Selene arrived at the Palace of the Kings late in the afternoon on her second day of travel and went straight to her room, plopping down on her bed. Liska was like an excited puppy, jumping into her lap and licking her face, practically squealing with joy. Selene hugged the fox and stroked her fur affectionately. “I missed you too, little one.”
The door burst open and Ulfric barged in, his face ashen and dark circles under his eyes. Selene set Liska on the floor and stood up, and he stalked across the room and took her face in his hands, kissing her almost desperately before wrapping his arms around her. “Where were you? I thought I’d—we’d—lost you.”
“I was injured in a fight with a sabre cat, and the wound got infected. Fortunately, a kindly stranger happened along and nursed me back to health.”
Ulfric pulled away and looked her over, only now noticing the dried blood on her armor. He started undoing the straps of her breast plate. “Let me see.”
She took the breast plate off and lifted her undershirt to show him the jagged scar. He trailed a finger across it gingerly. “Does it still hurt?”
“Aye, it’s sore, but it’s much better. It probably will hurt for a while.”
“I’m sure you’re exhausted. Rest tonight and join me for breakfast.”
“May I rest in your room?”
“Do you think you need to ask? Get cleaned up and settled, and I’ll have one of the staff bring you some dinner. I, unfortunately, am in a meeting I can’t get out of, but I will be there later tonight.” He kissed her forehead and left the room.
One of the maids drew a bath, and Selene immersed herself in the water, relieved to be warm for a change. The chills that had plagued her with the fever and then cold, snowy weather on the way home had soured her love of the north and made her long for the warm breezes of Cyrodiil. It was the first time since she had come to Skyrim that she actually felt homesick. But it was only the weather she missed. If she were still in Cyrodiil, she’d probably be camped out in some cave or mine, and there would be no handsome jarl to have his servants draw a hot bath, no soft bed to slip into, and no adorable fox sitting on the floor, cooing at her. There would be no home halfway across the province that she could always return to, no mead hall full of family and friends to welcome her and share a mug with. She would be alone. With that thought, the cold weather didn’t bother her anymore.
After her bath, she dressed in a nightshift and slippers and padded through the halls to Ulfric’s room, where dinner was laid out for her. Selene hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she smelled the succulent roast that sat on the platter before her. She took a long drink of mead and dug in, and when she was full she went to Ulfric’s bed and crawled in, snuggling beneath the covers. The sheets and blankets were warm and soft, and the weight made her feel as safe and snug as a swaddled infant. Liska hopped on the bed and curled up at her feet, and Selene sighed contentedly as she drifted into a dreamless sleep. Even her wolf spirit dozed, abandoning her urge to hunt for a while.
Sometime in the night, Ulfric nestled into bed next to her, and he took her in his arms as she laid her head on his chest and draped her thigh over his leg. “Hmm, you’re warm,” he mused as she wrapped herself around his cool body. “This bed was far too cold without you in it.”
She propped up on her elbow and shifted so that she was lying on top of him. “Then let me warm you,” she whispered, lowering her head to kiss him.
* * *
As the maids were setting breakfast on the table, Selene went to her room and retrieved the copy of Hadvar’s letter. She gave Ulfric a more detailed synopsis of the events in the cave with Hadvar and even went so far as to explain how they had all met before. He was less than enthusiastic about the fact that Selene had left him alive.
“He saved my life, Ulfric. There would have been no honor in taking his. Besides, we don’t know the meaning behind that letter. We may want him to deliver it successfully.”
Ulfric read the letter several times and looked up at her, brow furrowed. “This makes no sense,” he barked. “It says a Thalmor agent will pay a visit to the jarl of The Pale on the 30th of Frostfall. But why? The Stormcloaks have possession of The Pale. We’ve taken every hold save Haafingar, and Dawnstar is well behind enemy lines. And they expect us to believe they’re sending a Thalmor emissary for a visit? It must be a ruse of some kind.”
“Could the letter be encoded?”
“I’ll have my cryptographers look at it. Something else concerns me, though. I cannot help wondering if the date is coincidence or if it is significant.”
“The Great War began on the 30th of Frostfall.”
“Maybe that’s when they want to end this one,” she supposed.
“Take a horse and get up to Dawnstar to see if Skald got the letter. Don’t argue with me about the horse; time is of the essence. And take care. Skald is up in years and he’s a bit…off.”
“Doubtful. But he can be unpredictable. I want to know his take on this, and that of his advisors, but I also want you to watch and listen while you’re there. If the Thalmor are visiting Dawnstar, there could be a traitor in our midst.”
