A Hand to Hold, Part III

Troubled Times

“So, do I get to hear your story?” asked Miki. We were walking downhill, occasionally shielding our eyes against the morning sun. Late summer lasts a long time in Skyrim, and it was still a fine morning for traveling. From Helgen to Riverwood is half a day’s journey, mostly easy, toward the White River. Coming back the other way is a little harder.

“What story is that?” I replied.

“You know, your story. You said it’s a long one.”

“You mean, how I got here, and all that?” Miki nodded. “It’s not something I usually talk about,” I said. “Out here, people don’t usually ask things like that.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” said Miki.

“Oh, I didn’t think you did,” I said quickly, “but it’s just kind of strange, talking about it.” Strange, maybe, but I didn’t see how it could hurt, and Miki seemed like she really wanted to know. “Since I’m on my own, you’ve probably guessed I’m an orphan, right?”

“Yes, I guessed that,” replied Miki.

“It’s been a few years now, I suppose. I grew up on a farm near Rorkistead. Mostly it was pretty peaceful, until the war started heating up. I was the only child they had, after my younger sister died a couple winters before the war found us.”

“That was the sister you mentioned last night?”

“Yes,” I said. “One winter, she took a cold, and it got into her chest. A healer visited our farm and rubbed some salve on her, but it didn’t help much. When she died, the ground was too hard to dig a grave, so some holy folks from Whiterun came and took her away.” I don’t know what you call holy people. Priests or something, I guess. “They tried to say nice words to me and my parents, but I don’t remember feeling any better.”

Miki frowned. My talk seemed to bother her more than it did me. But she wanted me to continue. “Then the war?” she asked.

“The war,” I said. “Most of us tried to stay out of it as best we could. My papa told me that in wars, people would do the worst things to each other you could think of, but they’d still think they were in the right. I learned all about that.”

“What do you mean?” asked Miki, “That is, if you can still talk about it.”

I fought back a lump in my throat; I was letting myself remember things I’d tried to forget. “I’m alright,” I said. “We tried to stay out of the war, but the war came to us anyway.” I told her about the riders, about Papa hiding me in the barn cellar, ordering me to stay down there until he came for me. I told her about the screams and scuffling above me, and what I saw when I finally dared to leave the cellar. “The house was still burning,” I said, “and they ransacked the barn.”

“Did you find your –“

“Yes,” I said. “Both of them. I really don’t want to talk about that.”

Miki looked like she was about to cry. I’d upset her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean –“

“No, I’m alright,” said Miki. “If you don’t want to continue, I won’t ask you to.”

“Maybe I’d better finish, then,” I said. “Maybe it will help me to talk about it.” I told Miki how I’d grabbed what I could from the barn, then ran to the Frostfruit Inn at Rorikstead to find some help. “I thought somebody there would know what to do, since we’d been there often enough. But when I got there, the innkeeper said, ‘Aren’t you Soren and Gretel’s boy? You’ve got to get out of here!’ He told me that riders had come through town, looking for me. They told everyone in town that my parents were traitors, and that made their families traitors, and if they caught anyone hiding the son of traitors, then the whole town was guilty of treason.”

“These riders,” asked Miki, “who were they?”

“That’s the thing. Nobody knew. Nobody recognized them. Bandits aren’t usually that vicious. Imperials and Stormcloaks usually wore uniforms. And the Thalmor? They never tried to hide who they were, either. Maybe that’s what scared everybody so badly, not knowing who was attacking you, or who was next.”

“Did you ever find out?”

“No, I never did, and nobody else wanted to find out, ether. A few people in Rorikstead gave me some supplies, but then they sent me on my way.” Those supplies kept me going for two or three days, staying away from roads, traveling in the dark, barely sleeping.

Orphans’ Lives

We came to a place called the Guardian Stones, about halfway between Helgen and Riverwood. If you’ve never been there, the Guardian Stones are three ancient monoliths set into a kind of stone platform, arranged in a triangle, sitting at the bottom of a hill close to the south bank of the White River. Each of the stones has carvings representing some kind of power, which I don’t understand. They’re also supposed to be magical, though I’ve never noticed anything. But they also represent a nice, dry place to rest, which is what Miki and I decided to do.

I tossed Miki a roll, and we sat in silence for a few minutes, resting against the stones and eating. After Miki finished, she asked, “How many of you are there? Orphans, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d guess a lot. The war broke up a lot of families.”

“What happens to them?”

“Lots of things. A few of them move in with relatives or other families, I suppose. But a lot of them have nowhere to go. Some of them become beggars. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them wound up in bandit gangs. Some of them just disappear – starve, freeze to death, killed by animals or other people, things like that. I remember a girl up in Whiterun who used to wait around near the temple. Lucia was a really nice girl; I used to share food with her sometimes. Not long ago, I was back up there delivering messages and I couldn’t find her. People told me she’d gone to live with the Dragonborn’s family. Dragonborn? What nonsense. They might as well have told me she’d gone to live with the Emperor! Lucia was gone, and nobody wanted to tell me the truth about it. I don’t know why. People dying isn’t exactly news to me.”

