Galmar Stonefist was the veteran of dozens of battles, multiple wars and uncounted conflicts, but he had not seen anything that compared to the grim tableau taking place before him. Galmar stood next to his jarl on a low hill overlooking the plain outside of Whiterun. Various other stormcloak commanders were arrayed slightly below them, gathered around a map table that constantly shifted as messengers brought updated information from the field below.
After Jarl Ulfric shouted apart the gates of Whiterun, Galmar thought that certainly both the defenses and morale of Whiterun's soldiers would be crippled. How could he have foreseen the cascade of lightning that Whiterun's damnable thane had poured out at them.
He had managed to return Jarl Ulfric to the safety of the command post, but only at the cost of many loyal nord lives. The soldiers about them had thrown themselves between the jarl and danger, shielding him with their bodies. He grimaced remembering the stink of seared flesh and grit his teeth as a fresh wave of pain rolled down his arm where he too had been caught by the indiscriminate torrent of energy.
On the plains before them the battle still raged. Runners and messengers regularly arrived and departed, bringing news and taking back the jarl's orders as he directed the stormcloak army in their assault of the city. Galmar ignored the messengers. What was occurring on the battlefield below was as clear to him as the finest Hammerfell glass.
Despite many hours of battle and a shattered gate, Whiterun's defenders had not budged a single inch. Galmar's eyes narrowed as another gout of earth and flame blasted into the sky. The roving region of chaos and death that was Whiterun's pale giant was all too apparent. His cursed blades swung wide on their hideous chains shearing through their brave soldiers with horrific ease. Wherever he went, it ceased to be a battlefield and became an abattoir. Galmar shook his head in disgust, this was not even war. It was slaughter.
Ulfric let out a ragged sigh, his voice still rough from the force of his thu'um, "Tell me, old friend. What do you see?"
Galmar let out a growl, "A devil, my jarl." He spat on the ground, "That is no man, but some… foul daedra masquerading in human skin." He trailed off seeing more broken bodies hurled through the air, "No man can do this."
Ulfric nodded as they both watched the battle continue, "On that, we agree."
Galmar began pacing, unable to hold still, "It's even his damn soldiers! Look at them! They do not waver. His magicks are pervasive."
The Bear of Eastmarch remained impassive, though a frown creased his brow, "According to our spies, many in his holding believe him to be a god walking among men once more."
Galmar scoffed, "God? A devil, I say."
"You say? Indeed. But therein lies my fear, Galmar. What do they say of him? What do they say of us?" He turned to his comrade, "It is all perspective, my friend." He raised one hand and then the other, "Freedom fighter and liberator. Insurrectionist and rebel. I say one and Tullius another." He dropped his hands once more, "God or devil. The question is the same. The truth is in his power. And that I cannot deny."
Galmar had stilled and now stared out with yet more concern at the destruction, "That I can agree with, my jarl. He has power."
Ulfrich raised a hand in a commanding gesture and moments letter a runner appeared at his side, "Pass word. We will withdraw from the field. Organize an orderly retreat. I want archers covering the rear elements in case they pursue. I will not have this become a rout and slaughter." The courier saluted briskly, running to the stormcloak commanders and passing word. After a moment of shocked stillness they burst into activity, shouting orders and dispatching messengers in every direction.
Galmar turned to Ulfrich, mouth gaping, "We forfeit the field?! To Balgruuf and one hold?"
Ulfric shrugged before turning to look at his housecarl with tired eyes, "War has no place for our illusions. As surprising as it is, this is where we find ourselves." He turned back to the battlefield, "Could we take Whiterun? Perhaps. But even that is in doubt. What is certain is that if we stay, win or lose, we will be in no condition to oppose Tullius. We will be fodder for the legions." He shook his head, "A pyrrhic victory is no victory. We will fight another day."
Lydia was already back on the frontlines, holding the breached gates against the stormcloaks filtered around the hurricane that was Kratos raging outside the gates. This, of course, was against the healer's direction given the fall that she had taken when she was shouted off of the gate and hurled through the air. To be fair, she herself was shocked that she wasn't significantly injured. However it did not change her duty to Whiterun or her thane. So, there she was, bloody, exhausted, and holding the gate against all comers, leviathan axe whipping back and forth.
