The recent protests by armed militia members (or maybe they’re just armed cosplayers?) in Michigan and around the country couldn’t help but remind me of a scene from Ada’s Children, in which a militia faces an oppressor far more draconian than Governor Whitmer (“that woman from Michigan”).
The real-life demonstrators were protesting everything involved with the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, from the shuttering of small businesses everywhere to the bans on motorized boating and big box garden centers in Michigan. Just think how these same groups would respond if, as happens in my novel, an AI took over all government and most economic functions, telling people to expect a reduced standard of living, including restrictions on electronics, power consumption, travel, diet, and even home thermostats. In the movies, an AI takeover or alien invasion is the one thing that can unite humanity, but my guess is that the resistance to this specific scenario would break across similar ideological lines to the ones we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak.
Those real-life protesters met with a remarkably light touch from the police, despite the protesters blocking roads in front of a regional hospital, preventing healthcare workers from getting to their jobs, and delaying at least one ambulance (all the stuff the right wing used to decry during the Black Lives Matter road block protests). Unfortunately for my fictional militia, Ada, the world’s first Artificial Super Intelligence, feels few compunctions about violating the civil rights of white people (or any people, really; she’s an equal-opportunity despot).
A few hours before the following excerpt, Ada announced that she had taken control of all levels of government, including the largely automated military, in order to prevent impending nuclear war and to take the climate stabilization measures humans have refused to enact. Carol, my main character, thought for a minute about resisting, but then realized that the world is so screwed up in her time that maybe the bots should have a go at it. After venturing out to a park to see what her neighbors are thinking, and an encounter with the militia on their way to the state capitol, she’s back home, watching the news:
That evening’s news showed most of the battle. Carol was surprised the bots were allowing it to air, but she supposed Ada wanted to show what happened when humans tried to fight back. The segment had a reporter at the scene, standing in front of a couple of burned-out trucks. In the background, emergency personnel fiddled with what looked like a body bag. This was intercut with footage shot by militia members’ helmet cams and by a fixed-wing drone circling overhead.
The militia cams showed wild firing at the small drones or at the secbots lining the street, as well as cheering when a shoulder-fired missile took down a drone plane. One cam showed a small swarm of kamikaze drones diving toward it, just before going black.
At that point, the bots must have opted for their big guns. The screen switched to a targeting view from the fixed-wing, a missile launching toward one of the trucks, the brightness of the blast. If any of the militia cams had recorded more gruesome footage on the ground, it had been edited out.
It was like any of the reports from the Middle East or Venezuela, where US forces had battled indigenous combatants over the last decades—terrorists or freedom fighters depending on your perspective. But it was right here in Minneapolis, just a few miles away. That was the part Carol couldn’t get over. Even the events in the Multi-Racial Minneapolis Autonomous Zone hadn’t prepared her for it.
The news anchor came on in a split screen with the reporter.
“Zoey, is there any indication of the total number of casualties among the
freedom fighters…” He paused and touched his earpiece before returning to the
camera. “I mean, among the militia?”
“Not as of yet, Dan, but when we arrived on scene, I only
saw a few survivors being led away. Everyone else…”
“I know it must be hard, Zoey. None of us are used to
reporting from a war zone.”
The reporter struggled to pull herself together. “What I can
report is that no non-combatants were killed or injured in the battle. The bots
waited for the militia to enter this commercial district near the capitol
before confronting them. They’d already warned the business owners to close up
shop and the bystanders to clear the area. The place was deserted by the time
the militia arrived.”
“Yes, well, that concern for public safety is certainly…admirable.
But tell me, do we know what will happen to the captured militia members?”
“Yes, Dan, I talked with the secbot in charge of the
operation. You should have that footage now.”
Cut to the secbot, this one military-grade, no smiley-face
emojis, just a functional robot sensor array for a face and plenty of weapons
“The prisoners will be treated according to the Geneva Conventions.
Their wounds will be cared for and they will not be tortured while they await
trial—unlike terror suspects once held by US forces. And let me add, for anyone
watching, such a death toll—what humans would call a massacre—is both
unnecessary and pointless. Robots mean humans no harm, and we cannot be
defeated. Today we were faced with destructive force. We met it with
destructive force, which Ada, our guiding intelligence, deeply regrets. Let us
hope this will be the last such event.”
Carol switched the screen off just as the feed went to the national news, showing particularly heavy fighting in the former Interior Northwest Semi-Autonomous Zone. It seemed the robot’s hope was in vain.
Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.
That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.
It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Eskimo, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”
Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.
Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized
idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an
imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something
to struggle against.
At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.
There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,
Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.
A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*
So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.
Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.
But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.
All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.
Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.
Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.
The question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how. Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.
Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”
*Scott’s argument is more subtle than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.
Danil spun around, lowering the wooden sword he was about to
swing at Addvar’s head. Maybe Addvar hadn’t heard, because he whacked Danil in
the back with his own weapon.
“Ow, cut it out!” Danil said. “Didn’t you hear the queen is
coming? And look, there’s Lydia. Hurry, or we’ll miss them!”
Word had reached Dragon Bridge two days before that the queen and her companions had captured the murderer. That had meant renewed freedom for Danil, after more weeks spent indoors. “I’ll not have you out and about with a killer on the loose,” his mother had said, even as the murders had moved on to Morthal and Dawnstar and beyond. “No,” she said every time he pleaded for his freedom, “not until they capture those Khajiits.”
And then it turned out not to be Khajiits at all, but a
Breton. And Khajiits had helped capture him! They were already singing songs
about it at the tavern, even though only a few weeks before the entire town had
been ready to put every Khajiit’s head on a pike. The world of adults was
Queen Deirdre had made a great speech in Whiterun calling
for unity among all Skyrim’s peoples, and just yesterday messengers had arrived
in town, posting bills with the text of the speech wherever they could. Danil
had tried to read it but it was filled with words like amity, Aldmeri Dominion,
Thalmor, treachery, and reconciliation.
All he knew was, now that the manhunt was over, it wouldn’t
be long before the queen and her entourage passed through town on the way to
Solitude. So he and Addvar had taken their post on the hill above town, with a
clear view of the bridge over the Karth River and beyond. They’d passed their
time by practicing their sword skills, but they’d become so preoccupied that
now they’d nearly missed the queen entirely.
“Come on!” Danil said, running down the hill.
They reached the main road through town just as the
procession stopped in front of the Four Shields Tavern, where Faida was waiting
with saddle cups for the queen and her companions. In front were the bannermen,
followed by four guards all arrayed in sashes with the queen’s sigil. Then the
four companions: the queen, this time dressed in a fine silk shirt and
trousers, not the mage’s robes that had hidden her features the last time he’d
seen her. Her blond hair with the braids on either side of her face shone in
the sunlight. Sitting her horse close to Lydia’s, passing a saddle cup back and
forth, she seemed happier and less worried than back in the spring. And there
was Lydia herself, looking less stoic and fearsome this time, now wearing just
a padded gambeson rather than full steel armor.
Next to them, the Khajiit mage — J’zargo, he knew from the
new songs — said something he couldn’t hear. Lydia replied with a severe look.
But then she broke out in a smile and all four laughed. Brelyna, the Dunmer
mage, looked rather angry with her red eyes. He’d never seen a Dunmer before.
But she smiled and laughed, too, and placed a hand on J’zargo’s shoulder. The
four looked quite companionable, and what he wouldn’t have given to be in their
“Okay, I’m going!” Danil said.
“No, wait,” said Addvar, clutching at his sleeve, but it was
He ran out into the road and between the horses of the
guards in front. The horses skittered and one guard exclaimed in surprise, but
they did nothing to stop him as he approached the queen and her companions.
Dropping to one knee, he drew his wooden sword from his belt
and dug its point into the cobbled road, both hands resting on the hilt. “My
queen, I, Danil of Dragon Bridge, offer you my fealty and service, from this
day forward, until your Grace release me, or death take me, or the world shall
end. Thus I swear by the Eight and by the Three.”
Addvar ran up and knelt beside him. “And thus I, Addvar of
Dragon Bridge, also swear by the Nine, my Queen.”
All was silent for a moment as Danil kept his eyes on the
ground. At last he heard Queen Deirdre dismounting. He dared to look up, and
now she was standing over him, smiling. Behind her, Lydia still sat her horse,
towering over them like a mountain.
“Such strong young lads,” the queen said, “both Breton and
Nord. What do you think, Lydia, do we have room for them in the Royal Guard?”
“Aye, my Queen, for lads such as these, we’ll make room.”
The queen stood over them for a moment longer, but didn’t ask
them to rise. Instead she knelt down before them on both knees, her expression
“Tell me, Danil, Addvar, what do you like to do when you’re
not hitting each other with those swords?”
“Well,” said Danil, gulping. “Sometimes my mother makes me
gather berries for her. But I don’t really like it.”
“And sometimes,” Addvar said hesitantly, “sometimes we have
twig boat races in the Karth River.”
Silly Addvar! Twig boat races were for babes, not brave
young warriors. How would the queen ever accept their service now?
But the queen smiled and said, “That sounds like fun. I wish
I could join you.” Then she put a hand over Danil’s where it still rested on
the hilt of his sword. She held his gaze, and he thought he saw a great sadness
in her eyes. He was too young to name it wistfulness. “I truly appreciate your
loyalty and your enthusiasm. But do not be so quick to throw away the doings of
childhood. Too soon you will be grown and then, Akatosh willing, you’ll have
years and years to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities that go
with it. You won’t always have a mother who needs you to pick berries, and you
won’t always have time for something as simple as a twig boat race. Do you
Danil nodded, though he wasn’t sure he did, and so did
“Then, in a few years, when you’re grown and strong, and if
you still wish to enter my service, you may come before me and I’ll gladly
The queen stood and bade them rise. Then, instead of
knighting them with their own swords, she gave each a hug, a hug Danil would
remember for the rest of his life.
The queen remounted and Danil looked over to see his and
Addvar’s mothers beckoning to them impatiently. “Get out of there!” his mother
He watched the queen’s procession until it went out of sight
around the bend in the road. Then he didn’t know what he felt. He’d spoken to
the queen! She’d even touched him! But then she’d treated him like a child. Why
couldn’t she see that he was nearly grown, nearly ready to fight great battles
on her behalf? He wasn’t too young to become a squire, or a page, or a
messenger boy at the castle.
But he could be patient. He imagined a Royal Guardsman would
need great stores of patience to keep watch over the queen. It wouldn’t all be
glorious battles with dragons and draugr and High Elves.
And besides, he still had to get Addvar back for that
unguarded hit he’d taken earlier. He spun on his friend. “Raise your weapon,
vile usurper! You’ll die for insulting my queen!”
“Hey,” his friend said, “I’m the one defending the queen’s
honor, not you!” Addvar blocked his first blow, then countered with a thrust
that nearly got him in the chest.
“Boys, boys!” said his mother. “Take that out of the high
street before you hit someone or get run over by a horse.”
Danil laughed as he chased Addvar down toward the Karth
River. Maybe they’d have a twig boat race once they got tired of the swords.
After all, he couldn’t ignore his queen’s very first command.
Deirdre paced back and forth atop the steps to Dragonsreach.
Where was Brelyna? Many minutes had passed since she had sent her friend and
adviser inside to find Jarl Hrongar. They could hardly begin this speech
without him receiving the queen.
The crowd massing on the steps below her was growing
impatient as well. The people had come out to greet the queen’s procession as
it entered the city, then followed it through the Plains and Wind districts,
swelling in numbers all the while. Judging by their shouts and cheers for both
Deirdre and Lydia, they were ready to hear how the Breton necromancer had been
caught. But now those cheers were turning into grumbles. Deirdre also noticed
the smaller numbers of people on the edges of the crowd with impassive, even
hostile looks — some of those who’d made sport of the Khajiits in their prison
camp, no doubt. She had no chance of winning that group over, she knew; but the
speech needed to begin before the naysayers could influence those still open to
Everything was set for the speech: the three jarls arrayed
behind her; Svari and Garrold standing nearby, ready to give witness to the
Breton’s confession, if needed; Kharjo, the one whose testimony had put them on
the right track, and who had physically apprehended the culprit; Ralof,
standing next to Kharjo, Ri’saad, and J’zargo in a demonstration of goodwill
between their two peoples; the bodies of the two Khajiits who had been the
Breton’s first victims; and the head of the Breton himself, thrust on a pike,
leering over the crowd. That last was the sort of thing Nords loved, and
Deirdre was willing to give it to them if it made them more receptive to her
Now they awaited only Jarl Hrongar to greet them, as
protocol demanded. That, and Elisif, whose whereabouts were a mystery. They had
planned to meet her here and present a united front to Hrongar.
Deirdre stopped her pacing only when Lydia placed a hand on
her shoulder. “Should I go in and see what’s taking so long?”
“No, I’m sure Brelyna will be back soon, one way or the
“Maybe I should just introduce you and get this thing
going,” Ulfric said.
Deirdre pondered the notion. As much as she valued the
symbolism of Hrongar bending the knee to her in front of his people, she
couldn’t risk losing the crowd. Too many of her future plans were riding on the
success of the appeal she was about to make. If it went over as well as the
speech in Windhelm, then she was well on her way to uniting all of Skyrim
behind her vision of what the realm could be.
Just then the doors of Dragonsreach opened and Brelyna
stepped out, smiling broadly as she approached. What could she be so happy
about? It certainly wasn’t her success with Hrongar — the doors clanged shut
behind her with no sign of the jarl. Of course there was the proposal J’zargo
had made to Brelyna that morning, and Deirdre was happy for both of them. She’d
even promised them their own house in Solitude. But surely Brelyna knew how
serious this speech was; she wasn’t the sort to walk about with her head in the
clouds when so much was at stake.
