((A/N: Sorrynotsorry for the easter eggs. This chapter worked so much better when I wrote it months ago, now I’m not so sure. BUT, you didn’t have to wait six weeks and for that I’m proud.))
Onmund was still sleeping when Elspeth returned to their room after washing. Moorside Inn’s tub wasn’t much bigger than Breezehome’s and after Labyrinthian, she would have loved nothing more than a good long soak. But it was only meant to be a quick stop to recover their energy and in that respect, she was lucky for any sort of a bath. After laying out her armor to dry and organizing her satchel for the next day’s journey, she knelt by Onmund and felt his forehead. He wasn’t feverish, though he was a bit pale. His illness seemed to come out of nowhere, but she really had no idea as he had been sleeping since they left the ruin. Trygve advised keeping him hydrated and said that he should be fine in the morning. She checked that there was a pitcher of fresh water on the side table and was contemplating bringing some food back to the room when he began to stir.
“Elspeth,” he moaned as he rolled over on to his side and tried to sit up.
“Hey,” she said, propping him up with the extra blanket from her bedroll. She poured out a goblet of water and handed it to him. “How do you feel?”
He groaned softly as he took the goblet from her. The cold water soothed throat, which was raw from vomiting, and he finished it in several gulps. He passed it back wordlessly, drank two more cups and lay back down before he finally spoke. “Why did he have to poison me?”
He sounded simply miserable, sad and confused, but Elspeth had no idea what was referring to. “Onmund, what are you talking about? Who poisoned you?”
“Trygve,” he said, curling on his side and pulling the blanket up to his chin. He let out a long breath and looked back up at Elspeth. “We…we were arguing about—” He stopped, not willing to admit that Trygve had asked him to leave. “I don’t even remember. He asked for my dagger and he coated it with something. Then he stabbed me with it.” He ran his hand up under his sleeve and rubbed his upper arm, but although he could still feel it, like a phantom stab, the wound was all but gone. That Trygve had taken the time to heal it somehow made it more embarrassing, though couldn’t explain why. Instead, he looked away from her and gathered the blanket up and buried his face in it.
As he spoke, Elspeth grew angrier and angrier, though she forced herself to remain calm. It was obvious that he didn’t want to talk about it much and she didn’t blame him—she could only imagine how embarrassed he was. All she knew in that moment was how furious she was. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked. He didn’t look up; he simply gestured toward a bucket in the corner of the room and he closed his eyes. After placing the receptacle by his head, she pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead and quietly left the room. Outside the room, it took every ounce of restraint she possessed not to storm across the tavern with her sword drawn, screaming for Trygve’s throat.
Instead, she paused just long enough to steel herself against her own fury. After biting down on the inside of her lip hard enough to draw blood, she strode over to where Trygve was sitting, drinking mead and eating steamed mudcrab. She slammed her hands down on the table causing the plate and bowl to clatter, sloshing the butter around and knocking cracked and empty crab legs about. “Tell me” she seethed, leaning down to meet his face directly, “why I shouldn’t toss you across the room right now.”
Trygve washed the crabmeat he was chewing down with a mouthful of mead and looked at her calmly. “You really don’t want to be drawing that sort of attention to yourself,” he replied, nodding toward the table on the opposite side of the tavern where three Thalmor agents were sitting. Elspeth gasped and stared for just a moment before turning and sitting across from Trygve, her face a bit paler than before. “Jonna said they were just passing through.” He sounded doubtful.
How could he stay so calm, she wondered. She frowned and as the anxiety from seeing the Thalmor abated—though it did not go away entirely—she resumed her fuming and scowled intensely at him while he just sat there poking at the end of his dinner and swirling his drink around in its tankard. After a few moments, it became clear that she would have to be direct with him as Trygve he no response to her apparent rage.
“Trygve,” she said firmly, though it was clear she was struggling to keep her voice steady. “Why did you poison Onmund?”
He paused to take another gulp of mead and cleared his throat. “Well, I thought about knocking him out, but mages have those flesh spells. The sleeping potion seemed more efficient and less dangerous.”
“Have you lost your fucking mind? How is that less—you know what? I don’t care!” Elspeth pursed her lips and continued to glare at him as she recalled the look on Onmund’s face, lying there in bed, weary and humiliated, unable to look her in the eye. “Do you have any idea how much damage you’ve done?”
“Do you have any idea how much I don’t care?”
Elspeth was stunned silent. She knew better than to expect a heartfelt apology or pleas for forgiveness. But she was certainly not expecting such cold indifference. “You’re a Nord,” she said after a silence that, for was terribly uncomfortable for her though he didn’t seem to notice. “You should have know better. You should have let him fight even…even if you thought it was too dangerous for him and he—” Elsepth stopped as her heart seized up in her chest. “It would have been the right thing to do,” she said, struggling to keep her voice firm.