After breakfast, Selene prepared for the trip and went to the stables, where she took a horse and rode to Dawnstar. The weather was on her side and there were no dragons, bandits, or wild animals to deal with on the way; and she tied her horse up outside the Windpeak Inn just before dusk. Two town guards came down the street with a third man between them, one she knew well. It was Hadvar. He was still wearing his Legion uniform, but he had wrapped a white flag around his arm, a sign that he was in Dawnstar on a diplomatic mission. The guards weren’t impressed.
“All right, you’ve delivered your letter; now get out before we give you a room in our jail.” He gave Hadvar a push to drive the point home.
“Then to Oblivion with you!” Hadvar snarled, storming up the path and passing Selene without seeing her, then leaving town by way of the south road.
Selene wondered what had kept him. A trip that should have only taken him a day took three. She would probably never know, though, so she put it out of her mind as she watched until he was out of sight; then she made her way up the road to the White Hall, where she found another ruckus. Jarl Skald sat on his throne, hands gripping the arms until his knuckles were white, glowering at a middle-aged woman and a man in a legionnaire’s uniform. His housecarl stood dutifully on his right with his hand resting loosely on his war axe, and a man in a Stormcloak officer’s uniform stood on his left, arms folded.
“Divines’ sake, Skald,” the woman griped. “Who do you think we’re threatening? We’re not soldiers anymore.”
“Your man Horik here parades around town wearing his old Legion armor every day. What should I make of that, Brina?”
“He’s proud of his service, Skald. The Legion taught us loyalty.”
“And what of your loyalty to Dawnstar?”
“We’re loyal to Dawnstar.”
“Then explain this.” He waved a letter at her.
“My Jarl, I swear to you we had nothing to do with that. We don’t even know if the Legion was involved anyway. Perhaps this is a diplomatic mission.”
Skald looked at the woman like she had grown horns. “A diplomatic mission, you say? To the jarl of a minor hold in the middle of enemy territory, who has always made his loyalty to the Stormcloaks no secret? And if the Legion isn’t involved, why send an Imperial soldier to deliver the letter, eh? Just what kind of fool do you think I am?”
“I’m sorry, Skald. I just—”
“You just what?” he challenged her. “Now, see here. I have no proof that you and Horik were involved in this little…whatever it is, so I’ll let you go. But know this: if I find out you were involved, or if I catch you writing so much as a word to General Tullius, I’ll have you both executed. Now get out of my keep!” When they stepped out of the way and Skald saw Selene’s uniform, he waved her over. “You, there! Get over to Windhelm. We’ve just gotten a letter saying the Thalmor are on their way and I want to know what Ulfric Stormcloak’s going to do about it.”
“Actually, I came from Windhelm, Jarl.”
“You’re not one of his?” He pointed to the Stormcloak officer. “Then who are you?”
“Ulfric sent me about the letter.”
“Well, what’s he going to do about it? Wait. How did he know? I just received it twenty minutes ago.”
“One of our operatives managed to get a copy of it before it arrived here.”
Skald nodded with satisfaction. “Good work. Now. What is Ulfric going to do about it? I’ve asked you three times now, and I expect an answer!”
“We wanted to see first if the letter actually got to you, which it has, but we’re not certain it’s on the up and up. It may be a ruse to distract us while they do something else.”
“What could they possibly need a distraction for?”
“Any sort of covert or military operation would benefit from a diversion,” the officer mentioned. He nodded to Selene. “I am Commander Frorkmar Banner-Torn. Our esteemed housecarl and captain of the guard is Jod. Have a drink at the Windpeak Inn; stay for the night while we discuss strategy.”
“I’m here to discuss strategy as well,” she assured him, noticing he hadn’t bothered to ask who she was.
Frorkmar chuckled. “That’s sweet, but why don’t you leave this to the big boys?”
Selene’s first instinct was to tell Frorkmar exactly who she was, but then she thought better of it. Though it was unlikely, there was always a chance that Skald or someone in his court was actually working with the Thalmor. Left to her own devices, she could easily, and discreetly, get her own intelligence. Thus, she nodded and stammered, “I’ll, um, just come back tomorrow, then.”
The jarl waved her away, and she walked to the inn and got a room. She stayed long enough to empty her knapsack of everything but a set of dark clothing, and she left. Behind the building, she changed clothes and snuck down the alley behind the barracks until she reached the White Hall. Muffled voices seeped out through the cracks in the old wall, and Selene hunkered down at the corner of the house, leaning her ear closely to listen in.