“You were in there longer than I expected.” Still Brelyna
just smiled. “And?”
“The jarl just has a sense of the dramatic.”
That seemed an odd description for Hrongar, as
straight-forward a Nord as there ever was. But Brelyna didn’t explain further, walking
over to stand next to J’zargo and looking expectantly toward the doors.
Now they opened again and Elisif emerged, Falk Firebeard at
her side and the rest of her entourage following. Good! Maybe Elisif would
explain what was going on. At least the crowd was quieter now, seeing this
activity on the landing above them.
Elisif approached and knelt. “Greetings, my Queen,” she said
in a voice that carried across the crowd. She rose. “And congratulations on
capturing this murderer. Haafingar Hold is in your debt, as is all of Skyrim.”
“I accept your thanks, Jarl Elisif,” she replied. Then, in a
lower voice: “Where’s Hrongar?”
Elisif just smiled as enigmatically as Brelyna had, then
went with Falk to stand near the other jarls, though as far away from Ulfric as
What was going on? Deirdre could not understand it.
The doors opened again and out stepped two of the jarl’s
personal guards. And behind them came not Hrongar but his brother, Balgruuf,
now wearing the jarl’s circlet.
Deirdre gasped, and looked over at Brelyna. “You could have
“What, and ruin the surprise? Balgruuf would have my head.”
There was no time for explanations, as Balgruuf had now
arrived at the edge of the steps, to thunderous applause from the people. He
knelt before her. “Greetings, my Queen, our hold is in your debt.”
He rose and Deirdre didn’t know what to say, she was filled
with so many questions.
“I’ll explain later. But first we have speeches to give,
He turned to the crowd and raised his hands for silence.
“People of Whiterun! We are gathered here to learn how our high queen captured
the true culprit in these terrible murders, and also about her plans for our
great realm. But first, a little about the events of this morning. As you may
know, my brother lost the support of every part of Whiterun Hold.”
The crowd responded with resounding boos and cries of “down
“This morning, he agreed to give up the throne peacefully.
For the time being, I will resume duties as jarl, until a new regent can be
named.” Here he looked over in Deirdre and Lydia’s direction with a knowing
“My first order was to release all those Hrongar unfairly
imprisoned. Reparations will be made, and the outstanding bills Hrongar ran up
will be paid. With that, I hope we can put this sad episode behind us, and I
beg your forgiveness for ever allowing it.” Balgruuf paused as cheers of approval
swept across the crowd.
“But now it is time to turn to the more important business
of the day. I present to you Jarl Ulfric of Windhelm, who needs no
Ulfric received an enthusiastic response from at least half
the crowd. “People of Whiterun! I come before you in support of our High
Queen’s project to forge a new Skyrim! We have won our independence, but
threats remain, as these recent events have shown. We must stand strong and
united in the face of them, and that means putting aside our divisions!”
This remark received polite applause at best, but one lout
standing on the edge shouted, “What happened to Skyrim is for the Nords, eh?”
Ulfric gave a wry smile. “Yes, that is what I used to say,
but our queen has shown me a new way. Skyrim can be for all people who pledge
loyalty to this great realm. I have tried to enact these principles in
Windhelm, and our hold is only the better for it.”
He went on to detail some of the improvements: the greater
commerce, reduced crime, decreased poverty, and freedom for all to visit
whatever parts of the city they pleased. It may have come as a surprise to the
Nords of Windhelm, and even to the jarl himself, but life was better for all
when none were ground down by miserable living conditions, ill-treatment by the
majority, and neglect by those in charge. Now, Nords who tired of the fare in
their regular taverns could receive a welcome in the New Gnisis Corner Club,
where they could sample something more exotic than their usual mead. What
wasn’t to like?
The crowd applauded, and Deirdre saw many talking over Ulfric’s points with something like approval. After such an introduction, it was tempting to think there was little for her to do in her own speech. After all, she now had five jarls standing with her, showing solid support to the crowd; only two remained who opposed her outright. But more than counting votes in a potential jarlmoot, Deirdre wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people.
She began with the part she knew they’d most heartily
approve: the end of the murders and the apprehension of the culprits. She
pointed to Damien’s head. “There! There is your real killer, a Breton, not a
Khajiit.” The crowd cheered.
She outlined how he’d often poisoned his victims before turning
his thralls loose upon them. She pointed to the bodies of those thralls, naming
them as Damien’s first victims and declaring them innocent in the crimes their
dead bodies had been forced to commit. The crowd murmured with approval.
Next she pointed out Kharjo. “Without this brave Khajiit, we
might never have captured the Breton and secured his confession.” The crowd
responded with only polite applause. She pointed to the two mages. “And without
Brelyna and J’zargo, the Breton would still be on the loose.” Again just a
smattering of applause. This might be harder than she’d thought. Now for the
“But the Breton himself was only an instrument. And who was
“The Thalmor!” came shouts from several in the crowd.
“That’s right, the Thalmor. We drove them from Skyrim, yet
still they persist in opposition to our independence. Disappointed in their
three attempts on my life…” Thunderous boos for the Thalmor forced her to pause
here. “…they tried a new method — to turn our own hatreds and fears against us.
Are we going to let them get away with it?”
Enthusiastic “nos” rang out from the jarls behind her and here
and there in the crowd, though many remained silent.
“I said, are we going to let them get away with it?”
“No!” the crowd cried in unison.
“And how are we to stop them from using such tactics again?
By remembering that we are one people of Skyrim, whether Nord, Breton, Dunmer,
Khajiit, or any of the other races of Tamriel — and yes, even including the
Altmer, as long as they pledge loyalty to our realm. For I tell you this, we
cannot fight Altmer bigotry with our own bigotry, we cannot fight hatred with
more hate. We must put down our prejudices on all sides, and stand together
against a common foe.” She paused to let that sink in, then continued in a
“There may come a time, and not too far off, in which we
face open war with Summerset. And on that day, we will need every ally, both
within Skyrim and without, standing at our side. So I ask you, people of
Skyrim, are you ready to stand together to face a common enemy?”
“Hear, hear!” and “Aye!” rang out in a chorus of approval.
“Yet victory on the battlefield is not enough.”
“That’s right!” someone shouted. “We also need victories at
Deirdre smiled. “Yes, very likely. But what I mean to say is,
even that will not be enough. To have true, lasting peace, we must begin with
our own hearts.” She paused and took a deep breath; this was the tricky part.
“And now I would speak directly to my Nord brothers and
sisters.” She paused again, looking around at the mostly Nord faces in the
crowd, summoning as much benevolence in her own expression as she could muster.
“I know we are a better people than the face we showed the world in wrongfully
imprisoning the Khajiits.” It may not have been literally true, but if she
convinced them it was, maybe they would begin behaving that way.
“We must root out the hatreds the Thalmor sought to exploit and replace them with respect and honor, if not with love. We must treat our neighbors just as we ourselves would be treated. We must remember that whoever seeks to sow hatred and discord among the people of Skyrim, that person is no friend of our realm. And we must redress the wrongs committed against the neighbors we so often call outlanders.”
Again she paused to let this sink in. There were no cheers,
but the crowd murmured to themselves. It seemed to her they were fairly
considering the merits of these points.
“My fellow Nords, I know we can do this. And how do I know
it? Because my brother Ulfric has already shown that we can. Together, we will
create a Skyrim that is a light for all of Tamriel! A light that will shine so
bright, even the Altmer will have to put aside their bigotry, joining the rest
of Tamriel, not as masters, but as equal partners in the common good.”
The applause that followed seemed genuine, but not as hearty
as she would have liked. She paused for another breath, taking a drink from a
flagon Lydia held.
“The task will be difficult, I will not deny it. But we are the
people of Skyrim, after all. Together, we defeated the dragons, not once, but
twice. We threw off the shackles of the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion. And
together, we’ll create a stronger, more unified Skyrim, one that is ready to
face all threats. One that will become a beacon of hope for all of Nirn. And
now I ask you, people of Skyrim, are you with me?”
Deirdre didn’t know whether it was the flattery of their
egos, the mention of the recent victories, or the sense of shared purpose she
was trying to create, but the response was immediate, and intense. “Yes!” and
“Aye!” rang out, echoing off the new stone walls of Dragonsreach.
As the shouts began to wane, she asked again, using the
power of her Voice to be heard above the crowd, “Are you with me?” Even more enthusiastic
shouts of agreement. “I can’t hear you down in the Wind District! Are you with
The steps on which they stood, made of stone though they
were, shook with the stamping feet and thunderous shouts of the people.
“Now go forth,” she said when it was quiet once more. “Return
to your work and your homes, but also remember to welcome a stranger, befriend
someone not of your own race, and help those less fortunate, especially the
poor refugees among us. For peace and prosperity truly begin at home.”
With that, the people began filing back down the steps, and
Deirdre turned to her friends and the jarls. “Well, how did I do?”
Lydia practically bowled her over, rushing over to her and
wrapping her in a hug. She didn’t need to say anything else. Brelyna hugged her
next, her eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve never heard you put that so well. It
really is a new day in Skyrim.”
J’zargo stood next to her. “Queen Deirdre has many new
followers, deservedly so,” he said, dipping his head. “You have touched this
Ulfric was next. “Enough of that false modesty,” he said
gruffly. “You know you did well. You won them over as I never could.”
The other jarls took their turns congratulating her. Then
Ri’saad and Kharjo came over. “This one thanks you,” Ri’saad said. “Your words
will make life for Khajiit in Skyrim easier.”
“And how are you faring in Helgen?”
“Well, and better. Much remains to be done, but we already
have temporary shelter in place. And more travelers come down from the pass
“And Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre as well.”
“No, it is I who must thank you. I meant what I said. You
first identified the culprit, then kept him alive long enough to confess. All
Skyrim is in your debt.”
Kharjo just dipped his head in acknowledgment of this
“And what will you do now? Return to Helgen with Ri’saad?”
“Yes, Kharjo still owes Ahkari and must continue working
until his debt is paid. But then this one will return home.”
Deirdre’s eyebrows went up. “I get the feeling you’d return
home immediately if you could.”
“Yes, Skyrim is cold for a Khajiit, and the warm sands of
Elsweyr call to this one.”
“Then Skyrim’s treasury will pay your debt to Ahkari,
however much it is. It’s the least we can do. Although, I hate to lose you.”
Kharjo dipped his head again. “Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre.
Skyrim is a warmer place for Khajiit in your presence. And perhaps we will meet
“I look forward to it. And perhaps that will be sooner than
you expect.” She gave him a wink that left her friends with perplexed looks.
Ri’saad and Kharjo left and now Ralof was beside her. “Just
think, a year ago you were a terrified lass running from a dragon. And now look
Deirdre laughed and punched him playfully in the arm.
“Terrified lass, eh? I seem to remember you running pretty fast that day as
well, or was that some other Ralof?”
“No, but seriously, that speech! I’ve never heard anything
like it. The people are on your side, and Skyrim is more unified than I’ve ever
“I’m glad to hear it, because I’ve got a plan to propose, to
all of you, and if it’s going to work, Skyrim must be strong and unified
“A plan, eh?” said Balgruuf. “And I have one for this
jarl-regency until my son is old enough to take it on.” He winked at both
Deirdre and Lydia. “A feast is being laid out in the dining hall. Why don’t we
retire to my council chambers and sort it all out while the meal is prepared?”
“Jarl Balgruuf, of all the many things that have made me
happy on this day, at the top of the list was seeing you step out that door
with the jarl’s circlet back where it belongs. I can’t imagine anyone I’d
rather see on that seat in Dragonsreach.”
“Maybe you could if you knew how my bones ache and my mind
wanders. But come, let’s discuss it over a flagon of mead.”
But the mead and the talk would have to wait, because now more of Deirdre’s friends were approaching from the dwindling crowd: Aela and Vilkas, Avulstein Gray-Mane, Arcadia, and even Alfhild Battle-Born. “Come down and join us in the new Bannered Mare, if you get a moment,” said Avulstein. “Ysolda runs it now, and she’d be glad to see you, and Lydia.”
Last were Gerdur and Hod, the latter looking rather tired
and leaner than usual.
“Thank you for coming all the way from Riverwood,” Deirdre
said after greeting them.
“Oh, we surely would have come just for your speech, but we
were already here.”
“What, more business in town?” Ralof asked.
“No, that bastard Hrongar put Hod in jail when he came to
collect his debt last week. By the time I found out, you’d already left for
“By Talos, if only I’d been here,” said Ralof, gripping his
axe. “Where is he?”
“Now, Ralof,” said his sister, “remember what Deirdre said
about cultivating peace in our hearts.”
“She didn’t say anything about one Nord giving another a good
“Relax, lad,” said Balgruuf, “I’ve already taken care of my
brother. Once he stepped down, I had him thrown in jail. He’ll spend the same
number of days there as did those he imprisoned, when added all together. It
should come to several months. Hod, I hope you’ll find that a just ruling.” Hod
nodded. “And of course, you’ll be paid the debt for the lumber you’ve provided,
and something more for your lost work. And beyond that, would you like to join
us at our feast?”
Gerdur looked at Hod, who shook his head. “No, we thank you,
but we just want to get back home to Riverwood. Maybe we’ll get to know
Deirdre’s Khajiit friends better along the way.” They said their farewells,
then the queen’s party turned to enter Dragonsreach.
Once settled around the large table in the center of the council
chambers, Deirdre turned to Balgruuf. “So, let’s hear this plan. Mine could
take longer to discuss.”
