Chapter 1: Prologue - Omens and Prophesies
BEAR [bair]:The Bear is considered the greatest of all beasts, and are held sacred to Thor. Bears are considered to be similar in personality and temperament to humans as they are intelligent, curious, highly adaptable, brazen and persistent creatures, with an innate awareness of fairness and honour. A common favorite of berserkers and shape shifters, the Bear is often the totem spirit of those who are extraordinarily strong of body, mind, and soul.
BOAR [bawr, bohr]:Linked to both Freyr and Frejya, the boar is traditionally associated with protection from harm. As an warriors' symbol, its body often formed the crest on helmets representing a potent sign of protection and ferocity in battle. The Wild Boar is the mightiest of the totem animals of the Vanir. The Boar first taught mankind the arts of agriculture by showing us how to plough the Earth before "sowing" seeds by rooting up the ground with his tusks.
DRAGON (or SERPENT) [drag-uh n] [sur-puh nt]:
The mighty Dragon (Serpent) is the dweller of the burial mound, and the physical and psychic embodiment the Earth’s natural powers of fertility. Representative of natural electromagnetic Earth energy, pictured as slithering across the skin of the earth. As the great serpent guardian of gold, the Dragon (Serpent) has been closely associated with unseen power, fertility, protection and esoteric wisdom.
High Castle, Kingdom of The Enchanted Forest - 28 Years Earlier, 3AM
'Just once more, My Queen and all will be calm,' spoke the midwife soothingly.
Bearing down, the woman, already drenched in sweat, pushed with all of her might in front of the fire. Her suffering was rewarded with the strong cry of a new child....but she was not done.
'You must be strong, My Queen,' startled the midwife in amazement, 'Just one more time...there is another....'
Bearing down again, the Queen soon gave birth to a second child, smaller than the other, but with as strong and ferocious a cry.
Her work done, the Queen lay back against the pillow as she wept of exhaustion and joy. Soon, the babes were brought to her side and, so absorbed was she with her newborn children, that she did not notice the raven that had flown from its perch on her sill and headed off to distant lands with its cries of warning and foreboding....
Skloss, Kingdom of Uvihr - Present Day, 3AM
The High Queen arose from her restless sleep, throwing on her heavy dressing gown to shield herself from the cold drafts that lingered and swirled about the rooms and corridors of the bastion that had been her temporary accommodations for the past fortnight.
The fire barely glowed in the coals of the hearth and she determined that a flogging would be given to the servant that had allowed it to die so low.
Stepping to the window, she could see a heavy snow swirling outside the diamond shaped panes of the window, collecting deep on the sill and sparkling in the light of the full moon that hung low and red in the sky.
She'd had disturbing dreams. The boar and the bear had walked as equals through a darkened forest portending an alliance of strength and fertility, ferocity and protection. In its mouth, the boar carried the lifeless, great serpent who guarded and protected the gold of the Kingdom, tossing the body in a clearing bathed in the white light of the moon.
The cold wind whipped at the High Queen's body and face as she opened the glass shutters, but she no longer noticed or cared; her ears had heard the cry of the eagle.
Walking to the dressing table, she scratched a few words upon a piece of parchment before returning to the window. Holding out her hand, a raven appeared from nowhere to land upon her wrist. It was but a moment before it had taken flight again, messaged attached to its leg.
She watched with a scowl on her lips until she could see the bird no more, then called sharply to the Commander of the Guard, who entered the room immediately. She relayed swift, but sure, orders, and he left at once to carry out her command as she gathered her items to return to her own castle.
The Forests of Ravndal, Kingdom of Uvihr - Present Day, 3AM
The old Master lay awake pondering his dream.
In a darkened forest, the boar and the bear had walked as equals. In its mouth, the boar carried a lifeless, great serpent which it spat into a clearing bathed in the white light of the moon.
Turning his head, the Master looked to the other side of the small hut where his apprentice slumbered, undisturbed.
His eyes grew heavy after only a few moments, but snapped wide again when he heard, distinctly, the eagle's cry. Pulling himself quickly from bed, he moved to the wooden table in front of the fire where he scratched a few words onto a piece of parchment before opening the raven's cage so that it might hop out to perform its work. It watched him curiously, turning its head this way and that as the Master secured the parchment to its leg.
'Fly swift and sure. You know the way, ' he encouraged as he opened the window. Lifting the raven, he placed it on the sill.
'You must not fail, ' were the last words spoken by the Master as he watched the bird fly off into the night.
Turning back to the cluttered table, he placed his hands upon the top and bowed his head.
Now, he had only to wait....
Chapter 2: Protect Them
High Castle, Kingdom of The Enchanted Forest - Slightly Less Than 28 Years Earlier
An almost deafening explosion was heard as the boulder launched from the trebuchet found its mark against the castle wall, impacting directly outside the throne room.
The resulting tremors rattled the King to his core and he was brought to his knees in the ensuing shower of stone and rubble. He reached out blindly, searching and grasping with desperate hands through a fog of dust which was hanging thick in the aftermath.
As the opaque veil lifted, his searching eyes found his wife, the Queen, face down, half buried in the rubble that now lay thickly on the once pristine and grand floor that had, over their years, hosted royalty from kingdoms far and wide. They were benevolent rulers, adored by their people and well allied with those around them.
As such, the ferocity and source of the attack was a bewilderment to the King, but he had no time to ponder it.
Slowly rising to his feet, the King bothered not to look down or recognize his own injuries. His sole focus was his wife and his Queen, and he stumbled to where she lay, falling once again to his knees beside her. Grasping her with gentle hands, he turned her over as a lover would do in the evening twilight seeking one last connection with their beloved before the envelope of sleep would take them both.
As he turned her, the Queen's eyes fluttered open and a small groan escaped her lips. She was battered and bruised and the King knew that the extent of her injuries was severe as he watched the trickle of blood fall from the corner of her mouth and ear, yet she smiled gently at him.
With great effort, she lifted her arm and cupped his bearded cheek tenderly in her hand. Despite her immense pain she tried valiantly to maintain the soft smile that she had reserved all of her life only for him, her King, her husband, her children's father and her one true love. Her steadfastness in maintaining her poise was tested more than a few times, evidenced but fluttering eyelids and a few gasped breaths as she fought hard to control the excruciating pain.
She knew that even their immense powers could not cheat the death that was riding in with too swift wings.
'My King,' was her breathy salutation as she felt his hand cover her own and keep it firmly against his cheek. The dust that covered her delicate fingers was quickly becoming marred by tiny rivulets that were created by her husband's devastated tears.
'I am nothing more than your humble servant, My Queen. I have been since the day you thought me worthy of your glance and kind words,' whispered the King in reply through trembling lips.
'We are equals, no more, no less,' replied the Queen raggedly in an effort to bring him a modicum of comfort and to assure him that he would have the strength to carry out what they both knew she would ask.
'You must protect them, Henry; especially her. She is first born only by moments, but the throne is rightfully hers and I sense in her a greatness and power and gentleness such as this land has never known. Her brother is strong, but he has not this potential. He will realize that someday and the jealousy will fester in him like a canker such that his judgement will be impaired. They must be protected.... from themselves and from others who wish to do them harm...'
'I still cannot believe that a son born of you could be so malevolent as you describe. He is but an innocent babe and a rambuncous youth, as much, but no more than his sister.
Then again, you have always had a gift of foresight and judge of character far superior to mine. I will do as you have asked, Eva.....' trailed off Henry sadly.
They had spoken of this before. The words were not foreign to his ears, nor was the evidence to his eyes. Even at four years old, there was a quickness of wit, a keen empathy and a fire of spirit that Henry could see clearly in his daughter. Their son had but a shadow of those traits. In fact, Henry would often argue that it was their son, not their daughter that needed protection, but his wife firmly insisted that the darkness of envy was both timeless and unaffected by the bonds of family. They must be careful.
'Your friends and family may well become your enemies, Henry. Do not turn your back for too long, or you will feel the stab of their betrayal....'
The last words were said through clenched teeth and the Queen arched her back from the ground trying to draw a breath,
'I will always love you, Henry,' she whispered through a final, gurgling exhale, 'now...go...to...them....'
As these final words were spoken, the King felt the Queen's body relax against the floor. Her hand pulled from his as the weight of her arm drew it downwards and he held it strongly, guiding it to lay atop the velvet gown that molded itself perfectly to her flawless form.
Her eyes had closed and her full lips had parted only slightly.
Had he not been witness to the previous events, he would have simply thought her sleeping, but her chest rose and fell no more.
Wrapping strong arms around his wife's body, the King cradled and rocked her as if soothing a child, but his mourning was short-lived as a blood curdling cry rang out in the corridor behind him.
Jumping to his feet and spinning around, the King quickly located the source of anguish.
Approximately two thirds of the way down the hall, and moving swiftly in the opposite direction, he could see his three year old daughter struggling to free herself from the vice-like grip of a monstrous heathen that sought to imprison her. Arms outstretched over her captor's shoulder, her green eyes were wide with terror as they implored the King, her father, to save her.
Her captor was Viking, of that, the King was certain. The runes that covered his filthy, scarred leather breast and backplate were the same style as those that the King had studied with great interest on many a night; captured in metal around the edge of an enormous shield which had been a gift from a far away land. He had often wondered at the size of the warrior that would be able to wield that size an object. Now, he knew.
In an instant, he recalled all of the other tales he had been told. The Vikings were a vicious people whose main objective was the attainment of wealth at any cost of life. They travelled as far as their ships would take them, seeking their treasure. They attacked without provocation or warning, and no army was considered too strong. They were indescriminate in their selection of target. The world was their enemy and, wherever they went, they left death, fear and destruction in their wake.
The King hesitated only a moment more before sprinting down the corridor after them, calling his guards to him as he ran, but only a few heeded his call. Most lay dying or dead; casualties of a war they had neither anticipated nor instigated.
Unwilling to wait for the others to amass, the King sprinted ahead, trying to keep up with his quarry who was surprisingly quick despite his size. He followed every twist and turn, unable to gain ground but unwilling to lose it either.
Rounding the last corner, he recogized the corridor. It led to the main courtyard and the door stood agape, pressed hard against the outside wall by the howling wind. Bursting into the courtyard, he had barely a glimpse of his daughter through the thundering, beating rain.
She was bound and thrown over the back of a jet-black Belgian Draught, no doubt the spoil of a different conflict, but well suited to the size and weight of its rider.
'PAAAAAPPPPPPAAAAA!!!' Was the last word heard by the King before the entourage was consumed by an impenetrable darkness.
Falling to his knees for the third time, the King cried out in reply to an unlistening darkness,
before burying his face in his hands and weeping. He had lost his wife and his daughter and a promise was broken. He would never forgive himself.
Chapter 3: Home Fires
Ravndal, Kingdom of Uvhir - Less Than One Year Ago
'GIRL!!' bellowed the lone occupant of the broad table that sat in the center of the hut.
His scarred and haggard visage was accented and shadowed by the flames of the fire that burned low at the far side of the room. It would be stoked later to prepare the evening meal. For now, however, it was left untended, allowing only some meager light into the otherwise dark and windowless space.
Five, crude benches, which served as both seats and beds, lined the walls and were heaped with furs. Chests containing clothes were arranged by each while the bare essentials needed for cooking or hunting hung on the walls. Only a small bit of privacy was offered by a partial wall at one end of the hut. It shielded a view of the more luxurious straw and fur bed of the head of house and his wife though it did very little to contain their sounds.
He was an older man, but still heavily muscled for his age. His red and grey streaked hair was frizzy and only partially tamed by the leather strap that gathered it into a ponytail at the base of his neck. His beard, equivalently colored, was similarly gathered and hanged to his chest. Steel blue, beady eyes shifted about nervously in anticipation of danger, though he knew there to be none. It was a habit of years and it had served him well.
