No one would dare accuse Galmar Stone-Fist — seasoned veteran of both the Great War and Skyrim’s Civil War, housecarl to the Jarl of Windhelm (and now, the High King of Skyrim), and general of the High King and Queen’s armies — of being a quavering, milk-drinking coward, but when Ulfric growled in that tone of voice, Galmar felt his stomach hollow out.
It wasn’t fear, exactly: definitely not fear of Ulfric, certainly not fear for himself. Galmar knew from experience (too many experiences for my liking) that that particular gut feeling of his meant that he would have to step into whatever argument Ulfric was having because his king and comrade, Talos save him, was being more stubbornly thickheaded than usual and it probably wasn’t going to end well for him.
… Particularly if he was arguing against his wife.
“‘No’?” On the other side of the old war room table that stood groaning under strewn maps and stacks of papers, the Dragonborn planted her hands on the wood and stared challengingly at Ulfric. “No to which part?”
“No to all of it,” Ulfric snapped, folding his arms across his chest. “The economy of Skyrim is still struggling to its feet after the war, and the coffers of this city are still drained. We cannot divert funds from the treasury, particularly funds we do not have.”
“The smaller holds under the new jarls are still rebuilding, yes, but Windhelm was never under siege like they were,” the Dragonborn said. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but the tightness of her lips told a different story. “And if we’ve had enough in the treasury to send aid to them and increase the size of the standing army here in Windhelm, I think we can spare a little more for a building project.”
“‘A building project’?” Now it was Ulfric’s turn to echo her words incredulously. “What you are proposing is a full-scale renovation of a quarter of the city — and that does not even include the docks.”
“A quarter of the city that desperately needs rebuilding,” the Dragonborn retorted. “Have you seen the Snow Quarter lately?”
Ulfric snorted quietly. “That section of the city has not been called as such within living memory.”
(Perhaps not in Ulfric’s living memory — Oblivion, barely even in his own — but Galmar couldn’t say he’d never heard the name before. Probably from Brunwulf Free-Winter, whenever it was he’d last tried to gain an audience with Ulfric to discuss the Gray Quarter. Now, that was a far more familiar name to Galmar, and to the rest of Windhelm — but that being said, the Dragonborn was not of Windhelm.)
The Dragonborn’s gaze hardened. “Well, that’s what it was called before,” she said. “And it will be again, once we’re done.”
“We will not embark on this fool’s errand,” Ulfric said sharply. “Regardless of whether or not the treasury has the funds to spare, renovating the Grey Quarter is a waste of coin. Its disrepair dates to the revolt against Elgryr the Unminded in the Second Era, and its current population has not improved the state of the Quarter; nor will the Dunmer be grateful for such an improvement. The same can be said of the docks and the Argonians.”
The Dragonborn raised her brows. “What makes you so certain of that?”
“There is no love lost between the people of Windhelm and the Dunmer, much less the Stormcloaks and the Dunmer,” Ulfric said curtly. “Their refusal to support the war effort did not go unnoticed by any, least of all myself.”
“Small wonder, when you yourself neglect to include the Dunmer among ‘the people of Windhelm,’” the Dragonborn replied sardonically. “There’s been a large population of Dunmer from Morrowind in Windhelm for two centuries, and the Argonians have been here even longer than that; I think they can be counted among those who call Windhelm home.”
Ulfric sighed harshly; it didn’t take Galmar’s gut to sense that the High King was growing immeasurably more irritated. “And yet —”
“And yet, Windhelm is no home for them.” The Dragonborn’s tone was suddenly biting, the sentence landing like the lash of a whip. “Windhelm’s economy rests in the hands and on the backs of countless Dunmer and Argonian laborers, who are employed by Nords for next to nothing, and what do those Dunmer and Argonians go home to? Crumbling walls, empty stomachs, and belligerent bigotry from the very Nords who depend on them.”
Galmar eyed the Dragonborn with bemused surprise. A reformer, eh? Never would have guessed her moral compass skewed that way, but then again, she wasn’t born noble.
“That may be so, but Windhelm owes them nothing.” Ulfric said coldly. “If the Dunmer and the Argonians wish to bite the hand that feeds them, Windhelm’s hand can just as easily withdraw — or take up arms.”
“Or they can take up arms against Windhelm,” the Dragonborn said archly. “I’ve seen tensions like this before, between the Nords and the Reachmen in Markarth. Those tensions led to a revolt — two, if you count Madanach’s coup that you put an end to.” Her dark eyes bored into Ulfric. “Windhelm’s been lucky so far, but how far do you want to push that luck?”
Ulfric’s countenance was dark, but he laughed regardless. “Luck means little when one has a standing army: a recently expanded standing army, at that.”
The Dragonborn scoffed and threw up her hands. “So you will do nothing?” she demanded. “Nothing to strengthen the city’s foundations or economy, nothing to stave off rebellion or scrutiny from potential allies? Nothing to preserve Windhelm?”
“Doing nothing does just that,” Ulfric stated; his words had an air of finality. “At such a time as this, the balance of power in Windhelm needs to be maintained, not upset.”
“The balance of power in Skyrim has changed. The balance of power in Tamriel has changed! The war — our war — spurred that change, and I don’t see why it can’t lead to a change in Windhelm as well.” Fists pressed into her hips, the Dragonborn stared down Ulfric. “And if you don’t think so, or don’t want Windhelm to change, just cut the bullshit and admit it instead of wasting my time with excuses and counterarguments.”
Now Galmar was taken aback. Years of camaraderie and service it had taken for him to speak to Ulfric that bluntly without care or fear of reproof, and that kind of insouciant insubordination came to her as easily as breathing. At war room councils as contentious as these, it wasn’t difficult at all to remember that this slight woman with steel in her eyes and scars on her cheek, even with a stomach rounded by pregnancy under her fur-trimmed mantle, had been a mercenary, cold-blooded criminal long before she was crowned High Queen.
Ulfric didn’t flinch from his wife’s hard look. “Windhelm will remain as she always has been,” he said. “The ancient and everlasting foundation of Ysgramor’s empire: strong, steadfast, proud. A free and mighty home for mankind.”
The Dragonborn’s gaze turned withering. “You may sit on Ysgramor’s throne and insist on upholding his legacy,” she said, “but you’re sure as Oblivion not Ysgramor.”
“Neither are you,” Ulfric responded.
The Dragonborn snorted. “As if that’s a legacy I’d like to have.” With a swish of her lined skirts, she stalked towards the door and opened it. “Unlike you, I prefer to not be bound by the wills of dead men.” And with that, she swept out of the war room and up the stairs.
Galmar waited to speak until the sound of the door slamming shut stopped reverberating around the stone chamber. “That went well,” he remarked gruffly, grabbing a bottle of mead off the table.
Scowling, Ulfric rubbed his temples vigorously. “That woman — my wife — will be the death of me, Galmar.”
Galmar shrugged. “If she wanted to kill you, she would have done it already.” It was a poor assurance and he knew it, but it was probably true; a political assassination during the war would have been more fruitful than a murder three months into their marriage. “And there’s no need for your dramatics; you know that was far from the worst argument you two have ever had.”
