She found them waiting outside the city gates, Ralof, Galmar, Farkas and a handful of other soldiers. Farkas lit up when he saw her, and though she would have known him anywhere, she almost didn’t recognize him in that Stormcloak armor. It made him seem bigger than he usually was, every muscle bulging to capacity as if the arms master had run out of material, or she’d been a woman with a lusty heart and a good sense of humor.
“I knew you’d be back,” he grinned as she ran up to meet him.
“Ice wraiths,” she rolled her eyes. “Taking their teeth is like taking a sweet roll from a child.”
Farkas laughed, stepping back to look her over. “So I see you’ve got new clothes too,” he glanced down the length of her exposed leg, then drew up to meet her gaze. “Did you take the oath?”
She nodded. “I did.”
“I guess that means we’re in this now until the end.”
“When you put it that way, it makes it all sound pretty… bleak.”
“You two, we’re heading out,” Galmar called out to them.
They fell in behind Galmar and the others, side by side as they traveled.
“Do you know where we’re going? I was supposed to head out tomorrow for the camp in the Rift, but then Galmar came and said I was going with him.”
“Did you really think I was going to let them just send you off into battle without me?”
“I knew you’d be back before I left. I could feel it.”
“We’re going to Korvanjund,” she told him, watching the snow beneath her feet crunch under their steps. “To retrieve the Jagged Crown for our king.”
It was a three day march to Korvanjund, which lay in the foothills just Northeast of Whiterun. They marched under the cloak of night, and made camp by day to avoid confrontation on the road. Galmar sent Ralof and Farkas out to hunt for food, but kept her close at camp, assigning her with women’s duties like cooking and cleanup as if that would somehow break her spirit. There were three other women with their troop, and he didn’t seem near as threatened as he did by her, but she let him have his fun and did everything he asked her to, just as her king had commanded her.
Galmar did seem to ease up on her during their third night marching across the tundra. She thought she’d even seen him warm a bit when he noticed Wuuthrad for the first time, stepping up to ask her if she truly carried Ysgramor’s blade.
“Reforged by Eorlund Grey-Mane of Whiterun.” She held it up with pride so he could have a better look. “In the renewed fires of the Skyforge after we sent our Harbinger to rest.”
“Wuuthrad reforged,” he whistled. “And how did you come by it?”
“It was a gift, from Ysgramor himself.”
“Come now, girl. Ysgramor’s been dead more lifetimes than you or I could ever imagine.”
“I recovered all of the shards, and when Eorlund reforged the blade, he said Ysgramor himself would have been honored for me to carry it into battle.”
“You are the Harbiner… of the Companions?” Galmar asked.
“And Farkas there says you’re Archmage of the College at Winterhold?”
“And Dragonborn as well…” He shook his head, a whistling breath huffing through his teeth again. “Perhaps my underestimation of you ran far deeper than it should have.” And then he hardened a little, but she could see a playful glint in his bright eyes when he said, “I should have made your test harder.”
“You do realize, Ulfric will expect great things from you.” He paused and looked out over the horizon ahead, both of them spying the scout he’d sent out to survey Korvanjund before they arrived. “And so will I.”
She said nothing, but stepped aside as the scout approached and listened to what she had to say. Korvanjund was crawling with Imperials, that seemed more comfortable there than the majority of their own men out in the field. There were far more than Galmar had first expected, and they would have to go in fighting.
She realized, as Galmar began to rally the men around him, that while he was certainly no Ulfric Stormcloak when it came to giving speeches, he’d definitely taken a page from Ulfric’s book. They were going to march in there and show those red-clothed fools what Stormcloaks were made of. Though some of them may have once served the Empire with the soldiers they faced, they were all Stormcloaks now, and the only brothers they had were the shield-brothers they fought beside.
“We will paint our blades red with their blood, and send them screaming to the depths of Oblivion. Talos doesn’t want their souls, and neither do I!”
As they made their way across the solid ground, they crept in and caught the four Imperial soldiers lingering outside off guard, slaughtering them under the moonlight before they even had a chance to raise alarms and warn their companions inside. Luthien hadn’t even drawn her blade before the soldiers were taken care of, but Farkas had taken out two of them himself, a strange fire in his eyes when he met her gaze and lifted his bloodied sword to show her.