His tunic was simple and sleeveless extending to mid thigh. It was ingrained with the dirt of a thousand fields, stained eternally with blood and food and cinched at the waist by a wide, leather belt that had been knotted in front. Heavy leather boots were laced over his similarly stained, but darker, pants, and the tops had been wrapped in muslin and burlap for extra protection. His hand clenched and released impatiently around the handle of his leather tankard as he awaited the arrival of the one he had called.
Within moments, a woman of approximately 28 years arrived at the small, side entrance, having been outside tending to her duties in the garden and barn. Her blonde hair fell in loose waves to her mid back, speckled occasionally with bits of straw that had been swept up by her pitchfork. Her face was comely, but smudged with dirt from her labours and her cheeks showed a faint glow of colour from her exertion. Beautiful green eyes were offset by thick blonde lashes and well shaped brows and she chewed her full, pink lower lip nervously, twisting her mouth slightly and looking meekly at the floor, as she waited for the man to speak again.
'You will do well to make haste when you are called', barked the man as he slammed the tankard angrily onto the table to emphasize the point, 'I am not to be ignored or left waiting. Do you understand?'
'Yes, Papa,' said the woman, barely above a whisper, in a Scandic tongue that had always felt so foreign as it passed over her lips and tongue.
For as hulking as the man was, the woman was quite the opposite. Her simple, over-sized red dress and cream coloured apron hung to the floor and fell loosely over an almost emaciated frame. She had very little muscle or tone despite her constant labor, distinguishing her from all of the other women her age (who had grown strong and hearty) and making her the constant target of ridicule and bullying of her four brothers. Both her body and face bore the marks of their punishment, with a fresh bruise presently erupting on her cheek and eye from their latest encounter.
Her mother had afforded her some meager protection from their harmful attentions, but that had ended upon her death the previous winter. Now she was treated only with hatred or ignored completely. She preferred the latter, but it was typically less common than the former. She was so different, even among her family, that she often wondered if she even belonged with them at all.
'Agni needs the help of other hands at his shop.
My sons are too busy preparing for war to be bothered with such matters, so I will send you in their stead.
You will do all that he asks and do it well. I will not hear of sloth or defiance. You will go there in the early morning and return before supper. You will feed us and will do your chores by moonlight, if need be.
Nothing will fail, or so help me, the wrath of Odin will be upon you. Have I spoken clear enough for your ears, Girl?' insisted the old man.
'Yes, Papa,' was the simple, demure answer.
'Now go! 'Tis already high morning and you are late. You will be lucky to avoid a beating, if you make haste. And forget not your other duties, ' he finished coldly with a scowl, 'or ye will suffer a worse fate at home.'
Turning on her heel, the woman exited quickly through the side door from which she came. She had barely made it five feet from the hut when a strong blow to stomach doubled her over and brought her to her knees. As she collapsed, she realized that the attacker had been one of her brothers who had been lying, out of sight, in wait for her. Soon, he was joined by the remaining three brothers who were, by this time, laughing heartily at her expense.
'Stand and fight, Thorinsdottir, ' started the first brother boldly, 'show yourself to be a warrior of this clan and not just a black mark on our father's good name.'
Slowly, the woman sighed and rose to her feet. She was still unsteady and nauseated from the force of the blow. Her movements were sluggish and her eyes were slow to focus. She was no match for one, let alone all, of her brothers, but she needed to see this through or a similar fate would await at the shop. She must be on her way.
She raised her fists feebly in defense, marking the start of their engagement. She could only hope for a quick end to this torment. It was only a moment before she was again on the ground. This time, blood ran from her lip and nose and the bruise from earlier was extended further down her cheek. She tried to press herself up on her hands, but her shaking arms gave way, sending her face first into the mud, straw and excrement that lined the walkway.
'Our father would do well to disown you, ' started the eldest brother, 'lucky for you, he is more patient and forgiving than I. If you are still here upon his death, I will cast you out myself.' He ended by spitting thickly upon her back and walking away. Each of the brother's took their turn in doing the same, enforcing the point by cleaning their muddied boots upon her back and leaving her to lie in the dirt while they wandered off to laze about in the warm, spring sun.
She allowed herself to recover for only a moment more before pulling herself to her feet. Using the fence as a crutch, she exited the garden slowly, limping slightly, and started down the road towards town.
It took almost a half hour to finally reach the village, even at a half sprint, and the woman prayed that her punishment would not be too severe.
Working her way through the throng of patrons, she made her way to one of the larger stalls where a large oven and extended hearth threw enormous heat into the surrounding air. Swords, spears, shields and helmets hung from the rafters in various stages of construction along with leather tackle and armor.
She entered through a small opening in the back-right side of the stall. She recognized Agni, but she dared not approach. He was speaking to several customers, so she waited silently to be acknowledged, head bowed and arms hugging her middle. She had become comfortable in her silence and anonymity when a strong voice broke through her reverie.
'You there! Why do you enter my shop in so familiar a manner? Explain yourself!'
Immediately, the woman looked up to see several sets of eyes observing her. The most disconcerting were those of Agni who had a fire of threat behind his glare. The others looked on merely to observe the outcome of the ensuing banter.
As large, if not larger than her father, Agni stood with his muscled, hairy arms crossed over his chest awaiting an answer. His face was wrinkled from a combination of exposure, toil and age with each crease and crevasse filled to capacity with soot and dirt. His long grey hair was tamed with oil, grime and a leather band, as was his beard, to prevent it being singed by fires in which he worked. His dress was similar to her father's, but his tunic had been cut open to counteract the excessive heat and stifling conditions of the stall, exposing a healthy thicket of grey hair upon his chest and upper stomach.
The woman opened her mouth to speak, but found that no words would come.
'Answer me woman before you feel my true wrath!'
Finding her voice, the woman replied barely above a whisper, 'I-I am Th-Thorinsdottir. H-He has s-sent me to y-your aid.'
The malice in Agni's eyes was quickly replaced by mirth and the air filled with booming laughter as he considered the woman's words. Collecting himself, he turned to his patrons, announcing loudly,
'We may no longer trust Thorin's keen eyes and judgment. I have asked for the aid of a strong back and he has instead sent me this half-dead mouse!!!'
A wave of laughter erupted from his patrons. Sensing his support, he continued,
'At least if he is to send me a maiden, she should be kind to my eyes, not drive me to the drink!'
Again, the peels of laughter erupted from the crowd, but the woman held firm. Ridicule, played out at her expense, was not unknown or uncommon. Eventually they would tire and get to the nature of their business. She must complete her requested duties and get home before the sup.
Eventually, the laughter did die and the patrons wandered away, leaving Agni and the woman alone. Stepping closer to her, he allowed his eyes to wander freely over her body. She was scrawny, but her breasts were pert and she was young. While she would be of no real use to him in the shop, there might be a time when she would provide a different kind of assistance, allowing him to save some of the money that he typically gave to the tired, worn-out, too-familiar whores.
'You will take that bundle of swords from the well,' he said motioning with his finger towards a trough of water, ' and move them to the table in the back to dry. Make haste, I have another set ready from the oven and they must be cooled straightaway,' he finish gruffly as he moved to the hearth to extract the new batch.
Leaning over the trough, the woman submerged her arms up to her shoulders in the warm water, drenching the bodice of her dress in the process. Scooping up the pile, she lifted. Initially, the true weight of the load was masked by the assistance of the water. As the bundle broke the surface and was pulled over the edge of the trough, however, the full nature of her burden became apparent. Stepping back quickly to counteract the weight and to prevent being pulled head first into the fetid water, her heel found a deep rivet in the uneven ground. Falling backwards, she was hit with the full weight of the metal across her chest and stomach as her arms raised to shield her face. Thankfully, the edges were dull, having not yet been honed by the grinding wheel, still, they bruised and broke the surface of her skin in more than one place.
"Stupid, useless girl,' screamed Agni as he turned to investigate the cause of the commotion. Lumbering over, he grasped the hilts of 5 swords in each hand, lifting the weight from her body and allowing her to breathe. Throwing the swords, they found their mark, clattering to the table.
'Be gone from my sight!
Take this hand wagon and collect the stone from the forest to keep the fires. Do not return until the cart is laden down with their weight and your back is breaking. I must have time to think on what to do with you.'
Agni waved his hand in the air in dismissal. Cautiously, the woman stepped past, taking hold of the cart and wheeling it out of the stall and into the wood as commanded.
Chapter 4: The Beauty Of The Forest
The Spring sun filtered through the leaves and boughs of the tall trees, and the blonde woman stopped the wooden barrow, settling the stilts onto the ground. Closing her eyes, she allowed her head to fall back gently so that her face looked towards the sky. She smiled despite herself as she enjoyed the warmth on her face and the soft sounds that surrounded her: the rustling of leaves, the scampering of a squirrel, the trill whistles of the birds that pierced the air occasionally.....
Despite the vastness and unfamiliarity of this part of the wood, she felt safe and reveled quietly in the solitude and temporary freedom that the forest offered from the burdens of her existence.
Aside from the slowly increasing effort needed to move the weight of the barrow, the work was menial and easy and she allowed her mind to wander as she walked.
Her thoughts were filled with stories that had been recounted by the elders of Ravndal since before she was born; tales of far-off lands, of Kings and Queens, of powerful magics, of lands where mythical creatures dwelled together among the trees of the forest.
She had always enjoyed the stories, though she doubted any part of them were steeped in truth or fact. Still, she could hope that places such as this actually existed....even if only in her mind.
So consumed was she by her recounting of those stories that she hadn't realized how far she had ventured into the forest. She wasn't lost, but she had a long journey back to the village.
Looking up, she could see that the sun had already moved past its apex and every minute of the remaining daylight would be needed to return and unload the cart before running home to prepare the dinner and finish her chores.
Shaking off the last vestiges of her daydreams, the woman turned the cart around, gathering the last few stones from the forest floor and tossing them into the cradle of the barrow. Lifting the handles, she could now move the cart only one to two hundred meters at a time before stopping to catch her breath and relieve her arms.
She had made steady progress for the last half hour. The brambled, forest path had widened into a slightly more travelled road and followed the bank and curve of a nearby stream which gurgled along lazily.
Stopping once again to rest, the woman lifted her arm to wipe the beads of sweat that had collected on her brow. As she did, she heard a sound that wasn't typical of the forest, but was still familiar to her ears. It was an ancient, Nordic melody which she had heard sung more than a few times throughout her years. Quickly, she looked around to see if she could find the source of the dulcet tones. Unable to locate the singer, she crept quietly to the edge of the path, hiding behind the trunk of a large Bird-Cherry tree.
The blossoms in the branches above her were releasing their sweet, soft fragrance into the air signaling the turn of Spring into Summer and the loosened petals trickled down toward the stream on the light breeze. Placing her hands on the trunk , she shifted only slightly so that she could see down to the water without being seen, and the sight took her breath.
Fifteen meters ahead, standing naked and partially submerged in water up to her hips was another woman. Her back was turned to the bank, still, it was evident that she was both slight and strong.
Dark, brown hair fell to her mid back and the recent dip of her head under the water had pulled it straight between her shoulder blades.
A tattoo ran from the top of the woman's shoulder to the dimple of her hips covering much of the smooth skin of her left back, and, while the blonde woman could not yet see the entire picture, she could tell that the typical bold and strong Norse styling of their kingdom had been tempered and embellished quite beautifully and elegantly with the significant detailing of a very skilled hand.
She watched mesmerized as the water that had collected momentarily in her thick hair continued down the exposed, olive-colored skin of the woman's back tracing delicate lines over the smooth curves of her upper rear before rejoining the water of the stream.
