I hold up a hand. “There’ll be no need for that. I know what you want.”
Jenassa stops and lowers her blade. “The claw.”
“Yup.” I nod and turn around to look out over the lake in the distance.
She has me cornered. The only way to get down from the cave mouth is to climb unless I feel like chancing a thirty foot drop. If try to evade her and begin my descent she could easily grab her bow crack my skull with an arrow then take the claw off of my body below.
“You can’t let me have this one thing?” I ask.
“No. I had warned you beforehand. You knew this would happen.”
“I didn’t. You let me hold onto it when we found it. Why? You must have considered allowing me to keep it, at the very least.”
“This is not a negotiation. Don’t make me kill you.”
I spin around to face her again. “I told the trader in Riverwood that I would bring it back for them.”
“You agreed to something you knew that you would fail to do for them.” She draws her longsword and takes a step toward me.
“I was trying to do a good thing.” I clutch my pack tighter to myself. The golden claw is still inside. I console myself with that fact for the moment.
Jenassa darts forward, grabs my collar and lifts me up until only the tips of my toes touch the ground. She takes a few steps toward the edge of the cliff. I feel my feet alternate between lightly touching stone and hovering over empty air.
“You’re heavy, and I will not be able to do this for long,” she says, her arm trembling from the strain. Her expression was eerily impassive.
“You must be wonderful at card games with that face,” I grunt.
“I have had enough of your attempts at humor,” she says as she takes another step toward the edge. It takes all of my willpower not to frantically kick my legs until they touch something solid again.
“Okay, okay!” I grope for my pack. “I’ll give it to you! I’ll do whatever you want! Please, don’t kill me!” I offer her my pack and she takes it then lightly tosses it aside.
“Thank you.” She releases my collar and my heart lurches as I begin to fall. I don’t fall far before I’m able to grab onto a handhold in the rock and jam my foot securely in a shallow crevice.
From the sound of it she’s rummaging through my pack. Moments later I see it sail overhead and hear it land with a heavy thump below. She leaves me there clinging to the rock for dear life. Too terrified to move a muscle in case she changed her mind about allowing me to live, I wait until the sounds of her descent abate and then longer still until the sound of her boots on the grass grow too distant to hear. Then and only then do I climb down and salvage what’s left of my worldly possessions.
The claw is gone, but everything else has been left to me. The salted food I kept wrapped in the pack is a tad crushed but still edible. Thankfully, the fall had not smashed my spare mead flask, and I have enough water to last me some time.
I look around and try to get my bearings. I haven’t the foggiest idea where in Skyrim I am. I grab a compass from my pack and study it. The lake is north of me. It sounded as if Jenassa had gone west, though I cannot be certain. So, it is to the east that I shall go!
It’s dark and I am battered and exhausted both physically and mentally. I am covered head to toe in a mixture of the filth of the barrow and my own blood. As I am not courageous enough to bathe in what is likely to be another frozen lake, I pray for rain as warm as it may come in Skyrim. I follow the shoreline of the lake as I continue on in my search for civilization. I come across numerous paths into the mountains, though the sight of snow blanketing the passes discourages me from climbing them.
An hour of walking in the empty night without seeing a soul makes me realize that Jenassa’s company is missed. She may have been my captor. She may have betrayed me, robbed me then threw my belongings off of a cliff. She may have insulted me at every turn. But she was company. A voice that was always there whenever I spoke. I fold my arms tightly and shiver against a sudden cold breeze as I crest a small hill.
Off in the distance across the lake I see a house, a shed, a mill. Perhaps it’s a place to stay the night? A warm bed underneath a roof sheltering a warm fire is just the thing I need. I climb down the rocks and slip into the water. It’s chilly, though oddly refreshing.
At once I am at home in the water. I dart to and fro to catch salmon with my bare hands or my jaws. I swim deep to dip my hand into the soft soil of the lakebed. It reminded me of the waterways of Bravil back when I was but a little lizard, innocence largely intact. I swam the channels and often plumbed the depths of Niben Bay for lost treasures or bits of pretty rocks to take back to mother.
I float to the surface on my back and spit a small fountain of water. It’s time to head ashore.
