She opened her eyes slowly.
She felt like she was made completely of ice.
And the whole world was made of white.
She moved her arms slowly; they were stiff and numb, extended over her head, her face against the cold hard ground.
As she moved she felt small avalanches set off all around her; snow falling off her naked body.
She sat up to see a giant of a man; a stone statue, holding his sword, point to the earth, staring stoically out across the ocean.
Even on an uninhabited island in the Sea of Ghosts, some Nord had built this beautiful statue to their favoured God.
“Talos guide me…” She whispered as she looked up at her ancestor.
She stared at his face for a moment until the freezing cold of her body became too much to bear.
She could barely move from cold numbness, so standing was clumsy and painful, snow tumbling to the ground.
She looked around and saw lumps under the snow where her armour had fallen when she had turned back to her Human form.
She walked to the statue, her feet that peculiar kind of numb that a sword could slice them off and she wouldn’t feel it that only comes from extreme cold; and yet somehow she could feel every rock beneath the snow so intimately it felt like it should be as sharp and painful as daggers in her feet… But she felt no pain as she approached the statue.
“Vilkas will never believe me that you are working with Hircine in me…” She said to the statue, but then her eyebrows furrowed at the thought of Vilkas and a pain more severe than the ice under her feet exploded to life in her heart. She thought of what she had lost; a kind of innocent belief in the idea of friendship and the honour of people. She felt a fool; she knew he had been lying to her all along, but had still allowed herself to trust him… To care so deeply for him.
She looked down at the tattoo of Vilkas on her chest, her heart hurting for what she’d lost. She put her hand over her heart and let her fingers trace along the wolf. She couldn’t even understand anything of what had happened in the Underforge; her deep desire for him, unlike anything she’d ever known, her sense of betrayal, her need to hear her name on his lips… And his denial.
She didn’t want to think about this.
She looked back up at the statue of Talos, gently placing her fingertips on the shrine at the feet of the statue and felt the purple electricity tingle under her fingers, travelling through her whole body.
“Will you bless me no matter where I am Great Grandfather?” She asked him, awed that she could receive a blessing from him in the middle of nowhere like this.
She knew there were so many generations between him and her; but she had no intention of saying dozens of greats every time she addressed him as family.
“Are you watching over me?” She whispered, wondering if he knew the pain she felt, if he cared about such trivial matters. “Have I made the right decisions?” She whispered, feeling as though she might as well be talking to the Void.
She wondered if the Gods didn’t just have their own agenda and weren’t at all interested in actually helping her; instead they were guiding her to do their bidding… isn’t that what being their Champion meant?
She put her hands on the altar before Talos, looking at all the offerings that had been left to him; flowers, coins, steel daggers, armour… people came out here regularly to make offerings to Talos. They loved him. She looked back up at his face, thinking of how he had embraced her as kin in the Void.
She couldn’t hope to fathom the plans of Gods. She knew that.
But she just wanted one clear answer.
She felt a strange non-corporeal clanging inside of her; as if her chest had been ripped open and her ribs dangled, banging together as she moved, her exposed heart beating, bleeding…
She put a hand over her chest again.
She had been disappointed by people before; her father’s rejection had been particularly painful for her 11-year-old self to handle… she did not understand why this disappointment should hurt so much more than anything she’d ever experienced.
She turned away from the statue and gathered her armour and clothing, her body grateful to be getting some clothes to cover it, protect it from the frigid cold.
The island was small, and quite a distance out from the mainland; she could see Skyrim’s coast across the calm, iced waters.
She could see a huge fortress on an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge and she stared at the building curiously.
The ocean raged and smashed against the island but was calmer on the shores of the mainland, and she could see what looked like cottages at the edge of the cliff on the mainland.
The words of Aranea Ienith, waiting for her at the shrine to Azura, returned to her; this was Winterhold, and that was the Mage’s College she could see in the far distance. She looked back up at the statue of Talos.
“You all said you needed Azura.” Saadia said, “Guess I better go get her for you then; I’ve got nothing better to do right now.” Saadia plunged into the icy water and began the long swim back to the mainland.
In some regards the icy water was welcome, focussing on making her limbs move through the soupy water, made her not think about her other troubles.
As she got closer to the mainland, the ice slowly got more solid. At first, she broke through it and kept swimming, but eventually it grew strong enough for her to pull herself out of the water, shivering, a thin layer of ice forming over her armour as she slowly trudged through the falling snow across the pack ice.
She carefully made her way across the ice, every step considered; she knew the ice might not hold her and would plunge her back into the frosty water. She was glad to finally make it to the snow covered solid ground about an hour after setting out from the island.
She looked back across the frozen sea to the island, Talos looking somewhat forlorn, but always stoic, in the distance. She had made good progress.
And the snow came down harder. But she trudged on up the mountainous landscape towards the town of Winterhold.
