She realized as Galmar rallied the troops to follow him to Solitude, it was the first time in years she would be going into a fight without Farkas beside her. They’d watched each other’s backs so long, she couldn’t imagine a battle where he wasn’t somewhere behind her wreaking havoc on their enemy to protect her. She glanced back over her shoulder one last time and saw him standing at the gate, watching them leave, his face long with sorrow as if he truly feared it would be the last time they saw one another.
The road to Solitude thundered under the force of Stormcloak boots, marching to death and war with Ulfric’s banners flying high, cracking as the weather-worn and tattered fabric rippled in the wind. He would be there with them, for the final battle, and together they would fight side by side to rid Skyrim of the Empire once and for all. From the side of her bear helm, she glimpsed Galmar staring ahead and wondered what he was thinking. As if he felt her gaze, he turned to look at her and smiled.
“No matter what happens in Solitude today, girl, we will be heroes.”
She nodded, remembering a day not so long ago when they’d stood face to face for the first time. He hadn’t thought much of her that day, but she’d come a long way to prove herself. None could ever say she’d won anyone’s respect because of her place in Ulfric’s heart. She’d proven her honor and courage, her ferocity and her love for Skyrim to them all.
They were met by cannon fire, flames lapping at the crumbled stone walls around Solitude where Ulfric and his men gathered for the final battle. They marched in to join them, falling into ranks before them. He looked up when he saw them, his gaze passing over her briefly, a light flaring in his eyes before he looked away and lifted his sword to rally the men one last time. It took everything inside her not to run into his arms and kiss him as if it would be the last kiss they ever shared. Who knew, maybe it would be.
“This is it, men. It’s time to make this city ours.” His voice boomed over the rain of cannon fire as they all drew around him to listen. “We come to this moment carried by the sacrifices and courage of our fellows. Of those who have fallen and those still bearing the shields to our right. On this day, our enemy will know the fullness of our determination, the true depth of our anger and the exulted righteousness of our cause. The gods are watching. The spirits of our ancestors are stirring and men under suns yet to dawn will be transformed by what we do here today. Fear neither pain, nor darkness, for Sovngarde waits for those who die with weapons in their hands and courage in their hearts.”
The men at her back bellowed in righteous anger and agreement, some of them crying out for Ulfric, others for Sovngarde and others still calling out their love for Skyrim. She knew not how many of them would have that call answered on that day, but they would die knowing they’d followed their hearts and that was all that mattered.
“We now fight our way to Castle Dour to cut the head off the Legion itself, and in that moment, the Gods will look down and see Skyrim as she was meant to be: full of Nords who are mighty, powerful and free!”
Their cheers rang out again, unanimous in their resolve to liberate Skyrim from the Empire. Ulfric met her gaze again, his fierce eyes cutting straight into her heart and then he called out, “Ready now! Everyone with me! For the sons and daughters of Skyrim!”
Ulfric charged forward with his sword held high, and as a single unit the Stormcloaks rolled with him like thunder, breaking through the gates of Solitude and diving into the bloody lake of battle like children who’d waited through long months of winter for a warm day to swim. Luthien had been summoning her magicka while he spoke, preparing to protect herself and her child, and she could feel that protection swarming around her like a warm cloak as she met with her first enemy just beyond the gates. She swung the Axe of Eastmarch right and strong, battering the man who fought her to the ground and trampling over his dead body to rejoin her brothers and sisters in combat.
Over the din of battle, armor rushing against armor, metal cleaving flesh and thunking through bone as screams rang through the night, she heard Ulfric’s laughter as he cried out, “Wake me up when you’re ready to fight!”
She spied him up ahead, he and Galmar fighting back to back, the old man joining in Ulfric’s laughter as he brought down his axe and cried, “I eat Legionnaires like you for breakfast!”
“Should I close my eyes to give you better odds?” Ulfric bellowed. “You call yourself a warrior? Come at me like a man and let Sovngarde take you.”
