10 - Understone Keep

I now had two books on Smithing to deliver to Ghorza, and I'd learned enough from them to turn the Orcish warhammer into quite a decent weapon. Now I had a companion to cast spells, I didn't need a hand free for that, so I could use both for a bigger weapon. I'd soon catch up on my skills with it after a little practice.

We set out for Markarth again, still looking for new trails, but this time we'd leave the caves and other dungeons for the way back. I had quite enough to carry already. We passed a large Nordic temple and a few caves, before the path lead us to another stockade.

This time it really was one of the Orc strongholds, called Dushnikh Yal. I was welcomed in as Blood-kin, and told that if I wanted to help them mine Orichalcum, they'd buy all the ore I could dig up. So now I knew two Orichalcum mines, and only yesterday I hadn't known any. Gharol, the forge-wife, told me of the other Orc Strongholds, Largashbur, Narzulbur, and Mor Khazgur. The last had another Orichalcum mine, and Narzulbur was next to Gloombound Mine, which produced Iron and Orichalcum, but mostly Ebony.

"What about Largashbur?" I asked.

"They don't mine there, but there are Dwarven ruins nearby where you can collect Dwemer metal and smelt that down for making Dwarven weapons and armour. Mostly they hunt. It's a good area for most wildlife."

Ghorza was delighted with the two books, especially as she'd only asked for one. She taught me some more about smithing, and let me try out my increased skill at her forge. Since I'd just improved my war-hammer, I wasn't expecting to do much more to it, but I surprised myself with the improvement. Possibly it was just that I'd learned something specific to Orcish weapons, but it made quite a large difference.

Ghorza confirmed that. "Each material needs a different level of skill. I doubt that Tacitus will get much beyond Steel, but that's a useful enough skill to serve the needs of the guards here. You'll want to learn to forge Ebony next, and beyond that is Daedric. Keep practicing, making things and improving them, and you'll get there. I can't train you any further, you'd need to go to Balimund in Riften if you need that. And to get to Ebony, you'll still have to do some more work on your own."

She recommended that I make Dwarven bows, if I wanted to develop my skills. The material was plentiful, if I didn't mind battling the automata in the ruins. We both grinned when she said that. She knew I'd like that sort of a challenge.

Some time in the not too distant future, too, I needed to go to High Hrothgar and find out what Jarl Balgruuf meant about the Greybeards, and my being "Dragonborn". I was reluctant to do that before I had a proper set of Daedric Armour, though. They would be expecting a Dremora that dressed like one. The Jarl had spoken of them with awe, and I wanted them to get the right impression of me.

My lovely companion would probably be naked by then, as she seemed to wear less every time I improved my armour. That wasn't why I wanted a full set of Daedric, of course, but it was a pleasant prospect to think about.

"So where do I get the material for Dwarven bows?" I asked Ghorza. "You mentioned ruins near Largashbur, but that's the other end of the province. Isn't there somewhere closer?"

"You don't even need to leave the city," she replied. "There's a Dwemer ruin right here, up in Understone Keep. Just turn left when you go in, and look for Calcelmo. He's been excavating it, and he might be able to use some strong assistance. I heard that there were spiders causing his workers problems, and they'd closed the dig for the time being."

We climbed back up to the Keep and went looking for Calcelmo. He was glad to have someone volunteer to deal with Nimhe. That was the name they'd given to the giant spider that had invaded the dig.

"Giant Spider? Just how big is she?"

"Taller than you, and of course a lot wider. But that at least means she can't get down the tunnels and escape into the city. However, she's breeding smaller ones. And they're the main nuisance that has stopped us digging completely. I need you to kill Nimhe, and mop up any others you find." Calcelmo coughed and returned to his studies. "Oh, yes, you'll need the key, won't you?" he said as an afterthought, handing it to me.

He didn't provide any directions, but it was safe to assume that the large door on the other side of the bridge was the entrance to the dig. Calcelmo had referred to the ruin as Nchuand-zel. and that was written (in Dwemer letters of course) above the door. The key fit, too.

