Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 12

Hrongar

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

Pic of Ralof
Ralof

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, just this morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, aye,” Lydia said from behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic of Arcadia in her shop
Arcadia in her shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic of Jarl Balgruuf
Jarl Balgruuf, before his abdication

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

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

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

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

“And did Ulfric help you with that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friends, you call them? Typical.”

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

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

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

“We’ll call a new jarlmoot!”

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

Hrongar had no answer for this.

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

Lydia nearly broke out laughing as Hrongar stifled a whimper.

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 11

Battle-Born Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle-Born Farm
Battle-Born Farm

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

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

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

Olfrid Battle-Born
Olfrid Battle-Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But this is my farm!”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, father, maybe they can help.”

Olfrid still stood blocking the door.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, your Grace,” Bjorn said.

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

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

Pic of Alfhild
Alfhild in happier times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why?” the guard persisted.

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

Bjorn just shook his head in befuddlement.

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

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

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

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

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

Further searches were fruitless, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s keep looking,” Lydia said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 10

A Visit with the Troops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you tell anything else?” Brelyna asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“We can hardly be certain of that.”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

Soldiers of Skyrim

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

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

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

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

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

“We know of that plan,” Deirdre said.

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

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

“As you command, my Queen.”

“And other Khajiits, or any other travelers?”

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

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

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

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

The commander eyed her skeptically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weren’t you afraid you’d fall off?”

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

“It must have been hard to lose him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you didn’t even roll your eyes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe so,” said Lydia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 9

Unruly Jarls

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

Pic of the dragon, Viinturuth
Viinturuth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“String him up!” someone yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic of Jarl Skald the Elder lounging on his throne
Skald

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

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

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

“And then what?” Deirdre demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? And what was that?”

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

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

“Pfaw!” was Skald’s only response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again it was as if she hadn’t spoken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

A shout from behind disturbed their aimless progress.

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

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

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

Madena

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

“Not from my current employer, no.”

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

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

“Lucky for you the war never came here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were those messages about?” Deirdre asked.

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

Deirdre looked bewildered at this.

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

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

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

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

“Then what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 8

A Chance Encounter

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

A broken-down cart in Skyrim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 7

Murder in Morthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarl Idgrod, seated, with Gorm in the background

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

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

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

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

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

Pic of a cellar in Skyrim
A cellar in Skyrim

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

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

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

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

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

“And where will I find this Jori?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about other travelers?”

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

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

“Aye, it’s possible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 6

Making Plans

J'zargo seated, holding a cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunmer dining room
A typical Dunmer dining room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll put my mind to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 5

The Jurard Family

Deirdre Morningsong had seen much in her short life that would turn even the strongest stomach. From the cruelty of men, beginning with those who had burned her parents alive in their own home, to the cruelty of mer, in whose torture chambers she and Lydia had once been guests, to the cruelty of Alduin and his dragon minions, and even the cruelty wrought by her own hand, it seemed she had witnessed every variety of horror imaginable.

Pic of deathbell, a flower in Skyrim

Yet little could equal the scene now before her in the cellars of the Four Shields Tavern, which had been converted into a makeshift morgue. The smell of the fresh-sawn planks mingled with the tang of stored onions, the malty aroma of beer, and the coppery odor of blood — a nauseating mélange. And there was something else in the air, but Deirdre couldn’t quite place it.

Four bodies lay on elevated planks brought from the nearby mill, the sheets that had covered three of them pulled back for examination. Even as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she could see the work of this murderer was remarkably vile.

The bodies were those of Amaund and Cairine Jurard and their two children. The boy looked to have been in his first growth spurt, and the girl younger, maybe nine, though it was hard to tell, as she was still covered with a sheet. Falk and Elisif stood nearby, facing away from the bodies, his hand on her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands. At Deirdre’s approach, she looked up.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a silk kerchief. “I am not used to such scenes.” She looked once more at the bodies, shuddering. “Such a happy family, such promise in the children, all ended, and for what?”

“No need to apologize, Jarl Elisif,” said Deirdre. “I only wish I were not so accustomed to it myself. Yet for all the death I have seen, I still cannot answer the question of what purpose any of it served.”

Elisif shook her head and looked away, as if the bins of potatoes and onions lining the walls held an answer. “Nor do I know why we came here, if only to learn what the guards already told us, that these poor people were savagely butchered, with the great claw marks you can plainly see. Please, learn what you can, then put the sheets back over them and let them lie in peace.”

Deirdre looked to Falk. “It’s as Jarl Elisif said. We’ve learned little more than the guards told us. They plainly died of the wounds made by the claws of a beast — or beast-man. Claw marks that match those of your friend. And we know that at least the woman fought back, judging by the bits of fur beneath her fingernails. But please, see what else you can learn.”

Deirdre turned to the bodies, and Lydia followed. Up close, the gore was even worse. Amaund had huge rents across his chest and his clothing was soaked in blood. Worse, one arm was raked down to the bone, and one side of his face had been torn to strips.

“It seems pretty obvious what happened to him,” said Lydia, always stoic. Her nonchalant view of the mayhem produced by battle had always surprised Deirdre. “He probably tried to fend off a blow with that arm, and then he could do nothing else to defend himself.”

As awful as the wounds were, Deirdre made herself look over his whole body for anything amiss. “Look.” She pointed at an empty dagger sheath on the man’s belt. “Maybe he drew his knife and took a swing at his attacker.”

“If so, little good it did him.”