He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest as he studied her for a moment. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I didn’t poison him because it was too dangerous for him—I did it to protect you.” Elspeth just started at him incredulously, her mouth slightly agape. When she didn’t respond, he leaned forward and looked intently at her. “I think he’s a perfectly capable fighter, even if he relies too much on magic. You’re the one who doesn’t seem to think so.”
On this last point, she jerked her head up and met his gaze. “What are you talking about? I don’t think that at all. You’re wrong,” she was firm, defensive.
“Am I?” he asked. “You’re a mess when he’s around. You’re unfocused. You’re clumsy. You get hurt and…” His voice trailed off for a moment as he considered his next point. “Other people get hurt. People you should have been helping.”
Elspeth slumped back in her chair and put her head in her hand, desperately trying to come up with a retort. But thinking back, on the recent problems at the College and Labyrinthian, even she had to admit that things were different now. It wasn’t like Fellglow Keep, where Onmund fought quite naturally with her and Lydia. Something had changed and she didn’t know what. She just continued to stare at Trgve, shaking her head.
“You don’t want to lose him, I get that.” Trygve assumed, rightly so, that Ancano and the Orb, the Arch-mage’s death, and the apparitions she’d seen at Labyrinthian were triggering a lot of unresolved fears and anxiety from the incident at Arcane University. Lydia had mentioned once that she had lost someone very close to her. Trygve worried, not only about how Elspeth fought when Onmund was around, but also of what might happen if she lost him and the time it would take for her to recover. It was time they simply didn’t have. “You need to let him go,” he said quietly, trying to be gentle.
“No!” Elspeth replied. “You know, I never asked for your help. You can strategize and you can heal, but whether or not Onmund comes along or I just see him between ruins and Dragon attacks is for us to decide. You would do well to mind your own fucking business.” She pursed her lips and glared at him, unwilling to reveal just how much his words cut into her heart.
Trygve ignored this and thought for a moment. He was concerned that she was still treating this as simply a series of tasks to accomplish, one after the other with no consideration of what it actually meant to be Dragonborn. That made sense at first, but things were changing. There were hard choices ahead and sacrifices to be made. “Elspeth, I don’t think you are fully grasping the responsibility you have.” Trygve spoke slowly and deliberately. He wasn’t concerned about making her angrier, but he wanted to be understood. “And that responsibility is to everyone. Onmund is not more important than all of Skyrim or all of Tamriel for that matter.”
He is to me, she thought. But she didn’t respond. She simply folded her arms on the table and put her head down as tears welled up in her eyes.
“Tell me I’m wrong,” he said. “Tell me you’re not conflicted.”
“With respect to my feelings,” she said, lifting her head slightly and wiping her face with the back of her wrist. “I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“Fair enough,” he said, letting out a frustrated sigh. “It’s late. If you’re hungry, eat something. Otherwise, go to bed. We have a very long ride tomorrow.”
Elspeth expected the men would have it out in the morning, when Onmund was no longer sick. Indeed, he was the first to rise and was eating when Elspeth and Trygve wandered out of their respective rooms. Although his hostility was palpable, he did not say a word to either of them. Trygve was impervious to this and simply went about eating and gathering supplies, but Elspeth felt terrible. She wasn’t sure why Onmund wasn’t speaking to her and she was afraid to ask, even when they were alone.
The ride back to Winterhold was brutally uncomfortable. No one spoke at all unless it was absolutely necessary and Elspeth found it difficult to sleep, for fear that Onmund’s plan all along was to stab Trygve in his tent while he slept. There weren’t any storms in the mountains—a rarity for this time of year—so they took a shortcut that brought them back to Winterhold by way of the path near Saarthal. Elspeth had never in her life been so grateful for clear skies. A storm would have held them up and with any more time together, tensions would surely come to a head. If Onmund wasn’t going to say anything, she was certain to explode.
The trouble in Winterhold was apparent from the moment they entered town. Nearly the college’s entire population of apprentices filled the center of town, though there were no guards to be found anywhere. Looking up, Elspeth couldn’t see the college itself, only some brightly lit clouds surrounding the buildings. When they arrived at the top of the bridge, it was clear that the college was encased in some kind of barrier. By the looks of it, the ward-like wall that had earlier blocked the entrance to the Hall of the Elements had simply expanded to encase the whole college. Elspeth gasped a little when she saw it, but pushed the terror rising in her gut aside.
Tolfdir and many of the instructors were standing on the platform just outside the energy field and the fear on his face gave way to relief when he saw them approach. “You survived!” he exclaimed. “You have it then?” Elspeth nodded and gestured to the staff in her hand. “Good,” he continued. “Let’s hope it’s as powerful as the Psijics believed it to be. Ancano’s power is growing. We haven’t been able to crack whatever magic he’s using.”
