Note: For previous installments of “A Hand to Hold,” please click on the following links:
As Sparks Fly Upward
We said farewell to Miki in the tradition of her people. In a clearing just east of Riften, workers had constructed a wooden bier, about as tall as me, upon which Miki’s body lay. Underneath were the makings of an enormous fire. It was evening; two days later, but I was hardly aware of time passing. What little I remember of the previous days is all jumbled together; I can’t recall exactly what happened when, or even if some things happened at all. I remember stumbling around, looking for help, then returning to Miki, hoping I’d made a mistake, and I’d find her sitting up, yawning, rubbing her eyes.
There was no mistake, though.
I’d known her for all of five days. And I’d failed her.
My next clear memory is of waking up in a bed. I was in a small room with wooden walls, lit by lanterns. Two men in armor were standing over me, while a tall Dunmer woman stood behind them, with an impatient look on her face. “Where’s Miki? What have you done with Miki?” I demanded. The men told me they would be asking the questions, and they had lots of them. It was only when Olli from Whiterun convinced the guards that I was a respectable Nord boy, that the guards were satisfied and left me alone. Olli had arrived on horseback only the day before. “I talked with the merchants outside Whiterun as I was leaving,” he said. “Tell me, was that girl the one everyone’s been talking about?”
“The demon woman?” I said. “Is that what you mean?” Olli nodded. “She’s no demon,” I insisted. “Or, wasn’t. I mean –“
“I know what you mean. And I’m really sorry, Jot.” As he left, he said, “For what it’s worth, I always thought that rumor was a load of horse manure.”
The impatient Dunmer woman introduced herself as Dinya Balu, the High Priestess of Mara, and told me I was lying on a bed in the Temple of Mara in Riften. She said I had been delirious when the guards found me, and wouldn’t permit them to speak to me until I’d rested. “Fortunately, we managed to get a little food into you,” she said. You don’t appear to have eaten much.”
“I haven’t,” I said. Then I remembered. “Miki had a letter. She said it had to get to you no matter what.”
“I have it. And it was very important. You are to be commended for helping Miki deliver it.”
“Some help I was!” I said angrily. “She died helping me. What could have been in that letter that made it worth Miki’s life?”
Fru Balu sighed and stared at the ceiling for a moment. “It’s not an easy thing to explain. Did Miki ever speak of her master?”
“Lord Iceni or something,” I said. “Some kind of big man with the Thalmor who had some unpopular ideas.”
“That’s partly correct,” said Fru Balu. “But you need to understand how important Lord Iceni’s work was in his homeland. He’s responsible for bringing Lady Mara’s message to the Summerset Isles, and our movement is growing rapidly there because of his efforts. Not only that, he made arrangements for dozens of In-Betweens, elves like Miki, to have new lives of freedom, without random cruelty or others looking down on them!”
I couldn’t argue with the good Lord Iceni had done helping people like Miki, and I told Fru Balu so. “But what was in the letter that made it so important? What did it say? ‘Everything’s going nicely?’”
“If only that were true,” said Fru Balu solemnly. “Surely Miki told you about sending his older children abroad, then fleeing the Summerset Isles with Miki and his younger children?”
I nodded, knowing that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. “The letter,” Fru Balu said, “was meant for his elder son and daughter, telling them that they must now assume the mantle he carried. Now that the letter has reached me, I can deliver it to them.”
“But if that’s what the letter says, then that means –”
“Yes,” said Fru Balu. “Our sources in Cyrodiil tell us that Lord Iceni was assassinated seven days ago. He saw the end coming and sent Miki ahead with the letter as a precaution.”
I almost didn’t want to ask: “But what of his younger children? The ones Miki looked after?”
“As I understand, they are safe, though I don’t know where they are.”
So Miki really was playing a part in something important. But what was it? “So bringing Mara’s message to the Thalmor will do what? Get them to leave the Empire alone?”
“Lady Mara’s message has taken root among many important Thalmor, and they’re beginning to question their own policies. But that’s not even the point of Lady Mara’s teaching,” Fru Balu said.
I didn’t understand what Fru Balu meant until Miki’s funeral. Fru Balu’s husband Herr Maramal started the ceremony with a prayer I don’t remember while a small crowd looked on. Then Fru Balu began to speak. She talked about Miki as if she’d known her, and in a way, maybe she had. Miki, she said, was an elven girl born in troubled times, but had taken Lady Mara’s message to heart, even when love was hard to come by, and often dangerous to talk about. “Her devotion clearly shows us that Mara’s message of love is for everyone. Even here in Skyrim we celebrate destruction and conquest. Why? Aren’t building and healing more worthy of glory? And even among my ancestral people, suspicion and pride keep us from becoming what we could be. As we look into our own souls, let us think of how we could blossom if we managed to love each other!”
