspeth. “Aren’t you?”
“Do you two know each other?” asked Legate Rikke.
Elspeth pursed her lips and looked intently at him. Try as she might, she couldn’t help but enjoy his discomfort. Finally, after several deep breaths, Hadvar looked at Tullius. “Sir, Elspeth was with us at Helgen.”
This seemed to pique the General’s interest. “Is that so?” He looked at Elspeth sternly. “And what were you doing at Helgen?”
“I was about to have my head chopped off,” she said dryly.
The entire room seemed to gasp at once and then grew quiet though the General remained unfazed. “Yes,” he said. “I think I remember you. Why did we arrest you?”
“I wish I knew,” Elspeth frowned.
The General looked uneasy, but just for a moment. “Well,” he said. “I’m sure it was all just a misunderstanding. On behalf of the Imperial Legion, please accept my apologies.”
“Your apologies?” Trygve interjected. “Apologies? You arrested an innocent woman, took all her money, her armor, and weapons you think a simple apology will suffice?” Elspeth raised her eyes and looked at Lydia, who was grinning and staring at Trygve.
“Of course the Legion will compensate the Dragonborn!” Jarl Elisif’s tone was somehow both adamant and uncertain. “Won’t they, General!”
General Tullius grunted somewhat uncomfortably as he looked back at Elspeth and her compations. “Yes,” he said. “Of course, the Legion will reimburse her. And I will approve the order that Falk Firebeard has had drawn up.” He scowled and let out a deep breath before directly at Trygve. “And who might you be?” he asked.
“My name is Trygve Wartooth. I am a companion to the Dragonborn and also Thane of the Rift.”
At this revelation, a slight murmur was heard around the room. “Wartooth?” asked Tullius. “As in Henrik Wartooth?”
“Yes,” said Trygve. “Henrik was my brother.” Now Elspeth and Lydia were looking at Trygve with some confusion. They didn’t know he had a brother.
“How interesting,” said the General. “Your brother was a good soldier. Between the Stormcloaks and the Dragon, Helgen was a nightmare. I have no doubt your brother fought bravely to the end.”
“Now General, we both know that’s not true.” The entire room became uncomfortably quiet as the General and Trygve just sort of stared at each other. Finally, after several moments Trygve looked back toward Falk and the Legate. “If there is no other business, I don’t think we need to take up any more of your time. We will take the signed order as well as Elspeth’s compensation and be on our way.”
There was a flurry of activity as papers were signed and coin was counted. Elspeth could barely comprehend what was happening, however. Trygve had a brother in the Imperial Legion. Trygve’s brother died at Helgen. Why didn’t she know that?
When they were outside, Elspeth grabbed Trygve’s arm and spun him around. “Why didn’t you tell us your brother died at Helgen?”
“Excuse me,” he said. “Why would I? Apart from some curiosity about where I spent a recent evening, neither one of you have ever shown any interest in my personal life!”
“Surely Nerussa knew! Why didn’t it come up when I told her about Helgen? Why didn’t you say anything then?”
“Elspeth, Nerussa forgot about everyone else in Nirn that day.” When he saw how distressed she looked, however, his face softened. “I wasn’t keeping it from you. And honestly, I didn’t pay all that much attention to what you said to Nerussa.” He sighed and looked around. “Look, let’s just get out of the city. I’m going to the fletcher to stock up on arrows. I’ll meet you at the caravan outside the gate. You can ask me all about my personal history on the way to Winterhold.”
Lydia and Elspeth just watched him as he walked out of the castle courtyard. Lydia thought for a moment and then slapped her forehead. “I should have known,” she said. “Toki went to the Rift right after you arrived in Whiterun because his cousin was killed. I didn’t even make the connection.” She shook her head at her thoughtlessness. “Are you okay?” she asked Elspeth, whose looked like she was going to be sick at any moment.
“I killed so many legion soldiers,” she said quietly. “I blew up a room full of them. Oh gods….” She buried her face in her hands.
“Oh Elspeth, I’m sorry,” said Lydia. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the guilt Elspeth was feeling.
“I have to tell him.” She started to walk briskly toward the fletcher’s shop.
“Wait, what?” Lydia stepped up and grabbed her friend’s elbow. “No!” she said firmly as she yanked her back. “You can’t. Elspeth you cannot tell him.”
“I have to!”
“No, Elspeth don’t. I am begging you,” Lydia was pleading. “We can’t lose him.”
“Why not?” Elspeth was shocked as to why Lydia, who was constantly irritated with Trygve, cared so much about keeping him around.
Lydia took a deep breath and thought carefully about what she was going to say. As much as she adored her friend, Elspeth’s future was so very bleak. And the thought of being the only one to help shoulder the Dragonborn’s burdens filled her with unspeakable dread. “Elspeth, I can’t handle this.”
“There are other healers. Other warriors. We could—”
Elspeth stopped as Lydia shook her head violently. “Elspeth, please,” she said. “He’s a masterful healer and alchemist. He hits everything with that fucking bow. He knows strategy. And he made a promise, not to protect the Dragonborn but to protect you. He knows about your mother.” Lydia sucked in a sharp breath and swallowed. “Gods, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but…Elspeth, we…dammit, I need him. Promise me you won’t tell him.”
As she said this, her voice grew so desperate that it wrenched Elspeth’s heart. “Okay,” she said softly. “I won’t say anything.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then she grinned a bit. “Why don’t we go spend some of that Legion coin?”
“Oh, I intend to,” said Elspeth. “After the caravans, we’re hitting the stables. It’s time that Ysmir, Dragon of the North, mounted her own steed!”