Selene bought a tankard of warm mead from Wilhelm and then went to her room, changed out of her armor into a nightdress and curled up on the bed with Liska and a book she had borrowed from the Graybeards. After reading the same page five times and still not remembering what she had read, she laid the book down.
“Ulfric Stormcloak!” she whispered excitedly to Liska. “He’s part of the reason I came back to Skyrim. And he wants to see me! I mean, he obviously went out of his way to find me. Or he just figured it out when the Graybeards spoke to me. I’m sure in Morrowind, some Dunmer looked up and said, ‘What was that?’ But by the Eight, Liska, what could Ulfric possibly want with me?”
“Maybe he’s working with Delphine. Do you think? Quite the coincidence that people all over Skyrim are suddenly looking for me. I met him before, you know. He was at Helgen when the black dragon attacked. He was partly responsible for saving my life. I doubt he remembers me, though; a lot was going on that day. But you should have seen him. He was amazing!” She sighed and dropped her head on the pillow. “How in Oblivion am I going to sleep after this, huh? Gonna be a long trip tomorrow, and I don’t want to go before Ulfric Stormcloak with dark circles under my eyes. For Kyne’s sake, Liska, will you shut up and let me get some rest?”
The fox purred in response.
Selene closed her eyes and tried to find her calm center, the place of serenity she slipped into when she meditated, but tranquility eluded her. She was giddy, silly; this was totally unlike her. As excited as she was to meet Ulfric Stormcloak, she had to keep a cool head. If he had gone out of his way to find her, it was because he wanted something. That was just the way things worked. However, telling herself to keep cool and actually doing it were totally different. She tossed and turned, her mind racing in anticipation of not only meeting Ulfric, but the Palace of the Kings, the court, how she was supposed to act, completely overlooking the fact that he was no higher in station than Balgruuf the Greater, with whom she interacted on a regular basis. If she could handle Balgruuf, she could handle Ulfric. She was a thane, for Kyne’s sake. But no, when she walked into the Palace of the Kings and approached the man himself, the Jarl of Windhelm, leader of the Stormcloak Rebellion, all that was going to go out the window and she would turn into a giggling adolescent. Or just be terrified into paralysis, which would be even worse. Like so many nights when the beast blood tormented her with dreams of the hunt, she finally gave up, dressed and got on the road.
When she passed the Aalto near Eldergleam Sanctuary, Selene heard the howl of a dragon. It seemed a new one had set itself up in the lair she and Vilkas had cleared out. Perhaps it was because of her days of meditation at High Hrothgar or her nerves over meeting Ulfric, but whatever the reason, she found she wasn’t afraid this time, not even of fighting the dragon alone. She grinned, checked her supply of arrows, and told Liska to wait there; then she detoured onto the volcanic sulfur flats. The dragon found her before she found it, and it dove for her, spitting a stream of fire at her. “Ugh!” she groaned as the flames singed her hair and skin. If this kept up, she was going to have to cut her hair after all. She ducked behind a rock and rummaged through her pack, finding and swallowing a fire-resist potion before the dragon wheeled around and came back. While she was in there, she also found a bottle of poison she didn’t even realize she had. She dipped an arrow in the poison and nocked it, waiting for the dragon to fly close enough to get a good shot. It teased her, swooping in and climbing high before she could shoot, and she tracked it with her bow for several minutes, swearing at it as it stayed just out of range.
The dragon must have gotten bored and decided to stop toying with her, because it flew in and hovered, taking in air for its Fire Breath Shout. But Selene was ready, and she let her arrow fly, catching it in the neck. It howled again, this time in pain, as it spiraled upward and slammed to the ground a few yards away. Selene readied another arrow and edged toward it. The dragon growled at her and said something in dragon language.
“I don’t understand you,” she stated.
“I said Alduin will see you burn, Dovahkiin.”
“You first.” She loosed her arrow and caught it in the head, and it screeched and collapsed in its death throes, then burst into flames and gifted her with a soul. This one was a male by the name of Lotyuvonal. She basked in the warmth of the flames that surrounded her and the presence entering her mind, refreshing and energizing her, filling her with wisdom and hidden knowledge. When the sensation passed, she took a bone and scale, then dug through the remaining carcass and pulled out at least a hundred gold pieces.
She retrieved Liska and took her to Eldergleam Sanctuary, where they camped for the night. As she relaxed on her bedroll and watched the waterfall cascade in from the lofty ceiling, Selene pondered Lotyuvonal’s words. He said Alduin would see her burn. People were always telling her they’d see her burn; that was nothing new. But who in the Void was Alduin? Was he the black dragon, or was she just obsessing on that one because he was the first she had seen? Perhaps he wasn’t a dragon at all; maybe he was the person responsible for the dragons returning. It was possible, she supposed, that the people won the Dragon War didn’t kill the dragons off but simply banished them to another part of the world, and now they were returning to Tamriel. They had to come from somewhere. On the other hand, she had read about dragon cults, humans and mer during ancient times who worshiped the dragons as gods. Why they would do such a thing, she couldn’t imagine, but perhaps a modern-day dragon cult had formed, led by this Alduin, and they were conjuring dragons.
