Ulfric did not want to wait until after the war to marry, but he also knew that announcing their plans would do little more than make her an even brighter target for the Thalmor and the Empire to set their sights on—an easy avenue to Ulfric himself. They would marry in secret, and loathe as he was to send her back out into the field and away to fight his war, they would continue on as they were until the last battle was fought.
She didn’t like keeping secrets from Farkas, but her king forbid her from telling her shield-brother where they were headed, sending him ahead to the Stormcloak camp in The Reach alone. She hated letting him go off into the field without her, a part of her feeling like she was betraying Vilkas’s last wish when Farkas tilted his head to make sure she really wanted him to go on without her for the time being. It was as if he looked back at her with his brother’s sad eyes, but he relented without a fight.
After they embraced, she watched him depart from Windhelm, tears burning in her eyes, but they didn’t fall until Ulfric stepped up behind her and laid a hand to rest on her shoulder. “He will be fine. Your brother is a good, strong warrior. Talos will watch over him.”
Swallowing, Luthien didn’t draw her blurred gaze from the closed gates, but nodded and said, “I know.”
They rode for Riften just after sunset, the two of them traveling alone under cover of darkness to avoid drawing attention themselves. Ulfric wore a hooded cowl and spoke to no one they encountered on the way, for fear he would be recognized, but when they arrived in Riften in the dead of night two days later, he had no choice but to reveal himself to Maramal in the temple.
Rousing the man from sleep, he looked between the two of them with wary eyes as he pushed up from the comfort of his bed and began asking questions. “What is the meaning of this? Have you no respect?”
“We wish to be wed right away.” Ulfric drew away his hood, shaking free loose the ginger locks of his hair, his strong gaze lowering over the priest, who recognized him at once.
“Jarl Ulfric, I apologize. I didn’t recognize you. Under the circumstances, I would think you would rather wed your lady in a much grander ceremony, at your palace perhaps? I can begin making arrangements…”
“As much as it displeases me that I cannot give her a wedding fit for a queen, there is no time for grander ceremonies, and we require discretion on this matter. I am willing to make a very generous donation to your temple if you perform the ceremony quickly and quietly.”
“Very generous.” Ulfric lifted a heavy bag of gold Septims, the priests eyes widening with intrigue.
“I’ll begin the preparations at once.”
“Good,” he nodded. “And if you manage to keep your lips together until the war is over, when I am High King, my queen and I will make yearly donations to Mara that will guarantee those in her service never want for anything.”
Maramal nodded understanding and led them out into the temple. He locked the doors and motioned for them to join him before the altar. Ulfric took his position at her right, reaching over to grab her hand in his as the priest began to speak. She hadn’t ever expected to stand in the Temple of Mara again, at least not for the reason she was there.
Glancing down at their hands together, she felt a strange chill move through her, her heart racing as the weight of the choice she was about to make began to sink in and Maramal began to speak.
“It was Mara who first gave birth to all of creation and pledged to watch over us as her children. It is from her love of us that we first learned to love one another. It is from this love that we learned that life lived alone is no life at all.”
She remembered those words as if he’d spoken them to her only yesterday, Vilkas standing at her side, eagerly rocking on his heels, grinning at her as if he couldn’t wait for the priest to finish speaking so their life together, the real adventure, could truly begin.
She glanced sidelong at Ulfric, his focus was so strong it was as if the words Maramal spoke were the most important words he’d ever heard, but when he felt her gaze he tightened his grip on her fingers and met her eyes. She remembered that Vilkas had been trembling during the ceremony, with excitement so strong he could barely contain himself. Ulfric’s hands were steady, his palm and fingers dry as he prepared to take a lifelong vow with the same bold conviction he seemed to tackle everything else in his path.
“We gather here today under Mara’s loving gaze to bear witness to the union of two souls in eternal companionship. May they journey forth together in this life and in the next, in prosperity and poverty and in joy and hardship. Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, do you agree to be bound in love, now and forever?”
