The sound of a knock at the door roused her from sleep, Ulfric’s groggy voice calling out for whoever it was to enter. It was a courier, with word from Galmar Stone-Fist. The young man who brought the message didn’t even look old enough to grow a beard, his wide eyes scanning over Ulfric with such deep respect, she thought he was going to wet himself when the king handed him a bag of coin and sent him on his way.
Luthien drew the sheets up around her chest when she sat up and leaned into his shoulder after the courier had left.
“What word from Galmar?”
“It is just as I suspected. He says you were an essential asset to him in the battle for Whiterun. He is making his way to our hidden camp in Falkreath, and he could use your talents in the field.” He folded the letter and sighed as he placed it on the bedside table. “He says you and that brother of yours are of no value to him in Windhelm, and wants me to send you to meet with him in Falkreath. I tend to agree, but I suspect you will be of greater use to us with greater freedom. You are free to engage the Imperials as you see fit along the way, but make your way to Galmar in Falkreath. He will have special tasks for you to carry out, and will need your assistance as we liberate our lands from Imperial clutches.”
“And what exactly will I be doing?”
“Whatever Galmar asks of you, and of course, causing as much mayhem for the Empire and any of the jarls who still support them.”
“Understood.” She started to draw the blankets aside. “I’ll leave at once.”
Ulfric reached out to stay her hand. “Are you so eager to return to the battlefield, you’re not even going to say goodbye to your king, or have you grown weary of my affections so quickly?” She shivered under the soft flutter of his lips traveling along her neck and down her bare shoulder.
“Is that what this is between us, my lord?” She tilted her head, allowing his kisses to roll across her skin. “Affection?”
“I am very fond of you,” he murmured. “Are you not fond of me?”
Luthien lifted her hand up to rest against his scarred cheek, fingers bristling through the hair of his neatly-trimmed beard. “I adore you, Ulfric. You are my king.”
“Do you adore me only because I am your king?” There was a hint of sadness in his eyes when he drew back to look at her. “Because I command your affection?”
She closed her eyes, head shaking slowly back and forth. “At first, perhaps I did,” she admitted. “But my heart is so confused. I still…”
“Your heart still yearns for a dead man’s love.” He slid out from behind her and she fell back a little without him there to hold her in place. Righting herself, she sat up, once more drawing the blankets around her naked body, feeling shame and confusion by the quick change in his mood. He was like day and night, that man, kind one moment and cold the next.
He stood bare in the center of the room, his strong arms crossed over his broad chest, scarred back to her as he walked toward the window and stood in front of the tempered glass, staring down at the city below, the tight muscles of his backside flexed. He raised an arm, wide hand resting on the glass, his warm breath stealing out to mist the surface in front of him as he sighed.
“Is it him you think about at night, while you’re in my bed?” His voice was stiffer, distant when he spoke, as if he’d actually become distracted by goings on below. “Do you imagine you are with another man when I’m inside you?”
She could feel her face growing warm with that startled confusion that accompanied accusations. She hadn’t thought about Vilkas while he she was in bed with Ulfric, at least not in the capacity that he was suggesting. There had been guilt, yes, and remorse after that first time, but the second time it had lessened and she even found herself thinking of him when she’d been away. The night before she had let herself go completely. When she’d woke that morning still in his arms, there was no guilt, only that warm safety she’d felt in the arms of a strong man.
“Good,” he pushed away from the window, turning back to look at her. Gods, his eyes were like Skyforge steel, cold and almost silver. “I will not compete with any man, Luthien. Not even a ghost.”
Her throat tightened as she swallowed, looking down at her hands folded atop the blankets in her lap. He made his way toward her again, his large hand reaching down to grip her chin, drawing her gaze to his eyes. It was impossible for her to even guess what he was thinking, though it seemed as if he wanted her to say something, but she didn’t know what.
After a long silence, he knelt and kissed her forehead, lips lingering on her brow as he exhaled another sigh and then withdrew his hand.
“Talos watch over you, Ice-Veins.”
And then he left her. He had dressed in silence, drawing into his feathered cloak and leaving the room without even looking back over his shoulder at her before closing the door behind him.
She didn’t know what had just happened, how they could go from affectionately cuddling against the chill of a cold morning to not even speaking at all. She assumed that was his way of dismissing her, and after she dressed, she made her way down the stairs and passed through the war room into the mead hall. Their gazes met as she walked through the hall with her head held high, but Ulfric didn’t stop her when she swung Wuuthrad over her back and headed out the doors of the palace into the icy morning.
She hadn’t really expected him to, but a part of her wished he would have.
Everything about Ulfric Stormcloak confused and overwhelmed her. She wanted to hate the way his touch felt, to cringe away from him in the darkness and whimper with regret against the pillows afterward, but she didn’t. Instead, she took comfort in his strong arms around her and the constant thrum of his heart inside him when she laid her head upon his chest. And damn her to Oblivion, she had started to grow fond of him, a part of her actually yearning for him whenever she was away from him, the warm comfort she found in his kisses, the feel of his facial hair whispering against her skin as he lowered his cheek against hers.
Standing at the edge of the stairs, she glanced back at the palace behind her, a part of her wanting to run back inside and tell him she was sorry if she’d hurt him, she hadn’t meant to. She could beg him to forgive her… but no. That was probably what he wanted, and for some reason that only served to irritate her more as she remembered his almost mocking reference to her fragile woman’s heart.
She would never beg Ulfric Stormcloak for anything, and if her walking away from him without looking back meant that whatever was going on between them ended right then and there, so be it.
