Two of Drubgurz's ex-legionnaires were already there when they reached Bronze Water Cave. It was unlikely for two soldiers to be on their own in such a remote location, but Drubgurz still went first in his Imperial armour to be safe. Once he made out their faces, he waved for the rest of the group to follow. They were met with a Redguard man wearing steel plate and an Imperial woman wearing light Imperial leathers. Asa recalled both of them from her visits to Fort Dunstad, but did not know them by name.
"Why're you standing out here?" was the first thing she heard Drubgurz say as they approached.
"There's something in the cave," the Redguard responded. "Some kind of animal. We heard those growls at the entrance, and when we tried to go in we saw this shape moving on the inside."
"It was big, and that's not just the shadows playing tricks on us," continued the Imperial woman. "A troll, or an ogre. I thought we'd wait rather than take it on with just the two of us."
"Ogres don't come this far north," Asa stated. "If a beast has already made this place its den, it's best to leave them alone. I know a few other caves in this region. Shouldn't take long for us to get there."
"I agree," Cato joined in. "We're worn out from fighting and traveling. This is not the time to pick a fight. If it's just a single animal we might be able to overwhelm it by numbers alone, but it's not worth the risk."
"It's not that simple," Drubgurz shook his head. "When we were here last time, we hid a cache in an old Dwarven chest we found in the cave. Some loot, a few coins from each of our Legion wages- valuables we put together just in case we need it. Well, I'd say now's the time we're gonna need it most."
"How much did everyone bring with them?" asked the Redguard.
"Just my sword and the clothes on my back," was the Imperial woman's answer.
"I have some coins on me as I was leaving the fort before the Legion came," replied Cato. "Enough for staying a few nights at an inn, but not much more."
Asa simply shrugged, "Don't look at me, I left even my bedroll behind, but I've made do with less."
"We might be able to manage for a bit with hunting, but if we can grab that cache it'll help," Drubgurz cast a glance in Cato's direction. "Unless you'd like us to start robbing merchants for septims?"
"I can scout the cave out," Asa offered. "I know Skyrim and her animals better than your people. If I see a whole pack of something, we forget the cache. If it's just one, it might even help and provide us some food."
"I'll come with you," Celata finally spoke. "I've had practice with being discreet."
Drubgurz nodded, "Alright."
"Be careful in there," added Cato.
With her bow in hand, Asa made her way towards Bronze Water Cave with the black-robed woman trailing behind. She did not feel particularly comfortable with the Imperial mage at her back, and this was just not due to her dark garb or her practice of the arcane. The woman was too striking; her face was pale like newly fallen snow and her gaze unnaturally alluring. Asa had only made contact with her golden eyes once, and once was enough to feel the spell behind them. Their glow between the black hair and black hood of the woman was like a beacon of light that her own gaze gravitated towards. It was difficult to pull away, even though the longer she remained the more she felt like her soul was being pierced by a dark disease slowly dripping in amidst the beauty.
As she reached the mouth of the cave, Asa heard the first of the growling noises that the Redguard had mentioned. She looked at Celata, who stood in absolute silence and gave her a curt nod as she noticed the glance. Nodding back, Asa proceeded into the cave, the Imperial woman continuing to follow just as quietly, though she did not cast one of her invisibility spells. The area actually grew brighter as they continued deeper into the cavern. The reason soon became apparent as they neared the open space at the centre, where sunlight streamed in from an opening in the roof of the cave.
Asa felt an invisible force tug her back as she tried to take another step. She looked back to the mage again, who made a gesture with her finger to indicate 'around the corner.' Neither of them could see what was around the corner, but Asa supposed her magical abilities might have picked something up. She took the next step warily and found no resistance this time. Holding an arrow in her right hand ready to notch at any moment, she peered inside.
It was a sabre cat, a large feline predator native to Skyrim and known for its two long fangs. This one had creamy fur dotted with grey, a type seen most often in the northern part of the province. Seeing one here was no surprise, though Asa was confused at why the beast had not pounced at the women clearly intruding upon its lair. At first, she suspected that the mage must have put up a different invisibility spell that rendered them invisible to others but not themselves so that Asa may still see where her bow was pointed. Perhaps the spell had only prevented the sabre cat from smelling them, a sense the creature relied upon to hunt.
