Luthien had never seen the streets of Windhelm so heavily guarded, even during the Civil War, and though she still refused to believe that her husband was dead, their overwhelming presence seemed a bitter afterthought considering they no long had a king to guard. The overly cautious guards stopped her on the steps just beneath the Palace of the Kings, informing her that the castle was off-limits to visitors. Lowering the hood of her robes, he fumbled over himself to apologize, both for her loss and for holding her back, and then he offered to personally escort them to the palace.
It all felt like a nightmare, walking through the front doors and into the empty palace, not finding Ulfric on his throne despite the early hour. It still didn’t sink in; she told herself he was in the war room, he was upstairs in his quarters, he was somewhere in the palace. She just had to find him, but before she could make her way left, Wuunferth the Unliving came out of the kitchens, stalking toward her as soon as he saw them.
“My lady,” he lowered his head in sorrow.
“Where is Ulfric?”
“Did the courier not reach you with the news?”
“She’s been…” Farkas began slowly, glancing toward her as if he feared she might actually hit him if he spoke. “She’s been out of sorts since the courier found us. We came all the way from Alftand without stopping. She’s taken no rest, no food…”
“My lady,” Wuunferth shook his head. “I don’t think that is wise. He’s been taken to the Hall of the Dead, preparations are being made for the funeral.”
“Take me there,” she insisted.
“I want to see my husband,” she asserted once more.
Wuunferth hesitated, hawkish eyes studying her from beneath the bush of his heavy brow, and then he nodded. “As you wish, my lady.”
Every shop in Windhelm had been closed down, the city in mourning for the loss of their king, the streets startlingly empty as they made the short journey toward Valunstrad and entered the Hall of the Dead. Luthien had never been inside the hall, and the smell was immediately so overwhelming she would have been sick if there’d been anything in her belly to lose. She covered her face with her hand and followed Wuunferth through the winding maze to the stone table where her husband had been laid. Drawing the blanket away to show her, he left her alone with her grief, but Farkas remained silent and distraught behind her.
He looked like he was only sleeping, a peaceful expression on his pale face, but when she reached out to touch his cheek there was no warmth in his skin and she immediately drew back with a gasp. It was a trick; it had to be.
How had they killed him? She could see no marks of a struggle, no bruises or cuts. Stumbling a little, her knees wobbling with weakness, Farkas’s arms came around her from behind and she didn’t fight him. She just collapsed against him and let out the long, raging keen of overwhelming grief that had been building up inside her all the way from Alftand.
Surely it chilled the blood of every soul in Windhelm.
Jorleif, poor, loyal and wonderful Jorleif, who had always been so kind to her, lay pale and unmoving on the slab beside him, and Ysarald Thrice-Pierced as well. Ysarald, who’d always saluted her with reverence and called her Queen Stormblade, was no under-developed warrior. Ulfric’s Thu’um would have protected them all from harm. How? How could it have happened? It just didn’t make any sense.
“Poison,” a gruff voice growled from the shadows behind her, as if he’d been lingering there reading her thoughts. “A coward’s weapon.” Galmar Stone-Fist stepped into the dim light and lowered his head. “I swear to you that I will not rest until every elf in Tamriel is dead.” He looked like he had aged twenty years since last she’d seen him, and though his scowl softened a little when he lifted his gaze to hers, there was only hatred burning in his eyes. “The greatest Nord king to have ever lived, murdered by a gods damned farmer from Markarth,” he snarled. “Too many people around, all their gripes and grievances, no one even saw him slip into the kitchens. The guards caught him just as he was slipping through the gates. He was carrying this.” His hands trembled as he handed the letter over to her, but she couldn’t read it through the blur of her own tears. The only word she saw was the elegant script that had signed the assassination order.
She should have killed that foul wretch when she’d had the chance, but Ulfric had stayed her hand, in essence signing his own death warrant. But he was no longer there to stay her hand, and she would have her vengeance.
“Gods damned right we will,” he barked. “I have twenty-five-thousand troops scattered throughout Skyrim. Barely enough, but more come every hour and every single one of them burns with vengeance for Ulfric and they are ready to march at your command, my queen.”
Pulling herself together, she remembered the promises she and Ulfric had made to each other in that abandoned shack what felt like a lifetime ago. If he died before her, she’d promised to break the back of the Aldmeri Dominion, and as her gaze returned to where her husband lay, she knew she had to keep that promise.
“Have them march on the Embassy in Solitude. Kill them all,” she muttered. “All of them but Elenwen. Bring her to me alive.”
“Lu,” Farkas interjected from over her shoulder. “We can’t start a war while Alduin is still out there.”
