The bridge between Winterhold and the college was nearly impassable, the snows had drifted so deeply over it. Clearly, no one had attended to the regular duty of clearing it with flame spells. I wondered what else had been allowed to lapse at the college in my absence. It didn’t seem like Tolfdir to be so careless.
Still, judging by the footprints leading away from the college, someone had made their way down to the village, and recently. We followed the tracks in reverse, though Lydia found the going difficult, weighed down by her heavy armor, sinking in up to her knees in places. The worst bit came where the walls of the bridge had fallen away in the great cataclysm, the snow forming a corniced arête. Even I, accustomed as I was to scrambling about at great heights, had to steady my nerves for a moment before starting out. For Lydia, coming behind, it was worse. She had never liked heights and now she used the haft of her axe for support as she made her way across, looking down once or twice to the Sea of Ghosts far below.
Finally she was across, and we entered the college, finding it quiet. I wondered what had happened to the usual bustle of activity. Yet it was late afternoon, so I supposed my classmates – I still thought of them as my classmates, though I had been named arch-mage – and the instructors were resting after a day of study and practice, or preparing for supper.
By habit, I turned left under the arched entryway. We entered the Hall of Attainment to find J’zargo and Brelyna taking their ease in the round common area. They looked up in surprise as we entered.
“Deirdre!” Brelyna exclaimed, smiling and embracing me. “We didn’t expect you.”
J’zargo tipped his head and gave a soft purr. “Greetings, Arch-Mage. This one is pleased to see you. The college has not fared well in your absence.” He jumped as Brelyna elbowed him in the ribs.
“What do you mean?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. “What’s happened?”
“J’zargo exaggerates,” Brelyna said. “But you must have much to tell of your adventures.”
“Much, and more. Too much to tell without food in my belly and a mug of mead before me. But that must wait until I’ve seen Urag.”
“And what of the World Eater?”
“I feel I’m nearly ready to face him, but I need another weapon, and to get that I need an Elder Scroll. I hope Urag knows where to find one.”
“Pffft,” J’zargo hissed. “Sooner ask Rajhin, the Khajiit thief-god, to intercede on your behalf.”
“I told her it was madness,” Lydia put in.
“Your housecarl speaks true.”
“Still, if the Arcanaeum’s lorekeeper doesn’t have one, or know where to find one, who does? But now you must tell me what has happened since I’ve been away. Why is it so quiet? And why isn’t the bridge being kept clear?”
Brelyna looked back and forth between J’zargo and me. “I’ll admit, things have been difficult in the month you’ve been gone. Relations with Winterhold are at an historic low, ever since the anomaly event.”
“The anomaly event?”
“Yes. It seems the Eye of Magnus left ruptures in the fabric between this plane and Aetherius. About a week after you left, those same magical anomalies that came out of the Eye attacked the town. It was all we could do to defeat them and close the rupture. Yet, though we saved the town, the villagers still blamed us for it.”
“Ingrate Nords,” J’zargo hissed.
“Hey!” Lydia exclaimed. “How would you feel if mages opened up a rupture in your town?”
“Never mind that,” I said, holding my hands up for calm. “And what happened?”
“Tolfdir thought it best to shut down communication between town and college entirely. And so, we’ve let the snow drift up on the bridge. Only Enthir goes into the town now, since he seems to have a good relationship with Dagur at the Frozen Hearth. He brings us what supplies we need.”
“So that explains the bridge, but something else isn’t quite right.”
“You mean how quiet it is? With the college’s reputation suffering, we’ve had trouble attracting new novices, though several spots are open since the four of us advanced.”
“Well, at least that will change in time,” I said, “as the Eye of Magnus tragedy is forgotten and the college returns to less dangerous pursuits. People still need Sergius’ enchanting services, after all.”
J’zargo gave a hiss of impatience. “But the rest of these merish mages have treated Brelyna terribly.”
Brelyna looked down at the floor. “It’s true. Since we lost Mirabelle, we’ve realized how much she did to hold this place together. Tolfdir and I have not been able to quell the infighting. In fact, it’s only gotten worse. Oh, Deirdre, you never should have named me Tolfdir’s assistant!” She broke down in sobs, and J’zargo placed a consoling paw on her shoulder.
“Who is it?” I asked. “Faralda? I knew she would cause trouble when I left.”
