Riding the Storm: Chapter Twenty-Three

The Stormcloaks turned Fort Snowhawk into a slaughterhouse. Thanks to the forged documents they’d delivered to Legate Duilis, the fort had never gotten the reinforcements they so desperately needed. The fighting only lasted about an hour before they surrendered the fort to Ralof, who congratulated them all on a battle well fought as they gathered in the courtyard. Ninety-percent of the casualties had been Imperial, and though it didn’t lessen the weight of all that death on her conscience, she was happy the victory had been more one-sided for once.

“My first command,” he beamed. “I think it went well.”

“And you said Galmar didn’t even know your name. Ulfric will be pleased when I deliver word of our victory here today.”

That wasn’t the only thing he would be pleased about. She’d managed to avoid the archers during the battle, and the only blow she’d taken had been to the shin. Next time, she might not be so lucky, but she would cross that bridge when she came to it. She’d also managed to keep herself from falling prey to her own nausea, but she didn’t know much longer she could keep that at bay with the pungent smell of death so heavy in the air.

“Though more and more often, I’ve been hearing things about Ulfric that unsettle me,” Ralof admitted, drawing his helmet off and shaking the sweat-soaked strands of his blonde hair loose around his shoulders. “People saying his purpose is false and he’s misguiding us, using us just so he can gain power. I don’t know what to believe in anymore.”

She didn’t feel the need to remind him that she’d said those same sorts of things to him when they’d first been reunited, while journeying to Windhelm together all those months ago. In that short time, her own mind had changed, and even if she still didn’t completely agree with everything Ulfric said, there was one thing they both agreed on without fail. “Believe in Skyrim,” she said.

“I always will.”

“Talos be with you, Ralof.”

“And you.”

On the journey to Windhelm, she and Farkas stopped to rest in Whiterun for the night. As they passed through the gates, her hope that Lydia would be waiting for them faltered when she saw no sign of hearthfire coming from Breezehome. She unlocked the door and stepped into the empty house with a sigh. No one had been there since she and Ulfric had left, and her heart only grew heavier with worry.

“Maybe we should send Aela out to track her down,” Farkas suggested.

“We should,” she agreed. “Will you go and talk to her, please? I just want to lie down for a little while in my own bed.”

“Of course.”

“Tell her I’ll pay her whatever she requires and ask her to send word to Windhelm as soon as she has something.”

“Will do.”

He left her alone in the house, and she climbed the stairs to fall into bed without even slipping out of her armor. Her entire body ached from the battle and the road, and though she’d only been lying down a few minutes before the nausea overpowered her, she stayed still and road it out until it passed, finally falling asleep.

The dream came quickly, beginning with the fresh smell of the air and the warm sun on her skin. Her little bear cubs nuzzling their cold, wet noses into her cheek and then running playfully through the flowers with her at their heels. Only they weren’t bear cubs anymore, they were children. Two boys with bright red hair and freckled skin, eyes like molten steel that stared back at her with such love and devotion it made her heart swell inside her as she reached to scoop them into her arms.

“Look, mummy,” the smallest of the two, who couldn’t have been older than three, pointed over her shoulder at the growing shadow in the sky. “Alduin.”

She ran, her bare feet like thunder on the earth, but the land stretched out for miles all around her, no shelter in sight. They gripped her hands, squeezing her fingers so tight as the three of them ran, looking back over their shoulders to watch the dragon’s body blot out the light of the sun until all was dark.

“The World Eater is coming, mother,” the oldest boy told her.

“Dovahkiin,” his mighty voice echoed all around her.

Together, the three of them opened their mouths and shouted back at him, but Alduin only laughed, his mighty roar mingling with the thunder that cracked the sky when she sat up in bed and scanned the dark room trying to remember where she was.

Feet shuffled on the floor below as the scent of hearth fire and cooking food wafted up to meet her. Sickened by the smell, she grabbed a bowl from the bedside table and retched until there was nothing left inside her to throw up. Falling back into the pillows, she curled onto her side and rode the waves of nausea until they passed, and then she made her way downstairs where Farkas was sitting by the fire with a mug of ale.

“You’re awake.”

“I couldn’t sleep anymore.”

“Bad dreams again?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to talk about it yet?”

“Dragons,” she shrugged. “The World Eater… devouring my life bite by bite until nothing is left.”

“The World Eater?”

“Alduin.”

Farkas didn’t say anything, so she sat down beside him and for a long time the two of them stared into the fire in silence. After a time, she heard his breathing slow and when she looked over he was sleeping with his chin in his shoulder, the empty cup in his hand propped on his thigh. It was no wonder he hadn’t fallen asleep sooner. He’d stuck by her through all the running they’d done over the last weeks, and their last battle had taken its toll on both of them. She didn’t think either of them had really slept since before leaving Windhelm.

She let him rest through the night, while she sifted through her stock of ingredients and spent hours in the Alchemy lab making potions to stock her shelves with. It was a soothing process that always seemed to take her mind off her troubles, and for a time she did not remember her dreams or the war, but she never stopped thinking about those two little boys.

It was a strange thing to her that she and Vilkas had been married two years, and in that two years, no matter how many times they’d lain together she’d never gotten pregnant. She wasn’t even sure if the child she carried now had been conceived before or after she’d wed Ulfric, but it felt like a sign from the gods that she was on the right path. Vilkas had once told her that no matter where she stood in life, she had to know in her heart she exactly where she was supposed to be, but in times of doubt and strife, believing in that was easier said than done.

There was no doubt in her mind that the World Eater was coming, and it was up to her to stop him. She just didn’t know how, but she was pretty sure getting the people of Skyrim to stop tearing each other apart was the first step. It was too late to stop the war; they’d gone too far and Ulfric would never surrender to the Empire, so she would have to do everything in her power to see it finished and turn her attention back to the dragons where it belonged.

She had a child to think about…

About erica

Erica North is the fanfiction pseudonym for fantasy/romance author Jennifer Melzer.
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