Ulfric was ready to leave Solitude before Luthien had even risen from bed the next morning, her head still heavy from the wine Elisif kept pouring into her cup as she and Falk begged her to tell them more stories. It had been so late when she returned to her rooms, her husband had gone to bed without her, and only stirred long enough to draw her into his arms as she climbed beneath the quilt before drifting off again without a word.
He barely gave her time to dress, insisting they make for Windhelm without even breaking their fast before leaving. They would eat on the road, he said, and so they had.
She hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye to Elisif who, despite her unyielding hatred for Ulfric, wasn’t so bad once she got to know her a little better. Growing up in her village, Luthien had only had boys to play with, and before she’d joined the Companions and met Aela, Njada and Ria, she’d never had any female friends. She wasn’t sure that she and Elisif would ever really be friends, but they certainly had a great deal more in common than she’d ever expected. Elisif was young, only a year older than Luthien, and still grieved her beloved husband as if he’d died only yesterday. Luthien didn’t say as much, but it made her think of Vilkas, whom she’d loved so fiercely in their short time together.
Elisif spoke of Torygg with such longing, a few times she had to stop and hide her tearful gaze, giving herself a few moments to gather her composure again.
In their late night discussion, Luthien had quickly learned it was Falk Firebeard who ran Solitude; Elisif didn’t really have the head for governance, which was why she’d clung so desperately to the Empire. They’d told her what to do and when to do it; she’d never even asked why. More than once she’d lamented into her cup that Ulfric was a fool if he thought he could bring peace to Skyrim with war. Try as she might to sympathize with Elisif, Luthien was glad she was not High Queen. Without the Empire there to rule her land, Falk often had to intervene to make sure things got done and despite his Jarl’s hatred for Ulfric, Falk thought the man was a genius. Elisif seemed only too happy letting someone else do her job, but Ulfric didn’t want to hear about it.
“So long as someone is doing what needs to be done.” He mounted his horse and drew back the reigns, steering the beast leftward and away from the stables.
He was still upset about the dossier, obviously, and his mind was heavy with the weight of impending war. Whenever she asked him to talk to her as they rode side by side, he only looked ahead and muttered, “I don’t have much to say right now.”
“Please, don’t shut me out like this, Ulfric. Tell me, what are you thinking?”
“I think of my son,” he said.
Though he was always in their thoughts, they didn’t speak of Hundr often, and whenever they did both of them grew somber. “Me too.”
“I wonder what kind of man he will be.”
“Strong like his father,” she rested against his arm. “A good man and a good king.”
“I hope he is a better man than his father.” In the ridge above their camp she heard a lone wolf howl. “A man the Moot won’t hesitate to crown King should I die.”
“His father is a good man.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we will even live to see him grown.”
Luthien sighed; she had wondered that same thing at least a hundred times a day since she’d learned he grew in her belly and the number of times it flashed through her mind had increased tenfold the moment she first held him in her arms and looked into his soulful eyes. She had seen the world in those eyes, the future.
“I hope so,” she whispered, the tickle in the back of her throat making her eyes sting with unshed tears.
“So do I.”
“In my dreams there are two children.” She reached her arm up through his and found his cold hand, curling her fingers into his palm until he closed his own fingers around hers. “Both of them sons, with your eyes.”
He leaned out to look down at her, a flicker of hopeful light in his gaze for the first time since she’d shown him that dossier. “You’ve never told me that before.”
“I am afraid to bring another child into the world I see in my dreams.”
Ulfric lowered his arm around her then, pulling her close to him to share his warmth. They did not speak again until he told her to rest while he took first watch, but come morning’s light some of the darkness of his mood had lifted and she was glad.
A great deal of his confidence and swagger returned by the time they reached the gates of Windhelm, which even on horseback took them nearly six days. They arrived amidst a merciless blizzard that whipped their hair into their faces, the ice and wind greeting them by carving through the gaps in their ebony armor like frigid little daggers. Ulfric stopped on the stairs before the Palace of the Kings, Luthien lingering over his right shoulder, both of them looking upon home through the haze of snow with deep reverence.
Home. They were home.
Jorleif was in deep conversation with three Dunmer, who wouldn’t have dared to come into the Palace had Ulfric been there when they arrived with their complaints. The Grey Elves looked nervously over their shoulders as the king made his way toward the war room without even acknowledging that they were there.
Galmar Stone-Fist pushed up from his chair, almost startled, as if he’d been caught lollygagging by the king.
“Ulfric.” They stepped up to one another, a fierce, wordless greeting before they embraced, clapping each other hard on the back before finally moving back. “I’ve heard rumors, someone infiltrated the Embassy and stole some very important documents. Please, tell me it was the two of you.”
“It is not safe to talk here. However, there is much we need to discuss. Come upstairs to my quarters, old friend.”
Not until they were tucked safely behind the closed door of the Jarl’s quarters did Ulfric nod toward Luthien so she could explain. She told Galmar the story from start to finish, and while she spoke he stroked the knot of his silvered-blonde beard, mouth twitching as he chewed at the corners from inside.
“And now the Thalmor think they can use him because of the information they garnered from him during his capture.”
Galmar was quiet a moment, and then he leaned back in the chair, the barrel of his chest shaking with boisterous laughter that could surely be heard all the way downstairs in the throne room. “Are they daft?”
“I think we both know the answer to that question.” Ulfric drained his flagon and lowered it to the table. “With the Empire no longer holding Skyrim under their thumb, the terms of the White-Gold Concordat no longer apply here, and we have every right to drive them out of our land, but the Thalmor are a distraction I cannot afford to play to right now. Not with our soldiers still weak from the war and the dragons ruling the skies. I cannot even count on both hands anymore how many we have faced since leaving this place, but I want the Thalmor out of Skyrim. I would send a missive right now, but first I need to know we have enough soldiers in our ranks, trained and ready for the inevitable backlash.”
