Luthien caught her breath, leaning down over the dragon’s corpse and allowing its soul into her before she rose again and walked to the word wall it had been protecting. As the power of the word swept out to meet her, it refreshed her spirit, invigorating her with its force until she and the word were one. So wrapped up in that moment, she hadn’t heard Ulfric come up behind her until his hand came down on her shoulder.
“What was that?”
“Aura whisper,” she murmured, turning back to look at him, still glowing as the thu’um mingled with the dragon souls inside her, body and mind learning the way of that word.
Squinting, he shook his head. “Aura whisper?”
“A word of power. The dragons were protecting it.”
“From you?” He followed as she made her way from the wall and toward the shack.
“A dragon priest? Master Arngeir told me about them years ago.”
She began to strip out of her armor, unbuckling the straps and wrenching it off to relieve the pressure from her chest. The chest plate was dented and cracked, and as she drew it back to look it over she saw it was washed in dragon blood. Eorlund Grey-Mane had given her that armor the day she’d joined the companions, Vilkas telling her to go up and get some decent armor to avoid stoking unnecessary confrontations from Imperial sympathizers in Whiterun. It had seen her through more battles than she cared to remember, and its breaking felt like a bad omen, but she wasn’t sure Eorlund had designed it for her with dragon battle in mind.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, stepping into the shack behind her.
She hadn’t even thought about whether or not she was hurt, only that taking her armor off had made it easier for her to breathe. Glancing down at her the torn mail underneath, she had no wounds, at least none that were bleeding, but she would have a nasty bruise before long.
“That monstrosity destroyed my armor.”
“We’ll get you new armor when we make our way back to Shor’s Stone. Ebony armor. The blacksmith there is no Eorlund Grey-Mane, but his work is good.” His hand lowered onto her bare shoulder, but she didn’t have the energy to shrug it away.
“I don’t want Ebony armor,” she sighed. “This was my first real armor. It feels like… the end of an era.”
“It’s not the end of an era,” he chuckled. “Think of it as the beginning of something new. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve had to trade in the old, comfortable and familiar for something stronger, and you need something stronger. Something that’s going to keep you alive.”
“Maybe Eorlund can fix this,” she lamented, dropping it to the ground near her pack and reaching up to run her hands into the fiery locks of her loose red hair. “We should rest here tonight, travel back down through the mine tomorrow morning and head into Shor’s Stone to let the people know their dragons are dead.”
“Of course,” he nodded concession.
“I’ll take first watch if you want to rest.”
“I think we’ll be safe here,” he said. “The dragons probably kept the bears and cats away, and it’ll be awhile before they start to venture back into this place. We can both rest here in the shack, but if it would make you feel safer to keep watch…”
“I suppose you’re right,” she gave in. “But no fire.”
He began to take off his own armor, stretching out of it almost gratefully as he flexed the muscles of his shoulders together and drew his arms forward again. By the time Luthien had sat down to take some bread, cheese and leftover pheasant from her bag to share with him, it had grown dark outside and only the light of the moons lingered over the Summit.
Huddled in his cloak beside her, she could barely see him. When he passed the bottle of mead across the dark space between them, their fingers touched and he held onto the bottle long after she’d reached to take it from him. His thumb moved over hers, soft strokes of comfort circling her skin. He brought his other hand up and rested it atop her fingers, his skin warming hers as he held it there.
She shouldn’t let him touch her, she thought. It might give him the wrong idea, but even she was a bit surprised when he finally withdrew his hands and announced that he was tired and would take some rest. She had been expecting him to try and cull her anger with kisses, the lingering adrenaline of a hard battle won driving them into each other’s arms in a victorious fit of passion. If he had, she probably wouldn’t have been able to resist him, but he hadn’t and she was disappointed in herself for feeling disappointed.
It would be easy to fall back into old patterns with him, to take false comfort in the security of his arms.
