They heard the sound of explosions and catapult fire long before they reached the Whiterun encampment just below the city. The battle had already started, the two sides volleying heavy fire back and forth, soldiers taunting each other from a distance, sending arrows across the lines that divided them from the battle that promised to claim them all. The dark smell of ash and burning flesh was almost enough to sicken her stomach, but she held strong and pushed through the masses of Stormcloak soldiers who barely even noticed as she passed through.
“I should have known you two would be here,” Ralof said, running up to meet them. He clapped Farkas on the back and stepped back to look them over, an excited gleam in his eyes that reminded her of the fire she’d seen in him the day they escaped Helgen together. “I don’t know what we’re waiting for,” he shook his head. “These soldiers are ready to fight.”
She couldn’t deny the breathtaking sight of so many men gathered in one place. She’d never seen so many Stormcloaks. Some of them had armor so threadbare, the tattered blue edges of their cuirasses rippled like torn flags in the breeze, but Ulfric’s bear standard blazed strong and true.
“Good, you’re finally here,” he growled, pushing up from the table and wiping his hands together. “I was beginning to think you’d tucked your tails between your legs and run the other way.”
“Never sir,” Luthien grinned.
“Excellent,” he nodded, drawing his bear helmet down over his head. “Let’s take this city and wipe our arses with it.”
He started rallying the men as he stalked toward the front line, Luthien and Farkas at his back. The soldiers followed, forming an eager line as Galmar’s gruff voice belted out orders. “Ulfric wants us to do everything we can to keep the defensive wall intact,” he bellowed. “We need to move in quick and lower that drawbridge without too much damage.”
Another heavy fire explosion shook the ground beneath their feet, and she felt Farkas’s hand on her shoulder. He was trembling, and she wasn’t sure if it had finally hit him that they were going to war, or if he was just itching to drop his warhammer on the Imperials that waited behind the walls of Whiterun.
“They say that our cause is false,” Galmar’s voice seemed more powerful than that explosion as he lifted his arm to keep their attention. “They say that we are nothing more than thieves and thugs and murderers! But no! We are farmers and craftsman. The sons and daughters of merchants, maid-servants and soldiers. We are the true sons and daughters of Skyrim! Everyone, on me! Let’s show these Imperial milk-drinkers what true Nords look like!”
“Everybody, on me!”
The unanimous sound of celebration behind her as her fellow soldiers lifted their shields together took her breath away. She’d fought dark wizards, ethereal beasts, draugr scourges that shouted back at her with voices so strong it rattled her bones and dragons… but never before had she felt such a call to arms in her life. Her own arm lifted, her voice joining theirs in chorus as they cried out for Skyrim, for Ulfric, and then they charged into battle.
It was complete chaos, and though she and Farkas tried to stand together, fighting side by side and back to back as they hammered their way through the barricade, it wasn’t long before they lost one another in the heavy shuffle of armor and bloodshed. Luthien hacked her way through Imperials and Whiterun guards, telling herself that they had chosen their sides, and that as much as she wanted to hold back her arm against men who’d once looked after her home while she slept, she couldn’t.
So much confusion amidst the melee, Imperials tangled with Stormcloaks, brothers in arms accidentally battling through one another and moving on, thirsty for blood no matter who it came from, it seemed. Luthien struggled through the battle, bringing Wuuthrad down, slashing its blade across the armored belly of an Imperial who came at her promising to end her to the gods. She leapt over his body and moved onto the next, the adrenaline pumping through her so hard she thought for sure she’d explode from the sheer intensity of it all.
She heard Farkas’s distinct voice over her left shoulder, taunting his foe as he hollered, “I’m gonna crush you like a bug, Imperial scum.”
The amount of time it took to reach the drawbridge was indeterminable. It could have taken an hour, or it could have been ten minutes; there was simply no way to gage time in the midst of battle. She swept her war axe through the guards protecting the lever, not even bothering to make sure they were dead where they lay before she lowered the bridge and heard the thunderous roll of a thousand feet passing over the bridge into Whiterun.
She finished off the guards and met with a wounded Imperial who begged for mercy as she approached. She gave him the mercy of her blade, and then stepped over his still body to make her way into the city to join her brothers-in-arms. The soldiers had already hacked down the barricade at the top of the merchant’s circle by the time she made her way there. Ralof, Farkas and a handful of other soldiers were battling through a dispatch of Imperials as they stormed the steps to Dragonsreach.