I had to admit it was a nice idea to think about. How to do it was another matter, but I wasn’t willing to argue with someone who was looking after me.
Following her speech, Fru Balu led everyone in a song I didn’t know, which continued as someone wearing a robe started the fire. Everyone joined in the song as the blaze gained strength. I watched the sparks fly upward; they reminded me of Miki’s fireflies. “Paradise welcome you, Miki,” I said softly. “You spent the last of your strength to save me and I still don’t quite understand why. I don’t know if In-Between Elves go to Sovngarde, or somewhere else. I hope it’s a place where it’s always summer and everyone shines as brightly as you did here.” I didn’t think my words were good enough for Miki, but they were all I could think of. After that, I remember making a small prayer. “Lady Mara, I think I know what you ask of us, but why does it have to hurt so bad?”
Maybe two mornings later, I sat with Fru Balu in the temple office, where she told me it was time to move me into a more permanent home. I asked her what she had in mind, and she said that the Honorhall Orphanage had space for me, at least until something better turned up. “There?” I asked, a little afraid. “I’ve heard the worst things about that place!”
“Most of them were true, probably,” said Fru Balu. “But that’s in the past. Someone new is in charge of the orphanage now, someone who cares more about the boys and girls living there than anything else in our world. In fact, she’s at the temple this morning, and I’d like you to meet her.” She got up and admitted a younger woman, maybe a few years older than me. She was of medium height, and wore rather fancy clothes. Her dark hair was pulled back into a kind of bun, and she had a friendly smile. Somehow, she looked familiar. I stood to greet her.
“Young man, we meet again,” she said. Where had I met her? “I hope this time I can repay your kindness.”
“I don’t understand,” I confessed. “Where did we meet, Frokken, Fru –”
“My name is Astrid Atwater,” said the woman. “A long time ago, when the dragon burned Helgen, you shared your water and walked by my side all the way to Riverwood. While we lost sight of each other after that, I’ve never forgotten what you did for me. Priestess Balu has told me of your burden, and I would like to help you. Please say you’ll live with my children.”
“Lady Astrid has made many changes to the orphanage,” said Fru Balu.
“You are a noble?” I asked, standing up straighter.
“Not born,” Lady Astrid laughed. “Just made, and only recently. You see, I fought at the Dragonborn’s side, vanquishing the Dragons and helping the Empire and the Stormcloaks to stop fighting.”
I was astonished. “You know the Dragonborn?” I gasped.
“Indeed. We still visit occasionally. And one of the Dragonborn’s children has joined me in my work here. I’d like you to meet her.”
A young girl, about my age, entered the room. I would have recognized that reddish-blonde hair anywhere, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. “Lucia!” I shouted.
“Jot!” Lucia screamed. We just stood there, staring at each other.
“I thought you were…I mean, everyone told me you’d moved away, and I thought they meant…”
“That I was dead? Well, here I am, flesh and blood!” And she was. Taller than I’d last seen her, and she’d put on some weight, which I was glad to see. Finally, she was getting enough to eat! “Did you really think I’d died?” she said softly.
“Everybody said you’d just moved on,” I replied. “I thought they were trying to protect me from the truth somehow, and I was ready to believe the worst, anyway.”
“You know, I’d always wondered what happened to you,” Lucia said, stepping toward me. “You were always so generous, sharing your food with me and all. I don’t know how I could repay you for that.”
“How about you just stand here in front of me, warm, alive,” I was choking up. I couldn’t help it. Finally, I broke down completely, and Lucia drew my head to her shoulder.
“Oh, Jot,” she said softly, and than began crying herself.
Fru Balu interrupted. “Let me bring you your things.” She brought out a small bundle containing my bag, plus a set of clothes to replace what I lost north of Riften. On top of the bundle was Miki’s brooch. I picked it up and gazed at it until my vision blurred up again. I didn’t want to speak, but managed to whisper my thanks to Fru Balu, and left with Lady Astrid and Lucia.