Long after he’d gone to sleep, she sat awake in the dark with that bottle of mead listening to the familiar draw of his heavy breath as he slept and wondering if men like Ulfric could really change. She wanted to believe he could, but she had spoken true when she’d told him she didn’t know if she could ever trust or believe in him again.
The people of Shor’s Stone greeted them like heroes, bowing to their King and Queen when they approached with word that their dragons were dead. Luthien lingered behind Ulfric, not in the mood for posturing, and though she expected him to bask in the glory of their praises all afternoon, even he didn’t seem to relish in that limelight. He told them he only wanted his people to be safe, and then he followed Filnjar, the blacksmith, to his forge, and had the man craft a strong set of Ebony armor for his queen.
As she drew into it, she couldn’t deny the snug, perfect fit. Her movements were more fluid, and though it was heavier than her old Skyforge Steel wolf armor, it didn’t feel that way at all. When Ulfric tried to pay the man for his hard work and the valuable Ebony, a scarce commodity in Shor’s Stone, Filnjar refused the coin, saying it was the least he could do for the Dragonborn Queen who had rid Shor’s Stone of the triple menace that had been haunting their skies and their nightmares for too long.
“Your people love you fiercely,” Ulfric said once they were back on the road again, heading north to Kynesgrove. “When word of your deeds spreads, their love will only continue to grow until every bard in Skyrim is singing of your great deeds.”
“I don’t do this so people will love me,” she told him. “I do it because I must.”
“Your people love you nonetheless, my queen. You are their champion.”
“Well, let’s hope that I live through this meeting with Alduin, so I can continue to bring peace to the skies of this land.”
“How can you be sure it’s Alduin you go to face?” he asked.
“Black scale, red eyes… there is no other like him.”
“When you were doing all that research, did you find anything that might actually help us against him?”
“Not a gods damned thing.”
“Then perhaps we should go to Riverwood before we head to Kynesgrove. Maybe the Blade woman you met there could be of some use to you?”
“I don’t know.” She’d been set on going to Kynesgrove, but maybe Ulfric was right. She’d never faced Alduin, not since Helgen, not outside her dreams, and not even Master Arngeir had given her much insight when she’d asked about the first dragon. It had seemed strange to her at the time that not even the Greybeards seemed to know how to help her, and sometimes still bothered her when she thought about it. “We’re a long way from Riverwood.”
“What is that? Me leading, you following? It’s got to be killing you.”
“I am only here to serve you.” Ulfric lifted his ebony shield. “Think of me as your sword and your shield, my queen.”
Rolling her eyes, she looked away, refusing to give in to his jest. “We will go to Riverwood,” she decided. “But not because you suggested it.”
“Was that me who suggested it? I thought it was your idea.”
“Enough, Ulfric. Whatever game this is, just stop it.”
From the corner of her eye, she thought she caught him grinning, playful and without malice, but she was not ready to laugh with him. So instead, she said nothing else to him for the remainder of the day, and when they made camp that night she consulted the map to plot a route to Riverwood. If they continued to head south, further into The Rift, they could pick up the road west just past Rift Tower and Snapleg Cave. It would be a long journey through the foothills, almost worth going east into Riften to buy horses.
Ulfric watched her from across the fire, spooning stew into his mouth as she poured over the map and chewed at the side of her mouth while she thought. “We need to go further south,” she announced. “Into Riften to buy a couple strong horses, refresh some of our supplies. It’ll cut our travel time in half.”
“Though it would be the same if you count the number of days it would take to double back and head down to Riften. We may as well go North to Windhelm and get supplies from our own people and then head west down into Whiterun Hold.”
“All the people of Skyrim are our people now, Ulfric, not just the people of Eastmarch,” she pointed out. “But you can go back to Windhelm if you like. I won’t stop you.”
She reached for the wooden bowl of stew he’d laid down on the ground beside her almost half an hour earlier. Lifting it into her hands, it had quickly cooled, and she sipped at the lukewarm broth while waiting for his response.
“To Riften, then.”
“To Riften,” she nodded.
