Galmar clenches his teeth as he stares at the door that has closed behind his host. Their host. He has never liked the Jarl, noble and warrior in perfection, his upbringing in a family that has always thrived on power and independence engrained into every pore.
But Balgruuf has complied with his request and received him, even if suspicion oozed from every gesture, from every elaborate, painfully polite phrase they exchanged. He didn’t even try to hide it, but he didn’t ask questions either. All that was asked of him was to provide neutral ground for this meeting, and Balgruuf stands to his word. But that is all he does, giving them a place to meet. He doesn’t get involved into what he considers their petty quarrels, hasn’t even seized his weapons for a semblance of peace. He doesn’t care if they kill each other.
And although the man’s indifference is only another provocation, Galmar is thankful for this short reprieve. He is no match to Balgruuf when it comes to elocution, and he knows it.
But he is uncomfortable alone out here, on the huge porch on top of Dragonsreach. Not exactly enemy territory, but close to it. Only one lone guard has stayed, standing stiffly at the door, staring stoically into the distance. The walls and columns that hold the wooden roof are blackened, the glassy surface gleaming where the fire has melted the stone, and a quiver of awe runs down his spine as he tilts his head into his neck and regards the tangle of steel chains, braces, ropes and wooden beams tucked under the roof. It looks chaotic, but the Dragonborn has trapped a dragon here not too long ago. Indeed, a place where history has been made.
And will be made again.
Propping his hands flat on the parapet, he turns his gaze outwards, towards the mountains and over the plains that roll in gentle waves towards the horizon. Whiterun Hold is truly magnificent, the breadbasket of the province. Balgruuf holds all the cards in this fragile play of power they have played for so long now. His refusal to choose a side, the nonchalance with which he controls grain deliveries and main roads through the heart of the province, that shameful truce he forced upon them on the Dragonborn’s behalf… all this is more than a nuisance.
Galmar has interrogated the courier that brought him Balgruuf’s answer to his own letter closely. The Jarl didn’t hesitate for a single moment to answer positively, regardless of the oddness of the request from Windhelm. To provide neutral ground for a meeting that would decide the fate of their homeland. He knows exactly that Balgruuf doesn’t trust him, and neither does he trust the… other participant. But he is so full of himself that he can afford to leave them alone and quarrel out whatever has led to this meeting. He can afford not to bother.
His hold thrives in the war while all the others suffer. Galmar has seen it, the people working on the fields as if not suddenly a gang of outlaws or a cohort of battered soldiers could come over them. The guards on the roads, well geared and trained. The market stalls, crammed full with goods. Even the Gildergreen is blossoming again, and when Galmar asks the screaming priest why he doesn’t move to Windhelm – they have a temple of Talos there, after all – all he gets is a pitiful gaze.
It’s not fair. And it’s all Balgruuf’s fault.
And it’s so wonderfully ironic that his self-confidence – not only bordering on arrogance – will lead to his demise now. A malicious grin settles on Galmar’s face. Perhaps… Ulfric has promised he gets to choose when all this is over and settled. Perhaps he will choose Whiterun.
The clapping of the door startles the general from his musings, a sneer forming on his face. The Jarl’s housecarl – an elf! A Dunmer! For this affront alone he deserves to pay! – leads another woman towards him. When she shoves the hood that conceals her features into her neck, he suppresses a sigh of relief. He recognises her at once, the brown hair streaked with grey but still plaited tightly in her neck, the armour of an Imperial Legate, steel sword strapped to her hip.
Rikke is nervous when she throws back hood and cloak and shows her face to him. She tries to hide it, of course she does, but he knows her too long, too well. But he is nervous too and clamps down on it, clings to the rising excitement that she has really come.
He takes a bite. It’s exhilarating, the way flavoured saliva rolls down his throat and the leathery jerky becomes soft under the grind of his jaws, but it’s also soothing. Familiar.
As familiar as the woman before him, regarding him from calm brown eyes.
