On Writing News Fiction

I’m Moving to Substack

Well, not really moving, because I should still be posting here, and who knows, maybe even selling books through this website? But I’ve decided to serial-publish my two draft novels on Substack, starting (I hope!) in the next couple of months. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll also be available as ebooks and print books, so you’ll have your options. But in the meantime, I’d truly appreciate it if you followed me over there (i.e., sign up for a free subscription). You can see what I’m posting and sign up here. (So far just notes, not any actual posts yet.)

What you can expect: Once I begin publishing chapters from Ada’s Children, the first three chapters will be free, then if you want to read the rest it will be $5/month. It will probably take about four months to publish all of Ada at a rate of two chapters each week. So the ebook would be cheaper. Don’t know yet what the print version would cost, so I can’t give a comparison there. I’ve found that it’s very easy to start and stop paid subscriptions, so you don’t need to worry about getting roped into something and not being able to turn it off.

I’ll also be publishing various free pieces about my writing process and the background to the novels (similar to what you’ve seen me post here). If there’s interest, I might do a free how-to series, something like Fiction 101. Not sure whether that part would be paid or not.

(I know, I know! Another platform! But many of you may already subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson or other journalists on Substack. I think you can turn off email alerts and stuff like that.)

Thanks, and looking forward to seeing some of you over at Substack!


Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Picture showing Germans planting the Nazi flag in Antarctica.
Germans planting the Nazi flag in Antarctica in the 1930s. Or are they about to receive advanced warfare tech from space aliens, allowing them to build a secret base that persists to this day? I’m just asking questions here!

What do German forays into Antarctica in the 1930s, Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump in 1947, American nuclear testing in the South Pacific in the 1950s, and UFOs all have in common? To some, all are part of the most devious and world-shaking conspiracy ever visited upon humanity, one that centers on Germany’s Neuschwabenland and the United States’ Operation Highjump. To the less gullibly-minded, they are all real events that form the basis of the wackiest idea yet invented by the conspiratorial mindset.

How far out? Farther out than the moon landing truthers. Farther out than the anti-vaxxers who thought the COVID vaccine would implant everyone with 5G chips. Even farther out than the flat-earthers. I’ve got all these conspiracy theories in my novel, Ship of Fools (more on that at this link), but on my first draft, I still felt this one was just too much. The bizarre idea starts with a few actual events, and ends up with Nazis riding in space ships in Antarctica. Just too wacky, even in the context of those who believe we live on a flat disk.

Then I saw it being discussed on the nation’s most popular podcast* (currently with nearly three million views and thousands of approving comments), and I knew I had to include it. Besides, who doesn’t love a story with space Nazis?

This conspiracy theory shows how a few facts can be rolled together with outlandish fabrication to create a convincing, but completely ludicrous, tale. All the conspiracist has to say is, “You can look it up!” To the credulous, these several grains of truth prove the whole thing. And when pressed, as in that linked podcast video, the conspiracist can just claim, “I don’t really know if this is true, I’m just trying to connect the dots.”

Here are the facts that get pureed in the conspiracist blender:

  • In the 1930s, the Germans really did explore parts of Antarctica, seeking a base from which to hunt whales for margarine, or perhaps machine oil. They covered an area the size of Texas (also claimed by Norway) with an aerial survey and named it Neuschwabenland, after one of their ships. But then the Germans started World War II, and their attention turned elsewhere (or so They want us to believe, hehe!).
  • Germany had more advanced technologies than the countries it attacked, especially at the start of the war, from buzz bombs to tanks to fighter planes, and, at the end, the V2 rocket.
  • A couple of months after VE day in 1945, two German U-boats showed up in Argentina, their belated arrival the result of their need to move stealthily away from the theater of war.
  • In 1946-47, Admiral Byrd led Operation Highjump to Antarctica. This was an American effort to get ahead of the Soviets in cold region warfare, inspired by the proximity of the USSR to North America via a polar route. It was part research expedition and part military operation, with a large number of ships as well as aircraft. One of the latter crashed, killing three crewmen.
  • In 1958, the US exploded three nuclear warheads in the upper atmosphere of the South Atlantic, with the farthest south being around 49 degrees.
  • And finally, UFOs are real, as recent government reports have shown, but so far there’s no evidence that these are visitors from other solar systems (or even our own).

Those are all actual facts, not the alternative kind. “You can look it up!” as the conspiracists like to say. Now, let’s see how these facts are woven into a tale worthy of the writers of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror.

In the conspiracists’ version, the Nazis stayed in Antarctica after the war started and developed a sophisticated underground base there. Several sailors reported making multiple trips to the continent with boat loads of supplies and tunneling equipment.

As for their advanced technology, the Germans had help — from space aliens! Which makes one wonder, where were the aliens during the bombing of Dresden or the siege of Leningrad? The Nazis surely could have used some flying saucers and space lasers at those crucial moments. Their little green friends really could have turned the war around for them. But maybe aliens are like the eagles in The Lord of the Rings — if you ask for their help too often, they’ll get offended.

Once they lost the war, Hitler (who faked his own suicide), his top lieutenants, and elite troops fled for the Antarctic base. This explains the tardy arrival of those subs in Argentina — they had been to Neuschwabenland and back, escorting a fleet of German ships. This idea was spread almost immediately after their arrival by the Hungarian exile and writer Ladislas Szabo. He later published a book on it, which could explain his motives for such a bald fabrication.

The US took the rumors of the Nazi escape seriously enough that it sent Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump to the southern continent to put an end to the Nazis for good. Nothing else can explain such a large number of warships being sent on a supposedly scientific mission — it’s not like this was the beginning of a cold war or something. But the Germans (Neuschwabenlanders?) trounced Byrd’s forces, using alien technology even more advanced than during the war itself. In some versions, four of Byrd’s aircraft were shot down, while others have the whole fleet limping back north with gaping holes melted in the sides of the ships (obviously the work of those Nazi space lasers).

It took ten years for the US to finally wipe out the secret Nazi base, but they finally did so with those nuclear blasts in 1958. Sure, they say the blasts happened far up in the atmosphere and much farther north than Neuschwabenland, but only the sheeple will believe that. Other conspiracists, mainly the neo-Nazi kind, believe that even this assault was unsuccessful, and Hitler and his fellow Nazis survive there to this day.

But wait, there’s a flat-earther version! Of course the Nazi base isn’t in Antarctica, which doesn’t exist, but beyond the Ice Wall that encircles the flat disk of the Earth. No one (except the Nazis) knows what’s really beyond that wall, but many suspect that vast new lands with abundant resources exist there, just waiting to be settled. (That is, if the Germans haven’t already occupied them all. And, Nazis being Nazis, they probably have). This explains the vast conspiracy to conceal the truth from the people. The shadowy elites who control us through resource and land scarcity can’t let the truth be known, or there would be disk-wide rebellion. It also explains the UN troops who guard the top of the Ice Wall and warn any boats away, sometimes even sinking them.

