The wind howled and wailed through the crevices in the cold stone walls, blowing the snow inside the small room through the gaping window. Opposite to it sat a scrawny Breton girl clad in a set of simple, brownish novice robes, leaning to the wall behind her. Cold air filled the room and tiny cloudlets of steam rose from her mouth with every breath. She did not seem to mind them. In her numb fingers, she was gripping a book, eyes fixed on the lines of text, inhaling deeply the fresh air.
Winterhold was a place known for its murky gloom and raging snowstorms. It was grey and harsh, but it had a beauty to it unrivaled by any other place on Nirn. Magic was in the air, and upon its foundations was built the world’s most famous and prestigious school of arcane arts. Strange powers whispered and beckoned to the soul. While most people feared them, a few courageous ones found their beauty and dedicated their life to them, even if it meant spending their entire life in a place forsaken by the divines.
Despite always reveling in the mysteriousness of the place, Yrith Ravencroft was not one of them.
This place was not her home. Most mages at the College of Winterhold had come on their own free will, pursuing some higher goals such as power, immortality or greater good. For Yrith, things could not have been more different. Her entire life, she wished for but one thing. To be that simple little girl she had been before this all started and her parents were devoured by flames. That wish was forever buried in the past. And now the only thing left were books and stories of brave heroes whose heart was stronger than hers.
She jerked her head a little to her side and her silky raven hair slid down from her shoulders, spreading a dark blanket over her back. She was sitting there lazily, her feet playing with the chair nearby and bouncing it against the bed on her side. She had a feeling that this moment of tranquility would not last forever. She was skipping a class. One that she hated and refused to attend.
Suddenly, she froze and strained her ears. As if answering her own thoughts, a pair of footsteps resounded from outside. They approached quickly and stopped just before the entrance door to the room. She knew what would follow.
She jumped up promptly, quietly sneaking under the bed until not an inch was visible of her. The book she had been reading lay safely under her belly. For a moment, everything was still. The person outside waited, as if giving her time to prepare. She held her breath. The door opened.
A pair of well-kept leather boots with imprinted delicate ornaments made their way to the center of the room in nigh absolute silence. She watched them cautiously, her hand over her mouth. The tips of the boots turned to point to her hiding place. A clear, vivid voice spoke.
„Get out of there at once.“
The sentence was firm and calm, just as its speaker. She could recognize this clear, elven alto any time. It belonged to Lady Faralda, the renowned master of destruction magic and currently her foster mother.
Yrith waited. She would not give in just yet, despite knowing the only possible outcome. She suppressed the need to shift on the cold, hard ground and listened. The wind cried its lament. She could hear the flip of the papers on her desk. It had stopped the newcomer for just two heartbeats. On three, a hand slipped under the bed in a flash and caught the rim of her robes, pulling her out with surprising strength.
“I see that some things never change.” Yrith stared into the slender face of an Altmer lady in periwinkle master robes, amber eyes narrowed in piercing reproach. She quickly turned away, feigning sudden interest in one of the papers lying about. It was entirely blank. „I believe it is time for your classes?“
„And I believe it is time for your guard duty, or whatever task of significant importance you might be assigned to,“ Yrith retorted. For that crispy touch of self-satisfaction, she added smirk. She could feel Faralda’s intense gaze at her. If she hadn’t known better, she would have believed that Faralda could cast destructive magic not only with her hands, but also with her eyes.
„My responsibilities are none of your business, young lady, and if you value your freedom and the comfortable life you’ve been granted here, you will be on your way at once. Consider yourself lucky that you didn’t get a detention.“
„None of the other students get detentions for skipping classes!“
“Very well. Feel free to return when you have the coin to pay for your studies and we might set you up under different conditions.” The elf shrugged and gave a cool smile that she reserved just for Yrith. The girl could feel the sting of her nails digging into the skin on her hands.
„I never asked you to enroll me here as a student,“ she grumbled.
Faralda opened her mouth to reply but closed it again. Struggle reflected in her eyes. She took a breath and straightened her back, as if trying to loom as high above the tiny girl before her as she could. And yet, she failed to keep up her act and suddenly looked so, so small.
“One word, Yrith,” she whispered. “Why?”
There were so many ways to interpret the question. Why don’t you attend your classes? Why are you acting like this? Why don’t you ever tell me anything? Why can’t you be like the others?
They all led to the same answer. An answer that Yrith was terrified of giving.
She averted her gaze without a word. Say nothing and they will know nothing, she told herself, like the countless times before. She let her guardian wait in silence. A fresh gust of wind whipped her face and made her eyes mist with tears. Locks of raven hair fluttered about her face, turning her view into a peculiarly smudged haze. Cold, biting numbness slithered under her skin. Then everything stilled momentarily, save for the quiet rustle of paper falling on the ground. Faralda gave a slow nod.
“I see,” she said. “Words aren’t enough for the two of us anymore, are they?”
Face devoid of any emotion, she turned around and left the room. The flipping sound of her robes soon faded in the distance. Yrith stood there, blank look fixed on the open door. The hinges groaned in the storm and the words of Lady Faralda kept ringing in her ears. This was not right. This was so not right.
She took a few dazed steps and collected her satchel with trembling fingers. A few moments after, she would be pacing through the College courtyard to the Hall of the Elements, where her most hated class took place.
