Waking to find herself at Hunter’s Rest, fully dressed, with all her gear and Meeko asleep beside her, was, Alexa felt, a significant step up from either the Temple of Dibella or a cart full of Stormcloak prisoners. Surprisingly she wasn’t even particularly hangover, though hangovers seemed to be taking more work to achieve these days. She stretched, sat up, and immediately regretted it. It had snowed over night and the air outside of her bedroll was bitter cold.
“Morning, sunshine,” Olel, the Redguard hunter that frequented the camp smiled. “I’m surprised you’re awake. You arrived late enough last night that Holki,” she gestured to her Nord companion by the fire, “and I didn’t even notice you come in.”
Alexa smiled at the friendly woman, shivered convulsively, and pulled her winter coat off Meeko – who was using it as a blanket – and wrapped it tightly around herself. “Where did I leave my boots…” she murmured to herself, looking around as Meeko made a grumbling noise of complaint and curled into a tighter ball flipping his tail over his nose.
“We put them by the fire to warm up,” Holki explained as he handed them to her.
“Thanks,” Alexa smiled at him. “That was thoughtful of you.”
Holki shrugged dismissively and went back to tending the fire.
“There’s leftover stew in the pot,” Olel informed her as Alexa struggled with her boots. The multiple sets of fasteners on the back of the Dark Brotherhood style boot may have lead to an excellent fit but were not easy to manage with rapidly numbing fingers. Finally finished Alexa nudged Meeko awake. “If you get up I’ll give you some stew,” she told the dog.
Meeko opened one eye and blew expressively through his nose.
“It’s warm stew,” Alexa told him, rolling up her bedroll.
Meeko groaned to his feet and stood, looking expectantly, at Alexa. She handed him his plate out of her pack and he took it to Holki at the fire.
“Nice trick,” Holki acknowledge gruffly. “How much should I give him?”
“About a cup,*” Alexa answered, joining them at the fire with her mug and some tea leaves in a small bag. The covered pot hanging over the fire was steaming in a way that indicated it was full of hot water not soup.
“What about you?” Holki asked, setting down Meeko’s plate.
“I don’t do well with a lot of food this early in the morning,” Alexa answered with a slight grimace, filling her mug with hot water. “I’ve got some bread and cheese that will do for me. Is there anything I can do for you two to thank you for your hospitality?”
The two hunters looked at each other. “Do you have any mead?” Holki asked.
“I have no idea,” Alexa responded, putting her tea down to steep, and beginning to dig through her pack. “Let me see… yes, it would appear I do have mead,” she answered and began to make a pile of bottles on the ground. In truth it appeared that not only did she have mead but that all of the food items in her pack had – miraculously– been replaced with alcohol and honey nut treats.
Olel gave her a concerned look.
“It seems my friends have played a prank on me,” Alexa offered, hoping the other woman would buy it. “Do you guys have any travel food you’d be willing to part with?”
“Where are you headed?” Holki asked, as they exchanged some dried meat and a few apples for seven bottles of mead.
“Solitude,” she answered, tea in one hand, honey nut treat in the other, “by way of Rorikstead and Dragon Bridge.” Which was the truth, even if she planned to make a few stops along the way.
“Bundle up tight then,” Olel recommended. “The wind on the plane can be fierce this time of year.”
It was around noon when Alexa first spotted a taproot hanging from a dead tree. A little further on she came upon a deer skull effigy of Hircine sitting on the edge of a grove of dead trees. “This has got to be the place,” Alexa murmured to Meeko, scratching him reassuringly behind one ear. If Taran’s information was correct, the cave, housing the last remaining members of the Glenmoril Wyrd in Skyrim, should be nearby. Taran had given Alexa the information the last time she’d been in Markarth. But she’d had Lydia with her and so, not wanting to reveal the Circle’s secret, hadn’t been able to act on it until now, over a month later. Something she was feeling a little guilty about.
As Alexa and Meeko approached the cliff face, following the trail, she could see a woman in a black hooded robe warming her hands over a brazier marking the entrance of a cave.
“Hello?” Alexa called out, to the woman by the brazier, not willing to risk startling her by approaching unnoticed.
The woman started and looked wildly about her. “You never should have come here!” she snarled, upon seeing Alexa, a lightning spell charging in her hand.
“I am a Beast Master of Hircine and I am here to speak with a member of the Glenmoril Wyrd!” Alexa called out, using a ward spell to absorb the lighting bolt.
