(This chapter contains adult themes.)
“Pah WERID, all praise… SONaaN LUNERIO, blah blah” Elspeth was studying the wall, muttering the words when Lydia sidled up next to her.
“Can you read all of that now?” she asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
Elspeth shook her head and looked at her friend slightly askance. Since leaving the college, she had fallen silent again, much like when they left Whiterun for High Hrothgar. Except this time Lydia was no longer wallowing in the depths of despair. Though it was apparent to Elspeth that she was purposely turning inward, she dared not ask why. Things were already awkward enough.
Not all of it,” she explained, “but more than before, when it was just one word, the important one.” She drew her finger across the wall, stopping at FO. “Frost,” she whispered. The words came readily now; the hollow sounds and vibration were much less intrusive than when she discovered that first wall in Bleak Stone Barrow. She was beginning to wonder about the nature of this, what made the knowledge so immediately accessible, though she wouldn’t be able to ponder this long.
“What does that do?”
Swallowing against the tightness that grew in her chest every time she shouted, she took a deep breath. Then, drawing from the power deep within her and focusing her mind on the new word, she shouted, “FO.” In an instant, frigid air flew out of her mouth, but with no target the blast simply froze, little droplets falling and shattering on the ground in a thousand diamond-like pieces.
But Elspeth didn’t notice; her mouth and jaw were numbed by the force of the shout that reverberated a bit, sending searing pains through her head, like an icicle shooting outward from the center of her skull through her nose and eye-sockets. Groaning, she brought her hand up to her head and leaned against the wall. Arngeir had warned her that without the years of meditation it took most individuals to learn words, years that prepared the mind and body, the sheer force and strength of certain shouts could be painful.
“Elspeth!” Lydia gasped as she leaned over and placed her hand gently on her shoulder.
“Is she hurt?” Trygve came running up from the base of Bonestrewn Crest where he’d been harvesting jazby grapes and dragon’s tongue and generally trying to stay out of the way.
Lydia started to nod, but Elspeth forced herself upright. “No!” she said firmly, adjusting her armor and staggering past, avoiding his gaze and nearly tripping over the tail bones of their most recently slain dragon. The pain in her head was still radiating, but not enough to accept his assistance. Lydia sighed and shook her head as she ran to catch up.
As they mounted their horses, Lydia looked wistfully over the hot springs and took a deep breath. “I love the smell of mineral soup in the morning,” she laughed, thinking back to all the times she and Hrongar had taken the long way home just so they could stop here. Surprisingly, it didn’t make her sad—she just wished they could stay a while. “Next time we’ll camp here. And spend the day soaking.”
It was a lovely day, but they had to move on. They rode on to Windhelm, the mist from the volcanic tundra trailing around. Trygve stayed a reasonable distance behind. Though he was mostly impervious to the tension between them, he was growing weary of Elspeth’s persistent scowl whenever he made a suggestion or offered his assistance.
Just north of Kynesgrove, the weather took a turn, soft clusters of snowflakes falling, the kind that melted on impact, so that by the time they arrived in Candlehearth Hall, they were soggy as well as tired and hungry. It was too late to go to the palace, so they cleaned up and settled in for dinner, with Lydia and Elspeth at one table and Trygve alone at the far end of the room, by the bard.
“Are you ever going to talk to him again?” Lydia frowned. She found it commendable that Elspeth had chosen to keep Trygve despite what he did to Onmund—following her head rather than her heart—but unlike Trygve, she found the tension between everyone unbearable. Though she soon realized her quiescence of late wasn’t helping either.
“No,” Elsepth replied curtly. Had she and Onmund been able to resolve things, she might have felt a little conciliatory toward Trygve. But Onmund had barely regarded her the morning she left Winterhold, not even to say good-bye.
Poking at her food, her thoughts wandered to the night before when she was simply sad. Lying awake on her bedroll she played over their last night together, the stark contrast between the passion and intimacy they shared and the coldness of his demeanor the next morning. With the realization that she might never see him again and that he might choose to move on to someone whose life was less exciting, her stomach knotted and her face grew numb. Sleep had eluded her. She offered to take Lydia’s watch and spent the early morning hours simply staring into the fire. There was no contemplation, no thoughtful ruminations or even rationalizations on the matter.
It was late when they finally finished their meals and made their way to their room. Elspeth had hoped an actual bed might facilitate sleep but this was but a pipe dream. The White Phial was closed; otherwise she would have procured a sleeping draught. She knew Trygve had a potent elixir, but she wasn’t asking him for anything. Instead, she lay still and stared into the darkness above, her thoughts wandering back to her childhood, to Xeri and her insistence on staying detached, focus, and to her training, which always seemed to interfere with her relationship with Andil.
“You’re going to be sixteen soon,” Xeri seemed to bring this up out of nowhere, though Elspeth knew better. The matter of her age was irrelevant; it was simply a way to open the conversation. “He’s going to…want things,” she continued, her face stern and her tone unyielding. “And you, you’re going to want things.”
