The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 5

The Jurard Family

Deirdre Morningsong had seen much in her short life that would turn even the strongest stomach. From the cruelty of men, beginning with those who had burned her parents alive in their own home, to the cruelty of mer, in whose torture chambers she and Lydia had once been guests, to the cruelty of Alduin and his dragon minions, and even the cruelty wrought by her own hand, it seemed she had witnessed every variety of horror imaginable.

Pic of deathbell, a flower in Skyrim

Yet little could equal the scene now before her in the cellars of the Four Shields Tavern, which had been converted into a makeshift morgue. The smell of the fresh-sawn planks mingled with the tang of stored onions, the malty aroma of beer, and the coppery odor of blood — a nauseating mélange. And there was something else in the air, but Deirdre couldn’t quite place it.

Four bodies lay on elevated planks brought from the nearby mill, the sheets that had covered three of them pulled back for examination. Even as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she could see the work of this murderer was remarkably vile.

The bodies were those of Amaund and Cairine Jurard and their two children. The boy looked to have been in his first growth spurt, and the girl younger, maybe nine, though it was hard to tell, as she was still covered with a sheet. Falk and Elisif stood nearby, facing away from the bodies, his hand on her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands. At Deirdre’s approach, she looked up.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a silk kerchief. “I am not used to such scenes.” She looked once more at the bodies, shuddering. “Such a happy family, such promise in the children, all ended, and for what?”

“No need to apologize, Jarl Elisif,” said Deirdre. “I only wish I were not so accustomed to it myself. Yet for all the death I have seen, I still cannot answer the question of what purpose any of it served.”

Elisif shook her head and looked away, as if the bins of potatoes and onions lining the walls held an answer. “Nor do I know why we came here, if only to learn what the guards already told us, that these poor people were savagely butchered, with the great claw marks you can plainly see. Please, learn what you can, then put the sheets back over them and let them lie in peace.”

Deirdre looked to Falk. “It’s as Jarl Elisif said. We’ve learned little more than the guards told us. They plainly died of the wounds made by the claws of a beast — or beast-man. Claw marks that match those of your friend. And we know that at least the woman fought back, judging by the bits of fur beneath her fingernails. But please, see what else you can learn.”

Deirdre turned to the bodies, and Lydia followed. Up close, the gore was even worse. Amaund had huge rents across his chest and his clothing was soaked in blood. Worse, one arm was raked down to the bone, and one side of his face had been torn to strips.

“It seems pretty obvious what happened to him,” said Lydia, always stoic. Her nonchalant view of the mayhem produced by battle had always surprised Deirdre. “He probably tried to fend off a blow with that arm, and then he could do nothing else to defend himself.”

As awful as the wounds were, Deirdre made herself look over his whole body for anything amiss. “Look.” She pointed at an empty dagger sheath on the man’s belt. “Maybe he drew his knife and took a swing at his attacker.”

“If so, little good it did him.”

They turned to the woman, whose wounds were less extensive. One deep cut across her jugular had done for her, soaking the front of her dress in blood, now dried to a deep brown. Deirdre picked up one hand to find the tan hairs lodged beneath the fingernails.

“She hardly looks like a fighter, but she must have been brave,” said Lydia.

“Or simply pushed to her last extremity, defending her children.” With a sigh, Deirdre turned to the young ones.

The boy’s wound was perhaps worst of all, a great rend in his clothing from shoulder to waist. “But look, Lydia, does that seem like much blood to you?”

“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell in this light.”

“I’ll take care of that.” Deirdre cast a ball of magelight at the ceiling. Elisif groaned and turned away from the scene now revealed in even more grisly detail.

Lydia examined the wound more closely, lifting the torn tunic away. “It seems to have bled only right around the gash, and not much at that.”

“Yet such a great wound would surely have gushed a great quantity of blood, soaking his clothing like the others.”

Lydia nodded in agreement and they turned to the last body. But as stoic as Lydia was, even she gasped as Deirdre pulled back the sheet. “No, put it back, we’ve seen enough.” She turned away, smashing one gauntleted fist into the other. “What kind of monster could have done this?”

Deirdre’s hands trembled as she pulled the sheet up to the girl’s neck, covering the awful wounds on her body. She gripped the edge of the table and spoke through clenched teeth. “Yet, like her brother, there was very little blood, would you agree?”

Lydia could only nod.

