Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 2

Arrest

“Court mage to Queen Deirdre of Skyrim!” J’zargo of Elsweyr exclaimed. “It is this one’s next step on the road to greatness. What glories will J’zargo not attain!” The Khajiit’s long feline tail flicked back and forth on the rump of his horse.

Brelyna Maryon’s red eyes glared at her companion and sometime lover. “Co-mage, don’t forget, you arrogant cat.” He paid her no attention, his own eyes fixed on the glories of his imagined future rather than on the road ahead of them. They were on their way to Solitude, and Brelyna hoped they would reach the city this evening, as scheduled. Showing up late for one’s appointment with the queen would hardly do, friends though they were.

“And before you get your hopes up,” she went on, “remember that Skyrim is but one former province of what used to be a great empire. How it will stand on its own, threatened by both the Altmer and the Imperials, I know not. I can only hope Deirdre has a better idea. I don’t believe this throne was anything she ever sought.”

“Pffft. Who wouldn’t seek such a lofty position, especially a mage of such power, and born to a great destiny, such as our friend? We will provide her with wise counsel, which one so young surely requires.”

“Ha, you’ve hardly seen more winters than she. And I am older, but still in the youth of a Dunmer. No, our appointments have more of the college grapevine about them than our magical powers or wisdom.”

J’zargo gave a soft hrmmph, and they lapsed into silence.

An odder couple could hardly be imagined. Not just because she was an elf and he a Khajiit, one of the cat-people of Elsweyr. No, it was his arrogance and self-centeredness, in contrast to her own lack of confidence, that had surprised their friends, Deirdre and Lydia, when they first became a couple.

Brelyna was as surprised as anyone. When she’d first met the cocky Khajiit at the College of Winterhold, nearly a year ago now, she could hardly stand him, with all his boasting and ambition. Whereas she just hoped to not disappoint her family too badly with her lackluster talents in the magical arts. No mediocrity was tolerated among the scions of Morrowind’s House Telvanni. After months at the college, she’d finally overcome her mental block against alteration magic, and more recently she’d been pleased to write her family informing them that their daughter was about to enter the service of Skyrim’s new High Queen.

She’d left out her relationship with J’zargo. They’d surely disapprove of anyone less exalted than a distant Telvanni cousin; failing that, a strategic alliance with a noble of House Redoran might be acceptable. But a Khajiit! It would probably take all the flin in Solstheim to revive her mother upon hearing such news.

The circumstances of their pairing were certainly understandable. Thrown together in a strange city after the grief and horror of the siege and retreat from Whiterun, Onmund dead, Lydia grievously wounded, and Deirdre preoccupied with trying to heal her – they’d had no one else to turn to for comfort. If she’d had to guess back then how long their relationship would last, she’d have given it a few weeks at most, long enough for the grief to subside and the initial burst of attraction to ebb.

But it had persisted, with a few spats, through the remainder of the war and their return to the college. Even J’zargo’s boasting of his prowess with females of all races, equal to his powers as a mage, had lessened of late. He’d grown more attentive to her wishes and needs, as opposed to his former self-preoccupation. She was sure their friends would hardly recognize him.

But now, as they neared Solitude, J’zargo’s boastful nature was having a renascence. He’s just excited over his new appointment, she told herself.

They emerged from a small grove of trees and the town of Dragon Bridge was laid out before them on the opposite side of the Karth River. The place was aptly named. Twin dragon heads carved from stone loomed over the bridge crossing the mighty river. Before the return of Alduin, these carvings had been mere quaint oddities depicting beasts from fable and myth. Now they served as grim reminders of the very real terror that had gripped Skyrim just a few short months before. Brelyna shivered at those fearsome visages as she and J’zargo rode beneath them. She’d never faced a dragon in the flesh, only an undead serpent in skeletal form, but that had been bad enough.

Pic of Dragon Bridge in Skyrim

Two town guards stood at attention at the other end of the bridge. In these more peaceful times, most guards had returned to their usual habit of greeting travelers with a curt “Citizen” or “No lollygaggin’.” But as soon as these two caught a glimpse of Brelyna and her companion, they drew their swords and moved to block the exit from the bridge.

“Halt!” one said. “Dismount now. And no magical funny business.”

