Led astray and abandoned by my companions, I had found myself prisoner in a hateful frozen waste, awaiting an abrupt termination to my career at the hands of murderous authorities. Freed by the kindly intervention of a passing dragon, I had reluctantly fought my way free of the blazing ruins and followed a native guide to a nearby village in search of shelter, food, and more amenable company.
My guide Had Var led me into a dwelling and introduced me to the residents. These poor but generous folk welcomed me in with only a modicum of staring, and shared their meal with us. In truth, the cold had slowed my metabolism sufficiently that I had not yet digested my meal of, it emerged, two days earlier, when I was knocked unconscious and captured. More welcome was the roaring fire, where I warmed myself eagerly. Had Var was a little shy of the fire, presumably still shocked by the fiery destruction of his place of employment. I expressed due condolences, and offerd my hope that he would soon find fresh occupation with some more amenable employer. Looking around, I very much doubted that severance pay or unemployment benefits existed at all in this place.
Had Var assured me that he would cope, but was more preoccupied with a practical matter. The keep (a place called Hell End, I believe - how appropriate!) had been destroyed by a dragon, and someone ought to be informed. This had not, I confess, have been my first thought, but I realised as I considered the matter that there would undoubtedly be paperwork to complete, reports to write, and so on. Would I, perhaps, be willing to undertake a journey to the local jarl (some species of secretary) and pass on the news? He was naturally shy in asking me, considering how I had been treated. However, I was most willing. For one thing, though the house where we rested was warm and dry, I suspected that more salubrious quarters could be found elsewhere.
Moreover, the proposal showed once more the good sense he had always so far displayed. As the local man, he no doubt had all manner of responsibilities to perform, bodies to identify, salvage work to undertake, and so on and so forth. He was well-placed to take care of these matters. I, on the other hand, was a trustworthy, educated stranger with no immediate responsibilties in the area, and an obvious distaste for any further involvement with matters in Hell End. Nor could I possibly receive any censure for supposed dereliction of duty, always a risk for any underling delivering unwelcome news. Who bettter to carry a clear, reliable message to a town some distance away? It would, no doubt, also be an opportunity to receive apologies for my treatment, make appropriate arrangements for my return to civilisation, and perhaps even enjoy some more refined company.
Gathering a small bag of food in case of trouble, I strode outside. It was only an hour or so's walk to this town of White Run, and soon I would be on my way back to... actually, I could not quite recall the name of whatever benighted town had been our last port of call. Presumably, however, my baggage would still be there. Or at least, I could find a way to contact the traders I had been travelling with. That, at least, should not be difficult. One of them, I was almost certain, had been called Master Something. Another had a beard, and both of them wore dull-coloured limb-fitting garments much like those my recent host had sported. Was that not one of them across the street, perhaps looking for me? No, it would seem not. But that fellow over there had a beard! Ah, my mistake.
It appeared this might be a little more difficult than I had hoped. Still, first the brief stroll to White Run in the warm evening sun - the chill wind was less helpful, but I now had a warm cloak - and then all could be dealt with comfortably. I nodded politely to the guards as I wandered out of the town gate, turned a corner along the stream, and was immediately set upon by a pack of wolves.
With some difficulty, I extricated myself from the animals, with many benevolent thoughts towards my military tutors. It occurred to me that perhaps these animals were in some sense domesticated, living as they did so close to the town, and bent to check the bodies for brands or collars. Could it be simply that they had never before encountered one of our people? I found neither, but noted that the pelts were of a different subspecies to any encountered in our home shores. As such, I deemed it wise to remove them for later study. Comparative biology is not my primary field, but a scholar should always have an open mind and a wide range of interests. If they did not prove to be scientifically valuable, they might at least be of some use in keeping out the cold.
Finding the pelts a little inconvenient, I returned to the village and sought out a local trader. The family was apparently engaged in debate of some kind, and I politely waited for them to conclude. With some difficulty, I was able to converse in pidgin Human and persuade them to part with a few sacks in exchange for gold. I took the opportunity to also purchase some small jars and boxes to store the botanical specimens I had so far obtained. When the subject of the wolves was broached, with particular reference to their immediate proximity to this village, my interlocutor seemed rather offended than concerned. Perhaps wolves are a taboo of this proud people? Perhaps his civic pride was hurt at the implication that a traveller had been inconvenienced by their rather lax environmental management? I did not care to enquire further.
