“Lo there, do I see my father. Lo there, do I see my mother and my sister and my brother. Lo there, do I see the line of my people all the way back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me and bid me take my place among them in the Halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.” ~Viking Prayer*
Everything around her was a blur when she opened her eyes, the dark-haired figure hovering over her, the other kneeling on her other side and the host of bodies milling in the shadows just beyond her view. Even amidst the blur, the sky above her was iridescent brilliance, swirls and spirals of the most intense, beautiful light she’d ever seen, as if the world she was in rested in the grip of constant sunset.
“Step back,” she heard a familiar voice say. “Give her some space. I think she’s coming around.” A pair of hands slid under her head, helping to lift her until she was partially reclined.
“What… where am I?”
“She must have hit her head pretty hard when she fell,” another familiar voice, the man on her right. “Look in her satchel there and see if she has any potions.”
The one on her left said, “I’ve already got one here. Drink this, my love. It’ll heal your wounds.” That voice; that sweet, familiar voice. She never thought she would hear it again, and on instinct her hand rose up to touch the face growing clearer in front of her as she blinked.
“Vilkas?” she murmured. There was no warmth in his skin, and yet touching him still felt so familiar.
“Aye.” He tipped the bottle to her lips, but for a moment it was as if she’d forgotten how to swallow and she choked it back up, throat constricting to block the flow until a heavy hand connected with her back with a whack that cleared the passage. She swallowed again, the warmth of healing spreading through her like tiny feet marching to every ache in her body. “We set up watch here near the gates, though many had given up hope that you would come at all. So many souls lost to his snare, so little hope left among us. And then he came… I don’t know how long ago. It could have been hours, or maybe it was years. Time here… it is strange and never ending. But he promised us all that you were coming, and so we’ve waited.”
Luthien followed the gesture of his hand to the other figure kneeling to her right. She hadn’t even noticed he was holding her hand, strong fingers squeezing hers, hopeful steel eyes waiting for her to meet them. “Ulfric,” she gasped relief, every memory flooding through her in that moment, reminding her how far she’d come, of the task that awaited her.
“My heart,” he touched her face. “It’s so good to see you again. It feels like I have waited a hundred lifetimes for you to find me here and lead me home to rest.”
“I’m so sorry.” She curled her fingers around his wrist and turned her cheek into his cold palm. “I should have been there…”
“Sovngarde calls us all, and when it does, we must answer, woman. You know this.”
“I know…” She lowered her head, trickles of shame mingling with the flow of her blood. “But if only I’d been there…”
“You could not spare me, anymore than you could spare him,” he gestured to Vilkas, who’d crossed his arms and lifted his foot to rest on the step in front of her.” If you’d been there, you would not be here as you are now, but a mere shade like the rest of us. Unable to stand and fight against the horror that keeps us from finding our way home. It was as the gods planned. I have no regrets and neither should you.”
Nodding slowly, she looked between the two of them for a moment and then turned her gaze to the small army of bodies standing just beyond where she’d fallen. Soldiers, many of them, Imperials, Stormcloaks… She spied Kodlak, his gaunt face weary with the constant struggle to survive, but his soft blue eyes lit up a little when they met with hers. Lydia stood behind him, smiling, but at her back a thick, heavy mist swirled, blocking out the lay of the land from view.
“They have all waited for you,” Ulfric told her. “And though they lose hope, they never stopped believing you would come. Even as they watched their comrades fall into his snare, they believed in you, Luthien. You are their salvation.”
If she’d thought the weight of the world had felt heavy before, it was colossal when he said that, and for a moment she had to reach down really far into herself and tap into her strength to find the will to carry on. What if she failed them? What if the gods did not wish for her to succeed?
Maybe it was a strange and selfish thing, but she thought of Farkas then, their final kiss before she stepped up onto the dragon’s back. It really had felt to her as if he’d imbued her with every ounce of his own strength and might so she could carry out her final task. The love in his eyes so completely overflowing, she could feel it pouring into her, filling her until she thought she might burst.
She looked over at Vilkas, locking onto his eyes as she thought of his brother. Twins, yes, and yet so very different. Their similarities were evident, but they were not the same, had never been the same, except for their eyes. Clear blue, like a bright winter sky without a cloud in it, and so beautiful. The love in him was still so intense, she could feel it burning in her like a fire, and when she next looked to Ulfric, momentarily conflicted in her heart, she saw that same intensity in his gaze and knew that no matter what happened, neither of them would ever stop loving or believing her.
