A Hand to Hold, Part IV

Note:  For previous installments of this story, please click the links below:


The Living Lantern

I didn’t want to take Miki into Whiterun with me. News travels faster than you’d think in Skyrim, especially if the Olafsons had moved there as Bruno in Falkreath thought. Instead, I left her with my friend Ri’saad the Khajiit trader with his caravan outside the city gates. Inside Whiterun it was business as usual: personal letters at the Bannered Mare tavern and official messages at the guard house. Fru Hulda at the Bannered Mare said something that bothered me – she claimed she’d heard from Lucia, and that she was doing well! I wanted to tell her not to bother with stories like that. We both knew the truth, and I really didn’t need it kept from me. Maybe she was trying to protect me somehow, as if I didn’t already know what happens to orphans in Skyrim. In the end, I just nodded and said nothing.

Olli, the sergeant at the gate house that afternoon, had better news. He told me that while the journey to Riften was difficult, it wasn’t impossible, and he even drew me a map showing the best routes to take and areas we needed to avoid. He also said he would be traveling there himself in a few days, as Whiterun and Riften had started trading guards back and forth to share knowledge and training. “But look out for those frostbite spiders!” he warned. I shivered a little and promised to be careful.

Back at the Khajiit camp, I found that Miki enjoying her new friends. “Look what they gave me!” she said excitedly. “A small tent for our trip!”

“Great!” I replied. “We can really use that.” I turned to Ri’saad. “How much?”

“There is no charge,” purred Ri’saad. “It is our gift to you. Your friend has undertaken a noble mission. We ask only that you remain ready to aid her at all times.”

“Don’t worry, Ri’saad,” I said. “I will.”

“Then may your road lead to warm sands,” Ri’saad concluded. And with that, we bid Ri’saad a respectful farewell.

It was late afternoon when we left Whiterun, Miki carrying the canvas tent and me the poles and stakes. We were a short distance east of town when we decided to set up camp. Miki set about assembling the tent while I went off in search of some firewood. I managed to collect a reasonable bundle in a short time, but I soon felt that something was wrong. I was being tracked again – I could hear it before I saw it, a faint rustle in the grass, the sound of panting.

Wolves.

I edged slowly back to Miki, trying to look in all directions at once. “Stay behind me,” I said. “We’ve got company.” I dropped the wood and unsheathed my knife. I don’t know about other places, but wolves in Skyrim are aggressive. If you can convince wolves that you’re more powerful than they are, you can scare them off, but I didn’t think one boy and a very skinny girl were going to frighten them too much. Eventually, I saw them, a pair of large greys, moving toward us, unafraid. I held my knife in front of me, ready to raise it if the wolves sprang. They began to move faster, snarling, preparing to leap at us when suddenly their eyes went wide. Their snarls became whines as they suddenly turned tail and ran. What was that all about? I turned around to find Miki, and gasped.

Behind me, glowing brighter than a full moon was Miki. Taller than two men she was, and poised to attack!

Then just as suddenly, she was skinny little Miki again, leaning over with her hands on her thighs, gasping. “They won’t be back,” she panted as I ran to her. “That one took a little out of me!”

I put my arm around her shoulder to steady her. “Is that an In-Between Elf trick?” I asked.

She nodded. “With some animals, it even works in the daytime. I guess they can see things we can’t.”

I finished assembling the tent. “You just sit here and rest. I’ll get the fire going.” Miki started to get up. “No, I’ll just use my flint. Sit down,” I said. And after a few tries, I did get the kindling to catch.

I watched Miki for a while in the firelight. “That was a pretty good trick,” I said. “Got any others?”

“How about this one?” Miki said, standing. I tried to stop her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This is an easy one.” I followed her a few steps from the fire, and watched as she raised her right hand. A pale glow formed around her fingers, which gradually brightened. I watched in wonder as tiny flashes of light appeared around her hand. Fireflies, I realized, dozens of them attracted to her glowing hand, like a living lantern in front of her.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “But what is it for?”

“Just to look at,” Miki giggled. “Does everything have to have a purpose?”

Lady Mara Calls You

Our trip really began the next day. From what Olli told me, we would only pass one real settlement between Whiterun and the outskirts of Riften. It would be a long day’s journey to Darkwater Crossing, and after that, at least another two days of wilderness before we finally reached anything like civilization. I was glad we had a map. We followed the White River as far as we could, then turned east. The landscape changed as we traveled. The land was flatter, and didn’t seem as fertile as the countryside I knew. The road we walked changed from well-kept stone to a rocky path under our feet. I saw less wildlife, and fewer trees. Food, I thought, might be a challenge. We could only carry a couple days’ worth at a time, and while I wasn’t too worried about myself, I was concerned about Miki. For some reason, she didn’t seem that strong. I guess all her traveling and what magic she had really did take a lot out of her.

Some people imagine traveling the wilderness as something violent, with bandits and fierce wild animals at every turn. In fact, it’s rather dull. You have to be alert, of course, but most of the time, you can avoid trouble pretty easily. All of this gave Miki and me plenty of time to talk. Since I’d spent the day before telling her my story, I asked her to tell me hers. “You remember me speaking of Lady Mara, right?” she asked. “I guess Lady Mara is where my story really begins, and why we’re here,” she concluded.

