“...and once we had received the water nymphs' blessing, they sent us off, cleverly concealed from the water dragon as we made our way out of Black Marsh.” The male high elf finished his grossly exaggerated tale with much gusto, landing on a sigh of relief that would have convinced even the most hard-headed sceptic that he was telling the truth. All around him, the Imperial merchants who had offered them, and their khajiit allies, a place among their caravans, stared at him in a mix of awe and disbelief.
Jodar-Ri, alfiq and fugitive from Elsweyr, rolled his green cat eyes. He'd lost count of how many times his altmer friend had told this tale, and the enemy chasing them, let alone the location, changed with each telling. The campfire they sat around cracked merrily under the slightly chilled, Sun's Height night of Northern Cyrodiil. For over two months they'd travelled north, during which the tiny, house cat-sized khajiit had been stuck listening to tall tales and eating less-than-ideal food. Worst of all, however, was how he'd had to pretend to be some common cat, and stay inside the wagon most of the time.
Zavrian, despite his talent for annoying Jodar-Ri, always found a way to let the alfiq out and stretch his legs. It would have bothered Nezdal, the alfiq's tall and bipedal cousin, had he known. Fortunately, the altmer was one of the Dark Brotherhood's finest assassins, trained in stealth, subterfuge and the art of persuasion. If he wanted the caravan guard to look away, he'd make it happen. This level of skill was something Jodar-Ri had witnessed only in his fellow khajiit, and one Imperial.
For the alfiq, who had otherwise been a law-abiding citizen all his life, the concept of breaking the rules felt oddly thrilling. He wasn't sure if this meant that his infiltration of the Thalmor embassy in Rimmen had pushed him down a path of disorderly conduct, or if it was simply the elf's influence. Perhaps both.
He'd settle for both. At least then he could blame the elf a little bit.
The sights along the road had been quite diverse. Where Elsweyr had desert sands and tropical forests, Cyrodiil offered green, rolling hills and flatlands as far as the eye could see. Farms stretched out on either sides of the road, and charming towns and impressive cities dotted the landscape. While not as hot as in Elsweyr, the sun was still warm enough that Jodar-Ri and his companions could enjoy themselves. Despite his love for his homeland, the alfiq had grown increasingly curious about the wider world as they travelled.
Although Cyrodiil's lands were beautiful to behold, there were signs of the Empire's war with the Aldmeri dominion in several places. A ruined tower here, a desiccated village there, and graveyards stretching almost as far as the Empire's crops, were among some of the less charming sights.
The alfiq felt no particular loyalty to Cyrodiil, and considered the Empire weak under the leadership of Titus Mede. In Jodar-Ri's mind, the current emperor was corrupt and self-serving, not at all what a great leader should be. However, knowing what he did about the Thalmor after his discovery in Rimmen, and seeing firsthand the destruction that the alliance of Summerset altmer and Valenwood bosmer had brought to these lands, he could only feel ashamed of his people's alliance with them. Not that the khajiit had participated in the fighting, as Elsweyr had been caught up in its own civil war at the time. They had allowed the Thalmor to make camps in the northern part of their lands, however, and that assistance was bad enough.
Not that he could do anything about it. Still, the sights went with him wherever he went, and when the caravan stopped to trade with Imperials, the stories were many and tragic.
It was enough to make the small feline's gut clench with anger. One day, he would bring his proof before the Mane. The alliance with these hateful elves would end, though where that left his people he wasn't sure.
“Water nymphs are actually quite terrifying to look upon for male khajiit.” Zavrian's voice cut through the alfiq's memory path, drawing his attention back to the present. “This is why they always avert their eyes when they come across women in water, regardless of race and state of dress. If the woman turns out to be a water nymph in disguise, and they're caught looking, they turn into common cats.”
Laughter and gasps sounded from the audience. Jodar-Ri glared.
One woman in particular spoke up, a half-Imperial, half-Redguard named Malizah, according to herself. “What happened to your friend, the err... alfiq?”
“Sadly, he was caught looking,” the elf replied. “While the Mane delivered an impressive rescue operation, and subsequently defeated the dragon, my friend couldn't be saved. He now resides in the palace, as a reward for his loyal service. Though he no longer has a name, and answers only to 'kitty, kitty'.”