Brelyna drew her horse to a stop, as did J’zargo. But the Khajiit — foolish cat! — wouldn’t be ordered around so brusquely.

“Nord soldiers know not to whom they speak,” he said in a low growl. “This one is on important business to your queen. We have no time for your petty concerns.”

“J’zargo…” Brelyna began, already preparing a lecture about not provoking the Nords’ well-known bigotry against outlanders. But there was no time for that. Turning back to the guards, she said, “Please forgive my companion’s rude behavior, but he speaks true. Queen Deirdre expects us in Solitude this evening at the latest.”

“That may be, but we have our orders to question and search any outlanders — especially Khajiits. Now dismount!” As if to underscore the guard’s threat, another soldier emerged from the guard house, bow drawn, an arrow aimed at J’zargo’s chest.

Brelyna reached out a restraining hand to her companion, who was making ready to cast a spell. “Don’t be a fool, J’zargo. Let us do as the guards say.” He looked over at her, his eyes blazing with indignation. “Please, J’zargo.”

“Very well,” he said as he dismounted. “But when Queen Deirdre hears of this…” His words were cut off as a guard pushed him to face the bridge railing. Another did the same with Brelyna and she had to catch herself with both hands to avoid hitting the railing or toppling over it. The guard patted her mage’s robes roughly, with no regard for the dignity of her person.

From the other side of the bridge came the grunts and scrapes of a struggle. “No, you silly Khajiit, don’t resist!” she called. But now more guards were running over. They soon had J’zargo subdued.

“Perhaps if you told us what this is about, you’d get more cooperation,” she said, marshaling all the hauteur she could remember from her mother’s dealings with recalcitrant shopkeepers and the like. Her words met only silence. She was about to go on but broke off as the guards turned her around. One of the guards near J’zargo was staggering away, clutching his face where J’zargo had clawed him.

The one with the bow went over to the wounded soldier and examined the wounds. “This proves it!” he said, pointing to his colleague. “These are the same marks the murderer left on Heimvar’s face, and on the Jurards as well!” He turned to where J’zargo was being held with his hands tied behind his back. “You’ll pay, you bloody Khajiit!” The archer stepped toward J’zargo, dropping his bow and pulling a dagger from his belt.

“No!” Brelyna shouted, struggling against her own captors.

“That’s enough!” said a newcomer who appeared to be in charge. “The jarl will see to their punishment, both the Khajiit and his Dark Elf accomplice. Lock them up.”

With that, they frog-marched Brelyna and J’zargo into town and shoved them into adjacent cells in the town jail.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 1

Prologue

On a warm day early in Sun’s Height, young Danil Bienne made his way through the forest, a bucket of freshly-picked blueberries swinging from hand to hand. He couldn’t wait to turn the gleanings over to his mother in Dragon Bridge, then get back to playing with his best friend, Addvar. Maybe they’d go down to the Karth River and stage twig-boat races. Or better yet, get out the wooden swords and play at being the soldiers they hoped to one day become, defending Skyrim from all its foes. There was no such thing as too much practice if a lad wanted to make it into one of the elite corps.

Just now, the newly independent province offered many paths for a youth filled with dreams of martial glory. Skyrim had just earned its freedom from the Empire, and Nords now had the right to worship their hero-god Talos. A Civil War over a god! That didn’t make much sense. All Danil knew was that his homeland now faced many threats on all sides.

Three months past, the Stormcloaks had marched through town, fresh from liberating Whiterun from the High Elves, and on their way to battle with the Empire’s forces in the great city of Solitude. He’d clambered onto the roof of his family home to get a better look at the ranks of soldiers marching by, led by Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm, his face set and grim. At the jarl’s side rode his supporters and allies: Galmar Stone-Fist, Ulfric’s chief lieutenant, with a scowl to match his leader’s; Ralof of Riverwood, an eager young Stormcloak who jested with his companions even as they rode toward a great siege; Lydia Ravenwood, the Hero of Whiterun, her steel armor and black hair glinting in the spring sunshine. And finally, Deirdre Morningsong, clad in dark mages’ robes with a hood partially hiding her face. Her slight stature and pensive demeanor gave no hint of the power that could defeat a god.

