Singird Larkwing was not pleased. Not even two days had passed since he had arrived in the College, and the world was already upside down. Back in his student days, rigid discipline had been his only motivation. To arrive late for the class, neglect one’s studies, or disrespect a teacher would have been out of question. Now there were so many who did the latter… and one managed to cross all the lines at once. We lost support from the jarls, they’d said. But to invite brats from wealthy households and let them trample on the College’s honor and tradition? The world must have gone mad.
The newly appointed conjuration master tried to comfort himself with the thought of safety and access to infinite knowledge within the College walls, but the sight of the many books and clothes, now lying scattered all around his chamber, made his hopes fade. No, this was not the safe haven it had used to be. Someone had ransacked his room, but no matter how hard Singird looked, he could not find what was missing. He triple checked that the letter from Jarl Ulfric was in its place. He reread it several times and held it up against the light of his moon-shaped paperweight that glowed in pale, turquoise light whenever it became dark outside. It was without a doubt the same paper he had received on that dreadful day, the very document that had made him leave home and seek answers in Winterhold.
He put it back in the book about soul recreation. From the depths of a drawer below his desk he withdrew a thin notebook. A seam of silver string held together a number of blank papers in a plain hard cover wrapped in pale blue fabric. It was a journal, or, to be precise, it was supposed to be a journal. Master Gestor had urged him to make it to help him relax and pour out all his troubles. Singird had never written a single line in it, but the sight of the blank pages flipping under his fingers had a strangely soothing effect on him.
Leafing through the notebook, he listened to the soft rustle of the paper. And then, suddenly, he grabbed a quill and wrote on the first page:
How can I find an answer when I don’t even know the question?
He stared at his own words, waiting for the ink to dry. Then, he snapped the journal shut in one resolute gesture and gave his room a stern look. The mess was making him anxious.
“Discipline,” he breathed to himself. He furrowed his brows in concentration before flapping his sleeveless arms. A telekinetic wave seized one book after another and moved them to their rightful places. The clothes that had been lying about seemingly folded themselves and flew to their respective drawers and shelves. The hourglass with crystal clear sand sat in the middle of its shelf, dominating the room once more. In just a few moments, the room was clean, items on the desk organized into symmetric figures and all surfaces were rid of the last speck of dust. Singird sighed in relief, grabbed his journal and the satchel containing all his research notes and made for the door. It was time to take matters in his own hands.
His former master’s chamber was deserted. Singird rolled his eyes upon looking at the desk across the room, or, rather, the pile of books, scrolls, containers and various ingredients that hid it from his sight. Several circular translucent objects lay on the ground next to it and there was a puddle of strange green liquid which spread from a chest beneath the bed. Singird suppressed a scowl and instinctively swept the dust from one of the shelves. Despite himself, a soft smile curled on his lips. It seemed that some things never change.
“If you’re looking for Phinis, he went to the Arcanaeum,” a voice spoke from behind. It was quiet and composed, yet sharp enough to give off the impression that its owner is not someone to be trifled with. Singird quickly put on a serious face.
“Miss Ervine,” he said, turning around to face a stern looking Breton beauty with features almost as sharp as her voice. In spite of her small size, she was blessed with the gift of natural authority. That was Mirabelle Ervine, the Master Wizard of the College. “I see. I suppose it is time to visit my old orcish… friend. How are the older students faring?”
“The progress of their research is… satisfactory,” she replied coolly.
“I hope it is. Last time I remember, that Khajiit, J’zargo, caused an explosion and somehow managed to spawn some hairy… things in the still. I thought the College was short on coin, not looking for reasons to buy new equipment.”
There was not a spark of warmth in the air. The two mages stared at each other through the doorway, eyes narrowed and lips pressed tightly together. To an outsider, it might have appeared as though they turned into a pair of statues, motionlessly frozen in time. Then, Mirabelle spoke and her quiet voice carried dangerously through the hall.
“I believe that is my responsibility, Master Larkwing. Your job is to deliver quality education to our students.”
“Speaking of which, Yrith Ravencroft…”
“I am aware. You made sure you informed the whole College. Miss Ravencroft is here on Lady Faralda’s expense and it is solely her decision whether she stays here or not. Now if you’ll excuse me, I shall be on my way.”
“The Arch-Mage must schedule a meeting if I file an official complaint.”
“That she must. I’m sure she will find a suitable date for it, considering the gravity of the problem.”
“Then I believe there is nothing to worry about.”