Vilkas cleared his throat, exchanging glances with Ulfric before lowering his gaze to her again. She wondered what kinds of things they’d said to each other there in Sovngarde. They seemed at peace with one another; she’d never expected that, especially considering the avid, constant fire that burned inside them both. Vilkas’s discontent with so many of her choices had kept them up until dawn more times than she could count on both hands, the heat of argument pushing them apart and yet drawing them so close together they could never let go. Ulfric’s jealousy and possessiveness had nearly torn them apart, but then he had changed so much in those months before his death, a peaceful resolve rising to quell his fire and making him stronger even as he grew more gentle.
Both of them had made her who she was, had taught her to be self-reliant, commanding and strong.
“We’ve gathered all our forces here, the few we could save. I know that you are weary, but please, will you show us the way?” Vilkas asked, his words reminding Luthien of the troubled dreams that had plagued Farkas’s dreams that last year. Though she knew her task was much bigger than seeing Vilkas safely to Shor’s Great Hall, for a moment that was all she wanted to do. Both for Vilkas and his brother. She wanted to take them all home, where they belonged, where they could sit in comfort and celebrate the deeds of their lives with other great warriors.
Rising from where she sat on the stone, she stood for a moment between Ulfric and Vilkas, surveying the men and women who’d gathered around her. She lifted her eyes to the sky above, that beautiful and mystic sky and then she closed them again. She didn’t pray; she didn’t have to. She was there to carry out the will of the gods, and that was just what she would do.
“Everyone.” She stepped forward, Vilkas and Ulfric standing beside her like pillars of strength. “I know you have struggled. Some of you have been trapped here in this place with no hope of finding your way for so long that no doubt you have lost hope. I ask only that you hold onto that hope just a little while longer. Hold onto one another and follow me through the mists and I will show you the way to Shor’s Great Hall.”
“Lead the way, Harbinger.” Vilkas reached for her hand and Ulfric grasped the other one, and together the three of them marched forward into the mists.
Luthien shouted them clear, an army of defiant survivors at her back. For the first time since she’d arrived in that place, she heard dragon roar and lifted her gaze to the sky as a heavy black shadow passed above her. She heard whimpers of fear behind her, but shouted again to clear the mists and urged everyone to make haste.
Sovngarde was beautiful, a true Nord’s final resting place, despite the darkness and destruction that had plagued its grace since Alduin’s return. Green hills and rolling snow-capped mountains that simply begged to be scaled, trickling streams and gushing waterfalls, and all beneath that amazing sky that no matter what happened, would live on inside her soul until their universe collapsed in upon itself in order to be reborn anew.
Vilkas had been true in saying time there had no structure. It felt as if their band of warriors traveled endlessly through the mists before at last she saw the rising glory of Shor’s Hall in the distance, but when she approached the others hung back.
“The Hall is closed to us,” Ulfric told her, letting go of her fingers. “Tsun, Shor’s guardian, will let no one cross the whale bone bridge until Alduin is defeated.”
Vilkas was still holding her other hand, fingers squeezing hers so tight they hurt. Turning back to face them all, she said, “I will meet with Tsun.”
“You must meet with him alone then.” Vilkas lowered his gaze with regret.
“Keep together,” she told them all. “Do not lose hope.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” one of the soldiers muttered to himself. “You’ve only been here a short time. Some of us have suffered here so long. There is no hope, only endless sorrow and wandering.”
“No,” Luthien shook her head. “I promised I would lead you home, and I will. Please, do not lose what little hope there is left to be had.”
“She is right,” Ulfric said. “We must trust in the Dragonborn and the gods. She has led us further through the mists than any of us have ever been. Look upon the Hall of Heroes and know that soon we will take our place among the brave sons and daughters of Skyrim who have waited ever long for us to join them.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Vilkas let go of her hand and she made her way up the steps, toward the giant of a warrior standing guard at the entrance to the whale bone bridge. And he truly was a giant, standing more than seven feet tall and with shoulders wider than Farkas, which was saying something. Farkas was the biggest warrior she’d ever seen, until then.
She approached with caution, heart racing as she neared him and lifted her head to look upon his face. He took three large steps, closing the vast space between them quickly as he called out, “What brings you, wayfarer grim, to wander here in Sovngarde, souls-end, Shor’s great gift to the honored dead?”
“I pursue Alduin,” she told him, hoping her voice didn’t crack with fear in his mighty wake.
“A fateful errand,” he mused. “No few have chafed to face the worm since first he set his soul snare here at Sovngarde’s threshold. But Shor restrained our wrathful onslaught. Perhaps, deep-counseled, your doom he foresaw.”
“I seek entrance into the Hall of Valor.”
