Luthien wasn’t going to lie. She’d liked it better when it had just been her and Ulfric, alone on the road. Not that Esbern’s magic didn’t come in handy when they met with an Elder Dragon on the road just near the abandoned shack where she and Ulfric had spent their last night alone together. He had stepped back in marvelous wonder as the dragon’s soul whirled and danced around her, seeping into her very pores until she and the soul were one. “It is true then,” he murmured in awe. “You really are the Dragonborn. Take those bones and scales. There is a potion that can be made…”
Despite his utter brilliance, the old man’s mind was more than just a bit scattered. He reminded her almost instantly of Tolfdir. Try as she might to get him to talk to her about the prophecies of the End Times, he almost always seemed to find a way to weasel out of discussion, as if he still didn’t trust them.
“I don’t care what you say, woman. I will die before I sleep in that gods damned shack again,” Ulfric told her, dropping his shield and supplies on the ground upwind from the shack. “We’ll set up camp outside tonight.”
He slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder and went off to hunt for game while she set up their camp, Esbern milling about almost uselessly while she did all the work.
“What? Did you say something? You’ll have to speak up. My hearing’s not what it once was.”
All the wrinkles in the old leather of his skin seemed to soften then, as if despite the bloody trail of dead Thalmor they’d left behind them in Riften, and the dragon soul he’d just watched her absorb, those words were what finally made him trust her. “It was a cold day,” he said. “The end of Frostfall is nearly winter in the Jerall Mountains. We heard the news at Cloud Ruler by courier, riding hard from the Imperial City. 30th of Frostfall, 171… more than thirty years ago. The Great War started that day. The Thalmor ambassador delivered his ultimatum to Emperor Titus Mede: the heads of every Blades agent within the Aldmeri Dominion. I knew that day that it was truly the beginning of the end.”
“Hm,” she didn’t know what else to say. It felt like just another reason to go to war with the Aldmeri Dominion; already there were so many.
“Is she well?” He interrupted her thought.
“As well as she can be, I suppose. She lives in Riverwood, just through the mountain pass and beyond Helgen.”
“I should have known she was still out there,” he said softly. “She always was a little spitfire, that girl,” and then he laughed.
“You said something, when we were back in the Ratway, something that I can’t stop thinking about.”
“What was that?”
“About Alduin. You said no one escapes his hunger. Here or in the afterlife.”
“Oh yes, that. Surely you know at least some of the lore. Alduin feeds on the souls of both the living and the dead, and though I can’t be completely certain, I believe his feasting ground, where he gains all of his power at present, is Sovngarde.”
That woozy feeling that overwhelmed her in the Ratway was back. Fortunately she was already sitting down. She needed only to close her eyes in order to hear Farkas’s voice, the words he’d sworn to her twice, that he could hear Vilkas calling out to him. Brother, I am lost. I’m lost and so afraid. Please, can you show me the way…
“There is much we need to discuss when we meet with Delphine.” The sound of his voice drew her from that dark place reluctantly, and when she looked up she was glad to see Ulfric stalking back to camp, several limp rabbits clutched in his grip.
She didn’t sleep that night, taking first watch with her back against a tree and her mind a million miles away. She could never tell Farkas; it would crush him in ways he would never recover from. Ysmir’s beard, she didn’t know if she was going to recover from knowing what she now knew. Despite the heart wrenching agony, it had at least brought her a little peace knowing Vilkas had died with his blade in his hand; that after everything they’d gone through to free themselves of their wolf spirits, he could go with honor to the Hall of Valor and spend an eternity. And did that mean Kodlak too? And what of all their shield-sisters and brothers who had died battling the Empire during the Civil War?
Ulfric woke slowly just an hour before dawn; she saw him sit up in his bedroll and scan his surroundings as if he’d forgotten where he was. He sat there collecting himself for a few minutes before standing and walking toward her.
“You didn’t wake me to take watch.”
“I’m not tired. Go back to sleep and I will wake you at dawn.”
“You’re not tired, or your mind is too heavy with thought to sleep. Which is the truth?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe both.”
