The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 7

 

Winterhold

 

“No one drinks a Nord under the table!” Onmund exclaimed as he passed the bottle of Colovian fire brandy down the line. We were standing around a bonfire in the circular courtyard of the College of Winterhold.

“But we haven’t got a table,” said J’zargo, the Khajiit. He wrinkled his feline nose as he sniffed at the brandy bottle.

Onmund stared at the fire for a moment. “True,” he said, as if he had just understood one of life’s deep meanings.

The bonfire crackled and roared, lighting our avid faces. When it began to die down, one of us would hit it with a flame spell. The light played off the walls of the courtyard and the statue of Arch-Mage Shalidor looming above us, making giants of our shadows. We were all dressed alike in college robes, we four apprentices, two scholars, and a wizard. After spending the day inside studying old tomes and practicing spells, it felt good to be outdoors, even in the bitter cold of a Winterhold night. The wagon driver had not been wrong as I boarded back in Whiterun – I had arrived in Winterhold half-frozen, even under the fur blankets he lent me. And that was in the first days of Hearthfire; now, toward the end of the month, it was even colder.

The fire kept us warm, and so did the brandy we were passing around. It was a rare concoction, but Enthir had gotten his hands on it somehow. He was good that way. Everyone at the college and in the town of Winterhold knew, if you needed anything hard to find, especially anything illicit, Enthir was the Bosmer to see. The rumor was that Phinis Gestor, a Breton wizard at the college, was exploring necromancy, and used Enthir’s services in acquiring certain banned agents. It was best not to ask where Enthir got any of the goods he had for sale.

No one was arguing with the provenance of the Colovian fire brandy. It had been a long week. Now, on Fredas night, with no classes in the morning, we were blowing off pent-up magicka. I’d taken several pulls, and the courtyard was already beginning to spin. Only then did I start to wonder if the college really allowed its scholars to get their subordinate apprentices drunk. The staff were lenient with any kind of magical investigation, as long as the results were shared with the rest of the college, and no one from outside the school got hurt. Maybe this was Enthir’s idea of an alchemy experiment, investigating the various tolerances to alcohol of the different races. We were a mixed lot, Breton, Altmer, Dunmer, Bosmer, Nord, Cyrodiili, Khajiit, and me, the mixed-blood – a good cross section of Tamriel’s people. We lacked only an Argonian and Orsimer to make the experiment complete. Urag gro-Shub, the college’s librarian, was an Orc, but he had refused to join us.

Judging by how I felt, I thought the Bretons must have the lowest tolerance for drink. A glance at Colette Marence, a Breton scholar emphasizing Restoration magic, confirmed my suspicion. She was swaying where she stood even more than I. Maybe Onmund was right, and my Nord side was helping in some way. But Onmund was a Nord, and he was growing louder as the bottle made its rounds, so maybe that wasn’t true either. The only one not affected was Enthir, helped no doubt by his Bosmer’s natural resistance to poison.

Clearly, Khajiits had no such tolerance – J’zargo was becoming almost as animated as Onmund. “This capacity to hold one’s drink is so trivial,” he said, his tail lashing back and forth behind him. “More important for those of us who aspire to greatness is magical capacity, no? And you shall see, none shall surpass J’zargo.”

“Nitwit,” said Nirya, the Altmer scholar. Like Faralda, her fellow High Elf, she had sharp features and a superior air. “No doubt your scant magical ability is very impressive in Elsweyr, but such bragging among true mages is unseemly.”

“Tell us, Nirya,” said the Cyrodiilian, Sergius Turrianus, “who are the true mages?” As a wizard, Sergius was the most senior of our group, a chaperone of sorts. His tone was notably frosty.

“Why, Sergius,” said Nirya with even greater contempt, “it is well known that the Altmer are the most advanced in the arcane arts. Our greater magical power alone puts us far ahead, certainly far beyond a mere Imperial with no innate magical ability. No, only the Bretons can challenge the Altmer in magical prowess.”

