The rain stung their faces like whips as the wind howled through the canyon. The small form beside him trembled violently. Savos reached beside him, tucking all the furs and blankets tightly around the child. He pulled her closer into his side, cupping his arm around her small shoulders to keep her closer to his own warmth.
He prayed to whatever gods that might listen that the map his deluded brother had provided was correct. If he was off by so much as a league, their wagon would be coming down from the Velothi Mountains, into Skyrim, along the Dunmeth Pass, and directly into an Imperial encampment. The last thing he needed was to be caught crossing the border during a time of refugees fleeing the burning of Morrowind with his already undocumented niece. Should certain members of her family ever learn of her existence and come looking for her, he wanted there to be no trace of her ever-having left Morrowind.
When they reached a high enough altitude in the mountains, where the air dropped to more frigid temperatures, the icy rain gave way to fat, fluffy flakes of snow. Savos glanced down at the small girl beside him, her lavender eyes round as dinner plates as she stared up at the greying skies. A thin, tiny blue-grey hand emerged from her fur-wrappings, a finger pointed at the clouds as she extended her arm skyward. Her mouth hung open in wonder as the fattest and fluffiest flake of them all landed upon the tip of her finger.
A gasp escaped her lips and her eyes shot up to Savos beside her. “What is this?” she demanded, her voice high and lilting, like little bells.
Savos found himself chuckling. “What is it? Have you never seen snow?”
“Sa-no,” she said slowly, rolling the word over her tongue as though it were foreign. Though, to her, he supposed, it was, having grown up in a warm climate where snow did not occur.
“Just snow,” Savos corrected, “only one syllable.” He smiled down at his niece once again, “Have you never seen it before?”
She shook her head as she caught another flake on her fingertip. “Like ash?” she asked curiously.
“No, no,” Savos shook his head, “nothing like ash. You can eat snow. Here,” he said, reaching over and loosening her bundled wraps. “Lean your head back and stick your tongue out and catch some. Taste it.”
“Taste it,” she repeated, tilting her head back. She squeezed her eyes closed and extended her tongue to rest upon her chin as she awaited the capture of more snowflakes.
Savos watched a few large flakes land and she gulped them down. “There, what did they taste like?” he asked.
“Water,” she said eagerly, “but better.” Her eyes twinkled in the overcast lighting.
“Better than water?”
His niece nodded fervently. “I could taste the magic on them.”
“The magic?” She nodded again; her eyes fierce. “What sort of magic?”
“Dragon magic,” his niece said, matter-of-factly.
“Yes,” Savos murmured, a shiver raced down his spine and he turned his attention back to the narrow mountain track before them. “Of course.”
Two days passed as they crossed the border from Morrowind into Skyrim and then descended from the Velothi Mountains into eastern Eastmarch Hold.
“Do you see that over there?” Savos asked gently, motioning to stacks of stones in the distance, as their wagon cleared the pines of the sloping foothills of the Velothi. His niece nodded vigorously. “That,” he continued with a smile, “is Windhelm, the former capital of Skyrim.”
“Are we going there?” the girl asked hopefully.
“No, little dove,” Savos murmured, “Too many folk crammed inside those stone walls. We are going to skirt around it, to the north. But perhaps one day we can take you there. What about this over here?” He motioned to the large bay of water to the right of their wagon. “Do you know what this is?” She shook her head, no. “This,” he said with a flourish, “is Ysgramor Bay. Your mother told you the tale of Ysgramor, did she not?” Again, she shook her head no. “Ysgramor was a great Atmoran king, some say he was the first Nord to enter Skyrim. But he first landed here, fleeing his homeland of Atmora, north of Tamriel, and Windhelm was the city he built with his own two hands.” Savos smiled wanly, “Nords are mostly buffoons, but on occasion you find one, like the ancient king, with a heart of gold that can melt even the thickest of ice.”
She tugged the fur higher up around her neck and looked up at her uncle. “Where are we going?”
“We are going to Winterhold. The farthest northern city in Tamriel.”
“Am I visiting?” she asked tentatively. “Or am I staying?”
Savos’ breath caught in his throat. He had been partially dreading this when she would ask when she was going home. Or worse, asking after her father. Savos could still hear his younger brother’s angry, drunken, tirade as he had screamed at him when he had told Fathis of his plan. Fathis had not taken too kindly to being told his elder brother was taking his only child from him.
“It’s because you’re with that idiot Breton,” Fathis had screamed, “and you can’t have any of your own bloody children, so you feel you have to steal mine to fill that hole inside you!”
