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?”

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 14

Exciting Day at the Watchtower

“What I wouldn’t give for a mug of mead right about now,” said Erik.

“The same as every day, right about now,” replied Torsten. It was always the same sad song. More than an hour still to go on their watch, and Erik’s mead would start calling to him.

Pic of Shor's Watchtower
Shor’s Watchtower

Torsten was just thinking about asking for a new watch partner when he heard a wagon approaching, coming up the hill from the north. By the time he turned to get a look at it, it had disappeared behind the outcroppings of rock beneath the tower. Probably just another miner carrying ore up the hill.

Torsten was the only one standing watch, again as usual. Erik was tipping back in a chair, making a game of balancing it on two legs. Typical. The lad never took his work seriously. Nordlings these days! Not like when Torsten had come up through the guard ranks. That was long ago, and he’d seen much since then. He’d been given this soft post to serve out his days until retirement.

Map of Skyrim showing Shor's Watchtower

And the work was easy, though you wouldn’t know it to hear Erik talk. Relieve the afternoon shift at midnight, take turns keeping watch until six, then both were to stand watch until noon. Traffic on the road below them didn’t pick up until mid-morning, and there wasn’t much even then, just traders and farmers and miners, plus the passenger wagons that ran between Riften and Windhelm. Then they were relieved at noon, and it was a short walk back to the village of Shor’s Stone where they had their quarters. The whole afternoon would stretch before them to fill as they pleased, then they could get some shut-eye (or not, in Erik’s case) before their next shift began all over again. The pay was good, and all you had to do was keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. The lad didn’t know how good he had it.

“But it’s so boring,” Erik would moan when Torsten encouraged him to take his work more seriously.

It was true, the last time anything “interesting” had happened was seven months ago, back during the Civil War, when they’d been called out to protect Riften from the Imperials attacking over the Rift Pass. That had been a little too interesting. They’d been outnumbered ten to one, and most of them were hold guards, green ones like Erik, not the hardened soldiers of the Imperial Army. Torsten thought for sure it was his day to walk the death road to Sovngarde, should he acquit himself well. That, or he’d end up rotting in some Imperial dungeon. Erik was too young and foolish even to be afraid.

But then the Dragonborn had swooped down on the back of her dragon, using her Shouts while the dragon roasted a goodly number of Imperials alive. Then she’d driven the invaders back over the pass with threats of more of the same. The Dragonborn had saved their lives, and now Torsten was happy to call her his queen.

“Come on, lad,” he said, trying to sound encouraging. “Look lively. We’ve only got an hour left, and traffic’s starting to pick up. Look, here comes a wagon now.” The wagon was just coming into view again, moving slowly up the hill toward them.

Steep road beneath Shor's Watchtower
A steep road beneath Shor’s Watchtower

“Yeah, sure, another farmer or miner, what difference does it make?”

“You never know, it could be that Breton we’re supposed to look out for.” Just that morning, a soldier had come down from Fort Greenwall, telling them to be on the lookout for a suspect in the awful murders in the western holds. They’d heard about those crimes, of course, but it all seemed far away. Nothing like that ever happened at this sleepy outpost. Still, he’d made sure the horses stabled next to the tower were ready to ride, just in case.

“Look, this one has a lone driver, just like the soldier said.”

“Of course, don’t they all?”

“And this one’s pulled by a single horse.”

That did seem unusual. The miners and farmers hereabouts all used two horses to get their heavy loads up the steep hills. Only the passenger carriages used a single horse. Even Erik was sitting up and looking out now.

“By Talos, that horse does seem to have a limp.”

“And it’s hard to tell from here,” said Erik, so excited that his words rushed together, “but that fellow could be a Breton.”

“Grab your bow and let’s go!” shouted Torsten, taking up his own shield. “By the Nine, we have work to do!”

They hurtled down the stairs of the watchtower and emerged just as the wagon was drawing even with it. It was picking up speed, having reached level ground, but not so fast that they couldn’t catch it on a run.

“Halt, in the name of the Jarl!” Torsten shouted, but the driver didn’t seem to hear. “I said halt! Don’t make us shoot you in the back.” He nodded at Erik, who nocked an arrow and aimed at the driver’s back, the wagon now having passed them.

Suddenly the fellow in the wagon twisted toward them and a ball of red light flashed from his hand, hitting Erik square in the chest. With no warning, Erik turned the bow on Torsten.

“Hey, watch that thing!” Torsten yelled. He got his shield up just in time to catch the arrow. “Have you lost your mind, lad?” He brandished his shield at the young fellow.

“I, I, didn’t mean to!” Erik dropped his bow, drew his sword, and lunged at Torsten.

“Stop it, what’s gotten into you?” Torsten easily blocked the lad’s thrust.

“I don’t know, I can’t help myself!” The lad took another swing. “Just keep blocking! For Talos’s sake, I don’t want to hurt you!”

“Hah, with those sword skills?” For once he was happy for the lad’s lack of diligence in training.

But he shouldn’t make jests. The Breton was probably getting away. He couldn’t even look over his shoulder to be sure, he was so busy blocking blows.

Erik struck his shield particularly hard, and Torsten responded out of reflex. Fortunately he was able to turn his sword just in time, instead whacking Erik on the helmet with the hilt.

“Ow! I said I can’t help it!”

“I know, lad, but it’s a melee, after all.” Maybe the best thing would be to just knock him out. But difficult to do with the thick iron face-guards attached to their iron helms.

Finally the spell wore off and Erik lowered his weapon, panting. “I’m glad that’s over.”

“And be glad neither of us is dead.” Torsten looked down the road, but the mage was long gone.

“Come on, to the horses!”

“But he’ll just hex one of us again! If he hexes you, I’m done for!”

“We’ll keep our distance. Let me think what to do while we give chase.”

They caught sight of the wagon just as it turned onto the dirt track that bypassed Shor’s Stone and Fort Greenwall. Erik was right, they couldn’t do this alone. There was only one thing for it: ride like Oblivion to the fort and get help. With luck, they’d cut the wagon off before it rejoined the main road.

“Come on, lad!” Torsten dug his boots into his horse’s flanks and they dashed toward Shor’s Stone.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 13

Kharjo’s Tale

“If Nord guards don’t protect Khajiits, this one will,” J’zargo growled, flexing his claws, hardly believing the sordid scene before him.

When he’d first contemplated attending the College of Winterhold, he’d had some fears about Skyrim, having heard so much about the fearsome Nords and their views of outlanders. Only the fact that his people were allowed to travel Skyrim freely, trading their goods from Riften to Dawnstar and from Windhelm to Markarth, had persuaded him in the end. And now to see his countryfolk brought so low, penned up in something no better than a corral, with little protection from the elements! And the worst of it was the dozen or so Whiterun citizens who stood just outside the crude fence, shouting “Skyrim is for the Nords!” over and over, all while pelting the camp with tomatoes, mammoth dung, and anything else easy to hand. He flexed his claws again, thinking the Khajiit killer, whoever he was, had chosen the wrong victims.

Pic of the tundra west of Whiterun
The tundral plains west of Whiterun

The camp, if one could call it that, occupied a low, boggy spot on the rocky plains west of Whiterun. The rains of two days previous had left many puddles in the hollows between the few high spots the prisoners occupied. A split-rail fence had been hastily put up to keep the Khajiits in, but it was so flimsy that guards were stationed all the way around the perimeter. No wonder so few guards, and none in authority, were investigating the murders at Battle-Born Farm; they were all busy here.

There were no tents, only tarps strung between poles and rock outcrops. The prisoners J’zargo could see from outside the camp looked miserable, huddled together on a few blankets. The sun was shining, but a stiff breeze blew across the tundra. It felt cool even to J’zargo, dry and warmly clothed though he was; what must it be like for his countryfolk, who’d been out in the elements for days now?

Only one prisoner showed any signs of resistance to his circumstances. The Khajiit known as M’aiq the Liar stood near the fence, trying to engage the Nord crowd with his often nonsensical statements, dodging the missiles flung in his direction. “Nords are so serious about beards,” he said. “So many beards. M’aiq thinks they wish they had glorious manes like Khajiit.”

M’aiq the Liar

“We’ll take your mane, you miserable pussy-cat,” a Nord yelled back.

“Yes, Nords’ armor has lots of fur. This sometimes makes M’aiq nervous.”

“As you should be. We know lots of ways to skin a cat.”

“But M’aiq loves the people of Skyrim. Many interesting things they say to each other.”

M’aiq was doing little good with his banter, but at least he was distracting the mob’s attention from his more miserable comrades.

“J’zargo is right, captain,” Deirdre said to the head of the hold guards. “The Khajiits shouldn’t have to put up with this abuse along with everything else.”

“But this is Skyrim. Nords have a right to assemble and speak their minds.”

“They can do so from a spot beyond throwing range.”

The captain looked at the queen, clearly wondering where his allegiances should lie. He looked to Lydia, who was staring darkly at her countrymen, one hand on her axe. Seeing little hope there, he turned to Ralof.

“Do as your queen says, or my troops will do the job for you. Your jarl has already agreed to free the Khajiits.”

This was a stretch, J’zargo knew. But he was glad to see the captain order four guards to move the people a safe distance away. After a bit of arguing, they complied. Now the shouting became mere background noise, rather than an ear-splitting cacophony.

J’zargo chuckled. “At least we can be glad that Nord mob was out here, and not in the city as we marched through it, no?”

His comment brought little levity to the party. Lydia in particular looked distraught, continuing to stare darkly at the Nord mob. Then she turned to J’zargo and placed a hand on his shoulder. “J’zargo, my friend, I owe you an apology. And you as well, Brelyna. I’m sorry for every time I shouted ‘Skyrim is for the Nords,’ or even thought it. If I had known those words could lead to such inhumanity, I never would have uttered them.”

J’zargo could hardly believe it, not just that she had called him friend, but that her lower lip trembled as she spoke. “J’zargo accepts this apology. Lydia is a good Nord.”

“And I as well,” said Brelyna. “Though there’s really no need to apologize. All peoples have these prejudices to overcome. The Dunmer, and House Telvanni in particular, are certainly not lacking in cultural arrogance.”

But Lydia seemed not to hear, gazing now at the camp. “Would you look at that,” she said almost under her breath. “We have to do something.”

“And we will,” said Deirdre. “Come, let’s enter and see how they’re faring — though I believe we can guess.”

J’zargo was glad to see Deirdre taking charge once more. He’d felt proud to witness her putting that stupid Nord jarl in his place, especially after the treatment they’d received from the other one, Skald. In Elsweyr, The Mane would never have put up with such insubordination. Then again, The Mane was not elected by a jarlmoot, but born into the position. These Nords had strange customs.

The hold guards removed a rail from the crude fence to allow them through. The Royal Guards made to follow, but Deirdre held up her hand. “We need no protection, and I’d rather not intimidate the prisoners more than they already have been.” She looked to Lydia, who nodded her assent. That was Deirdre, always so thoughtful. Only Ralof, two of his lieutenants, and the captain of the guard would accompany them.

The first Khajiit they met inside was M’aiq.

“M’aiq!” said Deirdre. “How do you fare, you old liar?”

So Deirdre had already had dealings with M’aiq in the past. Of course — she and Lydia had traveled the length and breadth of Skyrim hunting Alduin and his dragons. They would naturally have run into the wanderer during that time. For himself, J’zargo didn’t have much use for his fellow Khajiit, and so stayed quiet as Deirdre talked with him.

“M’aiq hears many stories of war… yet few of them are true.”

“Indeed, and many stories of Khajiits committing murders. Do you know if any of those are true?”

“M’aiq knows much, and tells some. M’aiq knows many things others do not.”

“Hmmm, not very helpful.”

“M’aiq has heard it’s dangerous to be your friend.”

“Is that so? Well, if you know nothing about these murders, can you at least tell me if Ri’saad is about? Or Kharjo?”

M’aiq nodded in the direction of a tarp in the center of camp. “Something strange happens to Khajiit when they arrive in Skyrim.”

“Only when they’re falsely imprisoned. But we’ll fix that. Thank you, M’aiq, you’ve been quite, erm, helpful.”

Up close, the conditions in the camp seemed even more dire than they had from afar. J’zargo’s people sat in small groups, huddling together on blankets damp from the soggy ground. The tarps had done little to keep out the wet, and J’zargo could see that some of his countryfolk had been put here while it was still raining. The ones who had been here the longest looked the most bedraggled and listless, staring into space as if dreaming they were anywhere else. The more recent arrivals seemed in better shape, their clothing not yet muddy and damp. These tried to rally their friends from their stupor, offering them what dry clothing they could, but it was little help.

J’zargo felt a growl growing inside him. He looked over at the guard captain who was accompanying them, and thought how easy it would be to take revenge on the brute for his part in this atrocity. Lydia, too, was glowering at him, her hand on her axe. Deirdre was just now asking him why the Khajiits hadn’t been imprisoned in the cells beneath Dragonsreach, since there could only be a few dozen of them.

“We have many Nord prisoners,” the captain replied, “folks who’ve angered Hrongar in some way or other. We wouldn’t want them having to share a cell with the cat-people. Besides, a cold prisoner is a compliant prisoner.” And a dead Nord is a good Nord, J’zargo thought.

It wasn’t just his sympathy for his fellow Khajiits; he couldn’t help thinking how this reflected on him. He was of a proud people, and he, the great J’zargo, among the proudest of them all. To see his own people humbled so — it must diminish his own greatness. He would not stand for it.

Before he could do anything rash, Brelyna placed a hand on his shoulder. She must have heard his low growling. “J’zargo, I know this must be awful, to see your people treated this way. But trust to Deirdre; she will take care of them.”

He looked over at her, her red eyes gazing at him with sympathy. Brelyna, always so sensible! He knew he had a tendency to carry things too far, to let his own greatness outshine lesser souls. It had often gotten him into trouble. But Brelyna kept him grounded, and helped him avoid the worst mistakes in this foreign land. It was one reason he loved her. That, and the riches she was likely to inherit from House Telvanni. It was equally likely to fall in love with a rich person as a poor one, no? And that being so, why not choose the richer?

They arrived at the tarp in the center of the camp, where the heads of the three caravans, Ri’saad, Ahkari, and Ma’dran, were grouped together. Ma’dran looked to be in the best shape, having been brought in most recently. He’d given his own warm cloak to Ri’saad, who sat dejected on the blanket, his fur still damp, and his eyes downcast. As the owner of the three caravans, and the closest thing to a leader the Khajiits in Skyrim had, he was the one to address Deirdre as they approached.