“I don’t care if Emperor Titus Mede himself is coming for a visit. I said I wanted grilled leeks for supper!”
“Supper’s over, my Jarl. We were talking about the letter from the Thalmor ambassador.”
“I can’t be bothered with that anymore.”
“This is serious, sir.”
“It is? Oh, well, then. What do you think we should do?”
Selene rolled her eyes as she listened to the commander and the housecarl making futile attempts at keeping Skald’s attention. She listened for a couple of hours as Frorkmar and Jod played through one scenario after another. What if it was a legitimate gesture in the hope of finding peace? What if they were correct in the notion that it was a ruse and was to be used as a diversion from nefarious activities elsewhere? What if it was no more than a practical joke? She listened for subtext, hidden meanings in their words, something that would warrant further investigation, but nothing they said gave her an indication that any of them was less than honorable. She couldn’t see their body language, of course, but she could smell them from here, and they weren’t lying.
In the end, the men decided to recommend precautions to Ulfric. They would prepare to host the Thalmor on 30 Frostfall, but they would encourage bolstering security in all the major hold cities on and around that date. Current business taken care of, they began discussing more mundane things, most notably a local issue that involved several townspeople having recurring nightmares. Nobody in town had gotten a good night’s sleep in weeks. A priest of Mara who lived at the Windpeak Inn was looking into the problem, but the situation was making for some very disgruntled villagers. Then there was the black door, whatever that was. Some children had been playing around it against their parents’ admonitions, and it had spoken to them. A talking door? Sounded to Selene like a talking wall, and she knew all about those. She’d have to come back when time permitted and look into that.
After a while, the conversation turned to small talk, and then it faded to nothing as Frorkmar left for the barracks and Skald and Jod started to drift toward their beds. Trying futilely not to lament the fact that she was cold again, Selene waited until she hadn’t heard anyone speak for a couple of hours before creeping toward the front of the house. Stepping slowly and softly so the snow didn’t crunch beneath her feet, she inched toward the northwest corner of the building to look for guards. There was only one, and she was posted on the opposite corner at the bottom of the steps leading up to the door. Selene could easily slip past her to get inside. She peeked left and right to ascertain that no one was coming down the road, then she slid along the front wall behind some decorative bushes until she reached the step. Lifting her foot onto the platform, she silently pulled herself up. She was exposed now, out in the open; if the guard turned around or somebody came down the street, she was caught. Better to get inside quickly. Reaching behind herself, she gently pulled the latch on the door, then pushed it inward just far enough to squeeze through, raising her free arm above her head to block any excess light that might shine out through the crack.
The front hall was empty and quiet, except for Jarl Skald’s thunderous snoring, which echoed throughout the building. Snoring was good; it helped muffle her footsteps. She crept through the hall to his bedroom and rifled through stacks of papers on and around his desk, then looked through his dresser and nightstand as well, searching for some indication that he was up to something untoward; but there was nothing suspicious in the jarl’s room. A thorough check of the other rooms in the hall also turned up nothing. Getting into the barracks was more of a challenge because some of the guards were still awake, as was Frorkmar. She managed to sneak past the guards, but she had to wait more than an hour for Frorkmar to go to sleep before she could go through his things. Finally, satisfied that no one was a traitor—or at least a careless one—she snuck out the door and behind the inn to retrieve her uniform.
* * *
Ulfric sent encoded orders to all military camps and holds in his possession with instructions to increase security on and around 30 Frostfall due to an implied threat. In the meantime, he utilized all his available resources to look for signs of imminent action. The cryptographers uncovered no hidden code in the letter, and military scouts found nothing to indicate unanticipated troop movements. There were still pockets of Imperials scattered about Skyrim, but even they were behaving as expected. The word from Solitude was that General Tullius was starting to panic with Ulfric camping on his doorstep, but there was nothing to indicate that the Legion was involved in any activity, covert or otherwise, having to do with 30 Frostfall. Spies inside the Thalmor embassy also came up empty handed. If they were planning something, they were doing it very quietly.
When the big day came, the presence of extra guards in the city and palace was evident, but otherwise it was business as usual. Ulfric discussed the push to Solitude with Ysarald Thrice-Pierced, who acted as his housecarl when Galmar was away; and Selene spent her morning going over intelligence reports. Ulfric had sent an operative to Riverwood to watch Delphine, and he had returned with information. She discussed it with Ulfric at lunch.