And in amongst the white noise of the blizzard she heard a strange clicking hiss, then another.
She turned, trying to see what had made the noise.
She could see nothing.
And then the clicking hiss came from behind her. She spun on the spot to try and see it.
And now she knew she was being hunted.
She slowly took her warhammer from her back, turning on the spot equally as slow, her eyes scanning the snowy air.
She turned to see nothing.
Again, nothing there.
And then something crashed against the top of her helmet, the force of the blow so hard and unexpected it drove her to her knees. The Masque of Clavicus Vile again saving her from serious injury.
She looked up but there was nothing there.
She got up slowly, scanning the area around her, now aware she had to look up as well. Whatever it was, could fly.
A slow sinuous hiss from behind her. Saadia resisted the urge to turn, and instead paid close attention to her peripheral vision.
And there she saw it.
A ghostly, serpentine creature, undulating through the air lazily, it’s pale, almost transparent body making it all but impossible to see against the snowy backdrop.
She knew this creature; an ice wraith… Vilkas had told her about the first time he and Farkas had met one of these creatures.
She pushed aside the thought of Vilkas and focussed on the wraith.
As soon as she made the slightest movement towards it, it flitted off quicker than a fish, slicing through the air like fish in the ocean.
From behind her again.
She turned to see it, but simultaneously swung her hammer the other way. Her trickery allowed her blow to hit its mark; but the speed of the wraith made it just a glancing blow.
It flew away, swimming through the air effortlessly, Saadia watching it, fascinated.
It seemed to be made entirely of clear ice; an armoured snake with huge fangs in an almost Dragon like face. It was larger than the average snakes she’d seen in Skyrim, but there were snakes this size on the Isle of Stirk.
She knew it would circle wide, just out of her vision, and come back for the attack.
And she also knew it wouldn’t fall for the same trick again.
She knew it could move faster than her, could approach her from any angle, and it could hit hard. Vilkas had told her they had frost attacks as well.
Again, Saadia swallowed back thoughts of Vilkas.
She needed to focus on the wraith…
She waited, devising a plan of attack. She wondered if she should let it get another hit in, then pretend to be more injured than she was in an attempt to lure it in.
But in the end, she decided to go for the most obvious thing.
She waited for-
She closed her eyes, letting her ears pick up the slight sound of its hiss.
She took a deep breath, trying to gently call on the wolf, tapping into her heightened senses. She didn’t know how to do this… it was hard without guidance from the Circle.
The wind roared around her, the blizzard growing worse. But still she listened for the slight noises of the ice wraith as it hunted her.
And then she heard it clearly, accelerating to attack her from the left flank.
She spun around quickly.
The wraith screeched and wheeled away, just centimetres from making contact with her. She watched it partially melt, its movements become less agile.
It started to glide away from her, slower than before. But she leapt at it, bringing it to the ground under the fury of her hammer.
It made a satisfying cracking sound when it got caught between her hammer and the ground.
It clicked pitifully, writhing on the ground. But Saadia did not hesitate. She slammed her hammer down on it again, shattering it into a snowy powder.
She looked down at the dead ice wraith and saw something sharp and blue glistening amongst its remains. She picked them up – its teeth. She was sure someone would buy these. She shoved them in her satchel and tried to get her bearings.
The huge shadow of the College loomed over the landscape, even in the blizzard, and she continued to head towards it. She knew it sat out over the ocean and could only be reached by a stone bridge from the mainland, but she also knew that the city of Winterhold was on the other side of that bridge, so she hoped she would find it in this blizzard by following the shadow of the College.
Her teeth were clattering with cold when she came to the massive ice cliffs looming over the snow beaches of the Sea of Ghosts.
The College was behind her now, standing high above the raging ocean; this section of the coast was far more rugged and wild than where the island with the statue of Talos was. She turned and looked at the College atop a mountain, disconnected from the mainland, ominously still and silent in a raging environment.
“Magic.” She shuddered with the cold, her breath frosting white all about her as it left her mouth.
She turned back to the ice cliffs and gritted her teeth. It was time to climb.
The cliffs were either sheer, slippery ice, or huge tumbled down boulders. Saadia spent her time between scrambling over boulders, trying not to get a foot caught between them (that way led to a snapped ankle) and desperately trying to get any sort of handhold on the icy smooth cliffs.
It was so dark and gloomy here. The freezing cold, the blizzard, the sound of the waves crashing far below, the climb.
She sank into it easily; it was like sinking into the cold ocean – it helped her not think about Whiterun.
She fell into a rhythm, slowly edging up the vertiginous cliffs, choosing each movement carefully, knowing that a slip would have her fall to her death. And she didn’t want to bet on how many times Kynareth would intervene.
When she finally pulled herself up over the lip of the final edge and saw a ruined house in front of her she laughed shakily.
All around her were the ghosts of homes; ragged skeletons of what had once been walls, fire pits… people’s lives.
