Ulfric knew there wasn’t time to waste, but he asked her to give him two days to wrap up enough public business to quiet the angry hearts of his people. So many of them came to Windhelm seeking aid and counsel, promises of better times from their king, but as she lingered near the doors of the palace listening to their complaints, she knew Ulfric would not be able to leave them to travel with her again.
Opening the doors, she stepped outside into the brisk morning air, lifting her face to the silver light of the cold sun before scanning the courtyard. The guards were still shoveling last night’s snow from the stones and layering buckets of salt over the ice, but the path to the Temple of Talos was always the first thing that they cleared.
Luthien spent hours in the temple, praying to Talos for protection and guidance and asking him to watch over her family, her people and all those who’d come to Skyrim looking for peace and respite from darkness and oppression. She prayed for Ulfric, asking their god to give him the strength and fortitude a good king needed to make his land and his people thrive in the face of hardship and adversity.
The doors to the temple had opened and closed several times while she sat there. Torsten Cruel-Sea came and sat in the pew behind her, praying quietly for his daughter’s soul. Brunwulf Free-Winter sat in the next row over, glowering at her under heavy eyebrows. It was no secret Brunwulf loathed Ulfric, and could often be heard spouting his hatred for the High King to anyone who would listen.
When she’d first come to Windhelm to join the Stormcloaks, the first time he’d seen her in her uniform he’d called her a narrow-minded bigot, just like the rest of Ulfric’s fools. After Ulfric had married her, he’d actually growled at her the first time she saw him in the streets, but she’d kept that to herself. He was a good man, with a good heart, a former war hero himself and she understood why his heart ached for the elves in the Gray Quarter.
Brunwulf got her to thinking about the Gray Quarter. Ulfric had once told her he was too busy to concern himself with Windhelm’s refugees. He had allowed them to take up residence in his city; wasn’t that enough? That was what she was thinking about when Farkas wandered into the temple and sat down on the bench beside her.
“Been looking for you for hours.” He glanced up at the statue of Talos, his gruff whisper echoing through the now-empty room.
“Yeah,” he nodded agreement.
For a long time the two of them just sat there, saying nothing. Farkas had never been devoutly religious. He asked the gods to watch over him before battle for good measure, but he’d always put his stock in cold, hard steel. Philosophical discussions on the Nine Divines didn’t interest him, but she had seen him pray before. She’d always wondered what kind of things a man like Farkas prayed for.
“I don’t know if Ulfric will come with us to Winterhold,” she finally broke the silence. “I don’t know if he even should.”
“I walked through the hall on my way here,” he said. “I never want a crown. Too much responsibility. Too many people looking for answers.”
“Despite what people think of him, he is very good at what he does. I know times are tough for people right now, but he will find a way make it work.”
“Even if we have to go to war?”
“War is inevitable at this point,” she sighed, lowering her head and staring down at her folded hands in her lap for a long time. “We just need to hold it back as long as we can.”
Nodding her head, she agreed, “Talos willing.”
It was midday when they left the temple to wander through the Stone Quarter shops, but she found her gaze returning to the Gray Quarter again. She’d only been there a handful of times, mostly during the war, but things had changed in the Gray Quarter since then. The dragon fires had left many of the buildings uninhabitable, and it broke her heart to see they still hadn’t been given the aid they needed to strengthen and rebuild their community.
She gave alms to the poor and made promises to the business owners that she would do her best to see their situation improved, but they just seemed grateful she’d actually taken the time to ask about their troubles. So few others did. The Dunmer had no faith in her husband, and they made that clear, but her interest in their affairs gave them hope. She didn’t want to let them down.
Windhelm was a big city, and there was plenty of room within its walls for everyone. The people just needed to learn to get along, to work together so they could discover how similar they really were. They loved their families and their children. They wanted their businesses to thrive so they could make an honest living without asking for handouts from the Jarl. They wanted to be part of the larger community, and while there were a few Nords in Windhelm who enjoyed their company, the vast majority treated them wretchedly. There was one man who liked to stand outside Candleheart Hall harassing the elves as they made their way through from the merchant quarter, telling anyone who’d listen that all elves were Thalmor spies.
“You are their queen,” he pointed out. “Do something about it.”
Farkas was right. She was their queen and Windhelm was her city, her home. She had an obligation to lead all of the people who called Windhelm home to better times.
The hall was no place for such discussions, not with Ulfric’s men gathered around the table feasting and sharing stories of battles long past. Most of them hated the Dunmer, and would gladly see them all driven from Windhelm and back to Morrowind.
She sat at her husband’s side for hours, listening to Ysarald Thrice-Pierced tell the tale of how he’d gotten that name during the Great War after stumbling over his own boots in battle and landing on the swords of two dead Thalmor and his own drawn blade. It was an awful story, she’d heard it half a dozen times, but Farkas never had. It always ended with Ysarald looking reverently upon his king and claiming, “And I would have died there too, in a pool of fool’s blood, if Ulfric hadn’t picked me up and carried me all the way to the healers.”
“So why do they call Galmar the Stone-Fist?” Farkas asked, leaning into the table, clearly still amused.
“And that’s my exit cue,” she rose from the bench. “Good night, all.”
“I think my queen has the right idea. That’s a story only Galmar can tell,” Ulfric laughed, pushing his chair away from the table. “He’d be furious if he ever heard one of us had told it wrong, but you are all welcome to drink here in my hall until the sun comes up if you please.”
He followed her up the long stairs into their rooms, laying back in the bed still fully dressed while she slipped into her bedclothes. By the time she’d turned back around, he was already dozing. She walked over and kneed up onto the bed beside him, nudging him awake again. “Take off your clothes and come to bed, my love.”
