She woke in Ulfric’s bed alone again, but the mattress was still warm where he’d lain and when she sat up to look around, she found him dressing near the wardrobe, drawing his cloak of raven feathers over his broad shoulders and securing it in place with a jeweled broach. He glanced back at her, all traces of the soft man she knew in the darkness washed away by morning’s light.
“Galmar is waiting for us in the war room,” he said, reaching for the door handle.
“I will be right there.”
She didn’t linger, quickly stepping back into her armor and ignoring the ache of her sore muscles as she bent down to button her boots. Taking the steps two at a time didn’t seem to get her to the bottom of them any faster, but she realized she could have taken her time when she opened the door into the war room and found Ulfric pacing the floors while Galmar shared his thoughts on the upcoming attack at Whiterun. He promised Ulfric he would kick down the walls of Whiterun with his bare feet if he had to, which made Ulfric laugh.
“There you are.” Ulfric looked up at her, as if he’d been waiting for hours, and hadn’t just left her in his bed a few moments before. He was like two different people, her lover and her king, though in the dark she swore those two men were one in the same. “I’ve already told Galmar that I want you on the front line. If you have any questions for him, now would be the time to ask.”
She turned from Ulfric and focused her attention on Galmar, who began spewing orders so fast, she wished she had someone to write them down in case she missed something and needed a review later. She was supposed to grab Farkas first, and then travel to the Stormcloak encampment just below Whiterun as quickly as they could. He would meet them there, and together they would raise the city from its roots and bring those Imperial puppets to their knees.
“I’ll leave right now,” she conceded, swinging Wuuthrad over her shoulder and securing it against her back.
“What are you still standing there for,” Galmar barked. “Get moving, soldier. Go. Go!”
Ulfric had left the room while Galmar gave her orders, but he was standing on the other side of the door when she came through it. Reaching for her hand as she moved past him, he squeezed her fingers and said, “Talos be with you,” and then he let her go, as though he hadn’t even touched her at all.
She found Farkas in Candlehearth Hall, two young women sitting on each side of him, hanging on his every word like honey bees around a flower. He barely looked up when she approached the table, but went on telling the story they were both so avidly thriving on. “… and then I drew my bow back and loosed not one, but two arrows right into the dragon’s throat. You should have heard it scream.”
The elven bard stroked a chord, and in a clear voice began to sing The Age of Oppression. At first, Luthien wanted to yank Farkas up out of his chair and drag his smug ass down the stairs, but it had been awhile since she’d heard the song and she found its passion seeping into her blood. “We will drive out the Empire from this land that we own. With our blood and our steel, we will take back our home. All hail to Ulfric, you are the High King, in your great honor we drink and we sing. We’re the children of Skyrim and we fight all our lives. When Sovngarde beckons, every one of us dies. But this land is ours and we’ll see it wiped clean of the scourge that has sullied our hopes and our dreams…”
Chills rippled across the surface of her skin, from head to toe. Had Ulfric ever heard the woman sing, she wondered, her voice ringing out in his praises despite the obvious oppression of the Dunmer in Windhelm? Skyrim may have once belonged to the Nords, but it had become home to so many wanderers who’d lost their spirit and their homes to war. He had to see that.
“And now a very special honor.” The bard cleared her throat and began to strum her lute again. “Our hero, our hero claims a warrior’s heart. I tell you, I tell you the Dragonborn comes. With a voice wielding power of the ancient Nord art, believe, believe the Dragonborn comes…”
Some Dragonborn warrior she was turning out to be; she looked away from the woman in shame, turning and approaching the table. As much as she hated admitting it to herself, she supposed she was no better than Ulfric, ignoring her purpose and her people, her warrior’s heart that knew the true scourge sullying all of their hopes and dreams went well beyond the Empire.
Luthien raised her arms to cross them over her chest, catching Farkas’s glance, but he quickly looked away.
“Where was I?” he ignored her.
“You were on your way to war, soldier. We’re moving out. I have orders from General Galmar. We’re marching on the city and we leave at once.”
That caught his attention, his two lady friends pouting as he pushed his chair away from the table they’d been sharing. “Do you really have to go, Farkas?”
“Duty calls, girls. Pray to Talos for me.”
Luthien rolled her eyes and turned away, making her way down the stairs and out the doors, not even looking back to make sure he was behind her. They went on that way for quite a while, out the city gates and several miles outside Windhelm before Farkas finally stepped up beside her and asked, “So, we’re really marching on Whiterun?”
