Luthien had never liked Markharth. People said Riften was corrupt, but Markharth was a far worse place in her mind. It was a walled prison that stunk of smolder and metal and ash and the guards all seemed like they were hiding something. The fact that the Thalmor had planted themselves firmly within the city’s hold didn’t make it feel any homier to her as they made their way to the keep and walked through the front doors.
“Hey,” a man called out as they walked by. “Are you here to lick the Imperial’s boots?”
She had to be careful what she said, not wanting to alert anyone to their presence as Stormcloaks in the city. They’d changed out of their cuirasses before leaving the encampment to avoid raising suspicions, but one never knew who might be a lookout or spy for the Empire.
“I don’t lick anyone’s boots.”
“Finally, someone with a little sense.”
“Farkas, I’ll be right back,” she told him.
He picked up the thread of conversation with the stranger, and she slunk into the shadows, stealing up the hallway and slipping off right into the court’s quarters to search for Raerek’s room. Galmar had shown them a map of the keep, so she had a pretty good idea of where she was going, but there was an unmoving guard lingering right where she needed to be and he didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving his post any time soon.
It felt like hours passed while she hid there in the shadows like a ghost. Why hadn’t she ever learned any shouts or spells that made her perfectly invisible? She thought she would still be standing there when the guard changed and Raerek himself went to bed, but there was a shuffling sound out in the hall that distracted him from his post and she slid in quickly, jiggling her lockpicks in the door until the nob turned easily in her hand.
She slid into the room and looked around, finding no evidence of Talos worship out in the open where it would be easy to find. She checked under his bed, in books and began rifling through his dresser drawers where she finally found it. An inscribed amulet of Talos with the man’s name right on it. She swiped it from the drawer and tucked it into her pocket before sneaking back to the door and scoping out the hallway.
The guard had returned to his post, but she shuffled by, stopping and acting surprised when he called out. “You’re not supposed to be here. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m sorry,” she shook her head. “I must have gotten lost. I was looking for the Dwemer museum.”
“Dwemer museum’s off limits too. Now go on, get out of here. This is your last warning.”
“All right, I’m going, I’m going.”
She stepped into Farkas’s view and he rolled his eyes at her, the man he was talking to still going on about the Stormcloaks being the true sons of Skyrim. She gestured for him to follow her and he excused himself, running up to meet with her.
“I swear, if you ever leave me like that again, I’ll wring your neck with my bare hands.”
“I got what we’re looking for,” she tapped her pocket. “Now I just have to confront Raerek.”
“I’m coming with you.”
She nodded, leading him up the stairs to the jarl’s throne. A tall woman stepped up to stop them, calling out, “Halt. Where do you think you’re going?”
“I don’t have time for this. Talk to my steward,” he gestured toward the old man sitting to the right of his throne, and Luthien grinned. Just the man she wanted to talk to anyway.
“My nephew is a very busy man and he’s got a lot on his mind. What can I do for you.”
“There’s a certain matter we need to discuss.” She drew the amulet carefully from her pocket so he could see it, and then tucked it back inside when she saw his eyes widen.
“Put that away, before anyone sees it and come with me.” He rose quickly from his seat and turned over his shoulder to add, “Stay close to me and the guards won’t give you any trouble.”
She and Farkas followed him back through the side hallway and into his room, where he closed the door and spun around to face her, his face red with fury. “I suppose you’re here to extort something from me.”
“I’m here to appeal to you on behalf of Ulfric Stormcloak. It would seem we have something in common with you, and it would be a real shame if your love for Talos got out.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Just your help.”
“I can’t help you. There are Imperials everywhere in the city, not to mention Thalmor agents… If I were found out, they’d kill me.”
“And what do you think they’ll do if they find out about this?” She drew the amulet out of her pocket again and held it in front of him. He started to reach for it, a desperation in his eyes that went well beyond the truth being discovered. It was as if he were actually afraid she might take his god from him. The thought made her sick… that he would worship in private, but put on a different face for an Empire that wished to take that god away from him. Gods, even her thoughts were starting to sound like Ulfric’s. “We can help each other, Raerek. Give me something I can use, and no one need ever find out your secret… shame.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“I’ll give this back to you as soon as you give me something to take back to my general.”
“There’s a large shipment that headed out this morning, silver and Imperial swords. I’ll tell you where you can find it and you give that back to me.”
“All right,” she agreed, handing over the amulet and watching him quickly stuff it back into his drawer. “Now where can I find that shipment?”
