They heard the dragon attacking Riverwood as they were galloping up the road. Great plumes of smoke billowed toward the sky and the echo of its snarling screams had sent flocks of birds scattering from the trees from over a mile away. Ulfric dug his heels deeper into the horse’s belly, driving it forward faster, and they arrived just in time to jump down and join the townspeople mid-battle.
She was surprised to hear Ralof’s voice among those fighting, glancing up to see him still dressed in his Stormcloak gear as he pulled back his bow and shot one final arrow into the dragon’s belly, making it fall. It landed in the open water just behind the mill, its heavy tail dropping over the back half of the structure, splintering the wood.
Luthien stepped up to take the dragon’s soul, breathing it into her as the villagers gathered around, asking the same questions they all seemed to ask.
“Is it really dead?”
“Is it true? Are you really the Dragonborn?”
“What happened just there? Ysmir’s beard! You took its very soul!”
“King Ulfric,” Ralof bowed between them. “Stormblade, I hadn’t expected to see you here.”
“Ralof.” Ulfric embraced the young man, clapping him hard on the back. “It has been long since last we met.”
“Indeed,” Ralof agreed. “What brings you both to Riverwood?”
“Dragons,” Luthien gestured toward the shuddering corpse behind them. “Have there been many attacks here?”
“More than usual of late. It’s as if something has stirred them up. That’s the second dragon that’s attacked Riverwood this month, but we’ve grown accustomed to them and have been keeping them back as best we can. We probably would have been all right if you hadn’t come, Dragonborn, but we are grateful for your help, nonetheless.”
“We are headed to the inn,” Ulfric said. “Come, let me buy you a drink, soldier.”
Luthien had passed through Riverwood a number of times since the day she’d met Delphine there with Vilkas, but she’d always stayed away from the Sleeping Giant Inn. A part of her still sometimes felt insulted by the older woman’s attitude, but it was time to swallow her pride and admit that she needed help. With the Greybeards not offering much she could use, it left her with only one other options. She didn’t much like it, but she had no choice.
As they made their way through the doors, Sven the bard put down his lute and scowled at her, recognizing her immediately as the woman who’d come between him and Camilla Valerius, when she delivered Faendal’s false note all those years ago. She didn’t even know at the time why she’d done it, but seeing him still brooding about it made her grin a little to herself.
“Hard not to,” the surly cook grumbled.
“The ale has gone bad, something needs to be done about.” After a few seconds of silence, she belted out, “Are you even listening, Orgnar?”
“Yep, ale’s going bad.”
“Good, then you don’t have potatoes in your ears after all.”
Orgnar gestured with a nod of his head toward the travelers and Delphine turned over her shoulder, her brow furrowing for a moment, eyes squinting as if her vision was starting to go.
“King’s here,” Orgnar mumbled.
“Yes, Orgnar. I see that.” Delphine’s gaze only momentarily passed across Ulfric before returning to Luthien. “Dragonborn, I’d all but given up on you.”
“I thought the Thalmor would have gotten to you by now,” Luthien retorted, stalking toward the woman. “We need to talk.”
“Do we now?” Delphine tilted her head, blonde ponytail slipping over her shoulder, sharp blue eyes narrowing almost scathingly. “You’ve made it abundantly clear that you haven’t the stomach for your own destiny. What could we possibly have to say to each other?”
“I need your help.” Admitting that to the hard-wired woman in front of her wasn’t easy, but they weren’t going to get anywhere if they stood there trading insults and glares until the end of days. “With Alduin.”
At the mention of that name, Delphine’s entire demeanor changed and she glanced over at Orgnar. “Keep an eye on things up here,” she said. “You,” she turned to Luthien again. “Come with me.”
Ulfric dropped a handful of coin on the counter as they walked by, gesturing over his shoulder. “Drinks for the soldier.”
Once inside Delphine’s room, she closed the door and then eyed Ulfric suspiciously as she lingered near the wardrobe with the false panel leading down to her underground chambers. “How do I know I can trust you? Either of you?”
“Ulfric has no love for the Aldmeri Dominion, if that’s what you’re asking, and me…” she paused a second. “I’ve come to you asking for help. We need to trust each other, Delphine.”
“You think I haven’t heard that before? I trust no one.”
“After what the Thalmor did to the Blades, who could blame you?” Ulfric asked, startling her even more by admitting he knew who she was.
“Farengar told me who you were,” Luthien explained. “I had to threaten him a little to get him to talk, but he was the only one who seemed to know anything about you.”
“Damn him!” she cursed.
“After the stunt you pulled with the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, what was I supposed to do? I need to protect myself, just as much as you do.”
