It was hard to stay angry at the little girl. Driw was so full of life, so energetic. Sullah watched her pick flowers as he took a brief rest, slowly brewing a cup of Nirnroot tea. Driw had begged him to take her back to her village, a little speck on the map, south of Karthwasten. He agreed only because Markarth was far behind him now, and her village was just off the road to Falkreath. Falkreath's Jarl would pay the bounty for the Hagraven's head, as the Forsworn were becoming a problem there too, pushing in from the Reach, eastward.
Driw added a branch of thistle to her wildflower bouquet. She'd used the free time to gather up a handful of Dragon's Tongue, Deathbell, and a variety of colorful mountain flowers. She walked up to Sullah and handed him a clump of lavender.
Sullah pretended to give it a sniff. "Smells very good. Thank you."
"It's for the tea." Driw tucked the Dragon's Tongue behind her ear. "To flavor it."
"Ah. Of course."
Sullah dropped the flower buds into the tankard and watched the water boil. He then wrapped his hand in linen and removed the cup from the heat, while using his boot to stomp the fire out. His horse walked up beside him, chewing on a mouthful of tough, wiry mountain grass.
Driw went over to the horse and pet it. Sullah tried his drink. It was too hot for his taste. He blew cool air over it.
The horse nudged Driw with its nose and she reached up and rubbed the animal's forehead.
"What's your horse's name?"
"Her name is Horse. She doesn't have a name. I found her outside of Markarth, grazing, saddle and all. I never name my horses."
"She needs a name. Every horse does. Freir used to say a horse draws strength from its name."
"Well, then give her one." Sullah took a drink from the tankard.
Driw scrunched her face, thinking. "How about. . .Lightning?"
"Every horse is named 'Lightning,' or 'Shadow,' or something like that. If you're going to name my horse, be creative."
Sullah handed Driw the tea. She sipped on it while staring off the mountaintop. Far below was a forested valley and a wide blue lake. Beyond that, to the north, was a craggy ridgeline of snowcapped mountain peaks.
"How about Dibella?"
"The Goddess? What about her?" Sullah began to ready his gear, taking apart what little was left of their makeshift campsite, and packing it into a knapsack. He saw Driw shiver from the cold mountain wind and wrapped a wolfskin around her tiny body.
"As a name." Driw snuggled into the thick pelt.
"'Dibella's a good name. A little odd for a horse, though."
"What do you think? Di-bella." Driw whispered the name into the horse's ear. The animal turned its head and gently nuzzled her with its snout. "I - I think she liked it."
"Then it's settled." Sullah finished off the tea. He picked Driw up by her waist and put her down in the saddle. "But tea time's over - up ya go. Let's get moving."
Sullah finished clearing the camp and then climbed onto the horse, just behind Driw. She backed into him, leaning against him for security and balance. He grabbed the reigns and coaxed the animal forward.
The horse trotted down the switchback mountain path at a slow, careful pace. One wrong step could send it tumbling off a cliff face. Slowly, morning turned to noon, and the sun rose high overhead. Sullah studied its angle to try and make sure he was still headed east. When he lowered his gaze, a large dark splotch cut through the clouds, flying directly over him.
"Whoa!" The horse reared up, nearly throwing Sullah off its back. He squeezed his thighs, trying to regain control of the animal, and direct it backwards. Driw began to fall, and, without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her, clinging to her. "Gotcha."
The splotch in the sky glided over the mountaintop and across the valley, swooping in front of the sun. It was a very large creature with broad, green wings and a long spiky tail. Its head looked like a lizard's.
Can't be. . .
Driw wriggled out of Sullah's grasp, pointing eagerly. "Is that a dragon?"
The dragon let out a roar that echoed across the mountaintops. A deafening clap - like thunder. Sullah felt the beat of its wide wings. The dragon pivoted; banking left, and quickly took off, toward the snowy northern mountains.
"That. . .that was a dragon."
