What a changed prospect! Deirdre thought as she and her companions approached Whiterun from the north. The cliffs on which Dragonsreach had perched for millennia were still imposing, thrusting hundreds of feet into the sky. But where the soaring wooden structure of the Great Porch had once loomed over the cliff-top parapets, there now stood the half-built stone structure of the new Dragonsreach. It would take years to finish it, so laborious was building from stone. But after what the elves had done to the city, Whiterun wanted no more of wood. It was a different place Deirdre was returning to than the one she’d first seen nearly a year before.
And she was far different, too. Or maybe not. Still struggling with her anger, still wrestling with her dragon soul. When she thought of how close she’d come to unleashing both back in Dawnstar, she felt ashamed. Yet shame would do no good. Her dragon soul would always be part of her, and suppressing it only ensured it would lash out in unpredictable ways.
No, she must find balance with it, as Master Arngeir had instructed her. That was the purpose of daily meditation, but she’d become so busy in Solitude, and so confident that she’d achieved balance, that she’d neglected the practice. And now here she was, starting over yet again, climbing out of the depression that always seemed to follow on the heels of letting her dragon soul get the upper hand. Yet between Lydia’s patient encouragement, the loyal support of her troops at Fort Dunstad, and her determination to aid the unfairly imprisoned Khajiit traders, she felt nearly back to her usual self. Meditation had helped as well. She felt strong and centered, ready to meet whatever challenges Jarl Hrongar might present, while losing neither her calm nor her strength.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the scene that met them as they rounded the eastern side of the promontory on which Whiterun was built. Tucked beneath those rocky cliffs, Battle-Born Farm was usually a-bustle with activity, its windmill grinding wheat, and Alfhild Battle-Born tending the fields of leeks and gourds along with Gwendolyn, the hired helper who occupied the farmhouse. Deirdre had stopped and talked to the women many times on her trips out of the city to gather alchemy ingredients for Arcadia’s Cauldron. Alfhild had even offered to pay her to harvest the fields, but Deirdre had declined. Why be stuck in one small plot when she could roam the plains and the forests?
But now the bustle was of guards running in and out of the house and maneuvering a wagon up to it. Nearby stood Alfhild, distraught, being comforted by her father, Olfrid Battle-Born, the patriarch of the family.
“What now?” Deirdre asked, reining her horse to a halt.
“I think we can guess what,” said Lydia. “Let’s dismount here, before we trample the evidence even more than the guards already have.”
It didn’t take long for their worst fears to be confirmed. Olfrid recognized them as they walked up the track leading into the farmstead. Forgetting himself in his anger, he pushed his daughter roughly aside and stepped in front of the door to the farmhouse.
“You! We’d heard about these murders, and now the killer has come here. Our loyal Gwendolyn is dead, and if Alfhild had gotten here any earlier, she might be as well. And what have you done about it, Deirdre Morningsong? Not a thing!”
“Father…” Alfhild said, placing a restraining hand on his arm and giving her an apologetic look.
Deirdre hardly expected a better greeting. Olfrid had never wanted anything to do with her, unless it was to brag about his family’s wealth and loyalty to the Empire.
“This is your Queen, Battle-Born,” Lydia said.
He eyed her with nearly as much hostility as he’d shown Deirdre. Lydia may have been the Hero of Whiterun, but the Battle-Borns held that the Altmer never would have attacked their city in the first place if Deirdre hadn’t burned the Aldmeri Embassy to the ground or thwarted the Thalmor in a host of other ways. Heroism that should never have been necessary was as little good as no heroism at all.
“I wouldn’t have voted for her, and I don’t know why that milk-drinker Balgruuf did. He was always a fence-sitter, and look where that got us! But we have a new jarl now.”
This was just wasting time, as far as Deirdre could see. “Yes, I’ve heard. I’ll deal with him later. But for now, I want to catch Gwen’s killer as much as you do. Stand aside, since you seem only to be in the way.”
“But this is my farm!”
“Father, Queen Deirdre and Lydia and their friends are only here to help,” said Alfhild.
“Without them, your own husband might yet live, daughter.”
Before Deirdre could think of any way to quell this distraction, Lydia spoke up, her gaze boring into Olfrid. “You do Idolaf no honor if you say his sacrifice was unnecessary. As I remember it, he fought bravely on that day when we were all united against a single foe.”