This is fucked up, he thinks. They haven’t seen each other for far too long, but he has not forgotten. Enmity is so much easier from the distance. When it’s easy to know who’s wrong and right. The only one who is certain nowadays is Ulfric. Galmar isn’t, and Rikke isn’t either. But once they have survived together, and she has not forgotten as well. Or she wouldn’t be here.
Perhaps it’s the reason why he is here too.
He doesn’t know what to say. He would like to punch her into the shoulder like he’s done it back then, a lifetime ago. Or grasp her wrist and jerk her into a rough hug, call her pretty like he’s done it when they fought back to back and she laughed, hoarse and out of breath, startling their enemies.
They are enemies now. He doesn’t want to startle her. He isn’t even sure that he could, that powerful, confident woman in the ornated armour of a Legate.
And he hopes they won’t be enemies for much longer.
Balgruuf has provided ale and bread on a small table near the parapet, he hasn’t asked for more. Instead to explain, he offers her a snack.
Her reaction is exactly how he has hoped. Her eyes glaze over as she peers into the distance, and stretches herself like a cat in the sun, cheeks flushed. Not with embarrassment.
“I’m not tired any more,” she whispers. “There are aches I didn’t even know I had that are gone. I feel… younger.” She turns her head to him, and pride bursts in his chest to see her like that. She even looks younger. It’s not his credit, he knows that. “I feel like I could burst.”
She takes his axe that leans against the parapet and wields it like a shortsword, moves through attacks and parades against her own shadow with a fluent grace that makes Galmar breathe in with a hiss. The blade whirs through the air so fast that he can hear the faint sound as it comes to rest on his shoulder. A fraction more, and his own weapon would have taken his head.
He exhales slowly as his gaze rests on Rikke’s broad, nearly giddy grin. He still wants to hug her.
It becomes easier then. He is honest and comes swiftly to the point, has never been able to beat around the bush. But Rikke is the same, a soldier like him, and she listens to him with confusion and reluctance that turns into awe while they share bread and ale.
He explains to her that they have the dragons, a whole fuckton of them because somehow it seems they’re drawn to Windhelm, and that they have the Gourmet who is the only one who can prepare them. He tells her that those dragons piled up in the courtyard of the Palace of the Kings are not truly dead, that they still have their souls and will keep them as long as they keep the Dragonborn out of Windhelm. And that Wuunferth is called “the Unliving” for a reason.
Her eyes grow wide and wider. He knows this expression, this speechless awe, from the nights at the fire in the field, when the bottles circled because they didn’t have enough for all of them and someone took them away from the aches and the injuries and the dead comrades in a tent nearby, away into the lives of their heroes and ancestors where everything was triumph and certainty and black and white.
She always had a way to believe the truth in these tales. Their core. To learn from them.
“And then there’s Ulfric,” he says, and she is puzzled. Ulfric is just a man. Powerful, yes, a Jarl, a warlord, a natural leader who tears his homeland apart, but still just a man.
“Not just a man, Rikke,” he says calmly. This is something he believes as well, and a gleam of reverence for his Lord appears in his eyes. “The dragons are not drawn to Windhelm. They are drawn to him.” Because he has the Thu’um, is the first Tongue since the Dragon Wars who freed himself of the Greybeard’s mendacity, equal to those who defeated Alduin the first time. He is the one who fulfilled the prophecy and brought the Worldeater back into existence. He is the one who sundered his homeland to unite it again, strong and independent. He is the dawn of a new era.
“Markarth and Torygg were only the beginning,” he says. “We have an unstoppable army of men and dragons. We have the Gourmet. We have Wuunferth, and we have Ulfric. We will squash you,” and there’s regret in his voice that he doesn’t conceal.
“And you asked me to come here just to tell me that we are doomed?” There’s a weakness in her voice that is new.
“No. To give you a chance.” He doesn’t beat around the bush, but his belief gives his arguments cogency. He asks her to join them, to join Ulfric, to give Skyrim the High King she deserves. To join him in his war against the gold-skins.
“Imagine what we could do, Rikke, with Ulfric on the throne! Ulfric Stormcloak, Nordic Tongue, Destroyer of the Altmeri Dominion, Saviour of the Empire. Imagine! Imagine the first Nordic Emperor since Talos!”
