Galmar Stone-Fist’s big test was to bring him some ice wraith teeth. It wouldn’t have been a problem at all if not for the fact that the wraith whose teeth he wanted resided at Serpentstone Island northeast of Winterhold. Liska followed her part of the way but stopped at the point where the forest ended and the endless plains of snow began. She sat underneath a pine tree and regarded Selene with trusting eyes, and Selene sighed sadly. “I know it’s not safe for you to come any farther, but how will I find you when I come back?” Liska gekkered in response, and she knelt and scratched the fox behind the ears. “Take care of yourself, little one.” With a tear in her eye, she turned and continued her trip north.
From there, the trip consisted of slogging through the snow, even on the highway, and tiptoeing across a trail of icebergs in order to prove her worth to the second in command of the Stormcloaks. She slipped on the ice and fell into the Sea of Ghosts three times, and Selene swore to the Divines that she would ram the ice wraith’s teeth down Galmar’s throat. She wished she had thought of making the last leg of the trip in beast form. She could have secreted her clothes away and shifted, and her claws would have had better purchase on the ice. Teeth and claws would be just as effective against the creature as a sword, maybe more. She’d certainly be a lot warmer. Fortunately, she had thought to bring a lot of frost-resist potions, so at least she wouldn’t die of hypothermia.
She managed to get to Serpentstone Island in one piece. Killing the ice wraith was easy; she’d killed scads of them, after all. Then began the trip back. She made it all the way to the mainland without falling into the ocean, and she thanked Kynareth as she trudged up the bank toward the snow-covered road. Selene never planned on returning to Cyrodiil. Skyrim was her home, and she was happy there. However, on days like this, she couldn’t help questioning the wisdom of that decision.
She pitched her tent in a nook carved by a glacier into the rocky foot of the mountain, and though the shelter of the rock would keep the worst of the wind away, she couldn’t find any dry wood for kindling, so she wouldn’t be able to build a fire. Instead, she ducked into the tent, undressed, and shifted to beast form and went hunting. After a delicious horker steak, extra rare and bloody, Selene went back to the tent and snuggled in for the night, hoping nobody would try to get in. She awoke shivering as the morning light seeped in through the canvas of the tent. She had shifted back to human form sometime in the early hours of the morning and had managed to climb into her bedroll in her half-asleep stupor, but it wasn’t enough. She dressed as quickly as she could with shaky hands and broke camp, cursing Galmar every step of the way back to Windhelm.
Liska wasn’t there when Selene returned to the spot where they had parted ways, and her heart sank. She searched the general area for a while and sat with a bottle of mead for a couple of hours awaiting the fox’s return, but as the sun started to sink behind the mountains, there was still no sign of her beloved pet. Finally accepting that Liska wasn’t coming back, Selene gave up and continued her trip back to Windhelm, feeling more alone and empty than she had in a long time. She had figured she’d never see the little vixen again, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Not knowing what happened was the worst. Selene would never know if Liska had simply wandered off and found a new home or if something had killed her. It rent her heart to think of all the fox had survived, only to be caught and eaten now. Perhaps she should have picked her up and carried her, insisting that she go along. Or maybe she should have left her back at Candlehearth Hall. Elda the innkeeper was pretty accommodating; maybe she would have taken care of Liska while Selene was gone.
She was almost back to town when she picked up Liska’s scent. Laughing with delight, she called out for the fox, who tottered up a few moments later, cold and tired but healthy. Selene picked her up and held her close to her chest. “I thought I’d lost you!” she cried as the fox licked her cheeks.
When she returned to the Palace of the Kings, she walked in on another conversation between Ulfric and Galmar, this time about some sort of crown the housecarl had discovered.
“You don’t even know if it exists,” Ulfric accused him. “Why should I assign men we need elsewhere to a fool’s errand? We’re already diverting troops across the southwest; we cannot afford to waste resources.”
