Chapter 98: Trouble In Paradise

After we’ve finished gawking in awe at this hidden piece of heaven — an activity that takes up considerable time — Jenassa and I decide to follow the stream to see where it leads.  After a short walk through the trees, we find ourselves in a woodland clearing surrounded by wildflowers beside a shimmering pond.  In fact, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic.

Feeling as if we’re on holiday, we spread our furs on the ground and search our packs for the most savoury edibles we can find.  It’s been awhile since we’ve shared a meal that isn’t in a ramshackle shelter, or a noisy inn, or a dingy hole full of dead bodies.  We stay alert as we settle down to eat, just in case we’re surprised by a swarm of giant spiders or a nature-loving troll, but absolutely nothing happens to disturb the peace.  And it’s utterly wonderful.

The only conflict we encounter during our delectable repast is a minor dispute about whether we need to tether our mounts while we explore our surroundings.  Relaxing on the warm furs, I express my doubts to my wife.  I point out that we haven’t found anything here that seems bad for horses, and we certainly don’t have to worry about them staying warm or finding enough grass.  Jenassa counters that this place seems immense, and there might still be creatures here that could prove dangerous.  It would be a good idea to know where to find the horses in case we have to beat a hasty retreat — not that either of us are in a hurry to leave this idyllic place.

Reluctantly, I admit that it can’t hurt to take precautions.  That settled, we find a nice spot under the trees to tether the horses, but not so firmly that they can’t pull up stakes and flee if they’re suddenly threatened.  So after we tidy up our picnic site, we feed them a couple of apples as a treat, and leave them happily grazing near the water as we set off to explore.

Farewell my darlings! And while we’re away, feel free to horse around!

There’s a steep cliff that prevents us from circling the pond, so Jenassa and I decide we might as well head back upstream.  We haven’t gone very far when we come across a fallen log that spans the crystal brook, providing us with a makeshift bridge.  Then almost as soon as we’re across the water, we discover a path that winds its way through the long grass before disappearing among the trees.

I’m all for heading straight down the path to see where it leads, but Jenassa is already considering the greater implications of our discovery.  She points out that birds and butterflies don’t make paths — an astute observation that effectively curbs my enthusiasm.  It’s our first indication that there are larger creatures who inhabit this space, and just a short distance later, we find some compelling evidence that says these creatures aren’t peaceful vegetarians.

Too bad I already ate.  I just hate seeing food go to waste.

As Jenassa and I examine the remains, it soon becomes obvious that this animal didn’t die of old age.  Sharp claws have torn its glossy hide to shreds, and there are bite marks near its underbelly where the flesh has been ripped off in chunks.  Suddenly I’m feeling a little uneasy about our beautiful forest retreat, and from the look on Jenassa’s face, she’s clearly feeling the same way.

Okay, so maybe this place isn’t a perfect paradise after all.  It’s pretty clear that there are vicious predators lurking somewhere in the shadows.  There’s no reason to run away as yet, but I hope we don’t find anything too tough for us to handle.

Suddenly I hear a rustle in the long grass, and I glance up, startled.  That definitely sounded like some kind of large animal, and not at all like a deer.  Swallowing hard, I make sure that my weapons are within easy reach as I cautiously make my way toward the sound.

Oh hey there, neighbour! 

A wolf emerges from the grass and ambles toward me, more curious than apprehensive.  As he approaches, nose twitching, I stretch out my hand for him to sniff.  Pretty soon his tail starts to move back and forth in a lazy wag.  Pleased to meet you too, buddy.  Hope you don’t mind us dropping in.

While we’re exchanging pleasantries, I take a good look at my new acquaintance.  Unlike many of the wolves I’ve seen who have to endure the harsh conditions outside, this wolf is at an ideal weight, his coat is sleek and glossy, and his eyes are bright and clear.  In short, he’s the very picture of health.   Clearly this place is treating him well.

Once we’ve gotten to know each other, he sits back on his haunches with his tongue hanging out and a big grin on his face.  I give him a brief scratch on the head in return, which he obviously appreciates.  Good, now we’re friends.   That settled, he stands up and continues on his way — and I swear he nods his head as he passes me, as if to say I’ll be sure to recognize your scent next time, sister.  Good hunting!

With a smile, I turn back to rejoin my wife, and I catch one last glimpse of the wolf as he brushes his still-wagging tail against Jenassa’s leg.  It’s to my wife’s considerable credit that she doesn’t flinch away from the wolf’s friendly acknowledgement, and I feel a warm rush of affection.  It’s further proof that Jenassa really has accepted my identity as a werewolf.

My wife gives me a loving smile in return, and with a gesture indicates that we might as well continue down the path to see where it leads.  A short distance later, we find ourselves on an uphill slope, and the path itself is turning into a twisty, narrow passage between rocky bluffs covered in foliage, making it difficult to see what’s up ahead.  I find myself seriously hoping that wolves are the largest predator we’ll see in this place.

But the further we proceed, the narrower the path becomes — and the uneasier I get.  Between the tall stone outcroppings and the clinging grass, it’s going to be pretty hard to run if things turn dicey.  Not to mention, finding out that paradise is actually dangerous would be more than a little bit aggravating.

We’ve just reached the narrowest stretch of the path when we suddenly encounter a cave bear.   And unlike the wolf, he’s not inclined to be friendly.

I’d probably be pretty frustrated right now, if I weren’t trying so hard not to die.

Turns out I was right — there’s nowhere to run.  Reacting purely by instinct, I grab my shield and bash the bear over the head, temporarily blocking its initial charge. This gives me just enough time to summon Barbie before reaching for my sword — but to my dismay, Barbie skates right past the bear and disappears in the trees.  I’m still gobsmacked at this unexpected turn of events when the bear recovers, angrily clawing me across the shoulder and nearly causing me to drop my shield.  Great.  I’ve been deserted and left to die by my own minion.

Jenassa races to my rescue, blades already in hand, and starts slashing through the tough hide of the massive beast.   I quickly sidestep to give her some room, and also to stay out of the way of that sharp silver dagger.  Striking at the cave bear with Dawnbreaker sets it on fire, causing it to roar in sudden panic — but just like us, there’s nowhere it can run.

Silver and fire — too bad we aren’t fighting a vampiric werebear. That’s totally a thing, right?

A few moments later, the cave bear emits a deep rumbling groan and slumps to the ground, dead at our feet.  Now that the bear is no longer a threat, I nearly slump to the ground myself as my knees practically buckle in my profound relief.

Now where is that miserable gutless atronach?!

Okay, fine. Yes, yes, well done. You can stop somersaulting now.

Well, today’s certainly full of surprises.  I find Barbie just up ahead, hovering over the smoking corpse of a freshly-burned spriggan.   While it’s good to know that my flame atronach didn’t abandon me after all, the presence of yet another dangerous enemy isn’t making me feel any better about our situation.

As my mind races, weighing our chances between this place and the howling blizzard outside, I watch Barbie perform a dazzling series of acrobatic flips and turns, making me smile despite myself.   Our lovely idea of discovering paradise may be deader than this crispy spriggan — but at least somebody still seems happy.


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