Brelyna, the Dunmer apprentice, cleared her throat. Her red eyes shown even brighter than usual in the firelight. “My family expects me to do well in Alteration, but I…”

Colette broke in, her speech mildly slurred, glaring at Nirya. “It ish true that you High Elves begin with a larger reserve of magical power, but anyone can increase their magicka through diligent training. If you focushed on improving your skills rather than striving for position in the college, the rest of us would not be shurpathing you now.”

“Dear Colette,” retorted Nirya, “I’ve always wondered, does the Breton’s natural resistance to magic mean that you have a greater resistance to learning magic? How else to explain your choice to focus on Restoration, the meanest and least useful of all the arcane arts?”

After a month at the college I had grown used to such bickering. While it was true the College of Winterhold was open to all of Tamriel’s races and remained neutral in its wars, political and racial enmities were never far beneath the surface. That had been driven home to me on the day I arrived at the college. Two days before, I had been fighting Altmer justiciars, and who did I find guarding the college’s entrance but another Altmer? Perhaps I was just being excessively cautious, but I assumed she was watching for me. Somehow the Thalmor must have gotten a message here ahead of me, I thought. I went back to the Frozen Hearth Inn in the town of Winterhold, and found that the college always posted a guard at the entrance. The arch-mage claimed this was to keep innocent bystanders from wandering onto the grounds and getting hurt. The villagers thought the real purpose was to defend the college from attack by the villagers themselves.

A divide between town and robe was common in any college community, but the split in Winterhold was extreme, symbolized by the crumbling bridge spanning a thousand-foot chasm between the town and the college. Everywhere I went in the village the people complained bitterly about the school, blaming a mysterious magical experiment for the catastrophe that had befallen Winterhold sixty years before. Prior to the disaster, the city had been one of the largest and most prosperous in Skyrim. Now, it was a small collection of houses and a few shops perched at the edge of a precipice above the Sea of Ghosts. Somehow the college had weathered the cataclysm better than the much-reduced city, giving rise to vicious speculation. Arch-Mage Savos Aren had tried to convince the townspeople that the college had nothing to do with the cataclysm. Perhaps it was a natural disaster, he told them, an after-effect of the eruption of the Red Mountain in neighboring Morrowind at the beginning of the era. But few had believed him, and the arch-mage had limited communication between town and college after a particularly nasty altercation.

I returned to the college entrance still with trepidation in my heart. But Faralda showed no sign of outward hostility other than the usual tone of elven superiority. She was taller than I, so it was hard for her to look at me without looking down her prominent, aquiline nose. Her pointed chin jutted toward me like a dagger.

When she learned I wanted to study magic, she gave me a test. After three tries I was able to produce a feeble jet of sparks, so she grudgingly allowed me entrance. “I hope you do well at our college,” she said as she led me across the narrow, crumbling bridge, “though I doubt you will.”

Things improved when I met Mirabelle Ervine, the college’s master-wizard and a fellow Breton. Savos Aren was constantly busy with his magical research, so Mirabelle saw to the college’s day-to-day operations. She seemed stern, and especially concerned to guard against further taints on the college’s reputation. But beneath her school master’s demeanor and cultured Wayrest accent, she reminded me of my mother. She had the same dark hair, and she was around the same age.

First, Mirabelle gave me a tour of the college. It formed a walled circle, with three circular towers arranged around it. Two dormitory towers stood on either side of the entrance, with the main tower directly opposite. This larger tower contained the Hall of the Elements, where most of the classes and practice sessions were held; the Arcanaeum, the college’s well-stocked library; and the arch-mage’s quarters. Then she showed me my cell in the Hall of Attainment. It was small, with a single bed, a chair and a dresser. Still, compared to the floor in Arcadia’s back room, this looked luxurious.

Finally, she handed me a new set of novice mage’s robes and hood. The clothing was enchanted to add to the new mage’s store of magicka and cunningly fashioned with many pockets and folds to store potion flasks, scrolls, and other magical items. Once I put them on, I felt I really was about to begin a new phase of my life.

