Pain. Stabbing, piercing, searing, white hot and dead cold at the same time. That was all she felt. An endless universe of inferno, darkness that instead of dulling all the senses penetrated them and locked her in a cage of eternal agony. There was no laughter this time, no happy memories, no smiles or tears of joy. Only torment tearing her apart.
She wanted to call for help, for someone to hold out a hand for her, but no one would listen. People fought and cried, each in their own little world of despair, and she could feel them all. She felt the women weep as they lost their husbands and sons in the war. She felt the men cry in pain, calling to their wives, knowing they would never see them again. She felt the horses falling under their riders, and the mice and small creatures being trampled into the ground under the heavy steps of their hooves. She heard the funeral chimes, the laments of the bereaved and the laughter of those sowing death. She saw the headsman’s ax fall on the father’s head and heard the son cry. Traitors walked free and spoke the laws while those with honor fell in the dust.
And their souls shattered, too weak to follow the path to Aetherius. They hurt. They withered. They ceased to exist.
She wept with them, feeling her own soul being torn to pieces. She wanted to live. To survive. She had to live!
There was hope yet, she knew. She had to rise. She would put an end to the suffering. She would break the eternal loop. A voice filled her head. Terrifying, paralyzing, deafening thrum that was not of this world.
“Thou shan’t save these souls. It is what they have brought upon themselves. Thou art powerless, mortal. Thou shall face death and succumb to it. And people will weep and loathe. So the stars have foretold.”
Then, the pain swallowed her a-whole and she let out a deafening cry.
With barely any sleep to ease his weariness, the new day welcomed Singird Larkwing with the usual Winterhold murk. He awoke moments before sunrise, throwing a drowsy glance out from his window. There was the sea, covered by a field of gently bobbing floes, barely discernible from the distance. Somewhere down, hidden behind the sill, was the still unrepaired cliff. He heard voices from outside his room, assuming that Colette Marence had called alarm and prodded half of the Collegium to venture out for inspection and mending. Despite the dark circles forming under his eyes, he found himself unable to fall back into his slumber. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he rose, examining his person.
Unsatisfied with the state of his robe, he changed it for a shiningly white tunic and a surcoat of deep blue color like the ocean depths, cleaning himself with a spell. The Nine knew he could use a hot bath, and nothing warmed more than a wood fire free of magic, but one could rarely afford such a luxury in Winterhold. With a sigh, he smoothed out the fabric of his new attire and made for the door.
By the time he left his room, the central corridor of the Hall of Countenance was deserted, half of the rooms belonging to the teachers opened. He strode down, peeking curiously into some of them, only to be disappointed by their unwelcoming emptiness. Upon reaching the ground floor, a sudden scream made him wince, eyes flicking to the door to Colette Marence’s room which was still shut. Brows knitted in alarm, he approached it and landed a knock.
There was no answer but a soft, almost inaudible sob. Recalling the last night, he assumed Yrith Ravencroft was still there. With a trace of worry nibbling on the back of his mind, he knocked again, louder than before.
“Miss Ravencroft?” he tried, but once again, no reply came from the inside.
He opened the door to find a trembling huddle of blankets and furs sitting on the bed. There was not an inch visible of the girl buried somewhere deep underneath them, and despite himself, Singird found the sight amusing.
Pondering what might have caused her to hide like this, he scanned the room. His eyes traced a table covered with neatly organized bundles of herbs and vials, standing just next to the bed. On the window sill lay a tray with half a loaf of bread and some Eidar Cheese, clearly untouched. Some feast, Singird thought, commending Master Marence for sparing her patients no expense in a land with no crops to be harvested or fed to cattle.
There was a basin of clear water and a folded pile that revealed a bedroll upon closer inspection. The shelves on the walls held mostly practical objects like an hourglass, mortars and pestles of various sizes, flasks and retorts, clean and protected with the slightest hint of magic to prevent them from scratching or staining. The only closet in the room was tightly shut. There were no signs of anything suspicious and Miss Ravencroft clearly hadn’t left the bed either.
He approached her, hand landing lightly on the rim of her blanket. “Take off those furs, Miss Ravencroft. There is nothing to fear here.”
Contrary to his words, she pulled the blanket closer to her body. It emphasized the shape of her person, back bent and arms wrapped around her knee while her other leg lay slightly twisted on the bed. Singird stared at it, taking guesses whether she was in pain.