Elspeth recoiled as she spoke. Gods, she thought, not this. Not know. “Maybe Runa should be the one…”
“If Runa has her way, she would move Andil right into your bed permanently!” The womer’s tone didn’t waver. “And you’ll do what you want I suppose, but mark my words child, it will do you no good to indulge your…appetite.” Her tone dropped, betraying her disdain as Elspeth continued to wince. She went on and on, explaining that it wasn’t sexual relations per se that were the problem, but of the comingling of physical and emotional intimacy that made it impossible for adolescents to focus. But by then Elspeth had stopped listening, praying now for more laps around Bruma’s walls or knuckle push-ups on the frozen ground.
She cringed at the memory, her discomfort still palpable even after all these years. But Xeri had gone well beyond inspiring feelings of discomfort in her protégé. Despite Runa’s protestations, she went forward and did everything in her power to sabotage her relationship with Andil—and it worked. Not that Elspeth was blameless, but things would have been a lot easier without her mentor dragging her away from him for weeks, sometimes months, at a time.
And yet here she was, once again despairing over another failed romance. This time, however, she had no one but herself to blame. It’s not that she didn’t try to blame Trygve, but her own guilt overshadowed his culpability in her mind, though plenty of bitterness toward him remained.
If only Onmund could have forgiven her, they might have found a way to move forward. She would have met his patience and absolution with a renewed commitment to provide some part of her that for him and him alone. But perhaps there was no balance to be found; perhaps her life was simply not conducive to that sort of intimacy. Xeri was right all along. The realization stung, but there was little to be done now and the last thing Elspeth needed was more resentment and anger. With this she drifted off a little and slept for what felt like five minutes.
Breakfast was quiet. Elspeth was sore from sleep deprivation and mostly glared at her food. When Trygve offered her a potion, she accepted reluctantly. She mixed the elixir—a mix of honey and purple mountain flower—into her tea and drank it down. It took the edge off her weariness, boosting her energy and clearing her head a bit. “Thank you,” she mumbled, though she didn’t look up.
They quickly finished the rest of their breakfast and made their way to the Palace of Kings. Elspeth, thinking back on Helgen, wondered if Ulfric Stormcloak would remember her at all. It was unlikely she supposed as her thoughts wondered back to that day, all the death and destruction. The violence wrought, not just by the dragon but also the soldiers.
Well shit, she thought and just outside the palace entrance, she turned suddenly. “Trygve!” She studied his face for a moment before lowering her voice to speak again. “Are you…is this going to be a problem?”
“Is what going to be a problem?” That was speaking to him at all was confusing. That she sounded somewhat concerned perplexed him even further. And he had no idea what she was talking about.
“Your brother…he was in the Legion. Are you going to have a problem here?”
“Oh…no,” he said. “Though I appreciate—” But she had turned away and was already through the door before he could complete a sentence. He looked back at Lydia who simply shrugged before following Elspeth.
The Palace’s Great Hall was swarming with people, mostly Dunmer and men and women in Stormcloak garb, though it was impossible to tell if they were local guards or soldiers. There was no discernible order of any sort so they pushed though the crowd, where they found an empty throne and a rather harried Jorlief trying to calm an angry mer with desperate reassurances.
“Sir, I am confident that—”
“Confident!” The Dunmer interjected. “I’m tired of your empty promises, as are the rest of the elves. Mark my words steward, it won’t be long before the denizens of the Grey Quarter start taking matters into their own hands.”
“I will make this matter a priority.” Jorleif spoke firmly
The Dunmer, still unconvinced, scowled and grunted as he turned. Elspeth and her companions, moving in unison, stepped back to give the mer a wide berth as he stomped away. The Breton’s gaze lingered as he disappeared into the crowd. Recalling their first visit to Windhelm and the favor they did for Brunwulf, she had to suppress the urge to catch up to the mer and offer her assistance. That she couldn’t saddened her a bit.
“Lydia! Elspeth!” Jorlief’s voice interrupted her thoughts. He was smiling broadly as he approached, and though she was not displeased that he remembered their names, it only intensified the nostalgia she was feeling for those first months in Skyrim. Pushing this aside, she forced a weak smile.
“What brings you to Windhelm? Are you looking to make some coin? Because I have plenty of work.”
“No, not quite,” she said. “We killed the Dragon up at Bonestrewn Crest and heard there was a bounty.” She gestured back toward Trygve who stepped forward and offered Jorlief a satchel containing the creature’s talons and dewclaws. According to Iddra over at Braidwood Inn, this had become the means by which one proved they felled a dragon since. Of course, Elspeth couldn’t exactly show off the souls she was taking. This led Trygve to wonder just how many fallen dragons were out there, waiting for Elspeth to come by and finish the job. Not many, he wagered.
“There is also this,” Elspeth removed the summons she’d received back in Whiterun and handed it to Jorleif.
