Luthien expected trouble, despite Ulfric suggesting she invite Farkas to join them and Farkas promising not to carry his grudges with him. Ulfric had come down the stairs completely lacking surprise when he saw Farkas sitting at the table eating eggs and bread. He sat down in the chair at the end of the table and the two of them started talking as if there’d never been any bad words between them. She stood back by the cooking pot watching it all unfold and wondering if Ulfric had gone to make amends after she’d fallen asleep, even though she’d told him not to. He was a lot like her, in that he did what he wanted, whether she liked it or not.
She walked Ulfric’s breakfast to the table, lowering the plate in front of him. He lifted his gaze to hers, a slow smile drawing at the corners of his mouth before he turned his attention to filling his empty belly. She didn’t know what had really happened, and it seemed neither of them had any intention of shedding light on the subject. It warmed her heart more than she could ever tell him, knowing he had set out to make things he’d turned wrong right again.
She ate and listened to the two of them talk like old friends, occasionally shaking her head as she realized she would never understand men.
The road west would take them into The Reach, Forsworn territory. The Forsworn had no love for Ulfric Stormcloak, and with good reason. He’d driven them out of Markarth and into the Wilds—at least those who had actually survived his raid.
Being with them both that way was going to take some getting used to. At night while they sat around their campfire sharing stories of the things they’d seen when not together, she found her gaze occasionally lingering far too long on Farkas. He looked so different to her now, older, harder, much of the innocent light in his eyes gone—never to return. Every once in a while, Farkas would catch her lingering gaze, but he didn’t hold it. He would look back into the fire and watch the flames climb higher as they lapped the cold air. Occasionally he raised his hand to stroke the long hairs of his beard, almost absently, as if even he still wasn’t used to it being there.
Ulfric’s arm would come around her, drawing her back against his chest as he shared the tale of their escape from the slums of Riften, a host of angry Thalmor at their back and a scared old man in rags in their charge. “If the Thalmor weren’t enraged enough by Luthien’s infiltration at the Embassy, that little stunt surely got their attention. Since then, we’ve killed every Thalmor we’ve come across on the road without hesitation.”
“Aren’t you worried you’ll provoke them?” Farkas asked. “I mean, if we’re not ready to go to war with them yet…”
“The crimes they’ve committed against our people can’t go on unanswered.” Ulfric drained his mead, lowering his tankard to the ground. “They are still secretly hunting out those who worship Talos outside Windhelm, even though the war is over.”
“Hmm,” Farkas nodded. “I don’t spend a lot of time in temples, but even I think people should have the right to worship as they please.”
“And people said the war against the Empire was a Holy War,” Ulfric sighed.
“Farkas, you never did tell me about your search for Lydia,” Luthien spoke up.
“No, I didn’t.”
“You never found her?”
His face drew even more gaunt than it already was. He’d once mentioned to her that maybe he should marry Lydia. The two of them had spent a lot of time together when she’d been married to Vilkas, but it hadn’t amounted to anything serious. She’d turned up missing just after the Battle for Whiterun and he’d gone off to search for her after the war. “Oh, I found her all right,” he shook his head. “Let’s just say… she’s in a better place and leave it at that.”
Luthien didn’t like the sound of that, and that night when she dreamed of Alduin, he had chased her and her children into a vast, mist-filled field of lost and wandering souls. Among them she saw Vilkas and Kodlak, Lydia and so many others, good men and women, Nords who had died beside her in battle—some of them at the end of her own blade. Ulfric was there too, and Farkas, wandering lost in the mists. It made her scream out in protest, but her scream was silent. Only in her dreams. When she woke with a gasp into the quiet darkness, Ulfric was sleeping undisturbed beside her, while Farkas knelt just at the edge of the fire, his back to their tent.
Pushing up from his crouch, he towered over her, and despite the darkness she could see his eyes. Soft and blue as ice, but so warm. “You okay?”
“You’d think I’d be used to having bad dreams by now.”
