The following day dawns clear and bright. I walk down the steps of Jorrvaskr, meet up with Jenassa, and we head straight to the market. Our bags are heavy with yesterday’s haul and we have a lot of trading to do. These mammoth tusks in particular are ridiculously awkward to carry — I can’t wait to be rid of them all.
Fortunately they seem to be a popular item. We don’t even make it to Belethor’s before we have an interested party. Y’know what, just take one. No charge.
Belethor buys up the rest of the tusks and everything else he can afford. We visit a couple more vendors to sell the rest, and soon our purses are heavy with gold. We spend some of it on upgrades for our gear, but there’s still plenty left over. Jenassa carefully counts our remaining coin, smiles, and tells me to follow her to a “very important merchant”.
I’m puzzled when she leads me straight out of the city. Where are we going? I doubt she’s taking me to visit a farm, and the Khajiit are away from their usual post outside the gates. But after a few more steps, I’m smiling too. Good call, Jenassa.
Since we had no luck whatsoever in finding bear pelts from the Whiterun merchants, we decide to ride to Riverwood and try our luck there. We’ll have to pass through some woodlands, so if we happen to run into a bear along the way, all the better.
It’s a beautiful day, just right for a bear to amble outside for a nice long stroll in the sunshine. Unfortunately the bears around here seem disinclined to go for any sort of stroll, much less one that would put them in our path. It’s like they already know we have homicidal intentions. Apparently Skyrim bears are psychic.
We reach Riverwood, still bare of bears, and enter the general store (read: only store). But looks like we have to get in line — someone’s already bought themselves an argument, and it’s not just a contradiction.
After a few more rounds, the guy behind the counter notices us and apologizes. Turns out he does have a single bear pelt for sale, but all he wants to talk about is how bandits broke into his store and made off with his golden claw ornament. Hey dude, whatever. I’m not here to judge your choice of decor. I’m just here to buy your bear pelt except apparently I don’t have enough money.
Well, that’s rather ironic. All this effort to find a bear pelt, and when we do find one we don’t have enough gold to buy it. I guess purchasing a horse is sort of expensive. Great. Now we’ll have to rely on finding one of those psychic bears in their hidden caves deep in the primeval forests — Ow! Stop it, Jenassa! Why are you digging me in the ribs?!
Oh. Oh. This guy wants to pay us! To find his claw thingamabob and take it back from the bandits. No problem! We’ve totally killed lots of bandits! Just point us in the right direction and they’re as good as dead!
The lady of the house, who turns out to be the storekeeper’s sister, walks us to the edge of town and indicates a formidable-looking ancient structure high on the mountainside. A cold shiver crawls down my spine. Bandits and their brooding bad-guy obsession. First an abandoned mine with dangling bones, and now a sinister Nord sepulchre. Why can’t bandits take over a nice upscale inn somewhere? Or maybe a former Jarl’s palace? But no — always with the dark and creepy. So predictable.
We ascend the mountain path. With the higher altitude, the weather changes from moderately chilly to freaking cold. Soon I’m chugging bottles of alcohol just to keep my blood moving. Fortunately these bandits aren’t too much of a threat. Heck, they’re probably colder than we are. We take out three hiding out in a tower, empty a chest, and follow a path around the mountain.
There are more bandits on watch and they have the advantage of higher ground, but I’ve already imbibed lots of liquid courage. Heck, I’m so courageous I’m almost dizzy. I can’t get a decent shot with all these stone pillars in the way, and my fingers are almost too numb to hold a bow… so instead, I pull out my mace and charge straight into the fray.
The first unfortunate bandit is an archer. He fires off a few panicked shots, but I dodge his arrows and rush him down. He backs up to get better aim, but he’s already perilously close to a precipice.
In just a few seconds I’m right up in his face. I bash him on the head so he drops his bow…
…and then I smack him with an uppercut that sends him flying.
Meanwhile, Jenassa shoots another bandit in the throat, and both of us team up to take out the third, who’s guarding a massive door leading into the tomb. So far the count is six bandits and zero claws, but that’s not too surprising. My guess is that the claw is somewhere inside.
The first room is huge, but there’s nothing in it except a couple of bandits and a lot of dead skeevers. Pretty soon the bandits are as dead as the skeevers. As I start to unlock a chest, Jenassa tells me that she won’t willingly take anything valuable from this place for fear she might anger the dead. I’m a bit surprised as she didn’t strike me as the superstitious type, but I’m totally supportive. (Besides, that’s more loot for me.)
We proceed down a long corridor filled with cobwebs and a few more skeevers. Strange noises echo around us, bouncing off the ruined stone walls, but we don’t see anything that’s actually threatening. Suddenly the corridor widens into a room with an iron gate at one end. Jenassa and I drop to a crouch when we spot a figure ahead.
It’s another bandit. We’re about to shoot him in the back, when he bends down and pulls a metal lever embedded in the floor. Turns out that wasn’t his brightest move.
As I move forward to loot the corpse, Jenassa stands just behind me, surveying the room. “It’s a Nord puzzle,” she murmurs. “I’ve heard about these.”
I turn to see her examining three carved pillars mounted on rotating stone discs. Above us are stone faces with the same carvings as those on the pillars, save for one carving which has fallen and lies broken on the floor. It takes me a minute, but pretty soon I catch on. Together we move the rotating pillars to match the stone faces, and I carefully pull the lever.
The iron gate slides open, and we descend deeper into the crypt. Along the way are burial urns and stone slabs that hold coins, potions, and the occasional gem. My elven ally refuses to touch any of it, which makes our progress a bit slower than usual.
Suddenly we freeze. From ahead of us there’s a voice calling out — anxious, desperate, even somewhat panicked. Slowly we move forward until we come to an area nearly sealed off by spiderwebs. Drawing our weapons, we slice through the webbing.
