Categories
News Politics

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 | MLive.com

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.

Categories
Ada's Children Fiction Politics

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.

Categories
On Writing

Dueling Death Scenes

SPOILERS IF YOU’RE ONE OF THE TWO PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN AVENGERS: ENDGAME!

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:

https://youtu.be/Sjt512sUkt4

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.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1249026103370448896
https://twitter.com/i/status/1248308768267476999

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.

Categories
Ada's Children Fiction

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 Eskimo, 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

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.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 20

Epilogue

“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)
Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 17

The Necromancer and the Dragon Priest

Lydia, down on one knee, pushed back against the crush of draugr with what little strength she had left. Then someone was helping her up by the arm, while also pushing the shield back into place next to Svari’s.

Pic of many draugr and a deathlord
Draugr Army (by Jackal326 on NexusMods – edited)

“This one can hold Lydia’s shield. Lydia should go inside.” She turned to gape at J’zargo; he looked back at her calmly as if this really were just another day’s work.

“But…”

“J’zargo will slash draugr with his claws if they get too close.” He opened the shield a gap and clawed at the closest draugr to demonstrate.

“But Garrold…”

“Already inside the passage. Now go.”

“J’zargo’s right, Lydia,” said Ralof. “We’ve got this.”

She turned toward the doorway to find that it was only two steps away. Would her legs carry her even that far? But now Deirdre was emerging from within. “I’ve healed Garrold as best…” she began. Then she saw Lydia, and a look of shock and concern came over her face that Lydia hoped never to see directed at herself again, not during battle.

“My love, what is it?” Deirdre said, putting an arm around her.

“Get her inside!” Ralof shouted.

Deirdre put a hand under her elbow to support her and half-dragged her into the passage. Lydia staggered a few steps beyond the doorway and fell to her hands and knees.

“Where are you hurt? I don’t see any blood.”

The sounds of the battle out in the dining hall intensified. Both J’zargo and Kharjo were hissing loudly now. The sound of claws on rock-like flesh grated on her ears. Brelyna’s lightning and fire spells lit up the chamber. “Damn these draugr, is there no end to them?”

Where was her axe? She must have dropped it, though she couldn’t imagine having done such a thing.

“I’m fine,” she told Deirdre, struggling to get up. She had to get back out there.

“I can see you’re not fine. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”

“But I must…”

“No, you mustn’t. Promise me you’ll stay here.”

Then Deirdre was gone. Lydia tried to rise, but couldn’t. She was sworn to protect Deirdre, but now she couldn’t move a limb. So much for dying at her side! She was a milk-drinker and a weakling. She felt bitter tears of shame and fear running down her cheeks and into her mouth, their salty taste an unfamiliar one.

The last ignominy came when Garrold limped over to her, recovered somewhat from his wound. “Captain Ravenwood,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Are you well? What can I do for you?” A true Nord would never cry in front of her troops, but the tears just flowed all the faster.

From the dining hall she heard Deirdre shout. “Hun-Kaal-Zoor!” She didn’t know that one. A moment later, other voices echoed from the hall. A man’s voice: “You will feel the thunder of my Thu’um!” A woman’s: “My sword will taste your blood.” And another man’s: “It’s glorious to battle once again in Tamriel!” Whoever they were, they all possessed the Thu’um. Soon Shouts were echoing around the dining hall, and even shaking the floor of the passage where she cowered.

Deirdre and her companions returned to join her in the passageway. “Ralof, Kharjo, Svari, don’t let anything through that door,” Deirdre ordered. “J’zargo, get spells off when you can.”

All her friends had retreated, yet the battle still raged. Lydia couldn’t understand it.

“Who are those ancient warriors?” Brelyna asked Deirdre. “The draugr can’t stand against them.”

“Friends from Sovngarde. But there’s no time to explain.” Deirdre knelt beside her. “Can you sit up?” Together, Deirdre and Brelyna helped Lydia over to sit with her back against the wall of the passage. “Now, what is it? I still don’t see any blood. And nothing looks broken. Here, let’s get your helmet off at least.”

Lydia kept her head down as Deirdre removed the helm.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Brelyna said, “these aren’t physical wounds.”

Lydia could only shake her head.

“What then?” said Deirdre.

Brelyna was silent for a moment, but Lydia knew she knew. “Lydia, I heard you shout about the elves, and the women and children. You were back at the Retreat from Whiterun, weren’t you?”

Lydia nodded, and gave a sob, her shoulders shaking. She’d never cried like this in her life.

“I relive that awful day every night in my dreams,” Brelyna said, shivering.

“Yet I never do,” Lydia managed to say.

“Oh, my love,” Deirdre said, placing a hand under her chin, forcing Lydia to meet her eye. She had no strength to resist. “And you never talk about that day, though I’ve asked you time and again. All you would say after you recovered was that you should have died defending Balgruuf. Oh, if only I had been there that day, and hadn’t been stuck at the top of the Throat of the World!”

Seeing Deirdre’s worried look only made her sobs come more quickly. Deirdre stroked her cheek, then gathered her in her arms, where she wept as she never had, not even as a baby.

They were right, of course. She’d taken all the fear, horror, and grief of that day and stuffed it down somewhere deep, covered it with a mask of Nord bravado. And not just Whiterun, but the suffering she’d endured in the Thalmor torture chamber. Yet all these months, fear had gripped her heart like a claw. She’d put it off as fear for Deirdre’s life, but it was her own fear she was running from, she could see that now. And how much had she lost in keeping it at bay! She hadn’t truly enjoyed any pleasure these last months, she was so constantly on edge. She couldn’t even properly make love to her wife for fear of what might happen while they were so distracted. It was no way to live.

Her weeping abated, and Deirdre looked at her once more, stroking her helmet-mashed hair. “Promise me that when we return home, we’ll talk of these things. You won’t keep them bottled up inside you.”

