Selene stood before Jarl Balgruuf the Greater wearing her Stormcloak uniform, and he looked her over. “I see you’ve abandoned your wolf armor for different colors,” he observed.
She pulled Ulfric’s axe from her back, and Irileth sprang into action, stepping between her and the throne. “Relax, Irileth. I’m not going to attack the jarl.” She peered around the housecarl at Balgruuf. “Jarl Ulfric asked me to give you his axe.”
“Did he now? The man is persistent; I’ll give him that. Irileth, you can return to your post.” Irileth walked to the corner of the dais to his left, and Balgruuf took the axe from Selene and laid across his lap. He turned to Proventus Avenicci, who stood at his right. “What do you make of this, Avenicci?”
True to fashion, Proventus hemmed and hawed, babbling this and that about nothing related to the axe until he finally suggested they wait and see what Ulfric would do.
“Prey waits,” Irileth asserted.
“I’m of a mind with Irileth on this,” Balgruuf agreed.
“Surely you’re not thinking of marching on Windhelm!” Avenicci gasped.
“I’m not a stupid man, Avenicci. But if Ulfric wants to face me as a man, he’s more than welcome.”
“More likely, he’ll shove a dagger in your back. Look what he did to Torygg. He just walked up and murdered the boy!”
“That ‘boy’ was High King of Skyrim,” Irileth reminded him. “And he made the challenge in open court. Whether the fight was fair is a question, but that is not our question.”
“No,” said Balgruuf. “Rather than challenge me face-to-face, he’ll likely send his Stormcloaks to do his dirty work.”
Irileth nodded. “He has already shown his prowess as a man; now he will show his army’s.”
“My jarl, I urge you to consider General Tullius’s offer to send troops. What is the harm in letting a few legionnaires die in place of our own men?”
Selene rolled her eyes.
Balgruuf furrowed his brow at Avenicci. “That seems cowardly.”
“Was it cowardly to go along with the White-Gold Concordat?” Irileth dared.
Selene expected a tirade from Balgruuf in response, but he simply related his feelings on the matter. A political discussion ensued between the Nordic jarl, his Imperial steward, and his elven housecarl, probably one they engaged in from time to time to entertain themselves. She hoped they didn’t expect her to chime in, because she was only now learning about the inner political workings of Skyrim, so she stood quietly and pretended to pay attention as they talked about everything from the Great War to the amount of gold the Empire sent every year to support Whiterun. At one point, Avenicci caught sight of Selene and steered the subject back to the axe.
“Perhaps we should wait and see if Ulfric is even serious.”
“He’s serious,” Selene and Balgruuf said at the same time. Balgruuf turned his gaze on Selene. “Ulfric wants an answer; fine, I’ll give him an answer.” He held the axe out to Selene. “Take the axe back to Jarl Ulfric.”
Selene nodded and took the axe. “My jarl—”
“No, Selene, I believe Ulfric is your jarl now. You are dismissed.”
She left Dragonsreach with a heavy weight on her shoulders. When he had dismissed her, he had done more than kick her out of his castle. Though he hadn’t said as much, he had dismissed her as Thane as well. Selene hadn’t really had much hope that Balgruuf would side with Ulfric, but she was still disappointed he had seen fit to go with the Empire. Halfway down the winding steps, she stopped and looked over at Jorrvaskr. Although she still didn’t know Farkas’s reaction to her sleeping with Vilkas, she still saw the mead hall as a haven. Even just looking at the building made her feel better.
“All right, Companion?” one of the guards asked as he walked by.
“Aye, I’m fine. Just lost in thought.” She continued down the stairs and then up to Jorrvaskr. Torvar was the only one in the hall when she stepped in, and he raised his mug to her.
“My favorite drinkin’ buddy!” he shouted. “Long time no see!”
“How are you, Torvar?”
“Oh, you know me. Always havin’ a good time. Farkas is over at the Bannered Mare if you’re lookin’ for him.”
“Actually I’m looking for Vilkas.”
“Downstairs. He stays down there a lot lately. He wasn’t much fun to start with, but now he’s downright stodgy. They made him Harbinger after you left, you know.”
“Good. If anybody can handle the job, it’s him.”
Selene barely got halfway down the corridor in the living quarters before she realized Vilkas’s scent was different. It was fresher, less musky. More human. She found him in the office, sitting in one chair with his feet up in the other, reading a book.”
“Comfy?” she asked, leaning in the doorway.
