"That looks like the way out! I knew we'd make it!"
Climbing up the snow drift and out the stony cave was as tiring as it was rewarding. They had made it, and by the looks of it there were no soldiers nearby to spoil their relief.
"Wait!" The Nord Stormcloak pointed abruptly, gesturing to the sky above and the beast in it. They crouched behind some stones, watching the majestic creature fly west on black wings before being swallowed by the clouds. "There he goes. Looks like he's gone for good this time." The two stood up, brushing dirt and dust from their clothes and eyes. "No way to know if anyone else made it out alive, but this place is going to be swarming with Imperials soon enough. We'd better clear out of here." The Breton couldn't agree more. She was more afraid of Imperial soldiers than dragons.
"So, you said your name was Heidi, right? To that Imperial with the list?"
"Yes." She lied. Her name wasn't Heidi, it was Isobel, as if she was going to say her real name to authorities and give them a real reason to execute her, which they tried to do anyway. "That guard said your name was...Ralof."
The blonde intimidated her, as most Nords did. She had been in Skyrim a few times already when she was quite young, and none of them had been good experiences. She knew the people here weren't the most accepting of outsiders and that they were fierce warriors, it was an unnerving combination.
"Yes, Ralof of Riverwood." He smiled softly as they found their way to a stone road. Isobel followed his lead, he knew where he was going and she was still too shaken to think about what her next move was.
It must've been early afternoon, the sun was approaching its zenith in the sky and the air was pleasantly warm with a slight breeze. The Skyrim scenery was as beautiful as it ever was as they walked down the path, pines and mossy earth to their right and a river of snowmelt flowing from the mountains to their left. The peaceful sounds of birds chirping was interrupted by Isobel's stomach gurgling loudly, and she openly grimaced in disgust at herself. It had been days since she ran out of food, and she was running solely on adrenaline and fear.
"Who knew fighting dragons and Legionaries would empty our bellies, eh?" Isobel tried to smile at Ralof's comment but couldn't, she could see him looking at her curiously and shifted uneasily.
She knew she probably looked like a wreck, as anyone who walked for a week in the wilderness would. She could smell her own body odor so she could only imagine how bad it was for someone else. Her black, shaggy mop for hair was usually a mess, but not to the point where it was clotted with dirt and plastered with grease, and mud was so encrusted in her fingernails she'd be surprised if she could ever clean them out. Needless to say, it was obvious that she had been traveling on foot for a while. She felt her pouch yet again to make sure her letter was still there and hadn't got lost in the fray at Helgen. That piece of paper would ensure her acceptance into her temporary home in Skyrim.
"My sister, Gerdur, runs the mill in Riverwood, just up the road." Ralof said suddenly. "I'm sure she'd help you out. Her husband Hod is a great cook and they both will be happy to let you stay until you're strong enough to continue where ever you're going."
As terrified as she was, the offer was extremely appealing. A place to wash, feed and sleep where people were as on guard from Imperials as she was. Even though she was told to go east through the mountains to Ivarstead and then to Riften, she decided that with all that happened a change of plan was in order.
"Okay, that...that sounds nice." Isobel mumbled, tenderly rubbing the back of her head where she was hit. There was a sore bump there, once she was alone she would have to perform some Restoration magic on herself, she felt too uncomfortable to do it in front of Ralof knowing that most Nords disapproved of magic.
"Good. Follow me." They continued walking in silence. Normally Isobel was a talkative person, to the point where it got her into trouble, but she was too overwhelmed with everything that happened in Helgen that she didn't feel like conversation. She wasn't sure what they'd talk about anyway. Apparently Ralof did though.
"You know you should go to Windhelm and join the fight to free Skyrim. You've seen the true face of the Empire today. If anyone will know what the coming of the dragon means, it's Ulfric." It took a lot for Isobel not to start laughing. She wasn't cut out for war, to see her on the battle field would be comedy. She was good at brawls and bar fights only for her size, not war with huge men. Still, she really was curious about the dragon. She felt a sudden pang of nausea at the thought of the slaughter that happened not more than two hours earlier, the roaring and chaos. It struck Isobel if the Stormcloaks were the type to destroy an entire town if it meant saving their leader, and asked angrily:
"Was that dragon on your side?!" But she felt like it was a stupid question as soon as she said it.