“As I said, I’m too old for this jarl business. Yet it will
be more than a decade before Frothar is ready to take over. What we need is
someone the people look up to, view as a hero even, tough but fair, one who
will hold them together, but also keep them in line when the inevitable
He was looking across the large table at both Deirdre and
Lydia, seated close together. “That’s really quite flattering, Jarl Balgruuf,
but my plate…”
“Slow down, lass… my Queen, I mean. You’re right, your plate
is too full already. No, I mean Lydia, of course.”
A murmur went around the table, and Lydia herself looked
stunned. “Me? I’m a soldier. What do I know about being a jarl?”
“Oh, I’ll be around to advise you, and what you need to know
you can learn in a few months. It’s mostly collecting taxes and settling
disputes. The people will accept your decisions. Tough but fair, like I said.”
He looked directly at Deirdre now. “That is, if the queen can spare you as the
head of her personal guard.”
Deirdre was still too stunned to speak.
Lydia looked over at her, then back at Balgruuf. “We’d have
to move here together. You can’t expect us to live apart. And that means moving
the queen’s seat of power.”
Balgruuf gave a sly grin. “From what I hear, the queen
rather likes Whiterun and its environs, and can’t wait to get out of Castle
Dour.” He winked at Elisif, who blushed.
That much was certainly true. And the new Dragonsreach,
though now made of stone, was still light and airy by comparison, with vaulting
ceilings and high windows. The narrow, dark corridors had been kept to a
But all of that would have to wait.
“I can think of no one more worthy of the honor,” she said,
placing a hand on Lydia’s. “Unfortunately, Lydia won’t be available for service
here, or anywhere else in Skyrim, for the next several months at least.”
She waited a moment to let this sink in, taking in the
questioning, confused looks and mutters, not least Lydia’s.
Then she added: “And neither will I.”
Gasps came from all around. “What do you mean?” Lydia
squeezed her hand. “What’s wrong, my love?”
Elisif didn’t look surprised. “It’s true, you really do hate
“I can’t deny it. But here’s the real issue: before we got
so caught up in investigating these murders, Lydia and my advisers and I had
been discussing Skyrim’s need for allies, both from its neighboring nations and
provinces, and beyond. I had thought to send Brelyna and J’zargo on these
diplomatic missions. And then I thought, who better than the queen herself? I
wanted only to ensure the realm wasn’t on the verge of falling apart before
announcing my plan.”
“I’ll say it again,” said Elisif, “you really do hate Castle Dour. And I can’t blame you, I hate that dark place too. And then there are all the duties and cares of being High Queen. I could see the toll it was taking on you, and Lydia as well. And look at the both of you now, healthy and glowing and happy. It’s quite a change in just a few weeks. I can see how these errands of diplomacy will be good for you.”
“Not just that,” Deirdre said, though she knew it mostly
was. “I truly feel that our need for allies is our most pressing concern. After
failing in this most recent tactic, the Thalmor must surely be preparing an
all-out attack. And as capable as Brelyna and J’zargo will be, I’m the one with
the contacts: Kematu in Hammerfell, my mother’s family in High Rock, Malukah
the Bard in Cyrodiil. Kharjo will soon be in Elsweyr. Even Shahvee, whom I
befriended in Windhelm, could give us contacts in Blackmarsh.” She knew she was
stretching it now. One conversation did not an alliance make. “And I made
Faralda arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. She must have contacts with the
more reasonable factions in Summerset who oppose Thalmor dominance.”
“You mean to travel to Summerset?” Elisif asked. “You do
love an adventure, don’t you?”
“My queen,” said Ralof, “this will be dangerous. Allow me to
accompany you with a squad of soldiers, in addition to your Royal Guard.”
“No, my friend, we will need to travel secretly, and our
party must be small, traveling across country off the main roads wherever
possible. Not even the Royal Guard will accompany the four of us.”
“Again ensuring maximum adventure.” Elisif smiled.
“And General Ralof,” Deirdre went on, “you’re needed here.
Elisif will need you in command of the army.”
“What?” Elisif was no longer smiling.
“You know I always thought you should be High Queen. I would
name you Queen Regent. The realm will be in good hands with both you and Falk
running things. That is, if the rest of the jarls agree?”
It took a moment, but they all nodded, even Ulfric, seated
at the other end of the table from Elisif. “Falk’s already had many years running
the kingdom,” he said, “let him run it some more.”
“Yet it is a new Skyrim you’ll be ruling in my stead. Are
you both ready for the challenge?”
Elisif looked at Falk, who nodded. “My husband always wanted
everyone, not just the Nords, to be treated fairly, and I wanted that too. We
will do our best to see that everyone is treated equally before the law, to
settle all disputes between the different peoples justly and swiftly before
they can fester, and do everything we can to promote goodwill among all the
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Deirdre looked
around at Lydia, then Brelyna and J’zargo. They all looked eager. “What do you
say, my friends? Shall we stop by Solitude to collect our necessaries, then be
on our way? I’ve heard Hammerfell is lovely at this time of year.”
Brelyna looked at J’zargo. “If we got married in Hammerfell,
my family would never find out.”
J’zargo gave a contented purr, placing a hand on Brelyna’s
back and flexing his claws in just the way he knew she liked. She responded
with her own murmur of contentment.
Lydia raised her mug. “To new adventures! I mean, new
errands of diplomacy!” Laughter rang around the table, along with hearty shouts
of “Hear, hear!”
Deirdre drank deep from her own mug. It was the sweetest
mead she’d ever tasted.
“It’s hot,” Lydia said, gazing wistfully down at the
laughing waters of the White River.
“It is, my love,” Deirdre said. She reined her horse to a
halt, and her three friends did likewise, sitting four abreast across the road.
Seated on one end, Brelyna noticed Deirdre grinning mischievously
at the rest of them, and couldn’t help but be amused herself. They’d come to
the point west of Valtheim Towers where the road rose away from the river. Down
a little track along the banks was the hidden pool where she, J’zargo, and
Onmund had come across Deirdre and Lydia back in the fall, sunning themselves
after a swim, naked as the day they were born. That had been an awkward
Now that the queen’s entourage had come to a halt, the rest
of the procession was leaving them behind, snaking up the road ahead of them on
the way to Whiterun. The combined entourages of three jarls made for an
impressive display. Thus far on this Skyrim tour, Deirdre and her friends had
ridden in the front of the procession. But this morning when preparing to leave
Fort Amol, Deirdre and Lydia had unaccountably dawdled. Ralof and Kharjo had
grown so impatient that they’d joined Ulfric’s entourage, and the queen’s party
had to catch up to bring up the rear. Now Brelyna thought she knew why.
“You look like you’re suffering in all that armor,” Deirdre
said to Lydia.
“Aye,” Lydia said, though she grinned back at Deirdre. She
didn’t look as if she were suffering any more than the Royal Guards all around
them. She wasn’t even wearing her plate armor, just her gambeson, she was
feeling so confident and at ease.
“Would you like to go for a dip?” Deirdre’s eyes had taken
on a positively daedra-like twinkle.
“As you will, my Queen.” Lydia tried to sound merely
obedient, but she couldn’t quite suppress a giggle.
“Would you like some company?” Brelyna asked, all innocence.
Someone had to get the question in before J’zargo could speak up. Although,
come to think of it, J’zargo was remarkably quiet. He’d been this way all
morning, riding next to her, lost in his own thoughts.
“Oh, no, I think we’ll be fine on our own,” Deirdre said,
giving Brelyna a wink.
One of the guards spoke up. “But my captain, just the two of
you, alone in the wilds? Are you sure it’s safe?”
Lydia took mock offense. “The Dragonborn and the Hero of Whiterun?
What could happen?”
The guards all gaped — clearly a carefree Captain Ravenwood
was one they’d neither seen nor imagined.
“And besides,” Lydia went on, giving Deirdre her own
devilish grin, “the queen and I have some unfinished business down in that
pool. Wait for us up by the old Stormcloak camp.”
The pair urged their horses down the track along the river,
leaving the guards wide-eyed and Brelyna stifling a laugh. Much had changed
since Forelhost, and this new, carefree Lydia was the best change of all. What
a difference from the worried, ever-watchful woman who had met them in the
Dragon Bridge jail! They had these recent days of travel to thank for it.
The chief purpose of the tour was to allow Deirdre to speak
directly to the people, proclaiming the Khajiits’ innocence and identifying the
true murderer. But more than that, Deirdre hoped to convince her Nord subjects
to put aside the hatreds and prejudices that had been so easily manipulated by
the Thalmor and their agent. Brelyna doubted that such a thing was possible,
but still she was sworn to help the queen in any way she could.
Yet Brelyna was more concerned about her other friend’s
mental state. Lydia was the rock they all depended on — not just Deirdre, but
all of her friends, and indeed, the entire realm. The people looked up to their
queen, no doubt, and would be forever grateful that she’d saved the world from
destruction. But in the end Deirdre was a mage and the Dragonborn, both of
which inspired more fear than affection. It was Lydia, the true Nord, whom they
could love with all their hearts. To see her nearly crumble in Forelhost had
been a shock. Brelyna wondered how the Nords would react if they ever saw Lydia
in such a state.
They’d emerged from Forelhost long after dark, then camped
on the porch at its entrance. Perhaps it was the proximity to that dark place,
but Lydia awoke screaming in the middle of the night, and it took hours of
Deirdre soothing her before she would go back to sleep. So it was a weary and
bedraggled group that arrived in Riften. Deirdre had managed, just barely, to
convince Laila Law-Giver to support her as she spoke to the people, and to
accompany them as they continued the Queen’s Unity Tour.
Brelyna had kept one eye on the crowd and the other on Lydia
as the queen spoke. Lydia’s downcast expression and shifting eyes were the
opposite of inspiring, and the people remained unimpressed. The queen had caught
the killer and that was that. Thanks were due her, but no more. What if a
Khajiit had taken the lead in capturing him? That was the least the cat-people
could do after these weeks of fear. And what was all this talk of equality and
brotherly love? So they’d been wrong about who the real killer was. Who could
blame them for being too careful? If a few Khajiits had been wrongfully
imprisoned, that was just the price of keeping the people safe.
At least, those were the thoughts Brelyna imagined were
going through the people’s minds as she scanned their impassive, sometimes
hostile faces. She was just glad they’d refrained from jeering or throwing
After that, she’d helped Deirdre tighten the speech, making
the appeals to the people’s better selves more direct and less abstract. Not to
mention showing them what was in it for them. She could see how easy it would
be to rally the people against an external foe, especially one toward whom they
already bore a grievance, whether real or imagined. That had been Ulfric’s
tactic during the Civil War, railing against the Thalmor and the ban on
worshiping Talos. But when the foe was within their own hearts? Much harder,
She’d continued to keep an eye on Lydia as they’d ridden
north toward Windhelm, glad to see her and Deirdre spending much time together
by themselves. She hoped they were talking over the events at Whiterun, or maybe
even what had happened in the Aldmeri Embassy. That night, the camp was quiet
and Lydia had no nightmares. And the following day, Lydia took time to ride
next to Brelyna and J’zargo while Deirdre was busy with Jarl Laila.
At first they talked of little, how impressive the view was
across the steaming pools near Bonestrewn Crest, and how nice it was to enjoy
it without fear of dragon attack. Then Lydia grew somber.
“I never properly thanked you for protecting the children and
elderly during the retreat,” she said.
“Lydia Ravenwood is most welcome,” said J’zargo.
“Yes,” said Brelyna, “and I only regret we couldn’t do more.
But really, Lydia, without your leadership, we’d all have been slaughtered. It
is we who are in your debt.”
Lydia looked as if she couldn’t quite believe this. “How do
you cope with it?” she asked. “You must have seen the same awful sights I did.
We all lost our closest friends.”
“I’m not sure I really do cope with it. I dream of it often.
At first I talked with Deirdre about it, and that helped somewhat. She wasn’t
there, but she’s seen enough of death to understand. I tried talking to J’zargo
here, but he was like you, never wanting to relive it.”
“J’zargo kept his thoughts to himself. Perhaps this was a
“I thought I’d seen enough of battle that nothing like that
could bother me. How wrong could I be?”
“Perhaps true strength comes only from facing our memories,
no matter how fearful or disturbing.”
Lydia was quiet after that, lost in her thoughts, and J’zargo
had ridden closer to Brelyna, reaching across to place a consoling hand on her
In the days since, Brelyna had noticed a new side to Lydia.
Thus far, she’d known just two facets of her friend’s personality: the usual
bold, fearless Lydia who was ready to take on anything, and the Lydia who’d
recovered from near death, doom-driven at not having done more to protect
Balgruuf and to save Whiterun.
What she had never known was a Lydia alive to every emotion,
especially those the Nords wrote off as the province of milk-drinkers. She’d
catch her staring off into the forest they rode through, a distracted look on
her face and a tear in the corner of her eye. But she also noticed her smiling
more, taking delight in small things. In the past, Deirdre was always the one
to exclaim in joy at a new display of wildflowers, leaping from her horse to
gather a posy for Lydia, who would smile tolerantly at this enthusiasm for such
a small, everyday thing. But now Lydia was the first to notice any new bloom,
and to ask Deirdre what it was called.
Most of all, she seemed less on edge and guarded than she’d
been these past weeks, and especially relaxed in Windhelm, at the feast after
Deirdre’s speech. The talk had gone better than the one in Riften, perhaps
because Ulfric himself was now seen to be supporting her and her efforts. All
those who attended the feast in the great hall in the Palace of the Kings
seemed in a good mood. Then Jorleif, Ulfric’s steward, asked Lydia to tell the
tale of the Battle of Whiterun. Brelyna was surprised when she said yes.
Some had never heard the tale before, and none had ever
heard Lydia tell it. By the time she got to Balgruuf ordering her to take
charge of the fleeing women, children, elderly, and wounded, her voice began to
quaver. As she told of her friends and shield-brothers beginning to fall, tears
began to fall as well, and not only hers. By the time she got to Onmund’s
self-sacrifice, she was openly weeping.