They turned to the woman, whose wounds were less extensive. One deep cut across her jugular had done for her, soaking the front of her dress in blood, now dried to a deep brown. Deirdre picked up one hand to find the tan hairs lodged beneath the fingernails.

“She hardly looks like a fighter, but she must have been brave,” said Lydia.

“Or simply pushed to her last extremity, defending her children.” With a sigh, Deirdre turned to the young ones.

The boy’s wound was perhaps worst of all, a great rend in his clothing from shoulder to waist. “But look, Lydia, does that seem like much blood to you?”

“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell in this light.”

“I’ll take care of that.” Deirdre cast a ball of magelight at the ceiling. Elisif groaned and turned away from the scene now revealed in even more grisly detail.

Lydia examined the wound more closely, lifting the torn tunic away. “It seems to have bled only right around the gash, and not much at that.”

“Yet such a great wound would surely have gushed a great quantity of blood, soaking his clothing like the others.”

Lydia nodded in agreement and they turned to the last body. But as stoic as Lydia was, even she gasped as Deirdre pulled back the sheet. “No, put it back, we’ve seen enough.” She turned away, smashing one gauntleted fist into the other. “What kind of monster could have done this?”

Deirdre’s hands trembled as she pulled the sheet up to the girl’s neck, covering the awful wounds on her body. She gripped the edge of the table and spoke through clenched teeth. “Yet, like her brother, there was very little blood, would you agree?”

Lydia could only nod.

Deirdre looked down at the girl’s face, wondering what depravity could lead to the abuse of such an innocent. Then something caught her eye. “Come, Lydia, look at her lips. Would you say they have a blue tinge to them?”

Lydia turned around slowly, giving Deirdre an exasperated look before bending to look at the girl’s face. When she was done, she nodded and turned away once more.

“But what does it mean?” asked Falk.

“That blue pallor is the sign of a certain poison. And that smell, I thought I noticed it when we first came in.” She bent closer to the girl’s mouth and breathed in. “Yes. That’s the odor of deathbell, or I’m no alchemist.”

She checked the rest of the bodies. “Yes, they all have that odor, but only the children’s lips are blue.”

“Poison?” said Falk. “But why?”

“I hardly know. Perhaps we’ll learn more at the Jurards’ home.”

*~*~*

And they imagined themselves safe up here. Deirdre well knew the reasons a Breton family might want space between themselves and the Nords who lived in the heart of the village. She’d lost her own parents to Nords’ fears of anyone not of their own kind. Yet as she and her companions followed the narrow track uphill toward the Jurards’ house, the disadvantages of its remote location became clear. The family were so far from town that none must have heard their screams.

A cabin in Skyrim

“Was the home looted?” she asked the guard who was showing them the way. He’d been among the first to enter the house, and Deirdre hoped his knowledge of the crime scene would prove valuable.

“Not that we could tell, your Grace. A chest with a small amount of gold remained, the silverware seemed all in its place, even two fine silver candlesticks, as plain as day on the mantel. It was the same with the trader, Heimvar, his goods seemed all in place, and a good amount of gold in a chest beneath his seat to boot.”

“How were they discovered?”

“The Lylvieves, who live on the main road through town, grew worried yesterday afternoon when they hadn’t yet seen any of the Jurards. Michel walked up and discovered them. She fainted, but when she recovered herself, she ran down the hill and raised the alarm. Nearly swooned myself, when I saw what was done to that poor family.”

They reached the house and the guard pointed out the single paw print in a muddy spot next to the door. Deirdre knew nothing of Khajiits’ feet, since all she had met wore boots. “And you’re sure that’s a Khajiit track?”

Falk nodded. “Aye, I have some experience with them. They’re larger than the bobcats and lynxes we find hereabouts, but smaller than the sabre cat. There’s nothing else like it native to Skyrim. If it comes to it, I’ll have your friend brought up and we’ll match prints.”

Deirdre sighed, wondering how far she had to put up with this protocol that demanded a full investigation of her friend, who was plainly innocent.

Inside, the house was hardly as Deirdre expected it. At first glance, it seemed to be a normal, orderly home, save for two chairs knocked over near the table at the center of the room. Then she noticed the blood, which by now had soaked into the floorboards in black splotches. The first of these covered an area a few feet in diameter a couple of paces into the room. Another, smaller, was three paces farther in.

“Amaund was lying here when we found him,” said the guard, pointing at the stain nearest the door. “And here was Cairine, not far away. The children we found by the table. It seemed obvious they were interrupted in the middle of their breakfast.”

Indeed, four bowls half-full of porridge and four mugs remained in their places at the table, along with a pitcher and half a loaf of bread.

“And here,” the guard said, pointing to the space between where Amaund and Cairine had fallen. “The tufts of cat hair. We only took a few down to the jail for evidence, but left these.”

They were the same as the ones Falk had already showed them. As Deirdre examined them, Lydia walked around the scene. “If my hunch is right, Amaund either came to open the door, or confronted the attacker as soon as he entered.”

“Probably that last,” said the guard. “It’s not likely they’d open the door for a strange Khajiit. But way up here, in the daytime, there was little reason to keep the door barred. The killer could have just walked in.”

“Then Amaund confronted him here. While they struggled, Cairine came from behind and tried to pull the Khajiit away.”

“Thus the tufts of cat hair beneath her nails,” said Falk.