“When have I ever been false with you? I would not come to you with this if I weren’t sure. The Jagged Crown exists, and you shall have it. With it in your possession, the moot will have to recognize you as High King.”
Ulfric looked up at Selene, where she stood in the doorway of the war room, and grinned. “Very well. I’ll send the Unblooded here with you. Fancy a crawl through a draugr-infested crypt to look for an artifact that may or may not exist?”
Selene’s mind went back to Farengar Secret-Fire, the court mage of Whiterun, who’d said nearly the same words to her less than a year before. “Sounds like my idea of a good time,” she quipped.
Galmar turned to her, impressed. “By the Nine, you are a good sneak! I didn’t even here you come in. So you made it back alive. Seems I owe Ulfric a drink.”
“You’re saying you sent me to my death?”
“Not at all. But there’s nothing wrong with a friendly wager. How was the trip?”
She reached into her satchel, drew out a small sack containing the teeth and held them out to Galmar. “It was cold.”
He took the teeth from her with a chuckle. “Now that you’ve proven yourself, are you ready to take the oath?”
“Before you can join us, you must swear fealty to Ulfric, the rebellion, and vow to defend your shield-brothers and sisters to the death.”
She glanced over at Ulfric, who leaned on the map table, watching her closely. Could she trust him? Probably not. One didn’t attain his position without looking out for themselves. He wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice her if it furthered his cause. But she did believe in that cause, and if it hadn’t been enough to lay down her life for him, she shouldn’t have gone on Galmar’s quest in the first place. Besides, he wasn’t any less trustworthy than the Imperials. “I’m ready,” she told Galmar.
“Then repeat after me.”
“I do swear my blood and honor,” she repeated, “to the service of Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm and true High King of Skyrim. As Talos is my witness, may this oath bind me to death and beyond, even to my lord as to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. All hail the true sons and daughters of Skyrim.”
Galmar nodded with satisfaction. “Well, girl, you’re one of us now, and you’ll be accompanying me on a little errand. We’re going to Korvunjund. I’ve learned that it may be the resting place of the Jagged Crown.”
“So I heard. What’s the Jagged Crown?”
“You don’t know the old song? The Jagged Crown belonged to the kings of old, the last one being King Borgas, but it was believed to be lost when he was killed in Valenwood. Legend holds that King Borgas’s body was returned to Skyrim—along with the crown—and buried in an undisclosed crypt, and I have it on good authority that it’s in Korvunjund. See to Jorleif, and he will get you outfitted with the Stormcloak uniform. Be ready to leave by sunup.”
“Understood.” She nodded at Ulfric, who responded in kind, and then she left to find the steward.
* * *
Selene got a nice surprise when she arrived at Korvunjund. Ralof was there. She had escaped Helgen with Ralof, and they had become good friends in the few hours it took to reach Riverwood, the shared experience of surviving the chopping block and the black dragon creating an instant bond between them. Ralof was adorable. He was in his late twenties and had golden hair, baby-blue eyes, and an air of innocence about him. He was the consummate soldier, practically born with a sword in his hand, and he had never wanted to be anything else; but even so, he regretted having to kill. He didn’t care for magic, and he was terrified of the undead.
“Hey!” he exclaimed when he saw her. “I knew you would join up!”
Selene threw her arms around him and gave him a hug. “I hoped I would see you. I was in Riverwood a few weeks ago, but Gerdur said you’d left for Windhelm.”
“I’m glad you’re here with me,” he confessed. “These old tombs give me chills. My pa always said to steer clear of them, and now I’m about to go into one.” He shuddered. “I don’t think the others understand my apprehension.”
“Love, I’ve been in many of these places, and trust me: the undead fall just as easily as the living. The only thing you have to watch out for is their Thu’um.”
“What, Shouts? I thought only dragons and the Graybeards could do that. And Ulfric.”
“And me,” she said with a conspiratorial smile.
“You’re kidding! But that would mean you’re—“
“Why must everybody look at me like that when they find out? But aye, the more powerful draugr can Shout, so just be aware of that when you’re fighting them.”