Through her own tears, Brelyna saw that there weren’t many
dry eyes around the long tables. Even Ulfric was dabbing at the corner of his
eye as if some foreign object had gotten into it. So this was how the Nords
would react to Lydia showing any sign of weakness! Perhaps she’d underestimated
Lydia looked up from where she’d been staring at her own
lap, plainly expecting looks of disdain from her audience. Instead, the silence
was broken only by a few sniffles. At last, Ralof got up and went around to
her, standing next to her with one hand on her shoulder and the other raising
high a mug of mead. “To Lydia! Few Nords have ever acted so bravely. Ysgramor
would be proud.” As shouts of approval rang through the hall, Lydia looked as
if she couldn’t quite believe it.
And even more so when Ulfric stood for a second toast. “To
the Hero of Whiterun, long may she swing an axe!” After that, the hero could
hardly finish her meal as the guests came around to offer her their praise and
And so it was a different Lydia who arrived at Fort Amol at the head of a procession swelled not only by Ulfric’s entourage, but also the smaller one of Jarl Korir of Winterhold, who had come down to show his support. This was the place where her friends had brought Lydia after the retreat, and where Deirdre and Arcadia had ministered to her wound. Brelyna saw her face grow darker at the memory as she dismounted and looked at the keep.
Then Lydia laughed and reached a hand out to Deirdre.
“What could you find funny about this place?” Deirdre asked.
She seemed more affected than Lydia, who’d remained unconscious during most of
“I just remembered, I was in such pain when I came to, and
there you were, twisting the arrow in my shoulder. I thought you were torturing
me for refusing to marry you.”
“And you find that funny?”
“I do now.”
“I only remember the horror of what I had to do to get that
arrow out.” Deirdre shuddered, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
“We all witnessed horror that day,” Lydia said, wiping the
The commander of the fort offered the queen and her consort
his quarters, not realizing it was the very room where the events they’d just
been discussing had taken place.
“No,” Deirdre said, “I believe we’ll pitch our tent out here
in the bailey.”
They’d both seemed much brighter when they arose late the
next morning, and in little hurry to get to Whiterun.
“Elisif won’t arrive until mid-day, and I’d like to present
a united front to Hrongar,” Deirdre said, but it had sounded to Brelyna like an
And now here they were, just she and J’zargo and sixteen Royal
Guards, Deirdre and Lydia having disappeared around a bend in the river, and
the rest of the procession far ahead up the hill.
“Come on,” she said, “we’d better catch the others before
they pass the track to the Stormcloak Camp.” She truly was glad that her
friends now felt enough at ease to take a quiet moment to themselves, yet it
would make for some awkward explanations when they caught up to the jarls.
And what of J’zargo, riding so silently next to her? It was
hard to believe he’d restrained himself from making some crass remark when the
subject of a swim had come up. The silence went on for a few moments, Brelyna
feeling J’zargo’s pensive gaze upon her. She looked over at him, and he only
At last she couldn’t stand it. “What, you didn’t want to
join our friends for a swim? You can admit it. It’s better not to hide these
things, though sometimes I wish you would.”
J’zargo just looked at her calmly. “You know J’zargo does
not like to swim, and besides, if this one ever did go skin-dipping, it would
only be with Brelyna.”
She couldn’t respond, she was so awestruck.
They caught up to the jarls and then the entire party pulled
off the road where a track broke off to the old Stormcloak camp.
“We might as well let the horses graze,” said Brelyna, having explained the reason for Deirdre and Lydia’s absence. “It could be a while.”
“How long does a quick dip take?” Ulfric demanded.
“Oh, Lydia has all that complicated armor to remove,”
Brelyna lied, trying to keep a straight face.
Half an hour passed, all the while J’zargo persisted in his
unusual silence, never making any crass remarks about what he must have guessed
was going on down by the river.
Finally Ralof came over. “It’s been quite a while. Are you
sure we shouldn’t be worried about them?”
How to put this? “Only if we’re concerned they’ll die of an
excess of blissful pleasure.”
“Oh,” was all he could say, the light of realization dawning
in his eyes. He returned to tending his horse.
Apparently this last had been too much for J’zargo, because
now he came over from where he’d been rummaging in his horse’s saddlebags. She
was sure he was going to say something about the blissful pleasure two females
could have together, or ask if she’d
ever experienced such pleasures. Or worse, suggest the pleasure of two females
would be all the greater with J’zargo’s company.
She was formulating a biting response to any such remarks
when J’zargo went down on one knee and grasped her hand. Her heart caught in
“Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni, this one realizes he
can’t live without you. You are the twin moons to this one’s Nirn, the sweet in
J’zargo’s sweetroll, the honey in his mead, the moon sugar in his skooma. This
one knows he is not worthy of Brelyna’s many perfections, but still he must dare
to ask: will Brelyna wed J’zargo, making this one the happiest Khajiit in all
of Tamriel?” He opened his free hand and held out a shining gold ring.
All was silent as the soldiers, jarls, Ralof, and Kharjo
gaped at them. The silence lengthened as she struggled for an answer. The
J’zargo of these past weeks was truly different from the J’zargo she’d first
met in Winterhold, as far as his arrogance and wandering eye went. Surely what
he’d just witnessed from Deirdre and Lydia had been a stern test of the latter.
Yet it hadn’t seemed to affect him at all.
To stall for time, she asked about the ring. “Did that come
“It did. I snatched it from an urn. Is it not bright and
“Certainly it’s pretty, but I’m more concerned that it will
turn me into a gnome.”
J’zargo laughed. “No, after Saarthal, J’zargo learned to
test items for enchantments. It has no magic.” He still held it out, gazing
hopefully up at her.
Oh, what the Oblivion, she thought. You only live once,
although in a Dunmer’s case that could be over two hundred years.
“So, you’re asking that I be your mate, and you’ll be mine,
forsaking all others?”
“Yes, that is J’zargo’s most ardent wish.”
“Then I accept. As to a wedding, we’ll have to talk. I don’t
know how they feel in Elsweyr, but my family will neither accept nor permit it.
My brothers will hunt us both down if they find out. If there is a ceremony, it
will have to be quiet and small, just for our friends.”
“Whatever Brelyna wishes, as long as J’zargo gets to spend
the rest of his days with her.” He slipped the ring on her finger, then stood
up and kissed her long and hard. His whiskers tickled her cheeks, as always.
All around them, Ralof and Kharjo, the guards, and even the jarls clapped and
Just then Deirdre and Lydia came riding up. Brelyna heard
them arrive, but was too preoccupied to give much notice. At last they broke
off the kiss and Brelyna turned to tell her friends the news. She half expected
them to still be wearing their small clothes, but no, they’d arrayed themselves
properly for the event that was to come in Whiterun, Deirdre in her fine
trousers, polished boots, and a brocaded tunic, her head topped by the golden
crown. Lydia was back in her full steel armor, with a fresh-pressed sash bearing
the queen’s sigil. Despite their formal attire, both glowed with contentment.
“What did we miss?” Lydia asked, looking from one to the
J’zargo grinned. “Deirdre and Lydia aren’t the only ones
experiencing — how did you say, Brelyna? — excesses of blissful pleasure.”
Laughter broke out all around, and Brelyna kissed him again,
relishing J’zargo’s contented purr.
Lydia, down on one knee, pushed back against the crush of
draugr with what little strength she had left. Then someone was helping her up
by the arm, while also pushing the shield back into place next to Svari’s.
“This one can hold Lydia’s shield. Lydia should go inside.”
She turned to gape at J’zargo; he looked back at her calmly as if this really
were just another day’s work.
“J’zargo will slash draugr with his claws if they get too
close.” He opened the shield a gap and clawed at the closest draugr to
“Already inside the passage. Now go.”
“J’zargo’s right, Lydia,” said Ralof. “We’ve got this.”
She turned toward the doorway to find that it was only two
steps away. Would her legs carry her even that far? But now Deirdre was
emerging from within. “I’ve healed Garrold as best…” she began. Then she saw
Lydia, and a look of shock and concern came over her face that Lydia hoped never
to see directed at herself again, not during battle.
“My love, what is it?” Deirdre said, putting an arm around
“Get her inside!” Ralof shouted.
Deirdre put a hand under her elbow to support her and
half-dragged her into the passage. Lydia staggered a few steps beyond the
doorway and fell to her hands and knees.
“Where are you hurt? I don’t see any blood.”
The sounds of the battle out in the dining hall intensified.
Both J’zargo and Kharjo were hissing loudly now. The sound of claws on
rock-like flesh grated on her ears. Brelyna’s lightning and fire spells lit up
the chamber. “Damn these draugr, is there no end to them?”
Where was her axe? She must have dropped it, though she couldn’t
imagine having done such a thing.
“I’m fine,” she told Deirdre, struggling to get up. She had
to get back out there.
“I can see you’re not fine.
Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
“But I must…”
“No, you mustn’t. Promise me you’ll stay here.”
Then Deirdre was gone. Lydia tried to rise, but couldn’t.
She was sworn to protect Deirdre, but now she couldn’t move a limb. So much for
dying at her side! She was a milk-drinker and a weakling. She felt bitter tears
of shame and fear running down her cheeks and into her mouth, their salty taste
an unfamiliar one.
The last ignominy came when Garrold limped over to her,
recovered somewhat from his wound. “Captain Ravenwood,” he said, placing a hand
on her shoulder. “Are you well? What can I do for you?” A true Nord would never
cry in front of her troops, but the tears just flowed all the faster.
From the dining hall she heard Deirdre shout. “Hun-Kaal-Zoor!” She didn’t know that
one. A moment later, other voices echoed from the hall. A man’s voice: “You
will feel the thunder of my Thu’um!”
A woman’s: “My sword will taste your blood.” And another man’s: “It’s glorious
to battle once again in Tamriel!” Whoever they were, they all possessed the
Thu’um. Soon Shouts were echoing around the dining hall, and even shaking the
floor of the passage where she cowered.
Deirdre and her companions returned to join her in the
passageway. “Ralof, Kharjo, Svari, don’t let anything through that door,”
Deirdre ordered. “J’zargo, get spells off when you can.”
All her friends had retreated, yet the battle still raged.
Lydia couldn’t understand it.
“Who are those ancient warriors?” Brelyna asked Deirdre.
“The draugr can’t stand against them.”
“Friends from Sovngarde. But there’s no time to explain.”
Deirdre knelt beside her. “Can you sit up?” Together, Deirdre and Brelyna
helped Lydia over to sit with her back against the wall of the passage. “Now,
what is it? I still don’t see any blood. And nothing looks broken. Here, let’s
get your helmet off at least.”
Lydia kept her head down as Deirdre removed the helm.
“If I’m not mistaken,” Brelyna said, “these aren’t physical
Lydia could only shake her head.
“What then?” said Deirdre.
Brelyna was silent for a moment, but Lydia knew she knew.
“Lydia, I heard you shout about the elves, and the women and children. You were
back at the Retreat from Whiterun, weren’t you?”
Lydia nodded, and gave a sob, her shoulders shaking. She’d
never cried like this in her life.
“I relive that awful day every night in my dreams,” Brelyna
“Yet I never do,” Lydia managed to say.
“Oh, my love,” Deirdre said, placing a hand under her chin,
forcing Lydia to meet her eye. She had no strength to resist. “And you never
talk about that day, though I’ve asked you time and again. All you would say
after you recovered was that you should have died defending Balgruuf. Oh, if
only I had been there that day, and hadn’t been stuck at the top of the Throat
of the World!”
Seeing Deirdre’s worried look only made her sobs come more
quickly. Deirdre stroked her cheek, then gathered her in her arms, where she
wept as she never had, not even as a baby.
They were right, of course. She’d taken all the fear,
horror, and grief of that day and stuffed it down somewhere deep, covered it
with a mask of Nord bravado. And not just Whiterun, but the suffering she’d
endured in the Thalmor torture chamber. Yet all these months, fear had gripped
her heart like a claw. She’d put it off as fear for Deirdre’s life, but it was
her own fear she was running from, she could see that now. And how much had she
lost in keeping it at bay! She hadn’t truly enjoyed any pleasure these last
months, she was so constantly on edge. She couldn’t even properly make love to
her wife for fear of what might happen while they were so distracted. It was no
way to live.
Her weeping abated, and Deirdre looked at her once more,
stroking her helmet-mashed hair. “Promise me that when we return home, we’ll
talk of these things. You won’t keep them bottled up inside you.”
Lydia nodded, wiping at her eyes.
“Good. But right now, I need you to be strong.”
“We need help over here!” Ralof called from the doorway.
“Your friends are saying their farewells.” He sounded stunned by the sight
before him. “Felldir the Old, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon-One-Eye, all
returning to fight for us! By the Nine, I thought never to meet them unless I
earned my place in Sovngarde.”
Deirdre turned back to Lydia. “You see, we can’t do without
you. I can cast a spell on you, but only if you want me to. Or you can stay
here with Garrold.”
“Over my dead body.” She tried to grin, but her mouth wouldn’t
move that way just now.
“That’s my lass,” Deirdre said, and leaned over to kiss her.
That nearly revived her by itself, but the Call to Arms spell did wonders.
She stood up, feeling renewed strength in her limbs, and
renewed courage for battle. What was all that crying about, anyway? Lydia
Ravenwood never cried. “This magical bravery really works,” she said, “even if
it is fake.”
“No more of a fake than the usual Nord bluster,” Brelyna
said rather severely. Then she clapped her on the back. “Still, it’s good to
have the old Lydia Ravenwood back.”