She walked among the rundown buildings, ruins of an obviously once great past, snow weighing heavily on them, wondering where she was.
She looked over to the College… this should be Winterhold.
She had read that Winterhold was a great city; one of the largest in Skyrim… but now she wondered if anyone was alive here.
There was a loud crack and she spun to see an old delipidated roof breaking under the weight of the snow. She watched it fall into what would have once been someone’s kitchen; but the whole side of this house was missing, and by the looks of it, whatever had caused this devastation had happened years ago.
She saw a fire twinkling up ahead and headed towards it, hoping it would be someone who could guide her to Winterhold.
It was a guard, patrolling the main road, really the only road, of what was left of Winterhold.
Saadia saw that the earth fell away abruptly, the bridge to the College the only thing that still looked maintained. She turned the other way and saw a few small buildings. She could see that there had obviously been some sort of huge disaster; part of the city had obviously fallen into the ocean. Saadia could see houses ripped in two, standing right on the edge of the precipice, the other half had obviously fallen to the ocean long ago. What Saadia wondered now was why hadn’t these buildings been removed and the city rebuilt?
She turned towards what was left of the city, walking up the gloomy streets, guards holding torches above their heads, patrolling all the way up to the bridge that led to the College, before turning back. She walked up the road until the buildings stopped and then started walking around them all; sure she must have missed part of the city…
“Don’t walk away from me!” A woman’s voice. Saadia turned to look away; it wasn’t her business. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Where do you think I’m going? To the inn to get a drink.” A man responding.
“Do you think that will solve all of our problems?” She asked, obviously worried for the man. Saadia didn’t budge; she wasn’t getting involved. She walked past them, deciding to head to the inn for information about Azura’s star. The innkeepers always had information, and Azura’s vision had sent her here to this depressing town.
“Well it’s the only thing I’ve got in this Gods forsaken town!” The man was saying as Saadia came to the inn.
“The Frozen Hearth.” She read its sign, “Of course.”
She went inside. Even the inn was gloomy.
But the smell of food set Sadia’s stomach rumbling and she could feel the amber coming up in her eyes.
She closed her eyes, focussing her mind, as her sister from Stirk had taught her to do; going back to basics. She hummed slightly, bringing all her thoughts to a point, and banishing them, only the humming existed, and then she stopped humming, and her mind was still and silent.
She opened her eyes and looked around.
She saw the man behind the bar washing cups and shaking his head grumpily.
And then an Elf walked out of one of the rooms.
“I’m sorry Dagur, but could you describe the smell?” Saadia could tell that this was an ongoing conversation by the way the barkeep rolled his eyes before replying.
“Like some horrible monster was turned inside out, and then exploded.” He answered and the Elf scrunched his nose, “What did you do?” The barkeep put the mug and cloth down.
“It was a minor miscalculation.” The Elf answered dismissively, “I've already corrected it for future experiments.”
“This, this is why people have a problem with your College, Nelacar.” The barkeep answered, but the Elf went back into his room, muttering.
She ordered a simple meal and sat down at a table by herself, watching the people of Winterhold drowning their sorrows; even the Jarl came in, without a housecarl, to drink himself into a merry mood. But no one’s mood became merry.
The food was wholesome but uninspiring, the mead cold but weak, and there was no bard.
She sat silently, drinking the bad mead and eating the mediocre food, watching a man across the inn drinking himself into a stupor, the Jarl himself sitting stoically a few seats down, drinking too. She could tell he was the Jarl because of his fine clothes. Everyone else here was obviously poor.
She tried to not notice all the little details about people that her wolf senses gave her. She tried to not think about Whiterun… about the Underforge. She put her hand over her chest again, making sure it was still whole; the ache in it was trying to tell her that she was broken.
A woman approached the barkeeper and sighed sadly.
“How long are we going to let Ranmir drink himself into a stupor? When will enough be enough?” She asked him.
“As long as he keeps paying, I suppose.” Dagur responded.
“He’s not paying!”
“He keeps to himself Haran.” He countered, “He isn't hurting anyone.”
“Are you so sure of that?” Haran asked pointedly, “I think Birna might disagree with you.”
“It's not my place to get involved in their family's business, remember?” He returned her pointed tone of voice, “You're the one that told me to stay out of it.”
Saadia got up, thinking she might ask for a room so she could sleep. But Haran was already coming over to clear away her plate.
“I hope the meal was alright.”
“Yes thank you.”
“No it needed more salt, but I don’t have any.” Haran sighed, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“It sounds like Ranmir is a problem?” Saadia asked, her usual level of enthusiasm and curiosity very muted.
“He owes this tavern enough coin to burn it down, build it back up, then burn it down again just for laughs.” She answered, “He's had some troubles in his life, but I can't have him drinking here without at least paying back some of the coin he owes.”
“Alright, I’ll talk to him if you like?” Saadia said, hoping that doing some small deeds for the townsfolk would help her feel more like herself.