After the introduction to the college, Mirabelle took me to my first class in the Hall of the Elements. This was a large, round chamber with tall windows and a sort of well in the center emitting a blue light. The class was already underway. Tolfdir, an Elder Nord wizard of Alteration, was leading J’zargo, Onmund, and Brelyna in a series of concentration exercises. His voice sounded like dry paper, but his dark eyes were full of energy. His face was gaunt, with deep-worn wrinkles like the grain of well polished wood.

When Tolfdir noticed me, he took time out to welcome me and explain the technique of concentration that was vital to casting any spell. We weren’t just learning words, he said, we were channeling the power of Aetherius, the immortal plane. “The source of magic is inherently unstable, and dangerous. That’s why it takes years of practice to master and control it.”

Behind him, I could see my fellow students rolling their eyes. They had been doing nothing but these exercises for the past week, and were close to open rebellion. I couldn’t blame them. After only an hour of “projecting our minds into Aetherius,” as Tolfdir called it, my old restlessness was coming back. I wondered how long it would be before I could go off exploring on my own.

Finally, as Tolfdir was about to introduce a new breathing exercise, Onmund spoke up. “We’ve been here a week and you haven’t even let us show you what we can do!” he exclaimed.

Brelyna and J’zargo spoke up in agreement. “It is time J’zargo demonstrated his greatness,” J’zargo said. Like all the cat-people of Elsweyr, the Khajiit spoke with a seductive purr in his voice.

“And what about our newcomer?” asked Tolfdir.

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to learn something practical,” I said. Maybe we could at least move around if we practiced spell casting, I thought.

“Very well then, I’ll teach you a spell that is both practical and will help keep you safe,” the wizard said. “Are you all familiar with the lesser ward spell?”

We shook our heads, and he spent a few moments teaching us the simple incantation and the proper method for casting it.

“Now, Deirdre, why don’t you stand over there and try casting the ward while I hit you with a flame spell?”

“This one thinks it is unfair!” protested the Khajiit, as if being blasted with flame were a rare treat. “J’zargo and these two have been here a week, why should this one be first?”

“Now, now,” said Tolfdir, “we don’t want to be unwelcoming to our new student, do we?” J’zargo grumbled, but grudgingly went over to stand with the other students behind Tolfdir.

“Over there, Deirdre, facing me,” the old wizard directed. “Now cast the spell, and be prepared to block my flame.”

I let the words of the incantation run through my mind, at the same time trying to concentrate on the energies of Aetherius, beyond the veil of Oblivion. I tried not to let doubts creep into my mind, but how could they not, when I wasn’t even sure what Aetherius was? “The source of all magical power,” Tolfdir had called it. How would I know I was tapping into it?

The answer came when I felt energy flowing into my hands. I held them out in front of me in the way Tolfdir had demonstrated, aiming directly at him. A blue, shimmering, transparent wall formed around my hands, growing larger and brighter as I continued casting it. Tolfdir cast his flame spell, and the jet of fire hit the magic shield. It spread out in an orange wall matching the shield’s blue one, but it could not get at me. Finally, sensing that my magicka was weakening, Tolfdir relented and both our spells flickered out at the same time.

“Very good!” exclaimed Tolfdir. “That was an excellent ward for a first attempt.” I looked at my hands, surprised at the power that had come from them and expecting to see some sort of change. But they were just my hands.

The other students were eager to try, and soon we were casting jets of ice and wards at each other. Tolfdir had brought plenty of magicka potions so we didn’t have to wait for our own reserves to regenerate. He had healing potions too, for the inevitable mishaps. To my own surprise and the consternation of my fellow students, I was the only one who didn’t need healing by the end.

At the end of the day, Mirabelle pulled me aside. “How did your first lessons go?” she asked. We were on the walkway between the Hall of Elements and the Hall of Attainment where I had my cell.

“As well as could be expected, I suppose,” I said. In truth, it had been better than that. I told her about the day.

“Outstanding!” she said. “You clearly have a strong innate ability.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I don’t think I made any friends among my fellow apprentices.” The three had pointedly walked out of the hall without acknowledging my presence after practice was over.

