Harrowhark Playthrough,  Skyrim

In Which Harrowhark Goes to Shroud Hearth Barrow

And, back around to the modded playthrough, starring Harrowhark the Imperial! Main action in this session: heading off to Ivarstead and beginning a run through Shroud Hearth Barrow, accompanied by Lydia and Vilja.

This post is more commentary than action, though. Mostly about the in-character ramifications of a particular conversation between Vilja and Lydia, and also my dissatisfaction with how Vilja seems way, way too preoccupied with her weight for a character who’s supposed to be a Nord.

Play by play

  • Play date: 12/12/2022
  • Session number in this run: 6
  • Picked up where I left off in Whiterun
  • Sold a few things to Belethor and did a little smithing at the forge
  • Saw Vilja and Lydia have quite the conversation about carrying other people’s burdens, and boy howdy I don’t think Harrow appreciated that, see below
  • She wasn’t exactly mollified either when Vilja perkily offered to share some of her family background with her, and told her about being from Solstheim and wanting to be a bard
  • Told Vilja to get into her armor (because it turned out she had some hide armor in her inventory) and we set out for Ivarstead
  • We reached White River Watch and a dragon showed up, so Harrow got some opportunity to work out some of her cranky by firing arrows into the thing; also spotted M’aiq the Liar nearby so he got quite the dragon killing show
  • Proceeded to Ivarstead; Vilja chatted about the Imperials not exactly being a bastion of culture if they don’t know about proper Nord dancing on tables, and for that matter how, as she understood it, they’d wanted to chop off my head; Harrow (comma, the Imperial) can’t exactly argue with that
  • Vilja also hummed and sang on the way, a bit of the tune of Amazing Grace, but also a line from Ragnar the Red, LOLOLOL
  • Passed farmer going to Solitude to join the Legion
  • Killed a couple of wolves, but made it otherwise safely to Ivarstead
  • Reached the barrow and Vilja announced she understands why the townsfolk think the place is haunted; and yes Vilja, I’m sure I can find my way in here, dark, dank places are my jam
  • Did initial bit with confronting Wyndelius
  • Took him out and took his journal back to the inn; got the Sapphire Dragon Claw
  • Rented a room and slept for the night, then headed back over to investigate the barrow in the morning
  • Going in with a party of three, rather easier! Particularly in the first room with several draugr
  • Made it to the chamber with a watery center and the side flooded corridor
  • Paused there and saved until next time

Developing relations with Lydia and Vilja

One of the big standouts of this playthrough for me so far is not the altered visuals, though I am still getting used to a Whiterun that looks significantly different. Just as important to this playthrough is a plethora of new conversations.

Some of this I’ve noticed in the shops in Whiterun, because Belethor has a new line he sometimes greets me with, welcoming me into the shop. And Adrianne periodically greets me with “Hello, friend!”

But a great deal of it is also coming in with running Vilja, who’s continuing to trigger amusing conversations with Lydia while I lead them about our business. Vilja waffles hard between “charming” and “twee” for me. But on the “charming” side of the spectrum, so far I’m really kind of digging how she has fairly complex conversations with Lydia. I can’t quote this exactly because I didn’t think to transcribe it, and this is not a thing documented on the mod’s page on Nexus, but this is a rough paraphrase:

Vilja: “Lydia, you look so tired!”

Lydia: “I’m just dying for a rest.”

Vilja: “It must be horrible having to carry other people’s burdens.”

Lydia: “Well, it’s not like I had a choice in the matter, did I?”

Vilja: “I will help you, you poor thing.”

Lydia: “Aw, thank you!”

I have two overall reactions to this:

One: Where the hell is this additional dialogue in Lydia’s voice coming from? Is the mod building on stuff that was actually recorded by Lydia’s actress but never used in the game? Or did they use a tool to cobble together new dialogue lines? Really interested in how this works, because Lydia’s new lines here certainly sound smooth, and they sound like Lydia.

And two: I cannot imagine that Harrow was very pleased about this conversation! She’s only barely settling down from the trauma of being damn near executed in Helgen–not to mention the trauma of what put her on that path to begin with, and discovering she has a talent for raising the dead. And this whole weirdass situation of discovering she’s apparently something called a Dragonborn.