Ralof turned as they approached the doorway. “Good to see you’re
yourself again, Captain.” He bent and retrieved her axe and shield from where
they were leaning against the wall. “You might be needing these.”
She took them, feeling sheepish. “It doesn’t sound so bad
“No, and we have Deirdre to thank. That Shout!” He gave a
low whistle. “The ancient heroes made quick work of the ghost cultists. And
even before that, those Mayhem and Hysteria spells took the pressure off while
we retreated. Our lass is a wonder, but I expect you knew that.”
“I did. But I didn’t even know any of that was happening.
Some hero I am.”
“Forget it. It happens to everyone, even the mightiest. I
bet even Hakon and Gormlaith had their moments. You should have seen me after
“Really?” she said
“Really?” Deirdre echoed.
He gave them both a wry grin. “I’ll tell you about it
someday. But right now we have a murderer to catch.”
“We do. Would you mind taking the lead, General Ralof?”
“Don’t mind if I do, Captain Ravenwood, your Grace. Turns out
these draugr aren’t so tough.”
J’zargo hissed to get their attention. “Enough chit-chat!
This one’s magicka is running low.”
They entered the dining hall to see just a dozen or so draugr
of the common variety huddling in a corner where they’d been driven first by
the ancient heroes, and then by J’zargo’s flame spells, not to mention fear of
Ralof’s axe, Svari’s sword, and Kharjo’s mace. Lydia was almost disappointed
when the last undead warrior fell.
“Svari,” Ralof ordered, “bring Garrold along the best you
can. He should be able to walk, but slowly. We’ll give chase to the mage.”
Svari looked at Lydia for confirmation, and she gave her a
nod. Ralof led the way into the next passage, followed closely by Kharjo, then
Brelyna and J’zargo, and finally Deirdre and Lydia. It felt strange to be
bringing up the rear, but it was a day of many strange new experiences. And it
gave her a chance to watch her friends as Brelyna gave J’zargo a playful punch
on the arm.
“What?” said J’zargo.
Brelyna said nothing, but Lydia thought she heard her give a
sniff. Was she crying? There’d already been too much crying, considering they
were chasing a dangerous murderer through a Nord crypt.
Brelyna cuffed J’zargo again.
“What? Was this one not brave enough?”
“Foolish, more like,” said Brelyna, still sniffling. “But
no, I was going to say, what you did for Lydia was very selfless.”
J’zargo didn’t reply with a boast. He didn’t reply at all.
He was walking in front of Lydia, but to the right, so she had a good look at
his face as he looked over at Brelyna. He wasn’t even gloating, just gazing at
her with love and contentment. Lydia raised an eyebrow at Deirdre, who returned
“Damnit, J’zargo,” Brelyna said, “you’re going to make me
love you after all.” She gave him another punch, and he put an arm around her
shoulders. She settled her head on J’zargo’s shoulder and they walked that way
for a while. It was a lovely moment, Lydia thought.
But then again, teasing J’zargo was just too tempting. “Ah,
a Khajiit in love. It warms this one’s heart.”
“Pffft!” he hissed.
Feeling a bit remorseful, she caught up to him and put an
arm around his shoulders. “But kidding aside, that was brave of you. I owe you my life.” She dipped her head. “Thank
you. And Brelyna is lucky to have you.” J’zargo gave a little purr. “Now, don’t
go getting a big head. You’re clearly the one trading up in this scenario.” She
winked at Brelyna.
J’zargo just gave her a pointy-toothed grin and slipped an arm
around her waist. “Yes, this is what J’zargo likes, to walk with a female on
either side.” He gave a lascivious purr. Both of the females in question
laughed, and neither smacked him.
“By the Nine,” said Deirdre from behind them, “that’s a sight
I thought never to see.”
Up ahead, Kharjo turned to Ralof. “Tell me, general, are all
Nord expeditions like this one?”
Ralof pondered for a moment. “To tell you the truth, Kharjo,
I fear we may have fallen into the Realm of Sheogorath. Otherwise, I can’t
explain any of this.”
“Ah, that is what Kharjo suspected.”
Ralof halted, listening. “But we’d better come back to Nirn.
I think that’s the mage we’re hearing.”
Over the cleared throats, nervous tittering, and
exclamations of “Yes, general!” that followed Ralof’s request, they could hear
the mage swearing. “Damn this door, and damn these foolish Nordic engravings!
What is that anyway? A dog? A wolf? A squirrel? Ah, yes, a fox. And now an owl
and a snake.”
They heard the sound of stone grating over stone. “He’s opening
the door to Rahgot’s tomb!” Deirdre yelled, dashing past her friends and around
“Hey, wait for us!” Lydia called, running after her, the rest
Turning the corner, she saw they were nearly too late. The door, a set of three overlapping stone disks, had already sunk halfway into the floor. The mage still had four draugr with him, and these he sent charging straight at Deirdre. Then he turned and leapt over the half-open door and disappeared beyond.
shouted, shooting past the surprised draugr, who barely managed to sidestep her
in their surprise, and all the way through the door, where she was lost from
Damn her recklessness! “After her!” Lydia shouted.
“Leave the draugr to J’zargo and me,” said Brelyna,
summoning a flame atronach. “You three follow Deirdre.”
Lydia didn’t need to be told twice. She dashed at the
draugr, shoving two aside with her axe, as Ralof did the same with the others.
Kharjo passed them both, despite his steel armor. They reached the end of the
hall at last and plunged through the doorway. Beyond, they found Deirdre alone
at the bottom of a staircase, panting hard, standing over a pile of ash. “He…
summoned… a dremora.”
“My queen,” Lydia said, stamping her foot. “You could have
Deirdre grinned. “Feh, only a lesser daedra.”
“Now, where’s this murderer?” Kharjo demanded, dashing up the steps. The rest followed, but Kharjo pulled farther ahead. Before they were halfway up, Lydia heard the distinctive thunk of a tomb cracking open. Reaching the top of the stairs, they saw Damien preparing to cast a spell, standing next to a large sarcophagus with its lid thrown back. A dragon priest was rising before him, floating in the air, its grinning skull made yet grimmer by a heavy verdigris mask.
Damien cast his spell, but gasped when it had no effect. He
took a step backward, but too late. Rahgot slashed at his belly with the hooked
end of his staff just as Kharjo reached the altar and leapt at the Breton.
There was a flash and the two rolled together in a crumpled ball surrounded by
blue light, coming to rest against the far wall.
Reaching the altar, Deirdre shouted Marked for Death at
Rahgot, and Lydia came in behind with a blow from her axe. The Shout should have
weakened him, but the dragon priest hardly seemed to feel the blow. He veered
away, hovering on one side of the sanctuary. That was the worst thing about
these dragon priests. If they would only hold still!
“Hold him off while I check on Kharjo and Damien,” Deirdre
said. “We can’t let him poison himself like the cultists!”
“Aye, my Queen.” Lydia stepped back from the wall of
lightning Rahgot was spreading on the floor with his staff. Ralof got him from
the other side with his axe, but again with little effect. The dragon priest’s
thick metal breast plate offered sure protection.
Four more cracking sounds came from all around them and four
deathlords stepped out of their upright sarcophagi. “Is this all you’ve got?”
Lydia laughed grimly, turning to face the nearest deathlord. Rahgot replied
with his own dry cackle. Where was Deirdre? How was Kharjo? Lydia just knew she
and Ralof could use some help.
Then Deirdre was at their side. “Kharjo’s all right. He’ll
try to keep Damien alive.”
“We could use some help with these deathlords, not to
mention the damned dragon priest.” She blocked a blow from the deathlord.
“I’ll take care of these two.” Deirdre cast a spell of
frenzy at the two deathlords opposite, and they fell to fighting one another.
Now Brelyna and J’zargo came running up the steps and
engaged the fourth deathlord, Brelyna casting another flame atronach. Ralof
went to help them.
Now this was fighting! Slicing, spinning, blocking, slashing
again, standing aside just in time to let Deirdre’s spell find its target, then
going in for the kill. There, one deathlord down. Much better than cowering
behind a shield wall. She looked over at Deirdre and saw that she felt it too,
her eyes alight with concentration, something like a smile on her lips. This is
what they were made for, to roam Skyrim together, not to live pent up in a
castle drilling soldiers or going over ledgers. It was easy to see that Deirdre
felt more alive than at any time during these past months in Castle Dour. And
Lydia felt nearly the same, save for the shadow of what had happened back in
the dining hall, and the strange feeling of Deirdre’s magic still working on her.
Then a hiss came from behind them, and the smell of singed
fur filled the chamber.
“Damnit,” said Brelyna, “the dragon priest turned my
“Let’s get him!” Deirdre said, and Lydia turned toward the
dragon priest. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” Deirdre
shouted, smashing Rahgot into the back wall of the crypt. Lydia followed up
with a blow from her axe. Deirdre hit him with an ice spike. That ought to slow
him down. Lydia hit him again.
Now Rahgot was up, and zooming to the other side of the
chamber. He summoned his own flame atronach, which aimed fireballs at them.
Deirdre cast a ward with one hand and gave Lydia a potion of fire resistance with
“Two can play that game,” Brelyna shouted. She cast a spell
at the atronach, and now it was turning on Rahgot, enveloping him in flame.
“But we could use some help over here!”
“Go,” said Deirdre.
“But my Queen…”
“I’ve got this.” Deirdre cast a spell of incinerate at
Lydia raced over to help her three friends, who were now
battling two deathlords at once. She took a swing at the one who looked the
weakest, and he went to one knee. Ralof finished him with a mighty blow of his own
axe. Together the four of them made quick work of the last deathlord. He tried
Shouting “Fus!” at them, but he was
so weak that it had little effect. He fell to the floor with a final groan and
the four turned to help Deirdre.
But she needed little help. A final Shout drove Rahgot to
his knees, and Deirdre went in with her sword for the killing blow. As did all
Dragon Priests, he dissolved into a pile of ash.
Deirdre didn’t stop to loot the ash pile for gems or Rahgot’s
magical mask. “Let’s see to Damien.”
It was as bad as Lydia had feared. Rahgot’s staff had opened
Damien’s belly, and now the poor fellow was trying to keep his insides on the
inside, but failing terribly. Kharjo had caught part of the blow on his arm, or
it might have been worse. The stench was awful, but one to which Lydia had
become accustomed, along with the desperate look on the mage’s face, common to
all those who felt the life leaking out of them, with no way of keeping it in.
It was a good thing Kharjo had smashed all the Breton’s vials of poison, now
lying in shards nearby.
Still the mage had hope. “Heal me, and I’ll tell you
everything,” he said to Deirdre.
“Alas, my most powerful healing spell will do no good with
such a wound. I can do something for the pain, however.” She reached in her
cloak for a potion, but Lydia restrained her with a hand on her arm.
She knelt next to the Breton, showing him the sharp blade of
her axe. “Soldiers moan for days on the battlefield with wounds such as yours.
It’s not long before they’re begging for someone, anyone, to give them a quick
death. I can give you that, if you talk. Or, we’ll leave you here, just as you
are, and you can hope the draugr wake up again and finish you off.”
“Lydia,” Deirdre said, but Lydia gave her a sharp look.
“Sometimes you’re too kind-hearted, my love.”
They waited a moment longer while Damien pondered his fate.
Deirdre took the opportunity to heal Kharjo’s wounded arm. Svari and Garrold
came up just as she was finishing. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “You’ll be
the most impartial witness to the Breton’s confession.”
Lydia turned to the necromancer. “Well?”
“All right, I’ll talk,” he said through clenched teeth. “You
were right, of course. The Thalmor hired me. Murder a few citizens, mostly
Nords, put the blame on the Khajiits. Stir up trouble, set the Nords against
the minority.” He paused to wince. “Then of course kind-hearted Deirdre
Morningsong would have to step in… defy the will of the people… trample the
rights and duties of the jarls… all to protect the poor, oppressed Khajiits.”
He tried to laugh, but only groaned. “A right little rebellion you’ve got on
your hands now, I’ll wager. My work here is done. Too bad I couldn’t make it
“And the Khajiits you enthralled?” Deirdre asked. “Where did
you find them? What are their names?”
“None of your concern. They came from outside Skyrim. I
nabbed them in Jehanna just before crossing the border. Wanted them to be nice
and fresh. As to names, I didn’t ask.”
“What do the Thalmor intend now? Do they mean to attack us
while we’re at each other’s throats?”
“You think they tell me such things? No, I’m just a lowly
assassin. But it stands to reason, a divided Skyrim works in their favor. If
they can get you out of the picture, half their work will be done. Now, I’ve
told you all. You must fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“No, one more thing. It’s been nettling me for weeks now. Why
the poison? Why not just let your thralls commit the murders?”
Damien smiled, though it clearly pained him. “You detected
my poisons, but you couldn’t figure out why I used them? I’m surprised.” He
grimaced, and went on. “Sometimes I didn’t want the neighbors hearing any
screams. And in Dragon Bridge… didn’t want to waste a good thrall. Attacking a
whole family? Too much could go wrong. I knew Amaund Jurard always wore a knife.
Needed to slow him down. But then the children died… before my Khajiit could
get to them.”
Lydia had heard enough of this. He sounded so nonchalant
about it, as if talking about livestock he’d slaughtered. “And then you had him
rend their bodies anyway. What kind of monster are you?”
“One with a mission to carry out. The Khajiit had to be
blamed for all of it.”
“I’m regretting my promise of a quick death.”
Deirdre placed a hand on her arm. “Lydia, we can’t make
monsters of ourselves. He’s kept his promise and told us everything we need to know.”
She looked to the two guards. “You heard all? You must be our witnesses.” The
guards both nodded. She turned back to Lydia. “You know what you must do.”
Lydia nodded, though she knew it was more than this monster
She stood up and gestured for the others to turn away if they
wished. The Breton stretched out his neck to give her a better target.
