A New Life
Deirdre took a deep breath as the caravans and army wagons passed into the shade of the evergreen forest outside Riverwood, halfway to Helgen. The tangy scent of the pines and the sweet smell of jasmine and bluebells created a heady mix. She took another deep breath and could feel the tensions and cares of the past weeks slipping away.
The shade was welcome after the heat of the open road, but she hadn’t really minded the sun, dressed as she was in her lightest blouse and fine trousers. She’d left the dark, heavy mage’s robes behind for this journey, since Ralof’s troops had cleared the bandits out of Helgen the day before. Too, they’d be traveling with a whole regiment. What could happen? She relaxed and tried to enjoy the rare day of carefree travel.
The Khajiits were enjoying the day as well, basking in the warmth as they walked beside their wagons or rode horses borrowed from the army stables. The Nords, not so much; their pale skin burned quickly, and they were stewing inside their fur armor. Many were the aahs of relief as they passed into the shade. Even Lydia, usually so stoic, had already complained of the heat, wishing aloud that they could stop for a dip in the White River, dancing and babbling nearby. Deirdre had to laugh as J’zargo’s ears pricked up and his tail swished back and forth at Lydia’s suggestion. She was waiting for him to give a lustful purr and heartily endorse the idea, but Brelyna cut him off, pointing out how far they still had to go. Some things never changed.
“Alas, Brelyna’s right,” she said, smiling. “Skinny-dipping will have to wait for another day.” Ralof, riding nearby, gave them all a puzzled look.
As much as she would have liked to take a dip herself, she enjoyed simply being back in these woods where she’d spent so many carefree hours. Those were the days when she’d worked for Arcadia. She could gather a backpack full of flowers and herbs and still have plenty of time left over to stare at the clouds, listen to the warbler’s call, or just bask in the sun. Sometimes, if she managed to stay out too late to return to Whiterun at a reasonable hour, she’d spend the night in Riverwood with Ralof’s sister, Gerdur, and his brother-in-law, Hod. Gerdur had been so kind to her after Helgen, and she could always count on finding a welcome in their modest house. Those were her last truly carefree days in Skyrim, nearly a year ago now.
But these memories weren’t the only reason she was feeling relaxed and happy on this day. She had much to content her, on two fronts: keeping the Khajiits safe and tracking down the murderer. The man-hunt was going well, and Deirdre felt they nearly had him. Alerts had been sent out in all directions, but a specific description of the murderer had done much to jog the guards’ memories. The pair at the White River Bridge now remembered a lone Breton in a wagon crossing on the morning of the Battle-Born Farm murder. That led them to focus their efforts to the east. Deirdre was sure the necromancer would show himself again, having no reason to fear that the people were now alerted to one fitting his description. She was so satisfied with this progress, and confident in the army’s ability to track him down, that she’d felt justified in taking two or three days off to get the Khajiits settled in their new home.
Convincing the Khajiits to take up her offer had been a bit trickier.
“You mean to send us to a forced labor camp?” Ri’saad said when she first brought up the idea.
“No, of course not! You are free to leave and go where you will this instant. I only wish I could guarantee your safety on the roads, but until we catch this Breton necromancer, that will be difficult. You’ve seen how these Nord mobs are, and then there’s the danger posed to your people by the Breton himself. You’ll be safe in Helgen, but if you insist on traveling the roads, I’ll assign four soldiers to each of your caravans.”
“And Nord soldiers are meant to keep watch on Khajiit, whether we travel or stay in Helgen, no?”
“No, not to keep watch on you, but to protect you and keep away anyone who wishes you harm. And not just Nord soldiers; Skyrim’s army has many types. No Khajiits at the moment, but I hope to rectify that.”
“But you expect us to work hard, no?”
“Of course! But you already work hard traveling across Skyrim on your trade routes. Now you’ll be working to build your own homes out of the rubble of Helgen, and the soldiers will help you. In return, you’ll help the soldiers rebuild the garrison that made up half the town. It will be a cooperative venture, to show what Khajiits and Nords can do when we work together.”
“And Khajiit may live in these homes permanently, yes?”