As he recognized the correspondence he’d penned so many weeks ago to the then anonymous Dragonborn, his eyes grew wide and he smiled. “It’s you,” he said, trying to hide his initial surprise. Admittedly, this was not who he had pictured but he did not want to appear narrow-minded. “Well, the Jarl is eager to make your acquaintance.” Frowning, he looked around the hall. The crowd had dissipated somewhat but it was still busy and it seemed inappropriate to seat them in the middle of the room with guards and disgruntled citizens wandering about.
“This way.” He led them up a narrow set of stairs and into a sitting room in the palace’s guest quarters. “The Jarl will be back within the hour. Should I have any food or mead sent up?”
They shook their heads and Jorleif went back to deal with the crowd. Elspeth went straight to the sofa in the corner closest to the fireplace, while Trygve inspected the books on the shelves behind here, and an anxious Lydia paced back and forth. Years of listening to stories about Jarl Ulfric had left the housecarl with a somewhat conflicted image of the man and she was nervous.
Elspeth had propped herself up in a half-sitting, half-leaning position and was having trouble keeping her eyes open, her head jerking up violently every time she felt herself falling asleep. As their wait neared an hour, she began to regret not taking a nap and closed her eyes for just a little while.
However, within moments she heard voices echoing, bodies shuffling and heavy footfall, stopping just outside the door. Lydia stopped pacing and stood at attention while Tryve and Elspeth merely turned their heads up.
“Blasted dark elves. I don’t suppose you could tell them that I presently have larger concerns? Such as all of Skyrim?”
“Well then, if the Dunmer are not part of Skyrim, I’m sure they’ll be happy to stop paying those exorbitant taxes,” said Trygve under his breath.
Forgetting her resentment toward him, Elspeth chuckled. This lasted but a moment before she was scowling again. She should not have been surprised at the Jarl’s dismissal of the Dunmer in such a manner, but she was still disappointed that they would encounter his bitter side, rather than the fervent, impassioned one she had briefly witnessed just after they’d assisted with the Butcher.
“Dragonborn! What a pleasure to finally meet you,” Ulfric’s deep voice filled through the room. But when Elspeth looked up, he wasn’t directing his greeting at her. He was looking at Lydia.
The housecarl looked back at Elspeth, who in a split second decided she didn’t feel much like talking. She shrugged and sat back while her friend glared at her, not at all pleased at this turn of events. Still, she was much too intimidated by rebel leader to correct him.
“This is Galmar Stone-Fist,” he pointed to the older Nord that had followed him into the room. “He is my second in command.”
“It…it’s nice to meet you too. I’m Lydia…I guess….” Lydia, normally well versed in matters of court etiquette, was completely flustered. Nord customs weren’t particularly formal but she was nonplussed at Elspeth’s reticence and it showed.
Elspeth should have been amused. And at that point she should have stood and interjected that she was, in fact, the Dragonborn. But something held her back, disillusionment perhaps as she realized that Ulfric Stormcloak came in expecting a Nord Dragonborn. Had Jorleif not said anything to prepare the man? Perhaps there was a reason for that. She looked up at Trygve, whose expression betrayed neither amusement nor disapproval.
“I must say,” Ulfric continued, “I was not expecting someone so…young.”
“Oh, this guy is good,” Trygve muttered.
Whatever embarrassment might have been inspired that comment was soon thwarted as Ulfric turned on a more professional demeanor. “Dragonborn, if I may. I believe we are at a crossroads in Skyrim’s history. It is not my intention to ascribe any particular symbolic importance to the return of the dragons or of the Dragonborn. But that does not make the timing less significant. All eyes will be upon you. And—”
They were interrupted by a booming, raucous laugh coming from just outside the door. Ulfric scowled as he looked over. Stepping in the room was the biggest, hardest looking Nord Elspeth had ever seen. His bearded face, colored with war paint, was scarred and serious. Whatever amusement the man had enjoyed just moments ago had quickly vanished from his expression. He nodded in apology to the Jarl as he moved to the side, making room for the soldier behind him to enter. The second Nord was shorter, and his face much gentler, and familiar.
“Ralof!” Elspeth leapt from her seat and ran across the room, nearly crashing into Lydia on her way.
“Tiny Breton warrior!” He grunted as she threw herself into his arms. He gripped her tightly, though maneuvering in their armor was a bit awkward. Forgetting, where he was for a moment, he held her at arm’s length, one hand cupping her neck. Since Helgen, he’d thought constantly of the young woman who had helped him escape, wondering if she was okay and if he would ever see her again. Their parting had been amicable, affectionate even and he always wondered if he should have accompanied her to Whiterun.
“That’s Elspeth?” The gruffer Nord let out a surprised grunt and shook his head.
Ralof ignored him. “What brings you to Windhelm? Have you come to join the fight against the Empire?”