He is no rhetor, but he believes. And when he leans closer to her and his whispers become frantic and urgent, she meets him part-way. “You know what stands between us and our future.”
She swallows. “The Dragonborn.”
Galmar nods gravely. “The elf,” he spits, “has fulfilled his destiny. No one needs him any more. We have to keep him away.” When he says we, he means her and him. And she knows what he means by keeping him away. He’s her ally after all, has sworn his allegiance to the Legion long ago.
He doesn’t expect an answer right away, only hands her a package tied shut with a silken band in the colour of the Stormcloaks and tells her to take it to Tullius, to let him taste. She takes it without hesitation.
She leaves first and he gives her time to slip out of the palace and the city and meet her men who wait outside. When he enters the hall himself, Balgruuf is sprawled on his throne, legs stretched out, his chin propped into his palm. Galmar is pretty sure he only looks as if he is bored, and his nod is accompanied by a broad grin that is red and greasy as he crosses the hall.
No one notices the small, slender figure that slips down one of the columns that hold the roof of the porch. The space on top of the gigantic curved beam under the ceiling was crammed and uncomfortable, and he stretches his back with a groan. No one sees the scowl under the low hood. “The elf,” he hisses under his breath, “keep him away. We’ll see.” Only when he enters the hall, he slows his light but furious steps.
“My Jarl.” He greets Balgruuf with a small bow, but the scowl remains.
“Thane.” A stern nod is his answer. “You got what you need?”
“More than that. I have a job for you, Balgruuf.”
A roar like thunder echoes over the province, so powerful that it makes the glasses in Whiterun and Riften clang and is still audible as a faint growling in Markarth and Winterhold.
In Windhelm, it’s clear enough that everybody recognises it at once. It sounds like the day Alduin fell.
Two dragons circle around the Monahven, shouting their fury into the clouds and the winds. From afar, it looks like a game of chase and get chased. Below them a leatherclad figure leans against the wordwall, huddled into his cloak and searching for shelter from the icy storm, a woman covered in steel standing motionless beside him.
“I’ve never seen him like that, Lydia,” the mer mutters, his gaze set to the sky. “I mean… it’s Paarthurnax. He’s old. I didn’t want to rile him up like that.”
“I like him like that, my Thane,” the woman says drily. “He was boring before. Useful, but boring.”
He shoots her a scornful look, and she throws up her hands. “What? He’s been sitting on this rock for eras. High time that he gets his ass up again. Thank the gods for Odahviing!”
The mer has to admit, it wasn’t him alone who has agitated the old dragon like that. If Odahviing wasn’t already covered in crimson scales, he would have been able to see the flush of rage rush over his neck as his fury boiled up.
When the dragons come finally down in a flurry of snow and ice and steam, the mortals press themselves against the wall until one of them is perched atop of them, a crimson snakelike neck swinging above their heads, while the other seems to blend with the snowcovered grey and white rocks behind him. Only the copper of his eyes gleams with emotions the mer is certain he hasn’t allowed himself since Alduin’s first banishment. He likes it, he has to admit.
“Dovahkiin! What do you intend to do?” Paarthurnax growls. The harsh question is answered by a twofold chuckle, one from Odahviing, one from the mer who leans now relaxed against the wall in his back, arms crossed over his chest.
“You,” he tilts his head into his neck to get a look at Odahviing, “have been Alduin’s generals. His strategists. Both of you. I? I have just an idea.”
“But it’s Ulfric!” Paarthurnax roars with an undertone that comes as close as possible to a wail. “What has he done! I have taught him! I thought he can be trusted!”
“Well, he can’t,” comes the rumble from the wordwall. “And if you had peeked down there only once during the last 30 years, you’d know.”
“It can’t be all for naught.” Paarthurnax’ head jerks up as he turns his gaze on Odahviing. There’s hope in his voice. “Perhaps… he has to fall? He is not dovah, but he has the will to power. Perhaps it’s in his blood too. Perhaps… he has to fall and overcome his nature. It’s so much better to overcome your evil nature with great effort than to be good right from the start.”
