Chapter 15: Pilgrim’s Progress

Jenassa and I wake up bright and early the next morning.  There’s a lot to do before we head out.  We check over our gear, pack some extra provisions, and eat a hearty breakfast.  We’ve got a long road ahead and those seven thousand steps aren’t going to climb themselves.

The innkeeper has plainly seen all this before from many previous patrons who have made the same journey.  He makes a few reasonable suggestions of what to take and what to leave behind, as we intend to bring only what we’re likely to need.  However, not every piece of advice he offers is helpful.

Some valuable advice right there.
Thanks, Doctor Obvious.

Finally we’re ready to go.  We grab our backpacks and head out into the cool, clear morning.  There’s no hint of either rain or snow, which bodes well, but we’ve brought the camping gear anyway despite the extra weight.  The last thing we want is to be caught in a blizzard halfway up a mountain without shelter or a warm fire.

Just before the bridge that leads to the start of the trail, we find two men deep in conversation.  It seems one of them makes a habit of bringing preserved food and supplies up to the monastery, but for some reason he’s hesitant to make the journey this morning.   Since he seems to know the road pretty well, I ask him a few questions about our journey.  Glancing at our weapons, he mentions that there’s the occasional wolf pack or stray on the trail, but he doesn’t think we should have much of a problem.  I ask him about the Greybeards themselves, but he admits he’s never actually met any of them.

So, I shouldn't introduce myself before they've had their coffee. Check.
So, I shouldn’t introduce myself before they’ve had their coffee. Check.

Jenassa suggests that we can take his supplies up to the monastery ourselves, and he’s happy to give us the task.  I raise an eyebrow at her as he hands over the heavy sack.  Great, thanks.  Just what I wanted, more stuff to carry up a steep mountain trail.  No no, that’s fine.  It’s not like we were loaded down already.

Once he’s out of earshot, I confront Jenassa.  “Okay, what’s with the sudden burst of generosity?  Don’t tell me you’re doing this as some kind of penance.”

She snorts.  “Hardly.  Did you not notice the stoop in his back, the stiffness in his legs?  He’s been hauling supplies up this mountain for years.  We’d have been behind him the entire way and he’d have only slowed us down.  Not to mention, he said there were wild animals on the trail.  He’s the perfect prey — old and weak.  We certainly didn’t want him to attract every predator between here and High Hrothgar.  Avoiding that is worth the extra bit of effort.”

I sigh and adjust the pack on my shoulder.  I have to admit, I can’t fault her logic — but I really, really wish I could.

Remind me why we didn't bring our horses, again?
Remind me why we didn’t bring our horses, again?

As we cross the bridge and follow the trail, I try to figure out what type of wildlife we’re likely to find up here.  Wolves, certainly.  Skeevers, possibly.  Heck, maybe we can even bag that last bear pelt for Aela.  I’m not exactly keen on running into a bear or a pack of wolves, mind you, but Jenassa and I have certainly dealt with worse.

Oh well, none of that sounds too bad.  It’s not like a mountain trail is likely to have anything really scary or dangerous lying in wait, right?

Wild mountain SPIDERS? Really?!
Some wildlife.  Can’t even hang its head on a wall!

Of course, Skyrim has wild mountain spiders.  I grimace and wipe the blinding venom off my face while Jenassa charges in to the attack.  I start shooting once my vision clears, and we take down the spider without too much hassle — but eww.  I really hope we don’t run into any more of those.

As we continue onward, I notice an odd little structure that the other climbers seem to be visiting.  What is it — a shrine?  A place to look at the view?  A really small latrine?   When one of the pilgrims seems to be finished with it, I walk up to check it out.

Is this the right one, or should I try to find the Ladies'?
Is this the right one, or should I try to find the Ladies’?

It’s a verse to some kind of poem, carved on a stone tablet.  I look it over, but its meaning is unclear at best.  Something about Mundus and True Needs and the Voice.   Huh.  Well, I guess I might as well read the rest of them — maybe I’ll figure it out later.

We keep climbing.  The stairs are becoming patchy with snow.   We slow down to adjust for the slightly more treacherous terrain.  It’s definitely getting colder up here, too.  I grab a bottle of mead from my backpack, but Jenassa gives me a warning look.  I catch her meaning at once — I’ll really need to pace myself, because getting even just a little dizzy on these stairs could mean a very fast trip to the bottom.   And that’s not even counting the other dangers that are sure to be ahead.

