he Dunmer clasped his ashen grey hands together solicitously. “All I require is a small demonstration”, he reminded Thorfinn, looking at him expectantly.
“I have already told you, I do not meddle in sorcery”. He stated if flatly, harshly.
“Ahem” coughed the elf’s partner, the second gate-warden, a Breton. “I rather fear it will be impossible for you to enter, young master, quite impossible. Regrettable, but”, he held up a long finger, “Impossible”.
Thorfinn growled. Not quietly, in frustration, but loudly, like an animal. The two wizards looked at him hesitantly, as if they believed he might be undertaking some barbaric Nordic sorcery that would soon bear fruit. The morning snow danced and twirled in the stiff breeze gusting across the walkway to the College of Winterhold, dragging Thorfinn’s hair behind him. His tall wide forehead and heavy brows furrowed angrily. Below around it, the city went about its business.
No bizarre hedge magic was forthcoming from the Nord. Instead, he suddenly smiled, a lopsided smile, more like a grimace. It was not a reassuring sight. He fumbled beneath his bearskin tunic and produced a gold coin from his purse. He held it up. At once, the two gate-wardens began to protest. Thorfinn suspected it was the amount, rather than the notion, that they objected too, but he did not intend to pay his way into the College. He laid it flat on his palm. No one, certainly not an elf and a mongrel-mer, denied him entry to any part of his own homeland.
“Here’s some magic” he said darkly.
He closed his hand into a fist, and then opened it. The coin was gone. The pair looked at him uncertainly.
“…a parlour trick, young master, but not magic” began the Dunmer. “Assuredly not, what an idea!” exclaimed the Breton, who had finally realized the inherent insult.
Thorfinn opened his other hand, and there lay a gold coin, round and worn like the other. There was a moment of silence.
“If it is not magic, then explain it” he challenged them. Neither spoke, not wishing to admit to their ignorance. Thorfinn’s grin widened into a mocking chuckle. Without looking at either of them, he brushed past the pair over the causeway. Neither seemed to want to stop him. The College was a fine sight, tall, clean cut stone set high against the backdrop of the Sea of Ghosts. Were it not full of foreign sorcerers he might have enjoyed exploring it. As it was, he was here for only one reason. The weight of his two sword blades across his shoulder reminded Thorfinn that it was worth coming to this den of vipers if it meant reforging the blades.
He accosted a nervous looking youth, tall, spare framed with a mass of dark curls. He too flinched when Thorfinn moved his hands, blinked when the Nord’s problem was explained, then smiled nervously.
“You will want an audience with Lord Utharo!” he said excitedly, the beckoned for Thorfinn to follow.
“Who is Utharo?” demanded Thorfinn. That was an odd sounding name. Foreign sounding.
“The Lord Utharo is an expert on the arts of using magic in crafting” explained the mage patiently. “He has penned several tomes on the subject. I’ve never had a reason to speak to him before; perhaps he will let me watch him work. I certainly hope so. Such a fine opportunity to learn from a master on the subject!” All this tumbled out of the young novice rapidly, and he was breathing heavily as he led Thorfinn through a pair of wide doors set into the side of a courtyard. They climbed three flights of stairs, came through a long corridor and then climbed another set of winding stairs. By the time they entered a long passageway riddled with empty rooms, the novice was swaying with exertion. Thorfinn found it amusing. The whelp couldn’t even walk around his own home properly. He’d be dead meat in the real world. At length, and much to the novice’s relief, they arrived. Reverently, the boy knocked three times on a tall, closed wooden door, then stepped back sharply.
An Altmer opened the door. He was tall, a good foot taller than Thorfinn, and his neat dark robes carried golden brocade. His perfect golden features were utterly composed, mild, and empty. His gaze took in Thorfinn, dismissed him and then found the novice, whose knees seemed to buckle beneath the weight of that stare.
“Yes?” he asked calmly.
“M..my Lord” bowed the novice. “A visitor seeking answers. He has been unable to repair old blades, and suspects a magical reason.”