He reached down and took her hands, drawing her into his chest. “What troubles you, my heart?”
“What doesn’t trouble me?” she mumbled, pulling back from his arms. “We edge closer to war with the entire Aldmeri Dominion, but even worse, we stand on the brink of the end of our world and I’m the one expected to hold it back. If I would have known this doom was coming, I would have held my son close to me so I could be with him at the end of days.” She was lying to herself when she’d said that. She had known it was coming; she just hadn’t wanted to believe it and it took hearing the words out loud from someone else to wake her up.
“Woman!” He reached for her again, holding her tight to him almost against her will. “You are strong. Whatever you must face, you will face it. You are the Dragonborn.”
“You know what that old man told me tonight? He said that he believes Alduin has turned Sovngarde into his feeding grounds. That he’s drawing his power from the souls of the glorious dead. Which means all those soldiers who died liberating Skyrim from the Empire have fed his insatiable hunger, Ulfric. People we loved, people we cared about, people who died for us…”
That stunned him to silence, the two of them just standing there in the cold grey twilight while their fire burned low at their backs and sputtered in the soft wind.
“Farkas told me something, something awful. When we were at Fort Hraggstad, he almost died, you know.”
“Yes, I remember,” he nodded solemnly.
“The next day, before I left for Solitude, he said he could hear his brother calling out to him when he was in that place between life and death. Vilkas was calling out to him, saying he was lost and afraid, pleading for him to come and show him the way. When we were in Whiterun, he told me he still can’t get it out of his mind. That every time he closes his eyes that voice is there and it terrifies him.”
Try as she might to hold them back, she could finally feel the tears she’d been fighting for days. When she blinked, they slipped down her cheeks, a flutter of warmth against her cold skin before dripping off her chin. He reached brought her back into his arms, gently that time, hands holding her head against his chest as she sobbed.
“What are we fighting for, Ulfric? I just… I don’t understand. If there isn’t any hope…”
“We fight so our son can live.” He lifted her chin and kissed her damp cheeks. “He is our hope in this dark world and no matter what we fight against, we will fight until our death if we must so our son and all the children of Skyrim can live.”
She wanted to believe him, and though she yielded outwardly, inside she still struggled.
The road to Helgen was quiet, the dead Thalmor still frozen where they’d fallen in battle, bodies littering the pass. They road straight through, not stopping in the ruins, but driving into Riverwood so late that it was actually early, the blue light of the rising sun cutting through the clouds that misted across the mountains as they tethered their horses outside the Sleeping Giant Inn.
At their backs, she could already hear the mill running and when she shielded her eyes to look, she smiled to see Ralof and Faendal already hard at work splitting logs. “It looks like Ralof kept his promise,” she nudged Ulfric and he followed her gaze, the left corner of his mouth twitching into a grin as he nodded.
“And I will keep mine, but first…”
He gestured for Esbern to take the stairs first, and tentatively the old man stepped up to the door. Despite the early hour, Delphine was already awake, sweeping her broom across the spotless floor as if she’d done nothing but pace it clean since they’d gone off to find her old friend and mentor.
She looked up, and for a moment Luthien thought she was going to drop the broom where she stood and run into the old man’s arms, but she didn’t. She remained stoic, turning and propping the broom up against the wall behind her before sauntering forward to meet them. It was Esbern who spoke first, the emotion in his voice so overwhelming, he sounded as if he might cry.
“Delphine?” He reached for her hands, holding them up as he looked her over. “It…it really is you. All these years, they’ve been kind to you. It… it’s been a long time. It’s so good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Esbern.” The woman’s mouth seemed to be fighting hard against the inklings of a relieved smile. “It’s been too long, my old friend. Too long.”
For a moment, Ulfric and Luthien just stood off to the side, allowing them to take one another in. She felt his hand lift up to rest on her shoulder and when she glanced up to look at him, for the first time since they’d met Delphine together, he was actually smiling in her general direction. “It gives me hope,” he said, lowering his gaze over her and emphasizing that final word for her benefit.
