“I heard you coming from a mile away.” She stepped out of the shadow of the tree that hid her and into the dim light of her own fire, an arrow pointed right at him. “I poisoned the tip of my arrow long before I even saw you coming up the path. I would have paralyzed you and then hacked off your head before you ever even knew I was there.”
“I know you’re angry with me, but poison, Luthien? Really?” He tightened his lips in disapproval, lifting his hand into his hair.
“What are you doing here, Ulfric?”
“I made a promise to you.”
“And I told you I needed to do this alone.”
“Do you really think so little of me that you actually believed I wouldn’t come after you?” He lifted his arms, crossing them over his chest. “The night you told me you carried my son I said I would follow you into the depths of Oblivion if that was where you had to go. I meant it.”
“Go home, Ulfric.” She sighed, not wanting to think about his honey-tongued promises and certainly not while gazing across a moonlit glen into his sad eyes.
“No,” he said, shrugging his shoulders up and stalking into her campsite as if his declaration of refusal ended the discussion. “I did a lot of thinking when I was on the road alone behind you. Whether you want to believe it, or not, you need me right now, just as much as I need you.”
She laughed, not realizing how ridiculous she sounded until it echoed off the mountainside and reverberated back to her in sharp stabs of sarcasm. Shrinking back a little, she felt her lips tighten. “You don’t need me.”
“You’re here because you can’t stand that I told you not to come, and you had to throw your weight around, just like you always do, to get what you want. Even if you don’t really want it at all.”
Ignoring her statement, he continued to rub his hands together in front of the fire, the gold of his wedding band catching light and glinting in the dark like some warm reminder from Mara of the promises they’d once made to each other. Damn Mara; she thought. To the Void with her and her blessings. Both times she’d fallen under the protection of Mara’s loving gaze had turned out quite disastrously, and though she wanted things to be right between her and Ulfric again, she didn’t know if that was even possible.
“I saw you fight the dragon in Shor’s Stone today. If the villagers hadn’t backed him into a corner and weakened him before you got there, do you think you could have taken him so easily?” When she didn’t answer, he went on as if her silence required pointing out, “You are out of practice, Dragonborn.”
Luthien brought her arms up over her chest, hugging herself against the chill in the air. Looking down at the ground beneath her feet, she reluctantly admitted, “I know,” with a heavy sigh.
“That doesn’t make you weak,” he said, as if to reassure her. “It just means you are out of practice, and if the villagers are right, and you climb Northwind to face not one, but two dragons at the Summit, you will not be coming back down that mountain alive.” She hated that he was right. “And what good is a Dragonborn to her people if she is dead?”
“Point taken.” She dropped down across the fire from him, avoiding his eyes.
Ulfric laid down his axe and unshouldered the pack he carried with him, lowering it to the ground and opening it to sort through it until he found what he was looking for. Drawing out a bottle of Nord mead, he tugged the cork out and dropped back onto the ground, situating himself until he was comfortable and then tipping the bottle to his lips.
“I raided Wuunferth’s potions stock before I left. I brought everything he had in his cupboards. Healing potions, potions to recharge and strengthen your magicka and stamina.”
He only nodded.
For a long time they were silent, and try as she might to avoid looking at him, she found herself gazing across the fire and meeting his eyes more than once. She wondered what he was really thinking, coming after her like that. What agenda had driven him from the comfort of his palace and into the world? Surely it was not out of love for her. No matter what he said, she didn’t believe he was capable of loving anyone, despite his expectation that everyone who came near him love him with all their heart or suffer his unyielding wrath. The night he’d asked her to marry him had not been some romantic display from a heart that couldn’t live without her love; it had been a strategic alignment, a future king looking for a strong queen his people would look up to when his actions brought them nothing but doubt and confusion.
And it was surely no wonder his subjects had doubt, considering the kind of man Ulfric was. Her own experience with him had brought her plenty of doubt in the last year. He’d manipulated her into loving him—though he was not entirely to blame for that. She’d let herself weaken against him, fallen prey to the soft side of him few people ever saw, and after his seed had taken root inside her, she’d grown conflicted in her love for him. After he shared his plan to send their son away, she’d hated herself for ever believing he would be a good husband to her. Instead of a comfortable home, Ulfric gave her a palace to live in. Instead of filling that cold palace with the warmth and laughter of their children, he’d sent their only son from her to be raised by old monks under terms that would never even allow her to see the boy until he was a man. She understood why it had to be done, but that didn’t make it okay in her heart. Learning that he had purposely kept Farkas, her only remaining family, away from her was the final straw that broke her already failing spirit.
If he could do those things to his own wife, what would he do to the people of Skyrim he claimed to love so deeply it made his heart ache?
Just looking at him made her feel sick and angry all over again, so she withdrew into the hood of her cloak and closed her eyes as she pulled the fabric around her, listening to the distant rage of dragons in the night. Whatever Ulfric’s reasons were for following her, she wasn’t going to let him get under her skin again.
“What’s your plan?” he finally broke the silence.
“Make my way up the mountain by day, sneak in and catch them off guard under cover of darkness tomorrow night.”
“The mountain will be treacherous, icy in many places and it will be difficult to navigate. We could go through the Northwind mine. It comes out just under the peak and might give us a bit of an advantage. We could catch them by surprise.”
