Luthien had never seen so many guards on duty in Dragonsreach in the five years she’d been a resident there. Not even when the Stormcloaks took Whiterun. They milled around the palace, waiting on the porch when she, Farkas, Vignar and Olfina stalked through the doors, Vignar muttering under his breath, “I hope this plan of yours works. You do have a plan, right?”
“She’s got a plan, Vignar. Don’t worry,” Farkas reassured him.
“All right,” the Jarl nodded, though the tension did not lift from his brow. “All right. We’re ready when you are.”
She walked to the edge of the porch, listening to the murmur of voices as she passed through. Most of them thought she was crazy; maybe she was. Farkas moved in over her shoulder, leaning out to look over Whiterun Hold.
“You know, I’ve lived here almost my whole life, and I’ve never seen this view.”
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, pressing her back into his chest for a moment as they appreciated it together. The wind picked up, blowing her hair into her face and she reached up to move it away. Drawing in a deep breath, she turned her head and asked, “Are you ready?”
“I’m ready when you are.”
She closed her eyes and focused herself, drawing from every ounce of strength inside her. She felt the well of power swelling, could hear Farkas stepping back and drawing his battle axe. Exhaling, she lifted her Voice to the sky and called out, “ODAHVIING!” That one word cracked and echoed across the mountains, reverberating back until everyone behind her had grown quiet.
“Quiet,” Olfina snapped over her shoulder. “I thought I heard something.”
Luthien heard it too. The tell-tale thrash of wings on the wind, and just like that he was there, swooping down and snapping up one of the guards. They heard the man screaming all the way down, everyone on the porch rushing backward in fear. Everyone but Luthien and Farkas, who stood their ground, axes out and ready to fight. The power of her Voice was still weak, rebuilding inside her, and she instinctively reached up to grasp the Amulet of Talos underneath her robes. She needed strength now.
“There he is,” Vignar called out from behind them.
“As soon as he gets close enough, I need to pull him down with Dragonrend,” she shouted over her shoulder to Farkas.
“Everyone, back up,” he warned them. “She’s gonna bring him in.”
“Is she crazy?”
He swooped across the porch again, diving down and gnashing his teeth, and Luthien unleashed her Voice once more. “Joor Zah Frul!”
Spirals of blue power writhed up to wrap around him like ethereal claws, tugging and pulling him to the stone porch with a thunderous crash.
“Back up,” Farkas hollered. “Back up!”
Luthien started walking backwards, the dragon stomping toward her. “Dovahkiin!” he bellowed. “Here I am!”
“Odahviing, we meet at last!” she grinned in challenge. “Come and taste my steel.” Every step she took, he followed, just as arrogant as Paarthurnax said he’d be. The guards scrambled along the rampart above, huddling around the chain to drop the trap. She quickly lifted her gaze above her to see where she was, how close Odahviing was to the trap itself. Just a few more steps, but then he unleashed his fire breath, scattering burning soldiers who ran with their arms flailing, screams and armor clattering through.
Farkas drew his bow and began unleashing arrows to distract him away from the guards, taunting, “Is this what you want? Huh? I’ll put you back into the tomb Alduin raised you from, dragon!”
“Mey joor!” Odahviing swung his head around, a trail of fire rippling across stone. “Hin dinok meyz!”
“Make ready,” Luthien said cried over her shoulder. Farkas feinted in right, joining up with her to draw the dragon toward the trap. They backed up together and Odahviing followed. Lifting up her arm, she called out, “Now!”
“We’ve got him,” Vignar sounded from the rampart. “Secure it tight!”
“Nid!” Odahviing cried out. “Nid! Horvutah med kodaav. Caught like a bear in a trap! Zok frini grind ko grah drun viiki, Dovahkiin.” She walked slowly toward him, ignoring the shuffle of bodies at her back, except for Farkas, who moved with her, approaching their prisoner. “Ah, I forget you do not have the dovah speech.” Luthien could feel the heat of his breath as he exhaled through flaring nostrils, blowing back her hair from her face. “My… eagerness to meet you in battle was my… undoing, Dovahkiin. I salute your… hmm… low cunning in devising such a grahmindol—strategem.”