“No, not exactly,” Elspeth was so happy to see her friend and all she wanted to do was leave and drag him back to the tavern, where they could talk.
“Ralof! Do you know this woman?” Galmar interrupted, as the rest of the room looked curiously at the couple.
“Know her? I owe this woman my life,” he explained. “Jarl Ulfric, surely you remember.”
Ulfric, having recovered from being interrupted, approached and looked at Elspeth intently. After a few moments of rubbing his chin, he spoke. “Indeed. You were with us at Helgen. Destined for the chopping block if I am not mistaken. You clean up nicely.”
“Ah…yes, thank you.” She rubbed her neck and she looked around, desperate to avoid everyone’s gaze.
“Tell me then,” he continued, “how did you come to be in the service of the Dragonborn.”
Elspeth glanced over at Lydia who was glowering at her. “Tell him,” she mouthed.
“With all due respect,” she said. “I am the Dragonborn.”
“Elspeth,” Ralof whispered. “The Dragonborn? I….” His voice trailed off as he pulled his arm away, suddenly uncertain of how he should regard his friend. “I knew you were something special but—”
“Is this some sort of joke?” Ulfric’s voice was steady, but the bitterness from earlier was returning. “This Breton cannot be the Dragonborn.”
She frowned at the Jarl. Just why not, she wondered, feeling defensive. “Would you like me to show you?” she asked.
But Ulfric wasn’t paying attention; he was ranting. “The Voice is not the magic of elves and other races. The Voice was given to the Nords, with the blessing of Kyne.”
“Ulfric….” Though Galmar looked no less suspicious than his leader, he seemed intent on calming the Jarl down.
But Ulfric would not be deterred. “It was Jurgen Windcaller, a Nord who understood the full potential of the Voice. And it is Nords who guard its secrets and nurture its adherents, Nords who must prove themselves. What business does a Breton have encroaching on this, our most sacred tradition?”
How was she supposed to answer such a question? She wanted to meet his claims about the Nords with her own regarding St. Alessia, Reman Cyrodiil, the Septims. He could invoke Kyne all he wanted, but the divine covenant of Akatosh was not for the Nords to claim. But theology was, quite possibly, the last thing she wanted to discuss with Ulfric Stormcloak. It was right up there with the Thalmor and the Concordat.
“It’s not something I chose,” she cried. “I don’t know why this was given to me.” She was struggling to sound humble, though this only seemed to anger him more.
“It doesn’t belong to you!”
The more enraged he became, the more defensive she felt. And so she answered his protests in the only the language she believed he would listen. Scowling and bracing herself, she drew a breath and shouted, “FUS.”
The force of the shout sent him staggering back, but didn’t knock him over. As if by instinct, Galmar stepped forward, hand on his axe, while Lydia and Trygve hurried to her side. Elspeth could hear Ralof and his friend shuffling around, edging away from everyone but before the room could come to blows, Ulfric recovered and let out an uncomfortable laugh.
“Stand down, everyone.” He rubbed his neck and looked over again. His expression was impossible to read and she simply hoped it was resignation, however reluctant. There was a long pause before he spoke again, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had befallen the room. “Dragonborn, I apologize. Forgive my behavior and know that you may avail yourself of any resource Windhelm can offer.”
He didn’t sound sorry, which probably should have bothered Elspeth more than it did, but she nodded, assuming the rest of his offer was sincere.
“Once again, this is Galmar Stone Fist second in command of the Stormcloaks. You know Ralof,” he said. “The other fellow is Thorven Greyjoy.”
“My name is Elspeth Aurilie. Lydia is my housecarl. And this is Trygve Wartooth, thane of the Rift.”
“And you’re Balgruuf’s thane as well,” he said, gesturing to her armor as he recognized the color on her cuirass. He was calmer now, though not exactly friendly. He would regard her with suspicion for a while, she assumed.
“Yes…and, if there is nothing else…”
“Excuse me, Dragonborn,” Thorven interrupted, his voice every bit as gruff as his countenance. “One of our scouts reported seeing a dragon not two days ago in the mountains in the Pale, in the area of Irkngthand. They informed one of Skald’s guards on patrol. But, I assumed you’d like to know.”
“Thank you,” she nodded and turned back to Ulfric. “My companions and I will take our leave now.”
Ulfric nodded. “Thorven, Ralof. Whatever business we have to discuss—we’ll reconvene in the war room in twenty.”
The group left together, fumbling down the dark hallway and narrow staircase. Upon entering the Great Room, Elspeth turned to Ralof. She didn’t want to leave him so quickly, but this wasn’t exactly a good time for a reunion either.
“Wait,” he said, as if reading her mind. Clutching her hand, he pulled her aside. “Ride over there with us. We’re just here to requisition supplies and update Galmar on Legion activities in the Pale. We’ll be done in less than an hour.”
Elspeth turned to confirm this with Trygve, but stopped, recalling that she didn’t care for his opinion on the matter. “All right,” she said. “We’ll meet you by the stables.”
