Although she would have been glad to sleep in the barracks, Jorleif set Selene up in a luxurious suite on one of the palace’s upper floors. He did everything he could to make sure she and Liska were comfortable and even assigned a servant to take care of the fox when Selene was away. She spent the next few weeks forcing herself to relax, although she did venture into the wilderness a couple of times, once to kill a dragon and once with a shield-brother to take care of a bandit problem for Jorleif. It was good to get out of the palace; relaxation was not for her, and she got bored easily.
During her downtime, Selene spent some time with Oengul War-Anvil, the castle blacksmith, and he helped her forge twin daggers and a new bow. All three pieces were made of fine ebony, and she was very proud of her work. The court mage, Wuunferth the Unliving, enchanted the weapons for her. After having learned firsthand how harmful flames could be, Selene had grown quite fond of weapons that did fire damage, so she had him enchant the bow and one of the daggers as such. The other dagger sent a nasty shock into the opponent. Wielding them together made for a painful and deadly combination.
She spent a lot of time with Ulfric, whether it was in the war room talking strategy, having dinner, or sitting down for a drink by the fire. He began teaching her to play chess, which he said was an excellent tool for those commanding an army and in one’s daily life. “On a grand level, it is a representation of strategy and tactics for organizing companies, moving troops, and so on,” he explained. “For an individual, it helps find solutions to problems and obstacles. It teaches pattern recognition and critical thinking. It can help you in your work as an operative as well.”
“Well, it gives me a headache,” she remarked after a particularly humiliating defeat. They had played every night for two weeks, and she hadn’t beaten him yet. “I think I’m better suited for carrying out other people’s strategies than planning my own.”
“It also teaches patience,” he said pointedly. “You underestimate yourself. You don’t need to command an army to have a gift for strategy and creative thinking. In our world, everyone is a potential opponent, even our allies.”
“I don’t get that.”
“Even the most benign disagreement is a competition, an obstacle to be overcome. If someone has something you want, what do you do?” He moved a pawn and continued to speak as the game progressed. “You start slowly, feel them out, watch them and listen, make the necessary sacrifices, all the while deploying your forces for the final attack. Then when the time is right—” looking her boldly in the eye, he took her queen “—you strike. And you never concede. The most skilled opponents will make mistakes you can capitalize upon. Whether it’s on the battlefield, over the chessboard, or in personal relations makes no difference. The same tactics can be used. And you never concede. The most skilled opponents will make mistakes you can capitalize upon.”
“Words of wisdom.” Selene looked at the board and noticed Ulfric himself had made a fatal blunder. She moved her rook, trapping his king in an indefensible position, then looked up at him with a smug grin. “Checkmate.”
“What?” His jaw dropped as he looked down at the board. “I’ll be damned,” he mused.
“Now here are words of wisdom for you: confidence is good; being cocky will cost you.” She got up from the table and caressed his cheek, and he closed his eyes and rested his face in her open palm, covering her hand with his. She withdrew and murmured, “Goodnight, Ulfric.”
* * *
Selene made her way to the practice yard one sunny, summer afternoon to work with her bow and found Ulfric sparring with one of the soldiers. Balgruuf might have let sitting on the throne make him soft, but Ulfric certainly didn’t have that problem. He was quick, sharp, and fierce, and Selene had no doubt he was deadly as well. He moved like a man half his age, blocking his opponent’s strikes effortlessly and connecting with his own time and again. It didn’t appear that his sparring partner was allowing Ulfric to hit him; he was trying his best to keep up with the jarl. Selene stood watching him for several minutes before he noticed her and dismissed the soldier.
He came over to her and held his hand out for the bow, which she turned over to him. “Impressive craftsmanship,” he remarked, looking it over.
“I had a lot of help,” she replied humbly.
“You know, I’ve never seen you shoot.”
“Then stand back.” She went to an archery target and lined up her shot, sending an arrow directly into the bulls-eye. The next four arrows followed the first into the center circle, but the sixth arrow missed the target altogether. “Damn it!” she groused.
