“I need to get to Whiterun.”
“You’ll want to change your armor if you’re heading that way,” Ralof advised. “My sister runs the mill up in Riverwood. I’m sure she’ll help you out.”
“Are you hungry?” Elspeth was rummaging through her satchel. The stamina elixers had replenished her energy somewhat, but did nothing for the severe hunger pangs that were sticking her in the gut.
“Hungry?” asked Ralof, “Sure, I guess. Do you have more stamina elixir?”
“Better. I have apples.” She said as she held one out to him, “I took them from the keep.”
Ralof took the apple and smiled warmly, “You’re pretty resourceful, aren’t you?”
“Well, I try.”
“You did good Elspeth. Very good.”
“Thank you. Is Riverwood far?”
“Not too far, it’s right on this road. If we hurry, we’ll get there tonight.”
But they didn’t hurry and not for lack of trying. Both had underestimated how exhausted and weary they were and every time they tried running along, they keeled over, gasping, and gagging within moments. Finally, they settled down to a slow but even pace. The journey would take them time twice as long as Ralof anticipated, but he kept her alert with stories. He told her how Ulfric bested High King Torygg in a duel fought in the traditional “old Nord way,” which gave him a legitimate claim to the throne. He talked about his family and how they had founded Riverwood many generations ago. He didn’t ask her a lot of questions, which was nice.
As they walked along he showed her various landmarks, including the Guardian Stones, three of the ancient, magic stones that dot Skyrim’s landscape: the Thief Stone, the Mage Stone, and the Warrior Stone. Ralof urged her to touch and activate one. She was not unfamiliar with such stones; Cyrodill had plenty of Doomstones and Runestones. Those were familiar. Magic in Skyrim, however, was new to her and she approached the stones with nervous anticipation.
As she moved closer to them she could feel vibration and hear humming—each stone had a unique sound and quiver as they drew in and dispersed the very essence of magic from within and throughout the atmosphere. Indeed, these were powerful stones. She examined each stone carefully. “I’ve been training to be a battlemage since I was 10 years old.”
“Started young. That explains a lot,” Ralof said, clearly impressed.
She paused at the Mage stone. “I’m a Breton. The magic, it’s in our blood, you know? It should be an obvious choice. But after what we saw today, I think this is the one,” she turned to the Warrior Stone and activated it. Bright light from the stone shot into the sky and Elspeth felt increased strength in her blood.
“Warrior, good!” said Ralof, “Those stars will guide you to honor and glory.”
“I hope so.”
“I’m really glad you decided to come with me, Elspeth,” said Ralof. His tone was slightly less lighthearted and more serious now.
“I’m glad I came with you too,” she said. His comment warmed her heart but not wanting to become weepy, she turned to more pragmatic matters. “I am not convinced the Imperials wouldn’t have arrested me again had I gone with Hadvar.”
“I don’t understand why they arrested you in the first place. You were just passing through after crossing the border. Really?” Ralof sounded skeptical.
“I was trying to avoid getting hurt. Maybe they thought I was spying? Anyway, some soldier grabbed me from behind. I couldn’t see and I turned around and hit him. I doubt I did much damage though. That’s all I remember. Then I woke up in rags. They took everything. My sword. My money. My armor. Maybe they didn’t want witnesses. But they brought us to Helgen for a public execution so I just….I just don’t know.” She really wanted to stop thinking about it. Nothing the Empire did made sense to her anyway.
“Brutes.” The anger in Ralof’s voice was clear, although he seemed to be making an attempt to keep it behind his clenched teeth. “All of them.”
Elspeth understood but really hated seeing anger in his otherwise gentle face, so she kept talking, “I really liked that armor. And now I’m stuck in a land full of giant people, where they probably don’t even make armor in my size. I’m going to have to find some little girl who will trade her armor for a taffy treat.”
Ralof laughed in spite of himself and they walked along some more, now in a weary but comfortable silence. The sun was rising and when they reached Riverwood morning had broken completely. The town was quiet and the residents were going about their business as if unaware of the havoc that was wrecked in the adjacent hold the day before. Ralof approached a slender woman coming down the road.
“Gerdur!” he called out to her.
“Brother! Mara’s mercy, it’s good to see you. But is it safe for you to be here?” She sounded terrified.
“Gerdur, I’m fine. At least for now.”
“Are you hurt? What happened?” She turned to Elspeth and asked, “And who is this? One of your comrades?”
“Not a comrade yet, but a friend. I owe her my life, in fact. This is Elspeth.”
Elspeth smiled at Gerdur, “I am so pleased to meet you and would not be here either, if not for your brother.”
Ralof suggested talking somewhere private and they made their way off the road to a small clearing by the river, out from eyeshot of the center of town. Gerdur collected her husband, Hod, along the way and a young boy came bounding after them.
“Uncle Ralof! Can I see your axe? How many Imperials have you killed? Do you really know Ulfric Stormcloak?”
Ralof chuckled at his young nephew while Gerdur instructed her son to stay by the road and alert them of any imperials. Elspeth and Ralof sat down on a tree trunk. While Ralof filled his sister in on the previous days’ events, Elspeth struggled to keep her eyes open. Finally, she let herself lean over onto his shoulder to doze as he described the ambush.