However, the answer was neither. The sabre cat let out a weak growl and shifted around, revealing a spot of red on its hind leg among the otherwise pale colouration of its coat. It was wounded. Asa now realized that the noises she heard on her way inside were not warnings or threats, but cries of pain. The beast moved again, edging forward towards her before raising its head slightly so that their gazes met one another. None of the predator's usual fierceness was there, just a sad, desperate stare.
Asa took another careful step towards the sabre cat. Again, the creature made no attempt to pounce or otherwise ward her off. Slowly, she returned her arrow to its quiver and slung her bow across her back. The sabre cat let out a sound that was somewhere between a growl and a sigh and rested its head on its paws again. It was a sorry sight- a once mighty animal brought so low. Fitting, that they were surrounded by the great bronze pipes of the Dwemer people who had disappeared from the world many ages ago.
"What are you doing?" Celata asked as Asa began to put away her weapons.
"I won't kill him," responded Asa. "It doesn't feel right."
"With that leg, he's dead meat anyways," the mage stated. "He'll starve before it's healed well enough for him to hunt."
"Not if we help him. You have that healing magic."
The robed woman gave Asa a bewildered look, "You want me to use a restoration spell on that? I need my magicka reserves to help your friend."
"Teach me how to do it then," the Nord insisted.
"Teach you?" Celata laughed. "It's not something you can just learn in the moment."
"What about your potions?"
"I keep a small healing potion for emergencies."
"Good," Asa reached out a hand expectantly. "I can make more for you so you'll have it if you need it."
"You know alchemy?"
"I'm no apothecary, but I didn't survive in Skyrim's wilderness without learning how to make use of everything in the environment."
Celata reached into her robe to retrieve another vial, this one containing a deep red liquid. She bent over and placed it in Asa's hand, who pulled the cork off and gave it a sniff. Satisfied that this was indeed a healing potion, she knelt down in front of the beast that was lying in front of her, arms raised to show that she had no weapon or intention of hurting the creature. The sabre cat remained still save for the heave of its body as he breathed. Asa stretched out her right hand again, this time holding the potion out to the cat.
The sabre cat crept forward using only its fore legs. His eyes squinted as they entered the illumination of the sunlight. While he moved, Asa spotted Celata backing away from the beast and into the shadow at the end of the cave. Her attention focused primarily on the sabre cat, who was also sniffing the potion warily. Lowering her other hand, Asa ran her fingers down the creature's snout to soothe him before she curled into his jaw, lifting the large mouth up. The sabre cat did not resist, so she extended her right hand further and began to drip the red liquid into his throat.
When she had finished, the beast obediently closed his mouth and his eyes as he returned to rest. Asa sealed the now empty vial and returned to her feet.
"You have an affinity with animals," Celata commented. "That's something I'd expect from a Wood Elf rather than a Nord."
"Not all of us are vanguards in the Legion," Asa replied. "Those of us that live off the land honour Mother Kyne, and in return her other children respect us."
"I've met Nord hunters before. Most of you usually just pray for a good hunt, or do your rituals after a kill. I've never seen one so...familiar with beasts most consider dangerous."
"Most hunters in Skyrim know the land, but they live in towns and villages and have families. The wild is my home and the creatures within it are my family. It's made me attuned to them in the way you might know when someone you understand very well is being troubled."
"But you still kill them?" the Imperial woman inquired. "The animals."
"It is the way of Kyne. Death is a natural part of existence. What we hunters must do is ensure that their passing is not in vain. I kill when I need to eat, and I make sure I can make use of it all or trade it to someone who would."
"Now you're really sounding like a Wood Elf. You know they eat enemies they kill in combat so the bodies aren't wasted? Or at least, the traditional ones in Valenwood do."
"I understand their thinking. But don't worry, I don't do that."
Celata chuckled, "Oh, I wasn't accusing you of anything, dear. Just something interesting to know."
The sabre cat stirred again, causing both women to snap their attention back to him. He pulled himself up from the ground, most of his weight being held by three of his limbs. The wound was still there on the fourth, but the bleeding had stopped. He stumbled around slightly before finding his footing and beginning to limp towards the mouth of the cave. His movement was sluggish, but his pace quickened as he got more and more comfortable with moving primarily using three legs.
"I should probably tell the others not to kill him," Asa said to Celata, then quickly rushed out of the cave to exit before the sabre cat, leaving the black-robed woman alone, staring after the golden haired Nord with her entrancing golden eyes.