“If Nord guards don’t protect Khajiits, this one will,” J’zargo growled, flexing his claws, hardly believing the sordid scene before him.
When he’d first contemplated attending the College of Winterhold, he’d had some fears about Skyrim, having heard so much about the fearsome Nords and their views of outlanders. Only the fact that his people were allowed to travel Skyrim freely, trading their goods from Riften to Dawnstar and from Windhelm to Markarth, had persuaded him in the end. And now to see his countryfolk brought so low, penned up in something no better than a corral, with little protection from the elements! And the worst of it was the dozen or so Whiterun citizens who stood just outside the crude fence, shouting “Skyrim is for the Nords!” over and over, all while pelting the camp with tomatoes, mammoth dung, and anything else easy to hand. He flexed his claws again, thinking the Khajiit killer, whoever he was, had chosen the wrong victims.
The camp, if one could call it that, occupied a low, boggy spot on the rocky plains west of Whiterun. The rains of two days previous had left many puddles in the hollows between the few high spots the prisoners occupied. A split-rail fence had been hastily put up to keep the Khajiits in, but it was so flimsy that guards were stationed all the way around the perimeter. No wonder so few guards, and none in authority, were investigating the murders at Battle-Born Farm; they were all busy here.
There were no tents, only tarps strung between poles and rock outcrops. The prisoners J’zargo could see from outside the camp looked miserable, huddled together on a few blankets. The sun was shining, but a stiff breeze blew across the tundra. It felt cool even to J’zargo, dry and warmly clothed though he was; what must it be like for his countryfolk, who’d been out in the elements for days now?
Only one prisoner showed any signs of resistance to his circumstances. The Khajiit known as M’aiq the Liar stood near the fence, trying to engage the Nord crowd with his often nonsensical statements, dodging the missiles flung in his direction. “Nords are so serious about beards,” he said. “So many beards. M’aiq thinks they wish they had glorious manes like Khajiit.”
“We’ll take your mane, you miserable pussy-cat,” a Nord yelled back.
“Yes, Nords’ armor has lots of fur. This sometimes makes M’aiq nervous.”
“As you should be. We know lots of ways to skin a cat.”
“But M’aiq loves the people of Skyrim. Many interesting things they say to each other.”
M’aiq was doing little good with his banter, but at least he was distracting the mob’s attention from his more miserable comrades.
“J’zargo is right, captain,” Deirdre said to the head of the hold guards. “The Khajiits shouldn’t have to put up with this abuse along with everything else.”
“But this is Skyrim. Nords have a right to assemble and speak their minds.”
“They can do so from a spot beyond throwing range.”
The captain looked at the queen, clearly wondering where his allegiances should lie. He looked to Lydia, who was staring darkly at her countrymen, one hand on her axe. Seeing little hope there, he turned to Ralof.
“Do as your queen says, or my troops will do the job for you. Your jarl has already agreed to free the Khajiits.”
This was a stretch, J’zargo knew. But he was glad to see the captain order four guards to move the people a safe distance away. After a bit of arguing, they complied. Now the shouting became mere background noise, rather than an ear-splitting cacophony.
J’zargo chuckled. “At least we can be glad that Nord mob was out here, and not in the city as we marched through it, no?”
His comment brought little levity to the party. Lydia in particular looked distraught, continuing to stare darkly at the Nord mob. Then she turned to J’zargo and placed a hand on his shoulder. “J’zargo, my friend, I owe you an apology. And you as well, Brelyna. I’m sorry for every time I shouted ‘Skyrim is for the Nords,’ or even thought it. If I had known those words could lead to such inhumanity, I never would have uttered them.”
J’zargo could hardly believe it, not just that she had called him friend, but that her lower lip trembled as she spoke. “J’zargo accepts this apology. Lydia is a good Nord.”
“And I as well,” said Brelyna. “Though there’s really no need to apologize. All peoples have these prejudices to overcome. The Dunmer, and House Telvanni in particular, are certainly not lacking in cultural arrogance.”
But Lydia seemed not to hear, gazing now at the camp. “Would you look at that,” she said almost under her breath. “We have to do something.”
“And we will,” said Deirdre. “Come, let’s enter and see how they’re faring — though I believe we can guess.”