“They’ll warm up to you. We’re all about sharing knowledge here. If you can help them by sharing your knowledge and advice, I’m sure they’ll come around. Tell me, how did your magical prowess first present itself?”

I gave her a shortened version of the account I had given Gerdur and Ralof. She looked at me with increasing concern as the story progressed, but she became thoughtful when I got to the part where my magic exploded out of me, casting Osmer away.

“The ignorance of these Nords is astounding,” she said, sounding not so much contemptuous as angry at their treatment of me and my family. “It’s good that you’ve come to study here. You’re around people who understand magic now, and you’ll never need to fear that kind of ignorant bigotry again. You’ll learn to control your magic. Such accidents are common when young mages first discover their power. Except…”

“Except?” I prompted.

“When you pushed Osmer away from you, did you feel the power flowing through your hands?”

I pretended to think back, but I didn’t really need to. The moment was etched in my memory. “No,” I said. “I had my hands on his chest pushing him away, but I wasn’t strong enough. When I shouted ‘No!’ at him, it was as if the word itself pushed him away.”

She looked at me for several moments then, searching my face for the truth of what had happened that day. Her eyes were gray and showed a keen sense of judgment. I felt she was somehow measuring what I was made of. Then she seemed to come to a decision, saying, “Well, magic presents itself in all sorts of ways, and none of us can predict how it will first appear. Just keep working on the exercises Tolfdir assigns you, and accidents like that won’t happen in future.” Her voice sounded certain, but her expression was still perplexed. It was clear that she had as many questions about my powers as did I.

 

*~*~*

 

If my magical power had provoked fear in those around me before I came to the college, now it provoked envy. Winterhold was a seething bed of petty jealousies, personal striving, and one-upmanship.

The rivalry was bad enough among my fellow students, especially Brelyna and J’zargo, who viewed me as an interloper after that first day. And how could they not? They had been at the school longer, yet I matched them or even bested them in those first exercises. Our relations were not helped by J’zargo’s inflated sense of his own skill, nor by Brelyna’s diminished one. While J’zargo thought he could tackle expert level Destruction spells before mastering the novice ones, Brelyna struggled to learn the most basic Alteration spells, even though she was quickly mastering Destruction. Back home in Morrowind she had developed some sort of block to her magical powers. She had come to the college in hopes of overcoming it, only to find continued frustration. When I asked her about it, she dismissed my concern. But I could see that her parents had placed enormous pressure on her to succeed, since she came from a long line of wizard-lords from house Telvanni.

With this rough beginning, it took me the better part of three weeks to win their trust. Only Onmund, always so chipper and optimistic, seemed undisturbed by my sudden arrival. “More people to practice spells on,” he explained. He was so glad to be away from his magic-fearing family that anything that happened at the college seemed an improvement.

Relations were worse among our superiors. Nirya and Faralda, the two High Elves, both thought they were next in line to be named arch-mage. We would often hear Faralda muttering that the college was due for a change in leadership. The facts that Faralda was not even a master-wizard and Nirya just a lowly scholar, one step above us apprentices, didn’t keep them from plotting against each other or their colleagues. There were many stories of delicate experiments being tampered with, and Colette Marence, the Restoration scholar, complained constantly about her research materials being stolen. Arch-Mage Savos Aren seemed content to let things go on this way, apparently believing that a healthy climate of competition was good for the school. I found it odd that Mirabelle, who could seem so stern at times, let the petty infighting continue, especially when so much of it was aimed at her job.

To the surprise of everyone, I chose to focus my studies on Restoration and Illusion. The others thought Destruction magic was the obvious choice. But I already had significant skill in stealth, and the Illusion spells could make me nearly undetectable once I became an expert. They could also be used to calm or frighten an opponent into submission. And learning healing magic was the main reason I was here. With the right skills, I hoped to fulfill my vow to never kill again while making my way through this dangerous land. Even if I didn’t join the Stormcloak rebellion, I doubted I could avoid the agents of the Aldmeri Dominion forever.