“That was different. That was war.” Ulfric let his hand fall from his face with a frustrated huff. “Ruling is... an altogether different battle.”
“As is marriage.” Galmar popped the cork out of the bottle and took a swig of mead; he didn’t realize how much he needed that drink until the alcohol rushed into his still-hollow stomach. “Except I can’t advise you on strategy for that particular battle, old friend.”
“What of your advice on Windhelm’s wellbeing; can I still rely on that?” Ulfric asked pointedly.
Galmar snorted. “You can always count on my opinion, asked for or not.”
Ulfric almost laughed. “I can take comfort in that constant, at least.” His countenance soured as his gaze lingered on the door to the upper floors of the Palace of the Kings. “Kajsa is… constant, but always to her own mind.”
Having known Ulfric for over half his life, Galmar could safely say that the same could be said of Ulfric. Takes one to know one, and two to frustrate each other, he thought with a stifled chuckle into the mead bottle.
“What is your opinion, then?” Ulfric asked, turning away from the sight of the door and facing Galmar. “Should this project be undertaken, as Kajsa says?”
Should rather than can made it clear that Ulfric was looking for Galmar to agree with him. And, granted, Galmar did agree with him, but there was one thing that the Dragonborn said in the midst of all her arguing that bothered him still — and frankly, he was astounded that Ulfric wasn’t similarly bothered.
“Jorleif’s got the keys to the treasury; he’d know more about the state of it than I,” Galmar finally said. “That steward’s also been reporting unrest in the Grey Quarter for months, and there’s no telling what it’s like now that the war’s over. Granted, Windhelm’s no Markarth,” he added with a derisive snort, “but a rebellion isn’t out of the picture.”
“Not one that is large or armed,” Ulfric countered darkly. “The Dunmer and Argonians cannot match the Witchmen of the Reach, be it in numbers, unity, or ferocity.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Galmar warned. “Most of the Gray Quarter keeps out of trouble, but the war produced more than a few agitators. I’ve heard that the owner of the New Gnisis Cornerclub drapes his tavern in Imperial colors.”
“I know of Ambarys Rendar.” Ulfric said the Dunmer’s name with no small amount of disdain. “A veteran of the Great War, same as Brunwulf Free-Winter, yet neither of them served with the Stormcloaks. And both, of course, have tried to draw my attention to the Gray Quarter.”
“Yes, Rendar and Free-Winter are both problems, but that’s not my point. The point is, the bigger problem is the Dragonborn and her own involvement in rebellions,” Galmar said impatiently. “Rumor has it she helped Madanach break out of Cidhna Mine and kill Thonar Silver-Blood, letting the Forsworn swarm back over the Reach. Now, I’m not saying the Dragonborn will do anything that extreme in this case,” he amended, “but I’m just saying that she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get her way.”
“Of course she is,” Ulfric said, but not entirely bitterly. “Perhaps this is the question you should answer for me, then: what chance have I of keeping Kajsa from undertaking this project?”
Galmar snorted. “If you want to take your chances, take them. Me, I had enough of dealing with the Dragonborn’s stubbornness during the war.” He drained the bottle and slammed it down on the war table. “You married her. It’s your fucking turn now.”
As Galmar suspected — and expected — there was little that he or Ulfric could have done to stay the Dragonborn from her course.
Granted, Galmar tried to avoid the Dragonborn as much as possible as a rule. For one, he wasn’t her housecarl, but Ulfric’s, and after serving him and alongside him for decades, Ulfric was a much more familiar and predictable presence than his wife. While most of Galmar’s reservations about the Dragonborn that he had indulgently cultivated before and during the war were a thing of the past, the memory of said reservations was enough to keep him on edge when he was around her. Yet ever since that argument in the war room, the Dragonborn seemed intent on not being around him or her husband at all.
Galmar wasn’t all that bothered by the Dragonborn’s sudden absence; in hindsight, he probably should have been, but he wasn’t. Ulfric was.
“Jorleif, have you seen my wife?” he asked the steward the following evening. Dinner had been laid out in the private dining room in the upstairs of the Palace of the Kings, yet the Dragonborn, usually punctual, was curiously missing from her usual spot at the table.
Jorleif froze, the platter of roast pheasant that he was holding trembling over the table. “The High Queen told me I was not to plan for her presence at dinner tonight,” he said slowly, as if with every word he spoke, he became more aware that what he was saying was not known to anyone else in the room.
Ulfric frowned. “Why is that?” he asked pointedly.
Jorleif swallowed. “I, ah — I believe the High Queen mentioned she was invited to dinner elsewhere. By the Cruel-Seas, I believe she said.”
That was news to Galmar, and it was definitely news to Ulfric as well, although he didn’t show it. “I see,” Ulfric said coolly. “That will be all, Jorleif.”
“Very well, High King.” Jorleif finally, hurriedly placed the roast pheasant on the table and retreated from the room.
Ulfric’s pensive gaze lingered on the door long after Jorleif was gone, his frown no less deep than it had been. He looked as though he was about to speak, but then he carved himself a piece of the roast pheasant, added it to his plate, and began to eat without a word. When it became clear that Ulfric wouldn’t give voice to his thoughts, Galmar followed suit.
Once was unusual enough, but the next night, the Dragonborn was absent from dinner again. This time, Jorleif made sure to tell Ulfric, slightly apologetically, that the High Queen sends her regrets but that she was invited to dinner by the Shatter-Shields. Galmar had doubts about the sincerity of the Dragonborn’s regrets, but he was starting to suspect that it was she, not her hosts, who had arranged these dinners away from the Palace of the Kings. Ulfric remained silent throughout dinner, but it appeared to Galmar that he was considering that possibility.
Their mutual suspicions were confirmed the night after that, when the Dragonborn neglected to show up for dinner a third time. Now Ulfric was showing his irritation with his wife’s behavior.
“Who could Kajsa possibly be having dinner with tonight?” he exclaimed, half to himself and half towards Jorleif. “She has already dined with every noble family of note in Windhelm!”
Jorleif didn’t answer, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“Jorleif,” Ulfric said, a touch ominously. “Would you happen to know where my wife is this evening, if not here at dinner with me?”
Galmar wouldn’t have minded seeing the steward squirm a little longer, but Jorleif showed composure surprising for him. “I believe the High Queen —”
“Do not tell me what you believe, Jorleif; tell me what you know,” Ulfric said sharply. “Where is my wife?”
Jorleif swallowed and folded his hands behind his back; Galmar could still see them shaking slightly from where he sat. “The High Queen said she was invited to dinner by Brunwulf Free-Winter,” he said, stiff and formal. “And... associates.”
Shor’s stones, Galmar thought, gulping some mead. The Dragonborn’s really gone for it.
“I see,” Ulfric said, each word landing heavily. “Did she happen to say who these associates were?”
Jorleif was already shaking his head. “No, High King. I asked, but she would not say.”
Ulfric sighed harshly. “Of course she did not.” He waved Jorleif away. “When she returns, send her up to me.”
