Their horses carried them quickly to Windhelm, and though her heart was still heavy with conflict of victory and the battle they’d left behind, she longed for the comfort of her lover’s arms. It was early afternoon and she found Ulfric on his throne, listening to complaints from the people of Eastmarch about dragons and bandits and a caravan of Khajiit milling around outside the city selling Skooma and demanding to know what he intended to do about it. Such minor problems in the face of war, she thought, but he would see to them as he always did, never allowing his greater vision to obscure what lay directly in front of him. Ulfric seemed to be very good at focusing on the moment at hand, something she’d never done well with herself.
He did not rise when he saw her, but acknowledged her arrival with a quiet nod. She headed left for the war room and up the stairs to his quarters, where she stripped out of her armor and washed herself in the basin of water on the dresser, watching the grime and blood that stained her skin turn the water murky long before she was clean.
She donned a simple dressing gown and went straight to the bed, crawling in beneath the heavy blankets and dropping her head to the pillow with a sigh. At first, every time she closed her eyes, she saw the faces of those who’d died by her hand, their wide eyes staring up at her as she brought her blade down to take their life, mouths gasping pain and betrayal. She tossed in the sheets for what felt like hours before sleep finally claimed her, but even there she was not safe.
She was running again, the cubs in her arms heavy, but she couldn’t drop them, couldn’t let them fall behind or the dragon would devour them. Its long shadow crossed over the sun’s light, darkening the land around them until she could barely see where she was going; she had to keep running. She had to keep them safe, to protect them or all hope would be lost.
And when the dragon landed in front of her, its bright red eyes the only light in her darkness, its great maw grinned wide and it bellowed out to her, “Dovahkiin…”
Ulfric’s hands gripped her when she shot from sleep like an arrow in the dark, steadying her and shaking her until she came back to her senses.
“You were dreaming,” he told her, leaning in to kiss her brow as he smoothed the hair away. “Only dreaming.”
Her lungs burned, as if she’d really just been running and couldn’t quite catch her breath. He lifted a hand to smooth her hair away from her face, his curious eyes studying her as he leaned back to look her over.
“What terrors haunt your sleep, heart of my heart?”
Luthien swallowed against the ache in her throat, and Ulfric leaned over to retrieve a tankard of water from the bedside table. She gulped it down, gasping as she handed it back to him and felt her heart begin to slow again.
“It was Alduin.”
“The World Eater?”
Nodding, she let herself fall against his shoulder, grateful for the comfort of his strong arms when they came around her and held her close.
“Master Arngeir told me stories of him when I was a boy. The World Eater was banished from this world a long time ago. He cannot hurt you.”
Luthien drew back to look at him. “What if he can?” she asked. “What if he found a way to come back, and he’s coming for me?”
Ulfric’s hand moved through her hair, a gentle act of comfort that soothed her fears as he promised with a kiss, “I would never let him hurt you.”
She didn’t know why, but she believed him. Sadly, it wasn’t herself she was worried about. He tried to make her forget her nightmares, but the comfort of Ulfric’s arms was not long for the keeping. As they lay together in the dark that night, he spoke of the damage they had done, and their next move against the Empire. They had taken The Reach back, and their next target would carry them closer to Solitude and a final confrontation with General Tullius and his men, but there was still so much to be done.
“You are making a name for yourself among the men,” he said, rolling onto his side to face her as he laid his head next to her on the pillow. “Galmar tells me some of them have taken to calling you Snow-Hammer, for your prowess and unyielding stamina in the face of our enemy.”
“Many of those men are now dead,” she lamented.
“And you mourn them with the heart of a queen. If only they knew that which I hold dearest to my heart fought beside them on the battlefield, they would lift you up in reverence and worship you as their true high queen.” His hand rested on her shoulder. “When Sovngarde calls, men must answer, Luthien. Remember with your heart those warriors watch over us from above and know that every time we stand against the Imperials who hold our homeland just out of our reach, the spirit of those men follows us into battle and strengthens our resolve.”
“And what will happen when we take Skyrim back from the Empire, Ulfric.”
“We will restore her to her former glory.”
“Does that mean forcing all who aren’t of Nordic blood from our land? Will we go on fighting long after the Imperials are gone simply to ensure that those who are not like us can ever claim her again?”
“If we must.”
“Ulfric, we cannot. If we free Skyrim from the Empire, then we should keep her free, free for everyone who’s come here looking for peace and respite from the oppression that lies beyond our borders.”
“I will fight anyone who tries to take this land from me,” he said. “But that is another matter entirely, and not one we need concern ourselves with now, Luthien. Not when the Empire is still clenching us tight in their fist.” Brushing the hair from her brow, he leaned in and gently kissed the last place his fingers had touched. “When that time comes, I will listen to your woman’s heart and your council, but for now, let us not speak of things so far into the future we can barely even see them.”
“I just worry, Ulfric,” she told him, reaching up to curl her fingers around his wrist and hold his hand against her cheek. “About the dragons and the Thalmor… I fear they are going to take advantage of our weakness when all is said and done. This war has weakened all of our people, not just the Nords. If we begin pushing away those who would aid us in our greatest hour simply because they are not of this land, we will lose the land we love forever.”
“Sometimes you are wise beyond your years,” he whispered against her lips. “And I forget how young you really are. But let us focus on the task at hand right now. Once we’ve brought the Empire to its knees, we will discuss your fears in greater detail, I promise you.”
Knowing she would never draw his mind from his focus, she asked, “Then what is our next move against the Empire?”
“We need to take back Hjaalmarch,” he said. “And as much as I regret having to send you away from me and back into the field where I can’t protect you, Galmar will need your aid. He’s come to depend on you and there is much that needs done if we wish to wrench Hjaalmarch from the Empire’s hands.”
“I will leave in the morning.”
He nodded sorrowful concession and rolled onto his back, pulling her to lay across his chest as his arm tightened against her back. “I long for the day when I can hold you close and watch your belly swell with my seed.”
Closing her eyes, flashing pictures of her nightmare flooded through her mind. Her cubs, their blue eyes so familiar as they looked to her for protection. Again she thought of Kodlak, the prophetic dream that had led her to his door all those years ago. Her dreams had never meant anything of consequence before, but she’d also never had the same dream twice before. Maybe it was trying to tell her something, but what?
Even long after she heard his breath slow into long, quiet snores, she laid awake in his arms trying to remember the last time she’d had her moon blood. It had been before they’d taken Fort Neugrad, and by her calculations it should have come upon her again, but it hadn’t. With the constant chaos of travel and battle, she hadn’t thought anything of it, but now its absence lingered there in the back of her mind.
Untucking herself from his arm, she slid out of bed and walked to the fire, looking down over her naked body in its light. It didn’t look any different, but as she slid her hand down the smooth surface of her belly, it felt tight and tender, but that didn’t mean anything. Did it? Her entire body was one big bruise after the battle at Fort Sungard.
Ulfric stirred behind her, sheets ruffling with his movement. “What are you doing?”
She drew her hand away from her belly. “Nothing. Just warming myself by the fire.”
“Come back to bed,” he said. “I will keep you warm.”
She closed her eyes a moment, and then rejoined him in bed. He drew the blankets over them both, holding her close and rubbing his warm hands over her cold skin until he drifted back to sleep like a man without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Luthien listened to him snore for hours, her mind wandering over that possibility, wondering if she should speak with him about it and then deciding just before dawn that he had enough on his mind. She would tell him when she knew for sure, but for the moment she would keep it tucked inside her and wait.