“Are you going to stay like this for the rest of your life?” It took him all sorts of effort to adopt a tone that would not sound too unkind, but the only response he received was an uneasy waggle. With a bit of impatience, he tugged at the blanket. “Or are you assuming I am the same sort as your classmates, scoffing at every little thing and taking delight in watching others squirm with uncertainty?” He was painfully aware of how unprofessional he was being, badmouthing the students in front of her, but his words finally seemed to fall on fertile ground.
An eye peeked out from underneath the blankets, glistening with tears. She watched him with utter caution, slowly removing the outer layer of her covers. She was shy and hesitant, struggling to contain her sobs, and he could see pain mingle with shame in her face. This was not the cheeky mischief he had met on his first day as a Winterhold teacher. The sight sent a very unpleasant tingle down from the nape of his neck.
He sat down beside her, watching her in silence. She curled up in the corner of the bed, trying to hide her tears with the back of her hand and stay as far away from him as she could. He tried to move closer, but she would cower at his slightest movement.
“There is nothing to fear,” he repeated to her quietly, passing her the tray. “Care for a bite?”
She shook her head in denial, but he put it next to her nonetheless.
“Taking care of your health is one of your responsibilities as a student and a living person, Miss Ravencroft.” He gave her a piercing look, fighting the softness that tried to creep into his voice. Her brows furrowed, lips twisting in a gnarling scowl, but still, she did not utter a word.
This side of her irked him. The silence that came whenever something was amiss. She would never share, never trust. Convincing Miss Ervine to trust him would be easier than this. He sighed.
“Are you in pain?”
Hesitation. She seemed to genuinely ponder the answer and Singird frowned at that. One does not usually need to contemplate on whether they hurt or not. She slowly shook her head, but he spotted a hidden sign behind the gesture. She was not true to him.
They spent a while in silence. He waited, watching her as her breath steadied itself. Gradually, the fear receded from Yrith’s face, replaced by a wariness of sorts. Her eyes roved around the room, scanning, examining. They paused at the bedroll, then rested on the window.
“Master Marence went to mend the cliff,” Singird explained. She gave a slow nod. “I need to discuss the rest of your detention with you, but that will wait until you are well enough to do so. We can’t possibly let you wander outside now that the local magic has been disrupted.”
There was an unspoken question in her eyes. He waited, but she kept her tacit approach, the only answer being her body language.
“Questions should be asked, not kept and taken to the grave with you,” he said, reproach in his voice. She bit her lip, then took a breath.
“If…” she finally spoke and her voice was quiet, as though she was afraid of being overheard by uninvited guests. “If they’re mending it, then why can’t I go out?”
Singird frowned. Out of all the questions she could have picked, she had to ask the one he could not give a clear answer to. She had always been truthful to him, yet he could not return the favor. Guilt was gnawing at him, forcing him to reason with himself. It was in her best interest, after all. But that wasn’t entirely true and he knew it.
“One would assume you’ll be relieved at the prospect of not going out anymore,” he said in a light, conversational tone. He watched as she averted her eyes and pursed her lips.
“I do, but… that still doesn’t answer my question.”
Singird cursed her obstinacy. She would not be satisfied until she got what she wanted.
“We can’t be certain what caused it. We shall have to investigate.” It was close to the truth as it could be. He waited for her reaction, but a simple nod was all she gave. He felt relief at that, and the fact that she did not seem shaken by the events of the previous night.
“Say, Miss Ravencroft,” he said, deciding to risk a few questions, “did you notice anything out of the ordinary before the cliff fell?”
“Out of the ordinary?”
“Yes. Something that could have caused the cliff to tear off. Weather conditions, unexpected occurrences, people… or just anything that caught your attention.”
She frowned in concentration as she tried to recall everything that had transpired, then slowly shook her head. “Nothing but a guard passing by.”
“A guard?” Winterhold was a small settlement where rumors spread fast. If a guard had been there, then, surely, he and Miss Marence would have been stopped by the one they had met on their way, would they not? “And they did not help?”
“Hmm… they were up by the cliff. I don’t think they even knew we were there.”
“Then how do you know it was a guard?”
She shrugged. “Even I can recognize the sound of a walking mountain clad in steel when I hear its footsteps.”
That hardly sounded like someone prone to magic, Singird admitted to himself, but what did he know? There was no rule stating that a mage cannot walk from head to toe in steel or possess skill in both magic and the art of sword. Then again, if it had been the same person who had killed her parents, they commanded illusion spells so powerful they could have easily tricked young Miss Ravencroft into thinking she heard a guard. He let out a deep breath. He could imagine easier tasks than to work against such a potent illusionist.