Ralof didn’t sound impressed, Elspeth thought, though she kept quiet. If he was sincere, she didn’t want to seem doubtful, so she simply shrugged and smiled.
“I was hoping for more than a light show,” he smirked. “Though I’m sure the less dragons you actually have to kill the better.” He looked down at the dead pyromancer at his feet, stepped back and frowned.
“Come with us,” Elspeth replied. “You’ll get to fight your fair share of dragons.”
“I just want to see you take one down.” He paused and looked around. “What should we do about the bodies? Burn ‘em? We can’t really bury them.”
“Let’s not waste the kindling,” Thorven advised.
“Elspeth doesn’t need kindling,” Ralof retorted, his tone a bit smug.
“We don’t really have time to tend to a funeral pyre but…let’s at least get them off this path,” said Elspeth. “I’d feel more productive…I guess.” Although she was more than relieved not to have to fight, just stepping up to the carcass and absorbing the dragon’s soul felt like cheating. Tending to the corpses at least felt like work and it didn’t take long to stack the bodies near a small outcropping of rocks just west of the path.
“All right,” said Lydia as she brushed her hands off and looked off toward the setting sun. “We’ve got to find a place to make camp.”
“I was hoping you’d stay at our camp,” Ralof interjected, ignoring Thorven’s disapproving sneer. “Please? It would be such an honor and I know the lads all want to meet the Dragonborn of legend.”
“You’d trust us with the location of your camp?” asked Lydia.
“The Stormcloaks control the Pale, so it’s not much of a secret,” he explained. “It’s mostly used for training, and as a stopping point for couriers we hire.”
“It’s right off the southern shore of Yorgrim, correct?” Trygve interjected. “Is Fromond still your quartermaster?”
“Fromond Soriksen retired several years ago,” Thorven replied, his tone somewhat curious. “You knew him personally?”
“I traded with him on more than one occasion,” he explained.
“Yes, well Velik Silver-Spear is our new Quartermaster,” Thorven continued.
“And the best fisherman this side of Yogrim, which isn’t saying much I suppose,” Ralof laughed. “But I hope you like salmon.”
After unlatching their horses, they made their way up the shore and within an hour came upon the camp. It was dark when they arrived, but the camp was well lit by a fire around which four soldiers were sitting. They unloaded tents, bedrolls, some food, and various sundries for the evening.
“Ralof! Thorven!” a large man, dressed in a blacksmith’s apron strode over. “What news from Windhelm? Who is this?”
“Velik Silver-Heart! It is with great pleasure to introduce you to Elspeth, the Dragonborn,” Ralof was beaming so hard, Elspeth thought his face might crack. “And these are her companions. Her housecarl, Lydia. And Trygve.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Elspeth and the others nodded politely, shifting their satchels around as they waited through the introduction.
“Elspeth? Not…” He studied her intently. “Is the woman from Helgen? This little speck of a lass?” He laughed.
“Don’t let her size fool you!” said Ralof, laughing heartily. “I told you about the magic.”
“You did indeed,” he grinned. “And also Dragonborn. Who knew this clodpoll would keep such important company? Grub should be ready soon. I hope you brought more mead.”
Ralof nodded, but before he could reply, Lydia piped up. “We brought fresh bread and cheese to share.”
As they made their way around, Elspeth could hear Trygve mumbling that the cheese was meant to last through their trip to the Rift and though he didn’t mind, he wouldn’t abide any complaints about his dried venison.
“Blah blah blah Trygve, try to enjoy a little Nord hospitality for once,” Lydia replied, dropping her pack on the ground on the far right side of the camp. “Is this okay Ralof?”
“Aye, make yourselves comfortable and join us by the fire when you’re ready.”
Elspeth watched him wander over to the fire. A few moments after he’d joined his comrades and the chatter grew louder, with several people awkwardly looking over and quickly away again. They got the tents up and their beds unrolled. Elspeth quickly changed out of her armor and pulled on a thick mage’s robe and a pair of wool trousers. Looking back again at the anticipating faces of the rebels, she sighed, wishing she could just roll up in her cloak and go to sleep. She was somewhat disappointed that she and Ralof wouldn’t have much time alone to catch up. But he was so eager to introduce her, and she couldn’t deny him that.
The soldiers seemed eager to feed them, thrusting plates of salmon and baked potatoes in their hands, while Lydia cut chunks of bread and cheese and passed them around. Ralof passed bottles of mead around and when he finished, he started speaking again.
“Dragonborn and friends, welcome,” he said, gesturing around the circle. “Elspeth, Lydia, Trygve, you’ve met Velik and Thorven. This is Solvieg, Tallak, and Vald. And the little one is Rafn,” he said, pointing to a young man not much taller than Elspeth. “And that’s as formal as I get so now sit, eat. I’m sure my comrades will be shouting questions at you any moment now.”