The eyes affixed themselves on Thorfinn once more, who glowered up at the mer, a vein working on his temple. An elf, a cursed, milk-drinking Altmer, here at large in Skyrim with war brewing against the Dominion?
A short silence reigned as they stared at one another.
“I will see him” Utharo said tonelessly, then turned and swept back into his quarters. “You may leave us, novitiate” he said over his shoulder. Thorfinn followed, thanking the forlorn youth brusquely. He stopped in the doorway, suspicion dawning across his face.
The mer's room was a scene of perfect, obsessive order. Thorfinn had been expecting scrolls and books, magical items, but it looked like nobody had lived in it. Everything was at right angles, neatly aligned. Pure white quills, glass inkpots, creamy paper. Pale gems were stacked in a wooden holder, by size, subdivided into colour. A tall wardrobe stood against one wall, the bed looked newly washed and made up. Golden instruments lay in an indented leather case. A bookshelf contained rows of books which were all the same height. Thorfinn hovered by the doorway, eyes searching the room. It was all so…inhuman. His eyes reached the corner, were a set of stunning glass armour hung on a polished stand. It was so bright it hurt to look at. Globes of ethereal light drifted in the air, sixteen of them, perfectly separated in the square ceiling. A similarly burnished blade of pale green glass sat on a plinth.
Utharo noticed his glance. “My own armaments” he announced grandly.
“Pretty”, commented Thorfinn. It was not a compliment.
The prefect facade did not waver. “I’m sure you are aware that I must see the items in question” said Utharo, without inflection. Thorfinn didn’t know if he was being mocked or not. He suspected the former. Fuming, he untied his cloak, laid it on a table close to the door and loosed the knots holding it closed, revealing both blades. He resolved to control himself, find what he came for, and leave. The mer looked at him expressionlessly, and then gestured for him to move away. He did so. As he had placed his blades on the table, a small silver ornament had been moved a quarter of an inch. The elf solicitously returned it to its original position before turning on the two swords lain before him.
“Crude work” said the Altmer after a cursory glance. “You would be better with a new blade forged with the more sophisticated Altmeri tradition.”
Thorfinn’s lopsided grin flashed across his face. “What part of me screams Altmeri sophistication to you, elf?” he growled sarcastically, disdaining to use the elf’s title.
A small smile played across the elf’s face in reply. “I do see your point” he agreed smugly. "They will certainly suit you." The two exchanged unpleasant smiles politely.
Behind him, from the passageway, Thorfinn heard the distinctive tapping of wood on stone, and a shuffling gait. Then came a strange, sniffing noise, like a dog on the scent.
“I can smell shite” pronounced a crackly old voice. Utharo froze. A tall, spare old man with hunched shoulders and along silver beard limped down the corridor toward him, leaning heavily on a plain wooden staff. He had only one eye, the other eye was made of gold, and carried strange markings. He walked slowly, but finally stopped at the doorway, then leaned close and sniffed a stunned Thorfinn.
“It’s not you, boy, so what is it?” demanded the man, appearing not to notice Utharo as he scanned the room. He took a tentative step forwards, leaned across the threshold and gave a great sniff, his nostrils twitching.
“Ah, there it is” he announced, and then finally appeared to notice the Altmer.
“My lord Utharo!” he exclaimed with surprised pleasure. “Tell me, my lord, you have been talking?”
The Altmer seemed paralysed in horror and revulsion, his expressionless façade fractured. While the old man peered at him with seeming genuine interest, he composed himself. “Why do you ask?” he replied acidly.
“It would explain the smell of bull-shite”, replied the old man, cackling delightedly at his joke. Suddenly, his coarse laugh turned into a coughing fit, and he hacked up some flem. He promptly spat it across the threshold into Utharo’s room, landing on one of the rich carpets.
“My sincerest apologies, but I don’t see as well as I used to” he said mildly. Thorfinn tried and failed to supress a chuckle. The Altmer seemed to swell, his perfectly composed features shattered.
“How dare you act in this manner, Vengast!” he breathed, mortified, furious.
“Speak up” snapped the old man. “My hearing, you know, completely gone. Deaf, utterly deaf!”
