A courier came the next day with a satchel of intelligence reports. A couple of Ulfric’s other operatives had infiltrated Understone Keep in Markarth and one of the Imperial camps, and they had obtained loads of secret information. Selene’s job over the next fortnight was to cull through the pages, summarize, and figure out a way to use the data to their advantage. Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of useful information because most of the plans and schedules were out of date. After listening to an angry tirade from Ulfric about the speed—or lack thereof—of correspondence from The Reach, Selene found two items that were not time sensitive. Buried amid a long list of notes the spy had written about miscellaneous goings on in Understone Keep was a note questioning the loyalties of Raerek, the jarl’s steward. Though he was unfailingly loyal to Jarl Igmund, who was his nephew, there were hints that Raerek secretly worshiped Talos.
“This has the potential to provide us an asset in the jarl’s court,” she told Ulfric. “A hostile asset, but still.”
“You’re thinking of blackmailing the man?” asked the jarl, whom she had found sitting on his throne, staring off into space while working through some complicated scenario. He did that a lot, and Jorleif had told her he’d come up with some of his most brilliant ideas sitting there.
“You have to wonder how far he would go to keep a story like that from going public.”
Ulfric nodded absently, and Selene waited while he took time to process the information. Finally, he said, “You said you found two things we could use. What’s the other?”
“It’s an itinerary. A courier travels between Dragon Bridge and Rorikstead on a regular basis, passing orders back and forth to another courier. The schedule rarely changes.”
“A lone courier on a regular schedule? What idiot put that into place? Tullius is too smart for that.”
“Even the most skilled competitors make mistakes,” she smiled, throwing his own words back at him.
He returned the smile, and his green eyes sparkled. “Aye, they do.”
“Should I take care of both, then?”
“No, I’ll send another operative to take care of Raerek. You see to the courier; get your hands on his documents and work with the appropriate commanded to make a plan. Galmar is at our camp in Hjaalmarch, Ralof is in The Reach, and Hern is in Whiterun. I believe it’s safe to assume the orders will pertain to one of the three holds. If not, I trust your judgment. Figure out what to do on your own.”
“Understood. I’ll leave tonight.”
He reached out and took her hand. “Wait ’til morning,” he suggested.
“I thought we said we weren’t going to let our relationship get in the way of our duties.”
“My recommendation is not entirely selfish, I assure you. A heavy snow is coming in tonight, and travel will be safer after the storm passes. Can’t have my best operative getting lost in a blizzard, now, can I? And take a horse.”
Selene rolled her eyes. “Ulfric, we’ve been over this. I can’t hide with a horse. What if I have to ambush this courier? Can’t very well do that with a thousand-pound horse hanging around.”
“So you tell me.”
“Fine, no horse. Just make the best time you can.”
Selene spent the afternoon playing with Liska and preparing for her trip; and she spent the night with Ulfric, fire banked and extra furs on the bed, as they took shelter from the foul weather and kept each other warm. While she was by no means in love with the man, Selene was happy. They were amazing in bed together, and they filled each other’s nights with passion and ecstasy. He had a temper, and he had a tendency to speak in platitudes as though she were some random subject he could lull with what Selene liked to call “political bullshit.” She wasn’t afraid to call him down, however, and though such interactions resulted in a few arguments, but they normally got along very well. She enjoyed his company, and in addition to being lovers, they were friends and confidantes. She also had to admit it was exciting being the mistress of the most powerful man in Skyrim. They had created quite a buzz in Windhelm—the Jarl and the Dragonborn, a romance for the ages.
The next morning, Selene kissed Ulfric goodbye and left for Rorikstead. The Penitus Oculatus, the emperor’s espionage organization, had a post in Dragon Bridge, so she decided Rorikstead was a better base. She abandoned her Stormcloak cuirass and wore her wolf armor so as not to get any unwanted attention from the Imperials. With fresh snow covering the roads, going was slow and it took her five days to reach the hamlet. The best place to get information about a town was the local pub, so Selene made her way to the Frostfruit Inn.
“Greetings, traveler,” said the innkeeper when she set foot inside. “If you’re looking for food and a warm bed, we have both.”
Selene sat down at the bar. “I’ll take both, then. And some mead.”
“Long trip?” he asked as he drew a tankard of mead and set it before her.
“Aye, all the way from Eastmarch. There was a snowstorm, and it took a while.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Here, actually. I’m looking for a courier.”