She continued singing and humming alternately, oblivious to her audience, as she raised her nicely-toned arms to gather her hair over her shoulder and wring the stubborn remnants of liquid from her locks. As she did this, her torso twisted slightly and the blonde-haired woman caught her breath as the side of a glistening, firm, ample breast was exposed. A taut, dark nipple stood at attention, surrounded by a coin of equally rigid skin, while the smooth lines and gentle curves of her flat stomach and curved waist descended elegantly into her shapely hips.
Fully revealed now was her tattoo of two swans entwined about the neck and embraced by a series of neverending curves and knots. Between the pair was a series of runes. They were unreadable by Svanhillde's eyes, but she sensed an amazing depth and meaning:
The woman's face had turned slightly as well revealing a stunning profile. Closed eyes were surrounded by dark, thick lashes and dark eyebrows that were perfectly coiffed. Full, red lips were slightly parted, and the blonde woman watched in rapt attention as the darker-haired woman would occasionally trace her tongue over them to moisten and protect them from the sun and breeze.
In an instant, the blonde-haired woman's head began to spin with emotion that she had never before felt for another and she knew not what it meant. Feelings of protectiveness, strength, longing and physical attraction swirled about her mind in a beautiful cacophony.
She had heard stories told of 'love at first sight', and she could not help but wonder if this was what she might be feeling, though she knew that she should not. A relationship which had no potential to produce another warrior for the clans of the Kingdom was considered unnatural and forbidden.
Who was this woman and how could she have such an effect? Never had they crossed paths, yet the blonde-haired woman felt as if she had known her for an entire lifetime and beyond.
The blonde woman became vaguely aware of a warmth coursing very slowly through her body. The pain that had lingered in her arms and back from her lifetime of labour was slowly being extinguished, while the constant, gnawing feeling of hunger that she carried in her stomach was sated. Perhaps the woman was a sorceress who had lured her to the water's edge, ensnaring her mind and senses as a precursor to making her a slave.
She had only a moment to consider the possibility, however, when a voice rang out behind her.
'YOU THERE! WHAT BUSINESS HAVE YOU HERE?! YOU ARE TRESPASSING IN THE HIGH QUEEN'S WOOD!'
The blonde-haired woman wheeled around quickly to face her accuser. He was a solid, muscular man of almost 2 meters, dressed in a combination of leather and metal armour that clanged quietly as he shifted his weight. His head was covered by a rounded, metal helmet with protective side flaps that tied under his bearded chin. A narrow piece extended down the bridge of his nose and was decorated with the heads and bodies of two, intertwined, Norse dragons leaving only his blue eyes and the tops of his cheeks exposed. He was almost immediately flanked on his left and right by two other soldiers of similar build and dress.
Confused by the sudden intrusion and the accusations, she opened her mouth several times, trying to find an answer to his question.
Glancing to her left, she saw the cart filled with stone for the blacksmith's ovens and realized the gravity of her situation. She had unwittingly taken resources from a forbidden land. The consequences of her thievery would be dire. Knowing that her simple admission of ignorance regarding her location would not save her, she remained silent.
'ANSWER ME AT ONCE, WOMAN! DO YOU NOT SEE THE POSTED SIGNS?' he demanded forcefully as he pointed a finger at the trunk of the tree behind which she had been standing.
A piece of hide upon which had been scratched a series of runes was held tight against the bark by nails. Unable to focus, she assumed that the sign simply reinforced the message that he had already so clearly delivered.
Looking right, he finally noticed the cart of stone.
'THIEF!!' He cried as he kicked the barrow hard with his boot, toppling it over and spilling the entire contents onto the road, 'YOU DARE STEAL FROM THE HIGH QUEEN?!?!?'
Stepping forward quickly, he drew a short, leather crop from his belt, raising his arm high as he moved swiftly towards the woman. He had barely reached the place where she stood when a sharp crack was heard through the trees and the lash of the whip burned across her back cutting the fabric of her dress and drawing blood.
Falling to her knees, she doubled over in pain, covering her head in an effort to provide herself with, at least, some protection.
Several cracks followed in quick succession and her mind reeled from the agony of each contact. Warm blood seeped from the gashes on her back and trickled around her torso, following the dips and ridges of her ribcage before dripping onto the waiting fabric of her dress and apron. She could only pray that there would soon be an end to this excruciating pain. She had not long to wait.
"YOU WILL STAND DOWN!" came the calm, but forceful, voice of a woman.
As quickly as the lashes had been given, they were withdrawn and the blonde-haired woman could hear and feel the retreat of the soldier.
Finally able to catch her breath, she raised her head slowly to look upon her Savior. Bare feet led to smooth, athletic calves and muscular thighs before the line was broken by the covering of a thick fur hide held tight by toned arms wrapped about a slender waist and ample chest. Raising her eyes further, the blonde-haired woman looked fully upon the face that she had seen before only in profile.
Beautiful, rich, brown eyes were fixed intently and severely upon the man who had led the accusations of thievery. Again, the blonde-haired woman felt the surge of warmth through her body and the pain which had threatened to overtake her mind was instantly and fully relieved.
'What is the meaning of this? We do not punish in this land without fair trial,' stated the woman boldly to the officer.
'M'Lady, she has stolen from the Queen's land. The evidence is right before us,' he responded, sweeping his arm towards the tipped barrow.
'She gathers stones for warmth and cooking. There is nothing nefarious in her actions. She seeks only the comfort which we should be more than willing to offer to any member of our clans, ' came the immediate response.
The blonde woman glanced towards the officer, awaiting his retort, and noticed that the head of every soldier was bowed.
They stared intently at the ground, not daring to raise their eyes. The blonde woman sighed as she realized who had emerged from the waters and she prayed that the woman would give her the mercy of a quick death.
'You will help this woman to her feet immediately,' stated the brown-haired woman assuredly.
'Yes, Ma'am,' was replied in unison and the three men moved quickly to the blonde woman's location without raising their eyes. Reaching down, two of the men assisted her in standing, holding her until she was steady on her feet. Almost instantly, the blonde-haired woman bowed to one knee and lowered her head in reverence to request clemency.
'My Queen, I knew not where I was, ' she said barely above a whisper. 'I was absorbed by my thoughts and the beauty of the forest....'
Almost before she had finished her sentence, she felt the warmth of an index finger beneath her chin. Gently, it urged her to stand, which she did, though she kept her head bowed.
'I am not your Queen,' stated the woman softly, 'but you know not who I am?' asked the woman almost confused.
'You are my Saviour,' responded the blonde-haired woman thankfully as she dared to raise her head and look into the eyes of the woman to whom she owed her life. The severity that she had seen in those brown eyes only a moment ago had been completely erased. It was replaced, instead, by kindness and warmth, understanding and comfort, but there was confusion as well. As they locked eyes, it felt as if time and circumstance had fallen away and the feeling of familiarity that she had felt as she watched the brown-eyed woman in the river returned forcefully.
'Have we not met before?' asked the brow-haired woman with a furrowed brow.
'Not that I am aware,' came the quiet response, though she felt in her heart that the words were not the truth.
'Are you certain?'
'Yes. I am quite sure that I would have remembered a beauty such as yours.'
The blonde-haired woman chastised herself for being so bold. She knew not from where her words came and she was finding it difficult to control her tongue and thoughts.
Luckily, the woman before her dismissed the comment, but not before revealing a slight smile and blush.
'What is your name?'
'Svanhilde. Daughter of Thorin of Ravndal.'
'Battling Swan,' said the woman slowly and thoughtfully as she considered the literal translation of the woman's name. 'Do you fight for our clan?'
'I am of no use in a fight and am a discard of both my village and my family. I fight only for my own existence. I am sorry, M'lady. I wish that I could do more, ' she ended sadly.
'Do not underestimate your abilities and potential, Svanhilde. You may, yet, do great things....' trailed off the dark-haired woman softly. While her eyes told her that it could never be the case, it was her heart that told her the truth, and it was her heart that she would believe. The feeling was too strong to deny. After a slight pause, she added thoughtfully,
'I cannot help but believe that we have met before.....'
Over a thousand lifetimes, thought the blonde woman immediately without vocalizing her response.
'Not that I am aware, ' came the simple and quiet answer which betrayed her thoughts. Even the blonde-woman was starting to doubt her own words.
She lingered thoughtfully on the response for a few more moments before turning to the guards that surrounded the blonde woman and issuing a series of orders.
'The day will soon give way to night. You will escort this woman to Ravndal and ensure her safe return. The cart will be refilled two-fold and delivered to the exact place or places that she instructs. Upon arrival, you will unload these stones and make apologies for her late arrival on my behalf. She is not to be blamed or touched for her tardiness. AM I UNDERSTOOD?'
The last words were emphasized to ensure there was absolutely no room for error. The fierceness had returned to the woman's eyes and she looked directly at the commander to ensure he had heard her instructions completely.
'Yes, M'lady, ' was the curt response.
'You will be safe with these men. Do not fear them, ' assured the woman as she bowed her head in the direction of Svanhilde.
'Thank you, my Saviour, ' was the simple, reverent response as Svanhilde was led to the waiting horses and the stones were replaced quickly in the barrow.
As they disappeared into the wood, the simple, unconsidered, unexpected response fell from the brown-haired woman's lips,
'You are most welcome, my beautiful love.'
Chapter 5: What Say You?
The Freyja had never been to Ravndal. It was one of the smallest villages in her mother's kingdom and visits by royalty were typically reserved for the larger tribes. Only in rare or exceptional cases would a High King or High Queen, Feryr or Freyja find themselves in these smaller towns, otherwise, the governance was left to the Lendr Madr or Skald.
She had no business here and would be reprimanded by her mother later for wandering so far from the protection of their wood, but she was compelled to catch a glimpse of the woman that had consumed every moment of her waking thoughts and slumbering dreams since their first meeting.
By the time she reached the outskirts of the village, there was a desperation and need in her search that she could not explain.
This woman, this discard of her village and family, seemed to hold a broken piece of the Freyja's heart that she had heretofore not even known was incomplete.
The urgency of her quest was both exhilarating and terrifying, and she had no choice but to see it through.
The townspeople bowed their heads in recognition and respect as she passed, but showed no other formalities. The clan found little use in the pomp and circumstance afforded the rulers of other kingdoms. Excessive adoration had made these rulers weak and drunk with power, able to focus only on themselves and not the needs of their people and their circumstance.
The main street of the village was little more than a well-worn dirt road which was crossed occasionally by ragged, but sturdy, men and women rolling carts laden with both goods and garbage.
On each side of the path, merchants peddled their wares in open-air, ramshackle stalls of varying sizes. Objects and services were actively bartered between shopkeepers and villagers in exchange for other goods and services and there was a constant thrum of activity.
Those seeking more quiet and isolation need only look behind the stalls on the right where walls of oak plank and rooves of reed and thatch protected the patrons who had gone to seek rest, food, drink or to satisfy more carnal desires.
Behind the stalls on the left, stretched the quay where longships loaded or unloaded the tools and spoils of their raids, respectively.
Eventually, the treasure would make its way to her mother's castle, but, for now, that work would have to wait as familiar villagers, too long from home, were welcomed by family and friends who listened in rapt attention to their tales of adventure.
Riding slowly through the center of the town, the Freyja looked right and left, scanning faces for the slightest bit of familiarity. She had not to go far before she found the exact person she sought.
Sitting at a small table at the back of the blacksmith's stall, Svanhilde's flaxen hair was gathered at her neck by a leather tie, exposing the fair skin of her face and neck. Several fresh whip wounds lay bare, extending from beneath the ponytail, crossing over the top of her shoulder and disappearing down the front of her dress, and the Freyja winced as she thought of the day in the wood. She only wished that she could have intervened sooner on the woman's behalf, but these were not the marks of her Commander. They were raw and had been provided by another very recently.
Dismounting her shiny, black Shire, Rocinante, the Freyja handed the reins to her Thane before approaching the blacksmith stall where she lingered by a display of cloak clasps, tunic pins, pouch closures, tackle decorations and all other manner of ceremonial adornment.