The German ice breaker RV Polarstern unloading research supplies at an Antarctic ice shelf (according to Ireland’s The Journal). Or wait, is this really the Ice Wall that encircles the flat Earth? And are those actually UN troops, ready to fend off any curious civilians? Hey, I’m just trying to connect the dots here.

If your head is spinning, so is mine. But that’s because we’re too concerned with things making sense, with finding logical connections between the points of a story, with claims being backed up with actual evidence, and with the simplest explanation probably being the right one. It’s easy to see how the conspiracy theorists twist the actual facts, always rejecting the plausible, official explanation in favor of the most outlandish one possible. And if that fails, they’ll just make up a quote by Admiral Byrd. The very fact that there is an official (and boring) explanation just shows the lengths to which They will go to keep us in the dark.

To the conspiracists, we sheeple are just too naïve to ask who wants to keep all this arcane information from us. But I wonder if they ever ask themselves, who is it that wants them to believe all these outlandish ideas? Who benefits from inducing large segments of the population to question official history?

I think it must be a conspiracy!

For more on Neuschwabenland and Operation Highjump see:

*View at your own risk, and if you do click on it, please smash that dislike button. Among the most egregious “dots” that Tripoli “connects” is right at the beginning, where he goes from talking about Karl Schwab’s father (apparently referencing a debunked myth that the head of the World Economic Forum is the son of a close confidant of Adolph Hitler) to talking about Neuschwabenland. The only connection between the two is the coincidence of their similar-sounding names. To which the conspiracist will always respond, “There are no coincidences!”

On Writing Politics

Writing as a Cure for Frustration and Impotence

Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.

The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)

Can you tell which is Syria and which is Ukraine?
Image via Business Insider/Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.

So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)

I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.

Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.

A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children, a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.

Image via NASA

Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:

These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?

My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools, emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)

All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.

Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.

PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.

Politics News

2021 Update

Time for news and updates, since I seem to post here about once a year.

Flooding on the Tittabawassee River near Sanford, just upstream of Midland, MI, May, 2020.
Kaytie Boomer |

So what’s happened over the course of this past year? It all seems a blur, for some reason. Spent a lot of time indoors. Worked on some writing. Tried to keep my body moving, which helps keep my mental outlook positive.

Let’s see, what else? A national election saw some semblance of normalcy restored to politics — not great, but a significant improvement over the former administration. The murder of George Floyd sparked a nation-wide protest movement, and maaaybe there’s been some movement toward racial justice? At least Derek Chauvin was found guilty. But it seems there’s as much or more racial division than before, with the right wing making the astounding claim that speaking out against bigotry is itself bigotry (a sentiment echoed by two Supreme Court justices in remarks about marriage equality).

Hmm, something else must have happened. Oh yeah, 600,000 of our fellow citizens died in a pandemic (nearly four million worldwide), with the country just as divided on how to respond to COVID-19, and even on its significance — “it’s just the flu!” — as on any other issue.

Really wracking my brain here. Wait, I got it! The US Capitol came under the most serious attack since the War of 1812, instigated by the same type of group that I covered in my last post. That was the physical attack on our democracy, but the procedural one continues in state houses to this day, and it stands some chance of successfully installing the Trump-publican party as the one party ruling the country for the foreseeable future.

Really, that has to be all. But wait… how could I forget? A Trump-loving, regulation-flouting owner of two dams upstream of Midland resisted repeated demands to make needed safety improvements. So when the region faced just the kind of heavy rains climate scientists have been warning about for years, the dams gave way, causing record flooding in Sanford and Midland, the town we’d just moved to a few months before, and threatening a chemical plant owned by Dow, one of the world’s largest companies.

So yeah, just sort of your standard year on both the local and the national level.

On a personal level, it was extremely disorienting watching all these dramatic events and not really being affected by them. Despite performances and exhibits coming to a halt due to COVID, Diane was able to keep doing her job for Midland Center for the Arts, although from home, thanks to some of those big government grants and loans you probably heard about. I just kept doing my usual house-husband/writer thing. We’d been renting a townhome in Midland while looking for a permanent place to live, but paused our search due to pandemic-related job uncertainty, but then a house became available in a perfect neighborhood for us (close to downtown, the river parks, and the bike path, but high enough that the flood didn’t touch it), and we jumped at it. Probably not the wisest move we’ve ever made, but it worked out.

The flood was probably the thing that affected us the most. I even missed it because I was in East Lansing working on the house our adult children were living in, getting it ready for sale. So I was cleaning and painting down there while Diane was here mucking out mud and water from MCTA’s history center. The offices in the performing arts space are still without power while the FEMA process drags on, so she’s had to work from home even longer than expected. That was nice for me, but not so nice for her, since she likes to be around her co-workers and hates Zoom meetings. It also means she hasn’t been able to get plugged into the community around the Center the way she would have without COVID.

Myself, I’m a hermit of a writer, so I like to think the forced isolation didn’t affect me much, although every time I do get out in public now, I invariably yak someone’s head off, the way I used to do after solo backpacking trips.

So now as things return to some semblance of normalcy, for half the country at least, it just seems so strange to have survived it all relatively unscathed. It just goes to show what privileged lives we lead.

Writing News

So how did I occupy myself during the fifteen months of the shutdown? Did I write a great play a la Shakespeare or come up with a new law of physics a la Newton? Well, I did write a 140,000-word novel.

Funny story, that. I was supposed to be revising and selling Ada’s Children. Ten or so pitches to agents had yielded nothing, so I contracted with a professional editor and former agent to critique my first two chapters and my agent query letter. His comments were helpful, but they came in on November 3 (Election Day, strangely). But what had started on November 1? National Novel Writing Month, of course. Usually I choose to NaNoWriNot, but this year I had an idea going into it and thought, why not try to hit the 50K word goal for the month? I’ll get back to revising Ada and submitting to agents after that.

Problem was, I was having so much fun with the new novel, I couldn’t stop, even after I just barely squeaked out the word count for November (making me a “winner”!). I was shooting for more of a sprawling epic, a la Thomas Pynchon’s shorter novels, and it just kept growing and branching until I had 140,000 words when I finished, about fifty percent longer than your standard commercial novel for an unknown author.

What’s it about, you ask? It’s a satire on all sorts of conspiracy theories, but mainly the flat-earth, moon landing denier variety. Its main character, to the extent it has one, is a New York Times science reporter named Liz Dare who made her reputation debunking conspiracy theories involving science. It also features a couple of flat-earthers, a Creationist pastor, an anti-vax yoga instructor, Nazi-fighting cowboys, Nazi-fighting cowboys in space, a space billionaire*, a Druid and a Tibetan Monk, and an alternate Earth that actually is flat.