She sidestepped a stab and brought the axe crashing down against the stormcloaks upraised shield, staggering the man and pushing him momentarily to his knees. With a scream she brought it down again, giving him no chance to do anything but brace his shield. In a flare of icy blue light she brought the axe down, sundering the shield and knocking him to the ground completely. With no hesitation she completed the move once more, smashing through a hastily upraised sword and cleaving deeply into his chest.
Lydia wrenched the axe free, another spray of blood painting her hands and armor, and stood breathing heavily in the slight reprieve as the press ebbed around her. "Focus, Lydia," she whispered, evening her breathing, but not daring to close her eyes, she reached out towards the inferno that blazed in her mind's eye.
Lydia let out a surprised laugh as it immediately felt as if she caught her second wind, renewed vitality coursing through her. She let out a harsh bark of a laugh, lips pulling back into a feral grin as experienced the edge of Kratos' harnessed fury. For a moment she sensed herself, a tiny and dim reflection of the power and tightly controlled rage that was the blaze of her thane, much as the moon reflects the light of burning sun.
She leapt forward with a howl, the leviathan axe alive in her hands darting back and forth leaving glacial wounds with every pass. She ran from place to place reinforcing the line at any point it appeared to weaken for even a moment. The stormcloaks quickly became less than willing to advance on the foe where the inexhaustible, blood-spattered berserker hacked apart all comers.
Finally the press eased and it became evident to Lydia that the stormcloaks were not pressing forward. Contrary to what both friend and foe may have thought, she was by no means lost in any sort of rage-fugue, she had learned her lesson from Kratos well. Anger was only a benefit when it powered you, drove you, but never when it controlled you or dulled your mind.
She fell back briefly, calling to the sergeants who still diligently managed the rotation of their troops to grant the soldiers opportunities to rest, "Call up the reinforcements! Be prepared to counter charge! We may have broken them. Stand ready!" She fell back further and ran towards one of the stairways up to the wall, bounding like a sabrecat over the loose rubble and bodies that were heaped upon the ground, every footstep sure.
In short order she reached the top of the wall and looked out of the field, with eyes narrowed as she assessed the movements of the stormcloaks. In a few brief moments, her course decided, she ran back down to the resting troops. Valdr stepped forward at her approach, resettling his helm upon his head, "Honor, Redhand!" He gestured at her spattered appearance, "Doing your lord's work upon the battlefield I see!"
Lydia smiled, teeth flashing razor white in a mask of blood and dirt, "Valdr! You appear to be doing the same!" She sobered instantly, "The stormcloaks are falling back. We need a counter charge immediately to send them packing. Kratos will not allow us to be fully cut off. I want to hit them hard and fast and keep them running until they are out of our hold. I don't want a single one of them to get any ideas about turning around and picking back up the fight."
Valdr's fist clanged on his breastplate, "I heard your earlier warning and formed up our rested forces to attack immediately. Irileth will take a portion of the remaining troops and secure a route behind us should we need to fall back."
Lydia nodded, seeing the soldiers rushing to formation, "Good. You have command. Drive them from the plain."
Valdr's grin was vicious, "With pleasure, Redhand." He turned and shouted, "On me! Doubletime!" before quickly trotting off, formations falling into place behind him like clockwork, every man and woman bearing a crimson streak down the left side of their face.
Lydia followed them out onto the field, even in the short time they took to organize the stormcloaks had fallen into full retreat. Some units were falling back in good order, others were fleeing en masse, routed by the impenetrable defense and the pale vision of death rampaging before the city.
Lydia continued out onto the field, the earth wet with blood and trampled to mud by the passing soldiers. She looked out over the clearing field before Whiterun, their forces moving after the stormcloaks, but delayed by pockets of archers placed to cover their retreat. The rearguard archer squads were occasionally obliterated by thick bolts of arcing lightning, that left her blinking away the after image.
Lydia looked to the source of those titanic bolts and there atop a boulder at the base of Whiterun's hill stood her thane, clawing thunderbolts from the air through sheer will. She took up a quick trot down to him, feet effortlessly weaving through the fallen corpses and lost weapons, sure and stable despite the entrail-slick mud.