Colette was thrilled with my choice of Restoration, since so few chose to study it in depth. Drevis Neloran, the Illusion master, was nearly as glad, but he gave me a word of warning. “You realize, don’t you, that Illusion can be a very powerful weapon, but it won’t work on undead until you reach the highest levels?”

I shook my head.

“And on the machines left by the Dwemer, it won’t work at all?”

Again I shook my head, but assured him that since I wasn’t planning on exploring any ancient crypts or Dwemer ruins, this wouldn’t be a problem. He seemed satisfied, though he did look at me oddly as he shook my hand to welcome me under his tutelage.

Our days consisted of practice with various spells and incantations. My fellow students would blast each other with Destruction spells, their orange firebolts, white ice spikes, and silvery forks of lightning darting about the Hall of the Elements. When their wards failed, I would heal them with a Restoration spell, and when their tempers flared I would calm them with an Illusion spell. The wizards were available to teach us new spells or provide spell tomes – for a fee. As we advanced, we learned dual-casting, using both hands to make a particular spell more intense. The college also provided magical staves for practice. It took some time to learn the trick of bending a staff to our will, but once we managed it we could draw on the staff’s connection to the power of Aetherius, saving our own magicka.

Yet I recoiled from using staves – they were powered with soul gems, which I found disturbing. To charge a soul gem, the mage had to kill an animal and collect its soul in the gem. The energy of that soul could then be used to energize a magical staff. I had no trouble with hunting for food, yet I found the idea of killing an animal just to harvest its soul disgusting. And, of course, the dark art of harvesting a human soul in a black soul gem was banned. I decided to stick with channeling the power of Aetherius; it seemed cleaner somehow.

In addition to practice on the college grounds, I roamed the forest and mountains around Winterhold, looking for targets for my Illusion and Restoration spells. If a woodcutter had injured himself with an axe, I was there to heal the wound. If I came across a pack of wolves, common in these frozen mountains, I would use a calming spell on them, rather than simply sneaking by. I had always admired wolves from afar – the way they worked together on the hunt, and the way they played together between kills. But with calming spells, I could get much closer. Once I aimed the blue ball of Aetherial energy at them, they would become as docile as lapdogs. I even petted one, amazed by the softness of its thick winter coat. Its eyes were piercing, but when calmed had none of the fierce malice I associated with the beasts. It licked my face for a moment, then bounded back to its companions. I wished I belonged to a pack as close as that.

Yet, slowly, the college was becoming my pack. Mirabelle took me under her wing, inviting me to weekly tea. “We Bretons need to stick together,” she told me. The tea was fine – an excellent mint grown near Riften – and the conversation better. I enjoyed her stories of High Rock. I had only been as far as Jehanna, my mother’s home town, but Mirabelle had traveled all over the province. She knew Wayrest best, having grown up there, but she also had stories of Daggerfall, Shornhelm, and Evermore. She had even seen the Adamantine Tower, the oldest structure in all of Tamriel. And she would ask me about my mother, and what stories I remembered her telling about Jehanna. It felt good to talk about her, even if it made me sad. I had never felt so in touch with my Breton side.

My fellow apprentices slowly came to accept me as well. Though we all had different backgrounds, we shared the common bond of being the lowest mages in the pecking order. We struggled together in those first weeks, even as I gradually surpassed the rest, and we soon began to rely on one another.

First, I helped Brelyna get over her block with Alteration by letting her cast spells on me. This led to a variety of mishaps. Once, I ended up viewing everything through a green haze. It took several hours for that to wear off. Then she transformed me, first into a cow, then a horse, and finally a dog. Her face, usually a rich, deep gray, became paler with each mistake until it was almost ashen. It was quite unpleasant sitting there on all fours, feeling fleas bite through my thick hair, resisting the urge to urinate on one of the hall’s columns, and wondering whether Brelyna was going to faint before getting the spell right. But finally she put me back to my true form, apologizing profusely.

“Thank you,” she said. “This has been helpful. At least now I know where I need to focus my studies.”

