‘Septim for your thoughts, Lydia.’
She was quieter even than usual, had not spoken a word since leaving Riften. Perhaps she had underestimated how well her friends could read her: certainly she did not speak a lot usually, certainly she was not one for small talk, but it was not like her to hang back, and keep a keen eye upon something at once in the middle distance and inside her mind. Lydia was daydreaming, and Arcadia for one could not help but interfere.
‘Oh!’ said Lydia, starting: ‘I was just... thinking.’
‘It looked painful,’ said Marcurio with a laugh, and Julienne elbowed him.
But Lydia seemed somewhat amused, just enough for them to leave off their interrogation, and they continued as they had been doing before. Esbern had at last decided to put in an appearance, in their general conversation, and was turning out to be a fine interlocutor, for his sojourn in the sewers did not seem to have dimmed his rhetoric, nor his extensive knowledge and memories of interesting times past. With his eloquent narration contributing at every turn, their conversation was lifted, and did not drop for a good while more.
Arcadia kept half an eye on Lydia’s reverie, however: and when they stopped at last, a hesitation to take a meal, now that they were hopefully far out of Thalmor range, she passed a sandwich to Lydia, before saying:
‘She was certainly a charming young lady.’
‘What?... who?’ asked Lydia.
‘Mjoll the Lioness,’ said Arcadia: and, across from her, Marcurio and Julienne’s eyes glinted.
Lydia’s attempt to deflect what she apparently perceived as an accusation was painful.
‘Oh, come on, Lydia, everyone and their dog can see it,’ said Marcurio after a moment: ‘it isn’t hard to know when somebody is in love.’
Julienne glared at him, good-naturedly, a reminder of awkward times past.
The three of them waited for Lydia to reply; Esbern looked quite baffled; then at last Lydia shuffled a bit, sighed, and furrowing her brow admitted:
‘Oh, all right... I was quite charmed by her, I shan’t deny it.’
It had been evident, in Riften, so evident that they had not thought to comment on it: when they had finished their conversation with Mjoll, and Lydia had lingered, not knowing whether to speak, trying to find something, anything to say; when they had found them both, later, chatting in the tavern quite beyond what they had expected from the quiet housecarl; when they had left Riften in a hurry, and Lydia had looked behind them, not fearing capture by the Thalmor, but fearing she would regret their precipitated and noiseless departure. Oh! a pretty sight, this woman in love, a love which did not diminish her, but which gave a poetic glance to once-enigmatic eyes, an upward twitch to pious devoted lips...
A pretty sight, but a despairing one, for they were far out of Riften, and should not return for a good while.
‘Certainly you have a lot in common,’ Arcadia beamed: ‘and you would make a charming couple, I am sure.’
‘I do not think we would make any couple,’ said Lydia shrugging: ‘she is quite besotted with Aerin, if only she would admit it.’
‘With Aerin!’ cried Arcadia laughing.
‘They are like siblings,’ ventured Julienne, ‘not lovers.’
‘Like... siblings?’ said Lydia: ‘are you sure? Did she tell you that?’
‘Not in so many words,’ said Arcadia, ‘but if she were so besotted with Aerin – and I do not believe her to be the disloyal sort – then she would not heaped so much devoted attention on you, while you were in her company.’
‘She fancies you, and you fancy her,’ said Marcurio: ‘seems simple enough.’
‘Well, I shan’t be able to tell her now,’ said Lydia with a pathetic sort of sigh.
The others were not so pessimistic, even in the circumstances: oh! they had a grander mission, in this turbulent time, but none quite so delicate and so charming as making Lydia happy. They expressed as much to the poor housecarl, who went quite red; at last Julienne said:
‘You could write to her... there are couriers everywhere.’
Lydia looked at once intrigued and aghast at the thought.
‘And we can help you write a letter... if you don’t think you are very eloquent...’
‘Put simply,’ said Marcurio: ‘if we got Farengar and Arcadia together, there’s nothing we can’t do.’
There was some more to-ing and fro-ing, some magnificent blushing, and at last Lydia agreed that, as soon as they reached some significant settlement, they would draft a letter, and have it sent post-haste with the first courier they could drag off the street. And Mjoll would get the letter, and reply, and they would go and meet her somewhere, and –
‘I think we are forgetting,’ Esbern piped up: ‘that we have important matters to be attending to.’
‘Oh!’ cried Julienne: ‘but we are making Lydia happy.’
‘Is it always like this, travelling with you four?’
‘You’re one of us now,’ said Arcadia: ‘when in Cyrodiil, do as Cyrodiil does. I am afraid, my dear Esbern, that there is more to adventuring than a straight line, and a point on a map.’
Esbern looked perfectly scandalised, not by this precise point, but by the very pressing matter of the imminent destruction of Skyrim. The others grinned at his expression, and Julienne said:
‘We would... we’d be stopping in Whiterun, anyway... before Riverwood, I mean. We shall have time...’
‘And none of us would have survived this far,’ added Arcadia, ‘if we did not have a few distractions on the road.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ said Marcurio, quite forgetting that his waterskin was full of soup, and getting it on his collar, much to the others’ amusement.
And Esbern watched them all laughing together, wondered if he understood – if he knew what it was like, how lonely it was to be single-minded, and to avoid frivolities; he watched them, and wished he might be like them, decided that, despite everything, the future was in safe hands.
Oh! to be young...
They set off at last, all of them beaming; and when their conversation began again, it was as to the nature of love, and what should be the contents of a certain letter. The others were surprised when Esbern put in a few comments of his own, as a man who was not without having felt the whispers of love, some time ago: but he was one of them, for the moment.
And in the centre of it all, oh! if only you might have seen Lydia! and how happy she was! –