Lydia nodded, wiping at her eyes.

“Good. But right now, I need you to be strong.”

“We need help over here!” Ralof called from the doorway. “Your friends are saying their farewells.” He sounded stunned by the sight before him. “Felldir the Old, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon-One-Eye, all returning to fight for us! By the Nine, I thought never to meet them unless I earned my place in Sovngarde.”

Pic of The heroes of Sovngarde, summoned by the Call of Valor
The heroes of Sovngarde, summoned by the Call of Valor

Deirdre turned back to Lydia. “You see, we can’t do without you. I can cast a spell on you, but only if you want me to. Or you can stay here with Garrold.”

“Over my dead body.” She tried to grin, but her mouth wouldn’t move that way just now.

“That’s my lass,” Deirdre said, and leaned over to kiss her. That nearly revived her by itself, but the Call to Arms spell did wonders.

She stood up, feeling renewed strength in her limbs, and renewed courage for battle. What was all that crying about, anyway? Lydia Ravenwood never cried. “This magical bravery really works,” she said, “even if it is fake.”

“No more of a fake than the usual Nord bluster,” Brelyna said rather severely. Then she clapped her on the back. “Still, it’s good to have the old Lydia Ravenwood back.”

Ralof turned as they approached the doorway. “Good to see you’re yourself again, Captain.” He bent and retrieved her axe and shield from where they were leaning against the wall. “You might be needing these.”

She took them, feeling sheepish. “It doesn’t sound so bad out there.”

“No, and we have Deirdre to thank. That Shout!” He gave a low whistle. “The ancient heroes made quick work of the ghost cultists. And even before that, those Mayhem and Hysteria spells took the pressure off while we retreated. Our lass is a wonder, but I expect you knew that.”

“I did. But I didn’t even know any of that was happening. Some hero I am.”

“Forget it. It happens to everyone, even the mightiest. I bet even Hakon and Gormlaith had their moments. You should have seen me after Falkreath.”

“Really?” she said

“Really?” Deirdre echoed.

He gave them both a wry grin. “I’ll tell you about it someday. But right now we have a murderer to catch.”

“We do. Would you mind taking the lead, General Ralof?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Captain Ravenwood, your Grace. Turns out these draugr aren’t so tough.”

J’zargo hissed to get their attention. “Enough chit-chat! This one’s magicka is running low.”

They entered the dining hall to see just a dozen or so draugr of the common variety huddling in a corner where they’d been driven first by the ancient heroes, and then by J’zargo’s flame spells, not to mention fear of Ralof’s axe, Svari’s sword, and Kharjo’s mace. Lydia was almost disappointed when the last undead warrior fell.

“Svari,” Ralof ordered, “bring Garrold along the best you can. He should be able to walk, but slowly. We’ll give chase to the mage.”

Svari looked at Lydia for confirmation, and she gave her a nod. Ralof led the way into the next passage, followed closely by Kharjo, then Brelyna and J’zargo, and finally Deirdre and Lydia. It felt strange to be bringing up the rear, but it was a day of many strange new experiences. And it gave her a chance to watch her friends as Brelyna gave J’zargo a playful punch on the arm.

“What?” said J’zargo.

Brelyna said nothing, but Lydia thought she heard her give a sniff. Was she crying? There’d already been too much crying, considering they were chasing a dangerous murderer through a Nord crypt.

Brelyna cuffed J’zargo again.

“What? Was this one not brave enough?”

“Foolish, more like,” said Brelyna, still sniffling. “But no, I was going to say, what you did for Lydia was very selfless.”

J’zargo didn’t reply with a boast. He didn’t reply at all. He was walking in front of Lydia, but to the right, so she had a good look at his face as he looked over at Brelyna. He wasn’t even gloating, just gazing at her with love and contentment. Lydia raised an eyebrow at Deirdre, who returned a wink.

“Damnit, J’zargo,” Brelyna said, “you’re going to make me love you after all.” She gave him another punch, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She settled her head on J’zargo’s shoulder and they walked that way for a while. It was a lovely moment, Lydia thought.

But then again, teasing J’zargo was just too tempting. “Ah, a Khajiit in love. It warms this one’s heart.”

“Pffft!” he hissed.

Feeling a bit remorseful, she caught up to him and put an arm around his shoulders. “But kidding aside, that was brave of you. I owe you my life.” She dipped her head. “Thank you. And Brelyna is lucky to have you.” J’zargo gave a little purr. “Now, don’t go getting a big head. You’re clearly the one trading up in this scenario.” She winked at Brelyna.

J’zargo just gave her a pointy-toothed grin and slipped an arm around her waist. “Yes, this is what J’zargo likes, to walk with a female on either side.” He gave a lascivious purr. Both of the females in question laughed, and neither smacked him.

“By the Nine,” said Deirdre from behind them, “that’s a sight I thought never to see.”

Up ahead, Kharjo turned to Ralof. “Tell me, general, are all Nord expeditions like this one?”

Ralof pondered for a moment. “To tell you the truth, Kharjo, I fear we may have fallen into the Realm of Sheogorath. Otherwise, I can’t explain any of this.”

“Ah, that is what Kharjo suspected.”

Ralof halted, listening. “But we’d better come back to Nirn. I think that’s the mage we’re hearing.”

Over the cleared throats, nervous tittering, and exclamations of “Yes, general!” that followed Ralof’s request, they could hear the mage swearing. “Damn this door, and damn these foolish Nordic engravings! What is that anyway? A dog? A wolf? A squirrel? Ah, yes, a fox. And now an owl and a snake.”

They heard the sound of stone grating over stone. “He’s opening the door to Rahgot’s tomb!” Deirdre yelled, dashing past her friends and around the corner.

“Hey, wait for us!” Lydia called, running after her, the rest following behind.