Now that she had him there, she was almost mesmerized by his beauty. Brilliant red scale that gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the open porch, ancient eyes that seemed to glisten like precious stones as he blinked and tried to turn his head as he studied her. They shared a soul bond, something no one else in the world could understand, but before she could lose herself in sentimental thought she stepped up closer. She remembered the first time she’d met Paarthurnax, the traditions he’d taught her regarding the first meeting of two of the Dov. Should she shout fire into his face to show him they were equals? No… this dragon was not her equal. He was her enemy.
“Zu’u bonaar. You went to a great deal of trouble to put me in this… humiliating position. Hind siiv Alduin, hmm? No doubt you wish to know where to find Alduin?”
“That’s right,” she crossed her arms, getting straight to business. The sooner they could get him to talk, the faster they could start down a path from which there was likely no return. “Where is he hiding?”
“Riniik vazah. An apt phrase. Alduin bovul. One reason I came to your call was to test your Thu’um for myself. Many of us have come to question Alduin’s lordship, whether his Thu’um is truly the strongest. Among ourselves, of course. Mu ni meyye. None of us were yet ready to openly defy him.”
“And now?” she tilted her head, still so fascinated by him she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
He tried to lower his head, but the trap made it impossible.
“You were getting ready to tell us where to find Alduin,” Farkas stepped up to the challenge.
“Yes, where is he?”
“Unslaad krosis. Innumerable pardons. I digress.” Silence, as if he were still somehow testing her, waiting for her to lose her temper, and then he shifted his gaze away from hers again. “He has travelled to Sovngarde to regain his strength, devouring the sillesjoor. A privilege he jealously guards. His door to Sovngarde is in Skuldafn, one of his ancient fanes high in the eastern mountains. Mindoraan pah ok middovahhe lahvraan til. I surely do not need to warn you that all his remaining strength is marshaled there.”
“Skuldafn?” Luthien turned to Farkas.
He only shook his head and shrugged as if to say he had no idea.
“Zu’u lost ofan hin laan. Now that I have answered your question, you will allow me to go free?”
“Go free?” Farkas laughed. “Do you think we’re stupid?”
But Odahviing’s eyes did not leave Luthien’s face. He knew who was in charge, and he awaited her reply. She swallowed hard, glancing out into the distant mountains. It was a foolish thought, considering she probably wasn’t coming back from this final quest alive, but say she did… Skyrim’s army could use the help of a powerful dragon. “If I let you go, will you promise to serve me, as you have served Alduin?”
“Aam?” he balked at the notion. “Serve you? No. Ni tiid,” he shook his head as best he could within the trap. “If and when Alduin is defeated, I will reconsider. Hmm, krosis. There is one detail about Skuldafn I… neglected to mention.” She swore in that moment, if dragons could smile deviously, Odahviing was doing it. Even his eyes seemed to gleam with mischief.
Crossing her arms again, she sighed. “Tell me what you know then.”
“Only this,” he drew it out for a moment, as if he had to think of how to speak the words in her tongue. “You may have the Thu’um of a Dovah, but without the wings of one, you will never set foot in Skuldafn. Of course,” he paused thoughtfully. “I could fly the little Dovahkiin there on my back, but not while imprisoned like this.”
She could feel Farkas’s eyes on her, waiting for her to refuse the offer. If the dragon flew her, she had to go alone; there had to be another way. “You really expect me to take you at your word? How do I know you won’t kill us all if I set you free?”
“Ahraan. You wound me, Dovahkiin. I may not tell the whole truth, but I am no liar.” There was genuine anguish in his voice, but his confidence quickly returned. “Go and see for yourself. Zu’u ni bo nol het. I will be here, unless Alduin returns before you do.”
She turned her back to him and started walking away, Farkas following her all the way to the keep. Vignar and Olfina joined them, the old Jarl only watching, waiting for her to tell him what she’d learned.