Observing me with interest - and one must assume that few of our people, and perhaps fewer educated folk, travel to this land - the male attempted some conversation that I struggled to follow. Luckily, his partner intervened. Apparently, something they described as a "golden claw" had gone missing, presumed stolen. I presumed this to be some species of local herb or fungus, prized for its medicinal properties, or perhaps a trinket; mildly interesting on a better occasion, but I could not immediately see why they wished to discuss it with me. However, at length I realised that they were discussing a relic that, if authentic, must undoubtedly be of genuine archaeological importance. A ten-inch golden object, with mobile joints, in the shape of a reptilian foot? You may be assured that this secured my attention.
The couple seemed to know where the purported thieves had taken their relic, and this made me wary. It is so easy for a visiting researcher to find themself involved in local matters and pressed to take sides. Was this truly a theft, or simply a case of disputed ownership? These cases are sadly common where historical artefacts are in question, and even in Blackmarsh it is not unknown for cases to proceed to the High Court itself. In this desolate place, where mere gold is prized so highly, there were undoubtedly other considerations in the case. My natural caution warred with my academic's inquisitiveness, and scholarship won the day.
The thieves, I was told, had travelled to a nearby ruin known as Bleak Fells, or Black Falls, or possibly Back Ferns, said to hold ancient crypts. This, I felt, disclosed the truth of the matter. Such a site would be an obvious draw for any scholar. It seemed to me that the most likely explanation was this: an archaeological expedition had travelled through the area and enquired in the village about relics, as is common practice, for many items are unearthed and kept for decades by laymen unaware of their true significance. The merchants had possessed this golden claw, and displayed it to their visitors. Perhaps they had agreed to a sale and later changed their mind, for often and often an owner will wilingly render up some item, only to later wonder whether they settled for too low a price, and have been cheated by the stranger with a greater knowledge of an item's value. However, let us be honest; it is by no means uncommon for underfunded researchers to resort to other means as necessary to secure a vital artefact.
In either case, my course was clear: I must immediately make contact with this expedition. As a scholar of architecture and associated matters, I had a natural interest in their work and was keen to learn more about it. Moreover, such a group was bound to have links to more civilised lands, and might be able to assist me in resuming my own journey. Perhaps I might even find one of my correspondents was present! In any case, I would take the opportunity to raise the question of this golden claw, and suggest that they carry out further negotiations with the previous owners. Such matters are, as readers will know all too well, of vital importance in maintaining the good reputation of scholars and their institutions. It is easy for one bad apple to impede future research by sabotaging relations with the local community, whose practical assistance and oral tradition is often so valuable to us.
Thus, I delayed my visit to the jarl a little, in order to pay a brief call to Black Fells. His, her or its paperwork would have to wait; I saw no particular urgency.
Black Fells turned out to be a large temple-like building high on a snowy mountain. Even at a distance, I was impressed that something of its age and primitive human craftsmanship had survived the centuries. While simple squares and walls may stand, it is unusual for complex and fragile arches to last in exposed positions, still less when subject to the gales and icy temperatures of this clime. All the more reason to study it.
I made a careful entrance, moving quietly and cautiously to minimise potential damage to the archaeological site or startling the workers. Inside, I found the pleasing glow of a warm fire crackling nearby, adjacent to a tunnel leading further into the complex. Two figures stood warming themselves at the fire, while I noticed the corpses of several large rodents scattered around the building. Sadly, it seemed that the complex had not survived as well as I hoped; large sections of the roof had fallen in, weakening the structure and leaving it liable to sudden collapse. The urgency of the survey work was clear, and I could see that the team had wasted no time in delving deep into the subterranean section while it was still accessible.
