Farkas and Athis stayed at Hjerim for a week before returning to Whiterun. During that time, Selene told them about some of her activities with the Stormcloaks and caught up with the goings on at Jorrvaskr. Athis slept a lot, and it was good to have Farkas to herself for a while. With their new relationships, most of their residual sexual tension had relaxed, and they could be together as friends without worrying about doing something they would regret. Together, they caught up on the more personal aspects of their lives. She had missed the long, fireside talks they’d had on the road where they told each other all their silly hopes and dreams, and it was refreshing to do so again. Farkas was still with Saadia, and he was starting to entertain the notion of asking her to marry him. He was, however, less than thrilled with Selene’s current love interest. Truth be known, at the moment, so was she.
When her shield-brothers left, Selene moved back into the palace, but her relationship with Ulfric had taken a turn and she spent much less time with him. He tried to make amends, but he gave her space when she asked for it, and there was less friction than she had expected. There was little time to socialize anyway; plans for the march on Solitude were coming together. Troops were already on the move, and Ulfric’s contingent was ready to leave Windhelm by the end of the month.
A team of twenty left the city on the first of Evening Star, all but one dressed in standard Stormcloak armor. Only Henrik, Ulfric’s second in command, wore the fur of the officer’s uniform. Ulfric marched in the middle of the column and dressed like everyone else, but in Selene’s eyes he still stood out. He was taller than the rest, and even keeping his head down, he exuded presence. She doubted there was anything he could do to truly blend in.
Ulfric was all business on the four-day trip. Selene loved to watch him command his soldiers. She had been so angry with him the past few weeks that she had forgotten how dynamic he was. He was the epitome of charisma; every word he said was so full of passion and conviction, his men couldn’t help believing in him. He was no less captivating on an individual basis than when he was talking to a group. He knew the names of every one of the soldiers; and if he wasn’t already familiar with them, by bedtime the first night, he knew most of their backstories. They already trusted him, and most of them adored him, but he went out of his way to make them like him. As a few of them sat around the fire the last night on the road, one of the soldiers said he was not what she had expected. Ulfric glanced over at Selene briefly before looking back at the soldier. “We are going into battle together; we may die together. It is only right that I should know my shield-brothers and sisters before we fight, no?”
Later that night, Selene lay on her bedroll with a book and read by candlelight. Her tentmates were still up, so she was alone when Ulfric ducked into the tent and sat on the ground next to her. “We’ll arrive at the attack camp tomorrow, and we’ll meet with Galmar and the other commanders shortly after we arrive. I want you to fight by my side in Solitude, especially when we take Castle Dour.”
“Regardless of what has passed between us, you have been essential to this rebellion, and we would not have come this far so quickly if not for you. I may not be here at all if not for you. You deserve to be at my side as much as Galmar.”
“I’d be honored, Ulfric.”
“Selene, I—” He stopped and closed his eyes. “I am sorry for the way I treated your friends. For the way I treated you. You were right: My feelings for you should have been enough for me to look beyond his race and see him only as your friend. But even understanding that, if I had the chance to go back, I still don’t know if I could have let him stay. Habits are hard to break.” He reached over and caressed her cheek. “I’ve missed you.”
Selene covered his hand with hers. “I’ve missed you, too.”
He brushed his lips against hers, and she leaned into the kiss. Warmth spread through her body as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her body to him. She moaned softly and threaded her fingers through his hair, but this wasn’t the time or the place. The kiss would have to be enough.
She pulled away and said, “You should go before someone walks in on us.”
“Aye,” he agreed. He leaned in and kissed her again, his soft mouth lingering over hers, reluctant to withdraw. “Goodnight, my love,” he whispered finally, and he got up and left the tent.
* * *
The Stormcloaks gathered at the Solitude Attack Camp, fresh off a victory at Fort Hraggstad. Trebuchet fire had been exchanged for a day or so, but for the most part it was a waiting game. Now that Ulfric’s party was there, the wait was over. Ulfric and the officers met in Galmar’s tent, where they stood over the map table and listened to the general’s update. “There’s a side gate here, and we found a secret entrance here,” he informed them, pointing to various places on the map. “We’ve got barricades and guards at each of them; no one is getting in or out at this point. When we set a time to breach the front gate, I’ll send reinforcements to enter the side gate at the same time.”
