“What I wouldn’t give for a mug of mead right about now,”
“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.
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.
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.
“Yeah, sure, another farmer or miner, what difference does
“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
“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
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
“We’ll keep our distance. Let me think what to do while we
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
“Come on, lad!” Torsten dug his boots into his horse’s flanks
and they dashed toward Shor’s Stone.
“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
The camp, if one could call it that, occupied a low, boggy spot on the rocky plains west of Whiterun. The rains of two days previous had left many puddles in the hollows between the few high spots the prisoners occupied. A split-rail fence had been hastily put up to keep the Khajiits in, but it was so flimsy that guards were stationed all the way around the perimeter. No wonder so few guards, and none in authority, were investigating the murders at Battle-Born Farm; they were all busy here.
There were no tents, only tarps strung between poles and
rock outcrops. The prisoners J’zargo could see from outside the camp looked
miserable, huddled together on a few blankets. The sun was shining, but a stiff
breeze blew across the tundra. It felt cool even to J’zargo, dry and warmly
clothed though he was; what must it be like for his countryfolk, who’d been out
in the elements for days now?
Only one prisoner showed any signs of resistance to his
circumstances. The Khajiit known as M’aiq the Liar stood near the fence, trying
to engage the Nord crowd with his often nonsensical statements, dodging the
missiles flung in his direction. “Nords are so serious about beards,” he said.
“So many beards. M’aiq thinks they wish they had glorious manes like Khajiit.”
“We’ll take your mane, you miserable pussy-cat,” a Nord yelled
“Yes, Nords’ armor has lots of fur. This sometimes makes
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
He drew back a sleeve and showed them a long scar on his
forearm. “This one is sad to say he dropped his sword. The Breton was coming
back to finish Kharjo off, but then Ahkari and Dro’marash came running up, and
the Breton fled.”
The four were silent, staring at Kharjo.
Finally, J’zargo broke the silence. “My friend, this one
thinks you were very lucky not to end up in one of the Breton’s crates.”
Kharjo still looked confused. “But why? What does it mean?”
“It means the Breton is our real killer, and the Khajiits
are not truly responsible,” said Deirdre. “The Breton is a necromancer and
carries the bodies of dead Khajiits in his wagon. He resurrects them to kill
his victims, or sometimes poisons the victims then has the thralls mutilate the
bodies. All to make us think your people committed the murders.”
“He must be a powerful necromancer,” Brelyna put in, “for
the bodies to last as long as they have, and to leave one body behind for us to
examine. And it explains the strange groaning sounds people heard, and the
Khajiit saying ‘thank you’ as he died. Sometimes the thrall’s original spirit
is still present, trapped inside the body, horrified by what the necromancer
forces it to do.” She stopped as she noticed J’zargo and her other friends
gaping at her. “What? It pays to know something of necromancy, even if one
doesn’t practice the dark art.”
“This is what J’zargo likes about Brelyna — always full of
“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.
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
“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.”
“It’s good to see you, lass!” Ralof, grinning broadly,
wrapped Deirdre in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. They’d hardly
dismounted when he’d come out to greet them in the bailey of the new army
garrison he commanded.
Lydia watched in amusement. If any other Nord male had called
Deirdre “lass,” it might have been the last “lass” he ever spoke, at least in
the queen’s direction. And as much as Deirdre had learned to tolerate the
bowing and kneeling, she would never require it of Ralof. No formality would
come between these two, not since the experience they’d shared when Alduin
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
“Keeping our queen safe, no doubt?” he said.
“Always. And speaking of which, has the Royal Guard
“Aye, just this morning.”
“Excellent. And the new garrison is coming along well, I
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
“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
“Oh, I mean to. And I have a plan for the Khajiits, if they’ll
agree to it. It’s clearly not safe for them out on the roads of Skyrim, judging
by what I’ve seen from the people. Tell me, has anything been done with the
Imperial fortress at Helgen?”
Ralof looked a bit sheepish. “I’ve been meaning to, of
course. But I decided it was more important to reinforce the border fort at
Pale Pass, since it occupies the high ground.”