Brelyna dried her eyes, which were even more red than usual after the crying jag, and nodded. “Her, and Nirya. They’ve become as close as two yolks in a double egg, though they couldn’t stand each other before. Since then, the mood at the college has been anything but collegial.”
“Hmmm,” I murmured, thinking out loud. “The two Altmer. That bodes ill. You don’t think they could be working on behalf of the Thalmor, do you?”
Brelyna shook her head. “No, I’m sure it’s just for personal advancement. They never sided with Ancano, for instance, though Nirya did speak highly of him, once. In fact, they’ve hatched some idea that they are being discriminated against because they are Altmer.”
“That’s absurd!” I said, though I had to wonder if I hadn’t let my feelings about the Thalmor and the Aldmeri Dominion color my decision to pass over Faralda. “But what of the rest of the wizards and scholars?”
“Colette stays locked in her room since Faralda and Nirya’s nastiness toward her has only grown worse. Drevis Neloran can rarely be found when someone wants training in Illusion magic, he’s so busy practicing his own invisibility spells. Sergius claims he has nothing to do now that we’ve shut off communication with the outside world and there is little for him to enchant. Phinis and Arniel are both busy with their individual research, and Enthir is most often in town, though I can’t think what he finds to occupy himself there.”
“He still holds instruction for any who want it, but most of us have learned all the Alteration magic we need. With no new novices, he seems at loose ends. And as for leading the college, he has mostly given up on that. He stays in his cell or in the Hall of the Elements, hoping one of us will show up for a lesson.”
“Not in the arch-mage’s quarters?”
She shook her head. “No, as acting arch-mage, he didn’t feel it was proper.”
I looked around the Hall of Attainment, knowing there was one last person I must ask about. “And what of Onmund?”
Brelyna nodded in the direction of his cell, which I now noticed had a curtain covering the entrance. She lowered her voice. “He has been disconsolate since you left, either roaming the wilderness about Winterhold or shut up in his cell. He put up that curtain so we wouldn’t have to see him so distraught. The only thing we could get out of him is a mad idea of his that you two are a couple.” She looked back and forth between Lydia and me. “He kept going on about his lass being stolen by another lass.”
I felt a sudden wave of anger, but tried to quell it. His lass! I was never his lass, I told myself. There had just been that one kiss, and it hadn’t been my idea. No, I was only one person’s lass. I looked at Lydia, and she nodded at me, smiling. I took her hand, then turned back to my friends. “Brelyna, J’zargo,” I said, speaking quietly as well. “Onmund was right. He knew what I didn’t even know myself – that I love my housecarl more than anything in the world.”
Brelyna looked at us both for a moment, then exclaimed, “Happy tidings!” Then she went on in quieter tones. “At least someone should be happy in these wretched times. The two of you make a striking couple, and anyone can see you are good companions. Who could have anything against it? I’m sure you will be quite happy.”
Lydia looked away, blushing.
“Rrrrrrr,” J’zargo purred with relish. “This one approves as well. Two females, together! It reminds J’zargo of that time at the river, a scene that often runs through this one’s mind, when you were, how do you say, ‘skin-dipping’. And now, J’zargo wonders, what else you were doing there, before we arrived?”
Brelyna cuffed the Khajiit on the back of the head. “Keep those thoughts to yourself, you lascivious feline.”
J’zargo gave a little hiss.
“You should go to him,” Brelyna said, gesturing toward Onmund’s cell.
“I know.” I held Lydia’s hand up to kiss it. “Wait here, my love. This could be … a bit strained.”
“Better yet,” said Brelyna, “let’s go upstairs where there is food and drink. You must be starved.”
“Gladly,” Lydia said. “This is one time I’ll be glad not to have your back, my thane.”
“Yes,” J’zargo said as they turned to go. “Come with us and tell us all about your … love life.”
This time it was Lydia’s turn to chastise J’zargo, though not as lightly as Brelyna had. “Careful, J’zargo, I was just beginning to change my attitude about you Khajiits. I bet you’d make a nice cat-fur stole for someone.”
When they had gone, I tapped on Onmund’s doorway, but got no answer. “Onmund?” I asked, drawing the curtain aside. He was sitting on the edge of his cot, staring into space. He looked drawn, as if he had hardly slept in the past weeks. His cell, usually so orderly, was a wreck of stale bread crusts, empty ale bottles, and discarded robes. He didn’t look up as I entered and stood before him.
