continued from: lesliewifeofbath.deviantart.co…
The snow crunched lightly under her feet as sunset melded slowly into the night. The golden-pink sky swirled and danced with the soft green glow of the northern lights. Through the dense, snow-covered pines Marceline could see the tall walls of Windhelm. It had been a night like this when she had last engaged the mighty Ulfric that defied an empire, and he had utterly ignored her. Marceline hoped that this meeting with the jarl would accomplish more than their previous encounter had. That night she had walked away empty-handed; tonight would be different—it had to be.
Lost in thought Marceline startled as Dres placed his hand on her shoulder. “Do you remember the last time you were here?”
“I was just thinking of that,” she replied absentmindedly, as the group of companions approached the bridge that would lead them into Windhelm. There were only five of them now, as Vilkas and his ghostly silent twin Farkas had gone to send word to Balgruuf that the negotiations with Tullius and Elisif were a success. Never before had Marceline been so pleased to see the back of a man as she was when Vilkas left. While she knew the others regarded her in varying degrees, Vilkas hardly bothered to mask his contempt of her person and of the mission. She was glad he was gone; she had enough to worry about.
She turned to her old friend who was waiting for her to finish her thought. “Of course, I remember, Dres. That night I made a pact with a drunken, albeit brilliant, fetcher.”
“Aye, and I made a pact with Mephala, herself,” Dres laughed, as he scratched his chin. “I think while you’re petitioning his lordship, I’ll slip off to the Cornerclub and check up on old Ambrys. I wonder how everyone else is doing, it’s been so long. Think I’ll drag the rest of the group with me, so they can see how the other half lives.”
He studied her for a moment as she brushed the snow off her face. “Are you going directly to him?”
“No, Dres, I think I’ll rest up tonight and meet with Ulfric on the morrow, provided he grants me an audience. Aela will go there tonight and let him know I’m here. She’s met him before, and from what I gathered it would seem that the jarl respects her.”
“Not going to try and scrub her up?”
Marceline laughed, “No, no I don’t think I could convince her to do it—also, she might punch me if I tried. Besides,” Marceline commented as she looked back at Aela, “I’m pretty sure those tattoos aren’t easily removed.”
The small band of travelers fell into a weary silence as snow fell faster and mixed with smoke coming from the bonfires inside the gates. A distinct feeling of heaviness consumed each member as they crossed the long bridge that spanned a half-frozen river.
“Well, we’re here,” Dres said almost gaily as the passed through the large iron gates of Windhelm. "By gods, nothing’s changed has it?”
“Dingy as ever,” Aela quipped, noting crumbling buildings and refuse littering the streets.
“It’s certainly not Solitude,” Ria added, as her eyes scanned the gray, soot-covered buildings.
“Solitude’s a scrubbed-up strumpet,” Athis snapped, as he shot a killing look to Aela. While he knew Windhelm certainly wasn’t some picturesque hamlet, Athis had always considered this place his home. “Windy’s the way she is because she doesn’t suck at the Empire’s teat. She bows to no one.”
“Trade’s also slow and there’s little work,” Dres added grimly. “People are more concerned about the war and keeping their own fed—town beautification is not a high priority. But what we lack in looks, we more than make up for in character. Come on, Ria you’ll love the Cornerclub—provided Ambrys is in a mood put up with you.”
He then turned back to Marceline. “Sure I can’t convince you to join us then?” Dres asked hopefully.
“No,” Marceline said simply. “I just need to get some rest tonight, but do have a flin for me.”
“I’ll have several,” Dres said mischievously, motioning to the rest of the group as they departed for the Gray Quarter. Athis cracked a rare smile as Ria sped up to join to the two.
Marceline glanced over to Aela, who wordlessly nodded back at her and then turned toward the Palace of Kings. In the blink of an eye, she melted away into the heavy snowfall.
Marceline continued on until she reached the cracked stairs that led to Windhelm’s premier inn. The Candlehearth’s well-kept exterior—barring the stairs— was a direct contrast to the most of the city’s dreary façade. She was bone tired and had been since the beginning of this ordeal, but tonight, tonight she felt utterly exhausted. She wanted time to rest…and to cry. She needed to gather her strength before meeting with Windhelm’s mighty jarl. Fortunately, the Candlehearth had plenty of rooms.
