I made the mistake of asking Dar'Zahyla about her skill for picking locks once.
I'd thought it was an innocent enough question, given that we'd spent the entire day exploring some Dwemer ruin neither of us could pronounce the name of. I'd seen her pick no fewer than half a dozen locks in the ruins, some of which were more complicated than any I'd ever seen before. And yet I could count the number of picks she'd broken on my fingers.
Dar'Zahyla paused from stoking the fire and looked up at me with a startled look. "What?"
"I just asked how you got so good at picking locks," I repeated. "You picked several today with almost no trouble so I just..." Dar'Zahyla looked almost fearful. "I just wondered."
My thane opened and closed her mouth a few times, evidently unsure of how to start. Finally she shook her head and went back to tending the fire. "It is... not the most succinct explanation," she said.
I gestured around the forest we'd bedded down in for the night. We'd checked around for half a mile for any possible threats—naught but deer and foxes about. "We have time."
A weary smile crossed her face, and she absently nudged one of the logs with a stick. "...Dar'Zahyla is not the name this one was born with," she finally said.
She drew her legs up under herself, sitting up. "This one is unsure how familiar you are with Khajiit names."
I thought back on it. Prior to my involvement with Dar'Zahyla, my few interactions with the Khajiit had been making sure they stayed out of Whiterun, and kept their caravans a decent distance away from the gates. I'd heard some of their names before, but I supposed it never occurred to me that changing names was something that they did. I was honest with her: I knew absolutely nothing about Khajiit names.
She took it easily, just laughing at my admission. "This one is not surprised. Nords do not tend to pay much attention to Khajiit matters." I must've looked hurt, because she was quick to assure me that she meant no harm by it, and that I was in fact one of the better Nords she'd met. "Although," she added, "you must admit that it is true."
I just motioned for her to continue.
"My birth name was Zahyla," she said.
"Zahyla?" It didn't feel quite right in my mouth.
She smiled, showing off all her fangs. "I was not called Zahyla for much longer than my infancy. During early childhood, this one was called Ma'Zahyla."
I looked at her oddly.
Dar'Zahyla went on to explain that Khajiit names varied based on the Khajiit's current status in life: a title, she half-explained, was attached to the Khajiit's birth name until a Khajiit of higher status deemed them fit for a new name. So as a child she was called Ma'Zahyla, as an adolescent she would have been called Ja'Zahyla, and she was just at the age now where S'Zahyla might've been appropriate.
"So, Ma is for children," I echoed, "Ja is for teenagers, and S is adults?" Dar'Zahyla looked like she was trying very hard not to laugh. "My Ta'agra isn't very good, is it?"
"Your accent does not mingle well with it, no," she agreed, "but this one's accent likely does not mingle well with Nordic at times."
I smiled. That wasn't much of an understatement. "So your name... What does Dar mean?"
Her grin slowly disappeared, and she scratched at her jaw. "Ah... This one believes the closest Nordic term would be thief."
I looked my thane up and down. Yes, she was uncannily good at picking locks, and yes she was almost silent when she decided to take to the shadows, but... well, she didn't really strike me as one. "Your title is 'thief?'"
Dar'Zahyla nodded. "It is the title this one was granted by Ri'dar. He was the leader of the tribe this one was in, and so the title stuck." She smiled wryly. "Much as this one would be foolish to turn down a title of thane, this one would have been very foolish to turn down the title of Dar."
"Why did he choose that one?"
She looked down at the fire again, warming her hands for a moment before going through her rucksack to pick out something to eat. "At seven years of age, this one was, ah... taken. By a caravan from Leyawiin."
I felt my chest tighten at her odd wording. I prayed to whatever gods might've been listening that it was a mistranslation. "When you say taken..."
Dar'Zahyla withdrew a small sweet roll from her bag and looked at me oddly. "Ah... Argonians. This one was captured and put into chains, and was taken far away."
My panic abated, but only just. Thank Talos. "You were kidnapped, then."
She shrugged, as she had the habit of doing when she didn't quite understand a word. "I was not the only one. This one was merely one of many cubs of my tribe who were taken and put into chains. We did not quite understand the Nordic language at the time, but we believed we were to be sold into slavery."
