A Hand to Hold, Part II

An In-Between Elf

“Stay back!” the girl snarled. She tried her best to look vicious, but she hadn’t practiced enough to be convincing. In fact, she looked a little comical. But the handful of burning twigs held my attention. How did she do that?

“I won’t hurt you,” I said, and backed away a step or two. She stayed where she was, staring at me. The fire in her hand continued to burn, though it didn’t appear to hurt her at all. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” I repeated. “I just want to know who you are and why you were tracking me.”

Her scowl softened. “I was hungry,” she said.

“So you were going to steal my food?” I asked. The girl nodded. She kept her wary stance, but I could tell the wind was going out of her sails. The flames in her hand burned down, leaving her with a fistful of ash. “When’s the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday,” the girl said. “Maybe the day before.”

I reached into my bag, and she flinched. “Don’t worry,” I said calmly. I pulled out an apple and a roll. “Here,” I said. “They’re yours if you want them, but you have to explain yourself.” The girl took a few hesitant steps toward me, and I did the same. Gently, I placed the apple and roll into her hands. She didn’t just snatch them away from me, but took them slowly, trying not to look too ravenous. Her actions told me she wasn’t a wild child; she still had some manners.

“Thank you,” she said simply. She seemed a little out of breath, which I put down to hunger and the effort to track me.

“Let’s sit,” I said, motioning her to the side of the road. I sat down next to her. In the morning sunlight, I finally noticed her ears. “You’re an elf!” I said, “But you’re not like the elves I’ve seen.”

The girl was making short work of the apple, but she managed to swallow before responding. “What elves have you seen?”

“High elves, mostly,” I said. “Like the Thalmor, though I haven’t seen that many lately. But you don’t seem like a high elf. You don’t –”

She cut me off. “Walk around looking down at everybody? Well, you’re right, I’m not a high elf,” she said. “I’m not a dark elf or a wood elf either.” As small as she was, that much seemed obvious, though I didn’t mention it. “I guess you could call me an ‘In-Between Elf,’” she announced.

She’d devoured the apple and was well into the roll when I passed her my water skin. She took a long drink. “An In-Between Elf called what?” I asked.

“An In-Between Elf called Miki,” she said. “And you’re a Nord boy named –”

“Jot,” I said. “You can call me Jot.”

We shook hands. I was a little surprised to find her hand wasn’t any warmer than mine was, given that she was holding a handful of fire only moments before. “I’ve never heard of anyone named Jot before,” she said. “is that really your name?”

“No,” I admitted. “It’s not. I don’t exactly proclaim my name to the world.”

“But why not?”

“As they say, it’s a long story,” I said. “Now, why is an In-Between Elf running around by herself, burning down farmsteads?”

Miki looked shocked. “I never burned down anyone’s home!” she exclaimed, deeply offended. “That wasn’t my fault. One of those guards was carrying a torch. He probably set the thatch on fire himself, out of clumsiness.”

Her explanation didn’t seem that far-fetched, really. “But what were you doing sneaking around the farmstead in the first place?” I asked.

“I was scrounging,” she said softly. “I was looking for something to eat. I crept around the house until I found a barrel. Then I tripped, knocked the barrel over, and I guess I woke up everyone in the house. It’s just my luck the guards happened to be passing by at that moment. When one of them grabbed me, I pushed away from him, and then, well, I just –”

“Burned him?” I said.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, but when I get scared, sometimes I’ll do it without thinking.”

What exactly she was doing, I still wanted to learn. “You know, I believe you,” I said. “But what you did,” I said, imitating her hand movements, “is that something all In-Between Elves can do?”

“Some of us can,” she said, “but not all. It’s not a great magical power we have. I can’t make flames fan out from my hands or anything like that, but I can make small fires, heat things up, that sort of thing.”

“But what’s an In-Between Elf with a modest magic power doing out here in the first place?”

Miki took her time answering. “I guess you could say I have a promise to keep.” She hesitated. “Maybe I’m looking for some help. I have to get to Riften.”

“That’s really far!” I said. “Why do you have to go all the way out there?”

She patted a leather pouch attached to her belt. “I’m to deliver this letter,” she said. “No matter what, I have to get this letter to the priestess at the Chapel of Mara in Riften.”

“And who, exactly, did you have in mind to help you?”

Miki just looked at me. “I don’t know,” she said simply, though I was pretty sure she did know.

“Just a few minutes ago, you were out to steal my food,” I said. “And now you’re asking for me help?”

“I’m sorry! I was so hungry –”

I cut Miki off. “Don’t worry about that. I would have fed you either way. But you have to understand, I have promises of my own to keep.” I patted my shoulder bag. “See this? It’s full of messages for Helgen, Riverwood, and Whiterun. People are depending on me.” People paid me, too, though I didn’t mention it.

