It was four days march to the hidden Stormcloak camp in the foothills to the east above Helgen, which she could see the ruins of from the top of the mountain the morning they arrived. She thought of Ulfric often, wondering if that wordless farewell had been their last, if he even thought of her at all once she’d left the palace and headed back out into the world to fight his war for him.
As they’d passed through Riverwood, she found her gaze drawing back to the Sleeping Giant Inn, remembering the conversation they’d shared in the dark, quiet hours after, his strong arms around her, holding the world and its troubles at bay.
She wondered if the woman, Delphine, was still there, or if she’d given up on the Dragonborn. Maybe she’d finally been taken by the Thalmor. That would have been a damn shame. The woman may have been underhanded in her dealings, but she didn’t deserve what the Thalmor had to offer her. No one did.
Maybe she should go back there one day, as Ulfric had said, but that day was not the day. Instead, she hiked the foothills until they came upon the hidden camp and moved through soldiers huddled around the fire. Under the current of voices, she heard them all muttering about how they were cold, tired, hungry. They hadn’t signed up to sit around and were ready for more fighting, to ride the storm of war to its heights and crash down upon the Empire with screaming vengeance.
Galmar greeted her with open arms, mentioning he was glad to finally have someone who didn’t bellyache when something needed done. “You’d think I was watching over a legion of milk-drinkers crying for their mothers’ teets.”
He sent Farkas out to fetch them some mead, and Luthien sat down in the war tent, pulling off her helmet and shaking her hair loose.
“Took you long enough to get here, girl,” Galmar jested. “I thought I was going to have fight this gods damned war by myself.”
“We got here as quickly as we could,” she assured him. “Ulfric told me to take my time, roam free if I needed to and wreak as much havoc against the Imperials as I could along the way. We came upon a dragon on our way that took a bit of time to take care of, but then we came straight to you.”
“Sounds like Ulfric knows where your talents lie best,” he shrugged. “You have a particular talent for more delicate work, and those talents may eventually come in handy, but the job I have for you this time isn’t so glamorous.”
“We need to take Fort Neugrad into our possession. It’s a strategic gem,” he growled. “Not only is the fort a valuable asset to our campaign to liberate Falkreath, but they’re holding a few of our boys hostage. I want you and a small dispatch of soldiers to sneak in under cover of darkness, just around the time the guard changes. They are fools, who put their best soldiers to bed at night, and that’s when we’ll attack. I need you to get into the prison and free our boys. I imagine they’ll be more than ready to strap on their swords and make that fort ours after the hell they’ve been through in there.”
“All right,” she nodded. “I’ll get it done.”
“I knew I could count on you.”
She leaned back in her chair and lowered her head along the shoulders of her armor, stretching the muscles of her neck. While Galmar mapped out the grounds of the fort for her, she listened and strategized in her head. She would have to enter the fort from an underground tunnel, sneaking into the prison and setting the soldiers free before the guards even knew what hit them.
“And leave this lummox outside,” Galmar nodded to Farkas, taking the mead he’d brought them. “He may be brilliant with a warhammer, but I’ve got a feeling he’s not one for stealth and shadows.”
“I can sneak with the best of ‘em,” Farkas grumbled. “Where are we going?”
“To liberate Fort Neugrad,” Luthien explained. “They’re holding some of our soldiers captive.”
“All right then. When do we leave.”
“First take some rest, fill your bellies. I hear rabbit’s on the menu again,” Galmar’s gruff laugh echoed through the tent. “You’ve been traveling four days, and I’ll need you both in perfect form if we’re going to pull this off. It’s about an hour to the fort from here. Just after sunset, I’ll send you down to meet with the men I have camped in the trees outside the fort. Take command of them if you have to, they are at your disposal.”
“I won’t let you down,” Luthien assured him.
“Good. Now off with you. Report back to me when you’ve taken over the fort.”
They found two empty bedrolls behind the war tent and rested their weary bones for a spell before rising and milling about the camp talking to the other soldiers. The encampment was a dismal place, most of the soldiers barely clinging to hope anymore that the war would ever end, much less actually start. None of them had been at the battle for Whiterun, and surveyed Luthien and Farkas with envious gazes when they heard of the glorious fight they’d endured there as they battered Jarl Balgruuf to his knees until he surrendered his palace and his city to the newly appointed Stormcloak affiliated Jarl Vignar Grey-Mane.
“At least you’ve seen actual battle. I’ve been on so many small raids, it barely even feels like I’m at war,” one man lamented.
“It is those small raids that bring us all glory right now, and they keep the Imperials guessing.” Luthien rested a hand on his shoulder. “Soon enough, we’ll all know the glories and hardships of greater battles.”
“I hope you’re right.”
It was easy enough to say that sort of thing out loud, but after meeting with the men just above Fort Neugrad and telling them the plan, she had a harder time feeling it as she crept into the icy waters behind the fort alone. Even as she’d struggled through the battle at Whiterun, with her morals and her values, at least there she had been fueled by the fire of battle… and she’d been warm.
Finding the underground entrance that led to the prison hadn’t been easy, but as she dropped down into the tunnel she was proud she’d done it the way Galmar suggested. She snuck through the tunnels and came up into the stockroom, surveying the situation before taking action. There was only one guard watching over the prisoners, and as he lifted his hand to cover a yawn, she knew this job was going to be easier than she’d imagined.