Sad noises came from the younger humans. One of the children even started crying, asking if they could go find some mages to help Zavrian's friend. “I wish I could meet cats that talk,” one of the older children even expressed.
“No, Talia, we're not going to Elsweyr for trade,” her mother sternly warned her. She didn't elaborate, however, and nobody seemed interested in asking why.
The small khajiit felt more than a little annoyed with the elf's tale, but he knew it was the best way to throw the scent off of them long enough to get to Skyrim. Stubborn liars made people give up asking, and the altmer was as wilful as they came. Of course, Nezdal could have refused the Imperials' offer of hospitality, but that would have raised suspicions. After all, khajiit were known to be charming, sociable and preferring the company of others.
Jodar-Ri was permitted outside this one time by Nezdal, but only because his “cat act” had improved significantly over the course of their journey, and he had found a way to magically disguise himself as an all-black cat. It also helped that he lay in a dark corner behind the back of a tall Nord man who had been quiet the entire time. His shadow hid the small, quadruped khajiit perfectly, though even if he moved, Jodar-Ri needed only roll over once and the tree log the man sat on would hide him instead.
From what the alfiq had gathered from some of the campfire gossip, when the humans had believed no-one from their caravan was within earshot, was that a good number of the people travelling north weren't merchants. Instead, they were leaving Cyrodiil behind in anxious anticipation of the Thalmor's breaking of the White-Gold Concordat, the treaty signed by the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion in the wake of the Great War. Not a single one of them was convinced that the “racist and genocidal” high elves were interested in maintaining the peace. Not after what had happened in Imperial City.
Unfortunately, Nezdal had chosen that time to return, interrupting the conversation at its most interesting part. There was much he didn't know about the war, Jodar-Ri realised, and the news that had travelled with Imperial citizens visiting Elsweyr had been denied emphatically by the Thalmor.
Seeing as they were nothing but a bunch of liars, the alfiq had found yet another reason to travel – simply broadening his mind and getting to the many truths that the conniving, twisted high elves were trying to hide. The things he could discover, and later use against them. For while humans were a troublesome lot, and a mixed bag of morality, it was becoming clear to him that his people's elven allies were no better. Though he was wondering if “genocidal” was stretching things a bit.
“It's getting late, my friends,” Nezdal's voice cut in and he leaned down and picked up his smaller cousin. “We have a long journey ahead, and much rest to be had. This one, in particular, will be glad to be well rested come morning.”
“Good point,” Malizah said with a smile. “I, too, will be off to bed.” Agreements spread among the crowd, and the parents shooed their children towards their tents. Some complaints were heard, but they all eventually melted into resigned “yes, mother” or “yes, father”, depending. Some were “yes, uncle” or “yes, auntie”. War orphans? That thought made Jodar-Ri's stomach clench.
He didn't have time to ponder it, though, as Zavrian joined him inside their tent. Most Elsweyr tents were open in the front, but the Imperials had strongly advised them to buy the kind that could be closed, and was double-layered, for when reaching Northern Cyrodiil. Despite it being summer, having climbed part of the mountain range that separated this country from Skyrim had introduced the khajiit to a temperature more akin to desert nights in winter. The tents they'd bought offered much better refuge than the ones they'd brought with them, but the Nords travelling with them had advised them to buy even warmer ones for the kind of weather that Skyrim had to offer.
It made Jodar-Ri both curious and apprehensive.
Zavrian plopped down next to him with a content sigh, and pulled his hood down. Like the alfiq, the elf had adopted a disguise of his own. His tattoos were hidden by make-up, he'd meticulously grown out his facial hair and he'd dyed it all black. Then a minor illusion spell coloured his sclera the same way as his irises, giving him that “soulless” appearance that seemed common to many elves.
The khajiit found it a disturbing sight whenever he encountered it. He struggled to see how the altmer themselves considered it a sign of beauty. Well, “pure breeding” was more accurate.
Once they were certain no non-khajiit was near, Zavrian turned to his furry friend and spoke. “That has to be my favourite telling as of yet.”