Celebration was infrequent in the villages, but on those rare occasions when they were held; weddings, return of a victorious war party, death; these items were sought as a mark of distinction among wearers.
Pulling off her leather glove, the Freyja allowed her fingers to trace over the ornaments' details. Her attention was only half-focused.
While her fingers moved and her head was bowed, her eyes would occasionally look up through her lashes to observe Svanhilde working on a rosette which was even more beautiful than any of those already in front of her. She watched closely as Svanhilde furrowed her brow and chewed her bottom lip as she worked, oblivious to the sounds and movements of the village.
'You there, Smithja, ' called the Freyja to the blacksmith who had reengaged in conversation with another patron after recognizing the Freyja's presence, 'who has made these items?'
Svanhilde neither acknowledged their conversation nor lifted her head in curiosity at the new voice. She was not permitted to talk to the patrons and she was so engrossed in her work that she had not even realized that the woman that had captured her heart and soul only a few weeks before was, again, only feet away from her.
'I did, M'Lady,' answered the blacksmith gruffly with a wry smile of deceit. These decorations were one of his main sources of income during the drought of peacetime and they brought him much wealth, still he had no intention of giving credit where due despite the fact that their creator sat actively working on one of these decorations right behind him.
Turning her head, the Freyja looked up and addressed the blacksmith directly. She could see the sarcastic smirk and she angered at the hubris that he displayed belittling both his employee and a female of their clan. Her mother may lack the gift of observation and reward the cunning of the wrongfully clever, she, however, did not.
'No, these items are too delicate and refined to have been wrought by your head and hand. I have seen your swords. They are sturdy and strong and have led our people through many battles, but they lack grace. So, I will ask again. Who has made these items which I admire before me?'
His smirk quickly morphed into a scowl as he internalized the entwined compliment and criticism and he tilted his head back, barely raising his chin to acknowledge the woman that sat, still working on the rosette before her. Turning slightly, the Freyja now addressed the other occupant of the stall. Her tone was no longer commanding or sure, but comforting and almost reverent.
'Your work is beautiful. Dare I say some of the finest I have ever lain my eyes on, ' breathed the Freyja as she looked in Svanhilde's direction. She had to stifle a smile as she watched Svanhilde's dedication to her craft and pure ignorance of the world around her.
'GIRL!!' husked the blacksmith cruelly, 'the Freyja speaks to you and you would do well to answer!'
At the sound of his voice, Svanhilde's head snapped up and she looked at him perplexed as her mind assimilated what he had just said. Quickly, she turned to the patron of whom he spoke and drew a sharp breath.
Jumping immediately to her feet, she knocked over her small stool before bowing her head in embarrassment and recognition.
The woman of whom she had both seen too much, and not enough, now stood before her dressed in a light-weight robe of dark green silk which had been lined with a silver brocade. The colors were a perfect compliment to her hair and eyes and the plunging, but tasteful, cut of the bodice revealed the smooth, ample cleavage of her breasts before tightly hugging her slight torso and shapely hips. The flowing skirt lay behind her on the ground, dusty from her long ride and the dirt of the road.
The sight of the Freyja was a welcome contrast to the dreariness of the village and a relief for Svanhilde's heart and mind. In the weeks since their first meeting, she had thought or dreamed of little else than the woman whose company she now kept. The punishment of that inattention had been the pain of whip, but it was a welcome relief to the slow death that her heart was enduring every minute that they were apart.
Only this beautiful, compassionate stranger and savior could heal and strengthen her mind, body and soul. Of that, she was certain, though her tongue could not explain why.
'I a-apologize, F-freyja, ' stuttered Svanhilde nervously, 'I was concentrating on my work and heard not your question.'
Silently, Svanhilde cursed herself for not being more inquisitive on the day of their meeting. The Freyja had asked her name, but, in her haste, Svanhilde had not returned the favor.
She wondered, now, if she had been too familiar in her address....too liberal with her eyes. While the brown-haired woman had stated that she was not High Queen, she had neglected to mention that she was the High Queen's daughter and next in line to the throne. Hers was a place of honor and respect and Svanhilde intended to show her as much now to make amends for any previous transgressions.
Bowing her head, she kept her eyes focused on the ground, cursing the God's for the moments that she was losing in admiring the stunning face of her future, High Queen; especially considering this might be the last time she looked upon it in her life.
She was compensated, somewhat, by the soothing sounds of the Freyja's voice.
'It was not a question, but a compliment regarding the beauty of your work, ' replied the beautiful Freyja softly.
'Tis no where near enough to compliment your exquisite beauty, M'Lady,' blurted out Svanhilde without looking up, only realizing after the words had passed her lips that it was what she had wanted to say, but not what she intended heard by any ears.
Glancing up quickly through her lashes, she could not help but think that she had seen the faint shadow of a blush pass over the Freyja's cheeks before lowering her eyes again.
Turning away quickly to hide her embarrassment, the Freyja addressed the surly blacksmith directly.
'I require the skills of someone like Svanhilde,' started the Freyja. She was met with the confused look of the blacksmith who was trying to sort out how the Freyja might possibly know the name of one among them with such low breeding and stature. Ignoring her obvious slip, the Freyja continued,
'I will require her services at least thrice per week....'
Noting the hesitation and seeing the words of protest starting to be formed on the blacksmiths lips, she added, before the man could respond,
'She will be compensated for her service and you, generously, for your sacrifice. What say you?'
Not willing to lose the generosity of the Freyja's offer and totally unconcerned about his apprentice, the Smith responded immediately,
'When will she begin?'
Snapping her fingers, the Thane brought over a pristine set of ceremonial reigns which she tossed to the blacksmith.
'As soon as she has tooled two rosettes of sufficient beauty to match my own and mounted them upon these reigns.....'
The Freyja finished with a wry wink in Svanhilde's direction, noticing that she had been watching their interaction intently through her lashes. This time it was Svanhilde's turn to blush and she looked quickly at the ground to hide her shy grin.
Harshly, the blacksmith threw the reigns at Svanhilde who caught them haphazardly, loose leather bands lashing at her face and arms. She was ignorant of their stings, focusing instead, on the form of the Freyja as she walked away, mounting her horse effortlessly before riding swiftly into the wood.
'GET TO WORK! THE FREYJA WAITS!' Agni grunted sharply at Svanhilde who scattered quickly to her bench to begin the work that would bring her closer to the woman to whom, from the moment of their first meeting, she vowed to give her heart, soul and life, should the Freyja ever ask.
Chapter 6: An Unspoken Name
'Enter,' came the direct response of the Freyja to the knock on the thick wood of the library door.
Turning from the tower window where she had been enjoying the light of the sunrise as it dawned over the trees, she saw Svanhilde, head down, being escorted by two of the castle guards.
The group stopped at the far end of the room awaiting further orders from the Freyja.
'You may leave us,' was the simple answer to their unasked question.
Warily the two guards glanced at each other.
Sighing, the Freyja continued, rolling her eyes slightly in exasperation,
'No harm will come to me from this woman. I assure you....and I will pass the same assurances on to my mother when I see her as I know that you fear her wrath far more than you fear my anger or for my safety.'
Bowing their heads curtly, the guards took a step back before turning sharply on their heels and filing out the doors, closing them behind and leaving Svanhilde and the Freyja alone in the room.
Svanhilde remained in her place, head bowed, unsure what to do or why she had been singled out by the Freyja for this work, whatever it may be.
She could hear the light swish of the fabric of the Freyja's gown and the click of her boot heels as she approached. Soon, they were no more than a foot apart and Svanhilde senses were filled with the intoxicating scent of honey and lavender and apples that clung tightly to the Freyja's skin and clothes.
It was a welcome contrast to the smell that was clinging to her own clothes and skin and she prayed to Odin that she would not be offensive to her Freyja. She had done her best to clean up for their meeting, but early morning chores in the barn, a run to the village and the subsequent hour's long ride by guard's horseback had left her smudged and dusty and less than fragrant.
For every moment that they stood in silence, she became more and more self-conscious and she hoped the silence might be broken soon.
The Freyja's attention was not focused on what Svanhilde feared, however. The Freyja's gaze was, instead, focused on Svanhilde's neck and chest where, once again, fresh lashes of the whip mingled with scabs and scars of old. A prominent and hollow collarbone was nothing more than corroborating evidence of her mistreatment and malnutrition.
Without thinking the Freyja reached out to trace the scars and wounds on Svanhilde's neck hoping to bring some comfort.
Seeing her raised hand, Svanhillde flinched turning her head, drawing a quick breath, and closing her eyes tightly.
Immediately, the Freyja's hand was withdrawn and she stepped back quickly to remove the perceived threat.
'I apologize, ' were the gentle words spoken, 'I only wished to assess the depth of your wounds to determine the appropriate course of treatment.'
The words and the sentiment were more kindness than Svanhilde could remember ever receiving over her lifetime, and she chastised herself for ever believing that this beautiful woman could mean her harm, but years of mistrust and cruelty were hard erased, no matter what the heart knew. Opening her eyes, Svanhilde stood again to her full height but kept her head bowed to hide her embarrassment and shame.
'I am so very sorry, My Freyja,' she replied, barely above a whisper, 'I did not mean to assume....'
'And I did not wish to frighten,' was the soft response. 'I should have asked your permission first. Sometimes, I forget myself and my actions are too bold.....'
She trailed off quietly, leaving them standing, once again, in silence. Changing the subject, the Freyja spoke again,
'In the wood, on the day of our meeting, did you not know where you were?'
'No, My Freyja. As I said, my mind had wandered as far as my feet and I paid not enough attention.'
'But, there were many signs posted.....' responded the Freyja curiously.
'I did not see them, ' came the the quiet reply which was followed by silence and a slight, nervous, uncomfortable shifting of weight.
'They clearly noted....'
'I CANNOT READ!' responded Svanhilde quietly and frustratedly through gritted teeth.
'When I said that I had been discarded, my lips did not lie. I am unfree. Who in this Kingdom would ever deign to teach me words so that I might be more than what I am?'
Svanhilde's chest heaved with the emotion of her words and Regina could see how hard she struggled against the invisible chains that were holding her prisoner; chains forged by her own family and held secure by a merciless and unforgiving Kingdom. Still, while they broke her body, they did not break her spirit, and Regina could see the strength, defiance, and desire reflected in Svanhilde's green eyes.
'Well, I, for one, am thankful that you knew not what they said, ' offered Regina casually. 'Had you heeded their warning, you might not have hidden behind the tree to watch me bathe.....'
Looking up at Regina's face, Svanhilde's frustration quickly turned to embarrassment and denial.
'I swear to you that I was only in the wood to gather stone, My Freyja!' she pleaded, 'My first glimpse of your face was when you stood before me with your men!'
'I daresay you are right, ' offered Regina thoughtfully, 'you could not have seen my face from that vantage point....'
Svanhilde released a skeptical sigh of relief that the Freyja had believed her words.
Technically, she had not lied. She had only fully looked upon the Freyja's beautiful face once they were both upon the bank.
But now she had to wonder if this was why she had been summoned. Surely the guards had told the Freyja everything they had seen; that it was not just a glance; that her eyes had lingered too long where they should have been averted.
It was a crime to look upon the Freyja without her permission; especially under the circumstance in which she had. Though Svanhilde had not lied either when she said that she did not know not who she was at the time. Perhaps that might bring her some leniency or clemency
She was about to throw herself again at the mercy of this beautiful woman, when the Freyja spoke.
'It is probably for the best. I would not want anyone to see the hideous image that mars my back....' lamented Regina as she turned to the window once more to mask her grin..
'How can you say that? They are beautiful swans upon a flawless back, My Freyja, and they suit you well....' offered Svanhillde perplexed before her eyes widened at her slip of tongue.
'Ahhhh....so you did, perchance, see me there?'