Kratos looked out over the field and examined the fleeing stormcloaks. The archers had broken as well. Few would dare to remain when they made themselves the only viable targets for his ire. He let out a grunt of satisfaction before turning and extending a hand to Lydia. Wordlessly she placed her gauntleted hand in his, which was still swallowed up entirely as he effortlessly pulled her up onto the tall slab of rock.
They stood together in silence for a moment, taking in the scene before Lydia spoke, "I did not think he would flee so quickly."
Kratos shrugged, his gravelly voice cutting clearly through the tumult of the battlefield, "His casualties were severe."
"Even so, my thane. He did not seem to me to be a man that would let reason deter him."
Kratos let out a snort at that, "Perhaps he has learned a modicum of wisdom." A moment later his brows drew down over his golden eyes as he continued to stare after their fleeing foes.
"What is it, my thane?"
He let out a rumble, "Perhaps he has learned enough wisdom to accept peace. We will see." With that he gave his head a small shake and turned back to Lydia, he looked her up and down quickly before placing a hand on her shoulder, his eyes boring into hers, "Are you hurt, girl?"
Lydia smiled and shook her head, before placing her hand on his and giving it a squeeze, "No, no I am well. Battered, but I am fine. The shout was the worst of it."
Kratos looked back out at the retreating army, his eyes narrowing again for a moment before he turned back towards the city and hopped off of the boulder. He then turned and reached up, plucking Lydia off of the rock and setting her on the ground. He gave her one more look before nodding, "I am not surprised," he rumbled, "afterall, there were no clowns among them." He started walking back up to the city leaving Lydia a beat behind him, mouth hanging open, eyes wide.
Lydia let out a strangled noise before hurrying after him, "Again! That only happened once!" She didn't see the ghost of a smile cross his face. "I don't know that I'm ever going to live that down, am I?" she grumbled as she drew level with him.
Kratos' face was as impassive as ever, "No. I do not think you will."
They continued in silence for a time before Lydia spoke again, "Do you actually think this will make Ulfrich consider peace?"
Kratos took a moment to answer as they picked their way up the slope, avoiding stepping on the corpses where they could, "I do not know. Perhaps with Whiterun. I will tell Balgruuf to call a summit." They reached the ruined gates and turned back to look over the field which had become a charnel house. Kratos let out another rumble, "The dead must be buried or burned. Or disease will kill more than battle."
Lydia grimaced, "I will have a detail organized and begin work immediately, my thane.
He nodded, "Good. Come. Let us go and see Balgruuf." They continued on up through the riven gates and into the city proper. Despite the fact that the stormcloak force was still reasonably close and had just cleared the plain, sounds of celebrations were beginning as the citizens of Whiterun heard the news of the retreat. The information spread like wildfire across the city, far outpacing Lydia and Kratos as they made their way to Dragon's Reach.
Victory was not the piece of news that spread however, as many would fall silent or devolve into whispers as Kratos passed, muttering under their breath about the rumors they had heard of his deeds. Though Kratos remained silent and impassive as was his wont, Lydia could see the change it wrought on him.
Despite the strides that he had made, he still much preferred silence and his own company. The focused attention of so many was not pleasant for him. His face had gone from merely still to statuesque, as if carved from marble. The change was subtle but distinct to Lydia who knew him well.
The whispers and stares were particularly pronounced among the soldiers, many of whom had actually witnessed the great and terrible slaughter that Kratos worked on the plains. His own soldiers in the vast majority were unperturbed, their faces shone and they saluted without hesitation, calling out greetings and congratulations as they went. Lydia could see his tension ease somewhat with their camaraderie and respect.
Even with the growing celebratory crowds on the streets, they made quick time up to Dragon's Reach and soon found themselves in the jarl's hall. Balgruuf was once more in the war room accompanied by Irileth and Proventus, surrounded by various officers and messengers, dispensing commands and trying to return things to some semblance of order.