I dash back into the corridor, but Jenassa raises her blade and charges at the monster. Ahh crap, now I have to be all brave too. Why can’t she ever turn and run like the coward I am? I pull out my bow and start shooting.
Soon its hairy legs collapse in a heap. The spider’s victim keeps right on yelling at us as we make a cursory search of the room. For a terrified wretch, he’s pretty demanding. Not even a thank you out of this guy. Okay, I suppose it might be uncomfortable to be hanging by a sticky net of cobwebs, but I’m starting to wish the spider had gagged him as well.
We ask him about the golden claw and he confirms he has it, then he starts babbling about markings and doors and halls of stories. Clearly the spider injected him with some kind of venom that’s made him a bit loopy. Jenassa mutters something about him giving Dunmer a bad name while I use my mace to extract him from the webbing, resisting the temptation to “accidentally” knock him over the head.
Finally the webbing gets loose enough for him to drop to the floor. He makes the mistake of taunting us, then trying to run for it without handing over the claw — but my mace is still in my hand.
We retrieve the claw and a journal from his corpse. The journal makes about as much sense as his ravings, but apparently there’s some kind of door ahead that the claw unlocks. We decide to keep going — after all, it’s probably the reason that the bandits stole the claw in the first place.
Eventually we reach a dusty room that’s most definitely a crypt. Mummified remains lie interred in stone alcoves that line the walls. The creep factor has definitely gone up, but these inhabitants don’t look too lively, so there’s no real threat… Gah!!!
Jenassa races forward to meet the shambling abomination of doom, blades at the ready. Sweet stink of Arkay, why can’t she run like any sensible coward? Bravery is definitely way overrated.
We cut down the first corpse, but several more show up to join the party. I wildly fill their dried-up husks with arrows as my companion redefines the term “slice and dice”. I have to say I’m not a fan of the progression in this place — from bandits to giant arachnids to zombies. The way our luck is going, I expect to run into a coven of necromancers next, with Dwemer-built skeevers as pets.
Pushing forward, we head deeper and deeper into the ruins. We discover various chests hidden in dark corners and half-buried in crumbled stone, but so far there’s nothing we can find which the golden claw can unlock. The lurching dead keep trying to convince us to join their ranks, but apparently terror has a limit because we’re getting better at discouraging them.
Soon I’m contemplating the philosophical implications of our battle with the not-so-recently deceased, and the realization that whither they have gone, we could also go. Our concept of life is defined by the short distance between the beginning and cessation of that state, during the finite season allotted to each of us wherein our blood courses, our lungs breathe, our hearts beat. To be faced with the corporeal reality of the undead is profoundly disturbing, and represents the ultimate existential threat to our own unique expression of consciousness.
Eventually, I come to the inescapable conclusion that the most appropriate way to deal with such a threat is obvious — by bashing it smack in the face.
We also notice that the dry, dusty atmosphere of the crypt means that the desiccated zombies make for excellent kindling. And helpfully, there are several firepots hanging from the ceiling in various rooms. Why dull our weapons and waste arrows when we don’t have to?
We wander through several more passages, twisting and turning and occasionally entering rooms full of mummified remains in various stages of unsettling animation. Finally, at the end of a long hallway, we discover a strange wall filled with esoteric carvings.
As we examine it, it becomes clear that this is the receptacle for the golden claw — but oddly, parts of the wall spin like giant stone wheels. We puzzle over this for awhile before Jenassa pulls out the thief’s journal, which states: “When you have the golden claw, the solution is in the palm of your hands.” (Grammar was apparently not his strong suit.)
As the wheels spin into place, the door unlocks and smoothly slides into the floor — and we enter a place that we’ve never even imagined.
Unlike the dry and dusty crypts, here we breathe clean fresh air. Moss hangs in sheets and water splashes down from the cavern walls. Light pours in from the roof, illuminating flights of stairs and a broad stone terrace. Dominating the scene is an immense wall hewn from a single boulder, engraved with ancient designs and unknown symbols. I halt in my tracks, taking in the astonishing panorama unfolding before my eyes. Behind me, Jenassa murmurs, “Damn. That’s quite a sight.”
As we approach the wall, ribbons of light stream from the engraved script. I hear Jenassa gasp as the light swirls and envelops me completely. As it glows brighter, something deep inside my mind unlocks — and I seem to hear the ancient runes sing.
I turn to reassure my companion and take a step toward the raised portion of the terrace, when suddenly a heavy stone lid explodes off an ancient sarcophagus. Apparently the undead aren’t quite finished with us yet, and this one has a new weapon in its arsenal. Jenassa rushes at it and starts slashing, but it opens its mouth and somehow propels her away without touching her. The sound it makes reverberates throughout the cavern. Jenassa staggers and spins around, disoriented. I ready my bow and start shooting.
It’s a surprisingly tough fight, but eventually we prevail. The walking corpse collapses on one knee as if in surrender, and we take it down.
As I loot the remains, we find a rather strange artifact. Neither of us have any idea what it could be, but what the hell. It looks cool, so I’ll keep it.
We explore the rest of the cavern, clear off a table and loot a few chests. I finally persuade Jenassa to carry some of the more valuable items, and she agrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
At the very top of the tallest flight of stairs, we discover a small handle on top of a squared-off pillar. Twisting it releases the catch to a hidden door in the wall, which slides away to reveal a passage. At the end of the passage is another chest, and finally, an exit from the barrow.
We stumble outside at the top of a cliff, inhaling the fresh pine-scented air of a clear and splendid evening. I’m not entirely sure what happened back in that house of the dead, but I silently thank Kynareth that we can once more feel the wind on our faces, like the breath of the Divines. It’s good to still be among the living.