Deirdre examined the scene, looking for anything else. “Look!” She went over to the wall near the door and picked up a dagger. “Amaund’s knife. But it’s clean, it never struck home.”

“The killer was too fast for him, not to mention more powerful,” said Lydia. “But then what of the children?”

Deirdre went to the places where the children had fallen. “It’s as I suspected. Not much blood, even considering their smaller bodies.”

“What does that mean?” asked Elisif.

Deirdre gripped the back of one of the chairs, leaning on it for support. She didn’t want to give voice to the one obvious conclusion. Maybe she was wrong, although the alternative was just as grim. As she hesitated, she looked down at the half-eaten bowls of porridge. She picked one up and smelled it. Definitely a whiff of deathbell about it. She tried the other three, and found them the same. But there was only one way to know for sure.

“Deirdre, no!” Elisif rushed over to her as she dipped a finger in one of the bowls.

She stopped, her hand halfway to her mouth, but before she could explain, Lydia broke in. “Don’t let her scare you. She loves to shock her friends who think she’s going to kill herself with such risk-taking.” Deirdre was all too familiar with the wan smile of resignation Lydia now gave her.

“She’s right. During my time in Arcadia’s alchemy shop, I built up quite a tolerance. Deathbell, in small amounts, is used in many useful potions, not only deadly poisons. This little taste won’t harm me.” She put her finger in her mouth. The porridge needed salt. And yes, there was the distinctive tingling sensation of deathbell.

Pic of Skyrim potions and potions

“But how could the killer have gotten the poison into the porridge?” Falk asked.

Lydia pointed to an open window near the hearth. “It was warm that morning, and Cairine probably had the window open as she was cooking the porridge. The killer could have snuck in while her back was turned, or while she was drawing water at the well and the rest of the family were sleeping.”

Deirdre considered the steps necessary to poison the family’s breakfast. “It does seem a risky maneuver, if the killer was planning to attack them anyway.” She looked back down at the spots where the two children had died. “I hardly know which is worse, to imagine the children were conscious as this beast attacked them, or to think, as seems most likely, that they had succumbed to the poison by the time the killer turned on them.”

“Why do you say that’s likely?” asked Elisif.

“It’s simple,” Falk explained, “it has to do with the heart. If the heart is beating, wounds such as the ones made on the children would gush and even spurt blood.”

“But once the heart stops with death,” said Deirdre, “the blood would only ooze or leak out, and perhaps hardly at all, depending on how long the body had lain there.”

“But how could you know of such things?” Elisif pressed.

Lydia put in, “Such things as the victors in battle do to the bodies of the losing side, you probably don’t want to know, m’lady. The pooling of blood in the body is well known from such events.”

“My guess is that the children’s bodies lay still for some time before the killer attacked them. Perhaps he was catching his breath, or gathering himself for what he had to do. It’s hard to imagine the monster who would rend the corpses of children in the way we saw. At least we can hope the poison had overcome their senses so they didn’t have to witness their parents’ murder or feel any pain.”

“But if the whole family was poisoned, why not let the potion do its work?” Elisif asked. “Why attack when the parents could still defend themselves?”

“Perhaps the potion was meant to incapacitate the victims. Not kill them outright, but merely give the killer an advantage. But he couldn’t calibrate the doses for the different sizes of the adults and the children. Perhaps he hoped to attack them all while they were alive, which would have made it harder to guess that poison was involved.”

“And that would explain why he went on to maul the bodies of the already deceased children,” said Falk, “to make it look like a physical attack had killed them.”

“Or they,” said Deirdre. “It could be the work of two killers. I’ve never heard that Khajiits go in for poisoning.”

Falk looked at her. “And we have two suspects in custody now. That certainly fits your theory.”

Deirdre glared back at him, controlling her growing impatience. “How long must we pretend there’s even a chance my friends are the killers? Brelyna a poisoner? J’zargo a bloodthirsty killer? If either of those turn out to be true, I will abdicate my throne.”

The room was silent as Deirdre and Falk eyed each other.

Elisif broke the silence at last. “It seems we’re not much closer to finding the killer.”

“Yet we know much more about who we’re looking for. We came here expecting to find that these were acts of blind mayhem. Now we know they took planning.”

“And it does give us another track for our investigation,” said Falk. “I’ll have every alchemist and apothecary in the hold questioned about sales of that ingredient you mentioned, deathbell.”

“Yes, although an assassin using such a poison would probably pick their own.”

Falk’s brow furrowed. “I still can’t understand why the killer would go to the trouble of poisoning them, only to then take the risk of attacking them. Amaund’s knife could easily have wounded or killed the killer.”

“Whoever it is, one killer or more than one, they are striving to make the crimes as gruesome as possible. Maximizing the mayhem, attacking both Nords and Bretons without rhyme or reason. It seems they want to strike as much terror into the hearts of the people as possible.”

And making very sure we know that a Khajiit is behind it, but she kept that thought to herself.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 4

A Night In Jail

J’zargo roused himself from the stupor into which he’d fallen since the hold guards had thrown him into this makeshift cell. The town jail was a one-room building with two cells of hastily thrown-together steel bars taking up a quarter of it. A solid wall separated the two cells; no fraternizing among the prisoners, apparently. At first, after they’d pushed him in here, and put Brelyna somewhat less roughly into the adjacent cell, he’d been consumed by plans for revenge on these insolent Nords who dared insult his pride. Then he’d tried to sleep, but failed, given the racket of the growing mob outside the jail. The noise had subsided in the wee hours, but still sleep wouldn’t come. He could hear Brelyna pacing in the cell next door, but every time they tried to talk, the guards rapped on the cell bars with their swords, telling them to keep quiet.