Balgruuf was animated, "We have much to do and little time. We need the gates rebuilt and reinforced yesterday!" His brows drew down into a grim expression, "I am not happy that Ulfic was able to shout his way into our city with a word! We must see what can be done to prevent a repeat. Have Farengar reach out to the College of Winterhold through unofficial channels and see if they would be willing to advise." He shrugged, "They may be in stormcloak territory but the college has successfully remained neutral so far. Hopefully they will not see supporting another neutral party as a betrayal of their own delicate position."
Irileth nudged the jarl at this point drawing his eye and then directing it to Kratos and Lydia as they entered. The jarl straightened and threw his arms wide, "Well met, my friend! Truly, you are the man of the hour! I tell you to raise me soldiers and you have delivered. In addition to your own personal defense of the city and her people!" Lydia had lived for years in Dragon's Reach as a housecarl and attendant to the jarl and she did not miss the tension in how he held himself. In Ireleth it was even more evident, to some it may have appeared natural, but her hand had not left the hilt of her sword since they walked in.
Lydia's eyes darted to her thane with a slight wince, she knew that none of this would be lost on him. No detail escaped his amber gaze. Lydia knew that, in truth, she could not blame them for their disquiet. They had just seen Kratos' power demonstrated quite clearly with little to ease them into this new world in which they found themselves. Balgruuf was clearly trying his best, ever the solid man and able politician.
Kratos let out an exhale through his nose, which Lydia counted internally as a sigh, before he stepped forward and clasped forearms with the jarl, his gravelly voice filling the room, "I fulfilled my duty. As did all who came to fight."
Balgruuf nodded, "But none more ably than you. That must be recognized." More quietly he continued, eyes earnest "You saved my city. My people. Our neutrality. Perhaps many more if this delays open war. It gives us time to try to avoid a civil war."
Kratos let out a rumble of agreement, "Call a peace summit. Bring Ulfric and Tullius to Whiterun."
Balgruuf regarded him pensively, "You think peace is possible? You think they will come? To Whiterun especially?"
"It is worth the attempt. There is no ground more neutral in Skyrim."
The jarl was silent for a time, before looking up once more, "That is certainly true. And I would be a fool not to try for peace even at long odds. I do not want this war and I never have. Unlike Ulfric, I will not have my people bleed for my pride." He gave a firm nod, "I will make arrangements. I think it would be beneficial to have you or your housecarl join either or both of the diplomatic missions."
Kratos nodded, "You have our support. Perhaps it will stop Ulfric from playing the fool once more."
Balgruuf let out a harsh bark of a laugh, "Divines willing, Kratos, that is certainly my hope."
At the jarl's statement Lydia muttered under her breath, "We're one up on the divines here…" She caught Kratos' glare from the corner of his eye at her comment. She looked back up at him, a smirk on her face. He merely shook his head for a moment before returning his attention to the jarl.
"I will organize men for the expeditions. We leave in the morning."
Balgruuf rubbed at his eyes with one weary hand, "Good. Good. I will have the letters written for both parties tonight. They will be ready to be picked up in the morning." Kratos let out his coarse rumble of assent and without another word turned to leave the hall, Lydia, as always, a constant presence at his flank, perfectly in step.
Soon they cleared Dragon's reach and stood out on the broad stone steps leading back down into the city. Dusk had fallen and the sun was setting in a vicious red blaze, magnified by the smoke and ash in the air. Pyres burned on the battlefield where the dead were heaped high by soldiers and volunteers. Other fires burned across the plain, the residue of magicks and war, filling the smoke.
The city below was in a state of uproar, the joyful whoops of celebrants cleaving the evening air; people set free from the doom they feared, the heavy axe of war no longer hanging so immediately above the city. Cries of grief and mourning for the lost served as poignant counterpoint to the general festivity of the night as the people of Whiterun both celebrated life and mourned loss.
Kratos paused, arms crossed, and looked out over the vista, his ashen pale skin highlighted in red-gold by the bloody sunset. Lydia stepped up beside him, contemplating the view, one thumb hooked idly through her belt, the other resting on the hilt of one of her many daggers. She turned and looked at her thane, the marble planes of his face, hard and solemn as marble.
"What do you see, Kratos?" she asked softly.
