Chapter 11: That Escalated Quickly

The sunset view from Bleak Falls Barrow is truly inspiring, but Jenassa and I have only a short time to appreciate it.   Night is falling and we’d rather not spend it in a small tent perched on a cold stony cliff, nor do we want to trudge all the way back through the barrow.   That leaves us with only one option — try to get down from this cliff without breaking our necks.

We manage a slow descent from the cliff by jumping from rock to rock until finally our feet touch the forest floor.  However, by this time it’s quite a bit darker, which makes it hard to find a good place to camp.   Also, from the sound of all the howling and snarling, there’s a wolf pack somewhere behind us.  We start making tracks in general direction of Riverwood.

Soon we can see a light glimmering in the distance and we head toward it.  Turns out it’s a quaint little cottage owned by a nice old lady, who practically begs us to spend the night.  What luck!  How on earth has she survived out here in the woods all by herself?   She’s probably a recent widow, poor thing.

Aren't old ladies just the sweetest things!
Don’t you just love sweet little old ladies?

We enter the cabin and look around.  It’s not the biggest living space in the world.  In fact, for three people it’s a pretty tight squeeze.  It’s good to have a roof over our heads, but with the cramped conditions we could be in for an uncomfortable night.

As we’re looking for a good spot on the floor to lay out our bedrolls, Jenassa discovers a trapdoor leading to the cellar.  We decide to check it out.  Even if it’s a bit musty down there, it’s still better than trying to sleep three in a tiny room.

We spring the lock and I start to descend the ladder — when suddenly I hear something skitter toward me.  Seconds later sharp teeth are biting my legs.  I grab my mace and wildly flail at the giant skeever who’s using my ankles as a chew toy.

I've heard of crazy cat ladies, but a crazy rat lady?!
I’ve heard of crazy cat ladies, but a crazy rat lady?!

After Binky the Skeever’s unfortunate but necessary demise, we take a look around the cellar.  A dread chill creeps down my spine as we look everything over.  I’m not sure what I was expecting — maybe shelves of preserves or stored root vegetables — but whatever I thought would be here, it sure wasn’t this.

Pretty sure this isn't feng shui.
So I’m guessing this isn’t feng shui.

The glowing skull altar is creepy enough, but there’s even more unsettling things down here.  Toxic ingredients are scattered on an alchemy table, bottles of freshly made poisons are lined up on a shelf, and books of black magic lie open for easy reference.  There’s also an ominous shrine in a dark corner that’s definitely not dedicated to a Divine.

Probably curses you instead of blessing you.
It’ll cure you… for a price.

Finally Jenassa uncovers a letter that confirms our suspicions, and suggests that we immediately go back upstairs, surprise the old lady, and take her down as fast as possible.  Reading the note for myself, I reluctantly have to agree with my companion’s suggested course of action.

What, Binky couldn't be part of the coven? Way to be racist!
Let’s hope the sister was Binky.

We head back up the ladder, pop open the trapdoor, grab our weapons and rush outside.  The old lady’s still working in her garden, but she spins around when she hears us coming.  She fires up a couple of spells, trying to hold us off with one hand while she attempts a summoning with the other.  But she can’t fight both of us at once, and before she can finish her conjuration, she’s already dead.

We strip her of everything worth looting and then discuss what to do with the corpse.  From the letter it sounds like she has powerful friends, and one of those might be a necromancer who could raise her as an undead minion.  Worse yet, Jenassa thinks that a highly skilled and unethical healer could theoretically bring the witch back to life, and then she’d be just as much of a threat as before, if not worse.

Finally we conclude that there’s only one way to be safe — by dumping her body in the river.  It’s a well-known fact that witches can’t cross running water or they lose all their power, so we’re going to make sure running water crosses her… permanently.

Time to swim with the fishes.
C’mon witch, time to swim with the fishes.

After the deed is done, we head back to the cabin for a well-earned rest.  It’s getting chilly even inside the cottage and there’s no discernible fireplace, so I start a campfire in the cellar near the sinister shrine.   Soon the entire cottage is downright cozy, even upstairs.  I’m pretty exhausted by this point, so after I put together a hearty meal from our provisions, I lay down on the bed for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning dawns bright and sunny.  After breakfast, we check over the cottage for anything valuable (there’s not much), and then we continue our journey back to Riverwood.

Riverwood and the Return of the Claw. (Sounds like a cheap horror sequel, doesn't it?)
Riverwood and the Return of the Claw. (Sounds like a cheap horror sequel, doesn’t it?)

The shopkeeper and his sister are very grateful to have the golden claw back, although I have no idea why since they don’t seem to know anything about the door it unlocked.  They reward us with a substantial amount of coin, plunk the claw back on the counter, and go right back to admiring it.  Okay, whatever.  I guess they just like shiny things.   That’s probably why they own a store in the first place.