The storm raged on. Mind clouded and preoccupied with thoughts, she failed to notice the frost forming on her lips and eyelashes, nor did she feel the gale trying to sway her very person. The College grounds were almost as dark as the night itself and the veil of falling snow concealed the fountain of bright blue light in the middle of the courtyard, but the image of Lady Faralda’s resigned face that she was imagining covered the scene. She passed the bizarre figure of a white-haired sturdy orc dressed in the typical adept mage robes heading in the opposite direction. She would have ignored him completely, had he not called out to her.
“Late for the lecture again?”
His rough baritone cut through the swishing sound of the wind and caught her by surprise. She staggered, tripping and losing a shoe that was too big for her foot. She groped for it absent-mindedly, hopping around and barely keeping her balance. When she finally found it and straightened her back, her gaze rested upon Urag gro-Shub, the College librarian that was unanimously considered a local curiosity by guests and mages alike. He gave her a hint of a smile.
“Well, good luck with your first impressions!” he beamed.
Her eyebrows shot up in an unspoken question, but the Orsimer simply turned away with a wave of his hand and stomped through the accumulating snow. She stared at his silhouette slowly fading in the murk, forgetting momentarily the reason she was standing in the middle of a raging blizzard. As she snapped back to reality, she stumbled ineptly through the courtyard to the massive brass gate of the Hall of the Elements. She pushed on the wing that hummed almost inaudibly with magic.
It gave out a painful whine that carried through the vast foyer and further to the center of the building. She cussed in her thoughts. The day before, she had lubricated the hinges. Someone must have been lurking around, wiping the oil so the treacherous doors would give her away. She had a few suspects. The first one to come to her mind was a fiery-haired Dunmer with obnoxiously affected voice and even more obnoxious personality. He belonged to the more competent sort of students and was never too hesitant to brag about it. Cain Aldaryn was without a doubt the most hateful character she could think of, and the one that always made her blood boil.
Coincidentally, the said Dunmer was now standing next to the fountain of blue light shooting to the skies through the tall tower ceiling, a sneer twisting on his smug face. He was holding his chin with two fingers and his eyes shot her a derisive glance.
“Well, well, look what the cat dragged in,” he drawled. Every head around, the classmates that had flocked to him like a pack of starving skeevers, turned to him and then to Yrith. She could feel the thrill. They were ready to laugh at his next word. And the word came promptly. “A midget. Filthy,” he scrutinized her half bare feet, the limp, discolored robes and a mop of tangled hair sprinkled with snowflakes, “soaked and very much late for the class. Then again… it is so very nice to see you here in conjuration. To what do we owe this honor?” The crowd did not disappoint. She scowled and circled them.
In the far corner of the octagonal room, the pale blue light revealed a tall, dark-haired Nord man. Realizing she had not seen this person before, she frowned. She looked around, searching with her eyes for Master Gestor, but the conjuration master was nowhere to be seen. The Nord approached her, his pace steady and reserved, eyes firmly fixed upon her. The students went silent and watched in anticipation. He stopped.
“Yrith Ravencroft, I presume?” The voice, albeit hard as steel, was somewhat alluring, deep and melodic, and there was a touch of crispiness which sent shivers down her spine. Before she could stop herself, she looked directly in his eyes.
The man before her was not someone she would expect in these parts. Tall, with long black hair almost as dark as hers plaited in a single loose braid, and even darker eyes which stared at her attentively, elegantly crowned by fans of long eyelashes. His face was slim and his nose straight, looming over a graceful curve that formed his lips. He was rather thin for a Nord, but still well-built for a mage, the hard, elongated muscles on his arms emphasized by his sleeveless silver robes with yellow lining. His skin was slightly tanned, an indicator of long days spent under the skies.
“M-master Gestor is…” she hinted a question without answering his. He knit his eyebrows in apparent displeasure. Inadvertently, she took a step back. His eyes slid down to her feet. Suddenly, she became painfully aware that one of them was not properly shod. For the slightest of moments, she could see one corner of his mouth twitch. His eyes screamed disgust.
“Retired as of today,” he replied coolly. She took a moment to study him further. A face shaved to nigh perfect smoothness. Brows that were definitely shaped by hand. Carefully coiffured hair, not a single strand sticking out of his braid. He would probably look better if the braid was put over his shoulder. But for that, he looked… almost too symmetric. And very, very clean. He noticed her look and his eyes narrowed.
“I do not like my students coming late to the classes,” he added.
“Yes, I was, uh…” She quickly turned away and pinned her eyes to the closest broken tile on the floor. Her mind searched frantically for a way out. His gaze felt heavy and petrifying. “T-textbook. I was… looking for my textbook.”
“We don’t have a textbook,” he reminded her quietly. There was a low chuckle from the side of her classmates. She shuddered. The Hall of the Elements was always quiet. She wished the gale would deafen her and drown the loud beat of her heart, but there was nothing but a faint, distant whine.
“My… restoration textbook.” She knew everything about her exposed her. Her trembling voice, her stooped shoulders, clenched fists that she had not even registered before. She forced herself to proceed. “I lost it and then got so absorbed in looking for it that I just…”
“Came late to the class,” he concluded colorlessly. “Well, I do hope you don’t lose your textbooks very often.”
