Chapter 26: Hornswoggled

After clearing out the remaining treasure from the depths of Ustengrav, we find our way out of the ancient ruins just as the sun is starting to set.  Our plan is to return to Morthal, report to the Jarl, and stay the night at the inn.  After that, we’ll make our way straight to Riverwood to recover the horn of Jurgen Windcaller from whomever removed it from its resting place — and if we’re dissatisfied with their explanation, that horn might well become a permanent part of their anatomy.

The evening air is chilly and carries with it more than a hint of snow.  It feels like there’s a storm on the way, but it’s impossible to tell how far off it is.  The wind from the Sea of Ghosts blows constantly over these marshlands, channeled between the mountains on either side, making weather prediction difficult at best.  We don’t waste any time — we immediately mount our horses and head toward Morthal.  The last thing we want is to be caught in a blizzard and forced to take shelter in this frigid swamp.

Seems like most of Skyrim is located underground.
Seems like most of Skyrim is located underground.

Darkness falls rapidly as the clouds roll in.  The threat of snow is still only a hint, but the hint is getting harder to ignore with each passing moment.  Our horses clearly feel the approaching change in the weather, as we barely have to urge them before they break into a gallop.  Soon we can make out the dwellings on the outskirts of the village and the torches on either side of the town gates.   It’s a welcome sight.

I can smell dinner at the inn from here.
I can smell dinner at the inn from here.

We ride to the stables, bed down our horses, and head straight to Highmoon Hall.   It’s getting late, but we’re shown in immediately.   Clearly they’ve been waiting for our arrival ever since the other villagers returned, but they don’t bother to hide the fact that they’re surprised to see us in one piece.

So you thought you were sending us to our death? Thanks a load.
Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence.

At least the Jarl is not without gratitude.  She offers to make me a Thane of Morthal in return for my service, especially if I offer to help more of her people.  While I’m flattered — kind of — Morthal is still a frozen little mudhole in the middle of a swamp.  Not to mention, I’m already Thane of Whiterun, and I have another offer pending from the Jarl of Falkreath.   So I demur as politely as possible.  Glad to help, but don’t call us, we’ll call you.

I'd say we've earned our mead.
I’d say we’ve earned some libations.

We head back to the Moorside Inn, intending to indulge in a hot bath and a hearty dinner before turning in for the night.   But news travels fast in this little town, and the first few villagers show up to express their gratitude just as the blizzard hits.   Frigid winds howl like a wounded beast as the leaden clouds release their heavy burden of snow, but the townsfolk keep arriving until well into the night, buying us round after round.  Soon the inn is a cozy bastion of light, warmth, and laughter as the storm rages outside.   Midway through the celebratory toasts, Jenassa reminds me that we want to make an early start tomorrow — and remembering the reason, for once I find it easy to pace myself.

The next day dawns frosty and clear.  The storm has blown itself out, and by the time we finish breakfast and leave the inn, the morning sun has melted most of the fresh snow from the road.   Our horses seem refreshed and eager to leave, so we waste no time in heading out.

Farewell, Mudhole -- I mean Morthal!
Farewell, Mudhole — I mean Morthal!

There’s a wide mountain range blocking our path to the south, so we’re forced to turn east soon after leaving the town gates.  We’ve been told that there are some narrow passes through the mountains, but last night’s storm has made finding them rather difficult.   Soon I’m drinking copious amounts of mead to keep my blood from freezing.

We keep riding east toward Stonehills, which turns out to be a self-sufficient mining settlement huddled against the steep rocky cliffs.  The inhabitants tell us that there’s a pass to the southeast further along.  We manage to find it, but the storm has created some treacherous drifts lying across our path.  In addition, the horses frequently plunge up to their chests in the dry powdery snow, which significantly slows down our progress.

Finally the trail widens, leaving the drifts behind.  We ascend into the hills where the trees thin out and the horses can find their feet again.  As we crest the top of a steep hill, I can make out a thick column of smoke just over the ridge.  A campsite?  Way up here?  I can’t imagine why anyone would make camp on this remote frozen peak… oh.

Man, Skyrim giants are hardcore survivalists.
TIL:  Skyrim giants are hardcore survivalists.

We detour around the giant camp, trying to look as unobtrusive as possible.  Picking a fight would be foolish, not to mention suicidal, especially since there’s more than one giant here.   Fortunately we manage to avoid their notice and get back on the trail.

The path takes a sharp downhill turn and the snow becomes thin and patchy.  Soon the trail disappears altogether, but it’s no longer necessary as we descend from the frozen heights to the sunny plains.  We ride down the foothills toward a large prosperous farm, and beyond we can see the well-traveled road that leads into Whiterun Hold.   The hard part of our journey is now well behind us.

Good to be back in farm country.
Good to be back in farm country.  Sure beats living in a swamp.

We arrive at the main road and head toward Riverwood.  Reaching for my supplies, I grab some travel food and eat lunch on horseback, even though it would be a simple matter to stop for a meal.  I glance backward and notice that Jenassa also seems disinclined to break our journey.  We’re both of the same mind — to reach our destination as fast as possible and find out what’s going on, with drawn weapons if necessary.   If this turns out to be some arbitrary test of worth by the Greybeards, then I’m opting out of this whole Dragonborn business and they can find some other sap to do their dirty work.

Over the bridge and through the woods, to Riverwood we go.
Over the river and through the woods, to Riverwood we go…

We reach the Sleeping Giant Inn while there’s still plenty of daylight.  Since we’re still carrying around quite a bit of loot from our explorations of the vampire den and Ustengrav, we sell off most of it at the blacksmith and the general store.  This lightens our load significantly and nets us a tidy sum of gold.

