She did not speak of her dream to Ulfric, his mind was elsewhere as they traveled, but it haunted her for days, clinging to her every waking moment like a drunk clinging to an empty wine bottle in the dark alley behind a tavern. As they made their way up the mountainside in search of the encampment, she thought of Kodlak for the first time in so long she almost felt ashamed.
Not that she thought her dream was prophetic, as his dream of her had been, but much like Kodlak, dreams did not often trouble her sleep. When they did, she couldn’t stop thinking of them and a part of her almost wished she could write them down and reflect on them in greater depth until she understood their meaning.
Surely they meant something, or perhaps Vaermina was toying with her from Quagmire, attempting to draw her into the madness of her realm. The harder she tried to shrug the dream away, the more persistent it became, until it was all she could think of.
The ringing clang of hammer on steel echoed down the mountainside, growing louder as their horses made the climb. The closer they came, the more excited she felt about seeing Farkas again. It had only been a week since they’d parted, but it somehow felt much longer. She had thought of him often, spoken of him so much that Ulfric finally commented with a deep laugh that he too felt as if this man he barely knew was his own brother.
He’d taken off his cowl when they reached the mountains, glad for the feel of the cold air on his face and in his hair. Luthien watched him ride, her heart swelling with pride she would soon have to keep tucked within when they reached the encampment and she fell in among the men, not his wife, but just another Stormcloak soldier.
She dismounted when they reached the horse yard, tethering their horses as Ulfric walked ahead, surveying the camp and heading toward Galmar’s tent. She heard their whispers as she tugged the leathered knot tight, his name murmuring through the soldiers as they lifted from where they rested to watch and honor the man they fought for make their way through the camp.
“What in Talos’s name are you doing here?” Galmar barked. “Are you out to get yourself killed?”
“I’m out to walk among my men and see to their needs, but first, share a drink with me, Galmar, old friend. My throat is dry from the road and I want to know where we stand in our campaign to liberate the Reach.”
“Of course, come in, come in.”
Ulfric turned over his shoulder to look at her before he disappeared behind the flap of the war tent, the corner of his mouth twitching into a slow grin of acknowledgement before he turned away.
“I thought you were gonna leave me out here to do all the fighting myself.” She’d never been happier to hear the gruff sound of Farkas’s voice, and she turned into him, throwing her arms around him and squeezing so tight, she actually thought she’d hurt him for a second. “How did you get him to come up here?” he asked, leading her away from the other men. “Word is spreading like fire through the camp that the high king made his way out into the field. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“I appealed to his love for the land,” she shrugged, tugging out of her gloves and stretching her fingers as she wiggled them. “The men need him. They need to know he is still with them.”
Farkas nodded, stepping back to look her over. “I know it’s only been like a handful of days, but boy, I feel like I haven’t seen you in months.”
“It was a long journey. Have you seen any fighting?”
“Not since I got here early in the week. It’s mostly been waiting and brooding about when the next battle comes. We did have a dragon attack night before last though. That kept everyone busy for a bit. Nice break from the same old same old.”
“I told Galmar they’d fetch us a bit of coin, and he sent two of us into Markharth to trade them.”
“Where’s the body?”
He nodded over his shoulder. “What’s left of it is back there.”
He led her through the milling crowd of soldiers lingering outside Galmar’s tent waiting for a glimpse of their high king. Farkas said it had taken fifteen men to drag the body away from camp. She could feel the power of its soul calling out to her, growing louder as they drew nearer the remains until the swirling layers swarmed out to meet her like an old friend.
Its essence whirled and danced around, her seeping through her pores until she was one with the dragon, or it was one with her. She still didn’t quite understand how that worked, but the display had drawn the crowds away from the war tent, Ulfric and Galmar stepping into the open as well to watch her take the dragon’s soul inside herself as someone called out, “She really is the Dragonborn.”
“Show off,” Farkas laughed.
“It had to be done.”