There was some more shuffling and Elspeth settled down between Ralof and Lydia, balancing the food in her lap as she drank down some mead. With Ralof near, she felt comfortable enough but the soldiers seemed a bit wary of her, offering little more than fleeting stares, though she was pleased at the lack of uncomfortable gawking. Mostly, they seemed happy to fill her plate and pass her some mead. If anyone was ambivalent about the fact that she was a Breton, it wasn’t explicit though she supposed it was likely.
“So, Elspeth what’s it like being Dragonborn?” Rafn asked. “Did you know?”
“It’s…it’s hard to describe. It’s not like regular magic and it feels sort of strange and familiar at the same time,” she explained. “And no…I did not know. I was just as shocked as everyone else.” This of course, wasn’t entirely true.
“You’re Breton? You from High Rock then?” Vlad narrowed his eyes and Elspeth could feel Lydia stiffen a bit next to her.
“No,” Elspeth shook her head. “I grew up in Bruma.” She hoped this might ease some tension, give her some credibility on the matter of Nord culture. Still, she shoved a huge bite of potato in her mouth so she’d have a reason not to speak for a moment.
“You must be glad then,” Tallak said, “to finally be among real Nords.” Elspeth might have found this amusing, but the quiet mumbling that followed the comment was uncomfortable and tense.
“You don’t have to respond to that,” Ralof said, somewhat curtly, frowning at Tallak.
But Tallak shrugged. “Bruma’s in Cyrodiil, which makes them Imperials as far as I’m concerned.
“Boy, you ever meet a Nord from Bruma?” Thorven interjected.
“My uncle lives in Cyrodiil. Last time he came to visit, the milk-drinker wouldn’t even leave Solitude. Made my Ma bring my sick and frail grandma to see her. Fucker had meetings and silk trousers that apparently cannot withstand the air outside the gates of the city.”
“What’s your uncle’s name?” asked Elspeth.
“Thyr” he sneered. “I doubt you’ve met him. He lives in Skingraad.”
“So, not Bruma,” said Thorve angrily.
“Well…no,” he stammered. “But how different could they possibly be? Worshipping their eight divines. Cowering in the streets as the Thalmor walk by. Where’s their pride? Where’s their dignity?”
“Nords in Bruma still worship the Nine,” said Elspeth, her stomach tightening. Though she really didn’t want to have this conversation, she felt compelled to correct at least that. “And they don’t cower around the Thalmor. Of course, the Thalmor don’t come by Bruma all that often.”
“I wonder why that is?” asked Ralof.
“It’s probably the town’s proximity to Frostcrag Spire,” said Solvieg. “And all those dissident mages.”
With this comment, Elspeth’s stomach knotted even harder. She had plenty of experience casually ignoring comments about the dissident elves, though it was never particularly easy. But before she could respond, Tallak was talking again.
“Dissident elves,” he spat, speaking as if the words themselves were bitter. “What have those piss-skinned mages ever done for us? Holed up in their magic towers…writing letters?”
“Boy, if you don’t stop running your mouth, I will do it for you,” Thorven interjected. “You’d do well to remember, Evangeline Sigeweald was the only one with balls enough to stand up to Mede after the war. Told him he could stick that treaty where the sun don’t shine. Almost brought the rest of the Elder council along, ‘til she lost everything.”
Overwhelmed with a mix of gratitude and bewilderment, it took Elspeth every ounce of restraint she possessed not to leap up and throw her arms around the scraggly old Stormcloak.
“Well, I didn’t know about that,” Tallak shot back. “How could I know about that?”
“Wouldn’t kill ya to talk to someone who fought in the war from time to time,” he replied. “Anyway, if there is ANYONE on this divines-forsaken planet with even a chance against the Thalmor, it’s her.”
“Is she goin’ help us then? With the Thamor after we’re done with the Empire?” Though he lacked Tallak’s bitterness, Vald seemed no less skeptical.
“Maybe if you’re very polite,” Thorven scowled.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Solveig said. “I got nuthin’ against mages. But the college hasn’t done squat for Skyrim.”
“Why would they?” asked Tallak, who was still angry. “There’s a Thalmor agent up there, runs the whole place.”
“You mean, Ancano?” asked Elspeth, jerking her head up. The mention of her mother and the dissident elves was bad enough, but she knew enough to keep her mouth shut about it. But this was different. Quaranir’s words about currying favor among the Nords rang in her ears and it behooved her to say something. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she sputtered, fighting back a lump in her throat as she thought about Savos and Mirabelle, and just how close they’d came to losing everything to Ancano’s madness.
“Well why don’t you enlighten me?” Tallak demanded.
Elspeth, now feeling foolish as well as angry, felt her face grow warm. How on Nirn could she explain everything that had happened; where did she begin?
“The Thalmor agent is dead,” Trygve interrupted.