Odahviing rolls his eyes, and the mer suppresses a snicker.
“You’re blind,” the red dragon says. “He will enslave our brethren. He eats them!”
“And what do you think will happen with Ulfric on the Emperor’s throne?” the mer chimes in, his quiet voice a stark contrast to the booming speech of the dragons. “So much power… in the hands of the man who invented this stupid Skyrim belongs to the Nords. Who hates everything not human. You really think he will start to meditate over his failures?”
Paarthurnax lowers his head. “Perhaps…”
“No!” Odahviing shouts, stretching his neck until their snouts nearly touch. “Sometimes one evil has to be fought with another for the greater good, brother. That’s the way of the world. It’s balance, and you know it. It’s what you did when you betrayed Alduin.”
The red dragon lifts his flews, bares his impressive fangs with a hiss. The dragons fight, an invisible battle of willpower and persuasion, and as the mer ducks away under the quivering throat, he can see a fire rise in Paarthurnax’ eyes that is new. The old dov can see a necessity when it’s that obvious. But he will not relent his way, and he will not stop to lead.
He huffs a ring of smoke into Odahviing’s face before he straightens himself on his hindlegs. “Okay,” he says simply and lifts off, circles once over the wordwall and shoots down to High Hrothgar.
“Arngeir,” they hear him roar over a thunder that indicates his landing, followed by the bang of the heavy doors and a terrified shriek. The mer on top of the mountain laughs out loud. “Get up here and make yourself useful. Only once.”
Paarthurnax doesn’t bother to land again, only circles above the mountain with short, impatient motions that make his whole body curve and the man on his neck scream. “Eager,” Odahviing chuckles as he bends his neck to let the mer and Lydia mount him. He is used to carry them both.
“‘t was about time,” Lydia sighs. “You got the stones?”
“Of course.” The mer clenches his arms around the protruding horn in front of him and waits that Lydia clenches her arms around him. “Let’s go, friend.”
The attack on Windhelm is short and disastrous.
It starts with a breeze that is more than welcome on this unusually warm day, as the air lies like a humid blanket over the city. A breeze, a shift and a soft rumble, rippling from the Palace of the Kings through the ancient stones of the buildings and streets.
Wuunferth stands on top of the stairs, frustrated and bored while Calixto scurries from corpse to corpse, his spindly hair spiking with sweat and grease, the gleam in his eyes manic. But although his muttering is unintelligible and the motions of his hands are erratic and nervous, he seems to know what he’s doing.
Wuunferth doesn’t want to know what exactly he is doing. The man gives him the creeps, and he refuses to work alongside with him. They only exchange the results of their individual studies, as meagre as they are. Despite his grandiose announcements, neither of them had found the solution yet, and progress is far too slow.
But something catches his attention.
A shift seems to run through the lined up carcasses, scales altering colour when the rays of the midday sun suddenly change their angle. A ripple of movement, barely noticeable. Calixto has noticed nothing, he still hunches too close in front of a large ice dragon, examining its eyeball, oblivious to his surroundings.
“Calixto,” Wuunferth bellows, with an authority he doesn’t feel. “What did you do?”
The man slowly turns his head, his gaze catching on a point above Wuunferth’s head. His shrug turns into bunched up, defensive shoulders.
And then there’s a white flash and a red one shortly after, and light – so much light, a maelstrom of light that centres around the red dragon that’s suddenly where there was no red dragon before. They were golden and green and blueish, copper and brown. But not red. And not white. And they didn’t move.
All the colours but red and white are gone when the maelstrom dies down, only the alabaster of bare bones is left. Wuunferth wants to scream and to run as he sees the ruined corpse of Calixto under the monstrous claws of the red dragon. Odahviing follows his terrified gaze, lifts his foot and shakes it once, nearly gently. The body is stubbornly impaled on the claw, limp and jerking erratically with the movement. “Oops,” Odahviing says, and Wuunferth’s heart stops beating with the sound of a dragon speaking.