On that day, Danil had been sure that Ulfric was marching to be crowned the new High King of Skyrim, a prospect that had dampened his own hopes of becoming a soldier. It wasn’t likely that he, a Breton, would be welcomed among soldiers who shouted “Skyrim is for the Nords!” every time they picked up a sword.

But the world of adults was confusing for a lad of eleven summers, and nothing had turned out the way he’d expected. There hadn’t even been a battle, or so he’d heard. Ulfric wanted to make an example of the few Imperial soldiers still loyal to their mad general, but Deirdre had pushed to spare them. Then Ulfric and Deirdre had dueled in the ancient Nord way, using the Power of the Voice. Deirdre’s Thu’um had proven the greater.

Now Ulfric was back in Windhelm and Deirdre had been named High Queen by the jarlmoot. Ralof, not Galmar, was general of Skyrim’s new army. And Lydia was the queen’s housecarl, captain of her Royal Guard, and her consort.

Best of all, the queen had proclaimed that from now on Skyrim would be for all peoples, not just the Nords. And since Deirdre herself was half Nord and half Breton, many Breton youths were now volunteering to serve in her army. It was indeed a new day in the province, with many new opportunities.

But now he had another problem: deciding where he’d rather serve, with Ralof’s forces down in Whiterun, or with the Royal Guard under Lydia’s command. He guessed he’d see more action in the regular army, but gain greater glory with the elite guards, not to mention the opportunity to hear Lydia’s tales of battle and of slaying dragons alongside the Dragonborn. It was a thorny question.

He came out of the forest and onto the road leading home. The sun was high, shining down through the opening the road made through the trees, warming him after the chill of standing in the bog where the best berries grew. The bushes on either side of the road were alive with the twittering of birds, while the air carried the fresh scent of pines. After months of his parents keeping him indoors, it felt great to be outside, even on such a boring errand.

His mother had many excuses for the forced confinement. First it was the stupid dragons, and then it was the stupid war. “We’ll not risk losing you to either sword or claw,” she’d said. Alduin World-Eater had returned, the most fearsome dragon ever to soar above Tamriel. And not just a dragon, but a god. Alduin had resurrected an army of fire-, frost-, and blood-dragons, and then Deirdre, the Dragonborn, had vanquished him. Some said she’d chased him all the way down the death-road to Sovngarde to finish him off. Danil hadn’t even seen claw or scale of the countless dragons that had marauded the countryside and towns all through the fall. It didn’t seem fair.

Once the dragons were gone, his parents still kept him inside, even though the great battles of the war were all far away in Falkreath, Riften, and the two great sieges of Whiterun. He’d counted himself lucky to be let outside to watch the Stormcloaks march through town on their way to victory.

But the freedom promised by that day turned out to be short-lived. The dragons were gone, the war was over, and his parents were finally considering whether conditions were safe enough for him to roam free. And then troubles broke out between the town’s Nord majority and its Breton minority. Danil didn’t know what it was about, only that Addvar could no longer visit his house, and then his parents had taken him to visit Aunt Francine down in Rorikstead.

That had been over a month before, at the end of Second Seed. Even after returning to town to find the atmosphere more relaxed, and Addvar’s parents apologetic, it was well into the month of Midyear before he’d been given his freedom. He’d hardly been indoors since.

On such a pleasant day, with neither dragon to be glimpsed nor clash of shields to be heard, he’d scoffed at the worried looks his mother gave him as he headed out the door. What did she think could happen to him, a future brave soldier of Skyrim?

He was still pondering his prospects when he heard a wagon approaching fast from around a bend in the road ahead. He stepped to one side as the wagon appeared, pulled by a pair of horses straining to make it go even faster. Their eyes bulged and their mouths foamed as they thundered past. He didn’t see a driver, not in the seat, not in the back laden with goods, nor even chasing after it down the road. The wagon looked like the one belonging to Heimvar Snow-mane, a trader who passed through Dragon Bridge every couple of weeks. Danil continued up the road, planning to tell the first town guard or other adult what he’d seen.

He’d walked a quarter-hour or so when he spotted a lump off to the side of the road. The lump moved as he got closer — a man, lying on his side, with his back to Danil. He looked as if he could be sleeping, curled up the way he was, save for his head pointing downhill into the ditch. That couldn’t be too comfortable. He had blond hair just like Heimvar’s.

