Even in a life of losses, Jastinia’s loss to Torbjorn Shatter-Shield hit hard. She had completed her mentor’s task to forge a new battleaxe. She had believed she was also ready to complete the Stormcloak initiation on Serpentstone Isle. But after losing a brutal sparring match to Torbjorn in the sewers, Jastinia’s confidence was shaken. Only after reflecting with her trainers, Torbjorn and Scouts Many-Marshes, was she able to rekindle some of the fire she lost in that duel. A run-in with the bully Rolff Stone-Fist only tempered her resolve further. She would keep training, keep getting stronger, and not disappoint herself or her teachers again.
Torbjorn sent his student to Mixwater Mill, both on delivery jobs for Windhelm’s citizens, and to meet the mill’s owner for further training. With Torbjorn’s sealed letter in hand and her gear on her back, Jastinia departed for the south. Despite run-ins on the road, first with a silver-tongued skooma dealer and then with a pair of rogue sorcerers, she arrived at Mixwater Mill uninjured and under Torbjorn’s deadlines. There, she met Gilfre, the hard-working, harder-driving matron of the mill. Gilfre read Torbjorn’s letter and welcomed Jastinia to the mill’s run-down laborer quarters where Jastinia knew she would remain until she had discovered why her teachers sent her to Mixwater.
Welcome to Jastinia of Windhelm’s legendary edition Ultimate Skyrim/Take Notes playthrough. My name is Anna and I'm blogging her playthrough on my WordPress page, Unearthed Arcanna, but posting all the content here too. Got questions about Jastinia? My modlist? Our roleplaying approach? Check out all the “playthrough links” below for more information about the series.
- Ultimate Skyrim, other mods, and MCM setup
- Character backstory
- Character creation and build
- Self-imposed roleplaying rules
- Jastinia of Windhelm journal index
- Jastinia’s combat clips
Heartfire, 21st, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
Too damn early.
I don’t remember the last time someone literally shook me awake. Shahvee when I was 10, faking stomach rot so I didn’t have to get up in a blizzard to help unload some stupid ship? Nothing since then, and certainly nothing while I’d rented at Sailor’s Rest, where patrons paid good coin to the Duskstars specifically to sleep as late as they wanted without interruptions. Especially not interruptions from a virtual stranger they’d only met the night before.
“Alright, lazy.” Gilfre’s hand was on my shoulder, jostling me from happy dreams of long sleeps, beds without spiderwebs, and endless pies. “Up you get.”
What… what time is it?
“About two hours before dawn,” dear gods, “and I already let you sleep in for a minute.” No ambient light crept through the dingy windows. No birds chirped outside, no chickens or roosters clucked in the yard. Holy shit. It really was exactly as early as she said, and if it was too early for even the farm fowl you can bet it was too godsdamn early for me too.
“Don’t make me empty a bucket on you.” My head was under the pillow when I heard her threat. As much as everything on this bed, myself included, could use the wash, it wasn’t exactly the wakeup I wanted. And there was no doubt in my mind she’d do it too.
She gave me 15 minutes to get dressed, fed, and ready. Ready for what? To sneak back to Windhelm where I could sleep in as late as I wanted? To write my own secret letter to Torbjorn and tell him he’s crazier than this hag he sent me to train with? But it was too early to get clever so I just grumbled as I pulled my armor and greatsword from the storage trunk. It wasn’t the first time a mentor dragged me out of my cozy sheets for some early-
Gilfre raised an eyebrow. “What’s all that for?” Um, you told me to get dressed and ready. I’ve spent enough time with Torbjorn to know what that means. Or would you prefer I do it the Scouts way and freeze to death in underwear? But it was also too damn early to say any of that either, so she probably just heard a puzzled grunt.
“All that crap.” She waved at my arsenal, arrows and chainmail stacked atop bracers and helm. “We’re not slaying dragons, lady. Just get your work clothes on and bring an axe.”
Wait. When you say ‘work clothes,’ you mean my leather armor, right? Because I don’t recall Torbjorn saying anything about ‘work clothes’ or honestly, ‘work’ anything. Or explaining why I’m here at all. In fact, now that we’re talking about it, what exactly are we doing at this mill again?
I assume her head shake and forehead massage wasn’t just because the dim light was giving her a headache. “Nine save me. Just eat. I’ll find you something that fits.” She muttered something about that damn Shatter-Shield and his bone-headed ideas as she walked out. It was the first thing we’d agreed on all morning.
At least there’s time to journal about this nonsense before Gilfre gets back. And to enjoy the chalky bread and pungent goat cheese she left me. Yum. I’d much rather have cheese I can smell across the province than those puffy pastries I’d been enjoying in dreamland before she threatened to dump water on my head. And it’s only Sundas? Gods, this is going to be a long week. A long “few” weeks if Torbjorn’s promise was to be believed. And it’s about to get worse because when Gilfre said to “bring an axe,” I’m pretty sure I know exactly which heavy hunk of iron she is referring to
Did I mention it’s too early for all this crap? For waking up in a bed dirtier than an ash yam mound? Gnawing through bread I can’t even bite without soaking it in water? For whatever traditional Nordic torture Gilfre and Torbjorn have in store? Oh? I did? Yeah, thought so. But I’m still going to mention it again.
Heartfire, 21st, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
Good news: I figured out what Gilfre meant by “work.” It wasn’t some secret Shatter-Shield style of training after all, although after today, my arms are floppier than the cobwebs still fluttering around this room. Nor was it sparring, even if I’m roughly as sore now as after my sewer session with Torbjorn.
Bad news: when Gilfre meant “work” she meant exactly that. Work. Actual work at an actual sawmill. And guess who’s the actual worker Torbjorn indentured to the matron of Mixwater without her knowing it?