He looked up, eyes widening, and stood, coming to her with his arms out. “It’s so good to see you,” he said, holding her closely.
“You, too. You’ve been cured.”
He pulled back, took her hand, and led her toward the desk. “Come, sit down. Aye, I did it about a fortnight ago. It is refreshing, but I’m afraid I’m not quite used to it yet. I didn’t smell you coming down the hall. I didn’t even know you were here until you spoke. You move so quietly.”
“I imagine that would be disconcerting after all those years of having enhanced senses.”
“It is, but the benefits outweigh the negative aspects, I assure you.”
“Did Farkas get cured?”
“Not yet,” he replied, disappointment showing on his face. “He’s still unsure. I try not to influence his decision, but it’s not easy.”
“No, he has to make his own choice. How…how are things?”
“They were tense for a while, but they’re better now. Farkas doesn’t hold a grudge. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but he’s, uh, seeing someone.”
Selene swallowed hard, closing her eyes tightly to prevent tears from welling. “Is it serious?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell with Farkas. I thought he was serious about you. I’m sorry about this.”
“No, no, it’s good. I really am happy for him. It doesn’t make it any easier to hear, though. What about everything else?”
“Acting as Harbinger didn’t take as much assimilation as I would have thought. Turns out I was doing most of the administrative tasks already. I hadn’t realized how much I had helped Kodlak until I started doing his job. I miss the old man, though.” He pointed to a pile of documents on his desk. “We have a lot of work right now, so we’re all staying busy. We’re a little short-handed these days, if you catch my meaning.”
“Oh, don’t do that to me. You know I had to go.”
He smiled at her. “I know. But we do miss you. I miss you.”
Selene reached out and took his hands, and he bent toward her and touched his forehead to hers. They sat that way for a long while, silently relishing each other’s company. She could still smell his sadness and the age-old anger he still refused to let go of. “I wish you could be happy,” she murmured.
“Not being happy doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I’m long used to feeling this way.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
He released her hands, sat back and took a drink of mead. “So what do we owe your visit? I couldn’t help noticing the Stormcloak armor.”
“Aye, Ulfric Stormcloak actually tracked me down and recruited me. I’m not part of the regular army; I’m more of an envoy.”
Vilkas chuckled. “A spy.”
Selene shrugged. “In any case, I wanted to warn you. The axe on my back belongs to Ulfric. He sent me to give it to Balgruuf, and Balgruuf is returning it.”
The smiled dropped from Vilkas’s face, and he said, “So it’s finally happening. Vignar and Olfrid have been whispering in the jarl’s ear for months, urging him to choose one side or the other. I guess it was inevitable.”
“I know the Companions’ policy is to stay out of the war, but you need to be ready when it comes knocking at your door.”
“But who to support, eh? Do we back our dear friend and eldest shield-brother, or do we defend our home against invaders?”
Vilkas froze. “You’re not going to—”
“Vilkas, I don’t know what Ulfric is going to have me do. It was a political decision to send me with the axe and not someone else. I doubt my job will be finished when I return to Windhelm with the axe.”
“Do you think he’d send you to kill Balgruuf?”
Selene looked earnestly into his eyes. “I trust you; you know that.”
“I’ll never betray your confidence, love. I’ll die first.”
“Ulfric has no intention of killing him,” she whispered in case anyone was close enough to hear. “He wants to depose him and take the city. That doesn’t mean I won’t be involved.”
“Very well. What do you need from us?”
“Nothing, really. I just wanted to let you know.”
“I take it you’re not staying long?”
Selene shook her head. “Just overnight. I’m sure Ulfric will want to get things in motion. His housecarl is bouncing off the walls, he’s so eager.”
She got up to leave, and Vilkas stood with her and took her in his arms. She laid her head on his shoulder and held him close, savoring the feel of his body against hers. He lifted her chin and kissed her, and Selene was tempted to stay right there with him. In one short year, Vilkas had gone from friend to enemy to lover, and after all they had been through together, he was hard to resist. She pulled away reluctantly and walked back through the living quarters, wrought with heartache and confusion.
Aela was in the mead hall, and Selene chatted with her for a few minutes before leaving Jorrvaskr and heading back to Breezehome. As she was opening the door to her house, she heard footsteps running up behind her.
“Selene!” Farkas called.
She turned around just in time for him to catch up with her and grab her up in a bear hug, swinging her around. She squealed and giggled. “Put me down, you big lug!”