She stared at him incredulously, forgetting herself momentarily. A flush of embarrassment flooded her cheeks. The knuckles on her hands turned white as the snow outside and she pressed her lips tightly together to stop herself from retorting. Eyes on the ground, she stepped aside to join the crowd that was now roaring with laughter.
“So, Miss Ravencroft,” he spoke again and she could feel the undertone of sly amusement in his melodic voice. She raised her head unwillingly and her gaze met his. Her mind could not settle between embarrassment and anger. A part of her wanted to run away while the other wished to crush him. And then there was the tiny voice that urged her to scream and make everything around silent and insignificant. She did neither. “Since you came late, can you step forward and conjure a familiar for me? I wish to demonstrate how the qualities of familiars can vary based on their summoner.”
She froze in place and felt her heart sink. She is quitting this damn place. She is absolutely positively quitting!
“I… I can’t conjure a familiar, Master…”
She could almost feel the tension in his long, deep exhale. “Singird Larkwing. I’d say you could at least come to class knowing the name of your teacher.”
The class laughed louder. Yrith resisted the urge to put her hands over her ears.
“Well, if you can’t conjure a familiar, then you’ll just have to give it your best shot. Step forward, please.”
She shot him a furious glance and spent all her energy trying to convince herself that stomping angrily would not do her any good. Unwillingly she shuffled to the teacher’s side and faced the heartily entertained class. Then came that moment when everyone fell silent and waited for her demonstration. She carefully avoided every single pair of eyes. Without thinking, she stretched out her hands and waved her arms wildly. Not a spark of magic came out of her fingertips. Nothing happened, aside from the Nord teacher sighing almost theatrically. An opinion formed in her head. Of all the teachers in Winterhold, he was already by far her least favorite.
“Tell me, Miss Ravencroft,” he accented her name with a hint of scoff, “how long have you been studying here?”
“A-almost six months… sir?”
“Six. Months.” He clicked his tongue, seemingly deep in thought, but his eyes hadn’t left Yrith for a split moment. She shifted her weight nervously, waiting for what was to come. The class watched and no one dared utter a sound. “Six months should be enough to master bound weapons and atronachs for even the least talented of all. And yet, here you stand, flopping your arms like a crippled bird, trying to summon a familiar. Can you tell me how a creature is summoned? In theory.”
She shook her head.
“Or where you need to focus to draw the energy from your soul?”
Another shake, slower than the one before. She hypnotized his feet. They were clad in a pair of perfectly clean boots made of smooth leather with no decorations save for the neatly tied shoelaces. The knot holding the one on the right was a mirror image of the one on the left. A corner of her mouth twitched.
“Do you know where you direct your energy when you summon a creature?”
She kept staring at those annoyingly clean boots motionlessly. His sigh gave her a clear idea of what his face looked like.
“I see. Mister Aldaryn, would you like to… fill in and display your talents?”
There was a shuffle at her side as the fiery-haired dark elf moved past her. He did not forget to shove her on his way and gave her a smirk when he turned to face the whole class. He tucked up his sleeves as though he was preparing for a fist fight and rubbed his hands.
„Watch and learn,“ he drawled quietly at Yrith and then winked at a tall blonde elven beauty in the small crowd of students. The girl giggled and eagerly returned the wave, wiggling her waist suggestively. Yrith imaginarily stuck out her tongue.
Cain Aldaryn stretched out his hands, arms in perfect parallel, and narrowed his eyes in concentration. A moment after, a howl echoed through the octagonal chamber and an ethereal wolf-like creature formed before him. It stood there, awaiting orders, oblivious to the applause that came from the ranks of his master’s classmates. All except Yrith who just barely suppressed a snort. Master Larkwing nodded in appreciation.
“I will now summon my own familiar,” he turned back to the class, “and send it against Cain’s. What I want to show here is the difference between our familiars’ strength. Watch closely as I summon it and try to analyze the differences.”
Yrith turned away. Why in Oblivion had she decided to come here? She had no intention of watching people conjure, let alone learning to do it. She despised the subject from the bottom of her heart and she had a good reason for it too. She winced as her classmates gasped and cried out with surprise. The air was filled with growling and scratching. She could swear she heard a ripping sound as well. A memory threatened to surface, but she quickly pushed it back to the depths of her subconsciousness.
Then, the sounds died out. She raised her head to see Singird Larkwing’s familiar standing victorious by its master’s side. The teacher – to her utmost displeasure – was staring directly at her with a stone hard, unreadable expression. She shuddered. She was about to avert her eyes again, but his look suddenly shifted to the Dunmer before him.
“Thank you, mister Aldaryn,” he said and gestured toward the crowd. Cain stepped back to join his friends and let the teacher continue. “As you could see, if you were watching, that is,” he shot a glance at Yrith and several chuckles rose from the crowd, “my familiar was stronger and more tenacious in combat. Even if our familiars had not fought each other, mine would have lasted longer.” There was a loud crack as the translucent creature returned to its home plane. “In my class, you will learn about the true nature of conjuration. That it is not just a simple act of summoning a creature or an object from another realm, but it also includes controlling it and giving it strength. That you can control the sharpness and durability of your bound weapons with your magicka, and make your summoned creatures stay with you for infinity. We will also touch on necromancy, but this dark art ought not to be taken lightly. Only those skilled enough in other branches of conjuration will be allowed to practice it.”