Before he could offer another retort, Galmar’s gravelly shout bellowed over the soldiers. “Dragonborn. I have an important job for you and that lazy brother of yours.”
“Had to go showing off,” Farkas muttered as they stalked toward the tent. “Now he’s gonna expect us to do something.”
She ducked through the tent first, Farkas at her back and tried to avoid Ulfric’s gaze for fear of giving anything away. “Close that flap,” Galmar barked.
Farkas pulled the tent flap closed and turned in to face them.
Ulfric rose from his seat and set his empty tankard on the table. “Galmar’s gotten wind of some very interesting news.”
“It would seem the esteemed Jarl of Markharth’s uncle and steward is a faithful Talos worshipper, despite their little bond with the Empire and the Thalmor.”
“That is interesting,” Luthien agreed.
“So what does that mean for us?” Farkas asked.
“It means that if properly used to our advantage, it could give us some much needed leverage,” Galmar glared over at him.
“With The Reach in our power, we can stop the raping of her silver mines and keep that wealth here in Skyrim where it belongs,” Ulfric added.
Before Farkas could interject with another question that garnered Galmar’s icy stare, she spoke up. “What do you need us to do?”
“I need you to get into Markharth and see if you can find some… er… evidence of his faithfulness to Talos, and when you do confront him with it. See if you can persuade him to aid in our cause. It would be awful for him if word got out, if you catch my drift.”
Her brow furrowed, lips twitching in protest, but then Ulfric responded with a smile of concession that let her know she was free to trust Farkas with their secret. It figured that Farkas hadn’t even noticed, and for a second she thought about clubbing him over the back of his head with her shield.
“I always do.”
Ulfric responded with nothing more than a slow nod of appreciation before turning his gaze back to Luthien. “Show Skyrim you still love her, Ulfric.”
He bent to kiss her forehead, his strong fingers curling at the back of her neck as he murmured, “Talos be with you always, heart of my heart,” before stepping back to let them go.
She waited until they were nearly a mile away from the camp before she said anything, reaching out to punch Farkas in the shoulder to make sure she had his undivided attention.
“Hey, what the hell was that for?”
“You didn’t even say anything.”
“About what Ulfric said to you.”
“What? I told him I would watch your back, just like I always do. What else was I supposed to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know… maybe, I’ll protect your queen with my life, my lord?”
“What, and let on like I know some big secret? That’s the kind of thing that gets men killed out here,” he grinned over at her. “I know nothing.”
His chiding grin faded and he grew serious for a moment. “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” she nodded, falling into his shoulder as they walked. “It’s all very scary and new and different, but I care for him.”
“Does he care for you?”
“That’s all that’s ever mattered to me, that you were cared for as you deserved to be. And I think you’re right to keep that kind of thing under lock and key with this war going on. If anyone found out…”
“We’re not telling anyone. Until now, I wasn’t even allowed to tell you, but I talked about you so much on the way here, Ulfric said he felt like you were his own brother.”
“So when can I talk to him about my land and titles and concubines?”
“You have to take a wife before you can have concubines.” Luthien laughed, a girlish giddiness rolling through her that seemed to hold the darkness of her dream away for the time being. It was the first time she hadn’t thought about it in days, and she was glad for the respite from its foreboding. “But I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Maybe I’ll marry Lydia,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve never knew a woman who could drink me under the table until I met her. That’s the kind of woman you wanna have children with.”
“Speaking of Lydia, she wasn’t in Whiterun when we stopped there for the night on our way from Riften. It’s been almost a month since we took the city from Balgruuf. I thought she would have come back by now.”
“Where’d you send her?”
“To deliver some Dwemer cogs to Arniel Gane up at the College of Winterhold. He’s working on some weird project and I’ve been collecting them on my travels since last year. I just hadn’t gotten around to taking them back to him yet, so I figured I’d send her, get her out of the city during the attacks.”
“That is odd she hasn’t returned yet,” he pondered. “It doesn’t take that long to get to Winterhold and back. I hope nothing’s happened to her.”