I lived at Honorhall Orphanage for about a year. Lady Astrid was true to her word; it really was a pleasant place, considering why we were all there. While the old assistant caretaker, Constance Michel, stayed in charge of the place, I helped Lucia look after the younger children, playing games, assigning chores, settling disputes. Lucia told me Lady Astrid’s story. She was an orphan like us, Lucia explained, brought up in an abbey down south somewhere, but was forced to flee before she was quite grown up. After she made her way to Helgen, she lived with an innkeeper and her husband, only to lose them when the dragon burned the town. “She was determined that no child should suffer as she did,” said Lucia, “so she used her new fortune to do something about it.”
Whatever Lady Astrid was doing, it was working. The children seemed to be happy enough, and while Lady Astrid didn’t live at the orphanage, she visited often. And as for me, I did well. I put on quite a bit of weight. It felt strange not having to scrimp and save for a scrap of food! It felt even stranger sleeping in a bed instead of in a stable or on the ground. There was a small nightstand next to my bed, with a single drawer. I kept Miki’s brooch in there, taking it out every evening before I went to sleep, and looking at it for a long time. Sometimes I’d talk to her. I don’t know if she ever heard me, but it didn’t stop me missing her, or feeling that I’d let her down.
Of course, I was getting older, and a Nord boy has to make his way in the world. I really didn’t want to go back to carrying messages, so I considered myself very lucky to be apprenticed to a shoemaker in Riften named Gunnar. Since his son had gone off to sea, he was happy to have someone to help in his shop and to pass his skills to. I found out I liked making shoes, and got pretty good at it, too. Gunnar’s wife, Ingrid, treated me like a son. While my own mother taught me a little about reading and writing when I was younger, Fru Ingrid made sure I had a lot more practice. It’s because of her I’m able to write this account now.
There’s Always Room for More
And now? After a few years of practice, my master Gunnar is content to let me run the shop most of the time. Our business thrives, and when customers come into the shop, I greet them happily. They don’t ask about the brooch fastened to the wall above my bench. I don’t suppose they notice it. That doesn’t bother me, as it would take a long time to explain. Gunnar and Ingrid nag me occasionally. They say that since I’ve passed my twentieth year, it’s time I thought about courting. Lucia, for her part, has stayed on at the orphanage, and has made it clear that if I wanted to start courting somebody, she wants to be the somebody I start courting.
I don’t want to forget Miki, though. I feel as if she’s standing behind me, looking over my shoulder sometimes. I’ve been feeling that way a lot lately. But just this evening, before I sat down to write this, I went outside to watch the sun set over Lake Honrich. Leaning against the rail by the fishery, I thought about my family, our farm, Jochem, my friends in the towns I worked in. I thought about Dorthe, Lucia, Lady Astrid. And I thought about Miki. Her presence felt stronger than ever, like when she held my hand or kissed my cheek. Then, one by one, little points of light began appearing in front of me. Their numbers grew until there were dozens of fireflies, looping in circles over my head and around my body, like a living lantern all around me. It was then I understood: Miki was still with me, wherever she was, no matter what.
So maybe it’s time to let myself be happy. Maybe I’ll talk to Fru Ingrid about playing chaperone while Lucia and I row around Lake Honrich; I can just imagine her saying, “it’s about time!” Love isn’t something you have to ration, like food was in my younger years. There’s plenty to go around, and always room for more.
There’s no need for me to find that land down south, no matter how pleasant it is. Nothing can wash away these memories, good or bad, and I’m not even going to try. And Miki, if you were able to act out of love even when your life was at its bleakest, it’s the least I can do to attempt the same. I learned that much. So it’s to you I dedicate this account.
With all the love I can muster,
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:
- The ENB preset that adds mood to the screenshots is PRT – PhotoRealistic Tamriel by L00.
- Weather effects were added via Dolomite Weathers – Natural Lighting Vivid Atmospherics II by Dr Mega and Kojak747.
- Jot and Miki were created using the Young Nord race, which is part of Enhanced Character Edit, (ECE) by the ECE team.
- Teenage Lucia was also created in ECE using the Young Nord race. I tried to make her look like an older version of the Lucia in The Kids are Alright SE, by TriptheRift.
- Jot’s and Miki’s hairstyles come from ApachiiSkyHair SSE by Apachii.
- Jot’s and Miki’s accessories come from Bandolier – Bags and Pouches Classic by Dragten.
- Miki’s knife comes from The Unclaimed Delivery by SkyrimForDaWin
- Poses, when used, are from Simple Actions by BralorMarr
If it looks like I missed something, please let me know so I can credit the modders properly!