The innkeeper furrowed his brow. “I’m not in the habit of revealing the whereabouts of my patrons.”
She leaned over the bar and gave him a soulful look, setting her lips in a coquettish pout. Flirting couldn’t hurt. “Is there any way I can convince you to tell me where I can find him? It’s very important. His life is in danger.”
He looked Selene over, and she batted her eyes at him. “Well, if he’s in danger, that makes all the difference. We see him every other day, usually around midday. He should be here at noon tomorrow if you’d like to stay and wait for him.”
“I think I’ll do that. Thank you. Now, how about some dinner? What do you have that’s good?”
She sat with the innkeeper, who said his name was Mralki, for a few hours, chatting about the war, which Selene said she knew very little about. He noticed the wolf armor and asked if she was a Companion.
“My son Erik has mentioned becoming a Companion. He wants to be an adventurer, but how can I let him go out in the world? He’s lived here all his life. Perhaps I shelter him too much, but what kind of father doesn’t want to protect his son?”
Selene thought of Jergen and how he left Farkas and Vilkas to go to war and never came back. What kind of father indeed. “But he’s a grown man, isn’t he? He should be allowed to make his own decisions.”
“I understand; I do. But even so, he can’t be an adventurer without armor, and I can’t afford to pay for armor for the boy.”
Her heart went out to the man. It was obvious that he wanted the best for his son; he just didn’t know how to give it to him. “What if I could help?” She reached into her coin purse and counted out one hundred Septims. “This should be enough to get him some basic armor. Get him outfitted and then send him to Whiterun. I’ll write a letter to the Harbinger of the Companions asking him to train Erik.”
“You would…do that for us?”
Selene laughed. “At one time, I’d have said, ‘Sorry about your luck.’ I think I’m getting soft in my old age.”
The next morning, she thanked Mralki for his hospitality and went to meet the courier. She camped atop a large rock a few miles out of town and watched the north road, arrow nocked and ready for the Imperial. It was a clear day and low winds were out of the south, so getting off a good shot shouldn’t be a problem. She would have to make the one shot count, though, because if she missed, she wouldn’t have time to reset and would have to wait until he headed north again—unless, of course, he detected her and attacked, which would be fine, too. Whatever worked.
As the sun reached its peak, the soldier came running up the road, and she took aim. She held her breath and tracked him as he moved closer, her eyes peeled for inconsistencies in his movement. But he ran straight and true, and as he neared her, she pulled the bow up short and aimed just in front of him. The arrow hit him in the shin, and he dropped to the ground with a cry of pain and frustration. Selene drew her sword and climbed down from the rock.
The courier broke the arrow off and struggled to his feet, drawing his sword. He limped toward her, brandishing the weapon. “You’ve just made your last mistake, bandit.”
He swung at Selene, but she struck his blade with hers, slapping it out of the way. They traded blows for a few minutes, both taking minor cuts; but the soldier had been running all day and was fighting with an arrow in his leg, so it was easy to wear him down. He grunted and groaned with the exertion, his stamina running out quickly. Selene bided her time, waiting for him to falter. He finally did, turning his head unconsciously to cough, and Selene took advantage and sliced deep into his torso. The courier fell dead, and she took hold of his feet and dragged him off the road.
When she was safely hidden, she took his satchel and examined the contents. The courier traveled light and carried only some food, a bottle of mead, some first aid supplies, and a leather pouch with the Imperial insignia emblazoned on it. Inside the pouch was a letter from General Tullius to Legate Taurinus Duilis in Morthal. Evidently, the legate had asked for reinforcements at Fort Snowhawk, but Tullius had denied his request. Intelligence indicated that the Stormcloaks were moving toward other installations and Snowhawk didn’t need reinforcements at this time.
“Hjaalmarch it is,” Selene whispered to herself. On impulse, she stripped the courier naked and stuffed as much of his armor as she could into her knapsack and the rest into his, along with his coin purse, the first aid gear, and the Imperial pouch. Then she headed for Galmar’s camp.
“Let’s see what you got,” the general requested when she arrived at the camp late that evening. “Hmm, this is not good. They know more of our plans than I thought. We’ll need to make some changes. However, knowing what they know evens the odds a bit.”
“I figured we could forge a letter I could take to Legate Duilis in Morthal. I swiped the courier’s uniform, and it actually fits. Those Imperials really aren’t known for their stature.”
He looked up at her incredulously. “You took his uniform?”
