They were able to make the journey to Solitude in just under three days, even despite having to stop and face several dragons along the road. It was as Ralof said, the dragon attacks only seemed to be increasing, and not just in Riverwood, but everywhere they went. They rode swiftly and spoke little, even when they made camp at night. The weight of what awaited them in Haafingar was heavy on them both.
Luthien had not been back to Solitude since the Stormcloaks took the city. Even when they’d left to make their way back to Windhelm after the war, they’d walked away from a smoldering city whose air was still thick with death, smoke and the dust of crumbling stone. She hadn’t been expecting to see it returned to its former glory so quickly, but Ulfric’s people had performed miracles, and save for the absence of Imperial banners hanging in the streets, it almost seemed as if there had never been a battle there at all.
“Solitude is a strong city,” Ulfric noted when she commented on how quickly they had restored it. “Not as strong as Windhelm, but she has her advantages. It is why the Empire always chose this place to seat their puppet kings.”
Even the people seemed to be in good spirits, milling about in the courtyard shops, children running through the streets playing tag and hide and seek as if there’d never been a war there at all. Many people had feared that a Stormcloak victory would doom them all to poverty and despair, especially after growing soft and becoming reliant on Imperial handouts. He knew the land and its resources better than anyone, and he’d assured her there was enough wealth in Skyrim to do more than just get them by. Ulfric’s vision meant to see them through the struggle of cutting those ties from the Empire until they grew as strong and self-reliant as their ancestors had once been.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I don’t have time to play tag right now.”
“Darn,” he kicked his foot. “I bet Svari you could run real fast. Now she’s going to expect me to give her all my taffy because I couldn’t prove it.”
Ulfric nudged her, grinning down over his shoulder at her. “Play with the children, Luthien,” he said, knowing how much it would mean to her. “I will scope out the Winking Skeever for our… mutual friend. Meet me there when you’ve finished your game.”
“All right,” she turned to the boy. “I’ll play tag with you.”
“Really?” His bright blue eyes widened with excitement. “Okay then, you’re it!” He reached out and swiped his hand across the hip of her armor and then turned tail, running into the square to meet up with his friends.
They chased each other around the streets of Solitude, Luthien feeling a powerful lightness in her soul that battled with her sorrow over the thought that she would never play such games with her own son. As she snuck up behind the boy and tapped him on the shoulder, he spun around, bright-faced and smiling as he looked up at her. “Wow! You really can run fast.”
“You tell Svari to leave your taffy alone,” she chuckled.
“What’s your name?”
“Kaydr, but Svari just calls me Kayd. You can too. What’s your name?”
“My best friend calls me Lu.”
“It was real nice of your father to let you come and play with us, Lu.”
She started to laugh again, not ever having endured that kind of mistake before. “King Ulfric is not my father. He is my lord husband.”
“You’re married to King Ulfric?” his eyes grew large with disbelief. “Wait until Svari hears I played tag with the High Queen of Skyrim. She’s never going to believe it!” His excitement bubbled forth in a host of questions that nearly overwhelmed her. “Does it really snow all the time in Windhelm? Is it true you slayed the entire coven of the Glenmoril witches? Do you really hunt dragons? My papa says you and King Ulfric are clearing the dragons from our land to make it safe. He says it’s the only good thing the High King has ever done for Skyrim, but I think Ulfric would have to be a good king to have a queen as pretty as you.” His face flushed with the embarrassment of his own flirtation.
“King Ulfric and I do hunt dragons, that much is true.”
“Wow. You must be pretty strong then if you fight against dragons. I saw one once while Papa and I were out hunting, just from the ground though. It was pretty big. Svari didn’t believe me, but she and I play at dragonslaying all the time. I pretend I’m King Ulfric and she always pretends she is you, even though she doesn’t really know how to shout. She just makes up funny words. Can you show me a real Dragon Shout? She would be so jealous.”
“No, I’m afraid not, little one.” His words struck a chord in her heart and she felt her chest tighten with emotion. In all her imaginings, she’d never thought there were children out there who played at being her. “But you and Svari keep slaying those dragons. Skyrim will need strong heroes like you one day, but I’m afraid really should take my leave, now.”
“Yeah,” he lowered his head sadly. “Thanks for playing with me, Lu,” he said as she began to walk away. “Hey,” he called out. “Do you really think we could be dragonslayers someday?”
“Of course you can. Talos be with you, Kayd.”
His words lingered with her as she made her way into the Winking Skeever and located Ulfric, sitting at a table in the center of the room with a mug of mead. She sat down across from him, scanning the tavern for signs of their contact.
“That little boy, Kayd,” she began, “he said his friends play dragonslayers together. He always plays as mighty King Ulfric and she pretends to be me.”
She watched the corners of his mouth draw upward. “I told you your people loved you fiercely, my queen.”
“I know, but I just… I never thought…”
“That you would be a living legend?”
“You are the Dragonborn, my heart. The bards already sing songs of your deeds, and parents tell their children stories about you when they tuck them into bed at night. You are a hero.”
It was almost too much pressure; she’d known the day the Greybeards had summoned her to High Hrothgar and Balgruuf the Greater had told her she might be Dragonborn, her path would take her places she’d never dared to imagine. Vilkas had once told her she should always be humble about the deeds she’d done, never let the glory and honor that came with her role go to her head, and she tried not to, but just knowing there were children out there who looked up to her made her want to always do what was right and good. She didn’t want to let them down.
Shaking her head, she eased her back into the chair behind her and tried not to think about it anymore, lest she float away on a cloud.
“Any sign of Malborn?”
Ulfric gestured toward a quiet table in the shadows behind the counter. “He’s been sitting there alone since I came in, the only elf in the place.”