“If you can’t help me, I guess I can go alone,” said Miki. “I’ve made it this far.” She tried to sound defiant, but it wasn’t working.

“Miki, I’ve never even been to Riften. But people tell me it’s no easy trip. There’s a lot between here and there that could kill you.” I’d never been much further east than Whiterun, but from the stories the guards told me, I didn’t relish the idea. “Have you ever seen a frostbite spider? They’re as big as horses and spit their venom. One hit will freeze you solid!” Or so I’d been told, not that I wanted to find out for myself.

Miki stood up and wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. “I’m sure it’s all as you say, but it still doesn’t leave me with any choice. I have to go.” She began walking east toward Helgen.

I could think of no reason why I should obligate myself to a stranger. What grounds did I have to abandon my duties, my livelihood, for a journey we might not even live through? It was hard enough just looking out for myself. But as I watched Miki, I realized she might not make it much further than Whiterun, even with that power she had. How could I have that on my conscience?

“Miki,” I called. She stopped and turned toward me. “Do you mind if we make a few stops on the way?”

Conflagration

It took most of the day walking through wooded hills to reach Helgen, and the sun was low in the sky when I presented my messages to the gate guards. As usual, the guards gave me a few coins and some bread for my troubles, but they were a little shocked that I wouldn’t be returning any time soon. “Riften? That’s a tough trip even for a strong man,” one of them told me. I promised to be careful.

Miki waited for me a short distance from the gate. “Won’t they let us in?” she asked as I handed her another roll.

“They aren’t letting anyone in except soldiers and workers. They’re still cleaning out the wreckage, even after two years. We can camp close by, though.”

We selected a fairly flat place a short distance from the gate to build our fire. That way, we wouldn’t be too far from the guards if any trouble came our way. I had arranged some dead wood in front of us and was trying to strike my flint on some tinder when Miki produced a handful of twigs. “Allow me,” she said. She had the fire going in no time.

The sun was setting. Miki was leaning against a tree, her cape wrapped around her shoulders, and her eyes closed. “Asleep already?” I asked.

“Just resting a little,” she said. She leaned forward. “Was it really a dragon that burned Helgen?”

“What do you mean? Of course it was. What kind of question is that?”

“I don’t mean it like that,” she said, a little defensively. “But we were far, far away when it happened, and you know how news changes the further it travels.”

“Well, take it from me,” I said. “I was there. Not far from where we’re sitting now, in fact.”

“You saw it?” Miki exclaimed. “That must have been horrifying.”

She was right about that. It’s hard to think about even now. I’d only been a messenger for a little over a year when it happened. I was outside the town, approaching the south gate, when the dragon appeared. I couldn’t imagine what the beast was. My mind was comparing it with every creature I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t place it. When it finally dawned on me what I was seeing, it had already set half the town on fire. That was scary enough. What was worse was the screaming of an entire town being roasted alive. Then came the smell, but I won’t describe that.

“Did no-one escape?” Miki asked.

“I heard a few did,” I replied. “I only saw one, though, a young woman only a few years older than me. And she might not have even been in the town when it happened. She was maybe two hundred paces from the gate, kneeling in the dirt, so I thought I’d better check to see if she needed help. ‘Frokken,’ I called, but she didn’t answer. Finally, she got up and started walking south, toward the main road. I ran after her. ‘Frokken!‘ I called again, and she turned to look at me. Or maybe behind me or through me. I couldn’t really tell. I handed her my water skin, she took a drink, and then she handed it back to me, staring at nothing the whole time.

“After that, she started walking again. She looked like she might be headed to Riverwood, so I went with her. She didn’t say a word, but after an hour or so, I could see her crying, very quietly. I reached out and took her hand, and we walked like that, all the way to Riverwood.”

“Why?” Miki asked.

“Why what?”

“Why did you take her hand?”

“It’s hard to say,” I replied. “Maybe I didn’t like seeing her in pain. Maybe she reminded me of my sister somehow. And I was going to Riverwood anyway.”

“Do you know what happened to her?” Miki asked.

“No,” I said. “I took her into the local tavern and got her to sit down while I went to the guardhouse to let them know what happened and to deliver my messages. When I came back, I couldn’t find her.”

“That’s so sad!”

“I guess it is,” I said, “but back in those days, everybody seemed to be on the run, headed somewhere, or headed away from somewhere.” I pointed to myself. “That went for me, too.”

I considered explaining further, but I could see Miki yawning. The sun had gone down, and it was time to get some rest. “We’re going to pass through Riverwood tomorrow,” I said, “and we’ll stop for the night in Whiterun. We can talk more in the morning.” Miki didn’t answer; she’d wrapped her cape around herself and lay down on the grass. I watched her sleep for a moment, then did the same.

Go to Part I     Go to Part III

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