Bellona rode like Mehrunes Dagon himself was behind her, the soot of burning Whiterun still staining her windburned skin. Masser and Secunda lit the night bright enough so her horse could keep its feet, so instead of sleep she urged the horse further and further until the beast finally collapsed beneath her. She could see Windhelm in the distance as the horse panted and lathered in the weeds.
She should have cared for it. If she'd been a different women, a different sort of person, she would have felt guilt as the gelding struggled to stay alive. But instead she kept moving, further forward towards the desolate walls of the Palace of the Kings. The horse was a tool; she was a tool and a weapon. She was tasked to deliver news to Windhelm. It was what she was meant to do, what she was good for. It was the only way to scrape an ounce of honor from a life lacking. The horse couldn't restore her honor – but the Jarl might.
It started to snow. The flakes melted on to Bellona's eyelashes but she only blinked them away.
This news, despite her aching muscles and despite the blood caked everywhere; this news was the first step towards true trust with the Stormcloaks. They'd see past her face now, past her clearly Imperial heritage and see the Nord within.
She'd learned to hate Whiterun as much as she hated the Legion. It was Whiterun that sent her to the dragon. It was Whiterun and Balgruuf that forced her to kill it and it was Whiterun that made the family legend a reality.
Dragonborn. Just like grandfather, 10 generations back.
Until she absorbed the dragon's soul, Bellona thought it was a fiction. Just a story told by a series of unmarried women to legitimize their increasingly more illegitimate offspring. You aren't just the bastard of a bandit, no, no my dear. Those blue eyes; those eyes we all have? Those are his. His, Martin Septim.
Always pure drivel in her mind, but then she climbed the 7000 steps and the Greybeards said she had dragon blood. There was no getting away from it - it set her up to be the perfect pawn, for both the Legion and the Stormcloaks. Even the Thalmor would be interested, human or no. Part Imperial, part Nord with the blood of a dragon and Talos himself, whether one thought he was a god or not.
Once she realized it was true, she almost hoped the elves were right. How could a woman who survived most of her life as a bandit be worthy of the blood of a god?
She told no one, and everyone who knew was already dead. Instead, she claimed to not know why her blood was so powerful and that was enough. Being the Dragonborn was more magic than blood in the end and her own magic was enough to convince anyone who asked. Instead, she joined the Stormcloaks and threw herself against whatever Ulfric Stormcloak said she must.
He would have used her if he'd known she was a Septim. She didn't blame him for that. Ulfric was a practical man as all powerful men must be to survive. The ends justified the means if it meant Skyrim would be free. She understood that.
But Bellona didn't want to be his pawn. She wanted to be his knight and worthy of his respect.
He was magnetic, this Jarl of Windhelm. Despite his high place, his untouchable status, she saw something familiar in the edge behind his eyes. He was a killer, just like she was.
So she ran on as her horse died in the snow behind her. It seemed to always be snowing here, and the few plants the struggled up through the drifts were craggy but strong. So much like the people that lived here. She wanted to fit here, though she knew she wasn't quite so hardy as even the weeds. She was cold, and she shivered in her dented steel plate. Her feet hit the cobblestones outside Windhelm as the moons started to creep down towards the horizon in the dirty and silent hours before dawn.
Guards escorted her to the palace. She wordlessly asked for silence and they obeyed. She was the Dragonborn after all; Ulfric's Unblooded. She was no longer just an odd Imperial woman with ochre hair short like a man's and swords paired on her belt.
The hall was deserted except for an elderly maid servant who quickly appeared with a towel and pointed her to the washbasin. The water was burgundy black from soot and blood when Bellona's hands and face were finally clean. Her armor was far more soiled, but despite frantic gesturing, she waved the maid away.
"Lady," she plead. "Please. The Jarl cannot see you now. Please, come and rest and the dawn will come."
Bellona shook her head. "It can't wait. The Jarl would not forgive us for making him wait."
"Even great men sleep, lady. The Jarl sleeps; you cannot..." Her trembling words cut off with an expression slightly frightened but mostly scandalized.
"Will you stop me?" Bellona asked. "Will they?" she added, gesturing to the sleepy guards at the doors.
"No lady, I won't. They won't."
Bellona nodded sharply and snapped towards the stone stairs. The Jarl slept at the top of the palace, but the barracks for his trusted were there as well. No separate quarters for Ulfric. Like his father, the great Bear of Eastmarch, he was just a soldier.
As the true high King should be.
Bellona's steel boots clicked on the stones, but no one in the adjoining rooms woke. Here in the heart of Windhelm, a Stormcloak could sleep soundly. It was the first of a new expanding space of peace for the true sons and daughters of Skyrim.
And if she, a descendant of Tiber Septim wasn't a true Nord, she didn't know who was.
The door to Ulfric's chamber was closed, but unlocked and even he did not stir right away as the door slid open on greased hinges. The fire still burned, but low, haloing the tall posts of the bed and the still form of the soon to be High King in faint orange light.
Two more soft clicking steps and the door came to a stop against the stones before the Jarl woke. He sat up slowly, no fear in his eyes. This was one place he too was safe. For now.