Ulfric turned to her, the steel of his eyes cutting straight through her heart, making her forget her sorrow and regret that her family wasn’t there with her. Ulfric was her family now. He may not have even said the words yet, but there was love in him; she could feel it. Over time it would grow, and they would come to know more than the physical bonds that held a man and a woman together. He would love her as fiercely as he loved his land and his people; he would love her with all of his heart and soul. She would make sure of it.
“I do.” His eyes didn’t falter from hers when he spoke the words. “Now and forever.”
“And do you, Luthien of Winterhold agree to be bound in love, now and forever?”
Luthien swallowed hard, her head nodding as she repeated the vows. “I do. Now and forever.”
“Under the authority of Mara, the Divine of Love, I declare you to be wed. I present the two of you with these matching rings blessed by Mara’s divine grace. May they protect each of you in your new life together.”
Neither of them heard the last part of his speech. Ulfric drew her into his arms and kissed her so fiercely it made her knees shake.
As Maramal hoisted the heavy sack of gold from the table, he guaranteed them that their secret would remain safe in Mara’s temple until they were ready to share it with the world. Luthien didn’t know how long that would be. Months, years before the war was over, but she didn’t care. They were married in Mara’s eyes, and for some reason that was all that seemed to matter.
As they moved among the quiet, dirty streets of Riften, Ulfric hid once more beneath his cowl until they were well beyond the gates and watching the cold sun rise over the mountains in the east.
They’d barely spoken since leaving the city, but from time to time their eyes met on the road and he was smiling, a rare sight she hadn’t often seen since she’d come to know him. It warmed her heart, and made her body long for his, but they had a long road ahead before they reached their marriage bed.
“I do regret that I could not give you a grand ceremony befitting a true High Queen.” He reached across the space between them and stroked her cheek. “I would have liked to have seen you come to me at the altar dressed in blue silk, with golden flowers in your hair that brought out the light in your eyes.”
“Ulfric,” she sighed his name, her heart swelling at that unexpected romantic display.
“It would have been a story for the ages…” he lamented.
“They will tell this story too, of our secret love—how we had to hide it from the Empire for fear that they would wrench us from each other’s arms.”
That made him grin, his soft fingertips slipping down her cheek until he drew them back to his side.
“I have thought much about what you said,” he told her. “About the men in the fields needing to remember what we fight for.”
“And you were right,” he admitted. “I’d like to make our way south, to the camp in the Reach.”
“Your soldiers could use a little inspiration.”
“Then I will bring it to them.”
“Even though it may not be safe?”
“We are at war. Nowhere is safe. The Imperials could send their troops into Windhelm at a whim, and though my guard and I would stand strong against them, there is still a chance they could destroy everything I’ve fought so hard to hold onto.”
“This is true.”
“I have not ventured out into the field since I was captured and taken to Helgen for execution.”
“I will protect you, my lord,” she grinned over at him, catching the playful gleam in his eyes before she looked back to the road.
For a while they continued on in silence, Luthien dwelling on her thoughts of that distant day. She’d sat beside him in the cart, confused and weary, her heart heavy with so much grief. He hadn’t spoken at all, couldn’t speak with the gag across his mouth, and she could clearly remember the defeat she saw in his eyes when he’d turned his gaze on her. She’d wondered at the time if he was frightened, or if he had regrets.
Even if he had been frightened, a man as proud as Ulfric Stormcloak would never admit such a thing, not even to his blushing new bride in the dark quiet of their marriage bed. He would have gone to the chopping block behind her if the dragon hadn’t come and knelt to die for his land and his people without a word because men like him knew the power of silence and the impact such a statement would have made for years to come as bards told his story. The Empire would have made a martyr of him, igniting a fury among the true sons and daughters of Skyrim unlike any they’d ever seen. Would he have sacrificed himself that day for his cause? She hated to think on it, but she had a feeling he would have.
