We leave before first light. The stars wink out one after the other in preparation for the dawn. The weather is pleasant on the day I believe will be my last. I imagine the air shall be crisp and clean as I desperately suck it down into my punctured lungs to hang onto life just a moment longer.
Too morbid? Walking into certain death does that to me. I had heard talk of Bleak Falls at The Sleeping Giant. Aside from the group of bloodthirsty bandits I know for a fact are there, there are rumored to be traps and ghosts and darker things lurking about. My partner seems to be a psychotic murderess whose loyalties lie in the pouch of gold she has already received from me prior to this. I could be misjudging her. I hope I am. My life is in her hands, and to be honest, my life isn’t worth much.
I take a leisurely pace. There’s no rush. We follow the road north out of Riverwood and take the path on the left into the mountains where it first diverges. The massive arches of Bleak Falls Barrow loom above, as dark and foreboding as any other nordic burial site. A wolf’s howl pierces the morning birdsong. Both my companion and I draw our weapons and crouch in anticipation of an attack, but all is calm. We continue on, weapons still drawn.
The higher we climb, the more sparse the greenery becomes. The ground is both frozen and covered in jagged rocks, which is a lovely combination. After an hour of walking, the sun has disappeared behind the clouds and I am struck by a cutting wind and chills to the bone. I am terribly under-dressed for this occasion. A travel cloak would be nice right about now. I look to Jenassa to see how she fares. She grins at me and spits a barb not worth repeating. Dressing up comments and questions as insults seems to be a jolly dunmer pastime. I wonder if I should have hired that blasted nord instead.
Snow begins to fall as the ruins of an old tower come into view. I am more concerned with the cold, at the moment. I cannot remember a time where I have felt it more deeply in my very being than now. I crave the warmth of a hearth or a nice hot soup. Suddenly, Jenassa grabs me and pulls me down behind some sturdy mountain shrubs. “Wait,” she says. “Bandits.”
She eyes me sharply. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“How do you know for sure?”
She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Because they’re armed to the teeth and squatting in a collapsed tower.”
“Maybe they live there.”
“Nords love cold. Right?”
She groans. “Why must you be so difficult?”
“I paid you, didn’t I? I’m allowed. Besides, I know what you’re thinking of doing. I don’t want you to feather some happy nord band living up in the freezing cold. I would like to be certain of their disposition before murdering them.”
“We don’t have that luxury, McGonian. If we’re wrong about them and try to pass, they’ll ambush us.”
“Sure we do. We can hide behind a rock and ask them nicely to let us through.”
Her red eyes are smoldering. “Okay, Argonian. Go. Walk out there. If they crack your skull with an arrow, I’ll know they aren’t friendly.”
I feel defeated. I still fear her more than the so-called bandits, but she had a point. “Fine, we’ll do things your way.”
She nods. “Okay. Walk out there.”
I take a moment to think long and hard. “Okay. New plan.” I tap the palm of my hand with a finger. “You have the coin I gave you.” I clap my hands together. “You are dismissed. I change my mind.”
She stares at me. ‘Stare’ is not the right word here, on second thought. It’s as if her mind has gone completely blank, but her eyes are still working out of spite to burrow into my skull. It’s very unsettling, is what I’m saying here. She’s excellent at that.
Shortly before I was planning on turning to leave, she grabs my shoulder and shoves me out of our hiding spot. I stumble forward but keep on my feet. I can see them in the distance, now. Small figures wandering about the base of the tower. I turn around to search for my companion, but she’s vanished into thin air. I hug myself tightly to brace against the cold and begin walking forward. I can vaguely make out their faces, now. Nasty-looking armor, axes and bows. Filthy, haggard people. I see four in all. One of them standing by the door to the tower shouts something and points in my direction. The rest of them freeze and turn to me.
What am I supposed to do now?
