Her eyes had not deceived her. And yet they had. There was, indeed, smoke rising from Helgen, but it was not from chimneys, it was from woodfires. Aside from surprisingly sturdy looking walls, the entire city had been reduced to rubble through some calamity so large that Sloan's imagination balked at her attempt to conceptualize it. It was as if someone had picked up the entire city and shook it in giant hands and then cast it like dice back to the ground. And then lit it on fire - the remains of scorched beams mingled with stone blocks that appeared partially melted.
"Welcome to Helgen."
Sloan jumped and the sword arced off of her shoulder before she realized she had moved. The lithe blonde woman who had spoken took two hasty steps back as her hands lifted in front of her.
"It's okay! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
Sloan blinked and lowered the sword as a flush swept over her face like a tide. "Um. I'm...I'm sorry, I didn't..."
"No, it's fine." The woman smiled as she lowered her hands. "It was my fault. Everyone is a little on edge in this day and age. I should have made my presence known a little less...subtly. Hi, I'm Cienna."
"I'm...I'm Sloan." The sword tip touched the ground. "What happened here?"
"Hm? Oh. A dragon. The first one, in fact. You didn't hear?"
Sloan frowned. She had heard about the dragons, of course. They had been the talk of the common room when they first appeared, and the name Helgen did ring a distant bell, but that had been only a few months into her time at the Vixen and her mind had been on other things. Over time, the talk had subsided to more pressing topics, especially the war. Of course, many of her clients had boasted about killing a dragon but only one of them had been telling the truth. She had read it in his haunted eyes as he spoke of it.
"That was...years ago."
"A little over three years ago, yes. No one has had the time or money to rebuild Helgen since then, what with the war and everything, so we booted out the bandits that were terrorizing the travelers through here and have turned it into a safe spot for refugees."
"Yes. You...you do know there is a war going on, don't you?"
Sloan shuddered. "Yes. All too well."
"I was beginning to wonder if you snuck over the border from somewhere else. With wars come refugees, people whose homes have been destroyed, whose families have been killed. They usually flock to the big cities where they usually end up living and dying on the streets because there aren't enough places to house everyone, nor enough food to feed everyone. We offer a relatively safe alternative."
Cienna motioned with a hand and Sloan took in the sights of the ruined city. The remains of some of the buildings had been shored up with rough planks of wood and there were hide tents scattered amongst the rubble. Small campfires burned near many of these makeshift homes. The people living in these temporary dwellings ran the gamut of human (or khajiit or argonian or elven) expression - some were chatting and laughing, some were huddled in gloomy despair, some were striding through the ruined streets as if they were preparing to take on both sides of the war (and any dragons, for that matter).
"What's your story?"
Sloan blinked and turned back to find Cienna watching her with a curious expression. "Um. My...family was traveling with some of the Stormcloaks. We...were attacked. Everyone..."
Even beginning to say the words out loud hit her harder than she was prepared for. She stopped and clenched her fists around the pommel of the sword as she fought back tears.
"It's okay." Cienna placed a comforting hand on Sloan's arm. "You don't have to talk about it. We all know what you're going through. Just..." A hesitation, and Sloan blinked through her tears. "Well. Just remember that this is a place where all refugees are welcome. No matter which side of the war they might support."
Sloan sniffed and nodded. "I understand. I'm not planning on staying, anyway. I'm just looking for my parents."
Cienna nodded. "So many people have been separated from their loved ones. What are their names? Maybe they're here?"
"Ah. Um. I...I don't know."
A moment of silence as Sloan watched Cienna digest this statement.
'I never knew them," she explained as Cienna started to speak again. "I only found out about them...recently." A flash of guilt, then. Three years, she had known. What if...
"I see. A refugee of the last war, no doubt. Do you know where they lived?"
"Um. Well, here. Or somewhere near here. I don't know for certain."
"Well, I hope they were not in Helgen when the dragon came. Only a handful of people survived that. Most of them moved to Falkreath, so I'd recommend asking around there."
"That makes sense. Thank you."
"Of course. If you'd like to stay for tonight, you're welcome to. We don't have much but we can give you come food and..." she looked Sloan up and down, "I imagine we might be able to find armor that fits you a little better."
"That would be kind of you, thank you."
"It's why we're here. Come with me, I'll introduce you to Val."
Cienna led the way through the ruined city, pointing out the things they had done to try to fix it and the headman's block that sat in the middle of a courtyard that seemed somehow more abandoned than the rest of the place. There wasn't a tent or lodging within a hundred yards of it. "No one wants to go near that thing. The bandits that were here before felt the same way - there's still the remains of a head in the basket. No one wants to touch any of it. As far as I can tell, it's been there since the dragon attack. I guess they were busy executing people when it happened."
"Maybe some of those people were able to get away because of the attack."
"Maybe! Talk about getting out of the kettle but into the fire!" Cienna laughed but then raised her eyebrows at Sloan's blank expression. "You haven't heard that phrase? Strange. It's common where I'm from. Anyway, here is the main keep. It's the only structure that remained mostly intact, although there are some collapsed parts. Come on in."
Sloan spent the night listening to Val's plans to rebuild Helgen as a place separate from the constantly warring factions, where people running from the war would have a real city in which to seek refuge. She fell asleep by their hearth that night with Val's vision planted in her brain. Once she had found her parents - or, at least, what had become of her parents, if the worst had happened - she felt that she had found a place where she could live and be helpful. A place she might be able to call home. It was a comforting thought.