“That mine’s been abandoned so long, I wonder if going through wouldn’t be more treacherous than the mountainside.”
Nodding, he corked his mead and pushed up off the ground to stand. “I will follow your lead.” Was he joking? Laying some trap for her to fall into? Ulfric Stormcloak followed no one’s lead. “You should rest. I’ll take first watch.”
As she nestled into her bedroll and started to close her eyes, she felt her blood begin to boil again when she realized that despite him saying he would follow her lead, he’d swept into her mission and taken control of it. Asking about her plan, sending her to bed so he—the big strong man—could watch over his woman and protect her as she slept. But she was too tired and annoyed to argue with him about it, so instead she lay awake for a long time trying to make sense of the chaos in her mind.
She hated to admit that he was right, but she did need help. She just wished it wasn’t him who’d offered it to her. That dragon in Shor’s Stone had been a challenge, and though she was sure she could have bested it without the help of the villagers, it would have been a close battle. It was foolish to march into a dragon’s lair unprepared, especially when more than one dragon waited there to meet her.
On the other hand, she didn’t know what she could expect from Ulfric in the face of a greater enemy. He’d spent much of the war for Skyrim’s independence on his throne planning victory speeches and strategizing from a distance. They’d fought side by side through Solitude in the final battle, and she’d been proud to see firsthand how fierce a warrior her husband truly was, but that had been a battle against men, not winged beasts with breath of ice and fire and booming voices unlike anything he’d ever fought in his life. And fierce as he was, Ulfric was not exactly a young man in his prime anymore.
Rolling onto her back, she stretched her neck toward where he’d perched near the edge of the trees. She could see only his profile, the long shadow of his nose, closed mouth twisting a little as he chewed at the inside of his lip. Cold wind whispered through his hair, pushing the strands across his scarred cheek, long braid fluttering softly beside his ear. A wolf’s howl in the distant turned his head right, obscuring him from view and she thought it was for the best anyway that she couldn’t see him. Just looking at him had stirred her emotions inside her, her heart aching for his strong arms around her, warming her against the cold that seeped beneath her cloak and chilled her to the bone. She curled onto her side, facing away from him then until troubled sleep claimed her.
She dreamed of Alduin; the same dream she’d been dreaming since Hundr’s life sparked in her womb. Two children in her arms, eyes like tempered steel that looked to her for protection as the black-winged nightmare’s shadow blotted out the light of the sun at their backs. When he landed in front of her, she held her sons close, but in a brave effort to stand beside her, the two of them lifted their small voices in chorus with hers, shouting back at the dragon.
Ulfric did not wake her so she could take over watch, and when she stirred in the frigid hour just before dawn, it was to the scent of meat roasting over an impromptu cooking spit, pheasant by the smell of it. He glanced back over his shoulder at her, a soft smile stealing across his lips when he saw she was awake.
She resisted the urge to start the day being cruel, biting her tongue instead of pointing out that he would never get to pass that knowledge onto his own son. She wondered if he ever even had regret about all the things he’d never get to teach him, all he’d given up when he’d sent his only son away to be raised by four old men who would never let him grow as spoiled and selfish as the man who’d fathered him. Maybe one day she would ask him, but for the moment she said nothing at all as she packed up her bedroll and then made her way to the fire to warm the cold from her skin.
He offered her first pick of the two birds he’d roasted, then sat back on the frozen ground as he pulled his own from the spit and turned his palm to catch the hot grease as it pooled and dripped down onto his wooden plate. She’d never really been in the field with him, had never thought about the skills he must possess as a soldier. He and Galmar had been Legionnaires once, soldiers in the Great War between the Dominion and the Empire, enduring things in that time that had lit a fire of hate for all elvenkind so strong in him that even other soldiers he’d once fought beside during that war couldn’t understand.
They ate in silence so still, not even the birds dared tweet as the edge of the sky began to grey with oncoming dawn. From time to time she caught him looking over at her as he picked the meet from those brittle bones with his teeth, but he said nothing.
After they finished breaking their fast and packed up the rest of their camp, Ulfric put out the fire while Luthien surveyed the hidden trail that would lead them up the mountainside. He approached, glancing over her shoulder at the map and then following her gaze to the game trail they would be following. It was going to be a long, dangerous hike, the mountainside slick with ice so thick in some places it would almost be impossible to navigate, but that had never stopped her before.
They kept their silence as they began the journey northward, an odd thing for Ulfric, whom she had always thought liked the sound of his own voice more than anyone else she’d ever met. Farkas teased her once that she must have had some secret thing for talkers; Vilkas had also liked the sound of his own voice. Sometimes when they lay in bed together at night, Ulfric would talk and talk for hours and she would just listen, only speaking if he asked her a question or if he was silent so long she thought maybe he’d finally fallen asleep. She had liked the sound of his voice then too, even after they’d returned to Windhelm from Solitude and she’d known she would have to give the life inside her away. His soothing, deep tone in the dark had made her feel safe, and for a time she was able to hide from even the truth.
She listened to the sound of his breath, which puffed past her like steam whenever he drew close to her back, and wondered why a man who loved the sound of his own voice more than anything else in the world wasn’t talking.