'I...uhhhh....' was all that Svanhillde could offer readily, knowing that she had already revealed herself through her own thoughtlessness.
She was somewhat surprised at Regina's next words, however.
'Did you truly like them... the swans?' inquired Regina softly as she kept her eyes focused out the window. 'I saw them in a dream once when I was young and with fever. They told me not to be afraid and each lay at my sides wrapping themselves around me protectively until I was well. I carry them still so that I might remember their embrace, comfort and strength.'
If the Freyja was angry, then she kept it hidden well. There was no accusation or threat in her tone, only a genuine curiosity regarding Svanhilde's opinion, coupled with a desire to share something of herself with another. If Svanhilde could sense anything, it was that Regina was quite lonely for the simple company of another... for someone with whom she might talk.
Quietly and thoughtfully, she offered her the words that came to her mind and heart.
'My Freya, there was nothing in the water that day that was anything less than perfection to my eyes. I say this, not because you are Freyja, but because it is the truth that I have been privleged enough to see....'
She remained looking at the Freyja's back, hoping for any kind of reaction that might reveal her intentions.
'Thank you, ' the Freyja whispered softly as she turned from the window. She could see nothing but sincerity, kindness and trepidation in Swanhilde's expression. 'Those are the most beautiful and honest words that have been spoken to me in a very long time, Svanhilde.'
They stood in silence for a moment before the Freyja spoke again softly.
'Of what were you thinking, Svanhilde?'
'I'm sorry?' she asked confused.
'Of what were you thinking as you wandered in the wood?'
'Oh, ' blushed Svanhillde and she thanked Odin that the Freyja was not asking about the thoughts that had run through her mind as she had watched her bathing naked.
'Of our stories of old....'
'Of plunder and war...' stated the Freyja forlornly.
'Of courage and beautiful love...' responded Svanhilde immediately with a soft smile looking deep into the brown eyes of the woman that stood before her. In a instant, she could feel her health and strength return and the weight of the exhaustion that had lingered in her bones for weeks was lifted.
'Of loss....' was the quiet response given by the Freyja as she turned back around to face the window. It was not soon enough to hide the deep sadness that dwelled in her brown eyes and the single tear that fell down her cheek as she said the words.
Stepping forward, Swanhilde reached out boldly and lay her hand against the Freyja's bicep which she squeezed gently and reassuringly. The warmth which fell upon their faces from the sun in window could not compete with the heat that was coursing through her fingers and arm which still lay in shadow.
'My Freyja,' said Svanhilde, barely above a whisper.
'Please don't call me that,' responded the Freyja in a tone that was much more severe than she expected. Pulling away, she turned to face Svanhilde who had released her immediately and stepped back, bowing her head in apology though she knew not what she had done. The Freyja looked at Svanhilde and shook her head at herself accusingly. It was the most sincere kindness that she had received from another in many years.
Immediately, she regretted her words and sought to remedy her actions.
'I truly apologize for my tone. It was not what I intended, Svanhilde. Forgive me?'
Slowly, Svanhilde raised her green eyes. She saw nothing but remorse and sadness in the eyes of the Freyja; feelings that Svanhilde wanted so badly to take away and replace with happiness.
'Freyja....the goddess of fertility and love.....she is the woman that I am expected to be but cannot....'
'You cannot bear children?' asked Svanhilde confused.
'Of that, I have no means to know until the day comes...'
'Then, you cannot love?' asked Svanhilde curiously with a furrowed brow.
'I cannot love who my mother desires...' responded the Freyja quietly. 'I cannot love he who would put an heir in my belly....not when I love another....'
'But, still, you are the Freyja, surely you may do as your heart desires and seek the one you truly want?' questioned Svanhilde perplexed.
'Yes, I AM Freyja....which is exactly why I CANNOT do as my heart desires. I must be a role model to my people....even if it means the sacrifice of my true happiness, ' she ended sadly.
'Then all of this is an illusion. This glorious life that so many covet, ' observed Svanhilde as she waved her hand at the opulence about her, 'You are as unfree as me.'
'Yes, I suppose I am,' responded the Freyja with a sad smile.
After a moment of consideration, Svanhilde inquired again.
'If you prefer not 'Freyja', then what shall I call you?'
'I was given a name at my birth. One that is barely spoken, or perhaps not even known, anymore. My mother never uses it in my address, but my Father did, always, and, for that reason, it is very special to me.'
'I will not breathe your name to another, if you prefer it that way. You may entrust me with its safe keeping, I do so promise you.'
Smiling gently, a warmth of kindness and muted happiness reignited in the Freyja's eyes, and it made Svanhilde's heart light to see it.
'You may call me 'Regina',' offered the Freyja.
'Regina,' repeated Svanhilde reverently on a breath, 'I can see why your father kept it. It has strength and elegance and suits you well.'
A slight blush fell over Regina's cheeks, and she smiled despite herself. It had been so long since she had heard her name spoken so beautifully by another.
'Svanhilde,' stated Regina thoughtfully, 'if I may be so bold as to ask....may I simply call you Svan? The implication of ferocity in your name belies your true nature. While you may yet prove yourself a warrior, to me, you will always be a gentle soul that calms my heart.'
'It would be my great honor, Regina,' replied Svanhilde proudly as she tipped her head in deference; a smile falling across her lips.
After another moment, Svanhilde continued,
'Pardon my great curiosity, Regina, but why have you brought me here today?'
'Ah, yes,' stated Regina smiling softly, 'I forgot myself.....'
Walking slowly to the center of the octagonal room, Regina turned in a circle. As she did so, Svan followed her eyes and took in, at last, the space in which she found herself standing.
A large, faded carpet covered the center of the dark-timbered floor atop which was placed a heavy table large enough to accommodate two people comfortably. A Hnefatafl set was situated on the table, pieces neatly ordered, patiently awaiting the commands of their players, while two chairs were turned slightly to beckon weary persons into their leather seats. A bench heaped with furs shared the rug and faced the large stone fireplace that was nestled into the left wall and sat dark, due to the mildness of the Summer.
The ceiling was two-stories above them, and, save the space provided to accommodate the door and the fireplace, the walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls. A small, circular staircase on the right extended to the landing that followed the rotunda above and allowed a reader to move around the room as needed to find materials of interest.
A single, wooden circle, strapped with iron and burdened with 12 candles hung from the center of the room by large, black chains. Its struggle against the darkness was aided only by the light of the windows, but the dim light would be quickly overwhelmed once evening fell.
'My Father loved this room,' said Regina in a reverent and reminiscent tone.
Svanhilde watched Regina's face intently as she continued to turn slowly, a slight smile playing on her lips as she recalled both beautiful and painful memories.
'As a child, we would come here, and he would read to me from these very books in front of the light of a fire. Nothing too scary, mind you, but tales that would keep me spellbound for hours. It was the same tales of love and courage of which you spoke so fondly just moments ago.'
Smiling softly, she looked directly into the green eyes of Svanhilde and saw her smile returned gently before looking back to the landing as if expecting to see her father still standing there.
'I would beg him to read me story after story, not wanting our time together to end, but eventually, he would urge me gently to bed where I would lay pondering for hours those tales that I could recount already by memory.
Sometimes, I would sneak from my chambers well after the high moon passed to look through the crack in the door, and I would see him sitting at this very table attending to the affairs of the kingdom well into the night.'
Pausing, Regina took a deep breath to collect herself before continuing and Svan could see the tracks of several tears on the perfect, olive skin of her cheeks.
'As I got older, his duties would take him from me more and more often, but I would still join him here at every opportunity and we would sit, quietly reading, content in the silence of each other's company.
He would seek my counsel on matters of the realm, and I would provide my opinion. No matter how wrong my judgment might be, he would always assure me that he would 'take it under advisement', ' she said with a sad, slow chuckle.
'It was here that the rider from the North found me, on that horrible evening, to inform me that my Father had been killed by a band of raiders from another Kingdom.
Thieves who had taken his life for no more than a handful of coin that he would have gladly given without confrontation.....'
Trailing off, Regina brought her hand to her face and used her fingers to wipe away the tears that had fallen onto her cheeks and trembling chin.
Svanhilde remained silent, unsure of what to do. What comfort could an she provide to this beautiful woman? What right did she have to provide it? Her mind told her that there were thousands in this land better suited than her to provide the quiet embrace of strong arms. Still, the need was immediate and they were alone, so, timidly, she stepped forward to the place where Regina stood hoping to provide a modicum of relief from her sadness.
'Regina,' she said in a whisper. No sooner had the word left her lips that Svanhilde found Regina in her arms, her dress gathered in Regina's fists as she wept, face buried against her collar bone. Carefully, she wrapped her arms around Regina's shoulders and held her tight laying her cheek against the crown of her head. In return, she felt Regina's arms wrap more snugly around her waist and back.
They remained in this perfect embrace for what seemed like a moment and an eternity, until her tears stemmed, and Regina turned her head so that her cheek rested more comfortably against Svanhilde's shoulder and her forehead nestled into her neck.
'Please, tell me what I can do to ease your pain.....' begged Svanhilde softy as she bowed her head; her warm breath caressing Regina's face.
'I need you to bring light into this room, so that it can be restored to the former glory of my father...' whispered Regina in reply as she hugged Svanhilde more tightly to her, not wanting to let go.
'I will not stop until this room is all that you wish, Regina.'
Regina could feel Svanhilde's arms wrap more tightly around her shoulders and she reveled in their warmth and strength, despite their apparent frailty. Without thinking, the tips of her fingers traced up and down the sides of Svanhilde's back, but she pulled back quickly as she felt the scars beneath the cloth.
'I am sorry. Have I hurt you?' asked Regina with a concerned look.
'I do not believe you capable of causing pain to me or anyone, Regina...'
Blushing, Regina continued quietly,
'I would still like for the healer to look at you....if you will allow it?'
'I will, if only to ease your mind and calm your worry, ' replied Svanhilde, 'but this day draws to a close and I must return to my home now or the pain will run deep, until I can see you again.'
'Until tomorrow then?' asked Regina hopefully.
'I will count the moments....'
Chapter 7: The Gifts Of The Unfree
'Rocinante, please,' pleaded Regina exasperately.
Standing beside the forge, Svanhilde furrowed her brow as she looked inquisitively at the open door of the barn. She could not see Regina or Rocinante from where she stood, but Regina's concerned voice and Rocinante's desperate neighing told her that something was not right.
Laying down her tools, Svanhilde walked swiftly to the stables. Stepping inside, she could see Regina standing outside the enormous, last stall on the right. She held Rocinante's reins tightly in her fists as the Shire struggled against her, causing her to dig in her heels so that she could pull in the opposite direction.
Just beyond them, a very young and small stable boy had abandoned his work with the hay to press his back tightly into the corner where the front wall of Rocinante's stall met the back wall of the barn. He held his pitchfork, which was twice as tall as he, upright in front of him, tines pressed hard into the ground, trying to form a crude but, ultimately, ineffective barrier behind which he could hide. His eyes were wide as he watched the events unfolding between Regina and Rocinante.
Glancing at the Shire, Svanhilde could see the frustration building in his eyes as he jerked his neck back strongly and raised his head.
'FREYJA! NO!' shouted Svanhilde as she took off at a sprint towards the back of the barn.
She was only half way to her destination when she saw the enormous shadow of Rocinante's reared body covering Regina's slight form. He had managed to pull the reins from her hand, but had startled her in doing it, and she stood stock still in surprise, unable to move from her position.
Almost immediately, the frustration in her horse's eyes was replaced by panic, and he flailed his front hooves wildly trying to stay upright so as not to land on Regina who stood frozen in his path.
Taking several, huge strides, Svanhilde cleared the remaining distance between them grasping Regina about the waist and back and spinning her quickly so that her own back now faced the stall.
