They left White Run before the sun came up, hoping to escape the scrutiny of the guards. They didn’t even seem to notice Ralof between them, only stopping them to ask if she and Farkas were headed out to take care of the dragon that had been sighted above Eldersblood Peak.
“There’s always another dragon in need of killing,” was all she said as they pushed open the gates to let them pass through.
“I wish I was out hunting dragons. My cousin is a dragon hunter like you, but I get stuck here with guard duty.”
“What was all that about dragon hunting?” Ralof asked, once they were away from the town. “Is that what you do now? Why you never came to Windhelm after we parted ways?”
“She’s the Dragonborn,” Farkas said, a hint of pride in his voice that made her grin a little.
“A Dragonborn?” Ralof furrowed his brow. “I’d heard rumors that another Dragonborn had come, and it made sense, considering the return of the dragons, but I never… Can you shout?”
“She shouts all the time.”
She liked being in a conversation she didn’t really have to participate in. It gave her time with her thoughts. While Ralof probed for answers, Farkas handed them over and she scanned the horizon and thought about where they were headed.
She’d started to make that journey once before, after the Imperials had killed her father, saying he’d been hiding Ulfric Stormcloak after he killed the High King with his voice.
She’d been in Windhelm plenty of times since she’d joined the Companions, though Ulfric never seemed to be there when she’d gone in the past. He was always away from the city, and though she hadn’t really even been tempted to join his army after she’d become a Companion herself, she had always supposed it was for the best. She’d heard he was quite a speech giver, and the last thing she needed during that confusing time in her life was for a man as physically attractive as Ulfric Stormcloak to sway her away from her path with his honeyed words of glory, honor and duty as a true Nord.
She’d learned everything she needed to know about duty, honor and glory from the Companions. She highly doubted there was much Ulfric could teach her that she didn’t already know. She also wasn’t sure any lessons he did have to teach her would be worth learning. She’d read a lot about Ulfric in the last three years, having followed Skjor’s advice and learning what she could about the man behind the cause, and while she definitely agreed with his cause, she wasn’t so sure Ulfric was the kind of man anyone should model themselves after. Some said he was a stout racist, segregating the Dunmer in the filthy Grey Quarter of Windhelm and forbidding the Argonians from even setting foot within the city walls, and in time she’d come to find it odd that a man who prided himself a great liberator of the oppressed only meant to liberate the Nords.
That alone had been enough to quell any urges she had to join his army, but she highly doubted Farkas would be able to process what she was saying if she even tried to explain any of that to him. His mind was clouded with vengeance, and with good reason. She only hoped he didn’t look to Ulfric for any kind of guidance, but then reminded herself they probably wouldn’t even see much of the man anyway. If they were accepted into his army, and as Farkas pointed out they likely would be since Ulfric couldn’t really afford to turn willing bodies away, she would probably never even see the man who claimed it was his right to be High King after assignment.
“We’ve fought lots of dragons together, haven’t we, Luthien?” Farkas drew her away from her thoughts.
“I still remember the very first one. Lu and I traveled up into the mountains above Riften together and at first I thought it wasn’t gonna show it’s ugly face, but then its shadow spread over the mountainside like a…”
At least he was animated about something, she told herself, letting the sound of his voice calm her mind. She’d never thought she’d hear him laugh again, or see him smile, but for a time as they walked, Farkas seemed himself again and she was glad. Farkas had never been a complicated man; he was easy to understand, quick with a laugh and since the day they’d first met, he’d had her back like no one else. She knew in her heart that going to war was a fool’s idea, but at least the fool who’d had it would also have her back.
They’d traveled for hours, the sun passing across the sky on its journey back into the horizon, and when it began to grow cold, the dark coming on, they decided to set up camp. She built a fire, and Farkas set out into the woods behind them to hunt for game, leaving her alone with Ralof for the first time.
Funny, she thought, glancing over her shoulder at the man. He’d been her first adrenaline-fueled, girlish crush. She could almost remember how close their bodies had been in the caverns beneath Helgen, the smell of leather, perspiration and fear making them cling to one another as they crept through those dark tunnels in search of a way home. Ralof hadn’t been interested in her then. He’d parted ways with her in Riverwood, promising to see her at Ulfric’s side in battle before he leaned in and embraced her much the way he’d hugged his sister, Gerdur.
She hadn’t thought of him much at all after she’d met Farkas and the Companions. The portrait of glory and honor he’d painted began to slowly fade as she forged her own path. Strange that path should branch off and merge with his again, she thought. Strange that everything she’d experienced had come full circle, and that even though she couldn’t even begin to imagine a life in which she’d never known Vilkas, all of the suffering she’d known in the last weeks could have been avoided if she’d only gone to Windhelm the first time.