Selene thought of Delphine again. Maybe she knew where the dragons were coming from. It was always possible that she was involved in their return. She certainly hadn’t been forthcoming with information. And while she hadn’t really threatened to kill Selene, she had made it clear that she thought she could do it. Why would someone who wanted to help her be so hostile? Then again, Selene wasn’t exactly friendly, herself. Well, whether she was on her side or that of the dragons, Delphine warranted more scrutiny. Somebody had to know who she really was. Perhaps when she got to Windhelm, she could get help from Ulfric Stormcloak.
If there was anything that could bring her mind away from dragons, it was Ulfric Stormcloak. Although she had only seen him once, and only for a few moments, his image was burned into her mind. He was a big man, nearly a foot taller than she was, oozing presence even with his hands bound and a gag over his mouth. He had the most penetrating green eyes she had ever seen, and his voice when they escaped into the keep was resonant and commanding with the deepest timbre she’d ever heard, save Farkas’s. From that, and from the myriad stories she’d heard about him, she had built an image in her mind of a bigger-than-life hero who was just short of Divine. The real man was almost certain to disappoint; who could live up to such an image? But Selene could hardly wait to find out.
Windhelm was possibly the dreariest city Selene had ever seen. She approached the great city late in the afternoon, its cold, stark walls looming over the snow-covered landscape and threatening all those who approached, “Don’t try anything.” A chill wind blew across the long bridge leading to the massive city gates, which stood behind a curtain of snow flurries under a steel-gray sky. Where Whiterun had been friendly and inviting, Windhelm looked as if it would just as soon turn strangers away. As if to prove the point, a city guard stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
“State your business,” the guard demanded.
“I’ve received a summons from the jarl.” She handed him the envelope.
He opened the letter and looked up at her, eyes wide, then pushed open the heavy gate and ushered her inside. He handed her the summons and stammered, “My apologies, Dragonborn. Welcome to Windhelm.”
The first thing Selene saw when she entered the city was a dark elf woman being harassed by two Nords. While she was clean and dressed in old but well-kept clothing; the men were filthy and dressed in little more than rags. They had to be freezing, but they were more interested in hassling the elf than getting in from the cold.
“You’re not wanted here,” one of them, a smelly middle-aged man wearing a tunic and threadbare hat, said. “You eat our food, pollute our city with your stink; you won’t even support the Stormcloaks in the war.”
“We haven’t taken sides because it’s not our fight,” the Dunmer protested.
“You live in this city. It should be your fight.”
“You speak as if you would actually allow us to fight alongside you.”
“Or maybe it’s because they’re Imperial spies, Rolff,” said the second Nord, older, bald, and wearing a sleeveless tunic. He looked like he had just escaped from prison.
“Perhaps we’ll pay you a visit this night and show you how we deal with spies,” Rolff threatened.
Selene stepped up behind the Dunmer and leveled a menacing glare at the men. “Aren’t you two a little old to be acting like the town bullies?”
“Mind your own affairs, outsider,” baldy warned her. “You know nothing of what goes on here.”
“Seems I’ve already learned quite a bit, and I just got here.” She stepped in front of the elf and rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. “You lads can go now.”
Rolff took a step toward her, but baldy put a hand out to stop him. “Now’s not the time,” he said. “Watch yourself while you’re in our city, outsider.”
As the bullies walked away, Selene turned to the woman. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine, but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place, my friend. Windhelm is a city of prejudice and hatred for anyone who is not a Nord, not fitting for a generous soul such as you. You may have called Rolff and Angrenor off for now, but they’re always about. Rolff is the worst, spewing venom and threats.”
Selene’s blood boiled. She had never understood racial prejudice, even that of elves. It wasn’t as if they all backed the Aldmeri Dominion. She had met many who just wanted to live their lives regardless of who was in charge, and others who were staunch supporters of the rebellion. How could someone hate everybody of a given race just because certain ones were their enemies? As for bullying, it just made her furious. She watched the two shabbily dressed Nords make their way through the alley, her wolf bristling inside her, itching to break free and tear the men apart. She knew she couldn’t do that, but a good brawl wasn’t out of the question. She would keep an eye on those two.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Selene said, “but why would you want to live in such a city?”
The woman sneered and opened her mouth to retort but stopped herself, her expression softening. “It’s a valid question. The truth is I have nowhere else to go. I’ve thought many times of returning to my homeland, but such a trip is expensive and dangerous. Someday, perhaps.”