She closed her eyes tightly as she shielded Regina's body with her own praying that her actions had moved them far enough from harm, and the ground trembled beneath their feet as Rocinante's hooves landed only inches behind Svanhilde's heels.
After breathing several sighs of relief and thanking a few random gods, Svanhilde looked down to find Regina still curled tightly into her chest; cheek against the top of her breast; eyes closed tightly. Her arms hugged Svanhilde's torso; the loose material at the back of her dress gathered in Regina's fists.
'Freyja?' Emma whispered softly against the crown of her head. 'Are you hurt?'
She could feel the softness of Regina's hair against her lips as she spoke and she breathed in deeply; indulging in the scent of lavender and apples that seemed to cling constantly to Regina's skin. Unconsciously, her left hand, which was shielded from the view of the stable boy, rubbed soothingly up and down the side of Regina's back, and she thought she felt Regina's arms tighten slightly as she awaited her answer which was finally provided in the form of a shaken head. Even then, it was a few moments more before Regina actually opened her eyes and reluctantly released her grip.
'Thank you, ' said Regina softly, 'I don't know what is wrong with him today....'
Turning around, Svanhilde looked at Rocinante curiously and noticed a subtle shaking in his left, front leg.
Pulling back slightly, he watched Svanhilde very cautiously as she entered his stall and gathered his reigns in her hand to better control his movements.
'Shhhhhh, ' she offered quietly over and over before reaching forward to pet his cheek softly several times. Seeing him relax, she took another step towards him before sliding her hand slowly down his neck to his shoulder. There, she could feel the muscles twitch and jump strongly under her fingers and she noticed the reaction continued down the length of his leg.
'Whoa, ' said Svanhilde as she noticed him shifting warily from foot to foot and she remained unmoving, but in constant contact, until he settled again.
Running her hand further down his leg, she noticed that the intensity and frequency of the reaction increased steadily. Finally able to cup her hand loosely around the thick shaft of his leg, she grasped his ankle and lifted his foot gently from the ground.
The underside of his hoof was caked in blood and straw and a sizeable crack extended from the coronet band at the bottom of his leg to the tip of his hoof. What had previously been invisible as he stood in the thick hay was now readily and painfully apparent.
'Who shod this horse?' asked Svanhilde as she inspected the injury more closely.
'Th-the ferrier, ' said Regina confused.
'Actually, My Freyja, ' piped up the stable boy, 'the ferrier was not available. He is at home with the fever. He sent his apprentice in his stead.'
'Well, ' sighed Svanhilde as she looked over her shoulder at Regina, 'his apprentice still has much to learn. He has driven several nails into the flesh of Rocinante's leg and split his hoof to the quick. If he was resisting you, then it was for good reason. He is hurting.'
She watched as Regina covered her mouth with her hand, and Svanhilde could see the pain and tears in her eyes as she worried about the comfort and well-being of her beloved steed.
Releasing Rocinante's leg, Svanhilde stepped from the stall.
'I will return to you and Rocinante in no more than a moment, My Freyja, ' she consoled before she moving quickly out of the stable and out of sight.
Regina and the stable boy could hear Svanhilde approaching before they actually saw her.
When she arrived at the stable door, she carried a large, heavy wooden box filled with both blacksmith's and ferrier's tools, limping slowly as she wrestled the weight from the door of the barn into the stall.
Settling the tool box on a small bench, she spoke softly to Rocinante as she clapped him gently on the side of his neck.
'Now, let us see what I may do to ease your pain and quell the Freyja's worries a bit....'
Reaching down, she grasped Rocinante's ankle once more and lifted his hoof, this time, straddling his leg to hold his foot steady between her thighs.
Grasping a blunted pair of nippers, Svanhilde worked the ends gently under the head of the first nail. Rocking back and forth slowly, she felt a slight pop as the nail released itself from the surrounding calcifications, and she withdrew its length before throwing it into the box.
Slowly and methodically, she repeated the process on each of the offending nails, resting her palm against his shoulder between each extraction until she was rewarded with the sensation of relaxed muscle and skin and several gentle nudges of his muzzle against her shoulder.
'I do believe that the worst is over, my friend, but there is still some delicate work to be done. Please be patient with me. I have not the skill and quickness of your ferrier, but I promise that I will do my best, ' offered Svanhilde encouragingly as she wrapped her arm about his face and patted his cheek playfully.
Using a combination of clamps and metal bridges, Svanhilde fashioned an elegant, but sturdy bandage for the front of Rocinante's hoof before removing the uncomfortable iron shoe from his foot. Cleaning out the dirt, blood and debris carefully, Svanhilde washed Rocinante's skin and hoof gently with clean water before refitting him with a shoe of thin, polished iron which covered the bottom of his foot, save the frog and groove, and wrapped snugly around the newly trimmed edge of his hoof lending even more strength to his 'bandages'.
Moving to his other feet, Svanhilde was relieved to find that the damage had been contained to a single leg and she made quick work of the remaining shoes.
Tapping in the last nail carefully, Svanhilde replaced the hammer in the wooden box before stepping in front of Rocinante and taking the sides of his harness.
'My work is complete, my friend, and I hope it has brought you, and your Freyja, some comfort, ' she offered as she scratched the bridge of his nose and between his ears.
She smiled gently as he bowed his head and leaned it forward blowing a deep, fluttering, relaxed breath through his nostrils. Laying her forehead against his, Svanhilde scratched his cheeks happily and playfully, and she smiled and laughed at his growing excitement at the attention.
Behind her, Regina couldn't help but stare in awe at their interaction. Only she and her father had ever dared approach Rocinante in such a personal and familiar manner. Others, who had attempted the same, were rebuffed summarily; typically with a simple, but very clear, warning that told them never to repeat their actions again.
All had been foolish suitors who believed the fastest path to Regina's heart, or, more specifically, her bed, was through Rocinante.
One man had not been so lucky. Selected by her mother as a suitable match, he had proven himself uncomfortably aggressive from the day of their first meeting, and it was clear that he saw Regina as nothing more than his whore and the key to the wealth and power of the Kingdom.
Tired of waiting for his prize, he found Regina alone in Rocinante's stall one evening. In a drunken rage, he beat her mercilessly before clamoring atop her in the hay. When they found them the next day, she was intact; he....barely breathing...the imprint of hooves covering his skin.
Perhaps Rocinante had the capacity to see clearly that which Regina's eyes could not; sincerity, courage, humility, compassion, selflessness, faithfulness, dependability, kindness, humor, intelligence, commitment, passion....
Could it be that this person that had only existed in her dreams stood before her now?
The attraction to this woman was certain. She had felt it when their eyes first met. Despite her physical frailty, her beauty was unmatched in all of the kingdom and the strength that flowed through her veins.... her entire being... was undeniable and unlike anything that Regina had ever before witnessed.
Regina knew that she had lingered too long in Svanhilde's embrace before, but she had never felt such security and warmth, and she wanted only to be lost in the feeling forever. Perhaps, someday, she would get the chance to feel her arms again....
Eventually, Regina was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of Svanhilde's voice coming from behind her. So lost had she been in her musings that she had not even noticed that Svanhilde had exited the stall with her tools and box.
'I will stay the night to watch him, My Freyja, but I believe that the worst is past, ' said Svanhilde as she cleaned her bloodied hands on a rag extracted from the box.
'He is anxious to serve you, but I would advise that you offer him a day of rest so that he may recover fully. Tomorrow, I am certain that he can and will take you as far as your heart desires....'
'I do not know how to thank you for your kindness....' offered Regina.
No sooner had the words been spoken than she found herself again in Svanhilde's arms; nudged and held there definitively by Rocinante's muzzle in her back.
Regina offered him a faux look of annoyance, but struggled not against his instruction, immediately relaxing into the arms that had already been wrapped instinctively and tightly about her waist and shoulders.
'Perhaps I should provide you company for the evening?' offered Regina tentatively and hopefully as she looked into Svanhilde's green eyes. 'The hours can be quite long....'
'So I can see...' offered Svanhilde in reply with a grin as she raised her chin to draw Regina's attention to the stable boy who had fallen asleep already in the hay.
'Give me a moment to get him to his mother? I promise to return immediately.....'
Encouraged by Regina's smile and nod, Emma gathered the sleeping boy in her arms, walking quickly from the barn to deliver him safely to his home. It was no more than five or ten minutes before her return, but it seemed like an eternity to Regina.
When Svanhilde returned, she carried a leather bag that was full to bursting with food, and Regina's stomach growled loudly as she took in the aroma of warm bread and stew.
'Our small friend awoke and recounted his harrowing tale to his mother. I don't remember seeing a dragon, but he insisted quite strongly that his words were true, so I will assume that I simply wasn't paying attention very well, ' chuckled Svanhilde, and she was rewarded with a short burst of Regina's melodious laughter.
'Oh, yes, he was quite sneaky, ' grinned Regina.
'I see, ' responded Emma with a cocked brow and a grin of her own. 'It is good then that she has provided us with this bounty of food, so that we might placate him. After all of this work, it would be a shame if he insisted upon eating Rocinante.'
Almost immediately, Rocinante stopped frisking about in his clean straw and looked at Svanhilde with a wary eye.
Laughing heartily at his reaction, Svanhilde reassured him 'Worry not, my friend, I will bite its tail myself, if it dare come too close to you or your Freyja.....'
Satisfied with her answer, Rocinante rolled to his back and wiggled his enormous body about trying to draw himself closer to Regina who rested in the soft straw on her hip and hand. Finally drawing close enough, he lay his head in her lap and closed his eyes enjoying the scratches and pets of her fingers under his jaw and chin.
'Big baby, ' teased Svanhilde with a grin. Her response was a terse snort followed by soft nickering which was directed at Regina to encourage her to continue her pampering.
Svanhilde busied herself making comfortable arrangements for Regina. It was a barn, so the luxuries were limited, but clean hay, clean blankets and a sturdy bench could, at least, be provided.
As she worked, she would glance over at Regina, her heart skipping a beat every time she saw the soft smile that played upon her lips or watched her press the strands of hair behind her ear that had released to bounce lazily in front of her eyes.
She was thankful that she had been able to provide Regina, at least, some amount of peace.
Seeing that Rocinante had finally curled into a sound slumber, Svanhilde spoke quietly.
'May I offer you some food and drink? It is most definitely in abundance, ' said Svanhilde in wonder as she considered the amount of food that the boy's mother had been able to fit into such a small bag. Stew, fruits, bread, cured meats, cheese, meade, and wine had all been unpacked and arranged neatly on one of the small, tack benches that Svanhilde had positioned close to a small square of folded blanket that sat atop a mound of fresh hay.
'Mmmmm, ' said Regina with a grin as she stood in front of the bench, arms folded over her growling stomach. Leaning over, she pressed her hair behind her ears once more before closing her eyes and breathing in deeply, 'It smells delicious....'
'Then, allow me to serve you, ' said Svanhilde softly, indicating with her hand that Regina should sit upon the blanket she had laid.
Carefully, she placed a crust of warm bread, grapes, cured meats, and cheese into a square of burlap for Regina cradling it gently so as not to drop anything. Turning around, she noticed that Regina had opened one of the folds of the blanket so they might both have room to sit, if they remained close.
Taking a relaxing breath, Svanhilde delivered the plate of burlap to Regina before bringing her a crude, dented metal bowl filled with piping hot stew. Gathering a few items for herself into a piece of burlap, Svanhilde returned to the blanket where Regina patted the ground beside her to encourage her to sit.
Doing as she was asked, they both ate a few small bites in silence, unsure of what to say and avoiding each other's eyes to hide the nervousness that had started to build.
'This stew is delicious.... do you not like it?' inquired Regina as she noticed that Svanhilde did not have a bowl, though ample quantity remained at the bench.
'She gave but one bowl and spoon and it is not easily eaten with fingers, ' mumbled Svanhilde, 'I will wait until you are finished and have eaten your fill.'