He paused for a moment and smoothed his clothes. After a moment of cautious scrutiny, he cleared his throat and continued.
“For now, I want you to research familiars and atronachs and write down their characteristics. Please, include statistics such as the scale of their strength depending on the conjurer’s level of advancement or the amount of magicka you need to invest in different types of creatures. This should give you a general idea of what to expect in this class and help you understand the very basics of conjuration that some of you seem to be… lacking.” His eyes met with Yrith’s. She promptly turned away. “Class is dismissed.”
There was a disgruntled murmur among the students followed by the flipping sound of paper as they took out their notebooks and wrote down the instructions. Yrith could hear words of protest rising from the crowd including “Ehh?! We have homework?” and “Just you wait till I tell my parents!” She had a very clear opinion on the matter of her assignment which she was not willing to share. With a shrug, she turned to leave and almost crashed into her new conjuration teacher who flew past her like an arrow. She nearly tripped as she quickly made way and offered his back one last scowl.
For the second time, she set out for the door. And once again, she was stopped. This time, it was Cain who, wearing a twisted, arrogant smile, blocked her passage.
“Hey midget!” he called to her. She gritted her teeth and refused to look his way. After three heartbeats of pondering, she decided to circle him as quickly as she could. He pretended to let her. Then, suddenly, his hand shot forward and he grabbed her by the collar, turning her to face him.
“Let me go, Cain,” she hissed.
“Let me go, Cain, she says,” he drawled affectedly. His classmates roared. The blonde elven beauty, now standing by his side, giggled and clung to his arm, pressing the whole of her tall, delicate body against his hip. Yrith scoffed inwardly. The bastards always get everything they want, don’t they?
“Say, midget, you wanna join us for a cup of tea? Discuss our homework? Wouldn’t you appreciate it, having been absent for such a long time?”
He winked at her and she snorted with disgust.
“Please, Cain. If you cannot resist this insuppressible urge of yours to spout your absolutely nonsensical pack of lies, could you at least try to sound more convincing? I am truly sorry but I fail to see your point.”
“Ah, there she goes again,” he purred and grinned. A set of dazzling, white teeth contrasted his ebony skin. “The walking book act, accusing me of pretense. Don’t you at least have the manners to say thank you when someone offers you help?”
“Not if that someone holds me up like a skeever for slaughtering! Now if you don’t mind, the book would like to keep walking, so would you please be so kind as to let me go?”
“And if I say no?”
“Please don’t. Or I’ll…”
“Or you’ll what? Call your parents? Oh, that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?”
“Go ahead, call them. Why don’t you? Oh wait… your parents aren’t around anymore, are they? Look at me, I almost forgot!”
Yrith’s face turned deep red with burning flush. She put both of her hands on his and snarled inarticulately. The crowd surrounding the two of them cheered and whistled. Yrith realized that a circle had formed around them and there was no escape. She could feel her heart beating its way out of her chest.
“Let. Me. Go.” The words coming out of her mouth sounded strangely alien to her, calm and quiet unlike her usual tone. She looked directly into the Dunmer’s crimson eyes and her grip tightened. The elf winced ever so slightly, but quickly reclaimed his composure. His sneer widened.
She did not waste another word. One twist of her hand was enough to send the surprised, unprepared classmate to the ground. A cacophony of screams echoed through the tower. People cheered and shouted and clapped their hands. The tall, blonde elf stared at Yrith with utter shock, one slender hand covering her mouth. Cain lurched to his feet and bared his teeth with a quiet hiss. Yrith was about to make for the door, but he blocked her way. She took a step to the side and he followed immediately. She would shove him away but he tackled her hair, pulling her closer and jerking her head backwards. She screamed and kicked him in the knee. He screamed back.
“S’wit!” he cussed and staggered back, arms stretched so he could protect his wounded leg. Yrith looked at him with unconcealed contempt. She had last heard this word back in Daggerfall where the few Dunmer that lived there roamed the streets in gangs and stole from those who least expected it. “People who use such words are not worth your time, Yrith,” her mother had told her. “They are sad and jealous of what we have.” Supposedly, Cain was nobility. He had everything one could ask for and nothing to be jealous of. She concluded in her mind that even mothers can be wrong from time to time.
The nobility threw a fist. She dodged it and prepared to walk away. The circle of people around her were of different opinion. They pushed her back to her opponent the moment she wanted to elbow her way to the door. Upon the next assault, she tripped him so he fell face down on the cold stone floor. He slowly raised himself on his hands and turned his head to her. His eyes shot daggers.
“That was the last straw, midget,” he breathed. Then he rose and lifted his hands. At first, she thought he was about to hit her, but he did not move an inch. Instead, a silver screen of frost appeared around his fingers. She backed away until she could feel one of her classmates’ breath on the nape of her neck. Gods knew she was not prepared for a magic battle. And Cain excelled in destruction like none other. The nasty hands behind her thrust her back. The Dunmer’s arms stretched and she covered her eyes when a shower of tiny ice particles landed on her skin, leaving behind a sea of minuscule wounds and cold, numbing sensation. She could feel the energy leaving her body and groaned quietly with pain. Eyes closed, she sank to the ground and shakily covered her face in retreat. Then a voice tore through the air, and the moment it did, warmth returned to her limbs.
“What in Oblivion is happening here?!”