Jodar-Ri didn't share his enthusiasm. “Water nymphs and dragon in Black Marsh? You might as well claim to be the son of Baan Dar.”
Zavrian shrugged. “It became an entertaining tale nevertheless, and human curiosities are sated. Believe me when I say, my friend, that accomplishing the latter is no small feat.”
“This one has caught onto such a discovery during his travels already, surprisingly enough.” His sarcasm was a bit more biting than he'd intended.
The elf shot him a raised eyebrow. “Eager for adventure, my friend? I suppose I can't blame you, considering you've been holed up either in a tent or the wagon this whole time.”
“The dangers of adventure can wait as far as Jodar-Ri is concerned.” The alfiq shook his head. “No, this one prefers a quiet, uneventful journey where he goes unnoticed by the bigger people in the world.”
“When the blow comes from the least expected source, it's all the more powerful,” the assassin quoted, a popular saying in Elsweyr, and among assassins especially.
Jodar-Ri lay his head down on his front paws. “Truth be told, this one is disturbed by the gossip shared among the humans. Apparently the Thalmor committed many atrocities in the Imperial City, but Jodar-Ri has yet to discover what they were.”
“They murdered civilians,” the high elf replied so casually it caused the khajiit's head to spring right back up again. A wry smile grew on the mer's face. “The brotherhood gets around, it only stands to reason we receive the news that the Thalmor want to hide.”
“Even the children?” To say the alfiq was horrified would be an understatement. Khajiit warriors would battle the soldiers of other places and races, but to turn those weapons against the unarmed and untrained was to taint their honour.
Zavrian looked surprised at his friend's reaction. “It's a common practice among high elves to murder their own children if they don't look 'pure' enough. They're called purges.”
Jodar-Ri's mouth remained hanging open, his eyes wide with shock. Nowhere among Man, khajiit, argonians, bosmer or the mixed-blooded bretons had he heard of such traditions. Not even the at-times vicious and merciless dunmer or orsimer did such a thing. There was much left for him to learn, apparently.
“You don't really look... pure,” the alfiq remarked and drew the elf's attention back to him. “How did the marked one survive such a purge?” There was a slight pause, and the alfiq sensed it was a question he probably shouldn't have asked. “Tell Jodar-Ri only if you feel right to do so, of course.”
A ghost of a smile flickered across Zavrian's face. “There were no altmer around to purge me. I was born in Elsweyr, my mother dying as she gave birth to me. My father... I don't know.”
Sympathy struck the little alfiq with the force of a sledgehammer. “You had no family growing up?”
The elf shook his head. “I didn't say that. I was born into a whorehouse. The whores communally raised us, which was a better fate than most orphans.”
“Then...” the khajiit didn't have the heart to finish his sentence.
“Anyone could be my father,” the assassin completed for him. Despite the gravity of his words, his voice was perfectly calm and matter-of-fact. It made the alfiq wonder how old the elf was.
“You have no clues as to your origin?” Jodar-Ri rose up on his front legs and assumed a sitting position next to his friend. How little he knew of someone who had risked everything to help him! The alfiq felt ashamed.
“You want to know that badly, do you?” Zavrian shot him a teasing smile.
“This one is sorry.”
Jodar-Ri cleared his throat. “This one is a terrible friend. All this time, Jodar-Ri has been so consumed with himself. He didn't realise that he knew next to nothing about his elven friend, even though he has counted you as such for many years. You have sacrificed everything for this mission that Jodar-Ri hired you for, yet he didn't stop to ask for your thoughts. So this one is sorry.”
For the first time since the alfiq met the elf in Rimmen's finest tavern ten years ago, Zavrian's smile was warm. It was as if the pair had overcome an obstacle in their friendship, and a new level of trust had formed between them.
“Apology accepted,” the elf said. “Truth be told, I have a bit of a thorn in the side for the Thalmor myself, as does the brotherhood. We found their agents infiltrating our group with the attempt to take over. In the end, I had to kill some of my best friends in order for us to remain politically independent.” There was a pause before he continued. “I did keep a journal of my mother's. It's all I have left of my parents, but it's written in aldmeris, and I didn't dare show it to anyone trained in that language.”