The first warning sign was our first lesson, the one Gilfre taught me five minutes after I crawled out of the house into the chill of a sunless Skyrim morning, bundled in a musty jerkin with my hood wrapped around cheeks already red in the cold. Were we freezing here before dawn to learn a new grip for two-handed combat? A special parrying technique? Secret footwork to dodge ice wraith strikes? Psh. Like I need any of that to conquer Serpentstone and join the Stormcloaks. Gilfre’s got something better to teach: how to operate the sawmill.
I watched Gilfre hook a log from the pile. Her gloved hands braced around the bark, shoulders bearing its weight as she leaned, squatted, and dropped onto the track. “Keep your knees behind your toes or you’ll blow both of them out and we’ll have to float you back to Windhelm.” What exactly does this have to do with combat? With Serpentstone? Hoisting enormous trunks overhead, lining them up on the mill’s belt, checking the sawblade before running the lever. Unless my new plan is to coax the ice wraith a hundred miles south and ask it to lie very, very still on this slow-moving conveyor, I feel like Gilfre might’ve misread Torbjorn’s note.
The second warning sign was when we talked wages. Not the coin I was paying her to train me. Nor the cost of renting the worker’s quarters, the price of that petrified bread, compensation for the musty workman’s clothes she’d draped over me. My actual salary. “1 Septim per 10 board-steres on every log, but only once it’s felled, floated, and split. Plus any other work as needed.” She must’ve interpreted my expression as dissatisfaction with the rate, not bafflement at why she was describing a pay scale for a common laborer, not a Stormcloak-in-training. She sweetened the deal with a smile: “Don’t forget free bed and roof, all the forest food we can scrounge, and the best eggs in Eastmarch.” I couldn’t meet her smile with anything but a gaping mouth. I was still stuck on why she was paying me when I was her student.
The final warning sign was after the sun finally rose. After Gilfre showed me around the property, explained where the oil was stored for the saw carriage, the feed for the goats and chicks. It was when she gave me my first real task. It was then and only then I realized Torbjorn had made some serious omissions when he’d introduced Mixwater Mill to me in his living room.
“You can’t be serious,” I told her after she pointed down the riverbank at the dozens of trees lining its cliffs. Thick, old-growth timbers towering over the White River. Each one destined for the sawmill after someone chopped them down. Some Imperial girl who thought she was training to be a Stormcloak hero, not a Mixwater hireling.
“Like rockjoint. We’re low on logs and I can’t fill Windhelm’s orders at this rate.” We walked down to the riverbank, covered in ripped bark and old branches from previous trees. “As you clear that cut, float the trunks downstream to here. I’ll help you drag them up to the mill.” I saw furrows along the embankment, old scars from where a half-dozen workers would’ve yarded thousands of pounds of timber to Mixwater’s awaiting saw. But not two of us. Not me when I should be training to fight, not learning how to work a sawmill.
I couldn’t keep it together any longer. “Hold on. How is any of this supposed to get me ready for Serpentstone?” Judging by her expression, I might as well have asked how to become High Queen of Skyrim. “Get stronger? Fight an ice wraith?” You know, the stuff Torbjorn would’ve written you about. The foes I need to face, the goals I need to fulfill.
She snorted. “Look, lady. All’s I know is Torbjorn said you needed a job.” He said I needed what? A job? “This is the job.” She pointed to the forest of trees she wanted me to cut, the riverbank where my felled trees would float. “You want the job? Start chopping. You want to be a hero with that sword and armor of yours? There’s plenty of bandits on the road I’m sure would be happy to play.”
I couldn’t even tell her whose head I really wanted to start chopping because I was still stalled. Stuck in my thoughts like the branches and bark from old trunks were stuck in the river mud. “A job.” He said I needed a godsdamn job. Not training. Not some kind of secret instruction in Eastmarch’s secluded woods. Common sawmill labor like the common sawmill laborer he always knew I was. Just another drifting dreamer settling for a compromised future I never wanted.
“I gotta say I’m a little surprised,” she said. I didn’t realize Gilfre was still there. I’d been too lost in the fading mills and mining camps of my own mind, dead-end dreams for dead-ended dreamers like me. “I expected a natural like you would’ve already cut down half of Eastmarch by sunrise.”
“A natural?” Natural disappointment. Natural failure. The natural who returned to her nature of letting down mentors and letting down herself.
“That’s what he wrote,” Gilfre pulled a letter from her dress pocket, Torbjorn’s cracked shield sigil still visible on the red ink. “A natural chopper. Give her anything with a handle on one end and an edge on the other – she’ll cut down whatever you put in front of her.”
Give her a splitting maul for wood, a two-handed weapon for war. A claymore to battle straw dummies. A battleaxe to fight the forest. “So that’s what I’m doing,” she continued. “You already got that bigass axe, and now I’m putting all those trees in front of you.” Gilfre again pointed upstream at the old pines and firs perched over the river. Waiting for the bit, swaying in the autumn air. Bark and wood ready to taste a logger’s saw or a warrior’s forge-welded battleaxe. Trees unprepared to face a natural like me as she cuts them down like she’ll cut down whatever else stands in front of her. Brown bears, ice wraiths, all of Skyrim if that’s what it takes.
Gilfre pocketed the letter. “So, lady. You want the job or not?”
I don’t remember my exact answer. At least, not its words. Because over the rest of the day, I gave her all the answers she needed. I felled three of those trees on my own, no crew, no saw, just me and my bigass battleaxe against a trunk older than the mill itself. I stripped down as many branches as I could before slogging all three trunks across the bluffs to a White River plunge. Even with Gilfre’s help to rope and drag them uphill to the mill floor, I was slower than I promised. Gilfre let me know it too. But between the three new logs ready for sawing, the newly swept cobwebs and crackling fire in my quarters, and arms too sore to write another word but not too sore to try it all again tomorrow, I think that’s enough of an answer for today.
I’m ready, Gilfre. For this job and for any job you and Torbjorn can put in front of me. Give me an axe, give me a sword, and let this lady show you how she can work.