Ulfric chuckled. “It seems she’s not perfect,” he teased her. He motioned for her to follow him to the edge of the practice yard and said, “I had planned to send for you later, but since we’ve run into each other here, I’ll just tell you now. Galmar needs you at our secret camp in Falkreath. I believe he has a use for your special skills. Perhaps you’ll get to use your new daggers as well.”
“I’ll leave first thing in the morning.
* * *
Selene arrived at Fort Neugrad just before noon a few days later, and Galmar sent her on ahead to meet a scouting party near the fort. “A few of our men are imprisoned there,” he told her, “and you are going to get them out. After they have been rescued and you have taken out the legionnaires there, we will garrison the fort.”
Selene met the detachment, led by Ralof, just over the hill from the fort. “Hey, you,” he greeted her.
Although she knew it wasn’t appropriate, she reached out and hugged him. “Hey, you.”
“Galmar said you were coming. This has to go well. It’s my first command since my promotion.”
“Congratulations! I know Galmar had talked about a promotion, but I didn’t know it had happened yet.”
“Kind of ironic, us being here together today.”
“It’s been a year today.”
Selene counted in her head, and sure enough, it had been exactly one year since the black dragon attacked Helgen, which was just up the road. She had been in the habit of saying she was with the Companions a year, but it was actually much less. So much had happened since that fateful day, it seemed longer. Crouching here with Ralof just a stone’s throw from the ruined village was almost too painful. She had kept the good memories of the day, but now all the bad flooded back to her with a vengeance. Selene closed her eyes and held her breath, trying to banish the images she was usually successful at burying—the cart, the headsman, the dragon, the abject terror. As if to punctuate the memory, a dragon howled somewhere far away. Ralof didn’t seem to hear it, and she wondered if it was real or if it was just her imagination.
Ralof rested a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
Selene nodded. “I’m fine. I hadn’t really been paying attention, and it was kind of a shock; that’s all. What’s the plan here?”
“There’s a lake next to the fort, goes right up to the wall. Often, when that happens, there’s a hidden entrance. Please tell me you can swim.”
“You’ll need to wait until nightfall, then explore the lake and see if they have an entrance. Sneak in and free the prisoners, then meet me and the others in the courtyard, killing every Imperial on the way. Should be fun!”
Selene socialized quietly with Ralof and the others until full dark, and then she set out for the fort with the plan to meet Ralof in the courtyard in one hour. If she didn’t meet them, they would abandon the surprise attack and enter through the front, assuming she had been killed or caught. Fort Neugrad was old and crumbling like most of the others she had seen since coming to Skyrim. The toppled walls and fallen towers made good hiding places, and except for the moment it took to dart across the road, she was able to stay under cover all the way to the lake. The road led to a pier, and a small gap opened between it and the fort wall. Selene waded into the lake, hoping that the hidden entrance, if any, was close by.
The gods were smiling on her; a hole was carved in the rock no more than twenty feet from the pier. She swam through the doorway and emerged in a cave stocked with weapons, armor, and other supplies that wouldn’t be subject to water damage. An iron door opened onto a storage room, and Selene figured the cave served as some sort of panic room or bolt hole.
There wasn’t much she could do about her dripping armor, but she wrung her hair out before drawing her daggers and slipping into the storage room, which led directly to the prison, and the door was wide open. Not very smart, Selene thought. It made a great exit for escaping prisoners. She briefly thought of going out the way she came in, but it was better to stick to the plan. Besides, any Imperials they could kill on the way out were less they’d have to fight when they met up with the complement. She tucked herself into the shadows of the storage room while she surveyed the prison. There were four prisoners, each in his own cell. One guard sat at a table with his back to her. Almost too easy. Selene crept silently up behind the guard and slit his throat before he even knew what was happening.
“The guard has the key,” one of the prisoners informed her.
She took the key and released the prisoners and kept watch while they donned their armor and retrieved their weapons, which had been dropped in a pile near the exit; then they made their way through the fort. They encountered a dozen Imperials on the way to the courtyard door and lost one man in the process, but the rest of them made it without serious injury. Ralof was waiting when she opened the door.
“We took care of the ones out here, but there are probably more inside,” he said.
“Let’s go back in, then.”
