Part 1 - Over the border

"So Gilda, have you been into Skyrim before?" Clark asked the young woman sitting next to him. Ahead of them, the horse plodded onward, pulling Clark's carriage along the road towards Helgen. He gave the reins a jiggle, but the horse's gait didn't change. It only knew slow and steady.

Gilda wasn't really paying attention. She was busy looking at the scenery, which is why Clark had asked. "Oh, what? No, I barely got a mile from our farm before now. Mother didn't like me wandering off; she was scared I'd run into bandits."

"Is that how your nose got broken?" Clark guessed.

"Yes, the one time I did get away, she turned out to be right. When the bandits found out I didn't have anything valuable, they ... well, you can imagine what they had in mind. I gave the first one who tried anything my knee, and he did that in return. The others didn't stop me when I ran off, they were too busy laughing at our discomfort."

"How long ago was that? It looks like it's been that way for a while."

"About five months, I think. One day was much like another at our farm, and I lost track of time. I can't thank you enough for getting me away from there."

Clark wasn't sure what had made him offer to take her with him. He did need a new apprentice, that was true, but why he'd suddenly decided it could be her was beyond him. It wasn't her looks, for certain. Apart from her nose, she had crooked teeth, and looked like she never ate anything. Her mother was the exact opposite, so it was clear where all the food went in that household. She was wearing one of her mother's hand-me-down dresses, which fit her like a sack.

But he'd stopped at the farm for directions when he left Bruma, and she'd caught his eye. Before he knew it, he'd told her mother she could have a good career as a merchant's apprentice, hinting that she might be able to send some of her earnings home.

And if she'd persuaded him to do that, she probably had some speech talent, so she might work out well. He'd need to heal her nose, and fix her teeth first, and that would need more magicka than he had. Once he got to Whiterun, he'd be able to use the Alchemy lab at his house to make some fortification potions, but until then he couldn't do anything.

"We'll be in Helgen before long," he told her. "It's just over there, where you can see the smoke rising..." Clark's voice trailed off, as he realised that there shouldn't be that much smoke. Something had apparently set part of the town on fire, if not all of it.

They soon met a ragged bunch of imperial soldiers coming the other way, telling of a dragon attack on the town. Clark didn't think there were any dragons in Tamriel.

"Nor did we, until that one swooped down on us," the legionary told him. "We were preparing an execution for Ulfric Stormcloak and some of his men, when it was interrupted by a blast of magic. Threw everyone around like dolls. We'd heard that Ulfric could use the Thu'um like that, so we had him gagged, but a beast that size doing it was something else entirely."

"General Tullius and the Thalmor Ambassador were there too," one of the other men put in. "We have no idea if they got out."

Nobody knew if it was safe to try passing through. There were trails to Falkreath that might be preferable, as long as you weren't hauling anything heavy.

"But watch out for bandits if you go that way," another soldier advised. "That applies any time you leave the main roads in Skyrim."

Clark had heard much the same from legionaries in Cyrodiil. In his opinion, the roads weren't any safer than any other route, just better paved. He let his horse continue down the road.

Helgen was deserted when they got there. Most of the population seemed to be lying dead in the streets, scorched by the dragon's breath. Anyone alive had presumably fled, and the dragon itself was nowhere around. Clark decided to continue down into Riverwood and let them know what had happened. If the dragon didn't attack there next, of course.

Riverwood was intact, but they'd seen the dragon fly over. Gerdur, the mill-owner, told Clark that her brother Ralof had escaped from Helgen, and she thought that Hadvar, the legionary from the town, had too. Ralof had brought a stranger with him, and she'd gone on to Whiterun to warn the Jarl.

Clark knew from his earlier trips that Ralof was a Stormcloak, and he asked Gerdur if he'd been one of the men the soldiers had mentioned as due for execution. Ralof hadn't mentioned that part, just that he'd escaped from the dragon. But now it made sense why Hadvar had been there at the same time. "I'll make sure Ralof stays well hidden," she told Clark.

She turned back to what she'd been doing when they arrived. "When the dragon flew over, I was so startled, I dropped this firewood I'd just split in the river. I was trying to dry it out with a flare spell, but it looks like I'll just have to split some more."

"There's an easier way, you know," Clark told her. He took one of the pieces of firewood and stood it on a stump. "Cast a frost spell on it," he told Gerdur. She did so, until Clark told her to stop. "Now dispel the ice" Gerdur didn't know that spell, so Clark taught it to her. "Now try the flare."

The wood caught immediately, and she quickly dispelled the flames. "I hardly used any magicka doing that. It was a lot easier than the way I was trying."

"Right, especially as the frost comes easily to you. Here, I'll help you finish these."

"You make it look so easy," Gerdur told him. "Are you sure you're an Imperial, not a Breton?"

"It's all practice, not magicka reserves," he told her. "It looks easy because I'm using less magicka than you would. Just like you know how to roll a log instead of doing it the hard way by lifting. But some spells are beyond my normal reach. That's why I have to wait until I get to Whiterun before I can heal Gilda's nose."

Gerdur noticed Gilda for the first time. "I can help her with a good meal, and you too. I owe you for that firewood trick."

"I hoped you might. Cooking is where you show your skill."

Gilda at Riverwood.

"Looking at her, I expected she had no appetite," Gerdur whispered to Clark. "But she's on her third helping of the stew already."

Clark told Gerdur that he suspected her mother had been starving her. Whether that was to keep her thin, or just because the mother ate all the food, he didn't know, but the mother was really fat. "She didn't think enough of Gilda to get her teeth straightened, so I doubt she had any positive feelings for her."

"If Gilda eats like that all the time, she might take after her," Gerdur warned.

"I don't expect she will. I'll get Lydia to look after her, and she'll keep her fit, not fat."

Lydia was Clark's housecarl in Whiterun. She'd been part of the deal when Jarl Balgruuf made Clark a Thane of the city, for his services to its people. He'd forgotten what he'd done for them; nothing major, just a lot of small things that added up. And the Jarl had noticed his effect on the local economy. Even the Khajiiti caravan that camped outside the gates seemed to be more prosperous after Clark had arrived.

They'd be at his house, Breezehome, by the end of the day, if there weren't any problems on the road.

"Oh, It's you, Thane," the guard at the gate knew Clark, even if he didn't know the girl. "Is she with you? I have orders to keep strangers out, with dragons sighted in the area."

Clark vouched for Gilda, and the guard opened the gate for them.

"That's a new development," Clark remarked. "The only ones not allowed in before were the Khajiit traders. They have an unjustified reputation as thieves. Well, maybe it's partly justified, but they're not the worst. They just have a more sharing attitude to property than the Nords are accustomed to, and it's often misinterpreted."

"What have you got in the sack?" Lydia asked.

"That's not a nice thing to say," Clark admonished. "Even if that is a good description of her outfit. This is Gilda, my new apprentice, and we'll be exchanging that 'sack' for something better-fitting as soon as we can. She's about your height, so is there something in the wardrobe she can try on?"

"You know I only keep a few changes of armour. If you're looking for a dress, you're probably out of luck."

"Leather armour might be more comfortable, if it fits."

Gilda took a look in the wardrobe, but there weren't any dresses, and the leather was loose, even with the straps tightened all the way. She put the "sack" back on, and tied the string back around her waist.

"We have to go to Belethor's in the morning anyway. We'll find you something then. Come to the back room while I brew up some potions, and then I'll see what I can do about your nose," Clark told her.

Lydia was already back at the cookpot, stirring up some food. She could see that the poor girl needed feeding, even if Clark couldn't.

| Part 2