“Yes, High King.” Jorleif beat a hasty retreat from the dining room.
As soon as the door closed, Ulfric immediately turned to Galmar. “What in Oblivion has gotten into her?” he demanded. “Cruel-Seas and Shatter-Shields I could understand dining with, but Free-Winter? If Tullius had marched on Windhelm, Free-Winter would have wasted no time in opening the gates to him.”
“That’s a question best saved for your wife, don’t you think?” Galmar said.
“I am not in the mood for your gibes, Galmar,” Ulfric said tightly, his countenance stormy. “Never mind what Kajsa thinks she’s doing; what do you think she’s doing?”
Galmar took another sip of mead and thought. To him, the answer was plain; Ulfric wouldn’t like hearing it, but he had to. “Currying favor.”
“Favor for what?”
Galmar sighed; why it wasn’t as obvious to Ulfric as it was to him was baffling. “For her renovation project.”
Angered, Ulfric drew himself up in his seat. “I thought I had made it clear that we were not making those renovations!”
“Oh, you made it clear all right, but when has the Dragonborn ever ignored clear signs?” Galmar said sarcastically. “Look, Ulfric: Brunwulf Free-Winter is a more… cosmopolitan type in regards to the Dunmer and Argonians, and everybody in the city knows it. He might not have the kind of money to follow through on his talk —”
“— but the Cruel-Seas and the Shatter-Shields do,” Ulfric finished, catching on. “Their business ventures dominate the economy of Windhelm, and both hire Dunmer and Argonians.” He restlessly drummed his fingers on the table. “I can see why Kajsa’s vision of a prosperous economy might appeal to them, but not why they should care about the prosperity of their workers. They have certainly not done so in the past; why should they now?”
“Well, whatever their past feelings, they must have found some merit to the Dragonborn’s scheme,” Galmar muttered. “She wouldn’t be dining with Free-Winter tonight if she hadn’t already garnered support for changing what he’s been complaining about for years.”
“You’re quite right.”
Galmar looked up, surprised. He had been so focused on convincing Ulfric of what the Dragonborn was up to that they hadn’t heard her enter the dining room.
“Brunwulf needed no convincing to support my renovations, but the Cruel-Seas and the Shatter-Shields did. I knew they wouldn’t be all that interested in the ethics of the project, least of all Torbjorn Shatter-Shield, so I appealed more to their purses instead.” The Dragonborn shrugged her heavy fur cloak off her shoulders and draped it over the back of her usual chair. “They were all eager to invest in an anticipated growth of Windhelm’s economy.”
Galmar was surprised, and morbidly curious, to hear that – and despite his earlier ire, so was Ulfric. “And have they invested already?” he asked pointedly.
“Torsten Cruel-Sea has promised ten thousand septims; Torbjorn Shatter-Shield, not to be outdone, has promised twenty thousand septims.” The Dragonborn smiled, satisfied and almost smug. “Cruel-Sea is reaching out to local quarries to buy stone in bulk. Shatter-Shield has two ships of lumber on the way that he will grant towards the project, in addition to hiring foremen and builders. Both have put forward recommendations for architects.”
“Have they now?” Ulfric remarked dryly. “And what does Brunwulf Free-Winter have to offer to this enterprise?”
“His reputation as an advocate for the non-Nord citizens of Windhelm,” the Dragonborn said archly; clearly, she had not been able to ignore her husband’s confrontational tone for long. “Free-Winter is a name trusted by Windhelm’s nobility and those who work for them; he will be the middleman in this undertaking.”
“What of his associates?”
“Suvaris Atheron oversees Shatter-Shield’s business operations at the docks; she hardly needed to be convinced of the benefits for herself and for the company. Ambarys Rendar needed... a bit more assurance, but he has some faith in Free-Winter, so it’s a start,” the Dragonborn said. “I’m meeting both tomorrow night for drinks at the New Gnisis Cornerclub; if all goes well, we’ll return to the Palace of the Kings for dinner.”
That got Ulfric’s attention. “You will do no such thing.”
“I will do such a thing, and I am doing so,” the Dragonborn retorted. “I don’t expect you to join us for drinks or dinner, but I do expect you to be a little hospitable and leave my guests well enough alone.”
“You have no need to fear me engaging with your guests,” Ulfric said darkly. “You may have convinced them of your support, but there is no convincing them of mine. In fact,” he continued, “how did you convince the Cruel-Seas and the Shatter-Shields of my support? Did you conveniently forget to mention that I do not, or did you feed them falsehoods?”
“No and no,” the Dragonborn said coldly. “In fact, once I had made my case, they were on the verge of questioning your lack of support, especially on such a matter that so deeply concerns Windhelm.”
Ulfric scoffed, though Galmar could see he was stung by the lack of faith shown in him by the noble clans of Windhelm. “Not all of Windhelm.”
“All of Windhelm,” the Dragonborn said, a dangerous edge to her voice. “This city was built on the bodies of elven slaves, and I’ll be damned if it falls because of it under our rule.” She snatched up her fur cloak and strode from the room.
“Kajsa!” Ulfric suddenly rose from his seat, nearly knocking his chair over as he pursued his wife into the hall. “Kajsa, come back here at once!”
“Dreh ni krilon wah uth zey, Ulfric!” Galmar didn’t need to know the strange, guttural language of the dragons to know that the Dragonborn was furious. “I will do this with or without you, and if you don’t —”
Her words were cut off by the door slamming shut — by whose hand, Galmar couldn’t tell — with enough force to rattle the hinges. Even through the door, Galmar could still hear raised voices in the hall; even if he couldn’t make out what they were saying, he was sure it wasn’t anything good.
Galmar huffed. He’d already suspected this latest argument wouldn’t end in Ulfric’s favor, but now he questioned if it would end in the Dragonborn’s favor — or if neither of them would have the satisfaction of being right in the end.
They’ll have to bend to some of the other’s demands at some point, he realized with a growing dread, reaching for another bottle of mead. Or someone’s going to break, and Windhelm — no, Skyrim — will be all the worse for it.
It had been nearly a month since the dinner debacle, and the High King and Queen were still not on speaking terms.
Galmar was one of the few people aware of that uncomfortable fact, as was Jorleif, and, to some extent, Wuunferth and Ralof. If anyone outside of the High King and Queen’s inner circle who was involved in the renovation project knew — the Cruel-Seas, the Shatter-Shields, Brunwulf Free-Winter — they were perfectly content to feign ignorance; they had thrown in their lot with the Dragonborn and her dreams and, as such, had little time or inclination to offer counsel beyond what they already provided for the renovation project. But Galmar, being the High King’s housecarl and closest friend, was more keenly aware of it than anyone else, inside or outside the Palace of the Kings.
The Dragonborn, for her part, seemed determined to spend as little time in the Palace of the Kings as possible. She no longer took dinner there, and though Galmar would rather not dwell on it, she no longer shared Ulfric’s bed, preferring her personal chambers — Galmar took some comfort in the fact that the Dragonborn hadn’t yet quit the Palace of the Kings for Hjerim, her old home on Valunstrad, if only to keep up appearances, but it was a cold comfort. Despite her expanding stomach, the Dragonborn seemed to be more active and driven than ever, leaving early in the morning and returning late at night only to do it all over again the next day without any signs of slowing down.