“Your secret is safe with us,” Ulfric promised. “I know trust is not so easy to give. There are few in this world I trust at all, but I trust the Dragonborn and she is right. We need to work together on this.”
Pinching her lips together tight in thought, Delphine gave in, but not without a swift warning that she didn’t care whether he was king of all Tamriel. She would put her knife in his belly without a thought if he betrayed her.
“Understood,” Ulfric conceded, watching her open the false panel and gesture for them to follow her down the stairs.
Delphine leaned her hands on the table and looked between them, waiting for one of them to explain. It was Luthien who cleared her throat, speaking first, while Ulfric stood behind her with his arms crossed. “It’s Alduin,” was all she said.
“The World Eater?”
“I have been dreaming of him,” she explained. “Black scale, glowing red eyes… I don’t know what it means, but I’ve read a few tomes from the library at the College in Winterhold, and they all seem to support the facts. It was Alduin who came first that day, destroying Helgen…”
“And it’s Alduin who’s been raising the dead dragons from the burial sites,” Delphine breathed out as if it all finally made sense. Lowering her chin into her shoulder, she went on. “The crypt over Kynesgrove was disturbed the last time I was there, as if the dragon that had been buried there just got up and walked away from his grave. That makes sense, but for what purpose? Who summoned him here, and why?”
“I was hoping you would know.”
Shaking her head, her blonde ponytail jostled along her neck. “I was never much for the lore, but I would be willing to bet the inn the Thalmor are somehow behind all this?”
“Do you have evidence to support that accusation?” Ulfric lifted his head, intrigued by that notion, as if such evidence would give him the reason he’d been searching for to strike first against the Thalmor, or at least give him the edge he needed to start rallying allies to his cause.
Delphine sighed. “Not evidence, just suspicion, but there is a way we may be able to get some inside information to confirm those suspicions.”
“Go on,” Luthien said. “I’m listening.”
“Elenwen is famous for throwing elaborate parties at the Embassy, in which the rich and famous are invited to hob-knob with the Thalmor. If we could get you inside one of those parties, Dragonborn…”
“Absolutely not!” Ulfric stepped forward.
“Ulfric,” she steadied his rage with nothing more than the soft way she spoke his name. “Let her finish, please.”
“No! I’ve heard enough. I will not send you into some Thalmor reception like a lamb to the slaughter. Do you have any idea the things they would do to you?” Ulfric’s body was covered in scars, including two fading gouges in his left cheek, that spoke of the things the Thalmor would do to her, but if they could gain proof that the elves were behind the dragon attacks, he would have an incredible amount of power in his favor. “They know who you are now.”
“Not necessarily,” Delphine interjected. “There are alteration spells that can be used…”
“Spells… Magic… Ha! I think not,” he laughed. “I have already spoken, and my answer is no.”
Luthien turned to him. “The Thalmor may know who I am, but they have never actually seen me, which will give us the advantage. Ulfric, how many times have we discussed the possibility that the elves were behind the return of the dragons? Information like that could be of use to us.”
“Think of the advantage that would give us when the Aldmeri Dominion takes up arms against Skyrim. You’ve said yourself that it’s only a matter of time before they arrive on our shores, but with evidence that they’ve brought the dragons back, we will have no trouble winning the support we need from those who have doubts. Hammerfell, for example.”
“We’ll find another way to rally support then. Listen to me, woman,” he ground his teeth together tight as he spoke. “Listen to me. That elf-witch is a nightmare, an evil abomination and I will die before I let her near you. Do you understand me? I promised you that I would never let the Thalmor hurt you.”
“Ulfric, I am strong,” she pleaded. “I fight dragons nearly every single day. I can do this.”
“It’s not about being strong, Luthien. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, how many dragons you fight. They find ways to make you weak, to make you do what they want you to do, say what they want you to say. They will bend you until you break, and then they’ll break you again.” She saw real terror in his eyes, and it frightened her. Ulfric was a fearless warrior, who would gladly go to Sovngarde with his sword raised high, but to die at Thalmor hands was no honorable way for a warrior to go. “I’m sorry, but you’re not going.”
“I’m sorry,” she pulled back from him. “But I am, and you can either support my decision, or you can go home to Windhelm without me. Those are your choices.”
His eyes widened, stunned that she would dare give him an ultimatum. “Damn it, woman. This is not some pissing contest to see which of us has bigger balls. Do you want to die for something this Blade woman isn’t even sure exists?”
“Of course I don’t want to die, but we’re all going to die if we don’t do something and you know that!” Over her shoulder she heard Delphine sigh, but she ignored it, lifting her fiery gaze to Ulfric and holding steady. “We have to take risks, Ulfric, you knew that when you followed me. There are no guarantees that either of us is coming back from this alive.”