“I’m sorry I can’t be of help,” she murmured.
He looked up, snapping out of his thoughts. She was eyeing him with keen interest, a little tense in the shoulders, but no more afraid. She would be fine. He stood up and smoothed out the bed sheets where he had been sitting.
“I will be going,” he said, gesturing to the door. There was something in her eyes that made him hesitate. A plea, perhaps, a tinge of that fear he thought to have disappeared. She did not want to be left alone. “Miss Marence will be here in no time,” he assured her, words coming out strangely distorted as he could not decide on his tone.
“I want to get some books…” she began, but he silenced her immediately with a raised finger.
“Out of question. Rest, Miss Ravencroft. And eat,” he added sternly, forcing the tray into her hands. “I will come to check up on you regularly to make sure you are taking proper care of yourself. Though I do hope this moment of leisure doesn’t make you forget our agreement.”
The raven girl gave him a semi-defiant look, but behind that mask he could see amusement. So she was well enough to be entertained at his expense. He opened his mouth to scold her, then closed it with a sigh. Just this once, he would let her off the hook.
“Could I ask you to bring me some books from the library then?” she asked and he knit his brows, instantly regretting his decision.
“Are you in a place to ask a teacher for errands?”
“I just thought I would do some studying, since…”
He gave her a withering look. “Rest.”
The order came firm and he said no more. He left her to herself and let the door snap shut behind him. The library was his next destination. Urag gro-Shub would surely be awake by now, providing him with a chance to do a little observation. As he strode across the corridor and through the courtyard, he devised a plan in his head. After all, the library was not a bad place to spend an entire day. And perhaps he could pick up some ‘light’ reading for the young Miss Ravecroft to occupy herself with while he’s at it. Just in case.
He froze as he reached the foyer to the Hall of the Elements, hand on the scuffed brass handle of the entrance to the Arcanaeum. Just what have I become? he thought to himself with an internal scoff. A nanny?
The next two days passed in a flash. Yrith Ravencroft had been moved back to her own room in the Hall of Attainment, but Singird always found the time to go see her. It proved a difficult task, as her room was almost never empty. Curiously enough, quite a few people found interest in the Breton girl.
Aside from Colette Marence who always came to change her bandages and bring her a health potion along with a bowl of meat broth, and Lady Faralda who checked up on her foster child regularly, there was also Cain Aldaryn who supposedly brought Miss Ravencroft notes from the classes and liked to stay longer than necessary. Qassir Tahlrah too visited her frequently and with no apparent reason. Singird felt slight contempt toward the boys, grumbling inwardly that children these days had no decency.
On the fourth day, he was readying himself for another visit. Lurking in the Conjuration section of the Arcanaeum, he sifted through the tomes to find appropriate literature for her. The way she devoured books like a dragon does a man brought smile to his lips. During his visits, they mostly talked about Conjuration. Her approach was unusual. She claimed to be able to extend her mind into Oblivion, which, as far as he was concerned, was impossible for any ordinary mortal. But if, by any chance, it was true, she could indeed be a great asset to him. Soul studies. Things that he and Miss Marence could not do… what if Yrith Ravencroft could?
His finger slid over the back of a book. The Conjuration section did not have much to offer to Miss Ravencroft anymore. There was only so much books could give her. He scanned the shelves of neatly arranged volumes, then his eyes drifted elsewhere. An idea formed in his mind.
He passed the orc librarian, grumbling something under his breath as he sorted through the books. His usual zeal was replaced with agitation of sorts. Singird was slowly coming to terms with the fact that he would not be able to look into his secret collection anytime soon. Perhaps Miss Marence had been discovered. For the past few days, Urag gro-Shub had seemed distracted and irritable, and worst of all, he had been sitting on his books like a hen on its eggs. And so Singird focused on providing Miss Ravencroft with as much knowledge and information he could, considering it a future investment.
Singird cut through the Illusion section, then stopped in the small corner dedicated to Mysticism and soul studies. The book he pulled out was old as time, its original color indiscernible on the threadbare cover. Only its spine bore a fading inscription. Soul Integrity: Shaping the Reality. This would do. And if Yrith Ravencroft were to suddenly miraculously improve in Alteration, then Master Tolfdir owed him a tankard of Nord Mead.