J’zargo was glad to see Deirdre taking charge once more. He’d felt proud to witness her putting that stupid Nord jarl in his place, especially after the treatment they’d received from the other one, Skald. In Elsweyr, The Mane would never have put up with such insubordination. Then again, The Mane was not elected by a jarlmoot, but born into the position. These Nords had strange customs.
The hold guards removed a rail from the crude fence to allow them through. The Royal Guards made to follow, but Deirdre held up her hand. “We need no protection, and I’d rather not intimidate the prisoners more than they already have been.” She looked to Lydia, who nodded her assent. That was Deirdre, always so thoughtful. Only Ralof, two of his lieutenants, and the captain of the guard would accompany them.
The first Khajiit they met inside was M’aiq.
“M’aiq!” said Deirdre. “How do you fare, you old liar?”
So Deirdre had already had dealings with M’aiq in the past. Of course — she and Lydia had traveled the length and breadth of Skyrim hunting Alduin and his dragons. They would naturally have run into the wanderer during that time. For himself, J’zargo didn’t have much use for his fellow Khajiit, and so stayed quiet as Deirdre talked with him.
“M’aiq hears many stories of war… yet few of them are true.”
“Indeed, and many stories of Khajiits committing murders. Do you know if any of those are true?”
“M’aiq knows much, and tells some. M’aiq knows many things others do not.”
“Hmmm, not very helpful.”
“M’aiq has heard it’s dangerous to be your friend.”
“Is that so? Well, if you know nothing about these murders, can you at least tell me if Ri’saad is about? Or Kharjo?”
M’aiq nodded in the direction of a tarp in the center of camp. “Something strange happens to Khajiit when they arrive in Skyrim.”
“Only when they’re falsely imprisoned. But we’ll fix that. Thank you, M’aiq, you’ve been quite, erm, helpful.”
Up close, the conditions in the camp seemed even more dire than they had from afar. J’zargo’s people sat in small groups, huddling together on blankets damp from the soggy ground. The tarps had done little to keep out the wet, and J’zargo could see that some of his countryfolk had been put here while it was still raining. The ones who had been here the longest looked the most bedraggled and listless, staring into space as if dreaming they were anywhere else. The more recent arrivals seemed in better shape, their clothing not yet muddy and damp. These tried to rally their friends from their stupor, offering them what dry clothing they could, but it was little help.
J’zargo felt a growl growing inside him. He looked over at the guard captain who was accompanying them, and thought how easy it would be to take revenge on the brute for his part in this atrocity. Lydia, too, was glowering at him, her hand on her axe. Deirdre was just now asking him why the Khajiits hadn’t been imprisoned in the cells beneath Dragonsreach, since there could only be a few dozen of them.
“We have many Nord prisoners,” the captain replied, “folks who’ve angered Hrongar in some way or other. We wouldn’t want them having to share a cell with the cat-people. Besides, a cold prisoner is a compliant prisoner.” And a dead Nord is a good Nord, J’zargo thought.
It wasn’t just his sympathy for his fellow Khajiits; he couldn’t help thinking how this reflected on him. He was of a proud people, and he, the great J’zargo, among the proudest of them all. To see his own people humbled so — it must diminish his own greatness. He would not stand for it.
Before he could do anything rash, Brelyna placed a hand on his shoulder. She must have heard his low growling. “J’zargo, I know this must be awful, to see your people treated this way. But trust to Deirdre; she will take care of them.”
He looked over at her, her red eyes gazing at him with sympathy. Brelyna, always so sensible! He knew he had a tendency to carry things too far, to let his own greatness outshine lesser souls. It had often gotten him into trouble. But Brelyna kept him grounded, and helped him avoid the worst mistakes in this foreign land. It was one reason he loved her. That, and the riches she was likely to inherit from House Telvanni. It was equally likely to fall in love with a rich person as a poor one, no? And that being so, why not choose the richer?
They arrived at the tarp in the center of the camp, where the heads of the three caravans, Ri’saad, Ahkari, and Ma’dran, were grouped together. Ma’dran looked to be in the best shape, having been brought in most recently. He’d given his own warm cloak to Ri’saad, who sat dejected on the blanket, his fur still damp, and his eyes downcast. As the owner of the three caravans, and the closest thing to a leader the Khajiits in Skyrim had, he was the one to address Deirdre as they approached.
