Delphine was pacing the floors of her hidden room when they made their way down the stairs to meet with her four days later. She spun around quickly and stalked toward them like a saber cat on the prowl, her blue eyes shining with intrigue.
“Well? Did you find anything?” She huffed, wringing her hands at her waist as she waited for answers.
“The Thalmor know nothing about the return of the dragons,” Ulfric informed her.
“Really? That seems hard to believe. You’re sure about that?”
“Why did you even send me if you weren’t going to believe me?” Luthien shook her head.
“Damn it!” she cursed, turning back toward the table and leaning her hands on both sides. “I’m sorry. I just… I really thought…”
“Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete and total waste of time. I managed to grab a couple things there that may be of use to us,” Luthien reached into her bag and lifted out the remaining dossiers, dropping them onto the table in front of her. “Everything they have on you is in that file, and it seems they’re looking for another Blade.”
“An old man named Esbern,” Uflric said.
“Esbern?” The woman’s voice actually cracked when she repeated his name. “He’s alive? I was sure the Thalmor must have gotten him years ago. That crazy old man.”
“So you know him?”
“Know him? Of course I know him. It figures the Thalmor would be on his trail if they were trying to figure out what’s going on with the dragons.”
“You mean aside from wanting to kill every Blade they can lay their hands on?”
Luthien’s temper boiled. “Enough with the attitude, Delphine. We’ve put our necks on the line, now who is Esbern and why would the Thalmor want him?”
“Esbern was one of the Blades archivists, before the Thalmor smashed us in the Great War. He knew everything about the ancient Dragonlore of the Blades. Obsessed with it, really. Nobody paid much attention to it back then, but I guess he wasn’t as crazy as we always thought.”
“Well, apparently, this friend of yours is hiding out in Riften. There was a prisoner there, a thief they’d been torturing, and if Esbern’s really there in Riften, it’s only a matter of time before the Thalmor find him.”
“Riften, eh? Probably hiding out in the Ratway. That’s where I’d go.”
“Me?” she balked, all the blood draining from her face. “I can’t… not with the Thalmor hot on his trail. You have to go, right away.”
“What?” Luthien tilted her head. “You expect me to go and find him? As if I don’t have enough going on right now, you want me to go into the Ratway in search of some crazy old dragon expert who may, or may not even be there?”
“Please,” she winced as she spoke that word, as if having to plead for help was killing her. “If anyone will know why the dragons are back, why Alduin is raising them from their burial mounds, it’ll be Esbern. He can help us…”
“Are you as sure about this as you were the Thalmor?” Ulfric interjected, his brow lifted in challenge.
Delphine blanched again, and then her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she looked away. “I was wrong about the Thalmor. I admit that, but I’m telling you. If we can get to Esbern, he can help us make sense of all this. I swear it.”
“We will do this thing,” Ulfric decided. “Find this old loremaster, but if this turns out to be as useless as your plan to invade the Embassy, we are done with you.”
“I agree,” Luthien added for good measure. She still didn’t trust Delphine; having been taught long ago that anyone who treated another person with that much distrust and suspicion was really the one who had something to hide. Whatever Delphine was hiding, Luthien didn’t want any part of it, and yet she found herself continually sucked into her game.
“I know Esbern will help us,” she promised. “When you get to Riften, talk to a man named Brynjolf. He’s well… connected, if you know what I mean. If anyone knows where to find Esbern, it’ll be him.”
“I know of Brynjolf,” Luthien remembered.
“Good. Then you’ll know exactly where to find him. Oh…” she paused a moment. “And if you think I’m paranoid, when you find Esbern you may have some trouble getting him to trust you. Just ask him where he was on the 30th of Frostfall. He’ll know what it means.”
As they made their way outside, Luthien’s shoulders slumped with a sigh. Ever since she’d met Delphine, it had been nothing but trouble. Frankly, she was starting to think she was more trouble than she was worth.