It turned out that the draugr weren’t the only things they had to worry about. A detachment of Imperial soldiers guarded the entrance, evidently having been tipped off by their spies that Galmar had located the Jagged Crown. However, they didn’t realize they weren’t alone, and the Stormcloaks were able to launch a surprise attack, mowing through the Imperials in minutes with only one casualty.
“That’s the way I like it; short and bloody,” Galmar boasted as they stood to the door to the crypt. “We had the element of surprise this time, but inside won’t be so easy. Keep your wits about you and watch each other’s backs.” He opened the door and entered the ruin, and the others followed.
Selene hung at the back with Ralof, who was as pale as a sheet and breathing heavily. She rested a comforting hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Ralof.”
“I’ll be fine,” he resolved, and he didn’t hesitate again as he went inside.
Galmar had been right; the legionnaires inside were ready for them, and the Stormcloaks had a tough time of it, taking heavy casualties as they worked their way through the line of Imperials. They came to a narrow corridor, and Galmar stopped his advance. “I don’t like the looks of this. There could be an ambush on the other side. Unblooded, why don’t you look around and see if there’s another way in, if there’s some way we can ambush them? We’ll wait here and rush in when we hear fighting.”
There was nothing on the main floor, but she found a second entrance on an upper level. She crept through the doorway onto a catwalk to find a handful of Imperials milling around below, oblivious to the spy watching from above. Selene drew her bow and aimed at the one farthest from the door, catching him in the chest. He dropped to the stone floor with an anguished wail, and his comrades turned to see what had happened, at which point Galmar and the others charged in from below.
After a while, the draugr came out of hiding, and several of the Stormcloaks were alarmed by the rotting corpses attacking them. Ralof, however, fought like he had been dealing with them for years. He reminded Selene a little bit of Farkas, who was afraid of frostbite spiders, but he set his terror aside and did what had to be done. The complement battled Imperials and draugr until they came to one of the fabled puzzle walls, a wide doorway with a round, three-pronged keyhole in the center, surrounded by three concentric circles, all with glyphs bearing animal shapes. The same glyphs were carved into the palm of a jeweled dragon claw that acted as the key. While Galmar contemplated the mystery of the wall, Selene looked around for the claw. If they didn’t find one, they were screwed because no ordinary lockpick would open the door. Fortunately, she found one next to a dead Imperial just as Galmar said, “Unblooded, you’re the smart one. See if you can figure out how this works.”
“I got this,” she assured her commander. This was the third such wall she had come across since coming to Skyrim. Selene adjusted the heavy rings so that the glyphs would match those on the claw—wolf, moth, and dragon—and then inserted it into the keyhole and turned it. With that, the rings rotated on their own until a dragon showed up on each one, and the door descended into the slot beneath it. Selene pulled the claw out of the hole and turned to Galmar.
“You’ve done this before,” he surmised.
“Once or twice.”
They entered a room a short time later where a deathlord sat on a throne, head down as if he had just nodded off. The Jagged Crown sat on his head. Without a word, Selene aimed an arrow at the powerful draugr. As soon as it hit, he stood up and came at her, and several other draugr, a couple more deathlords among them, burst from their crypts. Selene dropped her bow and drew her sword, hard pressed to defeat the deathlord. It was one of the hairiest fights she had ever been in, exchanging blow after blow with the monster and occasionally picking herself up off the floor when he Shouted at her. She Shouted back, breathing fire at the draugr before continuing to hack at it, and it finally succumbed. Selene was shocked that she had prevailed without serious injury. Looking around the room, however, she saw that the others weren’t so lucky. The only Stormcloaks left standing were Ralof and Galmar.
“Unblooded, take the crown from that thing and get it back to Ulfric. And tell him he owes me a drink!”
“Understood. But I think you can stop calling me ‘Unblooded’ now.”
Galmar chuckled. “That, I can. Good work today.”