“Go right ahead. He just might be sober enough to listen to you.”
Saadia went over to the other side of the inn and sat down beside Ranmir.
“Unless you’re buying the next round, I got nothing to say to you.” He said. Saadia recognised him as the man she’d seen arguing with a woman when she had been walking through the ‘city.’
“Alright.” Saadia motioned for 2 drinks and the man’s attitude quickly changed
“Hello friend!” He said with a big grin.
“You like the inn?” She asked him.
“Nothing to do here but drink till you forget you got nothing to do.”
Saadia nodded but remained silent as 2 meads were put down in front of them, Saadia paying the barkeep.
“Do you think perhaps you should pay your bar tab?” She asked gently.
“Who are you to say what I should do?” He asked angrily, “I'll pay her back when I'm ready.”
Saadia was used to getting a little more respect than that, so she raised her eyebrows in surprise.
She looked around the miserable little inn and figured that this sort of thing was to be expected from such a place. Everyone here was deeply unhappy.
“Ranmir…” Saadia said gently, but with a firm undertone. He turned and looked into her eyes. “You owe her gold. Pay it.”
“You're right.” He answered miserably, “What would my forefathers think if they knew I wasn't paying my debts?” He sounded so guilty that Saadia tried to think of a way to comfort him. But he raised the mead she bought him and drank deeply. “Tell Haran I'll bring her the gold I owe.” He said and burped loudly before taking another long gulp.
“Alright.” Saadia said and left a few gold coins for him, “Enjoy another on me.” She said and he gave her a happy grin.
She went over to Haran who was sweeping behind the bar, Dagur was counting out the gold carefully, shaking his head; money was tight.
“He’s going to pay up soon.” Saadia said and Haran gave a slow nod.
“He's not a bad man, just bad with his coins and his drink. My husband Dagur could tell you stories, there.” She said sadly, looking over at Ranmir, she sighed. “Thank you friend, I have a couple of Ranmir's things that he traded to us back when he was still paying regularly. I say you've earned them.” She took a small dagger and a hide helmet from behind the counter. Saadia accepted them with a big smile; they weren’t worth much at all. But Saadia was used to getting gifts of thanks that gave her little gold in her pocket.
Usually she didn’t mind, but her mood was so low that the smile on her face felt fake to Saadia. So she cleared her throat.
“Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Oh the Jarl has a bounty out on some bandits.” She said handing Saadia the bounty notice and Saadia sighed internally. But she smiled and took the bounty notice. She was about to walk away from the married couple when she looked around at the almost empty inn.
“Why is the place so empty?”
“You mean the inn, or Winterhold?” Haran asked and Dagur looked up at their scant patronage glumly, “Suppose it's the same answer, either way. Winterhold's fallen on hard times.”
“To say the least.” Dagur grumbled.
“Most folk packed up and left years ago. A few of us are too poor, too stubborn or too crazy to go, so we do our best to make a living.” Haran shrugged and put a hand on the bar. “It's not much, but we get by. Very little money passes through Winterhold anymore, but if there's one thing you can count on, it's folks needing a drink now and then.”
“Very true.” Saadia answered.
Haran was about to say something but Ranmir raised his hand for another drink. She sighed and took over another bottle of mead to him.
“Listen, we're friends, right?” Dagur urgently whispered to her and Saadia cocked an eyebrow at him. She’d met him less than an hour ago and said a handful of words to him.
“Sure. She answered.
“I wondered if I could ask a favour of you?”
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
He hesitated; Saadia’s tone hadn’t been that encouraging, so she gave him an encouraging smile.
“It's about Ranmir.” He said finally, “Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with him being here all the time. He mostly keeps to himself, and so far he's been able to pay… irregularly, but eventually.” He kept an eye on his wife as she spoke with Ranmir; he didn’t want her to hear this conversation, “I just hate to see what's happened to him. He hasn't always been like this, you know. Drunk, I mean.”
“Oh?” Saadia was not even slightly interested. She was just exhausted, and she needed to find this Azura’s star thing.
“Oh, he was a different person. Happy, outgoing... Like anyone who's in love. See, Ranmir was involved with a pretty young woman named Isabelle Rolaine.” He said and poured Saadia a mug of ale. “The two of them were very happy together, I thought. One day, she just disappeared. Ranmir was convinced she'd run off with someone else, leaving him behind. He turned to drinking, and what's left of him is what you see here every day.”
“And what is it you want me to do, exactly?”
“I'm not sure. I hoped that maybe if she could be found, if he had some sort of explanation, that maybe he could put himself back together. I'm in no position to go searching for her, but perhaps you could?”
Saadia sighed and nodded.
“Sure, I’ll look into it.”
“Thank you friend.” He nodded to the mug of ale, “On the house.”
Saadia gave him another smile and took the ale. She didn’t want to drink it. But she did, in one long gulp, putting the mug down on the bar before going over to Ranmir. Again.
