Chapter 97: Secret Garden

After a restful night, I awaken the next morning to one of my favourite sounds — my wife making breakfast. She’s obviously been paying attention lately to how my appetite has expanded, since there’s evidence she’s gone into both our packs in search of adequate food supplies. It’s also apparent that she’s risen to the challenge magnificently, as once she notices I’m awake, she hands me a wooden platter of baked salmon on toasted bread covered in melted goat cheese, and a bowl of hot cereal topped with apple slices and roasted nuts.

It’s a fantastic start to the morning, especially considering we’re still in the middle of a waterlogged hagraven lair. It’s definitely past time to remedy that situation — but there’s one little matter I need to take care of first.

I’m sure this will cause me some kind of existential crisis later.

After removing everything useful off the werewolf’s corpse, Jenassa and I rapidly double-check our supplies to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything. Then without a backward glance, we head back up to the welcome outside world.

Unfortunately, the outside world isn’t all that welcoming.

Oh, come on. This blizzard is still a thing?

Sighing in exasperation — and watching my breath steam in the frigid air — I turn to my wife and ask her opinion on whether we should head back into the cave and hole up in there till the weather clears, or take our chances and continue on to Solitude. Since she’s the prudent one, I’m expecting her to say that we should head back inside, stay safe, and try to complete our journey later.

But to my surprise, she doesn’t seem too keen on the idea. I guess she’s also not too fond of our seaside shelter. Can’t imagine why — it’s just dark, damp, and full of dead bodies — not to mention the tide is rising, which will surely flood most of the cave’s lower interior.

After thinking about it, she suggests that the blizzard is probably localized to the coast, and that if we get back to the main road, we might find that the weather isn’t as bad there. Naturally I think this is a marvelous suggestion, and I voice my immediate and enthusiastic agreement almost before she’s finished speaking. That settled, we rapidly mount up, turn our horses away from the ocean, and head inland through the driving snow.

But it’s slow progress as we leave the sea behind and try to break a path uphill. The howling wind changes direction constantly as it throws snow in our faces and nearly pushes us off our mounts. Our horses struggle hard through snowdrifts that have piled high during the night, and occasionally we hear a sharp crack as thick branches snap off in the trees overhead. I’m starting to think this might not have been our best decision, but even if we were to turn back, there’s no chance of finding the cave again. Like it or not, there’s nowhere to go but forward into the endless white maw of the storm.

After what seems like an age — and several bottles of mead to keep the worst of the cold at bay — the horses finally find their footing again. The dull clop-clop of hooves on cobblestone sounds like the triumphant beat of a war drum to my ears, or like a conquering army marching forth to glorious victory. Praise the Divines, we’ve found the road at last! Onward to Solitude!

Mind you, actually seeing the road might be a bit of a stretch.

A few minutes later, I’m feeling decidedly less elated. Despite Jenassa’s hopeful speculation, the weather inland is no better than it was on the coast. So much for her new career as a weather diviner. Loosening the reins, I let Frost figure out the best way to keep to the road while I try not to get blown off the saddle.

As we plod on, I slowly become aware of a tall, slender figure emerging from the snowstorm. It stands forlornly by the roadside, holding out its arms as if pleading desperately for help. With my head bent against the wind, I peer at the piteous shape from beneath my hood, but the combination of waving branches and blowing snow blurs my vision and makes the tall figure impossible to identify.

Poor bastard. Whoever they are, they must be frozen solid. Lost in the storm, no doubt, desperate enough to accept help from total strangers. Well, we might very well be lost ourselves, but that’s no reason not to lend a hand to a fellow traveler. It’s worth a shot, and in return, they might be able to point us toward Solitude, which would certainly be more than worth our trouble.

Well, I was half-right — it’s definitely pointing us toward Solitude.

As I stop to check the signpost — feeling a bit silly, but also relieved that we don’t have to rescue a half-frozen stranger — I look around to make sure that Jenassa and I haven’t gotten separated in the snowstorm. Fortunately she’s still right behind me, but that does little to relieve my anxiety. The blizzard shows no sign of subsiding, and in fact it seems to be getting worse. In these conditions it’s completely possible to succumb to the low visibility and the numbing cold, and to find yourself riding your horse straight off a cliff.

Suddenly I seem to hear another sound besides the creaking trees and the howling wind. At first I think it must be an aural hallucination, especially since I just mistook a signpost for a desperate traveler, but a few moments later I’m certain of what I heard — a human voice, calling out through the storm. I glance back at Jenassa again, and from her alert expression, I can tell she’s heard it as well — but it’s impossible to hear what they’re saying, or even in which direction to search for them. So we slow our mounts to a walk, staying on the alert and ready to change our heading should the voice start to fade.

But instead of fading, it gets stronger. A lot stronger, in fact. Whoever it is, they’re not only close, they’re approaching us at a pretty good pace. It’s starting to look as if we might have to rescue someone after all, especially if the situation is desperate.

Half-right again. I’d say that’s pretty desperate.

Thinking fast, I bring Frost to a halt at the side of the road. I can’t quite make out the assassin in the swirling snow, but there’s no point in giving away my position by the sound of hoofbeats. Then from the corner of my eye, I can see Jenassa pull up on the other side, and for a moment I can’t quite figure out what she’s trying to accomplish by positioning herself directly across the road from me.