He touched the center of the map with his index finger. “This is Castle Dour, where our friend Tullius is holed up. The quickest access is here, up this ramp and past the blacksmith shop, but there is another ramp on the south end. We’ll need men to go around that way and head off any milk drinkers trying to sneak out the back, then meet us in the courtyard outside the castle. ”
“I’ll take the south ramp,” Selene volunteered.
“Just be sure to get up to that courtyard when you’re expected,” Ulfric barked.
“I’ll be there,” she assured him.
“We have something special planned for the third entrance,” Galmar continued. “This is a bolt hole. The tunnel leads from the cellar of the palace to the bottom of the pillar where it stands, and as far as I can tell, they don’t know we’ve found it. When we storm the city, I’ll have a contingent ready take the Blue Palace from inside.”
The plan was to attack at noon the next day. The company rested as well as they could that night, and reinforcements left for the other entrances early while the command party prepared to storm the main gate. Solitude’s mill and stables were deserted when they marched past, and Selene imagined the civilians would be off the city streets as well. There had been no civilian casualties in Whiterun; she prayed Solitude was so lucky.
At noon, the company stood at the main gate with Ulfric out front, facing his troops. “This is it, men,” he shouted. “It’s time to make this city ours. We’ve come to this moment carried by the sacrifices of our fellows – those who have fallen and those still bearing the shields to our right. On this day, our enemy will know the fullness of our determination, the true depth of our anger, and the exalted righteousness of our cause.”
A cheer rose up through the crowd, and Selene found herself yelling right along with them. The anticipation and energy was contagious, and adrenaline raged through her. Her wolf spirit raged as well, eager for the scent of blood and the fervor of battle. She would have to keep a tight rein on her during this campaign. She couldn’t afford to lose it, especially on such a momentous day.
He continued to speak, whipping the troops into a frenzy before shouting, “Ready, now. Everyone with me! For the sons and daughters of Skyrim!” He turned and ran to the gates, where men were already on hand to break through the barricades; and the Stormcloaks followed him, their fervent battle cries ringing through the air. They charged headlong into the throng of Imperial soldiers who awaited them inside.
Selene fought her way through the crowd as rapidly as she could, killing when she had to and slipping by when she was able in an effort to get around to the south end of the castle. Although others were following her, most weren’t as quick as she was, and she reached the next barricade well before anyone else did. She chopped at the wooden blockade, and it fell easily, but what she saw on the other side stopped her more effectively than a few spiky logs.
It was Hadvar.
He stood in the middle of the street where it veered left toward the south ramp to Castle Dour. He was alone, just as Selene was, his sword at the ready and a grimace firmly etched in his face. “Hello, Selene,” he said coldly.
“Hello, Hadvar. What are the chances, huh?”
“I remember you saying you didn’t believe in luck. Must be the gods messing with us, eh?”
“Well, they do have a sense of humor. Hadvar, there are twenty men right behind me. You should go now. In fact, why are you here alone at all?”
“I saw you from the battlements. You were running ahead, and I asked my commander for permission to meet you. He ordered me to kill you.”
Selene sheathed her sword and spread her arms out to the sides, looking him in the eye. “I promised you in my letter I wouldn’t draw on you, so if you have to kill me, it’ll be murder. But you should hurry. I think I hear my men heading this way.”
He peered back at her uncertainly, but she didn’t break her gaze. She simply stood there, torso exposed, waiting for his decision, praying to Kynareth that her trust wasn’t misplaced. Hadvar breathed a heavy sigh and stepped out of her way. “You should draw your weapon before you reach the ramp. There are twenty legionnaires who won’t be as gullible as I.”