She retrieved the crown, but before she left, she went to Ralof, who was standing in the middle of the room, surveying the carnage around him. “You okay?”
He gave her a half-smile. “I can’t believe I made it,” he mused. “Aye, I’m okay. Take care heading back to Windhelm.”
* * *
Ulfric wasn’t in the great hall when she and Liska arrived at the Palace of the Kings two nights later, and Jorleif showed her to his private chambers, where he was just sitting down to dinner—chicken, potatoes, and grilled leeks. He had changed out of the armor and fur cloak he wore in court and wore a simple belted tunic. The outfit suited him, made him seem less regal, more human.
“Dragonborn, join me,” he offered, pointing to the seat at his right. He reached down to pet Liska, who had come up to sniff him.
Glad she had stopped at the inn to clean up and put on regular clothes, Selene sat down next to him. A servant stepped up and poured wine in the goblet next to her plate, and she closed her eyes with satisfaction as she sipped it. It was excellent. She carved a slice of chicken and spooned some potatoes onto her plate but avoided the leeks.
“Liska, go lie down somewhere,” she ordered the fox. “No begging at the table.”
“So,” said Ulfric as they dined, “did you find the crown?”
“Aye,” she said, reaching into her pack and retrieving the artifact. “Galmar says you owe him a drink.”
“Damn him!” he laughed as he took the Jagged Crown from her and held it up to examine it. “It is quite a prize. Did you have any trouble?”
“The Imperials were waiting for us, and there were a lot of draugr. We lost a lot of good people. I hope it was worth it.”
Ulfric rested the crown on the table and glared at her. “It’s always tragic when we lose the men and women who fight so faithfully for us. But they took the oath, same as you, to lay down their lives for the rebellion. It was worth it to them. Do not doubt Galmar, Dragonborn, and do not doubt me.”
“Don’t get me wrong, my lord. If I had doubts, I wouldn’t be here. I think I mentioned that tact is not my strong suit, and I tend to mutter when I’m tired. And please don’t call me Dragonborn. It’s a title, not a name, and it’s a heavy burden.”
He placed his elbow on the table and leaned toward her, looking into her eyes. “I’ll make a bargain with you. I will call you by your name if you will call me by mine.”
“It’s a deal. Ulfric.” She chuckled. “That’ll take some getting used to.”
“General Tullius is trying to take Winterhold from us,” he announced.
“That’s pretty bold, considering how close it is to Windhelm.”
“He’s mad if he thinks he’ll succeed, but if he wants to throw his men away, I’ll be happy to take them.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
Ulfric took a sip of his wine and considered for a moment. “No,” he said finally, “I believe Winterhold will be fairly straightforward. I have something else in mind for you. It is time to send a message to Whiterun. Balgruuf has walked the fence for too long, and it’s time he made a decision.” He nodded at a weapon rack near the door and the war axe that hung there. “I want you to go to Whiterun and deliver my axe to him.”
“For those such as Balgruuf and myself, sometimes words are unnecessary. He will discern my meaning, and his response will determine our next step. Watch yourself with him, though. The man is known for his temper.”
“I know him,” she pointed out. “You’ve done your research on me; I’m sure you know I’m Thane of Whiterun.”
“I do. That is one of the reasons I’m sending you. Whiterun has remained neutral, but now one of his advisors has chosen a side. You are as much a message as the axe.”
“I’ve never seen a challenge like this before, but I assume you’re forcing his hand?”
“Exactly. If he keeps the axe, he is declaring his allegiance to me. If he returns it, it will mean he has chosen to side with the Legion. And we will take Whiterun by force.”
The servants started clearing the table and refilled Selene’s and Ulfric’s glasses, and she followed him to a sitting area by the fireplace. Liska curled up at her feet. A sense of dread washed through Selene, and she took a long drink of wine. Balgruuf wouldn’t like being called out like this. The Whiterun situation was going to get ugly, and Selene knew it. “If Balgruuf returns the axe, I’ll need to warn the Companions.”