"There are dragons!" Driw was incredulous. "I thought that - that they were - that-"
"Me too." Sullah finished the thought for her. "I heard rumors of dragons and a Dragonborn back in Markarth. Thought they were drunken ramblings." He spurred the horse forward. "Looks like it's headed north. That's good for us. Did you see the teeth on that thing? Don't want to wind up in its stomach."
"There are dragons," Driw repeated. "Dragons!"
Sullah couldn't believe it either. Sure, word of dragons had spread across the Reach, but more often than not, words were worthless. Especially in Skyrim. Especially when they came from Nords talking to a Redguard. The natives loved to awe travelers with tales of Dragon priests and their God-King, Talos. Sullah thought they were fantasies meant to stroke the Nords' ego. But now he'd seen a dragon with his own eyes. And if there were dragons, a Jarl was sure to have put a bounty on them.
I wonder how much. . .and how does one kill a dragon?
Sullah dismounted and walked up to the mountain's edge. He scanned the valley. Most of the land below was a patchwork of green, but just to the east, several wisps of gray smoke billowed up from the carpet of treetops.
"Looks like there's a fire down there." Sullah gestured to the smoke. "See the plumes? I'd say we're a half a day's walk from the Forsworn camp by now. Think that's your village? It's the right distance."
Driw followed his point, squinting against the bright sun. "It could be. I think so. . ."
Sullah climbed back into the saddle. "Hopefully there's still shelter there. If that dragon comes back, I'd rather not be caught out in the open."
It took less than an hour for the horse to wind its way down to the smoke. The trail was rocky and uneven. No villagers were out in the forest or the fields, and save for the chirps of crickets in the thick brush, the landscape was eerily silent.
When Sullah and Driw came to the end of the trail, there were greeted by an ashscape of six charred foundations, a sea of blackened grass, and the rotting remains of two fallen Nord warriors. The skeleton of a village that was no more. Sullah dismounted first and waited for Driw to follow.
"This is it. This is my village." Driw jumped off the horse. The devastation hadn't yet sunk in. She still looked excited. She began shouting, "Freir? Papa? Are you here? FREEEEIR! Are you here!"
"Not much left," Sullah muttered to himself. The smoke that hung over the village smelled rancid. "Where are all the people?"
"They burned the cabins and forced everyone outside."
Driw darted over to what was left of her cabin - two fallen walls and little else but ashes. She combed through the wreckage. The charred debris brought back memories of the raid. She pictured the ditch next to the path out of town; the place where the Forsworn had taken all the women. She could still hear them screaming.
"They led the women over there." Driw pointed to the ditch. "And then. . .I don't know what happened to them."
Sullah eyed the ditch. Foul-smelling smoke wafted up from it.
"That's where they took your sister?"
"I think so." Driw jogged toward the ditch.
Sullah grabbed onto her wolfskin, holding her back, like a dog on a leash. "Hold on. I want you to wait here. It. . .uh. . .it could be dangerous."
Driw eyed him, suspiciously, but then retreated. "Okay. . ."
Sullah watched Driw slink back to the remnants of her cabin. He had a bad feeling about the ditch. It was the smell. The whole village smelled of death. A rotten, overpowering odor. But the smell was strongest near the ditch. He held his nose and leaned over it.
At the bottom of the ditch were the remains of several humans. Sullah couldn't tell how many, or what sex or race they were. They'd been burned. Some bits of bone. A few chunks of charred flesh. Ashes mostly. He counted the skulls, but stopped at the tenth. That one had barely burned, but looked grotesque. Rotting. The smell sickened him. He nearly vomited.
"What's in it? Is Freir there?" Driw inched up to him.
"Don't come up here." Sullah shooed her away with a scowl. She paused and then wandered back to her cabin.
The sister was dead. That was obvious. The father was too. There was no way to be certain, but there rarely was in Tamriel. Bodies often disappeared. People went 'missing.' Maybe Driw knew the truth in her heart already. Sullah wasn't sure. He glanced back at her, over his shoulder.
Driw had returned to the foundation of her cabin. She was sitting on the front step, the only part of her home that was still intact. She pulled the Dragon's Tongue flower out of her hair and slowly plucked off its petals. They fell to the blackened ground lazily, one after another.