He did not answer immediately and took a deep breath before replying, the force of his exhale ruffling his beard, "A day won. But only a reprieve. War clings to this land. You can see it. Taste it."
Lydia paused and looked out once more, she could see the burning bodies, the soot in the air like a spectre of death over the entire land, and taste the ash in the air. Truly, she couldn't say whether this was a part of the extended perceptions that her association with Kratos had granted her, types and shadows of more illusory truths, or what any would experience standing here.
They stood for a time before Lydia broke the silence somewhat hesitantly, "You are the god of war."
Kratos remained still, amber eyes piercing the horizon for a moment more before turning to face her, his voice mountainous, "I am."
Her brow wrinkled as she looked up at him, "And you are striving for peace, seeking to avoid war?"
Kratos looked at her for a time before answering, "I am."
She continued, "Does that not seem slightly contradictory? War is your domain, yet you strive so hard to avoid it."
Kratos let out a long exhale from his nose, "Half of any war is choosing your battles, knowing when to fight." He paused, gaze locked on her. Lydia nodded her understanding and he continued in what was for him a soft tone, "So, too you must know when to war at all." He paused once more and looked out over the city, the people bustling all around, calling out to one another, caught up in the returning cares of everyday life and celebrating its continuance.
His voice was quiet, a deep tone heavy with meaning, "There is no righteous war. And no war without great cost." His head turned back to her, eyes reflecting an old pain, "This cost is never born solely by those who fight. A broader price is exacted."
Lydia's brow furrowed, before she spoke again, "Was not this battle righteous?" She gestured out over the city, "We defended this city - these people - from invaders. I do not believe we were wrong to fight."
Kratos' golden gaze rested on her for a moment, before his cavernous voice rumbled forth again, "I agree. This is why I fought." He let out another deep breath, "Do not misunderstand me, girl. The alternative to war can be even worse. But that does not make war good. It is then simply the lesser of two evils."
Lydia cocked her head at him, brows raising, "Surely you can't be implying that by extension you are evil to some degree?"
Kratos merely shrugged, his immense alabaster shoulders rising and falling in a small motion, "I am not good. I am no kind and benevolent deity. I have no such illusions."
There was a crack as Lydia delivered a solid slap to his shoulder. Kratos arched a brow and turned to her, looking down his craggy nose at her. She was glaring at him and shaking the sting from her bare hand, it had been like slapping a stone, "That is a foolish thing to say. And I will not stand for anyone slandering my thane, my f-" She took a breath, "my friend, in such a manner." She gently placed her hand on his arm, giving it a squeeze, "Not even you."
Kratos shifted his crossed arms, softly covering her hand with his own before looking back out at the city below. He did not say anything else but Lydia could see the tension leave him and perhaps a wisp of a smile in his eyes.
"Hail, Wargod! Redhand!" At that they looked down the steps of Dragon's Reach and saw Valdr swiftly climbing towards them, still armed, armoured and very dirty though he had clearly made some effort with a wet cloth as his face was reasonably clean. With a pat on her hand Kratos stepped forward.
Valdr made his way up the final steps and across the stone patio to them, saluting as he arrived, "I apologize for the interruption, but I came across these and wanted to return them before some cheeky battlefield scavenger made off with them."
Lydia smiled and stepped forward as Valdr unslung her shield and sword from his back and passed them over. Despite the rigors of the day, they shone brightly, free from nicks and blemishes. She took them with a smile before turning to Kratos and unslinging the Leviathan Axe from her back, "It is time I return this to you, my thane." She grinned, "Thank you for lending it to me."
He let out a snort before taking the axe and deftly placing it through the axe hook on his back, "I would not leave you weaponless."
Lydia slid her blade back home into its sheath with a grin, "Never." She looked between the two of them before raising a brow, "I don't know about the two of you, but after today, I could use a drink or five."
"That would be wise," came the answering rumble.
Lars sat at the fire, wineskin hanging in his hands, staring into the flames. Despite victory on the battlefield, he did not feel it was a day for celebration. His fire was somewhat apart from the others, very intentionally putting some distance between him and their revelry. He could of course hear the sounds of revelry from the soldiers and grateful citizens. He shook his head, nor could he begrudge them their joy. For most it was a clear victory and they did not see the complications that would rise from it.
