Ralof’s jealous sorrows didn’t linger with her long. There were more dragons on the road, two of them to be exact, which lengthened their journey back to Windhelm by more than a day. She was grateful for the distraction, a part of her remembering that she did have greater purpose beyond the war, and hoping things started moving more quickly so she could get back to that purpose before it was too late.
It seemed the dragon attacks were only growing more frequent and powerful, a day hardly passing without the shadow of broad wings spanning across the sky.
Or maybe she’d gone looking for those dragons in the sky, a part of her realizing that she was dragging out their return so she didn’t have to face Ulfric. She didn’t know why, but she was worried he wouldn’t be happy to see her, even though she brought him good news. But she was afraid. Afraid that when she stood at his door, he wouldn’t even invite her inside, ask her to fall into his arms and keep him warm against the night’s chill.
From the city gates her gaze immediately fell on the light in the tower of the Palace of the Kings, every muscle in her stomach as tight as a fist as soft flakes of falling snow fluttered across her face.
“Loud and clear,” she nodded, following him as he started ahead toward the inn.
She waited until he disappeared through the front doors, then gathered her courage and made her way toward the palace. Stopping at the gates, she lifted her gaze to the tower and saw the orange glow of the fire in Ulfric’s rooms. Why was it always night in Windhelm, always snowing? Soft, heavy flakes drifted past her face, landed on her lashes and melted down her cheeks like tears when she blinked. Drawing in a deep breath, she picked up her feet and marched toward the doors, ready to face whatever awaited her within the Palace of the Kings.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” the guard at the doors said as she approached. “Maybe I’m the Dragonborn, and I just don’t know it yet.”
She laughed, passing through the doors and calling back over her shoulder, “You never know, but even if you’re not, I imagine your arrows would do just as well against one of them should you cross a dragon’s path.”
Beneath his helmet, he laughed as he was closing the door behind her. “You think?”
The hall was quiet, Jorleif sitting at the end of the table near the empty throne enjoying a flagon of mead as he leafed through a book in front of him. “I’m looking for Ulfric,” she told him, as if she didn’t know where to find him.
“He’s waiting for you in his quarters.” Jorleif didn’t even look up from his book.
She looked toward the war room apprehensively, considering whether or not she should ask Jorleif what kind of mood the jarl was in, but then thought better of it. Swallowing her fear, she made the long walk up the stairs until she stood outside his closed door, hands wringing at her waist.
He opened the door before she could lift her hand to knock, startling her.
She stepped up the last stair and Ulfric closed the door behind her, immediately reaching for her and drawing her against his chest. His mouth found hers, the rough hairs of his beard bristling across her skin as he devoured her kiss, gripping her so tight in his hands she could feel her skin bruise beneath his fingertips. Her gasp of surprise only served to pull him in deeper and her emotions went into overdrive, confusion mingling with doubt and fear and want, so much want that she couldn’t hold it in anymore.
He was already undressing her, peeling away the layers of her armor, still kissing her with such hunger it made her ache as he walked her backwards to the bed and threw her down in front of him. He took her without words, but none were needed. Ulfric was a man who spoke with actions, those actions spoke louder than words ever could, the passion inside him so strong she thought it would consume them both where they writhed.
And she would have let it.
She’d never expected to know that powerful emotion again, but she could feel it swelling inside her and she wasn’t going to fight it. She’d fought it the first time, with Vilkas, denying it was there until it was almost too late. With Ulfric, she would let it grow and flourish and cherish it as long as it lasted because she had taken it for granted once, had let it slip through her fingers and she would never let that happen again.
Farkas was right; life was too short, and even though she’d lost love once, she was one of the lucky few to find it again. She wasn’t going to let it go so easily this time. She would hold his heart tight in her fist if she had to.
“I do care for you,” she said. “And I’m sorry if I hurt you before.”
“It was I who was cruel,” he murmured, his chin resting atop her head as he lifted his arm across her back to draw her closer. “I said things I never should have said because I learned long ago that striking first was one way to guarantee I didn’t get hurt.”
She started to lift her head to look down at him, his eyes soft in the light of the fire when she met his gaze. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to lie to you either.”
“Still…” He lifted his hand against her cheek, the backs of his fingers stroking downward until he reached her chin. “I never should have said those things about your husband. They were cruel.”
“He will always live in my heart, and my love for him will never die,” she said, a small flicker of fear in her at speaking so boldly, but she knew she had to. If she wanted to keep Ulfric, she would have to be strong with him, show him she was not afraid of him or anything else. “But my heart is a very big place, Ulfric, and you are in it.”
He was quiet for a time after she said those words, as if he mulling them over in his mind. The tips of his fingers danced along her back, stroking gently up and down.
“I was an only child, my father’s only son,” he said thoughtfully. “I never wanted for anything, my mother and father saw to that, and I never had to share. Even now, Galmar sometimes teases me because I never learned the meaning of the word no… He is the only one who has ever dared to tell me to my face I was spoiled. Had you come to me straight from Helgen, you would have been mine first, and I would have had you to myself. Perhaps that is cruel as well, but that thought unnerves me.”