Deirdre looked down at the girl’s face, wondering what depravity could lead to the abuse of such an innocent. Then something caught her eye. “Come, Lydia, look at her lips. Would you say they have a blue tinge to them?”

Lydia turned around slowly, giving Deirdre an exasperated look before bending to look at the girl’s face. When she was done, she nodded and turned away once more.

“But what does it mean?” asked Falk.

“That blue pallor is the sign of a certain poison. And that smell, I thought I noticed it when we first came in.” She bent closer to the girl’s mouth and breathed in. “Yes. That’s the odor of deathbell, or I’m no alchemist.”

She checked the rest of the bodies. “Yes, they all have that odor, but only the children’s lips are blue.”

“Poison?” said Falk. “But why?”

“I hardly know. Perhaps we’ll learn more at the Jurards’ home.”

*~*~*

And they imagined themselves safe up here. Deirdre well knew the reasons a Breton family might want space between themselves and the Nords who lived in the heart of the village. She’d lost her own parents to Nords’ fears of anyone not of their own kind. Yet as she and her companions followed the narrow track uphill toward the Jurards’ house, the disadvantages of its remote location became clear. The family were so far from town that none must have heard their screams.

A cabin in Skyrim

“Was the home looted?” she asked the guard who was showing them the way. He’d been among the first to enter the house, and Deirdre hoped his knowledge of the crime scene would prove valuable.

“Not that we could tell, your Grace. A chest with a small amount of gold remained, the silverware seemed all in its place, even two fine silver candlesticks, as plain as day on the mantel. It was the same with the trader, Heimvar, his goods seemed all in place, and a good amount of gold in a chest beneath his seat to boot.”

“How were they discovered?”

“The Lylvieves, who live on the main road through town, grew worried yesterday afternoon when they hadn’t yet seen any of the Jurards. Michel walked up and discovered them. She fainted, but when she recovered herself, she ran down the hill and raised the alarm. Nearly swooned myself, when I saw what was done to that poor family.”

They reached the house and the guard pointed out the single paw print in a muddy spot next to the door. Deirdre knew nothing of Khajiits’ feet, since all she had met wore boots. “And you’re sure that’s a Khajiit track?”

Falk nodded. “Aye, I have some experience with them. They’re larger than the bobcats and lynxes we find hereabouts, but smaller than the sabre cat. There’s nothing else like it native to Skyrim. If it comes to it, I’ll have your friend brought up and we’ll match prints.”

Deirdre sighed, wondering how far she had to put up with this protocol that demanded a full investigation of her friend, who was plainly innocent.

Inside, the house was hardly as Deirdre expected it. At first glance, it seemed to be a normal, orderly home, save for two chairs knocked over near the table at the center of the room. Then she noticed the blood, which by now had soaked into the floorboards in black splotches. The first of these covered an area a few feet in diameter a couple of paces into the room. Another, smaller, was three paces farther in.

“Amaund was lying here when we found him,” said the guard, pointing at the stain nearest the door. “And here was Cairine, not far away. The children we found by the table. It seemed obvious they were interrupted in the middle of their breakfast.”

Indeed, four bowls half-full of porridge and four mugs remained in their places at the table, along with a pitcher and half a loaf of bread.

“And here,” the guard said, pointing to the space between where Amaund and Cairine had fallen. “The tufts of cat hair. We only took a few down to the jail for evidence, but left these.”

They were the same as the ones Falk had already showed them. As Deirdre examined them, Lydia walked around the scene. “If my hunch is right, Amaund either came to open the door, or confronted the attacker as soon as he entered.”

“Probably that last,” said the guard. “It’s not likely they’d open the door for a strange Khajiit. But way up here, in the daytime, there was little reason to keep the door barred. The killer could have just walked in.”

“Then Amaund confronted him here. While they struggled, Cairine came from behind and tried to pull the Khajiit away.”

“Thus the tufts of cat hair beneath her nails,” said Falk.

Deirdre examined the scene, looking for anything else. “Look!” She went over to the wall near the door and picked up a dagger. “Amaund’s knife. But it’s clean, it never struck home.”

“The killer was too fast for him, not to mention more powerful,” said Lydia. “But then what of the children?”

Deirdre went to the places where the children had fallen. “It’s as I suspected. Not much blood, even considering their smaller bodies.”

“What does that mean?” asked Elisif.