Pic of a jail in Skyrim with a guard seated nearby

The crowds had returned with the morning light. Occasional shouts made it through the unintelligible din, mostly calling for the cat’s head on a pike. Which only reminded him of the pain in his head from the lump one of the guards had given him before they brought him down. Well, he thought, at least J’zargo gave better than he got.

Now he was relying on those same guards to keep him and Brelyna safe from the mob outside. They kept the door firmly barred, but this did little to allay his fears. If the crowd were to burst in, he would show them what a Khajiit mage could do, going out in one last blaze of greatness. For the time being, he’d tried to ignore them, falling into a state half-dreaming and half-wakeful.

The crowd hushed at the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobbled road approaching from the north. He sat up. This must be Deirdre, come to release him and Brelyna. Good. Everyone would see J’zargo had the queen’s favor. That would show these impudent Nord peons.

Instead of the immediate succor he’d expected, he heard a woman’s voice he didn’t recognize. It was too soft for him to make out her words, but the crowd’s grumbling grew more strident. Then a man’s voice rose above them. Something about justice being served, but it would take time. This only caused more grumbling. “The only thing that needs serving is the cat’s head on a platter!” one called.

“Enough!” That was Lydia’s voice, no mistake. The crowd went silent, allowing J’zargo to hear the clatter of Lydia’s armor as she dismounted and the clank of her steel boots striking the pavement. “That’s a hero of Whiterun you’re talking about. Without J’zargo, and Brelyna as well, many Nordlings and Nord women would have perished at the hands of the High Elves. Now make way for your Queen, and we will get to the bottom of this.” J’zargo’s anticipation at seeing his friends was rivaled only by his surprise at Lydia’s words of praise. For J’zargo’s greatness to be recognized at last, and from such an unexpected source!

There was the sound of shuffling feet, and he imagined the crowd parting as Lydia marched up the steps, Deirdre and the rest following in her wake. The crowd muttered, but now it sounded as if the people were turning over all that Lydia had said. At last the door opened and there was the woman herself, her plate armor glinting in the morning sun for a moment before she stepped over the threshold.

She looked over at J’zargo and Brelyna, a smile playing across her lips. “Well, friends, a fine pickle you’ve found yourselves in, eh?” Behind her came Deirdre, dressed for riding in a tunic, loose trousers, and boots. This was an improvement over her usual arch-mage’s robes. It was a pity these females had to hide their seductive forms in such heavy raiment, but this seemed to be the way of Skyrim, where these mild days were what they called summer. The crown Deirdre wore was quite becoming, at least.

Behind Deirdre came another woman, also wearing a crown-like circlet, and a tall man with a red beard. The guards at the door, having dropped to one knee on Deirdre’s entrance, now rose, welcoming her and Jarl Elisif in turn, then gesturing toward the cells.

J’zargo tried to speak, demanding to be let out at once, but the words caught in his throat, ending in a rough cough.

A guard rapped on the bars of his cell. “What’s the matter, got a hairball? Kneel before the High Queen of Skyrim!”

“There’s no need for that,” Deirdre said before J’zargo could protest. He’d felt great respect for his friend and former classmate, ever since she’d helped him test his flame cloak spell back in their first days at the college. But kneeling before anyone? Not the great J’zargo!

“I don’t like all this kneeling, in the first place,” Deirdre went on, “though Jarl Elisif has convinced me my subjects must maintain respect for my position. And neither of you are citizens of Skyrim, but our guests, so there’s no need at all. But come, you sound parched. Have you had no food or drink? Guards, release them! And bring refreshment.” She turned to the one the guards had called Elisif. “With your Jarl’s permission, of course.”

Pic of Elisif the Fair, Jarl of Haafingar Hold
Elisif

“With both you and Lydia vouching for them, I see no reason not to release them from their cells. Falk?” The redbeard next to her nodded, though he looked none too happy.

There was some to-do with finding the holder of the keys. While they waited, Deirdre said, “Lydia’s right, this is a fine mess you’ve landed in. How did it ever come about?” J’zargo knew she was merely trying to lighten the mood, but he was glad that his throat was still too dry for speech.

“Other than ride into town at the wrong moment, you mean?” Brelyna’s tone was thick with sarcasm, yet it was still good to hear her voice. “Other than that, I have no idea. And from the sound of that crowd, it’s no joking matter.”

Deirdre grew more sober. “No, I have some experience with Nord mobs driven by fear. And the murders were truly ghastly, by all accounts. But still, it’s not the worst scrape you’ve been in, if I’m not mistaken. Nothing compared to the dragon priest of Labyrinthian, or an army of High Elves.”

“If you put it that way,” said Brelyna, sounding unconvinced.

“Rest assured, this will soon be behind you.”

The cells were opened and J’zargo was glad to receive a hug from Deirdre and a sisterly clap on the shoulder from Lydia. Hugging her through all that armor would have brought no pleasure anyway. Brelyna turned to clasp him tightly. “You silly fool,” she said in his ear. “I thought you were going to get yourself killed.” She held him at arm’s length and put on her most lecturing expression.

“Pffft. Those silly Nord guards would have died first,” he croaked, “if J’zargo hadn’t restrained himself.”