“She has made two trips in the past months,” Selene noted, “both to dragon burial mounds, and she had a map of the burial sites on a table in her secret room beneath the inn, as well as many books on dragons, the history of the Empire, and the Blades.”
“What about weapons?”
Selene skimmed through the notes. “Greatsword, bow, katana—”
“Aye, that’s what it says.”
“That’s an Akaviri sword. Perhaps she’s a Blade.”
“But the Blades were disbanded at the beginning of the Great War,” she protested.
“That does not mean some of them don’t still work in secret. Before they guarded the Emperor, they were noted dragon slayers. And they served the Dragonborn.”
“So you think I should go back and talk to her?”
Ulfric shrugged. “It is your choice. I drew my conclusion on information that was sketchy at best. We’ll keep our eyes and ears open for a while and see what else turns up.”
“What about the Thalmor? She said she went to all that trouble to make sure I wasn’t working for them.”
“I’ll mention it to my scouts in Solitude and they can search the embassy.”
Selene trained during the afternoon, spent some time playing with Liska, and sat in on Ulfric’s meeting with Ysarald, which lasted well into the evening. Most of the military tactics were beyond her, but she kept up as best she could. A few hours after sunset, they decided to knock off for the day and reconvene the next morning.
“It’s been a quiet day,” Ysarald commented, noting the lack of incident. “If something happened, it must have occurred elsewhere.”
“Keep the extra security for now,” Ulfric instructed him. “The other holds and camps have orders to report back beginning tomorrow, so we should get word from each of them in the next few days.”
As Selene accompanied him up the stairs to his room for dinner, she said, “You don’t think the Thalmor actually did go to Dawnstar, do you?”
“It seems unlikely. Not knowing makes me uneasy.”
His unease spread to her as they stepped into his room and an unfamiliar scent filled her enhanced nostrils. Ulfric didn’t know she was a werewolf, so she couldn’t tell him what sent the chill down her spine. Instead, she stopped at the door and spoke to the guard who stood there. “When was the last time you checked the room?” she asked him.
“No one has come in other than the servants all day,” he assured Selene.
“Did you know them?”
The guard glared at her but stepped past her into the room, searching cabinets, behind drapes, and under tables. Selene took the liberty of looking under the bed, where she found a Dunmer.
“Hello, there,” she sing-songed. “Why don’t you come on out?” The dark elf merely stared at her. “All right, then. FUS…RO DAH!”
Selene, Ulfric, and the guard all drew their weapons as the bed flew across the room and the assassin leapt to his feet, dagger in hand. He lunged for Ulfric, but Selene stepped in the way and swung her sword, catching the elf in the shoulder. He jabbed the dagger at her, but he got too close and she kicked him in the crotch. He doubled over with a groan, and she bashed the back of his skull with the hilt of her sword, rendering him unconscious.
* * *
Once the assassin awoke, Ysarald questioned him, but the interrogation revealed very little. The elf was a paid assassin, not of the Dark Brotherhood, who had been hired by an unnamed Thalmor justiciar. He was told whom to kill, where he was, and when to do it, using the extra activity brought on by the letter to Dawnstar as a diversionary tactic. He didn’t even know who Selene was and just figured she was Ulfric’s latest wench.
When he was satisfied the assassin had nothing else to say, Ulfric ordered his execution and the guards took the Dunmer away. The sun was starting to light the eastern horizon as the guards did another check of his room and he and Selene went to bed. She knew neither of them would sleep. Who could even think of it after such an incident? Even after all their precautions, the assassin had managed to invade not only the castle, but Ulfric’s private bedchamber. Although Selene knew she could do it easily, the thought that someone else could do it to her was unsettling.
Next to her, Ulfric lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. She propped on an elbow and stroked his brow. “Are you all right?”
“Of course. It is not the first time someone tried to kill me, you know. It won’t be the last.”
Ulfric released a frustrated breath. “Aye, I’m shaken. Does my admission of weakness make you happy?”
“Getting rattled because you found an assassin hiding under your bed doesn’t make you weak, Ulfric. It makes you a person. Wait, this sounds very familiar. Have we had this conversation before?”
Ulfric looked up at her, his green eyes full of unexpressed emotion. “You saved my life.”
“I’m sure you could have handled one elven assassin on your own.”
He reached up and cupped her cheek in his big hand. “Selene, I—thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she murmured, bending down to kiss him.