The winds carried them into Windhelm amidst heavy gusts of drifting snow. She felt herself stop on the stairs below Candlehearth Hall to gaze upon her city with reverence, much the way she’d seen Ulfric do upon returning home with her at his back. Windhelm was truly the heart and soul of Skyrim, its oldest, proudest city—even the crumbling Gray Quarter felt warm and welcoming to her as she began to take the steps leading her to the Palace of the Kings.
It was late morning, and Ulfric was holding court, listening to the complaints of people who had come from far and wide. Poverty, despair, dragons… it was all the same, but they were his burdens to bear and he bore them with honor and pride.
She’d always loved watching him hold court, the casual way he leaned back on his throne, hand lingering just under his chin, eyes almost distant—as if his thoughts were elsewhere—but they rested on the speaker at just the right moment, passing necessary judgment or making a promise to see them all through the dark times that gripped their country.
“We never should have severed ties from the Empire,” she heard one surly Nord call out from the crowd. “You expect us to eke out a meager living on our own, but you can’t possibly know what it’s like. As if you’ve ever had to work a day for anything in your life. Do you even know how hard it is to till frozen soil?”
“Watch your treasonous tongue,” Jorleif barked from beside the throne.
Ulfric held up a steady hand, rising to tower over them all. “It is true. I have never had to work the soil, or grow my own food, but I was a soldier long before some of you were even born. I have had to forage for food and hunt when I was hungry, and our land is teeming with beasts aplenty for those so inclined to seek them out.”
“Ha!” the same man laughed. “As if the jarls would allow for any of us to hunt on their precious land. They would rather see us starve than allow us to hunt their elk, their bears.”
“Then I will speak with the jarls, ask them to relax their hunting restrictions so all the people of Skyrim can put food on their tables. It is going to take time to return Skyrim to her former glory, the glory she enjoyed before the Empire clutched us in its grasp and made us weak.”
“We never had problems like this when the Empire was in control.”
“I strive day and night to bring glory back to our homeland, but if my efforts do not satisfy you, you are free to rejoin the Empire… in Cyrodiil. My court is closing now for the afternoon meal. If you still have grievances to lay at my feet, please return in two hours and we will meet again.”
As he stepped down through the crowd and approached her and Farkas near the door to the war room, she saw how weary he was. There were heavy, dark circles under his eyes that suggested he hadn’t slept much at all since they’d parted ways in Ivarstead, but they lit up as he approached, his smile taking years from his face.
“My queen,” he greeted her, arms coming around her and drawing her close to him. “I dreamed of you this morning. I should have known it was a portent of good things to come.” Moving back, his lips brushed her cheek and then he held her out to look at her. “I want to hear of your travels. Jorleif,” he called over his shoulders, “have the servants bring food to my quarters. Enough for three.”
“Of course, my lord.”
He lowered his arm around her and together they walked the winding corridors and flights of stairs into the jarl’s quarters, Farkas following several steps behind them.
“You look tired, my love,” she observed, closing the door behind Farkas and drawing the chair from the desk over to the table so all three of them could sit down.
“There has been little time to rest. Our people come from far and wide to fill my hall with their sorrows.” He sighed, sitting down with a heavy breath. “But I wish to hear what you learned from the Greybeards.”
“Right, the Greybeards.” She was still having a hard time processing all they’d kept from her. Master Arngeir said the Blades would use her to their own end, but surely the Greybeards had a purpose for her as well. According to Delphine, that purpose would be to do nothing at all. “When you were studying at High Hrothgar, did you ever meet their leader? Paarthurnax?”
“No,” he shook his head. “Master Arngeir always told me perhaps one day, when I was ready, but it seems I never made it to that day.”
“Well,” she glanced over at Farkas, the corners of her mouth twitching with a slow grin. “There’s a reason they so closely guard him from the rest of the world.” She returned her gaze to Ulfric. “Paarthurnax is a dragon.”
His brow furrowed, and he leaned back in the chair as she told him everything they’d learned. He listened carefully, not speaking until he’d heard everything there was to tell, and then he shook his head. “That is incredible. And no one at High Hrothgar seemed to know where an Elder Scroll could be found?”
“No one,” she lamented. “Farkas mentioned maybe Urag might know. The lorekeeper at the Arcaneum in the College,” she explained when no recognition sparked in his face. “Master Arngeir and Paarthurnax both agreed the mage’s college would be as good a place as any to begin the search for such an arcane artifact.”
Ulfric crossed his arms over his chest, regarding her for a moment with a glimmer in his eye. “It would seem there is no end to the unraveling of this mystery of yours, my heart.”
The servants brought warm mead and spiced beef with bread and cheese for them to dine on, and while they ate, Ulfric told her all that had been going on in their kingdom. For the first time in centuries, people were being forced to work harder to ensure more than just immediate comfort; they were breaking their backs to survive. Many of them suffered immense losses, all of their hard work gone to waste when battle and dragonfire burned their farms and homes to the ground. And to make matters worse, the Thalmor seemed to be taking an even more active approach to rooting out Talos worshippers, dragging people from their homes for questioning and punishment.