'It will be cold by then....And, it is so delicious, that I may very well eat it all, ' teased Regina before growing more serious. 'You may share my bowl. There is more than enough for both of us here.'
'I...uhhhh....' was all that Svanhilde could offer as she looked into Regina's eyes and beautiful face. The sincerity and concern that she saw there was undeniable.
'I am unfree, Regina....I should not even be sitting this close beside you, let alone sharing your meal...'
'We are all unfree in some way, remember....' offered Regina encouragingly, 'even me.....'
Unsure how to respond, Svanhilde's waited for Regina to continue.
'I know not what terrible names others may call you. I know you only as Svanhilde of Ravndal, and I can see that you are hungry. Please, do not deny me the opportunity to try to repay you, even if only meagerly, for your help and kindness today....Please?'
Gulping, Svanhilde nodded her head in acquiescence, and she watched Regina tuck a strand of hair behind her ear before grasping the spoon in her fingers and dipping it into the stew. Before she could pull the spoon from the bowl, the errant curl fell forward again and Regina huffed quietly in frustration as she pressed it back again.
'I-I have something for you, Regina, ' whispered Svanhilde tentatively.
Raising her eyes, Regina looked curiously at Svanhilde, who furrowed her brow and twisted her mouth in thought as she felt about in the pocket of her apron.
After a moment of searching, Svanhilde extracted a silver hair tie which she held out to Regina in offering.
Shaped like a half cylinder and approximately three inches long, Regina could see that the polished silver had been hand-embossed with delicate leaves and vines which would have taken hours to design and even longer to lay.
The sides were laced with a sturdy leather webbing that could be loosened and tightened to accept as little or as much hair as Regina chose.
'I noticed that your hair frustrates you sometimes, ' she trailed off as she held out the bangle in her hand and looked shyly at the ground.
'I made it for you. I thought it might help, but you do not have to use it, if the source of the item is an embarrassment. I will understand....'
'I will wear it proudly, ' she breathed as she took the clasp from Svanhilde; her fingers brushing over Svanhilde's softly and gently.
'How would you prefer that I wear it?'
'You will look stunning no matter how it is worn. Please do not ask me to decide...' she offered as she looked into Regina's eyes.
Blushing and smiling, Regina lay the bowl on the blanket between them before gathering the sides of her hair into the tie and securing it tightly.
'Do you like it?' asked Regina tentatively.
'More than there are words at my disposal to describe...' breathed Svanhilde reverently as she smiled softly at Regina.
Again collecting the bowl in her hands, Regina dipped the spoon into the stew, smiling softly at the fact that Svanhilde's would even notice such a subtle mannerism and reaction, nevermind seek so adamantly to rectify it.
She had received gifts from others in her lifetime, but most were given because of tradition, expectation or want of return. The gifts were gaudy and predictable; chosen to be conspicuous and to call attention to the giver, not the wearer; worn once and then locked away, never to be looked upon again.
This gift, however, was exactly to her taste; simple, elegant, intricate, useful, and she knew that she would wear it proudly every day, BECAUSE of who it was from.
Svanhilde watched as Regina lifted the spoon from the bowl pursing her perfect lips to blow upon the hot broth to cool it.
'I believe it is cool enough, but do please be careful, ' she said quietly as she lifted the spoon to Svanhilde's lips. She was met with a surprised and somewhat confused stare.
'Open, ' urged Regina parting her in lips to demonstrate before offering a shy grin.
Svanhilde captured Regina's eyes with her own as she opened her mouth slightly, and she soon felt the spoon and warm liquid pass slowly between her lips. Closing her mouth, she savored the flavors that were placed upon her tongue as the spoon was withdrawn gently and she could never remember enjoying a more delicious bite of food.
As she swallowed, she watched Regina chew her bottom lip nervously; a new habit taken up to replace the old of tucking her hair, and Svanhilde wondered how anyone of her stature and position could be so generous after only a single meeting, when others, only slightly above a status of unfree, could be so uncaring, unforgiving and cruel over an entire lifetime.
'Was it too hot? I did not burn you did I?' asked Regina fearfully.
'You did not hurt me, Regina, please don't be afraid. You worry too much over me, ' she reassured.
'If not I, then who?' Regina questioned softly.
Laying down the spoon for a moment, Regina reached to Svanhilde's face and used the tip of her ring finger to collect a small drop of broth that had collected in the corner of her mouth brushing gently over Svanhilde's bottom lip before withdrawing her finger.
Bringing the wetted finger to her own lips, Regina sucked the tip softly into her own mouth, enjoying the taste of the morsel still warm from Svanhilde's lips.
Svanhilde watched mesmerized; her own lips parting as Regina's did, and she could feel her breathing quicken and her chest start to heave at the raw, but unintentional, sensuality that Regina displayed. Withdrawing her finger, Regina drew a bit of stew from the bowl for herself and slid the spoon between her lips closing her eyes as she savoured the full flavor of the delicious soup upon her tongue.
'Exquisite, ' moaned Regina quietly.
'Yes. Yes, it is, ' whispered Svanhilde knowing well that they spoke of two separate things.
If Regina noticed Svanhilde's mounting reactions, she made no indication, though every bite delivered by Regina's hand became an exercise in self control. She wanted so badly to press her lips upon Regina's; to revel in their fullness and softness, to be lost in her touch, to feel wanted and loved.
By the end of the meal, Svanhilde knew that the desperation in her eyes could no longer be masked. If the Freyja saw not, then Svanhilde could only believe her blind or beyond polite.
Seeing her opportunity, Svanhilde gathered the empty bowl and burlap, jumping to her feet and taking them to the bench where she arranged them neatly before placing her hands on the seat and bowing her head as she breathed in and out slowly to calm and collect herself.
'Is everything all right?' asked Regina quizzically.
'Yes, ' offered Svanhilde as she stood to her full height and faced Regina with only a slightly more calm demeanor. 'I believe the meade has made my mind a bit foggy.'
'Are you certain that it was not something else?' she asked hopefully.
'No, ' responded Svanhilde almost immediately and nervously, 'I truly believe it to be the meade....'
'Yet....we have had none served, ' questioned Regina as she nodded at the full pitcher.
'I...uhhh...ohhhh...' groaned Svanhilde as she looked at the bench to see the meade untouched. Facing Regina again, she could see her looking at her curiously.
'I meant the wine....'
Immediately, she could see Regina's head shaking 'no' and she again groaned at the full flagon to her other side.
'I can tell you only that my mind is foggy. I cannot tell you why....'
'Cannot or will not....' asked Regina gently.
'Is there a difference?'
'If you cannot, then I must assume that you know not the source. If you will not, then I must assume that you know the source but are afraid to reveal it. To me, there is a difference.'
'Regina, please.....' pleaded Svanhilde.
'Are you afraid?'
Unsure what to say, but unwilling to attempt another failed lie, Svanhilde sighed before offering up the only answer she could.
'Afraid. Excited. Overcome. Amazed. Unsure. Hopeful. Nervous.....'
'In every way possible.....' whispered Svanhilde as she looked to the ground, unsure of what else to offer.
There was a slight pause and she began to curse herself silently for having been so stupid as to trust Regina with the truth.
'Would it help to know that I feel those same things?' offered Regina quietly as she dipped her head to catch Svanhilde's eyes with her own.
'I too am afraid and overcome because every one of the feelings that I have in this moment I have never felt for another. Still, I am excited to see where this may lead, even if I am unsure of whether my heart may eventually be broken. I am nervous because I go against the wishes of my mother and the expectations of this Kingdom, yet I cannot deny what my heart feels and I do not want to spend my life wondering 'what if'. I am amazed and fascinated by what I learn about you each and every day, Svan, and I hope that, if nothing else, I might get to know you better. You have captured my mind, my body and my soul.
If I have misunderstood your words, or if anything I say feels foreign or uncomfortable to your ears, then please tell me now, so that I may become less familiar in my actions. If I am not mistaken, though, please, sit beside me. I know that this is new for both of us and I will never ask for more than that which both of us may willingly and freely give.
And, tonight, I ask only for the pleasure of your company and conversation.... '
'Before I settle, ' asked Svanhilde tentatively, 'would you like some meade?'
'At this point, I might suggest that you bring the entire flagon to settle my nerves, ' teased Regina which earned a twisted, shy grin from Svanhilde.
Bringing the only cup and flagon, she settled again beside Regina on the blanket.
'I have something for you as well, Svan,' offered Regina softly as she reached into her pocket and extracted the first volume of a small, children's primer where each page contained only a single picture and word written in the runes of their language. Svanhilde had seen them only a few times before, carried by the younger children of the noblepersons of the village, but had never been considered worthy enough to touch one herself. Now, her fingers reached out, unthinking, to feel the thick, leather cover reverently.
'If you so desire, Svan, then I will help you learn....'
'Yes, Regina, ' she whispered and nodded, still looking at the book's cover.
'Then let us begin....'
Opening the leather, Regina held the book between them so that they both might see, and she could feel Svanhilde scoot closer placing her hand on the ground behind Regina's back so that any distance between them was quickly closed. Relaxing slightly, she could feel the brush of Svanhilde's cheek against her own as they looked at the first picture together.
'C-a-t, ' offered Regina as she passed a finger under each letter, sounding it out so that Svanhilde might relate the symbols with the sounds.
Turning the page, they looked at the next picture.
'D-o-g, ' was spoken with the symbols emphasized again.
'And Rocinante?' asked Svanhilde as she turned her head to look at Regina. Smiling, Regina looked up from the book, turning her head as well to offer a reply. Misjudging the distance between them, she soon felt their lips and noses brush lightly though neither pulled away. Instead, they remained, brown eyes locked with green, saying with their souls all the words that could never fall safely from their lips.
Regina closed her eyes and her lips parted slightly as she felt Svanhilde's hand cup her cheek, thumb brushing against her skin, nose gently and affectionately nuzzling against her own, and she gasped slightly as she felt her lower lip taken briefly and lightly between both of Svanhilde's own.
'Please, My Svan, ' whispered Regina desperately and her pleas were answered immediately by a more emboldened enveloping of her lips by Svanhilde's own.
Fingers entangled in hair and chests heaved as their kisses became more ardent and urgent; the primer now abandoned to the hay.
It was Rocinante's urgent neigh that snapped them back to reality after only a few moments and they separated quickly; Svanhilde jumping to Rocinante's side and Regina hiding the primer before refolding the blanket to give the illusion of a single place of rest.
'My Freyja, ' inquired the stable boy who was quite out of breath from his excitement and the run from his home, 'is Rocinante well today?'
'You should ask his ferrier, ' offered Regina with a grin and nod of her head at Svanhilde who was inspecting carefully the completely wrong hoof as she attempted to calm herself and look natural.
'Yes, he seems to be quite well this morning, ' stated Svanhilde in a voice that was a bit more loud and high-pitched than she had intended.
'Shall I bring more hay?' asked the boy without seeming to notice anything unusual.
'I believe that he would like that very much, ' said Regina brightly with a beautiful smile.
'Yes, M'Lady!' replied the boy enthusiastically and proudly as he ran to grab his pitchfork.
'He adores you, ' said Svanhilde quietly as she moved to each of Rocinante's feet to ensure his healing and the comfortable but snug fit of each shoe.
'He is a beautiful boy of whom his mother must be very proud....'
'He serves the Freyja. There is nothing of which a person of this Kingdom may be more proud. You should know that the people hold you in high esteem, My Freyja...even above the Queen herself.'
'I do not understand why....'
'In you, they see beauty and hope, in her, only fear....The people long for the day when you will be their Queen, My Freyja....'
'Mmmmm, ' responded Regina distractedly with a soft smile as she watched the young boy gathering hay.
'And you long for something more....' mumbled Svanhilde as she watched Regina curiously.
Finishing her work, Svanhilde moved closer to Regina.