“Neither will mine, so be prepared. Divines be with you, Hadvar. I do hope we can meet again someday as friends.” She ran past him and drew her sword, ready to engage the first Imperial she encountered. Three of them came out from behind a building, swords flying, and Selene blocked the closest one. She heard shouts behind her as the other Stormcloaks caught up with her. During the fracas, she managed to get in the right position to look back toward Hadvar, and he was still alive and exchanging blows with an opponent.
Before she could turn back, a loud BOOM rang through the air. Ulfric was using his Thu’um. She fought her way up the ramp and into the courtyard, where she came face-to-face with him and Galmar. “I’m having fun,” he grinned. “Are you?”
Selene laughed as she blocked a swing from an Imperial sword. “Aye,” she said, “I guess I am.”
The Legion’s numbers started to dwindle, and Selene, Ulfric, and Galmar made their way to the castle door. It wasn’t even locked; they just opened it and went inside. No soldiers stood between the door and the war room up the hall, so they sheathed their weapons and approached.
It looked much like Ulfric’s war room except for the colors. Legate Rikke stood on the other side of the map table in front of Tullius, who sat on a bench in a recessed lounge area. The legate was an attractive blonde who was almost as tall as Ulfric, and the way she looked at him sent a pang of jealousy through Selene’s gut.
“It’s time to give up, Rikke,” Ulfric said with more softness in his voice than Selene cared for.
“The general has already given up. I never will.”
“We don’t have to do this.”
“How can we not do it? I vowed to defend my general to the death, just like I’m sure Galmar and this—” Rikke looked Selene over with a scowl “—so-called ‘Dragonborn’ did for you.”
“My fight is not with you, Rikke. You’re free to leave.”
“I’m also free to stay and fight.” She drew her sword and attacked Ulfric. Tullius, who had sat in the dark corner silently since they arrived, got up and drew his blade as well.
Galmar pushed past Selene and engaged the general. Ulfric’s fight with Rikke looked more like a sparring match than a battle to the death. They held back, almost as if they were reluctant to hurt each other. They obviously had history. They had likely fought together in the Great War, but evidently there was more. To her right, Galmar drove his sword into Tullius’s side, sending him to the floor, gasping for air. When Rikke saw her leader about to be slain, she instinctively turned from Ulfric and headed toward Galmar, but Selene was in the way. While the legate’s attention was fixed on Galmar, Selene lifted her foot and kicked her in the torso, sending her across the room and charging after her. In the time it took Rikke to recover, she had already raised her blade and was on the downswing. The legate blocked, but she still wasn’t steady enough on her feet, and she wobbled as she came around for the assault. Selene parried the weak thrust and slashed her across the midsection. She dropped, releasing a stream of curses at Selene, who buried her blade into her ribs.
She turned to find Ulfric and Galmar standing over the general. “This is what the Thalmor wanted,” Tullius croaked. “They wanted us at each other’s throats so the Empire could divert needed resources and throw away soldiers to quell the rebellion.”
“It’s more than just a rebellion, don’t you think?” Ulfric noted.
“If the Thalmor wanted the civil war, why did they try to assassinate Ulfric?” Selene asked him.
“That wasn’t the Thalmor; that was us.”
“Only a coward sends someone to stab a man in his sleep. That’s twice you tried to kill him when he was helpless, and twice you’ve failed.”
“And if I surrender now?”
Ulfric snorted derisively. “The Empire I knew would never surrender.”
“That Empire is dead, and so are you,” Galmar growled.
“So be it.”
“Just kill him and be done with it!”
“Come, Galmar, where’s your sense of the dramatic moment?”
“By the gods! If it’s a good ending to some damn story you’re after, perhaps the Dragonborn should be the one to do it.”
“Good point. Well, Dragonborn, what do you say? Do you want the honor?”
