Author’s note: I triple pinkie swear that I will get back to the main story immediately. But since I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on with other characters I figure I might as well share my thoughts with everyone. Anyway, enjoy!
It was late afternoon when they arrived in Windhelm, Onmund’s stomach growing tighter with each step once the city walls came into view. He’d been eager to take jobs that would get him out of Winterhold, but now the memory of his last time in Windhelm with Elspeth was suddenly fresh.
Initially he was meant to go alone, perhaps even skipping Windhelm on his way to Riften to deliver enchanted jewelry to members of Jarl Laila’s court, but Tolfdir was sending Brelyna to see Ulfric’s court wizard and the city’s apothecary. It made perfect sense for them to travel together, though this was not Onmund’s preference and it pained him to feel that way. For the first time since they’d become friends, Onmund was ambivalent about traveling with Brelyna. He anticipated so many questions, about his broody isolation, Elspeth, returning to Whiterun—every topic he would rather not think about, much less discuss.
They’d been traveling since 4:30 that morning, a time Brelyna declared should not even exist. But leaving at such an hour rendered her far less talkative than usual, so most of the hike to Windhelm was spent in a relatively comfortable silence. When they did speak, their topics were mostly superficial, covering academic projects and everyday life at the college. If she wanted to pry, she was taking her time. Knowing Brelyna as he did, she was probably waiting for dinner, where she might loosen his tongue a bit with some mead or wine.
Upon arrival, they withstood the awkwardly hostile glances of various townsfolk who were not particularly thrilled at seeing mages, one of whom was a nonlocal Dunmer. At Candlehearth Hall, they were greeted more civilly—at least initially—when they requested two rooms.
“I’m so sorry, but we only have one room available for the night” said Elda Early-Dawn as she looked over the two of them. And then, speaking directly to Onmund, she continued. “We can bring you a bedroll, for your servant.”
“She’s not my servant!” Onmund protested, his face reddening. How he despised Nords sometimes.
“Just a misunderstanding, I am sure,” Brelyna interjected and though she smiled, her tone was rather snide. She hooked her arm with Onmund’s and waited for the publican to lead them to their room, ignoring the disapproving sneers of anyone who might have overheard the conversation.
“We could sleep in shifts,” said Onmund, looking around their room and suddenly feeling awkward at the prospect of sharing bedspace with his friend.
Brelyna laughed. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’m okay with sharing. It will be like that time we went to Solitude and you, me, and Aine squished into that one room together because no one wanted to bunk with J’zargo.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he replied. “Do you want to brave the tavern or do you want me to bring some food back here?”
“Do you mind? I don’t want to be around the Nords here.”
“Not at all,” he said. He didn’t really want to be around the Nords here either.
From the tavern he procured shepherd’s pie and a bottle each of Honningbrew mead and alto wine. When he returned, he spread the provisions on top of the small corner table and they tucked in, suddenly aware of how hungry they were, having eaten only small meals of dried meat and fruits on their journey. They drank the wine with dinner and the mead as their dessert. Brelyna had become less inhibited but rather than interrogate Onmund, she took to relaying stories about her cousin’s failed attempt at ingratiating himself into high Telvanni society. The adventures of Endril were a constant source of amusement to the mages and the story cheered him up immensely.
“He killed an entire herd of guar after he became a retainer to Mistress Demiah and she still kept him around—after my uncle reimbursed her. Okay, that’s actually really sad—poor Guar. But one cup of poorly brewed tea and he’s kicked out on his arse.”
Onmund was not quite ready to turn in after dinner and with Brelyna’s enthusiastic agreement, he returned to the tavern for two large mugs of honey toddy, a traditional Nord drink: warm, sweet, and strong, it would cap off their evening perfectly.
Brelyna had changed into her bedclothes and was curled up on the bed writing in her journal when he returned. He gave her one of the mugs and joined her, leaning back the bed, legs extended, ankles crossed. On her side, Brelyna shifted around, moving just close enough that her hip lightly pressed against his, a move that shocked Onmund and nearly drove him to roll off the bed.
While she seemed perfectly comfortable with this arrangement, he took a long gulp of his toddy, hoping the warmth of the liquor would dull his sudden anxiety. Looking over, Brelyna was enjoying her beverage and the smile she offered him was warm and inviting, though it was not clear if her intentions were to be nurturing or alluring. Perhaps it was both. The quiver in his gut shifted first from anxiety to curiosity, but when that curiosity turned to a more intense longing, he sat absolutely still, not quite certain what to do.
“Onmund,” she began, “Are you and Elspeth still together?”
And there it was, the question he’d been dreading for this entire trip. Except now, he wasn’t quite sure where the conversation would lead. The thought of something happening with Brelyna was enticing enough that he had to carefully consider his response. He wouldn’t lie, but he wondered if his answer would have any bearing on the type of comfort his friend intended to offer.
“I…I don’t think so,” he replied after a rather considerable silence. “I don’t really see how we can be, not after….” He paused, as he had no idea how to begin spinning that tale.
“Trygve told me what did to you,” she said.