She nodded steadily as Tolfdir spoke and then looked around. Faralda, Nirya, Arniel, and Drevis had joined them on the platform. “Where is Mirabelle?” she asked.
“She…didn’t make it.” His voice cracked a little, but he continued. “When it was clear we were going to have to fall back, she stayed behind and made sure the rest of us all were all right.”
From behind she could hear Onmund breath in sharply but she didn’t look back. She narrowed her eyes at Tolfdir and gripped the staff tightly. “Let’s get in there.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” Tolfdir said as he gestured for the instructors and others to follow.
Painful jolts of energy reverberated through her body as she attempted to pass through the barrier. She did this twice, but it was too powerful, impenetrable until she cast the Staff of Magnus. The magic from the staff, a powerful bolt of bluish light, brought the barrier down easily but doing so released a swarm of the magic anomalies like those they had battled earlier in the week. Elspeth could hardly see past them, but she ignored them, letting the other mages handle them as she pushed forward to the Hall of Elements.
Ancano was there, just as she had left him, drawing power from the orb. “You’ve come for me, have you?” His voice was gravely, though for a brief moment Elspeth appreciated the way it broke up the dull humming emanating from the orb that set her teeth on edge. “You think I don’t know what you’re up to? You think I can’t destroy you?”
Elspeth could only imagine what the orb’s magic would do to her, to everyone, if she didn’t act. She cast a powerful lightening spell, but it dissipated when it touched Ancano’s robes. She cast the staff on him as well, aiming at his hands in an attempt to sever the link between him and the eye, but this did nothing. Her face grew numb and her heart seized in her chest, and as she scrambled to think of what to try next her concentration was broken by Acano’s scorn.
“The power to unmake the world at my fingertips, and you think you can do anything about it?” The Altmer’s voice always intimidated her, but never before had it sounded so menacing. “I am beyond your pathetic attempts at magic. You cannot touch me. I am the Ayen and the Zyr, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
The End. The words rang in her head and she felt her body grow cold and she lost her train of thought. This was a purge, like every other Thalmor purge before it. Except Ancano didn’t intend to simply purge the college. He meant to purge everything. With her heart racing and every nerve in her body collapsing, the terror she felt in that moment was unlike anything she had experienced before. Everything Xeri had taught her about controlling her fear vanished and all should do was stare at Ancano, her mouth agape. This was not how it was supposed to end. She was supposed to go out fighting, but she couldn’t even move.
Elspeth’s daze was interrupted when someone bumped into her from behind and gripped her elbow. She expected it to be Trygve and was surprised to see Tolfdir.
“Spells have no effect,” Elspeth’s voice was shaking, “Neither does the staff!”
“Use the staff on the eye,” his tone was commanding and frightened but even in the face of imminent death and destruction, it still retained a modicum of calm reassurance. For this she was grateful; otherwise, as she turned the staff on to the orb, she felt incredibly stupid for not thinking to do that first. She cast the staff twice on the eye. The first effect seemed to sever Ancano’s hold on it and with the second, the orb began to break apart, emitting a blinding turquoise light and filling the room with a blue and white haze so thick she couldn’t see anything. She tried to cast the staff again to break up the haze, but it was drained. Through the persistent static and humming, she could hear Ancano heckling, “Come then! See what I can do.”
A hollow boom sounded through the room and as she stumbled toward him, she tripped over numerous bodies: Tolfdir, Faralda, someone else, maybe Nirya. She didn’t know and she did not have time to figure it out. Nor did she have time to wonder how the spell had missed her. She found him by the door and after dropping the staff and drawing her sword, she lunged forward with a strong ward cast, prepared to take a hit but hopefully not before slicing his gut open. The power he had gained, however, was too strong and the spell he cast was unlike any she felt, sending her staggering down the stone steps and weakening her enough to drop her sword. She sat up and drew back a breath to shout, which is probably what she should have done in the first place, but before she could, she felt another spell hit her. Every muscle in her body, even those in her face, was suddenly as resilient as netch jelly and all she could do was collapse and wait for the next blow.
Instead she heard a somewhat bewildered—but no less hostile—Ancano calling out, “Where’d you come fr—” The sound that followed was a thud as the Thalmor’s body, his throat sliced clean open, fell beside her. Elsepth, too weak to offer a more appropriate reaction, simply groaned and closed her eyes. After a moment she tried, but could not muster the strength to sit up to see who survived and who had dealt Ancano his death blow. Perhaps it was the continued effects of the spell or simply the weeks of violence and horror catching up to her, but all she could do was lie there and mutter, “Gods have mercy on…,” her voice trailing off before she fell into a deep sleep.