It would have made far more sense for her to head to Kynesgrove first, as it was just south of Windhelm and much closer than Northwind Summit, which laid northwest of Shor’s Stone in The Rift, but if the farmer who’d come to court spoke true, and it was Alduin in Kynesgrove, she wasn’t ready to face him just yet.
So instead, she traveled the southwestern road, skirting around Kynesgrove completely before making her way east again just past Fort Amol and continuing her journey until the road itself disappeared and she had to consult her map by firelight when she made camp that night to ensure she was on the right path.
It was a strange routine, getting back on the road, and even though it had been more than a year since she’d endeavored to meet with dragons, she realized as she leaned her back into the tree behind her that she was not used to traveling alone.
She and Farkas had spent so many nights together under the cold, open sky, reminiscing about old times and dreaming of home. Home, where Vilkas waited for them when he wasn’t there to keep them out of trouble. Home, where she could hang Wuuthrad on the rack and slip out of her armor and into her husband’s waiting arms. Vilkas would eagerly draw her to their bed and smooth the knots from her back and shoulders while she told him of her latest adventure, and then he would take her in his arms and love her with every part of himself so fiercely that afterward she would lie on her back beside him, breathless and warm, their fingers entwined, and their hearts racing. And he would argue with her because he knew she had to leave again and he didn’t want to let her go.
It had all been so much easier then. In the beginning, it hadn’t been so, but once she accepted what her heart had been longing for from the start, love with Vilkas had been easy; it made sense.
But it had never been so with Ulfric.
Young and reckless, fueled by grief and loss, she had followed the fire of Farkas’s rage against the Empire that had killed his brother to Windhelm and together they’d signed on with the Stormcloaks. The day she’d returned from Serpentstone Isle and proven herself worthy of Galmar Stone-Fist’s ranks, Ulfric began a game between them that would carry them into the twisted tale that brought her to the place she now sat. He’d asked her to show him the power of her Thu’um one day, and when she’d said perhaps she would, he’d leveled the hard steel of his gaze on her and asked, “And if I were to command it as your king?”
Later, he’d commanded her to warm her king’s bed, taking advantage of her broken heart and showing her a tender side of him few ever earned the privilege of seeing. She’d fought with herself afterward, but then it had happened again and again and again until it was too late and her heart began to beat for only Ulfric.
She couldn’t even tell herself that if she’d known then what she knew now, she would have stopped herself from falling in love with him. He had filled her heart with warmth and her belly with life, and both of those things seemed to far outweigh the fact that he’d brought nothing but war and darkness with him into her life. There was light in him too; she knew that in her heart. In the long months she’d been hidden away in their rooms, he would come to her at night and lay between her legs, resting his head and his hands on her swollen belly, claiming a man was only truly a man when he had a son to leave his legacy to.
“You have given me everything, heart of my heart,” he said, soft lips fluttering across her bare skin.
But everything was not enough.
And then she thought of her son, shivering in her armor as she wondered where he was, if Farkas had made it to the Throat of the World with him yet. If the Greybeards had stopped him at the door, taking the boy from him and sending him away without a word. She wondered if he hated her because of what Ulfric had done; if their son would hate her too as he grew and began to question where he’d come from, why his mother and father had sent him away.
The crack of a stick under foot drew her from her thoughts, quickly shifting her attention left as she unsheathed the dagger from her belt and slowly rose from her seat. Firelight flickered in the yellow of their eyes, three pairs of them staring back at her from the shadows, the dominant wolf growling as he stepped forward to show her they weren’t afraid.
Jamming her dagger back into her belt, she reached for Wuuthrad, drawing it forward and watching orange flame glint off the steel. Her mouth drew into an appreciative grin. It wasn’t dragons, but it would do. She charged into the circle they made around her and swung her blade wide, jaunting back and feinting left before striking right and relishing in the yelping howl of pain the first wolf made when it went down. The other two weren’t deterred by his fall, and they danced around her, snapping their jaws and snarling. She dropped Wuuthrad down into the skull of the wolf directly in front of her, the last one standing charging in and gnashing its teeth on her sleeve as she wrenched her blade free.