"What?! Oh, hardly! I don't think even Ulfric could pull a dragon out of his pocket. Lucky for us it showed up when it did, eh? I wasn't looking forward to getting a shave from an Imperial headmen." Ralof said with a sad chuckle, obviously also shaken from the attack. The man seemed kind enough, and not a threat, but she was still weary and kept her guard up despite his friendly advances."See that ruin up there." He stopped, pointing to a massive structure built into a nearby mountain. "Bleak Falls Barrow. I never understood how my sister could stand living in the shadow of that place... I guess you get used to it."
When Isobel lifted her eyes to the bright mountainside and the large temple built into it her vision blurred suddenly and grew whiter, it took blinking several times for it to revert to normal.
'By Azura, you better not faint, last thing you need is for some Nord warrior to play nurse to you.' She thought fiercely as Ralof guided her further, but after a few steps Isobel's knees buckled under her and the world went dark and quiet for a few moments. She felt Ralof move over her and large, thick arms shaking her.
"Heidi? Heidi? You okay?"
"I'm fine. I'm just..." She finally managed to spit out, and slowly Isobel opened her blue eyes and made to try standing. She was barely fully straightened when Ralof brashly lifted her up and continued walking down the stone path while carrying her in his arms.
"Stop! Stop! I'm fine, let me down!" Ralof ignored her.
"Remember, this isn't Stormcloak territory." He said seriously.
'Damn me! So much for being low profile.' She was in full Stormcloak apparel after looting a dead body in the Keep to protect herself on the fight out, leaving her traveling cloak behind. 'Now I'm dressed in rebel's armor in enemy territory. I might as well hold a dagger to my own throat.' Isobel scolded herself, cursing the whole situation she found herself in. Ralof saw the worry that furrowed her brows.
"If we're ahead of the news from Helgen we should be fine, as long as we don't do anything stupid. If we run into any Imperials, just let me do the talking, all right?" Ralof said sternly, and Isobel's limbs couldn't help but grow limp. For several minutes she tried to get them moving again, hating feeling weak and helpless, it wasn't until Ralof announced their near arrival that Isobel was able to turn her head actually see where they were walking. She could make out the town's main gate, the walls surrounding it barely twelve feet high. Isobel finally managed to squirm out of Ralof's grip, not wanting any of the townsfolk seeing her in a man's arms. Regardless, Ralof wrapped his arm around her waist to hold her up on her still shaky legs.
"Looks like nobody here knows what happened. Come on, Gerdur's probably working in her lumber mill." Ralof said once they entered through the gates, keeping a close eye on Isobel.
Riverwood was peaceful, chickens clucked in the stone street and smoke plumed from the simple houses. There were a few civilians on the main streets, but the busiest by far was the large lumber mill that ran off the stream the pair had traveled along. Isobel walked with Ralof across a small plank bridge towards the mill, still trying to keep her dignity despite practically being dragged the whole way.
"Gerdur!" Ralof shouted with a smile. A tall woman, matching her brother's blonde hair and blue eyes, turned away from gazing at river and towards the two, her face taking on an expression that was both alarmed and relieved.
"Ralof! Mara's mercy, it's good to see you!" She had Ralof's accent too. "But is it safe here? We heard that Ulfric had been captured..."
"Gerdur, I'm fine. At least now I am."
"Are you hurt? What's happened? And who's this? One of your comrades?" Gerdur's gaze met Isobel's, who tried holding her chin up a bit higher and straightening her shoulders.
"Not a comrade yet, but a friend. I owe her my life in fact. Is there somewhere we can talk? There's no telling when the news from Helgen will reach the Imperials... "
"Helgen? Has something happened? You're right, follow me. Hod! Come here a minute. I need your help with something." A massive man with a thick beard peeked over from atop the saw mill.