Heartfire, 22nd, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
I shouldn’t have been up so late last night cleaning. The worst part wasn’t the mice-droppings in the kettle or the rotten pheasant breasts under one of the pillows. Nor the sticky patch on my mattress, found only after re-making the bed. Not even standing up that cobweb-encrusted chair only to have six fist-sized spiders scuttle up my sleeve. Nope, the worst part of staying up late while cleaning a shack that made the Gray Quarter look like the Blue Palace? Sleeping through the rooster and Gilfre pouring water on my head to make up for it.
I gasped as the cold river water yanked me out of sleep. She actually did it. Actual water from an actual bucket.
“I told you.” I was still coughing up droplets as she threw my tunic and pants onto my head. “So you ready to work or you need another bucket?”
If I didn’t know why Torbjorn held this woman in high regard before, I certainly do now. Could she have at least brought me some breakfast with my morning water? Or some of Shahvee’s balms for my aching arms, my blistered hands and feet? Driving 10 pounds of woodsplitting axe into Windhelm stumps was wearing enough. But swinging 20+ pounds of Nordic-forged battleaxe into trees wider than me? Sorry, Scouts and Torbjorn. Between a day of chopping wood and a morning of water, Gilfre’s outdone you both.
I’ll figure out breakfast later. For now I need to get dressed and get out there before Gilfre comes back with another bucket.
Heartfire, 22nd, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
Too tired to remember how many trees I felled today. Probably not more than six, but between the cutting, skidding, yarding, and sawing, it feels like I clearcut all of Skyrim. Shaky legs, fried arms, and body dirtier than underworks gutters. Even after scrubbing down with a rag, I’m still caked in lard from greasing up the skids to slide those logs into the river. Smeared in dirt and woodchips with a thin layer of grease and sweat plastering it all down. Bloodied after two of the blisters on my hand opened up.
“You know,” Gilfre said while watching me chop over her lunch break, popping boiled chicken eggs into her mouth. “I hear they make a special axe for this kinda thing.”
“You don’t say.” I was probably about halfway done with the cut but too exhausted to widen it out with the massive battleaxe. A weapon designed for taking heads or shattering shields, not bringing down Eastmarch pine.
“True story.” She handed me the last of her eggs after I’d collapsed onto the forest floor. “They call it a woodcutter’s axe. You should try one sometime.”
Yesterday morning, I probably would’ve thrown said woodcutter’s axe into her smirking face, but by the middle of today, I could barely bring lift the egg with my shaky hand. “You know,” I looked up at her, returning her smirk, “I hear they actually have a special team of people to do this kinda thing too.”
“That right? Do tell.”
“Yeah. They’re called work-crews.” A group of four or six laborers who could’ve cleared out this site in two, maybe three days of work. Not still slogging through the first tenth of an acre by the middle of day two. “You should try hiring one sometime.”
“Who needs a crew when I got a natural like you?” I still wasn’t sure if she was making fun of me when she said that or trying to build my confidence. “Get off your ass and get back to chopping. You’re not getting paid by the hour.”
Sure thing, boss. Whatever you say, boss.
Even though Gilfre insists all this is “just work,” it doesn’t take a sword-master to suspect a hidden purpose behind my so-called “job.” Other than lining Gilfre’s pockets with my free labor. Assuming my hands aren’t too blistered and bloodied to lift this axe ever again, assuming a tree doesn’t tip onto my head, and assuming I don’t throw out my spine getting these fallen timbers back to the mill, I’m definitely going to get stronger. And if I’m strong enough to carve out solid wood with this axe, I’ll probably be strong enough to carve out an ice wraith with a greatsword too.
But then again, there has to be more to Mixwater than just packing muscle onto my little Imperial arms. I could’ve done that back in Windhelm. So what other tricks do you have up your sleeve, Torbjorn? What other work has Gilfre planned? Questions that keep coming, and questions I can figure out tomorrow. After scrounging some mushrooms and roasting them over my new fireplace, I’m done answering anything except the most important question of all: how late can I sleep in tomorrow before Gilfre pours another bucket on me?
Heartfire, 23rd, 4E 201
Mixwater Mill. Eastmarch.
We’re on break while Gilfre feeds the goats and I wrap newly burst blisters. One on my left palm. Another under my big toe. Extra time to dig out splinters that caught my arm when that tree fell too early, buckling at the cut and exploding into a cloud of wooden shards. Honestly, I’m lucky to just be picking out a few pieces with my hunting knife after that accident. After a cloud of arboreal daggers erupted from the splitting trunk, hundreds of pounds of pressure bending the wood until it burst. The last revenge of a dying timber against its slayer. Dare to cut me, citygirl? the tree cackled as it collapsed. Two can play at that game.
The only reason I’m writing this in ink instead of dripping it in blood was Thief. Scouts’s parting gift before I left Windhelm, the text I continued to study for an hour every night before sleep. Lessons I remembered even that instant the tree splintered.
I’d heard the groan of wood supporting more weight than its chiseled-out trunk could hold and I realized something bad was about to happen. I’d taken some stray woodchips over the last few days, both from felling pines and at the saw itself, but nothing bigger than a thumbnail. Scratches on my cheeks and wrists. Nicks scabbed over by the end of the day. Nothing like the jagged swords that were about to fly out of the bowing tree as it creaked, bent, and collapsed. A last assault on the logger who brought it low. I knew from the sound, the pitched groan, what was about to happen. I knew I was in trouble. And that’s when I remembered Eslaf.
Eslaf, who fled bandits by jumping from his perch into the river. Eslaf, who maneuvered his body in mid-air to avoid damage. Eslaf the cunning, Eslaft the quick, Eslaf who wouldn’t be beaten by brigands anymore than he would get slashed to ribbons by a vengeful Eastmarch tree.