“….and that was two days ago.”
Elspeth shot up suddenly and interjected, “The ambush was two days ago? Are you joking?”
“No. Elspeth, what’s wrong?”
“So, how long was I out?!?” Elspeth felt sick. She covered her face and lay down on the stump. Gurder and Hod looked at each other and then at Ralof, who touched Elspeth on the shoulder and asked quietly, “Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” But she really wasn’t. The magnitude of what she had been through was starting to sink in. She felt her eyes fill with tears and she did not want to cry in front of everyone. “Please…just let me lie here for a moment.”
“Well okay….,” said Ralof. He continued to tell the story of Ulfric’s capture and execution attempt. The disgust that Gerdur displayed with respect to the Imperials was somehow reassuring and cheered Elspeth up—or at least, kept her from bursting into tears. By the time Ralof got to the dragon attack, Elspeth was feeling a little better.
Gerdur and Hod were more than happy to let Ralof and Elspeth stay in their home. Gerdur asked Elspeth if she wouldn’t mind taking a message to the Jarl requesting guards since Riverwood was currently defenseless against a dragon. She even offered a cuirass for Elspeth to wear, instead of the Stormcloak armor. At this point, Elspeth was so overwhelmed by their kindness and generosity that she was happy to do anything for them. She stood up to thank them and was so tired and weary that she fell forward. Hod helped her up and she smiled wanly at him and at Gerdur.
“You need to eat something,” said Hod, who was quite concerned about Elspeth’s condition at this point. He led them to their home and Ralof said to Elspeth, “I told you my sister would help us.”
“She’s lovely. Ralof, I feel terrible.”
“You’ll feel better with some food in you,” said Hod, “What brings you to Skyrim, Elspeth?”
“I was hired by some fat-cat noble to find someone to help settle a property issue in Kvatch. The last location I have for him is Winterhold.” This was huge lie. Her “story” was supposed to be simple and unremarkable. She continued, “I’ll be heading up there soon, but I’ve a friend I’m meeting in Whiterun first.” At least that was true.
“You should come to Windhelm when you’re done with that and join the fight to free Skyrim. You saw the true face of the Empire”
Elspeth smirked and said, “I’ll give it some thought.” Although she had no intention of joining any rebellion, she began to realize that she would, in fact, be giving Skyrim’s civil war a lot of thought.
When they arrived at Gerdur and Hod’s home, Elspeth became painfully aware of how dirty she looked. “Is there a tap?” she asked, “I really need to wash.”
“Yes, you do!” agreed Ralof.
Hod scowled at him and directed her to an attached wash room in the back.
When she returned to the dining area, Ralof was drinking something and Hod was heating food in the cooking pot. He handed her a bottle of mead.
“Ah,” said Ralof, “That’s better.”
“Such a pretty face!” exclaimed Hod.
“For a Breton.”
Elspeth playfully punched Ralof in the arm and sat down. She started to count the coin she looted from the soldiers and offered half to Ralof who shook his head and whispered, “My sister will give me enough coin to get back to Windhelm. Keep it. You’ll need it.”
They devoured the stew and went through several bottles of mead. “Help yourself to more if you’d like,” Hod offered. “Elspeth, you should sleep. You look really run down.” He sounded genuinely concerned.
“I can’t. If I lie down I am going to sleep for another two days and you’re not going to be able to wake me up. If you want me to speak to the Jarl, I’ll need to leave soon.”
“Very well. Let me get you some things.” He left and returned with a leather cuirass and some food wrapped in paper. “This is some old armor we have. No one wears it here—well Frodnar when he’s playing warrior games—so keep it as long as you need. And here’s some extra food for your trip.”
“Thank you…thank you so much,” Elspeth was, again, struggling not to cry.
“I’m going to head back to the mill. Elspeth, keep the key to the house and stop in if you need a place.”
She smiled, “I will.” She took the cuirass to the back of the room and quickly changed out of the Stormcloak armor. Truth be told, regardless of her stance on Skyrim’s political problems, she was a little sad to remove it. Taking it off and laying it on the floor, she felt as if she was losing something—in particular, the fellowship she’d found with Ralof. She knew that wasn’t true, that the bonds of friendship that were meant to last were made of tougher stuff. But it still didn’t feel good. She returned to him and said, “Well this is better. Ralof, I need to leave now. If I don’t, I won’t have the energy later.”
“Well okay.” He stood up and smiled, “Thank you again. I am serious when I say that I owe you my life. I hope to see you in Windhelm. You are a very capable fighter and I will vouch for you any time.” He put out his hand.
Elspeth looked at his outstretched hand and then back up at him. As she threw her arms around him, she wondered if she would ever see another face as sweet as his in all of Skyrim, “Oh gods Ralof, I have no idea what to say to you.”
Ralof laughed and hugged her tightly, “Well, say nothing now and find me in Windhelm when you figure it out.” He kissed her on the cheek, “Good-bye tiny warrior. Talos guide you.”
“Until we meet again, Ralof,” she whispered.