Selene looked down at the general, broken and defeated, bleeding on the floor, and remembered the last time she had seen him. She was bound, Ulfric was gagged, and Tullius was sending them both to the headsman’s block—Ulfric without a trial and Selene without a reason. But more than that, Tullius represented much of what was wrong with her world. He was the physical representation of an Empire who had surrendered to an oppressive regime and still acted as their puppets to this day, the embodiment of every Imperial soldier who had ever harmed her or her loved ones. Perhaps the honor of killing him should be Ulfric’s, but Selene found herself every bit as deserving. Maybe she would take his head with her and put it on her mantel at Breezehome. She could line it up next to one of the Glenmoril witch heads. It probably wouldn’t keep as well, though.
“What are you laughing at?” Ulfric asked her.
Selene hadn’t even realized she was chuckling. “Nothing. Aye, the honor would be mine.”
He handed her his weapon, an exquisite ebony sword with some unknown enchantment. “Here. Use my sword. Make it a good kill.”
She raised the sword, and Tullius looked up at her just as she was about to bring it down. But Selene didn’t hesitate, didn’t even slow down. As his head fell and his body crumpled to the floor, a surge of energy spread through her body, a feeling not unlike that when she ate her prey’s heart while in beast form. Emotionally, however, she felt absolutely nothing—not joy, excitement, regret, sadness, anything. It could have been the head of a draugr for all she cared. The thought that she could do such a thing without feeling was unnerving. What kind of person did that make her? Then she reminded herself that if the shoe were on the other foot—and it had been, once—Tullius would have felt nothing when taking her head.
And just like that, it was over. A war that had raged for two years was ended in a matter of hours.
“Now that that’s finished…” Galmar muttered.
“I guess I should make a speech,” said Ulfric, looking sadly at Rikke’s body.
“I’ll gather the men.”
“If our plan to get in through the bolt hole worked, she’s either dead or they’ve already rounded her up. We’ll meet you in the courtyard.”
Galmar left, and Ulfric turned to Selene. “I’m sorry,” she said, nodding at Rikke’s body.
“As am I,” he replied with a heavy sigh. “I’d like for you to stand by my side when I speak. I wish to honor you, Dragonborn, the truest of Stormcloaks.”
She nodded and followed him out to the courtyard, where nearly a hundred men and women were gathered. A small contingent stood off to the side with Elisif and her court among them. Selene had never seen the jarl before. They called her “Elisif the Fair,” and she truly was. She was young, fresh faced, one of the prettiest girls she had ever seen. But she was just that: a girl. She couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Selene, and the look in her eye and the way she carried herself gave the impression that Elisif had led a sheltered, pampered life. Torygg’s death and the subsequent war—to say nothing of the day-to-day life of the jarl of such a large and powerful city—must have been overwhelming for her.
Galmar stepped forward and spoke to the soldiers. “My fellow Stormcloaks, I give you our leader, the man who has brought us to this auspicious day: Ulfric Stormcloak!”
Cheers went up through the crowd as he stepped back. Ulfric didn’t step forth, just spoke from where he stood between Galmar and Selene.
“Indeed, I am Ulfric Stormcloak, and at my side is the woman we know as ‘Stormblade’ and the world knows as the Dragonborn. And indeed, there are many that call us heroes. But it is all of you who are the true heroes! It was you who fought a dying Empire who sunk its claws into our land, trying to drag us down with it. It was you who fought the Thalmor and their puppets who would have us deny our gods and our heritage. It was you who fought your kin who didn’t understand our cause, who weren’t willing to pay the price of our freedom. But more than that, it was you who fought for Skyrim, for our right to fight our own battles…to return to our glory and traditions, to determine our own future!”
The men and women roared. When they quieted, Ulfric said, “And it is for these reasons that I cannot accept the mantle of High King. Not until the Moot declares that title should adorn my shoulders will I accept it.” He turned his head toward Elisif. “And what of Lady Elisif? Will she set aside her personal hatred of me and her misplaced love for the Emperor so the suffering of our people will end? Will she swear fealty to me so that all may know we are at peace and a new day has dawned?”
With a stronger voice than Selene had expected, Elisif agreed. “I will!”