“Nord people have already done much to torment us. Does Nord queen come to trouble us further? And look, she brings a Khajiit with her. Another prisoner, perhaps.”
J’zargo stepped forward. “No, Ri’saad. Deirdre is a friend to Khajiit. Ri’saad should listen to her, and accept her help.”
Ahkari spoke up as well. “J’zargo speaks true. Deirdre and Lydia helped us fight off bandits last year. Without them, we might have lost all our goods, and maybe our lives.”
“Ri’saad, Ahkari, all my Khajiit friends,” said Deirdre. “I am sorry I couldn’t keep the jarls from treating you this way. My only excuse is that I am still learning what it is to be queen. But I promise to do everything in my power to help you. I would release you this minute, but I think you’ll agree the roads are not safe for Khajiits at the moment, judging by that mob. And we must retrieve your goods and wagons from Whiterun before you can set off.”
Ri’saad gave a growl at this, but nodded in agreement.
“I can see how deplorable the conditions are here, and we will do all we can to improve them until your own tents can be retrieved. But tell us, how else have you fared? Have you all been fed? Who else is here? I am particularly curious to find Kharjo, who we met last year.”
“It is as bad as it looks, and worse. Ri’saad’s caravan was the first captured, as we were camped right outside Whiterun. Then it rained and everything was cold and wet. They brought M’aiq in soon after, but M’aiq is used to traveling alone on foot, with no tents and few luxuries. Then Ahkari’s caravan and a few other lone Khajiit from Riften and Falkreath. And just this morning, Ma’dran’s caravan. But in all that time, they’ve given us only stale rolls to eat and told us the puddles would serve us for drink. Our wagons, which they took from us, are filled with food and warm clothes, and our tents would keep us dry. If they had only left us these things, we would be comfortable, and we would share with M’aiq and the other loners. But why treat us this way, if not to torture us? And all because they say we are murderers. But we cannot all be murderers, and none of us was anywhere near these crimes when they happened.”
J’zargo had grown increasingly angry through this recitation, and only Brelyna’s restraining hand kept him from doing something rash. But he noticed Lydia’s expression growing darker as Ri’saad spoke. Now she turned to the captain of the guard, standing nearby.
“By the Nine, how can you treat people this way?” She grabbed his sash in one fist and began pushing him across the tundra, backing him up against a rock outcrop, all the while keeping one hand ready on her axe.
“No, Captain Ravenwood, I…”
“I’ll show you, you milk-drinking son-of-a-horker. A true Nord doesn’t treat defenseless people this way.”
“But I was just following orders!”
“Orders! A true Nord knows there are some orders that must not be obeyed.”
She was drawing her axe now. J’zargo didn’t know what might have happened if Deirdre hadn’t stepped up to her and placed a restraining hand on her arm, standing on tiptoe to say something in her ear. Lydia relented and let the captain go.
“Captain, here’s an order that you will obey,” Deirdre said. “I command you to retrieve the Khajiits’ wagons and all their possessions and bring them here post-haste. And that includes any belongings that might have been left by the side of the road. While you and your guards are busy with that, my Royal Guards and Ralof’s troops will handle security here.”
The captain still trembled from his brush with Lydia’s wrath. “Aye, my Queen, it will be done right away.”
“Ralof, what can we do about providing our friends with more immediate provisions, in case Jarl Hrongar drags his feet?”
Ralof turned to his lieutenants and ordered them to bring a camp wagon up from the garrison, filled with provisions, water, and firewood, as well as several army tents and bedrolls. “Leave it to the army,” he said, turning back to them. “We’ll have this camp up to snuff in no time.”
Soon a detachment of troops who had been conducting exercises near the camp were headed off in the direction of the garrison. While they waited for the provisions to arrive, J’zargo and his friends circulated about the camp, trying to cheer the inhabitants. They’d brought the few possession they’d been able to carry away from Ahkari’s camp, and now they returned them to their grateful owners. J’zargo removed the cape he always wore over his mage’s robes and loaned it to a particularly wretched-looking Khajiit. Deirdre did the same with her mantle. When the recipient protested, she said, “Not to worry, it’s mostly for show.”
