She was surprised by how tenderly Ulfric held her in his arms, the blanket drawn across their spent, feverish bodies, his hand stroking her bare arm thoughtfully in the dark. She could hear the frigid wind screaming outside the palace, but there with Ulfric she felt safe and warm. How could the man who held her be the same tyrannical breeder of lies and greed everyone said he was? The same man who’d shouted young King Torygg to death with his voice? The same man who was said to have tortured the women and murdered even the children during the Markarth Incident simply because they hadn’t raised their swords to his cause.
Maybe her mind was still clouded by the pleasure of his touch, but it was growing harder and harder for her to believe the Ulfric Stormcloak who held her there with him was the same man she’d heard so many horrible stories about.
“I think it is time for me to send a message to the Imperial sympathizers in Whiterun,” he contemplated aloud. “Particularly Balgruuf the Greater.”
“You mean to attack the city then?” She immediately thought of Lydia and her brethren at Jorrvaskr.
“At this point in time I have no reason to attack, but I want you to take a message to Jarl Balgruuf for me.”
“What sort of message?”
“I want you to give him my axe.”
“Okay. Should I say anything to him?”
“Men who understand each other seldom need words. There are but a few simple truths behind one warrior giving another his axe.” When she didn’t say anything, Ulfric cleared his throat. “It is a gesture between two men, one Balgruuf will recognize as a call to arms. If he decides to keep the axe, I will bide my time until he brings it back to me himself, ready to stand beside me and fight as my brother in arms, but if he sends it back with you, then I will know he has chosen the wrong side.” She listened to the low crackle of logs in the hearth behind the bed, as Ulfric’s chest expanded with a heavy breath. “Will you do this thing for me?”
Luthien didn’t know what to say. “I have family in Whiterun.”
“If Balgruuf asks you to return my axe, you should warn them before you leave the city. Tell them to get out.”
She wondered what Balgruuf would say, if she would feel as if she’d betrayed him even though he’d known when she first came to Whiterun her future lay with the Stormcloaks. He’d never even asked her why, had just assumed she’d been some kind of petty criminal, but he’d used her anyway, sending her off to find the Dragonstone so his wizard could work in secret with the Blades to find out why the dragons had returned.
“I will do this thing you ask.”
“Good,” he tightened his hand on her shoulder, drawing her in closer and kissing the top of her head. “Be careful with Balgruuf. He’s known for his quick temper and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I will take my shield-brother.”
“As you will,” he conceded.
She hadn’t expected to fall asleep so quickly. Her mind was racing with the possibility of going to war with Whiterun, but as Ulfric drew and released breath after breath, every exhale lulled, until she felt sleep draw her into its warm arms, where it held her close for the first time since Vilkas’s death. She didn’t dream, there were no nightmares of things she could have done, should have done… only sleep.
When she woke the next morning in Ulfric’s bed alone, she was momentarily confused by her strange surroundings. Stretching beneath the coverlet, the empty spot in the bed where he’d been when she fell asleep was cold, as if he’d long ago left her there to sleep alone. She wondered what time it was, and then remembered she’d told Farkas she would meet him at Candlehearth Hall after delivering the crown to Ulfric.
In a panic, she climbed out of the king’s bed and scrambled to put her clothes on, quickly combing her fingers through her hair and rebraiding it before strapping Wuuthrad across her back and heading down the long stairs into the mead hall. Ulfric was sitting on his throne, conducting business, and Farkas was chowing down at the end of the long table in the hall. When he looked up to see her enter from the war room, his face brightened.
“There you are,” Ulfric said. “I was just telling your brother here that by the time we finished discussing strategy last night, it was so late I offered you a bed here in the palace.”
“I don’t think I realized just how exhausted I was.”
“The jarl says we’re headed home to Whiterun after breakfast,” Farkas said.
“Yes, we’re carrying an important message for him that cannot wait. I’ll eat something on the road.”