She knows. She's seen the town. The smell. She must know. Just hasn't accepted it.
Sullah slowly walked back to her.
"Was Freir in the ditch? Or my papa?" Driw didn't look up. She sounded grave. Sullen.
Sullah didn't know what to say.
What do you tell a little girl when her family's been murdered? Do you even tell her?
"I don't know." Sullah knelt down in front of Driw.
Driw sucked on her tongue. Her cheeks puffed out a bit. She peeked up at Sullah from behind her bangs, teary-eyed.
"Do you think they'll come back for me?"
"I don't think. . ."
This was hard. Very hard. Sullah was normally good with words - but this- he didn't know how to put it. There was no good way to put it.
Why even try to be gentle?
"I think they're gone. They aren't coming back." Sullah was deadpan. "Understand?"
Driw shook her head. "But they wouldn't leave without me."
"No. They wouldn't."
"So. . .they're dead? You mean they're dead."
Driw didn't react. She didn't nod, didn't cry, didn't say anything. Sullah could see a change in her though. He could feel it. She wasn't energetic anymore - as if the life had been sucked out of her. Just a shell now. A sad shell of what used to be a happy girl.
"Do you have other family in Skyrim? Aunts or uncles?"
Driw didn't answer.
"I'm sorry. . ."
Sullah sat down next to Driw. He stayed quiet, trying to console her with his presence. He wasn't good at consoling children. More often than not, children annoyed him. He expected Driw to cry and carry on and was surprised that she didn't.
She must have known already.
"Come on." He stood up and walked back to his horse.
Driw didn't move. "Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving. We're leaving." Sullah corrected himself. "Let's go."
"No. This - this is my home." Driw crossed her arms. She balled up on the smoky porch.
"This was your home. But not anymore. Come on."
"No." A tear streaked down Driw's cheek
"You can't stay here. Alone. You don't really want to, anyway. There's nothing left here." Sullah surveyed the circle of charred foundations. "Look around."
"Where will I go?"
Sullah hadn't considered this. It was an obvious question. The little girl didn't belong with a sell-sword, and she would only slow him down. He didn't want to drag her along anyway - but where to take her? She had no family. No friends, that he knew of. No living neighbors. He could take her to Falkreath, but what then?
Ditch her in the city? She'd starve. Quickly. Another street orphan.
Orphan. . .
Sullah smiled at the idea. He put his hands on Driw's shoulders.
"Do you know what an orphanage is?"
"No." Driw's voice cracked.
"It's a place for orphans. Full of little girls and boys just like you. You can make lots of friends there. A new family. And you'll be safe. No more Forsworn - or snow elves."
"I don't want a new family. I want my family." Driw sniffed. Her nose was running. She wiped it, and then stood up. "Where - where is it?"
"Riften. Far from here, but we'll make a few stops along the way. Like at Falkreath."
A cold wind blew through the surrounding forest. It sounded like a wolf's howl as it carried over the scorched grass. The sound made Driw shudder.
"They'll take me? The orphanage?"
"Yeah." Sullah nodded. "That's what they do."
"They'll love me?"
The smile faded from Sullah's face. He shifted his feet, listening to the wind.
Driw was still staring at him. "Can I say goodbye before we go. To my family."
"Sure." Sullah walked off. "I'll wait with the horse. Dibella. Come over when you're ready."
Sullah didn't turn back. He felt awful, like a cold drill had bored a hole into his stomach. He didn't watch Driw say goodbye. He didn't want to see it and was glad he didn't hear it.
Another sad memory. . .
Why clog your mind with sad memories when you can fill it with dreams of naked women? Tankards of Argonian ale. Heaps of gold and silver. . .
Sullah tapped the satchel lashed to his belt. The Hagraven's head was inside. He poked it.
It was a mistake to take the girl along. To come here. What am I going to do with her? I doubt she'll make it all the way to Riften.
Stop thinking about it, Alik'r! Silver. . .think only of silver. . .