He turned to the librarian, just in time to watch him place the last book and return to his desk. The orc’s eyes were shooting daggers.
“Just what do you need, lemon face?” he flared up, waving a paper in Singird’s direction. The Nord sighed.
“I’m taking this to Miss Ravencroft. And thank you,” he hinted a curtsy. Pity that Orsimer did not flush, for it would have made this whole display that much entertaining. Urag scowled and bared his teeth.
“No, you are not. She is not getting books from me anymore.”
“Oh? Since when are you two arch-enemies?”
“None of your business, the door’s over there,” the orc retorted. “And while you’re at it, take this to her.” Inserting the paper in an envelope, he sealed it and handed it to Singird. He took it, inspecting it curiously, but the wrapping paper was thick and far from transparent. The orc kept his hand extended. “The book, please.”
“In that case, I am borrowing it,” Singird said with a casual shrug.
“You are not allowed.”
“You wish to stand in the way of my research and the College’s progress?” Singird hinted a smile, barely keeping himself from fully expressing it as the orc grew absolutely furious.
“Go add that to the Anuad, Larkwing. Who are you trying to fool here?”
“Very well. Then I am returning this.” He held out the envelope. Urag hissed like a sabre cat, then threw up his arms and turned away, waving Singird off.
“Whatever. Go eat some troll dung,” he growled.
“My pleasure and good day to you too,” Singird sang, leaving the orc to his rage. Even at the bottom of the stairs, he could still hear him muttering under his breath.
Singird had never been great with Alteration magic, but curiosity had gotten the better of him. He twirled the envelope in his fingers, pondering what in Oblivion could have caused that orc to act so furious at the expense of young Miss Ravencroft who he obviously adored. He carefully slid a thread of magic under the seal, separating it from the wrapping. The paper inside slid out into the palm of his hand and he grinned inwardly with satisfaction. Unfolding it, he gazed at the single line that was written there.
You’ll return the book or else. Urag
The script was jagged and sloping, not the usual tidy Urag gro-Shub writing he was used to. That must have been some book.
He entered Miss Ravencroft’s room to find her shaken yet again. More often than not he found her cowering in some unspoken fear, but she obstinately refused to explain herself. Instead, she changed topic or let him keep up the conversation, forcing herself to regain her composure while he did. She had trouble sleeping. He could see it in the weary look in her eyes, her stooped shoulders and shaky movements. But every time he asked, she averted her face as though she was feeling ashamed. And Singird grew concerned.
She was gripping a book, staring blankly at the pages. Upon his arrival, she raised her head but turned away quickly, gentle flush spreading across her cheeks. If it was like this, he would just have to get straight to the point and leave her with no choice but to confess.
“This is the third time,” he said with an overdramatic sigh. “Miss Ravencroft, if you are unwell, you are allowed to say so. I’m sure Master Marence would find a suitable remedy.”
She shook her head, putting her book aside and wrapping her arms around a pillow. Again, she let the silence linger heavily in the air. He took the chair just beside her bed and seated himself, lowering his head to her level.
“Whatever you are dealing with, I want you to tell me,” he insisted, resolute hardness coating his words. She was forced to look at him, eyes red rimmed and tired.
“It is nothing,” she mumbled and he could sense her uneasiness.
“This nothing keeps you sleepless and weary. Do you not trust me?”
She kept gazing at him, silent doubt in her eyes.
“I will not laugh,” he assured her. “I will not scorn you. If it is truly nothing, as you claim, then I shall admit to that and drop the subject.”
She bit on her lip. Her eyes drifted somewhere behind him and he knew she was simply avoiding looking him in the face. She took a breath. Then another one. No words would escape her lips, just like back when he was forcing her to speak of her parents. Was it that serious?
That time, he had bribed her with tea. But there was no tea in Miss Ravencroft’s room. There was nothing that would give her comfort. Even the chair he was occupying was old and creaky and had no cushion to make him feel at ease. The walls were barren, the desk could only hold a portion of her study materials and the floor was cold and grey with no furs to provide warmth and the gentle feeling of coziness. He vaguely recalled his own room had looked like this in his student years, giving him a reason to spend most of his time in the Arcanaeum.
Singird groped about his pocket, withdrawing a crumbled rockie wrapped in a piece of paper. That was all he had.
“Here,” he offered, extending his hand. “Perhaps a taste of home would make you feel better.”