She walked toward Ulfric’s throne and he bent down to retrieve the war axe propped on the floor beside him, handing it over to her. There was no sign in his eyes that they had shared anything more than conversation the night before, which confused her heart. In her limited experience, sex and love had gone hand in hand, but she knew the Jarl of Windhelm didn’t love her. She’d done nothing more for him than sate his lust and warm his bed, but she would not let him see her shame.
“Talos guide you,” Ulfric said, uncurling his fingers from the handle and releasing it to her.
She hitched the king’s war axe to her belt and turned away from him. Grabbing an apple from a bowl on the table, she left the palace with Farkas quickly running out after her. The cold morning air upon her face did little to sharpen her muddled mind. Her guilty conscience kept her silent as they walked, a part of her fearing that if she looked Farkas in the eye, he would know her shame and never forgive her for what she’d done to his brother.
Thankfully, Farkas was all wrapped up in his own misadventures, which he proceeded to share with her as soon as they were outside the city walls. Apparently the ladies of Windhelm had been more than just a little intrigued by his Stormcloak uniform and he’d woken up with not one, but two of them in his bed.
“So I’m a little glad you didn’t catch me in that position, if you know what I mean.” He grinned stupidly. She’d heard that kind of story from him before, and had always laughed along with him in kind, but she wasn’t exactly feeling very good about men in general so hearing about his exploits made her blood boil underneath her skin.
“And did you know there’s a murderer in Windhelm? Some guy’s been running around hacking the women to bits, carving strange symbols into their dead bodies. They’re all terrified,” he shook his head. “Not that I’d ever take advantage of a frightened girl, but…”
“But you did,” she shot back over her shoulder. Just like Ulfric Stormcloak had taken advantage of her, bringing her emotions to the surface and the sweeping in for the kill. The cut of her tone wiped the cunning smile from his face. Chastised, he quickly lowered his gaze like a little boy who’d been caught with his hand on a sweet roll just seconds before dinner.
“I didn’t mean to,” he muttered, still afraid to lift his gaze to meet hers. “It just happens that way sometimes.”
“Men,” she snarled, hiking ahead of him and refusing to talk to him for the rest of the morning.
She hadn’t realized how disillusioned she’d been on the subject of men, but then Vilkas had been an honorable man. While his brother had been out wenching, he’d saved himself for the right woman, and when he’d found her, he’d married her after committing all of himself to her. There was no telling how many women Farkas had dishonored in his twenty-five years, or how many women had fallen prey to Ulfric Stormcloak’s honeyed words as he commanded them to lay their bodies down because their king commanded it.
She had dishonored the sanctity of her marriage vows, and as much as she wanted to lay that blame at Ulfric’s feet, she had not refused his touch. She had actually enjoyed it, allowing herself to forget her grief and anguish for a short time in the comfort of a strong man’s arms. A man who didn’t love her, would probably never love her.
How did all the women Farkas had defiled live with themselves? How did Farkas live with himself.
As if her thoughts had reached him, he ran to catch up with her, nudging into her playfully. “Are you gonna be mad at me all day because I didn’t sleep alone last night? You know you had your chance with me,” he teased. “I offered to make an honest woman of you before my brother got under your skin, but you turned me down.”
She didn’t know how he always managed to do it, but she started to laugh, remembering the day he spoke of. They’d gone to get the fragments of Wuuthrad for Skjor. That had been the day she’d learned the Companions’ darkest secret, and started to come to terms with her own inner yearnings. He’d accused her of loving Vilkas that day, said she was lying to herself every time she said it wasn’t true. Turned out he’d been right along, but he’d never stopped teasing her about choosing the wrong brother whenever she was mad at him.
“I’m not mad at you,” she gave in. “I’m mad at myself.”
“Because of me?” His brow furrowed with confusion.
“No, because I did something really stupid.”
“Oh,” he shrugged. “Is that all? I do really stupid things all the time.”
“Why do you think I’m so upset about it? The last thing I want is to wind up like you,” she grinned and leaned into him as they walked.