“Certainly.” With a heavenly smile on her lips, Mirabelle Ervine left the room.
Singird followed her closely, face carved in stone. He picked up the pace to calm himself down, letting the wind cool his face that struggled not to flush in outrage.
It had been quite some time since Singird had last seen the imposing College library. Once again, he admired the countless shelves of neatly organized books lining every wall. They were held by massive stone pilasters supporting the tall vaulted roof. He always had a weak spot for Cyrodilic architecture. It was tidy, full of carefully designed symmetry and regular shapes, a result of accurate planning. Suddenly feeling inappropriate, he inspected the state of his robes, assuring himself that the rim was smoothed out and no thread hung from the seams. When he was certain that everything about him was perfect, he entered the lit inner circle of the Arcanaeum. Such a beautiful place… if it weren’t for the librarian.
Urag gro-Shub was sitting at his desk, immersed in a giant tome with pitch black cover. The orc was biting his lower lip with his large yellowish teeth, providing an amusing sight to behold. Upon hearing footsteps, he raised his head. Singird’s eyes slid sideways, purposely ignoring him. Instead, they fixed themselves on the balding Breton sitting in a dark corner beside Urag’s desk, eyes on a book in his lap. Singird gave the scene a painful scowl. Phinis Gestor had always been an expert on finding the darkest corner of the room to read, no matter how much it would strain his eyes.
“Master Gestor,” Singird spoke in low voice. The former conjuration teacher raised his head.
“Ah, if it isn’t our little prodigy,” the Breton smiled and rose from his seat, squeezing his student in a brief, yet warm embrace. Singird could faintly recognize the scent of blackberries and southern marsh spices. His master must have spent some quality time with the Arch-Mage and her supply of Velvet LeChance, one of the finest Argonian liquors. “I was wondering when you’d show up. Welcome back, Singird.”
The orc at the desk cleared his throat meaningfully. The two of them paid no heed to him, far too absorbed in their little moment of nostalgia.
“So, what brings you here?” Phinis asked. “Surely you didn’t come here just to make yourself some coin, did you? I bet the jarls in the cities could offer you much more than that.”
“Coin?” Singird laughed almost bitterly. “No, not really. I am in search of something… and someone. Speaking of coin, the College is overflowing with slackers. Is the situation really so desperate that we need to accept brats from snob families and even Lady Faralda’s freshly found foster child?”
“Well, we’ve… seen better times. No support comes from the cities anymore, Singird. The College is struggling, we have no means to continue our research… and no one who would appreciate it. As much as I hate meddling in politics, we could use an influential figure right now. But you know, there are rumors… until recently, we had generous support from Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun, Jarl Elisif of Solitude, and Jarl Laila of Riften. I believe they were hoping that some of us would return the favor once the war broke out. But all of them called off their caravans at the same time. Even if there have been murder cases involving magic recently, it all seems far too convenient to be a coincidence. There has been unrest among the College staff. Rumors that the College has been… compromised.”
Singird frowned. “Then my news won’t please you. My…”
“Sure, sure, don’t mind me,” the orc cut in. Both men turned to him with a start. “I’m just an old orc who, coincidentally, happens to be the current owner and caretaker of this library. I’m not important at all, nor am I your elder. And I definitely do not deserve the slightest hint of respect. Go ahead, do your things. You don’t need to concern yourselves with me.”
“Well, I apologize, sir,” Singird uttered, barely suppressing a scoff. “I mean… it has been a long time.”
The Orsimer knit his brows at the quasi-apology, returning to his book with a more than conspicuous sigh. “Haven’t changed one bit, eh, Larkwing?”
With his back to the librarian, the Nord grimaced to his teacher. “In fact, I have been looking for you, Master Gestor. There is something I would like you to look at. Perhaps you could help me with this?”
From the depths of his satchel, Singird withdrew a folded piece of paper. He invited Master Gestor to the lit table in the center of the room where he spread it, smoothing out the folds. It appeared to be some sort of a diagram. Lines and curves entwined and crossed each other in a complicated circular ornament. At a closer look, it resembled a constellation of stars, each heading in certain direction. All the lines met in the center of the circle, forming a dark hole. Every crossing was carefully marked and captioned and there were notes and formulas scribbled all around the circle. Phinis’s eyes widened in astonishment.
“Singird,” he breathed, scanning the web of thin ink lines again and again. “What are you trying to… actually, who are you trying to… this is… rare. I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken you to put this together… especially outside of the College. And you’ve come all the way here to ask me for help with this?”
