“Don’t be stupid, farmers have been using hilled rows for hundreds of years. It’s an efficient and effective method. If it weren’t, they would have found something else.”
“If efficient and effective is all you want, then yes hilled rows are preferable. But I’m telling you, my best tasting crop was grown in a raised bed I put next to my house.”
“You’re wrong, Trygve.”
“How could I be wrong?”
Elspeth was starting to miss the silence that had characterized the early part of their journey. After several days at High Hrothgar, they made their way to Ustengrav. Lydia had resumed her silent brooding although it seemed that she was no longer mired in the depths of despair; Trygve was quiet in deep, pensive sort of way. And as they got farther and farther away from the safe confines of High Hrothgar, Elspeth’s anxiety over being Dragonborn returned. Rather than confide it, however, she tried to remain focused on the task at hand. When that didn’t work, she thought about Onmund. The ache in her heart that missing him inspired was preferable to the weight in her gut when she thought about being Dragonborn and the raw, mysterious power she now possessed.
On the fourth day of their trip, Trygve led them through a shortcut over the border into Hjaalmarch hold. Snow wolves were in abundance, though they proved to be more of a nuisance than a danger. Trygve killed them easily, always with a single shot. And while Lydia rarely missed, she used twice as many arrows, sometimes only disabling the creatures and needing to finish them off with her axe. They were adequate kills, but she found herself growing increasing irritated by Trygve’s efficiency and grace. And she became even more annoyed when he told Elspeth to stop using fire and shock spells because she was ruining perfectly good furs.
That’s when the bickering began.
At first, they were simply chatting about the supplies they needed to procure in Morthal, but it wasn’t long before he and Lydia were at it. Elspeth soon learned that there was not a single topic they wouldn’t squabble over. Mead, Honningbrew or Black Briar? Heavy armor, Orcish or ebony? Horkers, friends or food?
Elspeth was happy to lend her opinion on matters of food and drink, or weapons and armor, but when the conversation turned to the issue of whether or not Steward Falk Firebeard seemed like the sort of fellow who might run a brothel, Elspeth groaned and covered her ears. Lydia was determined to have the last word on everything and Trygve treated each and every argument with his trademark seriousness. If he was joking, there was no way to tell as his countenance betrayed little more than complete sincerity.
“Okay genius, tell me this. Where is all the soil needed to fill those beds going to come from? And how much will it cost for all the extra labor and supplies?”
“Lydia, I am not making a case for an overhaul of large-scale farming methods. Stop misconstruing my point.”
“You’re still wrong.”
Well, Elspeth thought as they approached Morthal, at least they were arguing potatoes and not politics. As they entered the town, they hurried past Highmoon Hall where several residents were embroiled in an argument with Alsfur. The reason for the confrontation was not clear, but the steward was desperately trying to assure the angry and frightened townsfolk that the Jarl was aware of their concerns and that she would take care of them.
“Idgrod and her damned wizard,” muttered Trygve as they entered Moorside Inn. Elspeth went to protest, but thought better of it when she considered the argument that would ensue. The Inn was quiet and empty but for the Bard and the proprietor, Jonna, who was thrilled to have a group of hungry guests to feed. After they rented a room and washed up they settled in for an enormous meal of salmon steak, steamed mudcrab legs, roasted potatoes, snowberry crostata, bread, and mead. Trygve’s seemingly never-ending supply of dried venison ensured that they were never hungry on the road, but there was something about hot, fresh food that made everyone feel famished. Within moments of being served, there was no more bickering, no talking at all, nothing but the sound of appetites being sated.
Despite the good food and warm hearth, Elspeth found herself feeling a bit sad as she recalled the last time she stayed at the Inn, drinking and brawling with Benor. It had been less than two months since the incident at Northwatch Keep and yet it seemed like it happened in another lifetime. She let her thoughts wander as she rested her head on her arm while Lydia annihilated another piece of crostata and Trygve finished his drink. Her eyes grew heavy and she so she closed them for just a moment.
Elspeth groaned as she peered out from under her bearskin to find Trygve standing at the foot of the bed, arms crossed, eyebrows raised, and sporting a grin that might have been endearing if she wasn’t so resistant to getting out of bed.
“Go away.” Lydia’s voice was muffled under the blanket next to her.
“Get up,” he was insistent but not harsh. “You can’t possibly be tired.”
At least he wasn’t chipper, Elspeth thought. But he was right. She was well rested and in other circumstances would have been perfectly keen on starting the day. But it was the first comfortable bed she’d had in weeks. And by Trygve’s estimate, they could be on the road by early evening, which meant that it would be at least another week before she would be sleeping in her own bed. And that’s assuming they would be heading back to Whiterun.
“Come on!” Trygve yanked the bearskin away, causing Elspeth to shudder and curl into a ball. “Oh please,” he said. “It’s not that cold—even for a Breton. Are you not feeling well?” He cocked his head and looked at her intently.