It wouldn’t let go, tugging and tearing at her until she did something she hadn’t done in so long, she felt as if she’d almost forgotten how. Drawing in a deep breath, she exhaled, bellowing, “FUS!” The wolf flew backward, tumbling head over kicking feet until it crashed into a tree several feet away, unleashing a whining yowl of pain when it landed on the ground.
Luthien rushed forward, swinging Wuuthrad as she ran and connecting with the beast’s neck, severing its head in one fell swoop.
Stepping back, she realized as she caught her breath that sitting in the palace all those months, growing heavy with child and feeding on sweet rolls had done nothing for her stamina. She was going to have to make every step a training exercise if she wanted to get back in shape to fight dragons.
She barely slept that night, tuning her senses into her surroundings and listening to the night world come alive. She heard a bear groan somewhere downwind, but its snuffling growls and footfall grew distant as it made its way north.
Before the sun even rose, she was back on her path, sprinting even when her breath grew ragged and heavy and retraining her magic skills. She practiced shooting fireballs as she ran, and calling her bound war axe into her hands. She cast her fire atronarch and watched it float toward her with nothing nearby to unleash its fury upon, but when she saw Shor’s Stone in the distance on the morning of her third day on the road, she drew her magic back inside herself and sheathed her weapons, slowing to a fast-paced jog as she approached the tiny town.
The sound of dragon rage and fire could be heard, smoke rising up in plumes, and she moved faster, racing in to join the battle already in progress. The inhabitants of the tiny village threw stones and shot arrows into the beast, backing it so close to the entrance of the mine it couldn’t spread its wings to escape into the sky, but it was charging forward, driving those who would fight back with heavy blasts of flame that set the thatched roof of the blacksmith’s home on fire.
Luthien ran forward, dodging left when the dragon moved right and swinging up onto its neck, catching it off guard. The rough brush of its scales against her armor burned the skin of her thighs, but she ignored it, finding her balance and pushing up to stand against the swaying protest of its head as it tried to throw her off. She brought Wuuthrad down into the top of its skull and it screamed in agony, jerking its head forward and sending her tumbling through the shocked villagers still standing with their arrows ready to launch.
“Shoot it!” she cried, righting herself and shaking the dizziness from her addled head. She ducked back, holding up Wuuthrad to stagger it when it stumbled toward her.
Arrows flew through the air, sinking into the dragon’s scales, and surprised, it leapt back two steps, its back crashing into the stone behind it. Luthien rushed in again, Wuuthrad swinging and connecting with the dragon’s jaw, black blood spraying warm across her face. She jaunted right, moving out of the way as it bucked its head toward her, showering her with another spray of blood when she pushed off her right foot and felt the muscles in her left arm guide and connect.
The dragon spasmed and shrieked in protest before its body shuddered and fell to the ground in a thunderous cloud of dust that washed back on her as she trembled under the force of its fall. Lowering Wuuthrad to the dirt, she leaned on its handle, catching her breath as the dragon’s soul whirled and streamed around her, tingling across her skin as it seeped through her pours and into her blood until it became a part of her.
“Is it really… dead?” she heard a woman’s voice behind her, drawing her back to herself.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes,” said a gruff man, stepping up to linger over her shoulder, kneeling on his knees when she turned to face them. “It’s really you. The Dragonborn. The Dragonborn has come.”
“Please, don’t kneel,” she lowered her hand to his shoulder, tightening her fingers on his shirt to insist he stand.
“But you are our High Queen,” the man lifted his gaze to her, his wide blue eyes filled with respect.
“No, but it won’t be long before his two brothers discover he’s gone missing and come after us.” Luthien cocked her head toward the man who’d spoken from the back of the crowd.
“There were three of them before you took care of this one. They made their home up at the summit, flying down here to wreak all kinds of havoc.”
“I will see to them, and your homes will be safe again,” she promised.
“And we will be in your debt.”
“How do I get to Northwind Summit from here?” she asked.
“You could go through Northwind mines,” a woman told her. “But they’ve been abandoned for years, and people say it’s haunted.”
“Or you can head northwest and take the mountain pass,” the man said. “It’s a dangerous trek, treacherous steep. Either way, are you sure you should be making this journey by yourself? Perhaps one of us should come with you.”