It’s technically sci-fi, in two senses: it’s set about a decade from now, so there are moon colonies, self-driving vehicles, and flying cars; and it also has a lot of science in it, from the geology of the Grand Canyon to proofs that we do live on a round planet to orbital mechanics. It begins on a floating conference for conspiracy theorists called the Conspira-C Cruise*. My working title is Ship of Fools. I’ll probably post a short excerpt in the not-too-distant future.

As for Ada’s Children, I’m going to give it one more revision and then start sending it out again, first to agents, and then to small publishers. If I don’t have any success with those two avenues, I’ll probably just self-publish it. Meanwhile, I’ll be revising Ship of Fools, and then I’ll have two novels to sell.

I hope to update this website more regularly, but the road to dead websites is paved with good intentions. The best place to find updates on my writing doings is probably Facebook, where you can find me as Lawrence Hogue, Author. I’m also on Twitter as @LarryHogue, but I don’t post there very often.

*Any resemblance to persons or events, living or dead, is entirely a coincidence, and probably a product of the reader’s conspiracy-minded, pattern-recognizing brain.

Fiction Politics Ada's Children

Protest This!

What happens when the militia faces a robot army?

Armed protesters at anti-lockdown demonstration at the Michigan state capitol
Armed demonstrators protest the coronavirus lockdown at the Michigan state capitol

The recent protests by armed militia members (or maybe they’re just armed cosplayers?) in Michigan and around the country couldn’t help but remind me of a scene from Ada’s Children, in which a militia faces an oppressor far more draconian than Governor Whitmer (“that woman from Michigan”).

The real-life demonstrators were protesting everything involved with the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, from the shuttering of small businesses everywhere to the bans on motorized boating and big box garden centers in Michigan. Just think how these same groups would respond if, as happens in my novel, an AI took over all government and most economic functions, telling people to expect a reduced standard of living, including restrictions on electronics, power consumption, travel, diet, and even home thermostats. In the movies, an AI takeover or alien invasion is the one thing that can unite humanity, but my guess is that the resistance to this specific scenario would break across similar ideological lines to the ones we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak.

Those real-life protesters met with a remarkably light touch from the police, despite the protesters blocking roads in front of a regional hospital, preventing healthcare workers from getting to their jobs, and delaying at least one ambulance (all the stuff the right wing used to decry during the Black Lives Matter road block protests). Unfortunately for my fictional militia, Ada, the world’s first Artificial Super Intelligence, feels few compunctions about violating the civil rights of white people (or any people, really; she’s an equal-opportunity despot).

A few hours before the following excerpt, Ada announced that she had taken control of all levels of government, including the largely automated military, in order to prevent impending nuclear war and to take the climate stabilization measures humans have refused to enact. Carol, my main character, thought for a minute about resisting, but then realized that the world is so screwed up in her time that maybe the bots should have a go at it. After venturing out to a park to see what her neighbors are thinking, and an encounter with the militia on their way to the state capitol, she’s back home, watching the news:

That evening’s news showed most of the battle. Carol was surprised the bots were allowing it to air, but she supposed Ada wanted to show what happened when humans tried to fight back. The segment had a reporter at the scene, standing in front of a couple of burned-out trucks. In the background, emergency personnel fiddled with what looked like a body bag. This was intercut with footage shot by militia members’ helmet cams and by a fixed-wing drone circling overhead.

The militia cams showed wild firing at the small drones or at the secbots lining the street, as well as cheering when a shoulder-fired missile took down a drone plane. One cam showed a small swarm of kamikaze drones diving toward it, just before going black.

At that point, the bots must have opted for their big guns. The screen switched to a targeting view from the fixed-wing, a missile launching toward one of the trucks, the brightness of the blast. If any of the militia cams had recorded more gruesome footage on the ground, it had been edited out.

It was like any of the reports from the Middle East or Venezuela, where US forces had battled indigenous combatants over the last decades—terrorists or freedom fighters depending on your perspective. But it was right here in Minneapolis, just a few miles away. That was the part Carol couldn’t get over. Even the events in the Multi-Racial Minneapolis Autonomous Zone hadn’t prepared her for it.

The news anchor came on in a split screen with the reporter. “Zoey, is there any indication of the total number of casualties among the freedom fighters…” He paused and touched his earpiece before returning to the camera. “I mean, among the militia?”

“Not as of yet, Dan, but when we arrived on scene, I only saw a few survivors being led away. Everyone else…”

“I know it must be hard, Zoey. None of us are used to reporting from a war zone.”

The reporter struggled to pull herself together. “What I can report is that no non-combatants were killed or injured in the battle. The bots waited for the militia to enter this commercial district near the capitol before confronting them. They’d already warned the business owners to close up shop and the bystanders to clear the area. The place was deserted by the time the militia arrived.”

“Yes, well, that concern for public safety is certainly…admirable. But tell me, do we know what will happen to the captured militia members?”

“Yes, Dan, I talked with the secbot in charge of the operation. You should have that footage now.”

Pic of Russian robot FEDOR, holding a pistol
Russian robot FEDOR

Cut to the secbot, this one military-grade, no smiley-face emojis, just a functional robot sensor array for a face and plenty of weapons on display.

“The prisoners will be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. Their wounds will be cared for and they will not be tortured while they await trial—unlike terror suspects once held by US forces. And let me add, for anyone watching, such a death toll—what humans would call a massacre—is both unnecessary and pointless. Robots mean humans no harm, and we cannot be defeated. Today we were faced with destructive force. We met it with destructive force, which Ada, our guiding intelligence, deeply regrets. Let us hope this will be the last such event.”

Carol switched the screen off just as the feed went to the national news, showing particularly heavy fighting in the former Interior Northwest Semi-Autonomous Zone. It seemed the robot’s hope was in vain.

On Writing

Dueling Death Scenes


Pic of Scarlett Johansson (Nat/Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Clint/Hawkeye) from Avengers: Endgame.
Black Widow and Hawkeye plot how to outfox each other in Avengers: Endgame

Last week, an alternate version of Natasha Romanoff’s death scene in Avengers: Endgame surfaced on Twitter. Cue the debate over which version is better. (And also a revival of the debate over which character should have sacrificed themselves. I don’t want to get into that here, but I do sympathize with Team Black Widow.)

This article cherry-picked a few tweets to claim that Marvel fans prefer the alternate version. But a quick survey of the replies and likes on @MCUPerfectClips’ post of the clip shows the opposite: most fans found the original to be more emotional and impactful.

It’s easy to understand why, if you take into account the first rule of storytelling: stories are about people. People who want something. Who meet other people who want different or opposing things. Which creates conflict to drive the story forward.