“Now friends,” Deirdre said, serving them herself from the pitcher and mugs a guard had brought over. “We’ll sort that out later. Refresh yourselves for now — please.” She looked around the one-room building. “Is there nothing else at hand? No ale? No food?”

“Only a bit of hardtack, your Grace. It’s just a makeshift jail, and rarely used.”

Pic of the Four Shields Tavern sign

“Then send across the street to the Four Shields. Give my compliments to Faida and bring back a flagon of mead, a pot of juniper tea, and whatever in the way of a late breakfast she can put together. I had no time to break my fast before riding here, and I’m sure these two are starved.”

J’zargo’s voice was working better now. “This one looks forward to the repast, of course, but wonders even more, when do we get out of this place?”

A pained look crossed Deirdre’s face, and she glanced at Elisif. “Were it up to me, I’d have you out of here right now. But this is Elisif, Jarl of Haafingar Hold, and I must allow her to do the duty of her office. Then there’s the crowd outside. It will do no good to antagonize them.”

Falk stepped in for the first time. “The captain of the guard is on his way to Rorikstead to check out your story…”

“It is no story,” J’zargo growled, “it is the truth!”

“Then your statement, if you will, that you passed through Rorikstead at mid-day. If he corroborates that fact, then you are exonerated and you can go free. He should be back before evening. It will take longer to confirm your presence in Whiterun on the day before, but there will be no need to wait that long.”

“And until then we are to remain here, with that crowd outside, baying for our blood?”

“You must have heard Captain Ravenwood’s words before we entered,” said Elisif. “She calmed them considerably, where we could not. I promise you, the people will do you no harm. I’ve stationed additional guards outside the building to keep the peace. But you must see we need to investigate every trail of evidence that could lead us to the culprit behind these terrible deeds. Releasing suspects with no investigation will only undermine our authority and further jeopardize your safety.”

“On top of that,” said Falk, “we’ve made no headway in solving the first crime, though it pains me to say it. If we had better success, this second one might not have happened. Now is not the time to appear to be slacking off.”

“So that’s what this is, a show to keep the people calm?” J’zargo swished his tail back and forth, a bad habit whenever he tried to control his anger.

“We understand completely,” said Brelyna. “Don’t we, J’zargo?” He grunted as she dug him in the ribs. “I can only imagine how the people are feeling. A whole family murdered in their own home! And this the second such crime. No one must feel safe.”

“But why do they suspect a Khajiit? This land has many creatures with sharp claws.”

Here Falk looked uncomfortable. “Because of the claw marks left on the bodies, unlike any seen in wild animal attacks, but very similar to the marks you made on that guard’s face. And… bits of… fur, or hair, found near the bodies, and even under the fingernails of the mother. She must have fought desperately for her life and those of her children.”

Elisif shivered. “It’s too awful to contemplate.”

“In fact…” Falk turned to one of the guards. “Do you have a sample of the hair you found?”

“Aye, sir.” The guard went to a desk in one corner of the room and brought back a folded piece of paper.

Pic of Falk Firebeard
Falk Firebeard

Falk removed a tuft of hair from within it and looked it over. “If you’ll forgive me…” he said to J’zargo, and held the hair up next to his face. “You must admit, it is very like your own, not like the fur of a wolf or bear, though this sample is a bit more yellow in color.”

“That proves it! As you can see, J’zargo’s hair ranges from cream to gray and black.”

“Yes, what I can see of it. But I would spare you the indignity of showing me all of your fur. In fact, we don’t know what, if any, clothing the culprit wore. We do know he was barefoot, and the footprints found at both crime scenes further confirm that this was the work of a Khajiit. If it wasn’t so dangerous to move you right now, I’d take you to the Jurards’ house and compare your own print to the one made by the killer.”

“Ha! What Khajiit would go barefoot in this cold land? J’zargo always wears boots, as you can see. No Khajiit would give himself away by taking his shoes off before committing a crime. Not that this one ever has to think about such matters.”

J’zargo didn’t like the way Falk’s eyes bored into him now, as if deciding whether he spoke true, or perhaps protested too much. J’zargo held his gaze.

Finally Falk looked away. “I have yet to examine the bodies or visit the crime scene myself. I will take my leave, and we’ll hope your alibi proves your innocence.”

“And I must join you,” Elisif said, swallowing. J’zargo guessed that examining bodies was the last duty she wanted to take on.

“Lydia and I will come as well,” said Deirdre, “if you don’t mind our assistance. We’ll join you once I am sure my friends are well provided for.”

Falk and Elisif left, and the four friends sat down at the long plank table at one end of the room. It was hardly the reunion J’zargo had been looking for, but soon breakfast arrived and they began reminiscing about old times between mouthfuls of eggs and cheese.

But amidst all the tales of dragons and draugr and Dwemer machines, they could recall none of it without remembering the one now absent: Onmund, their companion and fellow student at Winterhold, who had fallen during the retreat from Whiterun. J’zargo found himself sniffing as they each recounted their fondest memory of their friend. For Brelyna it was the time in Labyrinthian when Onmund had surprised them all by knowing the spell of detect magic. “Without that spell, we would all still be wandering around in there.”

For Deirdre, it was Onmund befriending her on her first days at the college. “No offense to either of you, but Brelyna, you were so touchy about your magical skills I never knew what to say, and J’zargo, you were so, well… so J’zargo. Onmund was the only one I could talk to without either giving or taking offense. And he certainly could put away that Colovian fire brandy.” The three mages laughed, remembering cold nights around a roaring bonfire in the circular courtyard of the college.