“Do you still have it?” The alfiq grew curious, but then thought better of it. “No, best not tell this one. If it's in aldmeris, it could be dangerous.”
“I suspect we shall learn more, once we're in Skyrim.” Grabbing his toothbrush and some Imperial tooth paste, the assassin bid Jodar-Ri good night. The alfiq, lacking opposable thumbs, settled for chewing on his special, Elsweyr root that all khajiit used to clean their teeth. He didn't go to bed until after Zavrian returned, and only once he was certain that the altmer was fast asleep. Then he lay his small body down next to the elf's head to keep him warm.
Zavrian woke up with his nose buried in Jodar-Ri's fur. Fortunately for the elf, the feline was still asleep. Even so, it took considerable effort on his part to disentangle himself without waking his friend. Then he checked his face tattoo and covered it up with an illusion. He didn't have the light needed for make-up.
Once outside, he was met with the sight of their lone Nord. The campfire from the night before was nothing but smouldering embers now, the pale-skinned man wrapped tightly in his furlined, wool cloak. It seemed even the natives of Skyrim, infamous for their resilience against frost, could still feel the cold.
Considering the guarded look on the man's face, the elf thought it best to announce himself before moving closer. “Good morning,” he called out, and drew the blond's attention. “A cold night even for a Nord, I see. Is Skyrim much the same?” He indicated the tree log that the man sat on, a questioning look on his face. The Nord merely nodded and the elf took his seat.
“I'm afraid I can't tell you how the weather is like there,” he replied. “I've never been to Skyrim before.”
That made the assassin more positively inclined towards the stranger than less so. “Ah, a fellow misplaced.” He shot the man a smile. “I was born and raised in Elsweyr myself. Zavrian is my name, how do you do?” He extended a hand.
The man hesitated slightly before taking the high elf's hand in his. “Callum.”
Zavrian's smile turned into a grin. “So, if not from Skyrim, where does a tall and strong man such as you hail from?”
“You're there,” Callum replied, keeping his gaze on their surroundings even as he spoke. “I was born in Cheydinhal, to the east. Cyrodiil has always been my home. Such as it is.”
“Ah, Cheydinhal!” Zavrian's grin remained. “A beautiful city, right at the foot of some impressive mountains. I went there in my youth, though that is a long time ago now. The sun really brought out its best traits, though in my opinion it looked lovely even in rain.” He noticed a ghost of a smile gracing Callum's lips. Still, there was much hesitation in the man, more so than was normal for the Nords the elf had met. “I have to ask, are you a warrior? You seem to carry yourself as one.”
That was enough to draw Callum's gaze his way. Zavrian thought there was something unusual about his eyes, but he chose not to remark upon it. “I know a bit about fighting, yes. And you, altmer, strike me as an elf who has spent a great deal of time practising subtler arts.”
Zavrian grinned. “Why, thank you. I daresay I enjoy telling tales. I hope you found it entertaining?”
The man turned away again. “That's one way of putting it.” Despite his words, he didn't sound or seem hostile, merely matter-of-fact. The elf found himself appreciating his keen observation skills. There was clearly more to this Nord than met the eye.
“May I call you Callum, or do you prefer a more formal form of address?” he asked, deciding to forego his most subtle skills. “Though, if it's the latter, I fear I will need to know your last name.”
A sigh escaped the man's lips, his eyebrows knitted together in mild annoyance. “My family name is Goldenmane, but Callum will suffice. I have no titles.”
“Then I insist you call me Zavrian,” the elf continued, not missing a beat. “I'd give you my family name, but alas, I've never had one.” He shrugged. “Regardless, perhaps I shall have more luck with my next tale, Callum. A rousing tale of an epic battle, with considerably less near-drowning and unfortunate, magical transformations, yes?”
“I can hardly wait,” the man replied flatly.
Zavrian decided to drop the roundabout way of talking. “We are all one big family in the khajiit caravan, and while I've done my best to keep us safe, we could certainly use another capable swordsman by our side. Especially in Skyrim. Don't be a stranger. We will all need each other soon, I think.” Then he flashed Callum a friendly smile before getting up from his seat. He knew not to push his luck.
