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Sian's story part 6 - Missed the Bus


jfraser

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The snowstorm was gone the next morning…as was the cart. I asked around in growing desperation only to learn that the transport service did not keep permanent residence in Winterhold. As it was explained to me, they pulled out when the livery stables were destroyed along with three-quarters of the city during some semi-recent event involving the nearby magic college. It had been impossible to tell the day before, but in the clear light (or, more accurately, clear precipitation) of day, the effects were obvious – only a few buildings huddled next to a sheer precipice that fell hundreds of feet to the crashing shore of a vast ocean. A long stone bridge separated the towering college from what remained of the town. The inn had once been the smallest of several inns throughout the city – now it was the only one. Gone along with the livery were any form of service industry, such as a blacksmith or furrier, and the entire local governmental area. The local Jarl, Korir, was a bitter man who hated the college but had no voice in his own hold, say nothing of the rest of Skyrim. There remained but one shop and its supplies were limited to what Birna could get from the infrequent travelling merchants who no longer make the remains of the city a priority.

 

All this to say, there were only two ways to get to Riverwood: wait for the next person to travel to Winterhold via the transport service (“Yesterday was the first one is eight months”) or walk. Riverwood sits just over three-hundred miles from Winterhold. In good conditions, such as do not exist in northern Skyrim, and with no interruptions, walking sixteen hours a day, that’s a little over a six-day trek.

 

It’s not like I had much choice. Staying there was not an option – the money Rayya had given me would not have lasted more than a few days and then I’d be homeless and penniless. There were no jobs to be had. You would think there would something available in the college – they had to have janitors, right? – but all inquiries in the direction were met with flat denial. They had students to do the light cleaning and slaves to do the menial work – why would they pay someone when all their labor was free? It was a hard point to argue.

 

So I spent every coin Rayya had given me on even warmer clothes (especially an upgrade to soft furry boots, for which my toes were grateful), three water pouches (which made the water taste like leather, which was still a step up over the old metal canteens my siblings and I drank out of when we played Sacketts), and as much non-(or at least slow-)perishable food I could get my hands on. Pickings were slim. I hate jerky to this day.

 

The other thing I did was ask Rayya (patient saintly elf that she is) to teach me how to start a fire – I figured that was a skill that would be necessary in the days (and, more specifically, nights) to come. She obliged, and I spent most of the afternoon practicing using the little firestarter kit I had bought from Birna. Not quite flint-and-steel, not quite modern Earth lighter, it was somewhere in between, and a complete necessity and lifesaver in that frozen land.

 

As usual, my planning was not planned out as well as I thought – I got to the end of the day with no money and realized only then that I had not paid for a room for that night. Dagur took pity (helped by the fact that most of my supply money had gone to him, no doubt) and let me sleep on the floor in the common room. I started my hike the next morning.

 

The walk was actually not as bad as I feared. Mostly. I spent the first night in a mine where a handful of tired men were laboring away in hopes of finding a strike big enough to live on. So far they had found just enough to keep going, but I admired their tenacity. My payment for their hospitality and (more important) fire was to take a shift with a pickaxe. I was much slower than any of them, of course, but I did manage to unearth a small chunk of some sort of ore. The cheered for me and gave me a lovely bowl of stew for my efforts. It was a pleasant evening.

 

The second evening was not nearly so pleasant. The sun had long ago peaked and the shadows of the mountains to my right were causing an early dusk as I crested a hill and saw a fort ahead. It lifted my spirits – perhaps I could spend another night indoors! But as I approached, figures popped up on the battlements. Figures that looked…like…

 

I felt a chill go through me even as the first skeleton (a fucking living skeleton!) pulled back a bow and shot at me. Fortunately, skeletons are notoriously bad shots – in retrospect, it was a blessing that it was aiming at me, because that lessened its chances of actually hitting me. I didn’t know that at the time, of course. The arrow whined through the air in a way that is impossible to describe completely to someone who has not been shot at. It is like a snake and a several hornets have been put in a bag which has then been shaken vigorously before being thrown at your head. It is unpleasant, it what I am getting at.

 

The fort was well-placed – it backed into a cliff that ran the distance to the coast on my left but jutted out far enough that only the road separated its front gate from the mountains rising to my right. Any traveler would have to pass through a narrow gauntlet between the fort and the mountain to get past. I wondered briefly, as I ducked behind a nearby boulder, how we had made it past this place on the way to Winterhold. Perhaps these rejects from a late-night TV horror movie had popped up after? I had no idea, nor any memory of the place. Chances were good that I had been asleep on the floor of the cart.

 

I had a choice to make, but it wasn’t really one – I couldn’t go back. The only way was forward. So I took a deep breath and ran.

 

Arrows flew around me, some coming close enough to elicit inadvertent yelps, and, as I got close to the front gate, I was dismayed to see it opening. Figures, some skeletal, some humanoid but wearing dark robes, poured out. The road bent to the left past the fort, following its southern wall for its skeleton-with-bow-filled length. I eschewed that route, taking advantage of the fact that the bluff to my right curved away just past the gate to create an open field. I jumped down a small hill, which cut off the arrows for a bit, and ran as fast as I could across the open field. I was fortunate that the snow was no deeper than my ankles – had it been any higher, it would have slowed me to a fatal pace. As it was, I kept running until I made it back to the road, which had curved away to my left before bending back to cut through the mountains about a quarter mile from the fort. I risked a quick glance back as I reached the road and was surprised (grateful but surprised) to find that the fort’s inhabitants had apparently given up the chase. I stumbled a while longer as the remaining sunlight began to shift toward true dark before collapsing on a rocky shelf under a windblown indention in the mountainside, where I just gasped for breath and waited for my heart to stop pounding. It took several attempts for my shaking hands to start a tiny fire and it took awhile to fall asleep because, difficult as it was anyway to sleep outdoors in the cold with little shelter, that night every little sound startled me awake. I ended up just forgoing sleep and beginning my journey while it was still dark.

 

The third evening was spent at the Nightgate Inn, which at first blush seems situated at the halfway point between nowhere and the boonies but is actually the primary center for trade between eastern and western Skyrim. The passes through the mountains further south are narrow and steep and rife with bandit activity. The northern way is an easily-traversed road that connects the northern (Dawnstar, Morthal), central (Whiterun, Falkreath, Helgen before it was destroyed (coming to that)), and western (Solitude, Dragon Bridge) cities with the eastern cities (Winterhold, Windhelm, Riften).

 

Nightgate is always stuffed with people from all over Skyrim, with wagons and carriages parked in neat camps around it. Well-paid and therefore well-armed and attentive mercenaries patrol the area (I got an efficient (and professional – not a groping, which still surprises me) pat down and a warning to keep my hands to myself), keeping it safe from bandits and wildlife. In this land of brewing civil war, it was the one place each side considered neutral, and any aggression from either side was dealt with in short order. I didn’t have money for the inn itself, which likely wouldn’t have had an open room anyway – usually the merchants themselves took the inn while their men stayed with their camps – but I was invited to join a group around one of the fires and paid for a delicious (and deliciously hot) meal by telling my story. They took it as complete fiction, of course, but that probably only added to the story in their eyes.

 

It was the last pleasant night I would have a good while, and the last night of my innocence.

 

Don't feed the bastards - they'll just want more.

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