“As I said, they left this morning, on the road to Solitude. If you hurry, you can catch them before they get too far.”
“Thank you, Raerak,” she said, stepping back from him. “Talos guide you.”
“Get out of here,” he looked away from her in shame. “Go on, before someone finds you here and you get us both killed.”
“It had to be done,” she shrugged. “And now we have to get back to Galmar with this and hope there’s still time to catch that wagon on the road.”
“Right,” he agreed. “You know, you’ve come a long way from where you used to be, even just a couple months ago. You didn’t even want to join this cause, but pretty soon Galmar’s gonna make you a captain and after we take Solitude, everyone will know you’re High Queen. Do you ever still think this isn’t what Vilkas would have wanted us to do?”
“Every day,” she said.
“Sometimes I think you were right,” he admitted. “Jamming my blade into Imperial soldiers hasn’t brought my brother back, and sometimes it makes me feel like it’s all so much wasted blood.”
“And other times?”
“Other times… I don’t know. Other times I just want our land to be ours again. I get caught up in the stuff Ulfric touts and it reminds me of my brother. How I’d hear him behind me while we were fighting back to back, shouting at our enemy, ‘Skyrim belongs to the Nords.’ Sometimes I think Vilkas would have made a pretty fierce Stormcloak.”
“He’d probably have marched right up to General Tullius and cracked him across his skull with the hilt of his blade.”
Their laughter was uneasy, as if talking about him had suddenly become uncomfortable because they both knew they were kidding themselves. Vilkas had needed to believe in what he was fighting for, and if the gold was good, that was even better. There was not as much glory in battling the Empire as a man like Vilkas would have liked, and they certainly hadn’t found much in the way of gold to heavy their purses either.
“Are we ever gonna stop missing him, Lu?” Farkas asked.
“No,” she shook her head.
They didn’t talk all the way back to the camp. Ulfric was gone when they arrived, Galmar informing her that he was headed back to Windhelm and would expect a full report from her when there was news to bring. “Now what did you bring me?”
“There’s a wagon full of silver and Imperial swords headed north to Solitude, and if we head out quickly, we may be able to still catch it.”
“We could use a wagon full of silver,” Galmar stroked the knot of his beard, his eyes glistening with hope. “And those Imperia swords could come in handy too. We’ll need to get out there and take that wagon before they get to Solitude. I have a band of scouts on the road just beyond Broken Tower Redoubt. I’ll need you to meet up with them and form a strategy to overtake the shipment.”
“I can do that.”
“I can always count on you to get things done.”
“We’ll leave immediately.”
“Report back to me as soon as you’ve taken the wagon,” he said, adding, “and girl, I don’t need to tell you to be careful out there.”
Ralof and his band of scouts were waiting just beyond the tower, as Galmar said, but she and Farkas had to deal with the bandits holing up in Broken Tower Redoubt before they could meet with them. She hadn’t expected Ralof to meet them with a smile, but he did, signaling from their hideout in the trees to draw them in.
“I didn’t expect to see you two out here. What brings you?”
“Galmar sent us to meet up with you. There’s an Imperial wagon of silver and weapons on the road headed to Solitude, and he wants us to overtake it.”
“Funny,” he chuckled to himself, his blue eyes lighting with intrigue. “We just so happen to have been tracking a wagon. How did you find out what they were carrying?”
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we take that wagon and the silver for the Stormcloaks and we do it quickly.”
“Right,” he agreed. “How do you want to do this?”
“Tell me about the guard.”
Ralof said there were about fifteen men guarding the wagon, more than half of them archers who’d set up on the hillside above their camp. When he gestured, she could see their fire burning against the rock face, the shadows of their horses wavering in the light.
“We could sneak up the ridge and take out their archers above before attacking the men blow, and they’ll never know what hit them.”
“Agreed,” she nodded. “You lead, I’ll follow.” She knew playing into his ego and giving him control of their mission had the power to smooth the prior tensions between them, and it worked. He rose up from the shadows and clapped her on the back.
“Let’s do this.”
As a unit, they moved among shadows, their footsteps quiet upon the earth and their blades glinting in the moonlight as they stalked the hillside. They took out two Imperial guards before the rest caught wind that they were under attack, and after that, it was complete mayhem. The heavy clatter of blades on armor hammered into the quiet night, echoing off the mountains like a bad dream. Luthien took an arrow to the shoulder, but she didn’t let it slow her down. She wielded Wuuthrad with a vengeance, hacking through her foes as if they meant something to her until the Stormcloaks were the last ones standing and the wagon was theirs. They’d lost one man in the fight, and two others had been severely wounded.