So as the tree bent and snapped, dissolved into a hail of hurling spears, I moved. Dodged. Danced and dove through the wooden shower and off the cliff. Landing into the water below just like the Thief himself. The tree dropped at a bad angle as bark and wooden teeth showered the patch where I’d been standing. But all I got was an early bath. Plus the armful of splinters I’d been too slow to dodge.
And yet, I’d still dodged most of it. Evaded and survived like Eslaf, using the same techniques Scouts had written about in Thief’s margins, the same footwork. Bobbing and weaving like he’d taught both in the text and before that on the docks. Sorry, tree. Looks like I can run circles around you too.
Heartfire, 24th, 4E 201
Mixwater Mill. Eastmarch.
The mill-wheel broke which means we’re shut down for the morning. Gilfre’s going to fix what she can with our limited spare parts, but we’re going to need more iron to repair its internal gears. They’re so rusted and cracked it’s a miracle the saw hasn’t already flown off its track and beheaded us both.
I’d been scooping moss and mold out of the gears for about an hour when I asked the last time anyone had repaired this thing. When it was first built? Before Nords settled the province? “The last time anyone else was working here,” Gilfre said as she greased up a rusted mandrel. “You know. Before our power-mad Jarl stole all my workers for his crusade.”
It was the first time I’d heard Gilfre comment on any affairs beyond Mixwater, let alone something that was borderline treason even in peacetime. I was too shocked to reply. I had already guessed by looking at her build she was an Imperial by descent but assumed she was loyal to the Hold where she made her home. Did she realize what she was saying? Who she was saying it to? But she was already back to hammering before I could gather my words. Not that she would’ve answered my questions anyway.
While Gilfre tries to nail the pit wheel back in place before it floats downstream, I’m the one who gets to trudge up the cliffs across the river to find iron. Oh, so now I’m a miller and a miner? Is there extra pay with that? “Lady, what did I tell you about all other work as needed?” Gotta hand it to Gilfre. She knows her contracts. And we definitely do need the metal or the cracked nut wheel is going to split in half after another log. As long as we can melt some raw iron to fill the fissures, restore the edge on some of these gear teeth, we can get up and running by lunch.
I still wanted to ask her what she meant by her earlier comment about Ulfric’s “crusade” but before I could find the courage, she was already crawling through the access hatch back into the mill. Back to cussing about “these godsdamn machines.” Guess I’m on my own and back to my ore collection roots.
Heartfire, 24th, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
“What in the hells happened to you?” Gilfre asked after I returned with her iron in hand. Bloody iron, just like the bloody hand holding it. Work clothes torn, arms still dripping red and caked in gore, flecks of crimson speckled on my face. Thick crimson matting my shirt, my pants, blood from the deep cuts where that saber cat’s claws tried to rip me open. From the cat’s own wounds as I hacked right back. Hacked it, fought it, killed it. Butchered it at the end for enough saber steaks to last the rest of the month, at least if I decide I’m even getting out of bed tomorrow after the worst trip to gather iron ore in Eastmarch history.
But Gilfre doesn’t want to hear it. I’m her worker, not her warrior. Sent to harvest iron, an easy jaunt up the cliffside to find a vein. Doing “all other work as needed.” Not letting myself get jumped by Skyrim’s arch-predator after I’d buried my nose in the ground trying to find the deposit. Too distracted to spot the lethal ambusher as it stalked closer. Worried about how long it was going to take to chisel out the material as it stalked forward, hundreds of pounds of muscle and claws, teeth creeping closer until I heard a roar. A saber cat roar.
Too late. Too late to run, too late to do anything other than draw my axe as the cat barreled towards me for its meal. For a fight to the death, to the last woman or beast. A death that would’ve been mine if I hadn’t remembered my lessons.
Its first charge almost knocked me down the cliff. Its second charge did. I’d braced, readied the battleaxe with arms bent at the elbows. Legs coiled, prepared for a mudcrab pincer, even Torbjorn’s overhead swing, but not a saber cat lunge. Not even close. Might as well have tried to catch that falling tree from yesterday with my fingertips.
It blasted me off my feet as I scrambled to get up, Get the hell up, Jastinia, you’re about to die if you don’t, pawing at the ground as the creature pawed at me and I got to my knees, my feet. I’d still be there in saber-toothed bite-sized pieces if I hadn’t fumbled for the potion, chugged it as I ran to create space and get back into the fight.
That was where the lessons returned. Torbjorn’s, Scouts’s, all the reading in Rislav and Thief, all my training against straw dummies or skeevers, fights against Windhelm spiders or Kynesgrove bears. What would Eslaf do? Potema? How would they survive and win? How would a real warrior grip this axe to balance power and control, flank a slower adversary? How to dodge and move, cut on the sides, don’t stop and don’t give up, don’t think about those claws shredding your stomach or your arm. One slash, one final godsdamn slash to show this animal, this world, the gods themselves that Wargirl is unstoppable.
All that for a few chunks of ore and enough saber steaks to feed the Assemblage for a week. Worth it, even if I might need a replacement shirt or some claw-sized cloth to patch this one up. Gilfre’s definitely taking that out of my pay.
From Windhelm orphan who couldn’t even take Friga Shatter-Shield’s gutpunch to warrior woman who stood down a saber cat and walked away with its teeth and claws in her hands. Standing here in front of Gilfre with an exhausted smile on my face, reeking of animal blood and guts, of dirt and dust from scrambling after it knocked me flat. Charred flesh after I cauterized my own open arm cuts so I didn’t bleed to death right next to my kill. From a dirty nobody in the sewers to a bloody nobody with a battleaxe who soon, very soon, won’t be a nobody any longer.
But the more I thought about it while holding that piece of ore, the more I realized I didn’t need to share this story. Not out loud, anyway. Gilfre didn’t care about details anyway. Her smile told me she already knew everything she needed.
