They rode hard through the icy mountain pass east of Helgen once more, braving the harsh and seemingly endless frigid wind and ice storms that always brought out the frost trolls in droves. They didn’t stop, driving their horses hard until the frustrated roars of at least half a dozen trolls echoed at their backs, but the trolls didn’t follow.
Coming out on the other side of the mountain mid-afternoon of the next day, they met with a party of Thalmor soldiers leading a prisoner west, and Ulfric leapt down from his horse with his axe drawn and ready to fight.
“This is none of your concern, citizen. Move along.”
“I am no citizen,” he challenged. “I am High King of Skyrim, and I demand to know what you are doing with that man.”
Luthien felt her breath catch in her chest as the familiarity of the situation sunk into her. Vilkas had died challenging a group of Imperials on the road. She dismounted her horse and drew Wuuthrad from her back, holding it up to show them she was just as serious as he was. But Thalmor agents weren’t like the Imperials. They fought with magic, and it was only a matter of seconds before she felt the air change with the sharp crackle of electric destruction.
The justiciar executed their prisoner with a quick flash of shock that sent the poor man flying.
But Luthien could play at that game too. She summoned her Storm Atronach and stepped back with a smug grin as it charged forward to attack. The sound of Ulfric’s Thu’um sent one of the wizards flying into the stone of the mountainside and he followed, his war axe lifted and his cry ringing in her ears. She followed suit, attacking the last, unoccupied elf, blocking its magic with her ward spell as she pushed forward in order to get close enough to attack. She felt her magic draining and there was no time to replenish with a potion. Before long she would have to let down her ward and fight without it, but not if she could summon a shout.
Fire. She’d always heard the elves were especially weakened by fire. If she could just knock it back long enough to let her magic recharge. Closing her eyes for just a second, the distraction dropped her ward. Even as the wizard’s shock spell seized her muscles, she could feel the power of the voice swelling inside her and then she let unrelenting force send the wizard rushing backward. He wasn’t wearing armor, only a set of black and gold robes, so when he hit the rock wall behind him it knocked him loopy. At her back, Ulfric was finishing off what was left of the elf her Storm Atronarch had bloodied to a pulp. She quickly gulped down a Philter of Magicka, grateful for the swift replenishment of power. Summoning fireballs into her hand, she let them fly, frying the stunned justiciar where he lay still trying to collect himself.
The overwhelming stench of burning hair and flesh filled the air and she knelt on the ground, covering her nose and mouth, her muscles still screaming and spasming against the destruction magic that had been flooding through her just moments before. She heard the heavy rush of Ulfric’s boots stamping through the snow and then his shadow passed across her back. He reached down and pulled her to her feet, worry creasing his brow.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she nodded, staggering back a little on her wobbling legs.
Her bag had fallen after she’d replenished her magic, and Ulfric knelt to pick it up, rifling through it and pulling out a health potion. She gulped it down, sighing relief as the pulses of pain began to reside from her muscles and bones.
“Maybe we should be sending our soldiers to train at the college in Winterhold,” she sighed. “What good is brute force against magic that strong? I could talk to Tolfdir, maybe we could send experienced mages to our forts.”
His brow wrinkled. “They are precisely the reason we should not trust in magic. Magic has never been our way. It is for those who are not strong enough to fight with their blades.”
Vilkas had carried that same staunch prejudice against magic, almost scoffing at her when she’d started to express an interest in nurturing her metaphysical talents. Even after she and Farkas had defeated the rogue Thalmor wizard, Ancano and the Psijic order had placed the title Archmage on her shoulders, Vilkas had regarded her with thinly veiled distrust every time she’d fallen back on her power to get them out of a bind or to draw one of them back from the brink of severe injury. Farkas had been the only who supported her from beginning to end. He’d enthusiastically volunteered to go with her to the college and had even learned a few minor spells himself so he could be of more use to her when they were in battle together. Though Ulfric gladly accepted her healing hands if she, he’d been known to offer the occasional derogatory comment whenever the subject of magic surfaced in their conversations.
“I know you don’t trust magic. Most Nords in Skyrim fear the arcane arts, and with good reason. Magic is a powerful weapon, and in the wrong hands, inexperienced or power hungry hands, its effects can be devastating. But even you can’t deny that magic has saved our skin more times than I can count. I have used my healing hands to bring you back to your feet. Battle mages could do more than just heal our wounded, they could summon powerful wards to protect them, conjure bound Dremora to battle and even reanimate the fallen dead to go on fighting.”
Deeply unnerved at the thought, she watched his mouth twist into a disgusted scowl. “That all may be true,” he conceded. “But still…”
“I only ask you to think about it. That is all. There are plenty of students at the college looking for glory, and they all love Skyrim just as much as we do.”
“Fine,” he yielded, turning over his shoulder to look for their horses. “I will think about it.” He sauntered away, following the distant whinny. Both of the beasts had taken off when the fighting started, and they didn’t catch up with them again until they came upon an abandoned shack just below the mountain pass.
While Ulfric rounded them up, Luthien sifted through the old shack for evidence of the previous owner. All she found was a dusty old journal telling of experiments gone wrong, the last entry dated three years prior. The hay in the bed had rotted long ago and the stink of the place was almost unbearable, but she heard the distant rumble of thunder rolling across the mountain, followed by the slow, steady sound of fat rain droplets pelting through the leaves in the trees.
“Maybe we should stay here tonight,” she said when he appeared in the doorway.
Wrinkling his nose against the smell, he shrugged his way through the door and looked around. “I think I’d rather sleep in the rain. It stinks like death in this place.”
“It’s no palace,” she admitted, “but at least it’s dry, and maybe a fire in the hearth will burn off some of that awful stench.”