“I guess we should get this party started then,” she sighed, rising from her chair.
“This elf friend of Delphine’s better not betray you,” Ulfric said, his face twisted into a scowl she didn’t even have to turn around to see.
“Delphine sent me,” Luthien said. “Are you Malborn?”
“Maybe,” he narrowed his eyes between them.
“I’m Luthien and this is Ulfric.”
“You? You’re the ones she sent?” His high brow wrinkled in disbelief. “The High King and Queen of Skyrim? Is she trying to get me killed?”
“Relax, elf.” Ulfric pulled the chair out so Luthien could sit down at the table across from their contact. “No one’s going to get you killed.”
“Ha! I find that hard to believe. If I didn’t owe her this favor, you’d be on your own. I don’t care what you’re king and queen of.”
“And people wonder why trying to reason with your kind leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. Lazy, good for nothing… You wish to live here and take advantage of all Skyrim has to offer, but you never want to give anything back to her…”
“Ulfric,” she shot him a sharp look that quieted him mid-sentence. Turning her gaze back to Malborn, she said, “Delphine told me you’ll be working this little party of Elenwen’s at the Embassy. Is that correct?”
“Unfortunately, yes. I can smuggle a few things inside for you if you need me to, but after that you’re really on your own. I hate the Thalmor just as much as the next guy, but I’d rather not have any part in whatever it is you two are up to.”
“Then I will do my best not to get you involved,” she promised. “And don’t worry, I won’t bog you down with too much. I just need my axe, my bow and quiver and a few potions.”
“All right,” he nodded. “Hand over what you want me to take in, and I’ll do it.”
Parting with Wuuthrad wasn’t easy. Even when she’d laid Ysgramor’s blade aside near the end of the war to carry the Axe of Eastmarch into battle, she’d known exactly where she’d left it and that it was going to be there when she got back. Ulfric had to actually reach over and uncurl her fingers from the handle after she’d handed it over to Malborn, whispering to her that she was making a scene.
“I’ll keep it safe,” Malborn assured her.
After parting ways with him outside the tavern, she tried to shake off the overwhelming sense of dread that weighed her down, commenting to Ulfric that she’d thought not having a blade at her back would have made her feel lighter, not heavier.
“You’ll get it back,” he said, resting his hand on her shoulder as they made their way toward the gates.
They were to meet with Delphine near Katla’s farm, by the stables, but as they made their way down the long bridge of land that suspended Solitude above the Karth River Luthien started having second thoughts about going through with the task. Maybe Ulfric was right; she glanced sidelong at him as they walked studying the lines in his forehead and the tight furrow of his brow that made him look almost angry.
“I’ll be all right in there,” she told him, though still not really certain of that herself.
“I know,” he muttered.
“I’ll get in and get out as quickly as I can.”
“That’s a strong plan,” he agreed. “I know I can’t go inside with you, but I’m going to take the carriage with you and get off on the road,” he said. “I’ve been studying the plans of the Embassy again and there’s a cavern behind the mountain. If I can get in that way, I may be able to help you.”
“What if someone sees you? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Do you think any of this is a good idea?” He slowed his pace and stopped beside her. Up ahead she could see Delphine, arms crossed and waiting for them to approach. “I know I said I would follow your lead, and I will do the best I can, but I can’t let you go in there completely alone. Not knowing what you face. Word of our arrival in Solitude has already spread, and before long I’m sure this whole thing will come back on us anyway.”
“You’re still afraid I’m going to kill that insufferable bitch and bring the Thalmor out in droves.” She grinned in jest, but he was not amused. “I’m kidding, Ulfric. I promise I’m not going to kill her unless I absolutely have to, and if you can get in the back door without being seen I will be grateful to have you at my back.”
“Are you two going to stand around all day? The carriage driver is getting restless,” Delphine approached.
“Last minute planning,” Luthien explained.
“Whatever,” the woman shrugged. “Did you get everything you needed to Malborn?”
“Good. Here, you’ll need to look the part. I brought you some clothes.”
She handed over a set of fine clothes, a golden orange gown and brown overcoat with soft leather boots. She ducked into Katla’s barn to change into her party clothes, Ulfric watching her back. When she turned in to face him, he reached out and straightened her sleeves before lifting his hand to the amulet of Talos. He fingered it for a moment, his soft thumb smoothing across the green hue of time across its bronze surface.
“My father gave that to me on my thirteenth name day,” she looked down at his hands.
“Talos cannot follow where you go tonight, heart of my heart. At least not in that way,” he lamented, lifting it over her head. “I will keep this safe until we meet again, I promise.”
First Wuuthrad, now Talos?
She had worn that amulet since she was a little girl; though her father had given it to her with a strict warning to always keep it safely tucked beneath her shirt for fear of drawing unwanted attention to it. Living in Windhelm and fighting with the Stormcloaks had allowed her to wear it with pride in the open. Reaching up to touch her naked throat, the doom that had followed her down the hillside after handing over Wuuthrad to Malborn increased tenfold.
“This is your last chance to change your mind,” he told her, following her out of the barn.
“I have to do this,” she said.
“I know, but it was still worth a shot.” He lowered his gaze in defeat, lifting the amulet up and dropping it down over his head where it fell in to rest atop his own.
“Jora,” she nodded. “Morthal. Right.”
“If anyone in there even suspects for a minute that you’re not who you say you are, you’re dead. Get in, find what we’re looking for, and get out of there. Do you understand me?”
“Good,” she nodded. “I’ll take care of your stuff for you. Meet me back at the Sleeping Giant when you have something for me. And Dragonborn, be careful in there. A dead Dragonborn is no good to anyone.”