“He thought I was a bandit. What better way to prove him right than take everything he had and leave him naked on the side of the highway?”
Galmar chuckled. “Clever girl. All right, let’s see what we can do.” He sat down with a quill and a piece of parchment and composed a letter for Selene to take to the legate. “This should give them the wrong idea and us the advantage. Get some food and rest before you go, and for Talos’ sake, take a horse. The sooner we get that letter into Duilis’s hands, the better. Report back here when you’re done.”
Morthal was just a two-hour ride from the camp, and Selene found Legate Duilis in Highmoon Hall, the jarl’s longhouse. He was standing before a map in a room just off the great hall, studying the red and blue banners as if he’d never seen them before. He looked Selene up and down critically. “Where’s Sven?”
“New orders, sir. I believe he’s headed for Solitude.”
The legate nodded with satisfaction. “Good for him. He’s a good man. What do you have for me?” Selene handed him the pouch, and he opened it and read the letter, then smiled.
“Good news, sir?”
“Aye. Reinforcements are on the way, and we have some intel on enemy troop movements. What’s your name, soldier?”
“I’m Helga,” she lied.
“We don’t have enough women in the legion. Glad to see you’re up to the challenge.” He reached into his coin purse and pulled out a gold coin, which he tossed to her. “Go have a drink at the Moorside before you head back.”
Selene was happy to spend the legate’s coin before heading back to Galmar, who was very pleased. “Ulfric thinks you can do no wrong, and I’m starting to believe it as well. I’m glad he was right about you. Get back to Windhelm; give Ulfric a full report. We’ll pay Fort Snowhawk a visit.”
It was getting late, so Selene stayed the night at camp and set out the next morning. She headed east out of Hjaalmarch and into The Pale, where she would pick up the road south just after lunchtime. The morning sun glinting off the snow-covered hills hurt her eyes and blurred her vision. She didn’t like to wear a helmet, but this morning she wished she had one to cut down on the glare.
With her eyes strained as they were, she didn’t see the sabre cat until it was right on top of her. She didn’t have time to shoot at it, so she dropped her bow and drew her sword as quickly as possible, but it got to her first and swiped at her midsection. There was no pain, so she figured the cat had missed. He set his back legs so he could claw at her with his front paw, and Selene took the opportunity to swing at him, managing to take one of his feet clean off. The cat roared and rolled to the ground, swiping and snapping in a panic, and Selene lunged at him, burying the blade deep into his abdomen. He died with a groan, and she removed the sword and wiped the blood on his fur before moving on.
She didn’t get far before the pain started. She touched her belly, and her hand came away covered with blood. “Well, shit,” she muttered. The sabre cat’s razor-sharp claw had managed to slash through the wolf hide at the bottom of her breast plate, and she probably didn’t feel it because the cut was so precise. It must have been pretty deep, because she was trailing a lot of blood. Fortunately, she had passed a cave not too far back where she could go to stitch herself up and take a healing potion.
Selene found the cave and settled in. She took her armor off and swooned at the sight of one of the worst wounds she’d ever had. It was six inches long and cut all the way to her rib. She had seen many bodies torn up worse than this in her life, but this was different; it was hers.
“Sweet Kynareth,” she gasped. “Okay, keep your head together. Healing potion, needle and catgut. Farkas, I could really use you right now. You’re so good at sewing people up.” She tried to hold the incision together with one hand while she dug in her pack for first aid supplies, but the blood still flowed. She found a potion, pulled the cork with her teeth and drank it in one long swallow, then found her needle and a role of catgut and went about stitching the wound. She was dizzy, not surprising after the amount of blood she had lost, but she persisted until it was fully closed and she tied the string off. She counted twenty stitches.
After wrapping a bandage around her midsection and putting on a tunic she had packed, Selene drank another healing potion, laid out her bedroll, and climbed inside. She would be weak from the blood loss, so she should probably rest up for a day or two. It was noon when she closed her eyes, planning to doze for a bit and then get up to build a fire.
* * *
It was cold, and she shivered. She curled into a ball and snuggled farther down into her bedroll. She was going to have to get up and build a fire soon. Just as soon as the pain subsided. That potion should kick in anytime now.
* * *
She lay curled up in her bedroll, chills running down her spine and pain wracking her abdomen. The healing potion should have started working by now. Shouldn’t it? It had been an hour or so since she had taken it. Maybe she should drink another one. But her knapsack was too far away, and she didn’t have the energy to go get it. She really needed to get up and build a fire. Soon.