She returned her stare to the two old friends in front of them. Delphine softening as she finally gave in and embraced the frail old man before her. “Well then, now that we’re all here, safe and sound, I have a safe place we can talk. Follow me. Orgnar,” she called out. “Hold down the bar for a few minutes, would you?”
“Because we’re completely overwhelmed with customers,” he muttered, not even rising from his stool behind the counter. “Yeah, sure, Delphine. Anything you say.”
They followed her into the right hand room and through the secret panel behind the wardrobe that led to her underground quarters. Once inside, she closed the door and turned around to face them, all business again as she crossed her arms and said, “Let’s see what Esbern has to say.” Esbern walked to the table and sat down to rest his old bones, and though Delphine had said they should let him talk, she started the conversation anyway. “Now then, I assume you know about…”
“Esbern, what are you babbling on about?”
“Just a moment, let me gather my thoughts, please. My mind is not what it once was, Delphine.”
Luthien looked between the three of them, Ulfric and Delphine both with their arms crossed almost impatiently, Esbern wracking his addled brain for the right words as he dug through his belongings for the right prop to stimulate his memory. It was not a hopeful sight, no matter what Ulfric had said outside. If there only hope against Alduin was a fifty-four-year-old Blades agent with a chip on her shoulder and an old man who couldn’t even remember he was wearing clothes… they were doomed.
“Ah yes,” Esbern cried triumphantly, drawing a heavy tome from his satchel and dropping it on the table with a dusty thud. “Here it is. Come, all of you. Gather around. Let me show you.” He opened the book and flipped through the pages until he arrived on an etching. “You see, right here,” he tapped the etching with the nub of his chewed fingernail. “Sky Haven Temple.”
Ulfric cleared his throat. “What is Sky Haven Temple?”
“It was constructed around one of the main Akaviri military camps in The Reach during their conquest of Skyrim.”
“Esbern, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Delphine sighed.
“Shh—” he hushed her with a finger to his lips, bits of spittle flying across the pages of the tome. Urag would have crushed that old man like a bug if he’d seen him disrespect a book so brutally. “This is where they built Alduin’s Wall, to set down in stone all their accumulated dragonlore, a hedge against the forgetfulness of centuries. A wise and foresighted event, in the event.”
“And you think this wall might still be there?” Luthien asked.
“Despite the far-reaching fame of Alduin’s Wall at the time, one of the wonders of the ancient world, its location was lost.”
“Why did I think this was actually going somewhere?” Ulfric twisted his jaw as he leaned back, face contorted in frustration. “Wake me up when you actually have something we can use.”
“Esbern, what are you getting at?” Delphine interjected.
“You mean to say you haven’t heard of Alduin’s Wall? Any of you?”
“Let’s pretend we haven’t,” Delphine played to his scholarly ego for a moment. “What is Alduin’s Wall, and what does it have to do with stopping the dragons?”
“More importantly,” Luthien spoke up. “What does it have to do with defeating Alduin?”
“Alduin’s Wall was where the Ancient Blades recorded all they knew of Alduin and his return. Part history, part prophecy. Its location has been lost for centuries, but you see, I’ve found it again. Not lost, you see. Just forgotten. The Blades archives held so many secrets, but I’m afraid I was only able to save but a few scraps…”
“Are you saying you know where we can find Alduin’s Wall?”
“Haven’t any of you been paying attention? I’ve already told you it’s in The Reach.”
“So you think Alduin’s Wall can tell us how to defeat Alduin?” Delphine asked.
“Delphine, please, pay attention. You might learn something. We need to leave at once and head to Sky Haven Temple. I don’t know what we will find waiting for us there, but I am almost willing to bet everything I have the answers we seek are there.”
“We have other business we must see to first. Defeating Alduin is of the highest priority, I agree, but our country stands on the brink of war and as High King it is my duty to make certain we hold that war back as long as possible.” Ulfric said. “Show me on our map where we can find this temple in the sky, and we will meet you there in a few days’ time.”
Esbern marked the location on the map with a stick of charcoal and Ulfric folded it up again, returning it to his satchel. “That is Forsworn territory,” he furrowed his brow. “Be careful out there.”
“Don’t keep us waiting too long,” Delphine spoke up.