Luthien did not see Ulfric for three days. She knew that wherever he was within the palace, he was grieving in his own way, but that didn’t make it right. Giving up their son was different for her. She’d carried him around inside her body, had felt him with her, kicking and pushing whenever she felt like she was alone as if he were saying, “You are not alone. I am here.” She longed for the comfort of her husband’s strong arms and whispered promises that everything would be all right, but she knew it would be nothing but lies, and her heart was tired and already full of so many false promises.
He’d told her he would help her win her war against the dragons after they drove the Empire from Skyrim, but his attention had quickly fallen to the failing Empire and Aldmeri Dominion and Alduin was still out there. She was no closer to defeating him than she’d been before she’d joined in his cause; she was further from it than ever. He’d told her they would protect their son, but he had sent their son away from them, entrusting his care and protection to someone else. He’d said he loved her, that she was the heart of his heart, and yet he’d left her there to suffer alone with her grief and despair.
She had known it from the moment her own heart had answered his call: Ulfric Stormcloak had only one love—the Season Unending, and as long as there were battles and oppression to be fought, High Queen or not, Luthien would always play second fiddle to his mistress, war.
On the fourth day, she dressed herself, braided the long red locks of her hair and lowered over her brow the golden, amethyst crown Ulfric had given her after the moot had named him High King. She’d had no one to wear it for until then, but that day she was making an appearance, whether Ulfric wanted to see her face or not.
She made her way down the long stairs and through the war room, into the main hall.
As she expected, Ulfric was sitting on his throne, his stare far off in a distance only he could see while the people of Eastmarch and the Rift brought their complaints and laid them at his feet. Dragons were burning their farms to the ground, sweeping down and stealing off with their goats and cattle. Bandits and brigands ran rampant in Riften, but that was nothing new, and Ulfric told them all as much. “These are things you should bringing to Jarl Laila Law-Giver, not me.” He looked up when she made her way into the hall and walked to the table to sit down, everyone growing quiet for a moment as they watched her walk through the room.
She poured herself a flagon of mead and leaned forward into the table to listen to the people of Skyrim cry out for restitution, protection and justice. It wasn’t long before they all forgot about her and remembered why they’d come in the first place, returning their attention to Ulfric and Jorleif.
“But something has to be done about the dragons,” one man hollered about the rising din of voices crying out to be heard. “What good is it, having the Dragonborn as our queen, if she won’t even lift a finger to rid the land of their menace?”
“My oldest boy was killed last month, trying to fend off an attack on our farm,” another railed. “Now I have no one to help me bring in my crops come harvest.”
“My good people,” Ulfric held up his hand. “I assure you that your queen is doing everything in her power to restore peace to our skies and our land, but you must all remember there is only one Dragonborn. She cannot be all things to all people at once. She is doing the best she can, but in the meantime, I can send men to the countryside to help you rebuild your farms.”
“What’s the point in that?” An old crone of a woman spoke up. “My husband and I have already rebuilt our farm once, and three weeks after we finished raising the new barn, the same dragon that burned it down the first time returned and set it afire again.”
Ulfric opened his mouth to speak, but Luthien had stood and called out, cutting him off. “Where did this dragon come from?”
“It makes its home at the peak of Northwind Summit, my queen,” the old woman said, bowing in front of her, the long folds of her worn skirt trailing out across the floor. “Night and day, you can see shadows in the sky, circling the mountain top when it isn’t busy burning our farms and our homes to ash.”
“Then I will go and take care of the dragon in Northwind Summit.”
“And what about the dragon above Kynesgrove?” The man who’d lost his son interjected. “A great, bloody black beast, that one is, with eyes as red as fire in the night.”
She only needed to close her eyes for a second to see the dragon he spoke of. Alduin, with scales as black as night and eyes like glowing rubies in the darkness. Why was he lingering above Kynesgrove? Would she still find him there, and if so, when she faced him would she be strong enough to stand against him. She didn’t think she was ready to face him yet, but the people of Skyrim were crying out for their champion and she had no choice but to answer their call.