“Got your iron.” I handed it to her and pointed down the riverbank at the shredded pelt, bundled and soaked red around a moun dof butchered cat cuts. “And got dinner.”
She laughed. “You sure did.” Gilfre skipped the ore, instead grabbing my outstretched arm. Rolled up the sleeve and inspected the mottled, wet flesh. Oozing gouges, first flayed down to the muscle by the cat before I’d seared them shut with a torch. “You’re tougher than you look, lady. But next time, try moss or those blue flowers. Might sting less.” Couldn’t that have been part of the day one job training instead of lessons on scattering chicken-feed?
She helped me haul the butchered beast up the bank before starting on the iron repairs. I offered to join but she laughed again. “I’ll make you a deal. You cook us a nice dinner for tonight, I’ll give you the afternoon. Deal?”
Free time to journal and rest? Clean and bandage all the other scrapes and cuts from knees to neck? Take a bath, take a nap, take a moment to pause and breathe after my heart’s still beating faster than a hammer shaping a battleaxe head?
“Deal.” She shook my hand and I knew it wasn’t just because I’d agreed to roast us some saber steaks for supper. Her firm grip said more, so much more than that.
Heartfire, 25th, 4E 201
Mixwater Mill. Eastmarch.
And I thought all this extra mead was for Gilfre’s workers. Nope. It’s clearly Gilfre’s private stash. One look at her downing that first bottle and I’d figured she could drink half of Candlehearth under the table. Later, I realized it was actually all of Eastmarch.
Most of our night was a meady blur. Especially after dinner. Stories of mill workers that came before me. Bitter memories before they abandoned Gilfre to join “those damn Stormcloaks.” Back when Mixwater just sawed up boards for ship repairs and new buildings, not arrows and weapons. When Gilfre lodged a dozen workers in this house instead of mice colonies, before most able-bodied folks charged away from honest work to war. Other stories too. Better ones, like the laborer who tripped over a goat one day only to find that same goat standing atop him in bed the next. No cold-water bucket for him. Just a bladder full of goat pee.
We talked of Torbjorn. Gilfre’s friend for years, her mother’s friend for decades. From the Great War. “Back when it didn’t matter whether you wore Legion armor or Ulfric’s damn cloak,” she said. Torbjorn and Gilfre’s mother had stood against the Aldmeri Dominion shield-to-shoulder at places I’d never heard of down south. Skingrad. Cheydinhal. Red Ring. Across Cyrodiil, the province at the war’s center and Gilfre’s ancestral home. Mine too. Gilfre’s too. Were her mother and father born there like mine? Was she? Did they all come north like the sisters of Kynesgrove or mom and dad to find something new?
She shook her head. “Mom loved strutting around with her old Legion claymore on her back but she was always a Skyrimer at heart.” Born here, raised here. Only left when the high elves invaded and threatened everything she believed. But eventually, to return after she and Torbjorn beat them back.
I asked Gilfre if she was a warrior like her mother. “Nah.” She swigged the mead as if to say she didn’t need no silly arms and armor to beat meatheads like Torbjorn. “That was mom’s thing. Dad and I just wanted to chop trees, not heads.” I wanted to ask how her parents met, what happened to them, had they taught her or taught others but I held back. It wasn’t the right time. Or mood. It felt wrong jumping to “dead parents” while Gilfre was cackling about the time years ago when Torbjorn’s family visited and a rooster chased a younger Nilsine into the river.
Cheers to that. “So,” I said, “you’re saying we need to invite them down tomorrow?” Gilfre agreed as long as we could get Friga to trip over a goat.
After that, the night kinda slipped away from us. At one point, I tried wrestling her to read Torbjorn’s letter and ended up on my ass in a strawpile. I shared tales about the sights, sounds, and smells of Sailor’s Rest and its very indiscreet patrons. She shared her own about a “real bear of a Nord” who used to work for her. Slept right over there in my bed. “Golden blond hair from head to toe. And when I say head to toe, I mean it.” She winked, I got red, and then the night really blurred into a whole bunch of topics I’m not going to grace with written ink on a page.
I don’t know if it was the mead, the wild conversation, or my accomplished glow from defeating that saber cat, but I’m feeling better today than my headache and arm wounds should allow. Stronger, more aware, more open to new ideas. I’ve learned a lot about myself and this land. About Skyrim. Despite my failures, I’ve fought back to get where I am and know how much I still don’t know. It’s hard to believe how ignorant I’ve been about all this even just a month ago. Imagine where I’d be today if I’d just been a little more open. But now that I know, I have so much more to learn.
I still don’t know specifics about what Torbjorn wanted me to learn at Mixwater. Now I know I don’t need to. I trust him. I trust Gilfre. And I trust if I keep working, I’ll get where I need to go.
Besides, if I keep hanging around, maybe she’ll hire on more crew members. Having some housemates, especially big, blond Nordic ones, sounds like it would be just as much fun as Gilfre remembered.
Heartfire, 26th, 4E 201
Mixwater Mill. Eastmarch
Yesterday, I thought I was sore from the alcohol and the labor. Today, I realize it’s really just the aftermath of my saber cat encounter. Most of my injuries are healing but my right arm is a mess. Liquid is still discharging from under the wrappings, which is exactly what I deserve after being crazy enough to burn the wounds shut with a spare torch. I’ve used up Shahvee’s poultice just to soothe the swelling enough to fall asleep. Still haven’t solved the staying asleep problem though.
Gilfre saw me favoring my left arm on swings and rolled up my sleeve before I could protest. She made the same face I made when I dug a week-old tomato out of my trunk at Sailor’s Rest and assessed whether it was still edible.
“That bad?” I asked her.
She pressed along the bruising and sticky welts before splashing water on the pus. “Well, you won’t die and you’ll probably keep the arm.” Oh thanks. How reassuring. Can we talk about hazard pay yet? “Just keep it clean and covered. Try not to play hero for at least a few days.” Deal, but only if you can try not to send me alone to play with anymore giant cats.
