She should have taken a nap.
To be sure, the journey to Whiterun started well enough. The food and rest at Gurder and Hod’s had energized her and after she stocked up on elixirs at the Riverwood Trader she made her way up the north road. The weather was clear and cool and she walked steadily, knowing she had to make good time but not wear herself down. Indeed, it wasn’t long before she felt weary but she pressed on, quietly singing to distract from the pain in her legs and the heavy feeling in her chest.
Aw! Come now, I’ll sing you a song,
‘Tis a song of right merry intent,
Concerning a silly old man,
Who went for to pay his rent,
She heard the wolves before she saw them and guessed, correctly, that there were three. It had been a long time since a pack of wolves had given her trouble. Bears and saber cats could sometimes be a challenge—particularly if they took her by surprise. But she was not surprised, she was exhausted and it took her longer than usual to kill them. In the end she was heavily scratched and the last one bit her on the arm before she was able to stick him in the throat.
And as this here silly old man,
Was riding along the lane,
A Gentleman thief overtook him,
Saying ‘Well over-taken old man.’
The bite on her arm was easily healed with a spell but the attack had taken a lot out of her. Her muscles were quivering and before long, she was literally crawling on her hands and knees along the road—exhausted but still determined in her quest. She had gone through the bread and cheese that Hod had packed for her and three full bottles of stamina elixir before she realized that she was likely too far gone for potions and food. She needed sleep and she needed it now. She pushed along until she found a small patch of grass just off the road. She lay down and curled her knees up to her chest and continued to sing quietly:
And as this here silly old man,
Was riding along the lane,
A Gentleman thief overtook him,
When she heard voices coming up the road she gasped and immediately stopped singing and shut her eyes, cursing the gods that she had not learned more illusion spells. If they didn’t look downward, they might not see her.
“So why’d you join the Legion?”
“My father was a Legionnaire, and his before him. I guess I never considered doing anything else.”
Their voices lowered to murmuring but Elspeth could hear them shuffling around very close. Then she felt the brunt of a boot softly nudging her leg. She opened her eyes slowly. Three legionnaires and a Stormcloak prisoner were standing in front of her. Elspeth craned her neck to see if the prisoner was Ralof. When she saw that it wasn’t, she breathed a sigh of relief and put her head back down.
“Svend, she seems to be alive. Can we get moving now? If we’re late to the camp the legate’s gonna have our asses on the spit roast tonight.”
The soldier who had nudged her leg knelt by her and asked if she was okay. As she shook her head no, he looked her over. When he saw the standard leather armor, the legion issued boots, and the bracers that looked suspiciously identical to the ones being worn by their prisoner, he paused and then said to his comrades, “Go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
The soldier concerned about the spit roast frowned and reiterated that their orders were to return with the prisoner together. Svend was unmoved by this and said, “I think my oath as a healer trumps my Legion orders.”
The third soldier laughed, “A couple of lessons at the temple and he reckons himself a healer.”
Spit roast continued to glare, but Svend remained undeterred. Finally, after a few moments, the other soldiers left without further comment. Svend sat Elspeth up and asked where she was hurt. When Elspeth tried to respond, she found it difficult to move her mouth—her jaw muscles had also weakened. She shook her head and tried to lie back down but he wouldn’t let her.
“Hey,” he said, “stay with me. Were you bitten or scratched by a wolf?”
Elspeth nodded her head and gestured to her arm, which, although mostly healed, was still caked with blood.
“You have rockjoint,” he said and dug into his bag. He offered her a bottle of elixir. She took the bottle but she was so weak that he had to open and administer it for her. After a few moments she could feel her strength recovering. Svend helped her up and eased her back on to the road.
“Were you headed to Whiterun?” he asked. He was still holding on to her arm.
Elspeth was frightened. His grip was firm, but not hard. Did he intend to lead her to his camp or merely see her back on her way? She thought of pulling away but she was far too weak still to run or fight if his intent was to arrest her. She looked up at him, searching for something in his face that would either put her mind at ease or prepare her for something awful. She found neither. His face was emblematic of Nord stoicism, which was only reinforced by the Legion armor.
“Were you headed to Whiterun?” he asked again. His tone was moving from concern to impatience.
“Yes,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry, I was just…I’m very tired.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed,” he said, smirking, which put her at ease somewhat. “Whiterun isn’t far. Come with me, I will walk you to the bridge by Honningbrew Meadery. You can see Whiterun from there.”
Elspeth bowed her head in thanks; at this point a smile was entirely too much effort. Svend, unlike Ralof, was not a talker and the silence aggravated the pain in her body, which was inching closer and closer to unbearable. She continued with her song:
What well over-taken, do’y say?’
‘Yes well over-taken’ quoth he.
‘No, no’ said the silly old man
‘I don’t want thy company.’
Svend looked at her and shook his head. She ignored him. As a child, both Runa and Xeri insisted on teaching her music in addition to magic, combat, and academics. For a long time Elspeth believed that this was merely an attempt by Runa to broaden her interests and give her something other than her battlemage training on which to focus. Later, when Xeri left her alone for the first time in the Jerall mountains, Elspeth understood that singing was no mere distraction from her usual training fare. For a long time, the songs were the only things that sustained her on those long treks through the mountains. And she knew so many: Colovian romance ballads, drinking songs from Bruma, Nibenay Valley folk songs. And when stealth was needed, she could always play Alik’rian war chants over and over in her head.
