“Tullius must be getting nervous now that we’ve taken Hjaalmarch. We’re practically in his backyard now.” Ulfric looked across the table at her, his eyebrow lifted and brow furrowed as he watched her devour the plate of rare beef swimming in its own blood. “Soon we’ll march on Solitude, and when that day comes, you will fight beside me as my captain.”
“Are you going to eat that?” Before he could answer, she dug her fork into the baked potatoes on his plate, transferring them to her own and digging in.
“We stand within spitting distance of Solitude, on the brink of victory and all you can think of is food.” He chuckled, watching her eat with great amusement. “Are the soldiers in my camps really so starved that you feel the need to gorge yourself like this?”
“I feel like I’m starving.”
“Then by all means, woman,” he pushed the last of his untouched food toward her, “eat.”
The nausea still hadn’t abated, but between bouts of hovering over a bucket and holding damp cloths against her spinning head, ravenous hunger plagued her. She hated it because when she did get sick, it felt like such a waste, but she kept telling herself the more she ate, the more likely the child inside her would take nourishment from the food she did manage to keep down.
“I hear Tullius has troops in the Pale. I don’t understand why he feels the need try and take Winterhold from me,” he shook his head. “But if he wants to throw away his men, I’ll gladly accept that gift. It will make for fewer soldiers when we stand against Solitude.” Rising from the table, he walked to the chest at the foot of the bed. “And when we do, I want you to wield this.” He drew a long-handled axe out, closed the chest and turned back to present her with it. “The Axe of Eastmarch,” he explained. “It once belonged to my father, the Great Bear of Eastmarch. He would have been proud to know a warrior such as you carried it into battle.”
“Perhaps you should save that for your own son, my lord.”
“Perhaps,” he contemplated, looking down over the curve of the blade. “When that day comes, it will be his mother who gives it to him with stories of all the Imperials she wiped out with it during the War for Skyrim that made his father a king.”
“It will be an honor then, to carry your father’s axe into battle.”
“My father would have liked you,” he lamented, returning to his seat. “He had a great fondness for intelligent Nord women who weren’t afraid to speak their minds and lift their arms in battle.”
“I don’t always speak my mind,” she said.
“No, but when you do, I listen. Is there something on it now that you would like to share?”
“I still dream of Alduin,” she changed the subject, hoping he would listen to her even as she drew their talk away from war. “Every night he haunts the grounds of my sleep, devouring everything, laughing at me.”
He tilted his head, his braid nestling against his cheek as she watched her reach for her fork again. “What do you think it means?”
“He is out there somewhere and he is coming.”
He plucked a grape from her plate and tucked it between his lips. “Alduin is gone from this plane.”
Shaking her head, she swallowed the food in her mouth. “If the dragons are returning, why not Alduin too? Maybe he is the one who’s brought them back.”
“Have you spoken to the Greybeards of this?”
“I have not spoken to Master Arngeir in months.”
“Perhaps you should go to them.”
“When the war is over—”
“You are a good wife, a strong woman and I know you only say that to please me,” he reached over and touched her face. “But if you feel you must go to the Greybeards now, then by all means go. We’ve got Tullius pinned into a corner, and he’s not going anywhere.”
“You speak as if you couldn’t go on fighting and win this war without me.” She lowered her fork to the plate and leaned forward, resting her cheek in the palm of her hand.
“Galmar says they call you Stormblade now. You walk into every battle as though I am with you in your heart, and you would win this war for me single-handed if you could. You inspire my men and bring them hope in ways I never could, Luthien. You have done more for me than any soldier, and I truly believe that I could not win this war without you.”
“You once told me Torygg’s downfall was his woman…”
“Torryg was young, and no doubt driven by his young man’s prick to make his wife whimper and coo. My woman is my strength. While Elisif hides behind the Empire, sobbing into her kerchief over her dead husband’s corpse, you fight beside me as my equal. And were I to die tomorrow, you wouldn’t lock yourself in this tower with your tears. You would go on fighting until every last Imperial was wiped clean from this land.”
Several months ago, if he’d said those words to her she would never have believed them, but they were true. Ulfric’s cause was hers now, his battles as well.
“I would never let them kill you,” she smiled, nestling her face into his broad palm and closing her eyes.
He laughed, drawing her close and resting his forehead to hers. “If you wish to go to the Greybeards, go. You have my blessing.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think the Greybeards are the ones who can help me. I will go back to Riverwood after the war and seek out the woman, Delphine.”
“The woman the Thalmor are after?”
“Then when the time comes, I will come with you.”
“You will have more than your share of things to do when all is said and done. Skyrim will need rebuilding…”
“You helped me win my war,” he said, fingers twining into the hair at the nape of her neck, drawing her across the table until his forehead rested against hers. “I will help you win yours.”
“We haven’t won anything yet.”
“But we will, heart of my heart.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “With the two of us side by side, we can make this land ours, and no one will ever take it from us again. Not the Empire or the Thalmor, not the dragons. One day they will tell our story, the tale of Ulfric and Luthien, who single-handedly brought an Empire to its knees. I promise you.”
He made it sound so easy, and once again she believed him, even though she knew in her heart that it would be no simple task. The Empire had been only men, and Thalmor magic was strong, but Alduin was death with wings, the jewel of Akatosh, and he would sweep down with a vengeance when the time was right to strike. She didn’t know if just the two of them would be strong enough to face him, even together, but she said nothing. She yielded to his playful kisses and when he drew her toward the bed, she went, burying her fears and her secrets deeper inside her.
And when she lay in the comfort and safety of his arms, listening to his heart beat inside his chest, she longed to tell him those secrets, but the time wasn’t right.
Instead, she curled in closer and said, “Tell me more about your father.”
“My father was a good man, a proud Nord. He died while I was imprisoned after the Markharth incident. I, his only son, forced to deliver his eulogy via a letter I had snuck out of prison. Such is the love of Titus Mede for his subjects,” he sighed. “By the time I was finally set free, I had come to terms with my own grief and anger, but when I returned to Windhelm, I was greeted by a city in mourning. Clamoring in angry voices, calling out for justice and war, they set me on the throne. The throne of Ysgramor, my father’s throne, but I fear I am not even half the man that he was. I fear sometimes I am not worthy of that honor.”
“If you still feel small in his shadow, then he was a good father.”
“He made me everything I am.” He was thoughtful for a moment and then he asked, “What kind of man was your father? I am ashamed that I have never asked.”
“He was a blacksmith,” she said. “A good, strong Nord who loved his land and his people, but more than anything his family… If he could see me now, I don’t know what he’d make of who I have become.”
“He sees you. He watches over you from Sovngarde,” Ulfric told her. “And he is proud of his daughter, the Dragonborn Queen of Skyrim.”
“I wonder sometimes what kind of mother I will be,” she murmured. “Fighting oppression, battling dragons that would devour and destroy our very world… I wonder if it’s even wise to bring children into a world that is so broken.”
“Mm,” he muttered sleepily. “Children are the light and hope in a dark world. They are why we fight wars and dragons.”
Luthien lifted her head to look down at him, knowing she had never told him that her mother used to say those words. He didn’t even open his eyes, just drew her head back to his chest as he yawned and told her to sleep.