The snow was melting. Azzir had heard it all last night, tik, tik, tikking as it dropped from the boughs of the fir trees onto the tents and metal roofs of the fort. He imagined little rivulets of snowmelt flowing under the dying snow, like the blood through his legs. Sluggish. Unresponsive. Cold and unfeeling.
“You shouldn’t have pushed it, you know,” said Gaolyf. “I told you once, I told you a thousand times, you keep walking on them legs, you’re going to lose them. Well now, you have, and now you’re going home.”
Home, thought Azzir, as he stared unseeingly out across the courtyard. Home, to his father. To his lover Sathelan. A blessing, or a curse? Though he missed the latter, he did not want to face the former. He was a honorable Redoran lord. He had a lot in common with the Nords here, and not so much in common at all with his erstwhile son.
Azzir closed his eyes. Second son. Lush, skooma-head and now a cripple as well. Worthless, worthless. Where is your Redoran honor now, foolish child? Did you ever have it in you? Was there ever any of me in you…? Or did the demons of the West steal that from me as well as my wife?
Azzir shivered, but he would not show weakness, especially not upfront of Gaolyf. He shifted on his crutches, willing his legs to do something other than hang there, still set in the place he had put them after making the difficult trek here to the gate. At least he had one small blessing, as the other soldiers, recognizing his disability, gave him a wide berth as they filed through the huge double doors.
The war would soon be over, they said. Many were going home, and the gates were laid open for the first time in moons. Laden donkeys and guars passed by from time to time, carrying the personal effects of many soldiers on their backs. Here a champing, prancing horse. None of them looked at him. None of them had time for the wartime cripple, instead looking with hopeful eyes back north and east, to their waiting homes.
There was an upset further down the line, and Gaolyf stepped defensively up front of Azzir as several people were shoved forward, like a row of bone runes collapsing. Men shouted out at each other, here and there a horse kicked up a fuss, then there was a loud angry roar.
Azzir recognized that roar. With a wince of pain, he twisted around.
It was the senche-tiger. She had lingered in the fort much like he had, slowly losing the will to go on as the life went out of her limbs. Today, though, her eyes were twin blazes of fire, the only thing lending energy to the stringy bones and flesh, seemingly held together only by skin and wire like one of Sotha Sil’s clockwork contraptions. She slammed her massive paws into the posts of the round pen, making the entire structure shudder, and the horses nearby all jump.
Someone–some foolish stable-boy–was trying to coax her to bear a halter and hobbles, and the proud cat was having none of it. Her eyes locked with Azzir’s, just for an instant, and then she leapt on the stable-boy, ripping him open throat to groin with one slash of the paw.
Everyone stared. The soldiers did not flee; they had seen worse on the battlefield. But everyone thought the danger had passed, now that the war was winding down, and so it still came as a shock.
The cat, smelling freedom, shoved her nose in between the gate and its posts. The stable-boy had left it unlatched, and with a roll of her head, the cat pushed it open, and was loose in the courtyard.
If there was confusion before, now everything was pandemonium. Horses scattered to the far corners of the courtyard, pulling along their bewildered handlers. Guar bucked and kicked, and one Dunmer almost lost an arm to his charge’s terrified snapping.
The cat, for her part, streaked around the base of the curtain wall, darting here and there. Men screamed at her and at each other to stop, but to Azzir’s eyes, she wasn’t hurting anyone. Just looking for an escape.
Like he was.
He raised up an arm, waving to her before he was really aware of what he was doing. Gaolyf hissed at him and yanked his arm down; Azzir overbalanced into the mud, but it was too late. The cat had seen them. Pushing off the rump of a bellowing guar, she leaped the remaining distance between them, landing on top of Azzir, or nearly, her great paws to either side of his face. Her large golden eyes stared into his, her wide jaw full of snarling teeth between them.
Kill me, Azzir thought. Just do it quickly, and make it look good, so maybe Father won’t be dishonored.
Kill me, thought the cat. I do not belong in the snow or ash. I want to go home, not remain a slave.
Even if I survive this, what is left for me at home? Azzir thought, uncognizant of the similar monologue going through the cat’s head. I can barely walk. I can’t fight. I have no legs.
I had too many legs, thought the cat. They thought I was a beast, and they still do. Look at this weak limp mer-ling, cowering like a cub between my paws. I could tear out his throat so easily, but then where would that leave me? A ravening monster, and a beast.
Where would that leave me? If I never returned to Blacklight. If I left here…
They stared at each other. Then the cat’s teeth came together on Azzir’s neck. He screamed; a second later, he realized he still could scream and so must not be dead. The cat dragged him a few feet, out of the way of sharp horse hooves plunging nearby. He snaked up an arm and wrapped his fingers into her thick ruff. She stepped over him, nudging him impatiently, and he dragged himself upright, or nearly so, bracing against her shoulder.
“Khajiit go home now,” the cat snarled out, her mouth wrapping around the Common language with difficulty.
Azzir stared at her. “You can talk!” he said in surprise, then realized he was not so surprised after all.
The cat bared her teeth at him, but it seemed more smile than snarl. “Khajiit go home!” She then shoved her teeth in his face, the smile all gone now, and it was all Azzir could do to keep from falling over. “Mer-ling come now, or mer-ling be sorry. Khajiit know.”
It wasn’t a threat, or not entirely, Azzir realized. She could kill him if he didn’t do what she said, easily. But somehow, as she shifted slightly to better accommodate his weight, Azzir didn’t think that was what she meant.
“I’m a cripple,” Azzir murmured. “I can’t travel anywhere. I can barely walk. I’d just slow you down.”
“Khajiit crippled too. No one understand Khajiit. Understand what I am. Merling protect Khajiit? Khajiit carry merling. We go. I go…. Find home.” Exhausted from the long speech in a strange language, the cat opened her mouth to pant, tongue lolling.
Order was beginning to be restored to the courtyard. Azzir glanced over his shoulder, where Gaolyf was pushing through the crowd to collect him, staring as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Like his life flashing before his eyes, Azzir knew what awaited him if he let the Nord reach him, if he returned home to his father. The cat watched him impatiently.
With a grunt of effort, the Dunmer pulled himself up onto the back of the cat. Suddenly placid and gentle, the cat turned and trotted through the gate. The other soldiers jerked out of the way, staring, but they were soldiers and not inclined to question. Doubtless few of them had even seen what had caused the commotion.
“Good choice,” said the cat out of the corner of her mouth as they reached the road.
Azzir didn’t answer. “Sathelan forgive me,” he murmured, and lay across her shoulders to rest his back. She scented the wind and turned towards the south, lengthening her stride to a miles-eating gait.
She was going home, but gods only knew where he was going.