They traveled almost two days, stopping only to take rest and share food. When she saw Whiterun rising in the distance, she longed for the comfort of home and wondered if Lydia had returned form the job she’d sent her on just before the Stormcloaks took the city. She was tired and sore from travel, and would have given anything to sleep in her own bed.
“I have a place in Whiterun,” she gestured ahead with a nod. “It’s no palace, but it’s warm and dry and my housecarl, Lydia, keeps the house stocked with food even when I’m away. She is sworn to carry my secrets, so there is no worry she would betray us. She will welcome us, and we can sleep without fear of bandits sneaking in to attack us while we rest.”
He seemed wary of the idea of walking into Whiterun even though he held it under his thumb, but in the end, relented, drawing his cowl back up over his head as they made their way into the city now patrolled by Stormcloak soldiers. No one paid them any mind, and they were able to slip into Breezehome without notice.
Much to her surprise, the hearth was cold and there was no evidence that Lydia had returned home yet from the errand she’d sent her on. She quickly set about starting a fire to take the chill off the air while Ulfric walked around the house taking it all in.
He’d grown up privileged; she knew that, but it was the first home she had ever called her own after leaving her father’s house and she was proud of it. She watched him pause near the shelf in front of the alchemy lab as she knelt to throw another log onto the fire. He lifted a hand to touch the armor there, Vilkas’s armor, and she felt a chill move through her. Did it disturb him that she’d once shared that house with another man?
“I don’t know where Lydia is,” she admitted, distracting him from the armor.
“This armor,” he glanced back over his shoulder at her, not so easily distracted as she’d hoped. “Skyforge steel?”
“It is like the armor you first wore when you came to Windhelm. The wolf… is it the armor of the Companions?”
“Aye. It belonged to Vilkas.”
“Your first husband,” he nodded. “It is good, strong armor.” But that was all he said as he withdrew and walked over to sit in the chair beside the fire while she cooked for them.
It felt strange being in that place with him, and that made her sad. It hadn’t felt like home anymore when she’d left for Windhelm what felt like years ago, but with Lydia absent and Vilkas’s memory still lingering in the shadows, it felt even colder than she remembered. When she went upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes for sleeping, Ulfric followed, lingering in the doorway of the room she’d once shared with Vilkas and watching her undress.
He stepped into the room and closed the door, quickly drawing her into his arms and tearing her thoughts from the past, making love to her for the first time as not just her king, but her husband.
As she slept in his arms that night, she dreamed she was sitting on a hillside, the cool wind of spring whispering through her hair. She wore a crown of dragon’s tongue flowers, their sweet fragrance whirling in the air around her as she leaned back to feel the light of the sun upon her face. She laid back, allowing the earth to embrace her, closing her eyes as the sun’s warmth stirred the laziness within her. Soft tongues began to lap at her face and she laughed as the warmth of their fur nuzzled against her cheeks when they nudged her to rise.
She opened her eyes, two strong bear cubs with eyes the blue of steel staring back at her expectantly. The larger of the two barreled into her playfully, urging her to rise and run with them through the flowered fields, and she did, her bare feet padding across the stone and dirt as she chased the cubs, both of them giggling like children when she scooped them into her strong arms and whirled them around.
A heavy shadow fell quick, blocking out the light of the sun as thick, black wings spread wide above her, the dragon’s roar so strong the earth trembled beneath her feet. She staggered back, clutching her cubs tight in her arms as she opened her mouth and shouted back at the beast. The cubs shouted too, but the dragon opened its mouth, fire streaming from the sky to burn them where they stood. She summoned the power of her magic like a shield to protect them, the flames burning the ground around them, their heat .
The dragon landed, rearing its head from side to side before lowering its slavering maw until it was eye to eye with her.
“Dovahkiin,” its deep voice thundered through her.
And then it threw back its head, dark laughter following her even as she shot upright in the dark, gasping for breath as Ulfric rolled onto his side behind her, muttering nonsense into his pillow.