“Nord people have already done much to torment us. Does Nord queen come to trouble us further? And look, she brings a Khajiit with her. Another prisoner, perhaps.”

Pic of Ri'saad
Ri’saad

J’zargo stepped forward. “No, Ri’saad. Deirdre is a friend to Khajiit. Ri’saad should listen to her, and accept her help.”

Ahkari spoke up as well. “J’zargo speaks true. Deirdre and Lydia helped us fight off bandits last year. Without them, we might have lost all our goods, and maybe our lives.”

“Ri’saad, Ahkari, all my Khajiit friends,” said Deirdre. “I am sorry I couldn’t keep the jarls from treating you this way. My only excuse is that I am still learning what it is to be queen. But I promise to do everything in my power to help you. I would release you this minute, but I think you’ll agree the roads are not safe for Khajiits at the moment, judging by that mob. And we must retrieve your goods and wagons from Whiterun before you can set off.”

Ri’saad gave a growl at this, but nodded in agreement.

“I can see how deplorable the conditions are here, and we will do all we can to improve them until your own tents can be retrieved. But tell us, how else have you fared? Have you all been fed? Who else is here? I am particularly curious to find Kharjo, who we met last year.”

“It is as bad as it looks, and worse. Ri’saad’s caravan was the first captured, as we were camped right outside Whiterun. Then it rained and everything was cold and wet. They brought M’aiq in soon after, but M’aiq is used to traveling alone on foot, with no tents and few luxuries. Then Ahkari’s caravan and a few other lone Khajiit from Riften and Falkreath. And just this morning, Ma’dran’s caravan. But in all that time, they’ve given us only stale rolls to eat and told us the puddles would serve us for drink. Our wagons, which they took from us, are filled with food and warm clothes, and our tents would keep us dry. If they had only left us these things, we would be comfortable, and we would share with M’aiq and the other loners. But why treat us this way, if not to torture us? And all because they say we are murderers. But we cannot all be murderers, and none of us was anywhere near these crimes when they happened.”

J’zargo had grown increasingly angry through this recitation, and only Brelyna’s restraining hand kept him from doing something rash. But he noticed Lydia’s expression growing darker as Ri’saad spoke. Now she turned to the captain of the guard, standing nearby.

“By the Nine, how can you treat people this way?” She grabbed his sash in one fist and began pushing him across the tundra, backing him up against a rock outcrop, all the while keeping one hand ready on her axe.

“No, Captain Ravenwood, I…”

“I’ll show you, you milk-drinking son-of-a-horker. A true Nord doesn’t treat defenseless people this way.”

“But I was just following orders!”

“Orders! A true Nord knows there are some orders that must not be obeyed.”

She was drawing her axe now. J’zargo didn’t know what might have happened if Deirdre hadn’t stepped up to her and placed a restraining hand on her arm, standing on tiptoe to say something in her ear. Lydia relented and let the captain go.

“Captain, here’s an order that you will obey,” Deirdre said. “I command you to retrieve the Khajiits’ wagons and all their possessions and bring them here post-haste. And that includes any belongings that might have been left by the side of the road. While you and your guards are busy with that, my Royal Guards and Ralof’s troops will handle security here.”

The captain still trembled from his brush with Lydia’s wrath. “Aye, my Queen, it will be done right away.”

“Ralof, what can we do about providing our friends with more immediate provisions, in case Jarl Hrongar drags his feet?”

Ralof turned to his lieutenants and ordered them to bring a camp wagon up from the garrison, filled with provisions, water, and firewood, as well as several army tents and bedrolls. “Leave it to the army,” he said, turning back to them. “We’ll have this camp up to snuff in no time.”

Soon a detachment of troops who had been conducting exercises near the camp were headed off in the direction of the garrison. While they waited for the provisions to arrive, J’zargo and his friends circulated about the camp, trying to cheer the inhabitants. They’d brought the few possession they’d been able to carry away from Ahkari’s camp, and now they returned them to their grateful owners. J’zargo removed the cape he always wore over his mage’s robes and loaned it to a particularly wretched-looking Khajiit. Deirdre did the same with her mantle. When the recipient protested, she said, “Not to worry, it’s mostly for show.”

Finally they found Kharjo, one of Ahkari’s guards whom Deirdre and Lydia had met the previous fall. J’zargo didn’t know him, but he was a strong warrior by all accounts. Right now it was hard to tell, the way he was hunkered under a thin blanket. He was wet and cold, no doubt, but he seemed more dejected than anything.

“Kharjo?” Deirdre said, kneeling nearby. “Do you remember us?”

Pic of Kharjo
Kharjo

Kharjo looked them over. “Ah, Deirdre Morningsong. And Lydia. Kharjo remembers. And he has heard great things about you both since then. Kharjo would say it is a pleasure to see you again, but…” He closed his eyes. “This one wishes he’d never met Ahkari and was still in prison back in Cyrodiil. At least there it was warm.”

Deirdre looked up. “The camp wagon has arrived. Let’s get you a hot drink.”

“I’ll stay with him,” said Brelyna. Lydia didn’t say anything, but she stayed behind as well.

J’zargo followed Deirdre to the camp wagon, more because it was difficult to look on a great warrior brought so low than to make himself useful. But it was the same with all the prisoners who’d been here the longest. In just a few days, all dignity had been stripped from them. Their minds could concentrate on nothing beyond the immediate needs of staying warm and staving off hunger. The Nords had reduced them to a state little better than the animals the Nords already thought they were. And the closer to the animals they became, the easier it was for the Nords to treat them that way. J’zargo welcomed the relief of standing near the fire and turning his thoughts from such sad contemplations.

In the end, he was glad to have accompanied Deirdre to the camp wagon: it gave him a chance to see a different side of the Nords, though one he hardly understood.

Seeing them approach his wagon, the cook gave a bow. “Pardon for not taking a knee, my Queen. I don’t know if you remember me.”

Deirdre peered at him for a moment. “Lars Stone-Kettle! From the Hjaalmarch Stormcloak camp. I remember how your broth revived us after our flight across the swamps.”

“I was glad to help. Captain Ravenwood was in an awful state. But remember I told you, ‘I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee…’? So, no kneeling, sad to say.”

Deirdre laughed. “Not to worry. And I used to be an adventurer like you. Then they made me Queen!”

The cook guffawed and slapped his good knee. “Whoo, that was a good one, my Queen!”

These Nords and their silly sense of humor — J’zargo would never understand them.

They returned to Kharjo with a steaming mug of tea and a sweetroll. He received these gratefully, taking a long swallow of the one and a big bite of the other. “That’s better,” he said in a moment. “This place is cold, but Kharjo feels warmness from your presence.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” said Deirdre. “But listen, I don’t know many of your fellow Khajiits well enough to ask them this. It’s rather sensitive, and I hope you won’t take it the wrong way.”

“Kharjo still remembers the help you gave him and Ahkari. Ask anything you like.”

“You must meet most of the Khajiits in Skyrim during your travels. Have you ever heard one of your countryfolk speaking ill of the Nords, or of Skyrim?”

“No, why would Khajiit complain? We are allowed to trade here. Nords may not like us, but we just try to keep out of their way. And for Skyrim, Khajiits only complain about the weather.”

“Hmm. How about any Khajiits traveling with a non-Khajiit, maybe in a wagon?”

“No. Kharjo has never seen such a thing in Skyrim. In Cyrodiil, yes, but never here. Khajiit keep to themselves.”

“Ah, too bad,” said Deirdre. “I feel we’re so close to these killers, but we just need another clue.” She stared at the blanket on which Kharjo sat, lost in thought for a moment. Then she looked back at him. “Well, tell us how you’ve fared otherwise.”

Kharjo snorted. “You mean apart from being attacked by a strange Breton, then arrested by the Nords? Other than that, everything is perfect!”

“Wait, what do you mean you were attacked by a Breton?”

“Just that. Well, first he tried to poison us, then he attacked Kharjo when this one chased him.” He looked at Deirdre then at J’zargo. “Kharjo thinks you are happy Kharjo was attacked.”

J’zargo spoke up as Deirdre struggled to wipe the smile from her face. “Deirdre is only happy she is about to find the killer. And J’zargo is happy, too, for he was also wrongfully imprisoned for these crimes. When this one gets his hands on that Breton…”

“Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Deirdre said. “Kharjo, tell us everything. When and where did this happen?”

“It was the night before we were arrested.”

“So that would be night before last.”

“That is right. We were camped near the Weynon Stones. Early in the evening a Breton man went by…”

“Headed which way?”

“South and east. He was driving a wagon…”

“Pulled by a single horse?”

“Yes.” Kharjo looked at her curiously. “Any other questions?”

“Did you happen to notice what the wagon carried?”

“Just a couple of crates, nearly as long as the wagon.”

Deirdre groaned and gave her friends a dark look. “It’s as I guessed, though I really didn’t want to contemplate it.” J’zargo gave a low growl. They all must have had the same thought, but none wanted to give it voice. “Then what happened?”

“It was after dinner. Most of the others had gone to bed. The kettle was near the fire to stay hot for making tea. It helps this one stay awake while on watch. At first, Kharjo didn’t see anything, but he smelled something. Not Khajiit, and not an animal either, more human-like. But this one gave no sign anything was wrong. Then, how do you say, ‘out of the corner of my eye’? Yes, Kharjo saw out of the corner of my eye the lid rise off the tea kettle, and a potion bottle hover over it, pouring a liquid into the hot water. Someone was trying to poison us!”

“Yes, that fits.”

“Kharjo grabbed a torch and ran at the fire, but then heard footsteps running away into the forest. This one chased, always following the sound of footsteps. The Breton was sneaky, but not when he was running away. At last the invisibility spell or potion must have worn off, because there he was, the same Breton who’d passed our camp. ‘Ha, Kharjo has you now!’ this one yelled, and drew his sword. But then the Breton aimed a lightning spell at Kharjo.”

He drew back a sleeve and showed them a long scar on his forearm. “This one is sad to say he dropped his sword. The Breton was coming back to finish Kharjo off, but then Ahkari and Dro’marash came running up, and the Breton fled.”

The four were silent, staring at Kharjo.

Finally, J’zargo broke the silence. “My friend, this one thinks you were very lucky not to end up in one of the Breton’s crates.”

Kharjo still looked confused. “But why? What does it mean?”

“It means the Breton is our real killer, and the Khajiits are not truly responsible,” said Deirdre. “The Breton is a necromancer and carries the bodies of dead Khajiits in his wagon. He resurrects them to kill his victims, or sometimes poisons the victims then has the thralls mutilate the bodies. All to make us think your people committed the murders.”

Pic of Breton necromancer
A Breton necromancer (art by Valtarien on Steam Workshop)

“He must be a powerful necromancer,” Brelyna put in, “for the bodies to last as long as they have, and to leave one body behind for us to examine. And it explains the strange groaning sounds people heard, and the Khajiit saying ‘thank you’ as he died. Sometimes the thrall’s original spirit is still present, trapped inside the body, horrified by what the necromancer forces it to do.” She stopped as she noticed J’zargo and her other friends gaping at her. “What? It pays to know something of necromancy, even if one doesn’t practice the dark art.”

“This is what J’zargo likes about Brelyna — always full of surprises!”

“If we’re right, Kharjo,” Deirdre said, “you would have been his next thrall. He lost one of his minions near Morthal, and he was looking to replace him. You’re tall and powerful, just like the poor fellow the necromancer used to commit those first murders.”

“But we still don’t know why the killer would frame the Khajiits in the first place,” Lydia said. “It all seems so senseless.”

“And we won’t know until we have our hands on the killer,” Deirdre said. She stood up, clapping her hands. “And that will be any day now. Ralof!”

By the time Ralof walked over from the camp wagon where he’d been overseeing the doling out of provisions, quite a crowd had gathered around, including Ri’saad and Ahkari, clearly feeling better for having warm food in their bellies.

“My Khajiit friends, you and your people are exonerated!” The Khajiits gave a cheer. “Ralof, send squads of soldiers in every direction. Have them spread the word to every fortress and every village. They’re to be on the lookout for a lone Breton driving a wagon with two long crates in back, pulled by a single horse with one broken shoe. But post no bills — we wouldn’t want to alert our prey.”

“Aye, my Queen, we’ll catch the bastard.”

“And while the search is on, I have a plan for you, my good Khajiits. Tomorrow, if you’re amenable, we’ll make our way to Helgen. Now tell me, how are your carpentry skills?”

She grinned at the mystified Khajiits, who all turned to J’zargo, as if he could explain his strange friend.

He could only shrug. “The people of Skyrim say many interesting things, but this one does not understand all of them.”

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 12

Hrongar

“It’s good to see you, lass!” Ralof, grinning broadly, wrapped Deirdre in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. They’d hardly dismounted when he’d come out to greet them in the bailey of the new army garrison he commanded.

Pic of Ralof
Ralof

Lydia watched in amusement. If any other Nord male had called Deirdre “lass,” it might have been the last “lass” he ever spoke, at least in the queen’s direction. And as much as Deirdre had learned to tolerate the bowing and kneeling, she would never require it of Ralof. No formality would come between these two, not since the experience they’d shared when Alduin attacked Helgen.

It was a good thing Deirdre didn’t go in for men, Lydia thought, or she herself might have some cause for jealousy. As far as she could see, Ralof was everything one could want in a Nord: handsome in a rugged way, brave and strong but also kind, and possessed of a good sense of humor. He was most Nord lasses’ dream.

Those thoughts were put in their proper place when Deirdre said, “And you as well, my brother.” Ralof released her, gazed at her for a moment, then turned to Lydia. He clapped her on the shoulders, and she responded likewise.

“Keeping our queen safe, no doubt?” he said.

“Always. And speaking of which, has the Royal Guard arrived?”

“Aye, just this morning.”

“Excellent. And the new garrison is coming along well, I see.”

The new headquarters for Skyrim’s army was nearly finished, a sturdy stone structure built off the west side of Whiterun’s curtain wall, replacing flimsier wooden fences and platforms and presenting a sheer defense to any attackers who might come that way.

“I’m very pleased,” said Ralof. “Room for two divisions, with new practice fields just beyond the walls, and better security for the city to boot.”

“And those divisions are ready for the plan I suggested?”

“They are. But more on that later.” He gave her a wink as he turned to greet Brelyna and J’zargo.

Deirdre gave Lydia a questioning look, but she only smiled; no use giving away the secret just yet.

Ralof led them across the bailey toward his chambers and war-room with Deirdre at his side. Lydia followed behind with Brelyna and J’zargo.

“I thought you might come sooner, see how the army training is coming along, watch the progress of the construction.”