Finally, Savos turned his gaze down to his niece, who was looking hopefully up at him. “What do you wish the answer of that to be?” he asked gently.
Her lips twitched as she considered her answer. She was contemplating what the right answer was. “Will Daddy be ok?” she finally asked instead.
“Your father will be just fine,” Savos said firmly, taken aback that after everything that man had done to her, he was still her main concern. Fathis never deserved her…
“If Daddy will be fine, and the bad men aren’t coming for him…” her lavender eyes flickered up to her uncle, “then I want to stay with you.”
“If your daddy wouldn’t be safe…” Savos wondered aloud.
“I would want to go back, so I could keep him safe.” She shrugged, her gaze sliding from her uncle’s face, down to her blanket, and back again. “But if Daddy will be ok, I want to go with you.”
“Good,” Savos smiled.
They arrived in the small village of Winterhold as the sky was darkening into the deeper violets of twilight. He listened as his niece counted off the remaining buildings of what had once been a bustling city.
“One; Long Winter,” she read the sign above the massive timber doors on a massive house to their left.
“The Jarl’s Longhouse,” Savos said quietly.
“Two; The Frozen Hearth,” she read the sign hanging from the eaves of a massive thatch-roofed porch to their right, across from the Jarl’s Longhouse.
“The local inn and eatery.”
“Three; Birna’s Oddments,” she read the sign hanging off the edge of a second-story deck.
“The local town’s shop.”
They passed one last house on their left and three remnants of buildings on their right. Savos watched his niece looking around as he helped her down from the wagon.
“Where is the rest of it?” she asked. “There were only four…”
“This is the end of our little town. It was bigger… once. I’ll tell you about that when you’re older,” Savos murmured, handing the reigns to a young boy that had appeared at his side. “Give them some of the best oats,” he told the lad, “they’ve had a long journey. Then have our luggage sent up.” The boy dipped a bow and skittered off with the reigns gripped tightly in his mittened-hand.
Savos turned to his niece and extended a hand. “Are you ready to see your new home?” he asked gently. Despite the frigid temperatures, his niece’s palm was hot and clammy as her little fingers gripped tightly around his own. She adjusted her pack on her back and clutched her purple dragon tightly in her other arm and nodded. He started off toward the stone steps that led to the vast, spanning bridge that led to the college beyond the gorge. Not for the first time, he noticed the contrast in their skin tones. His held the more traditional ashen tone with a hint of blue underlayment. His niece’s skin was paler, the blue more prominent. Savos wondered if it was her blood. Firmly, he shoved the thought from his head. No, he thought, going forward there are to be no more thoughts of her bloodline.
He squeezed her hand encouragingly as they continued their trek across the bridge as it came to its first turn. It was a long walk for a child, especially one so small.
“What is this place?” she finally whispered.
“This is the College of Winterhold,” Savos said proudly. “It is where mages come to study from all over Skyrim. Sometimes even from other parts of Tamriel.”
“Mages?” she asked hopefully.
“Aye, mages. You will live surrounded by magic.” Savos smiled down at her, “It is where you belong.”
“Where I belong,” she repeated dreamily. Her face brightened, “Will Mama be here?”
Savos bit his lip. “No, little dove, she won’t be here.” He sighed, “At least not anytime soon.”
The disappointment in her voice crushed Savos and he was positive he felt his heart break. As they reached the second turning point of the bridge, he held out his hand to stop his niece. He pointed back over the landscape and to the south. “See those high mountains over there?” he asked, kneeling beside her. Her head nodded against his shoulder as she followed to where he was pointing. “Just over those peaks, on a clear day, you can see the raised moon and star of the Shrine of Azura. She faces this way, watching over us here at the college.”
“Will she tell Mama what she sees?”
He smiled at the belief of a child. “Yes,” he said, “Azura will tell your mother, wherever she may be, how you are faring here in Winterhold with us.” Savos squeezed her shoulders after some time. “Come,” he said, “Tolfdir will be waiting anxiously for us.”
They continued along the bridge, her grip tightening as they came to the portion that was suspended high above the sea below. He smiled at her gasp as they entered the circular courtyard of the college, where the massive statue of a stone wizard greeted them. The figure stood tall, a hood covering most of its face, its robes flowing, and its arms extended from its waist, its hands twisting in a form of some magical conjuring.
His niece’s gaze flickered up to Savos eagerly. “Will I study here, too, or just live here?”
