“Since it’s not terribly late, I want to stop at Gerdur and Hod’s house before dinner,” said Elspeth as they rented a room at the Sleeping Giant Inn. “I need to return the armor, but I also feel like they would be upset if they knew we ate and slept without seeing them first.”
“Yes, that sounds like typical Nord hospitality,” agreed Lydia.
“They are staunch Stormcloak supporters,” said Elspeth. “Just so you know….”
“I’m not going to argue about the war,” Lydia assured her. “Besides—”
“I know, I know, you’re on the side of Whiterun,” Elspeth teased and Lydia laughed. Elspeth looked serious for a moment and asked, “All your close friends, the Battle Borns—they are all loyal to the Empire. If you weren’t in Balgruuf’s court, your allegiances would lie with them, no? Even Hrongar is comfortable making his support of the Empire clear. And the Jarl’s his brother.”
Lydia looked thoughtful and after a few moments she said, “One advantage to serving in the court and deferring to Balgruuf in all matters of politics and war is that I never have to defend the fact that I don’t entirely disagree with the Stormcloaks.”
“Really?” Elspeth was somewhat surprised to hear this. Even Runa, who had seen some of the worst of what the Emperor and the Thalmor could do, remained committed to the idea of Empire—even if she thought Titus Mede was a milk-drinking coward.
“It’s no longer a cause I would take up arms for, but it’s not without merit either. Self rule. Free worship of Talos. I understand the appeal.”
“If it has merit, why not fight for it?”
“I considered it, briefly. But then I met Rundil, an Altmer priest, in Falkreath and all those ideals faded. I had escorted a priestess to his chapel and he asked me to recover his journal from a cave. I got stuck in that cave while there was a storm and I got bored and….” Lydia suddenly looked very guilty.
“And…” Elspeth prompted.
“I read the journal,” she confessed. “And I found out that for some reason he was terrified of the Thalmor. And it dawned on me that Ulfric Stormcloak wants Skyrim for the Nords, and only the Nords. Would he be willing to make Skyrim safe for mer and beasts and anyone else who feared and hated the Thalmor? And as much as I hate to admit it—and I’ve never said it to his face—Idolaf is right. Right now, the Empire is the only thing keeping the Dominion’s army from taking over Skyrim, even if they have to uphold that awful treaty to do it.”
Elspeth lowered her voice and smirked, “Maybe the Stormcloaks should join forces with my mother’s dissident elves. They could get rid of the Empire and the Thalmor.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Lydia laughed at the thought. Then she looked at Elspeth and asked quietly, “Do you think your mother has an army?” She was curious about the rumors but was unsure of how to broach the subject. Elspeth didn’t discuss her mother’s political activities often.
“I have no idea. The last thing I heard is that she wrote another pamphlet and two of her mages were executed after trying to poison a justiciar in Imperial City. She and her mages like to make things difficult for the Thalmor, but whether she is the insurrectionist leader she’s made out to be, I don’t know and, of course, Xeri wouldn’t let me find out,” Elspeth used an exaggerated tone for this last comment, which was intended to emphasize its obviousness.
“I can’t believe she didn’t let you go back to Frostcraig Village. Even…” Lydia paused. She wasn’t entirely sure that she should continue although it was too late. Elspeth knew what she was getting at. “…after what happened at Arcane University.”
They were outside the inn and walking through town now. Elspeth swallowed hard and looked around, shaking her head. She took a deep breath and replied, “No. And I considered going anyway. On the night I planned to sneak out, Runa caught me and talked me down. She reminded me that Xeri, although obstinate and aggressive, comes from a long line of Dumner wise women and warriors and I needed to trust her. Because my parents did. And she did.”
“And you trusted Runa.”
“More than anyone in the world. Your aunt took good care of me,” said Elspeth.
Lydia smiled upon hearing this and just as she was about to respond, she was interrupted by a man calling out, “Elspeth! You’re back!” It was Hod and he hurried up the road to meet them.
Just as she anticipated, Hod and Gerdur were happy to see her again and offered up their home. They declined the invitation to sleep there but Gerdur insisted that they stay for dinner. Over bowls of hot beef stew and mugs of mead, Frodnar entertained them with stories of his latest pranks, which included gluing the teats of a local woman’s cow together with glue. Elspeth and Lydia cringed while Gerdur shook her head and Hod encouraged the young lad.
