It wasn’t much, but it was a bit of hope, Luthien thought, as she and Ulfric hunted down Ralof at the mill. When he saw them coming, he called over his shoulder to let Gerdur know he was taking a break to speak with them. She looked up from her task, a soft smile lifting the corners of her mouth when she met with Luthien’s gaze. She didn’t know what they’d said to him, but they had given Gerdur her brother back and she was glad. Sadly, they were going to be taking him away again.
“Is there someplace quiet we can talk?” Ulfric asked.
“Gerdur’s house,” Ralof nodded, leading them to the house.
They sat down at the table, Hod getting up to leave them alone, but not until after he’d offered them all warm mugs of strong Nord mead to wet their road-thirsty throats. Ralof didn’t touch his, but instead leaned across the table almost eagerly, waiting for his king to speak.
“You look well,” Ulfric noted.
“I feel better than I have in a long time,” he admitted. “Sometimes the dreams still trouble my sleep… The faces of all those men who died at the end of my axe…”
“Only a monster kills without remorse,” he said.
“I suppose you’re right.” Ralof nodded, and for a long moment he mused on that thought before lifting his gaze back to Ulfric’s. “Now, what is it you need for me to do, King Ulfric? Ha! I never get tired of calling you that.”
“The Thalmor…” Ralof spat on the floor beside the table. “Curse them all.”
“Talos be praised,” Luthien agreed.
With a heavy sigh, Ulfric slumped forward on the bench, resting his forearms on the table in front of him. “In its own way, that war has already begun, no small thanks in part to our actions of late. Luthien and I recently infiltrated the Embassy in search of evidence of Thalmor affiliation with the dragons. We found nothing, but… there were other things. Things we can no longer sit idly by and tolerate. It is no small secret that I was taken prisoner during the Great War. Brutally tortured and left scarred with hatred so deep, it haunts my sleep every night when I close my eyes. On our travels we have encountered others, prisoners we’ve set free from Thalmor tyranny, but there are so many who cannot be saved. Would that I could free them all and let them live in peace…” Another long breath escaped him and then he shook his head. “Lo though, I do digress… Skyrim suffered immensely because of our war. Though I do not regret a single action we took against the Empire, I know in my heart it is only a matter of time before we must fight again to keep our land and our people safe, but we are weak right now.”
“And that weakness makes us prey to the Thalmor,” Luthien added.
“We need allies,” Ulfric added. “As much as I hate the idea of asking anyone for help, I need to send an Emissary into Hammerfell, to treat with Kematu, who is no friend to the Dominion. That is where you come in, my friend.”
Luthien had watched Ralof’s face during the entire conversation. Wide blue eyes narrowing from time to time as he tried to make sense of all they were telling him. After Ulfric’s last words, he was silent for a time, as if he didn’t have any words, or he couldn’t form them properly. He stammered a little when he finally spoke, stumbling over his words. “You… you want me to go to the Alik’r Desert as an Emissary?”
“It is a big job,” Ulfric nodded. “I know this, and it is a lot to ask of a son of the snow to make his way into the arid desert on a mission there are no guarantees he will even return from. It will be dangerous…”
“Because you are a true Son of Skyrim, Ralof, and there are few others I know I can trust with a task this important.”
She swore she saw tears in the younger man’s eyes, but he didn’t shed them, only blinked and dropped his hand down onto the table. “Then I guess I journey to the desert. How soon do you want me to leave?”
“As soon as your affairs are in order.”
“I will leave tomorrow at dawn,” he said. “And I won’t let you down.”
“Thank you, Ralof. I knew I could count on you. Return to Windhelm after you’ve met with the Alik’r, and if I am not there, wait for me to return.”
“Of course, my king.”
“And Ralof,” Ulfric said, rising from the table. “Be careful out there. There are things in the desert… It is unlike any place you’ve ever been. Dangerous, hot. Always make sure you have plenty of water. It would be wise to take a companion on this journey with you. Someone you can trust as much as I trust you.”
Ralof considered that for a moment, and then he nodded. “I know someone.”
“Good. Talos be with you, brother.”
It wasn’t even afternoon yet as they made their way through the quiet, peaceful streets of Riverwood, but Luthien was exhausted. She could feel the long aches and weariness of her sleepless night finally catching up with her, but as tired as she was, she didn’t know if sleep would claim her when she actually laid down her head. After untethering their horses, they began to head out, north, both of them so quiet she could hear every bird in the trees on the path to Whiterun.
“I’d like to stay in Whiterun tonight,” she finally spoke up. “After learning the things I did from Esbern, I feel like I need to see Farkas again. Make sure he’s all right.”
