The blizzard rages throughout the night and into the next day. Jenassa and I awaken to a frozen world that’s nearly unchanged since last night. Our fire has gone out and the chill threatens to settle into our bones, so we strike camp and set off on our horses in an effort to find our way back to the town of Falkreath.
Unfortunately, within minutes it’s clear that we won’t make it back in this weather. The blinding snow is being thrown in our faces by the icy wind, and our horses continually flounder and plunge in the deepening drifts. Our progression is far too slow, and soon we’re in real danger of freezing. Eventually we reach the main road, but by now we’ve lost all sense of direction, and even the horses start milling around in confusion.
Shielding my face against the driving snow, I anxiously scan the trees for any form of emergency shelter. Finally I make out the outline of a house, and with exaggerated gestures I point it out to Jenassa. She swings her horse in the direction I’ve indicated, and we battle the elements until we reach the front yard. Hopefully the inhabitants are friendly hunters or woodcutters who won’t mind offering us shelter from the storm.
Dismounting, we lead our horses out of the wind and approach the entrance. The door of the house is locked up tight, but we don’t have the luxury of common courtesy, so I extract a lockpick from one of my pouches. After several attempts with numb fingers, I finally manage to open the door, and Jenassa and I waste no time getting inside before we freeze.
As the door closes behind us, I glance around the room and my heart sinks. From the obvious piles of stolen goods, it’s clear we’ve stumbled into a bandit den — and worse yet, we can hear at least one of the bandits in the basement just below us. At least the raging storm outside seems to have covered up the noise of our entrance. Slowly we reach for our weapons and make our way down the stairs as quietly as possible.
Fortunately the bandit is alone in the basement. Taking careful aim, I plant an arrow right between his shoulder blades, and he immediately drops dead. While Jenassa deals with the corpse, I head to the fireplace and stand in front of the fire until the warmth slowly returns to my chilled bones.
After a quick breakfast eaten in front of the fire, I turn around to see Jenassa reading a piece of paper from a table that also holds a small axe, a quiver of iron arrows, a bag of gold, a bear trap, and some scattered coins. She hands the paper to me — but it definitely seems to pose more questions than answers.
I glance up from reading the note, and notice that Jenassa seems to be staring intently at the wall. Okay, I know we almost froze to death in that blizzard, but I didn’t think it was bad enough for her to go catatonic. I wave my hand in front of her face, and she blinks, then rolls her eyes at me. Now really, that was just rude, and I don’t see what’s so interesting about a basement wall… oh wait.
After collecting the coins from the table, I glance at Jenassa. She nods, stands back, and waves her hand as if to say go for it. I look around, making sure we aren’t standing in the way of anything that might be a trap, then I step forward and hit the button.
The bookshelf swings forward on a hidden pivot, and a secret passage is revealed that appears to lead straight into the wall. Right, suddenly this house just became a lot more interesting.
Drawing our weapons, we carefully slip into the passage. It slopes downward at a fairly steep angle, eventually opening into a vast naturally-formed cavern. A couple of dead bodies lay on the floor in front of us, and it’s pretty clear they’re murder victims. Guess they got between the bandits and their wine tasting.
Glancing past a broken wood barrier, I can see a rickety wooden bridge leading to a platform at the far end. More bandits appear to be patrolling the area on the other side of the bridge. Hoping to take advantage of our concealed position, I nock an arrow to my bow and take aim.
Fortunately I manage to pick off one bandit before he even knows what happened. Two more turn just in time to see their colleague hit the floor, whereupon they immediately draw their weapons and charge down the rickety wooden bridge straight toward us. Their show of courage in the face of danger is very impressive. I’m sure it would’ve been quite intimidating indeed, if only we weren’t equipped with ranged weapons.
We reach the far end of the platform, stopping only to pick the lock on a cupboard containing some useful potions. Another wooden bridge leads to a different section of the cavern, and up ahead we can hear several voices. Apparently this place is even more vast than we thought.
The next room is filled with various crates and barrels, and several bandits are talking among themselves. I inch my way forward to hear what they’re saying, but my foot accidentally kicks a pebble into the wall. The rattling noise echoes off the walls, and one of the bandits starts to turn. I swiftly fire a shot in her direction, striking her down before she has time to react.
Jenassa charges forward, blades at the ready. As she starts carving a path through the bandits, I back her up with my bow. After a few shots, I notice with some concern that my quiver is starting to feel very light, and I make a mental note to borrow some arrows from my wife at the earliest opportunity.
Fortunately we manage to eliminate the bandits before I run out of ammunition. As we’re looting the bodies, I find a note tucked into one of their pockets. Its contents certainly throw an interesting light on the organizational structure of our adversaries, not to mention their loyalty — or lack thereof.
We continue through the caverns, looting chests and taking names. Every room seems to lead to more passages, and every passage to more rooms — all guarded by bandits. As my last few arrows dwindle, I pull out Dawnbreaker and start setting our enemies on fire instead — which is far more dangerous, but always very satisfying.
