Galmar Stone-Fist didn’t seem to think much of them when they came to meet him formally. He looked Farkas up and down, definitely seeing potential there, but when his gaze fell upon Luthien, she could see that he had doubts, even if she had escaped from the dragon attack at Helgen three years earlier. By no means was she a big woman. She was a true Nord, tall and strong-boned, but she hid her strengths well beneath her Skyforge Wolf Armor.
“I’ll tell you what.” Galmar drew a hand into his beard, stroking the hairs thoughtfully as he looked between them again. “There is a problem up at Serpentstone Isle in need of some attention, but I haven’t the men or the time to trouble myself with its care. You take care of this little… problem for me, and show me you’re actually worth something, and I’ll gladly give you a place in Ulfric’s army.”
“What kind of problem are we talking about?”
“Just an ice wraith,” he shrugged. “If you can handle that, then we’ll talk about your future with the Stormcloaks.”
“All right, we’ll do it.” Ice wraith? Really? She’d killed ice wraiths in her sleep.
“Not we,” Galmar shook his head. “You. Just you.”
Farkas started to protest, but she held her arm up to quiet him. “Farkas is my shield-brother, and we’ve fought countless battles side-by-side. If you don’t want him, then I don’t stay either.”
“It’s not your shield-brother I have doubts about. He’s welcome to stay here and train with the soldiers in the yard until you return… if you return, that is.”
“Forget it, Luthien,” Farkas interjected. “You’re not going up there without me.”
She turned on heel to face him, not caring if the Stone-Fist overheard what she had to say. “You wanted this, Farkas. You wanted to be a Stormcloak, and that’s why we’re here. Stay here, get outfitted and train in the yard. When I come back, we’ll show them we both work well alone, and we can get the job done separately, but that we’re even better as a team.”
Vilkas had told them to look after each other, and she knew that was what he was about to remind her of, as if she would ever forget, could ever forget. It had been his dying wish…
He nodded, easily falling under her leadership. He knew what she was capable of, that she had learned from the best, but it didn’t help much that half of the best were now dead. Either of them could be next. “Be careful up there.”
“I’ll be back before you even know I’m gone. Now make sure you show these Stormcloaks how a proper warrior gets things done.”
He nodded, and she saw a gleam of pride in his eye. “Will do,” he promised.
Galmar had sent her with a couple potions, which she tossed into her bag without a thought as she set off. She passed through the main hall, Ulfric still sitting on his lonely throne, staring forward as if he were looking straight into the void. He didn’t stir when she walked through, but seemed to finally notice her just as she reached the edge of the table.
“Girl, come here.”
She paused, not sure she was up for another prolific speech designed to inspire and reawaken her honor. Turning on heel, she walked back toward his throne and waited quietly for him to speak.
“What is your name?”
“Are you really the Dragonborn, Luthien?”
“The Greybeards believe it to be true, but then some say they once trained you as well, but you turned from the Way of the Voice.”
“They did train me, that is true,” he nodded. “But the world could not wait for me to learn all they had to teach, and I left High Hrothgar to take up my sword for a far greater cause.”
“The Great War,” she nodded. “You were an Imperial soldier once.”
“Now I bloody my sword day and night, taking down that which I once believed to be righteous and true. It has been nothing but war for me since I left that peaceful place,” he lamented.
She thought it was funny, that he spoke of all the blood he’d coated his blade with, when she’d never even heard of him joining one of his own battles.
“I assume Galmar has set a test for you. If you manage to survive, I would like you to show me the power of your Thu’um.”
“And if I commanded it as your king?”
He was pushing a strange boundary with her, gauging her loyalty and setting his own test for her that would far surpass anything Galmar sent her to do. Ulfric wasn’t king yet, and he knew it, but he expected those who followed him to recognize his status even if it wasn’t official.
“Then I would have no choice but to do your will, my king.”
“Good answer, soldier. You are free to go.”
He watched her as she made her way to the front doors of the Palace of the King, his eyes as cold and blue as polished steel, but she didn’t look back at him. She didn’t know why she felt the need to challenge him with silent docility. Maybe because she wasn’t there for herself. Had she come to him three years ago, the way she’d planned, she would have easily fallen at his feet and probably kissed his boots, swooning the way so many women seemed to do at the mere mention of his name. She’d been a different person then. Vilkas had called her green, a scared little girl afraid of the shadows of her own past.
She was a woman now, and king or no king, she wasn’t going to prance around Ulfric Stormcloak begging for his approval. She’d learned she didn’t need anyone’s approval. She was the Harbinger, the Dragonborn, Archmage of the College at Winterhold. She’s slain enough of her own demons in the last three years, she knew she didn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore.
She would pass Galmar’s test and return to join Ulfric’s army. She would fight in his war, and maybe even die under his banner on the field, but she wouldn’t treat him as if he was special simply because he could summon the power of the Voice… even if he was going to be high king when all was said and done.
She stepped outside and started away from the palace, feeling the burn of the cold wind against her cheeks. She stopped by the smith to sharpen her blade and gathered a few supplies from the White Phial before planning to make her way north, through the Sea of Ghosts to the Serpentstone Isle. She hadn’t been that far north in years, not since she’d freed Farkas and Vilkas of their wolf spirits, but even stranger to her was the fact that for the first time in over three years, she was traveling alone.