She sat down, wondering if she really wanted to do this.
“So I hear you know a woman name Isabelle R-”
“Don't you... Don't you say that name to me!” He blasted her, “Don't you dare! Ever!”
“Alright.” Saadia said, backing away from him. He took another swig of his mead and turned away from her, hunkering down over the table, muttering darkly to himself. Saadia decided she wanted nothing more to do with this and headed back to the counter to order a room for the night.
But she was stopped by Haran before she got there.
“Listen friend,” She put her hand on Saadia’s arm, “let me tell you something: one night Ranmir was in here like always, drinking himself to death. When I told him there was no more Honningbrew, that he'd drank it all, he got angry. He ranted at me, how I didn't know what he's been through, how Isabelle broke his heart when she ran off with some thief named Vex...” She said meaningfully and Saadia had to stop herself from sighing. “He said he'd even gone to Riften to try and find the bastard. I think maybe he was hoping they'd just kill him, and that'd be the end of it.” She said sadly, “Dagur never heard any of this, and I chose to keep it to myself. I'm only telling you so you don't get into trouble. Riften and thieves means trouble and this is none of your business. Those aren't folks you want to get tangled up with. Just leave it alone.”
“Okay.” Saadia answered simply, heading away from her to the bar. She felt strange deciding not to take on everyone else’s problems, but she was just too tired. “How much for a room Dagur?”
“12 gold for the night.” He answered. Saadia dug around in her satchel for a coin purse when she saw the Elf pacing in his room, the door open.
“Dagur… do you know anything about an Elven mage who studies stars?” She asked staring at the Elf as he muttered to himself, shook his head and jotted something down on a piece of parchment on his table.
“The mages are up in the College.” He said, “You can ask them, if they’ll let you in.” He took her gold and pointed at her room.
“Thanks.” Saadia said, and as she turned to go to her room, Dagur spoke again.
“Then again, Nelacar might know. He's an old-timer from the College, but he has a room here.” He nodded towards the Elf, who was now flicking through a book.
“Thank you Dagur.” Saadia said, feeling like it hadn’t been entirely useless to hang around in the inn now. She walked up to the open door and knocked it.
When Nelacar looked up at her she smiled and introduced herself.
“My name’s Saadia.” She said, “I’m looking for an Elven mage who studies stars…?”
She saw suspicion instantly come to his face and he folded his arms. Saadia folded her arms; she was in no mood for any nonsense.
“Who sent you?” He narrowed his eyes, “Was it the College? The Jarl? We agreed there would be no more questions.”
“I didn’t agree to anything.” Saadia said straight-faced, “Talk.” Her tone had been more menacing than she had intended; the wolf had shown itself a little, making her voice gruff and violent.
“Just calm down.” He sounded alarmed and Saadia had no intention of telling him he had nothing to worry about. “I'll tell you everything.”
She watched Nelacar take a deep breath, gathering his thoughts.
“What do you know about soul gems?” He asked, a little bit of excitement entering his voice.
Saadia glared at him; she was in no mood for this.
“They’re used for enchanting. Now don’t change the topic.” Her voice was again more menacing than she intended and she knew she had to get this under control. She was still learning all about this wolf thing… she hadn’t even had it for a full day yet.
“Soul gems are the subject, friend.” Nelacar said in an appeasing tone of voice, “They're used in enchanting, as you said, but then they break. Except one: Azura's Star.” He paused for emphasis and Saadia sighed, he hurried on, “A Daedric artefact that allows any number of souls to pass through it.” He looked at her as if expecting her to think that this was extraordinary, but she simply continued to stare at him. “You do know that soul gems are used to enchant items; to make them magic? And that you need an almost endless supply of soul gems to keep magic items enchanted, right?” He asked, “So a soul gem that doesn’t break is extraordinarily valuable?” He was perplexed and flustered by her uncaring, unimpressed face. He took a deep breath; clearly deciding to move past this, “Anyway… Some of us wanted to find out how. I was working under Malyn Varen, then. If only we knew what he was really planning.” He shook his head dramatically and Saadia began to suck her teeth, mulling over if she could possibly kill this guy without getting caught. He seemed to see the look in her eyes and he continued to speak, his eyes watching her warily, “Malyn wanted to alter the Star. He was dying.” Nelacar decided to make the story more concise for this impatient and terrifying woman, “Disease. He thought he could store his own soul inside. Become immortal. It drove him mad. Students started dying. Eventually, the College exiled him.”
“Eventually.” Saadia grunted.
“Yes. And he took a few loyal disciples to Ilinalta's Deep and vanished. Look, I don't care who asked you to find the Star, but don't take it back to Azura. The Daedra are evil. They're the reason Malyn went insane.” He finished in a desperate plea.
“So how does this star work?” She asked, ignoring his plea.