“So it’s back to Riften then,” she scowled, drawing her hood up around her head.
“It would seem.”
“That woman angers me.”
“And with good reason, but perhaps she’s right about this Esbern man. Maybe he can help you.”
“I’m beginning to think no one can help me.”
“We will find a way,” he promised her. “Let us seek out Ralof before we go,” Ulfric changed the subject.
“Probably already half-drunk by now and telling stories to anyone who’ll listen about dead Imperials that haunt his sleep and great battles that left him scarred.” Gerdur shrugged, digging her tools into the log before dragging it onto the platform with a thud that shook the entire structure. “I wish he was more help around here, but some men know how to do naught else once they’ve been soldiers.” When she said those words, she glanced toward Ulfric, eyes squinted as if she believed he’d single-handedly broken her brother with his war.
“Thank you,” Luthien nodded. “We will find him.”
“Tell him to get off his lazy ass and do something when you do,” she called after them as they were walking away. “I have children who do more work than he does.”
After much searching, they finally found Ralof sitting alone by fire outside Riverwood. He glanced up when he saw them coming, the dismal look he wore lifting into a smile.
“I’d heard you were dead,” he rose from the stone he’d propped himself on. “I should have learned long ago not to trust such rumors. It would seem you are invincible, Dragonborn.”
“It’ll take more than a few dragons to kill me.” Luthien stepped up and embraced him, noting that he reeked of sour ale and old sweat. “I’ve just spoken to your sister. Gerdur tells me you’ve been a little… estranged since the war ended.”
“Gah, Gerdur. She wants me to split logs all day so she can sit around and get fat and rich while I do all her work for her. I’m on the lookout for dragons. Someone’s got to protect Riverwood. Who’s going to do it, if not me? Gerdur? Ha! I doubt it.”
“Ralof,” Ulfric began, mouth twisting beneath his mustache as he carefully chose his words. “You were a good soldier. Galmar speaks often of your triumphs in battle and your skills as a leader. It was thanks to your strong leadership that the Stormcloaks were able to take Fort Snowhawk that day, and we have never forgotten all you’ve done for us.”
There it was, that way with words Ulfric seemed to have with everyone who encountered him. He could make anyone swell with pride in his presence with little more than a few well-placed words of praise, even if they weren’t entirely true. She knew for a fact that Galmar had never spoken so highly of Ralof; the Stone-Fist barely even remembered his name half the time unless someone else spoke it first.
“But as I mentioned in Solitude that long day past, dark times lay ahead of us. We may have won those battles, but a larger war lingers on our horizon. Even now I fear the elves plot in secret, but we will not sit idly by and let them take our land.”
“Those filthy Thalmor,” Ralof scowled.
“Galmar is rebuilding our troops, gathering the sons and daughters of Skyrim and there is a place for you among my personal guard if you would be gracious enough to accept.”
Stammering speechlessly, it took him several minutes before he formed the words, “It would be an honor, my king.” He nearly stumbled when he tried to kneel, but Ulfric reached out and gripped his forearms, holding him steady before him.
“The honor would be mine,” Ulfric conceded. “But before that day comes, I have an important task and I need someone strong, someone I can trust to carry it out for me.”
“Anything you ask of me, I will do.”
“First, you’ll need to sober up,” he laughed a little. “What I ask of you requires a clear head and all your wits. The queen and I head out to Riften this afternoon to take care of some unfinished business, but we will return in a week’s time. Spend that time getting back on your feet and we will talk then.”
“Of course,” he nodded somberly, a hint of shame in his eyes as he glanced down at the ground. “Whatever you need me to do, I won’t let you down. On my honor, I swear it.”
“You are a good man, Ralof. I know you won’t disappoint me.”
They took their leave and were on the road west before the sun had even made its way halfway across the sky. Helgen was still quiet when they approached, the bandits not having yet returned, and so they set up camp in the Keep once more, actually grateful for the disturbing quiet of the abandoned building.