As for the renovations themselves… well, that was the damndest thing. Galmar didn’t know how, and he was loathe to admit that it was, but the Dragonborn’s little building project seemed to be going well, from what he’d heard. Stranger still, news of her progress came from the last person he’d expected.
“I met with Torbjorn Shatter-Shield and Torsten Cruel-Sea yesterday,” Ulfric said by way of greeting as Galmar entered the war room.
“Well, good morning to you too,” Galmar said dryly, but admittedly, he was morbidly curious. Ulfric usually made it a point to conduct regular meetings with the business leaders of Windhelm to discuss issues facing the city, but as far as Galmar knew, Ulfric had declined to meet with both men since their fateful dinners with the Dragonborn. “How’d that go?”
Ulfric paused, the beginnings of a frown showing in his forehead. Then he started pacing. “I have not yet decided.”
This should be good… Galmar grabbed two bottles of mead from the corner of the war table and offered one to Ulfric.
Ulfric waved it away. “Regardless of their… recent business ventures, I could not put off meeting with them any longer,” he said. “According to Shatter-Shield, the East Empire Company has finally closed down their offices in Windhelm; whether they’re moving all of their shipping operations west to Solitude or out of Skyrim altogether is still uncertain.”
“That’s not news,” Galmar said gruffly, opening his own bottle. “Shatter-Shield’s had a near-monopoly on the Windhelm docks for years, and the East Empire Company’s been struggling to maintain a foothold in Skyrim as it is.” He took a drink. “Let me guess: Shatter-Shield’s got his eye on the property?”
“He has already bought it; the Imperial running the offices sold the space to him for a pittance,” Ulfric said. “Nevertheless, Shatter-Shield told me that the expansion would not have been possible without the revenue from his more recent shipments.” He huffed. “Apparently, my wife has been keeping him and his ships busy.”
Galmar pointedly kept his gaze on his bottle and said nothing.
Ulfric continued pacing, his frown deepening. “Shatter-Shield and Cruel-Sea are… pleased with the progress on the Gray Quarter,” he said finally, flatly. “As long as the renovations continue, it means money for them, for their workers, and for Windhelm. ‘A lot of prosperity and a little peace’ — they each must have said that a hundred times.”
Galmar raised his eyebrows. “‘A lot of prosperity and a little peace,’ eh?” he remarked. “Sounds like something the Dragonborn said.”
Ulfric glowered at him, but there wasn’t much heart to it.
Galmar groaned. “Divines’ sake, Ulfric, the Dragonborn’s doing what she said she would and from the sound of it, she’s doing a damn good job at it. Shatter-Shield’s happy, Cruel-Sea’s happy, even Brunwulf fucking Free-Winter’s happy — how often have all three been that way in all the years you’ve been jarl?”
“Do not tell me you agree with her, Galmar,” Ulfric growled. “If I do not have you on my side, who is left for me to trust?”
“Of course I don’t, and I am on your side!” Galmar said, exasperated. “But this is what the Dragonborn’s doing, and from the sound of it, she’ll be doing it for a while. We might not like it, but we can hardly ignore it.”
“You mean that I cannot ignore it,” Ulfric retorted.
“You and me, but yes: mostly you,” Galmar said, gesturing at him with the mead bottle. “For the love of Talos, she’s your wife, Ulfric! And the two of you are going to have a hard time raising that child in her belly if you’re still not talking when —”
“DAMN IT, GALMAR, I KNOW!” Ulfric’s fist came down on the table, knocking over his neglected mead bottle onto the floor. Galmar almost flinched, but the bottle remained unbroken.
With that shout, all of Ulfric’s strength seemed to drain from him, and he collapsed into a chair. For the first time in a month, Galmar noticed how weary and worn-down his friend looked.
There was a long silence before Ulfric spoke again. “I may not care for Kajsa’s actions,” he finally said, “but… I have realized that that does not mean I no longer care for her. However, I fear that she cannot make that distinction.”
“Well, why don’t you ask her and find out?” Galmar suggested dryly.
Ulfric lifted his head and looked directly at Galmar.
Galmar, unfortunately, knew that look. “I am not talking to her for you.”
“Kajsa may still be unreceptive to what I have to say,” Ulfric said, cutting him off again. “And Shatter-Shield and Cruel-Sea already requested my presence — or failing that, the presence of a representative of mine — down at the site to view their progress. I trust your judgement, Galmar,” he said, before Galmar could open his mouth to object again, “and I have great need of it in this matter. Just tell me what you see and what Kajsa has to say, and I will decide where to go from there.” His gaze bored into Galmar. “Will you do this for me?”
Galmar sighed heavily. It wasn’t an order, but it sure as Oblivion wasn’t optional. “Fine,” he said shortly, finishing his drink. “Where did they say she would be?”
Despite a strong wind whipping up snow from the streets and sending it upwards in a fine mist that made it difficult for Galmar to tell where he was going, even in the bright light of afternoon, he’d never seen the Gray Quarter so busy, let alone lively. The narrow streets had been constrained even further by the scaffolding that had sprouted up around the crumbling stone buildings, yet the streets were swarming with workers, mainly Nords and Dunmer: climbing up and down ladders laden with tools, tugging on ropes and pulleys to bring up loads of wood and stone, running by with buckets of water, hauling away carts of debris. There seemed to be little need for strict enforcement of duties; there were a few foremen roaming around to keep an eye on the workers’ progress, but none were visibly armed, and Galmar didn’t see any guards either. The sounds of hammers rang in the winter air, and the workers, focused on their jobs, worked steadily to its beat.
As far as Galmar could tell, Shatter-Shield and Cruel-Sea hadn’t been lying to Ulfric. The Gray Quarter truly was shaping up, and now more than ever, Galmar was supremely uncertain of how he should feel about that.
“Have you come from the Palace?”
Galmar turned his head. The speaker, a broad-chested Redguard with a close-cropped beard, had approached him while he’d been distracted by the spectacle of the construction.
“Yes.” Galmar straightened up and squared his shoulders; he may have been burlier, but the other man was definitely taller, and young enough to perhaps be that much stronger. “Galmar Stone-Fist. Who are you?”
“Yusef Messala.” Smiling politely, the Redguard held out his hand, but tactfully dropped it when Galmar purposefully neglected to shake it. “I’m serving as the architect on this project.”
“Architect, eh?” Galmar eyed the buckled brown leathers that Messala wore underneath his fur cloak: leathers that were unfortunately familiar. “Thought thieves were in the business of breaking into buildings, not building them up.”
Unbothered by Galmar’s comment, Messala chuckled. “Usually, yes. But to do that, they need to know how a building is built,” he said. “I’m more of a security specialist than anything else, and there’s plenty of people outside the Guild who are willing to pay for my services.”
“Like the Dragonborn,” Galmar finished. Leave it to her to find these types of people. “So much for her considering Shatter-Shield’s or Cruel-Sea’s recommendations for architects.”
