She cursed the moons as she walked through the gates of Windhelm, parting ways with Farkas and Ralof, who were headed into Candlehearth Hall to see who could win over more ladies with their feats of strength and valor. Luthien found herself standing in front of the Palace of the Kings aloone, soft flakes of white snow drifting down from the heavy clouds that seemed to hover just above the highest window of the palace. They fell upon her upturned face like frigid kisses, and for a moment she closed her eyes and let them touch her.
Why was she always returning from some task in the dead of night? Even more confusing was why she didn’t just walk away and come back at morning’s light. It was as if some part of her wanted to find Ulfric in his rooms, relaxing against the pillows, shirtless and waiting for her to climb into bed with him.
She made her way through the main hall, turning left into the war room and heading up the long stairs that led to Ulfric’s bedroom. His door was open when she approached, and he’d heard her footsteps just before she arrived, rising from the table where he’d been reading to walk to the door and meet her.
“We have taken Whiterun hold.” She stopped on the top stair just outside the door, feeling so small and vulnerable under his shadow.
“Come, tell me of the battle.” Holding out his hand to her, she took it and he drew her into his chamber, closing the door behind her and walking her toward the table. He poured her a drink and then one for himself and sat down in the chair across from her. He listened carefully as she told him how the battle went, asking few questions, but absorbing every word she spoke as if he were trying to imagine himself there, fighting among his men.
When she finished, he leaned back in his chair, fingers curled around his mead as he nodded approval and contemplated a little while longer before finally speaking.
“We’ve driven the Imperials out of Whiterun. This is good. Very good. We now control the center. It is a very powerful position. One I aim to keep,” he admitted. “We have in our possession one of the most powerful holds in the middle of Skyrim, but you seem troubled. What weighs so heavy on your mind?”
Luthien shook her head. “It is nothing.”
Reaching out, he lifted her chin so she had no choice but to look into his eyes. “Tell me what troubles you.”
“I just… some of the men in Whiterun… the guards, the people, they were my friends, people I’d known for years.”
“Your heart is heavy with grief for your fallen brothers, that is understandable, but they made their choices, just as you have made yours.” Ulfric withdrew his hand and rose from the chair, walking across the room. “You are a true Nord, a daughter of Skyrim. The thick blood of this land runs through you, has seeped into the fires of your heart. I shall call you Ice-Veins now.”
Luthien watched him kneel before the chest resting at the foot of his bed. He unlocked it, took out a sword and walked toward her, holding it out. “Here,” he said. “I want you to have this.”
Luthien reached out and gripped the hilt, drawing the sword close and inspecting it in the light of the fire. It was dwarven in make, and she could feel the magic in it pulsing against her skin.
“Thank you, my lord.” She looked up at him, saw the tight corners of his full mouth move into a gesture of warmth. She looked back down at the blade in her hand.
His hand came down to rest beneath her chin, lifting her gaze back to his again. She could almost see her own reflection in his eyes, or perhaps she was only seeing things in him she wanted to see in him. Strength fueled by sorrow, the will to go on even when it felt like there was nothing left worth fighting for. Ulfric had said the blood of the land ran through her veins. Maybe she just needed to accept that, align herself with the fact that she’d chosen her side, and be content with that.
Vilkas had once told her that the Civil War was a fool’s war without purpose, that he needed a reason to draw his blade and neither the Stormcloaks or the Imperials had one strong enough to entice him into battle, but Luthien had more reasons than she could count on both hands. The Imperials had killed her father, her lover… Talos was her god, the warrior’s god, and the fact that the Empire was trying to stifle Talos worship was going too far. The Thalmor were an even greater threat, the ones behind the ban, and the Empire was suckling at the teat of the Aldmeri Dominion, who wanted nothing more than to see them all exterminated. Ulfric had said as much, and perhaps he was true. Perhaps the Thalmor would crush her like a bug between their fingers simply because she was the Dragonborn, and she needed to stand up and fight against that kind of oppression.
“This was an Imperial officer’s sword, a fitting weapon to use against our enemy, don’t you think?” Ulfric drew her from her contemplation.
“Yes,” she agreed, tightening her fingers around the hilt. “What is our next move against the Empire?”
Ulfic’s deep, melodious laughter warmed her and he dropped his hand from her chin down to rest over her wrist. “The ice in your veins makes you eager to spill more Imperial blood, but tonight I wish to celebrate our victory.”