Somewhere, he would still be alive, arguing with his brother over something so absurd and grinning at how vehemently Farkas defended his point-of-view.
“Ulfric will welcome you with open arms,” Ralof broke the silence, leaning forward to throw more kindling on her growing fire. “A Dragonborn with a lust for Imperial blood… You’ll scale the ranks quickly, I’d imagine and bring glory to us all.”
“I’m only doing this for Farkas, not for glory,” she said. “If he feels running his sword through a thousand Imperials will soothe the pain of his loss, then so be it. I will fight at his side because he is my brother, but I know my husband would not have wanted this and I lost my lust for Imperial blood long ago.”
“Imperials killed your husband, your father, your mother… How could you not lust for their blood to quench your thirsty blade, Luthien?”
“The everyday problems I’ve faced in the last three years have gone far beyond this Civil War of Ulfric’s. While the Imperials and Stormcloaks tear each other apart, Alduin and his dragons descend from on high to burn us all to ash, and they don’t care what kind of armor we wear while they do it. Which faction we belong to, or whose side we take in Ulfric’s war, those things don’t matter to them. The only thing they long for is our death.”
“There are some who believe it was Ulfric who brought the dragons back,” Ralof muttered into his beard.
“I have heard those rumors myself. There is a small underground faction of the Blades who still exist to this day, and they don’t know what to believe. It was either Ulfric or the Thalmor, but I’ve found no evidence to support either theory. All I do know is that the Thalmor love watching Skyrim tear itself apart, and the dragons too. When all is said and done, and we’ve finished each other off, there will be less work for them to do and they will triumph.”
“That is a bleak outlook,” he said, dropping down to crouch beside her. “Be careful to keep those sorts of thoughts to yourself when you meet Ulfric if you really wish to join his ranks.”
“Don’t worry, Ralof. I won’t say anything to make you look bad in front of your king without a throne.”
He only nodded, avoiding her gaze even after Farkas came back to camp with an elk the two of them skinned and gutted before roasting over the fire.
Ralof didn’t say much else to her for the rest of the night, but she could feel him looking at her from time to time. She wondered if it was because she’d set his thoughts astir in his mind, or if he just couldn’t believe she used to be the same scared little girl who’d once barely helped him escape from Helgen.
Either way, she didn’t care what he thought of her, what anyone thought of her, not anymore. She had nothing left to lose. When she stood before Ulfric Stormcloak, she’d say whatever she liked, and if he took issue with her words, so be it.
But that was easier thought than acted upon. Mid-afternoon on their third day of travel, they arrived at the gates of Windhelm, and though the guards were visibly wary of both her and Farkas, they softened their scrutiny as soon as Ralof came forward. He led them into The Palace of the Kings, through the front doors and straight to the jarl’s throne, where Ulfric was leisurely relaxing while his second in command paced the floor in front of him.
“And what of Balgruuf?”
“He’s a true Nord, he’ll come around.”
“Don’t be so sure of that. We’ve intercepted couriers from Solitude. The Empire is putting a great deal of pressure of Whiterun.”
“And what would you have me do?” Ulfric asked, a calm about him that reminded Luthien of the day she’d first laid eyes on him. Even as the Imperials had led him to judgment and death, Ulfric had been calm, proud, a wall of strength. She’d admired him that day.
“If he’s not with us, he’s against us.”
Farkas leaned into her, muttering, “He’s a lot bigger than I thought he’d be.”
“Shh,” she nudged him with her elbow.
“He knows that. They all know that, Galmar,” Ulfric said, rising and heading toward the room on their left.
“You think I need to send Balgruuf a stronger message?”
“If by message, you mean shoving a sword through his gullet…” Galmar growled.
Ralof headed toward the war room, gesturing with a silent nod for Luthien and Farkas to follow him. They’d just reach the doorway when she heard Ulfric answer. “Taking his city and leaving him in disgrace would make a more powerful statement. Don’t you think?”
“So we’re ready to start this war in earnest, then?”
She listened carefully to their conversation, never realizing how close the war had been to Whiterun all along, how lucky they’d been to escape the fighting over the last three years. Ulfric didn’t seem to think violence would be necessary, but his general didn’t agree. They would have to show Balgruuf they were serious, and what better way to do that than to smash Whiterun unexpectedly.
“Whatever you decide, Ulfric, the people are behind you,” Galmar said.