“He did?” Truthfully, Onmund was a bit taken aback by this, surprised that Trygve would admit what happened to one of his close friends. “I suppose he was sort of bragging about how kept Elspeth safe, even from the people who care about her.”
“It wasn’t like that,” she said, “I was rather impressed that he was so honest about it, not making excuses.”
Even Onmund had to admit that bragging was not exactly Trygve’s forte. But he was still angry that he and Brelyna were conversing behind his back. Brelyna was his friend. What right did Trygve have? Had he felt guilt over what happened? Did he seek Brelyna out for some sort of absolution?
“Why were you talking about this?” The anger in his voice was growing, and he didn’t try to contain it.
“Calm down,” she said. “He didn’t come to brag or gossip. He didn’t feel good about what happened.”
“And he told you what happened and what? You’re okay with someone intentionally poisoning me?”
“Of course not! But from what I hear, you didn’t give him much of a choice.”
Try as he might, even in his own mind, Onmund, couldn’t exactly deny this. Trygve had offered him an out, which he could have taken—though of course, he never would have left Elspeth. He should have ended the conversation there but he needed to understand why his friend had so much sympathy for someone who had hurt him. “So, what, you were hanging out in the dining hall and Trygve just sat himself down to confess his sins?”
She shook her head and shrugged. “No, we were just spending time together as we always do when he’s at the college. We’re friends. We talk…sometimes.” With this she looked around awkwardly, a slight smile on her face.
Was she blushing? Onmund was confused. As they always do? Why didn’t he know this? And if Brelyna was taking Trygve’s side against him, exactly how close were they?
“Are you banging him?” It was more of an accusation than a question, clearly born of both anger and intoxication.
Brelyna face began to crumple at Onmund’s hostility, but she collected herself and merely scowled. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“He’ll never love you.”
“Now you’re just being hurtful. Don’t do this.”
But Onmund was on a tear. “Trgyve is singularly focused, devoted to the dragonborn. You’ll never be a priority.”
“Well, neither will you,” she replied coldly. And then, as if she regretted it immediately, knew she had to say something more comforting. “Onmund, please, you’re hurting and….”
“Shut up,” he said. It was too much to bear. The thought of Brelyna and Trygve together brought on intense feelings of something—not jealousy but betrayal. Elspeth’s choice to keep Trygve around at least made sense. She needed him for his skills. But Brelyna? Perhaps they were just friends but even then, was he not also her friend? Clearly not. He got up and pulled his cloak over his shoulders.
“Where are you going?”
“I need some air,” he lied. He was going to find someplace else to stay, even if he had to sit at the counter at the Dunmer pub in the Grey Quarter until morning.
It took days for Onmund to recover from that hangover. After drinking all night at the Gnisis corner club, he returned to the room where Brelyna was sleeping and, without saying good bye, gathered his things and took the early morning carriage to the Rift. Somewhere along the way he became rather ill and spent his first week in Riften in a bone-aching, feverish funk at the Bee and the Barb where Keerava and Talen Jei took turns bringing him tea and elixirs prescribed by the local healer.
Though he appreciated this gesture immensely, the fact that the publicans were taking care of him only compounded his loneliness. Once assured that he wasn’t dying, Onmund took the time in bed to languish in self-pity. His romance with Elspeth was over—that he’d even considered a dalliance with Brelyna left little doubt in his mind. And the argument in Windhelm left him with little desire to return to the College.
He considered his options. There was work for him in Whiterun and he could stay at Silent Moons camp, but the thought of residing there with his relationship in near tatters was unbearable. He could return home; his family would welcome a failed mage—but he wasn’t quite at that point. Or, he could stay here, look for work and see what sort of life he could have outside the College, away from the people he thought were his friends. His thoughts also wandered to a bittersweet place, where he began to contemplate what it might be like to meet someone without the burdens the Dragonborn carried. Someone lovely, with whom he could simply have dinner and sleep every night.
Deep down, Onmund knew that this would not happen before he and Elspeth had a serious conversation. Nevertheless, it was with these thoughts that he arrived in Shor’s Stone. After taking care of a delivery, Onmund hoped the town’s blacksmith might take him on but Flinjar had no need for an assistant. Instead, he found himself employed by Hilda, the elderly restoration mage who had recently arrived in to town to take care of her grandson Odfel after he contracted a particularly virulent strain of ataxia. She decided to stay when she realized the town needed a healer.
But Hilda lacked the vitality of her youth, her joints were tired and sore, and her eyesight was not what it once was. She couldn’t pay a lot but she offered Onmund a cot in her basement and three meals a day in exchange for elixirs and reagents, which he could harvest from the Rift’s caves. The work was a waste of his talents as a mage, but the mindless mixing of the most basic healing potions would allow him to better appreciate his changing circumstances.
The citizens of Shor’s Stone were typical Nords, though Onmund found them less overtly intolerant than the ones he encountered in Windhelm and Falkreath. This was a result of the town’s relative isolation. If someone showed up willing to work hard and endure life without the warm pleasures of a tavern, they were generally welcome.
“Apothecary!” Odfel burst into Hilda’s cottage. He was a towering, mountain of a man whose bearing dominated every space he occupied. He could certainly be physically intimidating but mostly he was annoying—helping himself to whatever he found in Hilda’s home, even if it belonged to Onmund.
