The road to Riverwood was long and cold, but with some of the tension between them relieved, Luthien and Ulfric traveled more easily together, hardly noticing the difficult terrain and heavy ice that seemed to pelt so hard it froze their clothes to their bodies. Finding a safe place to make camp was almost impossible, and though she worried they would run their horses to death, Ulfric insisted it would be best if they just kept moving.
He didn’t say it out loud, but she knew he was thinking they would have been better off going north and making their way down through Whiterun Hold; and though two days earlier she would have hated giving him the satisfaction of knowing he’d been right, she told him as much as she chattered beneath her heavy cloak and he didn’t rub it in.
The only real trouble they met with, besides the heavy ice and snow through the mountains, were frost trolls. It felt as if an entire army of the massive beasts had been waiting in the shadows of the trees for weary travelers to pass through. When they climbed down to face two of the burly monsters together, they lost one of their horses in the chaos. Forced to ride together, Ulfric took the reins and drove the beast hard through the rocky terrain until they came upon the ruins of Helgen in the dead of night.
“What was that?” they heard a voice say from within the walls. “Did you hear something?”
“Probably just the wind.”
She looked to Ulfric, rolling her eyes at their luck. Who knew how many bandits had taken up residence in the burned and broken city? It turned out as they made their way through the gates that there were only five of them, but Ulfric and Luthien were exhausted and the ragged band of brigands gave them a run for their money. As she hunched over the last body, Ulfric went off to search out the ruins for anyone else who might have taken up hiding when the fighting started, finally reporting back to her that they were alone in the city.
“Do you think it’s safe to sleep here tonight?”
“Safer here than on the road,” he shrugged. “If there were any others here, they may come back, but if we take shelter in what’s left of the keep, we should be all right. From the looks of those clouds, we’ll be getting a storm soon.”
She followed his gaze skyward, to the thick mass of dark clouds passing across Masser’s light and looked toward the keep with a sigh.
Inside the shattered remains of Helgen Keep, they foraged for candles, and as they lit the remaining sconces still sturdy on the walls, they could hear skeever scurrying across the stone as old dust and cobwebs burned and filled the air with an acrid stench.
“I don’t think the bandits ever even came in here.” She trailed her finger through a layer of dust on the table almost a quarter of an inch thick and then wiped her hands together making a cloud of particles that tickled her nose.
“Maybe they were afraid,” he said. “It feels strange in here, almost haunted, like the souls of all who died here that day still linger.”
There were beds in the keep, but neither of them wanted to sleep where Imperial soldiers had once lain their heads. Luthien laid out their bedrolls in the middle of the floor, and they sat down across from each other to share dried venison and what little bread they had left between them. For a while they were quiet, the sound of the wind picking up outside and keening like a ghost through the ruined stone walls. She could easily see how one might feel uneasy inside those walls.
They hadn’t spoken much since she’d forgiven him, the long road keeping them occupied, but it really did feel as if a huge weight had been lifted from them, and though she knew things would never be the same, she had hope that maybe they could somehow be better.
The few torches they had provided just enough light that they could see each other, and when she leaned back to look at him, Luthien noticed he was grinning thoughtfully to himself.
“What?” she asked. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“I was just thinking, that’s all.” He tore a strip of venison and chewed it for a moment before sharing his thought. “This is a bit like a homecoming if you think about it. We are back in the very place that first brought us together, only we lived to tell about it. Helgen itself was not so lucky.”
“I remember you that day,” she told him. “I think about it sometimes, how much I admired you for standing proud against the Empire, as if you weren’t afraid to die for what you fought for and believed in. I wanted to follow you out of Helgen and take up arms that day, but then Ralof’s sister asked me to go to Whiterun.”
“Mm,” he nodded.
“Afraid to die?” He shrugged a little, pushing another hunk of meat into his mouth. “I wasn’t afraid of Tullius. He was a coward and a puppet. I would have died for Skyrim that day, if that was what the gods had wanted, but it would have been an awful way to go… without even a sword in my hand so I could go to the gods with honor.”
“It would have made for a damn good story though.”
He laughed softly, his eyes lighting up at the thought. “Indeed, it would have. Galmar and I used to make jokes about it, my head on a spike in Cyrodiil, fueling an already out of control fire only that much more. I suppose now that I think about how close it really came to happening, it’s not so funny, but the fact that I lived that day always confirmed what I knew in my heart was right. I was doing the right thing.” After a few thoughtful moments of silence, he asked, “What about you? Were you afraid that day?”
“I was terrified. I’d just lost everything I’d ever known, everything that made me feel safe, and I knew I was going to die too. I wasn’t ready to die. I was barely nineteen, but I remember looking at you and thinking how brave you were. I wanted to be strong like you and Ralof, so I swallowed my tears and walked up to the block. I remember looking back at you as I knelt down, and I swore I thought you looked into my soul then and really saw me, but then the dragon came.”