Most people didn’t like Riften, and with good reason. It was the infamous home to the failing Thieves Guild and Imperial sympathizer, Maven Black-Briar, who despite Stormcloak victory, still held the little fishing town under her heavy thumb. Ulfric had advised her on the road to think twice about walking through the piers of Lake Honrich broadcasting who they were or why they were there. Both of them hid within the hoods of their cloaks as they hiked down the stairs into the lower level slums of Riften in search of the alchemist so Luthien could restock her potions.
Unfortunately, word of strangers in Riften spread like wildfire, and when they made their way back to the surface streets the guards at the front gates drew them aside for questioning. “We’re just travelers,” Luthien assured them. “On our way to Riverwood. We stopped to buy horses from your stablemaster and refresh our supplies.”
“Then surely you’re aware of the exit tax here in Riften. Every traveler is required to pay 500 gold Septims when leaving the city.”
She could feel Ulfric tensing beside her, not used to being talked down to the way his own guards were speaking to them, but Luthien had dealt with the guards in Riften before. She knew how to handle them.
“Huh, that’s funny,” she said. “The last time I was here, you told me it was 250 Septims to enter the city. Sounds like you need to get your story straight when hassling people who’ve been here before.”
“I uh… Hey, keep it down, all right? It’s all in good fun. Just a bit of a rib, to see if you’d fall for it. That’s all.”
“We didn’t,” she grinned. “And the next time you even think about scamming a traveler passing through Riften, you better hope I don’t hear of it. Or I’ll take you straight to the High King and Queen to answer for your crimes.”
He laughed a little when she said that, muttering under his breath that the High King and Queen of Skyrim didn’t give a damn about the people of Riften, as she and Ulfric passed through the gates.
Ulfric fumed beneath his hood, letting her deal with the horsemaster while he stood outside the stables staring back at the gates with fire in his eyes. He didn’t unleash his tirade until they were on horseback and riding west, away from the city.
“That guard had a lot of nerve, wearing my colors while he spoke of us that way.”
“There are a lot of people who speak of you that way, Ulfric.” It almost stunned her that he hadn’t ever realized that before. “Being High King hasn’t changed people’s opinions about the things you’ve done. Not everyone thinks you are a hero. I’m sure if he had known who he was talking to…”
“It shouldn’t matter if they know who they are talking to. I command respect in my own country.”
“I have to… I have to earn it?” When he laughed there was no real amusement in his tone, only anger. “After all the things I have done for this country, for my people. I bled for every single one of them… For their freedom.”
“Not everyone sees things that way.”
He brooded for the remainder of the day, scowling into his hood as they rode side by side. When they made camp that night on the other side of Treva’s Watch, Ulfric threw down his bag and without a word stalked off into the sparse woods near the river with his bow and quiver. Luthien started a fire, her mind occupied with his righteous anger. Had he really expected that all those who opposed him in the war for Skyrim would fall to their knees in reverence when all was said and done?
She had been trying to understand the way Ulfric’s mind worked since she met him. He commanded unyielding love and allegiance, never taking kindly to anyone who questioned him or his right to rule, but he needed to learn that while a kingdom could be bought with force and coin, respect could not. It was earned with deeds and valor, both of which he kept on short supply.
His vision was all too often obscured by his temper, a temper strong enough to shatter an empire—maybe even the land he claimed to love with all his heart, if he didn’t learn to keep it in check. He often dreamed of the songs bards would one day sing of King Ulfric, but she feared sometimes they would remember him as a tyrant. Worst of all, at forty-four, he was not a young man anymore, and he was set in his ways. Her father used to say an old dog couldn’t unlearn the things he’d been taught when he was just a pup, but if Ulfric couldn’t find a balance between what he wanted and what was best for his people, he would doom them all.
He said he had married her because she spoke to him with her heart, but none of those were things she’d ever felt strong enough to say to him. Perhaps now, as they were already teetering on the edge of disaster together, everything hanging in the balance…