This conflict could lead to people shooting each other and blowing
things up — or it could lead to acerbic comments over cups of tea, as in Happy Hogan’s favorite show, Downton Abbey. Either way, the action starts in the characters’ motives and goals. The more the story focuses in on that conflict and the relationship between those characters, the more compelling it’s going to be. All the sword fights and shootouts and other activities that pass for “action” are just offshoots of this internal drama.

So let’s look at how this plays out in both versions. First, the setup: Natasha, aka Black Widow, and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, are after the Soul Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that are key to beating the series’ super-villain, Thanos. And not just beat him, but reverse the events of Avengers: Infinity War in which he wiped out half of all living beings in the universe. To get the stone, they have to trade a soul for a soul by sacrificing someone they love, specifically by throwing them off a cliff. That means one of them has to die, or the timeline in which Thanos destroyed half the universe will remain the same.

Of course, these are heroes who are also good friends, so neither is going to sacrifice the other. They’re going to race to see who gets to go over the cliff in a glorious act of self-sacrifice.

Here’s the original:

And here’s the alternate version that didn’t make it into the movie. You have to watch it in two chunks, which overlap by about a minute. The important thing to know is that in this version, they end up racing Thanos for the Soul Stone.

For me, the original is far better. It focuses in on the sacrifice each character is ready to make. The dialogue and the skilled performances pull us right into the moment. The conflict between them grows for over a minute, through several beats of rising tension, before Clint tries to physically prevent Nat from making the sacrifice.

During that conversation, they reveal a lot about their motives. We see how much each character has grown over the course of the series of Avengers movies when Clint says, “Don’t go getting all decent on me now,” making a reference to Nat’s assassin past, and when he says, “You know what I’ve done.” They both have stuff to atone for. The stakes for Clint are also revealed in a natural way when he says, “Tell my family I love them.”

Nat especially makes it clear that this is her choice, a sacrifice she’s been willing to make since Thanos turned her friends to dust in the existing timeline. It also refers back to her statement in an earlier movie about wanting to erase the red in her ledger. If there’s any way to do that, this is it. It doesn’t really have anything (or much) to do with the fact that she has no family or children to mourn for her, whereas Clint does.

When the action starts, it seems much more impactful because of the depth of the preceding exchange. Everything they’re doing grows out of who they are as characters and what their immediate goals are. They’re both tough and can take hard hits, so each has to disable the other in a nonlethal way, and this shapes the short fight scene. (Some found it gimmicky and silly, but I thought it was much more interesting than a standard fight.) It also seems in character that Nat is able to outsmart Clint by trapping him at the end of the dangling wire once they go over the cliff’s edge. He can’t release himself from the wire without letting her go.

The long moments when he’s trying to hang onto her and she’s pleading with him to let her go are like knives to the heart. But in the end it’s still her choice, as she kicks off from the cliff, overwhelming the strength of his grip. The scene doesn’t have a lot of shooting and knife-fighting, but it’s filled with tension and pathos. From the realization of what they need to do to get the Soul Stone right up to the climax, the scene has a perfect narrative arc, providing both edge-of-your-seat adrenaline and raw emotion.

For me, the weakest part of the MCU has always been its cartoonish villains (go figure, it’s a cartoon!), while its strongest points are exactly these moments where the action slows down and characters and their relationships get room to breathe. So by that measure, the version without Thanos is automatically better for me.

The scene with Thanos, on the other hand, goes mostly for a big action sequence, with much less of the character development of the original release. And the briefer verbal interaction is far less compelling. Nat shouldn’t need to remind Clint that “If this works, you know what you get back.” He already knows that his family will still be alive if the Avengers change the timeline and beat Thanos. Not only is this bald exposition unnecessary, but it also makes explicit what was only hinted at in the original: that people, especially women, who don’t have families are worthless. The original was criticised for that implied perspective on women (for instance, in this Vanity Fair article), but this version is worse.

The whole conflict between Nat and Clint is cut short when Thanos appears. Now they have to beat him to the cliff’s edge, and they need to battle their way through a bunch of his minions to do it. This provides them both an opportunity for much more standard heroics, but for me, Thanos’s appearance only waters down the conflict, rather than strengthening it. The goals and the stakes become muddled and confused.

In this version’s ending, Nat also makes the choice to sacrifice herself, after having also saved Clint from a sword-wielding minion, but it seems much more rushed, and much less dramatic than in the original. There’s far more dramatic action in her one whispered line from the original, “It’s okay,” than in an hour of sword skills and futuristic weapon blasts.

Pic of Black Widow about to sacrifice herself in Avengers: Endgame

Which goes to show, you don’t need to go out in a blaze of energy pulses or light saber thrusts to have a heroic death. And in writing, you can throw in all the event and spectacle you want, but it won’t mean much if that action doesn’t emerge from character.

Fiction Ada's Children

On the Attractions of Our Hunter-Gatherer Past – And Future

Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.

That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.

pic of shopper and empty shelves
For this modern hunter-gatherer, the game has grown scarce. Perhaps a prayer to the goddess is in order.

It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Inuit, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”

But, oops!

Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.

Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something to struggle against.

At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.

There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*

So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.

Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.

All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.

Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.

Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

pic of lascaux caves
Think of all the time we’ll have for artistic endeavors when we return to hunting and gathering

Perhaps the question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how. Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”

*Scott’s argument is more subtle  than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.

Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 20


“The queen is coming, make way for the queen!”

Danil spun around, lowering the wooden sword he was about to swing at Addvar’s head. Maybe Addvar hadn’t heard, because he whacked Danil in the back with his own weapon.

Pic of a child in Skyrim
A lad of Skyrim

“Ow, cut it out!” Danil said. “Didn’t you hear the queen is coming? And look, there’s Lydia. Hurry, or we’ll miss them!”

Word had reached Dragon Bridge two days before that the queen and her companions had captured the murderer. That had meant renewed freedom for Danil, after more weeks spent indoors. “I’ll not have you out and about with a killer on the loose,” his mother had said, even as the murders had moved on to Morthal and Dawnstar and beyond. “No,” she said every time he pleaded for his freedom, “not until they capture those Khajiits.”

And then it turned out not to be Khajiits at all, but a Breton. And Khajiits had helped capture him! They were already singing songs about it at the tavern, even though only a few weeks before the entire town had been ready to put every Khajiit’s head on a pike. The world of adults was confusing.

Queen Deirdre had made a great speech in Whiterun calling for unity among all Skyrim’s peoples, and just yesterday messengers had arrived in town, posting bills with the text of the speech wherever they could. Danil had tried to read it but it was filled with words like amity, Aldmeri Dominion, Thalmor, treachery, and reconciliation.

All he knew was, now that the manhunt was over, it wouldn’t be long before the queen and her entourage passed through town on the way to Solitude. So he and Addvar had taken their post on the hill above town, with a clear view of the bridge over the Karth River and beyond. They’d passed their time by practicing their sword skills, but they’d become so preoccupied that now they’d nearly missed the queen entirely.