“No shade are you, as usually here passes, but living you dare the land of the dead. By what right do you request entry?”
“By right of birth, for I am Dragonborn.” She had never felt more proud than she did in that moment, embracing her fate, the very blood that coursed through her veins.
“Ah,” he nodded. “It’s been too long since last I faced a doom-driven hero of the dragonblood.”
“Can I enter the Hall of Valor?”
“Living or dead, by decree of Shor, none may pass this perilous bridge ‘til I judge them worthy by the warrior’s test.”
Tsun withdrew his ebony battle axe and charged at her before she even had a moment to think. She reacted on instinct alone, unslinging Wuuthrad and holding it up to block his first blow, which staggered her back and nearly knocked her to her knees. She drew upon the power of her voice, shouting Unrelenting Force to push him back enough that she could rise again and ready her axe in battle against him, but even Unrelenting Force seemed powerless to stop his task. In fact, he shouted back at her, and even though she braced herself and drew up her shield to block it, the force of his Voice trembled through her.
Luthien swung wide, and he blocked her blow with heavy resistance that rattled through her bones, but she did not yield. She arced the blade of Ysgramor high and it clashed down against his sparse armor.
“I’ve waited long for such a worthy opponent,” he cried, swinging hard and knocking her into a swift roll that carried her away as his blade sparked and hammered into the stone beneath his feet. “The joy of battle burns in your heart.”
When she rose, it was on wobbling knees that threatened to give out if she put too much effort into her movement. But she had no choice. She pushed herself forward with a mighty battle-cry that knocked him back, and with surprise he rose, shaking off the stun of her attack and sheathing his weapon.
“You fought well,” he bowed his head to her in respect. “I find you worthy. It is long since one of the living entered here. May Shor’s favor follow you and your errand.” He stepped aside to reveal the passage, and with her legs still shaking beneath her she passed him and began to make her way across the whalebone bridge to Shor’s Hall.
Over her shoulder, she could see the mists cropping back in, but those she’d led there were lining up to challenge Tsun so they too might make their way to safety once Alduin was gone. Vilkas and Ulfric lingered side by side at the back of the crowd, watching her disappear.
The rushing sound of constant water guided her across the bridge, and when she arrived at the hall, it was with an excitement in her belly unlike any she’d ever felt before. She had gained entry into the Hall of Valor, but she was still a long way from claiming the title of hero. Opening the wide doors, she pushed through them with her head held high, and met immediately with a grizzly warrior on the steps. She didn’t know how she knew who he was, perhaps it was the glint in his eye when he spied the blade she carried, a spark of pride and excitement to see his trusted friend, Wuuthrad, still wielded in honorable battle.
“Welcome, Dragonborn,” he said. “Our door has stood empty since Alduin set his soul snare here. By Shor’s command, we sheathed our blades and ventured not into the vale’s dark mists.”
“Ysgramor,” she dropped to her knees in reverence, which made him laugh a strong, hearty chuckle as he reached down to draw her to her feet.
“Perhaps it is I, who should be bowing to you. They say you have come to defeat the World Eater and lead our fallen brethren to the Hall. But I digress… Three await your word to loose their fury upon that perilous foe. Gormlaith the fearless, glad-hearted in battle. Hakon the valiant, heavy-handed in battle. Felldir the old, far-seeing and grim.” He turned aside, gesturing with his arm for her to follow where the warriors who’d taught her Dragonrend Shout stood anxiously awaiting her arrival.
But Luthien’s gaze was quickly distracted by a familiar face sitting at the table in between her and her allies. He was staring at her with disbelief, wide green eyes blinking as if she were a shade he’d never expected to see there, mouth agape as he tried to form words. He rose then, and made his way toward her, but Luthien was already running to leap into his waiting arms.
“Papa, I… I never thought to see you again.”
“My girl,” he drew her back to look her over and in his loving gaze she felt so vulnerable and small, like she was five years old again and vying desperately for his approval. “My sweet little girl, look how big and strong you’ve grown since last I laid these eyes upon you. They say you are the Dragonborn, that you’ve come to face the World Eater,” he marveled. “I always told you how special you were, but even I never expected… I’m just… I’m so proud of you.”
“There is so much I want to tell you, Father, so many things have I seen. I…”
“All in good time, my child,” he chuckled. “All in good time,” he assured her, gripping her shoulders in his strong grasp. “You are needed in battle, and I would not dare to stand in your way. Go and meet your greatest challenge. Be strong, my daughter, and know that I will be waiting here for you when your time comes to join us.” He leaned forward and pressed his lips against her forehead. “Make your father proud.”
*Quoted from The 13th Warrior.