She took it and turned it in her trembling fingers for examination. Then she nibbled at it and a hint of smile played on her lips. She gave a silent approving nod.
“So?” he suggested.
“It’s just… these dreams I have,” she uttered softly, fingers digging into her pillow.
Hesitantly at first, she told him of her nightmares. As she went on, her voice grew steady and more pleading than unsure. She spoke of all the souls she could feel, of the pain piercing her body. She told him of all the emotions that infested her mind and threatened to swallow her every time she dreamt. Feelings poured out of her and Singird felt overwhelmed. By the time she finished, she was clenching her fists and tears rolled down in glistening streaks over her face. Singird clutched the edges of his chair.
“Just to clarify,” he said, “the pain you felt was… real? Did your body ache?”
She nodded, tasting the salt on her lips.
“Have you told anyone?”
“N-no! They… already think I’m a freak. I don’t want to…”
“It could be an illusion spell. We should have you examined.”
“I don’t feel like I’m under an illusion.”
“Well, that would be a poor spell if you could recognize it.” He gave her a smirk and her cheeks turned red like a ripe apple. “Many a life shattered under the stubbornness of their own masters. Do not let a fickle emotion threaten your life, Miss Ravencroft.”
She paused and fidgeted in her bed. “Why do you care anyway?”
He knew she was feeling cornered. At the first sign of urgency from his part, she would snap and bite back. He sighed. “Have I ever given you a reason to doubt me?”
“You have not, but that doesn’t explain why you do it.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had no right to question her trust. He had not earned it. His interest was based on his own selfish reasons, and he would be lying to himself if he thought he cared for her. And she was no fool. She saw it in his eyes.
“We are digressing,” he tried.
“Are we?” she snarled. “If I perished right now, not a single tear would be shed. Or can you prove otherwise?”
He stared at her, incredulous of her words. Not even he would go that far. Her words were offending him and, curiously enough, hurting as well.
“Are you listening to yourself?” he breathed, hands clenching into fists. His head was filled with rage. He would have pinned her to the wall, had his dignity allowed it. “Will you tell that to gro-Shub’s face? Will you say that in front of Lady Faralda? Old Toddvar downtown was singing praises of you! Even that Dunmer boy seems to care. How dare you scoff at the affection they have for you!”
“Is this what you’ve been doing here all the time? Pondering whether your life is in vain?”
“I was just… I thought… that no one would love a good-for-nothing like me.” Her voice was almost inaudible, as though she feared her own words. And maybe she did.
“Indeed,” Singird replied coolly, “no one would love a good-for-nothing like you.”
She stared at him, forgetting her breath, and he could see a fresh supply of tears welling in her eyes. The sight sent a sting of guilt Singird’s way, but he masked it with a somewhat gentle smile.
“But you do you and it is solely up to you what you become. Those people have a reason to think you are not the good-for-nothing you believe yourself to be.”
She clutched her pillow, gaze drifting beyond her window. There was nothing there but the usual snowy greyness. “How can you say that to someone who killed her parents?”
Yet again, she was forcing out a truth he could not give. He would not be putting her in danger. Not any more than she already was. It was a poor excuse crafted just to soothe his conscience, but true nonetheless.
“Because,” he said, the ice in his tone melting entirely, “I saw your eyes when you spoke of that day, and they were not the eyes of a murderer.”
Instead of receding, the tears now flew in rivers, falling in glistening drops from her chin. She cried a lot, this one, and he was not good with tears at all. He waited, watching her in silence. They were staining her robe and the blanket she was creasing in her fists, and he felt the urge to wipe them off just so they would stop. He stifled it, letting them flow. She hinted a smile through the pouring streaks, as though a great burden had just been taken off her shoulders. He made an attempt to return it.
“Reconsidering now?” he asked, handing her a handkerchief he withdrew from the depths of his robe. She took it shakily, but let it rest in her hand without using it. He frowned in disapproval, but let her have her way. A nod was the only answer she gave.
“By the way, Urag gro-Shub sends you a message. He seemed to be quite angry with you, so perhaps you could start by mending that.”
Her eyes widened as she unfolded the note. She clutched it, fingers tearing into the paper like hungry talons.
“Thank you,” she murmured unconvincingly. He quirked his brows, but did not ask the uncomfortable question. Instead, his next words surprised even himself.
“Say, Miss Ravencroft… how do you steal a book from someone like Urag gro-Shub?”
