When he finally came back to camp, it was with a first year stag over his shoulder. It was more meat than the two of them would ever be able to eat, but she could cook as much of it as they could carry and they would take it with them. While he skinned and gutted the deer, Luthien lingered behind him, watching him work with his hands in ways she’d never expected to see. She’d always thought him pampered and spoiled, too proud to carry out such common tasks, but twice on that strange road they traveled together, he’d surprised her.
“You’re angry,” she said, ignoring his glare at her statement of the obvious. “I understand that, Ulfric. I really do, but you’re acting like a child over the words of a stranger.”
“I am not acting like a child.” He jerked his dagger through sinew and joint, breaking the last bit of bone away with a rough twist of his hand and tossing the broken leg into the woods for the wolves to gnaw on.
“On Northwind Summit, you seemed truly surprised when I said I thought you didn’t love anything or anyone but yourself, and you said that you would prove to me that wasn’t true. That you would be the man I needed you to be, but it isn’t just me you have to prove yourself to, don’t you get that? That man, the man I need… the man Skyrim needs you to be doesn’t care what others think of him. His pride isn’t so easily wounded by a stranger’s words because he believes in the things he is doing with all of his heart. All of the things he is doing. You have a good clear vision of what you want, but sometimes your temper gets in your way and it’s going to destroy you and everything you want for this land.”
“I believed in what I was doing when I sent our son to the Greybeards.” He lifted his strong eyes to hers, the light of the fire behind her lingering in his gaze making it difficult to make out his expression. “With all my heart, I believed that I was doing the right thing for my son, what needed to be done to protect him, and yet every time you look at me it wounds more than just my pride.”
“This isn’t about that,” she murmured, turning away from the burn of his desperate gaze.
“It will always be about that, woman,” he countered. “For the rest of our days together, no matter how many or few we have left, that will be what stands between us like a wall of stone. Luthien, I have never doubted anything in my life. Never questioned a single thing I’ve done, but one look from you and I feel as though everything I’ve ever done was wrong.”
“You’re the only one who can make it right.”
“I don’t know what I can do to make it right.” He threw up his arms. “I can’t take it back now. It’s done, and no matter how much you hate me for it, I know in my heart he will be safer there. Our lives are not but constant struggle and war, Luthien. Where would he be right now if he were still with us? Would you carry him into battles with dragons, strapped to your back, leave him at home where he would constantly long for you, or ignore the voice of the gods calling you to do their will, letting our people suffer so you could stay home and be his mother?”
She knew everything he said was true. She’d known it when he’d made the decision months before, but it still didn’t lessen the pain. It made her want to stamp her feet like a child and keen at the unfairness of it all. She’d never asked to be the Dragonborn. She hadn’t asked the gods to put a baby in her belly she would never be able to keep, no matter how badly she wanted it.
“I just wish…” Her words lingered there on the wind, the thought unfinished in her mind. She wished so many things, it was impossible to put them all into words.
She gasped, her hand lifting to cover the sound after it escaped her. “Why would you even say something so cruel?”
“Surely, you must think about it.” He rose from the carcass, two flank cuts of venison in his bloody hands as he walked toward the fire and dropped them into the cooking pot where they immediately began to steam and sizzle. “Why do you think I sent his brother away from you? His twin brother, no less, a constant reminder of what you lost always at your back, following you around like a lost dog.”
“This, Ulfric. This is what I’m talking about! Can you even hear yourself? How selfish you sound?”
“Because I can’t stand the thought of you with another man?” he shouted back at her. “Even if I don’t deserve you, I can’t stomach the idea that he would care for you better than I could. Give you a simpler life without bloodshed, battle and war, a life where you could come home and gather your children close to you knowing that everything you did out here, you did to keep them safe.”
“I don’t want a simpler life, Ulfric.” She stalked toward the fire, where he’d knelt to wash the blood from his hands in the slushy, melting snow. She blocked out the fire, casting a shadow across him that made it hard to see his face. “I just want the life I have to be a good one. I want to know that all the things I’ve done were the right things, to believe that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing what the gods have planned for me. I want to know in my heart that whatever their twisted plan for me, even you were a part of that plan for a reason.”
He stood, drying his hands on his cloak, his lips pursed tight together, the lines around his mouth disappearing into his beard. She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. Instead, he cooked and she watched, playing and replaying that entire conversation over and again in her mind.
She didn’t want there to be a wall between them. She wanted to be able to forgive him and draw comfort from the man who’d promised before Mara to stand by her through everything—prosperity and poverty, joy and hardship—through this life and the next. She’d promised to share his burdens and sorrows, as well as his joys and triumphs, to love him and stand beside him too, but the only way they could stand together was if she let go of her anger and forgave him.
