Early next morning, Jenassa and I prepare to leave the ranger cabin and the Rift behind, at least until the heat dies down. It’s reasonable to expect that Maven will be using her considerable influence to track down the thieves who broke into the Black-Briar Lodge and made off with her thoroughbred horse, and we don’t plan to be around when the investigation begins. Our priority is to avoid Riften and be out of the region by the end of the day, if possible.
There is one detour we plan to take, however, which is going to slow us down significantly and may cause us to remain within the borders of the hold overnight. However, we’re reasonably certain that the Black-Briars’ influence doesn’t extend all the way to High Hrothgar. The top of the Throat of the World is the one place in the Rift where Maven won’t be able to reach us.
We finish packing, take a last look around the cabin, and head outside. The weather is clear and bright, a good omen from Kynareth. Our mounts are fresh, rested, and eager to travel, so we waste no time in saddling up and heading out.
Heading west, we ride through the autumnal woods. Although there’s no road, the ground is relatively flat and even, so there’s little trouble guiding our horses through the forest. Soon we reach a broad clearing, but as we approach, we catch a glimpse of a bright green creature moving through the trees. It’s a good chance there might be spriggans in this clearing, so we guide our horses in another direction to avoid an encounter.
Unfortunately this detour leads us straight into an angry troll. It roars a challenge and charges at our horses, effectively blocking our path forward. Since we have to deal with either the troll or the spriggans, we decide to take on the threat that’s immediately harassing us.
The troll puts up a good fight, but between my arrows and Jenassa’s blades, we manage to cut it down. It hits the ground with an earth-shaking thud. I briefly consider harvesting its remains for alchemy ingredients and skinning it for its thick fur, but even though it’s still early morning, we can’t afford to waste the daylight. So we leave it where it fell, and push on.
Soon we reach the north shore of Lake Honrich. Following the shoreline, we ride due west, heading straight for Ivarstead. We’ll have to cross a couple of bridges before we arrive at the village, and we’re both hoping that there won’t be any troops stationed nearby — or if we happen to run into some guards, they won’t yet have heard of our new career as horse rustlers.
Fortunately the rest of the trip proves to be relatively uneventful, save for a couple of encounters with less dangerous examples of the local wildlife. When we arrive at Ivarstead, it’s barely noon. I nod at Jenassa, glad we’re making good time and that the weather is holding. We’ve still got a long trip ahead of us, and I’d rather not be slowed down by minor inconveniences — not when there’s still plenty of major ones that can do a much more permanent job.
As soon as we cross the bridge into Ivarstead, we leave our horses at the stable and walk straight through the village on foot. Soon we reach the other bridge on the opposite side of town — across from which is A Truly Ludicrous Number of steps up to High Hrothgar. Only this time, we don’t have to drag along a sack full of dried fish for the Greybeards. I consider this a distinct improvement.
Come to think of it, I bet we had so much trouble with the wildlife on the previous trip because of that stinky fish sack. No wonder every predator on the mountain was trying to kill us. With those smelly supplies, we made ourselves into the perfect bait. Well, fortunately that ordeal is over, and now we’re not carrying anything even remotely as ripe as that. I’m sure we won’t see any predators this time.
It seems that the mountain’s population of giant spiders has recovered in our absence. While I’m all for a healthy ecosystem, there are some examples of the local fauna that I can do without — especially when they’re fanged, venomous, hairy, and have way too many legs. At least we manage to kill this one before it gets the chance to spit in my face.
After the spider is dispatched, we resume our climb. Soon we reach the snow line, and the steps become increasingly tricky to navigate. I’m looking down at my feet to avoid a patch of black ice, when I hear a low growl from the path above me. A distinctly deep, feline growl. Great.
I don’t even glance up for the source of the sound. While Jenassa slowly reaches for her weapons, I slip my fingers into one of my pouches and pull out a vial of poison. Fortunately, it’s a very useful one.
I dip an arrow into the vial and nock it to my bow before I dare look around. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot the threat as its so well-camouflaged, but sure enough, just ahead of us and crouched behind a drift, is a snowy sabre cat. It doesn’t appear to have seen us yet, but it’s obviously heard our approach. I wait for a clear shot, then draw my bow and fire.
The arrow penetrates its thick hide just as the cat leaps, and the poison takes effect immediately. As well as reducing health, the toxin also has a paralytic effect, so within seconds its limbs grow stiff. The sabre cat’s momentum carries it over the edge of the steps, and it falls helpless at Jenassa’s feet. We both get in a few strikes before it regains control of its body, but by then the predator is on its last legs.
We don’t have much time to waste, so I retrieve an arrow or two out of the corpse and we keep going. About halfway up, the cold is getting more intense. We find a relatively sheltered area, where I build a campfire, down a bottle of mead, and grab some food out of my backpack. It’s not exactly what I’d call an ideal picnic spot, but we have to stop for lunch sometime, and the cold is easier to endure on a full stomach.
