“It’s good to see you, lass!” Ralof, grinning broadly, wrapped Deirdre in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. They’d hardly dismounted when he’d come out to greet them in the bailey of the new army garrison he commanded.
Lydia watched in amusement. If any other Nord male had called Deirdre “lass,” it might have been the last “lass” he ever spoke, at least in the queen’s direction. And as much as Deirdre had learned to tolerate the bowing and kneeling, she would never require it of Ralof. No formality would come between these two, not since the experience they’d shared when Alduin attacked Helgen.
It was a good thing Deirdre didn’t go in for men, Lydia thought, or she herself might have some cause for jealousy. As far as she could see, Ralof was everything one could want in a Nord: handsome in a rugged way, brave and strong but also kind, and possessed of a good sense of humor. He was most Nord lasses’ dream.
Those thoughts were put in their proper place when Deirdre said, “And you as well, my brother.” Ralof released her, gazed at her for a moment, then turned to Lydia. He clapped her on the shoulders, and she responded likewise.
“Keeping our queen safe, no doubt?” he said.
“Always. And speaking of which, has the Royal Guard arrived?”
“Aye, just this morning.”
“Excellent. And the new garrison is coming along well, I see.”
The new headquarters for Skyrim’s army was nearly finished, a sturdy stone structure built off the west side of Whiterun’s curtain wall, replacing flimsier wooden fences and platforms and presenting a sheer defense to any attackers who might come that way.
“I’m very pleased,” said Ralof. “Room for two divisions, with new practice fields just beyond the walls, and better security for the city to boot.”
“And those divisions are ready for the plan I suggested?”
“They are. But more on that later.” He gave her a wink as he turned to greet Brelyna and J’zargo.
Deirdre gave Lydia a questioning look, but she only smiled; no use giving away the secret just yet.
Ralof led them across the bailey toward his chambers and war-room with Deirdre at his side. Lydia followed behind with Brelyna and J’zargo.
“I thought you might come sooner, see how the army training is coming along, watch the progress of the construction.”
“I wanted to, of course, but other affairs of the realm have kept me busy. And I knew you’d have the army well in hand. We were impressed with what we saw in Fort Dunstad, weren’t we, Lydia?”
“Oh, aye,” Lydia said from behind.
Ralof ignored the compliment, putting a brotherly arm across Deirdre’s shoulders and looking at her with concern. “You look as if the cares of Mundus have been eating at you. Too many late nights burning candles over reports and requests, would be my guess.”
“And don’t forget the ledgers,” said Deirdre.
“Ach, Alduin never had you looking this worried, lass. You can’t tell me that ruling a bunch of Nords is harder than taking on the World Eater. Just make sure we have our mead and we’re happy, am I right?” He looked back over his shoulder and gave Lydia a grin.
“If only it were that easy. But in preventing the end of the world, I had but one task: find and defeat Alduin. Keeping the people of Skyrim safe and well provided for seems a more particular responsibility, with many obligations and challenges, frequently arising all at once. And now these murders, on top of everything else.”
“We’ve heard of them, of course, including this last one, right outside Whiterun. And Jarl Hrongar’s new prison camp for the Khajiits — lot o’ good it’s done.” They arrived at the large doors into the garrison and passed through, stopping for a moment in the entry hall. “And he really did that without your approval?”
“He and Jarl Skald say that keeping their people safe from murderers is their first responsibility, though they hardly seemed concerned with catching the actual murderers.”
“You need to put your foot down, lass. Show them who’s in charge.”
“Oh, I mean to. And I have a plan for the Khajiits, if they’ll agree to it. It’s clearly not safe for them out on the roads of Skyrim, judging by what I’ve seen from the people. Tell me, has anything been done with the Imperial fortress at Helgen?”
Ralof looked a bit sheepish. “I’ve been meaning to, of course. But I decided it was more important to reinforce the border fort at Pale Pass, since it occupies the high ground.”
“Not to worry. It is as well for what I have in mind.”
She said no more, and Lydia was wondering what this idea could be when Brelyna suggested they go to their rooms to freshen up.
