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.
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.
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.
If I had built up any expectations before stepping through a secret door deep in a hagraven’s lair, they would have been shattered within the very first minute. Aside from the fact that we’re still inside a cave, the area ahead of us is a stark contrast to the space we just left behind — from a damp, chilly, shadowy tunnel full of filth and spiders, to a warm, dry, well-lit expanse with a relatively clean floor and a welcome lack of arachnids. While it’s definitely a change for the better, it’s also a cause for concern. It seems pretty clear that this area is the real hideout, and the cavern we just left was nothing more than an elaborate entryway, with the hagraven and spiders acting as lookouts for whatever else might be hiding back here.
The other thing I notice right away is… the table.
There’s nothing particularly special about it. It’s just a sturdy wooden table, located quite close to the hidden doorway. But since we’ve just been in a place where the most sophisticated construction was a rickety bunk made of sticks and rawhide, seeing an everyday table in here is more than a tad surprising.
The other surprising thing is what’s on the table. I’m not sure what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect to see a collection of potions and shiny gemstones. Huh. Usually we have to fight more enemies than a single hagraven and a couple of spiders before we get to any of the good stuff, but I’ll take it. I’m just turning toward Jenassa to direct her attention to this most interesting find, when something else happens that I didn’t expect — and it nearly makes me jump out of my skin.
Passing through the entrance of the sea-battered cave, we find ourselves in the rough equivalent of a small vestibule. And I do mean rough. The cavern walls glisten with damp, but there’s no hint of lichen, seaweed, mushrooms, or any other substance that might lend a yielding texture to the implacable stone. Beneath our feet, the stone floor slopes down toward a wider opening that seems to be leading into the main chamber. It’s also pretty dark in here, but there’s just enough light for us to see. By unspoken agreement, we decide against lighting a torch until we have a better idea of what other creatures we might find inhabiting this place.
Once past the small entryway, the cave opens up dramatically. A velvety green phosphorescence shimmers distantly from the walls around us, and a narrow skylight pierces the roof above an inky underground river. Our path leads us along a wide sandy bank, but in the strange light, the substance beneath our feet appears less like sand and more like soot. It’s an unsettling scene, and for a moment I seriously consider heading back outside and taking my chances on the cold stony beach.
But aside from the gloomy view, the first thing I notice is the noise of the water. It’s a constant cascade of murmur, bubble, and splash, amplified by the rocky walls and startling in its volume. Surprised by the intensity of the sound, I turn to say something to Jenassa, only to find that my hasty speech is echoing throughout the cavern. So much for being stealthy. I immediately stop talking and make a mental note to proceed silently in here, since the ongoing reverberation of even the slightest sound makes normal conversation next to impossible.
After some time by the campfire and a bite to eat, Jenassa and I are ready to resume our seaside journey. Fortunately the wind has calmed down considerably, and the sun has risen high in the sky, shining down with a warmth that allows us to douse the fire without feeling the earlier chill in the air. Packing our bags with anything we can find that’s worth taking, we mount up and continue on our way.
The wild north sea batters itself ceaselessly against multiple small rocky islands and craggy outcroppings that stand just offshore. The weathered refuse of driftwood is scattered all along the beach, like old bones left behind after the meal of an ancient and voracious predator. Tufts of ragged grass sprout up from the bare rocks, clinging to whatever sheltered nook they can find, and the warmth of the sun belies the icy blue of the glaciers, silently drifting away on their inexorable odyssey.
Outside, I’m still in the middle of devouring my breakfast — and enjoying it quite a lot — when the door to the cabin opens. Glancing around, I watch as Jenassa steps out to join me on the weather-beaten porch, wincing as the frigid wind hits her in the face. Fortunately, it’s not quite as cold as it was yesterday evening, but I’m also not about to plan a beach vacation out here anytime soon.
Shutting the door behind her, my wife puts a hand on the porch railing and looks me in the eye. It’s clear from the expression on her face that she has something to say, so I decide not to speak in case I interrupt her train of thought.
And also because my mouth happens to be really, really full.
“You didn’t have to leave the room when you started eating breakfast, my love,” Jenassa says. “I know you were just trying to be polite, but you need to trust me when I say that I accept you as a werewolf. And that means you mustn’t retreat like this whenever you think your behaviour might bother me. It’s important that we adapt to anything that happens during the course of our lives, regardless of what those changes might be. And above all, we must never find ourselves keeping secrets from each other.”
During this short speech, I’ve been nodding my head between sentences, trying to chew and swallow as inconspicuously as possible. But when she finishes speaking, I have a moment of panic. There’s no way I can reply just yet, so I settle for making an intelligent-sounding non-verbal response to show her that I understand. I furrow my brow to show her how seriously I’m taking all this, but the only sound I can manage is an unintelligible grunt, which, if it were spelled out, might resemble something like, “Mrrwlfm.”