She told him of their plan to infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy while they walked, and loathe as he was to admit he thought Ulfric was actually right, Farkas outright told her as they approached the house she was insane.
“It’s only a matter of time before the Thalmor strike,” she pointed out. “If we can find something now, before they do, we may be able to rally allies to our cause.”
“I guess,” he shrugged. “It just seems reckless, like poking a bee’s nest with a stick. That’s all. Almost as if you’re handing them an open invitation to attack.”
“They don’t even know who I am,” she said. “I mean, they know Ulfric has a queen now, but they’ve never seen me. That will at least give me a small advantage.”
“Maybe. Just be careful out there. I don’t know what I’d do if anything ever happened to you and I wasn’t there to watch your back.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“You better be.”
As Farkas left her at the doorstep of Breezehome, he seemed a little more like himself, but even as he drew back from hugging her she could still see that haunted look in his eyes and it disturbed her. He’d been closer to death’s door than either of them had ever been, but had he actually come close enough that he’d somehow slipped through for a moment? Had Vilkas really been calling out to him from the great beyond?
She watched him make his way back to Jorrvaskr, finally shaking off that thought and stepping inside her house. The front room was empty, the fire still burning strong, a pot of venison stew slowly simmering over the flames. She followed the soft sound of snoring up the stairs and peered around the corner to see Ulfric sleeping in the bed. They hadn’t slept much in Riverwood and they had a long journey ahead of them, so she left him to sleep while she sifted through the reagents in her satchel to make a few potions for the road.
Alchemy had always drawn her deeper inside herself, giving her a quiet space within where she could think, and it wasn’t long before she found her thoughts circling back to Vilkas. She’d come face to face with Kodlak’s shade in Ysgramor’s tomb the day she freed him of his wolf spirit and cured her own lycanthropy. Kodlak had told her that he and many of the other Harbingers were hiding from Hircine, but after she’d set his spirit free he’d told her they would welcome him in Sovngarde. Shortly after, she’d gone back to the tomb with the twins and slain their wolf spirits as well so they could live out the rest of their lives as honorable warriors and men, but what if Kodlak had been wrong?
What if Vilkas was wandering, somehow lost between worlds, hiding from Hircine and the Hunting Grounds?
Hours seemed to go by when she was lost among her alchemy components, and she hadn’t even heard Ulfric’s heavy footsteps on the floorboards above. When he appeared behind her and asked if she’d eaten yet, she leapt back with a startled gasp, knocking a bowl of glow dust all over the floor.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he chuckled. “I thought you would have heard me coming. It’s not like this house offers much opportunity for sneaking around it.”
“I was wrapped up in my thoughts and my work,” she admitted, reaching for the broom to sweep up the dangerous mess she’d made.
“Who were you planning to poison?” he nodded toward the ingredients scattered across the table. Crimson nirnroot, glowdust, jarrin root, when combined under the right circumstances created a poison powerful enough to take down a dragon, but more importantly, an elf-witch who would never know what had hit her. “That is poison enough to take out two dragons in one shot if you coat your arrow just right.”
“Elenwen.” She swept the glow dust back into the bowl and lowered it to the table before brushing its remnants from her hands.
He laughed at first, but the laughter quickly faded when he realized she was serious. It hadn’t started out that way; she’d started thinking of Vilkas, but her mind had soon shifted to the task that lay ahead—facing the woman who had once tormented Ulfric so brutally it gave him nightmares. All she’d thought about after that was killing her.
“My heart,” he tilted his head, reaching over to brush the stray hairs from her face.
“I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors you must have seen at her hands, but every time I think of the things she did to you, I want to kill her for you, my love.”
“This is precisely why I did not want you to do this fool’s errand. If you let your woman’s heart get in the way, you will get yourself killed.”
Replacing the broom, she walked past him into the living room. “It is not my woman’s heart I am thinking with. You told me once that a woman’s heart knows forgiveness, but you were wrong. I cannot forgive the things she did to you. I will not.”
“Trust me when I tell you I would give anything to watch her die a horrid and painful death, but killing Elenwen now would bring the Thalmor down on Skyrim in waves. I am smart enough to know that we are not ready to fight the dragons and the Aldmeri Dominion both, and so are you.”
Lingering near the stairs, she drew in a deep breath. She could hear the stew bubbling furiously in the pot, probably burning to the bottom, but it could wait.
“You cry out sometimes in your sleep.” She didn’t look at him when she said those words, knowing it would shame him that she knew. “You wake me in the night, whimpering, trembling in terror and when I take you in my arms I can feel your tears on my skin.”
“I know,” he muttered so quietly she barely heard him.
She heard his knuckles crack against the clench of his fingers. “Dark, unspeakable things that are better left unspoken. I do not wish to relive them in that way. I only want to forget.”
“But you don’t forget,” she leaned into him, lowering her cheek against his shoulder. For a moment he just stood there, body still stiff, and then he brought his arms around her and held her close. “I wish I could take them away from you, so you never had to relive them again.”
“It is enough for me to know you would,” he whispered.
They stood together in that way a long time; Luthien only wanting to understand, Ulfric unable to share the darkest shadows of his past with her no matter how badly she wanted to take his pain away from him.
That night, it was not Ulfric who woke her crying out in his sleep, but just the opposite. She was running again, her arms heavy and aching with the weight of her children, who trembled with fear against her. Dragon fire raged and burned at her back, so hot she could feel it singeing the fabric of her gown, melting the earth beneath her feet until it was liquid. It pulled at her like so many hands as she ran, grasping to burn the skin of her ankles, its heat seeping into her bones, but she couldn’t stop running… couldn’t fall or she would drop them. Her babies; she had to keep her babies safe.