Finally they found Kharjo, one of Ahkari’s guards whom Deirdre and Lydia had met the previous fall. J’zargo didn’t know him, but he was a strong warrior by all accounts. Right now it was hard to tell, the way he was hunkered under a thin blanket. He was wet and cold, no doubt, but he seemed more dejected than anything.
“Kharjo?” Deirdre said, kneeling nearby. “Do you remember us?”
Kharjo looked them over. “Ah, Deirdre Morningsong. And Lydia. Kharjo remembers. And he has heard great things about you both since then. Kharjo would say it is a pleasure to see you again, but…” He closed his eyes. “This one wishes he’d never met Ahkari and was still in prison back in Cyrodiil. At least there it was warm.”
Deirdre looked up. “The camp wagon has arrived. Let’s get you a hot drink.”
“I’ll stay with him,” said Brelyna. Lydia didn’t say anything, but she stayed behind as well.
J’zargo followed Deirdre to the camp wagon, more because it was difficult to look on a great warrior brought so low than to make himself useful. But it was the same with all the prisoners who’d been here the longest. In just a few days, all dignity had been stripped from them. Their minds could concentrate on nothing beyond the immediate needs of staying warm and staving off hunger. The Nords had reduced them to a state little better than the animals the Nords already thought they were. And the closer to the animals they became, the easier it was for the Nords to treat them that way. J’zargo welcomed the relief of standing near the fire and turning his thoughts from such sad contemplations.
In the end, he was glad to have accompanied Deirdre to the camp wagon: it gave him a chance to see a different side of the Nords, though one he hardly understood.
Seeing them approach his wagon, the cook gave a bow. “Pardon for not taking a knee, my Queen. I don’t know if you remember me.”
Deirdre peered at him for a moment. “Lars Stone-Kettle! From the Hjaalmarch Stormcloak camp. I remember how your broth revived us after our flight across the swamps.”
“I was glad to help. Captain Ravenwood was in an awful state. But remember I told you, ‘I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee…’? So, no kneeling, sad to say.”
Deirdre laughed. “Not to worry. And I used to be an adventurer like you. Then they made me Queen!”
The cook guffawed and slapped his good knee. “Whoo, that was a good one, my Queen!”
These Nords and their silly sense of humor — J’zargo would never understand them.
They returned to Kharjo with a steaming mug of tea and a sweetroll. He received these gratefully, taking a long swallow of the one and a big bite of the other. “That’s better,” he said in a moment. “This place is cold, but Kharjo feels warmness from your presence.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” said Deirdre. “But listen, I don’t know many of your fellow Khajiits well enough to ask them this. It’s rather sensitive, and I hope you won’t take it the wrong way.”
“Kharjo still remembers the help you gave him and Ahkari. Ask anything you like.”
“You must meet most of the Khajiits in Skyrim during your travels. Have you ever heard one of your countryfolk speaking ill of the Nords, or of Skyrim?”
“No, why would Khajiit complain? We are allowed to trade here. Nords may not like us, but we just try to keep out of their way. And for Skyrim, Khajiits only complain about the weather.”
“Hmm. How about any Khajiits traveling with a non-Khajiit, maybe in a wagon?”
“No. Kharjo has never seen such a thing in Skyrim. In Cyrodiil, yes, but never here. Khajiit keep to themselves.”
“Ah, too bad,” said Deirdre. “I feel we’re so close to these killers, but we just need another clue.” She stared at the blanket on which Kharjo sat, lost in thought for a moment. Then she looked back at him. “Well, tell us how you’ve fared otherwise.”
Kharjo snorted. “You mean apart from being attacked by a strange Breton, then arrested by the Nords? Other than that, everything is perfect!”
“Wait, what do you mean you were attacked by a Breton?”
“Just that. Well, first he tried to poison us, then he attacked Kharjo when this one chased him.” He looked at Deirdre then at J’zargo. “Kharjo thinks you are happy Kharjo was attacked.”
J’zargo spoke up as Deirdre struggled to wipe the smile from her face. “Deirdre is only happy she is about to find the killer. And J’zargo is happy, too, for he was also wrongfully imprisoned for these crimes. When this one gets his hands on that Breton…”
“Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Deirdre said. “Kharjo, tell us everything. When and where did this happen?”
“It was the night before we were arrested.”
“So that would be night before last.”