She looked up and saw the crowd making way for the dark-haired Nord who had left the room just a few moments before. His face was carved in stone, his gaze pinning both antagonists to the ground. Hotness flooded Yrith’s cheeks, taking turns with waves of petrifying chill. She wanted to crush the butterflies in her stomach. Beside her, Cain put up a mask of indifference that failed to conceal his own struggle. The teacher stopped just a few inches from them.
“The moment I walk into the infamous College of Winterhold, I see students coming late for classes, unable – or unwilling,” he put a strange emphasis on the word and shot Yrith a piercing look, “to cast even the most basic spells, and on top of that, they brawl amongst themselves? Nine Almighty, what has become of this institution?”
The two delinquents responded with absolute silence. Even the people around them did not dare utter a sound. The occasional shuffle of feet on the floor sounded almost thunderous.
“I suppose discussion with my fellow teachers is in order,” Singird Larkwing said with a somewhat refusing-to-resign sigh. “For now, detention for the two of you will have to suffice. You are to retrieve the fish from the nets down on the shore every morning and evening for one month. Until then, all shifts will be relieved of this duty. Any questions?”
“What?!” Yrith gasped and the shame of the past moment was replaced with exasperation. She jumped on her feet and looked into the dark mirrors of the teacher’s eyes. “For a whole month? You… you can’t do this!”
“Oh, I can do a lot worse, Miss Ravencroft, and believe me, I will if I deem it necessary.” He returned her look with twice the amount of coldness of the giant iceberg down in the Winterhold bay. She gritted her teeth almost painfully.
“Miss Ravencroft, one more word.”
She gave him an aggrieved look but fell silent at once. Cain was staring at her angrily, his fists clenched so tightly that the ebony skin on his knuckles had turned almost white. Yrith could not decide whether to direct her rage at the Dunmer, or the Nord teacher whose eyes were now not so secretly smiling with satisfaction. In the end, she settled for the latter. Without another word, she stomped out of the room, thinking fires of Oblivion and pits filled with nasty hairy spiders.
The Arcanaeum, the great library of the College of Winterhold, was a place of eternal repose, warm, soft flickering candle light and heavy dust-filled smell of paper. If the rest of the College was wild and filled with passionate cries, sparkling magic, and ferocious snowstorms, the Arcanaeum was the safe haven where everything was still and quiet, where one’s mind could find peace after a long day. Amidst all that lived an old, sturdy orc with broad shoulders and sharp fangs that stuck out of his mouth like horker tusks. His daily attire was a worn-out yellow robe patched in so many places that it seemed to bear more stitches than the actual linen, and what remained of his snow-white hair was neatly arranged into a tight bun. When Yrith entered the typically octagonal room with pillars separating the inner study hall from the outer circle where all the tomes and hidden secrets lay, the librarian was sitting beneath his desk, eyes fixed on a thick book, muttering something under his breath. For his sake, she made her shoes clatter as she approached. He raised his head and a grin spread across his brute face.
“There is my little curmudgeon,” he called to her. A green-skinned hand groped over the desk in search for a bookmark. It found a slip of thin wood decorated with a knot of fine red fringes and inserted it in the book, then closed it cautiously, as though it was the most precious thing in the world. Yrith believed that to this particular librarian, it might as well be. “So. How did it go?”
“Why didn’t you tell me we had a new teacher?” she pouted, crossing her arms over her chest. He let out a soft, amused sigh.
“But I did, didn’t I?” She snorted. The orc failed to contain a chuckle. “What is it? Couldn’t quite hit it off with Singird Larkwing?”
“That man is a beast.”
“Now there’s a thing we will agree on. Anyway, you’ve come for a reason, have you not?”
Yrith quickly straightened her back, arms lining with her hips, and cleared her throat. A candle crackled as if trying to undermine her authority and she gave it a reproachful look. She took a breath.
“Yes… yes, of course. Master Larkwing. Do you know where his office is?”
The orc raised a white, thin eyebrow. “Asking about his office, are we? Well now,” he gave her the typical Urag gro-Shub impish look that, as she knew, was reserved just for her, “I have no clue. He moved here early in the morning and I spent all of it carrying books to the upper floor of the Hall of Countenance. And when I arrived there, Nirya was going rampage because her favorite enchanting device was moved out. Like that wimp ever uses it anyway.” He snorted theatrically. Yrith smiled.
“Thank you,” she purred as she leaned to him over his desk.
“No idea what you’re talking about. No books today?”
“Who are you and what have you done with Yrith?!”
The girl snickered. She threw a glance at the bookshelves encumbered with tomes, old and new, some fancy, others plain and ragged. She knew them all by sight and most of those containing a story she had read. She also enjoyed randomly flipping through the heavy encyclopediae and discovering the enchanting secrets of the world, engulfing herself in history lessons or learning how her Direnni ancestors handled their trade. The grimoires or magic handbooks that made up half of the library, however, she had never even touched.
“You are intrigued.” The orc studied her face with amused interest. She quickly pinned her eyes to the desk.
“I… might come back later. Anyway, Urag, need anything downtown? Seems like I’m going for a stroll later.”
“Outside?” In the librarian’s voice, Yrith noticed an undertone of something peculiar, a feeling he very rarely expressed. It made her pause for a moment before replying with uncertainty.
“Y-yes. That’s what I said.”
“With Cain Aldaryn,” she said through clenched teeth.