“Hmm…” Galmar lowered his hand to the table top, fingers twitching before they began to tap on the surface. “I will send word to the jarls in every hold and begin a recruitment campaign. In a month’s time our forts will be teeming with more Stormcloak soldiers than we can train, but at least it is a start.”
“Good,” Ulfric nodded.
“It won’t be easy,” Galmar admitted. “We may understand the threat Thalmor pose, but most of the men and women who would fight for us are not but young milk-drinkers, barely weaned from their mothers’ teets. No offense, my queen.” He nodded respect to her.
“There are few left who actually know first hand what horrors the Thalmor are capable of,” Ulfric agreed. “All they have are the stories of mad old soldiers and the propaganda the Empire has circulated for the last thirty years.”
“But we know, brother,” Galmar sighed. “And that knowledge is power. I will spread that knowledge far and wide, until all are rallied to our cause. The people of Skyrim are weak right now. Many of them suffering the loss of resources we endure since severing ties from the Empire, but we will make her strong again.”
“I knew I could count on you.”
“Is it too early to send emissaries to Hammerfell with a proposal for aid?” Luthien spoke up.
Galmar nodded as he thought that over. “It is never too early to begin bartering with potential allies, I think.”
“Perhaps not, but I have no one I can trust or spare to send to the Alik’r right now.”
Luthien’s mind churned on that thought, while Galmar and Ulfric continued their discussion. For a long time she watched the Stormcloak family banner sway under the high stone ceilings over the hearth, the great bear rippling under the rising heat. And then it struck her. That banner didn’t make her think of her husband. It reminded her of her fellow soldiers, and at that moment she thought of a soldier in desperate need of a purpose; one who’d fought valiantly for Ulfric, never wavering in his love for his king or his land—a soldier who would gladly carry out an order from his High King. Looking up between them, she grinned, which caught Ulfric’s attention the moment he saw it.
“I don’t like it when you grin like that. What are you thinking, woman? I know your heart yearns for adventure, but you have more than enough on your plate already. You are not going to Hammerfell. I don’t care what you say, I forbid you.”
“No, not me,” she shook her head, though she couldn’t deny that spending her entire life in the frigid tundra of her homeland had definitely made her long to see the vast Alik’r Desert. “But what about Ralof?”
“The boy from Riverwood?” Galmar grumbled. “He’s still alive?”
“Alive and well and wandering around Riverwood without hope or direction,” Ulfric nodded.
“Why isn’t he at Fort Neugrad with the other soldiers in that region? He should be furthering his training, not milling about Riverwood as if he’s got nothing better to do.”
“The war was difficult for him, and its ending has left him a bit broken. When last we saw him, his only hope was for further dragon attacks to fall on his town to keep him busy.” Turning his gaze back to her, she saw a familiar fire in her husband’s eyes—the fire and passion of the Season Unending sparking to life in his soul again. “This is good council, woman. I will draw up a proposal for aid before we leave Windhelm and we will speak with Ralof when we get to Riverwood.”
Galmar lifted out of the chair, stretching the muscles in his back as he rose. “It is a good idea, but I don’t think we should get our hopes up. The Redguard owe us nothing, and there are no guarantees they will side with us in this fight. Since they managed to stalemate the Dominion and get the Empire to surrender their land back to them, they’ve no reason to fight.”
“Perhaps not, but the Redguard loathe the Empire and the Thalmor almost as much as we do. Maybe even more,” Ulfric pointed out. “With the right words and promise of an alliance, I think we could win them to our cause.”
“Then it is settled,” the old warrior decided. “I will continue to build our troops and strengthen our forts as best I can. Where do you go next?”
“We are making our way back to Riverwood, to speak with Ralof and meet with the Blade woman who sent Luthien into the Embassy. From there, I do not know.”
“It feels as if we are no closer to solving this dragon problem than we were when we left this place two months ago,” Luthien sighed. “We found nothing about dragons in the Embassy.”
“Perhaps not, but the information we did find will be of some use to us.”
“Well, wherever the winds and snow take you, Talos be with you both.”
“And you, old friend.”
After they broke their meeting, Luthien bundled into her cloak and fought her way through wind and heavy snow to the Temple of Talos outside the palace to give Ulfric some time to work on his proposal for aid from the people of Hammerfell in peace. Even as the acolytes moved quietly about the temple, she felt completely alone in that place with her god. The great shadow of Ysmir hovered over her like a comforting cloak, and she bowed her head to silently pray.
As a girl, she’d prayed to the Shrine of Talos in the hidden under room at the Inn of the Last Home whenever her father gave her permission to go. It was always full of secret worshippers, praying for crops and good weather, peace and health. Luthien had prayed for such trivial things back then. She would ask Talos to watch over her horse and bring enough snow that she and her friends could frolic and skate across the frozen pound behind their village. Sometimes she prayed for her mother and father, for her friends, for adventures to come and take her away.
Now, much like her husband, she prayed for the strength to see her through every battle that lay in her path. She prayed for Hundr, Ulfric, Farkas and the other Companions, Vilkas’s soul in Sovngarde, and she asked for guidance through the darkness that shadowed her uncertain future. Maybe prayer to the father of the first dragon would have been more fitting, but she didn’t think even Akatosh could help her.
Long hours passed in that place, the wind eventually dying down, though she’d hardly noticed the lull in its keen. When Ulfric finally came in to find her, he said nothing when he sat down beside her and reached for her hand before he lowered his head in prayer as well.