“I wanted to, of course, but other affairs of the realm have kept me busy. And I knew you’d have the army well in hand. We were impressed with what we saw in Fort Dunstad, weren’t we, Lydia?”

“Oh, aye,” Lydia said from behind.

Ralof ignored the compliment, putting a brotherly arm across Deirdre’s shoulders and looking at her with concern. “You look as if the cares of Mundus have been eating at you. Too many late nights burning candles over reports and requests, would be my guess.”

“And don’t forget the ledgers,” said Deirdre.

“Ach, Alduin never had you looking this worried, lass. You can’t tell me that ruling a bunch of Nords is harder than taking on the World Eater. Just make sure we have our mead and we’re happy, am I right?” He looked back over his shoulder and gave Lydia a grin.

“If only it were that easy. But in preventing the end of the world, I had but one task: find and defeat Alduin. Keeping the people of Skyrim safe and well provided for seems a more particular responsibility, with many obligations and challenges, frequently arising all at once. And now these murders, on top of everything else.”

“We’ve heard of them, of course, including this last one, right outside Whiterun. And Jarl Hrongar’s new prison camp for the Khajiits — lot o’ good it’s done.” They arrived at the large doors into the garrison and passed through, stopping for a moment in the entry hall. “And he really did that without your approval?”

“He and Jarl Skald say that keeping their people safe from murderers is their first responsibility, though they hardly seemed concerned with catching the actual murderers.”

“You need to put your foot down, lass. Show them who’s in charge.”

“Oh, I mean to. And I have a plan for the Khajiits, if they’ll agree to it. It’s clearly not safe for them out on the roads of Skyrim, judging by what I’ve seen from the people. Tell me, has anything been done with the Imperial fortress at Helgen?”

Ralof looked a bit sheepish. “I’ve been meaning to, of course. But I decided it was more important to reinforce the border fort at Pale Pass, since it occupies the high ground.”

“Not to worry. It is as well for what I have in mind.”

She said no more, and Lydia was wondering what this idea could be when Brelyna suggested they go to their rooms to freshen up.

Deirdre looked at her, then at Lydia in surprise. “I thought we’d just drop our things here, then go directly to meet with Hrongar. And I want to see how the Khajiits are faring in this camp.”

“Brelyna’s right,” Lydia said. “It’s an important meeting with Hrongar, and we should all prepare ourselves, especially the queen.” She turned to Ralof with an inquiring look.

“You’ll find your saddlebags in my bed-chamber, which I’ve made available for your use. And you’ll also find that chest the royal guards brought with them.”

Pic of a chest with a dragon emblem (from TheAlchemistsLibrary on Etsy)
Dragon chest (via TheAlchemistsLibrary on Etsy)

Lydia couldn’t help smiling at the confused look Deirdre was giving them. She turned to Brelyna. “Those items I mentioned are in the chest. I hope they haven’t become too wrinkled. And please check that Sonja polished the crown. Our queen must look her best.”

“We’ll see to it,” Brelyna said, and she and J’zargo headed up the stairs, led by one of the porters.

“Ralof, if you’ll send word to Hrongar to be ready to receive his queen in two hours — assuming that will give your troops enough time to prepare.” Ralof nodded. “And we’ll need some lunch. No one wants to confront an unruly jarl on an empty stomach.”

Deirdre looked from Lydia to Ralof and back again. “What’s going on here?”

“You’re not the only one with secret plans.”

“I feel as if you’re all conspiring against me!”

Ralof flashed that dashing grin at Deirdre. “We’ve got your back, my Queen.”

Lydia beamed at them both. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

*~*~*

Lydia felt confident as she marched up the steps of Dragonsreach on one side of Deirdre, with Ralof on the other, while Brelyna and J’zargo followed behind. For another warrior, returning to the scene of the siege and retreat might have brought back awful memories, but not for Lydia – although the truth was that she didn’t remember much. Probably better that way. If she felt any trepidation, it was over the impending confrontation with Hrongar, but even that was little. Why had Balgruuf ever ceded his throne to that lout?

No, what she really felt was pride in her wife, and the greeting they’d received since entering the city. They’d marched over from the garrison in a phalanx of royal guards, four marching in front and eight behind, with a dozen of Ralof’s troops coming behind them. In front, bannermen carried flags bearing the new crest of Skyrim, a scene of jagged, snowy peaks with a wolf, a bear, and a heavily antlered stag in the foreground, and a tiny dragon flying in the distance. The same crest was on the sash Ralof wore over his ceremonial armor. Lydia’s sash was similar, but with the addition of the Royal Guard’s emblem, a flying dragon bearing a rider in mage’s robes and a golden crown.

Deirdre wore that crown now, polished to a high sheen, but she’d exchanged the mage’s robes in favor of a fine burgundy suit and trousers, with a richly brocaded mantle over all. Her boots, much scuffed and splattered with travel, were exchanged for more formal leather shoes. All of these had arrived in the chest Lydia had instructed Sonja to pack. Seeing her wife so impressively arrayed, and seeing the response of the people, she knew she’d done well.

The guards at the city gate had opened it immediately on their arrival, dropping to one knee before their queen. Inside, the people had come out to witness the procession. Some were silent, but Lydia was pleased to see the majority of them cheering, and even more pleased to see Deirdre’s eyes glowing with pride, her head held high. She heard remarks that the murderer wouldn’t get far now; clearly, Hrongar’s actions with the Khajiits hadn’t won the mass of the people over, so ineffective had they proven.

And unlike the other towns they’d passed through, some in the crowd even shouted approval for Brelyna and J’zargo. The people well remembered how much they owed these two.

Arcadia’s was the first face Lydia recognized, standing and waving from the front of her alchemy shop. Deirdre couldn’t help breaking protocol to go over and give her a hug. The people cheered all the harder; the queen hadn’t forgotten where she started, nor the people who had helped her on the way.

Pic of Arcadia in her shop
Arcadia in her shop

They reached the Wind District, where Aela and Vilkas waved to them from the steps of the partially rebuilt Jorrvaskr. The place would never be what it once was. It had been built from the upturned hull of a greatship, one of the fleet that had carried Ysgramor and his Five Hundred Companions to Skyrim eons ago. But the Companions were trying to rebuild it in as much of the spirit of the old place as they could, with a curving wooden roof already thrusting into the sky. It would be the only wooden building left in Whiterun when they were done.

And now they had only the steep steps of Dragonsreach to climb, with the crowd’s noise dwindling below them as they ascended. The doors to the rebuilt hall opened and a page announced them: “Her majesty, Queen Deirdre of Skyrim! Captain Lydia Ravenwood of Whiterun. General Ralof of Riverwood. Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni. And J’zargo of Elsweyr.”

It was a long walk down the hall to the jarl’s dais. The place was not as imposing as Lydia remembered it. A temporary wooden ceiling had been installed while the masons labored on the vaulting roof above. The ceiling was only three stories high, which in any other hall would have been impressive, but it felt cramped compared to the Dragonsreach of old. But much else was the same. Long tables lined either side of the hall, with the jarl’s retainers standing before them. Lydia recognized many of them from her days in service to Jarl Balgruuf, but many she did not. Yet to a man and a woman, they knelt as the procession passed them.

Finally they arrived at the dais, the bannermen and guards in front stepping off to one side to let the royal party approach the jarl’s throne. Lydia was pleased to see Balgruuf off to one side, also taking a knee. He gave them all a wink as he did so. Jarl Hrongar stayed in his seat on the throne, while his steward and housecarl, neither of whom Lydia recognized, dropped to one knee.

Deirdre stepped forward. Above her loomed the blackened skull of Numinex, the ancient dragon captured by King Olaf in days long past and imprisoned on the Great Porch of Dragonsreach. The skull had been rescued from the siege wreckage and replaced in its rightful spot above the throne. It wouldn’t be Dragonsreach without the dragon, after all.

Lydia’s first view of Deirdre had been in this very spot, but how different it all was, now that Deirdre wielded the power of her Voice and her army. And it seemed the queen had changed just in the last hours, and not simply her raiment. As she’d dressed, Brelyna had coached her on demeanor and bearing, drawing on all she could remember of her mother and father. They had grown up before the Red Year, and passed on to Brelyna what they remembered of how power was wielded when Telvanni had been the leading house of Morrowind.

“Remember, you hold the power,” Brelyna had said. “There’s no need for anger or shouting or threats. Stay calm and quiet, but never waver.” A little of the imperious House Telvanni style went a long way, and Lydia noticed how calm Deirdre was as she stood before Hrongar.

Hrongar had also changed. He still wore his hair cropped close to his skull and his blond beard tied into a point that hung from his chin. And he still wore his old horned armor. But he appeared to have let himself go in the months since the siege. Where the stout leather-and-steel armbands he wore around his biceps once strained to contain his bulging muscles, now they hung loose, as did the bracers on his forearms. The skin of his face was rather wan, his eyes rimmed with red, and beneath his armor Lydia thought she detected a paunch. Too much mead and not enough training, clearly.

Pic of Hrongar
Hrongar in the days when his brother was jarl

Half a minute had now passed, with Hrongar still slouched on the throne, much as his brother had used to do. His steward, still kneeling, was looking at him sideways, and softly clearing his throat.

At last Hrongar rose, then went to one knee. “It is a pleasure to welcome you to Dragonsreach, my Queen, and your companions as well.” There was little pleasure in his voice. He waited there on one knee, and continued to wait, as Deirdre let the moment stretch on, paying Hrongar in kind.

“Rise, Hrongar,” she said at last. “I still remember you were the first to believe I was the Dragonborn. Much has changed since then, apparently.”

“Aye, my Queen, it has.” He regarded her for a moment, taking advantage of the height of his position on the dais. Then he stepped down and gestured toward one of the long tables, with several empty chairs near its head. “But come, let us sit. I’ve had mead and ale and other refreshments laid out. Let us raise a mug and talk over our differences.”

Deirdre gave him half a smile. “I thank you for your hospitality, but we really don’t have the time. And there will be no discussion of differences, for they make no matter. I am here only to tell you that I will free the Khajiits you have unfairly imprisoned, then I’m going to get back to hunting the actual killers. We are close on their tails, and would be closer but for this distraction.”

Hrongar returned the grim smile and resumed his seat on the throne. “So that’s the way of it, eh?” He looked over at Ralof. “And that’s why your steel-booted thugs are practicing out by the prison camp.”

Lydia felt a warm glow as Deirdre’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. The queen’s sidelong smile of thanks was all the reward she needed for a plan that seemed to be turning out perfectly. And Hrongar calling the soldiers steel-booted thugs! She nearly burst out laughing. It was true that Ralof had requisitioned new armor for the troops, with steel boots replacing the usual fur ones. They’d always been outclassed by both the Imperials and the Altmer, and Ralof was determined his army wouldn’t continue at such a disadvantage.

Ralof didn’t bother smiling, keeping his mouth in a set line. “Steel-booted thugs, eh? I remember when they were called brave sons and daughters of Skyrim. But they’re not my steel-booted thugs, they’re Queen Deirdre’s.”

“Do you think you can intimidate me, having them march up and down by the prison camp?”

“You can take the exercises any way you want, mate.”

Pic of Jarl Balgruuf
Jarl Balgruuf, before his abdication

At this, Hrongar gripped the arm of his chair. His steward bent down and whispered something in his ear, and the jarl turned his attention back to Deirdre. Lydia took the lapse in the confrontation to glance over at Balgruuf, seated off to one side. The old jarl looked on with a bemused expression, but gave her an encouraging nod.

Hrongar seemed to have gotten the better of his temper and now addressed Deirdre more calmly, though it came out sounding as if he were explaining a complex situation to a child. “This is my hold, my Queen, and it is my duty to protect my people by any means necessary.” Lydia thought open anger might be less risky if he hoped to avoid raising Deirdre’s ire.

“And an impressive job you’re doing of it, judging by this morning’s events.”

“Only because we haven’t rounded them all up yet! Even now, our guards are bringing in Ma’dran’s caravan from Windhelm.”

“And did Ulfric help you with that?”

“Ulfric! No, I have no truck with Ulfric. We waited until they crossed into The Pale, then nabbed ’em. And Dengeir in Falkreath was so eager that he’s already rounded up the Khajiits down there.”

“Meaning neither of these groups could have taken part in the murders.”

“But there are other straggler Khajiits in the other holds. When we’ve rounded them all up, then the people will be safe.”

“Hardly. While you’ve been busy falsely imprisoning innocents, the actual killers got away right under your nose. We’ve learned much about them by patiently investigating every murder, following the clues where they’ve led us. Meanwhile, you and Skald have merely stoked the people’s fears and scapegoated the innocent.”

“Who cares! They’re just cat-people! We all know they’re a bunch of skooma dealers and thieves.”

J’zargo gave a growl at this, and Lydia hoped he wouldn’t do anything foolish.

“Enough!” Deirdre said, and for the first time her tone was sharp. “You are right that it is a jarl’s duty to keep his people safe. Judging by the grumbling I heard on the way in, your people think you’re failing in that task. But once the murderers crossed from Haafingar to Hjaalmarch, it became my duty as well, for they threaten the safety of all Skyrim’s people. And it is also my duty to keep Skyrim safe for all people who pass through it, including our friends, the Khajiit traders.”

“Friends, you call them? Typical.”

Deirdre ignored him and went on. “As your queen, I command that you release the Khajiits you have unfairly imprisoned and that you return any possessions you may have confiscated. And I further command you to arrest no more innocents, but to put your guards to work helping us track down the actual killers.”

“You really think I will put up with this?”

“I do. I doubt you’ll ask your guards to defy both my Royal Guard and Skyrim’s army. And I further doubt they’d follow any such commands.”

“We’ll call a new jarlmoot!”

“By what precedent? The jarls only meet on the death of a monarch, or am I wrong?”

Hrongar had no answer for this.

“Or perhaps you’d like to challenge me to single combat, as Ulfric did with High King Torygg?”

Lydia nearly broke out laughing as Hrongar stifled a whimper.

Deirdre looked at the jarl for a moment longer. “Come, friends, I believe we’re done here.”

With that, they turned to leave the hall. Lydia looked over to see Balgruuf smiling and nodding in approval.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 11

Battle-Born Farm

What a changed prospect! Deirdre thought as she and her companions approached Whiterun from the north. The cliffs on which Dragonsreach had perched for millennia were still imposing, thrusting hundreds of feet into the sky. But where the soaring wooden structure of the Great Porch had once loomed over the cliff-top parapets, there now stood the half-built stone structure of the new Dragonsreach. It would take years to finish it, so laborious was building from stone. But after what the elves had done to the city, Whiterun wanted no more of wood. It was a different place Deirdre was returning to than the one she’d first seen nearly a year before.