“How are you, my friend?” I asked.
“Is that what we are? Friends?” He still didn’t look up at me.
“I hope so. Or, I hope we can be again. I’ll never forget, you were the first to befriend me when I came here all alone.”
He said nothing, but kept staring at a spot somewhere far away, though the cell was small.
I sat down beside him. “Onmund, I have something to tell you.”
“I heard you come in and talk to the other two. But you didn’t think to ask about me until the last, did you?”
“Only because I was so surprised you weren’t with them.”
“And then there was a lot of whispering, and something about happy tidings. I wonder what that could be about?”
“Onmund, my friend,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. “You were right. About Lydia and me. Only, I was too blind to see it until a fortnight ago. You knew more of me than I did myself.”
He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. He tried to laugh, but it caught in his throat. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? That I was right about you? What kind of man am I, to have my place in your heart usurped by a woman?”
“Can’t you see, it’s only because you are a man that I cannot love you, and not anything about you yourself? I was confused on that night we kissed, and for that I am sorry. I should have known then what I know now – that I can never love any man as more than a friend.”
Onmund was silent, staring at the floor.
“Come, cannot we be friends? Can you not be happy for me?”
He looked at me then, his eyes fierce. “Happy for you? How can I be, when you have torn my heart out as if it was some ritual of the Forsworn?”
I pulled back from his anger. “There is one who can do it. Ralof is happy for me, though I gave him the same answer I gave you.”
“A soldier with the Stormcloaks. We escaped Helgen together.”
“Aren’t you the heartbreaker,” he sneered. “Yet he must not love you as much as I, if the loss of your love wounds him so little.”
Or, his love is as great, I couldn’t help thinking, but he bears the wound so much the better.
Onmund seemed to read my thoughts. “But this Ralof being a soldier, a True Nord and all that, I bet you love him more than me, male though he is.”
I shook my head. “I will not answer that.”
He stood up and paced about the room. “I knew it! Last among the jilted!” He went to the small table holding a clutter of empty bottles and cast-aside books next to his bed, tipping it over with a crash. “Damn the True Nords to Oblivion! I’m tired of being compared to the brutes, your Ralof and your True Nord sweetheart as well. I may not be brave, but I loved you in my own way. And you cast me aside, like a… like a…” He could not find the word, he was so angry. “Just get out! I don’t want to see you again!”
“Onmund, please, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Out!” he shouted, smashing his fist against the wall, and instantly cupping it in his other hand.
“Here, let me heal that at least.”
“Don’t … you … dare…” he said, panting and glaring up at me, doubled over in pain.
I left, seeing that it was hopeless. Upstairs, Lydia and the two mages were quiet, staring every which way but at me. Onmund’s shouts must have echoed up the central well of the tower. Lydia cleared her throat softly.
Brelyna sighed. “So much for amity at this college. Would you like something to eat?”
I shook my head, fighting back tears. “This tower seems suddenly too small. And I must see Urag.”
Brelyna got up from her seat. “Do you mind if we join you?”
J’zargo got up as well. “Yes,” he said. “Do let us. This is the most excitement this one has had in this waxing of the moons.”
“Ha!” Urag gro-Shub’s laugh was deep, guttural. “An Elder Scroll! That’s the most excellent jest I’ve heard in a long while. Got any more?” When he was done laughing, he looked at me and saw that I wasn’t smiling. “Wait. You’re serious.”
I nodded. “As serious as the World Eater.”
“I should have known. You never did have much sense of humor when you were here. But no, of course we don’t have an Elder Scroll here. It would be kept under the tightest security. There would be guards, a vault of some sort. You don’t see any of that, do you?”
I had dared to hope that the Arcanaeum would have the scroll I sought, and I could be on my way – just more wishful thinking. Always my goal receded before me.
“Well, do you know where I might find one, then? Or anything that might be helpful? If I do not get my hands on an Elder Scroll, I can never gain the weapon I need to face Alduin, and the world is doomed.”
“Oh, is that all? Since you put it that way, I’ll just go get one out of the cellar!” He gave another laugh, looking around at my companions, who remained silent. “What? No one? Arr, a pox on the lot o’ you for your poor sense o’ humor.” He turned back to me. “Look, lassie, do you even know what you’re asking? Do you even know what an Elder Scroll is?”
