A Hand to Hold, Part I

They say there’s a land down south where it’s always warm and it never snows. There, I’m told, you can sleep right down by the ocean, and if you’re hungry, all you have to do is pick fruit from the nearest tree. A fellow could go down there and forget he ever had any troubles. It sounds like a nice place, if it’s real.

Maybe one day I’ll try to find it, but not now. While there are lots of things about my life I don’t want to remember, there are some things I don’t ever want to forget.

I would like to forget how I became an orphan, but I don’t want to forget the family I lost.

I would like to forget how I could have starved my first winter alone, but I don’t want to forget the man who taught me how to survive.

I would like to forget the war, the dragon that burned Helgen, the Imperials, the Stormcloaks, and all that went with them. But I don’t want to forget how it felt when it all ended.

I don’t want to forget Miki.

A Few Years Ago…

I had just arrived in Falkreath.  I was working as a messenger.  I carried documents back and forth between Falkreath and Whiterun, with stops in Riverwood and the garrison at Helgen, which was being rebuilt after the dragon attack.  It wasn’t a great living, but better than begging in the streets, or starving.  After I dropped the official messages at the guardhouse, I set out toward Dead Man’s Drink to deliver what was left.  Inside, I saw the owner, Fru Vinicia, working behind the bar.  I asked her about the burned farmstead I passed east of town.

“The Olafson place?  You don’t know?” she said.  “Oh, but you weren’t here, were you, Jot?”

“I guess I missed something,” I admitted.

“It happened only a few nights ago,” Fru Vinicia confided.  “This creature, she looks just like a young woman, they caught her lurking around the farmstead in the middle of the night.  They say when they tried to grab her, she set the place ablaze using only her hands!”

I know how stories can grow, and sometimes it’s fun to hear them do that.  But I had been on the road for many months and had never seen anything like that.  “Fru Vinicia,” I asked, “who’s this ‘they’ you’re talking about?”

“Me, for one!” said a voice behind me.  I turned, and only just recognized Bruno, one of the town guards, without his armor.  He was sitting alone at one of the tables pushed against the wall to my left.  “It’s true.  Look what she did to me!”  He pulled his tunic down over his left shoulder to reveal a large square bandage fastened to his upper chest.  “Me and Filip were doing night patrol east of town when we heard the Olafsons screaming ‘Thief!  Thief!’  When we got there, we saw the little sneak trying to run ‘round back of the house, so Filip and I went around each side to trap her.  When I grabbed her, she put one hand on my chainmail, and next thing I knew, I was rolling on the ground in pain, and the whole place was up in flames!”

I exaggerated my grimace to give Bruno the sympathy he probably craved, but the wound did look painful.  “Then what happened?”

“She vanished.  Escaped into the night!” said Bruno.  “Filip and I staggered back to the guardhouse.  The captain saw how I got burned and told me to rest for a couple days, so that’s why I’m here.  I think the Olafsons went to Whiterun.  Fru Olafson has a sister there.”

“So, she got away, then,” I said.

“Got away clean!  Listen, boy, you’d better keep your eyes open.  She’s a demon, and she’s still out there, somewhere, and believe you me, you don’t want to find her!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful,” I said, and turned back to Fru Vinicia, who looked a bit amused by Bruno’s story.

She leaned over the bar to speak in confidence.  “Young man,” she said, “I don’t know how much of Bruno’s story is true, but he’s not the type who’s easily scared.  Something got to him, alright, so I hope you watch yourself on the way back to Whiterun tomorrow.”

“I’ve always watched myself, Fru Vinicia.  I don’t plan on letting my guard down now.”

“See that you don’t.  Will you be picking up letters here tomorrow?”  I nodded.  “Good,” she said, “I’ll have some rolls waiting for you.”

I thought about what Bruno and Fru Vinicia told me as I settled down in the guardhouse that night.  I was pretty familiar with most of the creatures in the landscape I roamed through:  wolves, foxes, the occasional bandit.  If you paid attention, most of them could be avoided.  I knew there were some unworldly things out there, too.  I’ve actually seen skeletons walking, and that’s a scary thing to see!  But they seem to be tied to specific places like ancient tombs, so if you steered clear of those places, you were safe.

But a demon woman?  That was new.  And while I wasn’t too worried, I made sure my hunting knife was good and sharp before I went to sleep.

Although it was a beautiful day for traveling, my vague sense of caution continued the next morning as I set out east, back to Whiterun. My water skin was full, and I carried outgoing messages, rolls, and fruit in my shoulder bag.  My knife was tucked into the belt of my tunic for easy access, and my cape was pushed back from my shoulders to keep my arms free.  Shortly after passing through Falkreath’s east gate, I again looked at the burned farmstead on my left.  The house faced the road.  It looked like the fire started from the right side, as the damage to the wooden walls was heaviest there.  The thatch roof, of course, was completely gone.  What I could see of the barn in back was damaged, but possibly still usable.  I was glad the Olafsons were able to escape, but I found myself wondering what kind of creature could have done that kind of damage.  Nothing I’d ever seen, that’s for sure.

After that, the little voice telling me to be careful became more urgent.  As the morning went on, I began to understand why.  I was being tracked!  It wasn’t anything obvious at first, just a feeling that something was a little off:  movement in the corner of my eye, silence when I should be hearing sounds, a rabbit running from something I couldn’t identify.  After a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of my pursuer.  A small person, lightly built, an elf maybe.  A bandit wasn’t likely, since bandits prefer ambush to pursuit.  In any case, I didn’t like having an unknown person following me, so I needed to figure out how to shake the person off.

If you’ve ever been around Falkreath, you’ll remember there’s an abandoned wooden gateway about three hours east of town.  I’m told it once marked the border between Whiterun and Falkreath holds, and for a long time bandits used it to extract money from passing travelers.  By the time I started working as a messenger, the bandits were mostly chased off, and only a fool would step on the rotting wooden walkway spanning the gate.  But the gateway was built in a narrow part of the road with steep rocky faces on either side, making it an ideal place to hide and wait.  I was able to scramble up behind some rocks to my right, a short distance before the gate.  Slowly, I worked my way up to a vantage point near the walkway.  From there, I could see my pursuer cautiously stepping out into the road, and I finally got a good look.  It was a young girl, maybe my age, or a little younger.

What was she doing out there?  She didn’t look dangerous.  In fact, she looked a little scared.  I thought, if she meant to rob me, I could set her straight right away, but if she was lost, maybe I could point her back in the right direction.  I crept down to the other side of the gateway, thinking I could creep up on her without being seen.  She must have heard me up there, because she was looking up to where I’d been hiding.  I was maybe ten steps from her when she turned to face me.  She was a little shorter than me, with dirty brown hair, a ragged gray-green dress, and a cape pulled over her shoulders.  Her face was twisted into a threatening glower, and in her left hand she held a bundle of twigs.  “Don’t you come nearer!” she hissed, and the twigs burst into flame in her hand.

The Demon Woman!

Go to Part II

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