"What is it woman? Sven drunk on the job again?"
"Hod. Just come here." Gerdur snapped.
"Ralof! What are you doing here? I'll be right down!"
"Uncle Ralof!" Isobel started violently and nearly fell out of Ralof's grip. A young boy was rushing towards them, followed by a huge, shaggy dog that she first thought was a wolf. "Can I see your axe? How many Imperials have you killed? Do you really know Ulfric Stormcloak?"
"Hush Frodnar, this is no time for your games. Go and watch the south road, come find us if you see any Imperial soldiers coming." Gerdur said sternly, hands on her hips.
"Aw mama, I want to stay and talk with Uncle Ralof!"
"Look at you!" Ralof smiled and placed a hardy hand on the boy's shoulder. "Almost a grown man. Won't be long before you'll be joining the fight yourself."
"That's right! Don't worry Uncle Ralof, I won't let those soldiers sneak up on you." The boy ran off quick as a flame with the dog behind his heels.
"Now Ralof, what's going on? You two look pretty well done in." Gerdur beckoned to an area with a large tree stump and gestured for them to sit. Ralof sat down with Isobel still leaning on him for support, her eyes barely open as her feet screamed in relief in her boots.
"Well, I can't remember when I last slept...Where to start?"
She half-listened as Ralof told of the Imperial ambush, how they were captured and brought to Helgen for execution. That they had already knocked off one guys head and was onto to another stranger by the name of Zacharius before a dragon swept down and attacked the village.
"You don't mean a real, live..."
"I can scarcely believe it myself, and I was there!"
In the havoc and chaos that followed, Ralof and "Heidi" were able to escape through Helgen's Keep and through the underground tunnels, having to fight Imperial soldiers along the way. Ralof told of how he fell after a Legonaire sliced the back of his leg, making him kneel to the man who held a sword to his face and how "Heidi" managed to run up behind the guard from out of nowhere and bury a dagger in his throat, then pulled out a healing potion and applied it topically onto Ralof's wound.
"I didn't even know you could rub a potion into the wound, I thought you could only drink it!" Ralof praised, slapping Isobel on the back and causing her to wince. Gerdur smiled proudly at her. "...Are we really the first to make it to Riverwood?" Ralof asked, suddenly stern.
"Nobody else has come up the south road today, as far as I know." Gerdur replied.
"Good, maybe we can lay up awhile. I'd hate to put your family in danger Gerdur, but..."
"Nonsense, you and Heidi are welcome to stay here as long as you need too. Let me worry about the Imperials. Any friend of Ralof's is a friend of mine." She said staring earnestly at Isobel. "Here's a key to the house, stay as long as you like." Isobel sat up and took the key out of Gerdur's gloved hand, struggling to understand why anyone would trust a stranger with a house key. She was beyond grateful, but she couldn't help but think they were a little stupid.
"I ought to get back to work before I missed..." Gerdur turned to Ralof. "But did anyone else escape? Did Ulfric...?"
"Don't worry, I'm sure he made it out. It'll take more than a dragon to stop Ulfric Stormcloak." Ralof laughed.
"I'll let them into the house and, you know, show them where everything is." Hod chipped in. Isobel had forgotten he was even there.
"Help them drink up our mead, you mean." Gerdur scolded with a smile. "Go. Make yourself at home." Ralof helped Isobel onto her feet as they followed Hod across the lumber mill and quaint village to a small stone house with a thatch roof.
"I told you my sister would help us out." Ralof said happily as he placed Isobel in a chair at the table inside, seating himself across from her and leaning his arms on the weathered wood. The house was all one room, with beds on the far side and the kitchen area on the other.
"So you saw a dragon, did you? Tell me, what was it like? As big as a house?" Hod said, his voice booming as he sat down, making the table shake. He had brought bread and cheese with him, and Isobel grabbed a loaf right out of his hands before he could put it on her plate. Saliva almost poured out of her mouth as she bit into the bread, Ralof and Hod watching her curiously.