Deirdre looked at her, then at Lydia in surprise. “I thought we’d just drop our things here, then go directly to meet with Hrongar. And I want to see how the Khajiits are faring in this camp.”
“Brelyna’s right,” Lydia said. “It’s an important meeting with Hrongar, and we should all prepare ourselves, especially the queen.” She turned to Ralof with an inquiring look.
“You’ll find your saddlebags in my bed-chamber, which I’ve made available for your use. And you’ll also find that chest the royal guards brought with them.”
Lydia couldn’t help smiling at the confused look Deirdre was giving them. She turned to Brelyna. “Those items I mentioned are in the chest. I hope they haven’t become too wrinkled. And please check that Sonja polished the crown. Our queen must look her best.”
“We’ll see to it,” Brelyna said, and she and J’zargo headed up the stairs, led by one of the porters.
“Ralof, if you’ll send word to Hrongar to be ready to receive his queen in two hours — assuming that will give your troops enough time to prepare.” Ralof nodded. “And we’ll need some lunch. No one wants to confront an unruly jarl on an empty stomach.”
Deirdre looked from Lydia to Ralof and back again. “What’s going on here?”
“You’re not the only one with secret plans.”
“I feel as if you’re all conspiring against me!”
Ralof flashed that dashing grin at Deirdre. “We’ve got your back, my Queen.”
Lydia beamed at them both. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Lydia felt confident as she marched up the steps of Dragonsreach on one side of Deirdre, with Ralof on the other, while Brelyna and J’zargo followed behind. For another warrior, returning to the scene of the siege and retreat might have brought back awful memories, but not for Lydia – although the truth was that she didn’t remember much. Probably better that way. If she felt any trepidation, it was over the impending confrontation with Hrongar, but even that was little. Why had Balgruuf ever ceded his throne to that lout?
No, what she really felt was pride in her wife, and the greeting they’d received since entering the city. They’d marched over from the garrison in a phalanx of royal guards, four marching in front and eight behind, with a dozen of Ralof’s troops coming behind them. In front, bannermen carried flags bearing the new crest of Skyrim, a scene of jagged, snowy peaks with a wolf, a bear, and a heavily antlered stag in the foreground, and a tiny dragon flying in the distance. The same crest was on the sash Ralof wore over his ceremonial armor. Lydia’s sash was similar, but with the addition of the Royal Guard’s emblem, a flying dragon bearing a rider in mage’s robes and a golden crown.
Deirdre wore that crown now, polished to a high sheen, but she’d exchanged the mage’s robes in favor of a fine burgundy suit and trousers, with a richly brocaded mantle over all. Her boots, much scuffed and splattered with travel, were exchanged for more formal leather shoes. All of these had arrived in the chest Lydia had instructed Sonja to pack. Seeing her wife so impressively arrayed, and seeing the response of the people, she knew she’d done well.
The guards at the city gate had opened it immediately on their arrival, dropping to one knee before their queen. Inside, the people had come out to witness the procession. Some were silent, but Lydia was pleased to see the majority of them cheering, and even more pleased to see Deirdre’s eyes glowing with pride, her head held high. She heard remarks that the murderer wouldn’t get far now; clearly, Hrongar’s actions with the Khajiits hadn’t won the mass of the people over, so ineffective had they proven.
And unlike the other towns they’d passed through, some in the crowd even shouted approval for Brelyna and J’zargo. The people well remembered how much they owed these two.
Arcadia’s was the first face Lydia recognized, standing and waving from the front of her alchemy shop. Deirdre couldn’t help breaking protocol to go over and give her a hug. The people cheered all the harder; the queen hadn’t forgotten where she started, nor the people who had helped her on the way.
They reached the Wind District, where Aela and Vilkas waved to them from the steps of the partially rebuilt Jorrvaskr. The place would never be what it once was. It had been built from the upturned hull of a greatship, one of the fleet that had carried Ysgramor and his Five Hundred Companions to Skyrim eons ago. But the Companions were trying to rebuild it in as much of the spirit of the old place as they could, with a curving wooden roof already thrusting into the sky. It would be the only wooden building left in Whiterun when they were done.