Despite the injury, I’m still making solid progress on Gilfre’s plot. I’m about halfway done and with a few more felled trees I know we’ll be back on schedule. We already lashed a parcel of logs together and floated them downstream to Windhlem earlier today. I asked her if we’d accompany our delivery, riding it down the river or just escorting it from the shore. “If you want to float up to Windhelm and ask Jarl Ulfric to recruit me more workers instead of recruiting himself more soldiers, I’m not stopping you.”
Stormcloaks again. It wasn’t the first time she’d brought this up and it wasn’t the first time I wanted to challenge her. Remind her who was paying for all her orders. Tell her if she didn’t love Skyrim as much as the rest of us she could just go back to Cyrodiil and leave the true daughters and sons to fight for our home. Have you no sense of honor like your mother? No warrior spirit like her or Torbjorn? But I already knew how that conversation would resolve.
I’ll just stick with what I do best: shutting up and doing what all the older folks tell me to do. If I’d listened to Scouts and Torbjorn back in Windhelm, I wouldn’t have suffered that defeat in the sewers. Maybe if I listen to Gilfre, I can learn something too. And maybe if I’m lucky, it will be about actual soldiering instead of sawmilling.
Heartfire, 28th, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
Breakthroughs. One with the mill, one with Gilfre, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed the second without the first.
It started when she tweaked her back and took an early lunch. “Getting old?” I asked her as she lay flat on the dirt to stretch her muscles.
“Not old enough to throw your skinny ass into that river if you don’t get back to work.” I remembered our night in the work quarters when I tried to wrestle her for Torbjorn’s letter. If I ended up in that straw-pile while she was hammered on mead, I’m pretty sure I’d end up all the way back in Windhelm if we went at it while she was sober.
I turned back to chop a few more trees for the day when she stopped me. “Where do you think you’re going?” She pointed back to the mill. “Those trunks aren’t sawing themselves.” Right, but you’re out of commission and I’m not going to join you on the ground by hauling those things off the pile on my own. Which is when I realized that was exactly what she wanted.
“No way.” Even with Gilfre’s help I was still struggling to bear even half of a trunk’s weight whenever we loaded the track. Now she wanted me to lift them alone? Do the exact same thing she’d just snapped her own back doing? Besides, I wasn’t done with my tract for the day. I’d just gotten my swinging rhythm, just started working up enough of a sweat to ignore my swollen arm, still throbbing at the cauterized slashes.
“We’re backlogged on the pile, not the trees.” She wasn’t wrong. Our lumber was stacked to the roof. Even if I had the energy to chop down enough Eastmarch timberto fill Windhelm’s orders for a year, we’d have nowhere to store it. But I could also just leave them on the shore until she got better, got a second wind. Keep up my tempo and- “Stop crying and start lifting.” Stop crying. Just like Torbjorn told me in the sewers, Gonna cry now? as he tried to cut me apart. Stop crying, girl. Stop whining and complaining and get to work.
I tried. I really did. From early afternoon to dusk, getting a good grip and wrenching to move the lumber. Exhaling as I squatted and drove, trying as hard as I godsdamn could to bear hundreds of pounds of ancient wood on top of my bruised shoulder. The first time I almost shattered my knees as I lost my grip, forearms and hands flaring out as the entire trunk crashed into the deck. By the fifth time I was just breaking my arms and elbows as I lifted, pushed, and still couldn’t make the transfer from pile to conveyor. Even if I could balance one end on my shoulder I still couldn’t make that final pass over my head. Unless I wanted to crush every bone in my body. So yeah, I tried, okay? I tried to move the damn things and I just don’t have your years of experience and strength to do it.
She’d been standing there since the sun set, leaning against the mill and watching. Arms crossed in disappointment like so many other teachers before her. “I got all night.” Torbjorn when I couldn’t stand, Scouts when I couldn’t swim. Letting them all down again but not as much as I was letting myself down. I gave it another try and couldn’t even budge it off the pile. I was just too exhausted. From previous failures, tonight’s and days before. Weeks. A month and lifetime of disappointments.
“I’m trying,” I said while she judged me in disgust like every Windhelm guardsman had looked at me before. I was already retreating. Hiding back in my Sailor’s Rest bed. Crawling into the sewers to fade away where I belonged. “It’s just too big.” Big like those topics Ulfric and Galmar debated when I stuck my foot in the door of a space I never belonged. Big like plans that were always going to dwarf a weakling like me.
“Well stop trying and start doing, lady.” I want to. I really do but I can’t, it’s just- “Because how the hells are you going to survive Serpentstone if you can’t even lift a damn log?”
Oh. So she did know. I’d suspected since I got here but now it was certain. It made sense. Torbjorn must’ve mentioned it in his letter after all. Whip this weakling into shape because I’m as fed up with her now as you will be in a week. Because this is a child’s game to her. Because she can’t- “Because I’m not letting a natural like you die to saber cats, snow-snakes, or some slack-armed soldier who wishes he was half as strong as you.” As who? Me? I’m not though. Torbjorn knew it then, Gilfre knows it now, and- “Because I’m not letting you run away from yourself anymore, and because you’re not going anywhere until you move that fucking log.”
She was right. That was exactly what I wanted. To run from Mixwater and Serpentstone. Windhelm and myself, whoever that even was anymore. Which is probably what I would’ve done a month ago. A week ago. Five minutes ago before I saw her standing there with all the fire I had at Oengul’s forge when I hammered out that battleaxe. The same ferocity as a 16 year-old outcast who dared enter the Palace of the Kings on her birthday and dared charge a brown bear when everyone else ran. Fury and fire because I couldn’t do something she knew I could.