“I mentioned how the Star is a soul gem, only it never gets depleted?” He wanted to make sure she was following and Saadia nodded, “There's another rule the artefact follows. You can only store white souls in the Star. White souls belong to the lesser creatures. Azura's magic won't allow black souls to enter it. As a sapient, mortal, Malyn's soul was black, so part of his work was breaking past Azura's rules. He was close before...” He paused and looked slightly guilty about how excited he was for Malyn’s work. “well, I already told you what happened.”
“And the Daedra made him insane…?” Saadia sucked her teeth again.
“Azura is no ordinary Daedra. She commands an entire realm inside of Oblivion.” He said, obviously trying to impress upon her just how powerful Azura was.
“Like all the Daedric Lords.” Saadia said unimpressed.
“Yeah…” Nelacar said slowly, deciding to just continue, “The more Malyn worked on the Star, the more she was able to damn him. It started slowly at first. Malyn would see things that weren't there. Then he would yell at students over words they hadn't said. Then one day I walked in and Malyn had...” He swallowed hard, his eyes distant with memory. “He had… he’d killed a student, and in a horrific moment of inspiration, he started using her soul for his work.”
“Sounds like he got what he deserved.” Saadia said with a shrug.
“The College would agree with you, but do you have any idea how many innocent lives were cut short, just so Azura could have revenge?” He asked pointedly, “We're nothing to the Daedra. Pawns to move around, praise, and punish as they see fit.”
“Alright.” Saadia said, unimpressed. “Can you mark Ilinalta's Deep on my map please.” She said and when he hesitated she gave him a tight smile, “The please was only politeness. Do it.”
He opened up her map and carefully marked a small x on her map. Saadia looked at it; it was on the same lake that Lakeview Manor was on. She furrowed her brows and folded up the map again; she did recall seeing a submerged towering fort on the other side of the lake, roughly where Nelacar had marked. She should have explored it; it was so close to her daughter.
She felt exhausted and dejected when she left Nelacar’s room.
She didn’t want to be in this inn anymore; people always expected something from her. Something she couldn’t give.
Saadia left the inn and walked down the dark, snowy main road, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Keep clear of the College and keep yourself out of trouble.” A guard told her as she walked past.
Saadia nodded in response.
But she felt numb.
She felt like she couldn’t handle any of this anymore. She couldn’t handle people and their expectations.
She clenched her jaw and looked up at the stone bridge at the end of the road. Gutted houses all around it starkly highlighted that the bridge was maintained while the rest of the city slowly decayed around it.
She walked resolutely towards the stone bridge, huge stone arches rising up over it, caked with ice and snow showed that it had been carved with care and love; this was seen as a place of great importance by those who had built it. And despite Nord antagonism towards magic, no one had come and torn down the bridge. Or the College.
Saadia began up the bridge but suddenly an Altmer woman stood in front of her. A High Elf, just like Nelacar… just like the Thalmor.
Saadia crossed her arms and stared at the woman.
“Cross the bridge at your own peril; the way is dangerous and the gate will not open, the way is barred.” She declared loudly.
“Who are you?” Saadia asked rudely.
“I am Faralda. And who are you?” Faralda answered fairly politely given Saadia’s tone.
“Why are you out here?” Saadia asked another question; she was in no mood for answering questions.
“I am here to assist those seeking the wisdom of the College, and if in the process, my presence helps to deter those that would do it harm, so be it.” She answered, her eyes measuring Saadia closely, “The more important question is; why are you here?”
The first words that wanted to come to Saadia’s lips were ‘to hide…’
But she bit them back and smiled sweetly.
“May I enter the College?” She asked, again not answering the questions Faralda had of her.
“Perhaps.” Faralda looked her up and down. “But what is it you expect to find within?”
“I just want to see what it looks like inside.” She answered glibly.
“Humour is often in short supply here.” She said in appreciation, “But I sense that perhaps you're after more than just that.” Her eyes looked at Saadia sharply, like she could see right into her very soul.
“Fine…” Saadia sighed, “I want to…” She tried to think of a suitable thing to want to do in the mage’s College. “Unravel the mysteries of Aetherius.” She said after a moment of thought.
“Ah, the immortal plane.” Faralda said softly, “It is said to be the source of all magic… a noble quest indeed.” She pursed her lips in thought, “It would seem that the College has what you seek.” She said after a moment and then leaned in closer to Saadia, “The question is what can you offer the College? Not just anyone is allowed inside. Only those with magical aptitude are permitted to enter.” Saadia was barely listening anymore, she was considering going back to the inn to sleep. “A small test if you will?” Faralda was saying.
“I think we both know I’m going to do just fine.” Saadia tried to be persuasive, but she was dead on her feet tired.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t know anything of the sort.” Faralda answered, unimpressed.
“Fine, what’s your test then?”
“A standard destruction spell is a firebolt-” Faralda was about to launch into a long talk about firebolt spells, but Saadia cut her off.
