City Girl

 

Previously: Prologue

Zahra meant to leave at first light, but wound up sleeping in. She couldn't remember ever doing that before. Despite having no windows, she could hear morning birds through the walls and feel the sun rising in the east. And she slept through them both.

When she finally did wake, she wondered if that's how Psymia always knew what time it was, despite the fact Boulderfall Cave had no windows. The Altmeri sorceress was always up well before dawn, and never let Zahra sleep a moment past her.

Zahra finally dragged herself out of bed some time during late morning, and went to the bath house to wash again. The water was lukewarm, but she was grateful for it. She lathered with pine soap and scrubbed with a rough cloth. The innkeeper provided her a light oil for her hair, along with a wooden comb.

For breakfast, she ordered bacon, boiled eggs, and a sweet roll, washed down with a cold ale. She could remember the last time she hadd bacon; it was salty and crispy, burned just the way she liked. It had been years since she'd gotten to taste a sweet roll; she certainly never had a whole one. The icing was hot and sugary, sliding down her throat in a most satisfying way.


After breakfast, she gathered her bag of coin, few trinkets, some food, and herbs and prepared to head out. But before she could take one step out of the tavern, she paused, realizing she wasn't sure where to head next.

"What's the nearest big city?" she asked the innkeeper, a fellow Redguard woman with slowly graying hair.

"That would be Riften, to the south," came the nonchalant reply. The woman paused, looking her up and down. "New to Skyrim?"

Might as well be. "Kind of," Zahra told her. "How far to Riften?"

The woman chuckled. "Far. Fast by horse. Fastest by carriage."

"It's okay," Zahra shrugged. "I'll walk." She had so much to see anyway.

The innkeeper raised a wary brow. "You sure about that? It's pretty dangerous for, well, anyone to travel Skyrim alone."

"I know," Zahra nodded, heading out. She didn't add, I was once the danger on the roads.

***

Traveling was easy enough. Skyrim's roads were old and crumbling, but they were also wide and resilient. She walked south until about noon. Once the sun reached its peak in the sky, Zahra ducked into the woods to feast on bread, an apple, and some cheese. She drank water from one of Skyrim's numerous rivers and sat enjoying the sounds of the wild. It was strange that she'd never done so before; she spent so much of her life underground that sitting out here in the sun, smelling flowers and trees, was like being on holiday.

When the sun passed, she resumed her journey. She passed an occasional stranger, the random farmer or miner, a few Khajiit, and the occasional hold guard on patrol, but for the most part, she was alone.

She eventually met a horse on the road, alone and seemingly lost. She was familiar with horses and knew a few charms to calm animals. After some gentle pats and whispers, the horse allowed her to mount and the two finished their journey to Riften together.


The walls of Riften were not daunting on their own; Zahra had seen many forts with walls just as high. She casually greeted a gate guard who pointed her to the nearby stables. At the stables, she learned the horse belonged some woman named Grelka and was rewarded a few septims for returning it.

After that, they guards unlocked the gates and she was allowed into the city. And the city itself...was daunting.


It was nighttime in Riften. Despite being exhausted and sweaty from traveling all day, Zahra was wide awake, all her senses alert, every part of body alive. Riften was a city of mist and shadow, and despite its streets being empty, it was nowhere near deserted or quiet. As she approached the center of town, she ran into beggars and drunken stragglers. There were people dining on balconies, and she could hear music in the distance. The air was filled with smell of smoked meat and fish, baked bread, and mead. She could hear the ringing of a blacksmith's hammer.

It was almost too much.

Her heart pounded as she drifted as though in a dream; it was one thing to read about city life and another to experience it in person. She had never seen this many people all at once, never heard this many sounds or inhaled this many smells all at once. Her legs kept moving of their own volition as her eyes darted anxiously darted about. 

When she finally reached the inn, the sounds of raucous drunken laughter and music seemed to explode.


Nothing in all her books prepared her for when the doors of the Bee & Barb opened. She was hit with light and laughter, smoke and song. It was at least twice the size of the tavern in Shor's Stone. She saw peoples of every type in the tavern - Nord, Breton, Redguard, Imperial, and Argonian, just to name a few. Speechless and wide-eyed, she drifted through the tavern in a daze, until a stranger murmured behind, "Never done a day's work for all that coin you're carrying eh, lass?"

It was a very sobering moment. Zahra turned to face the tall red-haired stranger, a Nord by the look of him, if not by the accent. He suddenly made her remember that she had, in fact, read about the city of Riften a few times, and none of what she read was good.

Her voice came out dead. "Try it and you'll lose more than an arm." Down by her sides, the faintest hint of lightning crackled between her fingers.

"I don't doubt it," he chuckled, noting her robes and casually opting to leave her alone.


Zahra turned back to the tavern, taking in the people, their clothes and accents. She eventually made her way to the bar where the innkeeper, an Argonian woman, asked her what she wanted in a raspy, reptilian voice.

"A clean room," Zahra smiled. "A hot bath. And a basin to wash my clothes." She was amused because the only Argonian she'd every seen up close was on a slab.

"Ten septims," the innkeeper rasped. "I'll show you the way."

If she thought her room at Shor's Stone was luxurious, she was shocked by her room at the Bee & Barb. It was bigger, brighter, cleaner and even though the beds were similar, this one looked even more comfortable.



It suddenly occurred to Zahra that the bigger the city, the finer the lodgings. The better the food, and the more diverse the people.

"What's the biggest city in Skyrim?" she demanded, before the innkeeper could leave.

"Solitude," the Argonian shrugged. "It's the capital, all the way over in Northwest Skyrim. Best to travel by carriage."

Zahra smiled in gratitude and nodded resolutely to herself. Next stop...Solitude.

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