“Well, not exactly, but I know bits. They’re part prophecy, part history, created before Creation itself. Some say they are the creation, or fragments of it. They never existed, but have always existed.”
“Very good. Whoever told you that knew what he was talking about. And probably as mad as Septimus Signus.”
“An Elder mage from the Imperial City. He spent some time here before disappearing somewhere to the west. That was years back. Obsessed with the Elder Scrolls. Was said to have peered at one in the White-Gold Tower, before it was ransacked. Madness! Or, it drove him mad, I should say, which is why you shouldn’t go meddling with the things, even if you could find one.”
“But aren’t scrolls meant to be read?”
“Look, even the Moth Priests, those who trained their minds rigorously in order to read the scrolls, paid for their knowledge with a terrible price exacted by the Divines.”
“Their eyesight. But they must have thought it worth the price for the knowledge they gained.”
“Still, whatever the risks, I must have one. The Ancient Nords used an Elder Scroll to defeat Alduin the first time.”
“Yes,” Urag said, pondering this news. “That is probably what it would take. Very well. Septimus left some books on the scrolls. I’ll see if I can locate them by morning.” He gave a stretch and a yawn, as if to say he was ready to retire for the night.
“And what of Septimus himself? Maybe he can help us if he is a loremaster of the Elder Scrolls. Do you know where he went?”
“Bah! You’d be lucky to understand two words out of his mouth, even if you could find him. And he seemed to have lost interest in the scrolls anyway. Kept nattering on about some Dwemer lockbox. That, and Lorkhan, Malacath save us.”
“But do you know where he went?”
“West is all I know. Tolfdir may know more, he’s been here the longest. And Enthir – he seemed to be cozying himself up to Septimus shortly before the old mage disappeared.”
I thanked Urag and promised to return first thing in the morning to look at any books he could find. My hopes of a quick stop at the college were quickly fading.
We found Tolfdir in the Hall of the Elements, idly casting a steadfast ward. He brightened when we came in, led by Brelyna and J’zargo. “Ah, students! Are you ready for some training at last?” Then he recognized me. “Oh. Arch-Mage! I don’t suppose you are here for training?”
I shook my head.
“No, I thought not, you’ve grown quite beyond my aid, anyone can see that.” He looked around the hall. “I suppose I should apologize for the state of the college. It seems I’m a better teacher than I am an administrator. The back-biting and the infighting! I was completely oblivious to it until you put me in charge. I don’t know how Savos and Mirabelle put up with it.”
“You just need time to get on your feet, exert your authority,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll get this sorted out before I leave.” I didn’t quite believe it myself. I didn’t have time to solve all the college’s problems. “I believe we’ll begin by reopening the bridge, if that’s all right with you. You can hardly expect to attract new students if they can’t get to the college.”
“I suppose you are right. But do you mean you’re not here to reassume your duties?”
I shook my head and told him my purpose.
“An Elder Scroll! Now that’s a weighty matter, more serious even than the Eye of Magnus. I thought we were to avoid tampering with dangerous objects from now on?”
“It can’t be helped. Now, what can you tell me about Septimus Signus?”
“Septimus? Well intentioned, a loremaster of the Elder Scrolls, but quite mad. He was obsessed with the Dwemer in his last years here, convinced he had found some as yet undiscovered Dwemer ruin. He would ramble on about spheres and boxes and secret towers and a hidden heart. It never made much sense. Then one day he went away, and hasn’t been heard from since. Dead in some Dwemer ruin, I fear.”
“Where did he go?”
“West, is all we know. Someone in Winterhold saw him disappearing over the pass toward Saarthal.”
“And he never mentioned anything about an Elder Scroll?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, no.”
I groaned. It seemed I ran as much risk of going mad from seeking an Elder Scroll as from reading one. “Very well, we’ll just have to hope Urag has some useful books, or that Enthir knows something.”
“Both will have to wait until morning, my thane,” Lydia said. “It grows late, and you haven’t had your supper yet.”
I couldn’t argue. I hadn’t eaten more than an apple since leaving the Blade and Dragon in Windhelm that morning. We had gotten a late start because I had taken the time to write a letter to Delphine and Esbern explaining that I couldn’t join them in Whiterun and they should go on without me. I had paid the courier double to ride fast, hoping to reach them before they gave up hope on me, or worse, went searching for me.