Luthien glanced over at Jorrvaskr as she hiked the steps and saw Vignar Greymane lingering near the Skyforge, arms crossed, a broad smile of approval as she met his gaze. They hammered through the gates of Dragonsreach, meeting with Balgruuf’s guard, who went down fighting beneath a fury of Stormcloak hatred and fire.
She spied Balgruuf at the top of the steps, donning his armor, sword trembling in his hand. Irileth stood in front of him, her wide-set eyes ablaze with challenge. Luthien remembered the elven woman’s arrogance, how vehemently she’d distrusted her since the day she’d first come to Whiterun years before. Even in the face of that first dragon enemy they’d found side by side to diminish, Irileth hadn’t liked her. Luthien felt her own fire blaze inside her, and charged toward the dark elf to batter through her and get to Balgruuf.
“Well, we find you in a very interesting position, Balgruuf the Lesser.”
“Enough,” Balgruuf threw up his arm, staggering Ralof backward. “Enough. That’s enough. I surrender,” he called out as he lowered his shield, bending at the waist to catch his breath. “I surrender.”
Luthien shoved Irileth aside and stepped up to face Balgruuf, who still had his sword out. She wondered for a moment as he stood there wavering in front of her if he would use it. “In the name of Ulfric Stormcloak, true High King of Skyrim, do you surrender?”
“I surrender,” Balgruuf said again. “Just give me a few hours to gather my household and evacuate the castle.”
Vignar made his way up the stairs, his broad grin even broader than it had been on the stairs. “That’s right, Balgruuf. Get your things and get out of my castle.”
“Vignar Grey-Mane, you treacherous snake,” Balgruuf spat on the floor at his feet.
“You… you’re the new Jarl of Whiterun?” Luthien squinted up at the old man, and he flashed his teeth at her.
“You’re not as dumb as you look,” he lamented. “I won’t have much time to sit around Jorrvaskr sharing stories and drinking mead, but you come to me with your concerns about the city from here on out, or talk to my new steward, Brill.”
Luthien nodded respectfully and began to back away from the jarl’s throne.
“I’m pretty sure I killed more men than you,” Ralof said as she stepped up to meet with him and Farkas when Galmar took over. “I was counting.”
“You can’t count.” Farkas wrinkled his brow.
“Neither can you.”
And the two of them rumbled into fits of laughter that to Luthien felt strange and inappropriate. But then she was a woman, as Ulfric Stormcloak had so vehemently pointed out to her. She had a woman’s heart and in the aftermath of so much bloodshed, her fragile woman’s heart felt heavy with grief. Good men and women had died that day, Stormcloaks, Imperials, in the end it didn’t matter. Their blood stained the streets of Whiterun, and no matter how many nights of rain fell on the city, that blood would never wash clean.
“I don’t need to know how to count to know I killed more Imperials than she did.”
Luthien squinted over at both of them, her face a blank slate as she tried to find the courage inside her to appear happy in front of them. They had just won a major victory, and she should be celebrating. She knew that. She wondered if the other women on the battlefield, the ones who’d lived at least, felt the same way she did, or if there was just something wrong with her.
“Dragonborn,” Galmar’s heavy hand came down on her shoulder, drawing her around to face him. “Get over to Windhelm straight away. Tell Ulfric of our victory here today.”
“You fought well out there,” he leaned in closer, his arm affectionately drawing her near. “You should be proud.”
Swallowing hard, she nodded. “I am proud,” she admitted, though she just didn’t know of what. Of all the blood that coated her blade? Of the men she’d slain as they begged for her mercy?
Galmar’s hard fingers squeezed into her shoulder. “Good. Now get going. To Windhelm. Ulfric is waiting for news of our victory.”
Galmar sent Ralof and Farkas with her, and while the two of them continued trading feats of battle as they walked, Luthien kept quiet with her thoughts. She was so confused, a part of her not even sure what they were really fighting for, or if any of it would even be worth it when all was said and done. Ulfric said they were fighting for their freedom, for the right to govern themselves and wrench the power away from the Thalmor, the true puppetmaster behind the Empire.
But what if all those who said that Ulfric was only fighting out of greed and a lust for power spoke true? She didn’t know what to think anymore, and it didn’t seem like she was going to figure it out anytime soon. So she smiled when they invited her to join in their merriment, and watched the Farkas she knew begin to fade before her very eyes.
Or maybe it was her who was changing. She didn’t know and in the end, she supposed it didn’t matter.