“Not to worry. It is as well for what I have in mind.”
She said no more, and Lydia was wondering what this idea
could be when Brelyna suggested they go to their rooms to freshen up.
Deirdre looked at her, then at Lydia in surprise. “I thought
we’d just drop our things here, then go directly to meet with Hrongar. And I
want to see how the Khajiits are faring in this camp.”
“Brelyna’s right,” Lydia said. “It’s an important meeting
with Hrongar, and we should all prepare ourselves, especially the queen.” She
turned to Ralof with an inquiring look.
“You’ll find your saddlebags in my bed-chamber, which I’ve
made available for your use. And you’ll also find that chest the royal guards
brought with them.”
Lydia couldn’t help smiling at the confused look Deirdre was
giving them. She turned to Brelyna. “Those items I mentioned are in the chest.
I hope they haven’t become too wrinkled. And please check that Sonja polished
the crown. Our queen must look her best.”
“We’ll see to it,” Brelyna said, and she and J’zargo headed
up the stairs, led by one of the porters.
“Ralof, if you’ll send word to Hrongar to be ready to
receive his queen in two hours — assuming that will give your troops enough
time to prepare.” Ralof nodded. “And we’ll need some lunch. No one wants to confront
an unruly jarl on an empty stomach.”
Deirdre looked from Lydia to Ralof and back again. “What’s
going on here?”
“You’re not the only one with secret plans.”
“I feel as if you’re all conspiring against me!”
Ralof flashed that dashing grin at Deirdre. “We’ve got your
back, my Queen.”
Lydia beamed at them both. “I couldn’t have said it better
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
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
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
They reached the Wind District, where Aela and Vilkas waved
to them from the steps of the partially rebuilt Jorrvaskr. The place would
never be what it once was. It had been built from the upturned hull of a
greatship, one of the fleet that had carried Ysgramor and his Five Hundred
Companions to Skyrim eons ago. But the Companions were trying to rebuild it in
as much of the spirit of the old place as they could, with a curving wooden
roof already thrusting into the sky. It would be the only wooden building left
in Whiterun when they were done.
And now they had only the steep steps of Dragonsreach to
climb, with the crowd’s noise dwindling below them as they ascended. The doors
to the rebuilt hall opened and a page announced them: “Her majesty, Queen
Deirdre of Skyrim! Captain Lydia Ravenwood of Whiterun. General Ralof of
Riverwood. Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni. And J’zargo of Elsweyr.”
It was a long walk down the hall to the jarl’s dais. The
place was not as imposing as Lydia remembered it. A temporary wooden ceiling
had been installed while the masons labored on the vaulting roof above. The
ceiling was only three stories high, which in any other hall would have been
impressive, but it felt cramped compared to the Dragonsreach of old. But much
else was the same. Long tables lined either side of the hall, with the jarl’s
retainers standing before them. Lydia recognized many of them from her days in
service to Jarl Balgruuf, but many she did not. Yet to a man and a woman, they
knelt as the procession passed them.
Finally they arrived at the dais, the bannermen and guards in
front stepping off to one side to let the royal party approach the jarl’s
throne. Lydia was pleased to see Balgruuf off to one side, also taking a knee.
He gave them all a wink as he did so. Jarl Hrongar stayed in his seat on the
throne, while his steward and housecarl, neither of whom Lydia recognized,
dropped to one knee.
Deirdre stepped forward. Above her loomed the blackened
skull of Numinex, the ancient dragon captured by King Olaf in days long past
and imprisoned on the Great Porch of Dragonsreach. The skull had been rescued
from the siege wreckage and replaced in its rightful spot above the throne. It
wouldn’t be Dragonsreach without the dragon, after all.
Lydia’s first view of Deirdre had been in this very spot,
but how different it all was, now that Deirdre wielded the power of her Voice
and her army. And it seemed the queen had changed just in the last hours, and not
simply her raiment. As she’d dressed, Brelyna had coached her on demeanor and
bearing, drawing on all she could remember of her mother and father. They had grown
up before the Red Year, and passed on to Brelyna what they remembered of how
power was wielded when Telvanni had been the leading house of Morrowind.
