The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 18

Skyrim Unity Tour

“It’s hot,” Lydia said, gazing wistfully down at the laughing waters of the White River.

“It is, my love,” Deirdre said. She reined her horse to a halt, and her three friends did likewise, sitting four abreast across the road.

Pic of a swimming hole on the White River
White River pools

Seated on one end, Brelyna noticed Deirdre grinning mischievously at the rest of them, and couldn’t help but be amused herself. They’d come to the point west of Valtheim Towers where the road rose away from the river. Down a little track along the banks was the hidden pool where she, J’zargo, and Onmund had come across Deirdre and Lydia back in the fall, sunning themselves after a swim, naked as the day they were born. That had been an awkward meeting.

Now that the queen’s entourage had come to a halt, the rest of the procession was leaving them behind, snaking up the road ahead of them on the way to Whiterun. The combined entourages of three jarls made for an impressive display. Thus far on this Skyrim tour, Deirdre and her friends had ridden in the front of the procession. But this morning when preparing to leave Fort Amol, Deirdre and Lydia had unaccountably dawdled. Ralof and Kharjo had grown so impatient that they’d joined Ulfric’s entourage, and the queen’s party had to catch up to bring up the rear. Now Brelyna thought she knew why.

“You look like you’re suffering in all that armor,” Deirdre said to Lydia.

“Aye,” Lydia said, though she grinned back at Deirdre. She didn’t look as if she were suffering any more than the Royal Guards all around them. She wasn’t even wearing her plate armor, just her gambeson, she was feeling so confident and at ease.

“Would you like to go for a dip?” Deirdre’s eyes had taken on a positively daedra-like twinkle.

“As you will, my Queen.” Lydia tried to sound merely obedient, but she couldn’t quite suppress a giggle.

“Would you like some company?” Brelyna asked, all innocence. Someone had to get the question in before J’zargo could speak up. Although, come to think of it, J’zargo was remarkably quiet. He’d been this way all morning, riding next to her, lost in his own thoughts.

“Oh, no, I think we’ll be fine on our own,” Deirdre said, giving Brelyna a wink.

One of the guards spoke up. “But my captain, just the two of you, alone in the wilds? Are you sure it’s safe?”

Lydia took mock offense. “The Dragonborn and the Hero of Whiterun? What could happen?”

The guards all gaped — clearly a carefree Captain Ravenwood was one they’d neither seen nor imagined.

“And besides,” Lydia went on, giving Deirdre her own devilish grin, “the queen and I have some unfinished business down in that pool. Wait for us up by the old Stormcloak camp.”

The pair urged their horses down the track along the river, leaving the guards wide-eyed and Brelyna stifling a laugh. Much had changed since Forelhost, and this new, carefree Lydia was the best change of all. What a difference from the worried, ever-watchful woman who had met them in the Dragon Bridge jail! They had these recent days of travel to thank for it.

The chief purpose of the tour was to allow Deirdre to speak directly to the people, proclaiming the Khajiits’ innocence and identifying the true murderer. But more than that, Deirdre hoped to convince her Nord subjects to put aside the hatreds and prejudices that had been so easily manipulated by the Thalmor and their agent. Brelyna doubted that such a thing was possible, but still she was sworn to help the queen in any way she could.

Yet Brelyna was more concerned about her other friend’s mental state. Lydia was the rock they all depended on — not just Deirdre, but all of her friends, and indeed, the entire realm. The people looked up to their queen, no doubt, and would be forever grateful that she’d saved the world from destruction. But in the end Deirdre was a mage and the Dragonborn, both of which inspired more fear than affection. It was Lydia, the true Nord, whom they could love with all their hearts. To see her nearly crumble in Forelhost had been a shock. Brelyna wondered how the Nords would react if they ever saw Lydia in such a state.

They’d emerged from Forelhost long after dark, then camped on the porch at its entrance. Perhaps it was the proximity to that dark place, but Lydia awoke screaming in the middle of the night, and it took hours of Deirdre soothing her before she would go back to sleep. So it was a weary and bedraggled group that arrived in Riften. Deirdre had managed, just barely, to convince Laila Law-Giver to support her as she spoke to the people, and to accompany them as they continued the Queen’s Unity Tour.