She could hear the mountains crumbling, the moons cracking in the sky and raining meteors down around her that sunk into the pools of molten lava rising up from the depths of Nirn to devour.
“Motaad, Dovahkiin. Aus fin bah Alduin! Taazokaahn fen mah!” Tremble, Dovahkiin. Suffer the wrath of Alduin. Tamriel will fall.
“No!” she shrieked, struggling against the hands that gripped her as she shot from sleep into the dark room like an arrow jetting from the string of a bow. Even as he shook her, she still felt like she was in that place, could almost feel the molten earth lapping like a thousand orange tongues at her skin while it dragged her down and swallowed her still screaming. Her arms ached, muscles burning with weight she’d never even carried.
Ulfric drew her to his chest, fingers tangling into her sweat-soaked hair as he stroked and soothed her until both her breathing and her heart rate began to slow again. “It was only a dream, my heart,” he promised, but try as she might, she didn’t believe him.
Though her heart was no longer like thunder in her ears, she was still trembling, still aching. “I feel his fire burning my skin.”
“You’re feverish,” he said. “No doubt you contracted something from those skeevers in Helgen.”
“No,” she murmured. “It’s the fires of Alduin. He’s going to eat the world.”
“Probably Ataxia,” he muttered, drawing back and pulling the blankets from his body. “Or Bone Break Fever. I’m going down into your potions stores.”
“Don’t go,” she pleaded, reaching for him. “I’m afraid, so afraid. I don’t want my sons to die like that, Ulfric.”
“Our son is safe in High Hrothgar,” he lowered his hand to her cheek in a gesture of comfort. “I’ll return in a few moments. I’m just going downstairs.”
She shivered and burned beneath the blankets while he was gone, her mind still stuck in that horrible place, her body wracked with aches and chills as the fever burned through her. When he returned and brought the bottle to her lips to drink, she sipped the bitter liquid until it was gone, already feeling the grip of whatever ailed her lifting away with every swallow.
When the bottle was empty, Ulfric gently pushed her back into the bed and covered her with the blankets, but he didn’t sleep. He drew the chair up by the edge of the bed and watched over her as she tossed and turned through treacherous nightmares, leaning in several times to draw her back from the brink of apocalyptic horror before it could completely devour her.
It was well into the late hours of the morning before the fever loosed its grip and dreamless sleep claimed her. She slept through the day, only opening her eyes once and seeing Ulfric asleep, slouched in the chair beside the bed. When she finally stretched awake, most of the aches gone from her bones, he was not in the chair and after dressing she went downstairs to find him. He wasn’t in the house at all, and her first instinct was dread.
Had he gone to talk with Farkas again? Her heart didn’t want to believe he would dare do such a thing, but her mind still wasn’t willing to completely trust him. She told herself she was only going into the market for some cheese to fill her rumbling tummy, but as she stalked up the hillside she moved past the stalls and up the stairs, her sights set on Jorrvaskr.
Her attention, as always, was drawn to the mad, passionate priest, Heimskr, who’d been standing in front of Talos as long as she’d been a citizen in Whiterun, reciting the same outrageous speech, but as she moved her gaze she caught a glimpse of Ulfric out of the corner of her eye. On the bench beside the statue, its heavy shadow cast across him as he sat with his hands together in his lap, head bowed in silent prayer.
She made her way past Heimskr and took a seat beside him, glancing up at their god with reverence. “I should have known I’d find you here,” she admitted, hiding the sheepish guilt she’d felt for immediately thinking the worst when she woke to find him gone. He didn’t need to know that, but it was enough that she’d thought it.
“It is not like home,” he mused, sorrow furrowing his brow. “I miss the silence of our temple where I can think, and fear Talos will not hear my prayers.”
Luthien leaned into him, glancing over at Heimskr who had just started ranting about maggots writhing in the filth of their own corruption. “He is listening,” she said. “What do you pray for, my love?”
“I pray for you,” he told her, rising from the bench and reaching for her hand. As they walked toward the shrine, he went on. “I pray for Hundr and all of Skyrim’s children.” He bent forward and activated the shrine, spirals of blue light circling around him as he stepped back and closed his eyes. Luthien followed suit, allowing the blessing to fully cleanse her. She could feel its tingling warm filling her from her toes to the top of her head, its peaceful resonance following both of them as they made their way toward Breezehome. “I ask only for the strength we need to see us all through the trying times ahead.”
“Talos is always with us.”
“I hope you are right,” he exhaled doubt.
Ulfric insisted that she rest more before they returned to the road. Even if she was feeling better, he wanted her at her best before making the journey to Solitude. It was a three day ride on horseback, but there was no telling what troubles they might meet on the road.
He cared so tenderly for her that night, bringing her warm soup in bed and then climbing in beside her to hold her as they rested quietly together. She let the comfort of his arms around her draw her into a false sense of security, and even though she knew nowhere was safe for them anymore—not as long as Alduin was out there—it was enough for her to know they would probably die together when the time came.
He confided in her as they lay together in the dark that night that though he did not fear death, a part of him worried about what would come of Skyrim if they were unable to succeed in their task.
“She will fall,” Luthien shuddered. “All of Tamriel will burn and crumble if we don’t get through this.”
“Is this what you see in your dreams?” he asked.
“We cannot let it be so.”
She was silent for a long time, her mind racing through every possibility. “Maybe we will have no choice.”
“Is that a hint of defeat I hear in your voice, heart of my heart?” He lifted his head to look over at her in the dark. “My woman does not let fear of defeat overcome her.”
“No,” she said softly. “Only uncertainty. There is so much ahead of us, Ulfric. The Empire, the Thalmor… it all seems so small when compared to the doom I see in my dreams.”
“We will get through it,” he told her, “all of it,” but she heard doubt in his voice then too.