"What is it?" his voice was coarse with sleep. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He wore a robe lined with fur and linens and little else. "Unblooded?" He sat up quickly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "It's done then?"
"Yes my lord," she came a knelt on the dais where the bed was perched. With no irony, she continued "We've driven the Imperials out of Whiterun."
"This is good. Very good. We now control the center. It's a powerful position. One I aim to keep." His voice was warm and merry, despite being so abruptly woken. He cocked his head and studied her for a moment in the wan light. "The thick blood of this land has seeped into your heart." He smiled. "We'll call you Ice-Veins now."
"As my lord wishes," she said. She was strong enough to keep her eyes on him. It was never easy, she always felt he would see something there she didn't want him to see. Like her grandmother always said, those eyes, those blue eyes, those are his, Martin. Ah, but what did the old woman know? And who had seen a Septim in centuries except in stone statues and shrines outlawed by the White-Gold Concordat? What was left of Martin Septim himself but some fabled statue of Akatosh?
Besides, that was the least of what he might see. Worse that he saw her admiring the sharp planes of his face or the ridges of his chest just visible in the faint light. More terrifying that he see her adoration that was more than soldier to commander, more than even woman to man, but cresting into something more.
If Ulfric saw anything, he didn't let on.
"You don't seem the type," he said, shaking his head. "I keep expecting you to talk back like Galmar does."
"I'm adept at it," Bellona replied, perhaps too quickly. "If you'd rather."
Ulfric laughed. "Perhaps." He reached out and lifted her chin, turning her face to the side, looking less jovial. "You should see Wuunferth. You're cut."
Bellona shook her head. "Doesn't hurt. Wuunferth is not what I need." She sounded a little breathless.
She knew what she needed, with Ulfric's warm calloused fingers still lingering on her chin. His eyes were shadow dark as he inspected her wound, as if his eyes would somehow will the damage to fade.
He touched the edges of the cut and there was still no pain.
"What do you need?" he asked. There was an undercurrent to his voice she recognized, but almost wondered if she was imagining.
"Only what..." she stopped. Madness. "Only what I can't have."
He raised an eyebrow, but still didn't meet her eyes. One rough finger traveled along the sharp ridge of her cheekbone, just below the cut that would be sure to scar if she didn't have it seen to. But maybe, to be truthful, she wanted this scar. To remember her victory by - to remember the look in Balgruuf's eyes when she forced his surrender, when she spit in the eye of the Legion that made her life a hell and took her family.
Bandits or not, they were her family. They didn't deserve to be slaughtered.
"So you are one of those, eh?" he asked. "Someone always wondering which new unwritten rule to break and living by instinct and hot blood?"
"Some things are just blood," she replied.
"I suppose they are, Dovakiin." She shuddered at the mention. He seemed to take her shiver as a reaction to his still roving fingers that had now crept down the side of her neck. He looked pleased and she let him have the pleasure. "I envy you in that. Perhaps High King is something another man might want, but I only desire it because...I must. Skyrim needs heroes, and there is no one else."
His eyes finally met hers with more unspoken words. Bellona's heartbeat skipped.
"Is there anything you desire for just yourself?"
He looked sad for a moment. "Peace." He sighed. "To retire from the world and be just a man." Once he was a man learning to be one that worships Kynareth with the voice. Once he learned a Thu'um as she did with the soul of a dragon. For ten years Ulfric has lived in High Hrothgar and she could see in his entire countenance that he missed that simple life. There were other, planned things from a life before politics that he seemed to miss as well. He rested the palm of his hand against the pulse in her throat. "And other things I should not take."
"Enough has already been lost to you, I think," Bellona said. "Take what is offered when you can."
"Does this mean you are offering...yourself to me?" Ulfric was blunt, but saw quickly to the heart of the matter. Bellona would have offered him anything; he already had her loyalty and her honor and her life. What was her body after all that?
"Shall I take then, even knowing that I can't keep it? The High King must..."
"Must not marry one with Imperial blood," she finished for him. "But even Martin Septim wasn't the Empress' son." She was mad to invoke him. Akatosh, Talos; what did they think? Would they frown and intervene? The heat of battle was still coursing through her, despite the distance she'd traveled. It made her bold.
Ulfric seemed to consider for a moment.
"Close the door," The Jarl commanded, and Ice-Veins, she obeyed.
Ulfric made his way to the fire, and fed new logs that caught quickly in the embers. The light increased and Bellona could see his face in the orange glow even from the door. It closed behind her and she slipped the bolt into place. Safe from assassins, yes, but not from gossip. Soldiers were worse than any fishwife.
The fur mantle slipped from his shoulders on to the floor as he gestured to her. She made her way to him, her heart hammering in her chest. She wondered how she could desire something she'd never before tasted with such a fierceness. It had been that way from that first moment in Helgen, as soon as the gag had been cut away and she heard the purr of his voice. Even with her hands still bound and the dragon screaming fire, she saw something more than just the Jarl of Windhelm. Even then she saw the man underneath and with the ghost of the headman's axe still lingering on her throat, she already belonged to Ulfric and his cause. And now perhaps, she could belong to the man as well.
