This time, she barreled into the throne room in broad, brilliant daylight. The sun was streaming through the leaded glass panels flanking the stone chair where Ulfric sat conferring with his steward. She'd taken careful effort to clean and prepare herself, vanity perhaps, but her pounding heart insisted on it. Her new Orcish armor fit perfectly and gleamed as much as that rough material could. Her gold hair had grown a little and strands hung in her eyes. Normally, she would have hacked them away in the field, but the memory of Ulfric's hand feathering through her hair gave her pause.
Bellona was proud. The Reach had fallen like autumn's leaves; the Forsworn had perished in droves in the name of the Jarl of Windhelm and corruption had been routed from the heart of Markarth like a worm from an apple.
"The Reach is yours, my lord," she said grandly as she reached his feet. "Markarth has fallen to the Stormcloaks." She knelt with a flourish and looked up at him expectantly.
"You need to get married," Ulfric blurted out as a reply.
"What?" Bellona heard her voice ask incredulously before she could stop herself.
"Jorleif has brought to my attention that there are...rumors that need to be silenced," he explained with a blandness that chilled her blood. "I cannot have my honor, nor yours for that matter, be questioned before the Moot. Despite your victories, and I do recognize them, if you are to continue to be my champion, your honor must be flawless. A husband will quiet the hounds."
"But my lord, I...," she was at a loss for words. She simply stared up at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
His expression didn't falter, didn't flinch. She thirsted for some flicker of emotion, some quick revelation in his face that would belie the cold hardness of his eyes and the rigid set of his brow, but there was nothing. His face was a impassive as a mountain.
"Rest yourself for a while, Ice-Veins," he said casually, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. "You have done well, but there is much still to be done and plans to discuss before I can send you to deal the final blow to the Empire. I will speak with you after the evening meal. Meet me in the war room to receive your orders."
"I...yes, my lord," she said quickly, composing herself and pulling a mask of apathy over the shocked expression she wore. "It is as you say."
"As it should be."
He turned his face away without even a flash from his eyes and and she spun away before her equanimity failed. She marched from the throne room with as much dignity as she could muster, straining herself to not hear the murmurs and whispers as she passed.
The hours from that moment until what little food she could stomach sat in her belly like a stone were long and filled with recriminations.
Bellona didn't know what she'd expected from Ulfric, but it hadn't been that. He'd always been free with praise before; before she bedded him. She didn't see how her contribution to the cause was lessened...unless his affection afterwards had been a mistake?
She had a young woman's flighty thoughts running through her head. She tried to fight them but they didn't respond to sword or spell, and those were the only weapons she had. Bellona was no maiden; she'd sold that virtue long ago and she had no delusions of romance. She hardly expected declarations of love and never-ending devotion. But she hadn't expected the icy reception she received along with a demand that she run off and jump into bed with another man.
She knew she should have expected it. Skyrim was a land of ice and bluster and the Nord men were no different: Cold and stormy and sometimes, the men froze you to the bone worse than any blizzard. Bellona wavered between yearning for him and yearning to break his nose.
Then he sauntered in like a stag as if there was no ice dividing them.
"Bellona." His voice rolled over her like distant thunder. He wore a smirk on his infuriatingly handsome face. She still wanted to punch him but she was certainly not the first with such an urge. His nose had clearly been broken before but he wore it proudly. She wasn't sure it would bother him if she broke if again.
"My lord," she replied perfunctorily, making sure to keep the map table carefully between them. Ulfric frowned and shook his head at her chilly demeanor.
"I thought you were made of sterner stuff than this, Stormblade," he muttered.
"Stormblade?" she asked. It was a new title he hadn't offered her before.
"Aye," he said, matter-of-fact. "Oengul finished your new blade a fortnight ago and Wuunfurth is adding enchantments as we speak. Ice and Lightning on ebony; a sword fit for a champion. A beautiful and deadly weapon...just like you." He looked a bit sheepish at that.
A tiny smile cracked the corner of her mouth despite the battle she fought against it. She growled a little under her breath, not sure whether she was still more angry with him or with herself for being so easily charmed.
"Be that as it may," she said, quickly squelching the merriment threatening in her expression and trying to match the icy tone he'd offered her earlier. "It is not what I wish to...question my Jarl about."