Farkas put her down and followed her in the house. “I knew you’d join the Stormcloaks. Do you like it?”
“Not so much today. Ulfric has challenged Balgruuf, and it’s not going to be pretty.”
“Well, you can handle it. You’re tough.”
“I warned Vilkas that the Stormcloaks would lay siege to Whiterun.”
“Don’t worry. We’re tough, too.”
Liska was sleeping in a chair next to the fire pit, and he picked the fox up and sat down with her in his lap while Selene opened a bottle of mead, took a sip, and handed it to him. He took a drink and gave it back to her. “I’m not mad,” he said, scratching the fox behind the ears.
“I’m still sorry.”
“Don’t be. What we had was great, but what you could have with Vilkas would be more than great.”
Selene smiled sadly. Farkas always said he didn’t speak well, but she didn’t agree. She thought he had quite a way with words. “It can’t be, though. It’s just not the right time.” She took a drink of mead. “He said you’re seeing someone.”
She could have sworn he blushed, but he said, “Saadia in the Bannered Mare. I helped her out of a bind, and I don’t know; one thing led to another after that.”
“Are you happy?”
“Aw, you know me; I’m always happy. But aye, I really like her. Are you happy?”
Selene shrugged. “Mostly. Except for this mission, I really am enjoying being a Stormcloak. I believe in what we’re fighting for.”
They talked for a while and shared a couple of bottles of mead, and it was as comfortable as it had always been. She had worried that things would be tense with him after what happened with Vilkas, but he had been right: Farkas didn’t hold a grudge. When it was time for him to leave, they exchanged hugs and kisses, and then he was gone.
She spent the day taking care of household issues that had cropped up while she was away, gossiping with Lydia, and trying to talk her housecarl into being somewhere else when the attack went down, but Lydia was adamant about protecting Breezehome. It wasn’t just Selene’s home; it was hers, and she would defend it to the death if need be. Selene understood, and she didn’t press the issue further. She said a prayer to the gods for Lydia and Breezehome and left for Windhelm the next morning.
* * *
Selene felt as though she were standing in a hole as she leaned against the map table in the Palace of the Kings’ war room with Ulfric and Galmar on either side of her. They towered over her, and though she wasn’t easily intimidated, being flanked by the two formidable men was disconcerting.
“Balgruuf has made his choice,” Galmar barked. “It is now time to act. We should march on Whiterun post haste. I’ve toured our camps, and we’re ready whenever you are.”
“Is any man ready to give an order that will mean the deaths of many?”
“Not every man is able to give that order when he must. But you are that man, Ulfric.”
“Are you sure they are ready? No doubt Balgruuf will bolster his army with legionnaires. And the walls of Whiterun are old, but they still stand.”
“I’m old, too. But if you give the word, I’ll kick them down myself.”
Ulfric laughed affectionately. “And I’m sure you could do it, old friend.” His good humor didn’t last, and he sighed. “I had hoped he would see reason.”
“I don’t think he considered your axe reasonable,” said Selene. The jarl looked up at her angrily, and Selene wondered if perhaps she should have kept her mouth shut. But she hadn’t, and she wasn’t going to stop now. “You said yourself that Balgruuf has a temper. While I don’t think his decision to side with the Empire was rash, I do believe he didn’t like his hand being forced.”
“And what of you? Do you think we should move on Whiterun?”
“I think I don’t know enough about military strategy to offer an opinion,” she hedged.
“That’s a coward’s excuse. You may not have the experience, but you are wise, and you see the world in a way others do not. I want to hear your thoughts on the matter.”
“Whiterun is my home,” she began, “and I don’t want to see it destroyed. But whether the challenge was reasonable or not, you made it, and he accepted it. If you don’t act, he might consider you the coward.”
“Fair enough. Very well, Galmar, spread the word. A new day is dawning, and the sun rises over Whiterun.”
“Right away!” He turned on his heel, and left the war room.
Ulfric peered down at Selene, who maintained a tight trip on the edge of the map table. She didn’t look back but stared at the table as if she were trying to bore a hole through it with her eyes.
“I don’t suppose you’ll want me to stay here,” she muttered.
“No, you belong on the front lines. It will be your task to make it to Dragonsreach and force Balgruuf’s surrender.”
She looked up at him then, scowling. “And what makes you think I can defeat him? What makes you think I can even get to him?”