The hag canceled her next spell her body language expressing confusion and distrust. “You’re what?” she demanded.
“A Beast Master of Hircine,” Alexa enunciated carefully. Seeing that the hag was unconvinced she continued, “I promise to stay right where I am if you go tell them I’d like a word.”
“Stay right there then,” the hag ordered disappearing into the cave and dropping a lightning rune on the ground behind her as she went.
It was about six minutes later when the rune was dispelled and a Hagraven, attended by a different hag, came out of the cave. “You say you are a Beast Master?” the Hagraven croaked, eyeing Alexa suspiciously. “Prove it. Command this one to do your bidding,” she ordered, indicating the hag she had brought with her.
Alexa turned to the silver-eyed woman. “Sit,” she commanded, her voice rumbling slightly with the echoes of one trained in the thu’um. The hag dropped to the ground without a moment’s hesitation.
The Hagraven nodded. “Good.” She turned away, waving for Alexa to follow her into the cave. “What is it you seek from the Glenmoril, Beast Master?”
“I seek understanding of the gift of lycanthropy; how the transfer of blood can summon a beast-spirit from Oblivion to bond with a living being and how it can be sent back,” she answered mater-of-factly.
The Hagraven gave her a sidelong glance. “It is conjuration. Summon into this world, banish into a host. The blood is just a conduit. To send back is simply the reverse. Summon from the body, banish into Oblivion.”
“But how is such a thing achieved?”
The Hagraven began to chuckle, wheeze, and finally collapsed in a gasping pile of feathers and elongated limbs. “Lord Hircine didn’t bother to explain much to you, did he?” she cackled.
“Something of an understatement,” Alexa grumbled.
The Hagraven stood back up. “You are a Beast Master,” she told Alexa, still grinning. “Make the connection between the realms, as you would with any conjuration, then order the spirit away.” She leaned over, looked Alexa in the eyes, and inhaled deeply. “The Harbinger seeks his freedom, doesn’t he?”
“He does,” Alexa answered, a little surprised that she apparently still smelled of the Circle. Though armor was notoriously difficult to get smells out of.
The Hagraven nodded once and turning to one of the worktables, drew out a thin journal, and threw it at Alexa. “You are a Beast Master. It is given to you to attend to the needs of Hircine’s beasts, not me. Now go away!”
“Sinding! Are you here?” Alexa called, standing in the remnants of the hunter’s camp just inside Bloated Man’s Grotto, the glow of twilight painting the sky above her in pinks and golds. Getting no response she took the path to the right and found him, curled up on a pile of hay, in front of the shrine of Talos
“Alexa!” Sinding looked up at her in surprise. “I… I must have actually been asleep.”
She held up the journal she’d gotten from the hagraven and smiled. “You still interested in a cure?” she asked him.
The courier caught up with Alexa in Solitude.
She supposed it wasn’t too surprising that summoning an undead dragon, to help her search for a ghost, might have caught someone’s attention. Worth it though. Durnehviir had spotted the woman’s husband’s spirit in only a few minutes. She might have spent the better part of a day looking for him.
A “friend”, huh. Delphine had used the same sign-off, in the note she left at Ustengrav, but the tone of this letter didn’t sound like her. Who would know what a word wall was much less enough about dragonborn, and the Greybeards, to know she would need to find and read them? Someone who, from the look of the handwriting, was better educated than most Nords, that was for certain. One of the other Greybeards? No, they didn’t care about the Thalmor. Could there be another, surviving, member of the Blades in Skyrim, she wondered? Her mind suddenly flashed to a Nord man, carrying an Akaviri style blade, seated at a table at the Nightgate Inn. Fultheim? Not im possible. But the news would have had to travel pretty quickly to get to him, and back to her, in five days. Still, not impossible, just not likely. A mystery for another day. She tossed the letter into her pack.
The word wall at Skyborn Alter, and Durnivir’s final word of power, would make for thirty-five words of power. She could head back to High Hrothgar and learn how to pass through the wind barrier behind the monastery. She was finally going to be allowed to talk with a dragon who might not introduce himself by trying to kill her. Maybe he’d even have some answers for her.
She considered the hagraven’s journal in her pack. Her test run on Sinding had worked. She knew how to cure lycanthrope. But… High Hrothgar first, she decided, then back to Whiterun to cure Kodlak.