“As it happens, I was Torsten Cruel-Sea’s recommendation.” Messala turned and started walking towards a large tent — from an old Stormcloak war camp, I’d wager, Galmar thought — that had been pitched at the top of the street and reinforced against the wind and snow with wooden beams. “Speaking of the High Queen, she’s been expecting you. I’ll take you to her.”
Galmar hurried after him, trying to keep up with the other man’s long strides. “Expecting me, or expecting that Ulfric would send me?”
“Expecting the latter, but hoping for the former.” Messala held open the flap of the tent for Galmar. “After you.”
Galmar ducked inside and rubbed away the snow from his eyes. The inside of the tent, if not warm, was at least dry, with heavy, coarse furs underfoot to further insulate the tent from the weather. The space was dominated by a wide table, ringed with several chairs and piled with papers and leather-bound reports: the Palace of the Kings’ war room in miniature.
The Dragonborn had been sitting in the largest and most cushioned of the chairs, pouring over a ledger, but she closed it and stood as they entered. “Galmar,” she greeted him, her tone neutral.
Galmar nodded curtly. “I hear you’ve been expecting me.”
“In a sense.” The Dragonborn lifted a bottle that had been holding down some loose papers and drank from it. “Mead?”
“Sure.” Galmar had a feeling he would need it.
The Dragonborn crossed from behind the table to a barrel, pulling out an extra bottle from within. She was usually light on her feet, but her pregnancy made her steps heavy. Returning to her chair, she passed the bottle across the table to Galmar. Galmar managed some muttered thanks, and then sat down.
“I take it my husband sent you to inspect my progress,” the Dragonborn said archly, “which must mean he’s still refusing to speak to me.”
Off to a great start, Galmar thought sarcastically, uncorking his second bottle of mead that morning. “Would you even speak to Ulfric if he was here?”
“I could try,” she said, crossing her arms, “but when last we spoke, he wasn’t too interested in listening. And since you’re here, it doesn’t seem like that’s changed.”
Galmar shrugged. “Well, he sent me here to listen.” He took a drink. “So, speak.”
The Dragonborn thought for a moment, her dark eyes contemplative. Then she turned her gaze to Messala. “Well, Yusef? What’s this morning’s report?”
“Good so far, High Queen,” Messala responded. “The rubble from the buildings too damaged to be saved is almost all cleared away; it should all be out of the streets by nightfall, then we’ll have those empty carts down by the docks and ready to pick up Torbjorn Shatter-Shield’s next shipments. I’ll be down at the docks all day tomorrow to supervise, and continue planning for the renovations to the Assemblage, but I’ll be back the day after to oversee reconstruction.”
The Dragonborn nodded in approval.
“You tore down some buildings?” Galmar said incredulously.
“It wasn’t my first choice, but there were a few buildings with such a lack of structural integrity, particularly at their foundations, that they threatened the stability of the surrounding structures,” Messala said. “Most of the buildings are externally sound, with good ground under them, but they need a lot of internal work: walls, floors, things like that. So far, we’ve mostly been focusing on the external issues so we can tackle interiors later without worrying about the weather; there’s a lot of roofs to be repaired and windows to be replaced or sealed.”
Galmar turned over Messala’s words in his head. So far, it all seemed surprisingly sensible, and what Messala had said matched up with the work Galmar had seen being done outside. “You’ve got quite the workforce out there,” he said. “How’d you get that together?”
“Shatter-Shield did a lot of recruiting from his dockworkers, but we have some of Cruel-Sea’s farmhands, too,” the Dragonborn said. “A large number of the workers are Great War or Civil War veterans — they may no longer swing a sword on the battlefield, but they can still swing a hammer at home. And some just came to the project through word of mouth.”
“And word of good pay,” Messala added.
Galmar grunted. Coin never hurts. “Well, they seem like an orderly bunch,” he said. “No guards, so I suppose you’re having no trouble keeping everyone in line.”
“I don’t need guards for the workers,” the Dragonborn said sharply. “I need guards to protect the Snow Quarter after hours from bigots drunk enough and dumb enough to try and tear down the scaffolding with their bare hands. I’ve tried speaking to Ralof about reassigning some guards, but he always seems to be occupied with some security concern or another that my husband brings to his attention.”
“Well, that’s what the Captain of the Guard does,” Galmar replied, drinking from his bottle. “If you just asked him for a few extra guards, I’m sure he’d do it for you; the boy worships the ground you walk on.”
The Dragonborn almost smiled, but her expression was still slightly sour. “I hardly need worship, Galmar, but a little cooperation wouldn’t hurt.”
“Am I not cooperating? I’m cooperating as much as I damn well can,” Galmar said. “I didn’t want to get caught between you and Ulfric and —” he gestured towards the opening in the tent “— all that, but Ulfric asked me to come here, so: here I am.”
“Why could he not come himself?” she asked, a little insistently. “Does he not want to see his city restored?”
“Because he thinks you’re angry with him?” Galmar offered, exasperated.
The Dragonborn heaved a sigh. “Well, he’s half-right,” she admitted tartly. “I might be angry with his actions — or inaction, as the case may be — but I’m not angry with him.” She leaned back in her chair, her gaze distant. “But he has become uncaring, and so my care has lessened.”
Galmar was suddenly thankful for his mead — it had made it a lot easier to deal with one stubborn, emotionally repressed royal earlier in the day, and it was helping him with another one now. “Why,” he asked finally, “is this project so gods-damned important to you, Red-Blade? Important enough to bring your marriage to the brink of ruin over?”
The Dragonborn looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Since when did you start caring about my marriage?” she asked in disbelief. “Clearly not now, if you’re still calling me ‘Red-Blade’ instead of ‘Stormcloak.’”
“Don’t change the subject; it’s too damn confusing to call the both of you ‘Stormcloak’ when you’re both at meetings, and you know it,” Galmar said shortly. “I care about Ulfric. Isn’t that enough?”
“Caring about Ulfric is not the same as caring about my marriage,” the Dragonborn said pointedly. “In fact, I remember you telling me — at my own wedding feast, no less — that if I betrayed Ulfric in any way, you’d kill me.”
Galmar winced. He’d been hoping that one or the both of them would have been too drunk to remember that comment, but luck was clearly not on his side today. “Or try to, anyway,” he said gruffly.
“So why aren’t you trying now?” the Dragonborn asked. “I think this qualifies as betraying Ulfric.”
Galmar let out a short, barking laugh. “One: you’re with child. Two: if Ulfric found out, he’d probably kill me.”
“Well, I was already with child when I wed Ulfric — not that you knew,” the Dragonborn said dryly. “But you’ll forgive me if I find it hard to believe in this moment that Ulfric would choose me over his closest friend. As evidenced by your presence here, he doesn’t care much for my company these days.”
Galmar gaped at her. Gods help me… they’re not only stubborn, but completely fucking dense about each other. “Look, Red-Blade,” he finally said, more heated than was probably necessary, “Ulfric didn’t tell me to tell you anything, but he told me the same thing you just told me: that you hate what he’s doing, but you don’t hate him. Not yet, anyway.” He drained his drink and set the bottle down on the table. “So, with that said: why is the Gray — Snow — whatever you want to call this Quarter so important to you?”