The orc slammed the desk and nearly made Yrith jump in the air. The books hopped, papers went flying, and a lit chandelier would have set the place aflame had he not caught it in the last moment. “That demented ogreface gave you a detention!” It was not a question.
“W-well, sort of…”
It took several deep breaths for the orc to soothe his rage. Then he shook his head.
“A new set of quills from Birna’s, if you’d be so kind. But Yrith.” He leaned over his desk and put his broad, bear hands on her shoulders. “Do not stray. Do not stay there any longer than necessary. All right?”
“You’ve heard the rumors, right?”
“But that’s just some lunatic trying to frame the College! What reason would they have to target one of us?”
“Don’t tempt fate. Keep it safe.”
“Right, I will. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She turned to leave and set a quick pace.
She stopped but did not bother looking over her shoulder, hypnotizing her long, flickering shadow instead.
“Have you made any friends yet?”
“Stop asking. I’m not talking to that lot.” With that, she left the Arcanaeum. The sad, weary sigh behind her back mingled with the painful creak of the old, rusty door.
Sneaking through the Hall of Countenance always provided a great challenge. Yrith took pride in being able to sneak anywhere and everywhere without anyone noticing her. Fortunately for her, Drevis Neloren, the local illusion master, did not take the trouble to put up protective spells to prevent anyone from sneaking in this particular area. Perhaps it was simply not worth his time, for this place was never quite vacated. But Yrith always managed to find a blind spot. The darkest place is under the candlestick, they said. The statement was wonderfully true.
She waited. If teachers kept crossing the core chamber of the tower, surely discussing some very important matters on their way, she would simply wait longer. She waited for the quiet lull, back pressed to the outer wall, pretending to read a book. It came. And unlike any sneak thief from the infamous Riften guild, she ran. Her footsteps were silent as a cat’s and movements just as stealthy. The fountain of blue light at the center of the tower hummed and crackled, drowning the last bit of sound she could have made. She conquered one staircase and then another, until she reached the upper floor.
This part of the tower used to be deserted. No one used the enchanting device or the laboratory that had been there. Now, they had been moved to some remote and most likely forgotten corner of the College while a new room had been constructed in their place in a breathtakingly short time. Yrith stared at its entrance in disbelief. The room itself must have been at least twice the size of a normal teacher’s chamber. She pressed an ear to the lacquered wooden door, but no sound came from within. She cautiously grabbed the handle and pulled. The wing turned in absolute silence. She reveled in the absence of the sound.
One peek informed her there was no one in the room. Slipping behind it, she finally inspected it in full detail. The girl laughed to herself. The room was a perfect mirror to her new teacher’s personality. Not a speck of dust lay on the thoroughly polished furniture. Several columns of books were perfectly aligned with the edge of the desk they were placed on. Every door or drawer was shut tight, and even the positioning of the shelves seemed to follow a very regular pattern. She dedicated a few moments to a silent meditation on how in Oblivion this uptight Nord could ever survive among his kinsmen. Then she shook her head and rubbed her hands. Time had come to deliver her chef d’oeuvre.
One look and she knew what she had to do. She carefully shuffled the books. From the depths of his wardrobe, she withdrew several of his robes and mixed them with the neatly folded shirts and tunics, wondering in the process why he would need so many clothes in the first place. Several items on the shelves, an hourglass with crystal clear sand, a paperweight in shape of a moon made in dwarven metal, and a strange soul gem with curling ornaments carved along its edges, switched places. When she was done, she nodded in satisfaction, admiring her own work.
“Detention for being cornered, is it?” she drawled to herself. “Well, I’ll see to it you get your own.”
She took one last book and patted its smooth cover made in blue-dyed leather. Soul Recreation by Telvas Adinor, said the imprinted title. Just as she was about to place it on a pile with books of different size, a sheet of paper slipped from within and fluttered to her feet. She picked it up and curiously glanced at the robust, formal-looking script that covered the page.
It is with great regret that I inform you of the death of your beloved parents. They passed with honor, providing aid to fellow citizens in need. Their remains will be kept in the Temple of Talos in Windhelm until their collection.
I would like to offer my deepest condolences for your loss. May their brave souls forever rejoice in Sovngarde.
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm
Yrith stared at the letter for a long while, holding her breath. A bitter memory crept into her mind and she quickly shushed it. Her hands almost automatically clutched and crumpled the paper, but she stopped herself at the last moment. She carefully inserted it back in the book and gently put it back where it belonged. With head slightly bowed, she left the room, refusing to look back.
The storm had subsided and the heavy clouds had moved to hinder the sailors who were brave enough to traverse the Sea of Ghosts. The ruddy sun disc hung over the imposing statue of Azura that crowned the western horizon. The Daedric mistress of balance, ruler of day and night, stood tall on the mountain ridge that separated Winterhold from the Pale, slender hands that held the sun and moon reaching toward the sky. Yrith could only discern its silhouette against the rose-crimson dusk. This was her time. The moment when the blue of sky yielded to the red, when day broke into night, when the winds were at standstill before changing direction. The point of balance.