“I’ll write the deeds myself. The homes and shops will be yours until you choose to sell them. But when you consider the trade advantages of a base in Helgen, I think you’ll want to stay. It could offer a whole new supply route from Cyrodiil for your caravans, being so near the Pale Pass. And then there’s the traffic going back and forth over the pass, offering you an additional market. Maybe you’ll even want to start offering lodging to travelers. And did I mention the contract to supply our garrison with food and sundries? I’m willing to offer you that as well, but only if you can provide competitive rates.”
Ri’saad’s eyes had grown bright at all the new sources of income. “It is true, this one’s bones grow old and it would be good to stay in one place, maybe hire another Khajiit to take over the third caravan. But tell me, are no Nords willing to take advantage of these opportunities?”
“No. Sadly, Alduin wiped out nearly all of Helgen’s townsfolk, man, woman, and child. After that, the place had such a terrible reputation, no one wanted to move in and rebuild. And since the attack on Whiterun, most of our reconstruction efforts have been focused there. A few bandits may have moved in, but we’ll clean them out before you arrive.”
Ri’saad still looked doubtful; what else could she offer him?
He looked over at Kharjo. “What does Kharjo say? Is Deirdre Morningsong one to be trusted?”
Kharjo nodded. “She and Lydia went out of their way to help us, though they had little reason to. They didn’t even ask for a reward.”
“Good. And J’zargo? What is the opinion of His Greatness?”
Deirdre had to suppress a laugh at Ri’saad’s sarcastic tone. So his own people had as little patience with his arrogance as she did. She felt vindicated somehow.
J’zargo ignored the sarcasm. “This one trusts Deirdre Morningsong with his life. Her word is as certain as the two moons’ rising and setting.”
So ninety-nine out of a hundred; she’d hoped for better.
Still, Ri’saad seemed convinced. “Very well, Ri’saad will discuss it with his people and see what they wish.”
An hour later he returned to Deirdre and her friends, all sitting near the camp wagon. “It is decided. Khajiit will travel to Helgen and see if it is suitable. And if so, the bargain Deirdre Morningsong has offered is more than fair.”
“Excellent! And if it turns out not to meet your needs, we can look at this as an extended camping trip. In a week or two, when we’ve captured this necromancer and proved the Khajiits’ innocent for once and all, the roads should be safe for you again.”
Hrongar had not been so agreeable, though her challenge of single combat had cowed him for the moment. He’d managed to delay them for a day by dragging his feet over returning the Khajiits’ possessions, but she considered that time well spent.
Now Deirdre looked around at the Khajiits traveling beside her as they approached Riverwood. How happy and hopeful they seemed! It was amazing what a hot meal, warm clothing, and shelter could do, along with the prospect of a more prosperous life.
For herself, she was looking forward to seeing Gerdur again, and also wondering how the townspeople would take to having Khajiits as their nearest neighbors, even though Helgen was half a day’s ride away. Gerdur would see the sense in the proposal and help sway her neighbors.
Ralof was eager to see his sister as well, judging by the way he cantered ahead, crossing the bridge over the White River and passing through the town gates before turning into the mill Gerdur and Hod owned. By the time the head of the caravan had entered the town, Ralof was leading his sister back to greet them.
“Welcome, my Queen,” Gerdur said, going to one knee. “And Captain Ravenwood.” She gave a curtsy.
Deirdre dismounted, exclaiming with mock severity, “Gerdur! I’ll have none of this bowing and scraping from you, of all people.” She gave Gerdur a hug. “Who knows where I’d be without you?”
At last Gerdur smiled and looked at her the way she used to, with the open gaze of a friend, not the downcast eyes of a subject. Once again, Deirdre cursed this damned pomp and ceremony that came between her and the people she loved.
“But what is happening?” Gerdur asked. “Where are you going? And with so many?” She gazed at the long line of wagons stretching back out of town.
Deirdre told her first of the new evidence exonerating the Khajiits, then explained the plans to rebuild Helgen. As she spoke, more of the townsfolk came out of their houses and shops to witness the procession, and Orgnar came out of the Sleeping Giant Inn to offer her and her companions mugs of mead. She was glad for the audience as well as the refreshment, as she wouldn’t have to explain her decision twice and her throat was already dry.