Marceline followed Elda Early-Dawn, the innkeeper, into a cheerfully lit room with a bed, chair and table. As soon as Elda departed, Marceline sank into the down-filled mattress. We’re not much different, this city and I, she thought as she removed her travel-stained boots. As Marceline carefully stripped off the rest of her armor, a pang shot through her heart as she remembered her husband. This was something Ondolemar had always done for her when they travelled. She thought of his long fingers and warm breath against her skin. Suddenly a tear fell and then another as she cradled her aching chest. Before tonight there had been no rest, no time to dwell on where he was or what he was possibly going through—despair being a luxury for people with time on their hands.
In her heart, she knew he was still alive; and sometimes, faintly, she knew he called out for her. Standing up, Marceline peered into the small mirror on the wall. Her breasts were fuller and sore. Softly, her fingers trailed a line where her husband’s lips had touched. In the mirror she saw a slight swell in her belly—
“How far gone are you?” asked a voice coming from behind. Marceline turned to see Aela standing in the doorway. She had not heard her enter.
“Two months, maybe less—though I’m not sure as I’ve never been…with child,” Marceline said as her voice cracked into a whisper. “I didn’t hear you come in. That’s twice you’ve startled me.”
Aela shrugged. “It’s what I do.” She then sat down on the chair beside the bed. Taking an apple from the tray she studied Marceline; with the dark circles under her eyes and worried expression, Aela thought the Dragonborn looked vulnerable, almost human. “Ulfric will see you tomorrow, mid-morning. I’ll accompany you.”
For a time they sat in silence. Marceline could feel herself drifting into sleep as she burrowed down into the deeply feathered mattress and layers of covers. “The others are at the New Gnisis Cornerclub, if you’d like to join them.”
“No, I’ll stay here with you,” Aela insisted as she spread the thin bedroll on the floor. “I think you could use the company.”
“Thank you, Aela,” Marceline answered wearily before dozing off into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
In the morning Marceline rose refreshed, almost hopeful. Sitting up, she observed that her overnight companion had left, but her travel case been carried into the room and placed on the floor close to her bed. As she started to lift the lid of the trunk she heard the door open. Aela came in carrying a tray with some breads and steaming tea. The scent of honeyed butter and berry jam was almost overpowering; Marceline’s stomach growled in anticipation.
“I thought we could eat in here,” the huntress said quietly. “Taverns are so dreary in the morning; they smell of old mead and…”
“And regret,” Marceline added, finishing Aela’s thought as she took the tray and placed it on the small stand between the chair and the bed. They ate in near silence; Marceline was surprised by her own appetite.
Buttering the last piece of bread, Aela turned to Marceline, and reached for the Dragonborn’s porcelain skin, wiping a bit of jam from the corner of her lips. “A bit of jam,” she muttered.
“Thank you,” Marceline said, looking Aela directly in the eyes. The air of discord between the two women seemed to disperse. Aela’s eyes appeared softer and the glare of contempt was replaced by something else entirely.
“I wanted to despise you,” Aela said softly, staring at the floor.
“I had seen you before in Whiterun, with Balgruuf. You always appeared so arrogant—so sure of yourself. Everything came so easily to you. You didn’t have to fight,” she said as her voice trailed. “I hated you for rejecting him.”
Aela’s eyes shot up quickly from the floor as she gulped and nodded; from the look in Aela’s eyes, Marceline knew it was the latter. “On the day that they took your husband, Dres pleaded with guild to help you, and then Balgruuf hired us on for this job. I didn’t understand it—all this trouble for a courtesan. At first I thought it was your beauty, but then I saw the pain in your eyes over that damned Thalmor. Then I saw you take down that dragon, and last night I saw the way that you cried, and I realized that this wasn’t an act or a scheme. I finally understood why Dres fights for you—why he loves you.”
Marceline set down her cup. “I wish I could have loved him back, Aela, or at least loved him in the way that he loves me. Sometimes I even think that about Balgruuf too, though he is insufferable; it just would have been so easy. None of this would have happened and none of it would have mattered.”
“And the dragons would have continued to swoop down from the heavens, picking off their prey.”