Pic of the puzzle door in Forelhost
The puzzle door in Forelhost

Turning the corner, she saw they were nearly too late. The door, a set of three overlapping stone disks, had already sunk halfway into the floor. The mage still had four draugr with him, and these he sent charging straight at Deirdre. Then he turned and leapt over the half-open door and disappeared beyond.

“Wuld-Nah-Kest!” Deirdre shouted, shooting past the surprised draugr, who barely managed to sidestep her in their surprise, and all the way through the door, where she was lost from sight.

Damn her recklessness! “After her!” Lydia shouted.

“Leave the draugr to J’zargo and me,” said Brelyna, summoning a flame atronach. “You three follow Deirdre.”

Lydia didn’t need to be told twice. She dashed at the draugr, shoving two aside with her axe, as Ralof did the same with the others. Kharjo passed them both, despite his steel armor. They reached the end of the hall at last and plunged through the doorway. Beyond, they found Deirdre alone at the bottom of a staircase, panting hard, standing over a pile of ash. “He… summoned… a dremora.”

“My queen,” Lydia said, stamping her foot. “You could have been killed.”

Deirdre grinned. “Feh, only a lesser daedra.”

“Now, where’s this murderer?” Kharjo demanded, dashing up the steps. The rest followed, but Kharjo pulled farther ahead. Before they were halfway up, Lydia heard the distinctive thunk of a tomb cracking open. Reaching the top of the stairs, they saw Damien preparing to cast a spell, standing next to a large sarcophagus with its lid thrown back. A dragon priest was rising before him, floating in the air, its grinning skull made yet grimmer by a heavy verdigris mask.

Pic of the Dragon Priest Rahgot

Damien cast his spell, but gasped when it had no effect. He took a step backward, but too late. Rahgot slashed at his belly with the hooked end of his staff just as Kharjo reached the altar and leapt at the Breton. There was a flash and the two rolled together in a crumpled ball surrounded by blue light, coming to rest against the far wall.

Reaching the altar, Deirdre shouted Marked for Death at Rahgot, and Lydia came in behind with a blow from her axe. The Shout should have weakened him, but the dragon priest hardly seemed to feel the blow. He veered away, hovering on one side of the sanctuary. That was the worst thing about these dragon priests. If they would only hold still!

“Hold him off while I check on Kharjo and Damien,” Deirdre said. “We can’t let him poison himself like the cultists!”

“Aye, my Queen.” Lydia stepped back from the wall of lightning Rahgot was spreading on the floor with his staff. Ralof got him from the other side with his axe, but again with little effect. The dragon priest’s thick metal breast plate offered sure protection.

Four more cracking sounds came from all around them and four deathlords stepped out of their upright sarcophagi. “Is this all you’ve got?” Lydia laughed grimly, turning to face the nearest deathlord. Rahgot replied with his own dry cackle. Where was Deirdre? How was Kharjo? Lydia just knew she and Ralof could use some help.

Then Deirdre was at their side. “Kharjo’s all right. He’ll try to keep Damien alive.”

“We could use some help with these deathlords, not to mention the damned dragon priest.” She blocked a blow from the deathlord.

“I’ll take care of these two.” Deirdre cast a spell of frenzy at the two deathlords opposite, and they fell to fighting one another.

Now Brelyna and J’zargo came running up the steps and engaged the fourth deathlord, Brelyna casting another flame atronach. Ralof went to help them.

Now this was fighting! Slicing, spinning, blocking, slashing again, standing aside just in time to let Deirdre’s spell find its target, then going in for the kill. There, one deathlord down. Much better than cowering behind a shield wall. She looked over at Deirdre and saw that she felt it too, her eyes alight with concentration, something like a smile on her lips. This is what they were made for, to roam Skyrim together, not to live pent up in a castle drilling soldiers or going over ledgers. It was easy to see that Deirdre felt more alive than at any time during these past months in Castle Dour. And Lydia felt nearly the same, save for the shadow of what had happened back in the dining hall, and the strange feeling of Deirdre’s magic still working on her.

Then a hiss came from behind them, and the smell of singed fur filled the chamber.

“Damnit,” said Brelyna, “the dragon priest turned my atronach.”

“Let’s get him!” Deirdre said, and Lydia turned toward the dragon priest. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” Deirdre shouted, smashing Rahgot into the back wall of the crypt. Lydia followed up with a blow from her axe. Deirdre hit him with an ice spike. That ought to slow him down. Lydia hit him again.

Now Rahgot was up, and zooming to the other side of the chamber. He summoned his own flame atronach, which aimed fireballs at them. Deirdre cast a ward with one hand and gave Lydia a potion of fire resistance with the other.

“Two can play that game,” Brelyna shouted. She cast a spell at the atronach, and now it was turning on Rahgot, enveloping him in flame. “But we could use some help over here!”

“Go,” said Deirdre.

“But my Queen…”

“I’ve got this.” Deirdre cast a spell of incinerate at Rahgot.

Lydia raced over to help her three friends, who were now battling two deathlords at once. She took a swing at the one who looked the weakest, and he went to one knee. Ralof finished him with a mighty blow of his own axe. Together the four of them made quick work of the last deathlord. He tried Shouting “Fus!” at them, but he was so weak that it had little effect. He fell to the floor with a final groan and the four turned to help Deirdre.

But she needed little help. A final Shout drove Rahgot to his knees, and Deirdre went in with her sword for the killing blow. As did all Dragon Priests, he dissolved into a pile of ash.

Deirdre didn’t stop to loot the ash pile for gems or Rahgot’s magical mask. “Let’s see to Damien.”