“You won’t be alone; you’ll have support. As for Balgruuf, I’ve seen him fight, and Galmar has seen you fight. You’ll have no trouble with him, I assure you. Do not kill him unless he gives you no choice, but feel free to gut that dark elf housecarl of his.”
“Ulfric,” he interrupted with a coy smile.
Selene couldn’t help chuckling. “Ulfric. While I share your hatred of the Empire, I don’t share your hatred of the mer. Irileth is my friend, and I won’t be gutting her on this mission unless she leaves me no choice.”
“I’m not used to being told ‘no,’” he remarked.
She raised an eyebrow. “Even the most powerful of men should know rejection. It reminds you that you’re human. It also means your advisors know they don’t have to be afraid of you.”
“Most everyone is afraid of me.”
“Galmar isn’t. I’m not. The others shouldn’t be, either. I heard Galmar tell you once that the people should stand behind their king because they love him. I think they should also be able to trust him. Wouldn’t you rather be loved and trusted than feared?”
Ulfric’s eyes gleamed with admiration. “You’re an unusual woman, Selene.”
* * *
Knots formed in Selene’s stomach as she approached Whiterun. The city was already burning, and trebuchets on both sides were hurling flaming rocks, and the city was barely visible behind the curtain of smoke and ash. The troops were all whooping and hollering in the fervor of battle, but she couldn’t share their enthusiasm. With Galmar and Ralof at her side, she did what was necessary to make it through Whiterun without injury and fortunately without killing any of Whiterun’s guards. As they passed Jorrvaskr, she noticed that the mead hall was barricaded and all the lights were out. Whether it was by Vilkas’s decision or Vignar’s recommendation, the Companions were staying out of the fight altogether.
The guards inside the stronghold attacked when the trio walked into the room, and Ralof and Galmar cut them down without effort. Irileth came at Selene, brandishing her greatsword, but before she could engage the elf, Balgruuf stepped in.
“No!” he shouted at his housecarl. “I’ll not let my castle fall without defending it. Stand aside.”
Irileth stepped out of the way, and Balgruuf eyed Selene balefully. “I had thought better of you.”
“We both had choices to make, Jarl. I don’t want to do this.”
“It’s too late for that, don’t you think?” He raised his greatsword to attack, and Selene blocked with her shield and swung.
Ulfric was correct: she was a better fighter than Balgruuf by far. Maybe he was just rusty after spending so much time sitting on the throne, but he was no match for her. He only managed to connect once, while Selene hit him time and again. Once she realized he would be an easy defeat, she began to pull her strikes so as not to hurt him too badly. Although she wouldn’t stop the fight—he had to do that—she felt terrible, hacking on him like that. She began to worry that he wouldn’t surrender, that he would let her kill him.
When Balgruuf’s knees touched the floor, he finally raised a hand and said, “I surrender! It’s over. Irileth, tell the men to stand down.”
“Balgruuf!” Vignar’s voice rang through the hall before he could even get to his feet.
An argument ensued between Balgruuf and Vignar, who would take over as jarl. Selene had heard it a dozen times now. On one hand, the Empire provided much-needed resources to Skyrim; on the other, they were the Aldmeri Dominion’s puppets and had outlawed the worship of Talos, whom Vignar accused Balgruuf of secretly worshiping.
After a good five minutes of back and forth, Galmar interrupted. “Gentlemen, we have a burning city with no one in charge! It’s time to end this and get to the task of putting Whiterun back together. Men, take the jarl and his court into custody. Selene, get back to Windhelm and report to Ulfric. Take Ralof with you as an escort. Oh, and Ralof, I see a promotion in your future. Good work today.”
“Thank you, General,” Ralof said humbly.
After stopping at Breezehome to make sure Lydia was all right and there was no major damage, Selene and Ralof headed for Windhelm. One good thing about traveling with Ralof was that there were no uncomfortable silences. They talked all the way from Whiterun to Windhelm and never ran out of things to say. She didn’t know what it was about Ralof, but she felt perfectly at home with him, and though she didn’t tell him she was a werewolf, she found herself telling him many of her secrets. She kicked herself afterwards; no matter how much they had bonded, in truth she barely knew him. She did manage to keep the conversation away from the Whiterun campaign, although Ralof kept trying to bring up the subject.
As they sat by the fire the second night on the road, he tried again. “I can’t believe Galmar offered me a promotion! Whiterun was the first major campaign I’ve been in. They’ve all been smaller scuffles like the one in Korvunjund.”