“And it would have been idle chat with the local bard on market day, or at worst, I would have had to smooth Balgruuf’s worried brow and tell him that it would all be fine, like a mother soothes a fretful child. It wouldn’t have mattered to me in the least. Somehow it does now. Despite all this misery and horror I’ve witnessed, I still see a future. I didn’t before. I never thought about it, and lived entirely in the moment and for myself.”
“So it was love that changed you?” Aela asked curiously as she set down her plate.
“I’d say it was the catalyst, but there’s more to it than that. It was watching the sacrifice my husband made—not just for me but because he knew it was the right thing to do. He willingly handed over his life, because he believed in what we were fighting for. Aela, despite all that has happened; I still hold out hope for us, with happy endings and children and a warm bed to lie in, and despite all the improbability of it happening, that future with my husband and child is the only thing I think about. It is what keeps me strong, and what keeps me alive.”
“Then we must see that it happens,” Aela stated plainly as if saying that would make it so. Clearing away the tray, she looked over at the open trunk. “So how will you present yourself, Dragonborn? Will you play the warrior or maiden?”
An amused smiled traced Marceline’s lips as she reached into the trunk. “Ulfric and I met once before; I wore brocades and satins and played the part of the courtesan—he was not impressed. He is not a trifling person, so I will strive not be or appear trifling.”
“Your armor?” Aela suggested. “He respects simplicity and honesty.”
Marceline touched her still-full stomach and grimaced at the ebony armor delicately placed by the bed. Though the armor was sheer and lighter than most, it still was ebony, and being armor it still was constricting. She wanted to move effortlessly and to be entirely focused on the task at hand—not distracted by pinched belly. She sifted through the soft silks and bright brocades, before she pulled out a simple woven dress. “This will do quite nicely,” she murmured while slipping on a peasant’s couture.
“Are you ready, Marceline?” Aela asked. “We don’t want to keep the jarl waiting.”
“Just one other thing, Aela,” Marceline said grabbing a key hidden in the breastplate of her armor. She opened the false bottom to the trunk and pulled out a large red book. Placing the book in a satchel she turned to Aela brightly. “Let’s go.”
“What is that?” Aela puzzled, motioning to the pouch.
Walking out of the Candlehearth’s warm inn, Marceline and Aela were greeted by a clear blue sky. The sun’s bright rays bounced off the fallen snow that lined the streets, carpeting the dirt and soot that covered the ancient keep, making all look clean and new.
The Palace of King’s courtyard was also white-washed of rubbish and almost appeared like a respectable keep. The palace itself was foreboding, yet there was beautiful in its symmetry; there was a balance and a feeling of the divine that emanated from those gray walls that, for all its grace and beauty, the Blue Palace utterly lacked. The great hall was brightly lit and cheerful, with teal and gold tapestries hung throughout. At the end of the long hall, Marceline saw him; Ulfric was speaking to his housecarl Galmar about Whiterun, though stopped abruptly when the page announced her arrival.
Both Aela and Marceline approached the jarl, who sat up in his throne. The expressionless features and icy glare gave no indication of how he might respond Marceline’s request. “Aela the Huntress, you are dismissed,” he stated coldly. “I wish to speak to the thane alone—that goes for you, too old friend,” he said motioning to his housecarl.
“But sire,” Galmar gnashed petulantly.
“No, the Dragonborn and I must speak alone.”
“As you wish,” Aela replied as she walked toward the immense doors of the hall.
Ulfric was silent as he and Marceline watched his men and other courtiers hesitantly stream out of the main hall. Finally, as the last of the guards dispersed he leaned forward on this throne and spoke. “It has been some time since last we spoke, Dragonborn.”
“It has indeed,” Marceline answered stiffly.
“The last time I saw you, you were bedecked in finery rivaling that of a queen and flirted with me like a tavern whore,” the jarl said smugly, resting his chin on his hands. “It got you nowhere.”
Marceline laughed bitterly at the memory. “No, no it didn’t, Ulfric. It got me absolutely nowhere, but then you’re a different man than Balgruuf.”
“I am indeed. I am also an impatient man—”
“Tell me, Ulfric,” she said quickly as her eyes bore into his. “Do you remember the first time we met?”