It was as bad as Lydia had feared. Rahgot’s staff had opened Damien’s belly, and now the poor fellow was trying to keep his insides on the inside, but failing terribly. Kharjo had caught part of the blow on his arm, or it might have been worse. The stench was awful, but one to which Lydia had become accustomed, along with the desperate look on the mage’s face, common to all those who felt the life leaking out of them, with no way of keeping it in. It was a good thing Kharjo had smashed all the Breton’s vials of poison, now lying in shards nearby.

Still the mage had hope. “Heal me, and I’ll tell you everything,” he said to Deirdre.

“Alas, my most powerful healing spell will do no good with such a wound. I can do something for the pain, however.” She reached in her cloak for a potion, but Lydia restrained her with a hand on her arm.

She knelt next to the Breton, showing him the sharp blade of her axe. “Soldiers moan for days on the battlefield with wounds such as yours. It’s not long before they’re begging for someone, anyone, to give them a quick death. I can give you that, if you talk. Or, we’ll leave you here, just as you are, and you can hope the draugr wake up again and finish you off.”

“Lydia,” Deirdre said, but Lydia gave her a sharp look.

“Sometimes you’re too kind-hearted, my love.”

They waited a moment longer while Damien pondered his fate. Deirdre took the opportunity to heal Kharjo’s wounded arm. Svari and Garrold came up just as she was finishing. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “You’ll be the most impartial witness to the Breton’s confession.”

Lydia turned to the necromancer. “Well?”

“All right, I’ll talk,” he said through clenched teeth. “You were right, of course. The Thalmor hired me. Murder a few citizens, mostly Nords, put the blame on the Khajiits. Stir up trouble, set the Nords against the minority.” He paused to wince. “Then of course kind-hearted Deirdre Morningsong would have to step in… defy the will of the people… trample the rights and duties of the jarls… all to protect the poor, oppressed Khajiits.” He tried to laugh, but only groaned. “A right little rebellion you’ve got on your hands now, I’ll wager. My work here is done. Too bad I couldn’t make it back home.”

“And the Khajiits you enthralled?” Deirdre asked. “Where did you find them? What are their names?”

“None of your concern. They came from outside Skyrim. I nabbed them in Jehanna just before crossing the border. Wanted them to be nice and fresh. As to names, I didn’t ask.”

“What do the Thalmor intend now? Do they mean to attack us while we’re at each other’s throats?”

“You think they tell me such things? No, I’m just a lowly assassin. But it stands to reason, a divided Skyrim works in their favor. If they can get you out of the picture, half their work will be done. Now, I’ve told you all. You must fulfill your end of the bargain.”

“No, one more thing. It’s been nettling me for weeks now. Why the poison? Why not just let your thralls commit the murders?”

Damien smiled, though it clearly pained him. “You detected my poisons, but you couldn’t figure out why I used them? I’m surprised.” He grimaced, and went on. “Sometimes I didn’t want the neighbors hearing any screams. And in Dragon Bridge… didn’t want to waste a good thrall. Attacking a whole family? Too much could go wrong. I knew Amaund Jurard always wore a knife. Needed to slow him down. But then the children died… before my Khajiit could get to them.”

Lydia had heard enough of this. He sounded so nonchalant about it, as if talking about livestock he’d slaughtered. “And then you had him rend their bodies anyway. What kind of monster are you?”

“One with a mission to carry out. The Khajiit had to be blamed for all of it.”

“I’m regretting my promise of a quick death.”

Deirdre placed a hand on her arm. “Lydia, we can’t make monsters of ourselves. He’s kept his promise and told us everything we need to know.” She looked to the two guards. “You heard all? You must be our witnesses.” The guards both nodded. She turned back to Lydia. “You know what you must do.”

Lydia nodded, though she knew it was more than this monster deserved.

She stood up and gestured for the others to turn away if they wished. The Breton stretched out his neck to give her a better target.

It was over quickly. She did not look away.

Lydia Ravenwood never looked away.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 16

Forelhost

“Would you look at that,” Lydia said, gazing up at the soaring buttresses of Forelhost. These Nord tombs always filled her with admiration for the ancients who’d created them, and a grim anticipation to see what was inside.

Pic of Forelhost

Only this one might be different. Rahgot was the last and most powerful of the Dragon Priests, and he’d gathered the last of the Dragon Cultists in this monastery after the Dragon War thousands of years before. Who knew how many draugr and death lords they might encounter? And on top of that, a powerful necromancer and his minion. It could be tough going.

They’d ridden hard for two days to get here, crossing the pass south of the Throat of the World, then following the shores of Lake Honrich to reach Riften. There, the captain of the hold guards told how two of his men had confronted the lone mage near the village of Shor’s Stone, but failed to capture him.

After that, they’d enlisted help from Fort Greenwall and given chase with a squad of soldiers on horseback. They kept their distance, wary of his fury spells, as the mage fled into the rocky country east of Riften, abandoning his wagon. Here the guards related a grim story. The mage pried the lid off one of the crates in the back of his wagon and cast a spell. Then a Khajiit had risen from the crate and the two had fled south on foot. The guards and soldiers tracked them up the winding road to the level porch in front of Forelhost where Deirdre and her party now stood.

Now, gazing up at the tomb, Ralof gave a shudder. “Yeah, look at that. How do we know he’s even in there?”

Lydia looked around at the steep cliffs on all sides. “He’d have to be able to levitate to get off this mountain without taking the road, and the guards have kept constant watch.”

Deirdre looked grimly at the doors to the tomb. “It’s time to prepare ourselves.” She dismounted and the party did likewise.

Lydia could already feel the keen anticipation of battle coming on. It was going to be a tough fight, but she was more than ready for it, it had been so long. Every sense seemed heightened. She relished the creaking sound the leather straps of her armor made as she dismounted, the smell of sharpening oil that rose from her axe as she drew it from its scabbard. The sky was a piercing blue at this elevation, with just a few clouds here and there. She breathed in, and the air was sharp and sweet in her lungs. Every sensation felt exquisitely precious on a day that might be her last. Overhead, a hawk shrieked, and it was like the battle cry of her own soul.

