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 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.

Categories
Politics Song of Deirdre

New Fiction and Other Updates

Hi there! Long time no see! I’ve neglected my website while I’ve been figuring out what to write next after Daring and Decorum. It was a very long fallow period for writing, but I kept busy volunteering for the successful anti-gerrymandering effort in Michigan. Then my wife and I moved from East Lansing to Tucson for her new job. Big change, that. I’ve enjoyed being in the desert and thought it might actually prompt me back toward nature writing, but so far, not. I also thought I might start covering some of the great cycling in Tucson on my blog, but again, nonfiction just doesn’t hold the same appeal as it used to for me.

But on to new fiction. I’m about halfway done with a post-post-apocalyptic novel which takes place centuries after an artificial intelligence takes over from humanity in order to save the world. It’s going well, and I’m hoping to place it with a publisher.

In the meantime, our white nationalist regime’s efforts at ethnic cleansing are deeply disturbing to me, and I wrote a story in response. I’ve gone back to the world of Skyrim for this, because it’s the ideal setting for explorations of racism and xenophobia. (In fact, the kernel of it came to me in a dream after watching the disturbing news of migrant children in cages.)

Deirdre and Lydia

The Khajiit Murders takes place three months after my previous Skyrim fanfic, The Song of Deirdre,  and takes the form of a murder mystery. One group, the Khajiits, are scapegoated for the killing spree and threatened with ethnic cleansing. Queen Deirdre and her friends have to find the actual murderer before the rebellious jarls remove her from power and try to make Skyrim an ethnically pure Nord state.

I’ve posted an excerpt here, and you can read the full story over on the FanFiction website.


Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

New Review of The Song of Deirdre

From Mack-w over on fanfiction.net:

Two sleepless nights burning through this fic were extremely well spent. Your style is wonderful, and I had a great time in coming to recognize your quirks. 10/10

Your writing is incredibly engaging and sets the hook in early; I didn’t want to sleep, but the few winks I caught were spent dreaming of your beautifully wrought world. The depth and life that you’ve created are nothing short of inspiring. The pacing is very well done – it honestly looks as though it’s flying by, but the content progresses organically with a fluidity that I don’t often see in fanfiction.

The changes that you’ve made fit so well that I wouldn’t even notice if I was unfamiliar with the canon story. The attention to detail plus the recurring themes of hate, balance, and compassion… I could go on for days if my overcritical brain wasn’t retyping every sentence three times. I’ve learned a thing or two about flow in here, but other than lessons learned, this story will stick with me for a long time. I’ll cherish this as a work with emotional impact.

As for your dilemma, I agree that you have a talent that should be recognized, but with the nature of fanfiction, it just cannot be. I wish you all the success in the world should you write something monetarily eligible, and I wish with all my heart that you reconsider finishing your Song.

Sure, there’s no money in this fanfiction gig, but reviews like this almost make up for it.

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?