My heart jumped into my throat. "Slavery's outlawed in Skyrim!" I said, insulted.
Dar'Zahyla bit into her roll, smiling wryly with sugar stuck to her whiskers. "It is protected in Morrowind. That is where they likely intended to take us."
I sat back and shook my head. "By the gods..."
"Indeed. By the blessing of Rajhin, however, we cubs were not taken far. We escaped."
She was staring hard at her hands, flexing her fingers thoughtfully. It finally dawned on me. "You broke them out."
"By sheer luck," she said. "Ma'Zahyla found but a single pick lying on the ground." Her voice went sharp suddenly: "The Argonians did not use very complex locks, as they figured Khajiit too stupid to figure them out." Dar'Zahyla paused then and took another bite of her roll, shaking her head. "It was their error. This one was just quiet enough as to pick the locks of all the cubs one night before the Argonians realized what was happening."
"What happened then?"
Dar'Zahyla chuckled softly. "We ran."
"And they didn't pursue?"
"Oh, they did," she said. "However, the caravan had also captured several Cathay-raht Khajiit. They were more than willing to hold the Argonians at bay until some cubs had gotten enough distance as to convinced the Argonians that we were not worth the trouble."
My eyes were wide. I'd heard many horror stories about Elsweyr but... gods. "I take it you all made it back to your... tribe?"
Dar'Zahyla bit off another bite from her roll, chewing slowly. I wondered if she was putting off an answer. "Most of us."
"There was a cub... she was a very young Alfiq. I tried to keep her fed and protected but..." Dar'Zahyla sighed. "She was too young for a journey lasting more than a day. Her father was merely grateful that I brought her body back to him."
I stood and went to her side, sitting down again next to her. I hesitantly rested my hand on her back. Dar'Zahyla rested her head on my shoulder. "Most of you made it back, though?"
"Yes," she said. I heard the smile in her voice. "The celebration lasted throughout the night. And at the end, when the word of what this one had done spread, the chief brought Ma'Zahyla before him and renamed her Dar'Zahyla for her deeds."
"I see." I didn't quite, but I understood the gist. "So you had an early start for picking locks, is that it?"
"Only part of it," Dar'Zahyla said, snorting. "Dar'Zahyla was given a few more locks to toy with from those in her tribe, and was able to pick them easily. So she was tasked with a very important job in her tribe."
"What might that be?"
I blinked hard and looked down at her. She was still staring into the fire. "What?"
Dar'Zahyla sleepily explained her role: go out with the Khajiit caravans most likely to be attacked, make sure to get captured, then silently free all the Khajiit to ransack the abductors' own caravan in the middle of the night. "Dar'Zahyla had," she said, "many years to hone her skill for silence and picking locks."
My hand slid up, thoughtfully rubbing the base of her ear. She purred sleepily. "Naming you a thief after rescuing children and being used as live bait still hardly seems fair..." I didn't like it. Dar'Zahyla was a good person.
Dar'Zahyla chuckled. "Ah, no. This one did not say that Dar meant thief, merely that thief is the closest Nordic word. Those of us titled Dar are given it because we are exceptionally clever, or unusually gifted with our hands." She moved away from me and grinned, wiggling her fingers in front of her face. "As you may realize, this one is not particularly clever, so—"
I gave her a little swat to the back of the skull. "My thane, you don't give yourself enough credit."
That made her genuinely smile. One of her hands cupped the back of my neck, tugging me down to bunt her forehead gently against my own. "My moon, flattery will get you utterly nowhere," she teased. With that, she began fumbling with her breastplate, evidently ready to bed down for the night.
I moved to help her undo the many straps on her armor. "'Your moon?'" I echoed.
She ducked her head in the way she often did when embarrassed. I raised a brow. "It is a term used to show... affection?" Dar'Zahyla spoke haltingly, unsure of her word choice.
I tugged her breastplate off. "A term of endearment?"
Dar'Zahyla shrugged, not quite understanding the word. I smirked. From the way she wouldn't quite meet my eye, I think she understood the meaning just fine.