“If you wish,” he shook his head.
The fire in the hearth did little for the smell, and while she’d been right about it not being a palace, she’d been wrong about it being dry. Within just a few minutes, the rain grew heavy, pelting across the rooftop and leaking down to drip on the already moldy mattress. She expected him to complain, but he didn’t, instead setting up their bedrolls as far away from the dripping water as they could and then settling down to root through his pack for something they could eat.
“Eidar cheese or bread or cheese and bread?” he lifted a bemused grin toward her and then reached for her pack to see what she had brought along. “Ah, more bread and two wedges of goat cheese…”
“I’ll have the bread and cheese, please, my lord,” she laughed, dropping down to sit beside him.
“Your bread and cheese, my lady.” He broke the loaf in half, the crust crumbling into his lap as he passed it to her.
“Thank you, kind sir.”
“We rule all of Skyrim, and yet we huddle in abandoned shacks and dine on five-day bread and cheese like peasants. I won’t lie to you. Sharing soldier’s rations with my wife in a broken down hovel that smells worse than a thousand chamber pots was not part of my vision when I imagined becoming High King.”
“You were probably all of five years old the first time you had that inclination,” she chuckled. “Sweet rolls and boiled cream treats for everyone in the land. Gods, I think I would cut off my own arm for a sweet roll right now.”
“My kingdom for a sweet roll,” he groaned, stuffing stale bread into his mouth, still laughing as he chewed.
“I love the sound of your laughter,” she said, leaning her shoulder into his as she nibbled on the dry, crumbling bits of cheese before they could fall into her bedroll. “I think because it is a sound I hear so rarely, I’ve come to treasure it. You’re a very serious man, you know. Very introspective.”
“I laugh all the time.” He drew left, lifting his arm and causing her to fall into his lap before lowering it back over her, hand sliding up to rest on her belly and tug her in closer. She pulled her legs up, angling them as she rested that way against him. “I know I do not say it often enough, but your happiness is everything to me. Some would say I was a weak man for putting so much stock in the happiness of my woman, but you are not like most women.”
Bringing her hand up, she ran her fingers through the coarse hairs on his chin before crawling them up his cheek. He nestled his face into her open palm, closing his eyes for a moment as he kissed her there.
“All the things you’ve had to endure, everything that lies ahead of you… You are the strongest woman I have ever known. Stronger than many of the men I have known too.”
“I don’t always feel strong,” she admitted, laying her head back against the relaxed muscle of his thigh.
“But you are.”
Outside the broken door swung on its hinges in the wind. She watched long streaks of lightning flash across the treetops, quaking thunder so bold she thought she felt the ground tremble beneath them. She felt Ulfric’s hand slip in behind her neck, curling fingers tickling the sensitive skin there and then he was lifting her up, still half reclined as he drew her into his waiting kiss. She shuddered a little, his mouth crushing hers before trailing down over her chin and into the curve of her neck as she stretched her head back to allow him to explore further.
For a long time, he only kissed her, soft, fluttering murmurs of lips over lips, some deep, some just a mere surface caress, but every single one of them beautiful. He began to undress her, peeling away the layers of fabric that divided their bodies. In the dim light of the fire, he leaned back to look at her, naked and inviting. Tilting his head for a moment, he drew in a deep breath through his nose, hand lingering over her shoulder before he lowered it to gently touch a series of trailing, fresh bruises that lined her collar bone. He brushed kisses across them, as if his lips had power enough to heal every wound she’d ever suffer.
He lowered her facing him into his lap, drawing her legs around his hips and rising into her so slowly her body ached with the need to be filled. His eyes searched hers as they moved together in that deliberate, drawn out fashion that would soon drive them both into a frenzy of burning passion not even the cold rain could extinguish. Echoing beyond their moaning gasps of pleasure and desperate pleas for more, yes more, thunder clamored and in the distance she heard the crack of wings against the sky and roaring dragon protest in the night.
This, she thought as his reaching hands came up to cup her face and draw her whimpering kisses into his hungry mouth. This was the story of Ulfric and Luthien, the tale the bards would never sing—the warrior king and his dragon queen in an abandoned shack on the road between Helgen and Riften, pouring rain and thunder, a host of dead elves on the road behind them and a vicious army of dragons waiting to meet them up ahead.
Her story had never been all that important to her. It had always been Ulfric who spoke of the tales the bards would sing of their deeds, but in that moment every detail of their story felt so important. It was their love that would bring peace to the skies and land of Skyrim, and if she ever wanted that story to be told, at least one of them had to live.
She wasn’t afraid to die, but it terrified her that she would die before her job was done. When she felt Ulfric’s body stiffen with release, his warmth coursing through her as his fingers pressed hard into her flesh and muscles when he cried out, she circled her arms around his neck and they sat that way for a long time.
It would be better if they both lived, she decided, nuzzling her nose into the crook of his neck before tasting the salt of his skin. They were balance, and without one she feared the other would fall.
“If I die tomorrow,” she began, leaning back to look into his eyes. “Will you see that my job is done.”
“You are not going to die tomorrow.” He kissed her forehead before lowering his brow to rest against hers. “Or the next day or the next day. I have a feeling the gods have far greater plans for you than either of us could even imagine.”
“But if I do…”
“If you die and I live, I will single-handedly break the neck of every dragon in Tamriel.”
“If you die,” she felt her throat tighten with those words, her emotions almost so overwhelming in that moment she could barely speak. “If you die and I live, I will single-handedly crush the Aldmeri Dominion.”
He was smiling, a bemused grin taunting the edges of his mouth. “Then it is settled. Sovngarde calls us, but at least we know our work here will be done if one of us must answer before the other.”