“I’m too tired to take off my clothes, woman,” he murmured, drawing himself up to sit on the edge of the bed. “My people exhaust me, from sunrise until sundown.” Pushing up to stand, he worked at his cloak, sliding it down his shoulders and laying it over the chair before working at the wooden toggles of his shirt. “Problems, so many problems. I fear I left them too long. Jorleif is a clever man and he did his best in my absence, but he is no king.”
She reached for the buckle of his belt, working the worn leather through metal as he lifted the shirt up over his head and folded it to lay it over top of his cloak on the back of the chair. Sitting on the edge of the bed again, he slipped out of his boots and rested them beside the bedside table before standing to take down his pants. He crawled across her and into bed, reaching for her and pulling her into him before lowering the heavy blankets over them.
He was silent, slow fingers absently stroking her skin, falling slack for a while and then moving again. She wondered every time he stopped if he had fallen asleep, but then he would start stroking her arm again and nestle his chin into her hair before kissing the top of her head.
“I know you promised me you would help me fight Alduin, but I don’t know when I will ever even face him.” A long, heavy sigh escaped her. “It seems that battle is always just beyond my reach. Our kingdom suffers your absence every time you walk out those doors, Ulfric. Your people need you.”
She’d thought long and hard about how she would approach the subject of him staying in Windhelm, where he was needed. A part of her hated the idea of going forward without him. He’d become such an essential force at her side, a light in her darkness, she almost didn’t know how she would do it without him, especially not knowing where she went or what she’d face when she got there. When or if she would even see him again.
“I will go and find the Elder Scroll, bring it back here, and we will take it to the Throat of the World together.”
Again, he was quiet for so long she thought he’d fallen asleep, but when she lifted her head to look down at him, he lowered her back to his chest and slipped his fingers into her hair. “You will need a strong shield-brother at your back. Farkas should accompany you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Is there any reason I should not to be sure?” He buried a groaning yawn into his opposite shoulder.
They had only comforted each other, she reminded herself, nothing more. She’d felt a couple of twinges of longing in her heart while processing maybes and what ifs, but it didn’t mean anything. Ulfric was her husband. He had nothing to worry about. “Of course not.”
“Then I am sure.”
“We will leave tomorrow.”
“It will be hard to let you go, though I fear I am too tired tonight to show you how much it will pain me…”
She laughed, lifting her leg up to rest over his thigh. His hand slid down the curve of her hip, slack fingers resting on her backside. “I will wake you early and you can give me a fond farewell I won’t soon forget.”
“Mm.” He snuggled into her warmth.
“Ulfric,” she murmured. “There is one thing I would ask you before I go.”
“Ask me in the morning, woman. Now I sleep.”
She laid awake long after his breathing had slowed into heavy snores, thinking about how she could bring up the subject of the Gray Quarter and actually get through to him. They’d had similar discussions in the past, all of them ending with his blasé claims that there were more pressing matters for him to concern himself with than the happiness of Dunmer refugees, who by all rights should be grateful he even allowed them into his city in the first place.
After, they broke their fast at the small table near the door and she gave him the grand speech she’d prepared in her head before going to sleep.
The Dunmer weren’t a problem, but could be part of the solution if they just gave them a chance to feel like they belonged in Skyrim. Most of them had less love for the Thalmor than the Nords, which he scoffed at a little, but let her continue without interjecting. She finished by pointing out that when the time came, it wouldn’t hurt their cause if they’d actually won the ever-growing population of dark elves to their cause. They may even take up their blades if asked to stand against a common enemy, but only if they felt like they were fighting for someone who gave a damn about them.
Luthien kept waiting for him to argue with her, but he only listened. After she spoke, he leaned back in the chair and rested his twined fingers across his belly. “But can they be trusted not to betray us? Even now, half the people in the city worry they are spies for the Thalmor. How do we know they are not?”
“We won’t know if we can trust them unless we give them a chance.”
“Sometimes I fear you dole out trust too easily, woman.”
“I trusted you, even when everyone around me told me not to,” she pointed out.
That made him laugh. “I will tell you what,” he began. “When the matter with Alduin is solved, you are free to do whatever you like with the Gray Quarter. Tear it down and rebuild it, if you wish, but it’s going to take a lot more than rebuilding to get the people of Eastmarch to accept their presence. They have siphoned from our city too long, giving nothing back in return.”
“And if I die solving the Alduin problem? What will come of them then?”
He squinted a little as he looked at her, lips pursed tight together in thought, and then he relented. “Perhaps it is you who should stay here and be king, while I go out and find your Elder Scroll.” Shaking his head, she watched his braids jostle against his cheeks as he sat up straight again. “Fine,” he sighed. “I will have Jorleif send willing men to help them rebuild.”
“Brunwulf Free-Winter would gladly head up a committee and recruit willing bodies to help in this cause.”
“I will be sure to let Jorleif know of this.” Studying her, he leaned across the table, elbows resting on its surface as he tilted his head, his long braid sliding down his shoulder, lips drawing into a curious smile. “This thing will make you happy, woman?”
Nodding, he said, “I fear your happiness will be my undoing. Next you’ll ask me to allow the Argonians inside the walls.”
Leaning forward to take his hands in hers. She brought his fingers to her lips and kissed them. “Thank you.”
It was a small triumph; she knew Windhelm was a long way from embracing the Dunmer, and there was likely more trouble ahead, but Ulfric kept his promise to her, speaking with Jorleif as soon as they went down to the hall.
As the people of Skyrim began filing into the Palace with their grievances, she sought out Farkas to tell him they were leaving, and before the noon hour they were on the road again, heading north to Winterhold.