Brelyna helped me with my own tasks in return. She was a good subject for my Illusion spells. When she was feeling particularly anxious about the progress of her studies, a spell of calming improved her mood greatly. In a relaxed state, she was able to absorb lessons more easily, and she finally began to progress in her study of Alteration.

Onmund needed help of an entirely different order. Despite all his complaints about his magic-fearing family, he had underestimated their importance in his life. He had foolishly traded away an heirloom amulet to Enthir – for what, he seemed too embarrassed to admit. He begged me to intercede with the elf and get the amulet back.

But Enthir remained adamant in his refusal. “All trades are final,” he said. He made it sound like a point of honor that he never reversed a deal. I tried persuading him, then bribing him, with no success. Finally, he came up with his own deal for me. If I retrieved a staff that he had lost in a foolish trade, he would give me the amulet. When I protested that this violated his own precept of the finality of trades, he chided me for my lack of subtlety.

“I suppose I shouldn’t expect a mere apprentice to recognize the obvious differences in the two cases,” he said.

“Fine,” I replied. “Who has this staff?”

“Oh, just a group of necromancers in Whispering Grotto,” he said.

When I returned with the staff early the next day, Enthir seemed surprised to see me. “I didn’t expect you back so soon – or at all,” he said. “How did you overcome the necromancers and their thralls?”

“They never knew I was there,” I said. “Never underestimate the arts of the common thief.”

“Well done,” he said. “I thank you most sincerely.”

“Now what about the amulet?” I reminded him.

“Ah yes, of course,” he said grudgingly. “A deal is a deal after all,” and he handed me a rather plain looking amulet. “I can’t imagine why the boy cares about it so much.”

Onmund was glad to get it back, as plain as it was. “They’re not perfect, but they are my family after all,” he said. “This is all I have to remember them by. Thank you for retrieving it for me.” He still wouldn’t tell me what he had traded it for, but he did offer me help if I ever needed it.

The Khajiit had his own favor to ask. “This one advances rapidly in his magical training. Developing new spells is a good way to progress, no? The problem is, J’zargo spends so much time developing spells for use on the undead, he has no time to find undead and test them. This is where you can help. J’zargo will give you scrolls, you find undead and try them. That way you get new spell, and J’zargo’s methods are proven. It is win-win, yes?”

“We’ll see about that,” I said. “What’s the spell?”

The Khajiit wrinkled his nose in that way he had. “It is a flame cloak,” he said, handing me a bundle of scrolls. “It works just like a common flame cloak, but when undead come near, they get big surprise.” I’d seen Onmund perform the flame cloak spell. It set a cloak of fire around the caster. Any enemies who came within fighting range received burns, freeing the spellcaster to wield a weapon or a shield. I wondered what the surprise was, but J’zargo wouldn’t elaborate.

“Great, J’zargo,” I said. “Next time I’m in a Nord crypt, I’ll make sure to use it.” I laughed, because I didn’t plan on going into a crypt any time soon, even if I knew where to find one. I still remembered the way Ralof shuddered when he looked up at Bleak Falls Barrow.

 

*~*~*

 

Four weeks had passed quickly at the college. I had made friends among my fellow students and had advanced considerably in my magical abilities. I knew a range of Restoration and Illusion spells from novice to adept, and had increased my reserves of magicka enough to cast them with ease. Tolfdir’s concentration exercises seemed to be working, because I had greater control over my magical powers, casting spells consistently and with precision. Gone were the days when I struggled to produce a simple flame or jet of sparks.

Yet I seemed no closer to solving the mystery of what had happened on that day with Osmer. I was born with innate magical power, true, but this was nothing extraordinary at the college. Other students could tell of awkward moments when their magic had burst out of them unbidden, before they learned to control it. But in their telling, it had always been one of the elemental forms of magic – fire, ice, or lightning. None had simply uttered a word to produce such a powerful effect. And if Mirabelle Ervine had developed any ideas about the source of my power, she hadn’t told me.