She looked over at Deirdre, and could tell that she felt it too. This is what they were made for, to face whatever dangers together, head-on, not shrinking from them behind castle walls; to fight together as one, as the well-practiced fighting duo they’d become while battling dragons and draugr.

But then a bit of the fear she’d been feeling these past months crept in. There’d been no time to return to Whiterun for Deirdre’s arch-mage’s robes or the countless other items she usually brought with her on such a foray. She remained clad in the fine trousers and embroidered blouse she’d worn to Helgen, with a cloak borrowed from Brelyna thrown over it, the varied pockets of which she was now stuffing with potions from her saddlebags. She’d have no armor, as usual, but now she’d be without her cloak’s magical protection as well.

Lydia pushed these worries aside. Deirdre, the Dragonborn, was favored by Akatosh. With such protection, nothing could happen to her that Akatosh did not intend; and if Akatosh intended Deirdre’s death, Lydia could do nothing about it, save dying at her side. She had always clung to this thought, even at their darkest moments. Protected by Akatosh’s favor, and by Lydia’s love, Deirdre could not die. And if death did take them, it could not truly separate them; they would simply walk the death road together, hand in hand, until they reached the hallowed halls of Sovngarde. And then let Tsun fear Lydia’s axe and Deirdre’s Voice, and let Shor hope his mead barrels were well-filled!

Her own gear ready, she surveyed the rest of the party. Half of the Royal Guard had accompanied them, eight in all, standing at the ready next to their mounts. Brelyna and J’zargo looked set as well, talking in low tones off to one side. It seemed their relationship had only deepened on the ride here. J’zargo seemed more considerate and less boastful, and Brelyna was responding to the change. Perhaps it was the quietly confident Kharjo rubbing off on his fellow Khajiit.

Inviting Kharjo along had been a last-minute brainstorm of Deirdre’s. He’d gladly said yes when she asked if he’d like to have revenge on the mage who tried to poison and enthrall him. Now he sat nearby, sharpening his claws on a stone.

Ralof looked ready as well, though not eager. He stood before the great doors of Forelhost muttering to himself, his skin a bit more pale than usual. Lydia went over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know how you feel. I felt much the same the first time I entered a tomb of the ancients. But it’s not so bad, I promise. They’re only our ancestors, after all.”

“Our ancestors, yes, but their eyes blaze with a savage blue light! I’ve heard the stories!” He shivered.

“The trick is, never look in their eyes. Aim for their necks. They can’t get back up if we lop off their heads.”

Deirdre came over, shouldering her bow. She seemed as ready as she could be. “I’m more worried about the mage and his thrall.”

“All in a day’s work, my Queen,” Lydia said.

“And are you ready, my friend?” Deirdre said, putting a hand on Ralof’s arm. At least she’d left off with the teasing. This was not the time.

Ralof drew himself to his full height and set his face. “I’ll show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood is no coward.”

“And deathlords, don’t forget,” said Lydia before she could catch herself. So much for no teasing. But black humor was always her way.

“Yes, and deathlords and dragon priests and whatever else this place has in store.”

“Then it looks like we’re ready,” Deirdre said. The rest of the party gathered around. “Friends, it’s time to do the job we came for — catch this murderer and take him alive.”

After some discussion, the party was reduced to eight. Too large a party could be a detriment in a cramped crypt. In addition to the four companions, there were Kharjo and Ralof, and two of the Royal Guards, Svari and Garrold.

“Lydia will lead us,” said Deirdre. Lydia looked over to Ralof, checking how he took this. When Deirdre had promoted him to the rank of general, she’d insisted the two of them would have equal authority. She’d even wanted to make Lydia a general as well, but Lydia had refused; commanders of guards always had the rank of captain. And now a captain would lead a general. It felt strange.

It didn’t seem to bother Ralof, however. “Aye, it only makes sense,” he said. “You two have all the experience in these crypts.”

The guards opened the massive doors, and Lydia led the way inside. The entrance hall was empty, as was the large hall beyond. Like the other ancient Nord strongholds she’d visited, this one had been built into the mountain itself, its walls rough-hewn stone bearing crude depictions of dragons and other markings left by the dragon cult. A mass of rocks and other rubble blocked the wide steps leading from the hall, but a narrow doorway off to one side promised access to deeper levels.

“Come, this way,” Lydia said, stepping into just the type of narrow passage they’d feared. “Svari, Garrold, you two bring up the rear. And everyone, watch out for pressure plates or other traps.”

Traps of all types were common in a Nord ruin, with here and there an urn or chest containing remains and valuables. Only one thing was different about this one: the complete lack of undead. At first this didn’t seem so strange as they traversed what had been the common areas of the stronghold, a worship chamber and sleeping quarters. But then they entered the crypts and found all the sarcophagi and other resting places of the dead abandoned.

“So this is a Nord crypt, eh?” said Ralof. “Not so scary after all.”

“I’ve never seen one without draugr,” said Deirdre. “It’s as if they all got up and went somewhere.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Lydia. Draugr scourges and deathlords she could handle, but only a few at a time; what if they were gathering their forces? She didn’t like the odds. But in all their delving, they’d never known the undead to work together in a coordinated fashion. Her fingers itched to sink her axe into rock-hard draugr flesh, but all this waiting to encounter the enemy was frustrating.

They continued on, bypassing traps of fire, spikes, and swinging blades, and also many urns and chests.

“Ancient Nords left treasure for us, no?” said J’zargo. “This one thinks we should not leave it lying around.”

“We’re here to catch a murderer, J’zargo,” said Brelyna, “not make ourselves rich. And it’s not lying around; it was buried with the dead to honor them, and likely carries with it a curse on anyone so foolish as to steal it.”