And then for a while she lost them both in the melee, smoke and ash drifting across her vision as Solitude crumbled burned around her. She broke through her enemies, renewing her magicka whenever the moment presented itself and then lowering the Dragonhide spell over her body before charging ahead once more. She came across Ulfric again, kneeling on the ground catching his breath and fear coursed through her. He was covered in the blood of the enemy, and had taken a sword across his left shoulder, his own life force leaking out to stain the feathers of his heavy cloak.
Gulping down a potion, she held her healing hands out to him and he quickly rose to his feet, shaking off the stun of battle and meeting her gaze with an appreciative nod before quickly lifting his stare to the rising shadow at her back. He charged through her, bringing down two Imperials that had been coming up behind her and then gesturing with a nod toward the barrier over the courtyard. She rushed ahead, hacking her way through the wooden horses that barred their way, and behind her Galmar and Ulfric flew into the courtyard with a fleet of Imperial enemies volleying arrows at their backs.
But the Stormcloak forces were still strong, and they met with that enemy, holding them at bay as she, Ulfric and Galmar battered their way to the door of Castle Dour. They stood back while she picked the lock, fighting off Imperial arrow fire, shielding her back and calling taunts to the enemies until she forced the lock and opened the doors to the castle, the three of them pushing through.
“Lock that door, Galmar,” Ulfric called over his shoulder as he stalked down the hallway, sinking his dripping sword swiftly through the first guard that ran out to meet him. The man fell with a groan, his blood spilling out to stain the carpet and stone red beneath him his crumpled form stilled.
“Ulfric, stop,” a female voice called out from the end of the hall.
He paused, resting his hand on his hip, great barreled chest heaving as he caught his breath. “Stop what? Taking Skyrim back from those who would leave her to rot?”
“You’re wrong, Ulfric. We need the Empire. Without it, Skyrim will surely fall to the Dominion.” Over Galmar’s shoulder, she saw the woman he spoke to, a Nord, golden braids holding the hair back from her, tired long face and eyes glistening with just as much righteousness as they had brought with them into the castle.
“You were there with us, Rikke,” Galmar moved toward her. “You saw it. The day the Empire signed that damn treaty was the day the Empire died.”
Galmar reached out for her shoulder should to shove her aside, but she shrugged off his touch. “Stand aside, woman. We’ve come for the General.”
“He has given up, but I have not,” she glanced back at the old man behind her, and Luthien’s gaze followed. General Tullius sat defeated on the bench in the shadows, she recognized him immediately and felt the force of her righteous anger reignite inside her. That man had nearly put her to death once, and today she would thank him for that with her blade.
“Rikke,” Ulfric appealed to her, an uncommon softness in his voice, as if this woman was an old friend he didn’t want to have to kill. Maybe she was, maybe she had once fought beside him in some distant battle in the Great War. “Go. You’re free to leave.”
“I’m also free to stay and fight for what I believe in,” she crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to move.
He drew his blade again, blood still smeared and dripping down its sharp, ebony length. “You are also free to die for it.”
“This is what you wanted, Ulfric? Shield-brothers and sisters killing each other?” There was such sadness in her face, it broke Luthien’s heart, but there was nothing she could do. Ulfric was on the threshold of everything he’d wanted, and no one was going to stand in his way, not even a woman he’d once fought beside when he’d been a Legionnaire himself. “Families torn apart? This is the Skyrim you want?”
“Dammit woman!” Galmar growled, leaning forward on the balls of his feet. “Stand aside.”
“That is not the Skyrim I want to live in.” Rikke drew her sword.
“Rikke, you don’t have to do this,” Ulfric said softly, his hand reaching out to her.
But she did have to do it, and when she charged with her blade drawn, Ulfric deflected the blow and staggered her backward. General Tullius rose from his seat and the fighting began. She didn’t see what happened to Rikke, only heard Ulfric call out, “You call yourself a warrior,” before charging in to bash her with his axe. Luthien set her sights on Tullius, beating him back with Galmar beside her until he was broken and bloodied on the floor with his arm up calling out surrender.