I stepped forward and called a greeting to them, waving my axe to attract their attention in the flickering firelight. To my surprise, they shouted agressively and drew weapons. Presumably, they feared I was a bandit of some kind, come to try and raid their camp. To soothe their fears, I lowered my axe, gripping it near the blade with my spare hand to show I meant no harm, and bared my teeth. Now, to the lay reader this may seem a curious way to show friendship; but humans have a gesture called "smile", used extensively as a sign of humour or peace.* I had had plenty of recent opportunity to observe the phenomenon, and even discreetly practiced it in my private chambers. The lips are curled back, the jaws slightly parted, the cheek muscles tightened, and often a sharp exhalation follows.
* Ziltrach and Hbiss, in their Comprehensive Introduction to Human Gesture, write extensively on this gesture and its subtle cultural and social connocations. Hbiss argues convincingly that it derives from a gesture of mercy to a physically weaker person, indicating that although fully capable of doing so, the smiler has made a moral decision to refrain from eating them. Ziltrach offers several interesting counter-hypotheses, including the argument from social advantage; that is so say, displaying a full set of teeth as an indicator of fitness, marking the smiler as a capable and valuable individual whose friendship is likely to be beneficial.
Despite my efforts, the humans remained alarmed, and one loosed an arrow at me while the other circled round. Unable to retreat through the door, I was forced to defend myself. Searching the bodies, I came to the conclusion that these could not possibly be academics. Most likely, then, they were guards or porters hired by the expedition leaders. It was most unfortunate that I had been obliged to kill them, but seeing my own extensive injuries I could not wholly sympathise. Thankfully, a schooling in basic healing magic allowed me to repair the worst of the damage.
At this stage I should, perhaps, have left a polite explanatory note and withdrawn. However, I was enchanted by the historic site, and felt a strong urge to follow the footprints leading deeper within. Perhaps, too, I would be able to speak with the expedition leader and make my apologies in person - surely any guards found within would be more sensible. In fact, a rational person would likely conclude that, since I was present in the inner chambers, I must have been allowed passage by the guards, since it was statistically improbable that a single and (I might add) physically unimposing stranger could have overcome them by force. Thus, I saw no reason for concern, and began my descent.
The catacombs were not splendid, but of respectable artistry and containing many ceramics that had survived the years. Sadly, large roots had broken through the roofs and walls in many places, shattering stone and blocking passageways. I doubted that funding would ever be available to fully excavate the ruins. There were sporadic signs of habitation - a brazier here, a footprint there - but I saw no-one. The tunnels grew increasingly thick with cobwebs, some of them both large and recent, and at last I came to a heavily-webbed chamber from whence a faint noise issued. Presuming this to be my fellow-scholar, I pushed through the fresh webs, announcing slowly and clearly that I was a friend, for I had no wish to meet with further violence.
Such a scene met my eyes. The room was a high and once ornate chamber, but now every inch was covered in layer upon layer of spiderweb. The bound corpses of rodents, and of humans, littered the floor. Against the far wall, I saw a faint struggling motion, and I realised at once that the archaeologist must have been seized and imprisoned here. But where was the culprit?
As it happened, the culprit was at that moment directly overhead and descending with great speed. It was only the faint clattering of cuticle against carapace that alerted me, and I sprang aside in mounting horror as the thing dropped. Its mandibles chattered, its myriad eyes glared balefully, and it approached with obvious predatory intent. Naturally, I turned tail and sprinted from the room at full pelt.
Having rounded the corner, I soon recollected that the entrance had been very narrow, and surmised correctly that the spider could not possibly have pursued me. My course of action was clear. I must free the unfortunate who had been captured, before their organs were rendered into a soupy broth by digestive enzymes; and, incidentally, take samples from this remarkable arachnid. It proved a straightforward matter to bring the creature down with repeated bowshots, though its intriguing habit of expelling globules of some neurotoxin was something of an impediment. Having no sample phials, I was obliged to collect some of the subtance in a small pot and seal it with wax. Thankfully, there were many candles nearby. Having secured my specimens, I took brief sketches of the web architecture and certain anatomical features, since it seemed improbable that I could convey the creature's corpse to any really competent taxidermist. I also secured some unhatched eggs from amongst the webbing, taking care to close and label these jars.
