Chapter 96: Close Quarters

After emptying out the wooden chest and checking the rest of the cavern, Jenassa and I find ourselves loaded down so much loot that we’re practically dragging our packs on the ground.  Not that this is too surprising.  We haven’t sifted through our belongings since we left the shipwreck camp, and our assortment of goods has grown rather cumbersome.  All our recent activity is starting to catch up with us, and as we drag ourselves back to the lower part of the cave, I find myself starting to feel sleepy — and, of course, ravenous.  I start digging around in my pack for a quick snack, but much to my annoyance, all the food is trapped beneath our recent load of acquisitions.  It’s impossible to reach it without dumping my pack out on the ground and reorganizing it all — which, as I know from experience, takes far too much time when I’m already hungry and tired.

Jenassa admits she has the same problem.  It’s inconvenient, especially since we’re both exhausted, but if we want to eat hearty and sleep well, then we’re going to have to head back outside and empty our packs into our horses’ saddlebags.  It’s not ideal, but it means we can get started on dinner a lot faster.  So, naturally, I’m on board with this plan.

So much for a romantic starlight walk on the beach.

Outside, the icy wind slaps me in the face, shocking me back to a state of wakefulness.  Holy sweetrolls, it’s freezing out here — and worse yet, a blizzard has just swept in from the sea.  Snow swirls through the air in all directions, making it even harder to see what we’re doing now that it’s pitch dark.  Fortunately the horses seem to be taking all this in stride, and I hurriedly transfer items from my pack to the saddlebags, relying primarily on my sense of touch.   We take a few moments to tend a couple of firepots — in case the horses need a source of warmth to make it through the night — before rushing back into the cave with a profound sense of relief.

But our relief is short-lived.  We’re hardly back inside when we hear something truly terrifying — the high-pitched screaming of panicked horses, and then the sound of receding hoofbeats.  Something out there has spooked them badly, and they’re racing away from the threat in a blind panic — over a rocky, slippery beach in the middle of a howling blizzard.  Kynareth save us, they’ll be lost to the storm!  We have to get them back before it’s too late!

From the horrified expression on her face, I can tell that Jenassa has reached the same conclusion.  We turn around and start to leave the narrow passageway, but we find the opening blocked by a most unwelcome visitor.

For a gibbering lunatic, he sure knows how to make an entrance.

Since she’s closer to the exit, Jenassa encounters the intruder first, and her blades are already whirling before I can blink.  My nostrils flare as the scent of the stranger fills the passageway, and the lupine part of my brain instantly recognizes his kind — werewolf.  Well, now we know what must have spooked the horses.

Likewise, the stranger identifies me in the same moment, and his lips curl in a snarl just before he charges at me.  Oh, please.  Just because we’re both a tad bestial doesn’t mean we have to act like animals.  Can’t we talk this out like reasonable werewolves?  It’s savages like you that give our race a bad name.

But, fine.  If it’s a territorial challenge you want, then let’s go.  But leave my mate out of this, or I swear I will rip out your heart and eat it for dinner.  And I warn you… I’m hungry.

Hardly.  I’m just getting warmed up.

Racing forward to meet his challenge, I roughly push Jenassa out of the way with a low growl — which, upon reflection, was more than a little bit suicidal.  Startled, she just manages to lower her blades before I recklessly impale myself.  Big thanks for that, honey!  I really owe you one.

Wasting no time, and muttering a plea to Hircine under my breath, I unsheathe Dawnbreaker and start swinging.  Behind me, I can hear my wife switch to her crossbow and bolts.  Excellent.  The faster we take this maniac down, the better.

But not as warmed up as you are.

Avoiding the worst of his blows, it’s not long before I set the enemy blazing like a torch, casting a dazzling light on the stone walls and lending a welcome heat to the chilly cave.  As I defend myself against his counterattack, Jenassa switches to her crossbow, careful not to take a shot in this narrow space until she knows she can hit the enemy instead of me.  Similarly, I force myself to slow down and pace myself, making each strike count and trying not to slash my wife by accident.  As a result, landing the killing blow is taking significantly longer than I’d like, and it doesn’t help that werewolves are notoriously tough to take down.   That said, as long as we can finish him off before he has a chance to transform, we should be in the clear.

Because of course that happened.  Blasted werewolves.

Just as the lunatic is starting to slow down — no doubt as a result of burning and blood loss — he suddenly huddles into a tight ball just as his body starts to shift.  Alarmed, I start rapidly stabbing at him, hoping to hit a vital organ and put a quick end to the fight, but to no avail.   Inexorably, the transformation proceeds to completion, and now Jenassa and I find ourselves in a cramped stone corridor with a crazed and dangerous beast.

Great.  This day just keeps getting better.  Backing up rapidly to get out of the way of his suddenly greater reach, I feel an acute sting as wickedly sharp claws swipe across my face.  Fortunately it’s just a shallow scratch, in no small part thanks to my wife who also backed up quickly to give me more room — but I’m pretty sure that I was inches away from having no face left at all.

Angered at missing his blow, the werewolf lunges at us, drawing his arm back for another attempt.  Jenassa shoots him in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt, but it doesn’t even slow him down.  Looks like I only have one chance to survive this encounter.  Better make it count.

Sizing up my target, I leap forward to meet the enemy with my shield raised, forcefully deflecting his strike and knocking him off-balance.   I use that precious split-second to drive Dawnbreaker deep into his chest, right to the hilt.  At the sight of the fiery weapon fatally piercing his hide, the werewolf raises his head and howls an agonizing cry, making the lupine part of my brain howl back in sympathy.  Shaking, he tries to rake us with his claws, but his limbs seize uncontrollably before he crashes on the stone floor, dead.