“We didn’t start this war, but we will finish it.” It was almost too easy, slipping into that role, the role her husband swore she’d been born to play, that every deed he’d done in his life had been in preparation for lifting her up to take that the throne. Ulfric would not want her to think with her grieving, woman’s heart. He would want her to grab her vengeance with both hands and wield it like a hammer, smashing their enemies with her hate. She didn’t look back at Farkas, a part of her almost afraid he’d shy back in horror if he saw the look in her eyes. “Galmar, any word from Ralof?”
“None as of yet,” he shook his head. “Boy’s probably lost somewhere in the desert.”
“He will come.” She said those words more for herself than for Galmar. “Until the Moot meets, my influence over the other jarls is minimal, if not nonexistant. They supported Ulfric, but there are no guarantees they will support my ascendance to the throne, especially if we attack the Embassy without consulting them first. I can appeal to them for aid, but beyond that…”
“I will see what I can do to bring the Moot together quickly,” he assured her. “Ulfric’s influence is still far-reaching, and the jarls we put in place will support your right to the throne. He made sure of that. In the meanwhile, if you can take care of that dragon problem beforehand, they will all be in your debt and have no choice but to name you High Queen.”
“I will take care of the dragon,” she assured him. “But first we will bury our king.”
“Of course.” Galmar’s gaze finally fell to Ulfric, squinting to hide the watering of his own eyes. “He was a damn good man, a good king and an even better friend. They will welcome him in Sovngarde with open arms.”
Luthien felt her stomach clench tight upon hearing those words, and she turned away, leaving the Hall of the Dead without another word. They would not welcome him in Sovngarde, not until Alduin was defeated. She only hoped he could evade Alduin’s soul snare, along with the others, as long as it took for her to take that dragon down.
Farkas trailed after her, following her everywhere she went over the next few days like a shadow. She could tell there were so many things he wanted to say to her, but they barely spoke at all. There were no words and even less time. There were decisions and preparations to make, people to placate and reassure. It left very little time to stew in her despair. Not even the Temple of Talos provided her a safe haven to dwell with her grief. People lined up outside the doors, day in, day out, waiting to get into the temple to pray for solace, strength and understanding from a god Luthien was no longer sure could even hear them.
It was nearly a week before the ground softened enough for them to bury Ulfric, Ysarald, Jorleif and the poor cook from the kitchens who had served the king and his court their final meal. In that time Luthien found herself embroiled in ceremony after ceremony, as the grieving people of Windhelm set her upon the throne of Ysgramor and named her Jarl and protector of Eastmarch.
The only time she had with her grief was after slipping into her lonely quarters at night, lying in the bed she had shared with her husband. Wrapped in his cloak, she barely slept at all, her mind heavy and her heart heavier. Every time she started to cry, she could almost hear him there beside her, almost feel his hand on her shoulder reminding her that she had to be strong. He expected it from her. He’d once told her that while Torygg’s woman had been his downfall, his own woman was his strength. He’d believe in earnest that were he to die, she would not lock herself up in the tower with her grief and her tears. “You would go on fighting until every last Imperial was wiped clean from this world.”
The Empire, the Dominion… every last one of them would fall beneath her feet and she would crush them until there was nothing left but dust and bones and written lore of their once great existence.
The morning after Galmar dispatched forces to march on the Embassy, Luthien met with him in private in her quarters and named him temporary steward until a suitable replacement was found. As much as she hated to admit it, she hadn’t the head then to choose among the many potential bodies everyone said would be perfect for the job. Bruunwulf Free-Winter’s loathing for Ulfric was still too close to the surface. Torstan Cruel-Sea still too embroiled in the grief of losing his daughter. Torbjorn Shatter-Shield too drunk most days to make clear, executive decisions.
Galmar was the only one she trusted to follow Ulfric’s vision in her absence.
He was humbled by the gesture, but honored as he was by her trust in him, it flustered him nonetheless. “I’ve never been good with politics, girl. That was Ulfric’s place. I’m a man of the field, a soldier.”
“So was Ulfric,” she reminded him, and he lowered his head, nodding. “You are a general, Galmar, a leader and a true son of Skyrim. The people look up to you. You understood Ulfric’s vision better than anyone else he knew. Do what Ulfric would want.”
“I will do my best.”
“That’s all I ask.”
“I go to face Alduin.” And embrace death…
“Gods be with you, my queen.”
She embraced him, squeezing him harder than she meant to, and then stepping back to meet his gaze. “And you, Galmar.”
Alone again in her quarters, she packed and repacked her bag carefully. Potions, scrolls, food, all of it useless if she went to her death, and a part of her truly hoped, as she stuffed her pack, that she would die there. It was the fastest way to Sovngarde; maybe when she got there Ulfric would have already gathered an army of lost souls to stand with her against the World Eater.
Farkas knocked and then entered before she could even tell him to come in. He hovered in the doorway quietly, watching her pack with his arms crossed. It was a long time before he spoke, as if he’d been trying to find the right words to say for days and coming up short.