* * *
She opened her eyes to see the sabre cat sitting across the cave, staring at her. He held the stub of his severed leg up to show her. “Why did you have to do this?” he asked in Vilkas’s voice. “If you hadn’t cut off my paw, I would have won the fight and eaten you.”
“That’s why I had to do it,” she mumbled.
“It wasn’t much of a fight, though, was it? Feral hunter, you should have shifted to your beast form so we could have a proper battle.”
“Beast form. Good idea. But later. I’m tired now.”
“I’ll just wait right here.”
* * *
Sometime later in the day
The pain had spread throughout her entire body, and she felt like she was going to throw up. She dragged herself to her hands and knees and crawled to the other side of the cave, but although she retched, nothing came out. Dry heaves. Lots o’ fun there. She started to crawl back to her bedroll, but it was too far. She just lay down where she was.
* * *
Fifty years later
Nah. It wasn’t that long, was it? It just felt like fifty years. She should have built that fire ages ago.
The sabre cat was there again. He picked her up and carried her back to her bedroll. “You’ll be more comfortable over here, don’t you think?” he said. “Now, you lie still while I check out this wound.”
“What? Are you going to cut into me again? Finish the job?”
“I’m not here to hurt you; I’m trying to help you.”
The sabre cat pressed gently on the wound, and pain rocketed through her body. She screamed and lashed out at the beast with a fist, but he caught her arm and said, “I know it hurts, but I have to look at it to see what I need to do.”
She realized the sabre cat didn’t have paws at all but hands, and he had both of them. The image of the snarling animal faded and coalesced into that of a man. He was handsome, with brown hair and pale, gray eyes. “You’re not a sabre cat,” she mumbled.
“You’re right; I’m not. Now, be still.” He didn’t touch the slash again, but he examined it closely. “Hmm. It doesn’t look good. You have some infection.”
“I’m immune to disease.”
“You’re pretty,” she mused. “Not as pretty as Farkas, but still.”
“Can you sit up?”
Selene tried, but she couldn’t manage it on her own, so he lifted her head onto his lap. “Here, drink this,” he instructed. He held a bottle to her lips and poured bitter liquid in her mouth.
She coughed and sputtered at first, but she finally managed to take a few swallows. “What was that?” she asked.
“A potion of cure disease.”
“I’m immune to disease.”
He chuckled. “Very well, whatever you say. Listen to me. I’m going to give you something else to help you sleep, and I’ll redo your stitches. Whoever put them in didn’t do a very good job.”
“I was woozy. You’re pretty.”
He reached for another bottle and raised it to her lips. She drank, and after only a couple of minutes her eyelids started to feel heavy. It was nice to rest. As a werewolf, she didn’t get to…
* * *
Selene opened her eyes to find herself drenched in sweat, but her mind was clear and the pain in her side was better. The man sat close by, watching her sleep. He was wearing the uniform of an Imperial soldier, and Selene’s first instinct was to get up and fight, but she was too weak.
“You’re awake,” he observed. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to.”
The words sounded familiar. Hadn’t Ralof said that to her once? “How long was I out?”
“About a day and a half. You had a bad infection and a high fever.”
“Did you resew my stitches?”
“Aye. I’m assuming you did it yourself the first time.”
“Didn’t do such a good job, eh?”
He chuckled. “Not so much. I know a little healing magic as well, but I don’t know how much it helped. How do you feel?”
“Weak but better. Hungry.”
“That’s a good sign. I’ve got some stew in the kettle.” He went to the fire and served up a bowl of piping-hot venison stew, then propped her up against his knapsack and fed her, being sure to blow on each spoonful so as not to burn her mouth. “I’m Hadvar,” he told her. “What’s your name?”
“Selene? I thought you looked—were you at Helgen when the dragon attacked?”
“I was—hey, you were the one who helped me get through Helgen!”
“Aye, before Ralof—” He stopped and grimaced.
“Seems I remember you saying you hoped we both went to Oblivion.”
“We say a lot of things in the heat of the moment. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Even Ralof.”
“He said you used to be friends.”
“The best. We grew up in Riverwood together.” He chuckled as he fed her a spoonful of stew. “Caused no end of heartache for our parents. One time when we were around ten, we painted a farmer’s cow with green spots. Our fathers beat us black and blue for that, but it was worth it. We played ‘war’ a lot. Both of us wanted to be soldiers when we grew up, and I guess we got our wish.”