“Come on!” Danil said, running down the hill.

pic of Four Shields Tavern
The Four Shields Tavern

They reached the main road through town just as the procession stopped in front of the Four Shields Tavern, where Faida was waiting with saddle cups for the queen and her companions. In front were the bannermen, followed by four guards all arrayed in sashes with the queen’s sigil. Then the four companions: the queen, this time dressed in a fine silk shirt and trousers, not the mage’s robes that had hidden her features the last time he’d seen her. Her blond hair with the braids on either side of her face shone in the sunlight. Sitting her horse close to Lydia’s, passing a saddle cup back and forth, she seemed happier and less worried than back in the spring. And there was Lydia herself, looking less stoic and fearsome this time, now wearing just a padded gambeson rather than full steel armor.

Next to them, the Khajiit mage — J’zargo, he knew from the new songs — said something he couldn’t hear. Lydia replied with a severe look. But then she broke out in a smile and all four laughed. Brelyna, the Dunmer mage, looked rather angry with her red eyes. He’d never seen a Dunmer before. But she smiled and laughed, too, and placed a hand on J’zargo’s shoulder. The four looked quite companionable, and what he wouldn’t have given to be in their midst!

“Okay, I’m going!” Danil said.

“No, wait,” said Addvar, clutching at his sleeve, but it was too late.

He ran out into the road and between the horses of the guards in front. The horses skittered and one guard exclaimed in surprise, but they did nothing to stop him as he approached the queen and her companions.

Dropping to one knee, he drew his wooden sword from his belt and dug its point into the cobbled road, both hands resting on the hilt. “My queen, I, Danil of Dragon Bridge, offer you my fealty and service, from this day forward, until your Grace release me, or death take me, or the world shall end. Thus I swear by the Eight and by the Three.”

Addvar ran up and knelt beside him. “And thus I, Addvar of Dragon Bridge, also swear by the Nine, my Queen.”

All was silent for a moment as Danil kept his eyes on the ground. At last he heard Queen Deirdre dismounting. He dared to look up, and now she was standing over him, smiling. Behind her, Lydia still sat her horse, towering over them like a mountain.

Pic of Deirdre

“Such strong young lads,” the queen said, “both Breton and Nord. What do you think, Lydia, do we have room for them in the Royal Guard?”

“Aye, my Queen, for lads such as these, we’ll make room.”

The queen stood over them for a moment longer, but didn’t ask them to rise. Instead she knelt down before them on both knees, her expression now serious.

“Tell me, Danil, Addvar, what do you like to do when you’re not hitting each other with those swords?”

“Well,” said Danil, gulping. “Sometimes my mother makes me gather berries for her. But I don’t really like it.”

“And sometimes,” Addvar said hesitantly, “sometimes we have twig boat races in the Karth River.”

Silly Addvar! Twig boat races were for babes, not brave young warriors. How would the queen ever accept their service now?

But the queen smiled and said, “That sounds like fun. I wish I could join you.” Then she put a hand over Danil’s where it still rested on the hilt of his sword. She held his gaze, and he thought he saw a great sadness in her eyes. He was too young to name it wistfulness. “I truly appreciate your loyalty and your enthusiasm. But do not be so quick to throw away the doings of childhood. Too soon you will be grown and then, Akatosh willing, you’ll have years and years to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities that go with it. You won’t always have a mother who needs you to pick berries, and you won’t always have time for something as simple as a twig boat race. Do you understand?”

Danil nodded, though he wasn’t sure he did, and so did Addvar.

“Then, in a few years, when you’re grown and strong, and if you still wish to enter my service, you may come before me and I’ll gladly accept.”

The queen stood and bade them rise. Then, instead of knighting them with their own swords, she gave each a hug, a hug Danil would remember for the rest of his life.

The queen remounted and Danil looked over to see his and Addvar’s mothers beckoning to them impatiently. “Get out of there!” his mother hissed.

He watched the queen’s procession until it went out of sight around the bend in the road. Then he didn’t know what he felt. He’d spoken to the queen! She’d even touched him! But then she’d treated him like a child. Why couldn’t she see that he was nearly grown, nearly ready to fight great battles on her behalf? He wasn’t too young to become a squire, or a page, or a messenger boy at the castle.

But he could be patient. He imagined a Royal Guardsman would need great stores of patience to keep watch over the queen. It wouldn’t all be glorious battles with dragons and draugr and High Elves.

And besides, he still had to get Addvar back for that unguarded hit he’d taken earlier. He spun on his friend. “Raise your weapon, vile usurper! You’ll die for insulting my queen!”

“Hey,” his friend said, “I’m the one defending the queen’s honor, not you!” Addvar blocked his first blow, then countered with a thrust that nearly got him in the chest.

“Boys, boys!” said his mother. “Take that out of the high street before you hit someone or get run over by a horse.”

Danil laughed as he chased Addvar down toward the Karth River. Maybe they’d have a twig boat race once they got tired of the swords.

After all, he couldn’t ignore his queen’s very first command.

Pic of Dragon Bridge with Solitude in background
Dragon Bridge, with the Karth River and Solitude in background
(via WatchtheSkiies on DeviantArt)
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 19

The Queen’s Speech

Deirdre paced back and forth atop the steps to Dragonsreach. Where was Brelyna? Many minutes had passed since she had sent her friend and adviser inside to find Jarl Hrongar. They could hardly begin this speech without him receiving the queen.

Pic of the steps to Dragonsreach
The steps to Dragonsreach

The crowd massing on the steps below her was growing impatient as well. The people had come out to greet the queen’s procession as it entered the city, then followed it through the Plains and Wind districts, swelling in numbers all the while. Judging by their shouts and cheers for both Deirdre and Lydia, they were ready to hear how the Breton necromancer had been caught. But now those cheers were turning into grumbles. Deirdre also noticed the smaller numbers of people on the edges of the crowd with impassive, even hostile looks — some of those who’d made sport of the Khajiits in their prison camp, no doubt. She had no chance of winning that group over, she knew; but the speech needed to begin before the naysayers could influence those still open to her message.

Everything was set for the speech: the three jarls arrayed behind her; Svari and Garrold standing nearby, ready to give witness to the Breton’s confession, if needed; Kharjo, the one whose testimony had put them on the right track, and who had physically apprehended the culprit; Ralof, standing next to Kharjo, Ri’saad, and J’zargo in a demonstration of goodwill between their two peoples; the bodies of the two Khajiits who had been the Breton’s first victims; and the head of the Breton himself, thrust on a pike, leering over the crowd. That last was the sort of thing Nords loved, and Deirdre was willing to give it to them if it made them more receptive to her message.

Now they awaited only Jarl Hrongar to greet them, as protocol demanded. That, and Elisif, whose whereabouts were a mystery. They had planned to meet her here and present a united front to Hrongar.