“Did you go out wenching last night? Pick up a couple broads, take them back to your room and make promises you knew you’d never keep?”
“Something like that,” she sighed. “I’m just not very happy today, and I really don’t want to talk about it, but I’m not mad at you, all right? I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Want me to cheer you up with a story?” he asked. “How about a song? There once was a hero named Ragnar the Red…”
“No singing,” she chuckled. “You’ll alert every blasted bear and Imperial in Whiterun hold.”
“…who came riding to Whiterun from ole Rorikstead…”
The gruff sound of his off-key singing voice did actually cheer her up, and before she knew it, she’d joined him in song, the two of them making the journey to Whiterun and forgetting their troubles the best they could with song. It kept her mind off of her guilt, off the soft feel of Ulfric’s mouth exploring her body, from the task that lay ahead and what it would mean if Balgruuf handed Ulfric’s axe back to her.
As they made their way up to the gates of Whiterun three days later, it was early evening. She had thought to change out of their Stormcloak armor before entering the city, but Farkas had said no. He didn’t care what anyone thought of them. Let them talk, and if the Battle-Borns had something to say to him, his fist would answer in kind. So they marched through the gates in full Stormcloak attire, ignoring the strange looks the guards gave them as they made their way past Breezehome, through the merchant circle and up into the Wind District.
She looked to Jorrvaskr first, wondering if she would have to warn Aela and the others that war was coming, and then turned her sights on Dragonsreach. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d walked those stairs, reporting to the jarl himself after completing some important job, or seeking out Proventus for more work.
She had tried to imagine Balgruuf’s response dozens of times on the journey. Despite his ego, the Jarl of Whiterun was a clever man, and as long as she’d known him, he’d always held the people of his hold above all else. When she’d asked him about Ulfric and the Civil War the first time she’d met him, he’d seemed far more concerned with the return of the dragons than Ulfric’s quest for the crown. Now that he was being asked to take a side, would he choose the right one, and stand with the true sons and daughters of Skyrim? Or would he force Ulfric’s hand, more or less inviting Stormcloak troops to march on Whiterun?
Irileth, the jarl’s housecarl, had never trusted her, and when she saw her walking toward the throne, she immediately stepped into her path and crossed her arms. “And just where do you think you’re going? If you think for a moment that I’m going to just let you walk up to my jarl…”
“I have a message for Jarl Balgruuf from Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm.”
“Give this message to me, and I will deliver it to him.”
“Ulfric has asked me to hand deliver it to Jarl Balgruuf personally.”
Balgruuf sat up in his throne, intrigued by her words. “Irileth, let her come forward.” The woman didn’t move aside without muttering to Luthien as she passed by, “I’ve got my eye on you. One false move, and I’ll make you regret the day you were born.”
Farkas lingered at her back, hand on the hilt of his sword as he narrowed his gaze over Irileth. She’d warned him, told him what they had come for and mentioned that Ulfric said Balgruuf might not be so eager to receive the message they brought.
“I see you’ve finally chosen your side,” Balgruuf said, looking over the uniform she wore. “What does Ulfric want with me?”
She unhitched the war axe from her belt and held it forward. “He sends his axe.”
Balgruuf swallowed; Luthien saw his adam’s apple bob as he surveyed the axe she held to him, then reached out to take it.
“So,” he began. “It seems Ulfric is no longer willing to sit idly on his thrown looking for ways to take advantage of his people’s love for him.”
“My Jarl, does this mean what I think it means?” Proventus asked.
Balgruuf looked between his steward and his housecarl, then returned his gaze to Luthien. “I must confer with my council. Return to me in one hour and I will give you my decision.”
“Did that go well?” he asked, following her down the stairs.
“We’ll see in an hour. In the meantime, I have to speak with Vignar and I need to pay a visit to Lydia.”
“Lydia,” Farkas nodded approval. “I like Lydia.”
“Is there a single woman in Whiterun you haven’t slept with?”
“Lillith Maiden-Loom,” he shuddered. “That old hag gives me the shivers.”