Pic of Whitewatch Tower and Dragonsreach in Skyrim
Whitewatch Tower with Dragonsreach in the background, before the High Elves attacked

And she was far different, too. Or maybe not. Still struggling with her anger, still wrestling with her dragon soul. When she thought of how close she’d come to unleashing both back in Dawnstar, she felt ashamed. Yet shame would do no good. Her dragon soul would always be part of her, and suppressing it only ensured it would lash out in unpredictable ways.

No, she must find balance with it, as Master Arngeir had instructed her. That was the purpose of daily meditation, but she’d become so busy in Solitude, and so confident that she’d achieved balance, that she’d neglected the practice. And now here she was, starting over yet again, climbing out of the depression that always seemed to follow on the heels of letting her dragon soul get the upper hand. Yet between Lydia’s patient encouragement, the loyal support of her troops at Fort Dunstad, and her determination to aid the unfairly imprisoned Khajiit traders, she felt nearly back to her usual self. Meditation had helped as well. She felt strong and centered, ready to meet whatever challenges Jarl Hrongar might present, while losing neither her calm nor her strength.

What she wasn’t prepared for was the scene that met them as they rounded the eastern side of the promontory on which Whiterun was built. Tucked beneath those rocky cliffs, Battle-Born Farm was usually a-bustle with activity, its windmill grinding wheat, and Alfhild Battle-Born tending the fields of leeks and gourds along with Gwendolyn, the hired helper who occupied the farmhouse. Deirdre had stopped and talked to the women many times on her trips out of the city to gather alchemy ingredients for Arcadia’s Cauldron. Alfhild had even offered to pay her to harvest the fields, but Deirdre had declined. Why be stuck in one small plot when she could roam the plains and the forests?

But now the bustle was of guards running in and out of the house and maneuvering a wagon up to it. Nearby stood Alfhild, distraught, being comforted by her father, Olfrid Battle-Born, the patriarch of the family.

Battle-Born Farm
Battle-Born Farm

“What now?” Deirdre asked, reining her horse to a halt.

“I think we can guess what,” said Lydia. “Let’s dismount here, before we trample the evidence even more than the guards already have.”

It didn’t take long for their worst fears to be confirmed. Olfrid recognized them as they walked up the track leading into the farmstead. Forgetting himself in his anger, he pushed his daughter roughly aside and stepped in front of the door to the farmhouse.

Olfrid Battle-Born
Olfrid Battle-Born

“You! We’d heard about these murders, and now the killer has come here. Our loyal Gwendolyn is dead, and if Alfhild had gotten here any earlier, she might be as well. And what have you done about it, Deirdre Morningsong? Not a thing!”

“Father…” Alfhild said, placing a restraining hand on his arm and giving her an apologetic look.

Deirdre hardly expected a better greeting. Olfrid had never wanted anything to do with her, unless it was to brag about his family’s wealth and loyalty to the Empire.

“This is your Queen, Battle-Born,” Lydia said.

He eyed her with nearly as much hostility as he’d shown Deirdre. Lydia may have been the Hero of Whiterun, but the Battle-Borns held that the Altmer never would have attacked their city in the first place if Deirdre hadn’t burned the Aldmeri Embassy to the ground or thwarted the Thalmor in a host of other ways. Heroism that should never have been necessary was as little good as no heroism at all.

“I wouldn’t have voted for her, and I don’t know why that milk-drinker Balgruuf did. He was always a fence-sitter, and look where that got us! But we have a new jarl now.”

This was just wasting time, as far as Deirdre could see. “Yes, I’ve heard. I’ll deal with him later. But for now, I want to catch Gwen’s killer as much as you do. Stand aside, since you seem only to be in the way.”

“But this is my farm!”

“Father, Queen Deirdre and Lydia and their friends are only here to help,” said Alfhild.

“Without them, your own husband might yet live, daughter.”

Before Deirdre could think of any way to quell this distraction, Lydia spoke up, her gaze boring into Olfrid. “You do Idolaf no honor if you say his sacrifice was unnecessary. As I remember it, he fought bravely on that day when we were all united against a single foe.”

“As we should be now in catching this killer,” said Deirdre.

“Yes, father, maybe they can help.”

Olfrid still stood blocking the door.

“Or I can have the guards remove you.” Deirdre calmly held Olfrid’s gaze.

The murder must have been discovered only recently, as the captain of the guard hadn’t yet arrived. The guards, who had stopped what they were doing when Deirdre and her friends approached, now looked back and forth from her to Lydia and Olfrid.

“Oi, Bjorn,” Lydia said to one of the guards. Deirdre guessed from the cowed look on his face that Bjorn had entered the guard service when Lydia served Jarl Balgruuf. Her renown had been great even then. “Is this any way to run a crime scene? It looks like you guards and these bystanders have trampled over any footprints or wagon tracks the killers might have left.”

“You think there’s more than one?” the guard asked. “And they travel by wagon?”

“We do,” said Deirdre. “Now show us what happened.”

“Yes, your Grace,” Bjorn said.

He led them toward the door to the farmhouse. At first it seemed that Olfrid would continue blocking the way, but Alfhild placed both hands on his chest and tried to push him back, giving him a pleading look. At last he gave way.

For the first time, Deirdre noticed blood on Alfhild’s hands. “Were you the one to find her, Alfhild?”

Pic of Alfhild
Alfhild in happier times

The woman nodded. “I got here at ten o’clock, just like every day. Usually, Gwen is outside by the time I get here, but not today. So I went in. It was awful. I lost my head and tried to stanch her wounds, but I soon realized she must have been dead for hours, she was so cold.”

Deirdre placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Inside, it was much like the other crime scenes, save that the body had yet to be removed. Gwendolyn lay on her back in front of the fireplace at the center of the room, her arms at her sides. J’zargo growled at the sight, and Brelyna gave an “Oh my!” Deirdre neither wanted nor needed to examine the ghastly wounds on the woman’s face and torso; it was obvious they were the same as all the others.

“Save for those horrible wounds, one would think she’s resting peacefully,” Brelyna said.

“Too peacefully,” said Deirdre. She examined one arm, then the other, finding no cuts, not even a bruise or scrape. “It looks as if she didn’t fight back or even try to ward off these blows. There’s not much blood, either. And look, her lips have that blue tinge.”

“Judging by that half-laid fire,” Lydia said, “she was just building it up to cook breakfast.”

Deirdre stood and surveyed the room. The lone dining table was empty, but a pitcher and cup stood on a sideboard. When she picked up the glass, it left a wet ring behind, though it was empty. “She rose early and had a glass of water first thing, as one does.” She dipped a finger in the pitcher and tasted it. “Yes, deathbell.”

“So she had her drink,” said Lydia, “then went to lay the fire, and that’s when the poison took her.”

“You mean she was dead before the killer even attacked her?” the guard named Bjorn said. “But why? That doesn’t make any sense!”

“You’re right, but the killers must have their reasons. This isn’t the first time these methods have been used.”

J’zargo looked out the window. “The farm next door is not far away. Perhaps killers worried about screaming.”

Pic of Gwendolyn at Battle-Born Farm
Gwendolyn before the attack

“But if they killed her with poison, why rend her body like that?”

“That’s exactly what we asked in Dragon Bridge,” said Lydia. “Come, Bjorn, use your head. Let’s see if you make it out the same as we did.”

Bjorn looked at the body, the pitcher, and then the body again. After a moment, he said, “They wanted to make sure we knew a Khajiit did it.”

J’zargo gave a little purr. “Nord guard is smart, yes. And perhaps the Khajiit is only being used by someone else.”

“But why?” the guard persisted.

“Maybe someone wanted exactly the result we’ve recently seen,” said Deirdre. “For all the Khajiits in Skyrim to be rounded up and imprisoned.”

Bjorn just shook his head in befuddlement.

“We are as confused as you are, Bjorn,” said Lydia. “But if this just happened this morning, then we’re catching up to the killers. Did the guards patrolling the area see anything? Or the neighbors? The sun rises early — the murder must have happened in daylight.”

Bjorn shook his head. “We asked at the neighboring farm and they hadn’t seen anything, and neither had the guard who’s always posted there. And we were patrolling the road, but we didn’t happen to be nearby at the time. We had been up to Whitewatch Tower at dawn, and we don’t come back down until eight. We were on our way back shortly after ten when Alfhild came running after us.”

“So if the killers knew your usual pattern, they probably didn’t escape that way, but headed south. What of the guards at the White River Bridge?”

“We haven’t had time to question them yet,” Bjorn replied.

“Let’s see what else we can find here, then go find out what they know at the bridge,” said Deirdre.

Further searches were fruitless, however.

“Not even those tufts of fur from the other crime scenes,” Lydia said.

It was strange, Deirdre thought, as if the killers were now so sure a Khajiit had been identified as the culprit that they didn’t need to leave more clues.

Searching outside proved even less useful, there was such a miscellany of foot, livestock, and wagon tracks in the farmyard, and the cobbled road in front of the farm bore few impressions at all, it was so well built.

Deirdre was about to suggest they go question the bridge guards, but Brelyna interrupted her. “Let’s think,” she said, scanning the road and terrain around the farm. “If the killers are traveling by wagon, they would probably try to hide it someplace, to avoid detection. The landscape is too open across the road, and the farm on the south is too nearby. So they must have hid the wagon to the north — maybe behind those rocks we see there.”

“There are a couple of mining veins up there, and an abandoned watchtower,” Lydia said. And the secret way Balgruuf and the city defenders sallied forth during the siege, Deirdre knew, though Lydia hadn’t mentioned it.

Secret exit from Whiterun
The secret exit from Whiterun near Battle-Born Farm

“Not much used today, I’d guess,” said Brelyna. “Come, let’s take a look.”

They followed a low stone wall that marked off the farm’s northern field to a point where it nearly met the rocks, scanning the ground all the while. At the corner, they were rewarded.

“Look!” said Lydia, “those rains did us some good.” The storm that had soaked them in Morthal had moved south and sat over Whiterun two days previous. Where everything else had dried out by now, rainwater had puddled in a depression between the wall and the rock cliff, leaving a good muddy spot to capture footprints. It contained two sets, a barefoot Khajiit’s and another left by a pair of boots. Deirdre felt a tingle go down her spine. The killer was close, she was sure of it.

“That was remarkably careless of him, leaving his own prints behind as well as the Khajiit’s,” Brelyna said.

“Or he was extraordinarily careful during the previous murders to conceal his prints,” said Deirdre. “Perhaps he was in a hurry this morning, knowing the guards’ schedule, and not wanting to be seen from the road.”

“Let’s keep looking,” Lydia said.

Working their way north, they came to a narrow track that led in from the road to the ore veins and the watchtower. Wagon tracks were visible here and there, but it was hard to tell how recent they were. “Likely left by miners coming in to work the veins,” said Lydia.

They had better luck as they followed the track out toward the road. “There!” Lydia said, pointing to a muddy spot in the center of the road. “That broken horseshoe!” Her friends gathered round the impressions. Two of the horse’s hooves had left prints, and one was indeed missing an inch of iron from the shoe.

“It’s the same wagon as the one that stopped outside Dawnstar,” Brelyna said.

“So now we’re certain,” said Deirdre. “The culprit is bringing the Khajiits by wagon to the sites of the murders. We’re getting close! Now the only question is, who is driving it? We can put out an alert for a wagon drawn by a poorly shod horse, but it would be much easier if we had a description of the driver.”

“This one thinks one thing is certain,” said J’zargo. “The driver must be a Nord, no? Maybe one employed by your jarls who hate the Khajiits so much.”

“That’s remarkably cynical, J’zargo,” Brelyna said. “To murder their own people in order to blame the Khajiits? I can’t believe it.”

It did seem an outlandish idea, Deirdre thought. It could even be true. But she put it aside. “The main thing is, we don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Let’s see if we can track this wagon and see where it went.”

Their luck ran out before the wagon track reached the road. No tracks remained to show which way the wagon turned into the main road, which was so well paved that few tracks were visible. They saw no more prints of the partially shod horse as they made their way south to the White River Bridge. Questioning the guards was equally fruitless, as they’d seen too many wagons going every direction since dawn.

Deirdre tried not to feel too dejected. They were gaining on the murderers. But for now, she needed to turn her attention to the plight of the Khajiits. She turned to her friends. “It’s time we confronted Hrongar.”

“Good idea,” said Lydia. “But first, we should visit Ralof at the new army garrison.”

Deirdre thought it over. It would be good to see Ralof again, and they could all use some time to gather themselves after their travels. “Very well,” she agreed, though she hated the delay.

Lydia’s smile was far too smug. What did she have up her gauntlets?

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 10

A Visit with the Troops

Lydia cinched the final strap on Deirdre’s saddlebags, then looked around camp, seeing nothing else that needed to be done. She hated wasting time like this when a killer was on the loose. Madena still hadn’t arrived, and the morning was getting on. Brelyna and J’zargo stood nearby, having just finished their own packing, Brelyna stretching first one shoulder, then the other, and complaining about the hard ground they’d found to sleep on.

pic of Frost, one of the stout horses of Skyrim
Frost, one of the stout horses of Skyrim

At least Deirdre was using the time well, having gone a short way into the forest to meditate. After yesterday, she needed it. Lydia hoped it would help her regain the confidence she would need for the coming trials. The Deirdre they’d seen last night had been in no condition to hunt killers, much less to establish her authority in the face of unruly jarls.

She was spreading the ashes from the fire one last time when Madena finally arrived, apologetic for the delay, explaining that Jarl Skald would relieve her of her duties if he knew she was helping them. Lydia called for Deirdre, who soon emerged from the forest.

Lydia went over to greet her. “Are you well, my Queen?”

Deirdre gave her a reassuring nod and squeezed her arm. Her gaze was level and calm.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the murder scene. At first glance, it didn’t look like there’d be much to learn. A broken-down wagon sat at one side of the road with one wheel missing. Madena showed them the spot where Rodrik’s body had rested. The bloodstains on the cobbles were plain to see, as were the tufts of fur left behind.

“This Khajiit is shedding like it’s First Seed, but here it is high summer,” J’zargo said. “This makes no sense, unless he has some sort of rare skin condition.”

“Or maybe someone is going to extraordinary lengths to leave as much evidence as possible,” Brelyna said.

“Yes, evidence to lead our investigation in one direction only,” said Deirdre.