For Vilkas… it was as if she’d heard him in her mind, saying those words. She only nodded, not smiling or offering her praise or approval. Instead, she cocked her ear left and listened as Galmar handed out another warning. There were liable to be plenty more where those red fiends had come from, so any whose blades hadn’t tasted their blood should get ready for a good fight.
They cleared out the entrance quickly, Ralof and Farkas dominating the battle, but Luthien hung close to Galmar at the front of the line, ready to meet the next encounter first. Wuuthrad had never felt so heavy in her hands, not even when she’d wielded it against the wolf spirits that cursed her lover and brother. The fight didn’t feel right to her, as if her heart wasn’t truly in it, but Galmar assigned her with the task of finding another way in to avoid an ambush, and she skulked up the stairs quietly, Farkas at her back.
“You have no idea how good this feels,” he whispered. “Every time I bring down my sword, I feel like… I don’t know, like I’m getting all my anger out on the bastards who really deserve it.”
“Good,” she muttered, not quite sharing his sentiment. Maybe in time, it would come, she thought, but for the moment she just kept telling herself she was on a job for her king, and every time her sword sliced through the bright red armor of an Imperial soldier, she was just working. She wished she could feel like Farkas did about it; she just couldn’t. No matter how much Imperial blood they spilled, it would never bring Vilkas back.
She crept in across the top archway, Farkas so close behind her she could practically feel his breath across the back of her neck when he exhaled. When she caught a flash of red from the corner of her eye, she gestured silently with her hand for Farkas to draw back and draw his bow. She waited until she was just at the edge of the stairs, standing just above two Imperials, who were whispering that they knew someone was around, but they just didn’t know where. That was when she gave Farkas the signal to fire, and she dropped down the steps with a snarling battle-cry that sent the two soldiers scattering.
Swinging Wuuthrad left, she caught the one who was closest to escape, the sharp blade connecting with his flesh with a wet thunk and crack, as she passed through the meat of his body and hit bone. He let out a startled wail of disbelief as she withdrew and spun right to hit the other man charging toward her with his sword over his head. Farkas hit him with an arrow in the back of the thigh, which sent him staggering forward right into Wuuthrad.
The force of her own blow rocked through her, and she had to quickly readjust her footing to keep from losing her balance.
“Nice shot,” Farkas commented, racing down to meet up with her.
The din of coming battle echoed out to meet them. Their Stormcloak brothers and sister charged in at the sound of fighting and soon the scent of spilled blood and split bowels filled the air. She’d been in battle before, knew what to expect, but there were so many dead Imperials littering the floor, the fumes of death were nearly overwhelming. She wasn’t the only one to notice, one of the other women leaning over an old burial urn to vomit.
Galmar shook his head, growling into his knotted beard. “Get used to the smell, Unblooded. You’ll get more of that when I send you down to Falkreath at the end of this mission.”
It probably shouldn’t have, but that made Luthien smile. At least she knew Galmar hadn’t just disliked her. He seemed to have a low opinion of women on the battlefield in general. Maybe she could change that, and charged with this new task, she pushed to the front again, ahead of Ralof and crept down the winding hallways with Wuuthrad at the ready.
As they came upon the body of a draugr, the woman who’d lost her last meal in the burial urn stepped forward cautiously, nudging the unmoving body with the edge of her sword. “What is that?”
“Draugr,” Galmar said. “If you’ve never seen one of them before, beware. Crypts like this are usually crawling with them, and it’s only been lucky for us that the Imperials took them out thus far.”
“But where there’s one, there’s always another,” Farkas added.
“And another, and another.” Luthien looked to her shield-brother and grinned. “We know what to do with Draugr.”
“We kick their asses.”
“All right,” Galmar barked. “Enough standing around. We’ve got a crown to find for our king. Move.”
They only met with two more Imperials before they came into the Hall of Stories, the stone carvings in the walls telling tales of battles won long before any of them were even so much as a thought in the minds of the gods.
“Perhaps these walls can tell us how to open that door up ahead,” Galmar said. “Otherwise we’ll have to go back to Ulfric and tell him we failed. That’s not something I intend to do.”
Luthien spied the ebony claw before anyone else, clutched in the hand of a dead Imperial soldier lying just in front of the door. His sleeve had been covering half of it, but she’d found it and bent to pick it up. She studied the patterns on the back, knowing exactly how the door worked.
“Farkas,” she called over her shoulder. “A little help.”