The head moved as Danil approached and now the boy saw blood splattering the man’s tan tunic. One sleeve was partly torn away to reveal a shoulder and arm slick with more blood. And this wasn’t the worst. The man was cradling his abdomen. Danil didn’t want to look at what he was holding there. He concentrated on the man’s face, trying to fight down the sick feeling growing in his stomach.

Heimvar’s face was deathly pale, save for two bright red claw marks on his cheek. The blue eyes, wide at first with fright, relaxed when he recognized the boy.

“Lad,” he said, though even that single syllable seemed to be a struggle. “Help… please…”

Danil stood there, not knowing what to do.

“Go…” the man pleaded. “Get… help…” He closed his eyes against the pain.

With that instruction, Danil dropped his bucket and ran as fast as his feet would carry him toward Dragon Bridge.

[Chapter 2 coming tomorrow. I’ll post a chapter every day or so.]

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

What’s Next for Deirdre

Deirdre in SovngardeSo there it is, 62 chapters, 350,000 words, or roughly 750 printed pages. (If you haven’t begun The Song of Deirdre yet, you can start here.)

When I began this project two years ago, I had several questions (spoiler warning!):

  • Could I get fictional characters moving about and speaking in a convincing manner?
  • Could I make the world of a video game come to life on the page?
  • Could I make it equally entertaining both for those who had played Skyrim and for those had never played video games at all?
  • Could I write a convincing female character (whatever the hell that means)?
  • Could I avoid making her what Anita Sarkeesian calls a “Ms. Male Character” (essentially a male character with a few superficial feminine markers)?
  • Could I write the whole thing as a first-person memoir and sustain reader interest?
  • Could I wrestle the random quest lines of Skyrim into a coherent plot with enough narrative tension to keep readers clicking “next chapter”?
  • Could I manage four main narrative arcs and a couple of smaller ones?
  • Could I rise above the inherent heterosexism of a straight man writing a lesbian character if I focused hard enough on developing her relationship and did so in what I think of as a feminist and LGBTQ+ -friendly way?
Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 62

Epilogue

It was a bright afternoon when we arrived in Dragon Bridge. The morning’s journey to my home town had been a pleasant one, the sun shining down through the pines, bright red snow flowers popping their heads up through the receding banks of white, the songs of warblers and thrushes newly returned from the south enlivening the air. Now the sun warmed our backs as we sat on a dais placed near one end of the town’s famed bridge. Behind us, the mighty Karth River roared, its banks filled with snowmelt from the high peaks of the Reach. I told myself I should be glad on this lovely spring day.

Yet the day’s somber purpose drove all thoughts of gaiety from my mind. I could not help looking down at the town’s woodlot, where Horgeir usually spent his days splitting wood. Now a single short log was placed on blocks at knee height, a double-bladed axe leaning against it, and a large basket of woven rushes placed on one side, ready to receive the axe’s grim produce. Nearby stood the headsman, his features hidden by a black hood. A dozen hold guards were placed throughout the town, and two archers perched on roofs nearby, observing the scene.

Lydia, seated next to me, squeezed my hand. “Are you not happy, my love?” she asked. “This is the day you’ve long awaited, the day your parents’ killers will receive justice.”

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 61

The Temple of the Gods

It was madness – two armies clashing in a narrow passage. Tullius could have held out long against the Stormcloaks behind the castle’s stout defenses. But he had driven his remaining soldiers into a frenzy of fear, convincing them it was better to go out in a final, futile assault than to cower behind the castle’s gates. And Ulfric’s soldiers were eager for a fight, having been deprived of one for so long. There would be many losses on both sides – Elisif and I the first, if I didn’t do something to stop it.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 60

Castle Dour

Four hundred elves in Labyrinthian, and no one wanted them. Two weeks had passed since the liberation of Whiterun. Messages had gone back and forth between Ulfric, Elenwen, and Tullius, with nothing but threats on either side. Meanwhile, the captured Altmer subsisted on short rations. Even then, the Stormcloaks couldn’t keep feeding them forever. Winter was always a lean time in Skyrim, and trade with the south had been disrupted by the war.