And now they had only the steep steps of Dragonsreach to climb, with the crowd’s noise dwindling below them as they ascended. The doors to the rebuilt hall opened and a page announced them: “Her majesty, Queen Deirdre of Skyrim! Captain Lydia Ravenwood of Whiterun. General Ralof of Riverwood. Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni. And J’zargo of Elsweyr.”
It was a long walk down the hall to the jarl’s dais. The place was not as imposing as Lydia remembered it. A temporary wooden ceiling had been installed while the masons labored on the vaulting roof above. The ceiling was only three stories high, which in any other hall would have been impressive, but it felt cramped compared to the Dragonsreach of old. But much else was the same. Long tables lined either side of the hall, with the jarl’s retainers standing before them. Lydia recognized many of them from her days in service to Jarl Balgruuf, but many she did not. Yet to a man and a woman, they knelt as the procession passed them.
Finally they arrived at the dais, the bannermen and guards in front stepping off to one side to let the royal party approach the jarl’s throne. Lydia was pleased to see Balgruuf off to one side, also taking a knee. He gave them all a wink as he did so. Jarl Hrongar stayed in his seat on the throne, while his steward and housecarl, neither of whom Lydia recognized, dropped to one knee.
Deirdre stepped forward. Above her loomed the blackened skull of Numinex, the ancient dragon captured by King Olaf in days long past and imprisoned on the Great Porch of Dragonsreach. The skull had been rescued from the siege wreckage and replaced in its rightful spot above the throne. It wouldn’t be Dragonsreach without the dragon, after all.
Lydia’s first view of Deirdre had been in this very spot, but how different it all was, now that Deirdre wielded the power of her Voice and her army. And it seemed the queen had changed just in the last hours, and not simply her raiment. As she’d dressed, Brelyna had coached her on demeanor and bearing, drawing on all she could remember of her mother and father. They had grown up before the Red Year, and passed on to Brelyna what they remembered of how power was wielded when Telvanni had been the leading house of Morrowind.
“Remember, you hold the power,” Brelyna had said. “There’s no need for anger or shouting or threats. Stay calm and quiet, but never waver.” A little of the imperious House Telvanni style went a long way, and Lydia noticed how calm Deirdre was as she stood before Hrongar.
Hrongar had also changed. He still wore his hair cropped close to his skull and his blond beard tied into a point that hung from his chin. And he still wore his old horned armor. But he appeared to have let himself go in the months since the siege. Where the stout leather-and-steel armbands he wore around his biceps once strained to contain his bulging muscles, now they hung loose, as did the bracers on his forearms. The skin of his face was rather wan, his eyes rimmed with red, and beneath his armor Lydia thought she detected a paunch. Too much mead and not enough training, clearly.
Half a minute had now passed, with Hrongar still slouched on the throne, much as his brother had used to do. His steward, still kneeling, was looking at him sideways, and softly clearing his throat.
At last Hrongar rose, then went to one knee. “It is a pleasure to welcome you to Dragonsreach, my Queen, and your companions as well.” There was little pleasure in his voice. He waited there on one knee, and continued to wait, as Deirdre let the moment stretch on, paying Hrongar in kind.
“Rise, Hrongar,” she said at last. “I still remember you were the first to believe I was the Dragonborn. Much has changed since then, apparently.”
“Aye, my Queen, it has.” He regarded her for a moment, taking advantage of the height of his position on the dais. Then he stepped down and gestured toward one of the long tables, with several empty chairs near its head. “But come, let us sit. I’ve had mead and ale and other refreshments laid out. Let us raise a mug and talk over our differences.”
Deirdre gave him half a smile. “I thank you for your hospitality, but we really don’t have the time. And there will be no discussion of differences, for they make no matter. I am here only to tell you that I will free the Khajiits you have unfairly imprisoned, then I’m going to get back to hunting the actual killers. We are close on their tails, and would be closer but for this distraction.”