“My name is Onmund,” he said. “And I’m not really an apoth—you know what, never mind. What do you need?”
“Your presence at tonight’s gathering is requested,” he replied.
Despite lacking a proper tavern, there was no shortage of local revelry, most of which happened near the center of town, where people gathered around a fire to drink mead, tell stories, and sing. Onmund had yet to attend, partly because he rarely enjoyed the company of his drunken kin, but mostly because he was simply too tired. Tonight was no different.
“By whom?” he asked.
“Sylgja,” Odfel replied, as if it should have been obvious.
“Really?” He’d met the young woman on a couple of occasions. She often stopped by to say hello to Hilda and pick up healing balm and elixirs. She was very cute, but their conversation to that point while friendly, was mostly unremarkable. She had mentioned the local shindig, though never extended a personal invitation.
“Yeah, well, you’d do well to show up,” he said. “Or not. I don’t care.”
He left and Onmund found himself suddenly a bit less tired but also a little nervous. Was this invitation simply a relic of Nord hospitality, one that would be extended to anyone? Or was Sylgja specifically curious about him? He supposed there was only one way to find out. He finished the batch of potions he was working on and put his supplies away. After a bowl of leftover stew, he washed the dishes and swept the kitchen and pantry area. Then he made sure the beds in the infirmary room—all two of them—were made and the extra blankets and other linens refolded and shelved for maximum space efficiency. It wasn’t until Hilda returned from her visit with Filnjar that he realized he was procrastinating.
He donned a clean tunic, combed and rebraided his hair, and pulled his cloak over his shoulders. After a second glance in the mirror, he felt thoroughly stupid for caring and hurried out the door and down the road, where most of the miners were already gathered. He wondered briefly if he should get a drink first or find Sylgja and thank her, but within a few seconds of his approach both concerns were answered when Sylgja, rosy-cheeked and a little breathless approached.
“Onmund! You’re here!” She thrust a bottle of mead into his hand and led him to a bench by the fire. “Come. Sit. I’ll introduce you to some of my friends shortly. I didn’t think I’d ever get you away from your alembic.” She smiled warmly.
“Well you know how it is, coming to a new place, everything had to be restocked and all the supplies organized and getting settled—it takes time to unpack three tunics and two pairs of pants, you know?”
She giggled, tiling her head as she listened to him ramble. “You didn’t pack for a long stay, did you?”
Perceptive. He liked that. “No,” he replied. “It was somewhat spontaneous, I guess. I needed a change and the opportunity presented itself so I took it.”
“Change from what?”
Onmund wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. If he were to be completely honest, she might not want to take on someone so full of self-pity and angst. But he was also a terrible liar. “I was a student at the College of Winterhold,” he said finally. “I wanted to see what else was out there.”
She raised her eyebrows at this as if she was stuck between curiosity and disapproval. The latter would have come as no surprise, as she likely harbored a typical Nord’s prejudice against magic. But rather than speak of this, she turned it back on him. “And when the novelty of small-town Skyrim wears off, will you go back to your worldly, supernatural studies?”
Damn, he thought. This woman was no nonsense. “I grew up in small-town Skyrim,” he said. “None of this is particularly novel to me. Sometimes you just need a change of scenery.”
“Fair enough,” she said and leaned back and drank some more of her mead.
Onmund pulled the cork from the bottle and attempted to take a long drink, but the beverage that came forth was quite unlike any mead he had ever tasted. It was sweet, but not honey-sweet, it was a cloying, thick sweetness with a sour bite at the end. He managed to swallow but started gagging and coughing. “What is this?” he asked.
“By the nine, look at your face!” Sylgja laughed. “What’s the matter? Is our local brew not fancy enough for you? I suppose the mages drink only Black Briar reserve.”
“Mages drink brandy and wine,” he said, rather defensively, until he realized that didn’t sound any better. “Exactly how local? Why can’t you get just the regular Black Briar mead?”
“No tavern,” she said, shrugging. “So the guards brew this. It’s an acquired taste.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” he replied. He studied her a bit, trying to figure out if she was simply teasing him or writing him off as a pretentious snob—the thought of which made him feel terrible. He took another sip, a smaller one this time, which helped. She smiled as he did this, but did not say anything, not even to tease him, which put him at ease.
“Say, if you are looking for another change of scenery, I may have an errand, if you can pull yourself away from mixing potions for a couple of days.”
“What is it?”
“I have some things that need to be delivered to my parents. They live in Darkwater Crossing,” she explained. “Normally I visit them regularly, but I haven’t been able to go since my injury.” She gestured to her foot. “It’s better, but I can’t make long trips. And it’s expensive to get a courier.”
“Well, I’ve got Hilda well stocked for now, I can take a few days for a delivery but ah, what’s in it for me?” This was certainly an awkward question for him to ask and as soon as the words left his mouth, he realized how ridiculous it sounded.
“How about dinner?”
“That would be nice.” And it did sound nice; perhaps he’d made his first friend. Or perhaps, after his return, he might have a letter of his own to write.