“And look,” said Brelyna, “here’s another one of those bare footprints.” The muddy spot she was pointing to was yards farther south from where the body had been found.

Lydia surveyed the scene. “The killer could easily have avoided that muddy spot, if he’d wanted to. Or worn boots, as J’zargo said the other day.” She walked out into the road next to the wagon. “Look, here are tracks of another wagon.” She bent down and examined them. “They’re deep, and here you can see where the horse had to dig in its hooves to get going again. It looks like the wagon stopped next to Rodrik’s and then pulled away. ”

“Can you tell anything else?” Brelyna asked.

Lydia considered for a moment, examining the ground. “Yes, look at this hoof print. It’s missing a bit of its shoe.”

“Probably just a passerby stopping to offer help. There are no paw prints in the mud near the wagon tracks. The killer seems to have come from a different direction.”

“Maybe,” said Deirdre. “It’s difficult to tell what happened.” Lydia wished she could find something to improve Deirdre’s hopes, but the evidence seemed inconclusive.

They said farewell to Madena, then spent a couple of hours combing the area for further clues, with no success. “We’ve learned little, it seems,” said Brelyna.

“Perhaps that the killer is traveling by wagon,” Deirdre replied.

“We can hardly be certain of that.”

This elicited the first spark Lydia had seen from Deirdre. “No one from Dragon Bridge to here has seen any strange Khajiits, and certainly no Khajiits in the vicinity of the murders. Either the killer is an expert in illusion magic and is casting an invisibility spell every thirty seconds while traveling, or they can walk like ghosts through the marshes and forests. My septim’s on a wagon in which the killer is hiding, so the question becomes, who’s driving it?”

“It’s no good to argue about the likelihood of one thing or another until we know more,” said Lydia. “I say we push on to Whiterun.”

“The killers may be heading that way,” Deirdre admitted. “Or they may go to Windhelm. If I’m wrong about the wagon, they may even take Wayward Pass to Winterhold. I’d hate to commit to one road or the other.”

Damn this indecision! Couldn’t she see that they needed to go to Whiterun to quell these rebellious jarls? “Let’s at least go as far as Fort Dunstad,” Lydia said. “Maybe by morning, events will show us which way to go.”

*~*~*

Lydia was pleased with the greeting they received when they reached the fort several hours later. The soldiers on watch in the north tower spotted them while they were a good distance away. “Captain Ravenwood is coming!” one shouted. And as they approached nearer: “And the queen!”

Soldiers of Skyrim

By the time they entered the bailey, the troops were ranked in orderly columns, with the fort’s commander standing in front of them. As one, the soldiers dropped to one knee before their queen. Lydia glanced over at Deirdre to see whether this show of loyalty would have any effect, but her wife hardly reacted, giving just a faint smile, as if she doubted whether this devotion was truly meant for her, or whether she truly deserved it.

The four dismounted as an ostler came out to manage their horses. They approached the commander, who greeted them in turn, kneeling before Deirdre, saluting Lydia, and accepting the introductions of J’zargo and Brelyna with neither surprise nor animosity. It was the same with the troops. Lydia knew they must have heard about the murders committed by two Khajiits, but no mutterings rippled through the ranks as J’zargo took his place before them, and no angry stares were aimed in his direction. Partly their stern training, Lydia thought, and partly some of the older soldiers’ experience serving with all sorts in the Imperial Army, which rubbed off on the younger recruits. And the regiment included not just Nords, but many other peoples who had thrown their lot in with Skyrim: Redguards, Cyrodillians, Bretons, and even an Orsimmer or two.

“What a surprise and an honor to receive you in Fort Dunstad, your Grace, and Captain Ravenwood,” the commander was saying. “What brings you our way?”

Deirdre explained that they were on the trail of the culprits in the Khajiit murders, and asked if the soldiers had noticed anyone suspicious on the roads.

“No, just the usual travelers. We’ve been on the lookout for Khajiits, of course, but Ahkari’s caravan came through heading for Riften over a week ago, around the time of the first murders over in Dragon Bridge. They haven’t come back on their usual return trip to Dawnstar, and our patrols saw them camped off the road down near the Weynon Stones. Probably laying low until these murders are solved, I thought, but apparently Jarl Skald thought different. A band of his guards came through yestereve, saying they were going to arrest the whole caravan, and any other Khajiits they came across. Then they were going to take them to Whiterun.”

“We know of that plan,” Deirdre said.

“We didn’t interfere, since we don’t get involved in hold business.”

“As you should, though there may come a time when I ask you to.”

“As you command, my Queen.”

“And other Khajiits, or any other travelers?”

“Ma’dran’s caravan hasn’t been seen, though they should have returned from Windhelm by now. Doing the same as Ahkari, is my guess. Other than that, it’s just been regular travelers and merchants, Nords mainly, but a few Redguards and Bretons, too. Nothing out of the usual.”

“We’ll want a list of travelers passing south since the day before yesterday, the type and number of people, whether on foot, horseback, or wagon.”

“I’ll have the captain of the watch put that together, but it will have to be from the guards’ memories; we don’t keep lists of travelers.”

“Perhaps that should change, with this killer on the loose,” said Brelyna. “In Sadrith Mora, House Telvanni required all outlanders to purchase hospitality papers.”

The commander eyed her skeptically.

“Nords would never put up with that kind of surveillance,” Lydia explained. “Just keeping lists of who’s traveling where, it would be an affront to our freedom. Even if it was only outlanders we were keeping track of, there’s too much risk that such tactics would be turned on our own people.”

“For now,” said Deirdre, “keep an eye out for any lone Khajiits, but we hope soon to have a better description of the suspects.”

“It will be done, your Grace. Now, may I see you to your accommodations? And after you settle in, the troops would be honored to demonstrate their training.”

Deirdre seemed hesitant about the latter, but Lydia put in, “It will be a pleasure to see how they’re coming along.” It was still only mid-afternoon, and Lydia chafed at not getting farther down the road she knew they would have to take anyway, but a stopover here could boost Deirdre’s spirits. Surely, witnessing dozens of soldiers ready to march at her command would bolster her confidence.

Yet once the troops had run through a series of maneuvers, Deirdre betrayed no such positive signs. Lydia glanced at her often as the soldiers showed how quickly they could form a shield-wall, how sturdily it would hold against an enemy onslaught, and how deft they were with sword and spear. She expected to see some glimmer of pride in her eyes, or at least a smile on her lips, but Deirdre remained somber.

It was only after, when Lydia had gone over to talk with the sergeant in charge of training, leaving Deirdre behind on the small viewing platform with the commander, that she noticed the beginnings of a change. As she and the sergeant discussed a few of the finer points of shield-wall tactics, one reticent soldier approached the dais and dropped to a knee before Deirdre. Lydia couldn’t hear what they spoke of then, but whatever it was, after a few moments of serious conversation, Deirdre broke into a smile. Then another soldier got up the courage to approach, and then another, and soon Deirdre had an audience of a dozen or so troops, both male and female, gathered around her.

Finishing the conversation with the sergeant, Lydia went over to listen. A few of the soldiers on the edge of the crowd noticed her and saluted, and one even bowed. She waved them off with a roll of her eyes and a smile. Deirdre was right — all this adulation could get tiring. But right now, maybe it was what she needed. Lydia pointedly turned her attention to the queen, and the soldiers did the same.

“What was it like to ride on the back of a dragon?”

“Oh, it was the best thing in the world — or nearly the best thing, if you take my meaning.” Deirdre gave a wink and the soldiers laughed. “Imagine galloping on a horse, only twice as fast, at the least. And then you’re so high up, like standing on a mountaintop. The wind in your hair, the countryside spread out below you, the dragon swooping and diving. It was thrilling.”

“Weren’t you afraid you’d fall off?”

“Odahviing made me feel as secure on his back as I do on my own horse. It’s only too bad we didn’t have longer together. I do miss the flying.”

“It must have been hard to lose him.”

“It was, but I still feel he’s somehow always with me.”

The questioning went on, one asking if any regular Nord could learn to use the Voice, another asking about the confrontation with Ulfric. Finally, one asked about how close they were to finding the killers.

“Not close enough,” Deirdre admitted. “But we’re learning more and more. Our hunch is that the Khajiit — or Khajiits as we now know — have help, and probably not from one of their own kind. As soon as we learn who that is, we’ll have a much better chance of finding them.”

“You’ll get ‘em, my Queen,” one fellow said. “You put an end to Alduin, a few killers should be easy.”

When the audience was over, Lydia took Deirdre aside. “What did I miss?”

“Oh, that first fellow was one of those Nord soldiers from the Imperial Army at Riften Pass. Wanted to thank me for sparing him and his fellows. And to personally offer his service, even to the death, since he owes me his life.”

“And you didn’t even roll your eyes.”

“No, I’m beginning to see what an honor it is. And do you know what he told me? I’d said something about my regret at the devastation Odahviing and I wrought that day. But he said if it was bloodshed I was worried about, there’d have been much more if we hadn’t been there. Who knows how many would have died in the siege if the Imperials had reached the city’s gates? Maybe I did more good than I thought.”

“As everyone has told you who was there that day. If I hadn’t been near death at the time, I’d have told you the same myself.”

“And at least from that I learned how to use Odahviing’s power less horrifically.”

“And now I hope you realize your power comes at least as much from these soldiers as it does from magic and dragons and the power of your Voice. You see how much they love you. You just need time to learn to use that power effectively, as you did Odahviing’s. But use it you must, and soon.”

Deirdre looked at her. “You are right, Lydia.” Lydia was glad to see no hesitation in her eyes.

After that it was nearly dinner time and Deirdre insisted on taking it in the regular mess hall rather than the commander’s quarters. Along with the mead, it warmed Lydia’s heart to have Deirdre seated next to her at a long table engaging in the usual boisterous talk and joining in the songs. J’zargo and Brelyna sat nearby and seemed to enjoy being accepted in the company.

As late as the evening went, and as much mead as they’d drunk, Deirdre still insisted on meditating before bedtime. It was a discipline she’d neglected too often recently, she said. She did the same early the next morning, and then they were off while the sun was still low in the sky.

“Let’s see what’s become of our Khajiit friends,” she said with more determination than Lydia had heard from her in days.

*~*~*

Two hours later, they arrived at the ransacked Khajiit camp. Lydia noted the flare of anger in Deirdre’s eyes as they came on the scene, and the way she dismounted and took charge of investigating it.

She herself held back, surveying the scene. For some reason, she didn’t want to get too close. Crumpled hide tents and a couple of half-empty chests were about all that remained. The wagons were gone, along with any valuable trading goods — and the Khajiits themselves, of course.

Pic of a Khajiit caravan camp with guard
Khajiit caravan camp with guard

“At least there are no signs of bloodshed,” she offered.

“If Skald’s guardsmen have harmed them…” Deirdre said.

J’zargo held up a heavy fur robe. “Khajiits will be needing this come winter, or sooner.” He gave an anticipatory shiver.

“This was Ahkari’s caravan, wasn’t it?” Deirdre asked.

“I believe so,” said Lydia.

“To think, we helped them fight off those bandits last year. And now look.”

Lydia did look, but could say nothing. It was difficult for her to admit, but viewing this scene made her not only sad for Ahkari and her companions, but also uneasy. A year ago, if she had been ordered to round up Khajiits with no charges or evidence against them, would she have obeyed? She knew the answer. Not that Jarl Balgruuf would have given such an order, but still. If the command had come down, she wouldn’t have thought too much about it; she’d have figured there must be good reason for it.

But that was before she’d met Deirdre, who had shown her what it was like as an outsider in a land where cries of “Skyrim is for the Nords!” were as common as snowflakes in winter. She still remembered the hurt in Deirdre’s eyes when she’d used that battle cry in her first days as Deirdre’s housecarl.

Now Deirdre was looking at her with concern. “What’s the matter? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

Lydia held her gaze for a moment, then looked back to the Khajiits’ scattered possessions. “No, not a ghost, unless it’s the ghost of Lydias past.”

The silence stretched on for a moment, then Brelyna broke it.

Pic of Ahkari, a Khajiit trader
Ahkari, a Khajiit trader

“If Skald wasn’t misleading us, we should find Ahkari and her people outside Whiterun.”

“That’s right,” said Deirdre. “We should make haste to get there this morning. We accomplished little yesterday, and at least we can do some good for the Khajiits. But let us gather as many of their belongings as we can carry. I have a feeling they’ve been robbed as well as arrested. Hrongar and Skald will have much to atone for.”

Lydia smiled, glad that at least one of them was back to her usual self.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 9

Unruly Jarls

Brelyna gasped and clutched at J’zargo as the dragon landed on a muddy bank a few yards away, right in front of Deirdre and Lydia. She could only wish to possess some of their calm in the face of such a terrifying beast, but her experience with the dov was limited. Somehow she’d gone through the months of the dragon resurrection only glimpsing them from afar. True, she’d gotten close to Odahviing when he was chained up in Dragonsreach, but an unfettered dragon was a far different thing.

Pic of the dragon, Viinturuth
Viinturuth

As with the travelers, so with their horses. The two belonging to Deirdre and Lydia stood calmly, while hers and J’zargo’s snorted and tugged at their reins.

J’zargo patted her hand. “Not to worry, Brelyna. Dragons are just really big cats, no?”

This brought her to her senses, and not just because the Khajiit view of the world was so different from her own. If the beast before them was just a large cat, then she was Azura and Mephala rolled into one. But no, she would not let J’zargo patronize her with his chivalry. Was this any way for a college-trained mage, much less a member of House Telvanni, to behave? She let go of J’zargo’s arm and stood up straighter, moving a little apart from him, as if eager to get a better view of the meeting.

The dragon looked for all the world as if it was bowing to Deirdre, its wings swept back and its chin nearly brushing the dark, muddy bank.

“Drem yol lok, Dovahkiin. Zu’u los Viinturuth. Zu’u qiilaan us hin suleyk.”

“Drem yol lok, Viinturuth. Zu’u ofaal hin mir.”

The party had been traveling across the marshlands, taking a shortcut Lydia and Deirdre knew between Morthal and Dawnstar, when Lydia had spotted dragon wings in the distance. Up to that point the party had been remarkably somber, the news of another murder having confirmed their worst fears. Yet it seemed to Brelyna that Deirdre and Lydia were even more subdued than the news warranted.

They’d had little luck investigating the murder scene in the swamps. The killer had left plenty of footprints, but they came out of a large bog. Though the four companions scoured the bank on the opposite side, they could find no matching prints there, just a confusing array of boot prints. It was as if the killer had been dropped from the sky. Other than that, the scene bore all the markings of the previous murder sites. Then a summer squall had moved south from the Sea of Ghosts, cutting their investigation short.