After my body remembers what it’s like to feel warm again, we pack up and continue on our way. I swing my pack back on my shoulders and grimace, noting that we’re only about halfway to High Hrothgar. Jenassa and I look at each other and sigh, then resignedly resume our upward trudge. Oh well, at least we have a pretty fantastic view.
Fortunately we’ve encountered less wildlife than last time, but from what we’ve seen so far, I doubt the next animal is going to be a fluffy little bunny or a harmless timid deer. In fact, I recall that the predators tend to get more dangerous the further we travel up the mountain.
Sure enough, as we reach a familiar narrow crevasse between two steep cliffs, a frost troll spots our approach. It utters a deafening roar from atop a high ledge, warning us from advancing further into its territory. The sound echoes around us and we freeze in our tracks. Remembering our success with the sabre cat, I slowly dip an arrow into another vial of paralyzing poison, draw my bow, and shoot.
The arrow clatters harmlessly off the rock face behind the troll. Angered, it roars again, jumping down from the ledge and lumbering toward us with surprising speed. Crap.
Panicking slightly, I attempt to turn the troll into a pincushion before it can reach us — but within seconds Jenassa races past me, blades at the ready and screaming for blood. She connects with the troll in a deadly whirlwind, and I keep peppering it full of arrows while doing my best to avoid shooting my beloved partner. In seconds the troll drops to the ground, dead, and Jenassa nonchalantly re-sheathes her weapons and turns her back on the corpse, like that fight wasn’t completely terrifying. By the gods, I love my wife.
After retrieving some of my arrows and bidding a silent farewell to such a prime collection of fur and alchemy reagents, we continue through the narrow pass. I know we’re getting close to our destination, and once High Hrothgar comes into view, I break into a jog. I’ve carried this artifact halfway across Skyrim thanks to that demented innkeeper and her obsessive bait-and-switch, and I just want it out of my possession before something else unexpected happens.
Finally we reach the entrance to High Hrothgar and walk inside. The Greybeards appear to be in the middle of their midday meditation, but no one seems to mind the interruption. I look around for Arngeir and see him kneeling on the stone floor behind a pillar.
Approaching Arngeir, I hand over the artifact he sent us to find, the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. I consider mentioning our encounter with Delphine, but then I think about how long it would take to tell the whole story, and decide to keep my mouth shut. It’s bad enough that she wasted our time, and I have no intention of letting her waste anyone else’s, even by proxy. Besides, Jenassa and I need to get back on the road soon, and well away from the Rift.
Arngeir takes the artifact with reverence, and seems quite pleased with our efforts. He leads me further into the room and asks that we wait for a few moments. Soon the other Greybeards finish their meditation and join us, forming a circle as if for some kind of ceremony.
With the help of a monk named Wulfgar, I’m taught the final Word of the Shout for Unrelenting Force. Then at Arngeir’s request, I step into the middle of the circle formed by the Greybeards, while Jenassa remains on the periphery.
As one, they unleash the full power of their Shouts toward me. It’s not much fun, to say the least. In fact, it’s pretty brutal, sort of like chugging an entire vat of skooma-infused bloodwine while being trampled by mammoths. But although it’s disorienting in the extreme, I somehow manage to stay on my feet.
After the final Shout echoes off the walls, Arngeir confirms that my final test is over and that I’ve been found worthy — thank the Divines, because I doubt I could withstand another one.
I slowly walk back toward Jenassa, staggering slightly. She looks at me in concern and holds out her hand, and as I grasp it, I can feel my strength returning. I straighten, and she smiles, squeezing my hand in reassurance. I smile back, and for a moment the ancient stone halls around us disappear as we gaze into each others’ eyes. Seeing that I’ve fully recovered, she releases my hand, winks, and blows me a kiss. I grin and nod at her, knowing that she’s offering me a more satisfactory kiss at a later time, when we aren’t surrounded by geriatric monks.
Bidding farewell to the Greybeards, we exit High Hrothgar and make our way back down the mountain. It’s late afternoon now, and evening is fast approaching. We briefly discuss spending the night in Ivarstead, but the town guards are under Riften’s jurisdiction, and neither of us wants to risk being arrested in the morning. We decide to push on. If worse comes to worst, we can always camp out somewhere in the woods on the other side of the hold border.
Back in the village, we head past the Vilemyr Inn and arrive at the stable. Our horses seem relatively well-rested, and there’s still plenty of light for us to continue our journey. Mounting up, we ride through the mountain pass just as the sun is starting to touch the edge of the distant hills.
As we cross the border into Falkreath Hold, Frost gives a frisky toss of his mane and nickers playfully, as if he senses our success. I take a deep breath of the freshening breeze, and the golden sunbeams seem to wink at me through the trees. Smiling, I can feel the stress roll off my shoulders as I ride through the pine-scented air.
It’s a lovely evening in Skyrim.