Having dealt with the urgent matters, I began to saw through the webbing around the latest victim, who had been shouting in a rather distracting manner for some time. Once his mouth (for it was a male) was free, and taking care not to loose any limbs in case of violent reactions, I introduced myself and enquired as to whether he was the gentleman studying the golden claw. He eagerly confirmed this; I could not quite make out his words due to his extreme zeal, but he clearly stated that he understood its secrets and would show them to me. This I took to be a sign of coherence, for he had apparently grasped that I was a fellow-scholar with whom he could talk sensibly.
My analysis proved to be a little inaccurate, for no sooner had I finished unbinding him than he sprang deeper into the tunnel, calling out in his enthusiasm. I deduced that some chemical action of the spider's venom had affected his mind, for he was clearly heedless of danger. Concerned that further spiders might be present, I followed at pace but a little more cautiously, and we entered a long burial chamber lined with decomposed bodies. Passing by, my keen eyes noted the once-fine burial cloths, obviously human bone structures, and extensive grave goods.
To my astonishment, my companion's progress was suddenly interrupted by some of the dead lurching upright and striking at him with rusting weapons.
Before I could intervene, he was struck down. It was all I could do to fend off my own attackers. Even now, I have not yet forgiven myself for this carelessness. Now and again, the scene will rise again to my eyes, and I wonder whether there was not something I could have done differently. If I had only been a little faster - been more hesitant to release him - performed a simple phlebotomy and sanguinochemical distillation - this fearless scholar might have lived to finish his work.
Having destroyed the creatures, I went to my companion's aid. Satisfied by the gaping wounds in his chest, cranium and neck, and the total absence of heartbeat or breath, that he was beyond my help, I carefully emptied his pockets. My hope was that the man carried some form of identification, along the lines of a personal seal, that would enable me to identify him and report his death; perhaps also return any notes to his department. Alas, there was none. Moreover, I found no documentation whatsoever, despite a thorough search of both corpse and the upper chambers. I was forced to conclude that whatever observations he had made, they were purely cerebral, or hidden so well that I could not discover them. Only the claw remained. It was exactly as it had been described: remarkable workmanship for its age, if rather crude. Geometric spirals decorate the digits, while the palm is inscribed with three stylised animals.**
For further particulars, consult Antique Dragon Claws of the Skyrim Region, Charvik U., AQ342, Press of the Eight Winds. The items can be inspected at the Academy by special arrangement.
I quickly realised what my companion must have always known: the claw was intimately associated with this monument. Unable to resist the temptation to venture a little deeper, I was forced to dispatch a number of animated skeletons - truly an uncomfortable phenomenon of this region, and one of which future travellers would do well to beware.
The tunnels proved of considerable interest, and I spent more time than I initially realised in taking down my observations by the light of the many convenient braziers, presumably imbued with some illuminatory enchantment. I even discovered simple mechanisms built into this tomb by the ancient architects - a very impressive demonstration of early engineering. In several places I was obliged to rotate symbols to reflect the symbology of the chambers - hardly an effective security measure, but nevertheless a feat of engineering. Similarly, the claw proved to be a key to a very fine bronze-worked door; displaying the same short-sighted cunning, the door contained a symbol lock whose combination was inscribed upon the key itself, without which an intruder could not in any case proceed further.
Eventually, I realised the hour was becoming late and was forced to leave, since I did not wish to spend the night in an inhospitable place. Rather than make the long trek round, I crested the mountain and found myself descending into a valley where a huge fire was blazing. Naturally, I made it my destination.
I quickly discovered the reason for the size of the fire: it had been constructed by a pair of vast humanoids. These, clearly, were the giants of which I had read so many papers. Though the creatures did not seem overtly hostile, I was well aware of the peril these simple brutes can present to a traveller, and effaced myself quickly - very, very quickly, in fact. Seeing faint smoke on the darkening sky, I continued northward towards what I correctly identified as my destination of White Run.
But first, I simply must investigate the intriguing half-ruined buildings that littered the valley floor. The jarl's paperwork would have to wait.