“Do what you must, but Vignar will already know, and I’m sure he will inform your Harbinger.” He eyed her with concern. “Are you up to this task, Selene?”
“Oh, sure. I’m not going to shy away from it just because it’s unpleasant. We all have to do things we don’t want to do from time to time.”
He nodded his agreement. “You’re wise beyond your years.” He took a sip of wine and leaned an elbow on the arm of his chair. “What is your story? How did you come to be so wise at such a young age?”
“It’s a tale of woe, and I don’t think you would find it all that interesting.”
“Indulge me. ‘Selene’ is a Breton name, yes? I’m curious to hear how you came by that as well. Or are you part Breton? You are small for a Nord.”
“You don’t have to worry; I’m a true daughter of Skyrim. My parents died when I was very young, but I’ve been told my mother was rather…progressive…and had a mind of her own. I would wager she just liked the name and didn’t care whether it was Nord, Breton, or Khajiit.”
“How did your parents die?”
Selene told him about the fight with the Imperials on the way to Windhelm, her stay at Honorhall, and Grelod the Kind. He listened with rapt attention as she recounted the tale of her adventures with her adoptive brother Ben in Cyrodiil and genuine shock at her treatment by the legionnaires who had caught them stealing and killed Ben. He laughed heartily at her claim that she had castrated the one who had tried to rape her.
“I’d say he got what he deserved,” he chuckled. “A man who would force himself on a woman is not a man. You’ve had quite a life, Selene. And the fox?”
“A stray. She adopted me shortly after Helgen, and she follows me pretty much everywhere. I worry, though, being in the city. Elda at Candlehearth Hall has taken a liking to her and said she would take care of her when I travel, but I think Liska would be happier in a place with more trees, somewhere she could hunt.”
“What of your life of crime? Did you abandon that when you joined the Companions?”
She shrugged. “I’ll still do what I have to do, but I don’t count myself as a professional thief these days.”
“I believe I was right in offering you the position I did. We often send operatives on covert missions behind enemy lines to steal documents, eavesdrop on important meetings, impersonate key individuals to get intelligence, things I’m sure you’ll be well suited for.” He leveled his gaze at her, his green eyes boring into hers, sending heat up her neck and into her face. He was so handsome, and she felt like a nervous twelve-year-old, blushing in the presence of an older boy she idolized.
“I, um, should probably get back to the inn,” she stammered.
“You could stay.”
Selene’s heart stopped. Did he just ask her to spend the night? By the Eight! This hulking, gorgeous, powerful man who was more than twice her age was the older boy she idolized, and he was asking her to his bed. What a tale that would be to tell her girlfriends, if she had any.
She took a sip of her wine, hoping her voice didn’t betray her emotions when she began talking. “What? And be just another trophy to place on your mantel?”
“Tell me I wouldn’t be a conquest for you as well.”
Selene shrugged. She couldn’t deny it.
Ulfric reached out and caressed her cheek, his intense eyes still staring into hers. “You’re a lovely, strong, vibrant woman, and there’s not a man in the world who wouldn’t want you in his bed. I have a feeling you and I would be magnificent together.”
Selene got up and stepped closer to him. Even sitting, he was almost as tall as she was. She placed her hands on either side of his face, stroking his cheeks with her thumbs, then bent down a placed a soft kiss on his lips. Desire flared in his scent, and he wrapped strong arms around her and deepened the kiss. She gasped as his tongue sought hers. She closed her eyes and slipped her arms around his neck, melding to him, tasting him, devouring him. The heat spread from her neck to her very core, and she ached for him. He was right: they would be magnificent together. But not tonight.
She withdrew from his delicious mouth and touched his forehead with hers. “Goodnight, my jarl,” she whispered, then pulled away from his embrace and walked out the door with Liska on her heels. As she walked down the hall away from his room, she heard him laugh.
“You said you were going to call me Ulfric!” he called.