“That is what I was hoping for.”
“I can’t, Singe. You know I can’t. I don’t have the power. You would need an extraordinarily powerful conjurer to assist you as a medium, and the last one capable of such a deed passed away some eighty-two years ago in the Great Collapse. Unless, of course, you would like to have a dragon do you the favor, and I doubt any of those beasts would be willing to comply. But, well… you could always ask the Arch-Mage. I’d say being the Dragonborn’s sister has its perks.” He gave his student a mischievous wink and earned himself a scoff.
Singird did not like to be reminded of his last encounter with the new Arch-Mage. Saying “it did not exactly go as planned” was a very euphemistic way of describing it. He sighed.
“I… you don’t understand,” he said as he leaned toward his teacher. “My family… throughout the last five generations or so, there have been…” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “mysterious deaths and disappearances. But all the traces lead here. I need more information.”
“Deaths? Singe… is your teaching here just a guise to avert prying eyes?”
“Yes and no. I was hoping to find a miraculous child among the new students…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
“And that’s why you agreed to take the job in the end, I see,” Phinis nodded. “But they’re just children from rich families, Singird. Many of them were most likely sent here to make way for their siblings who are about to inherit the family fortune. Aren’t you expecting too much of them?”
“Never say die, they say… but I give up. If it were up to me, I’d have half of them expelled this very moment!” Singird unwittingly raised his voice, clutching his fists. Urag gro-Shub, still sitting at his desk, took his eyes off his book and shot him a warning look.
“Especially Yrith Ravencroft. The useless little…”
“Whoa whoa, careful now,” the orc growled. His eyes clashed with Singird’s. Phinis shifted his weight nervously. “You dare touch her, Larkwing, and you’ll be sorry. The fact that you don’t recognize her worth doesn’t mean she has none. Everybody needs to sort out their life from time to time.”
“Ah, I see she’s got herself some admirers. Well, she’d better sort out her life before she’s out of here.”
Urag rose, his eyes gleaming dangerously at the Nord. Phinis quickly followed him, positioning himself between the two antagonists.
“Please, let’s all just calm down, shall we?” He waved his hands like an enchanted scarecrow. “Master gro-Shub, you don’t need to worry, nothing will happen to Miss Ravencroft. Singird, I don’t think you need to go that far. Just… try not to take things too seriously…”
“It’s she who doesn’t take them seriously enough!”
“Oh, chill, sourpuss, the baldy’s right,” Urag cut in curtly. “Stop eating lemons and try looking on the bright side for once, will ya?”
“Baldy?” Phinis raised his brows, staring at the green skin which presented most of the librarian’s head as his white hair slowly gave way to it.
“Sourpuss?” his pupil joined him, looking like a living definition of the word he had just questioned.
“What can I do with you two?” Phinis shook his head in resignation. “Singird, why don’t you look at some of the books here? Urag made a copy of the Seer’s Testaments recently. You know, the ones written by Dorion Trith before the Great Collapse. It’s quite fascinating how one can predict things to come so easily.”
“If you say so, Master Gestor,” the Nord gave in reluctantly, following his master to one of the alcoves surrounding the outer circle. Most of its space was taken by an old pain-peeled desk dominated by a column of books. Singird could not overlook that their edges were lined with absolute precision. Urag gro-Shub was the only one beside him capable of arranging them like that. But he was an orc, for the Nine’s sake!
Phinis took a book from top of the pile and handed it to his pupil. He accepted it and examined its contents. It was written in a neat script with elegant curves and thin lines arranged in perfectly straight rows.
“The writing is satisfactory,” he nodded. “Considering who’s responsible for it.”
The orc snorted in outrage. “Says the Nord mage. By Malacath, thank you for reminding me why I don’t like you.”
“Please,” Phinis tried to no avail.
“Anytime, greenskin.” The young mage was staring at the page before him, reading the same sentence over and over again.
“Mind your tongue, saucebox,” the orc hissed.
Phinis Gestor stared at them, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Just let me know when you two are finished,” he sighed. “I’ll be down at the Hall of the Elements. In the meantime, maybe you could ask some of the students there to teach you more of an adult approach.”
Singird raised his head to defend himself, but his teacher he was gone, his footsteps slowly fading away. With a resigned sigh, he returned to the book.