“You want to see a spell?” She asked.
“Cast one here on the seal of the bridge.” Faralda pointed to the patterned floor behind her.
Saadia threw her head back and laughed. She didn’t know why she laughed; she felt like she might cry at any moment.
She didn’t have the energy for this… but somehow that fortress of a College looked so inviting. She wanted to get in there. Now.
“Alright.” She said with a slightly sadistic smile.
“I look forward to it.” Faralda sounded unconvinced.
“FUS!” Saadia had aimed it so that she wouldn’t hit Faralda with the full force of a word of Power, but the Elf still staggered back dramatically. “I don’t know firebolts… do you still want me to try and do one?” Saadia asked a stunned Faralda, “I’ve got a very nice fire Shout… that might suffice.”
“You know Dragon Shouts?” She asked, utterly amazed. “Well done indeed.” The words sounded like Faralda was numb with surprise.
“I am the Dragonborn.” Saadia said with a shrug, “They’re kind of my thing.”
“Truly?” She asked, “I think you’ll be a superb addition to the College.” She said with a thrilled smile, “Follow me.”
All Saadia could think was: finally.
Saadia followed her across the bridge, feeling like she might collapse form exhaustion at any moment.
The bridge was sturdy in some places, and falling apart at others. Narrow and high above the raging sea below.
Faralda stopped at stone wells the walkway; focal points of magical energy, and lit each one up, sending purple light shining up into the night sky, announcing their arrival.
Faralda talked non-stop about the College, its history, the lessons they were doing, all the mages within its walls, Nords’ hatred for the College…
Saadia did not hear one word at all.
She just wanted to sleep for a month.
They sprinted along as fast as they could, their lungs desperate for oxygen.
Kodlak had stayed at Jorrvaskr in case Saadia returned. He would also check in at Breezehome, and run out to Lakeview Manor if she didn’t return soon.
But the other 4 had gone out the back of the Underforge, following Saadia’s scent. They could smell she was in wolf form, and their hearts filled with dread as they ran down her scent.
When Saadia’s scent went into the river, they split up without discussion, Skjor and Aela had gone one way; towards the mountains, and Vilkas and Farkas had headed off towards the ocean.
When they had hit the ocean, they had split up, Farkas plunging into the ocean to see if he could catch her scent anywhere on one of the offshore islands. Vilkas travelled along the shoreline, first one way, and then the other; towards Winterhold.
He caught her scent and his pulse quickened; this was good – it smelled like she had been here in Human form. All other scents they’d caught of her had definitely been in wolf form.
He followed the scent inland, towards the cliffs and climbed them with ease with his claws digging into the ice.
When he got to the top her smell was stronger, fresher; she had definitely been Human here… she wasn’t feral. The relief he felt was incredible. But he still had to find her and somehow fix everything for his brother. For her.
He crouched in the shadows on the outskirts of Winterhold and called his Human form to return to him.
But his fear and adrenalin were making it hard to focus.
He howled in frustration and rage. And then he howled again, in misery and aching pain.
He dug his claws into the earth and forced himself to become a man again.
He was shivering, but panting from the long run and hard climb when he gathered his belongings and got dressed.
He took a deep breath, tasting the air.
He could smell which direction she had taken.
But when he got to the main road of the town, the scent went both ways, towards the inn and towards the Mage’s College. He paused, tasting the air, trying to deduce which way to go.
He walked towards the College, feeling as though he could still feel her heat in the air.
But as soon as he put his foot on the bridge to the College he was stopped by a formidable Elven woman.
“Cross the bridge at your own peril; the way is dangerous and the gate will not open, the way is barred.” She told him in a strident voice.
“Let me pass, I believe a friend of mine is inside.” Vilkas brusquely answered but she blocked his path.
“Who is inside is none of your business.” She answered firmly, her Altmer eyes starting to glow green; she was expecting trouble from him.
“I need to see her.” Vilkas said stepping forward, expecting her to back up. He was much bigger than she was.
“Thick-headed, knuckle-dragging Nords like you have no friends in our College.” She answered bitingly. Her eyes glowing in the dark as she raised her hand, fire undulating up it. “Now leave.”
“Can you at least tell me if she’s in there? If she’s alright?” Vilkas asked.
“I will tell you nothing.” She said in a dangerous tone. “Leave.”
“I could so easily kill you…” Vilkas growled at her.
“Try it, Nord.” She brought her other hand up, rippling with electricity. “Perhaps you will kill me. But I don’t like your chances against all the mages of the College.”
Vilkas looked passed her and took a deep breath; Saadia had definitely come this way.
“Please-” He started to say, but Faralda hit him with both spells and he flew back.
He got to his feet immediately, drawing his greatsword, his eyes alight with rage.
“That was a warning, Nord.” She said, “you have no love of magic, no understanding or interest in it. You have no legitimate reason to be here.”