Candlehearth Hall was directly in front of the city gate, and Selene rented a room so she could clean up and rest before going to see the jarl. The innkeeper wasn’t happy about Liska, but she let her stay with the admonition that Selene was to clean up any messes the fox made. After washing up, she went to the bar upstairs and had good venison and Black-Briar mead for dinner, then settled into her bed with a book. She could hear the bard playing upstairs, and it was nice background music until she started playing a song that made Selene rocket out of bed.
“Our hero, our hero claims a warrior’s heart.
I tell you, I tell you the Dragonborn comes.”
“What in Oblivion?” Selene flinched as she listened to the song lauding the hero that would save the world. Someone had written a song about her? Ysmir’s beard! It was flattering on some level, but it also made her feel exposed, naked, as though everyone knew who she was. “Do you believe that, Liska?” she said to the vixen curled up at her feet. “You know, Farkas used to tease me about the songs that would be written about the Dragonborn, but I didn’t think it would actually happen.”
Disturbing musical selections aside, Selene and her inner wolf slept reasonably well and awoke ready to meet the jarl. The day had dawned clear and sunny, and Windhelm looked much better in the sunshine. The quartz in the old stone buildings glimmered in the light, and the dusting of snow made everything look cleaner, as though someone had come in during the night and scrubbed and whitewashed the streets. The Palace of the Kings was made of the same gray stone as the rest of the city, but in Selene’s mind it was beautiful. Its many tiered floors reminded her of a huge, elaborately decorated cake, the snow a layer of pristine, white icing to top it off. She walked up to the doors of the palace ready to show the guard her invitation; but he opened the door for her without a word, and she entered the great hall, cavernous, brightly lit, and festooned with Stormcloak banners. A long table laid out with a veritable buffet dominated the center of the room. At the end of the hall was an enormous throne that dwarfed the man sitting upon it.
Ulfric Stormcloak, however, was indeed bigger than life, and by no means did he look small. He was glorious, slouching on his throne, discussing Whiterun with his housecarl. They continued to speak as Selene approached, as if she weren’t even there. The housecarl, whom Ulfric called Galmar, wanted to kill Balgruuf, but Ulfric felt taking the city and leaving him in disgrace would send a better message. He would rather do it without bloodshed, but he wasn’t optimistic. Selene didn’t understand. Balgruuf had remained neutral; why would they want to loose their venom on him?
The conversation turned to the soldiers and their families, and Galmar declared that they, the Stormcloaks, were the soldiers’ families now.
“Tell me, Galmar, why do you fight?” the jarl challenged him.
“I fight to defeat the elves and run them out of Skyrim once and for all. I thought you shared that mission.”
Ulfric proceeded to inform his housecarl that he fought for the men who had died in his arms, the woman and children who were left without their husbands and fathers, and those who had been oppressed by the Aldmeri Dominion, his voice growing louder and more impassioned with every word. He made it very clear that he fought for his people, not his own agenda, and Selene wanted desperately to believe him. She’d heard so many conflicting opinions about the man since coming to Skyrim. People called him everything from a hero to a villain. Some thought he was practically a god, while others believed he was a murderer who wasn’t even worthy of a trial, better to be put down like a rabid dog. Most everybody said he was arrogant and overbearing and harbored a vicious hatred of the Empire. Selene could definitely see that, but as she listened to his conversation with Galmar, her opinion leaned even further toward ‘hero.’ When he finished speaking, it was all she could do not to cheer.
“You speak what we all feel,” said Galmar, “but for now, we have a war to plan.”
Ulfric finally turned his gaze away from Galmar and acknowledged her. The weight of his stare was tremendous, and Selene felt as if her knees would buckle under it. “Only a fool would approach a jarl without a summons.”
She held up the envelope, exerting a monumental effort to keep her hands from trembling. “I’m no fool, my jarl.”
He smiled, his eyes sparkling. “‘Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes.’”
Selene couldn’t help rolling her eyes. She stood silently, hoping it was just a lack of response and not terrified paralysis. Perhaps he would take it as disapproval of the song. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Galmar nodded to Ulfric and quietly left the great hall.
“I’m glad you made it. My advisors tell me you are making waves throughout Skyrim, that you’ve killed dragons and absorbed their souls, and that you’ve made a name for yourself with the Companions. Everyone in the province heard the Graybeards’ summons, of course. I felt I ought to meet the woman behind the myths and legends. I must admit you’re not what I expected.”
“You expected someone older? Taller? A man perhaps?” Thank the Divines; she could speak.
“I knew you were a woman, but yes, someone older.” He looked her over. “You’re young, you’re lovely, and you look as though you’ve never seen battle.”