Miki looked extremely troubled; her lip was trembling. “Are there really no places for orphans to go?”

“Another boy once told me about an orphanage, in Riften, as a matter of fact. He told me it was a terrible place. The lady who ran it was really cruel, he said, as if she wanted to punish orphaned kids just for being orphaned. I wanted no part of that.”

“But you survived, somehow.”

“I was one of the lucky ones,” I said. “If you can call it that. Two or three days after leaving Rorikstead, I found myself at Lake Illinalta. I was really hungry, and I spotted an old man fishing on the shore. I thought I could sneak up on him and steal his food, but he caught me easily. Here’s the surprising part: Instead of beating me or chasing me off, he took pity on me. He gave me some of his food, and offered to let me stay with him.”

Miki smiled at that. “Lady Mara blessed you both!” she said.

While I knew who Lady Mara was supposed to be, I’d never really thought about her. I wasn’t about to argue any of this with Miki, though. “Maybe so,” I said, “or maybe the old fellow liked the company. Either way, that’s how I kept going.”

“So what happened to him?”

“His name was Jochem. Since I thought the men who killed my parents might still be looking for me, I told him my name was Jot, after what my mother called me when I was small. I stayed with him for a few months, learning all about how to survive in the countryside, hunting, fishing, setting snares, avoiding danger, and so forth. He’d challenge me, saying things like, ‘what we eat tonight depends on you.’ That made me pay attention to my lessons, and I usually managed to find or catch something.” I paused for a minute, thinking about Jochem. Remembering him made me smile. “Eventually, he told me he had to return to his homeland, down south somewhere. Not long after that, the guard captain in Falkreath offered me money to take messages over to Helgen for him. That was before the dragon attack, of course. With what Jochem taught me, I managed without too much trouble. Anyway, that was how I got started with what I’m doing now.”

“So Lady Mara blessed you twice!” said Miki.

I smiled and nodded, though I thought “blessings of Lady Mara” was a fancy way of saying “lucky.”

Riverwood and River Run!

We reached Riverwood late in the morning, entering through the west gate. As we passed the blacksmith’s house on our left, two men holding tankards waved to me from the porch. I waved back. “Raloff and Hadvar,” I explained, “both grew up here. They were on opposite sides during the war, but they’re much happier now.”

“Can people really stop hating each other like that?” asked Miki.

“I think most people were just tired of fighting,” I said. I told her about the time, right after the war ended, when I was walking southwest out of Whiterun and spotted an Imperial patrol and a Stormcloak patrol approaching from opposite directions, maybe half a dozen men in each. I found a place to hide just in case there was trouble. When the patrols met, the men stared, sizing each other up, for quite some time. After a while, the Imperial commander slowly pulled out his sword and dropped it on the ground. The Stormcloak commander did the same. Then the Imperial commander reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle, and yelled something at the Stormcloak commander. The Stormcloak pulled out a bottle as well, and yelled something back. Suddenly, all the swords were on the ground, and everyone held a bottle! After that, they quit being soldiers and started being friends again.

I don’t think they moved from that spot all day.

“Lady Mara blessed all of them!” exclaimed Miki.

Possibly, I thought, though I wondered if we had a god of drunks. I didn’t bother asking Miki that.

Across from the blacksmith’s house stood the Sleeping Giant Inn, which we entered to drop off some letters for the townspeople. “Is this the place you took that young woman you told me about?” asked Miki.

I nodded. “People know me here. We should be able to buy some more food for the trip.” Inside, I greeted Orgnar, who ran the place after the previous owner, a lady named Delphine, suddenly left. He took the letters, gave me a few coins, and promised to deliver the letters when the recipients arrived to collect them. He got some of those coins back when I bought enough food to last us a couple more days. I found Miki resting on a bench at the opposite end of the inn, and sat with her a few moments before I led her back out. Dorthe, the blacksmith’s daughter, a little younger than me, spotted us as we walked out. I waved at her, and she waved back, though I think she scowled a little when she saw Miki!

The guardhouse at the east gate was our last stop in Riverwood. Miki remained in the background while I delivered official messages. The sergeant there greeted me warmly, but I was surprised by what he had to say. “Did you hear about the demon woman? The news is all over Whiterun Hold. Burned half of Falkreath down, she did! We’ve been told to keep our eyes open. There’s a big reward for anyone who catches her, but I don’t know what good a reward will do me if I get cooked!”

I saw Miki’s eyes go wide as I tried to figure out what to say. I finally decided a tall tale would work best. “Oh, yes! I saw her myself! You’re right, you don’t want to tangle with her. Tall as two men, she was. Last I saw, she was headed west, so it’s probably Markarth’s worry more than Whiterun’s. “

The sergeant looked relieved. “Well, I’ll let them collect the reward, then. If they can!”

We didn’t exactly sprint all the way to Whiterun, but we didn’t waste any time, either.

Go to Part II     Go to Part IV

About the Illustrations:

The illustrations for this story are screenshots taken while playing Skyrim, Special Edition, supplemented by various gameplay and graphics modifications which I will list in detail later.  Screenshots were manipulated using Paint.Net prior to loading to this web site.

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