She raised her head, searching for mockery in his face. Tears stopped falling and the trickles dried out on her cheeks. She semi-chuckled, flushing with embarrassment.
“Well… I’ve never really thought about it but… I’d say it’s easy to steal from someone who trusts you…” she trailed off, averting her gaze. Singird let out a snort.
“I suppose. Larceny and honor don’t go together, eh?”
“You… don’t sound angry at me.”
“Because that is between you and gro-Shub.”
“So… why are you interested?” She was reading his face, he was certain of it. She knew he had not asked just so he could scold her. Interest sparked in her eyes, and despite himself, Singird found that quite amusing.
“Because he has something I need and pretends he doesn’t.”
She laughed in earnest. “That does sound like Urag.”
“Well, unlike you, my options are limited,” Singird said, still not believing his own words. But somehow, they had a miraculous effect on Miss Ravencroft and he welcomed it.
“Do you want me to help?”
“Absolutely not. You are in enough trouble already.” And how could he ever tell her that he was searching for clues on her parents? “I need something from his secret collection, and who knows what would happen if he caught you again.”
“Secret collection? Which one?”
Singird’s lips quirked up at the question. Young Yrith had no idea what she had just offered.
“The one containing books with the stamp of the Association of Wizards and Alchemists,” he said, eyes fixed on her in anticipation of her reaction. She froze and sized him up, and he could almost feel the questions exploding in her head. But she was not sad as he expected her to be. Only curiosity reflected in those silver eyes, and he felt a touch of relief at that.
“The AWA?” she asked.
“You know them?” Another sting of guilt followed the lie. Singird forced himself to stifle it.
“My parents worked for them.”
She nodded, smiling with a touch of pride. “They were spellbrewers.”
“Spellbrewers? And that is…?”
“Hmm, well… they…” even as she was deep in thought, her smile widened into a brightness he had not seen on her before, “they weaved magic into things. They could create books that would swallow your entire person, or shoes that would let you get from Daggerfall to the southeast of Black Marsh in one day. They could draw magicka from thin air and brew it into a potion at will.”
Singird did not even try to contain himself as his eyes widened in astonishment. What she had just described was outright impossible. Children often like to exaggerate. This must have been the case.
“You must have quite admired them, didn’t you?”
She pursed her lips and threw him a piercing look, a sulking child act at her best. “You are mocking me!”
“No. If I was mocking you, even your hair would catch on fire.”
“And here I thought…” she trailed off, sealing her lips, eyes pinning the floor.
“As you wish, Miss Ravencroft,” he said with a soft smile. “I shall be going, but before that, take this.” He handed her the book he had taken from the library. She took it and examined it, then looked up to him with a raised brow.
“Soul Integrity? That’s not… a Conjuration book, is it?”
“No, but it should help you with your studies.” How easy it had become to lie to her. It had taken him four visits to master the craft. And she was unsuspecting, grateful for every single book he had brought her and every little bit of support she received. He felt a sudden urge to leave the room as soon as possible. She brightened with thanks and he felt a stab in his chest.
“I’ll have it read by tomorrow then,” she said and with utmost care placed the book on top of the small column raised on her desk. Singird nodded, rising to his feet.
“Until tomorrow then. Rest well. I will be informing the teachers of your nightmares, so do expect a visit.”
With that, he left, letting out a long, weary exhale as the door snapped shut behind him. For a short while, he let himself just breathe to regain his composure. The Hall of Attainment was empty, its occupants out for a class, and he was grateful for it. He turned to the door and froze. Lady Faralda was standing there, deep frown on her face and a hand on her hip. He stared at her, lowering his head in a greeting, but she did not return it.
“You have certainly been spending quite a lot of time with my foster child,” she commented, voice cold as ice.
“Perhaps,” he gave a cautious reply.
“A word, if you please, Master Larkwing. In my room.” He studied her face but could not read anything of what was in there. Lady Faralda was as good at concealing her thoughts as any high elf. Measuring up to him in height, with stern look in her eyes and features as sharp as though they had been carved with a chisel, she commanded respect like no other member of the Collegium. Fortunately, she and Miss Ervine were on good enough terms to not blast the place into the air when a dispute arose between them. Not even Singird dared oppose her, and so he simply nodded and followed her in silence into the Hall of Countenance. She led him into her room, closing the door behind her as soon as they entered.
“What is this all about?” she demanded, turning to him without offering him a seat. Her voice was calm and velvety as always, with no apparent tension, and that alone unnerving.