“I feel fine,” she said as she rolled on to her back and stared at the ceiling, once again trying to regain the clarity she’d attained before they left the Greybeards so that she could focus on the task and not what might come after. She hadn’t even begun to consider what being Dragonborn would mean to the College and the Psijic Order, if it would mean anything at all. For now, she had to believe that she could simple bring the horn to the Greybeards, return to Whiterun, and find comfort in Onmund’s arms. The bigger picture, the next thing—it was simply too much.
Trygve just stood there, staring at them with his lips pursed. Finally, after some more grumbling and stretching, the women were up and dressed. Jonna had food ready and after a hearty breakfast of cured meat, porridge, and warm mead, they left, traveling by foot through the foggy marshes that bordered the town. The ruin was not far, but their journey was slow as they trudged along cautiously—avoiding pockets of cold slushy water, picking off frostbite spiders, and waiting as Trygve’s harvested alchemy ingredients
“Did you know,” he said as he held up the toxic petals of the deathbell flower, “that deathbell is one of Skyrim’s most poisonous plants, second only to Nirnroot? Well, there is also the poison bloom, but that is so rare, it’s found in little more than fairy tales at this point.”
“Yes,” said Elspeth as she let out an impatient groan. “You’re not the only alchemist here.”
“Though common,” he continued, “this plant is shrouded in mystery and myth. Some claim that it grows where individuals have met their untimely and unfortunate demise. Others say that it grows and lures unsuspecting people to their deaths.” The steady cadence of his voice never wavered. He was impervious, it seemed, to the irritation he very clearly inspired in others.
“What do you think?” asked Lydia, somewhat incredulous that their otherwise practical acquaintance was regaling them with the mythology of Skyrim’s fauna.
“I don’t care,” said Trygve, shrugging his shoulders. “Like any Nord, I enjoy a good tale. But really, the only thing that matters is that I can concoct a deadly poison with these. I’m going to test this on the dragon scales I harvested.” He stopped and put his hand to his face, gripping his chin in his fingers. “I wonder if could enhance the blood-freezing properties of spider venom by…” His voice trailed off and he just stood there thinking, as Elspeth and Lydia rolled their eyes and started walking toward the direction of Ustengrav, despite the fact that they were likely to get lost without him.
As if on cue, Trygve shifted his attention again and stepped ahead of the women. Soon they were crouched and waiting just outside the ruin where Elspeth cast a detection spell.
“I’ve detected about three creatures,” she explained. “By their size and shape, it’s people. Probably the bandits Jonna mentioned last night.” They stepped around so that they could see the group near the ruin, which turned out to be two bandits fighting a necromancer. Elspeth’s eyes widened in eager anticipation and she readied her casting hand. She gestured for Trygve to draw the bandits out, but he looked at her intently and shook his head. Lydia covered her mouth and chuckled lightly. Trygve could deal with Elspeth’s zeal now. He could try to rein her in as she bounced around, throwing herself into scuffles with every bandit and necromancer this side of White River.
Elspeth looked back at Trygve with confusion, but he simply lowered his hand to her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Just watch,” he said as if the most interesting thing in the world was about to happen. Elspeth furrowed her brow, and much to Lydia’s surprise, stood back and waited. Whether by stealth or melee combat, Elspeth always preferred to step into the fray.
The powerful necromancer destroyed the bandits in mere moments and came directly into view as he walked around to inspect his kill. Elspeth and Trygve nodded to each other and with an expertly aimed arrow and shock spell, swiftly killed the mage.
“Well, it’s good to see someone can temper your enthusiasm,” said Lydia, somewhat sardonically and Elspeth couldn’t tell if she was joking or genuinely upset at how she and Trygve had worked together.
“I’d like to think it’s less about tempering enthusiasm and more about conserving energy for the more powerful thing that’s lurking around the corner,” explained Trygve as he looked down toward the entrance to the ruins. “Deathlords and the like.” It wasn’t anything that Xeri hadn’t told her a million times before, but unlike the harsh, demanding tenor of her mentor’s demands, or the way that Lydia tended to give up or simply throw herself into whatever skirmish Elspeth wanted to join, there was something persuasive in Trygve’s demeanor, his matter-of-factness.
He led them through the ruin’s entrance, which opened to a wide hallway and on to a several large, well-lit rooms. They came upon a scene similar to the one they’d encountered outside: bandits and mages. Once again, they waited as the mages made mincemeat of the bandits and then a big longer, as the draugr that had been disturbed by the brawl assaulted the mages.
When the mages were dead, they confronted the draugr. Trygve stayed at range, while Elspeth and Lydia moved in. Elspeth used spells to hold them while Lydia cut them down with her axe. It was like a carefully choreographed dance and they moved through the ruin like this, up narrow stairways, across bridges, killing draugr as they went, until they came to a door.
This door opened to a dimly lit hallway, with tree branches and roots covering the floor and ceiling. They walked deliberately, feeling their way toward a light ahead of them. When they approached, Elspeth let out an audible gasp as they discovered a massive forested cavern that was illuminated by sunlight coming through cracks in the ceiling.
“Wow,” said Lydia as she stepped ahead. “Would you look at that?”