“You aren’t going to tell him… what Esbern told you?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It would kill him, but I wish to see him nonetheless. I miss him.”
Ulfric nodded quiet understanding. “We will stay in Whiterun tonight, and perhaps you will convince him to make the journey with us to Sky Haven Temple. If we head into Forsworn territory, we could surely use another strong sword arm.”
Fat, heavy rain clouds rolled in over the light of the sun and a slow drizzle pattered the road to Whiterun, following them all the way and lingering over the busy town when they arrived just before dusk. Ulfric was already stripping out of his gear and starting a fire before she’d shut the door of Breezehome; a part of him actually growing use to its minimal comfort after some of the dank and wretched places they’d been forced to sleep over the last couple months.
She could feel the excitement building in her belly at the thought of seeing her closest, dearest friend again. It had only been weeks, but it always felt like years when they’d been apart for more than a couple of days. The prospect of inviting him to travel with them titillated her. Farkas had been her first shield-brother, her stalwart and most trusted companion, and there had once been a time it would have been him working beside her to unravel the mysteries she faced. Though she loved Ulfric, and was glad to have her husband fighting back the darkness with her, a part of her could never deny she missed the stories Farkas used to tell while they were parked around their camp fire on their way to slay a dragon for one of the jarls, or to find some staff for the Psijic Order that wasn’t actually in the belly of some old Dwemer ruin full of bandits, chaurus and blind Falmer with poisoned arrow-tips and vengeful hearts.
Even then, knowing she was the Dragonborn had seemed like some rare perk, an exciting mystery they could joke about while passing a bottle of mead back and forth and trying to imagine what it all really meant. Vilkas told her she’d been young and green when she’d come to Jorrvaskr, and she thought everything they’d endured in that first year together had made her smarter, but even after that, she and Farkas had been so reckless, almost stupid, laying a challenge out to anyone who dared to try and stop them from whatever goal they had to meet. Whenever the rare occurrence arose that Vilkas traveled with them, he never failed to remark on their blind recklessness that was sure to get them both killed. In the end, it had gotten Vilkas killed, and though she’d moved on, she had never forgiven herself for his death.
It had only been a couple of years since those days had been the norm, but she felt like decades had passed them by and left them in a haze of darkness and foreboding that was never going to end.
She’d expected to find him out back in the practice yard, but Torvar was there sharpening his sword with a whetstone and carrying on the same argument with Athis the two of them had been having for years. Stealth versus force–which was the superior element in battle?
“Harbinger,” Athis nodded toward her.
“You lookin for the big guy?” Torvar asked, lowering his stone and reaching for his ale. “He’s inside.”
“Are you both well?” she asked.
“Well as we can be,” he shrugged. “Plenty of work keeping us busy.”
“That’s good to hear,” she nodded, walking toward the back doors and heading into Jorrvaskr.
Tilma directed her down the stairs, and at first she peeked around the corner into his room, but he wasn’t there. She heard shuffling at her back and turned to find him hovering in the doorway of Vilkas’s old room. He looked better than he had the last time she’d seen him, his hair was clean, but he was still wearing that knotted beard he’d grown in the months he’d traveled alone to look for Lydia. It suited him, but it made him look rougher, older, less like Vilkas.
“Oh, hey.” She watched his face light up as he realized it was her. “I was just thinking about you.”
“I must have heard your thoughts and they brought me to you.”
“Huh,” he nodded and then shrugged. “I doubt it. If you ever overheard the kind of thoughts I think about you, you’d probably punch me in the teeth.”
“I should punch you in the teeth anyway just for saying that. Come here, you.” She lifted her arms around his neck and fell into him, a part of her instantly relaxing as he embraced her.
“I wasn’t sure you guys would make it back this way, what with every Thalmor in Skyrim on the lookout for you on the road. You made quite a ruckus,” he noted, pulling back to look at her. “What in the name of the Nine Divines did you do up there at the Embassy? Set the damn place on fire?”
“I stole some of their important documents, but that probably had nothing to do with why they’re looking for us now. We found another Blades agent, a man they’ve been looking for since the dragons came back and we had to personally escort him out of Riften.”
“Damn,” he shook his head.
“We’re heading out tomorrow morning to meet with him and Delphine at some temple to read Alduin’s Wall if we can find it.”
“Alduin’s Wall? What’s that?”
“Some ancient historical and prophetic carvings. Esbern says they may show me how to defeat Alduin.”
“The Blade we found in Riften.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “Well, that sounds like good news then.”