As we keep clearing the passageways, eventually we discover a locked door in a dark alcove. It takes me a bit of time to pick the lock, but when it finally opens, I can’t help but break into a wide grin. Looks as if we might’ve found the treasure room that was mentioned in the last note — at least if that big chest in the corner is anything to go by, not to mention all the various potions, gems, and armour scattered on nearby bookshelves.
There’s a trigger trap on the chest that I fail to notice, but I manage to avoid being struck by the sharp metal spears that shoot out from the wall. Looking inside, I’m surprised to see there’s not much in the chest — merely some gold, a pair of gauntlets, and a couple more potions. Huh. For a rigged chest in a treasure room, I was expecting a bit more than that.
I mention this to Jenassa, and she nods. “You’re right, my patron. It does seem hardly worth locking away these few items,” she replies. “Perhaps the other bandits have already looted this chest, and reset the trigger trap to make it appear untouched.”
Sounds possible. Only one way to find out for sure — hunt them all down. We still have plenty more tunnels to investigate, so I borrow some arrows from Jenassa and we continue onward.
As we head deeper into the caverns, we start to find the occasional room littered with ancient mummified remains. Fortunately they seem to be completely inert, which is definitely how I prefer my encounters with the dead. Nice of the bandits to beat down the draugr for us — not that it’s going to stop me from trying to beat down the bandits in turn. It’s all part of the natural beatdown cycle.
We’re about to head down a long winding passage when something catches my eye. Pinned to the wall is another note from the bandit leader. Seems she’s had to resort to more persuasive forms of discipline just to keep order in the ranks.
The tunnel opens up into a large room, divided in half by tall shelves and a wooden partition that blocks our view. We can hear voices on the other side of the partition, but it’s difficult to say how many bandits are behind it. Makeshift cots line the walls on our side, and one of the bandits is lying down for a nap. I raise my bow and silently ensure that he never wakes up.
Jenassa and I approach the partition cautiously, and I risk taking a peek. There’s a drinks counter at the far end, with one of the bandits acting as bartender, and the rest of the bandits are seated at tables slowly drinking themselves into a stupor. Working on the assumption that the best distraction is the one that’s farthest away, I take aim and fire on the bartender.
Unfortunately, the bartender doesn’t oblige us by dying quietly. Instead, he survives long enough to raise the alarm, and we’re rushed down by the rest of the bandits who seem irked that we’ve interrupted their leisure time. Jenassa draws her blades and charges into the fray, while I retreat to the tunnel, summon Barbie, and keep shooting.
Despite the fact that the odds are roughly even, the fight is surprisingly difficult. These bandits are veteran fighters and a couple of them hit very hard, forcing Jenassa to her knees more than once. I have to summon Barbie multiple times just to keep her in the action, but eventually the tide turns in our favour.
After we finish looting the valuables, we make our way to another open area. It’s a rather macabre sight, as this room is full of multiple strands of hanging bones. I suppose this is meant to be some sort of early-warning system, but either the bandits in this section of the hideout are particularly paranoid, or else they have a disturbing fetish involving human remains.
We manage to avoid touching any of the bones, but even as we start to investigate, someone else in the adjoining room becomes aware of our presence. I reach for my bow as Jenassa pulls out her blades, and we approach the opposite end of the room as quietly as possible, hoping to retain some advantage now that we’ve lost the element of surprise.
Suddenly we hear a loud battle cry, and a heavily-armoured woman charges at us from behind a wall. This must be the bandit leader we’ve been reading so much about, since her gear is the best we’ve seen yet. Jenassa catches the brunt of our assailant’s attack, but manages to fend off the worst of the damage with her blades. I quickly summon Barbie for extra backup and start turning the enemy into a pincushion.
In minutes the bandit leader hits the floor, dead. As we’re looting the body, we discover a pair of keys. One appears to be to the house itself, and the other must open the mysterious treasure room — unless, of course, that’s the place we already discovered several rooms back. However, since we haven’t seen any especially impressive valuables on any of the other bandits, I’m hoping there’s more to be found.
After we clean out the room behind the wall, we find a trail of gold coins leading down a narrow tunnel. Right, that’s not suspicious or anything. I start gathering the coins while keeping an eye out for traps that greedy hypothetical intruders might stumble into — especially if they’re hypothetically distracted by shiny septims.
Jenassa and I manage to sidestep a series of traps as we slowly make our way through the rest of the caverns. Finally, after avoiding poison darts, swinging blades, a battering ram, and a spiked ball on a chain, we find ourselves in front of a locked iron door. I try the unknown key, and the door swings open, revealing a lovely sight for sore eyes.
Jenassa and I grin at each other, then we gleefully start stuffing our bags with as much loot as we can carry — which happens to be everything in the room that isn’t nailed down. Several of my joints are threatening to dislocate with all the extra weight I’m carrying, but I consider this a minor inconvenience.
We exit the treasure room and make our way out of the tunnels. Soon we find ourselves back in the house. Upstairs, I open the door to take a look outside.
Snow is still swirling down from the sky, but the worst of the blizzard has passed and our horses have managed to avoid the ravages of the storm. We mount up and head back to the town of Falkreath. The weather is still not ideal for a long journey, and it’ll take some time to sell off our loot and restock. Looks like our werewolf hunt will have to wait… for now.