Indeed, Elspeth didn’t want to stop looking at it. It was eerie and beautiful and she wanted to sit and empty her head of everything but the echo of the rushing waterfall.
Lydia sensed her contentment and smiled before beckoning her back toward the ruin. “Let’s find the path to the bottom,” she suggested. They continued to move through the ruin, killing draugr and skeletons, and soon found themselves on the path that led them to the bottom of the cavern, a misty grove that, in addition to pine trees and other common forest plants, contained a wall similar to the one they discovered in Bleak Falls Barrow. Elspeth approached it cautiously, and once again heard a sound and felt a vibration. This time, however, the deep hollow sound formed a word in her head that she could decipher.
And she knew it meant fade, but she wasn’t sure why or how she knew this. Or what might happen if she dared say the word, while drawing that peculiar power from deep within herself. She wanted to laugh at the strangeness of it all, but she simply couldn’t. She looked around and saw that Trygve and Lydia were settling down and pulling dried meat, fruit, and mead out of their satchels. Was all of this strange for them too, she wondered? She walked back and sat next to Lydia who nudged her affectionately and smiled as she handed her some food.
Trygve looked around as he chewed his food and swallowed the last gulp of his mead. He tilted his head and pointed to a bridge running directly over them.
“That’s where we need to go next,” he said.
The women nodded and finished their food. Elspeth was comfortable on the damp duff and was rather reluctant to get up, which was unlike her. Lydia looked at her intently; Elspeth wasn’t normally inclined to sitting idly about and she became concerned for her, realizing just how weary the notion of being Dragonborn was making her. Meanwhile, Trygve just became impatient.
“Say lollygagging and I will cut you.” It was adorable when Toki said it to shoo the town children away from the market stalls but Lydia found it utterly exasperating coming from Trygve. Elspeth simply laughed as she stood up and brushed wet leaves and sticky pine needles from her armor.
Just over the bridge, they came to a room whose exit was blocked by three gates that appeared to be controlled by three stones. Standing near a stone caused it to light up and open a gate. But every time Elspeth moved away from her stone, its gate came crashing down. In order to pass through, they had to keep the three stones glowing simultaneously.
“We need a fourth person,” said Lydia. “Someone to light the last stone while Elspeth pulls the chain on the other side. Maybe a draugr thrall can stand there.”
“I don’t know enough conjuration magic to reanimate a draugr,” Elspeth replied. She tried casting a familiar, but the ethereal wolf did not keep the stone lit.
“You need to shout and sprint across,” said Trygve.
Damn, she thought. He was probably right. “I wonder if the Greybeards knew about this,” she said as she studied the path between the stones and the tunnel. It was far more dangerous than the practice setup back at High Hrothgar. One slip and the gate would come crashing down on her head.
She did two practice sprints before she readied herself in front of the tunnel. Then, after taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and shouted, WULD.
The gate grazed her back as it came crashing down and she quickly turned and pulled the chain so Lydia and Trygve could join her.
The subsequent rooms were filled with spiders and the floors rigged with firetraps. After a few minor burns, they managed to make their way through. Finally, after cutting through a thick web they found the end of the ruin.
“That’s the tomb ahead,” said Trygve as they approached. It was decorated with ancient dragon carvings and adorned with a carved hand that seemed to reach out from the top. The horn, however, was nowhere to be found. Instead, the hand held a slip of folded paper, which Elspeth took and read.
I need to speak to you. Urgently.
Rent the attic room at the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood, and I’ll meet you.
“Oh for the love of Talos,” she exclaimed as she handed the note to Lydia and slumped down on the step. And in that moment, four days of pushing her anxieties aside came crashing down on her head. She didn’t wail or scream in frustration, she simply looked at Lydia with tears in her eyes and asked, “Why can’t it ever be simple?”
“Elspeth,” Trygve interjected. “This is merely a detour and it’s probably about as simple as you could possibly—”
“Shut up Trygve.” Lydia put her arm around Elspeth’s shoulder and pulled her close. “He’s not wrong,” she whispered.
“I know,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s just…this is really unnerving me. And I feel like it shouldn’t.” She stopped. This wasn’t the first time they’d been thwarted from a goal. But the anxiety was becoming overwhelming and it was something she couldn’t explain.
Lydia bit her lip and thought for a moment. “Xeri prepared you for so much,” she said. “She trained you for just about everything you could possibly confront, but this is bigger, it’s….” Her voice trailed off. She had no idea what to say, how to put things into perspective. But such angst would leave Elspeth vulnerable and feeling sorry for herself and that was dangerous. She looked up at Trygve, half expecting him to scoff at them both. To her surprise, he did not.
“You were trained to be a warrior Elspeth,” he said. “No one can train to be a legend. That’s what you have to figure that out as you go along. But the tasks are still just tasks.”
Elspeth let out a deep breath and nodded reluctantly as Lydia helped her to her feet. She looked at the note again and said, “I guess we’re off to Riverwood to meet my new friend.”
“Maybe this friend will buy the good mead,” suggested Trygve.
“You mean Honningbrew?”
“Black Briar reserve.”
“Trygve, you’re wrong again.”