When Elspeth asked about Ralof, Gerdur said that he stayed longer than he originally planned. Hadvar and another Imperial soldier passed through soon after she’d left. They spent a couple days recovering at Alvor’s house and so Ralof couldn’t leave until they were gone. Gerdur tried to assure Elspeth that Ralof was fine and probably settled back in Windhelm or at one of the Stormcloak camps but it was obvious that she was worried about her little brother.
After dinner they returned to the Sleeping Giant Inn and in the morning stopped at the Riverwood Trader, where they heard the shop’s proprietor, Lucan Valerius, arguing with his sister Camilla, as they entered.
“I said no! No adventures, no theatrics, no thief chasing!”
“Well, what are you going to do about it then, huh?” she asked angrily. “Let’s hear it.”
“We are done talking about this,” said Lucan firmly and then, as if he’d been startled by Elspeth and Lydia, exclaimed “Oh! Customers. I don’t know what you heard. But the Riverwood Trader is still open. Feel free to shop.”
“Did something happen?” asked Lydia as she looked around.
“Yes…well, we did have a break-in,” he admitted. “But we still have plenty to sell; the robbers were only after one thing, a solid gold ornament shaped like a dragon’s claw. I am almost certain it was taken by the bandits who are holed up in Bleak Falls Barrow.”
Elspeth mentioned that they were on their way to Bleak Falls and offered to retrieve his ornament. Lucan promised a reward if they brought it back. When they were back outside Lydia commented that their errand was turning out to be potentially more profitable than anticipated, “We should go treasure hunting more. Then we could have Eorland Grey Mane forge us new armor and I could afford to have Farengar enchant mine.”
Elspeth smirked, “Not mine?”
“When Farengar is your husband, he’ll enchant it for free,” she teased.
“I am never going to hear the end of this am I?” Elspeth laughed.
The walk to Bleak Stone Barrow was long and snowy but the cold air seemed to invigorate them both. As they approached the barrow, they caught their first bandit in a watchtower; he was no match for the combination of Lydia’s archery and Elspeth’s lightening spell. Lydia checked him for the ornament and took all his money. Elspeth was astonished at the casual way she looted the dead body. “We’ll give some to the temple,” Lydia reassured her. “Plus, it’s better to get the money back into commerce.”
“For Skyrim!” said Elspeth facetiously.
As they approached the steps leading up the entrance of the barrow they moved stealthily, stopping when they overheard another bandit: “So we’re just supposed to sit here while Arvel runs off with that golden claw?”
Elspeth nodded to Lydia and the two ambushed the bandits. Elspeth took hers down quickly while the second one fell back trying to dodge Lydia’s axe. “I surrender!” he exclaimed and Lydia grabbed and disarmed him. She held her axe to the bandit’s neck, “Who is Arvel and where did he take the claw?”
“I-I-Into the b-b-barrow,” he said. He was terrified. “Will you let me go?” Lydia kicked the dagger over to Elspeth and stripped him down to his woolies before letting him stagger off down the mountain.
“Are you sure that was such a good idea?” asked Elspeth. “What if he comes back with some friends?”
Lydia considered this. “He might,” she conceded. “But it’s getting late. We’ve a few hours before he’ll even get down the mountain, if the wolves don’t eat him alive.
“I’m keeping this dagger,” Elspeth said. It was dwarven and reminded her of the dagger she had for years back in Cyrodill, the one she used for skinning animals and other practical tasks that kept her alive in the mountains. It had been a gift from Shazir, the captain of Bruma fighter’s guild and it was among the possessions that the Imperials had taken when they arrested her.
They entered the barrow cautiously and Lydia tossed the bandit’s armor aside. The barrow was surprisingly well lit, which could only mean more bandits. And possibly marauders. In the open temple they took a couple of lookouts down and then proceeded cautiously to the lower levels of the barrow. The lower levels comprised twisted tunnels filled with tree roots, rooms containing burial urns, and a room with a puzzle that required solving before they could continue.
The puzzle room led to a round room with a spiral staircase leading down to what appeared to be a skeever nest and then into an embalming room. “Ugh!” said Lydia as she started cutting through some large spider webs. “Watch out for frostbite spiders.”