“But the dead have all departed. Draugr should not be so careless with their treasure.”

“We don’t have time for treasure, but we’d better take this,” Lydia said, removing a large brass key from a shelf. A short time later, she was proved right when they reached a circular staircase blocked by a locked gate. Lydia tried the key, and it opened.

At the bottom of the stairs they found another obstacle — a descending tunnel nearly filled with water.

“I wonder how deep that is?” said Brelyna.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Lydia replied. “J’zargo, it looks like you’re getting your wish for a swim.”

“Lydia misunderstands J’zargo. This one hates swimming; he only likes to watch.”

“You’ll have to swim whether you like it or not.”

J’zargo sniffed. “And will there be skin-dipping?”

“What, and leave our armor behind? That would be foolish. Come, in you go.”

J’zargo wrinkled his nose as he waded into the chest-deep water and the rest followed. “It will take long for J’zargo’s fur to dry.”

Lydia gave a snort. “Try swimming in steel armor sometime.” She just hoped the water wouldn’t go over their heads.

“It’s true,” said Kharjo from behind, “Khajiit don’t like to go in water. But if it’s what we must do to catch this Breton, then Kharjo will do it.”

Unfortunately for Lydia and the others wearing armor, they did come to a section where the water completely filled the passage.

“I’ll explore it and see how far it goes,” Deirdre said. “I’m the better dressed for it.”

Lydia ignored her and began wading in.

“Lydia, no,” Brelyna said. “What if the mage is waiting on the other side? Why don’t I go?”

“And you in those heavy mage’s robes, and everyone else in heavy armor?” Deirdre said. “I’m better dressed for it today.”

More delay! Had it just been the two of them, there was no question that Lydia would have gone first.

“I’ll go,” said Ralof, putting a hand on Lydia’s arm. “My armor’s lighter, and nor do I have clinging cloaks or mage’s robes.”

“But what if you find draugr on the other side?” Lydia asked. “Or the mage?”

“Then they’ll feel my axe.”

Ralof disappeared into the water and returned in a few moments. “Come, it’s not too far before the passage opens up and we can wade again.”

He plunged back in and Lydia followed. In a short time they were all through the passage, the mages swimming and the warriors walking on the floor while pushing and pulling themselves along with their hands.

The small chamber they now entered contained a small table and shelves filled with potion bottles. Deirdre opened one and sniffed at it. “Poison.”

“Do you think the mage left them here?” Brelyna asked.

“No, these vials seem ancient, they’re so covered in dust. My guess is they belonged to the cultists.”

“But the mage must have taken a few, judging by these clean spots amid all the dust,” Ralof said.

Now that they had regrouped, Lydia took the lead again. Through another door, they came to a narrow passage where Lydia called for a halt. Strange noises came from a chamber up ahead. It sounded like many people groaning, and the shuffling of many feet.

“I know those sounds,” Lydia said.

Beside her, Deirdre nodded. “The mage has enthralled the draugr and gathered them here.”

Lydia turned to look at the others. Ralof seemed a bit wan, but had his axe at the ready. Brelyna was quaffing some sort of potion, probably a magicka booster. Kharjo and the guards looked as ready as they could be. But where was J’zargo?

A yelp came from an alcove back along the passage, and J’zargo leapt back, holding his arm where an arrow protruded from his sleeve.

Brelyna rushed to him. “J’zargo, are you all right?”

“Just a nick,” he said sheepishly. He pulled the arrow free from where it had been dangling from the cloth.

“What happened?” Lydia asked, going back to investigate. Then she saw the treasure chest sitting in the alcove and the murder holes in the wall next to it. Brelyna saw it at the same time and smacked J’zargo in his wounded arm. “Silly Khajiit! We told you to leave the treasure alone! We can only hope that arrow wasn’t poisoned.”

“You said we had no time for treasure. But everyone had stopped to prepare for whatever is in the next room. J’zargo only thought to prepare himself with potions or magical rings that might be in the chest.”

“And you had no hope of finding gold as well? I’ll believe that when the draugr lay down their arms and make us tea.”

“It’s a wonder they haven’t attacked already, with the racket we’re making,” Deirdre said. “Now, are we ready to face them?”

“Aye,” said Lydia in concert with Ralof and the others. “I’ll take the lead.”

“And I’ll join you,” said Ralof.

“And this one as well,” said Kharjo.

“We can’t all fit through the door at once. No, I want Svari and Garrold up front with me. We’ll form a shield wall as best we can with three. Ralof, Kharjo, you dash in for a blow when we create an opening. Mages, stay back and use whatever destruction spells seem best. And everyone, for Talos’s sake, make sure not to step in front of Deirdre when she’s getting ready to Shout.”

With the plan set, Lydia led the way to a short passage on the right, which led to an open doorway. The chamber beyond looked to be a large dining hall. It was as bad as Lydia had expected, and worse. Dozens of draugr, several scourges, and a deathlord stood around the hall and on top of the long dining tables stretching the length of the chamber. But here and there among them stood ghostly apparitions of warriors and mages.

“Who are they?” Lydia asked no one in particular. Their presence had no effect on the undead, who made no move to attack, but milled about as if awaiting orders.

“Those are the ghosts of the Dragon Cultists who made a last stand here thousands of years ago. I’ll wager you never expected them, Dragonborn.”

The voice came from on high, and to their right. The Breton mage had taken a position on a gallery overlooking the dining hall, flanked by two draugr archers, one of the ghosts, and his Khajiit thrall.

“This place is famous among practitioners of silent death, such as myself,” the Breton went on. “The cultists blockaded themselves in the depths of the monastery and took poison rather than surrender to High King Harald’s forces knocking at their doorstep. Fitting, isn’t it, that I should also make my last stand here?”