“I bet you didn’t think you’d be fighting on opposite sides.”
“No, we surely didn’t.”
“There are a pair of men in my hometown who have the same problem. They were like brothers, but they chose opposite sides in the civil war. One of them has vowed to kill the other. Makes me sad.”
“I hope I never come up against Ralof. I don’t know if I could kill him. Seeing him bound for the block was…it was hard.”
“But you taunted him. I remember.”
“I shouldn’t have. What do you do? By your armor, I’d guess you’re a Companion. You also talked in your sleep and mentioned Farkas and Vilkas.”
“You know them?”
“Are you kidding? The Companions are known far and wide.”
“Did I mention anybody else?”
“Somebody named Ben and Liska. Nobody else, though.”
Selene couldn’t tell if he was lying, but she had trouble believing she hadn’t mentioned Ulfric. She certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. Thus, she changed the subject. “How’d you find me?”
“I was on my way to Dawnstar and saw the trail of blood leading to the cave. I found you curled up in a corner, feverish and delirious. Recognized you right away; I just couldn’t place where I knew you from. So what attacked you? Bear? Sabre cat?”
“Sabre cat. I remember thinking you were him for a while.”
Hadvar chuckled. “I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, but that’s a new one.”
“Hadvar, I can’t thank you enough for taking care of me. If I can ever make it up to you, I will.”
“Just take care of yourself. That’s payment enough.”
Selene convalesced for a week before Hadvar took her stitches out. In that time, she never told him she was a Stormcloak, just let him believe she was merely a Companion. They talked about combat and their families, and she told him about the death of her parents, Honorhall, her teen years with Ben, and the fateful night that put her on the path to return to Skyrim.
“Shor’s beard,” he muttered. “Surely don’t think all Imperials are like that. I’m not like that.”
“Every interaction I’ve ever had with Imperial soldiers, save this one, has been the same.”
“But a few bad Imperial soldiers do not define the Empire.”
“Then what does?”
“The Empire takes care of its people, assists them with coin and provisions. It protects them from the oppression of the Aldmeri Dominion.”
“How do you figure?” Selene challenged him. “It seems to me the signing of the White-Gold Concordat made us all subject to their oppression.”
“No, it protected us. We might all be dead or enslaved if not for that treaty. Besides, there are ways around everything; I’d wager you know that. Just because we are loyal to the Emperor does not mean we’re loyal to the Dominion. We just make sacrifices so as not to be overrun by them.”
“Like abandoning Talos?”
Hadvar leveled a glare at her. “Many of us secretly worship Talos.”
“Aye, I do,” he confessed. “I just do it quietly. But the rebellion doesn’t see all that. They see the Empire as oppressors, bugs that must be squashed.”
“You don’t see the Stormcloaks that way?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps we do. Traitors and scoundrels that must be put down. But cut off the head of a snake and the rest will founder. Someday General Tullius will take Ulfric Stormcloak’s head, and this will all be over.”
A sinking feeling spread throughout Selene’s body when she thought of someone killing Ulfric. Yes, the notion that the rebellion would die was upsetting, but the thought of the man dying chilled her to the core.
“Are you all right?” Hadvar inquired. “All the color just left your face.”
“I admire Ulfric very much, and I don’t like the thought of him killed,” she admitted. “And frankly, I don’t like the thought of you as an enemy.”
“You and I are not enemies, Selene.”
When the stitches came out, Harvar urged her to stay another couple of days and continue to gain strength. Selene told him she would, but she secretly planned to leave that night. As soon as she was sure he was asleep, she silently donned her wolf armor and packed her knapsack. She looked through his pack and found an Imperial pouch containing a letter for Idgrod Ravencrone, Jarl of The Pale. Apparently, she was going to have an important guest at the end of the month. Hadvar had some clean parchment in his pack, and she quickly jotted down all the pertinent information in the letter and stuffed it back in the pouch. Then she wrote him a note.
I don’t know how to thank you for all you’ve done for me. You’ve saved my life twice now, and I’ll not soon forget it. But I can’t burden you anymore. You have places you need to be, so I’ll take my leave. Take care of yourself, and know this: if someday, for some reason, we are ever at odds, I will not draw on you. I owe you my life, and I won’t take yours.
She folded the note and placed it beside his bedroll, then slipped out of the cave and made her way back to Windhelm.