“Always.” Alduin devouring the souls of everyone she loved.
“I’ll stay up with you for a bit,” he said. “I know I hate waking up from nightmares and finding myself alone.” Hearing him say that broke her heart, and she longed to reach out to him, to tell him he was not alone, but she couldn’t even begin to understand his emptiness. He’d lost a part of his soul when Vilkas died, and it had left him broken.
“You don’t have to,” she shook her head. “You need your sleep too. I’ll be all right.”
“Just for a little while, until I know you’re not scared anymore.” She didn’t know if she would ever not be scared anymore, not knowing what she knew, but his soft smile melted some of the darkness that gripped her, releasing the tight grip of her own fear just enough for her to relax.
For nearly an hour they sat quietly by the fire listening for strange sounds in the night, but nothing came. He soon fell asleep where he sat, and she nudged him awake again, telling him to go to bed.
The long, rocky road through The Reach was spotted with Forsworn encampments, aggressive warriors and their Briarhearts, looking to reclaim The Reach and quell the vengeance in their dark hearts. Word seemed to travel quickly that the High King was on the road, and as they drew closer to their destination, the Forsworn seemed to meet them in droves on the path, ready for more than just a fight.
On their fifth day out, they heard the familiar sound of battle in the Karth River Canyon, dragon fire and the clang of weapons against armor, angry voices shouting battle cries and war taunts. Smoke plumed up from the canyon, and Luthien need only lift her head to smell the distinct scent of magic on the air. At first they thought it was just the Briarhearts, or worse, the Thalmor, but as they crept in quietly to inspect the situation from the ridge above they saw Delphine and Esbern battling back an ancient bronze dragon while the Forsworn attacked them from behind. Esbern’s Storm Atronach raged against a wicked Hagraven shooting blasts of lightning and destruction out at any and all who crossed her path, cackling with glee as she hobbled through the mayhem on twisted, clawed feet.
They joined the fight, Ulfric immediately unleashing his Thu’um to drive a host of Forsworn down the hillside, while Farkas let out a mighty battle cry and Luthien conjured up her Dremora Lord, his harsh voice joining with Ulfric and Farkas as he bellowed out, “I honor my Lord by destroying you before rushing to join the battle!”
She’d been in battles before that were utter chaos, but that fight was worse than anything she’d ever seen. It wasn’t hard to lose track of her companions’ positions among the melee, relief always rushing through her when she heard Ulfric call, “Do you want me to close my eyes? Would that even things up a bit?” or Farkas crying, “I’m gonna kill you!”
Running across the rickety pier structure the Forsworn had built across the Karth River, she joined Esbern and Delphine in fighting the dragon, unleashing her Fire Breath to counter its frost and momentarily stunning it to give herself time to draw Wuuthrad from her back.
Scale cracked and splintered under her heavy, downward strike and the dragon threw back its head, screaming a stream of hard frost into the air above it that rained down around them. It stamped backward, but Delphine lunged in with her short-sword as it reared for flight, driving it into the beast’s soft underbelly from below.
“Talos be praised,” she heard herself mutter as it fell. She turned away from the iridescent blue and gold spirals of its soul reaching out to her and scanned the battlefield behind her. The blood of the Forsworn littered the pier, but she didn’t see Ulfric or Farkas anywhere at first. Had it not been for thunder of Ulfric’s Thu’um, she probably could have gotten lost for hours, searching frantically among the bodies. She raised her eyes against the dim light of a cloud-covered sun toward the steps leading up to Karthspire, and there she saw Farkas and Ulfric continuing the battle. “This way,” she called over her shoulder to Delphine and Esbern, already breaking into a swift run.
By the time she reached them, they’d cleared the landing outside the cave and Farkas knelt over Ulfric, who was lying on the ground with an arrow jutting from his shoulder. It had pierced through his armor, and there was a flickering moment of déjà vu that sickened her stomach. She was not losing another husband that way.