Then I break out in a grin and ready my bow. She’s betting that the assassin can see us about as well as we can see him, and from his point of view, all he’ll be able to perceive are the blurry figures of two unmoving riders, with nothing to indicate which one is his actual target. And in that moment of confusion, he’ll either have to stop and think — giving us a standing target to shoot at — or he might fatally bet on the wrong horse.

You have chosen… poorly.

As it turns out, both options happen almost at once. As soon as he catches sight of us, my would-be assassin comes to a halt in the middle of the road, presenting a perfect target for my bow. When my first arrow hits him, he screams with pain and outrage, taking off like a shot straight toward Jenassa — who’s already got her crossbow loaded and ready. A few more shots permanently removes this minor interruption in our lives, and we didn’t even have to bother dismounting.

I’ll dismount to ransack the corpse, though. Loot is loot!

But satisfying as this encounter turns out to be, it does nothing to allay my overall concern. Our situation is becoming dire. The storm is definitely worsening, the temperature is dropping like a rock, and Jenassa admits that she’s doubtful we’ll be able to reach Solitude in this weather. In her view, it’s imperative we try to find some sort of shelter immediately — and ideally it should be large enough to accommodate the horses as well.

Good thing you’re not asking the impossible, darling — although I have to admit, I’m pretty sure she’s right. Despite the bottles of mead I’ve been consuming ever since we started out, the cold is sinking into my bones, and I can already tell that my reflexes are slowing down, as well as my thinking. With everything to lose, both of us start anxiously scanning the snowy landscape for any possible sign of a shelter — not that we can actually see more than a couple dozen paces ahead of us.

Talk about an exercise in futility. But just as I’m convinced this is utterly hopeless, Jenassa finds a dirt path leading off the main road — and it appears to terminate at a nearby cliff. (Either that or it continues up the cliffside, but it’s difficult to tell in this snowstorm.) While she remains in place with her horse so we don’t lose sight of the road, I ride a few paces down the path to see where it leads. After a short distance, I call back to her that as far as I can make out, it seems to be leading straight into the cliff itself.

Hopefully not more hagravens. I’ve had plenty of those already, thanks.

Unlike our last hole-in-the-rock, the cave entrance is massive, and from what we can see of the shadowy interior, we can easily lead the horses inside. It’s also encouraging that the immediate outside area doesn’t have anything obvious warning us of danger — no flaming cauldrons, or vicious spikes, or stacks of bloody skulls. In fact, the only thing on the exterior of this cave is a ragged curtain of gigantic icicles, giving evidence that no one has entered or left this place for a very long time.

I mean, we’re just assuming they’re icicles. Maybe a super-sized ice wraith forgot to put its dentures in.

As I knock some of the icicles down with the tip of my bow, I’m aware of a warm, almost summery breath of air coming from within, bringing with it the unmistakable scent of flowers and greenery. I blink in astonishment a few times, unbelieving at first… but no, I’m not dreaming, and I don’t seem to be facedown in a snowdrift, having hallucinations and freezing to death.

Of course, that’s what someone dying in the snow would think. I guess there’s only one way to find out. Come on, Jenassa — you guide the horses and I’ll take point.

I definitely prefer nice warm roomy caves. Call me a sensualist.

Stepping inside from the frigid cold, I instinctively stop for a moment and just breathe in great gulps of blessedly warm, sweetly scented air. Behind me, one of the horses shakes its head and snorts loudly, as if to say Hurry up, little human! Smiling to myself, I start moving again. If I were a horse and I caught a whiff of grass up ahead after struggling through all that snow, I’d also be pretty impatient.

As we continue down the passageway, it seems we’ve barely left the blizzard behind when I notice a bright light shining up ahead. Huh. That’s something I certainly didn’t expect. Maybe there’s a skylight up ahead, but it’s hard to tell with all this melting snow dripping off my hood. Not to mention it falls straight into my eyes whenever I try to lift my head to find the light source, which is about as cold and unpleasant as it sounds like.

I start brushing my gloves across my face as I awkwardly stumble along, trying to clear my vision for whatever lies ahead. I’m still wiping the last traces of meltwater out of my eyes when I hear Jenassa come to a sudden halt behind me.

It’s a bit on the blurry side, but it’s definitely looking good.

The next few moments are like a miracle, or a dream so wonderful that you never want to awaken. Awestruck and amazed, we find ourselves wandering into a space that seems like the playground of the Divines. The only other place I’ve seen that even comes close was the sacred grotto of the Eldergleam, the holy grove of Kynareth Herself.

As we walk slowly forward, knee-deep in lush grass and wildflowers, we hear the playful chortling of a bubbling stream nearby, and a cloud of brilliant butterflies rises into the air as if to greet us. Fragrant evergreens reach impossibly high into the light, and everything around us seems to be basking in an atmosphere of sublime peace and beauty.

So sudden is the transition from the frozen world outside, that it’s hard to believe what my senses are telling me. I come to a halt beside the shimmering stream and just gaze around me in wonder. Jenassa joins me moments later, and I can tell by the enraptured look on her face that she’s experiencing the same heady rush of astonishment and joy.

I breathe deeply once again, just so I can overwhelm my senses with the rich scent of fresh grass, evergreens, and wildflowers, and I reach a conclusion. Just in case I’m facedown in the snow somewhere, and this is all a hallucination… then I have to say, freezing to death isn’t so bad. In fact, with a heavenly sight like this in front of my eyes, I hope no one tries to rescue me.

Honey, I think we’ve found Paradise.

 

Travel Map 62.

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