“Have you ever thought it a strange thing that the very dragon we go to fight is the one who saved your life?”
She nodded, reaching for the half-empty bottle of mead on the floor between them. “All the time. It’s as if a part of me owes him something.”
“A swift death, perhaps?” Ulfric mused.
“Maybe,” she looked down at her hands. “Master Arngeir told me once only I could decide what was right when the time came for me to face him.”
“You were so much younger then,” he said quietly. “If I close my eyes I can still see you, a freckled, frightened girl in rags running into the tower behind Ralof, wide-eyed and trembling like a flower in the wind with a haze of dragon fire at your back.” He reached across the space between them and brushed a lock of fiery hair from her cheek. “I should have known at that moment you were the lost part of me I had been searching for all my life, my woman. I just hadn’t found you sooner because you hadn’t been born yet.”
“Ulfric,” she tilted her face deeper into his palm, lips brushing across the creases and lines carved into his skin by the gods when they’d made him.
Closing her eyes, she felt him draw near, rising on his knees in front of her and lifting her face into his kiss. His gentle touch kindled a fire in her she hadn’t been sure would ever burn again, soft heat fluttering and tingling in her belly as she opened her mouth to receive him, his warm tongue gliding across hers as he drew her upward and against his chest.
As they undressed each other, she heard the distant clamor of rolling thunder crack across the mountaintop. Ulfric laid her back into the bedroll behind her, falling in above her and trailing kisses down the length of her neck as he entered her for the first time since their son had been born. She arched into him, her heavy, aching breasts crushed under the weight of his chest every time he came down to meet her, mouths gasping against kisses as their soft moans echoed through the ruins of Helgen and rain battered old stone outside.
It didn’t feel the same; at first she thought maybe it was just because it had been so long since they had come together that she could barely remember what it was supposed to feel like. Then she felt his warm breath against her ear as he descended, whispering, “My woman, I love you,” and she knew what had changed. All that time they’d been together, he had never fully given all of himself to her; he’d held back, carefully guarding his heart against her for fear that she would undo him and make him look the fool.
He’d said he loved her only a handful of times in the year they’d been together, and perhaps he’d even believed it then too, but as he brought her to the brink of release and carried her over the edge with him, their bodies trembling together in pleasure, she knew for the first time he was truly allowing himself to feel it.
Spent, but satisfied, she laid against his chest in the crook of his arm, watching the tattered old Imperial banner across the wall flutter in the wind that broke through the cracks in the stone outside. She listened to his heart and breath as he stroked soft fingertips across her shoulder. There were no words, nothing that needed to be said, and that was okay. For the first time in a very long, she felt content, and though she had regrets about so many things, loving her husband was no longer among them.
“I am not afraid to die anymore,” she finally said. “I’ve stood at death’s door so many times since that day, I know one day I will have no choice but to walk through it.”
“You are a brave warrior, heart of my heart.”
“If facing Alduin means going to my death, I need to make things right with Farkas.” She waited for his body to stiffen against hers. “He is my family, and I love him. He needs to know that.”
He remained soft and relaxed, fingers still traveling over her skin in circles. “It is not you he is angry with,” he sighed. “But if you must go to him and make things right, I will not stand in your way. I trust you.”
Raising her head to look down at him, his eyes were closed, his mouth relaxed, the lines that all too often furrowed his brow were soft and in the fading torch light he looked so young to her then. “Thank you.”
He brought his hand up to the back of her head, lowering her into his chest again, and there they slept through the long night while thunder hammered away at the mountains behind Helgen.
Heavy downpours of rain held them up in the keep for two days, and though the dark shadows of what lay ahead seemed to lay heavy on their shoulders, they were content with each other’s company. Exploring the ruins, they found little of consequence to take with them, a few old books Ulfric thought might be worth reading and a bit of coin, but everything else was just memories of an Empire both of them wanted to forget.
“We should rebuild Helgen,” she said on the morning of the third day. She stood in the doorway of the keep looking out at the looming clouds and wet ruins, glad the rain had broken long enough for them to leave that place. It wouldn’t be long before bandits took up residence there again, but if they could restore it, perhaps people would see the good Ulfric was capable of doing for Skyrim.
“Perhaps in time we will,” he agreed. “It could prove advantageous to our cause to have a strong city near the borders of both Hammerfell and Cyrodiil in our grasp, especially if a time comes when we need to look beyond our land for allies against the Aldmeri Dominion.”
Drawing her up onto their horse behind him, they sauntered through the broken streets, surveying the damage, Ulfric talking in great detail about how much gold it would take to rebuild a city that had been so brutally damaged.
“But it would be worth it,” he decided. “Perhaps when we arrive in Riverwood, I will send a courier to the other Jarls and we will meet in Solitude to discuss this when the business with the dragons is said and done.” He leaned his back into her, grinning over his shoulder. “You are a smart woman. I’m glad you are on my side.”