Seer’s Testaments was an interesting work concerning the attitude toward magic in the next hundred years, taken from year 119 of the fourth era. Although the book had been written more than eighty years before, the author, Dorion Trith, had been quite accurate in his estimates. Under normal circumstances, Singird would have loved to read about the development of magical awareness as it was currently the most pressing issue of the College, but right now there was that tiny voice in his head, continually repeating the words of his master.
You would need an extraordinarily powerful conjurer…
The ritual he was about to perform was of utmost importance to him, but even Master Gestor with his vast knowledge of magical studies and those concerned with them could not recall a single person powerful enough to assist him. The name of Falion of Morthal had not been mentioned at all. How could it be that hard? He only wanted to…
… do something that your parents and even the parents of your parents failed to do, reminded him that annoying tiny voice.
“Oblivion take it,” he grunted as he stood up.
“No swearing in the library,” Urag notified him dryly.
“Silence, orc. You just made that up.” Singird carefully placed the book back on top of the column and made for the door. Urag gave him a scowl as he passed him.
“Maybe I did.” Singird would not have dreamt of an orc with an angelic expression, but that was exactly what he saw.
He shook his head in resignation, deciding against quarrelling further, and left the room. A gust of fresh air reminded him of how cold Winterhold could be. It was almost summer time, but here in the far north, there was no sign of it. Falkreath, his hometown, was situated in a valley full of greenery and burbling creeks where ice and snow melted in the summer and gave way to carpets of grass, cushion plants, daisies and lavender fields. The sun shining through the pine branches was warm there. Here, the only thing that could warm him was a tankard of good old Nord mead. And now that he thought about it, that was not a bad idea at all.
As always, the city of Winterhold was quiet. No children running around, no pitchers shouting over each other, no hags gossiping around every corner, no barking dogs and definitely no jugglers. A drunk man was quietly singing to himself before the Frozen Hearth, but that was all the entertainment one could hope for. Singird entered the cozy inn and took a seat right by the entrance. It was always safer to be near the exit lest an incident occurred. Even if this was the last place on Nirn where one would expect it.
“Ah, the young Larkwing,” said the ginger-haired waitress wiping the table next to him. She had round, rosy cheeks, big hazelnut eyes and a wide smile that welcomed him like her own. Haran was her name, and she was the only one Singird could forgive for wearing a tattered apron whose color was indistinguishable under the many stains it bore. Not to mention it was awry. She promptly set the cloth she was holding aside and fetched him a tankard. “The usual, right?” She did not wait for an answer. “I knew you would come. I think the whole collegium has been here in the past few days. Everyone’s talking about you.”
“Truly?” The Nord accepted the mead with gratitude and took a sip. The familiar warmth that spread in his throat was both thrilling and soothing.
Haran sat down and leaned over the table. “Oh yes, you’ve raised quite the uproar among the teachers. A prodigy coming back, the youngest teacher in the College history… not to mention your latest… encounters with some of the students. All eyes are on you, my friend.”
“I am not sure whether I should be pleased or offended,” Singird muttered more to himself than to the twittering lady across the table.
“Oh, come on, little Singe,” she quipped, “it’ll pass. Just give it some time.”
Little Singe. He hadn’t heard this name for quite some time. And even though he glowered at her sulkily, deep inside he was pleased.
“Do you believe that? Have you seen the students?”
“Well, two of them passed through the city last night and this morning. I know one of them quite well. But otherwise no, I haven’t. They don’t let us, normal people, to the College grounds. Raises quite a suspicion, I must say.”
“You don’t need to worry. We only don’t want to be distracted from our research. Anyway, those two were on detention.”
“Detention? Nine Almighty, Singird, you sure don’t lose your time.”
The door opened with a creak that split the ears, stopping Singird from defending himself. A figure entered the room, one that would be best described as gigantic. A Nord man with a thick mop of wheat-colored hair, one lock plaited in the typical Nord braid, and an equally thick beard. His body was nothing but steel-hard muscle scantily clad in a set of studded armor. A great two-handed axe was attached to his back. Around his neck hung an amulet of Talos and the wristbands he was wearing bore the image of the Stormcloak bear with a spiral under its eye. He would have appeared to be a standard Nord if not for his unusual size. Singird immediately recognized him and jumped from his seat.
“Toddvar!” he raised a hand to get his attention. “I was not expecting to see you around here. Long time no see.”