“Understand I don’t envy you at all,” said Miki, “after hearing what you’ve been through. But when you told me about your family I realized that I had no memory of mine. That’s a fact of life we In-Betweens in the Somerset Isles have to live with.”

In-Between Elves, Miki explained, were a group that really didn’t fit anywhere in Altmer society. Among the ruling Thalmor, they were the lowest of the low – the servants with the worst jobs, hired, traded, and thrown aside by the upper class families. Miki told me the Altmeris word for their caste, but I couldn’t pronounce it. It meant something like “those who obey.”

“That sounds like slavery,” I noted. “I didn’t know the Thalmor did that.”

“They’ll insist they don’t,” said Miki. “And they’ll make a big show of paying you a pittance, far less than you could live on, which keeps you dependent on them. And that’s if you’re grown up. If you’re a child, they don’t pay you at all.” Miki described how she spent most of her early years working in kitchens, barns, or cellars of wealthy households. “And all this time, they were telling me how grateful I should be.”

“So what brought you out here, then?” I asked. “Did you escape or something?”

“No,” Miki said. “That’s where Lady Mara comes in. When I was eleven, I began working in the household of Thalmor Lord Iceni. He was a widower with four children. He never told me he was kind or that I should be grateful to him. He simply was kind, and for that I am grateful. Instead of working in the barn or the cellar, he asked me to look after his younger children. I slept in a soft bed, had plenty to eat, and even received new clothes!”

“So why did you leave?”

“Well, my Lord followed the teachings of Lady Mara. He was very serious about it, studying every night, and making sure his children understood Lady Mara’s command to love one another, servant and master alike. He never tried to hide his devotion from other Thalmor families either, and some even began wondering if they needed to change how they lived and ruled.”

“I’ll bet he wasn’t too popular with the Thalmor in charge, though,” I suggested.

“No, the Thalmor elite considered him dangerous and tried to shut him up. About a year ago, he sent his two eldest children, a son and a daughter, out of the country. Two months ago, we had to flee Iceni Manor, and soon after that my Lord gave me the letter I’m to take to Riften.”

“Do you know what happened to him?”

Miki looked downcast. “No,” she said. “He didn’t tell me where he was going, or where he was sending his youngest daughters. I have no idea where he is.” She closed her eyes, but not before I saw a tear fall. “Or even if he’s still alive.”

It was late afternoon, and we had just crossed the bridge leading to the Darkwater Crossing settlement, if three houses count as a settlement. We set up camp a little to the west, and decided rest a little before finding food. Sitting close to our small fire, Miki looked awfully worn out. “How long were you traveling? I mean, before we met,” I asked her.

“I don’t know for sure,” she replied. “Quite a few days, I guess.”

“Where did you start from?”

“After sailing from the Summerset Isles, my Lord, the girls, and I landed not too far from Anvil, I think. Then we continued overland along a river, the Brena, someone told me. We rode in a wagon part of the way – my Lord seemed to know the driver. We stayed in a house near Chorrol for a few days, but my Lord must have sensed trouble coming, because he gave me this letter and sent me on my way. I came on foot from there.”

“That’s a long way,” I said. We sat quietly for a few minutes. “What’s in this letter you’re delivering?” I asked. “Do you know?”

“It’s sealed,” Miki answered. “I don’t know. And I won’t look.”

“I hope it’s worth it,” I said, and instantly wished I hadn’t.

“Of course it’s worth it!” Miki was offended. “Lord Iceni loved me! It’s the least I could do to keep faith with him. Lady Mara blessed me with him, and he said the same of me!”

I tried to back away from what I said, but it didn’t work. “That’s not what I meant, really.”

“Then what do you mean?” Miki went from offended to angry. “Lady Mara commands us to love each other. That means keeping faith and honoring promises. Don’t you see?”

I should have simply said I understood, but all this Lady Mara talk was starting to get to me. Opening my mouth again didn’t help. “Blessings of Lady Mara? Some of those might have been nice. Maybe when my sister got sick and died, and the ground was too frozen to dig a proper grave. Maybe when strangers killed my parents and burned my home. Maybe when my friend Lucia froze to death and nobody will even tell me the truth about it! What’s your Lady Mara going to say to me then? ‘Sorry, son?’”

Miki stood up, furious. “Haven’t you even been listening?” Her words came out in a choked scream, which quickly turned into sobs. I got up and tried to apologize. She turned her back to me. “Just go away. Go find us some food or something. I don’t want to talk to you.”

Having little choice, I walked toward the settlement to see if anyone had anything to trade. I managed to buy only a couple rolls. Nobody wanted to part with much. While I couldn’t really blame them, we were starting to run low, and we still had at least a couple days to go.

I had hoped that Miki would be more willing to accept my apology by the time I returned, but she wasn’t standing where I left her. She wasn’t by the fire, and she wasn’t inside the tent, either. In fact, she wasn’t around the camp at all.

Miki was gone.

Go to Part III     Go to Part V


About the Illustrations

The illustrations in this post are screenshots taken while playing Skyrim, Special Edition (SSE), and edited using Paint.Net.  My installation of SSE is pretty heavily modded (as most readers’ installs probably are!).  The following mods are relevant to the screenshots:

If it looks like I missed something, please let me know so I can credit the modders properly!

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