“There is only so much I can do for them,” he said, deep sadness in his voice then.
“You are their king,” she reminded him. “They look to you for more than just answers and guidance. They want you to make all of their troubles disappear.”
“And instead, I only bring them more troubles, calling their sons and daughters to my banners, to go off and fight another war that will further devastate the land. But what would they have me do?” His rhetorical question hung in the air between them for a long time. “Lay them down like sacrificial lambs to the bloodthirsty Dominion?”
“The war hasn’t started yet.”
“No, not yet.”
The heaviness of his responsibilities didn’t abate just because he’d shared them. He’d barely finished eating when he rose to return to court so he could tie up as many loose ends as possible before rejoining them on the road to Winterhold. He offered Farkas a room in the palace to rest in, and after he’d left them, Ulfric took her face in his hands and just looked down at her for a moment before lowering his lips to her forehead. “I am glad you are home, my heart. My sleep was troubled when we were apart.”
“As was mine.” She closed her eyes and breathed in the familiarity of his scent. She had missed him, more than she would ever have thought possible just a couple months earlier. The gentleness of his touch, the warmth of his skin.
“Perhaps you should rest now.” Pulling back, there was a familiar shine in his eyes. “There will be little in the way of sleeping this night.”
Alone for the first time in months, she sat down at the desk in the corner of the room meaning to read through the few old tomes Urag had sent her about Alduin. They hadn’t been of much help to her months earlier, and they felt even more useless to her now.
She was easily distracted by the fat flakes of snow now falling outside the high windows of the tower, mesmerized by as they swirled and danced just beyond the glass. No matter how hard she tried to make herself dive into those texts, she’d read them all a thousand times, knew them practically by heart. There was nothing within them about an Elder Scroll. Closing the cover, she pushed the chair away from the desk and walked to the bed to rest for as long as her mind would let her.
Ulfric’s whisper woke her, the soft flutter of his lips against her ear, warm hand resting against her cheek before drifting upward to brush the hair from her face. “I’ve brought your dinner,” he told her. “Come and eat with your husband, build up your strength for the long night ahead.”
“Hmm.” She wasn’t hungry, only tired, and would have rolled into her pillows and quickly drifted back to sleep if not for the gentle flurry of kisses he tickled across her skin. “I could sleep forever.”
“Sleep later.” His lips touched hers, parting slightly, the tip of his tongue darting out to entice her. “Make love with your husband now.”
She was easily drawn into his sultry game, answering every one of his kisses with increased desire until her need for him was all she knew. It had been less than two weeks since they’d parted ways in Ivarstead, but he’d not made love to her since before leaving Whiterun almost a month earlier.
He took his time, playing it slow, teasing and taunting her, lowering his lips across her belly and over her hip bone before he rested his head on her thigh. Stretching her head back into the pillow behind her, fingers gripped tight at the coverlet as soft moans of delight escaped her. She murmured his name, her other hand reaching into his soft hair to hold him there as he gave selflessly, making her whimper and coo until her entire body shuddered with release. By the time he finally rose to take her, she was more than ready for him.
The time apart had made her body more sensitive than ever to his touch. He’d only barely begun before bringing her to climax again, exhausting her so completely that her already tired body was warm and pliable as clay before he finished and fell into bed beside her. He gathered her quickly into his arms, holding her close as they lay together in the dull light of the hearth beyond the bed. She could hear the wind still screaming outside the palace and the thunder of his heart, but beyond that nothing else seemed to matter.
Stroking her fingers through the hair on his chest, she brushed her lips across his breast. “Master Arngeir let me see our son.” She didn’t lift her head because she didn’t want to see the hurt in his eyes. “He grows fat and strong. Farkas says he looks like me, but when I looked at him all I could see was you.”
“How did you convince him?”
“I told him I wanted to see my son and he yielded,” she said. “I think he was humoring me, hoping if he gave in I would do what the Greybeards think is right.”
“What do you mean?”
“He believes I should let the prophecy come to pass, that I should allow Alduin to run his course. The world will die and from the ashes, be born again. Even Paarthurnax asked me why I felt the need to stop the fate of the world. They tried to banish Alduin once before. Why do I think I can actually do it this time?”
“I think so too… but either way, no matter what I do, I don’t think I will come back from that final quest alive. Perhaps that is why Master Arngeir really let me see him. He knows I am not long for this world and I will be forgotten long before my son even learns to remember.”
“Perhaps,” was all he said for a long time.
They laid there listening to the wind and the fire, each other’s hearts and the whisper of fingertips across skin as they stroked and caressed one another. She wondered what he was thinking, if the thought of her dying saddened him as much as thoughts of his death saddened her.
“No matter what happens, your son will never forget you,” he finally said. “You are a hero, heart of my heart, and heroes are never forgotten.”
At least that was one thing she could say for herself. She’d never been a coward when it came to embracing her destiny. She’d always headed straight into it with a weapon in one hand and a spell at the ready to cast from the other. She could only hope that her willingness to bend to the will of the gods paid off for the people she loved; in the end, they were the only thing that mattered to her.