Deadly mountain lions now? At least that's sensible wildlife.
Mountain lions now? At least that’s sensible wildlife.

I have to admire the beast — it was almost perfectly camouflaged when it leapt at us from behind that tree.  In seconds, the massive feline bowls my companion over and starts swiping at her with its claws.  She barely gets her blades out in time.  I grab my bow and start firing, but this cat is fast.  Jenassa’s life is hanging by a thread by the time it’s over.  Yikes.  I hand her a couple of health potions, and she chugs them down.

We resume our climb.  The stairs are covered in snow by now, and the wind is getting pretty lazy — it can’t be bothered to go around us, so it just goes straight through us instead.  Soon I’m getting uncomfortably chilled.  I have to say though, the view from this height almost makes up for it.  Almost.

This place could really use some handrails.
This place could really use some handrails.

About halfway up, we run into another pilgrim.  She’s seated in front of an etched tablet in one of the few flat sections of the trail.  The wind is rushing down the mountain in strong gusts and blowing snow in our faces, which is distinctly less than pleasant.  Jenassa is starting to shiver as well, so I decide this is a good place for a campfire.  We could all use the warmth.

Butt frozen to the ground? This should help.
Butt frozen to the ground? This should help.

We grab something to eat from our backpacks as a quick lunch, and once our blood warms up we continue the ascent.  Soon we’re attacked by another ambush predator but it barely slows us down.  See, this is more along the lines of what I expected when that guy on the bridge mentioned wildlife.   I have to wonder how he managed to deal with all these beasts — I don’t think he was even carrying a weapon.

Ice wolf gets iced.
Ice wolf gets iced.

We trudge along, crunching over the snow-covered steps.  I’m not skinning or butchering any of the beasts we kill, as it’s simply impossible to do so in the short time between field dressing and freezing to death.  I’m a bit annoyed at having to leave behind all these choice furs, but none of them are worth dying for.

And to think, the Jarl of Whiterun did this for fun.
And to think, the Jarl of Whiterun did this for fun.

It’s getting very steep as we travel closer to the peak of the mountain, and I down a couple more bottles of mead.  Jenassa doesn’t even look askance this time — which is how I know she’s really starting to feel the cold.  She’d be a lot warmer and a lot happier with a belly full of mead.

We reach another flat area that leads through a passage between cliffs.  The wind howls through the narrow gap, nearly blowing us backward.  We lower our heads to push our way through when I see movement out of the corner of my eye.  I glance up to see another example of the mountain wildlife — and instantly drop to a crouch.  Kynareth save us, we have to get past that?!

“Occasional wolf pack or stray”, my frozen ass.

I rummage through my alchemy pouch and pull out a vial of poison.  The cold is making me slow, and Jenassa’s probably not much better, so the only chance we have is to impede the troll’s attack as much as we can.  I check to see what I’ve grabbed from my pouch.  Yep, that’ll do.

Let's get a few free shots.
Let’s get a few free shots.

The paralysis poison works instantly.  The frost troll drops like a rock from the cliff and bounces off the stones.  I fire at the beast nonstop but I don’t get a lot of shots off in just three seconds.  Pretty soon the effects wear off and the troll rises to its knees.  Hmm, y’know, I think it might have spotted us.

Anytime you want to help, Jenassa!
Anytime you want to help, Jenassa!  No hurry or anything!

I keep shooting, but it’s hard to make much of a dent in the monster’s tough hide.  Pretty soon it’s back on his feet and lurching toward us again.  Jenassa appears to be frozen in place.  She hasn’t had enough mead, clearly.  I reach into my pouch again for another dose of toxic assistance.

No hurry for you, either.
No hurry from you, either.

My poisoned arrow hits the troll in one of its hairy arms and has an immediate effect.  The shambling slows to a crawl, but it’s still moving too fast for my taste.  Jenassa still hasn’t moved, which is actually more frightening than the approaching troll.

I grab another random potion and glance at the vial.  Ahh, one of my dragon blood experiments.  This should be interesting.

Troll, meet orbit.
Troll, meet orbit.

As soon as the arrow hits, the beast flies through the air and lands in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the cliff.  The sound of its hard landing echoes down the mountain.  Jenassa finally comes out of stasis and whips around, weapons at the ready.  We start pelting it full of arrows as it struggles to get up, but it never manages to resume its upright position.