“If it ain’t our magical prodigy, Singird the Crank!” the man beamed as he pulled another chair to Singird’s table. He shook his whole arm, took off his axe as if it were a child’s toy and seated himself with arms behind his back. “Ah, I say it every time, but the chairs never come in proper sizes. Haran, m’ dear, could you fetch this parched man a bit o’ ale?”
“Right away,” the rosy-cheeked waitress replied and promptly served a tankard of golden liquid. The huge Nord rewarded her with a wide smile and a nod.
“Now that’s the stuff,” he praised. “Been on me feet all day. How goes it around here? Heard you teach kids now, Singe.”
“He’s been here two days and already sent two of them on detention!” Haran laughed. “Busy man, isn’t he?”
“I’d expect nothing less from him!”
It was very hard for Singird to maintain his serious expression. He almost let a corner of his mouth twitch, but fortunately prevented it in the last moment.
“I caught them fighting,” he defended. “Well, the Dunmer can at least cast spells properly, but Yrith Ravencroft? You should…”
“Wait a moment. Yrith? Yrith is getting punished?”
“You know her, Toddvar?”
“Well, we all know her, dear,” Haran said. “Back when her folks were still around, she was the brightest soul in the city. Always with a book or helping around, learning whatever there was to learn. Hand work or text, she took it all in. Her folks moved here with her a few years back. Came from High Rock, they said. And they brought a whole library with them. Also concocted remedies for our sick. The whole family was a bit eccentric, true, but not in the bad way. We all welcomed the girl. Sweet little darling, she was. Always alone too.”
“That doesn’t sound like the Yrith Ravencroft I know. Except for the last part.”
“Aw, c’mon, Singe, you wanna tell me that Yrith can’t cast spells? That Yrith?”
“That is what I am saying, yes.”
Toddvar wriggled in his seat and leaned over the table. The chair let out a painful squeak. “That makes no sense, Singe. I recall her studying some magic. She always struggled for her parents’ attention and did everything to make ‘em notice her. And the Yrith I know never stops halfway. If she was reading books on magic, then she can do magic. I can assure you, sure as I’m sitting here. Haran, sugar, do you have a bigger tankard?”
The ginger woman laughed and swiftly served him a flagon. Toddvar’s smile widened as he grabbed it and downed it in one go.
Singird frowned, recalling how the girl had waved her arms in his class, as though she was flapping wings. An amusing sight for an observer, and a miserable one for a teacher. She had not expressed the slightest hint of effort. But if she could cast spells, why would she lie about it?
The door opened once more, and a pair of guards entered the inn. Both took off their helmets at once, revealing a curly red-haired boy with round face and round nose speckled with countless freckles, followed by a scarred veteran whose chestnut fringe cast a dark shadow over his hard, bearded face. The snow falling off their helmets and shoulders informed everyone inside that the notorious Skyrim weather was throwing a tantrum again. The men waved at Toddvar and gave a small nod.
“End of shift? Good work, lads,” the Nord giant returned the nod.
“Rare to see you around, Toddvar, sir. Come to check if the city’s still standing?”
“Ulfric doesn’t neglect his holds, lads, you of all people should know that. Come sit with us. Singird here will entertain you with some stories from the College.”
Singird knit his brows, not quite in the mood for entertaining. The younger guard looked at him with eyes gleaming with life and curiosity. He was just a boy, hardly reaching maturity.
“I didn’t know Ulfric recruited children,” he growled.
“Eh, no, sir magister,” the youngster shook his head with all his might and proudly stuck out his chest, “I joined myself. I stood at the front door of the Windhelm barracks every day for three months before they finally let me prove my worth. They made me hunt an ice wraith here in Winterhold. I returned in two days and now I’m finally here. It’s exciting to protect the land, no?”
Singird struggled to keep his feelings hidden. He was just a boy.
“Speaking of which,” the redhair continued, “you said you were from the College? Are those two safe?”
“The two young novices that came through the city last night, sit. You know, ice wraith so close to the city, that’s not a common sight. It sure startled me, and I’m a soldier! I was about to run to their aid, but that atronach they conjured handled it for me. I must say, you sure train them well.”
“What?! Yrith was attacked?!” Toddvar jumped up, making his chair fall like a cut down tree. Singird felt color retreating from his face.
“An ice wraith? And you are saying they defeated it with an atronach?”
“Yes, a fire atronach, sir. Three shots were all it took. It was thrilling to watch!”
Singird beckoned for the guard to join them and took a deep breath. “Please,” he said, “do tell me more.”