Sirsha swallowed thickly. Lydia wouldn't remember anything in the morning. She was trashed. And a healing spell could easily wipe away fang marks. As it was, Lydia looked ready to pass out. It was wrong, but…but wasn't it also something of a lesser evil? This way, Lydia wouldn't remember, she wouldn't be uncomfortable, no innocent would have to fear the predatory stalking and the dancing shadows, the innate fear of being hunted.
Yes, this was the best way. Sirsha leaned forward, brushing aside the locks of hair obstructing her view. The stench of mead and sweat was vile. It wouldn't be the most satisfying meal, but it would be the most innocent, she told herself.
And truly it was not the most satisfying meal, but Lydia's blood, always more delicious than other mortal's, was dampened by the sluggish mead in her veins. Eyes closed, Sirsha drank until she was full and Lydia had long since dozed off.
"So…I'm supposed to just hang out in Solitude while you…while you do what exactly?" Lydia asked, glaring at Sirsha. Sirsha hadn't bothered communicating much to Delphine over the past couple days, and Lydia didn't mind too much. She couldn't keep a lid on her thane's temper, let alone that other woman's.
"I will be dining with Elenwyn and company this evening, Lydia," Sirsha replied as she handed her housecarl some gold coins. "Do whatever pleases you, but stay alert. I don't wish to pay extra to have a priest of Arkay prepare your body for a road trip. And please don't get too wasted this time."
Lydia squinted her eyes, remembering her visit with Farkas. She hadn't remembered too much, but passing Aela on the streets gave her enough information that she didn't press for more.
Sirsha flattened her red robes against her body. She looked absolutely stunning. Her mage robes made her regal, these velvet robes though, they made her a queen. Lydia swallowed thickly and shoved the coins into her pocket with a quick nod. She watched Sirsha mount her horse and head north, away from Lydia, away from safety. And so Lydia made the march to the city gates. Against her thane's wishes, she walked straight into the inn and ordered a glass of mead, thinking about what she could do.
A man from one of the outlying villages decided to sit across from her, his fury quite evident. Lydia lifted an eyebrow, wondering why some small man seated himself here. There were plenty of other tables open, but Lydia didn't say anything.
"You…you look like you know how to wield that axe," he spoke, and it was not unkindly. Lydia didn't nod nor did she open her mead. "I don't have much money or anything I can offer, but I just know something is wrong. I need someone to at least take a look. There's a cave just north of here, Wolfmother Cave. It's…we're all scared."
"I'm not really here for spelunking."
"I'm not asking you to go through the full cave, no that's suicide. But the Jarl will take me seriously if someone like you can testify about it."
Lydia paused. The was no telling how long Sirsha would be gone, and it wasn't like Lydia would be gone for more than a few hours. She only had to take a look, she might make some gold and help some old man out.
"Just basic recon? That's it?"
"Yes! Yes, that's all we need; Jarl Elisif will listen to someone like you."
"Ok, lemme get something to eat, and you can lead me to this Wolfmother Cave."
"Aur-riel's grace, Sirsha, it's wonderful to see you again!" Elenwen had to control her urge to reach out and embrace the tall and elegant woman in front of her. A few guests stopped mid conversation to see what had caused the reserved elf to become so excited. A few raised their eyebrow's but otherwise all returned to their previous exchanges.
"Ellie," Sirsha murmured, head bowing. She held out a hand, and Elenwyn grasped it, pulling her into the middle of the room. Shining, armored, elves stood most throughout the room, a few agents in their robes mingled about, and several caterers offered food and drink to the guests. Elenwyn pulled her to the side, moved in close to her, voice low.
"We'll have plenty of time to catch up, but I doubt you'd want to draw too much attention right now. Meet me in my private quarters this evening." She pulled away and gestured towards the rest of the crowd, small albeit opulent. "But feel free to mingle."
With a glint in her eye, Elenwyn whisked towards some other guests, playing the grand hostess. Sirsha was left alone, and fell back to her manners, meandering towards a haughty looking man glaring down at his drink.
"You look like you could use some cheering up," she smiled. The man glanced up and grinned back, the smile bordering on feral. His golden skin was darker than hers, his Thalmor robes lined with gold and silver, indicating a high ranking within his order.