She used her healing hands to help them as best she could, and then left Ralof and a handful of others behind to guard the wagon while she and Farkas led the wounded back to quiet camp.
To say Galmar was happy with their success was an understatement. They were shoving their boots right up the Empire’s ass, and there was only one thing they had left to do in the Reach to prove to General Tullius the Stormcloaks were a real threat and he should be losing sleep.
“And what is this one thing we need to do?”
“We’re taking Fort Sungard at dawn,” he told her. “I’ve already sent the men ahead, and I want you to join them immediately. We need that fort, girl. Don’t let me down.”
“We will wipe out the garrison and take the fort,” she assured him.
“Report to Ulfric when the fort is ours. Talos be with you, girl.”
She and Farkas traveled through the night by horse, not coming upon the men gathered outside the fort until the fingers of the sun clawed at the eastern sky, bringing a red dawn. As they prepared for the attack, thick clouds drew in like a blanket to blot out the sun’s light, and by the time they marched into the fort, a heavy rain began to pour.
The rain made the fighting difficult, confusion seeping through the ranks on both sides, and Luthien was pretty sure she swept her axe through one of her shield brothers at least once. The battle for Whiterun had been chaotic, but the fight for Fort Sungard was a nightmare. Thunder rumbled through the mountains, trembling the tower like a mighty voice in protest from the heavens. Soldiers slipped in the treacherous mud and slick stone as they scrambled to catch their footing, tumbling over the stone walls to their death and arrows, so many arrows. The raucous din of battle was overwhelming, the ringing in her ears spreading through her head in undulating waves every time metal hammered into metal before thunking into flesh and breaking bone.
Over her shoulder she could hear Farkas calling out, “I’m gonna crush you like a bug!” His heavy blade gliding across three incoming Imperials like a hot knife through butter, and the sound of his voice reinspiring her faltering fury for the battle. She staggered the two men coming up the stairs after her, sweeping Wuuthrad leftward to knock them both down the stone stairs behind them and then charging in with a battle cry so powerful it burned her throat.
For hours, the battle went on. Luthien stumbled through fallen brothers as she climbed her way to the top of the tower, her heart breaking as she tried to remember all their names, but her mind unable to grasp them. She’d fought beside many of them in Whiterun, had shared mead with them and rabbit stew, battle glories and hope and so much sorrow. Many of them had died with the words, “For Ulfric!” on their lips, their love for him and their passion for their homeland renewed. “For Skyrim!” they cried as they were cut down, the pride in their voices inspiring their brothers and sisters in battle around them, and keeping them strong.
The strong rain actually proved to their advantage. The Stormcloaks were used to the elements, while the Imperials seemed almost pampered and soft, unable to fight at full capacity as it poured down around them and washed their spilt blood into a crimson river that pooled just below the fort. Standing over the body of the last Imperial she’d sunk her axe into, Luthien could see that river trickling red, staining the snow at the edges of the fort pink.
So much bloodshed. Surely Skyrim cringed at this display of Ulfric’s love. She understood his vision, she truly did, but what would be left of their beloved homeland when all was said and done? A bruised and battered land whose heart and spirit were broken because its people had stood divided between her, tugging her apart like selfish children, instead of embracing her and each other. It was moments like that when Ulfric’s vision faltered in her own heart, and she knew nothing but sorrow and regret.
Farkas ran up behind her, bending at the hips to rest on his knees as he caught his breath. Blood spattered his armor, his skin, specks of it spotted and smeared across his brow like freckles as he lifted raised his face to look her over with concern in his eyes.
“You all right?”
Luthien nodded, and wrenched her axe from the body it had been resting in. “I took a few heavy blows, but nothing I can’t heal. You?”
“I almost took an arrow to the knee, but other than that, I’m fine.”
“Gotta watch those knees,” she let herself smile for him, even though she barely felt it. “I’ve known far too many men who’ve had to retire and take up guard duty because of a stray arrow to that appendage.”
“The fort is ours,” he told her. “There are a few stragglers, but they’ll root them out and make them wish they’d never been born.”
“Ulfric will be happy.”
Farkas brought up his hand, covered in blood and grime, to lift her chin to his gaze. “And you?”
“I will be happy when all of this is done.”
Nodding understanding, he lowered his arm around her shoulders and led her down the stairs.