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"I suppose not," he said. "Too hardheaded to let that go. I should have expected as much."
"So I'm just to let it go until after we rut on the table and then ask questions later?" Her reply was quick and vulgar.
He chuckled. "A man can hope."
Bellona crossed her arms across her chest, the metal of her vambraces chinking against her cuirass. She still wore her armor though she'd carefully removed her gauntlets so her hands wouldn't sweat. She could bare to remove her cuirass; her heart felt like it needed protection.
"What I said was true," he explained, suddenly serious again. "There are rumors. Quite vivid ones, in fact. Apparently we were more vigorous than we realized during your last stay. It does wonders for my reputation amongst my men, but I rather doubt the other Jarls would see it in such a manner." He shook his head. "I didn't think it would need to be said that I need to be free of complications to allow for possible political alliances."
"It does not need to be said," she snapped back, her frustration showing. "But I don't see what in the name of Talos that has to do with me getting married!"
"There is nothing else that will end the chatter." His brow was furrowed. "Anything I say or you say will just encourage the beasts. Rumors are like giants; they are harmless unless you provoke them, but once they are charging? The only option then is to kill or be killed. I can see no other way."
"I...," Bellona tried to begin but it rolled over her. He was right. Talos damn him to the pits of Oblivion but he was always right.
"I don't like it either," he said, quickly circumnavigating the table and placing his hands on the scale mail above her elbows and below the ornate spaulders of her armor. At first his grip was gentle and hardly noticeable through the flexible metal scales but as he stared at her, his shadowed green eyes boring into hers, his fingers tightened until they were biting into her skin. The leather backing creaked in protest.
"I not only don't like it," he continued. "I despise it. The idea of another man touching you makes me sick." His eyes glittered feverishly.
Bellona tried to pull her arms free. She had no desire to get away from him; if anything she wanted to be able to move closer, to throw her arms around his waist and profess that she felt the same. She was a powerful woman but his hands held fast. She jerked her arm forward and the only result was one of the scales on her armor slicing through the leather and biting into her skin.
"Ulfric," she said, swallowing. "You're hurting me." The double meaning hung in the air between them.
My arm is bleeding; you're breaking my heart.
"I know," he said, perversely squeezing his fingers tighter. By now, Bellona could feel the sticky dampness of blood. "But I can't help it."
Any earlier levity had evaporated into this moment. It always came down to this between them. Perhaps they loved those jovial moments of victory and joy snatched between battles but in the end they were dark creatures both. There was no escaping their primal natures.
"I love you," she admitted finally and without a word, he crushed her against him, kissing her hard enough to cut her lips on his teeth. His beard felt like coarse wires against her face.
There was no door on the war room so he pulled away quickly, trying to avoid fueling more rumors. There was a sheen of blood glistening on his lips. He reluctantly released his grip on her arms and she reached up and wiped her blood from his lip with her thumb. Bellona popped her thumb into her mouth.
Ulfric watched her with great interest as she pulled her thumb back out of her mouth with agonizing slowness, dragging it against lips shiny with the moisture from her tongue.
"By the Nine, woman," he swore at her.
She smiled around the tip of her thumb giddy with the power of her seduction. He cleared his throat and abruptly turned to the map on the table just as Yrsarald Thrice-Pierced appeared. He was frequently present at these briefings and Bellona knew it was as much for his participation as his skills as a chaperone. Ulfric told her once that he valued the man's analytical mind and his bloodthirsty hatred of the Empire equally, but she knew it was more about having a warm body in the room to prevent the distraction of being alone together. Bellona wished for a perverse moment that he was unmarried so she could have him and flaunt it in front of Ulfric. But no, the man was married and more than that, the whole point of marrying was to be able to continue living as they truly wanted to.
If Ulfric's feelings as a man didn't matter to her, she would have just walked away. His cause was important. The destruction of the Empire was important, but not enough to tie herself to someone, perhaps someone just for the sake of doing it, to silence the jackals? It wouldn't have been enough. The Jarl of Windhelm was not enough, nor was the High King of Skyrim. But Ulfric?
Ulfric was enough.