“You will leave!” Utharo exclaimed venomously. In reply, this ‘Vengast’ cupped his hand around his ear and leaned closer to Thorfinn.
“I didn’t quite catch that, was he professing his deep and abiding affection for human whores? How very scandalous, but it would certainly fit the gossip, and explain why such a venerable merish lord deigns to leave Alinor so very often.”
Utharo was apoplectic with rage, speechless. Vengast continued on mercilessly. “I'm sure his family think it an unspeakable perversion, although there's nothing wrong with a quick tangle in my opinion. Of course, the gods know I’m far too old to care about that sort of thing these days. I decay visibly” he declared forcefully.
Utharo attempted to restore his dignity by ignoring his tormentor. He turned to Thorfinn, whose smile lingered stubbornly.
“Tell me of your problem” he said stiffly, refusing to look at the hunched old man. Thorfinn, torn between distaste, amusement and curiosity, hesitated, only to receive a sharp clout on the shoulder from the old man’s staff. It seemed stronger than he would have thought possible for a seemingly frail old man.
“Hurry up boy, I’ve got precious little time left on Tamriel as it is.”
So Thorfinn explained the process he wanted to undertake, and then the problem. Utharo remained expressionless throughout, even if an angry parlour still lingered on his cheeks.
“I sense no magic in this steel” he pronounced, holding his hands over it.
“No magic!” hooted their companion without a scrap of dignity. “You poxed fool, no magic! Unmitigated ignorance.”
Utharo ignored him gamely. “If you can assure me compensation..." he paused significantly, "...I have the required tools here in the College. Good oil and a quench trough. Through my own magery…”, at this Vengast snorted “…I can bring the blades to the correct temperature and you can be on your way.”
He uttered those last three words with particular feeling. Thorfinn supposed he blamed him for Vengast’s presence, or perhaps working with such crude weapons and people was not to his taste. He wasn’t inclined to entrust his blades to an elf whodesired to have him be gone as quickly as possible. In fact, he didn’t want to entrust his blades to any elf.
Beside him, Vengast sighed exaggeratedly. “My lord Utharo should have this whole abject failure out of the way in about a minute. At least, that is the time-frame his whores suggest. ” he announced to mildly, before finally addressing Thorfinn directly. “When he's finished tearfully assuring you it wasn’t his fault and that it happens to all men occasionally, come and find me.I can usually be found in the Huntsman’s Hearth in the city. It’s the smell of shite, you know, I can’t stand it anymore” he elaborated earnestly, before turning with painfully shuffling steps. Then he limped down the corridor, his staff resounding off the stone as though he was striking it with all his might. At length, he disappeared into the stairwell.
Utharo muttered something under his breath that could conceivably be a prayer of thanks, then returned his singular focus to Thorfinn, who reluctantly nodded.
"I shall see to the preparations, then, and inform you of the compensation I require." said Utharo, moving past him toward the door, but Thorfinn thrust out an arm across the doorway.
“Take care that your wounded pride does not drive you to this task in error” he said coldly. Utharo stopped and fixed him with a stare of haughty, amused derision.
“These then are Nordic manners?" he breathed. "I perform as task for you and you repay me with threats?” he mocked softly. “I have been wielding a sword for one hundred years, and for long decades before your birth I have studied the arcane powers. Why should I feel threatened, by you?”
Thorfinn stared him down. “And how old are you?” he rumbled quietly.
“I am nearly one hundred and fifty nine years old” he said grandly. Thorfinn half-smiled again.
From the moment he came into this world, he had fought. As an infant, against cold, and hunger, and disease. Then he had fought the hard earth to make it grow, wet wood to make it burn, and raw iron to shape it. Now he fought in combat, against creatures and people who too had been born in Skyrim, shaped and hardened by it. A nord does not choose when to begin his first battle, he does not wait fifty years till he is ready. He is born into it. Thorfinn Thorfinnsson did not say these things to this golden merish princeling, born into the glass towers of Alinor. He felt no need for such empty words. No, Thorfinn merely smiled.