Vilkas had always taught her that no matter the size of the job, a Companion always traveled with a shield-sibling. One never knew when she might require a shield to guard her back, a bow to catch her foe off-guard from a distance and buy her a little time if she needed it, a sword to stand beside her even when the odds seemed too great to face. It was the first time since she’d gone to slay the Glenmoril witches coven that she hadn’t been accompanied by one of the twins, but she supposed that was something she would have to get used to now that Vilkas was gone. It would always just be Farkas… or she would go it alone.
How did a person just get used to that kind of loss? Did the pain ever go away?
On the bright side, running into a group of bandits by herself meant she didn’t have to share the spoils with anyone, and it certainly got her mind off things for a little while. By the time she made it to Winterhold the next morning, and headed up to the college to make sure everything was running smoothly, she was exhausted and grateful for the warmth and solitude of her quarters.
She hadn’t really slept much since Vilkas had died, and when she had, it had been a troubled sleep, restless and filled with nightmares in which she relived the same tragic moment over and over again. It was worse than when she’d been cursed with the beastblood, and she began to wonder if she would ever know rest again. She’d hoped the separation from familiarity with home might help, but even her dreams that afternoon were filled with regret.
When she woke, she occupied her mind brewing potions and then organizing them on her shelves, and that was where Tolfdir found her.
Tolfdir had been her mentor when she’d first arrived at the college, a kind old wizard with a wandering mind, but he’d taught her a great deal during her trials and she respected him most of all the teachers who’d survived the mad elf, Ancano’s devastating quest for power with the Eye of Magnus. It hadn’t been easy defeating him, but when all was said and done, and she was left with the Archmage’s duties as her reward, the Psijic Order had confided they’d hoped to see the Dragonborn in that position and she had taken the job.
Vilkas hadn’t been happy about that either, claiming it was just more responsibility to bog her down and keep her from the things that really mattered. At the time she’d thought he’d been referring to her duties as Harbinger of the Companions and her responsibilities as Dragonborn (which she still didn’t truly understand,) but the more she thought on it, she wondered if he’d meant him, the family they had talked of starting when they’d first gotten married.
“I had heard you’d returned to the college, Archmage,” the old man said. “I knocked, but you must not have heard me.”
“I was occupied with my thoughts.”
He nodded understanding, a sadness in his bright eyes that touched her heart. “They brought us word about your husband’s death,” he said. “Terrible business that. I’m so sorry for you loss.”
She said nothing. She’d grown tired of hearing how sorry everyone was in the last months. It was all anyone seemed to say to her anymore, but she remained polite even when she wanted to lash out and ask them how their sorries would make everything right again.
“I won’t be staying long. I am heading further north come morning, up to Serpentstone Isle.”
“Serpentstone Isle? What do you seek there?”
“Glory to prove myself worthy of a Stormcloak Cuirass,” she sighed. “My shield-brother and I have joined with Ulfric’s cause and they have set me to a test before they’ll take me.”
Tolfdir’s face softened with sorrow. “A vengeful heart leads to a dark road, Archmage. I know the Imperials were responsible for…”
“I’m not joining the Stormcloaks to avenge Vilkas’s death,” she assured him. “I’m joining to keep Farkas out of trouble, to keep him close so I can watch over him. It is his vengeful heart that leads us into battle under Ulfric’s banner.”
“I see.” His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of her words. “I hope you’ll not mistake an old man’s concern for meddling, Archmage, and pardon me if this is out of line, but that seems an awful strange reason to head into an endeavor as serious as war. Are you sure you aren’t masking your own desires for revenge with your need to protect your brother.”
“I’m positive, Tolfdir.” But was she, really? She didn’t even know what to think of her decision anymore. The only thing she was certain of was that she couldn’t let Farkas go off to do something that crazy on his own. “And besides, maybe if Ulfric actually has some decent warriors on his side, we can finally put an end to this ridiculous war, once and for all and focus on far more important matters, like the return of the dragons.”
“You know what’s best for you,” Tolfdir said. “I hope you’ll be safe though, and try to report back to us from time to time. It seems the damndest things tend to crop up when you’re away.”
“What do you mean?”
“We had a visit from that member of the Psijic Order just last week. He wanted to let us know that we can expect a few strange aftershocks, after that plot of Ancano’s. None have been reported as of yet, but we should be on the lookout for them. Funny thing,” Tolfdir shook his head. “Isn’t that the type of thing they should have told us when it happened?”
“I suppose it is,” she sighed, her mind suddenly feeling so heavy with all that responsibility. “Do keep an ear out for any such disturbances, and notify me at once if you hear of one. Send a courier if you have to.”
“Where should I send it?”
“Windhelm, I suppose. Even if I am in the field, the Jarl’s men will know where to find me.”
“Do promise you’ll be careful out there,” he pleaded. “Remember everything we taught you, and put your magic to good use.”
Even if magic hadn’t been able to save Vilkas, she would make sure she never made that same mistake again. She glanced up at the shelf, where she’d just arranged the potions she’d crafted, then reached up and grabbed every magic and health potion she had in stock. She traded a few of her ingredients with Tolfdir for the potions he had in stock as well, loading them all into her bag.
She’d never run low on magical energy again; not if she could help it.