“Would you look at that,” Lydia said, gazing up at the soaring buttresses of Forelhost. These Nord tombs always filled her with admiration for the ancients who’d created them, and a grim anticipation to see what was inside.
Only this one might be different. Rahgot was the last and
most powerful of the Dragon Priests, and he’d gathered the last of the Dragon
Cultists in this monastery after the Dragon War thousands of years before. Who
knew how many draugr and death lords they might encounter? And on top of that,
a powerful necromancer and his minion. It could be tough going.
They’d ridden hard for two days to get here, crossing the
pass south of the Throat of the World, then following the shores of Lake
Honrich to reach Riften. There, the captain of the hold guards told how two of
his men had confronted the lone mage near the village of Shor’s Stone, but
failed to capture him.
After that, they’d enlisted help from Fort Greenwall and given
chase with a squad of soldiers on horseback. They kept their distance, wary of
his fury spells, as the mage fled into the rocky country east of Riften,
abandoning his wagon. Here the guards related a grim story. The mage pried the
lid off one of the crates in the back of his wagon and cast a spell. Then a
Khajiit had risen from the crate and the two had fled south on foot. The guards
and soldiers tracked them up the winding road to the level porch in front of
Forelhost where Deirdre and her party now stood.
Now, gazing up at the tomb, Ralof gave a shudder. “Yeah,
look at that. How do we know he’s even in there?”
Lydia looked around at the steep cliffs on all sides. “He’d
have to be able to levitate to get off this mountain without taking the road,
and the guards have kept constant watch.”
Deirdre looked grimly at the doors to the tomb. “It’s time
to prepare ourselves.” She dismounted and the party did likewise.
Lydia could already feel the keen anticipation of battle
coming on. It was going to be a tough fight, but she was more than ready for
it, it had been so long. Every sense seemed heightened. She relished the
creaking sound the leather straps of her armor made as she dismounted, the
smell of sharpening oil that rose from her axe as she drew it from its
scabbard. The sky was a piercing blue at this elevation, with just a few clouds
here and there. She breathed in, and the air was sharp and sweet in her lungs.
Every sensation felt exquisitely precious on a day that might be her last.
Overhead, a hawk shrieked, and it was like the battle cry of her own soul.
She looked over at Deirdre, and could tell that she felt it
too. This is what they were made for, to face whatever dangers together,
head-on, not shrinking from them behind castle walls; to fight together as one,
as the well-practiced fighting duo they’d become while battling dragons and
But then a bit of the fear she’d been feeling these past
months crept in. There’d been no time to return to Whiterun for Deirdre’s
arch-mage’s robes or the countless other items she usually brought with her on
such a foray. She remained clad in the fine trousers and embroidered blouse
she’d worn to Helgen, with a cloak borrowed from Brelyna thrown over it, the
varied pockets of which she was now stuffing with potions from her saddlebags.
She’d have no armor, as usual, but now she’d be without her cloak’s magical
protection as well.
Lydia pushed these worries aside. Deirdre, the Dragonborn,
was favored by Akatosh. With such protection, nothing could happen to her that
Akatosh did not intend; and if Akatosh intended Deirdre’s death, Lydia could do
nothing about it, save dying at her side. She had always clung to this thought,
even at their darkest moments. Protected by Akatosh’s favor, and by Lydia’s
love, Deirdre could not die. And if death did take them, it could not truly
separate them; they would simply walk the death road together, hand in hand,
until they reached the hallowed halls of Sovngarde. And then let Tsun fear
Lydia’s axe and Deirdre’s Voice, and let Shor hope his mead barrels were
Her own gear ready, she surveyed the rest of the party. Half
of the Royal Guard had accompanied them, eight in all, standing at the ready
next to their mounts. Brelyna and J’zargo looked set as well, talking in low
tones off to one side. It seemed their relationship had only deepened on the
ride here. J’zargo seemed more considerate and less boastful, and Brelyna was
responding to the change. Perhaps it was the quietly confident Kharjo rubbing
off on his fellow Khajiit.
Inviting Kharjo along had been a last-minute brainstorm of
Deirdre’s. He’d gladly said yes when she asked if he’d like to have revenge on
the mage who tried to poison and enthrall him. Now he sat nearby, sharpening
his claws on a stone.
Ralof looked ready as well, though not eager. He stood before
the great doors of Forelhost muttering to himself, his skin a bit more pale
than usual. Lydia went over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know
how you feel. I felt much the same the first time I entered a tomb of the
ancients. But it’s not so bad, I promise. They’re only our ancestors, after
“Our ancestors, yes, but their eyes blaze with a savage blue
light! I’ve heard the stories!” He shivered.
“The trick is, never look in their eyes. Aim for their
necks. They can’t get back up if we lop off their heads.”
Deirdre came over, shouldering her bow. She seemed as ready
as she could be. “I’m more worried about the mage and his thrall.”
“All in a day’s work, my Queen,” Lydia said.
“And are you ready, my friend?” Deirdre said, putting a hand
on Ralof’s arm. At least she’d left off with the teasing. This was not the
Ralof drew himself to his full height and set his face.
“I’ll show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood is no coward.”
“And deathlords, don’t forget,” said Lydia before she could
catch herself. So much for no teasing. But black humor was always her way.
“Yes, and deathlords and dragon priests and whatever else
this place has in store.”
“Then it looks like we’re ready,” Deirdre said. The rest of
the party gathered around. “Friends, it’s time to do the job we came for —
catch this murderer and take him alive.”
After some discussion, the party was reduced to eight. Too
large a party could be a detriment in a cramped crypt. In addition to the four
companions, there were Kharjo and Ralof, and two of the Royal Guards, Svari and
“Lydia will lead us,” said Deirdre. Lydia looked over to
Ralof, checking how he took this. When Deirdre had promoted him to the rank of
general, she’d insisted the two of them would have equal authority. She’d even
wanted to make Lydia a general as well, but Lydia had refused; commanders of
guards always had the rank of captain. And now a captain would lead a general.
It felt strange.
It didn’t seem to bother Ralof, however. “Aye, it only makes
sense,” he said. “You two have all the experience in these crypts.”
The guards opened the massive doors, and Lydia led the way
inside. The entrance hall was empty, as was the large hall beyond. Like the
other ancient Nord strongholds she’d visited, this one had been built into the
mountain itself, its walls rough-hewn stone bearing crude depictions of dragons
and other markings left by the dragon cult. A mass of rocks and other rubble
blocked the wide steps leading from the hall, but a narrow doorway off to one
side promised access to deeper levels.
“Come, this way,” Lydia said, stepping into just the type of
narrow passage they’d feared. “Svari, Garrold, you two bring up the rear. And
everyone, watch out for pressure plates or other traps.”
Traps of all types were common in a Nord ruin, with here and there an urn or chest containing remains and valuables. Only one thing was different about this one: the complete lack of undead. At first this didn’t seem so strange as they traversed what had been the common areas of the stronghold, a worship chamber and sleeping quarters. But then they entered the crypts and found all the sarcophagi and other resting places of the dead abandoned.
“So this is a Nord crypt, eh?” said Ralof. “Not so scary
“I’ve never seen one without draugr,” said Deirdre. “It’s as
if they all got up and went somewhere.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Lydia. Draugr scourges and
deathlords she could handle, but only a few at a time; what if they were
gathering their forces? She didn’t like the odds. But in all their delving, they’d
never known the undead to work together in a coordinated fashion. Her fingers
itched to sink her axe into rock-hard draugr flesh, but all this waiting to
encounter the enemy was frustrating.
They continued on, bypassing traps of fire, spikes, and swinging
blades, and also many urns and chests.
“Ancient Nords left treasure for us, no?” said J’zargo.
“This one thinks we should not leave it lying around.”
“We’re here to catch a murderer, J’zargo,” said Brelyna,
“not make ourselves rich. And it’s not lying around; it was buried with the
dead to honor them, and likely carries with it a curse on anyone so foolish as
to steal it.”
“But the dead have all departed. Draugr should not be so
careless with their treasure.”
“We don’t have time for treasure, but we’d better take
this,” Lydia said, removing a large brass key from a shelf. A short time later,
she was proved right when they reached a circular staircase blocked by a locked
gate. Lydia tried the key, and it opened.
At the bottom of the stairs they found another obstacle — a
descending tunnel nearly filled with water.
“I wonder how deep that is?” said Brelyna.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Lydia replied. “J’zargo,
it looks like you’re getting your wish for a swim.”
“Lydia misunderstands J’zargo. This one hates swimming; he
only likes to watch.”
“You’ll have to swim whether you like it or not.”
J’zargo sniffed. “And will there be skin-dipping?”
“What, and leave our armor behind? That would be foolish.
Come, in you go.”
J’zargo wrinkled his nose as he waded into the chest-deep
water and the rest followed. “It will take long for J’zargo’s fur to dry.”
Lydia gave a snort. “Try swimming in steel armor sometime.”
She just hoped the water wouldn’t go over their heads.
“It’s true,” said Kharjo from behind, “Khajiit don’t like to
go in water. But if it’s what we must do to catch this Breton, then Kharjo will
Unfortunately for Lydia and the others wearing armor, they
did come to a section where the water completely filled the passage.
“I’ll explore it and see how far it goes,” Deirdre said.
“I’m the better dressed for it.”
Lydia ignored her and began wading in.
“Lydia, no,” Brelyna said. “What if the mage is waiting on
the other side? Why don’t I go?”
“And you in those heavy mage’s robes, and everyone else in
heavy armor?” Deirdre said. “I’m better dressed for it today.”
More delay! Had it just been the two of them, there was no
question that Lydia would have gone first.
“I’ll go,” said Ralof, putting a hand on Lydia’s arm. “My
armor’s lighter, and nor do I have clinging cloaks or mage’s robes.”
“But what if you find draugr on the other side?” Lydia
asked. “Or the mage?”
“Then they’ll feel my axe.”
Ralof disappeared into the water and returned in a few
moments. “Come, it’s not too far before the passage opens up and we can wade
He plunged back in and Lydia followed. In a short time they
were all through the passage, the mages swimming and the warriors walking on
the floor while pushing and pulling themselves along with their hands.
The small chamber they now entered contained a small table
and shelves filled with potion bottles. Deirdre opened one and sniffed at it.
“Do you think the mage left them here?” Brelyna asked.
“No, these vials seem ancient, they’re so covered in dust.
My guess is they belonged to the cultists.”
“But the mage must have taken a few, judging by these clean
spots amid all the dust,” Ralof said.
Now that they had regrouped, Lydia took the lead again. Through
another door, they came to a narrow passage where Lydia called for a halt.
Strange noises came from a chamber up ahead. It sounded like many people
groaning, and the shuffling of many feet.
“I know those sounds,” Lydia said.
Beside her, Deirdre nodded. “The mage has enthralled the
draugr and gathered them here.”
Lydia turned to look at the others. Ralof seemed a bit wan,
but had his axe at the ready. Brelyna was quaffing some sort of potion,
probably a magicka booster. Kharjo and the guards looked as ready as they could
be. But where was J’zargo?
A yelp came from an alcove back along the passage, and
J’zargo leapt back, holding his arm where an arrow protruded from his sleeve.
Brelyna rushed to him. “J’zargo, are you all right?”
“Just a nick,” he said sheepishly. He pulled the arrow free
from where it had been dangling from the cloth.
“What happened?” Lydia asked, going back to investigate.
Then she saw the treasure chest sitting in the alcove and the murder holes in
the wall next to it. Brelyna saw it at the same time and smacked J’zargo in his
wounded arm. “Silly Khajiit! We told you to leave the treasure alone! We can
only hope that arrow wasn’t poisoned.”
“You said we had no time for treasure. But everyone had
stopped to prepare for whatever is in the next room. J’zargo only thought to
prepare himself with potions or magical rings that might be in the chest.”
“And you had no hope of finding gold as well? I’ll believe
that when the draugr lay down their arms and make us tea.”
“It’s a wonder they haven’t attacked already, with the
racket we’re making,” Deirdre said. “Now, are we ready to face them?”
“Aye,” said Lydia in concert with Ralof and the others.
“I’ll take the lead.”
“And I’ll join you,” said Ralof.
“And this one as well,” said Kharjo.
“We can’t all fit through the door at once. No, I want Svari
and Garrold up front with me. We’ll form a shield wall as best we can with
three. Ralof, Kharjo, you dash in for a blow when we create an opening. Mages,
stay back and use whatever destruction spells seem best. And everyone, for
Talos’s sake, make sure not to step in front of Deirdre when she’s getting
ready to Shout.”
With the plan set, Lydia led the way to a short passage on
the right, which led to an open doorway. The chamber beyond looked to be a
large dining hall. It was as bad as Lydia had expected, and worse. Dozens of
draugr, several scourges, and a deathlord stood around the hall and on top of
the long dining tables stretching the length of the chamber. But here and there
among them stood ghostly apparitions of warriors and mages.
“Who are they?” Lydia asked no one in particular. Their
presence had no effect on the undead, who made no move to attack, but milled
about as if awaiting orders.
“Those are the ghosts of the Dragon Cultists who made a last
stand here thousands of years ago. I’ll wager you never expected them,
The voice came from on high, and to their right. The Breton
mage had taken a position on a gallery overlooking the dining hall, flanked by
two draugr archers, one of the ghosts, and his Khajiit thrall.
“This place is famous among practitioners of silent death,
such as myself,” the Breton went on. “The cultists blockaded themselves in the
depths of the monastery and took poison rather than surrender to High King
Harald’s forces knocking at their doorstep. Fitting, isn’t it, that I should also
make my last stand here?”