“Remember, you hold the power,” Brelyna had said. “There’s
no need for anger or shouting or threats. Stay calm and quiet, but never
waver.” A little of the imperious House Telvanni style went a long way, and Lydia
noticed how calm Deirdre was as she stood before Hrongar.
Hrongar had also changed. He still wore his hair cropped
close to his skull and his blond beard tied into a point that hung from his
chin. And he still wore his old horned armor. But he appeared to have let
himself go in the months since the siege. Where the stout leather-and-steel armbands
he wore around his biceps once strained to contain his bulging muscles, now
they hung loose, as did the bracers on his forearms. The skin of his face was
rather wan, his eyes rimmed with red, and beneath his armor Lydia thought she
detected a paunch. Too much mead and not enough training, clearly.
Half a minute had now passed, with Hrongar still slouched on
the throne, much as his brother had used to do. His steward, still kneeling,
was looking at him sideways, and softly clearing his throat.
At last Hrongar rose, then went to one knee. “It is a
pleasure to welcome you to Dragonsreach, my Queen, and your companions as
well.” There was little pleasure in his voice. He waited there on one knee, and
continued to wait, as Deirdre let the moment stretch on, paying Hrongar in
“Rise, Hrongar,” she said at last. “I still remember you
were the first to believe I was the Dragonborn. Much has changed since then,
“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
Ralof didn’t bother smiling, keeping his mouth in a set
line. “Steel-booted thugs, eh? I remember when they were called brave sons and
daughters of Skyrim. But they’re not my
steel-booted thugs, they’re Queen Deirdre’s.”
“Do you think you can intimidate me, having them march up
and down by the prison camp?”
“You can take the exercises any way you want, mate.”
At this, Hrongar gripped the arm of his chair. His steward
bent down and whispered something in his ear, and the jarl turned his attention
back to Deirdre. Lydia took the lapse in the confrontation to glance over at
Balgruuf, seated off to one side. The old jarl looked on with a bemused expression,
but gave her an encouraging nod.
Hrongar seemed to have gotten the better of his temper and
now addressed Deirdre more calmly, though it came out sounding as if he were
explaining a complex situation to a child. “This is my hold, my Queen, and it is
my duty to protect my people by any means necessary.” Lydia thought open anger
might be less risky if he hoped to avoid raising Deirdre’s ire.
“And an impressive job you’re doing of it, judging by this
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
“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
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?”
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.”
“But if they killed her with poison, why rend her body like
“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
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
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
“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
“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,”
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
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.
“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
“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
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.
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
“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
“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
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!”
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
“As you should, though there may come a time when I ask you
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
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
The silence stretched on for a moment, then Brelyna broke
“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
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.
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
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
“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 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.
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
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
“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
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,
She glared back at him. “Oh? I’m getting damned tired of
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.”
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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.
“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.”
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
“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
“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
“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
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,
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.
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.
“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
“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.
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.
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.
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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.
“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
“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?”
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.”
“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
“You both have valuable contacts in your homelands, for
“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
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
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,”
“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
Deirdre Morningsong had seen much in her short life that
would turn even the strongest stomach. From the cruelty of men, beginning with
those who had burned her parents alive in their own home, to the cruelty of
mer, in whose torture chambers she and Lydia had once been guests, to the
cruelty of Alduin and his dragon minions, and even the cruelty wrought by her
own hand, it seemed she had witnessed every variety of horror imaginable.
Yet little could equal the scene now before her in the
cellars of the Four Shields Tavern, which had been converted into a makeshift
morgue. The smell of the fresh-sawn planks mingled with the tang of stored
onions, the malty aroma of beer, and the coppery odor of blood — a nauseating mélange.
And there was something else in the air, but Deirdre couldn’t quite place it.
Four bodies lay on elevated planks brought from the nearby
mill, the sheets that had covered three of them pulled back for examination.
Even as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she could see the work of this
murderer was remarkably vile.