That was yesterday, and they had spent this morning searching for any sign of a camp or other traces of someone traveling across the swamps, Deirdre growing increasingly dejected. They had returned to Morthal at mid-day, only to hear the news of a new murder in Dawnstar, and dashed off immediately, their moods hardly lifted by the clearing skies.

But once Lydia spotted the dragon, Deirdre’s eyes lit up like it was the morning of St. Jiub’s Festival. Stepping apart from them, she’d shouted a single word, Fahdon, her Voice booming across the marshes. The dragon spun on a septim and flew toward them.

“That felt good,” Deirdre said as they awaited the dragon’s approach, shaking out her arms as if preparing to shout again. “How long has it been since I used my Voice?” She seemed giddy as a schoolgirl.

Now Deirdre and Viinturuth were talking. Brelyna didn’t know Dovah, but she caught the name Paarthurnax and the words drem, vaat, and jul. She gathered that Deirdre wanted to know whether the dragons still supported the bargain she’d struck with Paarthurnax, the ancient dragon who’d originally taught Nords the Power of the Voice. The pact held that dragons would avoid all human settlements and hunt only the beasts of the woods and meadows, as long as Skyrim’s people left them alone. And it seemed the dragons remained true to Paarthurnax’s word; in the months since Alduin’s defeat, they had become almost as mythical as before the resurrection, spotted only occasionally as a pair of wings on the horizon.

When the conference came to an end, however, and the great dragon had winged once more into the sky, Brelyna could see from the grin on Deirdre’s face that the news was much better.

“We have our first allies,” she said, beaming at her friends. “Not only is our agreement holding, but three or four dragons, including Viinturuth here, have vowed to come to my aid in battle, should the need arise. I have only to shout their names.”

Lydia wrapped Deirdre in a bear hug. “That’s wonderful, my Queen. Of course they owe you their loyalty, as you bested their leader.”

“This one congratulates you,” J’zargo said as Deirdre unwrapped herself from Lydia’s embrace.

“Yes, excellently done,” said Brelyna, placing a hand on Deirdre’s shoulder.

Deirdre basked in these congratulations for a moment then turned her face to the sky, whooping with joy. She turned in the direction they were heading, gathered her breath, and shouted, “Wuld-Nah-Kest!” She shot away from them in a blur, crossing a bog to the bank opposite in only an instant. Turning back to them, she called, “Come, what are you waiting for?”

Lydia rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

Brelyna was glad as well. Since the day they’d sat down to the meal in Dragon Bridge’s jail, she’d been concerned for her two friends. Both were showing the strains of their new responsibilities, but especially Deirdre. Between the everyday challenges of rule, the assassination attempts, the threat of an Aldmeri attack, and now these murders, her friend had lost much sleep and added many care lines. And, judging by a few sharp comments and sarcastic asides over the last few days, Deirdre’s relationship with her wife seemed to be suffering as well. Constant vigilance couldn’t be good for one’s love life. What the two probably needed was a vacation from all these threats and cares. As that was unlikely to happen, Brelyna was glad they had found these few moments of frivolity. Lydia was still smiling as they gathered the horses and made their more laborious way around the bog.

*~*~*

The party’s lighter mood was short-lived. The reality of the murders, now seven in total, reasserted itself as they approached Dawnstar. Worse, with evidence that the murderer in this last case was also a Khajiit, talk was spreading that Elsweyr was behind a conspiracy against the people of Skyrim. They had heard it in Morthal just hours before, returning from their unsuccessful foray into the swamps. Even Jarl Idgrod, who was usually more concerned about her own visions and maintaining magical balance than with affairs such as these, had succumbed to the pervading fear. “Probably ought to round them all up, if only for their own safety,” she said, not deigning to look at J’zargo.

And now, as Dawnstar came into view, Brelyna saw that the situation here was even worse than in Morthal. A large crowd had gathered outside the White Hall, Jarl Skald’s seat, some of the men armed with pickaxes and other tools, all of them shouting at once. “Skyrim is for the Nords” was the most common shout, but she also heard, “Kick the foreigners out!” and “Lock them up!” At least they weren’t chanting “Off with their heads,” though it wouldn’t have surprised her. Next to her, J’zargo gave a low growl.

Deirdre, riding in front with Lydia, twisted around in her saddle. “Keep calm and let Lydia and me do the talking.” Lydia faced forward, silent, scanning the crowd for any more tangible threats that might arise.

They couldn’t even drop off their horses at the stable without incident. The ostler watched them balefully as they dismounted, not seeming to recognize anyone in the party. True, Deirdre had left her crown back in Solitude, but Brelyna was surprised the fellow didn’t recognize Lydia from her stature and appearance alone, not to mention the insignia on the sash she wore over her armor.

“I’ll take care o’ you three’s horses, but I’ll not handle the mount of any damned Khajiit, not after what they did to poor Rodrik.”

Lydia dropped the reins of her horse and stepped up to him, one hand on her axe. “Here stands your queen, and these are all horses from her stables. You’ll kneel before her first of all, and then you’ll care for all four horses as if they were your own, and be glad about it.”

Now the fellow seemed to recognize to whom he was speaking. Brelyna almost felt sorry for him. “Oh! Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, I mean captain, no I mean your ladyship, I didn’t recognize you, nor her majesty.” With a quick bow, he went to collect their horses, pausing only for a moment before taking the reins from J’zargo.

The crowd surrounding the entrance to the main hall would not be so easily cowed. A large man in guard’s armor stood before the door, trying to calm the mob. “The jarl is doing everything he can!” This was met only with grumbles of disagreement.

Already a few on the outer edges had spotted them. “Look, it’s the Queen, and Lydia!” “But who’s that with them?” “Damn foreigners. Does one of them have a tail?”

“We should have waited for your retinue, my Queen,” Lydia said. “A dozen royal guards would quiet this crowd.”

“But that would only have slowed us down, and we are already running behind events. At this rate, there’ll be a dozen more murders before we track down the killers.”

Seeing their approach, the man at the top of the stairs descended through the crowd to greet them. “My queen,” he said, kneeling before her. “I am Jod, housecarl to Jarl Skald the Elder.” Regaining his feet, he looked at J’zargo with a mixture of hope and suspicion. “Is this a suspect in Rodrik’s murder? Do you bring him here for trial?”

“String him up!” someone yelled.

Deirdre stepped forward, putting herself between the bulk of the crowd and her companions. “No, my friend,” she said as gently as she could, though Brelyna knew her well enough to hear the slight quaver in her voice as she fought to suppress her anger. “For anyone I suspected of such crimes would be bound or chained. This is J’zargo of Elsweyr, my friend and loyal adviser, and this is Brelyna Maryon…”

Before she could finish introducing Brelyna, a young Nord charged toward J’zargo. Unfortunately for him, he had to dodge around Lydia to get to his target. She stepped in front of him, stopping him in his tracks and lifting him off his feet by his collar. He struggled there for a moment, then Deirdre cast a calming spell on him. His body relaxed and a pleasant, dreamy expression came over his face.

Brelyna was glad she hadn’t needed the spell she was readying to cast; the fellow probably wouldn’t have enjoyed living the rest of his life as a dog. But these foolish Nords were beginning to get on her nerves. She took a deep breath, resolving to let Deirdre and Lydia handle the situation, and placed a calming hand on J’zargo’s shoulder. She could tell by his low growl that he was losing patience as well, not that he had much to begin with.

Lydia dropped the Nord and raised her hands for calm. “People of Dawnstar. You know that I have always fought to defend this land.”

“Hear, hear!” came a shout from the crowd.

“And you know that Queen Deirdre drove back the Imperial Army at Riften, then reclaimed Whiterun from the High Elves. To her we owe Skyrim’s independence!”

“Long live Queen Deirdre!” came a few shouts, though they were none too hearty.

“And always, Brelyna and J’zargo fought alongside us. They foiled an Imperial plot in Riften that would have taken my own life. I owe them my thanks, as do you, though you seem not to know it. True Nords stand for justice and don’t take out their fears on innocent people. Now stand aside and let us do what we can to solve these murders.”

“You all heard Captain Ravenwood,” said Jod. “Now make way.” He gestured to Deirdre and her companions to follow him to the door of the hall.

The crowd parted for them, but not without considerable grumbling. “Why doesn’t she just get on a dragon and fly around until she finds the killer?” “A few shouts from the Dragonborn and those Khajiits would stop covering up for their own kind, I reckon.” “What good does the Voice do us if she can’t keep us safe?”

Brelyna was surprised — though by now she shouldn’t have been — to see J’zargo pump himself up and stride with lordly dignity through the parting mob. He caught up to Lydia and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving her a pointy-toothed grin. “This one never tires of hearing that speech, friend Lydia.”

She glared back at him. “Oh? I’m getting damned tired of giving it.”

Brelyna must have been standing and gaping at J’zargo, for Deirdre came over and put a protective arm around her shoulders. “Come, we shouldn’t linger out here. It will be safer inside.”

Pic of Jarl Skald the Elder lounging on his throne
Skald

But not by much, Brelyna thought once they entered. Jarl Skald glared at them as they made the long approach to the throne where he slouched. Brelyna imagined his ire was directed at her and J’zargo especially, yet he didn’t bother to rise, much less bend the knee to his queen. This system of the jarls choosing their ruler certainly didn’t inspire much loyalty or obedience. The only comfort she took from the entire place was a female Breton mage standing to one side of the hall, watching them benevolently as they approached.

Deirdre had warned them that Skald was one of Ulfric Stormcloak’s strongest supporters, and he had all the opinions about outlanders to go with it. Brelyna was only surprised he didn’t have “Skyrim Is For The Nords!” tattooed across his forehead — although perhaps he did, as he wore a silver and moonstone circlet. “The Elder” was an apt appellation. Judging by the lines on his face and the gray stubble on his scalp, Skald had seen many winters.

It soon became clear that the jarl knew little about the most recent murder, but had plenty of opinions about what should happen to the Khajiits. “Round ’em all up, I say.”

“And then what?” Deirdre demanded.

“Oblivion if I care. Shove them across the border and let Cyrodiil worry about them.”

“Leaving aside the injustice of blaming an entire people for the actions of one or two, that would do little to improve relations with the Empire.”

“The Empire! They’re the ones who started all this business of bringing the different races of people together. Anyone can see that the gods intended us to live apart. Titus Mede can suck Malacath’s flaccid cock, for all I care.”

Brelyna gasped at this barbarism. These Nords who looked down on Daedra worship seemed not to know how dangerous it was to take a daedric prince’s name in vain.

“Very nice,” was all Deirdre said in response, but the acid tone in her voice cowed Skald somewhat.

“Or… or… put them on ships and send them back to Elsweyr.”

“And who will pay for these ships? You? What of the provisions for that long voyage? And what will be their reception once they return there?”

“That’s right, I forgot. The Khajiits send us only their criminals, their thieves and murderers, their rapists…”

“And their students of magic,” J’zargo put in with a warning growl, but it was as if he hadn’t spoken.

“And don’t forget their skooma dealers. How many true-hearted Nords have become addicted to that foul concoction? I don’t blame Elsweyr for not wanting them back, but I don’t care how they’re treated once they return. And when we’re rid of the Khajiits…” — and here Brelyna did not like the way he glanced at her, then away — “well, that’ll be a good start at making Skyrim the place it used to be.”

“Oh? And what was that?”

He glared at the queen with a flat expression. Brelyna noticed Deirdre’s hands balled into fists, and wondered if the jarl knew what he was getting into. “The home of the Nords, of course,” the jarl said.

“So you wouldn’t want to take Skyrim even farther back in time, to when it was the home of the Snow Elves, say.”

“Pfaw!” was Skald’s only response.

“And how about Bretons? Or half-Bretons like me? Are we welcome in your Skyrim?”

The jarl only gave her a smug smile. Brelyna had seen the same kind of smile before, aimed at her, one that ensured the recipient of their own complete insignificance, nigh on to nonexistence, in the eyes of the smiler.

The queen and the jarl eyed each other for another silent moment. Deirdre broke the silence first. “We could debate politics all day, but as your High Queen, I am telling you the Khajiits will be left alone. Only those who are legitimately suspected of these murders will be arrested.”

Skald’s smile broadened. “It’s too late, l…” He caught himself before he could call her “lass,” finishing with a sarcastic “your Grace” instead. “The orders have already gone out. I’ve exchanged letters with Jarl Hrongar in Whiterun. He might have been on the wrong side of the Civil War, but he’s a more sensible man than his fool of a brother, Balgruuf. Between our two holds, we control the routes of all the trading caravans. Soon all the Khajiit traders will be rounded up and put in camps outside Whiterun. There are stragglers in other towns, of course, but Falkreath, Winterhold, and Riften are all on board and will send along any cat-people remaining in their holds. I’d expected more help from Ulfric, but he seems less of a man, and less of a Nord, since you shouted him down. As for Elisif and Idgrod, one can never tell about either of them. If Elisif weren’t such a weak jarl, maybe these murders would have been stopped before they even started. Then there’s your puppet in The Reach. Nobody is happy with that, I must tell you.”

Lydia and Deirdre exchanged a look. Brelyna noticed it, as did the jarl, who seemed only to grow happier.

“So you see, we have five holds in favor of corralling the Khajiits. If it weren’t for the debt Jarl Laila feels she owes you, we’d have already called the jarlmoot to pick a new High King.

A long, tense moment passed as the two eyed each other, Deirdre balling her fists by her sides, and the jarl lounging on his throne as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Finally he put on an expression of mock fright. “What will you do now, Shout me down? Of course I know that you could level the entire town if you wanted. But I’m betting you won’t play the despot. You’re too kind-hearted for it. Your woman’s heart is too soft.”

Seeing that Deirdre was too overcome with rage to speak, Brelyna stepped forward. “Perhaps Jarl Skald should avoid playing with fire. Literal fire, mind you.”

Again it was as if she hadn’t spoken.

Deirdre placed a hand on her arm. “It’s all right, Brelyna. We’ll learn nothing useful here, since the jarl has done nothing to investigate the actual crimes or to find the killer. It’s clear he’d rather stoke the people’s fears than truly protect them.”

“Well, if there’s nothing else to discuss, will you be on your way, or do you need accommodations? I’d be happy to provide beds and a meal for you. For the two of you, I mean. I’ll have no darkies or pussy-cats sleeping under my roof.”

