Dar'Zahyla's whiskers quivered gently in the breeze. I watched, weary, as her jaw dropped just an inch, tasting the night air. She turned her head towards me, and I nearly started when her pupils flashed green in the sliver of moonlight.
Khajiit eyes always unnerved me.
"There is a lake up ahead," she reported with a dopey smile.
My lips thinned. "Charming. How big?"
She shrugged. "Hard to tell, yes? This one can smell lakewater." Fair enough.
"Is it far off?"
"No, we will likely be walking through mud soon."
I fell in line behind the Khajiit as usual. I couldn't see for anything, not with a new moon out, but Dar'Zahyla seemed confident in the direction she was heading. I kept focus on her rucksack, looking away only when I heard faint rustling. You never knew whether it was a rabbit or something less... pleasant.
As she said, the ground soon became wet and thick, our boots making an unpleasant sucking noise as we raised them out of the mud. I was unamused. The Thane had no regard for how long it took to clean mud off of boots.
She stopped so suddenly I nearly ran into her. "Wow," she said, mildly surprised.
"It is big."
"The lake?" I couldn't see a damned thing. At least I could hear water lapping now.
"Yes." I saw her squint hard, peering out into the darkness. She lifted a hand to point. "There is the village. Across the lake."
If I narrowed my eyes, I could scarcely make out the flickers of torchlight. Now there was a sensible decision, getting some light available in the middle of the night. Dar'Zahyla hadn't so much as a torch on her, insisting that she didn't need one to see in the dark. It never occurred to her that Nord eyes were not so keen, and I never mentioned it.
How the Khajiit wound up being Dragonborn and a Thane of Whiterun was beyond me. She was utterly clueless.
She broke me from my musings as she shoved her rucksack into my arms. I nearly dropped it from the suddenness. "Hold this. Please," she added offhandedly.
I rolled my eyes. "Certainly," I drawled flatly. "I am sworn to—" Dar'Zahyla began unfastening the straps of her armor and my thoughts froze in place. "What are you doing?" I demanded.
"Dar'Zahyla would like to get to an inn sometime soon," she said cheerfully as she removed the heavy leather tunic. I hastily looked away, feeling my ears go red in my attempt to spare her dignity. "This one is ravenous. A good night of sleep would not hurt either, yes?"
Dar'Zahyla moved into my line of sight anyway, brows furrowed with confusion as she stuffed the armor into her bag. "What? We need to get to the village, and this one would like to have some dry clothes when we arrive."
It finally clicked. "You don't intend to swim—"
"It is straight across." She gestured vaguely behind her. "It will be fine. A little night swim never hurt anyone."
My lips thinned as she struggled to get her boots and studded leg armor off. "It's ten below."
"Well, it will be cold of course, but—"
"And how did you expect me to get over there?"
The Khajiit stood there in her underclothing, barely visible in the night but for her glowing eyes. "Well..." She gestured again towards the lake.
That was where I put my foot down. "Absolutely not."
"You are entirely free to walk around if you like," Dar'Zahyla informed me, taking back her bag, "but it will be early morning by the time you get there."
Ten minutes later we were wading into the lake. Dar’Zahyla squeaked and laughed at the feeling of the freezing water on her feet. “That is cold,” she marveled, as though it came as a surprise.
“It’s only going to get colder,” I grunted, grimacing as the water touched the hem of my tunic. I’d only undressed as far as taking my armor off, deciding to leave my clothing on underneath. She at least had fur to keep herself warm in the frigid water and night air. I wasn’t keen on getting into a bitterly cold lake in nothing more than my underclothes.
“Live a little,” Dar’Zahyla said with a toothy grin.
“I am trying to live. That’s why I’m not carrying a warhammer into a lake.”
“Khajiit have strong legs,” she reported, wading out deeper into the water. “Now come, it would be nice to get over there by midnight, yes?”
I clenched my jaw and followed after her.
By the time we made it to what I later learned was the middle of the lake, I was trembling so badly I could swim no longer. Dar’Zahyla had plucked me to her side in the water some time ago, wrapping my arms around her shoulders for the duration. Her fur was slick, plastered to her skin from the water, and I could feel her powerful muscles work as she dragged us across the water.
“Are you alright?” she asked me more than once. I bit back the temptation to hit her in the head. For one, that was unbecoming of a housecarl, but I also didn’t want to lose my grip on her. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it out of the water if I did.
I growled one word out through gritted teeth and trembling lips: “Fine.”
I had never been more relieved to feel mud under my feet when we made it back up. The Thane set me down on a relatively dry stone and took a few steps away to shake herself off. With the village light that much closer, I could make out the way her fur settled in thick, wet tufts along her arms and shoulders. She looked ridiculous, like a big grumpy housecat after a bath, and it took all I had not to smirk.
“Here,” she said suddenly, holding out her tunic and breeches to me.
I blinked. “Did you want me to hold them—?”
“No, you need to wear them. You need dry clothing; you are turning blue.”
“And what are you going to wear?” I hoped fervently that the Dragonborn was not so daft as to stroll nude into a town, but with her it was better to be sure.
She shrugged. “Could we not trade?”
“Mine are wet.”
“Dar'Zahyla's fur is also. This one will hardly notice.”
“But—” Dar’Zahyla thrust them at me more firmly. I sighed and took them. “...Thank you, my Thane.”
“Khajiit will keep watch,” she reported, turning away.
I changed as quickly as possible, despite her promise that nobody was around. Her clothes were a bit big on me, but they were dry and warm, so I did not complain. I kept watch in silence as she struggled to change into my soaking wet clothes. I might’ve felt guilty, had she not been the one who insisted on swimming in the first place.
Nonetheless, I had to lean on her for support as we walked into the town’s inn. I was still too cold to function properly. I was even too cold to scowl when the innkeeper apologized for having only one spare room rather than our usual two.
I suppose I didn’t mind that much in the end. As damp as her fur was, the Khajiit put off a lot of body heat.