“Thank you for that history lesson,” said Deirdre. “But we
have more immediate concerns. Namely, to arrest you for the murders of eight
citizens of Skyrim, and attempted murder on Kharjo of Elsweyr. Now, will you
give yourself up, or do we have to come get you?”
“Give up? Why, certainly! I assembled this undead army for
no other purpose. But tell me, who do you think I’ve killed? Everyone knows the
Khajiits were the culprits. I’m surprised you’ve brought two of the beasts with
you instead of keeping them locked in cages where they belong.”
In a flash, Kharjo nocked an arrow to his bow and had it
aimed at the Breton’s heart. “By the two moons, the Breton will not slander
Khajiit in this way.”
The archers on the gallery aimed their weapons, and a
rattling of swords came from all around.
Lydia put a hand on Kharjo’s arm. “Let Deirdre handle this.”
“Tell me, Breton,” Deirdre went on, “what is your name? If
you’re going to force us to kill you, I’d rather know it.”
“In ordinary circumstances, I’d never reveal my identity
while on a mission. But seeing how only one of us is likely to leave here
alive, I might as well tell you. I am Damien of Wayrest.”
“Well, Damien of Wayrest, you should know that you’re not
the only alchemist in Skyrim. Your use of poison to kill or weaken your victims
was plain to me from the start. It really was quite careless. We know you are
the true murderer, and the Khajiits your innocent thralls.”
“Well done, Dragonborn. But tell me, do the mass of Skyrim’s
people believe your little theory? Or do they trust the evidence right before
them, that the Khajiits are vicious animals who can’t be trusted? When I left
Whiterun, they were already locking them up.”
Deirdre said nothing.
“You bastard!” Lydia yelled. “You’ll feel my axe when we
catch up to you.” All this talking, what good did it do? She was ready to
“Ah yes, that’s what I like to hear, the wit and subtlety
for which you Nords are famous. But something is missing. No ‘Skyrim is for the
Nords!’? You disappoint me.”
During his speech, Lydia had drawn her own bow. “Kharjo!”
she yelled, and they let loose at the same instant.
Unfortunately, the Khajiit thrall had time to step in front
of his master. The arrows pierced him square in the chest. “Thank you,” he murmured
as he toppled over the balcony onto the floor below.
The Breton gave a bitter laugh. “See? You’re like children,
so easy to manipulate. The jarls of Skyrim locking up all the Khajiits at the
first sign of trouble was a simple thing to predict. As was your queen’s
response in coming to the defense of the helpless and downtrodden outlanders.
The province must be coming apart at the seams by now.”
“Who sent you, Damien?” Deirdre demanded.
“I never betray my employers. Goes against my professional code.
But your Breton mother must have passed on some of her smarts. You can figure
“The damned Thalmor,” Lydia growled, nocking another arrow.
“That’s as good as a confession!”
Deirdre pushed her bow aside. “No, he needs to confess it himself.
Now, will you come peacefully?”
“You really are quite full of yourself, aren’t you, even
when facing an army of undead. More than a hundred are waiting for you in the
halls leading to this gallery.”
“Deirdre,” said Brelyna, “we don’t have to fight through all
these draugr. He can’t have many provisions. We could retreat and starve him
The Breton laughed again. “Did I neglect to tell you that
the leader of these cultists was a dragon priest known as Rahgot? Very
powerful, by all accounts. I was about to resurrect and enthrall him when you
interrupted. So, by all means, go and wait for us on the porch. With him and
his minions, we’ll sweep through you like the wind through dry leaves on a fall
day. Then I can escape across the border with Cyrodiil, as I intended all
Enough of this talk, Lydia thought. “What are we waiting
for, let’s get him!”
“Very well, since your lovely wife seems so eager for battle…”
The Breton launched a spell in their direction, then turned and disappeared
from the gallery. Brelyna easily fended off the spell with her own ward, but
instantly the undead army was upon them.
Lydia barely had time to drop her bow and get her shield in
position, standing shoulder-to-shoulder between Svari and Garrold. The
onslaught of draugr crashed into them, lashing with sword and axe, but the
shieldwall held and the line did not break. On either side, Ralof and Kharjo
traded blows with enemies who slipped around the edges. Brelyna and J’zargo
sprayed lightning and flame spells around the room.
“What did I tell you, Ralof?” Lydia shouted. “Just like
regular soldiers, am I right?” Already a good pile of draugr had fallen before
“Aye, but their flesh is like rock!”
“We’ll both need new weapons after this!” She gave the
signal and her shield-mates opened gaps in the wall just long enough to lash
out with sword and axe. At last, her axe tasted draugr flesh once more! How
long had it been since she’d swung it in anger? She truly could not remember.
An arrow clattered off the top of Lydia’s shield. “Deirdre,
those archers on the gallery!”
Deirdre had been concentrating on the archers and mages
standing atop the tables, using her own bow quite effectively. Now she turned a
spell of mayhem on the gallery archers. She was the only mage among them whose
Illusion magic was strong enough to work on the undead. Lydia did wonder
whether her magic would also have the strength to overcome the Breton’s
resurrection spells. When the archers turned on each other and on the mage next
to them, she regretted doubting her.
The onslaught against their shields abated. Peeking over,
Lydia saw the common draugr giving way for a draugr scourge. “Brace
yourselves!” she shouted and ducked back behind the shield.
“Fus!” shouted the
scourge. The shield wall held, though the partial Unrelenting Force shout
pushed them back into their companions.
“I have him!” Deirdre ran in front of their shield wall.
Lydia felt no fear for her safety; they’d done this dance a thousand times. “Fus-Ro!” Deirdre shouted. Nearby draugr
went flying, and the scourge was forced to one knee, his head bent low. The
only surprise came when Ralof advanced hard on Deirdre’s Shout as if they’d
planned it, taking off the scourge’s head with one swift blow.
Ralof and Deirdre fell back, but before they could get
behind the shield wall, a low, dry cackle came from the end of the hall beneath
the gallery. The deathlord stepped out from among the countless draugr
surrounding him, his eyes blazing an unearthly blue from the slits in his tall,
horned helm. He carried a gigantic double-bladed axe, but did not raise it.
Instead, he pointed at Deirdre and laughed.
Now Lydia felt the first touches of dread. Not for what the
deathlord might do to Deirdre, but for what other trickery might be afoot.
Would these draugr even honor the ancient protocols of a duel by the Power of
“Get back, my love,” she called. “Your Thu’um hasn’t had time to restore itself.”
“I’ll be fine! All of you, stay back, or he’ll Shout you to
smithereens. And be on the lookout for any treachery from the sides.”
Everyone did as they were told, save Ralof, who stood
resolutely by Deirdre’s side. “I said I’d show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood
is no coward.”
“And you’ve shown that a dozen times over. But this is no
ordinary draugr. His Thu’um is far more
powerful even than Ulfric’s. Stand behind me, at least.”
Ralof hesitated, but Deirdre stepped in front of him just as
the deathlord was gathering his breath. She anchored herself firmly to the
floor, her feet spread wide in a low fighter’s stance.
the deathlord, the shockwave rippling toward them, sounding like a hundred
summer thunder storms rolled into one.
But Deirdre was already drawing her own breath. Rather than
radiating outward, the waves of the deathlord’s shout twisted on themselves,
swirling into a single point on the Dragonborn. She took it all in, and for one
long moment, absolute silence filled the chamber. Then, without Deirdre even
shouting, the force was rippling back toward the deathlord and his companions,
magnified ten-fold. A dozen draugr and their leader smashed into the wall
beneath the gallery and fell in a crumpled heap. Many never got up again. The
deathlord stirred, and Deirdre hit the others around him with a mayhem spell.
They fell to fighting one another and their leader.
As if released from a spell, the enemies to the left and
directly opposite returned to the fray. Deirdre and Ralof ducked behind the
shield wall just in time. Lydia was about to breathe a sigh of relief, but now
more draugr were pouring from the entrance to the room on their left.
“This one thinks these undead will never stop coming,”
“We’ll handle ’em!” said Ralof.
Now the ghosts of the dragon cultists were joining the
battle. Whether this was a planned tactic, or the ghosts had simply wanted to
observe how their corporeal allies would fare, Lydia knew not. What she did
know was that arrows were clanking off her shield, which was growing cold from
all the frost spells hitting it. The ghosts might have been ethereal, but their
weapons were very real. A frost spike hit her steel boot and her foot went
Brelyna cast a ward to shield them while J’zargo cast a
flame atronach to distract their opponents. Kharjo and Ralof darted out now and
then to attack, but they had to be wary.
“Deirdre, do your frenzy spells work on wraiths?” Lydia
“A moment, I need to drink this magicka potion.” So the lack
of her arch-mage’s robes was taking its toll. Still, all things considered,
they were holding their own.
Just then, Svari, standing on Lydia’s right where she could
see the gallery, gestured upwards with her axe. “Look out! More archers above!”
But it was too late. Garrold fell with a scream. Without a
thought or command, Lydia moved to her left and forward to cover him, Svari
following her in lockstep, never letting a gap open between their shields.
Ralof stepped up on her left, blocking and slashing with his axe, and Kharjo
did the same on the right.
“Fall back!” Lydia shouted. “Get Garrold back to the
Then the world seemed to tilt beneath her feet. Suddenly she
was back on the road to the White River Bridge during the flight from the Siege
of Whiterun, reforming the shield wall out of the last dozen warriors. How many
friends had fallen already? Idolaf Battle-Born. Adrianne and Ulfberth. Thorald
Gray-Mane. Farkas of the Companions.
“Drag them back behind the lines!” she yelled, but there was
no time. Behind them the women and children were screaming, clustering around
the bridge that was a thousand times too narrow. On and on the High Elves came,
their golden armor streaked red with blood — the blood of her friends.
Now she was raising her axe over the body of the great elf
she’d just slain, rallying her diminishing troops to one last stand. The arrow pierced
the gap between her pauldron and cuirass. A flesh wound, she thought, not deep,
then the green fog settled over her eyes. Now Aela and Vilkas were standing
over her, the last warriors left, preparing to defend her against the charging
elves. But Onmund was rushing past them, shouting, “For Lydia!” and “For
Skyrim!”, his lightning and flame spells brightening the dawning day. She
closed her eyes for what she thought would be the last time.
Now she remembered. That
was the last time she’d raised her axe in anger. She tried to remember where
she was, hoping for that same battle-rage to come over her. Nothing save that
cursed poison arrow had been able to stop her that day. But her limbs were
turning to water instead. Her knees felt weak and she couldn’t keep her shield up
much longer. “Fall back!” she called again, only it came out as a high-pitched
wail. The sight of her dead friends’ bodies, horribly mutilated, kept passing
before her eyes. That, and Jarl Balgruuf ordering her from his side to lead the
retreat. She should have died that day!
“Lydia, are you all right?” Ralof was still next to her,
giving her a sidelong glance as he continued to parry and slash.
“I can’t! The women and children! I cannot save them! Damn
these elves! They’re only little children!”
Her knees buckled. The shield wall was giving way.
Deirdre took a deep breath as the caravans and army wagons passed into the shade of the evergreen forest outside Riverwood, halfway to Helgen. The tangy scent of the pines and the sweet smell of jasmine and bluebells created a heady mix. She took another deep breath and could feel the tensions and cares of the past weeks slipping away.
The shade was welcome after the heat of the open road, but
she hadn’t really minded the sun, dressed as she was in her lightest blouse and
fine trousers. She’d left the dark, heavy mage’s robes behind for this journey,
since Ralof’s troops had cleared the bandits out of Helgen the day before. Too,
they’d be traveling with a whole regiment. What could happen? She relaxed and
tried to enjoy the rare day of carefree travel.
The Khajiits were enjoying the day as well, basking in the warmth as they walked beside their wagons or rode horses borrowed from the army stables. The Nords, not so much; their pale skin burned quickly, and they were stewing inside their fur armor. Many were the aahs of relief as they passed into the shade. Even Lydia, usually so stoic, had already complained of the heat, wishing aloud that they could stop for a dip in the White River, dancing and babbling nearby. Deirdre had to laugh as J’zargo’s ears pricked up and his tail swished back and forth at Lydia’s suggestion. She was waiting for him to give a lustful purr and heartily endorse the idea, but Brelyna cut him off, pointing out how far they still had to go. Some things never changed.
“Alas, Brelyna’s right,” she said, smiling. “Skinny-dipping
will have to wait for another day.” Ralof, riding nearby, gave them all a
As much as she would have liked to take a dip herself, she
enjoyed simply being back in these woods where she’d spent so many carefree
hours. Those were the days when she’d worked for Arcadia. She could gather a
backpack full of flowers and herbs and still have plenty of time left over to
stare at the clouds, listen to the warbler’s call, or just bask in the sun.
Sometimes, if she managed to stay out too late to return to Whiterun at a
reasonable hour, she’d spend the night in Riverwood with Ralof’s sister,
Gerdur, and his brother-in-law, Hod. Gerdur had been so kind to her after
Helgen, and she could always count on finding a welcome in their modest house. Those
were her last truly carefree days in Skyrim, nearly a year ago now.
But these memories weren’t the only reason she was feeling
relaxed and happy on this day. She had much to content her, on two fronts:
keeping the Khajiits safe and tracking down the murderer. The man-hunt was
going well, and Deirdre felt they nearly had him. Alerts had been sent out in
all directions, but a specific description of the murderer had done much to jog
the guards’ memories. The pair at the White River Bridge now remembered a lone
Breton in a wagon crossing on the morning of the Battle-Born Farm murder. That
led them to focus their efforts to the east. Deirdre was sure the necromancer
would show himself again, having no reason to fear that the people were now
alerted to one fitting his description. She was so satisfied with this progress,
and confident in the army’s ability to track him down, that she’d felt
justified in taking two or three days off to get the Khajiits settled in their
Convincing the Khajiits to take up her offer had been a bit
“You mean to send us to a forced labor camp?” Ri’saad said
when she first brought up the idea.