“Of course I do. How could I forget the day Alduin swooped down from the heavens to save all our necks—and to take some for his own? I remember you were trussed up like a winter fowl and wore a torn smock unfit for lowest serving girl. You said nothing and yet your eyes communicated a steely resolve. I liked you better then, I think,” he added. “You seemed to possess a soul.”
“You are mistaken, Ulfric. The young fowl with you in the cart was the same bird in your hall that night some months later, just with different dressing.”
“And what are you now?”
“Dragonborn,” she answered simply.
“That changes nothing,” Ulfric uttered as his eyes held Marceline’s fierce gaze. “What are you doing here, courtesan?”
“I think you know,” Marceline said softly, as her lips curled into a delicate smile. “All the keeps possess ears.”
“Yes, my sources have told me your purpose,” he said as he shifted slightly on his throne. “Still, I am surprised to see you.”
“Pleasantly?” Marceline asked as she cocked her head to the side.
“That depends entirely on what you have to say.”
She nodded slightly and took a deep breath, preparing to give her speech. “As you’re quite aware, dragons are preying on the people of Skyrim. Your people are depending—”
“Spare me the sanctimony, Dragonborn,” he snapped, rising from his throne. “I already know that you want to meet at High Hrothgar for a truce of some sort. That you want me to negotiate with the Imperial faction for use of that coward’s keep.”
Deflated, she shrugged. “Yes, that is the sum of it.”
“And from what I’ve heard, Tullius has agreed.”
“As has Elisif,” Marceline quietly added.
“Humph, that hardly matters; she has no voice.”
“I think you greatly underestimate the jarl,” Marceline countered, remembering fierce determination in Elisif’s eyes. “I did before speaking to her.”
“It doesn’t matter. Elisif is tool for those Imperial bastards and their Thalmor counterparts. Speaking of which, I have heard, thane, that the Thalmor have taken something of yours; something rather precious. I have heard that they own you.”
Marceline’s chest heaved slightly as she took in a deep breath, trying to come up with a believable lie. As she faced his steely gaze, she knew her only recourse was the truth. “It is true—Elenwen has taken something precious, something beloved. But would you not agree…we are all owned, Ulfric?”
He thought for a moment to strike her, but he had heard the tales that followed in her wake. “Be that as it may Dragonborn, you are held hostage by vile creatures and will act in their interest.”
“That’s not true—not entirely.”
“I have something for you,” Marceline said as she opened her satchel. “Something that was taken from you ages ago. Something that your detractors would find quite enticing.”
“Now I’m intrigued,” he said amused.
Marceline reached in and pulled out a large, red, bound book. Marceline held the book in her hands. Ulfric froze as he saw the writing on the cover.
“This could have bought my husband’s freedom,” she said softly, before handing the book over to the jarl.
Gently, he took the bound dossier out of her hands. They were silent for a time as he skimmed over the book’s content. Twice she saw him grimace before closing it tightly. “You will use it as leverage; you bloody mer—to blackmail my appearance at this treaty!”
“No!” Marceline shouted as her eyes flashed hotly. “I will give it you now as a leap of faith, Ulfric Stormcloak. Faith that you will see reason and be the man who was meant to lead a people!”
He said nothing for a time as he stared into the hearth’s fire. Finally he spoke. “How did you come across this, courtesan?”
“I ransacked Elewen’s Solar. It was written in her hand, and I knew it to be valuable.”
“Then you’ve read it?” he asked, his voice scarcely masking his terror.
“Of course I did,” she uttered softly. Marceline saw the jarl’s eyes flash in desperation. She knew that he was contemplating her demise. “Do not attempt that, Ulfric,” she advised calmly. “Where as you can Shout down a man, I can Shout down a dragon. We both know who has the upper hand here.”
Ulfric turned away from Marceline, as he held the book tightly against his breast. Suddenly he dropped to his knees and shouted—not the kind of shout that brings down a beast, but kind that springs from the depths of a tormented man’s aching soul.
The deafening sound from this shout sent his guards and Galmar rushing forth. “Leave us!” Ulfric roared before tearing the dossier asunder and committing the damning pages to the flames. The jarl and the courtesan watched in silence as the book served as kindling for the two heated pillars beside his throne.