Then again, it didn’t have to be more complicated than that and for just a moment she hated Trygve just a little less for sensing her discomfort and speaking up. “Yep,” she nodded, “Trygve killed him.”
Trygve cleared his throat. “The college was never under Thalmor control,” he explained as everyone’s gaze turned toward him, mumbling things in approval. Next to her, Lydia let out a sigh relief.
“They just don’t care for politics.” Trygve shrugged.
There was grumbling again, but Thorven interrupted. “Can’t blame ‘em for that.”
With this the soldiers returned to their mead, resuming quiet conversations occasionally interrupted by laughter and grunts. And though the tension in the camp had lessened considerably, Elspeth was still uncomfortable. Exactly what, she wondered, was she supposed to be doing in these situations on behalf of the college?
“I need some air,” she said as she stood and left the campfire, feeling everyone’s eyes on her as she stepped away. Ignoring them, she walked quickly down the path toward the lake, pulling her cloak tightly around her body and stopping only when she heard hurried footsteps and someone calling out behind her.
“Elspeth, wait up,” Ralof pleaded. “Elspeth, I’m so sorry. Tallak’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and the others—”
“Oh Ralof no…please, don’t apologize,” she said, turning to face him. He looked distressed and she didn’t want that from him.
“It’s just…well, not all soldiers are…well, not all very nice. And a lot of them, like Ulfric are not expecting the Dragonborn to be a tiny Breton mage. They…they want a warrior, a—”
“I am a warrior,” she interjected.
“That you are,” he said. “It’s just going to take some getting used to.”
Elspeth shrugged, “I’m not used to it. I suppose I can’t expect much from anyone else.”
“Has it been really difficult?” he asked.
What kind of question was that, she wondered. Though she softened a bit as she realized he was just worried. “Yes,” she said. “It’s been awful. But then…it hasn’t.”
“Well, you were prepared better than most eh? I don’t know many Bretons been training since they were young.”
“How many Bretons do you know?” she asked, chuckling a little. “It’s all overwhelming. For better or worse, it’s that. And it’s…well, it’s sort of lonely I guess.” As they followed the icy path, Elspeth stepped closer so that their arms were touching.
“You’ve got companions though,” Ralof put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her gently. “Though sometimes that’s not what it’s about.” He seemed sort of wistful for a moment.
That she didn’t have to explain warmed her heart and she leaned into his embrace. Smiling, he leaned down and was about to plant a gentle kiss atop her head when they were interrupted by deep gnawing grunts and bones cracking. Gasping, they looked up. Sitting by a nearby cave was a frost troll gorging himself on a corpse.
“Shit,” Elspeth gasped and gripped Ralof’s arm. “Step back,” she whispered. “Quietly.”
But it was too late and within moments, the troll had dropped the bloody bones, now nearly picked clean, and charged forward, roaring.
Ralof instinctively pushed Elspeth back as he raised his axe, momentarily forgetting that Elspeth did not quite require such protection. Rolling her eyes, Elspeth stepped to the side and aimed a powerful fire spell at the troll, who bellowed and screech as he staggered back. Ralof leaped forward, his axe held high.
“Ralof, no!” Elspeth screamed. The troll was wounded by the spell, but still had plenty of fight in him. As the Nord joined in the fray, he stepped right into Elspeth’s line of fire and in the time it took her to step up again, the troll had struck and knocked Ralof to the ground. Elspeth couldn’t tell if it was the crunch of icy snow or the sound of her friend’s cracked skull against the rocky path where he fell. Roaring, she lunged forward with her weapon drawn. Another fire spell let her get close enough so that when she shouted, he crashed into the side of the cave, collapsing close enough that she could drive her sword into his neck.
Elspeth rushed over to Ralof who was groaning as he came to. “Hold on,” she said, looking him over. Nothing appeared broken, but she had to be sure and she was certain Ralof would try to play it tough.
“I’m fine,” he said, though he grunted loudly and clutched his side as sat up. “Just some cracked ribs, I think.”
“I’m going to check out the cave,” she said. Near the entrance, a detect life spell showed the cave to be empty. “Can you walk?”
He nodded as he eased himself up and limped over. The cave was small, but there was a bedroll and some blankets, a satchel with food and potions, and a fire pit—likely the property of the troll’s dinner. It was unpleasant and morbid to think about, but Elspeth was grateful for the supplies. She gestured for Ralof to settle down on the bedroll and once she had a fire going, she rifled through the satchel until she found a healing potion.
Ralof was twisting out of his cuirass and trying not to wince in pain when Elspeth knelt by him. “Let me,” she said. She removed the armor and lifted his tunic exposing a considerable about of bruising. “This healing spell isn’t very strong,” she explained, as she placed her hands over his ribs. “There’s an elixir too, which should help. But it’ll be uncomfortable for a while. Trygve could heal it right up, but unfortunately he’s not here.”
Ralof snorted, “I don’t consider that unfortunate.” He took the elixir she offered and frowned as he swallowed.