“You will be the toast of the town for this,” Vignar said. “Trapping a dragon right here in Dragonsreach. I can’t believe it.”
Luthien lifted her hand to her brow, massaging across the tension in her forehead as she dropped into the seat at the table and sighed. “Does anyone know anything about Skuldafn?”
“Skuldafn?” Vignar leaned back and stroked at the bristling hairs of his beard. “An old Nord ruin far to the east of here, in the Jerall Mountains along the border of Morrowind. Aside from that, there’s not much to tell. No one’s been there in ages. It’s completely inaccessible.”
“When you say completely inaccessible…” Farkas began.
“Have you got ice in your brains? I mean it’s inaccessible, boy. As in you can’t get there. Those mountains are treacherous, impossible to scale. You’d be dead before you even made it halfway.”
“Odahviing says he can take me there.”
“You’re not seriously considering putting your trust in that monster, are you?” Luthien had never seen Vignar’s beady eyes so wide in the time she’d known him. When she didn’t answer, he crossed his arms and hmph’d. “Maybe you’re the one with ice for brains.”
“So he says,” Farkas interjected. “How do we know he’s not just telling you what you want to hear?”
“We don’t, but… I don’t know. I could see it in his eyes when I questioned him. He was genuinely hurt that I called him a liar.”
“Genuinely hurt? Dragons have feelings we’re taking into consideration now? Mighty Talos, save us all. Girl, do you even hear yourself? This is madness.”
“Hey!” Farkas barked. “That girl is still High Queen of Skyrim,” he reminded him. “You would do well to keep that in mind.”
“Farkas,” she turned her gaze to him, soft eyes meant to quell his protective temper. “Vignar, I know it’s crazy. Trust me, I know, but if Skuldafn is inaccessible, as you say, and it is the only way to reach Alduin in order to stop him, what choice do I have but to accept his offer and set him free?”
“We went to all that gods damned trouble to catch him in that trap, and you just want to let him go again…” Shaking his head, he dropped down into the chair. “I swear, High Queen, or not, if you make me live to regret this, Luthien…”
“If Odahviing betrays me, none of us will live to regret it. And if we keep him here, it’s only a matter of time before Alduin succeeds.”
“Well, when you put it that way, I guess we don’t have much of a choice.” As he let loose a long, troubled breath, his age was more evident than it had ever been before. Vignar was the oldest living member of the Companions, had seen more Harbingers come and go than any other, and he would live to see another rise to take her place when all was said and done. She was sure of it. “Say the word when you’re ready, and I’ll have the guards release the trap.” She watched from her seat as he and Olfina walked away, muttering to each other words she was probably better off not hearing.
Farkas dropped into the chair beside her, leaning his elbows down to rest on his knees. He unleashed a heavy sigh. “So this is it then?” he said, tilting his gaze to the floor. His hair had fallen into his face, hiding his eyes “I always thought we’d go all the way to the end together.”
“So did I.” She reached across the space between them and took his hands in hers.
“Lu, I can’t just let you go off to face this alone. Not after everything…”
“I don’t want to go alone,” she assured him. “I want you with me, but…”
Her throat felt tight, and it was hard for her to swallow against the rising emotions. She could feel her eyes burning with unshed tears and when she blinked, they slipped down her cheeks. She really thought they were going to die together, and for some reason that had made the threat feel less imposing. Knowing she went to face the end alone… She didn’t see how she would actually be able to do it without him at her side. But she had to. She had to find the strength inside herself to soldier on and do the right thing, the honorable thing. Strength and honor… gifts to her from the men who’d loved her well before they died.
“I will come back to you,” she said. “I’ll always come back to you, Farkas. You’re home.” When he lifted his eyes to meet hers, the pain she saw in them was almost more than she could bear. He didn’t believe her. “Will you wait for me?”
Bracing himself against his own sorrow, he nodded and squeezed her fingers inside his. “Always.” He lowered his forehead to hers, and for a long time they sat that way, eyes closed, hearts beating in sync, their world teetering on the brink of destruction.