“Thank you for that history lesson,” said Deirdre. “But we have more immediate concerns. Namely, to arrest you for the murders of eight citizens of Skyrim, and attempted murder on Kharjo of Elsweyr. Now, will you give yourself up, or do we have to come get you?”

“Give up? Why, certainly! I assembled this undead army for no other purpose. But tell me, who do you think I’ve killed? Everyone knows the Khajiits were the culprits. I’m surprised you’ve brought two of the beasts with you instead of keeping them locked in cages where they belong.”

Pic of a Breton necromancer
A Breton necromancer

In a flash, Kharjo nocked an arrow to his bow and had it aimed at the Breton’s heart. “By the two moons, the Breton will not slander Khajiit in this way.”

The archers on the gallery aimed their weapons, and a rattling of swords came from all around.

Lydia put a hand on Kharjo’s arm. “Let Deirdre handle this.”

“Tell me, Breton,” Deirdre went on, “what is your name? If you’re going to force us to kill you, I’d rather know it.”

“In ordinary circumstances, I’d never reveal my identity while on a mission. But seeing how only one of us is likely to leave here alive, I might as well tell you. I am Damien of Wayrest.”

“Well, Damien of Wayrest, you should know that you’re not the only alchemist in Skyrim. Your use of poison to kill or weaken your victims was plain to me from the start. It really was quite careless. We know you are the true murderer, and the Khajiits your innocent thralls.”

“Well done, Dragonborn. But tell me, do the mass of Skyrim’s people believe your little theory? Or do they trust the evidence right before them, that the Khajiits are vicious animals who can’t be trusted? When I left Whiterun, they were already locking them up.”

Deirdre said nothing.

“You bastard!” Lydia yelled. “You’ll feel my axe when we catch up to you.” All this talking, what good did it do? She was ready to fight.

“Ah yes, that’s what I like to hear, the wit and subtlety for which you Nords are famous. But something is missing. No ‘Skyrim is for the Nords!’? You disappoint me.”

During his speech, Lydia had drawn her own bow. “Kharjo!” she yelled, and they let loose at the same instant.

Unfortunately, the Khajiit thrall had time to step in front of his master. The arrows pierced him square in the chest. “Thank you,” he murmured as he toppled over the balcony onto the floor below.

The Breton gave a bitter laugh. “See? You’re like children, so easy to manipulate. The jarls of Skyrim locking up all the Khajiits at the first sign of trouble was a simple thing to predict. As was your queen’s response in coming to the defense of the helpless and downtrodden outlanders. The province must be coming apart at the seams by now.”

“Who sent you, Damien?” Deirdre demanded.

“I never betray my employers. Goes against my professional code. But your Breton mother must have passed on some of her smarts. You can figure it out.”

“The damned Thalmor,” Lydia growled, nocking another arrow. “That’s as good as a confession!”

Deirdre pushed her bow aside. “No, he needs to confess it himself. Now, will you come peacefully?”

“You really are quite full of yourself, aren’t you, even when facing an army of undead. More than a hundred are waiting for you in the halls leading to this gallery.”

“Deirdre,” said Brelyna, “we don’t have to fight through all these draugr. He can’t have many provisions. We could retreat and starve him out.”

The Breton laughed again. “Did I neglect to tell you that the leader of these cultists was a dragon priest known as Rahgot? Very powerful, by all accounts. I was about to resurrect and enthrall him when you interrupted. So, by all means, go and wait for us on the porch. With him and his minions, we’ll sweep through you like the wind through dry leaves on a fall day. Then I can escape across the border with Cyrodiil, as I intended all along.”

Enough of this talk, Lydia thought. “What are we waiting for, let’s get him!”

“Very well, since your lovely wife seems so eager for battle…” The Breton launched a spell in their direction, then turned and disappeared from the gallery. Brelyna easily fended off the spell with her own ward, but instantly the undead army was upon them.

Lydia barely had time to drop her bow and get her shield in position, standing shoulder-to-shoulder between Svari and Garrold. The onslaught of draugr crashed into them, lashing with sword and axe, but the shieldwall held and the line did not break. On either side, Ralof and Kharjo traded blows with enemies who slipped around the edges. Brelyna and J’zargo sprayed lightning and flame spells around the room.

“What did I tell you, Ralof?” Lydia shouted. “Just like regular soldiers, am I right?” Already a good pile of draugr had fallen before him.

“Aye, but their flesh is like rock!”

“We’ll both need new weapons after this!” She gave the signal and her shield-mates opened gaps in the wall just long enough to lash out with sword and axe. At last, her axe tasted draugr flesh once more! How long had it been since she’d swung it in anger? She truly could not remember.

Pic of a battle with draugr in a Nord crypt

An arrow clattered off the top of Lydia’s shield. “Deirdre, those archers on the gallery!”

Deirdre had been concentrating on the archers and mages standing atop the tables, using her own bow quite effectively. Now she turned a spell of mayhem on the gallery archers. She was the only mage among them whose Illusion magic was strong enough to work on the undead. Lydia did wonder whether her magic would also have the strength to overcome the Breton’s resurrection spells. When the archers turned on each other and on the mage next to them, she regretted doubting her.

The onslaught against their shields abated. Peeking over, Lydia saw the common draugr giving way for a draugr scourge. “Brace yourselves!” she shouted and ducked back behind the shield.

Fus!” shouted the scourge. The shield wall held, though the partial Unrelenting Force shout pushed them back into their companions.

“Deirdre!”

Draugr Deathlord

“I have him!” Deirdre ran in front of their shield wall. Lydia felt no fear for her safety; they’d done this dance a thousand times. “Fus-Ro!” Deirdre shouted. Nearby draugr went flying, and the scourge was forced to one knee, his head bent low. The only surprise came when Ralof advanced hard on Deirdre’s Shout as if they’d planned it, taking off the scourge’s head with one swift blow.