“Aye, not too many big cities in Skyrim. But you weren’t just in the infantry. You had a special task, and you performed it admirably.”
“Must have been hard, attacking your home like that. I know you were glad the Companions stayed out of it.”
A wolf howled in the distance, and Selene turned her head toward the sound. “We’ll have to keep an eye out for predators. If you’re ready to get some sleep, I can take the first watch.” Ralof scoffed. “What?”
“Talking about it would help, you know.”
“What makes you think I need to talk about it?”
“Maybe I do.”
“You having a rough time?”
Ralof shrugged. “I killed a lot of good men yesterday. Just because they were the enemy didn’t mean they weren’t good men. They believe in their cause as much as I believe in mine. I can still see the faces of every one of them as they perished, and I know I’ll kill more in this war. They say it gets easier, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”
Selene placed a hand on his arm. “Only a monster kills without feeling, Ralof. I think it’s good that you’re still shocked by the violence. I was telling someone just a few days ago that we all have to do things we don’t want to do, and we do things we’re not proud of. I’m sorry to say it does get easier; but until they do, you have to be sure the guilt doesn’t overwhelm you, because you can’t afford to falter in battle. When it comes down to them or you—and it does—I choose you.”
“I’ll do what I must,” he assured her. “I’ve heard some things about Ulfric that I don’t like, but I do believe he’s right in his cause. I won’t falter.”
“No man as powerful as Ulfric is completely innocent. There are things about him I don’t like, either, but I’ve gotten to know him, and I believe he’s flawed but basically a good man.”
“All right, then, what about you?”
Selene chuckled. “Quid pro quo, eh? All right. Aye, it was hard for me. I like and respect Balgruuf, and fighting him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—well, emotionally, anyway. He really is a rotten fighter. But still. I am glad the Companions stayed out of it. I told you to fight if it came down to you or your opponent, but if I came up against one of the Companions, I’d lose because I couldn’t draw on them.” She sighed sadly. She missed them so, and the thought of losing one of them—especially Farkas or Vilkas—put knots into her stomach.
It was Ralof’s turn to lay a comforting hand on her arm. “I’ll take the first watch,” he said. “Go get some rest.”
Selene nodded. “I think I will.” She went into the tent and lay down on her bedroll, but as usual, sleep eluded her. When she did nod off, nightmares of burning shops and screaming soldiers plagued her dreams. And Balgruuf’s face as he surrendered.
* * *
When they arrived in Windhelm, Ralof went to the barracks and Selene went to see Ulfric. He was in the war room, sitting at a side table with a report and a tankard of mead. She stood at his side and waited until he looked up.
“It’s done,” she announced. “Balgruuf has surrendered, and Vignar has taken his place as Jarl.”
“This is good. Very good. We control the center now, and General Tullius will be hard pressed to take it back. I will call you Ice-Veins now because the thick blood of our land has seeped into your heart.”
“I don’t feel worthy of such a title.” She squeezed back the tears that threatened, but she was starting to fall apart and she couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry.”
“Talk to me, Selene,” he urged her softly.
“I feel like such a traitor!” she wailed. “Balgruuf had been good to me, and he looked so disappointed in me. But more, I watched friends die, businesses I supported burning, heard the screams of children I had played tag with…it’s the worst thing I ever did.” The tears finally streamed down her cheeks, and she wiped them away anxiously. “So much for Ice-Veins, huh?”
Ulfric reached up and caressed her cheek. “I mentioned that you’re an unusual woman, no? It is not wrong to weep for the fallen, Selene, and it does not make you weak. You’ve earned a rest. Take a few days and regain your strength. By then I’ll have orders for you. You’re still staying at Candlehearth Hall?”
“Aye,” she said, sniffling.
“I’ll arrange for a room for you here at the palace. Ten Septims a night can be steep, and I’m sure Elda will get tired of caring for your pet. Get your belongings and see Jorleif, and he will see that you and Liska—Liska?”
Selene nodded. “Liska.”
“He will see that you and Liska are set up here. Then have dinner with me tonight.”
“I’m not sleeping with you, Ulfric. Even if I am living under the same roof as you.”
Ulfric chuckled and stroked her cheek again. “Perhaps not tonight, but you will.”
Selene wanted to be angry at him for his arrogance, but as she left the palace and made her way to the inn, she had no doubt in her mind that he was right.