Brelyna had kept one eye on the crowd and the other on Lydia as the queen spoke. Lydia’s downcast expression and shifting eyes were the opposite of inspiring, and the people remained unimpressed. The queen had caught the killer and that was that. Thanks were due her, but no more. What if a Khajiit had taken the lead in capturing him? That was the least the cat-people could do after these weeks of fear. And what was all this talk of equality and brotherly love? So they’d been wrong about who the real killer was. Who could blame them for being too careful? If a few Khajiits had been wrongfully imprisoned, that was just the price of keeping the people safe.

At least, those were the thoughts Brelyna imagined were going through the people’s minds as she scanned their impassive, sometimes hostile faces. She was just glad they’d refrained from jeering or throwing rotten fruit.

After that, she’d helped Deirdre tighten the speech, making the appeals to the people’s better selves more direct and less abstract. Not to mention showing them what was in it for them. She could see how easy it would be to rally the people against an external foe, especially one toward whom they already bore a grievance, whether real or imagined. That had been Ulfric’s tactic during the Civil War, railing against the Thalmor and the ban on worshiping Talos. But when the foe was within their own hearts? Much harder, maybe impossible.

She’d continued to keep an eye on Lydia as they’d ridden north toward Windhelm, glad to see her and Deirdre spending much time together by themselves. She hoped they were talking over the events at Whiterun, or maybe even what had happened in the Aldmeri Embassy. That night, the camp was quiet and Lydia had no nightmares. And the following day, Lydia took time to ride next to Brelyna and J’zargo while Deirdre was busy with Jarl Laila.

At first they talked of little, how impressive the view was across the steaming pools near Bonestrewn Crest, and how nice it was to enjoy it without fear of dragon attack. Then Lydia grew somber.

“I never properly thanked you for protecting the children and elderly during the retreat,” she said.

“Lydia Ravenwood is most welcome,” said J’zargo.

“Yes,” said Brelyna, “and I only regret we couldn’t do more. But really, Lydia, without your leadership, we’d all have been slaughtered. It is we who are in your debt.”

Lydia looked as if she couldn’t quite believe this. “How do you cope with it?” she asked. “You must have seen the same awful sights I did. We all lost our closest friends.”

“I’m not sure I really do cope with it. I dream of it often. At first I talked with Deirdre about it, and that helped somewhat. She wasn’t there, but she’s seen enough of death to understand. I tried talking to J’zargo here, but he was like you, never wanting to relive it.”

“J’zargo kept his thoughts to himself. Perhaps this was a mistake, no?”

“I thought I’d seen enough of battle that nothing like that could bother me. How wrong could I be?”

“Perhaps true strength comes only from facing our memories, no matter how fearful or disturbing.”

Lydia was quiet after that, lost in her thoughts, and J’zargo had ridden closer to Brelyna, reaching across to place a consoling hand on her shoulder.

In the days since, Brelyna had noticed a new side to Lydia. Thus far, she’d known just two facets of her friend’s personality: the usual bold, fearless Lydia who was ready to take on anything, and the Lydia who’d recovered from near death, doom-driven at not having done more to protect Balgruuf and to save Whiterun.

What she had never known was a Lydia alive to every emotion, especially those the Nords wrote off as the province of milk-drinkers. She’d catch her staring off into the forest they rode through, a distracted look on her face and a tear in the corner of her eye. But she also noticed her smiling more, taking delight in small things. In the past, Deirdre was always the one to exclaim in joy at a new display of wildflowers, leaping from her horse to gather a posy for Lydia, who would smile tolerantly at this enthusiasm for such a small, everyday thing. But now Lydia was the first to notice any new bloom, and to ask Deirdre what it was called.