I envision her scowling and putting in coldly, “If you wanted to pretend you never had this conversation, you might have tried having it when I wasn’t standing right here.” And as the others turn round to look aghast at her, she snaps, “I did not ask to be a thane and I did not ask for a housecarl. If you hate this job so much, Lydia, I will let the Jarl know I release you from my service.”

At which point Lydia looks absolutely horrified and blurts out, “What? And make the Jarl think I’d go back on my vow? I’m no oathbreaker!”

And Vilja, who is following Harrow around not because she was ordered to but because she wants to, immediately puts herself between them and says sweetly but sternly, “Of course she’s not. Harrow–may I call you Harrow?–you know we’re only teasing, don’t you? Please forgive us. We didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I am so sorry.”

Harrow says nothing, her scowl pulling tighter, but her gray eyes going a little shimmery as she is moved by Vilja’s apology. At which point Vilja adds gently, “Tell her you’re sorry, Lydia.”

In a very small voice, Lydia says, “I am sorry, my thane. I swore I’d defend you and all you own with my life. I meant it. Please don’t make me leave you.”

Dara points out to me quite correctly that Harrow’s namesake would so very much not take well to this being described as “teasing”, and that’s exactly what I see happening here, no matter how sweet and earnest Vilja might be. The scowl doesn’t ease up much. And all she says, as she stalks off towards the gates with the intent to set out for Ivarstead, is to give Vilja a curt, “You’d better get into your armor.”

Then on the heels of that, tossed off over her shoulder: “I am perfectly capable of carrying my own gods-damned burdens. I’ve done so every day of my life, and I am not about to change that now, no matter what this city thinks I am. Or either of you.”

Behind her, Lydia and Vilja trail in her wake. And Lydia whispers to Vilja: “I’m still her housecarl… I think?”

Vilja, still quite gently: “I think so. But I think that more than a housecarl, she needs a friend.”

All of this is definitely, I think, going to play into the narrative of what happens when Harrow picks up Sanguinare Vampiris. Because yeah, I’m seeing this in her near future when she goes through Morthal on the way to Ustengrav to get the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller–or else once we find Barbas and have to hit Haemar’s Shame for the Daedra’s Best Friend quest. Whichever of those infects her first, Harrow’s going to be horrified about revealing this to Lyds and Vilja, and she’ll have to abandon them for a while and be on her own.

Let it be noted, though, that right now I am totally shipping Lyds and Vilja. And possibly an OT3 here. Because trio of women traversing the land and having adventures together is pretty badass. <3

Reaching Ivarstead

Vilja had a bunch of other general random commentary on the way to Ivarstead, though another bit that stood out for me was her announcing that she could understand why the townsfolk think Shroud Hearth Barrow is haunted. And also, once we were in there, asking me if I was sure I could find my way in there.

Heh. And Harrow smiles a small crooked smile, thinking to herself that dark, dank places are among the few places in Skyrim where she actually feels a little at ease. What she says out loud, though, is just, “I’ve got this.”

Going in there with a party of three rather than two definitely made things a little easier. And even though Vilja seems to underplay her own skill a lot, she holds her own pretty well in combat. She and Lyds made short work of the first chamber in the barrow with multiple draugr on hand, which was kind of impressive, actually.

A few more Vilja thoughts

In this session as well as the subsequent one, I saw behavior out of Vilja which I find actively annoying. She downplays her own combat skill a lot, and she also has a lot of commentary about weight. She laments gaining weight even though she likes to eat. And she has multiple lines to Lydia along the theme of “If I ate as much as you I’d be the size of a house!”

And… seriously, mod? Is this your idea of making Vilja come across as feminine?

This strikes me as super jarring. In the harsh environment of Skyrim, where a good half of the province has constant snowy conditions, I have a real hard time believing that anybody’s going to care about how plump a woman is.

And I find it jarring for Vilja in particular. She’s a Nord from Solstheim, presumably (although I don’t know this for sure) a Skaal. The Skaal live in territory every bit as harsh as the rougher parts of Skyrim, arguably even more so, because they are in range of an active volcano.