The Dragonborn stared at him for a long time, some unreadable emotion creeping into her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but then frowned. “Did you hear that?”
Galmar did: not clearly, but loudly. Somewhere outside the tent, someone — or several someones, judging by the cacophony — were having a heated argument.
“Gods and Daedra, what is going on out there?” the Dragonborn muttered, rising to her feet. Gathering her fur wrap from the back of her chair and throwing it around her shoulders, she strode outside, Messala on her heels.
Galmar huffed. Just when I was getting through her stubborn skull… Nevertheless, he stood and followed them, flinging open the tent flap to the outside and stomping out into the wind and snow.
What he saw — who he saw — froze him in his tracks.
Back stiff and straight and her fists clenched in her skirts, the Dragonborn stood between two loosely formed groups, Messala at her side. One was a pair of Dunmer: Ambarys Rendar, spitting curses as he held his bleeding arm, and another woman — Galmar recognized her as Shatter-Shield’s bookkeeper, but couldn’t recall her name — staring bitterly with a cut lip and a black eye. The other was a much larger group of Nord men, but not workers; the workers giving them a wide berth held tools, but these men, with dulled but dangerous looks in their eyes, held axes and broken bottles.
The man at their head was someone he was not, however, surprised to see.
“This is the last straw, Rolff,” the Dragonborn was saying, her voice as hard as her gaze. “You and your little mob have disrupted construction enough, and now you attack my partners? Get out of here before I call the city guard, or there’ll be Oblivion to pay.”
Rolff let out a barking, mocking laugh. “The guards won’t come. You know why? Because they don’t give a fuck what happens down here. Never have, never will.”
“They’ll care if it’s me calling them.” The Dragonborn advanced on him, stepping slowly and deliberately. “You’ve always struck at night, never when I’m around. Too cowardly to face the consequences of your actions, or just me?”
Rolff scoffed. “I’m no coward, and every man here knows it,” he said, and there were some murmurs of assent behind him. “Can’t be a coward if you stand up to tyranny, High Queen.”
The Dragonborn threw his mocking laughter back in his face. “Tyranny?”
“You heard me,” Rolff retorted. “You’re not a true Nord, and you don’t respect our culture, our heritage. True Nords help their own, but you’re enough of a Breton that you kiss the elves’ ass instead of kicking them out of our land.” He spat at her feet. “You’re worse than those damn Imperial weaklings, letting themselves get fucked by the Thalmor!”
The Dragonborn’s eyes blazed with sudden wrath. She lunged at Rolff, but Messala grabbed her shoulder and held her back, glaring at Rolff all the while.
For the first time in his life, Galmar’s stomach hollowed for the Dragonborn in the same way it did for Ulfric. Shor’s stones, fists will be flying if I don’t step in. “Rolff, enough!”
Rolff turned pasty underneath the drunken flush of his cheeks, but he stood his ground. “Big brother,” he sneered. “Finally paying attention, huh? Can’t just ignore me anymore, now that your big, important war’s won and you’ve been a big, important hero: again.”
Galmar sighed, exasperated, but strode towards him. “I’m paying attention, little brother, because you’re being a pain in my ass: again,” he said. “Get yourself back to Candlehearth Hall, or wherever it is you lay your head these days, and sleep that drink off before you do something stupid.”
The Dragonborn glanced at him out of the corner of her eye: surprised, but almost impressed.
“I’m not going anywhere. Not this time.” Rolff squared his shoulders and puffed up his chest, despite his barely controlled swaying. “You can’t get rid of me that easily. Bet you’d like to, but you can’t. Big, important general with a little, nobody brother: doesn’t look good for you.” He laughed again, but it turned into a hacking cough.
“Of course it doesn’t look good for me if you keep pulling shit like this,” Galmar said sharply; his patience had been wearing thin throughout the day, but he swore to Talos that his useless, feckless drunkard of a brother would make it snap. “There have been Stone-Fists in Windhelm since Ysgramor and the Five Hundred, and you’re an embarrassment to every single one of them: me most of all!”
“Not to Ysgramor. He hated elves, and I do, too — and with damn good reason.” Rolff’s scowl deepened and he gripped the handle of his axe, knuckles whitening. “What’ve those gray-skins ever done for us? What’ve they brought to our city except more whining mouths to feed and more greedy hands to steal our jobs? They didn’t even fight for your precious Stormcloaks!”
“Well, isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black,” Galmar growled. “While I was fighting out on the battlefield — for our country, our freedom, our lives — you sat on your ass in safety and drank away your house and your honor!”
“Don’t you talk to me about honor!” Rolff shouted; his words were starting to slur together slightly. “There’s plenty honor in being a Nord, in defending your way of life against outsiders, against Nords who don’t deserve to be called Nords: against you and your high-and-mightiness, against your weak king and his half-Breton bitch —”
It happened before Galmar even knew it had happened. One second, Rolff had hefted up his axe and swung it at the Dragonborn, and the next, he was sprawling stomach-down in the snow by his dropped axe. The Dragonborn ignored his whimpers of pain, driving her knee between his shoulders and flipping her silver dagger with the black pommel stone around in her hand, holding the blade to his throat.
“Call me a bitch again,” the Dragonborn snarled, “and you’ll lose your head and your balls. And I’m not picky about the order.” Still pinning Rolff down, she looked over her shoulder at the other Nords, now looking much less sure of themselves than they had before. “Get out of here, before you get the same!”
The Nords didn’t need to be told twice. After a moment, Ambarys nodded at the Dragonborn, and he and the other Dunmer with him turned away in the opposite direction.
Sighing irritably, the Dragonborn turned her attention to Galmar and Messala. “Yusef, go ahead to the Palace of the Kings and tell Ralof that Rolff here has desperate need of an empty cell; send some guards this way while you’re at it. And Galmar, I would greatly appreciate it if you could help the guards and me escort your bastard of a brother to his cell.”
“At once, High Queen.” Messala headed off down the street; the remnants of Rolff’s mob, heading the same way, scattered in alarm at his approach.
Galmar eyed Rolff, still sniveling in the snow. “Can he make it that far?” he asked. “Or will he bleed out beforehand?”
“A little blunt force won’t kill him,” the Dragonborn said dryly. “The blade will, but all a jab with the pommel will do is paint his stomach with bruises.” She got to her feet heavily, holding her dagger in one hand and, wincing, rubbing her back with the other. “Unfortunately, given how difficult it is for me to move around these days, it’ll be a little easier to drag an incapacitated man than a man’s corpse up to the Palace of the Kings.”
“Well, you won’t be the one dragging him.” Galmar jerked his head in the direction of the street. Guards, no doubt pointed their way by Messala, were already heading towards them with remarkable speed, but they stopped and saluted as soon as they reached the Dragonborn.
“You summoned us, High Queen?” one of them asked, voice muffled by the full helmet.