Lydia now spoke up. “You all know my first impression of Onmund wasn’t the greatest. He seemed so timid at first. But he proved himself in the end. He was steadfast in Alftand and Blackreach.” She gave a laugh. “That time he attacked the mechanical spider left by the Dwemer! He didn’t know what he was getting into, but he was determined to show he was no coward. To think how I underestimated him!”

“Yes, that took quite a bit of healing, if I’m not mistaken,” said Brelyna. “But tell me, do you remember anything of him during the retreat from Whiterun? You must have been one of the last to see him.”

That was true, J’zargo thought. He and Brelyna had been busy across the river, shielding the retreating children and elders with their ward spells while Lydia and Onmund and the remaining warriors held the bridge. He’d never heard Lydia talk of it.

Nor did he now. “I’d rather not speak of that,” Lydia said, her eyes suddenly downcast.

J’zargo had heard the tale from the other warriors who stood with Lydia after the poisoned arrow found a gap in her armor: Aela and Vilkas dragging her from the field, the elves advancing on them, then Onmund racing past, blasting the elves with fireballs and lightning bolts, shouting “For Lydia!” and “For Skyrim!” and “For Deirdre!”, then falling in a hail of arrows. He’d bought the warriors the time they needed to pull Lydia back to safety. Even thinking about it still made him sniff and his eyes grow unusually wet.

Everyone was sniffling now, even the guards standing nearby, and they raised their glasses to their dead friend. “To Onmund!”

“Just think,” said J’zargo, setting his glass down. “If only Onmund could have been with us yesterday. Maybe it would have prevented this mess.”

“Is that all you can think about?” Lydia demanded. “That having a Nord along might have saved your skin?” Now that was the Lydia he knew of old, never putting up with his nonsense, though he preferred to think of it as confidence, mingled with more than his fair share of charm.

Still, Lydia’s words stung. He was unaccustomed to these — feelings — pitiable things that only stood in his way on the path to greatness. But he’d thought Onmund would always be there, marching beside him on that path — or maybe slightly behind, to be honest.

“No,” he said, “Onmund was a good friend to J’zargo. And this one hopes J’zargo was a good friend to Onmund as well.”

“Really?” said Deirdre. “I’m pleased, and a bit surprised, to hear you speak this way.”

“As am I,” said Brelyna, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Afterward, all you could talk about was how he’d died a heroic death.”

What could he say? That this was the only way he could make sense of his friend’s passing, or patch the hole Onmund’s loss had left within him? Instead, he shook his head, gave another sniff, and told his own story.

Pic of Onmund and J'zargo preparing to cast spells
Onmund and J’zargo

“This one spent many hours consoling Onmund when his heart was aching and breaking for Deirdre. Silly, J’zargo thought, and told him so — to lose his head over one female when there are so many in the world. ‘There are many fish in sea, no?’ J’zargo told him. But it did no good. True, he had not J’zargo’s charms or prowess with females” — and here he paused, waiting for acknowledgement from Brelyna, receiving a cuff about the ears instead.

“J’zargo took him to The Frozen Hearth in Winterhold, but he would only stare into his mug of ale and pay no attention to the Nord lasses nearby. Even tales of J’zargo’s many exploits with females, and the little tips this one gave him, they did no good. But still, we became good friends, as boring as it was for J’zargo to put up with such sentimentality.”

“Now that’s the J’zargo we all know and, well, tolerate anyway,” said Deirdre.

“Indeed,” said Brelyna. “With such advice, it’s a wonder Onmund didn’t throw himself into the Sea of Ghosts.”

At that, Lydia stood up from the table. Except for the reprimand, she’d been quiet since the first mention of the retreat from Whiterun. “Come, my Queen, Falk and Elisif could use our help.”

Deirdre rose as well. “They can. And I may be Queen, but I must go where my love bids me.”

She grasped Lydia’s hand and J’zargo gave a little purr. “Lydia, that is impressive new armor you’re wearing,” he said. “Only, this one wonders, are there no smiths in Skyrim who can make armor more fitting to your attractive woman’s form?”

Lydia in boobplate armor

“Oh, aye,” said Lydia, “loads of them. Many are the male smiths who’ve told me, ‘I’ll make armor for you, lass. The breastplate will really knock ’em dead, if you know what I mean.’ And many are the smiths lucky to come away with all their fingers working properly. No, J’zargo, I’d be the one who ended up dead if I wore the kind of armor you’re thinking of.”

J’zargo grinned, letting his eyes run up and down her body. “This one can see you in such armor now. Riskier, yes, but more enticing, no?”

Lydia’s eyes narrowed to slits, and her voice was acid with sarcasm. “It’s what I live for, to make myself enticing to every lascivious Khajiit who comes along.”

With that, Lydia and Deirdre left the building and J’zargo tipped back in his chair with a satisfied purr, his reputation restored. He hardly noticed when Brelyna gave him another cuff about the ears.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 3

Many Duties

(You can start at the beginning here.)

Morning light filtered grayly through the tall, narrow windows of the Queen’s bedchamber, illuminating the book Lydia Ravenwood was reading. She’d chosen this spot strategically, as she did most mornings, in a chair near the east wall where she could see both the door and the large canopied bed where her queen lay sleeping. Though the book was well lit, Lydia remained in shadow, a short-sword and dagger at the ready, her axe and shield leaning against the wall nearby. Her eyes followed the same rigorous pattern — read a sentence, look to the door, to the windows opposite, to the bed, then back to the book. Should another attempt be made on the queen’s life, she would be on the intruders in an instant.