Gerdur listened patiently until she was finished. “It seems wisely done. We’d heard about the murders, of course. It’s better to know there’s just one culprit, even if he uses these corpses to do the killing. And I’m glad you’re so close on his tail.” A few of the neighbors nodded. Gerdur looked over the Khajiits and their wagons. “It will be good to have Helgen settled again. The place has seemed haunted since the attack, and no one has wanted to travel that way. And I for one will appreciate a greater variety of goods on offer without having to go all the way in to Whiterun.” Here she gave Lucan Valerius, the proprietor of Riverwood Traders, a disdainful look.
“I do hope the competition won’t hamper your business too much, Lucan,” Deirdre said.
“Eh, most travelers have been so long on the road that they just want to rush on to Whiterun. If they’ve had a chance to rest up in Helgen, maybe they’ll feel leisurely enough to stop in our shop.”
“Aye,” said the innkeep. “An easier road makes for more travelers, and that makes for good business all around. Besides, your Grace, we here in Riverwood are especially in your debt, since you cleaned out Bleak Falls Barrow for us. The evil from that place spread for miles around, and folk here are a sight happier since you lifted the darkness.”
At the mention of the barrow, Ralof gave a shudder. As brave as he was in battle, draugr held a special terror for him, one that Deirdre would never let him live down.
They were about to say their farewells when Deirdre remembered to ask where Hod was. “You just missed him on his way to Whiterun,” said Gerdur. “You know he likes to go straight through the forest instead of around by the road. He has to see Hrongar’s steward about a debt. We haven’t been paid for the last two shipments of lumber for Dragonsreach.”
“Not to worry, Gerdur,” said Ralof. “We’ll see you get paid, one way or the other.”
With that they continued their journey along the White River, then up the winding trail to Helgen. When they arrived late in the day, Deirdre saw that the place was in better shape than she’d expected. The last she’d seen of it, the houses and shops had all been ablaze, their thatched roofs smashed, and the keep’s four stone watchtowers pulverized by the flaming meteors the World Eater had somehow conjured. The sounds of destruction had continued as she and Ralof descended into the dungeons beneath the keep, barely avoiding the falling ceiling as it caved in behind them. She couldn’t imagine much would be left of the place after such an assault.
Now she was surprised to see something of the wooden structures still standing, with support beams upright amidst timbers scattered like jackstraws. And much of the four towers still remained, though with gaping holes that would take much patching.
The news was less good when the captain of the advance squad came out to greet them at what was left of the town’s northern gate. After reporting on the capture of the half-dozen bandits who’d been camped within the ruin, he turned to the condition of the town itself. “Not much of the town-side can be salvaged. What beams are still standing are too charred to be trusted. The sites will have to be cleared for new buildings. The keep is in better shape. It will take time, but it can be repaired. But we can’t even get into the dungeons, the stairs leading down into them are so choked with rubble.”
“Let’s leave those dark places sealed off forever, shall we?” said Deirdre. “When can work begin?”
“Right away, my Queen. But…” The captain looked at the ground and didn’t go on.
“Spit it out, man,” Ralof ordered.
“It’s just that Jarl Dengeir of Falkreath arrived this afternoon and wants a word with you before we begin work.”
Perhaps she shouldn’t have sent word to Falkreath about her plans. But it was better to get this over with now than have Dengeir do something rash behind her back.
The captain nodded toward the fortress. “He’s inside what’s left of the keep.” A group of guards in Falkreath’s colors stood around in the bailey, nervously eying the regular army soldiers. The bandits, hands bound, sat in a row against one wall.
Deirdre turned to the rest of the caravan. “Ri’saad, why don’t you take your people and look over the town, along with the army’s builders we brought with us. That should give you a good idea of what’s to be done. J’zargo will go with you. The rest of us will go and deal with Dengeir.”