Firm in her resolve, she marched into Candlehearth Hall, pried Farkas from the arms of last night’s lover, and dragged him back onto the road with a renewed sense of vigor in her heart. She’d show Ulfric Stormcloak that while he may have been just a grab away from the throne of the high king, just because he could dispel enemies with the power of his voice and dispatch legions of soldiers with little more than a nod, he had no power over her heart. She had a voice too, and she wouldn’t stifle it to please any man, even if that man was going to be high king one day.
But as they made their way south, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. At first his gaze had felt cruel, but the more she thought on it, the more she realized it was sadness in his eyes when he asked her if she’d thought of another man while he was inside her. The staunch conviction with which he’d informed her that he would never compete with a ghost still haunted her, confusing her heart all the more.
“Nothing,” she insisted, staggering back into him and offering a slow grin she didn’t even really feel.
“Okay, but you’re a liar.”
“A liar,” she laughed, shoving into him again, but barely moving the massive wall of muscle and bone beside her as he braced himself for her weight. “Says you.”
“I might not be the smartest man alive, but I know you, and I know when something’s bothering you.”
“Who says you’re not the smartest man alive? Not me, I’d never say that.”
“Only because you love me, but really, Lu. Something’s wrong. I can feel it. It doesn’t have anything to Ulfric Stormcloak, does it?”
“Ulfric who?” she tried to laugh it off, but knew that no matter how she tried, she’d never been able to pull the wool over Farkas’s eyes.
He seemed to know what she was feeling sometimes when even she hadn’t come to terms with her own emotions, and as much as she hated it, it felt good knowing she had someone like that in her life. On the other hand, it did make it hard for her to hide things from him. She knew they were going to have the conversation they were having sooner or later. Better sooner than later, when it had already gone too far for her to hide it anymore.
Truth be told, she’d been afraid of how he might react once he found she’d been healing her broken heart with another man just a handful of months after his brother had left them.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice how fast you disappeared into the palace once we get back to the city, sleeping there in the so-called guest room after late night strategizing… Is there something going on between you and Ulfric I should know about? Are you secretly plotting to do more than just overthrow the Empire together?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, or you just don’t want to talk about it?”
She started to open her mouth, but no words came out, and that was fine because he was already talking again.
“Like I said, I’m not stupid… Sleeping in one of his guest rooms my ass. I just need to know he’s not… taking advantage of you, because king or no, I’ll kill any man who lays a finger on you without your permission.”
“And if I gave him permission?”
His eyes widened a little, as if he hadn’t been expecting that answer and for a moment she saw the hurt she’d been expecting flash in his gaze. “Then I guess I have to keep my hands to myself.”
“I’m really confused right now, Farkas.”
“And with good reason. You lost your husband, Luthien. Vilkas was everything to you, and as much as I hate that he’s gone, I know he wouldn’t want you to be alone. Not with all the things you have to carry around. You need someone to share those burdens with.”
“I don’t think he would have wanted me to share myself or my burdens with a man like Ulfric Stormcloak.”
“Maybe not,” he shrugged. “But if you found it in your heart to share something with him, he must not be all bad.”
“I guess not,” she shrugged, a part of her feeling a little relieved that she at least had someone to talk to about what was going on. Holding it all inside her had been killing her. “I just don’t know if I’m ready to give my heart to someone else, if I’ll ever be ready again. Last time, it was like Vilkas and I fought so hard to hold each other at bay all that time. Like the gods were trying to tell us something all along. Beware, beware! This love is doomed. This time, it feels like they’re pushing me into Ulfric, and try as I might to resist it, we… fit. I don’t even know how to explain it. I don’t know if I even trust half of what he says, and yet I find myself melting the minute he opens his mouth and starts speaking.”
“You always did have a thing for talkers. I mean, no offense, and may the gods strike me where I stand for even saying this, but sometimes when Ulfric talks, it reminds me of Vilkas. He has something… I don’t know.”
“I was thinking ego, but okay. You of all people should remember how much Vilkas liked to brag. I think I’ve killed just about one of every creature in Skyrim… blah, blah, blah…”
Her elbow found his side again, and he doubled over in mock agony. It was good that they were finding it in their hearts to fondly remember Vilkas, but the wound of Ulfric’s cruelty still ached in her heart.
As he straightened himself, tugging at the frayed edges of his uniform, he went on in a more serious tone than he was prone to using.
“Life is too short to spend it alone, Lu, especially in our line of work. Dragons, rogue wizards, war… You carry a heavy weight on your shoulders, and even though I’m pretty sure Vilkas would rather you have spent your days sharing those burdens with him, he’s not with us anymore. If you’ve taken comfort in Ulfric’s… whatever… I guess what I’m saying is if he’s helped you let go of some of the pain you carry around inside you, then isn’t that a good thing?”
They walked a little ways, neither of them saying anything while they mulled over that bit of rare wisdom. Farkas finally broke the silence, nudging into her again and knocking her off balance.
“Just think, maybe someday you’ll be High Queen of Skyrim, and you can grant me land and titles and make me so rich I can sit around getting fat in my hall with my wife and concubines, drinking mead and telling stories to all my children of the good old days when dragons flew the skies and good old Auntie Lu the Queen kicked their asses straight to Oblivion.”
“Concubines, Farkas?” She snorted laughter. “Really?”
“As if one woman could ever be enough for the mighty Farkas.” He held up his arms in triumphant stance. “Of course, there was one woman once who could have tamed the wild beast and made him settle down, but she was always looking elsewhere when he was looking at her. She never even saw him.”
“Here we go again…” She rolled her eyes, shouldered into him hard, and that time he let her stagger him, the two of them laughing until the distant roar of dragon fire drew them from their merriment and focused their sights on the sky ahead.
*Note: Yeah, this post is chock full of gratuitous Ulfric chest. I know.