Two hours later, the fort belonged to the Stormcloaks. They had lost three men in the attack and a few more, including Selene, had sustained non-life-threatening injuries; but no legionnaires remained alive to take prisoner. Selene congratulated Ralof as he stitched a gash in her arm. “I think your first command was a success.”
He nodded his thanks. “Get back to Windhelm and report to Ulfric. We’ll clean up the mess here.”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
Ralof chuckled. “Cut that out!”
On the way back to Windhelm, Selene found herself comparing the operation to a game of chess. It had been exactly as Ulfric had said. Galmar had sent scouts to get intelligence and make a plan to infiltrate the fort. Ralof had sent Selene in from the rear to free the prisoners and work from the inside while he and the rest of the party went in from the front, thereby blocking all egress. Then when the time was right, checkmate.
She still had yet to figure out what Ulfric had meant when he said it could be applied on a personal level, though. For some reason, it was hard to get her head around the concept, and she busied her mind for many of the lonely hours on the road trying to work through it. How could the tactics and strategies used to move her pieces across the board help her in her work as an operative? Well, he did say it teaches patience, she thought with a chuckle. But she was missing something, some tiny, hidden piece that would bring it all together. Pattern recognition and critical thinking, he had said. Perhaps she would have to put it into practice before she completely understood it.
Selene grunted at the thought. “Well, that makes no sense whatsoever.”
* * *
Selene arrived in Windhelm to find a crime scene in the cemetery. Susanna, who supposedly worked at Candlehearth Hall (although Selene had never seen her actually doing anything), lay naked and bloody across a sarcophagus with a handful of townspeople standing around, gawking. One of the town guards was trying to get them to leave, but they weren’t moving.
“No need to worry yourself with this, Ice-Veins,” he assured Selene. “We have things well in hand here.”
Selene didn’t leave, either. “What happened?”
“It’s Susanna. She served me a drink just the other night. Terrible thing, and the fourth one, too.”
“Fourth what? Fourth murder?”
“Aye. All of them the same. Young and pretty, stabbed and mutilated.”
The guard shrugged. “We’re doing the best we can, but with the war, we’re stretched thin as it is.”
“Hmm. Mind if I take a look?”
“If you’ve got the time, feel free. You might try talking to some of the witnesses. They’re not going anywhere.”
She took a look at Susanna’s body and wondered why in Oblivion someone would do that to a person. She had several slashes across her chest, back, and legs, a couple of them deep enough so that it appeared the killer was trying to pull something out of her. Could they be harvesting organs for some necromantic ritual? Or was it just brutal hatred that made them cut her like that?
“Did you see what happened?” Selene asked Helgird, the priestess of Arkay who had already started her burial rites.
“Er, no, but I did notice her coin purse is still intact. Whoever did this wasn’t robbing her.”
Silda the Unseen, Windhelm’s resident beggar, didn’t see anything, either. “I heard a scream and came running, but when I got here, she was already like this. It’s just terrible.”
While Selene talked to the woman, she felt a subtle bump on her hip, and she smiled. She hadn’t even seen Silda move. She reached out and took her coin purse back, giving her a wry look. “You must be frazzled, Silda,” she said. “I actually felt it when you touched me.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said the beggar, looking away humbly. “Please don’t report me to the guard.”
Selene slipped a Septim in her hand. “I’ll make a deal with you. You stay out of my pockets, and I’ll make sure yours don’t stay empty.”
“Oh, thank you!”
The final onlooker was Calixto Corrium, an Imperial who ran Calixto’s House of Curiosities, a dubious museum on the east side of town. Selene didn’t like Calixto. He reminded her of Belethor, but he was even slimier than the little Breton merchant. “Well, I, uh, saw somebody running away, but I didn’t get a good look. Crying shame, isn’t it?” He tsked and shook his head.
Jorleif gave Selene permission to investigate the murders while she was waiting for her next assignment. Helgird said the cuts were made by a curved embalming tool, although she didn’t know who would have something like that other than herself.
The killer was sloppy and left a trail of blood from the crime scene to a vacant mansion in the northeast corner of town. The door was locked, so Selene picked her way in. The smell of death assaulted her sensitive nostrils, and her wolf spirit struggled to get free. She drooled and panted, leaning against the wall and fighting the beast, and it took several difficult minutes to regain control. Not here; she couldn’t lose it here in town. Just get through this.