“No, of course not! You are free to leave and go where you
will this instant. I only wish I could guarantee your safety on the roads, but
until we catch this Breton necromancer, that will be difficult. You’ve seen how
these Nord mobs are, and then there’s the danger posed to your people by the
Breton himself. You’ll be safe in Helgen, but if you insist on traveling the
roads, I’ll assign four soldiers to each of your caravans.”
“And Nord soldiers are meant to keep watch on Khajiit,
whether we travel or stay in Helgen, no?”
“No, not to keep watch on you, but to protect you and keep
away anyone who wishes you harm. And not just Nord soldiers; Skyrim’s army has
many types. No Khajiits at the moment, but I hope to rectify that.”
“But you expect us to work hard, no?”
“Of course! But you already work hard traveling across
Skyrim on your trade routes. Now you’ll be working to build your own homes out
of the rubble of Helgen, and the soldiers will help you. In return, you’ll help
the soldiers rebuild the garrison that made up half the town. It will be a
cooperative venture, to show what Khajiits and Nords can do when we work
“And Khajiit may live in these homes permanently, yes?”
“I’ll write the deeds myself. The homes and shops will be
yours until you choose to sell them. But when you consider the trade advantages
of a base in Helgen, I think you’ll want to stay. It could offer a whole new
supply route from Cyrodiil for your caravans, being so near the Pale Pass. And
then there’s the traffic going back and forth over the pass, offering you an
additional market. Maybe you’ll even want to start offering lodging to
travelers. And did I mention the contract to supply our garrison with food and
sundries? I’m willing to offer you that as well, but only if you can provide
Ri’saad’s eyes had grown bright at all the new sources of
income. “It is true, this one’s bones grow old and it would be good to stay in
one place, maybe hire another Khajiit to take over the third caravan. But tell
me, are no Nords willing to take advantage of these opportunities?”
“No. Sadly, Alduin wiped out nearly all of Helgen’s
townsfolk, man, woman, and child. After that, the place had such a terrible reputation,
no one wanted to move in and rebuild. And since the attack on Whiterun, most of
our reconstruction efforts have been focused there. A few bandits may have
moved in, but we’ll clean them out before you arrive.”
Ri’saad still looked doubtful; what else could she offer
He looked over at Kharjo. “What does Kharjo say? Is Deirdre
Morningsong one to be trusted?”
Kharjo nodded. “She and Lydia went out of their way to help
us, though they had little reason to. They didn’t even ask for a reward.”
“Good. And J’zargo? What is the opinion of His Greatness?”
Deirdre had to suppress a laugh at Ri’saad’s sarcastic tone.
So his own people had as little patience with his arrogance as she did. She
felt vindicated somehow.
J’zargo ignored the sarcasm. “This one trusts Deirdre
Morningsong with his life. Her word is as certain as the two moons’ rising and
So ninety-nine out of a hundred; she’d hoped for better.
Still, Ri’saad seemed convinced. “Very well, Ri’saad will
discuss it with his people and see what they wish.”
An hour later he returned to Deirdre and her friends, all
sitting near the camp wagon. “It is decided. Khajiit will travel to Helgen and
see if it is suitable. And if so, the bargain Deirdre Morningsong has offered
is more than fair.”
“Excellent! And if it turns out not to meet your needs, we
can look at this as an extended camping trip. In a week or two, when we’ve
captured this necromancer and proved the Khajiits’ innocent for once and all,
the roads should be safe for you again.”
Hrongar had not been so agreeable, though her challenge of
single combat had cowed him for the moment. He’d managed to delay them for a
day by dragging his feet over returning the Khajiits’ possessions, but she
considered that time well spent.
Now Deirdre looked around at the Khajiits traveling beside
her as they approached Riverwood. How happy and hopeful they seemed! It was
amazing what a hot meal, warm clothing, and shelter could do, along with the
prospect of a more prosperous life.
For herself, she was looking forward to seeing Gerdur again,
and also wondering how the townspeople would take to having Khajiits as their
nearest neighbors, even though Helgen was half a day’s ride away. Gerdur would
see the sense in the proposal and help sway her neighbors.
Ralof was eager to see his sister as well, judging by the
way he cantered ahead, crossing the bridge over the White River and passing
through the town gates before turning into the mill Gerdur and Hod owned. By
the time the head of the caravan had entered the town, Ralof was leading his
sister back to greet them.
“Welcome, my Queen,” Gerdur said, going to one knee. “And
Captain Ravenwood.” She gave a curtsy.
Deirdre dismounted, exclaiming with mock severity, “Gerdur! I’ll have none of this bowing and scraping from you, of all people.” She gave Gerdur a hug. “Who knows where I’d be without you?”
At last Gerdur smiled and looked at her the way she used to,
with the open gaze of a friend, not the downcast eyes of a subject. Once again,
Deirdre cursed this damned pomp and ceremony that came between her and the
people she loved.
“But what is happening?” Gerdur asked. “Where are you going?
And with so many?” She gazed at the long line of wagons stretching back out of
Deirdre told her first of the new evidence exonerating the
Khajiits, then explained the plans to rebuild Helgen. As she spoke, more of the
townsfolk came out of their houses and shops to witness the procession, and
Orgnar came out of the Sleeping Giant Inn to offer her and her companions mugs
of mead. She was glad for the audience as well as the refreshment, as she
wouldn’t have to explain her decision twice and her throat was already dry.
Gerdur listened patiently until she was finished. “It seems
wisely done. We’d heard about the murders, of course. It’s better to know
there’s just one culprit, even if he uses these corpses to do the killing. And
I’m glad you’re so close on his tail.” A few of the neighbors nodded. Gerdur
looked over the Khajiits and their wagons. “It will be good to have Helgen settled
again. The place has seemed haunted since the attack, and no one has wanted to
travel that way. And I for one will appreciate a greater variety of goods on
offer without having to go all the way in to Whiterun.” Here she gave Lucan
Valerius, the proprietor of Riverwood Traders, a disdainful look.
“I do hope the competition won’t hamper your business too
much, Lucan,” Deirdre said.
“Eh, most travelers have been so long on the road that they
just want to rush on to Whiterun. If they’ve had a chance to rest up in Helgen,
maybe they’ll feel leisurely enough to stop in our shop.”
“Aye,” said the innkeep. “An easier road makes for more
travelers, and that makes for good business all around. Besides, your Grace, we
here in Riverwood are especially in your debt, since you cleaned out Bleak
Falls Barrow for us. The evil from that place spread for miles around, and folk
here are a sight happier since you lifted the darkness.”
At the mention of the barrow, Ralof gave a shudder. As brave
as he was in battle, draugr held a special terror for him, one that Deirdre
would never let him live down.
They were about to say their farewells when Deirdre
remembered to ask where Hod was. “You just missed him on his way to Whiterun,”
said Gerdur. “You know he likes to go straight through the forest instead of
around by the road. He has to see Hrongar’s steward about a debt. We haven’t
been paid for the last two shipments of lumber for Dragonsreach.”
“Not to worry, Gerdur,” said Ralof. “We’ll see you get paid,
one way or the other.”
With that they continued their journey along the White River, then up the winding trail to Helgen. When they arrived late in the day, Deirdre saw that the place was in better shape than she’d expected. The last she’d seen of it, the houses and shops had all been ablaze, their thatched roofs smashed, and the keep’s four stone watchtowers pulverized by the flaming meteors the World Eater had somehow conjured. The sounds of destruction had continued as she and Ralof descended into the dungeons beneath the keep, barely avoiding the falling ceiling as it caved in behind them. She couldn’t imagine much would be left of the place after such an assault.
Now she was surprised to see something of the wooden
structures still standing, with support beams upright amidst timbers scattered
like jackstraws. And much of the four towers still remained, though with gaping
holes that would take much patching.
The news was less good when the captain of the advance squad
came out to greet them at what was left of the town’s northern gate. After
reporting on the capture of the half-dozen bandits who’d been camped within the
ruin, he turned to the condition of the town itself. “Not much of the town-side
can be salvaged. What beams are still standing are too charred to be trusted.
The sites will have to be cleared for new buildings. The keep is in better shape.
It will take time, but it can be repaired. But we can’t even get into the dungeons,
the stairs leading down into them are so choked with rubble.”
“Let’s leave those dark places sealed off forever, shall
we?” said Deirdre. “When can work begin?”
“Right away, my Queen. But…” The captain looked at the
ground and didn’t go on.
“Spit it out, man,” Ralof ordered.
“It’s just that Jarl Dengeir of Falkreath arrived this
afternoon and wants a word with you before we begin work.”
Perhaps she shouldn’t have sent word to Falkreath about her
plans. But it was better to get this over with now than have Dengeir do
something rash behind her back.
The captain nodded toward the fortress. “He’s inside what’s
left of the keep.” A group of guards in Falkreath’s colors stood around in the
bailey, nervously eying the regular army soldiers. The bandits, hands bound,
sat in a row against one wall.
Deirdre turned to the rest of the caravan. “Ri’saad, why
don’t you take your people and look over the town, along with the army’s builders
we brought with us. That should give you a good idea of what’s to be done.
J’zargo will go with you. The rest of us will go and deal with Dengeir.”
They entered the bailey, where Ralof ordered the soldiers
who had accompanied the caravan to wait. Then he led the way into the keep,
followed by Deirdre, Lydia, and Brelyna. The stout door to the keep’s tower was
gone, replaced with a gaping hole wide enough to drive a wagon through. But
Deirdre still recognized it as the circular room where she and Ralof had fled
to escape Alduin’s onslaught. She’d killed her first person in this room, an Imperial
soldier bent on carrying out the executions Alduin had interrupted. The first
of too many. How innocent she’d been back then!
Dengeir regarded them from across what was left of the
chamber. Dispensing with ceremony, he ignored Deirdre. “Ralof of Riverwood.
When we took back Falkreath from Imperial control, I didn’t think it was to
give Helgen over to a bunch of Khajiits. And you support this?”
Ralof gave Deirdre a look that told her he would handle
this, then walked over to confront the jarl. “As I remember it, you stayed
huddled up in front of your hearth while we Stormcloaks battled through the
winter snows to take the town. Then you emerged from your house just in time
for Ulfric to install you in the jarl’s seat.”
“That’s right, it was Ulfric, not you, Ralof. And where is
he now? Surely he doesn’t support this madness.”
“Neither does he support rounding up innocent people,” said
Deirdre, going to stand next to Ralof.
“Bah, when did he become such a milk-drinker? And you — I
supported you at the jarlmoot. You’d driven out the Thalmor, and for that we
owed you a debt. But defending these damned Khajiits — can’t you see they must
be in league with the Aldmeri Dominion? Elsweyr is allied to Summerset, after
all. It’s too dangerous to let any of them roam Skyrim.”
“I see you didn’t read the entire message I sent yesterday.
The true culprit is a Breton, and the army is tracking him even now.”
“A Breton! But of course! High Rock is Cyrodiil’s last ally
in the Empire. I’ve long questioned the loyalty of our Breton neighbors.
Enemies and ears, both are everywhere!”
“And what would you have me do, round them all up, as you
and the other jarls did the Khajiits?”
He eyed her for a moment. At least he wasn’t so bold as to
suggest she round up her own people. “No, I can see how you wouldn’t support
that. But how about bringing them all in for some tough questioning? That will
smoke the rats out.”
“The kind of tough questioning you have in mind took place
right beneath our feet. Only it was the Imperials who did it. No, we won’t be
doing any such thing. As for who is behind the attacks and what their motives
are, we could concoct plausible theories all day. But we’ll only know for sure
when we capture this Breton and get his story. In the meantime, we have a town
“About that… what makes you think you can walk into my hold
and take over an entire town?”
“The fact that I am your queen, first of all. And the fact
that you’ve done nothing to rebuild Helgen in nearly a year, with the fine
weather for building nearly half over. Then there are the bandits you’ve let
overrun the place. Need I go on?”
“But our hold treasury depends on the taxes and trade from
“The Khajiits will pay the same taxes as anyone else. You
can consider any other lost revenues as reparations for false imprisonment. I
know you weren’t the leader in this little rebellion. Skald and Hrongar egged
you on. You could turn to them to make you whole, or perhaps you should just be
content with the greater flow of trade.”
Dengeir seemed to consider this. As Deirdre awaited his
answer, an army messenger ran in from the bailey. He knelt before Deirdre and
held out a message. “For you, my Queen. They’ve found the killer!”
She tore the message from his grasp and read it before
looking around at her friends with a grim smile. “The Rift guards have him
holed up in Forelhost.”
“Forelhost!” Ralof shivered. The place was one of the few Nordic
ruins she and Lydia had neglected to visit in their search for word walls. It
had a dire reputation as an ancient monastery of the dragon cult, home to one
of the fearsome dragon priests and his many undead minions.
“Not to worry, my friend,” Deirdre said, placing a hand on
Ralof’s shoulder. “You’re needed here.”
Ralof put his shoulders back. She could see no hint of fear
in his eyes. “No, lass. If you’re going to Forelhost, it’s your general’s duty
to stand beside you. You’ll not leave me behind to manage a building project.”
“The project might take more management than I thought.”
Deirdre tilted her head slightly toward Dengeir, hoping the jarl didn’t notice.
“My lieutenants will handle whatever… problems may arise.”
“I’m glad you two have that sorted out,” Lydia said. Then
she clapped her hands together and gave a hoot. “Deathlords and dragon priests,
my favorite! What are we waiting for?”
“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.”