Y’know, I’m starting to think we didn’t just find our way into a cave.  We stumbled into a secret death match arena.

Thank the Divines, it’s over.  Eyes still locked on our fallen enemy, I swap out Dawnbreaker for my hunting knife and start pacing around the body, considering which valuable alchemy reagent to harvest first.  It’s hardly been pleasant, but I have to admit, this little side-trip has been fantastic for gathering rare materials.

However, just as I’m about to start carving up the corpse, Jenassa reminds me that we really need to track down our horses, as they could be injured… or worse.  Clutching my knife, I close my eyes and wince.  Although I know she’s completely right, I’m really not looking forward to going back outside in a blizzard.  Not to mention that we’re likely to be thoroughly exhausted when we return, and dinner will be even further away than it is already.

In a weary voice, and hating myself because I’m actually quite worried about Frost, I voice my misgivings to Jenassa.  To my surprise, she takes my concerns seriously, admitting that it wouldn’t make sense to go looking for the horses only to get lost in a storm ourselves.  We’re in the middle of wondering whether to put off the search until tomorrow, when to our astonishment and joy, we hear the faint but distinct sound of a horse’s whinny.  For us to be able to hear that over the blizzard and the stormy sea, they must be quite close indeed!

Jenassa is nearest the entrance, and she’s off like a bolt from her crossbow.  Still holding my hunting knife, I stare at the werewolf’s corpse and decide to carve it up later.  Right now, I have a better idea.

Welcome back, dear!  I was just about to start dinner.

By the time my wife comes back, I’ve set out our bedrolls and started a fire.  The campsite is close to the dangling bones, so it’s not the most cheerful location, but it beats sleeping beside a freshly dead werewolf or the other assorted corpses that litter this cave.

Jenassa returns bearing good news — the horses are fine!  She found Frost standing right in front of the entrance, and her own mount was just up the hill.  While we’re busy getting dinner started, she explains that her horse was still somewhat spooked by the evening’s events, and so it took some time for her to coax it back.  She left the horses near the firepots with an extra load of hay, so they can face the cold night with a full stomach.  Neither of them appeared to be injured in any way, which is a relief — and better still, the blizzard appeared to be winding down.  Hopefully it will have blown itself out by morning.

By the time she finishes her news, a pot of savoury stew is heating up over the fire, and it’s starting to smell pretty good.  My stomach is growling so loudly that it almost sounds like another angry werewolf, and I’m reaching deep into my pack in search of some apples — baked in the coals, they make a delicious dessert — when my fingers touch something that sends a sickening jolt up my arm, causing me to jerk my hand out so fast that I nearly send my pack flying.

I know what it is immediately, of course.  But now I also know what to do with the damned thing.  I look around, but my wife has her back turned to me as she tends the stewpot, and so she’s noticed nothing unusual.  Gritting my teeth, I remove my hood, wrap it several times around my gloved hand, and go back in to retrieve the razor-sharp, exquisitely wrought, ornately designed silver dagger.

Concealing the dagger behind my back, I look over at my wife.  She’s in a good mood right now, humming a little tune under her breath as she prepares to dish out our meal.  “Fetch me the wooden bowls, my love,” she says as I approach.  “I added something different to the usual seasonings.  I think it will really set off the flavour of the venison, and with any luck it should also mitigate some of that gamey taste…”

“Let’s hold off on dinner for a minute,” I reply.   With a startled glance toward me, Jenassa instantly drops the stirring-spoon into the pot and turns to face me with an expression of confusion and alarm.  I can’t really blame her — these days, it would practically take a dragon attack to tear me away from a meal.  But some things can’t wait.

Looking straight at her, I speak slowly and deliberately.  “There’s something I very much want you to have.”  With painstaking caution I reveal the dagger, turning it around, holding it by the blade, and offering it to her hilt-first.  “Be sure to keep it close by for me.”

The alarm fades from her expression, but the confusion remains, mixed with concern.  “Of course, my love, if you’re certain,” she replies slowly, accepting the dagger.  “But… why?  What has changed your mind?”

I nod once toward the cave entrance.  “Our unexpected guest over there,” I tell her.  “Let’s just say that I’ve decided you’re right.  I might not be insane — yet — but I’m not exactly safe to be around, either.  This situation is still new to us, and I’m pretty sure no one has ever tamed a werewolf before.   So if I ever get… out of control… someday…” I swallow hard and gaze into my wife’s eyes.  “I know you would do it at just the right moment, and you would do it well.”  I swallow again, blinking back sudden tears.  “I would be honoured to die by your hand, Jenassa.”

Blinking back tears of her own, my wife simply nods and fastens the silver dagger to her belt, as if not trusting herself to speak.  Then we just stand there for a few eternal moments, gazing at each other with full hearts, letting the silence speak for us both.

To have and to hold.  Till death do us part.

Suddenly the pot lid erupts in a loud rattle, and Jenassa rushes toward the fire just in time to stop the stew from boiling over.  Supper to the rescue!   Laughing, I grab the wooden bowls from my pack, handing them to my smiling wife as she dishes out the food.  At the first taste, I can tell that her special seasoning is a big improvement. It’s a delicious meal, and I even remember to bake the apples for dessert — one for Jenassa, two or three for me.

Okay, so it was actually more like five.  But who’s counting?

 

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