Yrith sighed. In her mind, rage and doubt were in perfect balance. The heated discussion between Singird Larkwing and Lady Faralda she had overheard just a few moments before had left her full of frightening confusion. The word expel had been said more than once. Until then, she had been convinced that whatever was going to happen to her, she would not care. It would not matter. No one would ever miss her, and that was how it was supposed to be. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
For this very reason, she was now standing at the foot of the bridge arching above the Winterhold strait. It was generally advised for people crossing the narrow, crumbling bridge not to look down into the icy depths. Very few magicians were quick enough to protect themselves with magic, and those who were usually ran out of soul energy before the fatal fall into the dangerously shallow waters below. A folk tale spoke of a thief magician who, using a hundred soul gems he had taken from the College, barely managed to save his life and ended up wounded on the shore. But he could not call for help, for he had robbed the Arch-Mage and that was not a crime to be pardoned. In the end, the man was eaten by a pack of horkers.
Yrith stepped on a wobbly cobblestone and looked right into the mist under her feet. She shuddered. Slowly, she raised her head and turned her gaze toward the other side. The remains of the once proud city of Winterhold lay before her, a handful of cozy cottages with dimly lit windows and smoking chimneys whose thatch roofs were covered in a ruffled blanket of shimmering snow. She took a step and looked down once more. She could hear the soft crackle of ice from below. She hypnotized the drifting mist and her stomach knotted.
“What in Oblivion are you doing?” a voice behind her cut in her thoughts. She gasped and stopped herself from falling by sheer will. With back straightened and hands clutched behind, she turned around to face the fiery-haired Dunmer with his typical self-important sneer. Only then had she realized she had been holding her breath.
“N-nothing,” she said. He raised a brow, but the curiosity in his face was carefully hidden behind a mask of contempt. Her eyes slid down to a stained linen bag hanging over his forearm.
“Taking a shortcut, are we? Go ahead,” he nodded to the misty abyss. “And while you’re at it, take this.” He threw her the bag. She caught it instinctively but then looked at him in outrage.
“I’m not your servant!”
“Oh. That’s strange, I thought you were here to fetch my wine. And please, mind your step. I wouldn’t want to sully my shoes.” He entered the bridge, stepping lightly on the crumbling stones. Some of the walls around it were missing and most of it was covered by thin layer of ice sprinkled with snow. She was certain there was an alteration spell that would keep her safe. She was also certain she could not cast it. With a sigh, she followed her classmate’s footsteps, secretly sticking out her tongue at his back. The Dunmer did not seem in the least frightened, walking in a calm, steady pace, head erect like true nobility.
The city of Winterhold welcomed them with the smell of burning wood and roast spreading from the local inn, The Frozen Hearth. Not too many voices were heard from there, however. Dagur, its owner, along with his ever loyal wife Haran, frequently complained about poor business and considerable lack of customers, but the love for their home kept them from chasing opportunities. Back in the day, she would visit them on the way to the now non-existent fishery and exchange stories about their lives. Before lunch time, the place always carried the mixed scent of broth and freshly baked pie. Haran stormed the inn in her old, holey apron which bore so many stains that the original color was indiscernible, dusting the tables with such passion that it never failed to put a smile on Yrith’s face. Dagur danced around her and sang aloud and horribly out of tune. Yrith, hailing from a land of artists, naturally suffered, but she loved the man too much to tell him. At those times, the cozy little inn was filled with mirth and laughter.
She paused and took a pensive look at the old, chipped entrance door. The signboard at its side creaked and made her feel nostalgic. She barely ever caught a glimpse of them now, being mostly confined to the College grounds.
“Are you coming, dog?” the affected voice of her classmate cut in her thoughts with a snort. “You’re lucky I forgot my whip today.”
She pursed her lips but gave no answer. Instead, she passed him in hurry and left the obnoxious Dunmer behind. She could hear quick footsteps and shallow breath as he sped up.
“Hey! Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
She waved her hand at him nonchalantly and decelerated to a relaxed gait. “It seems you’re not quite as successful in… taming me, when there’s no one around to hold me down for you,” she remarked and made sure to put a great deal of amusement in the statement.
“And you’re quite audacious for someone who just received a detention and can’t even cast sparks.”
“A detention that you received with me.” She shrugged. She could hear him snort.
They passed several ravaged buildings. While the road was full of footprints in the grimy, compacted snow, the ground around the ruins was covered in velvety white blanket untouched by man. Even animals avoided the shattered remains of the once majestic city. The Great Collapse, a disaster that had met the city some eighty years before, had left behind painful memories and eerie atmosphere that invoked melancholy and fear in everyone who ever approached the scene. Yrith looked at the split beams pointing toward the darkening sky and frowned. It was almost as if there was magic in the air. Even the Dunmer, having caught up to her at last, struggled to maintain his smug expression.
“I spend half hour with you and I already feel drained,” he pointed an accusing finger at her. “Let’s get moving, shall we? I want to get this over with. A dinner would be a welcome bonus.”
For once, she agreed. She gave a silent nod and they quickly started descending the slope leading to the fish nets. Cliffs on both sides, they entered a murky ravine. In the distance, a great iceberg protruded from the dark sea waters. The ice around them filled their ears with soft crackling occasionally drowned in a distant splash. The peculiarly regular sound traveled between the walls as though a restless cricket hopped from one side to another. A sudden chill tickled Yrith at the nape of her neck and she shuddered. Instinctively, she turned around. The gusts of wind raised ethereal columns of snow and amidst them glistened tiny particles of ice.
“Pfff, the midget is scared?”