Luckily they still have that bear pelt, so I make sure to purchase it.  After some more bartering, we make some minor upgrades to our gear and buy a few more provisions.  Jenassa suggests that the forested region of Falkreath Hold might be a better place to hunt bears, so pretty soon we’re back on the road.

We follow the river for awhile without incident when we spot a grouping of three strange shapes.  As we get closer, they resolve into three standing stones, each with a perfectly round hole and covered with esoteric markings.  I get off my horse to take a closer look, and one of the stones flares with a mystic brilliance.  The radiance coalesces and forms a shining pillar of light that beams straight up into the sky.  Well.  That was kinda pretty.

Skyrim's version of an abstract art installation.
Skyrim’s version of an abstract art installation.

On the other side of the standing stones is a path leading to a small hunting camp down by the river.  We decide to leave the horses near the stones and ask the hunter about bears.  With any luck, he can point us in the right direction.

We don’t even reach the bottom of the hill when we’re nearly bowled over by some guy in a hurry — a very big hurry.  He shoves a weirdly glowing bow into my hands and says he’s going to kill me.  Right, you’re not very good at this, are you?  You’ve got it all backwards.  You’re supposed to threaten to kill someone when you’re holding the bow yourself.  Trust me on this, dude.

Least scary threat ever.
Least scary threat ever.  And thanks for the weapon!

The first guy takes off, and pretty soon a second guy approaches me.  He seems far more polite, based on the fact that he’s not making death threats within the first thirty seconds of our meeting.  As it turns out he’s also a hunter, so he probably knows how to handle a weird glowing bow.  I decide to give it to him.  He’s terribly grateful and tosses me some gold in exchange, but then he rushes off before I can ask him about bear pelts.

Fortunately the hunter camp down by the river has a resident hunter, and even better, he has a bear pelt for sale.  Sweet!  Just one more to go and I can head back to Aela.

That's some pretty interesting reading material you've got there.
Dude, you’re a lifesaver.  Well, I guess not to the bear.

We ask him where we can find more bears, but he’s not terribly helpful.  Probably wants to keep his trade secrets so he can turn a profit.  Jenassa and I head back to our horses and keep following the road.

We’re about to enter the forest when we hear the low, ominous rumble of about a dozen warning growls.  Turns out there’s a massive pack of wolves just inside the tree line, and they’re making a convincing argument that this is their territory.  Right.  Perhaps we should stick to the road.  We may not find many bears this way, but it’s sure to be the safer course.  And look, there’s a town up ahead — maybe they have a store that sells bear pelts and we can get back to Whiterun.

As we approach the town, we notice there’s something strange about it.  For one thing, there seems to be a lot of smoke trails coming from behind the walls, as if all the citizens have set their roofs on fire.  There’s also the reek of charcoal and scorched flesh.  I’m starting to get a bad feeling when suddenly I’m deafened by an earth-shattering shriek that rocks the entire forest — and a shadow straight out of my worst nightmares flies upward as if to blot out the sun.

Now those are some consummate V's.
Those are some consummate V’s.  Consummate.

I’m all for finding a nice safe ditch to cower in, horse and all, but Jenassa insists we enter the gates and see if anyone needs our help.  Sweet tracts of Dibella, that bravery thing again?  It’s going to get us killed one day, Jenassa!  You wait and see!

The gates are made of solid oak, heavy and strong.  Clearly no guards are around to help us out, so we dismount and start pushing.  Slowly the gates swing open.

Dragon: 1000. Thatched-roof cottages: 0.
Dragon: 100,000. Thatched-roof cottages: Zero.

We start poking around the scorched and broken rubble, but it soon becomes obvious that we’re not going to find anyone left alive. Several charred bodies litter the ruins, but no identifying marks remain.  Most just crumble to ash when touched, exposing the remains of whatever lies beneath — which is how we find a leather journal that miraculously survived the incineration.

Giant spiders, ninja moose, and now dragons? Can't say I'm a fan of Skyrim's wildlife.
Ninja moose, giant spiders, and now dragons? Can’t say I’m a fan of Skyrim’s wildlife.

After a short discussion, during which I vote for cowering in a ditch and Jenassa votes for warning people about the incoming dragon, I’m outvoted and we head back to Riverwood.  (My horse voted as well — she refused to get in the ditch.)

Back in Riverwood, people are already talking about the dragon.  Seems the town is split about whether it was real or just a figment of the imagination.  I’d love for it to be a figment, actually.  Sounds like a splendid idea.  I helpfully mention phenomena like collective hallucination and mass hysteria, as well as the fact that we’ve been under a lot of stress lately what with fighting witches, bandits, and undead, but my elven ally isn’t having any of it.