So I’m not running today. I’m not trying, I’m not whining, and I’m not wasting anymore of my time or Gilfre’s, Torbjorn’s, Ulfric’s or Galmar’s or all of Windhelm’s. I’m doing what she told me to do and moving this fucking log if it’s the last fucking thing I do.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Most of it was just technique I knew all along. But when you’re too tired to force something the wrong way, you figure out how to finesse it the right way. Mechanics over brute strength, momentum over muscle. The same way I’d beaten the bear or the cat, dodged the falling tree and survived Scouts’s and Torbjorn’s sessions so far. But also not just proper application of skills. Determination too. Grit. Pushing through discomfort and that voice, that nagging whisper, to do something bigger than I was. And in this case, that was lifting, holding, and flinging over 300 pounds of wood overhead to the track. That was the first breakthrough: winning against that log.
“Damn, lady,” Gilfre said after she cranked back the lever and cranked on the mill. We cut four more before she called it. “That ice wraith doesn’t have a chance.” Second breakthrough: winning Gilfre. A woman who’d clearly been training me all along even if I didn’t know it until now. A woman who wasn’t going to let me fail. A woman who I’d known for just over a week (gods, is that all it’s been?) and already knew would support me as long as I accepted her help. As long as I stopped trying, stopped running away from myself, and started doing.
Heartfire, 29th, 4E 201
Worker’s House. Mixwater Mill.
Not sure who I’m more pissed at right now. That damn cat for digging its infectious claws into my arm, or that damn Gilfre for her “cure.” I thought the pus-filled gashes hurt. The swollen skin, hot to the touch and sharp even when I wasn’t picking at the wounds. Nope. Nothing like pouring the mead onto the cuts to lance out the infection. Nor the hunting knife flaying the skin open in the first place so the alcohol could scour out all the sick blood boiling underneath.
If Gilfre heard me scream six times, once each when I slit open the three slash marks, once again at every pour of alcohol, she didn’t care enough to check. If anything she probably rolled her eyes: tough it up, lady. Think that hurts? See how much you like losing that arm instead. She’d already warned me it would suck so I’m not sure what I was expecting. But she also didn’t warn me it would burn deeper than even the torch I’d used to cauterize the cuts in the first place. Worse than even Shahvee’s most potent salves because Gilfre didn’t have any healing potions to spare but don’t worry, lady, cuz there’s no greater healer than a bottle of booze.
Sometimes I can’t tell if we’re doing Mixwater-style “training” or if she just enjoys messing with me even more than Scouts and Torbjorn. Pretty sure right now is the latter.
Alright, Gilfre. Lessons learned. Don’t get ambushed and if you do, don’t get cut. Carry wound-packing materials and even if you forgot, don’t neglect your injuries so much that you have to burn your arm off with groaty mill-mead to avoid amputation. Next time, could you maybe teach me all that before meeting Mr. Saber Cat?
Hopefully her cure works because I’m on the back-acreage of our plot and ready to fell the last few trees tomorrow. I know all the extra sweat and grime isn’t doing my wounds any favors, soaking right through their loose wrappings as I keep up my pace. But it’s not like I’m slowing down now. Not after Gilfre told me earlier today I was even faster than she was at her age. “Dumber too,” she clarified, reminding me she at least knew to pack an open wound with herbs and not fry it shut like I’m cooking up a saber steaks. Thanks for that, boss-lady. Better watch out or you’re the one who will get some mead poured on you next.
Frostfall, 1st, 4E 201
Mixwater Mill. Eastmarch.
It was only at the end of my morning prayer when I realized it was a new month. Could it really be Frostfall already? I wouldn’t even have noticed if I hadn’t checked my journal dates, and even then, I second-guessed myself and had to ask.
“How the hells should I know?” Gilfre hollered as the saw was chipping through one of the knottier trunks from today. Before dawn and she’d been up for an hour. “This look like a place that keeps calendars?”
Guess not. Time sure flies in the Eastmarch wilds. Or when you’re breaking your back on 14-hour shifts. But the more I thought about it, the more this realization hit me harder. A new month arrives as such a momentous month closes. A slow understanding of all that transpired in the last 30 days, much more than any other 30-day period in all my previous years. Memories swirled around me like those same divine winds back when Kynareth finally whispered on the White River banks, fresh and recent but already engraved in my mind.
My birthday, my new journal. Meeting Ulfric. Galmar’s challenge and Scouts’s training to meet that challenge. There was Torbjorn and there was Tova, driving pickaxes into stone, hammers into iron, or axes into Eastmarch elms. Hours lost in my head or stolen by a nightmare. Hours treading frigid water in a river too cold for humans or kneeling in the snow beneath Kynareth’s gaze. Battles. Nothing like the battlefields that await after I conquer Serpentstone but battles realer than any I’d fought before. Kynesgrove’s brown bear. Mixwater’s saber cat. Torbjorn Shatter-Shield cutting down a limp-armed Imperial girl lost in the sewers. Fights against Scouts and Shahvee, standoffs with Rolff and his bigoted kin. Conflict with myself at old memories and new reminders. Stupid kid stuff that didn’t feel so stupid when it all came rushing back in waking regrets or nightmarish visions.
So much to reflect on. So many signs of growth and progress, and yet so many reminders of failure. Disappointments that keep stalking me like that saber cat a few days back or that vicious lightning witch today. The same woman who first attacked me on the road, back for more in the new month. She didn’t have her fire-flinging friend with her, but she didn’t need him. I’d recognize her voice anywhere, hunting for me as I hid, “I’ll kill you!” A stranger I’d now encountered twice who wanted to kill me both times. Why? I couldn’t fathom why this foe wanted to murder me with a flick of her electrified hand. A woman I didn’t even know intent on killing me and honestly, it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t change the danger.
So I hid again. A coward crouching behind boulders and praying she didn’t get disintegrated like that rabbit north of Windhelm after it stumbled across an energy avatar. Like I hid when I first saw this woman and will probably continue to hide whenever a real enemy like her returns. Because even with all my strength and growth at Mixwater, I knew it wouldn’t be enough. I knew she was beyond me today and beyond anyone I could become.