Although the scent of blood was pervasive, the first floor appeared empty except for a chest, which had been dragged up against a wall. Inside was a journal and a handful of flyers talking about “The Butcher.” The journal was an eye opener. Someone was definitely harvesting body parts, and the necromantic ritual theory came into better focus. She found an amulet of a kind she had never seen on a bookshelf. It was made of jade, very old and worn, and carved with what might have been a face. She pocketed the amulet and moved on to a couple of wardrobes nearby. One didn’t seem out of the ordinary; but the other had a false back panel, which stood ajar. She opened it and walked into a nightmare.
Human bones littered the floor, which was covered with a thick carpet of congealed blood, organs, feces, and clumps of skin. Skulls had been placed in baskets, and ribcages were piled on top of each other. A man’s bloody footprints tracked across the room to an altar, on which lay part of another skeleton. Selene didn’t know how many women this guy had killed, but there were more than three bodies here. Noticing a book on the altar, she tiptoed around the blood and gore as best she could and made her way across the room to retrieve the book. It was a second journal, which held a kind of necromantic recipe. “This is disgusting,” she groaned. Her beast still fighting with her, she checked the rest of the house but didn’t find anything else, and then she got out of town as quickly as she could and went hunting.
When she spoke to Jorleif about the evidence she had turned up, he directed her to Calixto, who said the amulet was a Wheelstone, traditionally carried by court mages. He offered to buy the amulet, but she said she would hold onto it for the time being. Jorleif also sent her to Viola Giordano, the woman who had posted the flyers around town. Viola was mostly full of gossip; but after discussing the events and the journals, she came to the conclusion that it was the court mage, Wuunferth the Unliving. “He’s a dangerous man,” she admonished Selene. “You should take this information to the steward right away!”
Selene liked Wuunferth. He was a bit odd, but she couldn’t imagine him killing local women for a necromantic ritual. Thus, she went to see him before talking to Jorleif. “I’ve been investigating the murders in town,” she told him, “and it appears a necromancer might be involved.”
“Does it, now?”
“Evidence is pointing to you.”
Wuunferth sputtered and coughed indignantly. “I will have you know I’m a full member of the College of Winterhold, and they haven’t allowed necromancy there for a century or more!”
“And yet you say all the time that whatever I’ve heard about you is true.”
“Everything but that, I assure you.”
Selene held up the amulet, and Wuunferth said, “Well, it does appear that necromancy is involved; you have that much correct. That’s the Necromancer Amulet, a legendary artifact created by Mannimarco. Where did you come by it?”
“It was in the house with the bodies. Wuunferth, I have your journals.”
“My what, now? I’ve never kept any journals. I have been keeping notes about these murders, though. Just a moment.” He went to a desk piled high with books and notes and picked up a sheet of parchment. “Yes, here it is. I’ve noticed a pattern in the timing of the killings, and I believe I can predict when the next murder will take place. From the Middas of…yes, yes.” He turned to Selene. “I believe the next murder will occur sometime in the next three nights. You should keep an eye out for anything suspicious. The murders have happened in the Stone Quarter, so I’d start there.”
“You do realize that if this doesn’t pan out, I’m coming for you, right?”
Wuunferth smiled at her. “Oh, I’m sure you will.”
The next evening, Selene dressed in dark clothing and carried her daggers to the Stone Quarter, where she ducked into a corner and watched. Pattern recognition. Wuunferth said he’d noticed a pattern. Critical thinking. That made sense now, too. She had analyzed the evidence and talked to people, drawing conclusions. Now here she was, being patient. And her patience paid off. Sometime near midnight, Arivanya, an Altmer who worked in the stables, came wandering through the marketplace. Selene had no idea why she was even there, because nobody else was around except for one of the city guards.
But then Arivanya wasn’t alone. A figure crept out of the shadows just out of view of the guard, wielding a dagger. Selene drew her daggers and dashed in, cutting into the murderer just as he was bringing his blade down. The killer screamed, Arivanya screamed, and the guard screamed. Selene, however, just wiped her blades on the killer’s tunic. She turned him over to reveal his face, and the guard gasped.