They entered the bailey, where Ralof ordered the soldiers who had accompanied the caravan to wait. Then he led the way into the keep, followed by Deirdre, Lydia, and Brelyna. The stout door to the keep’s tower was gone, replaced with a gaping hole wide enough to drive a wagon through. But Deirdre still recognized it as the circular room where she and Ralof had fled to escape Alduin’s onslaught. She’d killed her first person in this room, an Imperial soldier bent on carrying out the executions Alduin had interrupted. The first of too many. How innocent she’d been back then!
Dengeir regarded them from across what was left of the chamber. Dispensing with ceremony, he ignored Deirdre. “Ralof of Riverwood. When we took back Falkreath from Imperial control, I didn’t think it was to give Helgen over to a bunch of Khajiits. And you support this?”
Ralof gave Deirdre a look that told her he would handle this, then walked over to confront the jarl. “As I remember it, you stayed huddled up in front of your hearth while we Stormcloaks battled through the winter snows to take the town. Then you emerged from your house just in time for Ulfric to install you in the jarl’s seat.”
“That’s right, it was Ulfric, not you, Ralof. And where is he now? Surely he doesn’t support this madness.”
“Neither does he support rounding up innocent people,” said Deirdre, going to stand next to Ralof.
“Bah, when did he become such a milk-drinker? And you — I supported you at the jarlmoot. You’d driven out the Thalmor, and for that we owed you a debt. But defending these damned Khajiits — can’t you see they must be in league with the Aldmeri Dominion? Elsweyr is allied to Summerset, after all. It’s too dangerous to let any of them roam Skyrim.”
“I see you didn’t read the entire message I sent yesterday. The true culprit is a Breton, and the army is tracking him even now.”
“A Breton! But of course! High Rock is Cyrodiil’s last ally in the Empire. I’ve long questioned the loyalty of our Breton neighbors. Enemies and ears, both are everywhere!”
“And what would you have me do, round them all up, as you and the other jarls did the Khajiits?”
He eyed her for a moment. At least he wasn’t so bold as to suggest she round up her own people. “No, I can see how you wouldn’t support that. But how about bringing them all in for some tough questioning? That will smoke the rats out.”
“The kind of tough questioning you have in mind took place right beneath our feet. Only it was the Imperials who did it. No, we won’t be doing any such thing. As for who is behind the attacks and what their motives are, we could concoct plausible theories all day. But we’ll only know for sure when we capture this Breton and get his story. In the meantime, we have a town to rebuild.”
“About that… what makes you think you can walk into my hold and take over an entire town?”
“The fact that I am your queen, first of all. And the fact that you’ve done nothing to rebuild Helgen in nearly a year, with the fine weather for building nearly half over. Then there are the bandits you’ve let overrun the place. Need I go on?”
“But our hold treasury depends on the taxes and trade from this town.”
“The Khajiits will pay the same taxes as anyone else. You can consider any other lost revenues as reparations for false imprisonment. I know you weren’t the leader in this little rebellion. Skald and Hrongar egged you on. You could turn to them to make you whole, or perhaps you should just be content with the greater flow of trade.”
Dengeir seemed to consider this. As Deirdre awaited his answer, an army messenger ran in from the bailey. He knelt before Deirdre and held out a message. “For you, my Queen. They’ve found the killer!”
She tore the message from his grasp and read it before looking around at her friends with a grim smile. “The Rift guards have him holed up in Forelhost.”
“Forelhost!” Ralof shivered. The place was one of the few Nordic ruins she and Lydia had neglected to visit in their search for word walls. It had a dire reputation as an ancient monastery of the dragon cult, home to one of the fearsome dragon priests and his many undead minions.
“Not to worry, my friend,” Deirdre said, placing a hand on Ralof’s shoulder. “You’re needed here.”
Ralof put his shoulders back. She could see no hint of fear in his eyes. “No, lass. If you’re going to Forelhost, it’s your general’s duty to stand beside you. You’ll not leave me behind to manage a building project.”
“The project might take more management than I thought.” Deirdre tilted her head slightly toward Dengeir, hoping the jarl didn’t notice.
“My lieutenants will handle whatever… problems may arise.”
“I’m glad you two have that sorted out,” Lydia said. Then she clapped her hands together and gave a hoot. “Deathlords and dragon priests, my favorite! What are we waiting for?”