She pierced the Dunmer with a look and clutched the linen bag he had made her carry.
“You wish,” she uttered. As she threw the bag over her shoulder and took another step, a hand grabbed her. She nearly jerked to the side but refused to give him the pleasure. He spoke in a deep, low voice, head slightly bowed.
“Have you heard the tale of the Lone Demon?”
“What in the name of the Eight are you talking about?”
“The Lone Demon, the fallen divine. Neither aedra, nor daedra. He was cast out from Aetherius to Oblivion and from Oblivion to Nirn. The homeless god.”
“There is no such entity. I’ve read the entire Winterhold library and no books speak about him.”
“Well maybe there are no books about him. After all, his very name was lost to the ages when it was changed. He wanted a different world. A world without bigger and lesser, without differences, wars and struggles. A world no one but him could comprehend. When Nirn was born, he wanted to cast all the daedra, aedra and Creators alike into it and rule it as a single god. For that, he was banished, cast onto Nirn himself and stripped of his divinity. But there is a rumor,” his voice turned into a mere whisper, “that after sunset, when the night drowns day and stars and moons struggle for dominion, he lurks in the gloom and takes souls for pleasure.”
“Yeah, right,” she snorted. “Great story. Maybe you should become a writer.” She threw up her hands and sped up. The crackle resounded in the ravine, louder than before. Shivers ran down her spine. She reflexively searched for the source of the sound. The ice sparkled and sputtered. And moved. Her eyes widened.
“You know,” he continued in low voice, bending slightly to look at her from below, “he especially loves the souls of young girls. They have so much… life in them.”
It moved again. It was almost by his ear.
“C-Cain…” she managed to produce.
“What? Aww, did I scare you, midget? Are you afraid for your soul now?”
It shot forward. An ethereal snake-like skeleton of pure ice.
“Behind you!” The Dunmer laughed.
“Trying to scare me, midget? Well, nice try but…”
“Turn around, you trollhead!” she cried. At last, the Dunmer looked over his shoulder. He gasped and took a few quick steps back, nearly tripping over a knob of hardened snow.
“What the… that’s an…”
“Ice wraith!” she shrieked. “By the gods… do something! Do something!”
Cain bit his lip and backed away, until a wall stopped him. Eyes wide with fear, he raised his hands in between heavy breaths and a sphere of flames enveloped them. He shot as soon as the spell was fully charged. The fire bolt hummed through the air. For a moment, Yrith thought time had stopped. She held her breath and so did Cain. The missile hit the wraith, but before the two of them could cry out with joy, it hissed and dissolved. The Dunmer forced himself to draw breath and shot again. And again. And twice the fire fizzled and vanished as soon as it touched the creature. It lunged at its attacker and dug its frosty teeth into his cloak. The dark elf screamed and his legs gave way. Yrith screamed.
“No!” he yelled. The ice wraith wound about him. He stared at it helplessly, the young novice he was. His back pressed to the ice wall behind it and feet buried themselves in the snow. Yrith stood there, trembling and panic-stricken. The creature prepared for another strike. This time, it would aim for the flesh. This time, it could be fatal. She must not allow it. Overcome the fear! Fear will not save him now.
She knew what to do. She gritted her teeth as she stretched out her arms, letting the stained bag fall in the snow. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and let the energy flow. For a split moment, she was one with the universe. Her thought flew across the planes. It searched in the vast sea of dimness. Fire, it called. I need fire! Violet sparks emerged from her hands and a creature appeared before her. She opened her eyes and stared at the flame atronach she had summoned, a graceful being contrasting the surrounding darkness with the golden light that imbued its body. She did not need commands. It knew what to do.
The first ball of fire flew past Cain. The crackling, hissing ice creature backed away swiftly. The Dunmer gasped and tried to integrate himself into the wall. The second ball hit the target. It ignited, the fire of Oblivion itself eating its flesh. At last, third ball sent the creature to the ground. It shattered to a small pile of ice. The atronach, looming over it, twirled in a pirouette.
There was a moment of silence. Neither of the two students dared move. Then the loud cracking sound announced the fire elemental had returned to its home plane and Yrith finally looked at her classmate. They opened their mouths at once.
Cain rose abruptly and pointed a shaky finger at her.
“What in Oblivion was that?!”
“That was an ice wraith that was unnaturally close to the city,” she breathed.
“You know what I mean.”
“No.” She raised her hand in silent warning. “I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, you saw nothing, you know nothing and this,” she threw her arms about, “never happened.”
Yrith stared at him in disbelief. The smug expression, strangely sharp in the moonlight, had returned to his face.
“You little… an ice wraith attacks us. I just saved your godsdamned butt! And you…”
“Oh no,” he shook his head and a grin spread across his face, “you didn’t. Because, you see… that never happened.”
“Now, what would I have you do? Be my slave? Teach me magic that you obviously handle well? Or something… entirely different?”
“You… you know what?” she spat, angry sparks in her silver eyes that even Lady Faralda would feel envious of. “Just…” she grabbed the bag at her feet and threw it at the Dunmer with all her might, “do your stupid detention and choke on that fish! I’m not doing this.”
With that, she stomped away, feet fighting the drifts of snow the wind had blown in her way. She was shaking with fury. He called after her. She refused to listen. Or perhaps her restless thoughts drowned the sound of his voice and she could not hear it at all.