Most of all, she seemed less on edge and guarded than she’d been these past weeks, and especially relaxed in Windhelm, at the feast after Deirdre’s speech. The talk had gone better than the one in Riften, perhaps because Ulfric himself was now seen to be supporting her and her efforts. All those who attended the feast in the great hall in the Palace of the Kings seemed in a good mood. Then Jorleif, Ulfric’s steward, asked Lydia to tell the tale of the Battle of Whiterun. Brelyna was surprised when she said yes.

Pic of the Great Hall in the Palace of the Kings
The great hall in the Palace of the Kings

Some had never heard the tale before, and none had ever heard Lydia tell it. By the time she got to Balgruuf ordering her to take charge of the fleeing women, children, elderly, and wounded, her voice began to quaver. As she told of her friends and shield-brothers beginning to fall, tears began to fall as well, and not only hers. By the time she got to Onmund’s self-sacrifice, she was openly weeping.

Through her own tears, Brelyna saw that there weren’t many dry eyes around the long tables. Even Ulfric was dabbing at the corner of his eye as if some foreign object had gotten into it. So this was how the Nords would react to Lydia showing any sign of weakness! Perhaps she’d underestimated them.

Lydia looked up from where she’d been staring at her own lap, plainly expecting looks of disdain from her audience. Instead, the silence was broken only by a few sniffles. At last, Ralof got up and went around to her, standing next to her with one hand on her shoulder and the other raising high a mug of mead. “To Lydia! Few Nords have ever acted so bravely. Ysgramor would be proud.” As shouts of approval rang through the hall, Lydia looked as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

And even more so when Ulfric stood for a second toast. “To the Hero of Whiterun, long may she swing an axe!” After that, the hero could hardly finish her meal as the guests came around to offer her their praise and sympathy.

And so it was a different Lydia who arrived at Fort Amol at the head of a procession swelled not only by Ulfric’s entourage, but also the smaller one of Jarl Korir of Winterhold, who had come down to show his support. This was the place where her friends had brought Lydia after the retreat, and where Deirdre and Arcadia had ministered to her wound. Brelyna saw her face grow darker at the memory as she dismounted and looked at the keep.

Pic of Fort Amol
Fort Amol

Then Lydia laughed and reached a hand out to Deirdre.

“What could you find funny about this place?” Deirdre asked. She seemed more affected than Lydia, who’d remained unconscious during most of that time.

“I just remembered, I was in such pain when I came to, and there you were, twisting the arrow in my shoulder. I thought you were torturing me for refusing to marry you.”

“And you find that funny?”

“I do now.”

“I only remember the horror of what I had to do to get that arrow out.” Deirdre shuddered, and a tear rolled down her cheek.

“We all witnessed horror that day,” Lydia said, wiping the tear away.

The commander of the fort offered the queen and her consort his quarters, not realizing it was the very room where the events they’d just been discussing had taken place.

“No,” Deirdre said, “I believe we’ll pitch our tent out here in the bailey.”

They’d both seemed much brighter when they arose late the next morning, and in little hurry to get to Whiterun.

“Elisif won’t arrive until mid-day, and I’d like to present a united front to Hrongar,” Deirdre said, but it had sounded to Brelyna like an excuse.

And now here they were, just she and J’zargo and sixteen Royal Guards, Deirdre and Lydia having disappeared around a bend in the river, and the rest of the procession far ahead up the hill.

“Come on,” she said, “we’d better catch the others before they pass the track to the Stormcloak Camp.” She truly was glad that her friends now felt enough at ease to take a quiet moment to themselves, yet it would make for some awkward explanations when they caught up to the jarls.

And what of J’zargo, riding so silently next to her? It was hard to believe he’d restrained himself from making some crass remark when the subject of a swim had come up. The silence went on for a few moments, Brelyna feeling J’zargo’s pensive gaze upon her. She looked over at him, and he only smiled.

At last she couldn’t stand it. “What, you didn’t want to join our friends for a swim? You can admit it. It’s better not to hide these things, though sometimes I wish you would.”

J’zargo just looked at her calmly. “You know J’zargo does not like to swim, and besides, if this one ever did go skin-dipping, it would only be with Brelyna.”

She couldn’t respond, she was so awestruck.