You look cozy, troll. Just stay there -- we'll handle the rest.
You look cozy, troll. Just stay there — we’ll handle the rest.

Finally the troll roars its death howl and drops dead.  I turn to Jenassa as I’m putting away my bow.  “Glad to see you finally woke up.  What in Oblivion happened to you back there?”

My companion raises an eyebrow as if the answer is obvious.  “I was staying still, of course.  You were poisoning almost every shot, and I had no idea how deadly those toxins were.  The last thing I wanted was to have one of them hit me instead.”

I’m a bit insulted.  “You thought I’d miss?!  From that distance?!  Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Jenassa smirks and answers in a dry tone.  “You’ve never before hit me by accident, of course.”

I open my mouth to argue, but I shut it again.  Okay, so there was that one time… and that other time… and… fine.  So I’m not Skyrim’s best sharpshooter.  I grumble to myself as we continue on our way.

Sobriety test, Skyrim style.
Sobriety test, Skyrim style.

Finally we seem to be arriving at our destination, and not a minute too soon.  The warmth of the campfire behind us seems like a distant memory, and there’s a definite increase of empty mead bottles.  The wind cuts like a knife and there’s a light sheen of frost forming on my furs.  I’m sure the Greybeards have a reason for living on top of this frozen rock.  I’m assuming it’s because they’re masochists.

We round a corner of the mountainside and the monastery comes into view.  It’s a massive structure, rising high above the snowy cliffs.  I can’t say it looks cozy and inviting, but I’m sure it’s a lot warmer inside than it is out here.  Come on, Jenassa — let’s not keep those old fogeys waiting.

Last one to High Hrothgar has to kiss a monk!
Last one to High Hrothgar has to kiss a monk!

We drop the sack of preserved food in the chest outside, climb the final flight of stairs, and pull open the heavy iron doors.   Inside, all is quiet.  Our footsteps echo on the flagstones as we look around in silence.  The walls are carved with ancient statuary and several fires light the interior.  One of the Greybeards kneels in front of an altar, his eyes closed in meditation.  I consider tapping him on the shoulder and announcing that I’ve arrived, but that just seems rude.

Ohai! Nice monastery. Love what you've done with the place! Let's do lunch.
Ohai!  Nice monastery.  Love what you’ve done with the place!  Let’s do lunch.

Soon we’re approached by more Greybeards.  They gather round and regard us with a mix of gravity and curiosity.  One of them introduces himself as Arngeir and asks me to prove that I’m Dragonborn.  This again?  Can’t you just take my word for it?  It’s not like I climbed all the way up here for the fresh air.

Fine, but I hope you have health insurance.
Fine, but I hope you have health insurance.

I shrug.  Sure, dude, whatever you say.  I concentrate for a few seconds and open my mouth in a Shout.  Arngeir stumbles backward.  I feel a little bad for doing this to an old man, but I wasn’t about to Shout at Jenassa.  (She’d hurt me.)

Well, you did ask for it.
Well, you did ask for it.

Once he regains his footing, I can see that I’ve passed his test.  He officially welcomes me to High Hrothgar and offers to teach me a few more things about Shouting.  One of the other Greybeards teaches me a new Word, which apparently focuses my Unrelenting Force and makes it more precise.  I absorb the Word with as little trouble as if it came from a barrow wall, and Arngeir remarks on the ease of my learning.

Next he asks me to demonstrate my ability through target practice, by which he means that the other Greybeards set up ethereal clones of themselves while I blast the clones into nothingness with a Shout.

This is how I should've dealt with Wyndelius.
This is how I should’ve dealt with Wyndelius.

Arngeir seems to like what he sees.  He tests me a few more times and makes comments on my accuracy, precision, and swift mastery of the Thu’um.

Thanks, but... promise for what, exactly?
Thanks, but… what exactly am I promising?

Next, I’m told to follow the Greybeards outside so they can test me some more.  I’m not too keen on going back out in the cold, but it doesn’t look like I’ve got much choice in the matter.

Once we’re outside, I’m taught an entirely new Shout.  One of the monks projects it onto the snowy ground, and it reveals itself in fiery script.  Like the engraving on the barrow walls, I absorb the meaning of the Word and it unlocks itself in my mind, granting me instant understanding.

So when can I learn this projection party trick?
I guess this is how monks write their names in the snow.