“I knew there was something wrong about that guy,” she muttered.
* * *
“To a job well done,” Ulfric toasted her, raising his goblet as they sat at dinner. Selene clinked her glass against his. “I knew you would be invaluable to the rebellion. I didn’t realize what an asset you would be to my city.”
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Ulfric shook his head. “You knew what you were doing.”
“I finally understood what you meant about chess strategies playing into real life. It was something Wuunferth said about recognizing a pattern. It changed my whole way of thinking. I also realized something else.”
“And what’s that?”
“You let me win that game.” Ulfric gave her a broad smile in response, and she swatted his arm. “Don’t do that again. I do not need that kind of charity.”
“Who says it was charity? Perhaps it was part of my grand game.”
“Was that the necessary sacrifice you spoke of? Or was it testing me, feeling me out? Seeing how I would react?”
“You’re getting very good at this game, Selene.” He stood up, took her hand, and pulled her up as well, then he took her face in his hands and placed a soft kiss on her lips.
Selene felt the kiss all the way to her toes. Her entire body tingled, and she leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his neck as she opened her mouth to him. They had only kissed the one time. He had been the perfect gentleman for months and hadn’t even mentioned taking her to his bed. Now she realized just what his grand game was, and he was moving in for the kill.
Part of her wanted to be angry with him for charming her, being so sweet and accommodating all those months in an effort to do nothing more than to get her into bed, but she wasn’t stupid. She had known all along what he was doing, and she had enjoyed the game as much as he had. But the time had come to concede. But as his mouth covered hers and drank her in, as desire surged in his scent, and as he picked her up and carried her to his bed, Selene had to wonder: was there really a loser here?
Ulfric undressed her and then himself, then lay alongside her and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her deeply, hotly as Selene ran her hands over the hard muscles of his chest, back, and arms. He trailed his fingers down her throat and cupped her breast, caressing her nipple before continuing on his path down her flat stomach and slipping his hand between her legs. He knew how to please a woman; and oh, he did, his fingers, lips and tongue producing enraptured whimpers and moans and sending delicious spasms pulsating through her body. He took her like a hero in one of the naughty romance novels that were so popular in Cyrodiil. She was the blushing ingénue, and he was the dashing knight come to rescue her from the dragon and claim his prize. The fact that the scenario couldn’t be further from reality didn’t matter as body moved with hers and he whispered her name.
They rested in each other’s arms late into the night, and Selene lay awake for hours, listening to Ulfric’s soft, even breathing as he slept. She wondered at the many scars on his torso, arms, and back. Several were burn scars, three of which were almost perfectly round and the size of a fireplace poker. She knew the Thalmor had captured and tortured him, but she hadn’t thought much about it until now. The pain they must have put him through was unimaginable.
He had said they would be magnificent together, and he was right, but it didn’t help her sleep. The moon was full, and her beast wanted to roam and hunt. She grew restless, but she tried to remain as still as possible so as not to disturb her lover. He sensed her unease, though, and opened his eyes.
“Having trouble sleeping?” he asked drowsily.
She rose up and propped her arms on his chest. “Am I bothering you?”
“Not at all.” He leaned his head forward and brushed his lips against hers, desire flooding his scent. Warmth spread through her body, and she moaned. “If you need help relaxing, I’m your man.”
He maneuvered Selene on top of himself and threaded his fingers through her hair, pulling her down to kiss her. As he ran his fingers through her hair, Selene silently told her beast she would just have to wait until tomorrow. A soft gasp escaped Ulfric’s lips, and she decided her inner wolf probably wouldn’t mind anyway.
* * *
A/N: I know a lot of different things happen in this chapter, but it all ties in with the chess theme. Although it’s not lore friendly, I figure Ulfric would be a big chess player. Also, the hubby is a chess coach, so I figured I should put the game in somewhere, so there you have it. The chessboard is from a mod, Berts Breezehome Remodeled, which can be found here: http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/8922. The chess pieces are taken from a photo of one of the hubby’s sets.