Meet the Ravencrones


Previously: Lovers and Wives

"They're late."

"It's still early morning," the Jarl of Hjaalmarch smirked, amused by her daughter's anxiety. Idgrod the Younger was seventeen, slim, tall, with long dark hair. She looked the same as her mother once had, but now the Old Ravencrone was wizened and wrinkled from the burden of jarldom. "And he's had to travel a long way."

"He won't like me," Idgrod bit out, fidgeting with the sleeve of her new dress. It was a simple blue dress, stitched in the Imperial fashion. It was also the best dress she owned. "You know these big city types. They don't understand Morthal like we do."

"He won't need to like you," her father Lord Aslfur assured her. He was an aging blond Nord, dressed in dark furs to match his wife. "You are going to be a Jarl. He just needs to know his place."

His words brought Idgrod little comfort as she stared across the barren wooden court of Highmoon Hall. The Ravencrones had ruled Hjaalmarch for generations, and the hall hadn't changed under any of them. The floors were stone, the walls and stairs were made of wooden logs; there was a fire pit in the center and small piles of wood in the shadow. Two banners of Hjaalmarch dangled behind the Jarl's throne; they were old, faded, and tattered.

We look common, Idgrod cringed. We look poor and simple and common, and he's not going to like it.

The doors of the hall finally opened dramatically, and in strode her future husband.

The first thing she noticed was that he was tall, a warrior, with his head shaved, his face painted, and a greatsword strapped to his back. He was a Nord through and through, but he was dressed in the Imperial fashion.

The second thing she noticed was that he wasn't alone. Hrongar arrived accompanied by a woman, a tall beautiful Redguard in a flowing dress of green silk and lace, her shoulders draped in brand new furs. The two came to stand before the dais where Jarl Ravencrone sat. Hrongar bowed, stiff but gallant, while the woman gracefully gave a low, sweeping curtsy.

It was like witnessing some sort of dance.



"Your Graces," he greeted in a booming voice. "I am Lord Hrongar, brother to Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. This is my companion, Lady Ahlam of House of Wintersand."

Standing off to the side, Idgrod was rendered mute, her whole body still as her mind raced. Who was Lady Ahlam and why exactly was she here?

Her mother, however, retained her voice. Examining her visitors with a level gaze, the Old Ravencrone mused, "I've never heard of this House...Wintersand."

"It's quite new, Your Grace," Ahlam replied in a low voice, her manners impeccable. "My husband is the new Thane of Whiterun."

Idgrod blinked, still unable to find her voice. That doesn't explain why you're here...?

"This is Idgrod the Younger, my eldest daughter and heir," Ravencrone pointed.

The teenager did her best to stand up straight, bowing only her head and only slightly. She still didn't speak.

Hrongar turned and bowed to her fully. "My lady."

His companion turned and curtsied slightly. "My lady."

They both turned back to the Jarl expectantly.

"We bid you both welcome," Aslfur nodded. He seemed to be the most casual and comfortable of all, refusing to let the threatening awkwardness settle in. "Join us; we were just about to break our fast."

***

The visitors looked woefully out of place, dining at Highmoon Hall. Their clothes seemed too bright, too new, too fine for the cramped, windowless room and its old furniture. A small hearth provided warmth, and the candles on the small table provided some light. A single servant tended them, serving pastries on wooden plates, and pouring mead from a clay jar into plain goblets.

Idgrod found herself fixating on Ahlam with an almost morbid curiosity. Even if she had mentioned nothing about her husband, the woman was clearly noble, her mannerisms dainty and fine, her clothes beyond expensive. Yet to the teenager's surprise, despite looking out of place, Ahlam didn't feel out of place. She smiled warmly, accepted everything politely, and seemed to fit right in.

"This is delicious," the Redguard gasped. "What is it?"

The Jarl was visibly amused. "Snowberry crostata. You've never had it before?"

"We don't have snowberries in Whiterun, Your Grace," Ahlam told her. She smiled with almost childlike delight.

"They do prefer snowier climes," the Jarl nodded. "The Baroness of Heljarchen would send us a barrel of them once a month until I finally invited her to Morthal. She took one look at our fair city and we haven't heard from her since." Ravencrone laughed heartily, along with her husband.

"The Baroness sounds short-sighted," Ahlam said. "Morthal is a blissful escape from the big city. Last night, I tasted mudcrab for the first time in years, and now I'm indulging in snowberries. I wonder what other culinary delights await me."

"Mushrooms."

All heads turned to Idgrod as the teenager finally found her voice.

"My lady?" Hrongar asked, as though he'd misheard.

"Mushrooms," she calmly repeated. "Wild mushrooms grow all over Hjaalmarch. I often collect them with my brother and make dumplings. They're quite popular in Morthal."

"We'll have to pick some mushrooms together then," Ahlam told her, smiling brightly. "You can show me how to make the dumplings."

***

Later, while Aslfur gave the visitors a brief tour of Highmoon Hall, Idgrod anxiously conferred with her mother in her parents' bedchamber.

"I don't understand," she confessed, brow furrowed. "Who is that woman?"

Her mother's mood was grim. "I thought it was obvious. She's his mistress."

Idgrod felt her plummet into her stomach. "Mis...mis...." She couldn't even get the word out.

"It seems that for all his show of honor and civility, Balgruuf maintains a godless house," the Jarl sighed. "It makes no difference. Unless we want our courts to swell with the ranks of Imperials, the betrothal must continue."

"But Mother!" Idgrod objected. "How can I marry a man who brings his...mistress into my home and forces me to treat her as an honored guest?"

Ravencrone sighed wearily, taking a seat near her bed and pouring herself a goblet of spring water. She drank deeply, pausing as she considered her words carefully.

"It's a lot more common that people care to admit," she stated finally. When her daughter balked, she pressed on. "You're going to be a Jarl, Idgrod. I never told you it would be pretty or easy or whatever other fantasy you might be clinging to. He's an older man who had a life before he met you." Her shoulders sank beneath the weight of the reality of her own words. "You can't expect him to change everything overnight."

"Easy for you to say!" Idgrod snapped. She stubbornly crossed her arms and leaned against a beam. "You and Father actually love each other!"

The Ravencrone's head suddenly threw back as she cackled. "I was an infamous spinster when I met Aslfur," the Jarl scoffed. "I was forty-three. My mother had died thirteen years earlier in the Great War, and my father was on his deathbed, gasping and straining for every last breath. Most of Morthal's best warriors and nobles had been lost, and Aslfur was the best pick of what was left behind." She chuckled again, as old memories resurfaced.

"Your father was brought to me," she nodded soberly, "twenty years my junior and not a drop of noble blood. But his family was able to scrape together a dowry of a thousand septims." She pointed towards the door. "Your man out there is easily worth ten times that."

Idgrod's eyes widened and as her hands dropped and stood straight up, away from the beam. "Ten thousand--"

"Being Jarl is difficult, thankless work," her mother reminded her. "The key is to make it work for you and your people. Now...take the fancy lady mushroom picking. See what you can learn from her."

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