“Don’t worry about me. See to your homes. I’ll take care of your dragons.”
“Or they’ll take care of you,” she heard someone mutter under their breath.
She hadn’t been expecting to take on two dragons in the same place, she thought, lowering Wuuthrad over her shoulder and heading northwest, away from Shor’s Stone and toward the mountain that assuredly led to certain doom. At least she’d managed to increase her odds of success by getting rid of one of their numbers on the ground. It bolstered her confidence a little, to know she still had it, but she didn’t let it go to her head.
The people of Shor’s Stone had already begun the attack, weakening the dragon before she’d arrived. She wouldn’t have so great an advantage once she was at the top of Northwind Summit… alone… against two dragons. She’d be lucky if she even made it back down the mountain in one piece, let alone the victor of the battle that awaited her.
By the time she’d reached the craggy passage, the sun was setting and she didn’t want to chance losing her footing in the dark. She made camp in the trees, allowing herself a small fire, over which she roasted a small rabbit she’d shot with her bow. While she ate, she listened to the dragons roar atop the distant summit and she wondered what they were saying to each other. Did they rage at the loss of their fallen brother? Had they even noticed he’d not returned?
From time to time she could see the far off flicker of their fire, followed by a roar that echoed through the valley like a nightmare, and even though it should have scared her, it actually made her feel at peace. Master Arngeir had told her when she’d first gone to visit High Hrothgar almost four years earlier that her soul was the soul of a dragon, and that some believed the gods imbued mortals with this power during great times of need. She’d asked him at the time if that didn’t make it wrong for her to kill dragons and the old man had leaned back to look at her, his thick brows lowering over his eyes until she almost couldn’t see them at all.
“That is a wise question, Dovahkiin,” he said, “but only you can answer it. Meditate on it.” He’d bowed to take his leave from her, saying, “Breath and focus,” before walking away.
She’d meditated on that question for an entire day, lost in the silence of the monastery, but content with the strange comfort it had brought her during a trying and difficult time of her life. Would that silence and peace bring comfort to her son during the long, lonely years of his life at High Hrothgar, or would the cold isolation of the Throat of the World only make him feel like a prisoner?
Ulfric had once confided in her that the ten years he spent at High Hrothgar had created a great conflict in his soul. The fire of his heart had often interrupted the peace in his soul during meditation, making it difficult to concentrate on his studies there. He’d been meant to become a Greybeard himself, but by the time he reached his eighteenth name day, the warrior within ached to be free and so he’d walked away from that path in choice of a darker one. Would their own son one day face the same dark choice as his father?
Or would the conflicts he faced be more like those his mother stood against; the dragon soul inside her longing for the cold comfort of the open skies, a host of dragons at her back lifting their mighty voices.
Before she left her first visit to High Hrothgar, Master Arngeir asked her if she’d found the answer to her question in her meditations.
“When you are ready to hear it, it will come.”
She’d been listening for it ever since, but her mind was all too often muddled with the never ending sea of troubles always at her feet.
Lifting her gaze back to another display of fire that burned beneath Secunda’s white belly, turning it briefly orange, she heard footsteps then, humanoid and coming up the northwest passage she’d followed. Whoever it was, either didn’t know she was there, or they didn’t care, as they made no effort to cover up the sound of their movement. Thieves and assassins were rarely that stupid, but she’d killed a few bandits in her time who hadn’t had sense enough to quiet their own footfall.
She rose quietly, pulling into the shadow of the tree and leaning out to watch the road for signs of whoever approached. She listened for voices, but none came. As the figure grew clearer, she caught a glimpse of ebony armor, its intricately carved plate glinting in the white light of the moon.
Great, she rolled her eyes, leaning her back into the tree behind her. Skyforge steel was excellent armor, and she’d worn it proudly since the day Eorlund Gray-Mane had given it to her, but ebony was a whole new league and the man wearing it looked like a giant as he made his way toward her camp. Wuuthrad would earn his keep hacking through that armor if the stranger attacked.
He caught sight of her small fire, drawing toward it and scanning the line of trees for whoever had started it. Pausing where he stood just at the edge of the road, he lifted his hands up and drew off his helmet. As he shook loose his hair, Luthien gasped and gave away her position.