I kept well out of the negotiations. Lydia and I busied ourselves around Whiterun, helping where we could with its restoration. Balgruuf was installed once more in what was left of Dragonsreach, sharing the war room and remaining living quarters uneasily with Ulfric. Yet for the first week Balgruuf was too weak to do more than rest. He named Lydia his new housecarl, Irileth having fallen defending him. I became an informal steward.

The first of our tasks was a grim one. The bodies of the fallen, both within the city and without, had to be collected and given proper funeral rites. Lydia’s mood grew darker as more of her friends were uncovered. Fortunately, the deep snows had kept most of the scavengers at bay, though it made finding all the bodies difficult. Lydia had many friends among the fallen, as did I – Farengar, Thorald, Vilkas’ brother Farkas, Adrianne. And then there was Onmund. We found him, along with the rest of the Nords who had fallen on the bridge, tossed onto the iced-over river like so much refuse. It took me a long moment after we found him to remember why we had spared the lives of the elves.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 59

 

Beneath Whiterun’s Walls

 

No description could have prepared me for the devastation I saw in Whiterun as Odahviing and I rose above the White River, approaching the city from the east. The farms outside the city were blackened splotches on the snowy landscape, the farmhouses and barns and windmills having been burned to the ground. But the most dramatic change was within the city itself. The lofty, gabled roofs of Dragonsreach, once the dominant landmark for miles around – gone. Jorrvaskr, the Companions’ mead-hall, built from the great upturned hull of the vessel that had carried them from Atmora – gone. As we came nearer I looked for the Bannered Mare, Arcadia’s Cauldron, the Temple of Kynareth – all gone. And of Breezehome, my home, our home – nothing remained but one stone wall.

I struggled to maintain my new-found equanimity as I viewed the scene. And what must Lydia be feeling as she marched with the Stormcloaks, just now coming within view of the city? Worse, what of Ulfric? Would he use the sight as an excuse to go back on the promises he had made me?

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 58

 

The Stormcloak Camp

 

“Need I remind you that this is no game?” Arngeir demanded, his eyes narrow slits boring into my own. I had just told him of the events at the Rift Pass, his expression growing more alarmed with each turn of the tale. Now I could only look away under his stern gaze, I was so ashamed.

“No, master, of course not,” I stammered.

“You are no schoolgirl whose teacher has given her mere busywork.”

“No, I realize that, but…”

“Have you been meditating daily? Contemplating the sky? Doing your breathing exercises?”

I could only shake my head. There had been those moments of extreme need, as in the Aldmeri Embassy, when I had drawn on the contemplations I had been taught at High Hrothgar. But I had let my regular practice lapse. Somehow, there had never been enough time.

“Look at me, young lady.” Slowly I raised my head to look at him. He regarded me for what seemed hours as I struggled to hold his gaze.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 57

 

Mistveil Keep

 

“You!” came a harsh voice from behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder, spinning me around. I turned to see Proventus Avenicci, a knapsack slung over his back and an expression of rage on his face.

Lydia and I had been walking through Riften’s market plaza, crowded this morning with cityfolk returning from Maven’s execution at Mistveil Keep. I had wanted no part of it, choosing this moment instead to walk Lydia from the temple to the Bee and Barb, where I had found us a room. She was still weak, and had to lean on my shoulder.

Proventus seemed to have aged a score of years since last I had seen him, with new lines of grief and worry marking his brow and his hair several shades more gray. “You!” he said again. “It’s your fault! And now my daughter … she was all I cared about in the world!”

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 56

 

The Gates of Riften

 

Moaning. Screaming. Whimpering. Appeals to Kynareth and Mara, Ruptga and Malacath. Smoldering trees and singed leather and bodies burned beyond recognition. The foul stench of voided bowels and warm blood and spilled entrails, mixed with the sweet aroma of cooking meat. For the awful truth is that the smell of burned human flesh is like that of any other roasting game. The very fact that I could find it appealing turned my stomach.

I watched as Odahviing soared away from the battlefield, wishing he could take me anywhere other than here. But no, I was the author of this atrocity and I must look on it. I had commanded that he set me down here, and then sent him on his way.

“Help me,” a nearby soldier croaked. “For the love of Morwha, help me.” Morwha is the name used in Hammerfell for Mara. The fellow was a Redguard from the Imperial side. He had escaped the onslaught of fire, but had a great rent across his leather cuirass. The snow nearby was stained bright red.