A figure approached through the dimming light as night swiftly fell, resolving in the firelight into one he knew well. "Lars. Not in a celebrating mood?"
Lars took a sip from his wine skin and gestured to a small box next to the fire serving as a seat, "Hello, Baric. No, no I am not."
Baric sat with a groan, he was not injured but that did not mean he had not taken some very significant knocks during the day. He was tired, bruised and was sure he would be stiff as a board come the morning. He rested his elbows on his knees, carefully keeping the tankard of ale he had managed to scrounge up level.
"And why not? I would have thought you would be having a field day," Baric pointed to the simple steel omega amulet that Lars had gripped in one hand, "spreading the good word and all of that." He let out a laugh, "Not as if many people will take much in the way of convincing after today."
Lars sighed, "Ironically Baric, that is precisely what troubles me so."
Baric's face screwed up in confusion, "What, you wanted the challenge? Maybe I've had more than I thought or got my bell rung worse than expected, but I don't follow you."
Lars looked across the fire at him, flames reflecting in his weary eyes, "We have all seen it now." He threw his hands in the air, "A staggering display of it!" His hands dropped, "Faith is gone. We have all seen. What is left?"
Lars' eyes had caught a fire of their own, smoldering with a zealot's passion, "But that is not what troubles me the most." He leveled a finger at Baric, "Let me pose to you a question. How do you worship a god that does not seek your worship, that has no need or desire for followers or praise, but is worth following?"
Baric opened his mouth to reply, but after a moment closed it without saying anything, merely letting out a small perplexed grunt. Seeing that, Lars continued with a chuckle, "Very carefully is how. Just enough to not push him away or alienate yourself from him."
Lars let out an enormous sigh and rubbed at his face, "No, Baric, what I fear is that people will believe all too much. I fear they will worship him. I fear that this will drive him from us as he flees the cheap worship of those who do not know him! I fear his work will be complete and that he will go. " Lars' visage had caught fire again as he picked up steam, his voice growing more intense and forceful as he spoke, "But what I fear most of all is this."
Now his voice dropped, poignant with a bone-deep ache, "I have walked with my god, Baric. After searching for him for my entire life. What will I do when he leaves?" Lars' grip on his amulet had become white knuckled, "I lived in the darkness. Now I have walked in the sun. Can I bear living once more in shadow? I will. For so his tenets and example command me." He turned and looked up at Dragon's Reach, "It is good." He swallowed, "I am glad that I have had this. Far better than never having the experience, despite how life will seem so permanently reduced by his departure."
He looked back to Baric, eyes burning in their sockets, his voice steady and soft, charged with a saint's passion, "I have walked with my god. What do I have left to fear but his leaving?"
AN: Oh dang, I'm back! Big thank you to those who reviewed and messaged in the interim. Honestly it's the readers that had me come back to this. 2021 has just been a crazy year for me (for all of us, I'm sure) with a LOT of life changes. They won't be stopping for me either.
I plan to continue and finish the story however. That being said, in order to do so I plan to accelerate the end of the story. My plan is to wrap up the story and hopefully provide a satisfying conclusion/epilogue. At that point I will probably then just start writing stories of Lydia and Kratos rocking through Skyrim doing all of the hijinks that I want them to get up to. I worry that if I throw those arcs in along the way, I will never finish and then this will just be another fic that never gets completed.
So I am going for "ending", an epilogue and then an indeterminate number of chapters that will effectively be inserts into the story (hence the quotes around ending). I know some of you may not be the most enthused about that plan. I am happy to hear feedback on that either through review or PM. We just have a baby due soon and life isn't going to get simpler. I don't want there to be no conclusion to this story. This would also allow me to pick up another potential story without feeling guilty. I've been thinking about a Worm/Warhammer 40K crossover that I think would be fun to write and a new take for me. (Feel free to let me know your thoughts on that too through review or pm.)
This is too long of an author's note. Thank you to all of my readers all along the way. The quantity and continuation of the story is due entirely to the support of the community.