Whatever else can be said about devouring the soul of a dragon, it is highly invigorating - I don't feel the least bit tired, despite missing a full night of sleep. I head out of Dragonsreach, and...
...there is another dragon - this time attacking the city itself! Both my companions and I pepper it with arrows, and the guards join in as it makes one pass after another over the plaza before the local temple of Kynareth, freezing the air with great cones of ice. Even when grievously wounded, it doesn't retreat - do these things know no fear? Finally, it collapses on top of the city ramparts, and again I feel this unholy rush of both power and nausea as its very soul pours into mine. No new insights into the Voice, though.
This time, I take some leftover bones and scales as souvenirs, but plenty remain. I expect that dragon bones will become popular with many people across Tamriel - enchanters, alchemists, even some demented armorsmiths - and that there will be no shortage of fake dragon bones made from cattle and the like.
After I wandered through town and sold some of my loot from the Barrows as well as aquired some new spells and gear (it turned out that the proprietor of the Drunken Huntsman had somehow acquired a large collection of dwarven crossbow bolts!), I started to think about my mission. While I now had plenty of brawn at my disposal, what I really needed as well was an assistant - someone with observation skills, someone with investigative drive, someone with brains. While I had only known Jenassa, Gorr, and Lydia for a short time and I didn't think they were precisely stupid (other than the fact that they were following someone around who almost seemed to attract dragons), they didn't seem to have all that many interests beyond combat.
For some reason, most of the brighter locals seemed unwilling to accompany a stranger investigating the Mystery of the Dragons. But in the Bannered Mare, I found a young Nord woman named Vilja (sporting an accent odd even for Skyrim) who was doing an investigation of her own - she was on the search for two people who had stolen some kind of bottle from her. I assured her that I was an excellent investigator and that while normally mere thefts were beneath my notice, I was willing to make an exception for her.
As it happened, they hadn't really bothered to hide their trail, and we caught up with them in front of the Honeybrew Meadery, a bit outside of the city. They were arguing about how the bottle allegedly "talked to them" and "cursed" them. I know how it is - bottles talk to me all the time, usually saying things like "drink me!". Of course, a surprising amount of these bottles had also been cursed - poisoned, really - by my many enemies.
They were only too happy to hand the bottle over. Just as they were doing so, another dragon appeared - how many of these things are out there? This one was smarter - it just did a quick flyover and breathed fire into our general direction before vanishing into the direction of the Throat of the World.
Vilja thanked me, and then asked me if we had met before. While I took this as a blatant ploy, there is always a chance that we had met, and I had forgotten about it - thanks to the influences of these cursed bottles, again.
She believed that her bottle was not really cursed, though. It was left to her by her grandmother and allegedly contained some ancient magic of Morrowind - and that a place called the "Eldergleam Sanctuary" supposedly had the key to unlocking it. I agreed to help her search for this place, which means that she will tag along with our merry group. And it turns out she has some alchemical training as well, so she probably has the smarts for the assistant job.
According to my maps, the shortest route to High Hrothgar led around the north side of the mountain, along the White River, before we had to climb up to the town of Ivarstead - the start of the "7,000 steps" pilgrimage the Jarl mentioned. Unfortunately, we were off to a bad start, as the heavy rain and the cloudy night sky conspired to make our surroundings pitch black - and then we stumbled across a skirmish between guards of Whiterun and some bandits. Only with difficulty did we manage to disentangle us from the combatants and move on.
Then Vilja started to chat with Lydia, and it began to sound as if she was interested in recruiting her for some dungeon crawling of her own. That was not a train of thought I wanted to encourage - Lydia is my bodyguard, assigned to me by the Jarl of Whiterun. Before I could intervene, however, we came across an old fortress spanning the river - and a bandit stopped me and explained that this was a "toll road" - that I would have to pay 200 septims to go on.
I considered my options. There were very likely bandits hidden in that fortress, taking aims with bows even now. But behind me, Gorr was sniggering, Lydia was grinning, and Jenessa was taking her pre-combat stance. And I didn't have 200 septims - those dwarven crossbow bolts were expensive.
"Listen very carefully. I am Araneus Venator, writer for the Black Horse Courier. Unless you want the news to be 'Bandits Horribly Slaughtered by Well-Armed Travelers', I suggest you let us pass immediately. And not make any sudden moves, that kind of thing."
"Hah! Tough talk for someone who is about to have their guts spilled!"
With that, she drew her sword, and the carnage unfolded. Under a blood red Masser emerging from the clouds, which I thought was a nice touch. First we brought down the predictable archer who hadn't quite grasped the concept of staying in cover. Then we had a running battle across the ancient stone bridge spanning the river, all the while taking fire from snipers on the other side. After I had put down of them, I decided that this was enough for the night - I was cold, I was tired, and we were unlikely to find another place with beds any time soon, lice-riddled as they were. So we made camp within the northern tower.
20th of Last Seed, 4E 201.
Unfortunately, I was still cold the next morning - I really should have built a decent fire and dried myself up before going to bed. Stupid young beginner's mistake, which I really shouldn't have made... But just as I had gathered firewood and got a nice fire burning, we spotted another group of bandits arriving at the south tower next to the road, presumably a raiding party that had returned after a long night. Once again my bodyguards set upon them with glee, while I attempted to hit a few of them with the crossbow held in my shivering fingers.
We took what we needed from their corpses. I lucked out - one of the bandits had some skeever dust with her. I hadn't managed to find any suppliers around here, given that I was preoccupied with other concerns.
Finally, we moved on. I hope that Whiterun will send some guards to occupy this place, or else bandits will likely camp here again within the week. But with the Civil War raging on, fewer and fewer guards are available to keep the roads safe, even in such a strategic location as this one...