She quietly drew the dwarven blade Ulfric had given her when she returned from Whiterun and snuck in behind him. One of the prisoners spotted her and started to rise with intrigue, but she lifted a finger to her lips in a gesture of silence and he sat back down to wait. The guard didn’t even know what hit him. Her forearm strapped across his forehead, she drew back his head and slit his throat, listening to the sound of his gurgling, gasping breath as struggled against death. The warmth of his blood flooded over her arm, seeping in through her gauntlets until metal and leather stuck to her skin.
She let him drop to the floor with a heavy thud, then bent to swipe the keys from his belt. The soldiers clung to their bars, eagerly waiting for her to set them free so they could take up their swords and give payback to the men who’d taken them captive.
“What’s going on?”
“The Stone-Fist sent us. There are a handful of men outside waiting for my signal. We’re taking the fort for Ulfric.”
“I thought we were going to die in here,” one man said as she opened his door.
“The only people dying tonight are the Imperial dogs upstairs,” she assured him, seeing the fire of excitement flare to life in his eyes. “Take whatever weapons you can find along the way and let’s show those bastards what true Nords are made of.”
She couldn’t stop the sound of their cheers from rising up the stairs before they did, but only a few of the soldiers in the main hall were alerted to their coming and they caught them off guard, hacking their way through like a pack of hungry wolves that needed to feed.
Luthien unleashed a battle-cry to let the men outside know they were attacking, and soon the fort rang with the sounds of clanging steel and cries of furious protest and triumph. The Imperials at Fort Neugrad never even knew what hit them; half the soldiers died without honor in their beds, their faces twisted in protest and surprise as blades twisted into their hearts and bellies, their blood painting the walls red.
She caught a glimpse of Farkas over her shoulder, roaring furiously through three attacking Imperial soldiers, who he wiped out with one mighty, leftward arc of his warhammer. They staggered backward, stumbling and falling into each other, and Luthien rushed in to take out the one closest to her, as Farkas drew his hammer back and brought it down so hard it shattered the soldier’s face into an unrecognizable cavern of bloodied bone and grey matter. She felt blood spatter against her armor and exposed skin, but ignored it as they moved onto the next foe that awaited them.
They tripped over bodies on their way to the last room, some of them Stormcloaks, but most of them donning red and gold Imperial armor smeared in blood. The stench of death was almost overpowering, but she swallowed her urge to wretch and battered open the locked door with Wuuthrad to make her way inside. The captain was scribbling furiously at his desk, as if in his final moments he needed to get his thoughts out and not even death standing at his back would deter him.
“We’re taking your fort,” she announced, lifting her axe. When she brought it down, it sunk deep into his shoulder, spraying blood across the table and his last, desperate missive. She wrenched it free with a growl, almost losing her balance when it came free, but a swift hand moved in behind her to catch her from falling.
“I’ve got your back,” Ralof said.
She spun around at the sound of his voice, lowering her axe. “Ralof, I thought you were still in Windhelm.”
“Nice of you two to wait for me,” he chuckled. “Ulfric sent me back into the field as soon as I went to see him. Apparently I arrived just after you two left the camp. The general wanted me to come down and make sure you didn’t need my help. It seems I got here just in the nick of time to save your asses.”
“Galmar wants me to stick around here a bit, tidy up the mess you heathens made.”
“Do you need any help?”
“Of course I’ll need help. This place is a mess.” There was an edge to his tone she didn’t like. “But I’m not going to get it from you. Galmar says you’re to report back to Ulfric as soon as the fort’s been secured, let him know we now hold Falkreath.”
“I’ll head out at once.”
“You know the funny thing,” Ralof was saying as she made her way past him through the door. “I don’t think Galmar even knows my name. Four years I’ve served under him, carried out his orders and done his bidding, and he still calls me you boy.” She glanced back over her shoulder at him, caught a hint of bitterness in his gaze.
“He just calls me girl.” She shrugged.
“Not when he talks about you, but I guess I’m not important enough to remember. I’m just another disposable body, but not you.” He sighed, such confusion in his tone as he added, “You’re the Dragonborn.”
“You think being the Dragonborn makes me a better soldier than you in Galmar’s eyes?” She stopped in front of Farkas, turning her narrowed gaze back over her shoulder to look at him. “Perhaps you should spend more time bloodying your sword and proving yourself than complaining.”
Pushing past Farkas, she made her way out of the fort, stopping to celebrate with her fellow soldiers as she passed through. “Bone-Breaker!” a soldier she’d set free from the prisons called out as he ran up to offer her a flagon of mead to quench her thirst. “Smashing the backbone of the Imperial army with her mighty war axe!”
“If it hadn’t been for you, we’d all probably be dead by now,” said a second soldier she’d uncaged from the prison.
“When I saw her slit that Imperial’s throat, my hope was renewed.” Another said, clapping her on the back. “And I swear, when she drew that axe from her back and knocked back the guards with such fury, it inspired me to fight.”
“Bone-Breaker!” They gathered around her, lifting the spirit Ralof had tried to break, but over her shoulder she caught a glimpse of him holding his helmet in his hands, that same sad look haunting his gaze.