We repaired to the dining room in the Hall of Attainment, where Lydia and I regaled my two friends with stories of our adventures. The tale seemed more heroic and glorious in the telling, whereas the actual events had been filled with fear, dread, torment, and misery. Yet I suppose such is always the way with tales of perilous events. Brelyna and J’zargo oohed and aahed, their eyes growing surprised or angry or thrilled at each turn of the tale.
“Two dragons at once!” Brelyna exclaimed. “Yet you survived!”
“The Thalmor – pfffft!” J’zargo hissed. “The next one I see will feel my claws.” He extended and retracted the claws of his right paw for effect.
“A silent shout!” Brelyna said. “That must have been something to see!”
“I still don’t quite know how I did it.”
“And you spoke to a dragon? And you trust him?”
“What choice do I have? After all, he was the one who taught the Ancients to shout. Without him, we might all be thralls to the dragon priests.”
“This one distrusts all of this business with the dragons. J’zargo is glad there are none of the beasts in his land.”
I looked at my two friends, wondering if I should risk telling them my true thoughts about the dragons. And I looked at Lydia, for I hadn’t shared this, even with her.
“Listen, my friends, why do we have to kill the dragons? They are not mere beasts, after all.”
Lydia sighed. “Because they pillage both town and country, killing wantonly as they go? Seems a good enough reason to me.”
“Yet perhaps they do so only at Alduin’s behest. After Alduin is out of the way, maybe I can reason with the rest of the dragons. I’ve often thought, when seeing them flying off in the distance, or even up close in battle, that they are the most beautiful, awe-inspiring creatures in all of Creation. And my conversation with Paarthurnax showed me they can be wise, they can listen to reason. They are not mindless killers.”
“That’s our Deirdre,” Brelyna said. “Always the peace-maker.”
“And a tired peace-maker, by the sound of it,” Lydia said. “Come, my thane, sleep is calling.”
“Yes,” said J’zargo, his tail flicking back and forth and his whiskers working up and down. “You’ll have sweet, sweet … dreams, I’m sure.”
“For one who looks so much like a cat,” Brelyna said, her voice dripping acid, “you certainly are a pig.”
“A pig who’s going to get turned into bacon if he doesn’t watch out,” Lydia added.
I pulled Lydia away, saying goodnight to my friends. Leaving them in the Hall of Attainment, we began making our way across the college’s circular courtyard toward the central tower and the arch-mage’s quarters.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on J’zargo,” I said, taking Lydia’s arm.
“Why not? It’s disgusting, the way that Khajiit thinks about us. We don’t exist for his pleasure.”
“No, that’s true. But I have to agree with him about one thing.”
“What could that possibly be?”
“Well, he obviously likes to think about you with your clothes off – and so do I!” I put my arm around her waist and leaned up for a kiss, then we laughed as we pushed the tower door open together. We were still giggling when we noticed we weren’t alone in the tower’s foyer, and quickly separated.
“Oh! Arch-Mage!” It was Faralda, and Nirya stood beside her. Faralda was carrying a tray full of food, while Nirya held an armful of rushes. “We heard you were back, and wanted to help make you comfortable on your return – fresh rushes for your mattress, and a stock of your own food. I’m sure you’ll no longer want to dine in the common rooms.” Her voice was too bright, like those of vendors in the market. She went on before I could say a word. “How long will you be staying? I hope it’s for some time, because I – that is, we – have ideas about improving this place. It’s fallen into quite a state under Tolfdir’s – ahem! – leadership.”
“Yes,” I said. “Well. Thank you for your consideration, though I have already supped. I doubt I’ll be staying long, however.”
Faralda, obviously disappointed, looked at Lydia, and then back at me. “I’m afraid that spare cot has been moved out of your quarters. Perhaps your housecarl would like to stay in your old cell?”
“We’ll be fine,” Lydia said. “And I’ll take these, I’m sure we’ll be needing them.” She took the rushes from Nirya, giving her a wink. Both of the Altmer blushed a deep red. Then she pushed through the door to the stairwell that led up to the arch-mage’s quarters, two floors above.
I said my goodnights to Faralda and Nirya, then left them standing there, still speechless.