“I think it is,” she shrugged, stepping past him into Vilkas’s old room and trying not to let it get to her. Even after more than three years, it still smelled like him. Lavender, leather and steel… If she closed her eyes she could almost trick herself into believing he was standing there with her, but she couldn’t… she wouldn’t. It would bring out her emotions and she needed to keep those safe from Farkas as long as she could, if not forever. “How about you? How’ve you been?”
“Oh, you know,” he hiked his shoulders up. “Try to keep myself busy, but there’s only so much muscle a guy can flex before he starts to get bored. I think all that war made me too bloodthirsty for my own good. I get anxious when new jobs come in, hoping it’s bandits or escaped criminals, so I can use my blade… but I think Aela knows that because she keeps sending Torvar and Athis before I hear word of it.”
“Aela is a smart woman.” She turned back to look at him in the light and saw that underlying sadness still lingering in his eyes. “It won’t be long before your thirsty blade is quenched again. There will be war enough for everyone soon, I’m afraid,” she lamented, lowering her gaze. “Ulfric’s sent Ralof to Hammerfell to treat with the Alik’r and he’s got Galmar petitioning the jarls for more men and women to fill our forts for training.”
“I know it seems that way, Farkas, but it’s not. I found things when I was at the Embassy, things that don’t look good for the future of Skyrim.” Things that made her own sword arm heavy with lament and longing. “It’s only a matter of time before they strike, especially now that we are weak from our fight with the Empire. We are trying everything we can to take care of Alduin and the dragons first… but the Thalmor aren’t fools. They will take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, and right now Alduin is an unfortunate opportunity.”
“They say if you spend enough time with someone, you start to think and sound like them,” he said. “I think maybe you’ve been spending too much time with your king.”
“Like it or not, he’s your king too,” she pointed out.
“I don’t have to like it, I’m just saying… You sound more and more like him every time I see you, but I don’t know what I expected to happen when you became queen. I guess I was just being daft old Farkas when I thought you’d still be the same Lu I know and love.”
“I am still the same person I was before.” She didn’t know why she’d let herself think they could ever go back to the way things were. They would never be those same two people; they’d seen too much. “Farkas, please. I didn’t come all this way to fight with you.”
“Then why did you come, Luthien?”
“I came because I wanted to see you,” she huffed. “I came because I never know when I go to meet the gods.”
“I—I’m sorry, Lu.” The hardened features of his face softened with shame, and he looked down at his shoes like a little boy. “I guess I’m just a jerk.”
“You’re not a jerk, Farkas,” she sighed. “Are you still having those dreams? About Vilkas?”
He nodded, raising his soft blue eyes to meet hers again. She could never tell him, but that actually gave her a little hope. If Vilkas was still there, still lost and calling out to his brother—with whom he’d shared a womb and a soul and the deepest bond imaginable. “I hardly sleep at all anymore.”
“Maybe you need to get out of this place for a little while.”
“And go where?” He let loose a long, groaning breath. “War’s over, for now anyway, and like I said, I’m tired of running muscle jobs. When I was out there on my own last year, it wasn’t the same. I felt so… alone. I mean, I always thought I had a place out there with you, but there’s no room for me anymore.”
“There’s always room for you,” she insisted. “I would be grateful to have both of you watching my back, but I can’t worry about you and Ulfric killing each other while I’m trying to fight off dragons.”
“You really think he’d go for that? Me tagging along behind the two of you like a… what was it he said? Oh yeah, I remember, a lost dog? No, I don’t think there is room for me.”
“He actually suggested it,” she felt her blood harden in her veins.
“Yeah,” he scoffed. “Right.”
Seeing him again hadn’t played out the way she’d imagined it in her head. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but it wasn’t the surly, resentful, hulk of a man looming in front of her. She’d thought they were okay when she’d left, that they would be able to get past whatever tension Ulfric had sown between them, and try as she might to turn it around in her head and make it all Ulfric’s fault, it was Farkas who was being stubborn, even childish, now.
“Well, don’t go telling everyone I didn’t ask you to come along with me to save the world after I’m dead. Because I did.” She stepped up to him, taller in spirit than she was in form, her golden eyes burning with a fire she was sure he could feel. “It isn’t my fault you’re too damn bullheaded to accept the invitation and just swallow your damn…” She couldn’t even finish her sentence; she was so mad and so tired. What next came out of her mouth could only later be described as half-scream, half-growl.
She turned on her heal, marching right back out the way she’d come in, and though she heard him call after her to wait, she just kept walking, all the way back to Breezehome, so fast she swore she felt her stamina drain lower than it ever had before in her life.