However, it wasn't too long until Isobel's stomach rejected the foreign substance, and she barely was able to turn her head away from the table before vomiting onto the stone floor. Ralof and Hod immediately stood up, Ralof rushing to her side as bread and bile continued to dribble from between her lips.
"It's okay Heidi, don't worry. Just let it out." He soothed as he rubbed her back. It didn't help though, she was beyond starving, and her body wouldn't let her sate itself. She reached for her loaf again and tried to take a bite only to burp up more stomach acid.
"Ralof just take a bucket and put her to bed, let the girl sleep for a bit. We'll try feeding her again after she gets some rest." Hod said as he pulled out a rag.
"Here Heidi." Ralof wiped her mouth with the back of his bare hand and picked her up, walking across the hut and laying her on a small bed. "Just relax, you're safe here."
Isobel was grateful for only a few seconds before passing out as her head hit the pillow.
It was nearly three days of bedrest later, with her stomach finally able to keep down small amounts of food and her body not on the verge of fainting, when Isobel was able to make out the smell of her own stench. Feeling embarrassed for tainting her host's house for so long she quickly got up and walked briskly towards the door.
"Hey, you're up! I- " Ralof said from where he sat at the kitchen table before seeing her exiting the cottage. "Where are you going!?" He called as he stood up.
"For a bath." She replied as she shut the door and made for the river. It was dark and no one was working at the mill, so she felt safe enough to strip down and wade out into the chilly water.
She definitely wasn't used to the cold, but Isobel was impressed with how clear the water was and how fresh it tasted, better than any of the rivers in Cyrodiil were. She began to scrub the layers of dirt and oil off her skin and plucked the twigs and leaves out of her hair, her body getting used to the frigid water. It felt good being able to move again, and slowly she raised her hand to her head and carefully cupped it over her bump. Letting her mind clear and eyes close, she felt her hand glow with dim healing light and the pain on her head fading.
Isobel understood why the land was called Skyrim as she stared up in awe at the utter vastness of stars and moons. She knew she was a city slicker at heart but couldn't help but envy the people of Skyrim for living in such beauty. It almost dizzied her, looking that far up into infinity. She heard that some people believed the stars were tiny apertures in the sky and the light shining through was some sort of heaven where souls go. She never believed that stuff, but it didn't stop her from enjoying the twinkling lights above her. Her daydream was cut short by a shuffle of gravel at the bank and she turned sharply to see Gerdur.
"You forgot some clean clothes." She said, smiling and placing a dress and leather boots one a nearby tree stump. "I'm glad you're up and moving." Isobel felt uncomfortable, folding her arms in front of her bare breasts and wishing Gerdur would go. "When you're all clean, come back to the house. Hod made some Horker soup and we've got plenty of mead. You're probably not going to sleep tonight given how much you've slept already, so we'll have a little party. To celebrate Ralof's safe return and the blessing of a new friend." Isobel was getting annoyed, she never knew of somebody, especially a Nord, being so hospitable and friendly towards a stranger and it made her suspicious. Gerdur noticed her unease. "Don't worry child, whatever you're running from won't harm you while in our house. Ralof said you saved his life, and for that I'm forever grateful."
Isobel finally understood how it must feel to be in someone's debt for a loved one's life. She would've done the same as Gerdur, if not more, if someone saved her brother. She felt a sharp pain as she thought of her brother.
Isobel's pale, goose bumped legs slowly emerged from the river, water streaming down in little rapids as her wrinkled hands grabbed a piece of cloth Gerdur handed her to dry off. After she pulled on her new clothes she couldn't help but smile slightly in amusement. They were big, they were for a Nord woman not a Breton, so the sleeves were long and the hem dragged in the dirt as the two women made their way back to the cottage.
The fire in the small house was welcoming after the cool waters in her bath, and the Horker soup more welcoming still. They didn't have Horkers in Cyrodiil, and the imported stuff wasn't near as good as what was in the soup. The family chatted and laughed contently, they were obviously close, and Isobel relaxed being surrounded by cheerful banter.