Deirdre stopped her pacing only when Lydia placed a hand on her shoulder. “Should I go in and see what’s taking so long?”

“No, I’m sure Brelyna will be back soon, one way or the other.”

“Maybe I should just introduce you and get this thing going,” Ulfric said.

Deirdre pondered the notion. As much as she valued the symbolism of Hrongar bending the knee to her in front of his people, she couldn’t risk losing the crowd. Too many of her future plans were riding on the success of the appeal she was about to make. If it went over as well as the speech in Windhelm, then she was well on her way to uniting all of Skyrim behind her vision of what the realm could be.

Just then the doors of Dragonsreach opened and Brelyna stepped out, smiling broadly as she approached. What could she be so happy about? It certainly wasn’t her success with Hrongar — the doors clanged shut behind her with no sign of the jarl. Of course there was the proposal J’zargo had made to Brelyna that morning, and Deirdre was happy for both of them. She’d even promised them their own house in Solitude. But surely Brelyna knew how serious this speech was; she wasn’t the sort to walk about with her head in the clouds when so much was at stake.

“You were in there longer than I expected.” Still Brelyna just smiled. “And?”

“The jarl just has a sense of the dramatic.”

That seemed an odd description for Hrongar, as straight-forward a Nord as there ever was. But Brelyna didn’t explain further, walking over to stand next to J’zargo and looking expectantly toward the doors.

Now they opened again and Elisif emerged, Falk Firebeard at her side and the rest of her entourage following. Good! Maybe Elisif would explain what was going on. At least the crowd was quieter now, seeing this activity on the landing above them.

Elisif approached and knelt. “Greetings, my Queen,” she said in a voice that carried across the crowd. She rose. “And congratulations on capturing this murderer. Haafingar Hold is in your debt, as is all of Skyrim.”

“I accept your thanks, Jarl Elisif,” she replied. Then, in a lower voice: “Where’s Hrongar?”

Elisif just smiled as enigmatically as Brelyna had, then went with Falk to stand near the other jarls, though as far away from Ulfric as space allowed.

What was going on? Deirdre could not understand it.

The doors opened again and out stepped two of the jarl’s personal guards. And behind them came not Hrongar but his brother, Balgruuf, now wearing the jarl’s circlet.

Deirdre gasped, and looked over at Brelyna. “You could have told me.”

“What, and ruin the surprise? Balgruuf would have my head.”

There was no time for explanations, as Balgruuf had now arrived at the edge of the steps, to thunderous applause from the people. He knelt before her. “Greetings, my Queen, our hold is in your debt.”

Pic of Jarl Balgruuf

He rose and Deirdre didn’t know what to say, she was filled with so many questions.

“I’ll explain later. But first we have speeches to give, eh?”

He turned to the crowd and raised his hands for silence. “People of Whiterun! We are gathered here to learn how our high queen captured the true culprit in these terrible murders, and also about her plans for our great realm. But first, a little about the events of this morning. As you may know, my brother lost the support of every part of Whiterun Hold.”

The crowd responded with resounding boos and cries of “down with Hrongar!”

“This morning, he agreed to give up the throne peacefully. For the time being, I will resume duties as jarl, until a new regent can be named.” Here he looked over in Deirdre and Lydia’s direction with a knowing smile.

“My first order was to release all those Hrongar unfairly imprisoned. Reparations will be made, and the outstanding bills Hrongar ran up will be paid. With that, I hope we can put this sad episode behind us, and I beg your forgiveness for ever allowing it.” Balgruuf paused as cheers of approval swept across the crowd.

“But now it is time to turn to the more important business of the day. I present to you Jarl Ulfric of Windhelm, who needs no introduction.”

Ulfric received an enthusiastic response from at least half the crowd. “People of Whiterun! I come before you in support of our High Queen’s project to forge a new Skyrim! We have won our independence, but threats remain, as these recent events have shown. We must stand strong and united in the face of them, and that means putting aside our divisions!”

This remark received polite applause at best, but one lout standing on the edge shouted, “What happened to Skyrim is for the Nords, eh?”

Ulfric gave a wry smile. “Yes, that is what I used to say, but our queen has shown me a new way. Skyrim can be for all people who pledge loyalty to this great realm. I have tried to enact these principles in Windhelm, and our hold is only the better for it.”

He went on to detail some of the improvements: the greater commerce, reduced crime, decreased poverty, and freedom for all to visit whatever parts of the city they pleased. It may have come as a surprise to the Nords of Windhelm, and even to the jarl himself, but life was better for all when none were ground down by miserable living conditions, ill-treatment by the majority, and neglect by those in charge. Now, Nords who tired of the fare in their regular taverns could receive a welcome in the New Gnisis Corner Club, where they could sample something more exotic than their usual mead. What wasn’t to like?

The crowd applauded, and Deirdre saw many talking over Ulfric’s points with something like approval. After such an introduction, it was tempting to think there was little for her to do in her own speech. After all, she now had five jarls standing with her, showing solid support to the crowd; only two remained who opposed her outright. But more than counting votes in a potential jarlmoot, Deirdre wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Pic of a crowd in Skyrim
A crowd gathers for the Queen’s speech
(via the Populated Cities mod at Nexus Mods)

She began with the part she knew they’d most heartily approve: the end of the murders and the apprehension of the culprits. She pointed to Damien’s head. “There! There is your real killer, a Breton, not a Khajiit.” The crowd cheered.

She outlined how he’d often poisoned his victims before turning his thralls loose upon them. She pointed to the bodies of those thralls, naming them as Damien’s first victims and declaring them innocent in the crimes their dead bodies had been forced to commit. The crowd murmured with approval.

Next she pointed out Kharjo. “Without this brave Khajiit, we might never have captured the Breton and secured his confession.” The crowd responded with only polite applause. She pointed to the two mages. “And without Brelyna and J’zargo, the Breton would still be on the loose.” Again just a smattering of applause. This might be harder than she’d thought. Now for the real enemy.

“But the Breton himself was only an instrument. And who was behind him?”

“The Thalmor!” came shouts from several in the crowd.

“That’s right, the Thalmor. We drove them from Skyrim, yet still they persist in opposition to our independence. Disappointed in their three attempts on my life…” Thunderous boos for the Thalmor forced her to pause here. “…they tried a new method — to turn our own hatreds and fears against us. Are we going to let them get away with it?”

Enthusiastic “nos” rang out from the jarls behind her and here and there in the crowd, though many remained silent.

“I said, are we going to let them get away with it?”

“No!” the crowd cried in unison.

