Riding through Helgen after the success of our mission, Jenassa and I take the lead as we head toward the keep. Behind us, the rest of our party strides through the town gates as if on parade. Glancing over my shoulder, it’s clear that they’re both pleased and relieved to be back. The patrolling guards enthusiastically greet the returning soldiers as they make their way through the town, and even the imposing presence of the keep itself seems to welcome them home. Every window of the tower is alight with a warm golden glow — a decidedly heartening sight on this chilly winter evening.
I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty pleased with my part in the rescue. Okay, so it got a bit tricky back there with the Justiciar, and apparently I can’t act the part of an Imperial officer to save my life — or anyone else’s for that matter. But at least there are now several less Thalmor to worry about. Surely that’s got to count for something.
As we dismount, the guard at the entrance grins and waves us through the doors, telling us where we can find Valerius — which shouldn’t be a problem, since it doesn’t sound as if he’s moved from the room since we left. Jenassa and I wait for our companions to catch up, then we head down the stairs and into the meeting room. I have to admit, it certainly feels satisfying to be the herald of good news.
For several minutes there’s a lot of hearty congratulations and manly back-slapping as the soldiers are reunited with their commander. Even the female healer joins in, as exuberant as the rest of them and clearly familiar with this homecoming ritual. Jenassa and I stand back, exchanging amused and tolerant looks at the sudden increase of testosterone in the room. Even the Companions aren’t as expressive as these soldiers.
Finally the commander manages to restore some order, bringing the masculine love-fest to an amiable halt. With an air of efficiency, he turns to the former prisoner Korst and asks him for a full report.
And just like that, all the warm energetic camaraderie of a few moments ago vanishes in a sudden chill of dread. No one could ever mistake the Thalmor for kind and compassionate humanitarians, but they hadn’t been suspected of rape and slavery — until now. All at once, I feel a strong desire to get right back on my horse, rouse all the troops in the province, and start a crusade to purge Skyrim of every last Thalmor.
Valerius is obviously taken aback by the news, and I half expect him to order his soldiers into action immediately. Instead, he dismisses Korst and the others, telling them to get some rest. As they leave the room, he turns to Jenassa and I, asking if we have anything to add about the state of the Thalmor prison. Unable to think of anything else, I acknowledge that the report was accurate, and that Korst was indeed the only prisoner in an otherwise empty fortress.
By now it’s fairly late — not to mention freezing outside — and Jenassa and I aren’t really looking forward to spending the night in a tent, or riding all the way back to the Riverwood inn. As if sensing our reluctance, the commander generously invites us to stay, saying that we’re welcome to bunk down in the soldiers’ sleeping quarters if we wish. After a brief discussion, my wife and I decide to accept. It won’t exactly be private, but it sure beats heading out again into the cold black night.
After a hearty supper of warm venison stew heated over the fire, we start making our way through the keep to find our designated sleeping area. However, we don’t get very far before one of the soldiers from the rescue mission approaches us in the corridor.
Wait, you’re a Breton? Really? You’ve got to be the most Nord-looking Breton I’ve ever seen. Not that I’m questioning your parentage or anything, I’m just stating the obvious. And while the offer is nice and all, I have a feeling my wife wouldn’t appreciate it. By the way, have you been introduced to my wife? The tall intimidating Dunmer with wickedly sharp blades who’s standing right here?
That’s what I thought. Thanks, but no thanks. However, if you still want to be helpful, you could point us toward the bedroom. Bunkroom. Dormitory. Whatever.
By the time we reach the sleeping quarters, the beds are already occupied or spoken for. I suppose we should’ve expected it — these military types are used to turning in early. Looks like we’ll have to bunk on the floor, but we’ve had worse campsites, and fortunately we have our camping gear with us. In minutes we’ve made up a place to sleep in a darkened corner of the room. I really hope that the soldiers cleared out the skeevers when they decided to take over the fortress, otherwise we could be in for a rather uncomfortable night.
After a short but sweet goodnight kiss, we settle into our bedrolls. Jenassa is asleep in moments, and judging from the hearty chorus of snoring, so is everyone else in the room. No such luck for me — I’m wide awake, and feeling oddly restless. You’d think that after our busy day and even busier evening, I’d be out like a damp torch. Instead, I lie on my back, staring at the roof beams and trying not to resent the fact that my wife is snoring as well. They’re soft little musical snores, so normally they don’t hinder my rest at all. But now it’s just another sound in the room that’s keeping me awake.
Finally I sit up with an exasperated sigh. It’s no good. I might as well go for a walk outside and get some fresh air. As I quietly put on my warmest clothing, I decide I’d better stay within the walls of Helgen. That way if anything happens — like another dragon — I’ll be close to the safety of the keep. Feeling moderately proud of myself for this uncharacteristic bit of cautious planning, I fasten my fur cloak around my shoulders and slip out the door.
Outdoors, I’m even more alert. A brisk wind has blown the clouds away, and the sky overhead is filled with sparkling stars that seem almost close enough to touch. My senses are flooded with the scents and sounds of the surrounding forest, and as I deeply inhale the aroma of the pines, my nose catches the faint tang of something else… something familiar… something that smells deliciously like… prey.
Suddenly, I don’t mind that I’m awake. Let the hunt begin.