It’s hard to believe that the first time I walked into the Riverwood Trader, I didn’t even have the money to buy a bear pelt.  It wasn’t all that long ago, although it seems like another lifetime.  Now I’ve probably got enough coin to buy out the shop’s entire inventory.  Maybe I should invest in some real estate.

Showdown at the Sleeping Giant.
Ready for a showdown at the Sleeping Giant.

We head into the inn and have a look around.  All seems quiet.  There are a few patrons inside, but most of them seem to be more interested in their tankards than in the two of us.   Looking around at the interior, I’m even more certain this is an elaborate joke at our expense — there clearly isn’t enough space past the rafters for there to be an attic, never mind an attic room big enough for a guest to rent.

But whatever, we’ll play along for now.  After determining who the innkeeper is, Jenassa and I approach with our scripted request.  The innkeeper confirms what I already figured out — this place doesn’t even have an attic room.   Great.

Wait, let me put on my surprised face. Or not.
Wait, let me put on my surprised face. Or not.

After directing us to a room that’s not even remotely close to an attic, the innkeeper follows me inside, and… huh.  I didn’t see that coming.

Heard about? From whom? Been mountain-climbing up High Hrothgar lately?
Heard about?  From whom?  Dragons?

To her partial credit, she hands over the horn of Jurgen Windcaller right away, although that might’ve been more a reaction to Jenassa’s intimidating glare.   Then the innkeeper asks us to follow her to a private room so we can talk.  Fine with me, lady — and you better be a bloody fast talker.

She leads us into a larger bedroom furnished with little else besides a double bed and a tall wardrobe, telling us to close the door behind us.  What is this, a pyjama party?  Are we all supposed to sit on the bed and give each other makeovers?  I’m just about to turn and leave with the horn, when the innkeeper opens the wardrobe to reveal a hidden staircase.  It leads down to a cellar that’s set up like a war room.  I have to admit, it looks kinda cool.

We follow her downstairs, and I immediately confront her about taking the horn, not to mention leaving that lame message and forcing us to travel halfway across Skyrim.  Seriously, who does that, and what in Oblivion was she thinking?!

This better be good.
Oh, this better be good.

She retorts that she had to make sure I wasn’t a Thalmor plant.  Say what?!   Her story is sounding a bit strange, even paranoid.  Seems she doesn’t trust the Greybeards — but she wanted to make sure I was the one that they believe to be Dragonborn, and stealing the horn was the only way to know for sure.  She claims to be part of a group that’s been looking for the Dragonborn for a long time, and it’s even more urgent now that dragons are returning to Skyrim.

She’s clearly not telling me everything, and I call her on it.  That’s when the conversation takes a sudden turn from merely weird to completely insane.  According to her, dragons just aren’t coming back, they’re coming back to life.  And they aren’t just undead creatures, either — apparently they’re being fully raised from the dead, entirely alive.  Riiiiight.

She points to a map on the table and tells me that she’s figured out when the next dragon is supposed to rise from the grave.  Jenassa and I are to follow her to Kynesgrove where she’ll prove it to us, and if I’m actually Dragonborn then I’ll be expected to absorb its soul, so that it can never be raised from the dead again.   Lady, no offense, because I’m sure Riverwood isn’t known for its exciting social life, but you really gotta lay off the skooma.

I glance behind me to see how my girlfriend’s taking all of this.  Jenassa’s standing at the bottom of the stairs, arms folded, with an expression on her face that’s half scorn, half skepticism.  I can tell she’s weighing the innkeeper’s words carefully, but she’s far from convinced.

You think I'm hard to convince? Good luck with Jenassa.
You think I’m hard to persuade? Good luck with Jenassa.

The innkeeper throws on some leather armour and starts to head out the door, expecting us to follow her to Kynesgrove for a dragon vigil.  Jenassa blocks her path, asking a few pointed questions that didn’t occur to me, such as how she supposedly figured out where the dragon burial sites are located, why she’s so concerned about the Thalmor, and how she managed to infiltrate Ustengrav without being Dragonborn herself.

The innkeeper impatiently replies that the dragonstone we recovered from Bleak Falls Barrow had the map of the dragon sites on it, which she copied down, and that her group and the Thalmor are old enemies.  She then declares that she hasn’t time to explain it all, she has to get to Kynesgrove right away, and if we have an ounce of sense we’ll follow her there and she’ll prove that everything she’s said is true.

She pushes past Jenassa — which means Jenassa allowed it — and storms up the stairs.  We can hear her telling an employee to look after the place till she gets back, and then she exits the building, slamming the door shut behind her.

Jenassa and I look at each other, and then she shrugs.  “It’s up to you, my patron,” she says. “Either she’s right, or she’s completely mad.  If she’s right, then you are indeed the best person to stop these dragons from returning.  If she’s mad, then it might be good to know exactly how far she’s willing to go with this unlikely tale — especially since she’s part of an unknown alliance who may believe her.”

I think about it and realize she has a point.  Fine, we’ll go to Kynesgrove.  But I’m not about to follow on foot when we have horses.  Furthermore, we’re taking this dragon map along with us.

And if there’s the slightest chance the innkeeper’s story is true… then the Divines help us all.

Exhibit A: Client is either insane or brilliant. Possibly both.
Exhibit A: Client is either insane or brilliant.  Possibly both.

 

 

Travel Map 14.
Travel Map 14.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 26: Hornswoggled

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