“I did,” the Dragonborn said. “Escort this man —” she jabbed Rolff in the side with her boot and he yelped “— to the Palace of the Kings. He’s going to be spending a little time in the cells, sobering up and reflecting on his stupidity in trying to attack me.”
The guards looked from the Dragonborn to Rolff, groaning in the snow, then from Rolff to Galmar, then back to Rolff, then back to the Dragonborn, then finally to Galmar again. Galmar couldn’t see their faces, but he could tell that for whatever reason, they were confused.
“Well?” the Dragonborn asked. “What’s the problem?”
The guard who’d previously spoken cleared his throat uncomfortably. “This man’s Rolff Stone-Fist.”
“And?” the Dragonborn prompted.
“He’s Galmar Stone-Fist’s brother,” another guard spoke up. “Galmar will raise Oblivion if Rolff gets arrested. Best to just tell him off with a warning and keep it quiet.”
The Dragonborn’s head whipped around, her gaze boring into Galmar.
“Says who?” Galmar demanded. “Because it damn well wasn’t me.”
None of the guards answered.
Galmar figured it out fast. “Let me guess: Rolff says so?”
“Yes, General,” the first guard said reluctantly.
The Dragonborn snorted contemptuously. “No wonder he’s been getting away with murder — or everything short of it,” she said. “He’s been using you and your name to threaten the guards who try to bring him to justice.”
“Not anymore,” Galmar growled, finally feeling his patience snapping. He rounded on the guards, taking a little bit of pride, despite himself, in how they cowered. “You heard the High Queen. Take him to the Palace.”
“Where in Oblivion is Ralof?” the Dragonborn muttered, pacing up and down the width of the throne room. “I needed to talk to him about guard patrols in the Snow Quarter before, but thanks to your brother, now I really need to.”
“I’m sure he’ll be along eventually, once Rolff stops giving him shit,” Galmar said shortly, sitting down on the steps of the dais where the Throne of Ysgramor stood. “And just call Rolff by his name; we might be blood, but he hasn’t been my brother for a very long time.”
The Dragonborn stopped, fixing him with a searching look. “So you’re truly not close behind closed doors,” she said, sounding a little surprised. “Sibling rivalry?”
“Only in his head,” Galmar said dryly. “Rolff’s felt like he been in my shadow since our boyhood, and he’s only gotten more insecure and embittered with time.” He laughed, but there was no real humor to it. “Dogged my footsteps all the way to Cyrodiil, hoping to win fame and glory in the Great War, but all he got was a discharge after he got badly wounded in his first battle. Started drinking to dull the pain of his wounds and never really stopped.”
“Doesn’t sound like anything to blame you for,” the Dragonborn said.
“Well, he flung plenty of blame at me after I left the Imperial Army as Ulfric’s best friend and housecarl,” Galmar said tightly. “Lost track of all the times he’s told me I should have been watching his back instead of some pampered jarl’s son who was only good for getting captured and tortured —” He stopped, feeling hot bile rising in the back of his throat, then soldiered on once his anger was swallowed. “Rolff’s problems are his own, and he has no damn business saddling me with them. I knew I was in the right, but hearing that kind of shit and slander from your own kin —”
“— makes me glad I was an only child,” the Dragonborn finished wryly.
Galmar laughed again; this time, it felt a little more genuine. “You didn’t miss anything, Red-Blade, and that’s for damn sure,” he said. “Besides, the family you’re born with isn’t always the family you stick with. After all the years we’ve known each other and all we’ve been through together, Ulfric is as good as my brother — or what a brother should be.”
Something in the Dragonborn’s eyes softened a little. “Friends are a rare thing to find, and friends who are family are rarer still,” she said, finally giving up her pacing to sit beside him. “Your devotion to my husband runs deep, and I’m grateful for that.”
“Even during the war?” Galmar asked in disbelief.
“Not always during the war, and definitely not before that,” the Dragonborn admitted, rolling her eyes, “but I now know that Ulfric’s lucky to have you watching his back.” She paused. “I don’t know if you do the same for me, but for me, it’s enough if you do it for Ulfric.”
“You should worry less about Ulfric and more about yourself, Red-Blade, especially with that child you’re carrying,” Galmar said gruffly, ignoring her implied question. “I might keep Ulfric safe, but nothing will keep me safe from him if something happens to you.”
The Dragonborn sighed, pushing her hair back from her face. “Believe it or not, I had the situation today… more under control than it might have looked,” she said. “It’s hardly the first time I’ve crossed paths with men like Rolff.”
Something in the way the Dragonborn said it made Galmar look over at her. With her hair long and loose enough to tuck behind her ears, he saw for the first time that the top of her left ear was almost imperceptibly, but unnaturally flat, nearly splitting the fold of her flesh there in two.
Then he noticed the white scar tissue at the edge: evidence of a shallow, but clean cut. And then Galmar knew that he was meant to see it.
“I was in Windhelm to sell pelts from my father’s hunts and mine; Da was working on the cabin, so I was on my own that day,” the Dragonborn said, answering his unspoken question. “Some drunken louts cornered me on my way past Candlehearth Hall, wanted to know if I was a ‘true Nord.’” She laughed quietly, bitterly. “I was young and ignorant and didn’t know what they were asking. I said my mother was a Breton and the next thing I know, one of them’s holding my neck to the city wall while the other one pulls out a dagger: trying to cut off my ‘elf ears,’ he said.”
Talos... Galmar swallowed, an echo of the past ringing in his own ears, insistent and uncomfortable. “Heard some of that in Markarth, back in the day,” he said finally, unsure of whether he should admit it to her or not. “Heard of soldiers with necklaces of Witchmen ears: war trophies. Heard of a lot of things happening after Markarth fell to Ulfric and his militia.”
The Dragonborn’s face twisted as her breath shuddered out in a grim laugh. “Just heard of them?”
Galmar sighed. “I was there with Ulfric, along with some men from our unit in the Great War, but... most of the militia were Nords from the Reach: farmers and miners sick of Witchmen rule.” He dropped his head down into his hand, rubbing his forehead wearily. “I got the sense that Ulfric never cared for Igmund or his father; if this had happened at any other damn time, Ulfric would have told them to shove off and deal with the Witchmen on their own.” He raised his head, looking straight at the Dragonborn. “But Ulfric saw Markarth as a means to an end, a way to regain the freedom to openly worship Talos. Those farmers and miners, though… they were out for blood, Red-Blade.”
“Well, they got it,” the Dragonborn said bitterly. She was still facing away from him, leaving him to stare at her cold profile and her half-mutilated ear. “And that bloodshed followed me and my family across Skyrim.” She let her breath out harshly. “The guards… they followed the sound of my screaming, found me before any real damage was done, but they didn’t do much about my attackers. Da barely let me go into Windhelm with him after that, let alone on my own.”
Galmar let her words sink in for a moment, settling over his bones like the waters of the Ghost Sea. It was a truly unsettling, uncomfortable thing, he thought vaguely, to be confronted by the catastrophes of the past and recognize where it went wrong.
Where he might have gone wrong.