Brelyna’s vision went red as she began to cast a spell at this miserable excuse of a person. Next to her, Deirdre was drawing in breath for a Shout. Behind her, J’zargo was also moving forward. Jod, who had been standing nearby looking uncomfortable through all this, stepped in front of Skald.

But then Lydia moved in front, turning to face Deirdre and her friends. She spoke in a soft, calm voice, putting her hands on Deirdre’s shoulders. “My Queen, no. This will do no good.” She looked at Brelyna and J’zargo in turn. “My friends, put away those spells. Fighting here will not solve the murders, and it will not hold Skyrim together.”

Brelyna drew a deep breath and the red haze lifted from her vision. She looked over at Deirdre, who now seemed to find Lydia as if coming out of a fog. “Yes, Lydia, of course you are right. Let us leave.”

The four companions turned to go. Brelyna noticed the Breton mage looking at them apologetically as they passed her.

“Thank you for stopping by,” Skald called after them. “Be careful of the mob on your way out. They’re so hard to control in times like these.”

*~*~*

Deirdre was silent as they left Dawnstar behind them, her eyes fixed on the mane of her horse, her thoughts obviously far away. Brelyna had rarely seen her so upset. They let their horses walk along the road leading south, for they had no fixed destination at the moment. They had thought to spend the night in the town, but clearly that was impossible. Brelyna thought about suggesting a retreat to Morthal. Deirdre and Lydia might be accustomed to sleeping rough, but she was not; even Idgrod’s cramped hall would be better than resting on the ground. Lydia had mentioned Fort Dunstad as they were retrieving their horses, but Brelyna had little idea how far that might be. At least they might expect a warmer welcome from Skyrim troops commanded by Deirdre’s friend, Ralof. But the sun had just set behind the horizon and the parting of the roads west and south was approaching. They’d have to decide soon. Yet each of her friends seemed sunk in their own thoughts.

A shout from behind disturbed their aimless progress.

“What now?” Lydia demanded, turning her horse, her free hand going to her axe.

Brelyna was glad to see it was only the court mage, whose name she did not know, jogging behind them and calling for them to wait. She stopped a few paces from them and paused to catch her breath.

“You’re Madena, if I’m not mistaken,” said Deirdre.

Madena

“Yes, your Grace,” she said, giving a formal curtsy. “Though I’m surprised you know my name.”

“Jarl Elisif has insisted that I learn all the jarls’ retainers in every hold, and it was not unwise.” Brelyna thought her friend sounded distracted, not quite able to give the mage her complete attention, though she remembered her name.

“And why have you followed us, Madena?” Lydia asked.

“To… to apologize for my jarl’s behavior, first of all, and to thank you for not doing something drastic. And to offer my help. You seemed interested in investigating Rodrik’s murder and finding the culprit. Jod has been too busy calming these mobs to conduct his own investigation, so he sent me to see what I could learn, which was little. I must get back now, but I can take you to the site of the murder tomorrow if you stop nearby.”

“Yes,” said Deirdre in that same distracted manner. “We must make ourselves useful somehow.” Brelyna gave a sigh. Hard ground it would be.

“We’ll be glad to accept your offer,” Lydia said with more enthusiasm. “And could you do us another favor? I have messages to send. It will just take a moment to dash them off.”

“Of course.”

Lydia needed to borrow quill, ink, paper, and wax, as Brelyna was the only one who regularly carried them. As Brelyna fished in her saddlebags, Deirdre showed no interest in what these messages could be, but dismounted and led her horse over to some grass by the side of the road. She certainly did seem distracted.

Brelyna and J’zargo chatted with the Breton while Lydia wrote her messages. “I’m surprised a jarl with such views as Skald the Elder’s has a Breton mage in his court,” Brelyna said.

“I’m sure you know how it is, as a Dunmer mage,” Madena said. “Nords are mostly no good at magic, so they’re happy to rely on our skills when they’re needed, then throw us out when they’re done with us. Haven’t you found that to be true?”

“Not from my current employer, no.”

J’zargo sniffed. “But Nords are happy to buy our skooma then put us in jail for selling them skooma. They are hypocrites.”

“I was lucky to maintain my position, in truth,” Madena went on. “Skald wanted me to fight against the Imperials if the Civil War came to The Pale. I told him no, I’d given up fighting after I saw what my spells did in the Great War. I wanted no more of it, and told him I would only heal the wounded. That seemed good enough for him to keep me on.”

“Lucky for you the war never came here.”

“Yes, and for that we have our queen to thank.” She looked over toward Deirdre with a mixture of admiration and concern. “Is she all right? I really thought she was going to Shout Skald into Oblivion, until Captain Ravenwood stepped in.”

“It was close. I was ready to fry the boor myself. I think she was just angry on our behalf. And she’s frustrated that we haven’t been able to stop these murders. Then to be defied in such a manner, to think that innocents will be rounded up like animals in the land she supposedly rules. Her sense of powerlessness must have been too much for her.”

“To have such power, and always refrain from using it — it must be difficult. I know I have had my own struggles, though my power is far less.”

“She has done much to train her mind and her emotions to avoid such lapses of self-control. I thought I’d never again see her so close to losing it as I did just now.”

They both looked thoughtfully for a moment at their queen, who was idly toying with a summer flower on the other side of the road. Then Lydia was done with her messages and brought them to Madena.

“This short one to the Royal Guard in Solitude, and this longer one to General Ralof in Whiterun,” she said as she handed them over. “They should travel overnight, I’m afraid.”

Deirdre had put her flower aside and was now showing more interest.

“I’ll send the messages right away,” Madena said. After arranging to meet again in the morning, she turned back toward Dawnstar.

“What were those messages about?” Deirdre asked.

Lydia looked at her solemnly. “It is time for these jarls to stop questioning your authority, my Queen. I have sent to Solitude for your Royal Guard. I’m having them meet us in Whiterun. I know you will not put up with the jarls single-handedly imprisoning innocents, and so that must be where we go next. And I’ve sent word to Ralof to have his army ready to remind Jarl Hrongar who holds the power in Skyrim.”

Deirdre looked bewildered at this.

“Yes,” said J’zargo, “Deirdre should, how do you say, put her foot down. She is far mightier and a thousand times wiser than these piddling jarls.”

“It is wisely done,” Brelyna put in. “If I know anything about Nords, it’s that they respect power and the one wielding it. With your guard and a regiment or two of Ralof’s troops behind you, you can avoid such situations as we just found ourselves in.”

To Brelyna’s surprise, Deirdre burst out in tears. Lydia, putting aside her role as housecarl, rushed to put an arm around her. “Darling, what is it? Don’t let those bastards get you down. They’re just puffing themselves up. In another day or two, we’ll show them who’s queen.”

“It’s not that,” Deirdre said, pulling away and drying her eyes on the sleeve of her robes, though the tears kept coming. “I knew I was not ready to be queen, and told the jarls as much before they crowned me. If they now want to choose a different ruler, I don’t much care.”

“Then what is it?”

Deirdre sniffed, then gave out a long sigh. “I came so close to Shouting Skald into the next hold, turning his bones to jelly. And him an old man, defenseless before me. Unlike Ulfric, he’d never have survived it.”

J’zargo gave a low growl. “Arrogant Nord deserved whatever he got, after what he said about Brelyna’s and J’zargo’s peoples. This one thought there was no place for such bigotry in the new Skyrim.”

“He is an old man with many outdated opinions, and many are the Nords who agree with him. But I am the ruler of them all, am I not? The bad-hearted and the good, the bigoted and the open-minded. I must treat them all fairly, even if some of their views disgust me. And I certainly can’t change what is in their hearts through force.”

“You are right, of course,” said Brelyna.

“But it’s not just that. All the effort I put toward controlling my dragon soul, balancing its power with compassion, it hasn’t done any good.” She turned to Lydia, laying a hand on her arm. “Only you could stop me, my love, and I thank you for that.”

“I’m sure it was just one lapse,” Lydia said. “You can’t be perfect all the time. And these traitors would do well to remember that, it will keep them in line.”

Brelyna thought back to all that Deirdre had told them about training with the Greybeards at High Hrothgar. “Didn’t Arngeir tell you that living with your dragon soul would require daily effort for the rest of your life? Surely you can expect a few bad days along with the good.”

“Alduin said much the same thing as he died. He said he’d always be inside me, that I’d never be rid of him. Maybe today he showed himself.” Deirdre looked off to the distance, where the low hills of The Pale were mere silhouettes against the darkening sky. “And maybe Arngeir was right. Maybe the Voice is too great a power to be let loose in the world. Maybe I should sequester myself in High Hrothgar and spend the rest of my life meditating on balance, like Jurgen Windcaller of old.”

Here Lydia gave a “hrrrmph.” Brelyna had heard her tales of High Hrothgar, the home of the Greybeards. Lydia said she’d nearly lost her mind in those gloomy halls high on the windswept, snow-plastered shoulder of the Throat of the World, waiting for Deirdre to finish her training and meditations. “You’re just tired, my Queen. It’s been a long, trying day. Let us find a camp before it gets much darker and get some sleep.”

Deirdre agreed, and they began leading their horses down the road.

It was not long before J’zargo gave a little laugh.

“What could you possibly find to laugh about after the events of this day?” Brelyna asked.

“It is only that, out of the four of us back in Dawnstar, it was the warrior who kept the peace.” He wiggled his whiskers. “It is funny, no?”

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 8

A Chance Encounter

Rodrik threw down his hammer in disgust. Blast the damned roads, and blast the jarl for not keeping them in good repair! He’d hit a pothole the size of Red Mountain’s crater. Now the wagon’s front wheel was broken, the metal rim bent out of shape, and a big chunk of the wooden wheel itself was missing. He’d been trying to bang the metal hoop back into something resembling a circle, but it was no use. This summer rain wasn’t helping either, dripping down into his eyes every time he bent over the wheel.

A broken-down cart in Skyrim.

Beitild, the boss back at the Iron-Breaker Mine, would be mad as Oblivion when she found out he hadn’t gotten his load of tools and beams up to the new mine by the end of the day. It was already late, and he would never make it before dark. Work would come to a stop, and how Beitild hated that.

He had just decided to unhitch the horse and ride back to town when he heard another wagon approaching — but from the wrong direction if he was hoping for a ride. The wagon came into view around the corner, driven by a Breton from all appearances. The driver pulled alongside.

“Anything I can do to help?” the man said, eying the broken wheel doubtfully. He wore a long coat over a plain shirt and trousers. A pair of good leather boots that hadn’t seen too much wear was the only distinguishing feature about him.

Pic of a Breton.
A Breton (art by Valtarien on Steam workshop)

“Only if you happen to have a spare wheel with you.” Rodrik knew this was a dim hope even before he looked in the back of the stranger’s wagon. Nothing but a couple of long, rectangular crates. They looked for all the world like coffins, save for the small holes in the sides. “Or, if you’re willing to turn around and take me back to Dawnstar.”

“No such luck on either count, I’m afraid,” the stranger said. “I used my spare back in High Rock and haven’t been able to get another yet. And my schedule demands that I keep moving east.” He gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”

“Not to worry,” said Rodrik. “I can ride old Bossie here.” The stranger flicked the reins and then Rodrik remembered something. “Be careful down the road a ways, past Fort Dunstad. The Khajiit caravan is camped there. You’ve probably heard about the murders in Dragon Bridge and Morthal, if you came that way. Say they got the culprit, but you can’t be too careful.”

“I thank you for the warning,” the Breton said with a wave over his shoulder.

Rodrik turned to the business of getting Bossie unhitched. She was well-named — had a head of her own and didn’t like to be ridden.

He was tying up the reins to a more appropriate length for riding, Bossie shaking her head and stamping even more than usual, when he heard soft, quick footsteps from behind him, along with a low, groaning sound. He turned to see a flash of tawny fur, a clawed hand swinging toward him, and that was the last he knew.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 7

Murder in Morthal

A semi-clothed Khajiit
A semi-clothed Khajiit (art by ImperialAgent1992 via YouTube)

J’zargo stared down at the dead Khajiit, whose body had been tossed into a disused cellar beneath Morthal’s Highmoon Hall. He was large, probably a head taller than J’zargo. His fur did seem to match the tufts Falk had shown them, tawnier than J’zargo’s own. His feet were black with mud from the swamps, and the claws of his hands were caked with dark, dried blood. He wore only a dirty pair of trousers, more holes than cloth.

In the name of the Sugar God, what were you doing here, my friend? J’zargo still couldn’t believe a fellow Khajiit could be capable of such random, unprovoked killings. And then the Nords dumped him down here.

“Nords treat Khajiit like a sack of potatoes,” he growled. Just one more humiliation among too many to count these last days.

They’d dashed out of Castle Dour immediately on receiving the news of this third attack. It was too bad. They were on the brink of hearing the rest of Deirdre’s plans for him and for Brelyna. Sending them on diplomatic missions? It made little sense, even when he considered Brelyna’s experience with politics. He was glad for her to receive such recognition from the queen. But what was his role? There must be more Deirdre wasn’t telling them.

But the queen had been in a rush. Having now crossed into a second hold, the murder spree clearly fell under the High Queen’s jurisdiction. Deirdre had barely taken the time to throw on her arch-mage’s robes, much less wait for a complement of guards to accompany them. Lydia had protested, but Deirdre had persuaded her that the whole retinue would only slow them down.

For himself, J’zargo was eager to get to the bottom of these killings. They reflected poorly on Khajiits, and therefore on J’zargo. Maybe if he showed how helpful a Khajiit could be in such matters, Khajiits’ reputation would improve. Or at least get back to normal, the Nords treating the great J’zargo only with mild disdain, not outright hostility. And maybe he would rise in Brelyna’s estimation as well.

They’d reached Morthal late in the day, receiving a perfunctory greeting from Jarl Idgrod upon entering Highmoon Hall. “You’re lucky we haven’t burned the body by now, after what that animal did to poor Samil,” she’d said.

Jarl Idgrod, seated, with Gorm in the background

J’zargo had given a growl at this statement, but Brelyna had restrained him. He’d already received many hostile looks on the road here, and even some flying fruit; at least the jarl was comparatively neutral, greeting him with the same lack of interest she showed the rest of the party.

“I’m surprised you came at all,” she went on, addressing Deirdre. “Our people managed what yours could not, and now the whole affair is over. And lucky for you, too. The people were starting to grumble about what good a high queen is, if she can’t protect them from such lawlessness.”

Deirdre appeared calm, giving the jarl a half smile. “And I am surprised that one of your imminent foresight didn’t predict our coming, or even the murders themselves.”