Hrongar returned the grim smile and resumed his seat on the throne. “So that’s the way of it, eh?” He looked over at Ralof. “And that’s why your steel-booted thugs are practicing out by the prison camp.”
Lydia felt a warm glow as Deirdre’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. The queen’s sidelong smile of thanks was all the reward she needed for a plan that seemed to be turning out perfectly. And Hrongar calling the soldiers steel-booted thugs! She nearly burst out laughing. It was true that Ralof had requisitioned new armor for the troops, with steel boots replacing the usual fur ones. They’d always been outclassed by both the Imperials and the Altmer, and Ralof was determined his army wouldn’t continue at such a disadvantage.
Ralof didn’t bother smiling, keeping his mouth in a set line. “Steel-booted thugs, eh? I remember when they were called brave sons and daughters of Skyrim. But they’re not my steel-booted thugs, they’re Queen Deirdre’s.”
“Do you think you can intimidate me, having them march up and down by the prison camp?”
“You can take the exercises any way you want, mate.”
At this, Hrongar gripped the arm of his chair. His steward bent down and whispered something in his ear, and the jarl turned his attention back to Deirdre. Lydia took the lapse in the confrontation to glance over at Balgruuf, seated off to one side. The old jarl looked on with a bemused expression, but gave her an encouraging nod.
Hrongar seemed to have gotten the better of his temper and now addressed Deirdre more calmly, though it came out sounding as if he were explaining a complex situation to a child. “This is my hold, my Queen, and it is my duty to protect my people by any means necessary.” Lydia thought open anger might be less risky if he hoped to avoid raising Deirdre’s ire.
“And an impressive job you’re doing of it, judging by this morning’s events.”
“Only because we haven’t rounded them all up yet! Even now, our guards are bringing in Ma’dran’s caravan from Windhelm.”
“And did Ulfric help you with that?”
“Ulfric! No, I have no truck with Ulfric. We waited until they crossed into The Pale, then nabbed ’em. And Dengeir in Falkreath was so eager that he’s already rounded up the Khajiits down there.”
“Meaning neither of these groups could have taken part in the murders.”
“But there are other straggler Khajiits in the other holds. When we’ve rounded them all up, then the people will be safe.”
“Hardly. While you’ve been busy falsely imprisoning innocents, the actual killers got away right under your nose. We’ve learned much about them by patiently investigating every murder, following the clues where they’ve led us. Meanwhile, you and Skald have merely stoked the people’s fears and scapegoated the innocent.”
“Who cares! They’re just cat-people! We all know they’re a bunch of skooma dealers and thieves.”
J’zargo gave a growl at this, and Lydia hoped he wouldn’t do anything foolish.
“Enough!” Deirdre said, and for the first time her tone was sharp. “You are right that it is a jarl’s duty to keep his people safe. Judging by the grumbling I heard on the way in, your people think you’re failing in that task. But once the murderers crossed from Haafingar to Hjaalmarch, it became my duty as well, for they threaten the safety of all Skyrim’s people. And it is also my duty to keep Skyrim safe for all people who pass through it, including our friends, the Khajiit traders.”
“Friends, you call them? Typical.”
Deirdre ignored him and went on. “As your queen, I command that you release the Khajiits you have unfairly imprisoned and that you return any possessions you may have confiscated. And I further command you to arrest no more innocents, but to put your guards to work helping us track down the actual killers.”
“You really think I will put up with this?”
“I do. I doubt you’ll ask your guards to defy both my Royal Guard and Skyrim’s army. And I further doubt they’d follow any such commands.”
“We’ll call a new jarlmoot!”
“By what precedent? The jarls only meet on the death of a monarch, or am I wrong?”
Hrongar had no answer for this.
“Or perhaps you’d like to challenge me to single combat, as Ulfric did with High King Torygg?”
Lydia nearly broke out laughing as Hrongar stifled a whimper.
Deirdre looked at the jarl for a moment longer. “Come, friends, I believe we’re done here.”
With that, they turned to leave the hall. Lydia looked over to see Balgruuf smiling and nodding in approval.