Luthien glanced toward the bed, then lifted her eyes back to his, knowing the manner of celebration he had in mind. That time, instead of protesting and telling him she couldn’t, she rose from her chair, lowering the sword he’d given her to the table and reaching up to unbutton the straps of her cuirass. Ulfric’s eyes widened, their fire igniting with lust and fever as he watched her undress before him.
“There may be ice in my veins,” she said, walking toward him and reaching up to unhook the broach that held his cloak at his neck. She peeled away the heavy feathered cloak, turning to lay it over the back of the chair behind her. “But you were right about the fire in my heart.” She stepped up to him, rose onto the tips of her toes and brushed her soft mouth against his. He opened himself to her, sweeping her close into his chest and allowing her fire to consume him.
She let go of her guilt and her apprehension and allowed everything land where it fell. Ulfric had never forced her into his bed; she’d made the choice to go willingly. Fueled by victory and her willingness to take the lead, his passion was stronger that night than it had ever been before. At times, she thought she might break beneath him, and then she would take control again, driving him onto his back and claiming him for herself.
Her vigor and dominance surprised him, but it was a surprise he answered with a few unexpected twists of his own that made her cry out in rapture, her arms circling tight around his neck as she felt his body tighten with release, his heat rushing through her.
He fell back into the bed, drawing her with him and laying her across his chest. The silence they shared then spoke louder than any words either of them could have ever said. She felt safe, as safe as she once had in the arms of her husband, as if nothing in the world could touch her as long as Ulfric had his arms around her. Not even Ulfric himself… But she knew safety was a false illusion. No matter how safe she’d felt with Vilkas, he still hadn’t been able to protect her from the pain of his own death.
Still, it was an illusion she allowed herself to sink into for the time being.
Content, she felt herself drifting into sleep and then his soft, deep voice startled her from the cottony edges and drew her awake. What startled her even more was that when he started to speak, it was as if he’d read her thoughts like she’d spoken them aloud.
“It is dangerous out there.” He moved his chin across the top of her head, his beard whispering through her hair. “Would that I could hold you here in my arms forever to keep you safe from the world, but I know that not even my arms are strong enough to protect you from the things you must face. Your destiny lies beyond these walls, beyond my war… Why do you not follow it?”
“I don’t know if I’m ready.” She shuddered under the smooth tips of his fingers tracing down the length of her spine. “I studied with the Greybeards and went to the Mage’s College, but even as I learned more, it was like I was always putting it off. Master Arngeir says there is nothing more they can teach me until I am ready to move forward, but I don’t even know where I am supposed to go.”
He said nothing, only listened, continuing to stroke her skin in the dark.
“There was a woman once in Riverwood, she thought the Thalmor were behind the return of the dragons. She thought we could help each other, but I never went back there.”
“I didn’t trust her. Her means of bringing me to her were false. When I asked the Greybeards about her, they didn’t seem to know who she was either.”
“There are some who say I brought the dragons back,” Ulfric chuckled to himself. “That the power of my Thu’um when I challenged Torygg summoned that dragon to Helgen that day to save my skin.” She lifted her head to look at him, the edges of his mouth curling into a slow smile. “If only that had been true. Imagine the things I could do with dragons at my beck and call.”
Luthien didn’t want to imagine the things he could do with such power. She had a feeling he wouldn’t stop once he ruled Skyrim, but would go on fighting until he held all of Tamriel in the palm of his hand. “Do you think it could be the Thalmor?”
“Perhaps you should return to Riverwood and find out who this woman is, what she knows,” he drew his hand away, fingers disappearing into his hair as he brushed it back from his face. “After the war, of course. You’ve proven yourself far too valuable to me now for me to let you go.”
Luthien lifted her head and looked down at him. His grey eyes were soft. “How am I valuable to you? I did nothing more than the other soldiers in your army.”
Ulfric lifted his hand, his broad palm spanning her cheek, long fingers sweeping into the braided hair at her cheek. “You are the only one who warms my bed.”
“And who warms your bed when I’m off fighting your war?” She’d told herself she didn’t care, that he meant nothing to her, but she could feel the nervous tension in her gut as she waited for his answer.
He leaned upward, his heavy kiss stealing into hers as he whispered across her mouth, “I sleep alone.”
Luthien let that kiss overpower her, Ulfric rising into her, maneuvering her back into the bed and falling in above her to quickly show her everything he’d held back in her absence. And when he’d finally finished proving himself to her, she was so exhausted she fell asleep curled up in his arms before she even caught her breath.