“Or perhaps had I come to you then, you would not have wanted me at all,” she suggested, not ever wanting to imagine a life in which Vilkas hadn’t been a part of her. “I was so much younger then, so green and naïve. The only thing I knew of swords was that the pointed end was for killing.” That made him laugh, a sound she realized she hadn’t heard before. “I hadn’t even learned I was Dragonborn.”
“You said when you were last here you didn’t understand your path,” he began, “and like a selfish boy, I sought to hold you here with me because you have proven yourself a valuable asset to my war.”
“Is that the only reason you hold me here with you?”
“Not entirely. I spoke true when I told you I have a great fondness for you, and I meant what I said about protecting you from the dangers of the world. I would hold you in a ball of glass if I thought it would keep you safe, but then what kind of king would I be to hold back the only force in our land powerful enough to bring dragons to their knees?”
“A king who followed his heart…”
“You speak with your woman’s heart, and it is a language that is new to my ears.” He drew her head back to his chest. “I have had women, more than my share of them, but I have been a soldier as long as I can remember and war has been my only mistress.” She closed her eyes, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart inside him. “But I am not a young man anymore, Luthien. I have seen forty-two years, more of them filled with fighting and war than I care to recall, and war may keep a man’s land and home, but she is a cruel mistress and her arms are cold.”
“I will keep you warm,” she murmured, her soft lips moving across his skin.
“I have no family but the men who carry my banners, no sons to carry on my name. Even if I wrench Skyrim from the hands of the Empire, I cannot hold onto it alone. A kingdom needs a queen, both fair and strong, who speaks with a woman’s heart and makes her king listen.” His long fingers stroked through her hair, chin gently moving across the top of her head. “Speak to my heart, Luthien. I am listening.”
“Do you really want to win this war, Ulfric?”
“That seems a rather tedious question.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed, “but the men out in your camps, the men you call your only family, they are tired and little by little, they lose hope. With their hope gone, they lose their vigor, their lust for battle and their belief in you begins to wane. Many of those men have been out in the field for years, away from their homes, their family, brother fighting brother for a cause they don’t even understand anymore.”
“Then they have lost their way…” he started to protest, but Luthien propped herself up beside him and put a fingertip over his lips to quiet him. He was so stunned by the gesture, he actually grew silent, his eyes cold, but curious as he stared up at her in the fire lit room.
“Help them find it again, Ulfric. They call themselves Stormcloaks because they love you. Make a few appearances in the camps, talk to your men, show them you truly care about them and not just because they fight your war for you, but because they are your brothers and sisters and you are their true king. Show them you care about Skyrim and its people, and that you’re not only in this for the power of a crown and they will follow you wherever you lead them.”
He sat up, shouldering past her as he drew the heavy blankets from his naked body and stood. He walked toward the fire behind the bed and stood in front of it, holding his hands out to feel its warmth. He stroked his beard, fingers lingering at the edges. Luthien watched him, contemplating, playing her words over and over in his mind. The shadows played across his broad, scarred back, the fire’s light casting him across the room like a giant.
“I’ve heard your love for this land in your voice every time you speak of her, but the people have doubts about that love. They say you only care for power and the crown, that when all is said and done they will all be crushed beneath the weight of this fool’s war. But you do care about Skyrim, Ulfric. I know you do.”
“Of course I care about Skyrim. Her blood runs through my veins,” he raised his voice, crossing his arms over his chest, fingers rubbing the taut muscles as if he was cold. “This land was my first true love…”
“Then show her you still love her, Ulfric.”
Turning to look back at her over his shoulder, she saw something in him then. Admiration, respect, she wasn’t sure, but he was smiling as he started back toward the bed. “You speak to me like a true queen and daughter of Skyrim.” He reached out and touched her face, his eyes like molten steel boring into her soul. “I would be a fool not to listen to your council, and an even greater fool not take you as my wife.” Ulfric walked around and knelt beside the bed taking her hand in his and lowering his head almost submissively. “We could do such things together, you and me. Shatter the Empire, restore our homeland to its former glory, bring dragons screaming to their knees. Stand beside me as my queen, Luthien.”
She lifted her hand to rest over his on her cheek, nuzzling her face into his deep palm and closing her eyes. Even when Farkas had joked about it, she had never actually entertained the thought that her affair with Ulfric could lead her to a throne. She tried not to let it all go to her head, but it was a dizzying notion as she realized that marrying Ulfric Stormcloak would make her one of the most powerful women in Skyrim. She was sure he’d thought the same thing, that wedding the Dragonborn was a powerful strategy for a potential king to gain an even tighter grip on the land.
But if they could remove both the Empire and the dragons from Skyrim together… it would be a beautiful thing. They would know peace again as they returned to their roots and traditions, restoring Skyrim to its original glory.
She would have to continue to speak to him with her woman’s heart, and hope he listened, growing to love her as she came to love him in time. Otherwise, all of Skyrim would suffer as Markharth had suffered when Ulfric rooted out the Forsworn and she would have no one to blame but herself.