(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Lydia dropped the note and ran after her queen.