“Then it is settled. Elisif will remain as Jarl of Haafingar, and I will garrison armies to ward off Imperial attempts to reclaim Solitude. The Aldmeri Dominion may have defeated the Empire, but it has not defeated Skyrim!” He waited for the cheers to die down before continuing. “There is much to do, and I will need every able-bodied man and woman committed to the rebuilding of Skyrim. We must remain vigilant, however, because we will be called to fight again, either on our own shores or abroad.
“And we must not forget that a new threat has darkened our door; the dragons of old have once again appeared in our skies. But these creatures can be killed, whether with conventional weapons or magic, and we must rise up to defend our homes and families. The people of Skyrim must show the Dragonborn she does not stand alone!”
More cheers rose up, this time for Selene, and she just hoped she wasn’t blushing from the attention. She was by no means a shy person, but for Kyne’s sake!
As the men began to disperse, Ulfric turned to Galmar. “How’d I do?”
Galmar shrugged. “Eh, not so bad. Nice touch about the High King. It’s a foregone conclusion, you know.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Getting cocky will cost you,” Selene sing-songed in his ear.
Lady Elisif approached with her housecarl and steward. “Jarl Ulfric,” she nodded.
“May I congratulate you on your wise decision, milady? If we are to survive the tribulations before us, we must put up a united front.”
“The Blue Palace is open to you, as well as Castle Dour, and I will hold a celebration in your honor this evening. This is my steward, Falk Firebeard. He will see that you and your officers have lodgings in the palace.”
The steward, a good-looking, middle-aged man with hair to match his surname, nodded curtly. “If there is anything you need, Jarl Ulfric, I am at your service.” Outwardly, he was civil, courteous, even smiling a bit, but Selene could smell the hatred and fury in his scent. Inside, he wanted nothing more than to strangle Ulfric.
The war might be over, but the animosity would remain for some time. Should be an interesting celebration tonight.
* * *
Selene sat on a bench wearing a borrowed dress, holding a tankard of mead, and watching the festivities. She had expected tension or even some sort of conflict at the party, but everyone was well behaved. Ulfric and Elisif even shared a dance. But something was off, and she couldn’t quite place what it was.
Falk Firebeard noticed her sitting alone and joined her. She didn’t mind the company, and she had always liked men with red hair, so she gave him a warm smile. “You don’t strike me as the type to sit in a corner by yourself,” he remarked.
“Not normally. If I were at Jorrvaskr, I’d be standing on a table, leading a song and drinking until I couldn’t see.”
“Jorrvaskr! You’re a Companion?”
“Aye. But this just seems—I don’t know—wrong somehow.” A servant walked by with a pitcher of wine, and Selene realized what it was. She took a sip of her mead. “Throughout Solitude, people are coming out of their hidey holes, starting to clean up, checking on their loved ones to make sure no one was hurt or killed. They’re comforting terrified children, assuring them that they’ll be safe tonight, but they can’t be certain themselves. Their city was just overrun by the enemy. They’ve heard horror stories about Ulfric for years, and some were made true when he killed High King Torygg. I’m sure some of them believe he’s evil incarnate. They can’t be sure if the Stormcloaks will be benevolent or burst in and rape and kill every man, woman and child who supported the Empire, especially the non-Nords. And we’re having a party.”
“Is he?” Falk asked bluntly.
“Evil incarnate? No. He’s not perfect, but he is a good man.”
“I don’t know if I can agree with that assumption.” Anger flared in his scent again.
“He could have just killed Elisif, you know, or put her in prison at the very least.”
“It was a political decision to leave her on the throne, and you know it,” he spat.
Selene smiled at him. “Mead loosens the tongue, eh, Falk?”
“My apologies, Dragonborn. It has been a long day.”
“Please, it’s Selene. Of course it was a political decision, but that doesn’t mean he wanted it any other way. Despite what you all think, Ulfric Stormcloak is not a cold-blooded murderer, and he’s not in this just for himself. He believes in his heart that what he’s doing is right.”
“Aye,” she said without hesitation. It was true. She still believed wholeheartedly in Ulfric’s cause. But that wasn’t the problem, was it?