They caught up to the jarls and then the entire party pulled off the road where a track broke off to the old Stormcloak camp.

“We might as well let the horses graze,” said Brelyna, having explained the reason for Deirdre and Lydia’s absence. “It could be a while.”

Pic of Jarl Ulfric
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak

“How long does a quick dip take?” Ulfric demanded.

“Oh, Lydia has all that complicated armor to remove,” Brelyna lied, trying to keep a straight face.

Half an hour passed, all the while J’zargo persisted in his unusual silence, never making any crass remarks about what he must have guessed was going on down by the river.

Finally Ralof came over. “It’s been quite a while. Are you sure we shouldn’t be worried about them?”

How to put this? “Only if we’re concerned they’ll die of an excess of blissful pleasure.”

“Oh,” was all he could say, the light of realization dawning in his eyes. He returned to tending his horse.

Apparently this last had been too much for J’zargo, because now he came over from where he’d been rummaging in his horse’s saddlebags. She was sure he was going to say something about the blissful pleasure two females could have together, or ask if she’d ever experienced such pleasures. Or worse, suggest the pleasure of two females would be all the greater with J’zargo’s company.

She was formulating a biting response to any such remarks when J’zargo went down on one knee and grasped her hand. Her heart caught in her throat.

“Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni, this one realizes he can’t live without you. You are the twin moons to this one’s Nirn, the sweet in J’zargo’s sweetroll, the honey in his mead, the moon sugar in his skooma. This one knows he is not worthy of Brelyna’s many perfections, but still he must dare to ask: will Brelyna wed J’zargo, making this one the happiest Khajiit in all of Tamriel?” He opened his free hand and held out a shining gold ring.

All was silent as the soldiers, jarls, Ralof, and Kharjo gaped at them. The silence lengthened as she struggled for an answer. The J’zargo of these past weeks was truly different from the J’zargo she’d first met in Winterhold, as far as his arrogance and wandering eye went. Surely what he’d just witnessed from Deirdre and Lydia had been a stern test of the latter. Yet it hadn’t seemed to affect him at all.

To stall for time, she asked about the ring. “Did that come from Forelhost?”

“It did. I snatched it from an urn. Is it not bright and shiny enough?”

“Certainly it’s pretty, but I’m more concerned that it will turn me into a gnome.”

J’zargo laughed. “No, after Saarthal, J’zargo learned to test items for enchantments. It has no magic.” He still held it out, gazing hopefully up at her.

Oh, what the Oblivion, she thought. You only live once, although in a Dunmer’s case that could be over two hundred years.

“So, you’re asking that I be your mate, and you’ll be mine, forsaking all others?”

“Yes, that is J’zargo’s most ardent wish.”

“Then I accept. As to a wedding, we’ll have to talk. I don’t know how they feel in Elsweyr, but my family will neither accept nor permit it. My brothers will hunt us both down if they find out. If there is a ceremony, it will have to be quiet and small, just for our friends.”

“Whatever Brelyna wishes, as long as J’zargo gets to spend the rest of his days with her.” He slipped the ring on her finger, then stood up and kissed her long and hard. His whiskers tickled her cheeks, as always. All around them, Ralof and Kharjo, the guards, and even the jarls clapped and shouted approval.

Just then Deirdre and Lydia came riding up. Brelyna heard them arrive, but was too preoccupied to give much notice. At last they broke off the kiss and Brelyna turned to tell her friends the news. She half expected them to still be wearing their small clothes, but no, they’d arrayed themselves properly for the event that was to come in Whiterun, Deirdre in her fine trousers, polished boots, and a brocaded tunic, her head topped by the golden crown. Lydia was back in her full steel armor, with a fresh-pressed sash bearing the queen’s sigil. Despite their formal attire, both glowed with contentment.

“What did we miss?” Lydia asked, looking from one to the other.

J’zargo grinned. “Deirdre and Lydia aren’t the only ones experiencing — how did you say, Brelyna? — excesses of blissful pleasure.”

Laughter broke out all around, and Brelyna kissed him again, relishing J’zargo’s contented purr.

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