Smoke still lingered in the air like a thick haze, billowing in the wavering wind across the faces of Ulfric’s weary men and women. Their numbers were still strong, but they had lost a lot of good men in the battle for Solitude. Galmar would have to work tirelessly to restore their ranks for any Imperial attempts to reestablish their rule in Skyrim, and of course, the inevitable waves of Thalmor troops at their back.
Ulfric was still holding her hand as the survivors gathered around them, and when he lifted their hands together, the soldiers cheered. “Ulfric!” they cried, and “Skyrim!” and “Victory is ours.”
He let them clamor for awhile, as if once more playing to the dramatic moment, and when they were frothing in the bliss of their own victory, he cleared his throat and began to speak, immediately quieting the masses with nothing more than the sound of his voice.
“I am indeed Ulfric Stormcloak, and the woman at my side you know as Stormblade and the world knows as the Dragonborn. She is not only the truest of Stormcloaks, but also my wife, and she has fought savagely among you all to bring peace and freedom to Skyrim. And indeed, there are many who call us heroes, but it is all of you who are the true heroes on this day! It was you who fought a dying Empire that sunk its claws into our land, trying to drag us down with it. It was you who fought the Thalmor and their puppets who would have us deny our gods and our heritage. It was you who fought against your own kin, who didn’t understand our cause and weren’t willing to pay the price for our freedom, but more than that, it was you who fought for Skyrim, for our right to fight our own battles. To return to our glory and traditions, to determine our own future!”
The soldiers railed with joy, their united voices clawing at the silence like hungry wolves.
“And it is for these reasons that I cannot accept the mantle of High King.”
Those words stunned everyone in the courtyard, including Luthien, who shot her gaze left in surprise, her mouth opening with disbelief. Ulfric let them murmur among themselves for what felt like an eternity, some of them asking if it was all for nothing, others muttering that he was truly noble and deserving of the crown.
“Not until the moot declares that title should adorn my shoulders, will I accept it.”
“Yes,” Ulfric nodded, scanning their faces. “What about the lady Elisif? Will she put aside her hatred for me and her misplaced love for the Emperor and his coin so that the suffering of our people will end? Will she acknowledge that it is we Nords who will determine Skyrim’s future? Will she swear fealty to me, so that all may know we are at peace and a new day has dawned?”
Her small voice rose from the right tower, and Luthien glanced upward through the smoke to see the delicate, fair woman in the window. “I do.”
“Then it is settled. The Jarl will continue to rule Solitude, and I will garrison soldiers here to ward off any Imperial attempts to reclaim the city. And in due time, the Moot will meet to settle the claim to High King once and for all. There is much to do here, and I need every able bodied man and woman committed to rebuilding Skyrim. A great darkness is coming and soon we will be called to fight it, on these shores, or abroad. The Aldmeri Dominion may have defeated the Empire, but they have not defeated Skyrim!”
Their cheers and conviction lifted once more, echoing off the walls of the courtyard and reverberating back at them with dizzying effect. As the soldiers began to branch off, Ulfric turned in to Galmar and Luthien and smiled. He looked so young in that moment, like a boy who’d just come off the back of his first horse looking for his father’s approval.
“Eh, not so bad,” Galmar laughed, the gruff sound scraping through his throat as he shook his head. “Nice touch about the High King.”
“Thank you,” he nodded. “I thought so too.”
“It’s a foregone conclusion, you know.”
“Oh,” Ulfric was still grinning, a lightness about him unlike any she’d ever seen in the time she’d known him. Gone was the shadow of terror that had frightened her in Castle Dour, and for a moment he was the man she knew when they were alone, her soft-hearted lover, her strong king. “I know.”
“The Imperials are not going to leave us alone. They still have camps in the hills.”
“Indeed, they do, and we will root them out, one by one until our land is clean of their stench, but it is not the Empire I fear. I worry that our victory here today will draw the Thalmor attention to our shores. We must be ready.” He agreed. “But not tonight. Tonight, I am weary and for the first time in years I am truly hungry, Galmar. I wish to feast with my men and raise cups to our victory here today.”
“Of course, my lord,” Galmar conceded, stalking off toward the gathered men bellowing out, “Mead! We’re going to need barrels and barrels of Nord mead, men! None of that rot gut crap! True Nord mead!”
The feasting went on for hours, Ulfric milling among his men, Luthien at his side for the first time as his honored wife. It felt strange not wearing her armor, the billowy, blue silk gown Elisif had gifted to her in a gesture of peace and friendship making her feel almost naked, but not near as bare as she felt without an axe strapped to her back. Even worse was that as she smoothed it down over her waist after putting it on and stepped back to look in the mirror, the slight swell of her once slender belly was growing more visible and it was a wonder no one else had noticed.