Gilfre had been on break in her cabin while the witch-woman hunted me. At least, she claimed she was. Or perhaps Gilfre was just spying on me through her frosted windows, waiting for her weakling worker to do something brave instead of hiding like the natural coward she was. Or just napping. Would she rush to my aid if the witch attacked? Would she save me? Actually, no. I don’t want to know those answers. Either she would because she knew I was too weak to defend myself, or she wouldn’t because I was too weak to be worth saving.
After the sorcerer wandered off in search of worthier prey, I stayed hidden until well after Gilfre resumed the sawing. She worked the lever and logs like nothing had happened and honestly, it probably hadn’t for her while she enjoyed salted saber steaks in her house.
“Something on your mind, lady?” she asked after I’d returned to the mill in silence. Does a stranger trying to kill me count? Or the lifetime of reflections compressed into a single month? Failures and fears, all personified in a single encounter in this single adversary I knew I couldn’t fight. But I knew Gilfre well enough by now to keep the bullshit melodrama to myself.
I just told her I thought I’d heard something. Crackling and buzzing but maybe it’d just been the wind or water. Not a sorcerer prowling for an easy kill. Gilfre shrugged, “Skyrim’s a weird place. Dangerous too.” She got back to work and just as I was about to walk away, she braked the saw and pretended to re-oil the lever. “Sometimes so dangerous we need to hold back. Other times, just dangerous enough we need to charge ahead.”
Before I could ask about her uncharacteristically reflective comment, she spoke again. “You’re favoring your left again.” I rubbed the tender wounds by reflex. “Still haven’t packed those things?” Sorry. Too busy doing the job of a six-worker crew on my own to grow any flowers. Hiding and running for my life. “Nines, lady! You trying to lose that arm?”
I shouldn’t have asked her if she had any bandages to spare. “Nope, but Eastmarch has plenty.” Great. Now she’s got me taking off the day to forage some of them. Flowers growing on mountains. Moss growing on old trees or under bridges. So now I’ll have to climb some peaks or wander these mage-infested roads looking for an old bridge? Frostfall’s sure off to a great start.
I armored up before leaving, replacing the battleaxe with my greatsword for the first time in almost two weeks. It was lighter than I remember. I flexed in the tight chain, gave the blade a practice swing. Maybe it had always felt this way but in that moment, I felt faster. Stronger. Of course Gilfre had to pour more water on me. “You picking plants or slaying those dragons again?”
This time, however, I was ready for her. This time, I remembered my last trip away from Mixwater. “Like you said. Skyrim’s a dangerous place.”
She grinned. “You’re learning, lady.” She waved over her shoulder as she went back to splitting trunks. “Stay safe, have fun.”
I wrote this entry after she’d walked off. A whirlwind of reflections and emotions, just like the whirlwind of today and last month. I’ll never forget the days between my 16th birthday and today. The lessons learned. Victories won, losses suffered. I know the trials ahead will eclipse these humble Heartfire beginnings, but I also know I’ll always remember this month as a first step into a world I’d feared was too big for me. But thanks to Torbjorn and Scouts, Shallows and Gilfre, those who supported me and those who pushed me, now I know better.
Frostfall, 1st, 4E 201
Waterfall Bridge. Eastmarch.
No luck on flowers or moss in the foothills surrounding Mixwater, but perched atop the cliffs, I did see something else. First was Skyrim and its expansive beauty. Why couldn’t Gilfre or her parents have built the mill up here? At least, the worker’s quarters? She’d probably have more hired hands sticking around if they could wake up to this view, stretching north to Winterhold’s borders and south to the Rift’s ranges. Sure beats waking up to a brand new mouse bedmate.
Second was the bridg I spotted from my vantage point, just a few miles north of Mixwater. Stone and triple-arched, spanning the river just beyond the falls. It took a few hours to scramble down here, but when I arrived, it wasn’t moss I found under the bridge’s stones. It was bones. Human skeletons, three of them scattered around a boarded-up hole in the ground with a discarded Legion sword nearby.
There isn’t a sane soul in all of Skyrim who shouldn’t turn back. Walk away or better yet, run. Get the hells away from here before whatever obliterated these three women or men slithers out of its hole to claim another soul. I came here to find moss for my wounds, not lose my whole damn arm and the rest of myself in whatever pit lies beneath.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Gilfre wants me here. That she sent me up the bluffs to find flowers that weren’t growing only to spot a bridge under which no moss sprouted. If all my work has been training in disguise, whether or not Gilfre wants to admit it, I can’t believe this isn’t some new test or challenge. Nor can I believe a veteran woodswoman like Gilfre didn’t know that this ancient trapdoor was waiting for the next brave or stupid adventurer to come along. Brave like her mother. Stupid like the three corpses resting at my feet.
On another day I might’ve entertained the internal whispers. Given them a chance to turn me away and save us both. But not after this morning and not after this month. No more trying, no more hiding. No more disappointments. We already know where “smart decisionmaking” sits on Jastinia’s lists of talents, and if this dark portal isn’t an invitation to the bravest but stupidest Stormcloak of them all, I don’t what is.
Kynareth guide me. Kynareth light my path. And if not her then hopefully my lantern, which I’m pretty sure is going to run out of oil about five minutes after I’m down this hole. Guess I didn’t learn those preparation lessons as well as Gilfre thought. Oh well: let’s see what else I didn’t learn below.
I wrote a longer commentary section in the blogpost itself. To check it out, visit and scroll down: https://unearthedarcanna.wordpress.com/2021/03/28/jastinia-6-to-mixwater-09-18-09-20-201/. Here are some summarized ideas from the post.
- Write through writer’s block.
- Describe game mechanics.
- Go explore!
Next time, join Jastinia as she explores the passage beneath the bridge and brings her Mixwater Training to a close. Thanks for reading!