Finally, as the last pages turned to ash, Ulfric turned to Marceline, his steel-blue eyes both red and glassy. “We will leave on the morrow for High Hrothgar—be ready. Now kindly remove yourself from my sight.”
From the crowded stables of Ivarstead, Marceline saw him. She watched as a small group of mages led Ondolemar into a small, covered carriage that was surrounded by a contingent of well-armed Thalmor soldiers. He looked up and for the first time since they had parted in Whiterun, Ondolemar and Marceline’s eyes met. This time she knew, without a doubt that it was him, her beloved. He held her gaze for what felt like an eternity before eternity was shattered by a gruff voice and brutal shove from his captors forcing him back into the coach. The guards peered at Marceline and her band of Companions; in second’s time the entire core altered their stance, ready to do battle.
As Marceline stared blankly at the carriage, barraged by a thousand racing thoughts she felt her lips moving as she tried to formulate a plan. She jumped as she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“There’s too many of them, Marcy,” Dres said in a hushed voice. “Besides, the one you want to speak to has already started up the stairs.”
“Then we should go too,” she said as she and her companions—now down to Aela and Dres as Athis and Ria had departed from Windhelm after Ulfric’s ascent to participate in the negotiations— began their climb up the Seven Thousand Steps. Marceline had always hated the climb and this time the journey was far more difficult. By the time she reached the summit, she was thoroughly out of breath. She sat down on a rock overlooking the cliff.
“Bloody monks and their feckin monasteries,” Dres moaned as he plopped down beside her.
“Yeah, a pox on them and their need for repose,” Aela giggled as she sat down beside him. They all sat in silence until Marceline groaned heavily.
“Bloody hell,” she muttered.
“What?” Dres asked, before observing the pair of Blades approaching them. “Oh.”
“Dragonborn, it’s been sometime since we’ve seen you,” Delphine said.
Marceline nodded to her, before turning to Delphine’s ever-present companion. “It’s good to see you Esbern. How may I help you?”
“This is a private matter and we’d like to have a word alone,” Esbern stated nervously.
“Esbern, I am exhausted and I need to rest before all this begins. And with all due respect, anything you say to me can be said to them.”
“Fine, have it your way Dragonborn,” Delphine grunted. “We have discovered that the Greybeards are harboring a dragon.”
“No shit, Delphine. He’s their feckin' leader. What of it?” Marceline shrugged.
“What of it?” Delphine hissed. “How could you possibly ask that? He’s a dragon, he’s killed--”
“He’s killed no one in hundreds of years and he’s been a great help to me.”
“He needs to die. He deserves to die—he’s one of them!” Delphine shouted. “And it falls to you to kill him—”
“Stop,” Marceline snapped. “Just stop right there. Delphine, I’d see you impaled upon those jagged cliffs below before I’d ever let any harm come to that beautiful beast.”
“Then we have nothing further to say, Dragonborn, as we would dishonor our oaths as Blades if we continued to help you."
“Really?” Marceline asked gleefully. This was the best news she’d heard all day.
“She doesn’t need you; she got us,” Dres said simply, as Aela nodded in agreement. Delphine shook her head in disgust, and then stalked off as Esbern trailed behind her.
“See you inside, Delphine,” Marceline called after the pair of Blades as the two made their way into High Hrothgar.
“I think you learned a new Shout, Marcy,” Dres laughed. “Piss-And-Vinegar.”
“I’ll need it,” she said quietly as spotted Elenwen standing off to the side of the stairs. “The two of you go in and buy me some time. Tell them I’ve gone off to the loo or am communing the with the spirits of fallen dragons. I need to speak to that bitch.”
“We’ll handle it,” Dres said as he stood, offering his hand to Marceline as she rose.
“Be careful, Marceline,” Aela said, gently squeezing Marceline arm as the rest of the group ascended the stairs leading into High Hrothgar.
Marceline approached the tall Altmer woman standing just beyond the crowd of people entering the monastery. “I think there’s a place we can talk over here,” Elenwen said as she led her into a small, dark room.
As soon as door shut Marceline rushed the Altmer, her fist bared and ready to strike.
Elenwen raised her hand. “Stop, Dovakiin.”