Nor was I any closer to deciding what to do with my new-found powers. The college remained sheltered from events in the rest of Skyrim. Was the Civil War raging, unbeknownst to us? Surely we would have heard something if that were the case. I wondered what had become of Ralof. And had Jarl Balgruuf sided with the Empire? The presence of Thalmor justiciars in his city made it seem likely. Could Lydia and Hrongar and their hirth-fellows be fighting Ralof’s war-band even now? If it came to it, how could I choose between them?

And I had other, darker thoughts. Though many Nords had shown me nothing but kindness over the past weeks, I could not forget my old plans for revenge. At odd moments, I would find that anger welling up within me. Waking or sleeping, images of our burning house would flash before my eyes, and worse, the charred corpses that had been my parents as our neighbors hauled them out of the wreckage. How had I so easily turned aside from my vengeance?

As I tried to stifle my rage, I told myself that I had been right to abandon my plans for indiscriminate revenge. But my parents’ killers were still free, no doubt going about their business in Dragon Bridge. I began to have thoughts of leaving the college and traveling there. I had come here for power, and now I had it, or at least a measure of it. Though I hadn’t focused on Destruction, I could do enough with ice and lightning to make the killers hurt. And with my Illusion spells I could strike fear in their hearts, or set them to attacking each other. Soon, I would return home and give those ignorant Nords a true reason to fear magic.

And what then? I struggled with this question, trying to master the irrational fury that had settled upon me, as if from nowhere. Would I kill them outright? But I had had enough of death, hadn’t I? That’s what I told myself in my calmer moments. Or capture them, and turn them over … to whom? The jarl of Haafingar Hold? What help could I find there?

“You’re awfully quiet, Deirdre,” Sergius said now around the bonfire. “Yet as a Breton, you’ve done well in your studies, from the reports I hear. Don’t you have an opinion on which race is the most magical?”

“I’ve always found a moons-lit night quite magical,” I replied. Onmund guffawed at my feeble joke, so I knew he must be drunk. “But if you mean magical power, why bother talking about it? So many things can affect it other than innate ability. Look at Tolfdir. He was born a Nord, yet he is one of the most advanced Alteration wizards in Tamriel.”

“A doddering fool,” I thought I heard Nirya say under her breath, but I let it go.

“Why waste words on speculation, when actions are the true measure of a mage?” I finished.

“The proof is in the casting, eh?” Sergius replied. “Well spoken indeed.”

“Aren’t we all here to learn?” said Onmund. “I’m just glad to be here and improve what small magical ability I have. “

Just then Mirabelle Ervine emerged from the Hall of the Elements. The statue of Shalidor glared down at her as she walked over to us. The sculptor had cast the famous First Era arch-mage in a serious pose, arms upraised, an expression of con­cen­tra­tion on his face, his robes blowing in an imagined wind. He looked as if he were about to blast Mirabelle with a whirlwind spell.

“Relaxing after a hard week I see,” she said as she came up to us. “You apprentices have earned it. Sergius, see that they don’t wander down into town. Our reputation is already bad enough without drunken mages disturbing the villagers’ sleep. And remember, students – inebriation is allowed; incineration is not.” With that she continued along the walkway bisecting the circular courtyard and entered the Hall of Countenance, the dormitory where most of the instructors had their chambers.

“She really cares about us, doesn’t she?” said Brelyna. “I wish I could be more like her. I bet she never had any trouble learning these basic spells.”

“Did you hear her arguing with Ancano?” asked Onmund. We all shook our heads. “I was walking past her chambers yesterday. Ancano had made some sort of request but I didn’t hear what it was. He seemed upset that Mirabelle had refused him. Then she told him that he might be used to the Empire bowing to his every whim, but the Thalmor receive no special treatment here. She said he should appreciate the opportunity Savos Aren has given him.”

“I don’t like the way he looks at me,” said Brelyna. “I don’t think he trusts any of us. Why did the arch-mage invite him here?”

Ancano was a Thalmor wizard, ostensibly here to promote relations with the college and advise the arch-mage. Everyone suspected he was simply a spy for the Aldmeri Dominion, sent here to watch for signs that the college was siding with the Stormcloaks. If he was able to gauge the strength of the college’s wizards and learn some of its secrets, all the better. I had kept away from him since arriving. It seemed just a matter of time until he heard from his Thalmor colleagues about the blonde half-Breton who had interrupted Thalmor war plans, so it was best to avoid him. But he seemed to be everywhere at the college, always popping up whenever anything of import happened.