Soon enough they turned a corner and Elspeth saw a large building on her left near a bridge. There were several men wearing what appeared to be Stormcloak armor but with yellow sashes. Svend waved one of them over and asked if someone would be heading to town. And within a few moments she found herself in the company of Toki, one of Whiterun’s guards. He was very happy to be off duty and all the more excited now to be walking with “a very pretty lady.” He had a large, toothy grin and seemed friendly, but apart from that initial compliment, he was not terribly talkative. However, when Elspeth began to sing, his face lit up and he joined her in several rousing verses.
He that will not merry, merry be
With a gen’rous bowl and toast,
May he in Bruma be shut up
And bound unto a post.
Let him be merry, merry there
And we will be merry, merry here
For who can know where we may go
To be merry another year, brave boys,
To be merry another year.
It was dark when they reached Whiterun; Toki the Guard directed her to Breezehome and as she approached, it was all she could do not to collapse at the door. She knocked and almost immediately the door opened and a stunning raven-haired woman answered. “Hello!” she exclaimed, “You must be Elspeth. Come in! I’m Lydia. I was starting to think you weren’t going to arrive.”
“Thank you, you weren’t the only one.”
“You look so tired. Let me get you some tea.” Lydia guided Elspeth toward the chairs. “Are you hurt?”
“A little, yeah.”
Lydia scrambled about and poured a cup of tea. She handed it to Elspeth who grasped it and immediately took a gulp of the scalding liquid. She looked around. The house was warm and comfortable, much like Runa.
Lydia took the chair next to her, “Are you hungry?”
“I’m everything. I need to eat. I need to sleep. I need to see the Jarl.”
“I need to ask him to send guards to Riverwood.”
“Is there a problem in Riverwood?”
“A dragon attacked Helgen and they are defenseless.”
“A dragon?” Lydia’s eyes grew wide. “A real dragon?”
“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Elspeth confirmed.
“Well, I’ll take you to Dragonsreach right away. Let’s go.”
Together they left Breezehome and made their way across town to Dragonsreach, the home of Jarl Balgruuf the Greater. The ornate wooden palace astonished Elspeth and she found it somehow both grand and welcoming. She had spent time in Castle Bruma but was never impressed by its stone features, which always struck her as cold and inhospitable. But here she was awed by the tall, wooden curves and felt taken in by the warm fire that burned between the long tables that flanked the throne room.
Before they reached the Jarl, a Dunmer woman approached them and said sternly, “Lydia! What is the meaning of this interruption,” and then gesturing toward Elspeth, “the Jarl is not receiving visitors.”
“Irileth, this is Elspeth, she has information about a dragon attack in Helgen and a request from Riverwood,” explained Lydia.
Irileth turned to Elspeth, “As housecarl, my job is to deal with all the dangers to the Jarl and his people. So, you have my attention. Now, explain yourself.”
“On my way through Helgen, a dragon attacked and destroyed it. I made it out and was directed to Riverwood, where I was asked to come here and request protection from the Jarl.”
“You we were in Helgen when it was attacked? The Jarl will want speak to you personally. Approach.” Irileth turned to the Jarl, “Jarl Balgruuf, this is Elspeth. She has information from Helgen and Riverwood.”
“So,” said Balgruuf, “You saw this dragon?”
“Yes. The Imperials were about to execute Ulfric Stormcloak. Then the dragon attacked.”
“Ulfric…I might have known,” he sneered. “Anyway, tell me more!”
“There isn’t much to tell, really. The dragon completely destroyed Helgen. It was chaos. I only remember running. A bunch of soldiers tried to escape through the keep, but only two of us made it out.” Elspeth hesitated at this but continued, “I don’t remember the other soldier’s name but he pointed me to Riverwood. I met a woman named Gerdur there and her husband. They asked that I bring a request for protection.” It stung Elspeth’s heart to lie about her friend, but guessed it was probably better not to divulge his name or his status as a Stormcloak.
Balgruuf turned to his steward and said harshly, “What do you say now? Should we continue to trust in the strength of our walls against a dragon?”
“My lord,” said Irileth, “we should send troops to Riverwood at once. It’s in the most immediate danger, if that dragon is lurking in the mountains….”
The steward interjected, “The Jarl of Falkreath will view that as provocation. He’ll assume we’re preparing to join Ulfric’s side and attack him. We should not….”
“Enough!” said Balgruuf, “I’ll not stand by while a dragon burns my hold and slaughters my people. Irileth, send a detachment to Riverwood at once!”
Irileth nodded and said, “Yes my Jarl.”
The steward’s stance perplexed Elspeth. Why on Nirn would sending guards after a dragon attack be viewed as a provocation? She looked over toward Proventus and asked, “Isn’t Helgen part of Falkreath hold?”
“Yes, it is. Why?” He looked at her quizzically.
Elspeth turned to Balgruuf, “If the Jarl views your troops as a provocation after one of his towns was just leveled by a dragon…” she paused and continued, “maybe you should attack him on principle.”
Behind her Lydia was cringing. That must be what Xeri was talking about.
Much to Lydia’s relief, however, Balgruuf gave a hearty laugh and said, “I like this one. You don’t stand on ceremony, do you?”
Elspeth smirked, “Not on so little sleep,” she said, and then apologetically, “I meant no disrespect.”
Balgruuf smiled and waved her apology away and said, “Thank you for coming to me. You’ve done Whiterun a service and I won’t forget it. Proventus will provide you with recompense for your work. Will you be in the city for long? I may want to call upon you again, for details on the dragon attack.”
“Of course. I will be in the city for several days at least.”
Proventus brought Elspeth some coin and put her name and skill class in his register. When that was taken care of, she and Lydia turned and left Dragonsreach.
“So,” said Irileth after they were out of earshot, “that is Runa’s charge. I’m impressed she made it out of Helgen alive. What do you think my lord?”
Balgruuf cocked his head and replied, “I thought she would be taller.”