Yep, it’s a mill alright. I’ve no idea how late at night it is, but I ache for a bit of warmth and comfort after what I have been through. I approach the cottage across from the mill and rap on the door thrice. The rhythmic creaking of the waterwheel nearly puts me to sleep. I rest my forehead on the door and shut my eyes while I wait for whoever is inside to climb out of bed, get dressed and let me in.
The door opens not long after my head touches the wood and I nearly pitch forward into the cottage. When I see the woman standing inside watching me, my jaw hangs open.
“Your eyes are glowing,” I say.
“I know.” She sighs and flicks a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Mage’s curse.”
I narrow my eyes. I know very little of sorcery. “Who cursed you?”
She thrusts a fist onto her hip and glowers at me. “A stranger knocks at my door in the middle of the night when my husband is away and asks me questions. I should slam the door in your face. Who are you?”
I grin toothily. “Billy McGonian the Fifth, MTS.”
“MTS?” She purses her lips. I can tell she’s curious.
“Maybe the Sixth.”
She laughs and steps aside to let me in. “Alright, you’ve earned your entry. Come on in out of the cold, Billy.”
I smile at her and enter. Her cottage is quite plain, but warm. Her pantry remains half-open and I can tell that it is quite well stocked. “You’re up quite late, miss. What’s your name?”
“Couldn’t sleep. I’ve been missing my husband. The wilds of Skyrim are lonely without him. It is a still night.” She notices me eyeing a seat by the burning hearth. “Please, sit. Relax. I am called Hert.”
“Yes. As in, Maybe I’ll hert you if you try anything funny, stranger.” She throws back her head and laughs. I smile. “What’s wrong? Didn’t get it?”
“I got it. I just didn’t find it funny.” I flash another grin and she laughs easily. A little too easily. She glides to the pantry and rummages through it.
“Where are you headed?” she asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m looking for a friend.”
“Is that so? Can I help?”
“Depends. Seen any dunmer?”
“Sorry. I have not. All I’ve see out here are the traders from Falkreath to the south seeking my lumber, and my husband. Ah! I have some leftover salmon steak and some bread. It’s not fresh, but it’ll fill ya.”
“No, thank you. I had some fresh salmon on my way here.”
She turned back to me and smirks. “Have you been poaching from my lake?”
“No, ma’am. I took a salmon, and am now declining a salmon. An equal trade.”
“Hah! I won’t be eating it, now. Since my husband has been gone, I’ve had…a hunger of a different sort.” She sighed the last few words and stood facing the pantry. I couldn’t see her face. My eyes dart from her to the door.
“Is that so?” I ask.
She shuts the pantry and turns around to face me. “It is,” she says. Her fingers lightly dance over the flimsy bit of string holding together her bodice.
“I need fresh air,” I say quietly.
“Oh? Let me join you.”
“No, that won’t be required,” I stammer.
“I insist.” She gives the lace a sharp tug.
“I’ll be back. I promise. I…I’m quite nervous. I don’t…perform-”
She smiles. “I take your meaning. Come back to me soon, hm?” I nod and slip outside. I fight the urge to tear off into the night. It is then that I catch a whiff of something odd. It’s coming from the shed. I glance back at the window of the cottage. She isn’t there. Under the cover of darkness I slip across the grounds of the mill to the shed and peer inside. The stench overtakes me.
Slabs of venison…mixed with human remains. My head swims. Of course it wasn’t a mage’s curse. The vampire did not hide herself well at all. It must have been some time since she last fed, or she would not have been quite so sloppy. She may also have passed off as one of the living on the outside as well.
I have alienated everyone I have met in Skyrim thus far. Am I so desperate for companionship that I seek it from those I know are the living dead? By the Eight Divines, what am I doing? I poke my head out of the shed and look to the cottage. I see a dark figure in the window that vanishes in an instant. My heart leaps into my throat.
I run until I cannot see the mill when I turn back to the south. There’s no sign of the vampire. I am about to pass out from exhaustion. I slide my pack onto the ground and fish out the small leather tent I had stitched together in Whiterun. When the tent has been pitched, I set about gathering firewood and setting up a pit.
It’ll do. I slip into the tent and lay down on my bedroll. A twig snaps somewhere in the night. I spring to my feet, draw my dagger and listen. Beyond the cacophony of the night insects, all I hear is the rustle of leaves and hooting of owls. I slide back into the tent and lay down, dagger still in hand. I’m still holding it when I drift off into a fretful sleep.