“Give me one reason,” Marceline answered through clenched teeth.
“There is only one needed. I have what you’ve lost,” Elenwen said in triumph. “Per your advice we’ve kept him alive and unharmed…for how long is entirely up to you.”
Marceline’s eyes closed slightly as her arms cradled her chest before looking up at Elenwen, her eyes pitched in desperation, she said simply, “State your terms, mer.”
“Ondolemar lives for the price of a seat at the table.”
“Then you will release him to me?” she asked hopefully.
“Oh no, my dear,” Elenwen answered condescendingly, as if speaking to an errant child. “No, he will return to Alinor…for re-education.”
Marceline froze, her whole stance altered. In the place of desolation rose a fire; turning to face her enemy, Marceline’s eyes blazed and bore into the smug Altmer standing inches from her.
“What?” Elenwen startled over Marceline’s quick response.
“You heard me. We are not friends or allies or anything of the sort. I do not trust you, Emissary. For all I know, he is dead and this is a dead man’s deal.”
“He is alive and he is here. I believe you saw him.”
Marceline paused, though she stopped short of showing any emotion, for she had already shown too much. “That means nothing, Elenwen, and you know that—stop playing me for a fool!”
Elenwen stepped back slightly, though there was little room to move in such a small enclosure. She had expected this girl to cower before her, to beg and plead for Ondolemar’s life and to take whatever terms were given. “What do you mean?” she hissed menacingly, in a desperate attempt to regain the upper hand.
Marceline paused again, this time to avoid her rage getting the best of her. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Emissary, you know as well I that I could go to him, kiss him softly on the lips and say goodbye, and as your carriage pulls away, you could cut his throat. No, I want a guarantee—I want him back.”
“Of course you do, but I can see no way—”
“I have a counteroffer, Elenwen.”
“Oh? And what do you propose, little one?”
Marceline smirked at the diminutive. “For his life, Elenwen, I will let you have a seat at that table. For a moment with him, I will swing fortune in your balance—whichever side you choose, for I know Emissary, you’re playing both. And, for you to hand him over to me, I will give you peace of mind.”
“And how do you intend to accomplish that?”
“We will leave. After the World-Eater is nothing more than a pile of smoldering ash and a bad memory, Ondolemar and I will leave Skyrim. There will be no time for bonfires, legends or influence. There will be no martyrs calling out my name. I will not tip the balance in anyway. You will provide two carriages. One for us and one for my fortunes, for I will not leave this pit empty handed; but, Elenwen I will leave.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I will walk out those doors, blaming you for Skyrim’s destruction. I will eat my heart as Alduin devours the world and throw myself at the feet of that power-hungry Stormcloak sitting just beyond this room, and he will take the bait, Elenwen, because he craves glory as much as you.”
As the sallow pallor of Elenwen’s skin paled, Marceline continued. “Emissary, you will no longer be the puppeteer pulling the Empire’s strings. With the Dovahkiin at his side, Ulfric will become High King. You will claw and scrape for every minor victory. You will have to fight every bloody Talos worshipper from here to Markarth and every filthy, stinking Nord singing our praises, and finding strength in our defiance. And I won’t stop there. No, the price you pay for killing my soul is much greater than a simple delay.”
“Then you acknowledge that we will take Skyrim?”
“I am no fool, Elenwen; I see the tide of inevitability before us. The Empire may crumble underneath the Dominion’s boot, but your victory will come at a steep cost, for I will send more.”
“You have no control over the dragons,” Elenwen stammered.
“No, but they seek me…and where they seek, they destroy. I will stalk your every move and bring the dragons forth. You will know no peace, in my wake. There will be no corner of Skyrim or the Dominion that you can stake without my presence, or that of a bloody dragon.” Marceline glared at Elenwen, her lips curling into a sinister smile as she remembered Ondolemar’s threat. “You—and all that you love—will be destroyed.”
“You monster,” Elenwen choked almost inaudibly.
“Do we have deal?”
Elenwen nodded mutely, and then spoke. “The Empire will cede Markarth for Riften.”
Marceline pushed past the Elenwen, opening the doors to Hrothgar. “Gentlemen, it is time to begin.”
Continued: Chapter 13: A Season Ended: Part I