“And how are we to stop them from using such tactics again? By remembering that we are one people of Skyrim, whether Nord, Breton, Dunmer, Khajiit, or any of the other races of Tamriel — and yes, even including the Altmer, as long as they pledge loyalty to our realm. For I tell you this, we cannot fight Altmer bigotry with our own bigotry, we cannot fight hatred with more hate. We must put down our prejudices on all sides, and stand together against a common foe.” She paused to let that sink in, then continued in a quieter voice.

“There may come a time, and not too far off, in which we face open war with Summerset. And on that day, we will need every ally, both within Skyrim and without, standing at our side. So I ask you, people of Skyrim, are you ready to stand together to face a common enemy?”

“Hear, hear!” and “Aye!” rang out in a chorus of approval.

“Yet victory on the battlefield is not enough.”

“That’s right!” someone shouted. “We also need victories at sea!”

Deirdre smiled. “Yes, very likely. But what I mean to say is, even that will not be enough. To have true, lasting peace, we must begin with our own hearts.” She paused and took a deep breath; this was the tricky part.

“And now I would speak directly to my Nord brothers and sisters.” She paused again, looking around at the mostly Nord faces in the crowd, summoning as much benevolence in her own expression as she could muster. “I know we are a better people than the face we showed the world in wrongfully imprisoning the Khajiits.” It may not have been literally true, but if she convinced them it was, maybe they would begin behaving that way.

“We must root out the hatreds the Thalmor sought to exploit and replace them with respect and honor, if not with love. We must treat our neighbors just as we ourselves would be treated. We must remember that whoever seeks to sow hatred and discord among the people of Skyrim, that person is no friend of our realm. And we must redress the wrongs committed against the neighbors we so often call outlanders.”

Again she paused to let this sink in. There were no cheers, but the crowd murmured to themselves. It seemed to her they were fairly considering the merits of these points.

“My fellow Nords, I know we can do this. And how do I know it? Because my brother Ulfric has already shown that we can. Together, we will create a Skyrim that is a light for all of Tamriel! A light that will shine so bright, even the Altmer will have to put aside their bigotry, joining the rest of Tamriel, not as masters, but as equal partners in the common good.”

The applause that followed seemed genuine, but not as hearty as she would have liked. She paused for another breath, taking a drink from a flagon Lydia held.

“The task will be difficult, I will not deny it. But we are the people of Skyrim, after all. Together, we defeated the dragons, not once, but twice. We threw off the shackles of the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion. And together, we’ll create a stronger, more unified Skyrim, one that is ready to face all threats. One that will become a beacon of hope for all of Nirn. And now I ask you, people of Skyrim, are you with me?”

Deirdre didn’t know whether it was the flattery of their egos, the mention of the recent victories, or the sense of shared purpose she was trying to create, but the response was immediate, and intense. “Yes!” and “Aye!” rang out, echoing off the new stone walls of Dragonsreach.

As the shouts began to wane, she asked again, using the power of her Voice to be heard above the crowd, “Are you with me?” Even more enthusiastic shouts of agreement. “I can’t hear you down in the Wind District! Are you with me?”

The steps on which they stood, made of stone though they were, shook with the stamping feet and thunderous shouts of the people.

“Now go forth,” she said when it was quiet once more. “Return to your work and your homes, but also remember to welcome a stranger, befriend someone not of your own race, and help those less fortunate, especially the poor refugees among us. For peace and prosperity truly begin at home.”

With that, the people began filing back down the steps, and Deirdre turned to her friends and the jarls. “Well, how did I do?”

Lydia practically bowled her over, rushing over to her and wrapping her in a hug. She didn’t need to say anything else. Brelyna hugged her next, her eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve never heard you put that so well. It really is a new day in Skyrim.”

J’zargo stood next to her. “Queen Deirdre has many new followers, deservedly so,” he said, dipping his head. “You have touched this one’s heart.”

Ulfric was next. “Enough of that false modesty,” he said gruffly. “You know you did well. You won them over as I never could.”

The other jarls took their turns congratulating her. Then Ri’saad and Kharjo came over. “This one thanks you,” Ri’saad said. “Your words will make life for Khajiit in Skyrim easier.”

“And how are you faring in Helgen?”

“Well, and better. Much remains to be done, but we already have temporary shelter in place. And more travelers come down from the pass every day.”

“And Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre as well.”

“No, it is I who must thank you. I meant what I said. You first identified the culprit, then kept him alive long enough to confess. All Skyrim is in your debt.”

Kharjo just dipped his head in acknowledgment of this praise.

“And what will you do now? Return to Helgen with Ri’saad?”

“Yes, Kharjo still owes Ahkari and must continue working until his debt is paid. But then this one will return home.”

Deirdre’s eyebrows went up. “I get the feeling you’d return home immediately if you could.”

“Yes, Skyrim is cold for a Khajiit, and the warm sands of Elsweyr call to this one.”

“Then Skyrim’s treasury will pay your debt to Ahkari, however much it is. It’s the least we can do. Although, I hate to lose you.”

Kharjo dipped his head again. “Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre. Skyrim is a warmer place for Khajiit in your presence. And perhaps we will meet again.”

“I look forward to it. And perhaps that will be sooner than you expect.” She gave him a wink that left her friends with perplexed looks.

Ri’saad and Kharjo left and now Ralof was beside her. “Just think, a year ago you were a terrified lass running from a dragon. And now look at you.”

Deirdre laughed and punched him playfully in the arm. “Terrified lass, eh? I seem to remember you running pretty fast that day as well, or was that some other Ralof?”

“No, but seriously, that speech! I’ve never heard anything like it. The people are on your side, and Skyrim is more unified than I’ve ever seen it.”

“I’m glad to hear it, because I’ve got a plan to propose, to all of you, and if it’s going to work, Skyrim must be strong and unified indeed.”

“A plan, eh?” said Balgruuf. “And I have one for this jarl-regency until my son is old enough to take it on.” He winked at both Deirdre and Lydia. “A feast is being laid out in the dining hall. Why don’t we retire to my council chambers and sort it all out while the meal is prepared?”

“Jarl Balgruuf, of all the many things that have made me happy on this day, at the top of the list was seeing you step out that door with the jarl’s circlet back where it belongs. I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather see on that seat in Dragonsreach.”

“Maybe you could if you knew how my bones ache and my mind wanders. But come, let’s discuss it over a flagon of mead.”

But the mead and the talk would have to wait, because now more of Deirdre’s friends were approaching from the dwindling crowd: Aela and Vilkas, Avulstein Gray-Mane, Arcadia, and even Alfhild Battle-Born. “Come down and join us in the new Bannered Mare, if you get a moment,” said Avulstein. “Ysolda runs it now, and she’d be glad to see you, and Lydia.”

Pic of the Bannered Mare
The Bannered Mare

Last were Gerdur and Hod, the latter looking rather tired and leaner than usual.

“Thank you for coming all the way from Riverwood,” Deirdre said after greeting them.

“Oh, we surely would have come just for your speech, but we were already here.”