There were no signs of spiders in the hall we entered. In fact it seemed to be in as good condition as the chamber we'd come from. Less rubble, and the floor looked as if someone had swept it. The exits from it, however, were all blocked with rubble, save for one, which we took. It lead along a corridor, whose size had me slightly worried. If Nimhe wouldn't fit down this, how big was she? Hopefuly, there was a narrower section further in.

Instead it opened up to a natural cave, or maybe mine. The floor was dirt, rather than than paved, and a path spiralled down past ore veins and broken rock. She noticed the spider at the bottom before I did, and shot a firebolt at it before I could nock my bow. Fortunately, the loud explosion as it died didn't bring any more to investigate.

"That's one of the smallest," I told her. "Around the Rift, they get about as big as bears, but they're lighter built, and a bear can handle one without too much trouble. I haven't seen more than about three at a time there, but this place may be different."

Naturally, she said nothing, but she stepped around the dead creature as if it still held some threat.

I heard a scuttling noise up ahead in the tunnel leading off. I held up my hand to indicate that we should stop, and crouched down to move forward more stealthily. As usual, she didn't copy me, but she did at least hang back a bit further, and readied another firebolt, just in case.

Around the next corner, I saw two more of the spiders, one a bit larger than the other. I loosed an arrow at that one, hoping to kill it before either detected me. It collapsed into a heap of tangled limbs, and the other looked frantically around for the source of the arrow.

That one was easily dispatched with my second arrow, as I still had the advantage of picking my shots. It looked like those were all for this chamber, so I beckoned her on in. She picked her way in carefully, avoiding all the webs, and giving the dead spiders a wide berth.

The way out was reassuringly narrow. Or maybe not, as it was also likely that this was the choke point that Nimhe couldn't pass. We could run into her at any time now.

I had to clear a thick net of spider web that closed off the tunnel. I pulled as much as I could off the walls, so that she'd have room to pass without touching it, but she was still reluctant to follow. It didn't matter much, as I could see a chamber up ahead that looked like Nimhe's den. There were webs all over, and egg sacs on most of the floor.

But where was Nimhe? Just in time, I thought to look up, and saw that there was a large round hole in the roof, and a spider-shaped shadow was descending. I ducked back into the tunnel, as I knew she couldn't reach me there.

She couldn't reach me, but she could spit poison. A noxious substance that made my eyes sting, and made it hard to focus on my archery. On the other hand, she was a huge target, and I couldn't miss, even with my vision impaired. It took a lot more arrows than I thought possible to dispatch her, and she managed to spit more poison before I was done with her.

I heard the sound of flames behind me, and turned back, expecting to find her in battle. Instead, she was clearing the walls as she advanced, leaving no sign of spider. I stepped aside, and let her continue to the entrance to Nimhe's den.

She took one brief look at the giant spider, and ran back up the tunnel. Then she turned, with a fire spell still ready in each hand, to take another look. I could see her steeling herself to face the dead creature again. She looked away from it, and starting clearing a path across the floor, well away from the corpse.

I'd been completely focused on the spider, but she'd noticed another door on the far side, covered in spider silk, and a body lying near it. Since I didn't have to clear my path quite as much as she did, I reached it first and read the note I found next to it.

It appeared that the dead man was a guard for a group of mages that had gone into the ruins beyond the door. It wasn't clear from the note if they'd gone in before Nimhe appeared, or after. I suspected that it was before, and this Alethius fellow had been her first victim, as he tried to return through the dig site.

I decided to return to Calcelmo, and get any information he might have about this expedition. He owed me for Nimhe, and the reward might be useful for what lay ahead.

Needless to say, my companion was delighted to leave the dig site, but most unhappy when I wanted to go back in. I compromised, by taking all the dwarven metal I'd picked up off to the smelter, and converted it all to bows before we returned. Then I converted the bows to coin, and spent some of it on a room at the Silver-Blood Inn.

The bed was small and hard, and although she let me hold her, I think that was only so she'd feel safe from spiders. I tried hard not to behave like one.