As they made their way down the hall, they heard a voice calling out: “Is someone coming? Is that you Harknir? Bjorn? Soling?” The voice belonged to a Dunmer who was trapped in a spider web.
And sure enough, from the ceiling dropped the largest spider Elspeth had ever seen. They killed the spider easily enough although both took a bit of venom. In the meantime, the Dunmer twisting the web was calling out to them, “You did it! You killed it! Now cut me down before anything else shows up.”
“Do you have the golden claw?” asked Lydia.
“Yes, yes I have it. Cut me down and it’s yours.”
Lydia looked for a way to cut the claw out of his pocket, but it was impossible. She looked at Elspeth and shrugged her shoulders. She cut him down and, to no one’s surprise, the thief ran off. They ran after him and caught up to his dead body and two draugr, which they took care of easily. They recovered the claw and moved on, confronting several more draugr as they made their way to another puzzle room.
At the end of a long, narrow room was a huge doorway with three moveable stone rings surrounding three small holes into which the prongs—or, fingers—on the golden claw fit perfectly. Elspeth determined that the engraved images on the claw, a bear, moth, and owl, were identical ones on the moveable stone rings on the door and she and Lydia lined them up in the same order. The door opened and they took a staircase up to an open cavern that appeared devoid of draugr—that is, until a one burst from a sarcophagus at the far end of the room.
This one was larger and far, far more powerful than the ones they had encountered earlier—it was a scourge lord. He threw Lydia clear across the room without even touching her. It took all of Elspeth’s magic but she finally defeated him. After she helped Lydia, they inspected the draugr and found the dragonstone. Elspeth also picked up his weapon, a beautiful ebony sword.
“Are you going to keep that?” asked Lydia.
“I don’t think so. I don’t mind keeping a bandit’s weapon but taking a warrior’s weapon somehow feels wrong.”
Lydia shook her head and explained, “You bested him. Also, the draugr aren’t the honored dead. They betrayed the Nords by serving the dragons. Take it. You made out nicely today.” She grinned.
Elspeth looked up and walked back toward the sarcophagus, approaching a massive wall with engravings, the likes of which she had never seen anywhere. There also appeared to be a message, in a script she could not identify. Regardless, she felt an overwhelming need to read the wall and as she examined the script, moving her hand across the carvings, she heard a deep hollow sound and felt a vibration in her head. She turned to Lydia, “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Lydia looked around. She was up by the wall now. “Some believe this is writing is the ancient dragon language.”
Elspeth started to describe the sound but stopped and shook her head. “You know a lot about dragon lore.”
“A bit,” she said, “I spent a lot of time reading in Dragonsreach before I was out traveling with Hrongar.” She looked around some more. “Come on,” she said, “I think we can get out this way.”
It was well past midnight when they arrived back at the Sleeping Giant Inn. In the morning they returned the claw to Lucan who paid them a generously. Later that evening, back in Dragonsreach, they found Farengar engaged in an intense discussion with a woman. Ancient texts. First era. Dragon war. Lydia cleared her throat.
Again, Farengar looked right past Lydia to Elspeth. “Hmm? Ah, yes, the Jarl’s protégé! Back from Bleak Falls Barrow? You didn’t die, it seems.”
“Here is your dragonstone,” said Elspeth as she handed the stone over.
“Ah! The Dragonstone of Bleak Falls Barrow! You already found it! You are cut from a different cloth than the usual brutes the Jarl sends my way.” Farengar was thrilled. “My associate here will be pleased to see your handiwork. She discovered its location, by means she has so far declined to share with me.” He gestured to the woman he had been speaking with.
The woman turned to them, “You went into Bleak Falls Barrow and got that? Nice work.”
Elspeth and Lydia nodded and left to find Proventus who was in the throne area talking with Balgruuf. “Thank you!” said Balgruuf. “Farengar tells me that the dragonstone is essential to his research.” He paused. “I suppose this means you are leaving Whiterun now.” He looked slightly bothered by this and Elspeth couldn’t tell if he was irritated or sad.
When they returned to Breezehome they counted all their coin. It was more than Elspeth had ever had to her name. They had enough now for at least two months of traveling, boarding, bribing, eating, and drinking. The next morning they would take the early carriage out of Whiterun.