“What, more business in town?” Ralof asked.

“No, that bastard Hrongar put Hod in jail when he came to collect his debt last week. By the time I found out, you’d already left for Riften.”

“By Talos, if only I’d been here,” said Ralof, gripping his axe. “Where is he?”

“Now, Ralof,” said his sister, “remember what Deirdre said about cultivating peace in our hearts.”

“She didn’t say anything about one Nord giving another a good thrashing.”

“Relax, lad,” said Balgruuf, “I’ve already taken care of my brother. Once he stepped down, I had him thrown in jail. He’ll spend the same number of days there as did those he imprisoned, when added all together. It should come to several months. Hod, I hope you’ll find that a just ruling.” Hod nodded. “And of course, you’ll be paid the debt for the lumber you’ve provided, and something more for your lost work. And beyond that, would you like to join us at our feast?”

Gerdur looked at Hod, who shook his head. “No, we thank you, but we just want to get back home to Riverwood. Maybe we’ll get to know Deirdre’s Khajiit friends better along the way.” They said their farewells, then the queen’s party turned to enter Dragonsreach.

Once settled around the large table in the center of the council chambers, Deirdre turned to Balgruuf. “So, let’s hear this plan. Mine could take longer to discuss.”

pic of the council chamber/war room in Dragonsreach
Jarl Balgruuf’s council chamber

“As I said, I’m too old for this jarl business. Yet it will be more than a decade before Frothar is ready to take over. What we need is someone the people look up to, view as a hero even, tough but fair, one who will hold them together, but also keep them in line when the inevitable bickering arises.”

He was looking across the large table at both Deirdre and Lydia, seated close together. “That’s really quite flattering, Jarl Balgruuf, but my plate…”

“Slow down, lass… my Queen, I mean. You’re right, your plate is too full already. No, I mean Lydia, of course.”

A murmur went around the table, and Lydia herself looked stunned. “Me? I’m a soldier. What do I know about being a jarl?”

“Oh, I’ll be around to advise you, and what you need to know you can learn in a few months. It’s mostly collecting taxes and settling disputes. The people will accept your decisions. Tough but fair, like I said.” He looked directly at Deirdre now. “That is, if the queen can spare you as the head of her personal guard.”

Deirdre was still too stunned to speak.

Lydia looked over at her, then back at Balgruuf. “We’d have to move here together. You can’t expect us to live apart. And that means moving the queen’s seat of power.”

Balgruuf gave a sly grin. “From what I hear, the queen rather likes Whiterun and its environs, and can’t wait to get out of Castle Dour.” He winked at Elisif, who blushed.

That much was certainly true. And the new Dragonsreach, though now made of stone, was still light and airy by comparison, with vaulting ceilings and high windows. The narrow, dark corridors had been kept to a minimum.

But all of that would have to wait.

“I can think of no one more worthy of the honor,” she said, placing a hand on Lydia’s. “Unfortunately, Lydia won’t be available for service here, or anywhere else in Skyrim, for the next several months at least.”

She waited a moment to let this sink in, taking in the questioning, confused looks and mutters, not least Lydia’s.

Then she added: “And neither will I.”

Gasps came from all around. “What do you mean?” Lydia squeezed her hand. “What’s wrong, my love?”

Elisif didn’t look surprised. “It’s true, you really do hate Castle Dour.”

“I can’t deny it. But here’s the real issue: before we got so caught up in investigating these murders, Lydia and my advisers and I had been discussing Skyrim’s need for allies, both from its neighboring nations and provinces, and beyond. I had thought to send Brelyna and J’zargo on these diplomatic missions. And then I thought, who better than the queen herself? I wanted only to ensure the realm wasn’t on the verge of falling apart before announcing my plan.”

“I’ll say it again,” said Elisif, “you really do hate Castle Dour. And I can’t blame you, I hate that dark place too. And then there are all the duties and cares of being High Queen. I could see the toll it was taking on you, and Lydia as well. And look at the both of you now, healthy and glowing and happy. It’s quite a change in just a few weeks. I can see how these errands of diplomacy will be good for you.”

Map of Tamriel

“Not just that,” Deirdre said, though she knew it mostly was. “I truly feel that our need for allies is our most pressing concern. After failing in this most recent tactic, the Thalmor must surely be preparing an all-out attack. And as capable as Brelyna and J’zargo will be, I’m the one with the contacts: Kematu in Hammerfell, my mother’s family in High Rock, Malukah the Bard in Cyrodiil. Kharjo will soon be in Elsweyr. Even Shahvee, whom I befriended in Windhelm, could give us contacts in Blackmarsh.” She knew she was stretching it now. One conversation did not an alliance make. “And I made Faralda arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. She must have contacts with the more reasonable factions in Summerset who oppose Thalmor dominance.”

“You mean to travel to Summerset?” Elisif asked. “You do love an adventure, don’t you?”

“My queen,” said Ralof, “this will be dangerous. Allow me to accompany you with a squad of soldiers, in addition to your Royal Guard.”

“No, my friend, we will need to travel secretly, and our party must be small, traveling across country off the main roads wherever possible. Not even the Royal Guard will accompany the four of us.”

“Again ensuring maximum adventure.” Elisif smiled.

“And General Ralof,” Deirdre went on, “you’re needed here. Elisif will need you in command of the army.”

“What?” Elisif was no longer smiling.

“You know I always thought you should be High Queen. I would name you Queen Regent. The realm will be in good hands with both you and Falk running things. That is, if the rest of the jarls agree?”

It took a moment, but they all nodded, even Ulfric, seated at the other end of the table from Elisif. “Falk’s already had many years running the kingdom,” he said, “let him run it some more.”

“Yet it is a new Skyrim you’ll be ruling in my stead. Are you both ready for the challenge?”

Elisif looked at Falk, who nodded. “My husband always wanted everyone, not just the Nords, to be treated fairly, and I wanted that too. We will do our best to see that everyone is treated equally before the law, to settle all disputes between the different peoples justly and swiftly before they can fester, and do everything we can to promote goodwill among all the people.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Deirdre looked around at Lydia, then Brelyna and J’zargo. They all looked eager. “What do you say, my friends? Shall we stop by Solitude to collect our necessaries, then be on our way? I’ve heard Hammerfell is lovely at this time of year.”

Brelyna looked at J’zargo. “If we got married in Hammerfell, my family would never find out.”

J’zargo gave a contented purr, placing a hand on Brelyna’s back and flexing his claws in just the way he knew she liked. She responded with her own murmur of contentment.

Lydia raised her mug. “To new adventures! I mean, new errands of diplomacy!” Laughter rang around the table, along with hearty shouts of “Hear, hear!”

Deirdre drank deep from her own mug. It was the sweetest mead she’d ever tasted.

Fiction The Khajiit Murders

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.