For me, the quest began in Whiterun when two Redguards, identifying themselves as Alik'r mercenaries from Hammerfell, requested my help in locating a Redguard woman who was thought to be hiding out somewhere in Whiterun. The Alik'r themselves could not investigate inside Whiterun for two reasons: first, as per the White-Gold Concordat, Hammerfell is no longer part of the Empire; second, and more directly relevant, one of their number was thrown in jail for trying to sneak into the city. I agreed to help them find the woman, then went about my business.
While in the Bannered Mare on unrelated business, I noticed Saadia, the Redguard cook. When I asked her about the Alik'r, she asked to speak to me in private, at which point she pulled a dagger on me. After calming her down, I listened to her story; she claimed to be Iman, a noblewoman of House Suda and a target of a Thalmor assassination attempt:
|Part of Saadia's story.|
I didn't know much about politics in Hammerfell, but I did know that the Thalmor were not above fostering in-fighting within another nation, so I was inclined to believe her. She advised me to speak to the jailed Alik'r to find his leader's whereabouts, which I did. After I paid his fine (apparently he had been abandoned by his leader, Kematu, for being clumsy enough to get caught), he agreed to help me out. He told me to look in Swindler's Den, but...
|Are the Alik'r noble warriors or ruthless thugs?|
As we were about to pass through the underside of a small waterfall, we heard a conversation in the larger chamber ahead. I decided that, given the difficulty of our previous encounters in the caves, a sneak attack was in order. Once we launched the first volley, the Alik'r were all over us, and we couldn't advance past the waterfall, so the battle was fairly chaotic. Finally, though, I had Kematu on the ropes; when I delivered the final blow, he gasped, "Don't let yourself be fooled by a pretty face again. You're better than that." I completed the quest by reporting to Saadia that Kematu was dead; she thanked me and rewarded me as promised, and that was the end of this side quest. Some questions, however, remained.
I had been feeling pretty good about my choice to help Saadia until Kematu uttered his last words. Why would a mercenary or assassin bother saying something like that with his dying breath? Had I, in fact, been manipulated by a damsel in distress? Or was Kematu himself an unwitting pawn of the Thalmor? Now that the quest was complete and my choices set in stone, I could do some research. After reading a few dozen articles and posts, most of which reflected pre-moral thinking (I betrayed both sides to get both rewards; I sided with Saadia because I wanted to get those Alik'r scimitars; I sided with the Alik'r because I didn't want to bother fighting them; and so on), I found some information that profoundly complicated my views on this mission.
It turns out that the conversation I overheard while hiding behind the waterfall was directed at me; Kematu was directing his Alik'r to hold, and the warrior he was addressing was Yours Truly:
|I thought he was talking to one of his own men.|
The element that make this quest so challenging to parse from a moral perspective is the lack of information. Even if I had talked to Kematu, I would still have had the same problem; how could I tell if Kematu was telling the truth? I had to make a decision without all of the necessary information, and even in retrospect, I still don't have all of the facts that I need to say conclusively whether my actions were morally justified.
For this part of the analysis, it is useful to look at the factors in favor of each side of the dilemma:
Factors in favor of Kematu and the Alik'r:
- At every stage, these men acted with honor when dealing with me. They are not immediately hostile, and they do not try to force me to help them.
- Kematu's story is clear and detailed, while Saadia's is not.
- Kematu keeps his word about taking Saadia alive.
- Given that Hammerfell is not friendly with the Thalmor, Saadia's story of being persecuted for speaking out against them seems unlikely.
- After completing the quest, Saadia seemed a bit, for lack of a better word, cold-hearted.
- Long after completing this quest, I had a random encounter with two Alik'r questioning a Redguard woman. They treated her sternly, but once one of them realized that she was not the one they were looking for (i.e. Saadia), they let her go without further incident. Their behavior suggests men who are sticking to rules and protocols, rather than a band of assassins.
- After the Empire abandoned Hammerfell, the Redguards continued to fight the Aldmeri Dominion to a standstill. They eventually signed the Second Treaty of Stros M'Kai, the conditions of which seem to be unknown outside of Hammerfell. Given the way the Thalmor have used the White-Gold Concordat to sow discord in Skyrim, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are doing the same in Hammerfell, which has an even more fractured political system. Therefore, Saadia may be in the same position as a Talos worshipper in Skyrim.
- While it is true that the Alik'r are not welcome in Whiterun, the fact that they chose to camp in an active bandit hideout runs counter to Kematu's claims of honorable behavior. He seemed perfectly content to let the bandits kills us, choosing only to speak to me after I had run his gauntlet.
- Saadia chose to hide out in relatively neutral Whiterun, as opposed to a more Imperial Hold like The Reach, Falkreath, or Haafingar. These three Holds are closer to Hammerfell geographically, and some of the towns actually have Thalmor representatives. If Kematu's story were accurate, it would make more sense for Saadia to seek assistance from the Thalmor than to run to a more neutral Hold like Whiterun.
- If Saadia had indeed sold out the city of Taneth to the Thalmor, it would be reasonable to expect that she would have been rewarded for her betrayal, yet this noblewoman is living as a cook in a mid-range inn. While it is possible that the Thalmor let her twist in the wind, it would also have made sense for them to reward her and use her as a poster child for allying with the Aldmeri Dominion.
- Given the craftiness of the Thalmor, it is entirely possible that Kematu's intentions were perfectly honorable, and yet disastrous for Saadia. Kematu may have led Saadia back to face a fair trial, only to have her summarily executed at the border by Thalmor Justicars or a rival royal house.
- While I completely misunderstood Kematu's dialogue, and probably should have asked questions before trying a sneak attack, I had come to expect a vicious attack around every corner of Swindler's Den -- a situation Kematu had set up himself.
- The captured Alik'r paints a portrait of Kematu and his men as a band of killers, which confirmed Saadia's assessment of them.
- The two original Alik'r who initiated the quest are still hanging out at Whiterun's front gate. This is most likely a glitch, but the fact that they are still there and still polite paints a picture of the Alik'r as honorable men. I feel a pang of guilt every time I pass them and they ask, "Need something?"
- A group of well-armed, well-trained, government-hired mercenaries are sent to track down one woman -- a woman who, despite threatening me with a dagger, poses no significant physical danger. She claims to be running because she spoke up against a powerful group that I already dislike. Even if I had listened to Kematu, I would probably still have sided with the "dissident" rather than trying to capture the "traitor."
- If I'm being completely honest, I tend to fall for the "damsel in distress" routine all too often, both in gaming and in the real world. In this particular case, I think I considered allowing a "defenseless" woman to be victimized less tolerable than killing a group of warriors who might turn out to be honorable after all.