The bodies were those of Amaund and Cairine Jurard and their
two children. The boy looked to have been in his first growth spurt, and the
girl younger, maybe nine, though it was hard to tell, as she was still covered
with a sheet. Falk and Elisif stood nearby, facing away from the bodies, his
hand on her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands. At Deirdre’s
approach, she looked up.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a silk
kerchief. “I am not used to such scenes.” She looked once more at the bodies,
shuddering. “Such a happy family, such promise in the children, all ended, and
“No need to apologize, Jarl Elisif,” said Deirdre. “I only
wish I were not so accustomed to it myself. Yet for all the death I have seen,
I still cannot answer the question of what purpose any of it served.”
Elisif shook her head and looked away, as if the bins of potatoes
and onions lining the walls held an answer. “Nor do I know why we came here, if
only to learn what the guards already told us, that these poor people were
savagely butchered, with the great claw marks you can plainly see. Please, learn
what you can, then put the sheets back over them and let them lie in peace.”
Deirdre looked to Falk. “It’s as Jarl Elisif said. We’ve
learned little more than the guards told us. They plainly died of the wounds
made by the claws of a beast — or beast-man. Claw marks that match those of
your friend. And we know that at least the woman fought back, judging by the
bits of fur beneath her fingernails. But please, see what else you can learn.”
Deirdre turned to the bodies, and Lydia followed. Up close,
the gore was even worse. Amaund had huge rents across his chest and his
clothing was soaked in blood. Worse, one arm was raked down to the bone, and
one side of his face had been torn to strips.
“It seems pretty obvious what happened to him,” said Lydia,
always stoic. Her nonchalant view of the mayhem produced by battle had always
surprised Deirdre. “He probably tried to fend off a blow with that arm, and
then he could do nothing else to defend himself.”
As awful as the wounds were, Deirdre made herself look over
his whole body for anything amiss. “Look.” She pointed at an empty dagger
sheath on the man’s belt. “Maybe he drew his knife and took a swing at his
“If so, little good it did him.”
They turned to the woman, whose wounds were less extensive.
One deep cut across her jugular had done for her, soaking the front of her
dress in blood, now dried to a deep brown. Deirdre picked up one hand to find
the tan hairs lodged beneath the fingernails.
“She hardly looks like a fighter, but she must have been
brave,” said Lydia.
“Or simply pushed to her last extremity, defending her
children.” With a sigh, Deirdre turned to the young ones.
The boy’s wound was perhaps worst of all, a great rend in
his clothing from shoulder to waist. “But look, Lydia, does that seem like much
blood to you?”
“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell in this light.”
“I’ll take care of that.” Deirdre cast a ball of magelight
at the ceiling. Elisif groaned and turned away from the scene now revealed in
even more grisly detail.
Lydia examined the wound more closely, lifting the torn
tunic away. “It seems to have bled only right around the gash, and not much at
“Yet such a great wound would surely have gushed a great
quantity of blood, soaking his clothing like the others.”
Lydia nodded in agreement and they turned to the last body.
But as stoic as Lydia was, even she gasped as Deirdre pulled back the sheet.
“No, put it back, we’ve seen enough.” She turned away, smashing one gauntleted
fist into the other. “What kind of monster could have done this?”
Deirdre’s hands trembled as she pulled the sheet up to the
girl’s neck, covering the awful wounds on her body. She gripped the edge of the
table and spoke through clenched teeth. “Yet, like her brother, there was very
little blood, would you agree?”
Lydia could only nod.
Deirdre looked down at the girl’s face, wondering what
depravity could lead to the abuse of such an innocent. Then something caught
her eye. “Come, Lydia, look at her lips. Would you say they have a blue tinge
Lydia turned around slowly, giving Deirdre an exasperated
look before bending to look at the girl’s face. When she was done, she nodded
and turned away once more.
“But what does it mean?” asked Falk.
“That blue pallor is the sign of a certain poison. And that
smell, I thought I noticed it when we first came in.” She bent closer to the
girl’s mouth and breathed in. “Yes. That’s the odor of deathbell, or I’m no
She checked the rest of the bodies. “Yes, they all have that
odor, but only the children’s lips are blue.”
“Poison?” said Falk. “But why?”