Ralof and Deirdre fell back, but before they could get behind the shield wall, a low, dry cackle came from the end of the hall beneath the gallery. The deathlord stepped out from among the countless draugr surrounding him, his eyes blazing an unearthly blue from the slits in his tall, horned helm. He carried a gigantic double-bladed axe, but did not raise it. Instead, he pointed at Deirdre and laughed.

Now Lydia felt the first touches of dread. Not for what the deathlord might do to Deirdre, but for what other trickery might be afoot. Would these draugr even honor the ancient protocols of a duel by the Power of the Voice?

“Get back, my love,” she called. “Your Thu’um hasn’t had time to restore itself.”

“I’ll be fine! All of you, stay back, or he’ll Shout you to smithereens. And be on the lookout for any treachery from the sides.”

Everyone did as they were told, save Ralof, who stood resolutely by Deirdre’s side. “I said I’d show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood is no coward.”

“And you’ve shown that a dozen times over. But this is no ordinary draugr. His Thu’um is far more powerful even than Ulfric’s. Stand behind me, at least.”

Ralof hesitated, but Deirdre stepped in front of him just as the deathlord was gathering his breath. She anchored herself firmly to the floor, her feet spread wide in a low fighter’s stance.

Fus-Ro!” shouted the deathlord, the shockwave rippling toward them, sounding like a hundred summer thunder storms rolled into one.

But Deirdre was already drawing her own breath. Rather than radiating outward, the waves of the deathlord’s shout twisted on themselves, swirling into a single point on the Dragonborn. She took it all in, and for one long moment, absolute silence filled the chamber. Then, without Deirdre even shouting, the force was rippling back toward the deathlord and his companions, magnified ten-fold. A dozen draugr and their leader smashed into the wall beneath the gallery and fell in a crumpled heap. Many never got up again. The deathlord stirred, and Deirdre hit the others around him with a mayhem spell. They fell to fighting one another and their leader.

As if released from a spell, the enemies to the left and directly opposite returned to the fray. Deirdre and Ralof ducked behind the shield wall just in time. Lydia was about to breathe a sigh of relief, but now more draugr were pouring from the entrance to the room on their left.

“This one thinks these undead will never stop coming,” J’zargo growled.

“We’ll handle ’em!” said Ralof.

Now the ghosts of the dragon cultists were joining the battle. Whether this was a planned tactic, or the ghosts had simply wanted to observe how their corporeal allies would fare, Lydia knew not. What she did know was that arrows were clanking off her shield, which was growing cold from all the frost spells hitting it. The ghosts might have been ethereal, but their weapons were very real. A frost spike hit her steel boot and her foot went instantly numb.

Pic of two dragon cultists in Forelhost

Brelyna cast a ward to shield them while J’zargo cast a flame atronach to distract their opponents. Kharjo and Ralof darted out now and then to attack, but they had to be wary.

“Deirdre, do your frenzy spells work on wraiths?” Lydia asked.

“A moment, I need to drink this magicka potion.” So the lack of her arch-mage’s robes was taking its toll. Still, all things considered, they were holding their own.

Just then, Svari, standing on Lydia’s right where she could see the gallery, gestured upwards with her axe. “Look out! More archers above!”

But it was too late. Garrold fell with a scream. Without a thought or command, Lydia moved to her left and forward to cover him, Svari following her in lockstep, never letting a gap open between their shields. Ralof stepped up on her left, blocking and slashing with his axe, and Kharjo did the same on the right.

“Fall back!” Lydia shouted. “Get Garrold back to the passage!”

Then the world seemed to tilt beneath her feet. Suddenly she was back on the road to the White River Bridge during the flight from the Siege of Whiterun, reforming the shield wall out of the last dozen warriors. How many friends had fallen already? Idolaf Battle-Born. Adrianne and Ulfberth. Thorald Gray-Mane. Farkas of the Companions.

“Drag them back behind the lines!” she yelled, but there was no time. Behind them the women and children were screaming, clustering around the bridge that was a thousand times too narrow. On and on the High Elves came, their golden armor streaked red with blood — the blood of her friends.

Now she was raising her axe over the body of the great elf she’d just slain, rallying her diminishing troops to one last stand. The arrow pierced the gap between her pauldron and cuirass. A flesh wound, she thought, not deep, then the green fog settled over her eyes. Now Aela and Vilkas were standing over her, the last warriors left, preparing to defend her against the charging elves. But Onmund was rushing past them, shouting, “For Lydia!” and “For Skyrim!”, his lightning and flame spells brightening the dawning day. She closed her eyes for what she thought would be the last time.

Now she remembered. That was the last time she’d raised her axe in anger. She tried to remember where she was, hoping for that same battle-rage to come over her. Nothing save that cursed poison arrow had been able to stop her that day. But her limbs were turning to water instead. Her knees felt weak and she couldn’t keep her shield up much longer. “Fall back!” she called again, only it came out as a high-pitched wail. The sight of her dead friends’ bodies, horribly mutilated, kept passing before her eyes. That, and Jarl Balgruuf ordering her from his side to lead the retreat. She should have died that day!

“Lydia, are you all right?” Ralof was still next to her, giving her a sidelong glance as he continued to parry and slash.

“I can’t! The women and children! I cannot save them! Damn these elves! They’re only little children!”

Her knees buckled. The shield wall was giving way.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 15

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.

(from the Skyrim Flower Fields mod at Nexus Mods)

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.

The White River near Riverwood
The White River near Riverwood (by Watchtheskiies on DeviantArt)

“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?”

Pic of Deirdre, Gerdur, and Ralof
The day Ralof introduced Deirdre, disguised as a Stormcloak, to his sister, Gerdur

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.

Pic of Alduin attacking Helgen
The day Alduin attacked Helgen

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?”