“It’s just a scratch,” she heard him gasp as he strained to sit up.
“It’s not a scratch,” she snapped, dropping to her knees to survey the damage.
“Looks like the tip went through the skin on the other side,” Farkas observed, lingering at her back. “It didn’t pierce the armor though.”
“Pull it out.” Ulfric started to reach up for the shaft, but she grabbed his hands to stop him.
“I can’t pull it back out the way it went in. Forsworn arrows are specifically designed to do more damage on the way out. It’ll tear you apart if you yank it back through that way. I’m going to have to push it through the skin so I can break it off and pull it out.”
“Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, woman. Just do it!” he growled.
She struggled with his armor for a few minutes, trying desperately not to jerk the arrow backwards. When she finally loosened it enough to lower her hand between ebony and skin, she gripped the feathered fletching in her left hand and jammed it through hard just above her fingertips. His gasping cry of pain echoed through the canyon as Delphine and Esbern pattered up the stairs. As soon as it was far enough through his shoulder, she grasped the arrowhead and snapped it free, doing her best to ignore every clenched rasp of raging breath he exhaled. Her trembling hands were slick with his blood, which made it difficult to get a strong hold on the fletching again to draw it backward through the wound and his armor.
“I think maybe you are enjoying this far too much.” Ulfric grimaced up at her, but she could see the light of amusement shimmering in his steel-blue eyes. Regardless of the pain, he lived for moments like that, another battle scar, another story to tell his children one day as they gathered around their father’s knees. “Hurry up, woman.”
“I’m hurrying,” she assured him, wiping her hands on the stone beneath her feet and then gripping once more with both hands. She nearly tumbled backward down the stairs when it wrenched free, Ulfric unleashing a grateful roar of appreciation before staggering to his wobbly feet. “You’re losing a lot of blood,” she told him, rising herself. “Maybe you should sit down for a moment. Farkas, can you get me some potions from my bag?”
“Will do,” he nodded.
“I don’t need to sit down,” he insisted.
She was already summoning her restoration magic, the tingling power of her healing hands glowing gold in the palm of her hand as she reached out to him.“If you don’t sit down, I’m going to knock you down, Ulfric Stormcloak. Now sit!”
He found the edge of the steps, begrudgingly seating himself to work at the straps of his armor while she healed him with both hands. Farkas handed her another philter of magicka and then drew out a healing potion for Ulfric.
“I think the wound is closing,” she said, drawing back the edge of his undershirt, squinting as she leaned in to look.
“See, I told you, woman,” he smirked up at her almost playfully. “Just a scratch.”
“If you weren’t already bleeding, I would cut you.”
“Such fire,” he laughed, but she could see the pain lingering in his eyes as he did.
“As soon as you are all ready to move again, the temple is through the cavern,” Esbern pointed out, clearly getting restless to move on.
“Esbern,” Delphine nudged him in the ribs with her elbow.
Luthien lifted a glare in his general direction, and Ulfric started to laugh, moving to stand again. “Such a strong, vibrant Nord woman, my wife. She takes down enemies with nothing more than a look. Come, let us go find your dragon wall.”
Drawing him back, away from the others, who were already heading toward the cavern entrance, she pulled at the straps of his armor to tighten them into the buckles again. “I know you are a big, strong warrior, my king. It is one of the many reasons I love you, but no one will think less of you if you need more time…”
He brought his bloodstained hand up to her cheek. “Shor’s bones, woman, I am fine. It’s going to take more than some Briarheart’s shoddy arrow to kill this old man.”
“You are not an old man.” She felt her lips twitching. “You are young and strong. In your prime, my love.”
“And you are a very good liar, my heart.” He leaned in to kiss the corner of her mouth. “Let’s find this wall.”
Farkas lingered at the cave entrance; she could feel him watching them as they walked, Ulfric’s arm across her shoulder, leaning into her. She lifted her eyes to Farkas for a moment, and he met her gaze with a sad smile and then he disappeared into the cavern.