Deirdre gripped the back of one of the chairs, leaning on it for support. She didn’t want to give voice to the one obvious conclusion. Maybe she was wrong, although the alternative was just as grim. As she hesitated, she looked down at the half-eaten bowls of porridge. She picked one up and smelled it. Definitely a whiff of deathbell about it. She tried the other three, and found them the same. But there was only one way to know for sure.

“Deirdre, no!” Elisif rushed over to her as she dipped a finger in one of the bowls.

She stopped, her hand halfway to her mouth, but before she could explain, Lydia broke in. “Don’t let her scare you. She loves to shock her friends who think she’s going to kill herself with such risk-taking.” Deirdre was all too familiar with the wan smile of resignation Lydia now gave her.

“She’s right. During my time in Arcadia’s alchemy shop, I built up quite a tolerance. Deathbell, in small amounts, is used in many useful potions, not only deadly poisons. This little taste won’t harm me.” She put her finger in her mouth. The porridge needed salt. And yes, there was the distinctive tingling sensation of deathbell.

Pic of Skyrim potions and potions

“But how could the killer have gotten the poison into the porridge?” Falk asked.

Lydia pointed to an open window near the hearth. “It was warm that morning, and Cairine probably had the window open as she was cooking the porridge. The killer could have snuck in while her back was turned, or while she was drawing water at the well and the rest of the family were sleeping.”

Deirdre considered the steps necessary to poison the family’s breakfast. “It does seem a risky maneuver, if the killer was planning to attack them anyway.” She looked back down at the spots where the two children had died. “I hardly know which is worse, to imagine the children were conscious as this beast attacked them, or to think, as seems most likely, that they had succumbed to the poison by the time the killer turned on them.”

“Why do you say that’s likely?” asked Elisif.

“It’s simple,” Falk explained, “it has to do with the heart. If the heart is beating, wounds such as the ones made on the children would gush and even spurt blood.”

“But once the heart stops with death,” said Deirdre, “the blood would only ooze or leak out, and perhaps hardly at all, depending on how long the body had lain there.”

“But how could you know of such things?” Elisif pressed.

Lydia put in, “Such things as the victors in battle do to the bodies of the losing side, you probably don’t want to know, m’lady. The pooling of blood in the body is well known from such events.”

“My guess is that the children’s bodies lay still for some time before the killer attacked them. Perhaps he was catching his breath, or gathering himself for what he had to do. It’s hard to imagine the monster who would rend the corpses of children in the way we saw. At least we can hope the poison had overcome their senses so they didn’t have to witness their parents’ murder or feel any pain.”

“But if the whole family was poisoned, why not let the potion do its work?” Elisif asked. “Why attack when the parents could still defend themselves?”

“Perhaps the potion was meant to incapacitate the victims. Not kill them outright, but merely give the killer an advantage. But he couldn’t calibrate the doses for the different sizes of the adults and the children. Perhaps he hoped to attack them all while they were alive, which would have made it harder to guess that poison was involved.”

“And that would explain why he went on to maul the bodies of the already deceased children,” said Falk, “to make it look like a physical attack had killed them.”

“Or they,” said Deirdre. “It could be the work of two killers. I’ve never heard that Khajiits go in for poisoning.”

Falk looked at her. “And we have two suspects in custody now. That certainly fits your theory.”

Deirdre glared back at him, controlling her growing impatience. “How long must we pretend there’s even a chance my friends are the killers? Brelyna a poisoner? J’zargo a bloodthirsty killer? If either of those turn out to be true, I will abdicate my throne.”

The room was silent as Deirdre and Falk eyed each other.

Elisif broke the silence at last. “It seems we’re not much closer to finding the killer.”

“Yet we know much more about who we’re looking for. We came here expecting to find that these were acts of blind mayhem. Now we know they took planning.”

“And it does give us another track for our investigation,” said Falk. “I’ll have every alchemist and apothecary in the hold questioned about sales of that ingredient you mentioned, deathbell.”

“Yes, although an assassin using such a poison would probably pick their own.”

Falk’s brow furrowed. “I still can’t understand why the killer would go to the trouble of poisoning them, only to then take the risk of attacking them. Amaund’s knife could easily have wounded or killed the killer.”

“Whoever it is, one killer or more than one, they are striving to make the crimes as gruesome as possible. Maximizing the mayhem, attacking both Nords and Bretons without rhyme or reason. It seems they want to strike as much terror into the hearts of the people as possible.”

And making very sure we know that a Khajiit is behind it, but she kept that thought to herself.

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