She mingled on Ulfric’s arm, accepting congratulations from all who came to meet them, and listening to him tell stories of battles lost and won, great heroes who had risen and fallen under Imperial tyranny and of course, the love of two heroes that had to be hidden from an Empire who would have surely torn them apart. Whenever he spoke of her, he lowered his heavy arm over her shoulder and drew her near, proud to show off his new wife, the Dragonborn.
It was all very tiring, and though she was in no mood to continue playing the gracious role of someday queen, she had no choice. It was her place now and forever; she had sworn before Mara and her priest to stand beside Ulfric for the rest of her days and beyond.
She was grateful when she looked up and saw Farkas moving through the crowd, looking strong again as he approached.
“Brother.” She embraced him, her arms so tight around him she swore she could have broken him in half with the strength of her love. “You’re here. I didn’t think you would make it.”
“Wow.” He stepped back to look at her. “That’s just… I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in real clothes. You look… wow.”
She ignored the widening of his eyes, the flicker of regret she saw in them, and then he forced a smile as Ulfric approached, embracing the man as his brother and clapping him hard on the back as he withdrew to offer him his hand in gratitude and friendship.
“Your presence in battle was sorely missed, brother, but I am happy to see you’re on your feet again. Luthien was worried for you, and so I was I.”
“I’ll be fine after a long nap.”
“I think we could all use a good long nap.” Ulfric laughed. “And as much as I would like to take one, I don’t see rest anywhere in my future. I’m going to need every able bodied man and woman in Skyrim to help me rebuild our fallen cities.”
“So, should I call you High King now?”
“No,” Ulfric chuckled again, a hint of begrudging in his voice. “Not yet, not until the Moot meets and names me so, but that doesn’t mean I won’t start acting like it.”
“Spoken like a true king.”
“Look, Farkas, when we return to Eastmarch, I would like you to come with us. I want to offer you a place in my court as my thane. There is property there for you to purchase so you’ll always be near us. I have a feeling my wife would be miserable without her dear brother close at hand. ”
Luthien felt her lips twitch with a smile, remembering their conversations not so long ago about titles and land and concubines.
“I would be honored to serve you, my lord,” Farkas bowed to him.
“The honor would be mine.”
“Ulfric,” someone called from across the room. “Tell us how you defeated General Tullius again.”
“I’ve already told you,” he chuckled, drawing his arm away from the small of Luthien’s back. “But I will gladly tell you again.”
“Ulfric,” she reached for his wrist. “I am weary.”
“As am I,” he agreed. “I don’t think they will let me leave their company so soon. There are stories to tell and mead by the barrel. You go on ahead. I will find our bed before dawn.” Leaning down, he pressed his lips to her forehead and brushed the hair from her cheek.
“He still doesn’t know?” Farkas asked.
“I’ll tell him when he comes to bed,” she sighed. “If he comes to bed. That man can tell stories like no bard I’ve ever heard. I’ll probably find him with his face down in his tankard at dawn whispering of his victory to the empty chairs.”
“His people love the sound of his voice,” Farkas followed her to the stairs. “And so does he.”
“I will just be grateful when all this is over. I mean really over, and we can just go back to Windhelm and start our life.”
“So, you’re all right then? You and the… you know?”
“We’re strong,” she nodded. “Just tired.”
“Then I will let you rest. I just wanted to see you, you know, make sure you were okay.”
“I’m glad you came, and that you’re okay.”
“Me too. Look, I hope you can explain to Ulfric, but I’m not going right back to Windhelm with you. I heard from Aela. She’s got a lead on Lydia and I want to head out to see if I can find her, bring her back to us.”
“Is she all right? Do you need me to come along?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find her,” he promised. “And I’ll bring her home. You get some rest. You look tired.”
She nodded, her brow furrowed with worry. She reached for him, drawing him into her arms again and holding him close. “Be careful out there. Send word if you need me.”
“Will do.” His arms tightened around her, and for a moment as he rested his head atop hers, she swore he was breathing in her scent so he wouldn’t forget her when they were apart. “Take care of yourself. And tell that husband of yours I know a good locksmith if he does decide to lock you up in that tower of his.”
She didn’t want to draw away from him. She felt afraid then; now that the war was over and Vilkas was avenged in his heart, he would leave her and never come back. Even if he couldn’t find Lydia, what if he kept wandering until he got lost and never made his way home to her?
“Promise you’ll come back to me,” she leaned back, lifting her eyes to meet with his. “Ulfric is right. I can’t live without you, Farkas.”
Farkas nodded slowly, lifting his hand to move a stray lock of hair from her face. His fingers lingered there, just near her cheek, and though he did not touch her, she could feel him. “I’ll always come back to you, Lu. You are my family. You’re home.”
Those words lingered with her, long after he was gone. After everything they’d been through together, everything they’d seen and done, she knew his heart was still broken inside him. Home had been Vilkas, and Vilkas was gone. She had found the strength to move on, even through the war and the pain, she’d found love again, but Farkas would never have another brother, and try as she might to fill his emptiness, she knew in her heart she could never be what Farkas wanted her to be.