“Whatever you might be talking about?” Despite himself, he was decided not to give anything for free.
“Oh please, Master Larkwing. Yrith has been hurt carrying out the detention you gave her. I remember you spouting threats about expelling her just as you arrived. And you are the only teacher who keeps visiting her every single day. Auri-El help you if you lay a finger on her.”
Singird clenched his fists, look turning stone-hard. If this was a contest of wills, so be it. “Then why don’t you ask her what we do?”
There was just a momentary hesitation before Lady Faralda spoke, her voice a tone colder than before. “Because I want to ask the initiator.”
“Even if you will not get the answer you seek?”
“Oh I will, I assure you.” Her fists mirrored his own. Realization dawned upon him and he could not deny himself a triumphant smile.
“You will not ask her,” he said as he leaned against her own cabinet, “because she would not talk to you.”
“You will not dare…”
“Oh I will dare. Tell me, Lady Faralda, how much do you even know about your foster child?”
“Enough to be willing to feed her, and that is all you need to know. I, on the other hand, have asked a question to which I still don’t have an answer.”
Singird sighed, discarding the smirk that he had not even realized he wore. “Lady Faralda, please, for once, take off that mask of ice and stone and talk to her with an open mind. She will give you the answer.”
“Are you ridiculing me?”
Searing, red anger, churning and fighting its way out. And he would let it. He glared at her, face twisted in fury. “You are ridiculing yourself! For all that pride you have, you do not even realize the danger she’s in! You are blind to her reasons and to whatever led to her acting the way she does!”
“Indeed. While you know everything, don’t you, Master Larkwing? The young Nordic prodigy cannot be wrong.” In spite of her words, Lady Faralda was unsure on her feet and her eyes wandered around the room, searching for nonexistent support. Singird drew in a deep breath.
“For the Nine’s sake, you two are such a hopeless case.” She opened her mouth to retort, but he would not let her. “She said to me that no one would care if she died. And the fool of me told her off for discarding you so easily! I’m starting to wonder what came over me.”
There was silence. Everything in the room was still and Singird could swear that she had ceased breathing. Her mask was shattered. Faralda gaped at him, motionless as though a blizzard made her freeze in place.
“She said what?” she asked at last.
“You heard me.”
She gestured toward her chair. “Sit down, please.”
Singird sized her up, pondering whether it meant she was willing to listen, or just that it would be a long discussion. Reluctantly, he seated himself, watching as she sat on the bed across the room.
“What else has she told you?” she asked, amber gaze on his face. He shook his head.
“That I will not share. Whatever she told me, she can tell you as well. But I will tell you what she does not know and I do.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Miss Ravencroft is in danger. Someone is aiming for her life.”
She let out a snort. “How entertaining. Please, tell me something new. And just for the record, I thought you were the one. What proof do you have of it?”
“Proof? It’s…” Singird paused, unsure how to continue. He had promised he would not reveal her secret. Miss Ravencroft had the right to tell Lady Faralda herself. To deny her that chance would be equal to a stab in the back. He sighed. “Her parents were killed,” he said at last. “I can’t tell you how I know. I made a promise to her not to reveal what she’d told me and I intend to keep it. But I know. She was supposed to be made the culprit.
“After the first night of her detention, a passerby guard told me she had been attacked by an ice wraith and she confirmed it. Those creatures are no fools, they know better than to approach human settlements. It had strayed far from its territory… or it had been planted there intentionally. And a few days ago, a cliff broke off and fell. I think Miss Marence and Master Neloren are already investigating this, but the only thing we are certain of is that the magic protecting the cliff had been breached. I hardly think it a coincidence that Miss Ravencroft was the one to take the blow. Would that be enough of a proof to you?”
There was a moment of silence when Lady Faralda searched his face for any kind of trickery. Then, she gave a slow nod. “You sound true and I shall believe you. But that brings a question. Are you investigating?”
“I am indeed.”
“And how far have you gotten?”
Singird let out a bitter laugh. “Straight to the point, huh? Close to nowhere. I assumed the best way would be to search for information about her parents. But she is sensitive about it and I can’t even be certain she knows what I am looking for.”
Lady Faralda rose and opened the door to look around. She cast a few spells and Singird could register a Detect Life, Detect Death and a few other detection spells he did not recognize. She then closed the door shut and sealed it with magic, casting shields and various protection spells ensuring their privacy. Then, she turned to Singird with a firm resolution in her eyes.