How could she trust him, knowing he’d gone behind her back that way? Were there other things he’d done, things she didn’t even know about?
Everything he did seemed to benefit Ulfric and Ulfric alone. And then she would remember something gentle he’d done, something thoughtful and she would tell herself there was so much more to him just waiting to come out. If other people could only see that side of him… If he could just see it in himself…
But maybe he did see the potential in himself to be a better man. Maybe that was what he really wanted. He had come after her, even though she’d told him to stay away. He’d been so heartbroken when he asked her if she really believed he was the kind of man who’d just let her go off alone. That had to count for something, and the only way she’d ever know if he could really be the man she needed him to be was to give him another chance.
Wasn’t that exactly what Maramal had talked about that long ago day when she’d first met him and bought that amulet of Mara from him in the Bee and the Barb, before she’d ever known what paths her young heart would follow?
“Love is patience,” he’d said. “Love is kindness and forgiveness, but most of all, love is strength because it mirrors everything we must endure in this world, and to survive here we must be strong. Two is always stronger than one. Remember that.”
And she loved him. Mara bless her, she did; even if he probably didn’t deserve it.
Neither one of them ate much, just pushed the food around on their plates, both lost in thought. She wondered what he was thinking, and every time she lifted her gaze across the fire, he was looking at her too, wondering the same thing.
“You should rest,” he finally said, throwing his unfinished food into the fire as he pushed up off the ground.
“I’m not tired. You can rest if you want to. I’ll stand watch.”
He conceded with a nod, too tired to argue, and then walked over to his bedroll to lie down. He shuffled for a little while before finally growing still, but she knew he wasn’t sleeping. Ulfric was not a quiet sleeper, often filling the night with long snores loud enough to frighten off bears wandering nearby, but as she knelt near the fire keeping watch on their camp, he remained silent.
She didn’t know how much time passed before he got up, two, maybe three hours. She’d watched the sliver of Secunda cradle into Masser as they passed slowly across an endless sky filled with stars. Occasionally she glanced back at the still figure behind her, but for the most part she watched the sky and wrestled with her thoughts.
All she could think about was Maramal—the very first time she’d spoken to him, the things he’d said to them both the day they were wed, the way Ulfric looked across the space between them before Mara’s shrine, hands steady, eyes shining with confidence and pride. She even thought about what he’d said to her just after, when they were making their way to Whiterun. He’d reached over and touched her face with that gentleness she knew lived inside him, lamenting, “I would have liked to have seen you come to me at the altar dressed in blue silk, with golden flowers in your hair that brought out the light in your eyes.”
She had loved him so much at that moment it made her heart ache. Mara bless her; she loved him still.
He approached, startling her from her thoughts when he lowered his large hand over her shoulder and saying nothing more than, “Sleep.”
Lifting her hand up quickly, she caught him before he could withdraw, holding him there and leaning her back into his chest. He lowered his chin onto the top of her head, breathing her in as his strong fingers squeezed her tight muscle and then loosened as if he meant to pull back. She turned into him them, raising her gaze to look at him. His sad eyes always won her, their softness smoothing away the edges of her anger, quieting her resentments.
She brought her hand up to rest against his cheek, tilting her head as she studied him by the fading light of the fire. “I forgive you.”
His heavy brow wrinkled and lowered over his eyes, as if he didn’t believe her. Leaning back to look at her, she saw the corner of his mouth twitch as he opened it to speak, and then closed it again because he didn’t know what to say. For a long time he just looked at her, eyes filled with sorrow and confusion, and then he finally asked, “Why?”
Hand still on his cheek, she tucked his braid behind his ear and said, “Because I love you.”
“Woman…” he whispered. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Shh—” She quieted him by drawing her finger over his lips, and he kissed it, closing his eyes as she leaned in and replaced that finger with her mouth. She felt his hand on her waist, sliding around to rest on the small of her back before he swept her closer, drawing her into him.
It had only been a couple of weeks since he’d last kissed her, but it had been months since he’d kissed her like that. Or maybe he had always kissed her that way, and it had been her who’d been holding back, only going through the motions with him whenever they’d made love in those final days before their son had come into the world. She had told herself from the start that he would probably never love her, but what if she was wrong and he had loved her all along. She’d just been too blind to see it because the love she’d known with Vilkas had been so different.
Forgiving him made her feel as if the wall he’d said would always be between them could come down in time, and though they would never forget what they’d given away, they could heal together and try to find a way to move forward again.
Ulfric brought his other hand into the hair at the nape of her neck, fingers curling into it as he tightened his grip and held her against him. “I will make you proud to call me husband,” he told her.
“I believe you.”
Pulling back, he held her face in his hands as he pressed his lips against her forehead and said, “Sleep, my heart. The road ahead of us is long, and you will need your strength.”