“I’m still coming with you,” he finally told her. It almost sounded like a part of him was afraid she’d planned to leave without him and he needed to put that out there to remind her he was still there.
“Good,” she nodded. “We leave within the hour.”
“Don’t you think you should give yourself more time?” he asked.
“More time? For what?” The potions in her satchel clanked together as she drew the strings of the bag tightly closed.
“To grieve, Lu. You just… It’s been little more than a week since you lost your husband.”
Lost… That turn of phrase had always baffled her mind. She hadn’t lost him. He was dead. And for a moment it was all too real again and she almost lost her mind again. She hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye to him, didn’t even know if he’d read her last letter. If it had even arrived.
“Locking myself up here in this room for three months isn’t going to bring my husband back. I learned that the first time.”
“I know, but…”
“No, you don’t know,” she snapped back at him, all the anger and grief inside her too much to hold onto alone. It was wretched and cruel, but she wanted everyone around her to hurt the way she did, even him. “I haven’t told you all there is to know.”
Stepping into the room, he closed the door at his back and walked toward her. “Lu, if you go into this fight with Alduin in the state of mind you’re in right now, you will fall. And then where will the rest of us be?”
Why should she have to care about the fate of everyone else in the world? She’d never asked to carry that burden. She’d always just strapped it across her shoulders and soldiered on, but for the first time since the Greybeards had called her to High Hrothgar almost five years earlier, she didn’t feel like she was strong enough to carry it anymore. It was too heavy to carry alone; her back felt like it was breaking under the weight of their dying world. Vilkas had made it seem lighter, and Ulfric had shouldered as much of it onto his own back as he could and Farkas… he would have taken the whole damn thing from her if he could.
“I have already wasted too much time, Farkas.” She drew the straps down over her satchel, the buckles jingling together. “I’ve left them all to wander, hopeless and afraid that they will never reach Shor’s Great Hall. Soldiers, friends, your brother… now Ulfric.” She regretted it the moment she said those words, feeling so ashamed she couldn’t look at him, but she didn’t have to look to see the confusion that pressed down hard on his brow. “Alduin has been fueling his strength and power on the souls of the dead, Farkas. He’s set a soul snare in Sovngarde to catch them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was part of the prophecy… Esbern told me just before we came to see you that last time in Whiterun and I didn’t know how to tell you. Ulfric said I shouldn’t…”
“Tell me what, Luthien?”
“Those dreams, your nightmares… Farkas, your brother never made it to Shor’s Hall. He is lost, and he has been calling out to you because he cannot find his way. I have been trying so hard these last months… busting my own back to get to where I am going now because I don’t know how much longer those lost souls can withstand his wrath. I don’t know if he can hold back.”
“Why…” he stammered. “You…”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. And she was. That sudden urge to cause him pain passed almost as quickly as it had come upon her and she regretted telling him the truth. Starting toward him, reaching hands ready to grab hold of him, he stepped back from her and shook his head.
“All this time, Lu. We could have been helping him, and… How could you…”
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
She had never seen the look in his eyes she saw in that moment. Betrayal; as if the only person in the world he’d ever counted on, other than his brother, had finally let him down. In the course of their lifetime together, they’d had plenty of petty squabbles and disagreements. During the Civil War they’d gone nearly a week without speaking to each other at all, and after the war ended the seeds of discontent Ulfric had sown between them had been almost enough to tear them apart. After everything they’d been through together, she didn’t know how much more their friendship could take before it shattered into a million pieces, never to be put back together again.
“Farkas,” she reached for him, grasping at his hand before he could pull it away. “I was trying to protect you.”
“I don’t need you to protect me.” Shaking his head, he wrenched his hand from hers and took another step back. “You should have told me, Luthien,” he said in a low voice that scared her far more than it would have had he hollered. She wanted him to yell at her, to grab her and shake her and unleash his fury on her. She deserved it, but instead he turned toward the door and opened it. She called after him, but he didn’t even look back, just slammed the door behind him.
There had been times throughout the course of her life when she wanted to give up, but never more than she did at that moment. Dropping onto her bed, she pulled at her hair and screamed with a fury that everyone in Windhelm must have heard, but she didn’t care. She’d lost everything; she might as well lose her mind too.
Something drove her to her feet again and forced her to swing Wuuthrad over one shoulder and her potions bag over the other. Maybe hurting Farkas was what she’d needed to do all along to find her strength and will to go on. She marched down the stairs and through the Palace of the Kings with more purpose than she’d ever felt in her life because she knew what she had to do, and she had to do it now—for Farkas, for her son, for her husbands, for her people, for herself.
Killing Alduin wouldn’t bring Vilkas or Ulfric back, but maybe it would set them free and together the three of them could make their way to Shor’s Great Hall.