Ulfric released a heavy breath, as if unloading all his burdens in that one sigh and leaned down over the table, the map beneath him dotted with pinned flags that wavered in his exhaled breath. “Many, I fear, still need convincing.”
“Then let them die with their false kings.”
Ulfric pushed up from the table and started toward the window behind him. He paused for a moment lingering there with his thoughts. “We’ve been soldiers a long time, Galmar. We know the price of freedom,” he said. “But the people are still weighing things in their hearts.”
“What’s left of Skyrim to wager?”
“They have families to think of…”
“How many of their sons and daughters follow your banner? We are their families.”
“Well put, friend.” He turned his head, eyes staring through the glass as the snow outside drifted past the window. “Tell me, Galmar,” he shrugged out of his reverie and turned back toward them, Ralof drawing them out of the way to let him pass back through the doors and head to his throne. “Why do you fight for me?”
“I’d follow you into the depths of Oblivion. You know that, Ulfric.”
“Yes, but why do you fight? If not for me, what then?”
“I’ll die before I let elves dictate the fates of men. Are we not one in this?”
She followed Ralof back toward Ulfric’s throne, still listening intently to the conversation. “I fight for the men I’ve held in my arms, fighting on foreign soil. I fight for their wives and their children, who’s names I heard whispered in their dying breath. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. I fight for my people, impoverished to pay the debts of an Empire too weak to rule them, yet brands them criminals for wanting to rule themselves. I fight so that all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. I fight, Galmar… because I must.”
All she’d heard about the power of Ulfric’s voice was true, but she hadn’t expected him to be so thoughtful, so deep. She glanced toward Farkas, saw the light of inspiration in his eyes, but knew he had no real idea what Ulfric was saying at all. Even more, she was worried that she thought he did, and that he’d take that touching speech to heart, rushing headlong into war for Ulfric and Vilkas, without a second thought.
“Your words give voice to what we all feel, Ulfric. And that’s why you will be High King. But the day words are enough will be the day soldiers like us are no longer needed.”
At least his general seemed to have his head on straight, Luthien thought, glancing over at the bear of a man and wondering what his story was.
“I would gladly retire from the world, were such a day to dawn.”
“Aye, but in the meantime, we have a war to plan.”
“Calm your emotions, Galmar. Save that rage for the battlefield.” As he turned his attention away from Glamar to focus on Ralof, his iron stare centered on her for a moment as if he actually recognized her. “Ralof, brother, you return. I’d heard troubling news that your unit had been slaughtered, you’d been captured and I feared the worst.”
“I was captured,” he admitted. “But there was a skirmish with three strangers and I managed to escape. Two of those strangers stand before, the third died at the hands of the Imperials.”
“So you’ve come to take up your swords for me against Imperial oppression?” Ulfric asked. “Grief has driven so many of my soldiers to the warfront, Imperials taking the lives of those they love and scattering them to the wind without a care. My heart burns with the fire of your loss.”
“Imperials killed my brother,” Farkas said, stepping up to Ulfric. “I want to bathe my sword in their blood until his death is avenged.”
“Your blade thirsts for their blood, but after he is avenged? What then? I cannot take on soldiers fueled by nothing more than vengeance.”
“He will never be avenged,” Luthien spoke up. “Even when every last Imperial is dead, it will not take away the pain of that loss. We’ve come to fight for your cause, for the freedom to walk in our own lands without being harassed and slaughtered like goats simply because we were passing by on our way home.”
“She is the Dragonborn, Ulfric.” Ralof’s face lit up with pride, as if he’d made some great find in the wild and he was expecting Ulfric to reward him handsomely.
“Dragonborn?” His brow furrowed, eyes narrowing over her even more carefully than they had just moments earlier. “Have we met before? You are familiar to me?”
“We met in Helgen, three years past. Both of us were headed to the chopping block.”
“Aye,” he remembered. “You were the one who helped Ralof escape Helgen. He told me your story, and I have often thought upon it with great regret. Your father gave his life in my name.”
“And now her husband too,” Ralof added.
She wanted to correct them, tell them Vilkas had not given his life for Ulfric, or his cause, and neither had her father. They had both just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Ulfric was already speaking again and she quickly let go of the thoughts that overran her mind. Let Ulfric think what he wanted. They were there now before him, ready to take up his cause, if for no other reason than to quell the sorrow in their hearts. That was all that mattered in the end. They probably wouldn’t even see Ulfric again after that one meeting, and that would be fine with her.
“Ralof, take them to see Galmar in the war room, and let him decide, then return to me for reassignment. It is good to see you again, brother. Good to know that you live to fight for me another day.”