“That bloodshed follow you back to Markarth recently?” he asked, ignoring his self-doubt. “Rumor says you did a little time in Cidhna Mine. At least,” he added with a snort, “before you sprung Madanach free and killed Thonar Silver-Blood.”
Now, the Dragonborn turned to him, her eyes no longer dull and distant, but alert and amused. “There’s a lot of outlandish rumors about me,” she said. “That’s not one of them.”
Galmar wished he could be more surprised by that, but he was past a lot of things in this conversation. “What in the Nine possessed you to do that?”
Unexpectedly, the Dragonborn smiled. “I am my mother’s daughter,” she said lightly. “It may have cost me to admit it then, but now I’ll tell it to anyone. The blood of the Reach — Forsworn blood — runs in my veins like the Karth. So does rebellion.”
Galmar stared at her for a long time. Somehow, he knew he had the answer to his original question: the question on the Gray — Snow, it’ll be Snow again soon; she’ll see to that — Quarter that she had evaded answering. “Can’t bring the Forsworn back into the fold, but you can with the Dunmer and Argonians?”
The Dragonborn shrugged. “Something like that. Like part of it.” She paused, choosing her words deliberately. “You know what was the first thing I saw when I returned to Skyrim and finally got the nerve to set foot in Windhelm on my own? Rolff and one of his friends, accusing Suvaris of being an Imperial spy.” She swallowed. “As you saw from her face today, some things don’t change. I knew even back then that things hadn’t changed. And this city won’t change unless someone forces that change.”
Down at the end of the throne room, a door slammed. Galmar, more unsure than ever of how to respond to all the Dragonborn had said, was grateful to turn his attention elsewhere.
Ulfric had emerged from the door leading down to the barracks and the cells, followed by Ralof and Messala. Even at this distance, Galmar could see his tight jaw and his deep-set scowl, and he knew that Ulfric had been yelling, or was going to yell, or both. But when his gaze turned to the Throne of Ysgramor, Ulfric was struck dumb.
The Dragonborn saw him, too, and her gaze darkened. “No point in delaying the inevitable lecture,” she said under her breath. She stood, squared her shoulders, and started walking.
Ulfric all but ran to her. Catching her by the shoulders, he enfolded his wife in a fierce embrace, holding her close to his chest. After a long, stunned stillness, the Dragonborn slowly brought her arms up and wrapped them around him as well. Now that Ulfric was closer, Galmar could better see the new expression on his friend’s face: a profound relief.
Galmar shook his head, smiling to himself. Only thing that can bring their stubbornness to heel is the other; that much still holds true, he thought as he got up and started towards them. But Red-Blade only ever brings Ulfric to his knees.
Ulfric finally loosened his grip on the Dragonborn, but still kept one arm around her shoulder, the other hand on her waist. “Are you hurt?” he asked, urgent. “Is he hurt?”
“I’m fine, Ulfric,” the Dragonborn said shortly, but the frost in her gaze was thawing. “So is our child. Rolff didn’t lay a hand on either of us.”
“I’m fine, too, in case you were wondering,” Galmar interrupted sarcastically. “But what about you? You get in a fight or something?”
A shadow passed over Ulfric’s face as he glanced down at his hands. The knuckles were split and bleeding. “A... one-sided fight,” he said darkly. “Rolff was... trying my patience.”
The Dragonborn shot a look at Galmar, trying to gauge his reaction.
Galmar sighed. “I’ll deal with him later, once Ralof’s had his fill,” he told Ulfric. “From what I understand, Rolff hasn’t had his fill of Windhelm justice yet.”
“Seems to have had a taste,” the Dragonborn said wryly, bringing her hand up to her shoulder and brushing it over Ulfric’s bleeding hand. She looked up at her husband. “I appreciate it, Ulfric, I do, and gods know he had it coming, but —”
“— I did not have to do anything?” Ulfric finished, almost bitter. “Your architect told me everything that happened. Rolff insulted you, threatened you, all but laid a hand on you —” He stopped, reining his anger in before continuing, no less resolute. “Kajsa, I would not have you hurt like that in your home; I never wanted you hurt in any of this. And after today, no one will dare to again.”
The Dragonborn’s face trembled between unabashed emotion and tentative interest. She settled on the latter and waited for her husband to speak again.
“I spoke with Ralof,” Ulfric finally said. “I understand from your architect that you’ve been trying to arrange guard patrols for the — the Quarter for quite some time now.” He paused. “You shall have them, for your safety.”
The Dragonborn searched his face for a long time. Then, she smiled: slow and small, but a smile nevertheless. “I’ll take them,” she said, “and whatever else you can find in your heart to offer.”
Ulfric returned her smile, but quickly sobered. “I do not suppose you will consider a housecarl, even after all this?” he asked pointedly. “I realize that you are more than capable of protecting yourself, but after today —”
“I’ll consider it,” the Dragonborn said quickly. She tilted her head to one side, a thought apparently coming to her. “Actually, now that you mention it, I do have someone in mind.”
Ulfric sighed. “It’s the architect, isn’t it?” he asked flatly. “I saw his leathers; I’m assuming he’s with the Guild.”
“Yusef has a great many talents, only some of them related to thieving,” the Dragonborn said blithely. “I’ll invite him to dinner tomorrow and he can elaborate on them for you.”
Ulfric almost nodded, but then he frowned. “You... will be here for dinner tomorrow night, then?” he asked.
“Yes, and tonight as well,” the Dragonborn said, no uncertainty in her words. “That is, if you will have me.”
Ulfric leaned down to kiss her forehead. “I will.”
Galmar cleared his throat indelicately.
Ulfric looked over at him, and Galmar could see something of his old irritation return to his face, but not without affection. “I will hear both of your reports on the Quarter renovations tomorrow,” he said. “Get some food and rest, Galmar. This day has been a long one for all of us.”
Galmar raised his eyebrows. “I’m not invited to dinner?”
Ulfric and his wife exchanged a look: a look that made Galmar realize that the two of them, prior to today, had not spoken, much less shared a meal — or a bed — for a month.
Galmar chuckled and raised his hands in defeat. “I’ll leave you two to it.”
“That would be best,” Ulfric agreed, guiding his wife towards the door to the upstairs of the Palace.
The Dragonborn glanced back at Galmar for a moment, eyes gleaming, and then she turned her head and only had eyes for her husband.
Shaking his head at the two of them, Galmar walked down the length of the throne room, noting that the door leading down to the cells was once again closed. Galmar suspected that Ralof and Messala had already returned to their interrogation of Rolff, or whatever it was they had to do to handle him; Galmar figured that he should probably join them at some point, but he didn’t want to just yet. A drink first, he decided, pushing open the doors of the Palace and heading for Candlehearth Hall.
Outside, the sun had fallen behind the city walls. The wind of earlier had finally died, and the snow it had carried had settled into a pristine, painted coating on the cobblestones. In the distance, down at the construction sites in the Quarter — once Gray, soon Snow — the hammers of the workers rang out one final peal and then were silenced for the day.
For the first time in ages, in an age before war, Windhelm felt strangely at peace.
It was going to take some getting used to.