“No, I suppose we don’t need him,” she sighed a little as she finished up, gently pulling the tunic down. She looked around awkwardly, trying to figure out where she should settle down. The floor was covered with rocks and exposed Dwemer piping. “This place must connected with one of the ruins,” she said.
“Here,” he said, leaning up. “You take the bedroll and I can—”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll just set up one of these blankets. You sit back.”
She laid out the blanket next to the bedroll and lay back though she wasn’t tired at all. She wanted to talk and tell him everything, but she didn’t want to disturb him if he needed rest. Lying there with her hands over her stomach, she stared upward, following the flickering light across the copper pipes and knotted roots along the ceiling.
Ralof was shifting around next to her and before she could ask if he needed more room, he’d rolled on to his uninjured side and was looking down at her, his pale face made amber by the fire. He looked warm, which made Elspeth want to curl into his chest though that would no doubt be unbearably uncomfortable for him. Still, she edged a little closer, if she could just rest here, maybe…
“Elspeth,” he began, interrupting her thoughts “Did you shout at that troll?”
“You saw that?” She was surprised he saw anything as he’d been knocked over rather hard.
“Not really…just when I was opening my eyes, the troll was being tossed back, like a fucking rag doll.” He was undoubtedly impressed.
“Yeah, that was a shout. I learned it from the Greybeards.”
“Well, I’m sorry I missed it,” he said, his tone lowering slightly. “Maybe I could make you shout again.”
Her eyes widened and stomach fluttered, but before she could respond, Ralof ran his hand lightly through her hair and, gripping her neck, pressed his lips roughly to hers. She gasped. What on Nirn was he doing? But instead of pulling away, she gave in. For just a moment, she felt the weight of all the things she wanted to confide simply lift away and she wanted to savor that, if only for a moment.
It was wrong; she knew this. But the guilt she imagined would overwhelm her, that inner conflict, it simply wasn’t there. Instead, as she drew her arm around his neck, their relationship came into sharp focus. He had been there for the single most terrifying event in her life. And now, once again with the world feeling hopeless and frightening and bleak, he was there. Right or wrong, she wanted him. It wasn’t love—though she was so very fond of him. And it wasn’t simply lust driving her into his arms and bed—if you could call the bedroll and scratchy wool blanket that.
It was solace.
Groaning, she sought out his tongue with hers and brought her hands to his head, running his fingers through the tangles in his hair. Ralof wasted no time loosening her belt and undoing her robe. She tugged at his tunic and he leaned back, grunting slightly and breathing through the pain in his ribs, something he soon forget as he looked down at Elspeth who by now had slipped out of her robe and was wiggling out her of pants and underclothes. He yanked his clothes off, sat back on his heels and looked her over.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, furrowing her brow.
Ralof shook his head, “I just wanted to look at you.”
“Oh really?” She cocked her head a little.
“You…you look incredible.”
“For a Breton?” she smirked, leaning up on her elbows.
At this he simply chuckled and leaned forward, kissing her aggressively as she pulled him back toward her, running her hands down his back and not-so-gently grabbing his backside. She groaned as he placed kisses along her collarbone and shuddered as a wisp of cool air came between them and then again as she felt the warmth of his skin against hers.
“Elspeth,” he rasped into her neck, his fingers trailing along the top of her thigh. “I’ve wanted this for so long.”
His voice was not jarring, though she found it pulling her out of the moment. To remedy this, she kissed him and wrapped her legs around his, arching her back to urge him on. But Ralof was vocal and with every, “yeah, that’s it” she found her mind wandering, until she was right back to where she was when she discovered sex in her adolescence, distracted and confused. Forcing everything else out of her mind, she focused on Ralof. Trying to lose herself in the rhythm of his thrusts, she moaned and brought her leg up, bumping his ribs.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, as he cried out in pain, adding sheer mortification to her disconcertion.
“It’s all right,” he said as he continued to grind into her. “Are you…okay?”
“Yes.” It wasn’t a lie, exactly. Lying with him felt good, but her mind was simply elsewhere: thoughts of Onmund, Trygve, the roots on the ceiling, even her mother, intertwined with those of Ralof and his body, heavy against hers. Taking care not to hurt him again, she wrapped her legs around his waist, squeezing as hard as she could. “Ralof,” she cried out, over and over again as she snapped her hips into his. Her finish was dull, but Ralof came hard, his body held stiff for what seemed like an eternity until he collapsed, sweaty and limp, on top of her.
After a few quiet moments, he brought his head up and looked at her, smiling as he moved wisps of hair out of her face. He kissed her gently before they got up to find their clothing. Elspeth dressed slowly, trying not to think too much. Lying down again, she looked over as returned to the bedroll, a shit-eating grin on his face. Chucking softly, she shook her head. As she lay back down, he put his arm around her. It took a while, but soon she slept soundly in crook of his arm, leaving the inevitable onslaught of guilt and regret for another time.