“What do you need?”
“Can you reach that top ring and turn it to the wolf?”
While he spun the heavy stone ring, she worked the middle and inner-rings until the pattern matched the claw, and then she plugged the claw into the keyhole and turned left. The rings came to life with a great groan, stone on stone, and thousands of years of dust and decay showered down over them, filling the outer chamber for a moment. By the time the door had lowered completely, the dust had cleared and Galmar turned to her.
“Good work, girl. You’re the only one here who seems to show any goddamned initiative.” He rolled his heavy gaze across the others, who all looked away in shame. “When we find the crown, I’ll make sure you’re the one to take it back to Ulfric, so he knows how much of the glory in this was yours.”
“We need to find the crown first,” she reminded him.
“What are you rabble waiting for? Go.”
They all rattled by her, Farkas looking back to make sure she was coming, but they didn’t get very far before they came into a blocked chamber, the way to the ceremonial chamber closed off by a heavy iron gate.
“You,” Galmar gestured to her. “Find a way to get that gate up. The rest of you, keep your eyes open for draugr.”
Luthien followed an open passageway to the landing above and found the release lever just above where Galmar was standing. She pulled it out and turned, releasing the gate, but awakening the draugr in the crypts that surrounded her shield-brothers on the floor. She raced didn’t even bother running back down the way she came, but dropped to the floor with her axe at the ready, taking out a draugr that had backed Ralof into the corner. Farkas managed to wipe out two of the others, and Galmar got the fourth one.
“The crown’s got to be around here somewhere, start looking.”
Luthien started toward the draugr, but an old familiar calling sounded in her soul. It began as a distant chant, that rose louder and louder as she passed by the throne and into an alcove near the back of the chamber. The glowing wall drew her forward, almost against her will, and as she stepped up the swirling mass of blue light as it whirled and danced around her, spiraling upward from the floor as it crawled its way through her to merge with her essence.
Farkas was the only one who saw, and he rushed toward her, hand reaching out to grip her shoulder and hold her steady. “You all right?”
“Not as bad as they used to be,” she said. “But they still leave me dizzy for a minute.”
“Ralof found the crown,” he told her. “Galmar wants the Dragonborn to be the one to take it back to the king.”
As soon as she had her wits back, she followed Farkas back into the main chamber and stepped up to see what they were all looking at. It was the draugr in the throne, she realized. Perched atop his head was a jagged crown crafted from the teeth and bones of dragons older than the stone that built the ancient tomb they were standing in.
Luthien nudged past Ralof, hand reaching out to pluck it from the draugr’s head, but as soon as she moved it, the dead man’s eyes shot open and the leathery, rotted flesh of his mouth yawned to reveal yellowed teeth older than the hair of Ysgramor’s beard. Everyone behind her scattered, and the sound of weapons drawing from scabbards rang in the air, followed by the crumbling crypts of long-dead draugr awakening to defend their king.
The draugr king began to rise from his seat, mouth stretching wider until she realized too late it was about to shout and send them all scattering backward. She held tight to her weapon, but its force was almost too powerful for her to stand against. She flew, the power of its Thu’um not weakened by the millenniums of sleep. Connecting with the wall hadn’t been half as bad as Galmar’s heavy hip smashing into her gut.
That was going to leave a bruise.
Shaking the cobwebs from her head, she dug deep down inside her and drew her own voice. Shoving Galmar out of the way as she raged forward, she unleashed the power of her Thu’um, staggering the king and his draugr backward. She charged forward, Wuuthrad whistling through the air and piercing the old leather armor of the draugr king before he could get up.
Behind her, she heard the others coming to life, flying into battle with fierce cries at her back. Galmar came in beside her, Farkas on the other side, and the three of them dropped their blades into the draugr king again. It gurgled, muttering curses that were impossible to understand. Farkas lifted his sword again, hacking down through the rotted sinew of its neck, straight through brittle bone, the head leaping up with the force, dropping down and rolling across the floor.
The crypt was silent, save for the rasp of spent breath as everyone hunched over trying to catch up with the speed of their hearts. Everyone but Galmar. He walked over to pick up the head, wrenching the crown from its skull and carrying it over to her.
“Take Ulfric his crown, Dragonborn.” His dark blue eyes gleamed with approval. “And when you hand it to him, tell him he owes me a drink.”