Given these rough climates, a woman with a few pounds on her is a woman who’s not going to immediately freeze to death, or starve to death in a year when the hunt and the harvest are lean. Hell, the game itself, if you go get married in the Temple of Mara in Riften, outright calls out for the player that life in Skyrim is short and harsh and there is no time for long courtship. This is not a culture where someone’s going to give a flying fuck about a woman being a bit fat. They’re going to care about if she can survive the snow, if she can bear healthy offspring, and if she’s a warrior or hunter, how well she fights and if she can bring down that attacking bandit or that rampaging bear.

Moreover, all Nords, whether the ones in Skyrim or the ones on Solstheim, are going to be engaged in regular physical labor. Even people in the less aggressive professions, e.g., shopkeepers, alchemists, priests, healers, farmers, etc., won’t exactly be sitting around on their asses all day. Crops have to be farmed. Ingredients have to be gathered. Metal ores have to be mined to brought to smiths for the making of useful things. Daily routine chores have to be done. Meat has to be hunted, and if you happen to be unlucky enough to be out hunting your food or gathering ingredients in proximity to hostile animals or hostile bandits, you better be damned prepared to either defend yourself or run like hell to safety.

And since all of this is being done in a cold, harsh environment, they’re all regularly burning a fuckton of calories.

It is therefore absolutely fucking appropriate for Lydia to have a hearty appetite. She’s a warrior, for fuck’s sake, and she’s regularly tromping around in heavy armor and swinging heavy two-handed weapons at anything that gets between her and her thane.

And even if Vilja has the sort of body chemistry that means she’s prone to putting on weight if she eats too much, weight that doesn’t get as easily converted to muscle… why the fuck does she care? Why would anyone in Skyrim care if she’s a little more plump than average?

I have to stretch really hard to come up with a plausible explanation for why Vilja might have picked this up as a thing she frets about. I can see other cultures in Tamriel caring more about a woman’s slenderness, certainly the Imperials themselves, or perhaps the upper courts of the Bretons. And from what I’ve seen out of Vilja so far, she’s certainly traveled enough of Skyrim to have been exposed to some of these other cultures, at least in passing. It’s certainly possible for her to have had a background in some of these other places, and have been influenced by them.

The only way I can see this making sense at all is if some of the upper echelons of cultures in Skyrim have decided that looking more elven is “fashionable”, maybe in some misguided idea that it might get them in good with the Thalmor. Or even not necessarily a full court culture necessarily, but a clique of specific individuals that Vilja might have run across.

But that’s a really hard stretch. And I’m not liking that I have to do it. Dara says, and I agree with her, that there is no real-world culture analogous to the level of technology we see in Skyrim where this kind of attitude makes any legitimate sense. In any real-world culture analogue, plumpness is a sign of wealth. It is attractive.

It’s particularly irritating given that Vilja is not actually plump. She looks like a slender blonde waif of a woman, definitely on the smaller end of the body types of women in Skyrim, none of whom, not even tanks like Lydia, are all that particularly large.

This isn’t quite annoying enough on its own to make me want to bail on having Vilja as a follower, and go pick up Lucien or Inigo instead. But it’s a thing I’m side-eying hard. We’ll see how Vilja’s behavior develops through the course of coming sessions. If she continues to make a habit of this, or if I have no opportunity in her available interactions to kick this idea out of her head, I’ll have to stand down from running her as a primary follower.

Next time

I’ve already played a session since this one, and that’ll cover not only finishing up Shroud Hearth Barrow, but also getting back Amren’s sword, finishing In My Time of Need (this time in Saadia’s favor), getting the Hedge Mage Armor, getting Hendraheim, and getting Breezehome!


Editing to add

  • 11/25/2023: Restored missing gallery.

As Angela Highland, Angela is the writer of the Rebels of Adalonia epic fantasy series with Carina Press. As Angela Korra'ti, she writes the Free Court of Seattle urban fantasy series. She's also an amateur musician and devoted fan of Newfoundland and Quebecois traditional music.