“Those are our orders.”
“I wasn’t sure Ulfric would actually go through with it. Word in the city is, people think he’s held back too long, and the war itself will fizzle out long before he actually makes his move.”
“Well, I guess word in the city is about to change then.”
“Yeah…” They walked for a ways, not speaking again, and then Farkas finally broke the silence. “Look, Lu, I know you’re pretty mad at me, and I think I understand why, but if we’re going into battle, I’d rather have you beside me, than somewhere lost among the melee where I can’t keep an eye on you.”
“I’m sorry we don’t agree, Farkas. I wish we could always agree, but sometimes we won’t.”
“I know, and I’m sorry too. I guess I’m real messed up inside. I haven’t been right since…”
She knew. He didn’t have to finish; she didn’t think he could anyway. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be right again. I don’t even know who I am anymore without Vilkas, and maybe the pain will one day lessen enough that we can feel whole again… I just don’t know.”
“All I do know is that we can’t get lost from each other in the middle of all this chaos. You’re my best friend, all I have left in this world. I don’t want to lose you too. Not because of a disagreement.”
“I’m sorry.” His hand lowered onto her shoulder, drawing her against his chest as his arms came around her. “Let’s not ever do that whole fighting thing again.”
“At least not with each other. We’ve got a town full of Imperials we can fight with.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I have to accept my choices and give my heart to this cause. Ulfric wants me on the front line and Galmar seems to agree. I signed up for this, so I don’t really have a choice.”
“We could run away.” For the first time in days she saw the flicker of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “I hear The Pale is nice this time of year.”
“The Pale is never nice,” she chuckled. “And I have a feeling not even the Pale could hide us from Ulfric’s wrath if we left him in a lurch. I guess we’re just going to have to suck it up and go to war, even if I started out not fully supporting the whole notion.”
“Are you starting to change your mind?”
“I don’t know. Ulfric has said some things to me that made me think… things about the Empire in bed with the Thalmor, and what the Thalmor might do if they got their hands on someone like me.”
“You mean because you’re the Dragonborn?”
“We still have no idea why the dragons have come back, and maybe the Thalmor have something to do with that. While we tear each other apart, they lie in the shadows waiting until we’re weak and broken… I don’t know.” Her voice trailed on that thought. “There was a woman in Riverwood long ago who said she wanted to help me… more like she wanted me to help her, but I refused her. Perhaps if we live through this whole stupid war, I should go back and see her again, if it’s not too late.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She could tell she was starting to lose him, so she steered the conversation to lighter things, things that kept her own mind off of the tight nervous ball in her stomach at the thought of the battle that awaited them. At night, while they camped under the stars, trading off watch duty so they could both get at least two hours sleep, Luthien found her thoughts wandering to Ulfric as she scanned the dark horizon and listened to the wind wail through the trees at her back.
She wondered if he had another woman who warmed his bed in her absence, even though both times she had gone to him he’d been alone and hadn’t been expecting her. Even if he did bring another into his bed, why should she even care? She didn’t love him, and she was relatively sure he didn’t love her either… though what was that whole gesture before she’d left? Him grabbing her hand, squeezing her fingers as he muttered, “Talos be with you.”
Closing her eyes, she leaned her back into the tree behind her and tried not to think about Ulfric Stormcloak anymore, but it was damn near impossible to clear those sad eyes, the deep rumble of his contemplative voice, the whisper of his skin against her skin, the deep drink of his hungry kiss, his strong hands kneading the flesh of her hips as he drew her down to meet him again and again…
She was such a fool. If Vilkas were watching over her from Sovngarde, he was probably spitting at her, but the heroes in Sovngarde didn’t have time to watch over the living below. They were busy drinking and feasting in the Hall of Heroes, sharing songs and stories of valor as they challenged each other to hearty brawls before embracing and complimenting one another on a battle well-fought.
Maybe one day she would see him there again, and he would hold her in his arms and tell her she had fought well, brought honor to her sisters and brothers and herself… or maybe he wouldn’t know her at all when she arrived because she’d given herself to another man.
She wanted to go back to thinking Ulfric Stormcloak was a liar and a fascist whose only passion was for war and power, but as soon as she started to follow that train of thought back to where it first began, she found herself getting stuck on the feel of his hand brushing down her cheek as he promised, “I would never let them touch you.”