Solstheim is a beautiful place. An island of ash and snow, of purity and mortality, where the harsh wilds of Skyrim meet the exotic dreamscape of Morrowind, mingling in the smoking shadow of Red Mountain.
J’zigri had read this in a book, given to him by a merchant from Cyrodiil when he was little more than a kitten. He had thought it sounded magical, a mysterious island far, far from his home in Elsweyr, where all his problems would be miles away. In his dreams, he had visited it and walked upon its ashen shores, though he knew it existed only in his imagination. The real Solstheim would be different, very different, but all the same he had always craved to see it with his own eyes. But he never had.
So naturally, after the Thalmor drove him and his family from their home in Tenmar Forest, and the Skooma caravan they had fallen in with had at last made its way to Skyrim, J’zigri’s heart had leapt at the opportunity to finally visit the island he had dreamed so much about. It was only a short journey from their camp to Whiterun, and from there one could hire a carriage to Windhelm, and ships went from Windhelm to Solstheim all the time!
All right, it was perhaps not the most straightforward of journeys, as his brother J’kidar had pointed out. Windhelm and Solstheim were also likely to be very cold indeed, especially for Khajiit used to the tropical climate of Tenmar. But J’zigri was not to be dissuaded. He was going to see Solstheim, and that was that.
Ever the protective older brother, J’kidar came with him. “You know what you’re like,” the slightly older Khajiit (though they were often mistaken for identical twins) had said. “Five minutes out of this one’s sight and you’ll be up to your whiskers in Mammoth dung about to be eaten by a Giant.” Glad of the company, J’zigri had quickly agreed, and the two of them had set off from the camp in search of adventure.
They certainly found it.
“By Riddle’Thar’s sugar-coated whiskers,” J’zigri breathed as they stood at the foot of Tel Mithryn. “That is the biggest mushroom this one has ever seen.”
And it was. As tall as many of the towers they had passed in Cyrodiil, the giant mushroom of Tel Mithryn stretched up high into the sky, its twisting trunk reaching for the heavens as the wizard inside reached for magical perfection.
“Personally, this one prefers trees,” J’kidar replied. “They are far sturdier. A Khajiit knows where he stands with a tree.”
“But have you ever seen anything like this?”
“Not in this life, brother. But now we have seen it, we must head back. It is already well past noon, and we will be hard-pressed to make it back to Raven Rock before nightfall.”
J’zigri tried to argue that they stay longer, but the ever-logical J’kidar would not be dissuaded, and so it was not long before they turned and began the long trek across the ash wastes in search of food and a warm bed.
The ash storm came up out of nowhere. It was almost dusk, and the brothers suddenly found themselves utterly blinded, unable to move faster than a slow stagger as the whole world howled with grey and white.
“Just keep… walking straight…” J’zigri panted. “We’ll get out of this… eventually…”
J’kidar didn’t reply, focusing on simply putting one paw in front of the other. Until, out of the storm, his sharp eyes began to notice a vague, dark shape forming not far ahead.
“It looks like some kind of building!” J’kidar cried to his brother.
“It will be shelter!” J’zigri cried back. “We must get out of this storm before it gets any worse!”
The two of them stumbled onward in the direction of the building, their heads down to shield their eyes from the ash. As they walked, it grew larger, and then – Alkosh be praised – J’zigri realized he could see the outline of a person, hurrying towards them through the storm.
“Over here!” J’zigri yelled. “Help us!”
The silhouette grew closer, and materialized into a tall man or Mer, dressed in strange armor made from the chitin of some huge native insect. With one hand, he took J’zigri firmly by the arm, beckoning J’kidar with the other.
“Come,” he barked roughly, in the unmistakable accent of a lower-class Dunmer. “We have food and shelter.”
Despite the howling wind, J’zigri grinned. They were saved.
The settlement was small but heavily fortified, rows of sharpened stakes forming a perimeter around a cluster of huts and a few patches of what looked like farmland. They half-walked, half-fell into the main building, as the armored Dunmer pushed them inside with a gruff laugh.