Pic of a Skyrim bedroom with a canopy bed

Three months into Deirdre Morningsong’s reign, and already three assassination attempts. Three too many by Lydia’s count, and she blamed herself for all of them. None had come close to succeeding, but it was still her duty — and more than duty — to prevent such attempts in the first place. Over a month had passed since the last, yet fear kept her vigilant. She never left Deirdre’s side while she was sleeping, and made sure she was well guarded when their duties kept them apart.

Fear. Not a word she was much familiar with. Fear had always been for milk-drinkers and those helpless citizens Lydia had been sworn to protect as a retainer to Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. Since being named Deirdre’s housecarl, she had seen much — Dwemer halls filled with strange, aggressive machines and vicious Falmer, labyrinthine crypts crawling with draugr and dragon priests. And the dragons themselves, of course. During none of it had she felt anything she could call fear. Even during the Retreat from Whiterun, and during her torture by the Thalmor justiciars, she’d felt only battle rage, as befit a shield-maiden of Skyrim. No fainting lasses need apply.

But now she found her heart catching in her throat if Deirdre was even a few minutes late returning from an errand to the Blue Palace. Where her nerves had always been steady, now she jumped at the slightest sound out of the ordinary, if Deirdre was nearby. Open battle she’d accept gladly over this constant threat of another sneaking, cowardly attack from behind.

Part of it had to do with their new abode. Castle Dour. Lydia couldn’t imagine a more apt name for the place, with its dark, stone walls, deep shadows in the corners, and a chill in its stale air even now at the height of summer. Though the walls were of thick stone no army could sunder, its narrow, twisting corridors hardly gave a feeling of security. She could never be sure what was hiding in the shadows of even the most well-guarded hallway, or what might be lurking around the next corner.

Pic of Castle Dour

At least she got out into the bailey every day to drill the royal guard. But Deirdre had been cooped up for months now in meetings with her counselors, as few as they were, and with emissaries from the other holds or from the East Empire Company. Her only respites from the grim castle had been short walks to the Blue Palace for consultations with Haafingar Hold’s Jarl Elisif and her steward, Falk Firebeard. The irony was, of all people Lydia had known, Deirdre was the one who relished being out-of-doors the most.

Scanning the room for the thousandth time, she saw Deirdre stirring. One bare arm reached out across the bed to the empty spot Lydia had vacated two hours before. Deirdre gave a groan, as she did every morning to find her bed empty. A moment later she raised her head and found Lydia in her accustomed spot.

“I hope that’s a trashy novel you’re reading.”

Lydia tipped the cover to show her the title – Mixed Unit Tactics.

“Of course, I should have known. And you’re ready for battle, I see. In case an assassin should somehow make it past the many guards at the door, or slip through windows too narrow even to admit much light.”

Ready for battle was a bit much. She was wearing only a padded gambeson, not even her full plate armor. “I am sworn to protect you with my life, my Queen.”

Deirdre held out her hand. “As my housecarl, yes. But as my wife, you are sworn to greet me with a morning kiss — at the least. Is this any way to treat your queen?”

Lydia went over and sat on the bed, leaning down to fulfill one of her more pleasurable duties, glad she’d rubbed her teeth with mint from the kitchen gardens. She straightened up and looked into her lover’s blue-green eyes.

“What time is it?” Deirdre asked.

“Late. I let you sleep in. You’ve had so many cares these past weeks, and so many late nights with your counselors, I thought you could use it.” She scanned Deirdre’s face, troubled by her increasingly wan complexion and gaunt features, with a new care line appearing nearly every week.

pic of Deirdre and Lydia

Deirdre made to stretch, but then threw her arms around Lydia’s neck, pulling her back down for another embrace. “Still, we can stay here a bit longer, don’t you think? Even when we were chasing Alduin, and even at the height of the Civil War, we found time to laze together of a morning, and why not now? I can hardly persuade you out of that gambeson at bedtime, and have to settle for the leather brigandine. You must admit, it’s hardly romantic.”

“I know, my love, but…”

“Oh, I suppose I can’t blame you, and should feel glad for the added security, but I can’t help wishing you’d pay as much attention to the duties of a wife as to those of a housecarl.”

“Someday…” Lydia sat up and slapped her on the thigh. “But now we both have duties to attend to. I have some new drills in mind for your royal guard. And maybe our friends will arrive today. I hope everything’s all right with them.”

“I’m worried about them too, but probably just some accident on the road has delayed them. And since today was to be devoted to showing them their new home and going over their duties, I suddenly find I have the day free.” She reached out and grasped Lydia’s hand to detain her.

“I can guess what you’re going to suggest, judging by that twinkle in your eye.”

“It’s a fine day out. Why don’t we go riding, just the two of us. I’ll be very safe with you there. It will be just like old times. Maybe we could find a secluded swimming hole, only this time no college mages will interrupt us.”

Lydia smoothed a stray strand of blond hair away from Deirdre’s face. A day away from the cares of their duties might be just what they both needed. “I’ll consider it. But my troops await me. I must at least set them to some tasks before we desert our posts. And Sonja is probably waiting impatiently just outside the door.”

Deirdre rolled her eyes at this mention of her lady’s maid. “Fine, but tell her to bring me the riding outfit, not those fine trousers and fancy shoes.”