“I hardly know. Perhaps we’ll learn more at the Jurards’ home.”
And they imagined themselves safe up here. Deirdre well knew the reasons a Breton family might want space between themselves and the Nords who lived in the heart of the village. She’d lost her own parents to Nords’ fears of anyone not of their own kind. Yet as she and her companions followed the narrow track uphill toward the Jurards’ house, the disadvantages of its remote location became clear. The family were so far from town that none must have heard their screams.
“Was the home looted?” she asked the guard who was showing
them the way. He’d been among the first to enter the house, and Deirdre hoped
his knowledge of the crime scene would prove valuable.
“Not that we could tell, your Grace. A chest with a small
amount of gold remained, the silverware seemed all in its place, even two fine
silver candlesticks, as plain as day on the mantel. It was the same with the
trader, Heimvar, his goods seemed all in place, and a good amount of gold in a
chest beneath his seat to boot.”
“How were they discovered?”
“The Lylvieves, who live on the main road through town, grew
worried yesterday afternoon when they hadn’t yet seen any of the Jurards.
Michel walked up and discovered them. She fainted, but when she recovered
herself, she ran down the hill and raised the alarm. Nearly swooned myself,
when I saw what was done to that poor family.”
They reached the house and the guard pointed out the single
paw print in a muddy spot next to the door. Deirdre knew nothing of Khajiits’
feet, since all she had met wore boots. “And you’re sure that’s a Khajiit
Falk nodded. “Aye, I have some experience with them. They’re
larger than the bobcats and lynxes we find hereabouts, but smaller than the
sabre cat. There’s nothing else like it native to Skyrim. If it comes to it,
I’ll have your friend brought up and we’ll match prints.”
Deirdre sighed, wondering how far she had to put up with this
protocol that demanded a full investigation of her friend, who was plainly
Inside, the house was hardly as Deirdre expected it. At
first glance, it seemed to be a normal, orderly home, save for two chairs
knocked over near the table at the center of the room. Then she noticed the
blood, which by now had soaked into the floorboards in black splotches. The
first of these covered an area a few feet in diameter a couple of paces into
the room. Another, smaller, was three paces farther in.
“Amaund was lying here when we found him,” said the guard,
pointing at the stain nearest the door. “And here was Cairine, not far away.
The children we found by the table. It seemed obvious they were interrupted in
the middle of their breakfast.”
Indeed, four bowls half-full of porridge and four mugs
remained in their places at the table, along with a pitcher and half a loaf of
“And here,” the guard said, pointing to the space between
where Amaund and Cairine had fallen. “The tufts of cat hair. We only took a few
down to the jail for evidence, but left these.”
They were the same as the ones Falk had already showed them.
As Deirdre examined them, Lydia walked around the scene. “If my hunch is right,
Amaund either came to open the door, or confronted the attacker as soon as he
“Probably that last,” said the guard. “It’s not likely they’d
open the door for a strange Khajiit. But way up here, in the daytime, there was
little reason to keep the door barred. The killer could have just walked in.”
“Then Amaund confronted him here. While they struggled,
Cairine came from behind and tried to pull the Khajiit away.”
“Thus the tufts of cat hair beneath her nails,” said Falk.
Deirdre examined the scene, looking for anything else.
“Look!” She went over to the wall near the door and picked up a dagger. “Amaund’s
knife. But it’s clean, it never struck home.”
“The killer was too fast for him, not to mention more
powerful,” said Lydia. “But then what of the children?”
Deirdre went to the places where the children had fallen.
“It’s as I suspected. Not much blood, even considering their smaller bodies.”
“What does that mean?” asked Elisif.
Deirdre gripped the back of one of the chairs, leaning on it
for support. She didn’t want to give voice to the one obvious conclusion. Maybe
she was wrong, although the alternative was just as grim. As she hesitated, she
looked down at the half-eaten bowls of porridge. She picked one up and smelled
it. Definitely a whiff of deathbell about it. She tried the other three, and
found them the same. But there was only one way to know for sure.
“Deirdre, no!” Elisif rushed over to her as she dipped a
finger in one of the bowls.