“As we should be now in catching this killer,” said Deirdre.
“Yes, father, maybe they can help.”
Olfrid still stood blocking the door.
“Or I can have the guards remove you.” Deirdre calmly held Olfrid’s gaze.
The murder must have been discovered only recently, as the captain of the guard hadn’t yet arrived. The guards, who had stopped what they were doing when Deirdre and her friends approached, now looked back and forth from her to Lydia and Olfrid.
“Oi, Bjorn,” Lydia said to one of the guards. Deirdre guessed from the cowed look on his face that Bjorn had entered the guard service when Lydia served Jarl Balgruuf. Her renown had been great even then. “Is this any way to run a crime scene? It looks like you guards and these bystanders have trampled over any footprints or wagon tracks the killers might have left.”
“You think there’s more than one?” the guard asked. “And they travel by wagon?”
“We do,” said Deirdre. “Now show us what happened.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Bjorn said.
He led them toward the door to the farmhouse. At first it seemed that Olfrid would continue blocking the way, but Alfhild placed both hands on his chest and tried to push him back, giving him a pleading look. At last he gave way.
For the first time, Deirdre noticed blood on Alfhild’s hands. “Were you the one to find her, Alfhild?”
The woman nodded. “I got here at ten o’clock, just like every day. Usually, Gwen is outside by the time I get here, but not today. So I went in. It was awful. I lost my head and tried to stanch her wounds, but I soon realized she must have been dead for hours, she was so cold.”
Deirdre placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
Inside, it was much like the other crime scenes, save that the body had yet to be removed. Gwendolyn lay on her back in front of the fireplace at the center of the room, her arms at her sides. J’zargo growled at the sight, and Brelyna gave an “Oh my!” Deirdre neither wanted nor needed to examine the ghastly wounds on the woman’s face and torso; it was obvious they were the same as all the others.
“Save for those horrible wounds, one would think she’s resting peacefully,” Brelyna said.
“Too peacefully,” said Deirdre. She examined one arm, then the other, finding no cuts, not even a bruise or scrape. “It looks as if she didn’t fight back or even try to ward off these blows. There’s not much blood, either. And look, her lips have that blue tinge.”
“Judging by that half-laid fire,” Lydia said, “she was just building it up to cook breakfast.”
Deirdre stood and surveyed the room. The lone dining table was empty, but a pitcher and cup stood on a sideboard. When she picked up the glass, it left a wet ring behind, though it was empty. “She rose early and had a glass of water first thing, as one does.” She dipped a finger in the pitcher and tasted it. “Yes, deathbell.”
“So she had her drink,” said Lydia, “then went to lay the fire, and that’s when the poison took her.”
“You mean she was dead before the killer even attacked her?” the guard named Bjorn said. “But why? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“You’re right, but the killers must have their reasons. This isn’t the first time these methods have been used.”
J’zargo looked out the window. “The farm next door is not far away. Perhaps killers worried about screaming.”
“But if they killed her with poison, why rend her body like that?”
“That’s exactly what we asked in Dragon Bridge,” said Lydia. “Come, Bjorn, use your head. Let’s see if you make it out the same as we did.”
Bjorn looked at the body, the pitcher, and then the body again. After a moment, he said, “They wanted to make sure we knew a Khajiit did it.”
J’zargo gave a little purr. “Nord guard is smart, yes. And perhaps the Khajiit is only being used by someone else.”
“But why?” the guard persisted.
“Maybe someone wanted exactly the result we’ve recently seen,” said Deirdre. “For all the Khajiits in Skyrim to be rounded up and imprisoned.”
Bjorn just shook his head in befuddlement.
“We are as confused as you are, Bjorn,” said Lydia. “But if this just happened this morning, then we’re catching up to the killers. Did the guards patrolling the area see anything? Or the neighbors? The sun rises early — the murder must have happened in daylight.”
Bjorn shook his head. “We asked at the neighboring farm and they hadn’t seen anything, and neither had the guard who’s always posted there. And we were patrolling the road, but we didn’t happen to be nearby at the time. We had been up to Whitewatch Tower at dawn, and we don’t come back down until eight. We were on our way back shortly after ten when Alfhild came running after us.”
“So if the killers knew your usual pattern, they probably didn’t escape that way, but headed south. What of the guards at the White River Bridge?”