Next, the Greybeards set up another test to see if I can make use of the new Shout I’ve just learned.  I glance backwards at Jenassa to see how she’s taking all this.  She hasn’t said a word since we walked into High Hrothgar, and now she’s leaning against the wall with a thoughtful look on her face.  I’ve seen that look once before, but I’ve no idea what it signifies. No time to discuss it now, though — I’m being tested once again.

Wait, won't I go straight off that cliff?! I hope you've got a trampoline down there.
Wait, won’t I go straight off that cliff?!  Talk about a gate to nowhere.

I take a deep breath.  The iron gate opens, and before I let myself think about it, I dash straight through.

I like this Shout. Now I can run away really fast.
I like this Shout. Now I can run away really fast.

Finally Arngeir appears to be satisfied that I’m actually Dragonborn.  He gives me a warning not to let myself be tempted into easy power (what, learning Shouts automatically isn’t easy enough?), and to always use the Thu’um wisely.  I nod and smile.  Sounds like typical monk talk.

But he’s not done with me yet.  He expects me to do something for the Greybeards now — apparently I’m supposed to retrieve some old horn that used to belong to their founder.  Seriously?  I just got here and you’re sending me to find this artifact?  Maybe if you hermits ever came down off your mountain, you could go find it yourselves.  What exactly do you do up here anyway?  Have Shouting competitions?  Hold 100-metre races through pointless gates?   Polish the altars and write shiny letters in the snow?

What the hell is a
And what in Oblivion is a “fane” anyway?

I glance at Jenassa and she grins at me.  Fine.  I’ll go, but don’t expect me to be happy about it.  And don’t expect it to be the first item on my list.  I have other things to do!  Lots of things!  Important, awesome, Companion things!

Fortunately there’s still plenty of daylight left.  Soon we’re headed back down the mountain toward Ivarstead.  We seem to have dispatched or scared off all of the dangerous wildlife on the way up, as the only enemy on the path down is the windchill factor.  Our descent is cautious, but with nothing else to distract us, we make good time.

She'll be comin' down the mountain when she comes...
Sometimes it’s faster when you don’t take the stairs.

The campfire is still burning where we left it, and its warmth provides a welcome respite from the cold.  We stop next to it for a bite to eat before continue down the mountain.

Finally we’re below the snow line, and the roofs of the village start to appear below the trees.  Jenassa and I take a moment to enjoy the view, a pleasant distraction we didn’t really allow ourselves on the way up.

Far above the treetops.
Definitely a long way down.

“Do you intend to search for the artifact?”  Jenassa asks quietly.

I sigh, watching the wind blow through the branches far below us.  “I feel like I should — but at the same time, I don’t know why I should.  What’s the horn for?  Why is it important?  What does it have to do with anything I’ve learned today?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.”

My companion nods.  “You and I have much in common.  I dislike being told to do something, for no apparent reason, and then simply be expected to obey without question.”

“The horn must have something to do with my being Dragonborn,”  I consider.

“Perhaps,” Jenassa replies.  “Or, they’re merely sending you on a hazardous mission because they know, despite their wisdom and talents, they would be unable to survive it themselves.  They are aged and frail, and they certainly have not moved from High Hrothgar for many years.”

I look at her, puzzled.  “But why send me?  I barely know what I’m doing.”

“Because you are young and strong, and you clearly have some of the same talents that they do.  Nay, more — you have an easy mastery of those powers, as Dragonborn, of which they are envious.  Note that today, they taught you an ability which would be ideal for a swift infiltration and theft.  No one would be more appropriate to send on such a mission.”

We resume our journey in silence.  I’m thinking over what she said, what Arngeir said, how he warned me not to be tempted into misusing my powers.  It all whirls around and around in my mind… and before I know it, we’ve reached the bottom of the mountain.

Not home sweet home, but good enough.
Not home sweet home, but good enough.

We enter the inn and make arrangements to stay another night.  I order a hearty supper and some good mead.  With a full belly and a feeling of warmth and contentment, it’s easier to put all the hard questions aside for the time being.

I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

4 thoughts on “Chapter 15: Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Dammit, Jenassa, all that willful adventuring is sure to get somebody killed sooner or later! Why couldn’t you just suggest a simple farm…or a job in sales deep, deep within Whiterun where it’s safe. Maybe in the cloud district…which, by the way, I’m sure you don’t get to very often.

    Liked by 1 person

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