“One can never be careful enough,” she said. “I do hope I am not making a mistake by trusting you, but I must admit you have gotten much further than I have over the past six months, and with no initial information too. I will share what I can.” She sank back to her seat, looking worn out and much older than moments before. “Tell me, Master Larkwing. Have you ever heard of the Association of Wizards and Alchemists?”
“That name seems to come up in conversations a lot lately,” he nodded.
“Truly? Who else knows of them?”
“Miss Marence and, from what I can assume, Urag gro-Shub.”
“Miss Marence, hm? Then let us hope we are safe.” Or so she said, but Singird was quite certain she was going to seek out the Restoration Master and interrogate her. “Do you know what the AWA stands for?”
“They are a secret organization that covers itself up with a not so secret identity. In truth, they have many identities. The AWA itself forks off to all the provinces in Tamriel under the guise of a simple guild of mages and alchemists that does nothing but provide simple services for those who pay for them. But there are departments that are much more than that. The AWA seems to rise and fall every now and then and that’s why no one pays much attention to their existence, but these fluctuations are strictly planned. There are, however, branches that have lasted for millennia and no one had ever even attempted to connect them to the AWA, such as the College of Whispers or the Psijic Order.”
Singird nearly fell off his chair, eyes widening in disbelief. “I beg your pardon?”
“Indeed, I found the information just as shocking as you do. There is, however, a connection. Do you know what Yrith’s parents did for living?”
“Spellbrewers, whatever that might mean. I have just been told.”
“Correct. Spellbrewing is… to put it simply, the art of manipulating the world around you directly with your magicka. It is a dangerous craft and you can rarely find anyone who is capable of performing even the basics. You see, the magic that holds the cliffs around the College is simple. We create an invisible shield and mechanically bind the matter in place. But hand it to Yrith’s parents and they will change its structure. The matter will be imbued with magic from the inside. It will be, if I use a ridiculous simplification, alive.”
“But that is… impossible.”
“It is not, but a single spell costs a tremendous amount of energy. There are people who know how to get around it to some extent. The Ravencrofts did too.”
“Which is why they had enemies,” Singird concluded, but the elf shook her head.
“No. They had enemies because they sought them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wish I could tell you more, but I cannot. I served as the AWA’s contact point, but that does not mean they let me in when it came to their secrets. The AWA is immensely interested in places holding large amounts of magic, and the College is one of them. But, unlike their other branches, the core institution is strictly political. Whenever a political conflict arises, they send their agents to investigate. There is something, or, possibly, someone they seek, but that is all I know. I am sworn to cooperate in their interest for a financial compensation – which, by the way, is what keeps Yrith fed and taken care of. The Ravencrofts were such agents. They came in search of something, but never shared more than they had to. And I believe that something is what got them in the end.”
“So you have no clue whatsoever?”
“I wouldn’t say that. We know it is something highly magical and powerful. We also know that it has to do with places of magic and the AWA is after it. It would probably help if I could enter the Ravencrofts’ old house, but it is protected with magic. I think the only one who can enter it is Yrith herself and anyone she allows to.”
“Then our objective is clear.”
Faralda shook her head. “No, Master Larkwing. That will come when we run out of options, but do not drag her into it. I shudder to think she can’t even protect herself from normal magic, let alone that… thing.”
To that, Singird had to laugh. Faralda shot him an incredulous look, but he only smiled. “Lady Faralda, I can assure you that Miss Ravencroft is fully capable of protecting herself.”
“Do not delude yourself now. She is unable to cast a proper flame spell. How can she protect herself from a real threat?”
“That is what you say. Care to bet on it?”
“I do not bet,” she replied coolly, “and I would certainly not be so foolish to bet on my daughter’s incompetence. But you make me curious.”
“Lady Faralda, you have not put a single drop of faith in your foster child. Give her a chance and she will shine.”
“Skill does not depend on faith, Master Larkwing.”
“There are cases in which it does.”
She half sighed, half laughed. “Human wisdom eludes me,” she said. “But you say so, then I shall give it a try. Just this once.”
“And I shall sanctify it,” he quipped. Lady Faralda shot him a look, one brow arched in disbelief.
“Master Larkwing, I think you’re in no position to be saying that.”
He chuckled, withdrawing a septim. “Care to bet on it?”
A corner of her mouth twitched. A sight Singird thought he would never see. “I do not bet.”