"The name is Ogthorn," he said, extending his free hand. "To what do I owe this pleasure….?"
"Sirsha, Archmage of Winterhold." She shook his hand. He was cold. "The pleasure is all mine. I felt it would be worthwhile to visit a slightly warmer scene."
"Ah, yes, I have heard of you, of what you've been doing over the past few years. There wasn't too much disclosed on the matter, but I would love to know what the nature of those tribulations was."
Sirsha found she enjoyed the soirée much more than she had thought she would. Ogthorn was sarcastic and witty and proved enjoyable passing the time. Of course, she mingled with the humans as well, noting their short lives, the distrust in their eyes, the scent of anxiety and sometimes fear. The wine was delicious, but Sirsha curbed her intake. When many of the guests began to trickle out, Sirsha caught Elenwyn's eye, and they made towards the back exit and into the snow laden courtyard.
Despite the alcohol, she couldn't suppress a shudder running through her body. Elenwyn noticed and threw an arm around her shoulders, leading them to a smaller building a few meters away. They didn't say anything until they were safely upstairs. Elenwyn had decorated her residence with tapestries depicting Auridon and all the beauty it held. Elegant trees in bloom, wildlife grazing by streams, even a map of Skywatch. Senche-tiger furs lay at the end of the bed. A chaise lounge looking straight from Rawl'lakha stood next to a window and small desk covered in papers. For as intelligent as she was, Elenwyn had never been as organized as people thought she was.
"You'll have to forgive the lack of furniture," she motioned as she pulled them towards the lounge. "I rarely allow company."
"Ah, so you do get company, then," Sirsha teased, falling into their old rapport.
"I might be a grumpy old lady, but I can still have fun now and then!"
"Oh, you've never had an issue getting around, Ellie, you've not changed one bit."
They smiled at each other, glad to be in each other's company again. True, after Grahtwood and Molag Tor, they'd split off again, but they'd write. Writing wasn't the same as seeing your best friend face to face.
"Ah, I need to show you something, Sirsh," Elenwyn said, quickly reaching over to the bottom drawer of the desk, rustling around and finally pulling out a small pendant. The material, when Sirsha touched it, screamed "otherworldly." And anything not of Nirn was from Oblivion and Deadric. "I stumbled across this looking for some trope of traitors. I figured you'd quite rather enjoy this moreso than me."
"Ellie, this is quite fascinating! Thank you, I shall take it back to College with me." She leaned forward for a hug, inhaling her scent. Before, she'd never noted before, of course, but now, now it was heady. She pulled back quickly.
Elenwyn quirked her head, taking her friend in. Sirsha was older, of course, time did that. But wrinkles that should have been there were not. The persistent apathy marked with an insipid grin, always trademark, was present throughout the evening. Now there was a cool aloofness, almost a…an anger? Hatred? Anxiety? Fear?
"Are you quite alright?" She made to get some more drink, she always kept stronger drinks in her quarters. "And I would quite like to know what information you and your college have unearthed in this barbaric wasteland. Aur-riel knows why you stand it here."
No response. Elenwyn brought their glasses over, offering her friend one. Though she took it, she did not drink. Sirsha eyed her, wordlessly encouraging her to drink.
"Perhaps you'd like to tell me what you did to ascend to Archmage? According to the Synod, it isn't…legal? Lots of gore. Nothing too solid, but I can assume. I'd prefer not to."
"Ellie, you know I'd never lie to you, yes?" Sirsha threw her drink back in one swig. It wouldn't affect her as much as many mortals, but it'd help for now. And she could always…take care of matters.
"You have my full attention."
"Ellie, I'm immortal." She couldn't bring herself to say the other word, the one that Lydia knew, the one that Aranea embraced.
"Immortality…. You might want to explain that one to me. Get the necromancers to help you some? I figured one day…." Elenwyn decided to follow suit and went to work on her own glass. Sirsha wasn't being truthful, but they were done catching up. It was time for business. Elenwyn collected their glasses and placed them on the table, then pulled Sirsha's hands into her own. "No matter, I think it best we move onto what we both need."