“Then I will go in your stead.” His jaw was still tight, teeth still clenched. “I have faced Elenwen before. I know what to expect from her.”
“Which is precisely why sending you in there would botch the entire mission,” Delphine intervened. “The Thalmor would love to get their hands on Ulfric Stormcloak, the great usurper of power and killer of kings. They could put an end to all the havoc you’ve wreaked in a single stroke, and then where would Skyrim be? Back in the hands of the Aldmeri Dominion, stumbling three steps backward and struggling to find its feet again. If we send the Dragonborn, we have a better chance of coming out of this to fight another day with the information we take from them, information with the power to strengthen your call for aid when the time comes and possibly give us a leg up on this dragon problem.”
“I need to do this,” she told him softly.
She let him go, watching him disappear up the stairs and listening to his heavy footsteps on the wooden floor above. She sighed. Just when she’d thought they were making progress together, he’d shut down as soon as she challenged him. How were they ever going to get through this journey together if he stepped in her path whenever something he didn’t like cropped up?
She turned back to Delphine. “He just needs time. He’ll come around.”
“I can see why he married you,” she said. “A good king needs a strong woman who lets him know she stands beside him, not behind him waiting for his orders.”
“Nevertheless, his concerns are genuine. How certain are you we will even find anything we can use?”
Delphine’s face hardened with sorrow. “I can’t make any promises. But I feel it in my heart. They would do anything to break Skyrim’s back and make her weaker than she already is. The war took a great toll on the land and her people, but I’ve noticed that dragon attacks have become more frequent since Ulfric seized power. They have to be behind this. I just know it.”
“Why does a Breton care about what happens to Skyrim?” She hadn’t meant that the way it came out, realizing after she spoke how much like Ulfric she was starting to sound. She’d fought beside a number of Breton Stormcloak soldiers during the war, and their pride and love for Skyrim had passionately rivaled every one of Ulfric’s Nord soldiers. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
The woman laughed then, shaking her head. “Now I really see why he married you. You Nords are all the same, with your staunch prejudice against anyone who isn’t made of ice and stone… I swear, most of you are no better than the Thalmor.” She sneered.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Skyrim has been my home since before you were probably even born, kid, and what’s to stop Alduin from going further west when he’s done here, to High Rock and Hammerfell? South into Cyrodiil, Elsweyr, Valenwood and Black Marsh?”
“I am to stop Alduin,” she said.
“We’ll see about that,” Delphine drew in a breath through her nose and released it, as if trying to steady herself. “If you’re serious about doing this, let me know when you’re ready to go and I will make the arrangements. I have a contact in Solitude who works for the Embassy, a Wood Elf named Malborn who can sneak in a few things you might need once you’re on the inside. As soon as you say the word, I will send a courier to let him know you are coming.”
Nodding, Luthien took her leave then, hiking up the stairs and out the doors to search for Ulfric. She found him near the bones of the dead dragon, looking out over the quietly rippling stream behind the mill. The sun was going down as she approached, its last rays streaming through the trees and the ginger-gold locks of his hair, revealing a few silver strands she hadn’t noticed before. In that light, every year of his age seemed to show, or maybe the weight of the world was finally growing too heavy for his broad shoulders.
Approaching from behind, she lowered her hand over his shoulder and rested her cheek against his back, expecting him to stiffen against her touch the way he often did when she argued with him. She was surprised when he didn’t move at all, except to turn his head toward her to speak. “I said I would follow your lead.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I have never been one to follow. I don’t think I realized how difficult that would be,” he sighed. “You will turn the hairs of my beard grey, woman. Just the thought of her near you makes the acids of my stomach churn. What if this is all for nothing?”
“And what if everything we need is in there?” She tugged on his shoulder until he turned around to face her as they spoke. “Look, I know it’s dangerous, but…”
“But you will do what you must and I won’t stand in your way.” He closed his eyes, leaning forward until his furrowed brow rested against hers. “I just wish… I wish I could protect you from every darkness you must face, but I know I can’t.”
“No, you can’t, but we will get through this darkness together. We have to.”
“I hope you’re right,” he sighed again. “And I swear to you right now, where we stand, if she even so much as looks at you wrong in there and I hear of it, I will march into the Embassy to cut off the bitch’s head and start this gods damned war myself.”
“My champion,” she brushed her lips over his cheek, across his scars before finding his mouth and drawing him into a deep kiss. “My king,” she whispered. “We should take a room at the inn tonight,” she whispered, stepping back and tugging at his fingertips as she walked, eyebrows lifting to entice him.
He tried to fight the grin drawing at the corners of his mouth, but followed her all the way back to the Sleeping Giant Inn, where they locked themselves away behind closed doors for the rest of the night.