It wasn't until Isobel finished a tankard did she, for the first time in weeks, feel like her old self...before the catastrophe in Cyrodiil, before her exhausting journey to Skyrim and the dragon attack on Helgen, and perked up considerably. Wanting to coax herself out even more, Isobel drank two more full tankards, quite a feat for her light weight and current state of health. And slowly she felt her true self resurface, that side of her that always thrived when she went out pub crawling with her friends.
"Let's get rowdy you n'wahs and make Sanguine proud!" She slurred, clanking her tankard sloppily with Ralof's. The family's jaws dropped, more than confused at the complete misuse of a Dunmeri derogatory term coming out of the Breton girl's mouth. Except for Frodnar, who was still innocent in the ways of cursing and had no idea what n'wah meant. "A toast for Gray Fox and that Ulfric guy! May they bed fine vension and dine on buxom women!"
Ralof and Gerdur looked at each other in bewilderment.
"I mean, you guys are so nice...so nice..." Isobel said between gulps. "Do you guys have a flute, playing music for you would be the least I could do for you. I can play a jig better than a brute can play a girl with low self-esteem!" Isobel whooped and laughed, continuing to surprise the room from her switch from forlorn and shy to loud and jolly.
Ralof was worried. He was used to rowdy behavior when with his comrades, but Gerdur wouldn't tolerate it, not in her house. He just prayed she would be merciful enough to let the girl have her fun and leave without any drama. 'Please, please, Heidi. Shut up.' He tried to tell her with his eyes, giving her pleading looks from across the table, but she mistook it for flirting and winked back with a hiccup. That's when Gerdur stood up.
"Heidi, stop this drunken nonsense!"
"Relax Miss Riverwood!" Heidi beamed. "It's a party, like you said! You owe me that remember? You owe me a party!" She whooped again as she raised a tankard to Gerdur's fuming face.
"Do not expend my hospitality and use the debt I owe you to manipulate me and disrespect me in my own home. Hod, take Frodnar outside." Hod hesitated, obviously wanting to stay and see where things went, but the look in Gerdur's eye convinced him otherwise.
"Aw hop off! Let the boys stay! What kind of shindig is this?" Isobel stood up, genuinely upset. Ralof pulled her back down to her seat.
"Gerdur please, she's been through a lot, you know how crazy men can get on drink. Damn, what she's doing now isn't half as horrible as what some of my fellow soldiers do almost every night. Heidi, stop!" Heidi had sensed that she was about to have her drink taken from her and began to chug the rest of what was left in her mug. Ralof pulled it away from her before she could finish and handed it to Hod, who was standing awkwardly between the door and table with Frodnar.
"Okay. Okay. I'm...I'm sorry...I'm just not used to such..." Gerdur had softened in the name of her brother.
"Please! Please can we have a party!" Heidi sobbed, suddenly emotional. "I just want to have fun like I used to, I used to be fun! Please!" The family tendered only for a moment. "Give me back my cup, you son of a bitch!"
"Okay, that's it! No more!" Gerdur shouted. "She can drink herself stupid tonight, outside, I don't care, but tomorrow morning she is gone! Gone!" Gerdur's tall frame reached over the table and grabbed Heidi by the neck of her dress. Dragging her out the door she yelled, "You sleep here on our doorstep or the Inn tonight, and tomorrow you'll continue to wherever you were going before you got wrapped up in that gods damned ambush. And don't come near Frodnar again!"
She slammed the door on a stumbling and swearing Heidi, making the men in the house jump. Ralof felt uneasy, Hod looked disappointed at a fun night taken away and bright-eyed Frodnar was obviously trying to remember every detail. There was a moment of awkward silence.
"Frodnar can share a bed with his father and I, Ralof you can take the small bed." Gerdur said, exhausted. Hod and Ralof looked at each other and shrugged. The family started to move to their designated resting places, still replaying the night's events. They were almost asleep when they heard singing from outside.
"They say I am a Savage Flower.
Singing sweet in every tower,
Every curtsy followed by a eerie wink.
Dance and clap to feel my power,
Get fever within the hour.
The first to plague a man and the last to quit my drink!"