“That is right. We were camped near the Weynon Stones. Early in the evening a Breton man went by…”
“Headed which way?”
“South and east. He was driving a wagon…”
“Pulled by a single horse?”
“Yes.” Kharjo looked at her curiously. “Any other questions?”
“Did you happen to notice what the wagon carried?”
“Just a couple of crates, nearly as long as the wagon.”
Deirdre groaned and gave her friends a dark look. “It’s as I guessed, though I really didn’t want to contemplate it.” J’zargo gave a low growl. They all must have had the same thought, but none wanted to give it voice. “Then what happened?”
“It was after dinner. Most of the others had gone to bed. The kettle was near the fire to stay hot for making tea. It helps this one stay awake while on watch. At first, Kharjo didn’t see anything, but he smelled something. Not Khajiit, and not an animal either, more human-like. But this one gave no sign anything was wrong. Then, how do you say, ‘out of the corner of my eye’? Yes, Kharjo saw out of the corner of my eye the lid rise off the tea kettle, and a potion bottle hover over it, pouring a liquid into the hot water. Someone was trying to poison us!”
“Yes, that fits.”
“Kharjo grabbed a torch and ran at the fire, but then heard footsteps running away into the forest. This one chased, always following the sound of footsteps. The Breton was sneaky, but not when he was running away. At last the invisibility spell or potion must have worn off, because there he was, the same Breton who’d passed our camp. ‘Ha, Kharjo has you now!’ this one yelled, and drew his sword. But then the Breton aimed a lightning spell at Kharjo.”
He drew back a sleeve and showed them a long scar on his forearm. “This one is sad to say he dropped his sword. The Breton was coming back to finish Kharjo off, but then Ahkari and Dro’marash came running up, and the Breton fled.”
The four were silent, staring at Kharjo.
Finally, J’zargo broke the silence. “My friend, this one thinks you were very lucky not to end up in one of the Breton’s crates.”
Kharjo still looked confused. “But why? What does it mean?”
“It means the Breton is our real killer, and the Khajiits are not truly responsible,” said Deirdre. “The Breton is a necromancer and carries the bodies of dead Khajiits in his wagon. He resurrects them to kill his victims, or sometimes poisons the victims then has the thralls mutilate the bodies. All to make us think your people committed the murders.”
“He must be a powerful necromancer,” Brelyna put in, “for the bodies to last as long as they have, and to leave one body behind for us to examine. And it explains the strange groaning sounds people heard, and the Khajiit saying ‘thank you’ as he died. Sometimes the thrall’s original spirit is still present, trapped inside the body, horrified by what the necromancer forces it to do.” She stopped as she noticed J’zargo and her other friends gaping at her. “What? It pays to know something of necromancy, even if one doesn’t practice the dark art.”
“This is what J’zargo likes about Brelyna — always full of surprises!”
“If we’re right, Kharjo,” Deirdre said, “you would have been his next thrall. He lost one of his minions near Morthal, and he was looking to replace him. You’re tall and powerful, just like the poor fellow the necromancer used to commit those first murders.”
“But we still don’t know why the killer would frame the Khajiits in the first place,” Lydia said. “It all seems so senseless.”
“And we won’t know until we have our hands on the killer,” Deirdre said. She stood up, clapping her hands. “And that will be any day now. Ralof!”
By the time Ralof walked over from the camp wagon where he’d been overseeing the doling out of provisions, quite a crowd had gathered around, including Ri’saad and Ahkari, clearly feeling better for having warm food in their bellies.
“My Khajiit friends, you and your people are exonerated!” The Khajiits gave a cheer. “Ralof, send squads of soldiers in every direction. Have them spread the word to every fortress and every village. They’re to be on the lookout for a lone Breton driving a wagon with two long crates in back, pulled by a single horse with one broken shoe. But post no bills — we wouldn’t want to alert our prey.”
“Aye, my Queen, we’ll catch the bastard.”
“And while the search is on, I have a plan for you, my good Khajiits. Tomorrow, if you’re amenable, we’ll make our way to Helgen. Now tell me, how are your carpentry skills?”
She grinned at the mystified Khajiits, who all turned to J’zargo, as if he could explain his strange friend.
He could only shrug. “The people of Skyrim say many interesting things, but this one does not understand all of them.”