She stopped, her hand halfway to her mouth, but before she
could explain, Lydia broke in. “Don’t let her scare you. She loves to shock her
friends who think she’s going to kill herself with such risk-taking.” Deirdre
was all too familiar with the wan smile of resignation Lydia now gave her.
“She’s right. During my time in Arcadia’s alchemy shop, I
built up quite a tolerance. Deathbell, in small amounts, is used in many useful
potions, not only deadly poisons. This little taste won’t harm me.” She put her
finger in her mouth. The porridge needed salt. And yes, there was the
distinctive tingling sensation of deathbell.
“But how could the killer have gotten the poison into the
porridge?” Falk asked.
Lydia pointed to an open window near the hearth. “It was
warm that morning, and Cairine probably had the window open as she was cooking
the porridge. The killer could have snuck in while her back was turned, or
while she was drawing water at the well and the rest of the family were
Deirdre considered the steps necessary to poison the
family’s breakfast. “It does seem a risky maneuver, if the killer was planning
to attack them anyway.” She looked back down at the spots where the two
children had died. “I hardly know which is worse, to imagine the children were
conscious as this beast attacked them, or to think, as seems most likely, that
they had succumbed to the poison by the time the killer turned on them.”
“Why do you say that’s likely?” asked Elisif.
“It’s simple,” Falk explained, “it has to do with the heart.
If the heart is beating, wounds such as the ones made on the children would
gush and even spurt blood.”
“But once the heart stops with death,” said Deirdre, “the
blood would only ooze or leak out, and perhaps hardly at all, depending on how
long the body had lain there.”
“But how could you know of such things?” Elisif pressed.
Lydia put in, “Such things as the victors in battle do to
the bodies of the losing side, you probably don’t want to know, m’lady. The
pooling of blood in the body is well known from such events.”
“My guess is that the children’s bodies lay still for some
time before the killer attacked them. Perhaps he was catching his breath, or
gathering himself for what he had to do. It’s hard to imagine the monster who
would rend the corpses of children in the way we saw. At least we can hope the
poison had overcome their senses so they didn’t have to witness their parents’
murder or feel any pain.”
“But if the whole family was poisoned, why not let the
potion do its work?” Elisif asked. “Why attack when the parents could still
“Perhaps the potion was meant to incapacitate the victims.
Not kill them outright, but merely give the killer an advantage. But he
couldn’t calibrate the doses for the different sizes of the adults and the
children. Perhaps he hoped to attack them all while they were alive, which
would have made it harder to guess that poison was involved.”
“And that would explain why he went on to maul the bodies of
the already deceased children,” said Falk, “to make it look like a physical
attack had killed them.”
“Or they,” said Deirdre. “It could be the work of two
killers. I’ve never heard that Khajiits go in for poisoning.”
Falk looked at her. “And we have two suspects in custody
now. That certainly fits your theory.”
Deirdre glared back at him, controlling her growing impatience.
“How long must we pretend there’s even a chance my friends are the killers?
Brelyna a poisoner? J’zargo a bloodthirsty killer? If either of those turn out
to be true, I will abdicate my throne.”
The room was silent as Deirdre and Falk eyed each other.
Elisif broke the silence at last. “It seems we’re not much
closer to finding the killer.”
“Yet we know much more about who we’re looking for. We came
here expecting to find that these were acts of blind mayhem. Now we know they
“And it does give us another track for our investigation,”
said Falk. “I’ll have every alchemist and apothecary in the hold questioned
about sales of that ingredient you mentioned, deathbell.”
“Yes, although an assassin using such a poison would
probably pick their own.”
Falk’s brow furrowed. “I still can’t understand why the
killer would go to the trouble of poisoning them, only to then take the risk of
attacking them. Amaund’s knife could easily have wounded or killed the killer.”
“Whoever it is, one killer or more than one, they are
striving to make the crimes as gruesome as possible. Maximizing the mayhem,
attacking both Nords and Bretons without rhyme or reason. It seems they want to
strike as much terror into the hearts of the people as possible.”
And making very sure we know that a Khajiit is behind it,
but she kept that thought to herself.