She lifted her eyes to Sirsha's, noticing the darker tint. Sirsha always had the most brilliant gold, but now they were tinged with red and amber. Immortal indeed. She resisted a shiver running down her spine, some instinct telling her to run. But she had never run, so she didn't understand exactly what this primal fear was. So she fell into her Justiciar personality.
"Dragons, Sirsha," she clipped. "Dragons are returning. What do you know?"
"I…I was hoping you had more information."
"It's probably Ulfric and his troupe," Elenwyn spat. "It's no coincidence he can use that Voice of his. If he's a Dragonborn, then Akatosh is a cruel deity."
"It isn't Ulfric, Elenwyn."
"So you know who it is." It wasn't a question. They were both smart enough to realize that.
"Dovanzul, Dovahkiin, that doesn't grant immortality."
"I want you to say it."
For an eternity, until at least one magelight and a candle were spiraling out, Sirsha squeezed her friend's hands. Sirsha's hands were almost the same temperature now as Elenwyn's, no longer cold. The skin was soft, the grip firm but gentle. It demanded a response but not in a hurry. They were familiar hands. Hands that Sirsha had known for years. Hands that had helped her, hands that had loved her, hands that had carried her, hands that had never hurt her. A woman who followed the law, who prided herself in her loyalty, cunning, and intelligence. And now, after over a decade, they sat together, so close after so many leagues away. And it was a small sentence to say. They'd told each other so much more over the years. But why was this truth so difficult to verbalize, why couldn't she push it up her throat and into her mouth? Why wouldn't her lips open? If she could move her lips, mobilize her tongue, push a sound past her teeth, she could say it.
"By the Divines, how the bloody hell did you even make the trek up here?" Lydia yelled out across the snow and rocks. Her guide pressed on, ignoring her as he had previously. It'd just waste energy. And anything to conserve energy in this bitter snow was more than welcome. And this woman, he didn't bother asking her name, hadn't picked up the message or didn't care. But they soon came upon the hellish cave.
"This is it, ma'am," he huffed, hands on his knees. He noticed a tibia on the ground pulling towards the bushes on its own. His heart jumped into his throat. "Lookout!"
"Talos's manly nipples!" A huge battleaxe flew down and cleaved the skeleton in half. With a deft turn, another skeleton fell into the snow, nothing but bone shards and dust. "Bloody hell, what have you brought us to?"
"You don't need to go in there and fix whatever is going on in there, but I need someone to tell the Jarl about it. I know she doesn't believe me."
"Oh what the hell, I can do this. It's just a few draugr and skeletons, man." Lydia pushed the man out of her way, axe dragging into the snow. Keep an eye out for me though, ok? This will only take a few minutes."
Her brash behavior eased the man down. He gave Lydia a small water skin and headed back towards Solitude to let the guard know, to let someone know what was going on. Just in case. Because he certainly wouldn't be able to do anything.
The cave, much like she expected, was dank, dark, and generally unappealing. A fairly standard cave. Just, it had traces of residents. So, there were people living here, but were they dangerous? The answer came quickly in the form of black robes and a mummified warrior.
Lydia was able to quickly annihilate the draugr, but fighting mystics and witches was not her forte. She ducked and dodged as several ice spikes flew past her head, one so close she could feel it brush past her. She knew Sirsha would have already eliminated this threat, blazing through the dungeon like it was house cleaning. And, in a manner of speaking, it most certainly was. Clenching her teeth, Lydia sped forward, stepping as lightly as she could, weaving between ice and fire until she was close enough to smash her head into her opponent's face. Blood from his nose splashed into her face as he stumbled backwards. With a powerful heave, Lydia finished him off. She pulled the axe out with a squelching sound.
One rogue mage wasn't enough to make a report though, and Lydia was nothing if not thorough. Or so she liked to think. So she pressed forward with much more caution. The draugr became stronger, the necromancers more abundant, and Lydia knew she had to choose. Wizards weren't known for their chummy disposition, and Wolfmother Cave obviously had something sinister going on. She could either find out why there were so many necromancers here, or she could save her own skin.
She hated to be so inferior to her thane. But there was only so much Lydia could on her own, and a dead soldier was useless. She furrowed her brow and set herself to it, knowing what was best.