It was dark and hot – a single room, with a staircase leading up to another level. The floor was dirty, and a pile of straw lay in a corner, from which several sets of snores could be heard. The Khajiit, however, were beyond glad to be out of the storm, and turned to thank their new friend, but he was gone, the door already closed behind them.
“Hello?” J’zigri said softly, not wanting to disturb the sleepers, but hopeful that one of them might be awake.
There was a snort from the hay in response, and a pair of green eyes with slits for pupils regarded them coolly.
“This one is called J’zigri,” the Khajiit continued, but J’kidar put a warning hand on his arm.
As J’zigri watched, the Argonian in the pile of hay rose slowly to his haunches, but could rise no farther. The chains wrapped around his hands and ankles pulled taut with a clink, and he was held there, crouched like an animal.
“Slaves…” J’kidar whispered, and J’zigri’s fur began to stand on end. The Argonian said nothing, but to his right, another figure began to shamble upwards, and J’zigri’s horror only grew as he saw it was a Khajiit – Suthay-raht, like they were.
J’kidar turned quickly and tried the door, knowing already that it would be locked.
“No…” J’zigri breathed. They did not escape the Thalmor only to become slaves in this awful place.
In desperation, the two of them threw themselves at the door, over and over again, pounding on the wood, but to no avail.
“Let us out!” J’kidar cried. “Let us go!”
In response, the door was flung suddenly open, and three armored figures stood in their way. Two of them held crossbows, but the third held a fresh set of chains.
“No!” J’zigri screamed, and threw himself at the slavers with reckless abandon. J’kidar joined in the assault, kicking out with his bestial feet, catching one of them in the chest and sending him sprawling. He turned, and saw to his dismay that J’zigri was locked in the grip of the other armed slaver, as chains were thrown roughly around his neck.
“Brother!” J’zigri cried. “Run!”
And J’kidar ran.
Out into the storm and the darkness, as fast as his paws would carry him.
Was he a coward? Perhaps. But he was also practical, and he knew that he stood no chance of rescuing his brother alone. He would need help, and he knew just where to find it.
By Riddle’Thar and the honor of all Khajiit, J’kidar swore as he ran. You will be saved, my brother. You will be saved.
Back in the slavers’ settlement, J’zigri knelt, the chains heavy around his body. The slaves – the other slaves, he corrected himself bitterly – were cowering in their corner, fear in their eyes, as a figure descended the stairs.
He was tall and thin, lank black hair hanging around his shoulders. His face was gray – a true Dark Elf – and he wore a cuirass of strange yet familiar green pelt.
When J’zigri realized what it was, he was overcome by the urge to vomit. Argonian skin. No doubt it used to belong to a slave.
“Welcome,” the Dunmer said, with a crooked smile, “to my ‘umble abode.”
His voice was thick and almost slurred, his accent common, though he carried himself with the demeanor and poise of a king. Everything about him made J’zigri’s skin crawl.
“My name is Galangar,” he said, and bowed mockingly. “What’s your name?”
J’zigri’s mouth was dry, but he realized an answer was required, so he opened his mouth to speak, only to have the breath knocked from his chest by a crushing blow from the handle of one of the guards’ crossbows.
“What’s that?” Galangar asked, his grin spreading wider. “I can’t ‘ear you.”
He stepped closer, reaching out a hand to lightly scratch the fur behind J’zigri’s ears. J’zigri coughed, but was unable to move away.
“I think I’ll call you… Fluffy,” Galangar leered, and suddenly twisted J’zigri’s right ear so hard it was all he could do not to scream.
The Dunmer leaned in close, not letting go, and J’zigri could smell the wine on his breath. The pain in his ear was agonizing, and to his shame he realized tears were running down his face.
“Don’t cry, Fluffy,” Galangar whispered. “You’re part of the family, now. We’ll look after you. House Dres always looks after its own.”