Wordlessly he reached out with practiced fingers, started to unbuckle straps of her armor to find the flesh underneath.
"Never was one for plate," he said, as he dropped pieces of filthy steel on the floor. The noise clattered distinctively. Bellona tried to pull away; she could remove her armor herself. It made him subservient to help her and she tried to wave him away. The High King shouldn't, nay couldn't, bow to commoner and an Imperial, no matter what the circumstance. He seemed to disagree and stopped her. "Always prefered steel chain. Even now." His hands were insistent, even if his words did not match.
She complied with her Jarl's wishes.
As each piece of armor hit the floor, she felt warmer which was not as it should be. Plate was hot, dreadfully hot, but there was no relief without it here. The fire was warm, truly, but Bellona knew this fire was coming from within. Finally, her gambison slipped over her head and she stood in only smallclothes and firelight.
He inspected her carefully, mindful of the places where the plate has bruised her. It wasn't a good fit, this armor scrounged from the dead.
"Perhaps you need to see the smith," he said, his voice as conversational as if they were in the hall, not nearly undone in the privacy of his chamber. "Oengul could fashion you something that fits." He patted absently at a spot rubbed red and raw on her waist as if she was a horse. It took only a moment before his fingers began to roam with different intention, sliding up around the curve of her ribs and the ropy muscle along her spine.
Ulfric stepped back, assessed her further. He reached into the washbasin and moistened a square of linen to bring against her neck. The water was as cold as the blizzard raging just beyond the leaded window. Gooseflesh raised across Bellona's body. Her nipples tightened and pressed hard against the rough cloth of their bindings. A pulse of heat echoed elsewhere.
He moved the rag along her collarbones and down between her breasts, wiping away sweat and soot and inhibitions alike.
"I know what fits," she said, taking initiative and moving closer. The movement trapped his hand in the cleavage between her breasts and against the soft skin there. "And its not my armor. It's this. This life, this land, this cause. Your cause." She paused as she wove her fingers into the thickness of the hair on the back of his head. His hand slipped lower, pulling down the last of the fabric covering her, dropping the damp cloth. His sword calloused hand cupped her, his fingers pressing into liquid, pliable flesh.
"You fit, my Jarl," her voice was hardly a whisper. "I would kill them all, if you only asked." It was melodramatic, but her head was swimming and at that moment it was true.
Ulfric leaned forward and nipped at her neck. His lips moved against her pulse. "I hardly expect you to drive the Empire from Skyrim single handed."
"I would, if only you would ask," she replied, her head falling back. She leaned forward, pressing the length of her body against him. Bellona was tall, and they fit together perfectly. She felt the ridge of his erection.
His mouth moved along the edge of her jaw. His hips ground against hers. "I believe you." His fingers tugged at her smallclothes, tearing the much laundered fabric until scraps fluttered to the floor.
She groaned and ran her hands along the small of his back. She let him push her up the two stairs of the dais until she fell back on to the sturdy straw of the bed. He slipped his trews from his hips before following. Ulfric was hovering over her then, levered on his arms. The fire haloed his hair. His hips moved forward without hesitation. His cock slid inside her smoothly, as if they were practiced lovers.
His eyes closed at the sensation, but then opened to smile at her.
"We fit," he said. Bellona hands grasped him tightly. Urged him to move. He began a rhythm, slow at first but steady. She arched to her back up to meet his thrusts. She closed her eyes.
"One thing," he said, his hips started to move faster; the heavy muscles in his thighs pushed relentlessly. "This one thing for me, and for you. And everything else, for Skyrim."
"For Skyrim," she echoed.
He couldn't speak anymore then, his voice lost in his pleasure. Perhaps he feared his own voice. The Greybeards would have taught him that, yet he wouldn't know that she was the one person in all of Skyrim who his voice couldn't harm.
"For you," she said, meeting his harder movements with her own, her short fingernails digging into the meat of his back, sliding down the firmness of his ass and pushing him into her. Harder. More.
"Ulfric," she groaned his name and he lost his control, but it was only a man's voice shouting at her as he rode out his pleasure. She felt him come, felt him pulse inside her.
Not wise maybe, such a risky thing to do, but passion overrode sense.
"If only," he breathed against her neck. She felt him shake his head, the sweat on his brow damp on her cheek. "But no, this is not something we can have where anyone can see. No matter what I might want."
"No one needs know, my lord," Bellona whispered in reply. "I am for you; Bellona is for you, not for Skyrim. But Ice-Veins will still be yours to command."
"As long as we can remember the difference," he said, sliding his weight off her and pulling her against his chest.
They both knew they shouldn't sleep, shouldn't take the chance that anyone would see her leave. But neither could leave. They both hoped the passion would fade as the sweat dried, but something else took its place and kept them entwined together. They slept for the few hours until dawn awoke them.
As the sunlight pestered its way through the heavy curtains, Bellona kissed Ulfric. After that, Ice-Veins dressed herself and left with orders to secure the Reach.