“I will see to that dragon too. I will see to them all, but please, I ask that you give me time. As King Ulfric has pointed out, I am only one person, and though I may be the Dragonborn, you are not powerless against these beasts.” The left corner of Ulfric’s mouth twitched upward when she said those words, only reaching higher when she continued. “Arm yourselves with bows and drive them from the sky with flaming arrows if you can. Do whatever you can to protect yourselves and your families, and together we will show the dragons that the people of Skyrim will not cower in the wake of their ice and fire.”
Her rally had raised all of their voices at once, and it took more than an hour before Jorleif calmed them again and sent them away for the day. When the last one left the Palace of the Kings, Ulfric rose from his throne and joined her at the table, motioning for more food to be brought out. Luthien didn’t look up at him, but glanced over her shoulder and down the table to where Ysarald Thrice-Pierced sat nursing his mead.
“You handled yourself well with our people,” Ulfric told her. “You made your king proud today.”
Still not lifting her eyes to his, she said, “I am leaving in the morning to battle the dragon on Northwind Summit.”
“Then I will come with you.”
In his forty-three years, few had denied Ulfric Stormcloak and lived to tell about it, and he’d taken pride in that fact. One did not become a king by lowering his head and accepting defeat without a fight. Raising his chin, he tilted his gaze back to study her, eyes like tempered steel centered on her unyielding gaze. She heard Ysarald scoot his bench away from the table and stalk off toward the kitchens, as if the power of Ulfric’s stare had been warning enough for him to leave.
“What do you mean, no, woman?”
She had been foolish enough to believe the way he’d called her woman had been a term of endearment in the past, but it felt like an insult to her then—who was she to dare to challenge her man, her husband, her king?
“This is something I have to do alone. It is my burden to bear and you have your kingdom to govern now.”
“I thought we would do this together. You helped me win my war, now I will help you win yours.”
“I thought we were going to do a lot of things together, Ulfric,” she said. “I thought we would raise our son together, but you sent our son away so someone else could raise him and you left me to grieve him alone. For three days, I mourned him. Three days, I waited for my husband to come and grieve with me…to offer me comfort, but he never came. So I will do this alone as well.”
“You think I don’t grieve, woman?” His mighty voice echoed through the empty hall, but she did not flinch. “You think it did not tear my heart out to send my own flesh and blood away from me? I am so sick with grief and guilt, I can barely even look at you… my wife, who once loved me with all her heart, but now loathes the very sight of me because of the things I’ve had to do to keep the life we made together safe from our enemies.”
She wondered how many times he’d played those words out in his head over the last three days, if he’d imagined their confrontation when it finally came upon them and practiced that speech, just as she’d known he’d practiced his victory speech for months before finally crushing Imperial forces and claiming Solitude for the Stormlcoaks. Too many people thought Ulfric was a man of stark action, who acted rashly and allowed himself to be driven by emotional impulse and rage, but in the last year she’d come to know that his brooding silences were not silent at all, at least not in his head. He was always thinking, always looking for the next opportunity to come out on top by any means necessary. If she hadn’t known that about him, his words might have impacted her the way he’d hoped for them to.
But not that time; Luthien wouldn’t let him turn the tables of her own grief into an opportunity to martyr himself.
“If you can barely even look at me, then perhaps it would be for the best if you stayed here. Skyrim needs her champion right now, more than ever, and I can’t afford to be distracted by your selfish temper, Ulfric.”
She cleared the bench from the table and stood up, turning her back on him as she made her way toward the war room. He did not follow, and she did not look back, even though she could clearly see the look of shock he surely wore every time she closed her eyes. No one spoke to him like that, ever; no one but his queen, who’d learned quickly and early that if she wanted to earn his respect and his love, she had to speak to him from her heart, and right then her heart was filled with righteous anger unlike anything even the great brooder of broods could ever fathom.
As she passed through the war room and reached for the door, she caught Galmar Stone-Fist’s gaze and half-expected him to scowl at her, but she saw respect in his eyes when he lifted his mead to her just before raising the tankard to his lips.