My story stems from one of these random encounters.
I'll set the scene (minor spoilers follow, miss this paragraph if you haven’t played the first part of the main quest): after defeating my first dragon, becoming the saviour of Whiterun, and hearing the thunderous Thu’um of the Greybeards calling me, York the Nord, to the their cloudy perch, High Hrothgar, I set out on my quest to answer them.
It is night. The moon hangs low, accompanied by a dense spread of stars and cut deep with the pastel-blue streaks of the aurora borealis. I'm on my way around the mountain to Ivarstead on the far side in order to climb the fabled 7000 steps.
Following a rough dirt path surrounded by dense shrubbery and alchemy ingredients (which I chew to pass the time and increase my aptitude for alchemy, of course) I come across a cobbled bridge arching over a powerful river being fed by a tumultuous waterfall to my right. I stop to watch the water crashing down on the rocks and the the white spray foaming around the impact. Hearing a violent rustling in the bushes, I spin round back to the forest, iron sword in hand. I inhale in the suspense. Two goats burst from the undergrowth and loudly clatter their hooves on the cobble of the bridge. I exhale. Reminded of my own mortality, I do a quick save.
I continue across the bridge and back onto the path, which now curves up and around to the mouth of the waterfall. On my way up, I take it upon myself to look up at the night-sky, as if looking for directions in the stars. I'm not. The ethereal lights streamed across Tamriel's heavens captivate me. I'm transfixed by their beauty.
I snap out of the enchantment. Standing here gawping won't protect me from the dark forest’s terrors. It's been too quiet. I'm due an attack. I continue up the dirt-track and pause at the waterfall's mouth. I hear a low growl behind. How prophetic of me.
Naturally, I fling myself around to face the challenger. Skulking low to the ground, mouth twisted in a vicious snarl, paws slowly padding towards me, the sabre cat releases another taunting growl. The beast releases whatever restraints that were holding it away from me, and it bounds towards me. I unsheathe my blade with my right hand and equip the destruction spell Flame in my left. The fire engulfs my hand in an instant and the flames playfully lick my fingers - which I'm certain the cat isn't coming over to do. Possibly after it disembowels me.
Its hind legs compress and it leaps in my direction. I wildly swing my sword, but the cat seems relentless. The flames from the left and the slashes from the right don’t seem to be stopping the tiger’s wild swings. The damage I’m doing is minute compared to the chunks it’s ripping out of my healthbar. I’m dead in a matter of seconds, my limp body collapses to the ground and the sabre cat inspects my corpse.
Loading screen. I’m relieved I saved on the bridge, and I’m thankful the goats startled me.
I emerge from the blackness of the loading screen to be back on the bridge below the waterfall. I know what I will face when I reach the top, so I prepare. I rummage through my inventory to confirm the knowledge that I have three minor health potions, which I foolishly hadn’t thought of using before. They won’t heal much, but they will have to do. I make my way up the path again, not caring to look up into the stars, determined for revenge.
My foe awaits me at the mouth of the waterfall. It rushes out of the tree-line, bearing its teeth, but I know it’s coming. I equip my weapons, similar to last time, but this time I decide to take a ranged approach. I run up the path, the sabre cat chasing me, and then spin around to meet its snarls and flailing claws with a blast of my left hand’s flames every few metres. Backing up, I blast a prolonged inferno into the cat’s face - but something’s wrong. I can’t move backwards. My back’s up against a wall. The cat bounds towards me, seizing its opportunity for fresh meat and warm, thick blood on this freezing Skyrim night. One, two. It strikes me twice, but, with a sliver of health left, I open up my inventory and drink the minor health potions. I have about half health now; another one or two hits and I’m dead. Again. I resume the action and the cat hits me before I have a chance to run. I’m dead. Again.
The difficulty is good. One of the complaints about Skyrim’s predecessor, Oblivion, was the level scaling and lack of difficulty. This sabre cat is definitely putting up a fight, which makes sense, as I’m only a low level myself, so this beast should be putting up a fight. I resolve to grit my teeth and get on with it.
I find myself below the waterfall again, and I traverse the path fairly quickly. Forward, up to the right, up to the right again, and then forward to the bank of the river. The river! Of course! I figure that cats don’t like water, so I may as well plunge right in and see if it follows me - it may give me just the advantage I need.
I sprint towards the river, knowing the sabre cat will be following me now. The river is quite wide, and the currents are strong, but I manage to jump up onto a rock from the shore before the cat pounces. I’m on top of the rock, safe, as the cat leaps into the water before me. As I observed, the currents are strong and the cat is fighting with all its might to try and make its way towards me and avoid the drop of the waterfall at the end. This gives me time to whittle its health down with my blade and magic, feeling triumphant as I hear it whimper when it’s reduced to about a third. But it’s getting closer as its health’s getting lower, soon it’ll be upon me. I maintain my pace of slashes and blasts, but it’s on me now; gaining a footing on my rock, it pounces on me and pushes me into the torrent. The hit I land as we’re both in the air finishes it off, and its lifeless body drops into the river and serenely slips over the end of the waterfall.
I try to get back onto the rock, but I realise it’s too far now; the current, in all its might, is too powerful for me to resist it - though I try. It dawns on me that I’m edging closer and closer to the mouth of the waterfall as I face in the other direction, frantically swimming.
Closer. Closer. Closer.
My ears are pounding from the water smashing off rocks behind me, I can feel the tug of the edge. I accept my fate. I let go of the analog stick and resign myself to my fate. The water swirls around me as I’m falling to the bottom - which is undoubtedly solid and filled with deadly rocks to kill me from the fall damage.
It’s not, though. I crash into the river and the world around me is muffled. Frantically, I swim to the surface, the screen blurring as my vision adjusts from my watery salvation below. I’m alive. I defeated the sabre cat. I can continue my quest.
The soft blue of the aurora borealis shines down on me, pendent in the night sky.
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