Lydia knew how much she chafed at these trappings of royalty. Deirdre had wanted none of it, neither the fine clothes, nor the help with dressing and undressing. (“There’s only one person I want undressing me, and that’s too seldom these days,” she’d said just last week.) But Jarl Elisif had insisted, loaning Sonja from her own household. Standards must be maintained, the office must be respected, it is what the people expect, or so Elisif had said.

Lydia found Sonja just outside the door, as she’d expected, and gave her the new instructions. Then she went out to the bailey, finding that her sergeant had already gotten the men and women doing their usual morning drills. She barked a couple of reprimands at the younger ones. Many were the lads and lasses of Haafingar Hold who had joined the army in order to have a chance of coming under her command, out of a mixture of admiration and pure childish crushes. A few had even earned their way into the Royal Guard on their own merits, and with these she was more strict than usual. Not that she didn’t appreciate the admiration, but volunteering for service for the wrong reasons could get these Nordlings killed. Enough innocents had already fallen under her command. She didn’t need any more on her conscience.

Pic of the Castle Dour Bailey

Seeing that the drills were well in hand, she turned her thoughts to Deirdre’s proposal. Maybe now was the time to let up on the relentless pace they’d both followed these past months. Perhaps the guard could even use a holiday. As for the realm itself, Lydia supposed that no true emergencies remained to demand the Queen’s immediate attention. The threat of post-war famine had abated as spring progressed into summer. The milk and honey were flowing once more, the first wheat harvest had been bounteous despite the disruption in the planting season, and game was plentiful. Trade with Cyrodiil and High Rock, those remnants of the much-reduced Empire, had been fully restored. For now, the jarls of Skyrim’s nine holds were meeting their people’s daily needs.

On the surface, all was peace and prosperity. The Nords were happy now that they could once again worship Talos. They even seemed to be getting along better with the other peoples who called Skyrim home. In Windhelm, Jarl Ulfric had proclaimed that the Dunmer and the Argonians could live where they pleased, and he’d begun a public works project to improve conditions in the lower parts of the city. Even the Khajiit traders were free to enter Windhelm, though they most often stayed in their camps across the White River estuary. Closer at hand, the Nords and Bretons of Deirdre’s home town of Dragon Bridge treated each other more as neighbors and friends than they ever had.

But looming over these amicable days was the constant threat of attack, most likely by the Altmer of the Summerset Isles, whose Thalmor ruling faction was Oblivion-bent on dominating the rest of Tamriel. They were the true source of the Stormcloaks’ rebellion against the Empire, after all. A generation back, the Thalmor had pushed the Emperor into banning Talos worship as a condition of ending the Great War. And they’d policed the ban themselves, reserving the right of their spies and justiciars to patrol the province and arrest its citizens as they pleased. It was a wonder the Nords had put up with it for twenty-five years, until Ulfric Stormcloak led the uprising.

And what wouldn’t the High Elves do now, after the humiliation Deirdre and Ulfric had given them at Whiterun? With the expedient solution of assassination having failed three times now, they were surely planning the only other alternative available: all-out assault.

Skyrim was as ready as could be for such an attack. Under the leadership of Ralof of Riverwood, the armies had been recruiting and training without cease. Border outposts had been reinforced and the cities well-stocked and armed. And even now, a new fleet of longships was nearly ready to launch onto the Bay of Solitude, from whence they would fan out to fend off any attack by sea. There was little more they could do to fortify the realm’s defenses, though it was hard to know when enough was enough.

No, what Skyrim needed, Deirdre told her repeatedly, was allies: Hammerfell, Orsinium, Black Marsh, even Morrowind, as weakened as that land was after the Red Year. She had ideas as to how best to approach these realms — and even the provinces of High Rock and Elsweyr, as loyal as the one was to the Empire and the other to the Aldmeri Dominion — but she was keeping all of it to herself. “When Brelyna and J’zargo arrive,” was all she would say.

With no sign of their friends, and with everything seemingly well in hand here, Lydia thought maybe Deirdre was right, a day off was exactly what they needed. Maybe if they rode toward Dragon Bridge, they’d even come across their friends, although she knew Deirdre wanted only to escape into the wilderness, not stay to the main roads.

She was telling the sergeant about the change of plans when she noticed a messenger, panting hard, dashing toward the main door of the castle. The troops had just gathered around to hear the good news when the door of the castle burst open again and out ran Deirdre, hair half-braided and Sonja chasing behind her with her forgotten crown.

Deirdre waved a note at her. “From Elisif. Another murder in Dragon Bridge, a whole family this time.”

Lydia looked at her in confusion. One murder was bad enough, but that had been five days before. Now a whole family? “That’s terrible! But what of Elisif and Falk — shouldn’t they handle this one as well, as awful as it is?” It seemed there was little they could do, as this was Jarl Elisif’s domain. The High Queen couldn’t concern herself with every murder in Skyrim, even those that happened nearby.

“No, it’s Brelyna and J’zargo!”

Even more confused now, she took the note Deirdre shoved at her as she ran to call for the horses. The message was hastily scrawled, in language far from the carefully chosen words Elisif usually employed.

My Queen,

Another murder in Dragon Bridge — four this time — a whole family, children. More evidence of Khajiit involvement. Citizens unruly, demanding justice. Falk and I ride now to keep the peace. Two suspects arrested, say they were on their way to meet you. A Dunmer and a Khajiit, Brelyna Maryon and J’zargo. Please come!

—Elisif

Lydia dropped the note and ran after her queen.