Vilkas was weighing his options when another mage suddenly appeared behind Faralda, and then another, both of them raising their hands, Magicks thrumming in the air all around them, warning Vilkas of the danger.
He sheathed his sword and held his hands up, keeping his distance, he tried one last time.
“I honestly just need to know if she’s alright.” He said in a pleading tone.
“What is her name?” The older male mage asked in a kind tone.
“Saadia.” Vilkas answered.
The three mages shared a look and the third mage that had appeared shook her head.
“We have no one by that name.” He said, “I suggest you try at the inn.” And then he cast a spell of incredible power, shutting the bridge off from the outside world, leaving a wall of solid rock where the entrance to the bridge had once been.
Vilkas knew the spell wouldn’t last forever; the College needed to take on new students and food shipments, and this was the only entrance to the College, that he was aware of. But he had no idea how long it would last.
He went up to the seemingly solid stone wall and touched it gently.
Then he pushed it.
It did not budge.
He hit it with all of his force and howled in pain; it was solid, and his hand was broken now.
Farkas appeared then, panting and still dressing.
“You howled?” He said and Vilkas nodded to the wall.
“You’re stronger than me.” He said, rubbing his broken hand gently.
“You want me to try and break through solid stone?” Farkas asked.
“No…” Vilkas sighed, frustrated. “But she’s been here.”
“I could smell her when I was the wolf.” Farkas said. Vilkas knew Farkas couldn’t smell it now; his sense of smell wasn’t strong enough.
“I’m certain she was in Human form when she came this way.” Vilkas said and Farkas let out a breath of relief.
“Oh thank the Gods.” Farkas said, putting his hands on his knees and taking some deep breaths to help with the deep fear that had been gripping him since this had all began.
“Come on, let’s go and try the inn.” Vilkas said, already knowing they would find nothing useful there.
They walked down the street together, Farkas wearing his heart on his sleeve, Vilkas burying his deep within.
They went into the inn, drawing the stares of everyone. The twins had never been to Winterhold; only Skjor had come to this Gods forsaken place.
Farkas looked around the inn and looked at Vilkas confused; could such a depressing place actually be an inn?
Vilkas sighed and walked up to the bar.
“We’re looking for a… a Redguard woman.” Vilkas realised that to people who didn’t know Saadia they would assume that she was Redguard, not Redguard and Nord.
“Oh that Saadia girl?” Dagur said happily, “Sweet thing. Helped us out with Ranmir. She booked a room, but then she went out for a walk. Haven’t seen her since.” He answered.
“Thanks friend.” Vilkas answered and they left the inn.
“So we go search the town.” Farkas said as they walked down the street.
“No Farkas. We know where she is.”
“You can’t know she’s at that place.” Farkas answered, not able to think of one reason why Saadia would go anywhere near the Mage’s College.
“She went to the one place we can’t get to her.” Vilkas answered.
“We could climb up the mountain, scale the walls.” Farkas noted. “We could get in if we wanted…”
“We could.” Vilkas said, “And we could bring Skjor and Aela and make a blood-bath of it. Paint the walls with their blood…” He added, “And we could guarantee that at least one of us, if not more, are killed by those tricky bastards… and I’m sure both Saadia and Kodlak will be very unimpressed with that course of action.” He concluded.
“So we stay in town and wait…” Farkas answered.
“No.” Vilkas said, his heart aching, but his jaw set resolutely. “She wants time away from us. We give it to her.”
“What?” Farkas asked incredulously. “We can’t-”
“We can and we will.” Vilkas answered firmly. “She came here for a reason. And we’ll respect her wishes. We know she’s alright now, so we have no reason to continue to harass her…”
“I suppose she’s as alright as you can be in a place such as this.” Farkas said looking around, accepting his brother’s decision.
“As alright as she can be given… what I did.” Vilkas added softly, his eyes dropping.
“What did you do?” Farkas asked, unable to believe his brother could have done anything to cause this. They had stopped walking and stood looking at each other in the middle of the main street of Winterhold.
“That’s between the Dragonborn and me.” Vilkas said softly.
“Vilkas?” Farkas was confused, “You’ve never kept anything from me…”
“Yes I have.” He said sadly, “A lot of things.” He saw the hurt in Farkas’s eyes, “But nothing you ever needed to worry about.” He added and Farkas nodded slowly, accepting that there was wisdom behind his brother’s decisions. “This is just not my story to tell.” Vilkas said, “It’s up to her to speak to you about what I did.” He said.
“Because I’m a coward.” Vilkas answered, “And I hope that when she tells the story she’ll cast me in a far better light than I ever could…”
Vilkas walked away, Farkas watching him for a moment before catching up.
In his head, Farkas was trying to figure out just what had happened to make his brother say such a thing; to accuse himself of cowardice!
Farkas looked over his shoulder at the College as they left Winterhold, heading back inland towards home.
Vilkas did not look back.