"My Jarl," Yrsarald said in greeting. "Ice-Veins." There was a hint of a chuckle in his strong Nordic accent.
Ulfric narrowed his eyes at the man. "She is now called Stormblade, Commander, to show her love our love and honor for her great victory in the Reach." Yrsarald didn't manage to stop the little bark of a laugh that escaped him at Ulfric's mention of love.
Growling, Ulfric disappeared replaced by the far more immense and powerful High King of Skyrim. "Is there a problem?"
Yrsarald's expression went as sober as a priest. "No, my lord. Forgive me, I meant no disrespect."
Ulfric nodded harshly. "See that you keep it that way. Now," he continued as if nothing had occurred and all was business as usual. "As we discussed, we are here to see that Solitude falls. It is the only remaining foothold the Empire has left. There are a few targets before we take the city, and some delays to contend with. And, Stormblade is getting married soon, isn't that right?" his voice was direct but conversational.
"That's right," Bellona replied, matching his tone despite the sudden urge to strangle him. Nothing like giving her a chance to actually find someone she might be interested in marrying. Even if they lived as so many other powerful people have, with a personal life disconnected from their official capacities, she was still going to have to share a home and a bed with this husband sometimes.
"Who's the lucky man?" Yrsarald asked. It was a perfectly legitimate question. It was a question she had no idea how to answer.
"That's between Stormblade and Mara for now, Yrsarald," Ulfric intervened. It was a ridiculous assertion, but who was going to argue with him? Instead, he turned the conversation back to the plans for the taking of Solitude until Yrsarald's eyes glazed over and he made an excuse to leave.
When he finally disappeared through the door and his footsteps through the throne room faded away, Bellona spun on Ulfric and pinned him against the wall. She hadn't forgotten the awkward position he put her in, despite hours of tactics and troop deployment decisions.
"Between Mara and me, is it?" she said, pressing her arm against his throat. It was like she'd forgotten he was the true High King of Skyrim, and instead he was just an unruly lover. She refused to let the little voice in the back of her head control her actions, the one shrieking about station and appropriate respect. It was probably smarter than she was as she pressed her forearm more firmly against his windpipe.
His eyes shone with arousal. It thrilled her when he swallowed hard and she felt his throat move.
"Yes," he croaked. "And this is between us and Dibella."
Bellona leaned back a little, releasing the pressure, but not moving her arm. Ulfric took a breath.
"Ha," she spat at him, her lips nearly touching his face. "Dibella be damned. This is the worship of Sanguine."
He looked mildly horrified by that, though not enough to unman him. He was a good dutiful Nord, even if he'd bent half of Windhelm's wenches and widows over a table at one point or another. Daedra worship was apparently a step further than he'd gone before.
"Trust me," Bellona whispered, flicking the tip of her tongue against his bottom lip and reveling in the sharp intake of his breath and the involuntary tension that sprung up along the length of his body. "I've met him, and he's a sick bastard. He'd enjoy this little mess immensely."
Ulfric's eyebrows drew together. "I didn't know you worshiped the Daedra." His voice shook a little. Like the good Talos fearing Nord he was, the Daedra appropriately frightened him. Didn't matter how much blood a man had spilled, he still fears the unknown.
Bellona grinned. "I met him in a tavern as only a man," she purred wickedly, relishing the scent of Ulfric's discontent and the sudden reversal of power between them. "He got me drunk and made me do a crazy treasure hunt. Then he rewarded me with a staff." She chuckled. "Daedra aren't like Nine, my lord. They don't ask for or require that sort of worship."
She took half a step back and instead of straightening herself, she slid slowly to the floor, her eyes focused intently on his. She knelt before him, sliding her hands up the hard muscles of his thighs until they reached the heavy buckle that held his belt. With practiced fingers, she unwrapped the leather and let the belt fall to the floor.
From the sharp intake of his breath and the heat that flushed his cheeks, she knew Ulfric had forgotten about the daedra and the Nine and any delusions of propriety or even concern that they were in a room without a door. His entire world had contracted into the space between her fingers and his body.
"Let me show you what worship is, my lord," she said softly and then used her mouth for a different type of prayer.
Sanguine would be pleased.