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.
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!”
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.
“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.
“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.