J’zargo grinned. Idgrod was known for spending more time seeking out visions than helping her people. He looked eagerly from one to the other, hoping for more verbal jousting. But Brelyna, standing nearest to Deirdre, cleared her throat loudly before she could go on, putting an end to that line of talk.

The jarl turned them over to her housecarl, claiming she had other business to attend to — staring off into the distance hoping for a vision, J’zargo assumed. Now the four of them were gathered around the murderer’s body in the hall’s cellars, with Gorm, the housecarl, standing to one side.

Pic of a cellar in Skyrim
A cellar in Skyrim

“Here,” Deirdre said. “Let’s at least lay him out properly.” Between the two of them, they got him stretched out on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, but not before J’zargo noticed a gaping hole in his back.

Lydia noticed it too. “That’s a nasty puncture wound.”

“Aye,” said Gorm, “a pickaxe will do that.”

“How did it come about?” said Deirdre. “Tell us everything. And remember, even the smallest detail could be important.”

“Well, your Grace, I’ll tell you what I know, but you’d do better to talk to Jori and the others who were there, or the hold guards who brought the bodies back. I got it all second-hand from them.”

“And where will I find this Jori?”

“In the Moorside Inn, getting drunk no doubt, after what he and his friends saw today.”

“Then we’ll talk to him and the others in the morning. Tell us what you know.”

“Well, it was like this. Samil was out in the swamps this morning, working on a dike that had got a hole in it. Big drainage project up that way. He was off by himself, out of sight of the other men. They heard yellin’ and screamin’ and came running and saw this Khajiit tearing into Samil something awful. He was fighting back with his shovel, but Samil was no brawler, and he was already bleeding pretty bad. The men, four of them there were, set on the Khajiit with their own tools, but he fought back like a caged animal.”

“Yet Khajiit’s death wound came from behind,” J’zargo said. “Just like Nords, to hit him in the back while he ran away.”

“No, begging your pardon Master J’zargo, they had him surrounded. They thought to bring him to justice, not kill him outright. Y’see, we may not get many Khajiits around here, but we know you are people, cat-like though you appear. And so the boys thought to arrest him, not put him down like a wild beast. They had him surrounded, thought he’d give in, but he didn’t say a word when they told him to surrender, just made this strange groaning sound. He went after two of the lads, and had ’em both backed up against a hawthorn bush. We’d like to’ve had two more dead, but for Jori putting his pick in the fellow’s back. And now at least the terror is over, though Samil had to die for it.”

Yes, the terror is over, J’zargo thought. Yet when he looked to his friends, it seemed they still weren’t convinced. Each was looking pensively at the Khajiit’s body.

“What?” Gorm asked. “We ought at least celebrate the end of these murders, oughtn’t we?”

“If only it were that simple,” Deirdre said. She explained the evidence of poisoning. “So we suspect at least one other accomplice, and the murders might not be over. Did the men see no one else at the scene?”

“No! I mean, I didn’t think to ask, but I’m sure they’d a told me if they had.”

“And did the murderer have any gear with him? A pack with potions, or alchemy supplies perhaps?”

“No, he was just as you see him, no shirt, no shoes, just those ragged trousers.”

Now J’zargo realized that was the strangest thing about his dead countryman. “What was Khajiit doing, running around cold Skyrim wearing only pants? That’s what J’zargo wants to know.”

“A good question,” said Deirdre. “At the very least, if he was acting alone, he must have had more clothing or other gear with him, maybe stored nearby. Did the guards search the vicinity for any possessions he might have left behind?”

“You’ll have to ask the guards. I believe the situation seemed obvious, and they didn’t think to look into it further.”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “A lone Khajiit in the swamps, far from anywhere, and without any supplies, clothing, even a small backpack? They didn’t stop to wonder how he got there, or if he maybe had a camp nearby? I’d have some words with them if they were under my command.”

J’zargo felt sorry for the man, who now looked abashed at this chiding from one of such renown.

“No, I suspect they could do with some more training, but Hjaalmarch is a small hold, not like Whiterun or Haafingar, and things like this don’t happen so often. I guess they were just preoccupied with getting Samil’s body back home to his family, and one of the other lads had a nasty wound that needed tending.”

Lydia looked hopeful for a moment. “How did they bring the bodies back? Surely they didn’t carry them?”

“No, by wagon. See, the quickest way to the work site on foot is to go straight north and then a bit east across the swamps. But if they had a load of tools or rock for the dikes, they’d have to go around by way of the roads, south out of town to strike the main road, then east and northeast. That’s the way the guards took the wagon once Jori came running back here to raise the alarm.”

Deirdre and Lydia looked at each other. “And I trust no Khajiits have been seen traveling that road?” Deirdre asked.

“Only the usual caravan, but it came past last week, headed east. But as I said, the road passes south of town, and we don’t see everyone on it.”

“How about other travelers?”

“Oh, the usual, Nords mostly, Bretons, Redguards. Not many Imperials of late, of course. Wagons and horseback mostly, not many travelers afoot in these parts, unless they’re local.”

“So if the Khajiit was acting alone, it’s unlikely he would have taken the risk of passing by on the main road. He could have come directly across the swamps from Dragon Bridge. And in that case, he must have had a camp somewhere nearby. But if more than one person is involved, then a wagon could have passed by town unnoticed. Perhaps the Khajiit was hidden somehow, to avoid suspicion. They could have stopped not too far from the worksite, without the workers noticing.”

“Aye, it’s possible.”

“We’ll need to do a thorough search of the area, in case the attacker did have a camp, or maybe we can spot some wagon tracks. And that will have to wait for the morrow. Will Idgrod put us up here, or should we go to the inn?”

Gorm glanced at J’zargo. “Probably safer all around if you stayed here. Will you be wanting four rooms, or three, or…?”

“One will be fine for the two of us,” Deirdre said, placing a hand on Lydia’s pauldroned shoulder. She nodded toward Brelyna and J’zargo.

“One will be fine for us as well,” said Brelyna. “We wouldn’t want to put you out.” J’zargo gave a purr.

“Then I’ll see to your rooms. Supper is at seven.”

He turned to go, but then spun back around. “How could I forget? It was the strangest thing. Jori said that, right before the last life went out of the Khajiit, they thought they heard him whisper, ‘Thank you.’ I didn’t know what to make of it.”

J’zargo looked darkly at his companions, but said nothing. One particularly vile explanation for the Khajiit’s strange behavior crossed his mind. Deirdre seemed to share it, her look was so grim.

One thing was certain: Skyrim would not be getting back to normal any time soon.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 6

Making Plans

J'zargo seated, holding a cup

“Even for Skyrim, Solitude is gloomy place, no?” J’zargo pulled the wool blanket tighter around his shoulders. He was seated with his three friends around a large table in what had once been General Tullius’s war-room. “And this Castle Dour. Even today, when the sun is out, the chill is deep in this one’s bones. How it can be even colder here than in Winterhold, J’zargo knows not.” He looked longingly at the great fireplace at one end of the chamber, empty and unlit in what passed for summer in Skyrim.

Deirdre couldn’t help but agree, at least as far as the gloom of the castle went. The place had certainly dampened her own mood these past months, and even now she could feel the dark, low ceiling pressing in on her. Yesterday’s journey to Dragon Bridge had hardly been a relief. She asked one of the servants attending them to bring a pot of juniper tea.

“Just be glad you’re not still stuck in the Dragon Bridge jail,” said Lydia. “You’d have more to worry about than a dreary castle or catching a chill.”

“And for that, J’zargo thanks Lydia Ravenwood. This one heard what she said to the Nord mob. Skyrim’s people listen to the Hero of Whiterun.” Deirdre struggled not to gape, but Lydia and Brelyna weren’t quite so successful. “What? Did J’zargo say something wrong?”

“No, it’s just…” Lydia stammered, “well… you’re welcome.”

Deirdre was well aware of the reason for J’zargo’s unaccustomed humility and gratitude. Even after the captain of the guard had returned from Rorikstead, confirming the prisoners’ alibi, the crowd had remained restive. And it wasn’t just Nords, but the Breton and Redguard residents of the town, all united in their fear of the Khajiits. Only Lydia’s protective hand on J’zargo’s shoulder, and Deirdre standing next to Brelyna, had kept the mob from falling on their friends. Falk and Elisif had calmed them further by promising more guards for the town and increased efforts at tracking down the killer, or killers. Deirdre, too, had promised to add several of her own guard for Dragon Bridge’s security. With those assurances, the mob had allowed them to leave town with a minimum of grumbling.

In the two days since, Brelyna and J’zargo had settled into their new quarters in Castle Dour, separate but adjacent rooms, at Brelyna’s insistence. “I’m not quite prepared for cohabitation, or shacking up, as J’zargo puts it,” she’d told Deirdre. A tour of Solitude and a visit to the Blue Palace had taken much of the rest of the first day.

Now it was morning, and they were discussing possible duties for Deirdre’s court mages. Deirdre had already listed several possibilities, including the training of battlemages and spellswords for Skyrim’s defense and helping Elisif with some trouble in Wolf Skull Cave. “Who better than you two, who gained such experience of the Thalmor battlemages’ tactics at Whiterun?” Now it was Brelyna’s turn to shiver, but both agreed to the plan.

Then she turned to the real reason she’d brought them here, or at least half of it. “It’s also your political acumen I need, especially yours, Brelyna. You must have absorbed something of the ways of court and politics, growing up in House Telvanni.”

“It’s true, our house had to make every effort to maintain relations with House Redoran and House Hlaalu. I often overheard my parents talking about dealing with our rivals, and even attended formal dinners where politics were discussed.”

Dunmer dining room
A typical Dunmer dining room.

“Excellent. You can help me maintain the support of the jarls. I’ve grown concerned since Jarl Balgruuf stepped down. He’s made his brother regent until his eldest son comes of age.”

“Yes, we heard that news when we passed through Whiterun. Why did he do it?”

“He was never the same after the siege,” Lydia said. “He resumed his jarlship just long enough to ensure that Ulfric would never become High King. But now he’s decided he doesn’t have the stomach for the politics or the threat of another war with the Altmer. It’s a sad end of a great career.”

The tea arrived, and J’zargo gave a grateful purr.

“And while I could count on Balgruuf’s support,” Deirdre went on, “I can’t say the same for his brother, Hrongar. He’s never trusted me since he saw me marching with Ulfric. He’s shown himself to be quite hot-headed in ruling Whiterun. He may prove difficult to deal with.”

“And you are wondering how to win him over to your side?”

“Exactly. While also encouraging him to treat his people better. It is a touchy matter.”

“I’ll put my mind to it.”

Deirdre was pleased. With affairs in Skyrim more settled, she’d be able to pursue her other plans, maybe even get out of this dreary castle for a while.

“And then there are relations with our neighboring provinces. No matter how ready we are for an Aldmeri attack, I doubt it will be enough. What we need are allies from across Tamriel, and this is where the two of you can be especially helpful.”

Her two friends looked at each other, then blankly back at her.

“You both have valuable contacts in your homelands, for instance.”

“Yes, certainly,” said Brelyna. “But Morrowind is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of the Red Year. I’m not sure what help my people could offer. And especially my own house, Telvanni. Our homelands in Sadrith Mora, Tel Vos, and Tel Mora, all lie under a blanket of volcanic ash. House Redoran is now the power in Morrowind.”

“It may be that your land has little to offer in the way of defense, but cutting off trade with Summerset would be a great help, should hostilities break out.” She took a long sip of her tea. “But it’s also your own knowledge of diplomatic protocol I was hoping to draw upon.”

“I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.”

Deirdre turned to J’zargo, who shook his head. “Elsweyr is loyal to Summerset, ever since High Elves restored our two moons to us. J’zargo is a great mage, but he is no magician when it comes to persuading the Mane to turn on our saviors.”

“Yet the Altmer will turn on you once they have eradicated or enslaved humans. Surely your Mane can see that. They will not rest until they have all peoples under their heel.”

“Perhaps you’d do better to concentrate on those lands more capable of help and less predisposed in favor of Summerset,” said Brelyna. “Hammerfell would be the obvious choice.”

“Exactly what I’ve been thinking. And next, High Rock.”

“But High Rock is a loyal province of the Empire.”

“They have been, true. But now they are isolated, connected to Cyrodiil only by sea. And they must see the strength of the Empire waning as that of the Aldmeri Dominion grows. Surely an alliance of Skyrim, Hammerfell, and High Rock offers the sturdiest bulwark against any elven designs on their province. And the recent events in The Reach may put us in good stead there as well.”

Lydia cleared her throat. Deirdre knew she hadn’t entirely approved of her dealings with that hold. Especially not her decision to remain neutral when “Mad King” Madanach’s forces were advancing on the hold capital of Markarth. But Madanach had once been a benevolent ruler of both Nords and Bretons in The Reach, and now promised to root out the corruption of the Silver-Blood family, which Jarl Igmund had allowed to fester. He had also promised to abandon the foul alliance with the evil hagravens and all the other old ways, and to bend the knee as a jarl, not a king.

“That was risky,” said Brelyna. “Madanach may be a Breton, but the barbarous actions of his Forsworn raiders earned them a notorious reputation across Skyrim. Not only Nords, but many Bretons must hold that against him and all his followers.”

“That’s exactly what I tried to tell her,” Lydia put in. “And sure enough, the people are grumbling about it, not just Nords, but some Bretons too.”

This had been their one significant argument since their marriage. “Why do you ask me for advice if you’re not going to take it?” was one of the remarks Deirdre remembered most clearly. That argument had given her the idea that she needed more advisers. Relying on Lydia for security, love, and also political advice seemed too great a burden to place on one person.

“I hope the gain in relations with High Rock compensates for the loss of standing among your own people,” Brelyna said. “Political goodwill is nothing to squander.”

At Deirdre’s blank look, she went on. “It’s a simple concept, really. Every time you do something the people approve of, you build up your political goodwill. Think of it like putting gold in a coffer. Then when you are forced to take an action the people disapprove, it’s like drawing from that treasure. A wise ruler always keeps an eye on the balance, unless she wants to become a despot.”

Deirdre beamed. This was exactly the sort of advice she’d hoped to gain when she sent for her two friends. “I see my commission will be in good hands when I name you my emissary to our neighboring provinces. And J’zargo, of course you will travel with Brelyna.”

They both looked at her in surprise. “But we just got here,” Brelyna protested.

“Oh, not right away, but perhaps in the fall. We can’t afford to wait too long. But listen, you know what a grim place I find this Solitude. I also thought…”

Before she could finish, a messenger rushed into the room. “Another murder!” he said, panting. “In Morthal this time. And they’ve got the killer!”