“Enough! Enough already.”
“You realize this is exactly what they wanted?”
“What who wanted?” Galmar cropped up on her right, his war axe still slippery with blood that spattered to the floor in little droplets at her feet.
“The Thalmor,” Tullius gasped for breath. “They stirred up trouble here. Forced us to divert much needed resources and throw away good soldiers quelling this rebellion?”
“It’s a little more than a rebellion, don’t you think?” Ulfric wagered arrogantly.
“We aren’t the bad guys, you know?”
“Maybe not, but you certainly aren’t the good guys.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but then what does that make you?” Tullius challenged, coughing as blood flecked his lips.
“You just said it yourself.” Ulfric stepped back to look at him, the man who had taunted him, haunted his dreams during the seemingly endless years of a war that could have just as easily claimed one and not the other.
“It makes us right,” Galmar barked, righteously swaying where he stood.
“And if I surrender?” General Tullius asked, looking to Luthien for mercy. Did he think she would reason with them, spare him because she was a woman?
Ulfric spat on the floor again as if the man cowering under them had cursed. “The Empire I remember never surrendered.”
“That Empire is dead,” Galmar said, looming in closer to the General, “and so are you.”
“So be it,” Tullius gave into defeat, lowering his head.
For a long moment they just stood there, the echo of battle outside still raging but the silence in Castle Dour was much louder.
“What are you waiting for? Just kill him and let’s be done with it already!” Galmar shouted.
“Come, Galmar,” Ulfric leaned back, a cruelty in him then that made Luthien shudder. It was the man she’d told herself couldn’t possibly live inside him, the Bear of Markharth, the keeper of the Grey Quarter, and in that moment his eyes burned so dark with hate it actually frightened her. But she knew in her heart that were their roles reversed, Tullius wouldn’t have granted Ulfric mercy. He would have gladly taken his head and stuck it on a pike in Cyrodiil—a warning to any who dared take up arms against the Empire. “Where’s your sense of the dramatic moment?”
“By the gods,” Galmar roared. “If it’s a good ending to some damn story you’re after, perhaps the Dragonborn should be the one to do it.”
“Good point,” Ulfric nodded. “My queen? What say you? Do you want the honor?”
Shaking her head, she couldn’t look at him. “That honor should be yours.” She knew she had nothing left to prove to Ulfric, so she stepped back, lowering her axe. “I’ve shed enough blood today, my lord.”
“So be it.” Ulfric hovered over Tullius a long time, as if he were truly weighing the deed he was about to commit in his heart. Luthien noticed then his hand was shaking, not enough for Galmar to see, but she saw it. Was it sadness, fury, conviction? She would probably never know. She didn’t feel brave enough to ask him.
When he brought down his ebony sword, General Tullius writhed in pain until he wrenched it free, and then he went still, a pool of red puddling beneath him as his dead eyes stared straight at her as if still pleading for mercy.
Had she expected the weight of the world to lift from her shoulders then? The grief of all her losses to the Empire to lift away and set her free? If that was what she’d been waiting for, it never came. Ulfric slid his bloodied sword into his belt and stretched his arms behind him, cracking his neck and turning to face them.
“Good, it’s done,” Galmar lowered his axe into his belt.
“Well,” Ulfric stepped up beside her, his heavy arm dropping across her shoulders. “I suppose some kind of speech is in order.”
“I’ll go gather the men in the courtyard,” Galmar conceded.
“Don’t you worry. I’ve sent my best men to round her up.”
Ulfric nodded, turning his attention to her. “Now then, the men will expect a speech. At last I can honor you as my wife, Dragonborn, and the truest of Stormcloaks. Will you stand with me?”
“Of course, my lord.”
“Very good. The people await us.” As they made their way toward the door, Ulfric reached down and took her hand, his strong fingers curling around hers and squeezing.