“Of course,” he laughed, “once you get settled and feel comfortable, you’ll join the classes here! We have our own private apartments, but if you wish to join the other students in the dormitories someday, you certainly can.” As they came to the massive stone doors, Savos stopped her once more, kneeling before her. He rested his hands gently upon her shoulders. “You’ve had a rough year,” he murmured, “since your mother was taken.” He looked at the ground, shame flooding over him. “The things your father did to you…” He tore his gaze back up, tears stinging his gaze. “You never did anything to deserve that. It all came from my brother’s own demons, things he must work on. Do you understand?” Her dark lashes fluttered against her pale skin on her high cheekbones; she shrugged. “None of it was your fault, he wanted you to know that.” He squeezed her shoulders, his hands slipping down her arms to take her small hands in his own. “And it is over,” Savos said firmly, his tone gentle. “It is all over. Things will be different here, with Tolfdir and I.”
Savos nervously opened the doors to the college, peering around into the foyer. It was empty, as he had requested. He ushered his niece around him, and into the building. The stone doors closed behind them with an ominous thump. He watched the small girl as her gaze flitted across the small foyer that was flanked by two timber doors on either side and then opened onto a massive stone chamber beyond with a sunken floor.
“Where is everyone?” she finally asked, looking back up at him.
“I asked Tolfdir to have everyone tucked away in either the dormitories or the dining hall for your arrival.” Savos smiled at her, “Everyone is most excited to meet you, but I didn’t want them to overwhelm you. We’ll introduce you tomorrow, tonight we’ll have a nice quiet evening in our apartments upstairs, just the three of us.” He held out his hand once more, “Come, let us go find Tolfdir.”
She followed her uncle to the door on their left, climbing up the stone steps behind him. The staircase was circular, spiraling upwards, high above them. A blue velvet carpet runner spiraled up the center of the staircase. The stone walls were lined with portraits, the Arch Mages they said, whatever those were. She wished there had been windows in the stair tower, as she yearned to see how high they had climbed, could they see Azura from up here? The stairs were aglow with plenty of candle sconces, however.
Finally, at the top of the stairs, was a great, ironwood door with the insignia of the College of Winterhold burned into its grainy flesh.
“Here we are,” Savos said, sweeping it open, “home, sweet, home.” He ushered her in with a flourish of his arm. “Tolfdir, my love, we have arrived,” Savos called, closing the door behind him.
The main room was a circular chamber made from the same grey stone as the rest of the tower. The floor was laid out in a diamond pattern with contrasting stripes radiating out in a sunburst, all converging around the magical, sunken garden in the center of the chamber. There were cozy seating arrangements, small worktables and writing desks all scattered about in a warm, inviting manner. There was a cooking alcove to the right of the entrance, complete with a multi-tiered roasting spit and a massive brick oven in the corner. On the far, opposite wall was a doorway that led into a bedchamber that she assumed belonged to her uncle and his partner. To the left of where they entered was a door to an elegant washroom, complete with a massive, sunken, stone soaking tub, with Dwarven mechanisms to heat the water.
Then they came to one, last door, closest to the where she stood beside Savos.
“This,” her uncle said warmly, “is your bedroom.” He swept open the door and it felt like hundreds of little firecrackers began going off in her brain.
Her vision could not focus on a single thing for her to take in, and instead flitted from thing-to-thing. In the center of the room stood a massive, four-poster bed with a canopy in painted silk to resemble the stars coming out in a twilight sky. Sheer lavender curtains hung from the posts made of rich, dark wood. Deep purple bedding glistened in the warm glow of the firelight. There was a desk nestled beneath a low, arched window. There was a window seat stuffed full of cushions and pillows in various shades of purple; velvets, silks, and satins. Flanking the window seat were massive, wooden bookcases filled with books and little odds and ends, leaving her plenty of room to collect. There was a trunk on the opposite wall of her desk with toys peeping out; stuffed bears, wooden horses, balls that bounced, dragons and knights.
And in the center of it all, stood a young Breton man with honeyed-brown hair that fell in soft waves to his shoulders with tiny braids running through. A closely trimmed, slightly darker brown beard hugged the lower part of his face. His eyes, one a warm brown and one a gleaming turquoise, sparkled in the light as he grinned at the two of them. He wore a dark, blue-grey coat trimmed in silver runes, that hung to his knees, over a burgundy tunic with more traditional Nordic patterns embroidered into it. A silver belt was tightened around his slim waist with a cluster of small pouches hanging from his right hip, and a dagger hanging from his left. His knee-high, grey furred boots covered loose-fitting pants that matched his coat.
In his hands, he was cupping a platter that held a cake that read, in lavender frosting: WELCOME HOME.