Never argue with little old ladies. They might sic their pet skeevers on you.
Whatever you say, lady.  Just don’t sic your pet skeever on me.

The blacksmith is away from his forge and anxiously searching the skies.  He doesn’t want to believe what he saw — a man after my own heart! — but after talking to us, he’s convinced.

Maybe we can put this to a vote. There's really no dragon. All in favour, say Aye!
Maybe we can put this to a vote. There’s really no dragon. All in favour, say Aye!

He asks us to ride back to Whiterun and talk to the Jarl, in the hopes that they can spare some guards to help defend the village.  Since we were going back anyway, we agree.  I’ve never been inside Dragonsreach and neither has Jenassa, so this should be interesting.  Either the Jarl will believe us and send some troops to Riverwood, or he’ll assume we’re dangerously insane with our talk of dragons and incarcerate us.  Either way, it’ll be an adventure!  (I hate adventures.)

Well, that's imposing.
Well, that’s imposing.

The ride back to Whiterun is swift.  At the gate, the guards are watching the skies and seem distracted.  Ten septims says that news of the dragon’s attack on Helgen has already reached the city.   Maybe we won’t have to do much explaining after all.

We climb the steps to the oaken doors of the famous keep and enter the great hall.   As we reach the dining area, we’re approached by a Dunmer who is clearly part of the Jarl’s retinue.  She strides toward us purposefully and draws a rather deadly-looking sword.  I’ve traveled in Jenassa’s company long enough to acquire a healthy respect for a Dunmer with a drawn blade, so I stop in my tracks and try to look as friendly and harmless as possible.

Ohai please don't skewer me kthx.
Ohai pls don’t skewer me kthx.

Upon learning that we already know about Helgen, she escorts us to the Jarl himself.  He seems to be a fairly reasonable sort.  He asks us some questions about the attack and we answer as best we can, but it’s apparent we don’t really know very much more than he does.  Finally we relay the blacksmith’s request to send troops for Riverwood’s defense.  The Jarl’s advisor seems to think this is a bad idea and starts to warn against it, but the Jarl immediately shuts him down.

I like this guy.
I like this guy.

With that business concluded, the Jarl mentions that there’s something else I might be able to help with and that it’s “suitable to someone of your particular talents”.  Wait, what?  Since my particular talents involve drinking mead, jumping to the wrong conclusions and getting betrayed by my business partner, I really have no idea how you think I can help.  But what the hell, now I’m curious.  Let’s do this.

The Jarl introduces me to the court wizard, who mentions that he’s been researching dragons.  He starts talking about how he needs to hire someone to retrieve a stone artifact from a dangerous ruin.  Pass.  I’ve already been in a dangerous ruin within the past 24 hours and I’m not inclined to enter another one… oh wait.  You’re talking about this old rock?  Well, I was gonna use it as a totally awesome coaster-slash-conversation starter, but I guess I can give it up.  It was getting heavy anyway.

Wait, did you just diss me? Maybe I'll just keep my rock after all!
Wait, did you just call me a brute?!  And you want this big heavy stone slab?  Let’s see how it looks cracked over your head.

While the wizard’s still talking to me, the Dunmer with the scary sword interrupts saying that the dragon has been spotted near Whiterun.  Great, Jenassa and I must’ve led it here!  We’re screwed.  Now the Jarl’s gonna blame us for endangering the entire city and toss us in jail, unless he simply decides to execute us and chuck our headless bodies over the wall for the dragon to feast on.  I’m trying to determine if we’re more likely to be arrested or decapitated when the Dunmer tells us to follow her upstairs.

The Jarl’s there, all right, but he doesn’t seem angry.  He mostly seems worried, and at first he ignores Jenassa and me.  He interviews a guard who reports that the dragon has been spotted near a watchtower, and then he asks for details and talks to the Dunmer, who seems to be leading the Whiterun guards.  I’m starting to wonder why I’ve been invited to this little party when the Jarl turns to me.  I’ve got that bad feeling again.

So he's feeding us to the dragon after all, but making it look like an accident? Clever.
So he’s feeding us to the dragon after all, but making it look like an accident.  Clever.

Jenassa, damn her, looks excited.  Look, why don’t you take her and leave me out of this?  She’s got just as much experience with dragons as I do, and I’m sure the Companions wouldn’t like it if I died before I could deliver those utterly crucial bear pelts.  Besides — cough cough — I’m not feeling so well.  Yeah.  I think that ancient tomb with all the dust gave me bone break fever or something.  You wouldn’t want me to make the dragon sick, would you?

Also clever. You don't have to give me property if I'm already dead.
Also clever. He doesn’t have to sell me the property if I’m already dead.

Everyone else seems to think this is a huge honour, and Jenassa even congratulates me.  I smile grimly and resign my fate to the Divines.

Travel Map 7.
Travel Map 7.

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