“We haven’t had time to question them yet,” Bjorn replied.
“Let’s see what else we can find here, then go find out what they know at the bridge,” said Deirdre.
Further searches were fruitless, however.
“Not even those tufts of fur from the other crime scenes,” Lydia said.
It was strange, Deirdre thought, as if the killers were now so sure a Khajiit had been identified as the culprit that they didn’t need to leave more clues.
Searching outside proved even less useful, there was such a miscellany of foot, livestock, and wagon tracks in the farmyard, and the cobbled road in front of the farm bore few impressions at all, it was so well built.
Deirdre was about to suggest they go question the bridge guards, but Brelyna interrupted her. “Let’s think,” she said, scanning the road and terrain around the farm. “If the killers are traveling by wagon, they would probably try to hide it someplace, to avoid detection. The landscape is too open across the road, and the farm on the south is too nearby. So they must have hid the wagon to the north — maybe behind those rocks we see there.”
“There are a couple of mining veins up there, and an abandoned watchtower,” Lydia said. And the secret way Balgruuf and the city defenders sallied forth during the siege, Deirdre knew, though Lydia hadn’t mentioned it.
“Not much used today, I’d guess,” said Brelyna. “Come, let’s take a look.”
They followed a low stone wall that marked off the farm’s northern field to a point where it nearly met the rocks, scanning the ground all the while. At the corner, they were rewarded.
“Look!” said Lydia, “those rains did us some good.” The storm that had soaked them in Morthal had moved south and sat over Whiterun two days previous. Where everything else had dried out by now, rainwater had puddled in a depression between the wall and the rock cliff, leaving a good muddy spot to capture footprints. It contained two sets, a barefoot Khajiit’s and another left by a pair of boots. Deirdre felt a tingle go down her spine. The killer was close, she was sure of it.
“That was remarkably careless of him, leaving his own prints behind as well as the Khajiit’s,” Brelyna said.
“Or he was extraordinarily careful during the previous murders to conceal his prints,” said Deirdre. “Perhaps he was in a hurry this morning, knowing the guards’ schedule, and not wanting to be seen from the road.”
“Let’s keep looking,” Lydia said.
Working their way north, they came to a narrow track that led in from the road to the ore veins and the watchtower. Wagon tracks were visible here and there, but it was hard to tell how recent they were. “Likely left by miners coming in to work the veins,” said Lydia.
They had better luck as they followed the track out toward the road. “There!” Lydia said, pointing to a muddy spot in the center of the road. “That broken horseshoe!” Her friends gathered round the impressions. Two of the horse’s hooves had left prints, and one was indeed missing an inch of iron from the shoe.
“It’s the same wagon as the one that stopped outside Dawnstar,” Brelyna said.
“So now we’re certain,” said Deirdre. “The culprit is bringing the Khajiits by wagon to the sites of the murders. We’re getting close! Now the only question is, who is driving it? We can put out an alert for a wagon drawn by a poorly shod horse, but it would be much easier if we had a description of the driver.”
“This one thinks one thing is certain,” said J’zargo. “The driver must be a Nord, no? Maybe one employed by your jarls who hate the Khajiits so much.”
“That’s remarkably cynical, J’zargo,” Brelyna said. “To murder their own people in order to blame the Khajiits? I can’t believe it.”
It did seem an outlandish idea, Deirdre thought. It could even be true. But she put it aside. “The main thing is, we don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Let’s see if we can track this wagon and see where it went.”
Their luck ran out before the wagon track reached the road. No tracks remained to show which way the wagon turned into the main road, which was so well paved that few tracks were visible. They saw no more prints of the partially shod horse as they made their way south to the White River Bridge. Questioning the guards was equally fruitless, as they’d seen too many wagons going every direction since dawn.
Deirdre tried not to feel too dejected. They were gaining on the murderers. But for now, she needed to turn her attention to the plight of the Khajiits. She turned to her friends. “It’s time we confronted Hrongar.”
“Good idea,” said Lydia. “But first, we should visit Ralof at the new army garrison.”
Deirdre thought it over. It would be good to see Ralof again, and they could all use some time to gather themselves after their travels. “Very well,” she agreed, though she hated the delay.
Lydia’s smile was far too smug. What did she have up her gauntlets?