* * *
When the party started to break up, Selene retired to the room Falk had designated for her. All of her gear had been stored by the maids as if they expected her to be there awhile, but she didn’t intend to stay that long. She was almost finished repacking when Ulfric knocked on the door.
“Going somewhere?” he asked when she let him in and he noticed her knapsack.
“Sit with me.” She sat on the bed, and he sat down next to her. Selene felt she knew him better than anybody, but even after all these months, Ulfric could be somewhat of an enigma. He didn’t show his emotions, even when they were in the privacy of the bedroom. He was charming and outgoing, but he jealously guarded anything as personal as his innermost feelings. She had no idea how he would react.
He seemed to sense her reticence and took her hand. “You don’t have to torture yourself over this, you know. I’ve known you would leave ever since I ejected your friend from the palace. I had hoped I could convince you to stay, but I don’t even know where to start. I’m not used to sharing my heart.”
“It seems I always leave when things start to get ugly. Perhaps I’m a coward; I don’t know.”
“No, not a coward.”
“I’ve known all along of your hatred for elves, but I hoped you would be reasonable enough to understand that not all of them are to be hated and feared. I guess I hoped that over time, I could change your mind, at least a little bit.”
“I’m set in my ways,” he mused.
“Before I met you, I thought you were bigger than life, practically godlike; but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew even then that you would disappoint me. Nobody can live up to that kind of expectation. But it didn’t happen until you made Athis leave. I was hurt and angry, aye, but more, I was so disappointed. I still believed in the rebellion, and I knew in my heart that your cause was righteous, but how could I believe in you anymore?”
He recoiled as if she’d slapped him, and for the first time, she could see real pain in his eyes. His scent flared with grief and sorrow as well. She reached out and cupped his face with her hand, and he rested his cheek against it and closed his eyes for a moment before gently pushing her hand away.
“If the Aldmeri Dominion invades or you need me to resume my duties, I’ll be right where you need me,” she promised, “but for now, I need to be on my own.”
“I was afraid you would say that. I believe the gods have bigger plans for you than cleaning up Skyrim. Still, I wish you would stay. I…ask you to stay. Do what you must, but do it from Windhelm. Perhaps you can make changes of your own within the city.”
“You mean like cleaning up the Gray Quarter and seeing that the elves are treated as well as the Nords? Like making Windhelm open to Argonians and Khajiit?”
Ulfric stiffened, but he said, “Many things could be done to improve the city.”
“No, love. You wouldn’t approve of the changes I have in mind, and I doubt most of your people would, either.”
He nodded his understanding. “What will you do?”
“For now, I’m going back to Windhelm, at least ’til I figure out what I’m going to do. There’s always Delphine to consider, and I’ve been thinking of joining the Dawnguard. An Orsimer approached me in Whiterun before I went to Windhelm and invited me to join. Apparently they hunt vampires.”
“Aye, an orc came to the palace, likely that same one. We had been noticing an increase in vampire activity throughout the province; but with the war, we didn’t have any men to spare. I don’t care for magic beyond basic spells and the Thu’um, and creatures like vampires and werewolves make me…uncomfortable.”
“Perhaps it’s just because you don’t understand them,” she said, trying to keep the defensiveness out of her voice.
“Perhaps. When will you leave?”
He trailed a finger lazily along her cheek, then leaned in until their lips were almost touching. “Love me one last time before you go.”
She should have said no and made a clean break, but Selene found herself meeting his lips and moving into his embrace. Well, maybe one last time.
* * *
The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and it was time to go.
The sun hadn’t yet started to rise in the east when Selene crawled out of bed and got dressed. She kissed Ulfric gently so as not to wake him, and she slipped out of the room and made her way out of the palace and through the wreckage of Solitude to the main gate. Beyond getting Liska and the rest of her gear in Windhelm, she had no idea what she was going to do. She guessed it was time to let the winds guide her again. And they surely would, but in the meantime, maybe she would just pick a direction and start walking.
“Start walking,” she whispered to herself with a sigh as she put the city behind her.
* * *
Selene’s story continues in A Nightingale’s Tale