“I consider that an asset. If your opponents underestimate you, it gives you a hidden advantage.”
“Indeed. And do you consider me an opponent?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she confessed. “I still don’t know why you sent for me. But believe me, my jarl, I have seen battle. I have more experience under my belt than it appears.”
“I remember you, you know. You were with us at Helgen. Bound for the block, I believe.”
“Aye, we’re all criminals in the eyes of the Empire. I assure you, I sent for you not to oppose you but in the hope that you would join me in my cause. A woman of your stature and ability could be a great asset to the rebellion.”
“I appreciate the offer, my lord, and I’ve actually thought about it. I spent the last several years in Cyrodiil and came home to Skyrim with the intention of joining you. I even discussed it with Ralof after we escaped.”
“Ralof’s alive?” he asked, eyes wide. “That’s good news. He’s a damn good man.”
“I’d heard he’d already returned to Windhelm.”
“I haven’t seen him. I’ll have to ask Galmar. So. What about my offer?”
She shook her head sheepishly. “I’m a fighter, but I’m not suited to the strict regimen and discipline of a soldier.”
“But you’re a Companion.”
“The Companions aren’t soldiers. We’re mercenaries, sellswords, and each of us is our own person. We don’t even have a real leader.” Kodlak Whitemane’s voice rang in her head. Lead the Companions…
“I see.” He was silent for a moment, eyeing her up, studying her even more closely than before. He leaned on his elbow. “Where do your strengths lie, then, if not in regiment and discipline?”
“I’m an archer, and I’ve become pretty adept with the sword since joining the Companions. I’m also a hunter and am at home in the shadows.”
“How are you negotiation?”
Selene chuckled. “I’m afraid tact is not one of my strengths.”
“Intimidation, then? Theft?”
“What are you trying to say, my lord?”
“I still believe we could help each other,” he replied, his voice as smooth as warm mead. “You may be better suited to acting as an operative, a spy. You would still be a member of the Stormcloak Rebellion, but you would work in a more subtle capacity, scouting for the troops, unburdening Imperial officers of valuable information, espionage. You would have more freedom than a conventional soldier. It would also be more of a challenge, I would wager.”
Now, that sounded like fun. As a Companion, she hadn’t had much opportunity to use her skills as a thief, and she had to admit she missed reaching her hand into a pocket and drawing out what was inside or sneaking into a building and relieving the owners of their valuables. She doubted he would have her doing anything like that, but stealing documents and information was close enough. Still, she had to ask. “You said we could help each other. What’s in it for me?”
Ulfric threw back his head and laughed. “I remembered you from Helgen for several reasons. The obvious, of course, is that everything about that day is burned in my mind forever. And you were stunningly beautiful, hard to forget, even in rags.”
“Thank you, my jarl,” Selene muttered, hoping she wasn’t blushing.
“I also remember thinking at the time that there was something about you, the look in your eye, the way you carried yourself even as you walked toward the chopping block. You held your head high, refused to show fear. You were self-assured, robust, experienced for your age, you knew how to look out for yourself, and you were furious that you had let yourself be captured. You leave an impression on all who meet you, don’t you?”
“You got all that from watching me walk to the block?”
“And your actions after the dragon attacked. It was only a few moments, but it doesn’t take long to size someone up. And as I said, you made an impression.”
Selene wondered if the jarl knew what a compliment that was, especially coming from him. It gave her confidence, and she began to feel as if she wouldn’t crumple to the floor at any moment. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“My apologies. I can offer you experience, a family of like-minded individuals who will defend you to the death. I can also offer you a home in my city.”
“Basically, everything I already have with the Companions.”
Ulfric scowled at her. “You’re not making this easy, you know.”
“I’m sorry, my lord. I mean no disrespect; it’s just that…you’re not what I expected, either. I would be honored to serve you.”
His face lit up, and when he smiled, he was magnificent. “Excellent! See to Galmar. No doubt he’ll have some sort of test for you; he likes to see the caliber of those he commands.” Selene nodded and turned toward the war room. “Dragonborn,” Ulfric called.
“Aye, my jarl?”
“What is your name?”
“Welcome to the rebellion, Selene.”
She headed for the war room to meet Galmar, not really sure what had happened. A man like that didn’t summon just anybody for a personal audience and ask her to join his cause. Selene supposed she wasn’t just anybody, but there was still more to the conversation than politics. The man was blatantly flirting with her. Maybe that was just what he did. He was handsome, unmarried, and very powerful; he probably had women lining up to share his bed. Thus, he saw women as conquests, prey to be tamed. Or, maybe he was just charming. Aye, that was it. He was just charming.
As she approached Galmar, she chuckled to herself. Well, she had left the Companions seeking adventure, and she would surely find it here. It just might not be the adventure she’d had in mind.