“I wonder if he was asking for access to the basement,” said Sergius. “He could learn a thing or two from the Augur of Dunlain.”

“The who?” asked J’zargo, and we all looked at Sergius.

“Oh, just a wizard who likes to keep to himself,” said Sergius. He seemed relieved when Nirya interrupted him.

“I don’t know why you distrust Ancano,” she said. “The war is long over. He just wants to help the people of Skyrim through this time of transition and lead them to a better future.” Nirya might not have been a Thalmor agent, but sometimes she surely sounded like one.

“A future without Talos worship, you mean,” said Onmund.

I took that as my cue to leave. I didn’t want to get into a debate about Skyrim’s politics.

Instead of continuing with his argument, Onmund followed me from the courtyard and joined me on the circular walk around the perimeter of the college. It was often deserted since it was the longest route to anywhere else. We had the walk to ourselves.

“Deirdre, is anything wrong?” Onmund put a hand on my arm as he caught up to me. I stopped and looked at him. His eyes, though bleary with drink, showed concern. He had that slight frown he always had when he was nervous.

“No, I just didn’t want to get pulled into an argument about the war or religion,” I said.

I thought he would argue with me then, questioning my loyalty as a Nord, but he didn’t. “You’re right,” he said. “We shouldn’t be arguing with each other about the world outside. We should be working together to further our study of magic. I shouldn’t have let Nirya provoke me.”

“I can see how she would provoke you, with that superior attitude of hers.”

“I’m glad she’s not one of us apprentices,” he said. “Brelyna is all right, but those Altmer are so condescending.”

“They are,” I agreed.

“I mean, I’m glad we apprentices have all become friends. Especially you, you’ve helped me a lot.”

“Well, you helped me too. You let me practice that fury spell on you.” That had been a bit of a disaster. My spell worked too well, and Onmund’s ward failed to block it. The next thing we knew, he was attacking J’zargo, who happened to be nearest to him. Taken by surprise, the Khajiit couldn’t cast a ward in time to block the Nord’s fire spell. The smell of singed fur filled the air as they began to trade Destruction spells. Both of them had taken several wounds by the time I could cast calming spells on them, and we had to call on Colette to heal them.

“That didn’t work out so well, did it?” Onmund said now, grinning. “Still, you got to show what you can do with an Illusion spell, and we’re all friends again, right?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“And maybe some of us are more than friends,” he said.

“Why…” I asked, “are you saying J’zargo and Brelyna, or you and Brelyna…?”

“No.” And then he was kissing me, his arms wrapped around me, nearly lifting me off my feet. To my surprise, I found myself kissing him back. Maybe it was the fire brandy – my head was still spinning. But his mouth felt … nice. He was one of the few Nord men who didn’t wear a beard, and he had shaved meticulously. There was none of that awful scratchiness I’d experienced with Osmer. His arms encircling me were strong, but I felt protected, not imprisoned. I kissed him back, and then everything was spinning and I felt myself tilting backward. Onmund barely caught us by throwing a hand out against the wall.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just my head spinning – my stomach was too. I pulled away from him and turned and retched on the cobblestones. It was my first experience with hard liquor. I had seen drunks in Dragon Bridge emerging from the Four Shields Tavern to empty their bellies in a dark alley, and I had vowed never to become that inebriated, if I ever started drinking at all. It hadn’t taken much to put me in the same state. Onmund stroked my hair as I brought up the last of the brandy.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed,” he said.

“Right, bed, tha’s what I need,” I said, and I tried not to think what else might happen when he got me back to my room.

In truth, there wasn’t much privacy at the college. The doorways to our cells were all open, and the other apprentices were returning from the bonfire, the scholars heading up the stairs to their chambers. When Onmund put the covers over me, patted me on the shoulder and said good night, I didn’t know whether I was disappointed or relieved.

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