“That’s two,” Lydia quips as he crumples to the stones.
And then the doors crush open and the Jarl strides out, fully armed and armoured, his general behind him with his axe drawn.
“What’s this commotion…” he starts to bellow, but his face crumples like the body of his court mage when he takes the scene in.
But Ulfric wouldn’t be Ulfric without a certain presence of mind. As a Jarl, he cannot afford to be surprised.
“FUS RO!” he shouts and shoves the piles of bones into the backmost corners of his courtyard. The dragons don’t even hitch.
“And?” Paarthurnax asks.
The Jarl eyes his former mentor suspiciously. “And what?” For once, he doesn’t know what he wants. And the old dragon has always been so predictable. Just like his newest pupil.
“Fus Ro was correct. What comes then to make the Shout complete?”
Ulfric blushes furiously. He knows there was something he has forgotten. His hand goes to his throat as if he can force it out.
“You were most auspicious once, Ulfric. It’s a pity, really.” Paarthurnax shakes his head in sincere sympathy. “It’s Dah. Show him, Dovahkiin.”
Both men are hurled against the wall, and then there’s fire and ice and RII VAAZ ZOL and silence. Only a warhound climbs through the rubble that has been the gate and stands panting and tail-wagging in front of Paarthurnax. “Arngeir.” The dragon sighs from the depth of his throat. “Didn’t I tell you not to use Animal Allegiance?”
The attack on Solitude is even shorter, but not less disastrous. The guards in the courtyard of Castle Dour cheer merrily when the dragons come down. They have not forgotten Odahviings assistance in the battle for Fort Dunstad. And they obey without resistance when the mer tells them to leave for Dragon Bridge at once and fight the army of Forsworn that has captured the village and not to come back before the next evening. Only one of them is allowed to stay to fetch the General and the Legate. The mer never liked him, he is one of those big brutish Nords who always begrudged him his fast advancement through the ranks with spoiled rations and broken arrows.
When it’s over, the mer juggles two dark purple stones on his palms and watches how the golden light of the evening plays on the sharp edges. They’re nearly pretty, shimmering and warm to the touch. Nearly.
“I have two more,” he says pensively, “any ideas while we’re at it?”
It takes a bit of a discussion, but in the end, Lydia’s and Paarthurnax’ suggestions are accepted.
The gathering on the porch of Dragonsreach next day is even more illustrious than the last. Odahviing eyes the tangle of the trap with obvious suspicion, but the Jarl gives him a goodnatured pat between his horns. “Don’t worry,” he says with a chuckle, “in the end, you broke it. It doesn’t work any more.”
“Your luck,” the dragon huffs and gives the mer a gentle nudge that nearly sends him over the parapet. “Get on with it. ‘t was a long night.”
The helmet the mer fumbles out of his knapsack is atrocious, bones and claws, withered through the ages to an ugly greyish brown. Only the gems at the front gleam with an unhealthy light.
Balgruuf’s eyes grow wide. “Is this…?”
The mer sinks to his knees and presents it to him with outstretched arms. “The Jagged Crown, my Jarl.”
Balgruuf takes it reverently, turns it around to examine it from all sides. “You really did it. It’s…”
“Hideous, I know.” The mer is on his feet again and snatches the crown from the Jarl’s hand. “But we’ve made it at least a bit prettier. A bit more… regal.” His grin is biting as he touches the stones that are fixed between the bones at the front. “May I introduce? Jarl Ulfric, General Tullius and First Ambassador Elenwen, at your service.” He throws it back towards the Jarl and hops towards the door. “Come on, let’s make you High King.”
“Dragonborn!” Balgruuf’s voice thunders after him. The mer stops in his tracks, and when he turns, all the malice in his sharp features is replaced by a sheepish grin.
He raises his hand in defense. “I know, I know, okay?”
“Farengar gave you four of these stones. Four, Thane! Where is it?”
“Paarthurnax has it,” the mer mumbles, a flush rising into his cheeks, his head lowered. “He wants to keep it.”