“Consider yourself protected, then,” the Nord shot back, causing the elf to pause. “I'm on my way there myself.” His tone had changed from slightly annoyed to slightly amused. Zavrian counted it as a success.
“Of course you are,” the high elf replied and turned back around with a smile. “No Nord warrior worth his salt brings a furlined wool cloak to the Colovian Highlands.” Then he bid the man farewell and set to work checking the camp's perimeter, but not before hearing Callum grumble something about “nosy elf”.
Zavrian grinned. His charm had struck again.
Nezdal was in conversation with the Nord from the night before by the time Jodar-Ri was all black and ready for a peek outside. As before, Zavrian had managed to get the guard shift and let the alfiq roam about. Once his morning routine was over, the pair approached his cousin and the blond man.
“You can assure this one that he's a warrior?” Nezdal asked Zavrian the second they were within earshot.
“He told me so himself,” the elf confirmed. Jodar-Ri noticed the Nord still wore his cloak, but was dressed in warmer clothes as well. His build was impressive, certainly not that of a common farmer or merchant. “But surely you can tell from these muscles alone?” He indicated the man's arms and chest. “It's exactly the sort that we see on warriors trained with the sword and shield. Quite useful for deflecting arrows. I may be quick with my blades, and Fa'nir is brilliant with the bow, but there's only so much the two of us can do. With Skyrim in the state that it is, the dangers will only increase.”
The bipedal khajiit shook his head. “Nezdal is not convinced.”
“Come now,” Zavrian argued, “look at his build. Why, if I was a dainty maiden, I'd faint right into his arms.”
Callum shot him a withering look. Nezdal merely shook his head.
The khajiit turned back to the blond. “This one would like to know where you were trained before he considers your proposal.”
“The Legion, if you must know,” the human replied, his tone even and his body language calm. He wasn't one for embelleshing, Jodar-Ri noticed. Before the alfiq's behaviour could become suspicious, he rubbed his face up against Zavrian's boot, followed up by the mandatory round of doing the same with the rest of his body.
“Then why do you no longer serve there?” Nezdal pressed. He was suspicious, despite the man being a Nord, a people who had a reputation for being blunt and direct. Then again, the alfiq's cousin had much to lose by letting in the wrong person.
“I received an honourable discharge.” Short and simple, and raising a hundred more questions. Jodar-Ri could basically feel his cousin's frustration. Then the man surprised everyone by adding: “I served under General Tullius, as his Legate.”
“Ah,” Zavrian cut in all of a sudden, “Callum Goldenmane, I remember now. You led a coalition of Imperial soldiers and Elsweyr warriors against criminals harassing humans and khajiit alike. Always slipping over the border to evade capture, but not from you.”
Callum's eyes narrowed. “You're well informed.”
More noticeably, for the alfiq at least, was the drastic shift in Nezdal's attitude. Gone was the scepticism in his eyes, replaced with what could only be described as awe. “This one apologises, Callum Goldenmane. The Mane himself called you a friend of Elsweyr. It would be wrong for Nezdal to decline your generous offer. Our humble caravan would greatly benefit from your protection, if you still wish to grant it.”
Jodar-Ri wanted very much in that moment to remind his cousin that taking in strangers was the opposite of laying low. Especially one as famous as this Nord. Not to mention the alfiq could only maintain his disguise for so long. Callum might even question his extensive stay inside the wagon or the tent. This couldn't possibly end well.
To the alfiq's surprise, Callum wore a look on his face that accurately mirrored his own apprehension. “I'd prefer it if my full name and reputation remained between us, though I'm glad my skills are welcome.”
“Of course, there are some matters we must discuss first,” Nezdal replied empathetically. “You will break bread with Nezdal and his friends, yes?”
“I'd be happy to.” Callum's tone sounded warmer now, and he even smiled a bit. That earned him a warm smile back from Jodar-Ri's cousin.
“Good,” Nezdal said. “This one hopes you are not allergic to fur.”
Callum snorted, though he still smiled. “I wouldn't offer you my services if I was.”
The bipedal khajiit chuckled. “A simple joke on this one's part. He is glad to see you received it so well.” The two men shared smiles.
Meanwhile, Jodar-Ri slipped back inside his tent, a bad feeling having settled in his small stomach.