“Hello, there!” I call. One of them lifts his bow and takes but a moment to aim before an arrow sails into a tree far to my left. Warning shot. “Well, that was hardly necessary!” I shout. I raise my voice to be heard over the whipping wind and the distance. “I’m just passing through! I know you’re all here living in your weird…tower…does that thing have a roof? Y’know, take a slight tumble and there’s a nice inn down there, they serve good-” Clack. An arrow impacts the frozen dirt inches from my foot and clatters to the ground. “-YSMIR IS LORD!” I throw up my hands in front of my face and recoil in horror.
I see something out of the corner of my eye. A blur of gray and brown. Jenassa charges in wielding two blades, one in each hand. One blade slides through the belly of a bandit who had been charging straight for me. While she withdraws one weapon she uses the other to cut his throat. She rushes behind a boulder and crouches to drop her swords and grab her bow. “Do something!” she shouts to me.
The bow is in my hands fast enough, though I nearly drop the thing in my panic. I fumble to nock an arrow before I realize that none of the other bandits are within my range. Standing there in the open like a bloody idiot is all I know to do in this situation. There are three bandits remaining, two ahead and to the right taking cover behind a mess of boulders, and one standing in the doorway to the tower. I remember to move after another incoming arrow nearly scrapes some scales off of my cheek.
Jenassa has her bow drawn and is advancing on the two to the right. The bandit in the doorway dead ahead of me is taking aim. He is paying me no mind. I hurry forward to get close enough for a good shot. For once, I feel no fear. Everything slows down. It’s unreal. I never expected battle could be so damn quiet. There’s no shouting, no screams of agony, no clash of steel. The snow whirls about in complete silence as I raise my bow and take aim at that man in the doorway. It’s just like hunting. It’s like any other elk. I release my bowstring and exhale slowly. It seems to make no sound as it travels through the air and strikes the man in the thigh.
His scream snaps me back to reality. He limps back through the doorway. Jenassa joins me, walking away from two fresh nord corpses with a pilfered axe in hand. She disappears inside and I hear an ugly wet sound, then silence.
It’s over fast. I feel the debilitating sting of the cold as if it had been absent during the fight. My legs are shaking uncontrollably and do not respond properly to my attempts to move them. Jenassa has not left the tower, so I stagger on toward the building and its potential shelter. Upon witnessing what Jenassa had done to the final bandit, I proceed to vomit what I had struggled down for breakfast that morning.
The damn tower doesn’t have much of a roof. It might as well be open air. Still, I manage to find a corner to set up a controlled flame. As per our agreement, I am forbidden to take the possessions of the slain bandits, though when I ask to wear the warm fur armor of one she relents. I’m no use to her frozen to death, after all. The fire and the furs are awfully nice, though I have a sudden and awful realization.
I’m not getting any colder than I already am, but I am also not getting any warmer. I sit by the fire and lift my knees up to curl into a ball as tightly as I could manage without looking overly foolish. No amount of willpower prevents my limbs from shaking violently from the cold and trauma.
The slight snow flurry outside has become a blizzard. Though Bleak Falls is a stone’s throw from where we have made “camp”, it is difficult to detect its massive archways through the wall of white that has come in. I am not prepared for this. I’ll die in moments out there.
Jenassa is leaning against the wall with her eyes shut. She seems…relaxed. Warm, too. I’ve no idea how this mer does it. I do know I am not like her, however. Adventure, murder, staring death in the face at every turn – it’s not worth a solid gold claw. It’s not worth the stained and ill-fitting fur armor I wear. I know for a fact I would not be able to make it the short distance to Bleak Falls.
I look to my companion. “J-Jenassa.”
She inclines her head. “Yes?”
“I cannot go any further. It is too much. The cold alone will prove to be the death of me.”
“Oh?” Her expression is impassive. It’s difficult to read, though I believe she’s somewhat disappointed.
“Y-yes. I am s-s-sorry. I’m turning back to Riverwood once I r-regain my strength.”
“No. You are not.”
It takes a moment for her words to sink in. “Since when is that your d-decision?” I ask, more panicked than angry.
She moves to me and bends down to grab my collar. I try to look away but she shakes me until I make eye contact. My fingers pass over the hilt of my dagger, though I am too afraid to unsheathe it. “If you attempt to leave now, I will kill you,” she says.