'I must go. I have already overstayed and will feel the wrath of my father for missing the sup. I should not miss breakfast as well....Rocinante is well and ready to serve as you command. Ride well and safe, Freyja.'
Turning to Rocinante, Svanhilde grasped his bridle and pressed her forehead against his so that she might address his ears and eyes.
'Please ensure that no harm comes to her, my friend. I know not what we would do without her, though, I am quite certain that you realize that already...'
Feeling his gentle nodding against her head and hearing the stamp of his feet, Svanhilde released him from her grasp and turned to find Regina standing close behind.
'Be careful on your ride, Regina. Please...' offered Svanhilde barely above a whisper as her fingers brushed lightly against the back of Regina's hand.
'As you command, My Svan, ' she replied quietly as their fingers touched and then drew to the tips before separating and severing the last vestiges of their evening. She watched until Svanhilde disappeared into the daybreak before turning to offer a gentle smile to the small stable boy and help him with his work.
Chapter 8: A Time To Heal
'Please, Father, ' whimpered Svanhilde softly through gritted teeth as the tears ran from her eyes only to be lost among the straw of the barn floor.
'When I tell you that you will be home to make the supper, it is not a request. IT IS A COMMAND!!!'
His last words increased in volume and fervor as he swung his arm and brought the heavy strap of leather down for the ninth time upon Svanhilde's exposed shoulders and top of back.
The crude, blunt metal buckle smacked hard against her right side again and she gasped and gripped the hay with shaking hands as she felt the slight pop of her newly fractured rib.
'The Freyja's horse required my care...'
'The beasts HERE require your care! They starve as you forget yourself and your responsibilities!'
Another crack was heard as the leather contacted her bare skin.
'You will make the breakfast and care for THIS house FIRST, ' Thorin instructed as he gathered his leather belt in his hands and replaced it about his waist, 'then, you will go to your Freyja and let her look upon you so that she might think twice about making you late or absent again, lest she need find another blacksmith. I will not be so lenient next time....'
Turning sharply, he exited the barn quickly leaving Svanhilde alone.
'Yes, Father, ' whispered Svanhilde to no one as she breathed a sigh of relief that her punishment had come to an end.
Holding her right arm tight against her ribs, she sat up slightly before grasping the right side of her dress with her left hand. Pulling it up and forward, she winced and cried softly as the rough fabric and seams scratched against the open wounds that crossed her back and shoulders. Grasping the left side of the dress, she repeated the process and a new wave of tears fell from her eyes before the pain abated slightly.
The majority of the wounds were covered, but the tendrils of enough lashes still showed about her neck and collarbone to assure that the message her father wanted delivered to Regina would not go unheeded.
Pressing herself to her feet, Svanhilde found that she could only straighten comfortably to a hunched position even with her hand and arm pressed firmly against her side to dull the pain. It was enough to allow her to work, albeit at a very slow pace.
Her only consolation was the silence that finally surrounded her, though she knew it would be short-lived. Once inside, she would be relegated to the continued beratement of her father and brothers as she cooked and served them. It would be inevitable and furious due to her slowness of pace.
Work complete in the stables and yard, Svanhilde sighed as she looked to the house, finally resigning herself to begin the breakfast after gathering over two dozen eggs from the hens.
Once inside, she moved slowly, struggling to reach and collect the items from the wall needed to prepare the meal. Despite her difficulties and their impatience, not one offer of assistance was tendered, and so she continued slowly, but diligently, hoping to soon be in a position to be gone from their presence.
'You damned fool, ' offered one brother from his place at the table earning the laughter of his brothers, 'you are as slow as you are ugly.'
'I might be married and have grown children before this meal finds its way to the table, ' taunted another before walking to where Svanhilde stood chopping herbs, intentionally bumping into her and ensuring a hard smack to the right ribs.
The pain was excruciating and she placed her hand atop the chopping board to keep herself from collapsing as her head spun violently and the darkness on the periphery of her vision crept further into view.
She was quickly drawn back to consciousness by a knife driven into the wood of the board between her fingers, and she looked up to see her father, hand on the hilt, who had been watching and listening, unamused.
'You have 10 minutes to serve this meal or, so help me, you will be unable to do more than crawl for a week.'
'Yes, Father, ' she managed; thankful that preparations were done and the cast iron was hot.
She needed every moment of the ten minutes, to plate the eggs and partition the bread and drink, finally moving to watch the men eat; trying to anticipate their needs so as not to be reprimanded. Her goal was met with only marginal success. Insults were intermingled with intentional jabs, jostling and bumps all aimed at aggravating the injuries at her right side and back
'Are the animals fed?' asked her father harshly once he had finished his plate. There was a clatter as he brushed the metal to the middle of the table with his large hand before wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
'Yes, Father, ' responded Svanhilde softly on a series of short, gasped breaths.
'Then be gone from our sight and do not forget to give my message to the Freyja. She is not the High Queen and will not be held in the same regard as her mother in this house. I will not cower to her wishes and desires. Do you hear me, Girl?'
'Yes, Father. '
As she reached the door, she was hit hard in the middle of her back by a heavy flagon, half full of ale, which had been hurled by the eldest of her brothers at the table. It rebroke anew the seeping wounds on her back; the alcohol scorching her exposed muscle and flesh like fire.
'And bring better ale from the village upon your return. This is stale and fit only to drink by the dogs and the unfree....'
'Careful, Brother. The dogs might take offense at being ranked equal to someone that even they know is their lesser.....'
'Good observation, Brother, ' said the eldest. 'Now, be gone, vermin, and come not back tonight empty handed lest you feel my wrath along side Father's....'
Lifting her skirt, Svanhilde exited the door; happy to be free of her family's shame and degradation.
Svanhilde was almost two hours late arriving in the village and the Freyja's men sat waiting agitatedly and impatiently in their usual place.
She approached, eyes cast down in apology and embarrassment, reaching her left arm up silently and bracing herself for the excruciating pain that she knew she would feel at being pulled upon the saddle.
The tears ran copiously from her eyes, but only a small whimper escaped her lips during the process. It was enough, however, to draw the attention of the soldier with whom she rode.
She had seen him before in their party, even as recently as a few hours earlier when they had brought her to Ravndal after her watch with Rocinante, but she had not yet ridden with him.
He was younger than the rest and the scruff of his beard was not as full as some of the more seasoned men, residing as a mere shadow upon his face. His steel-blue eyes always shined with mirth and the excitement of a life yet unlived but greatly anticipated.
It was a welcome change to the ever-serious, rough, unapologetic behavior of the remaining men that surrounded the Freyja and, more often, the High Queen herself.
'You must eat so that you may heal, ' he offered quietly to her as he pressed a large piece of jerky into her hand. 'I can see that you have suffered greatly already today. No doubt in punishment for your late return.
I know it is difficult, but take solace in the fact that your actions with Rocinante brought consolation to both our Freyja and to her magnificent animal.
My name is Gravnik and I will steady my own horse as much as I am able so as not to jostle you greatly. You may lean against me as you require. I am at your service....'
'Thank you, ' breathed Svanhilde as she relaxed slightly, barely moving her lips as she knew that he should not be speaking to nor offering her any concessions. She could only be thankful that there were still those who lived among them who had retained their compassion and understanding for others, regardless of their status.
Leaning back slightly against him, she brought the jerky to her lips taking small bites and settling in for a long and uncomfortable ride.
Regina stood by the window of the library, back to the doors, her expression a mix of anger and concern. She had expected Svanhilde to have arrived earlier, despite the fact that they had only left each other a few, short hours ago. Their separation seemed like an eternity and she wanted her time alone to come to an end.
Whatever she may have been feeling, however, melted away instantly and her lips curled into a brilliant smile as she heard the library door open and close behind her. The number of steps told her that Svanhilde had finally arrived, but she dare not turn around to look upon her, lest the guards see her exuberance at the arrival of an unfree; a reaction that was certain to cause too many questions to be raised.
'You may leave us, ' she instructed solemnly as she kept her eyes fixed out the window. She could hear the men bow followed by the shuffle of their feet before the door clicked closed.
'I have missed you terribly, ' offered Regina as she turned from the window. 'I thought we might re--, ' was as far as her sentence progressed before she looked fully upon Svanhilde standing just inside the door.....if Regina could even describe it as standing.
Svanhilde's arm and hand was pressed hard into her right side at a location and angle that required that she bend awkwardly to the right and forward. Her furrowed brow covered exhausted eyes and she breathed quickly and shallowly through parted lips. The ends of multiple lashes showed about her shoulder and neck and were deep enough that Regina could only imagine the incredible damage that lay beneath the fabric of Svanhilde's clothing. Weakened legs wobbled slightly, and Regina could only wonder at how she remained standing.
With a few brisk strides Regina crossed the room, but hesitated slightly, unsure of how to help without causing more damage.
'I can walk, if you will but lend me your arm to lean on, ' whispered Svanhilde softly.
'Of...of course, ' replied Regina frantically offering her right arm quickly to Svanhilde's left. She allowed Svanhilde to set the pace and they found their way slowly to the front of the fireplace.
'Let me make this bench more comfortable for you, ' said Regina as she released her grip and moved to arrange the soft furs.
She had barely started her work when she heard the thump behind her and she turned to find Svanhilde kneeling upon the floor, body slumped over in exhaustion.
Her head was bowed and her hair had parted at the back of her neck while the neckline of her dress had pulled down slightly.
Nauseated, Regina took in the deep gashes and seeping wounds which crossed her skin, some of which were filled with dust and straw. They mingled haphazardly with both newer and older scars some of which were raised and thickened as a result of multiple lashes having been delivered to the same spot.
Despite the red fabric of Svanhilde's dress, Regina could see the thick lines of crimson blood that had seeped through the material, some dry, some fresh.
Regina knew immediately that it was she that had delayed Svanhilde's journey home; she that had kept her from her other duties; she that was to blame for the injuries that had been sustained.
'I am so sorry, my Svan, ' she whispered as she drew her hand to her mouth and the tears began to fall.
'This is not from your hand, Regina, ' panted Svanhilde quietly.
'No. It is from my selfishness of wanting you near to me when you have a responsibility to others....'
'I would never deny us another evening like the last, ' she offered through gritted teeth, 'no matter the cost to myself...'
'You will not be tardy or absent again, no matter the circumstance....'
'But, if you are in need....'
'My need and want of your presence is constant, but it is not worth your safety or, perhaps, even your life....'
'Please, my Svan, do not require that I command it....' said Regina softly but more harshly than she had intended.
Sensing Regina's frustration and reluctance, Svanhilde fell silent, rocking herself slightly to dull the pain that had flared by their arguement.
'Give me but a moment and I will once again be at your side, ' stated Regina more gently and her words were met with a barely perceptible nod.
Regina's return found Svanhilde in the same position upon the floor, and Regina wondered if Svanhilde had been fortunate enough to escape her pain in the embrace of sleep.
Placing a shallow pan of warm water beside Svanhilde's knees, Regina also knelt on the floor pressing the front of her hips against Svanhilde's left buttock before pushing the sleeves of her gown above each elbow to expose her forearms.
'My Svan, are you awake?' whispered Regina as she leaned slightly over Svanhilde's back and pressed her flaxen hair behind her ear. Again, she received a barely perceptible nod.
'I know that my request is bold, but I must ask you to loosen your gown so that I might tend your wounds....'
She watched as Svanhilde's left hand slowly reached to release the leather tie that lay between her breasts.
Taking the loose material in her fingers, Regina slipped the coarse fabric over Svanhilde's shoulders slowly, working her hands gently across Svanhilde's back to release the stubborn fibers from the clotted blood. Inch by inch, Svanhilde's sleeves lowered over her upper arms until they pooled about her elbows and the neckline slipped almost to her waist.
Gathering the sides of the gown's bodice in her shaking fist, Svanhilde attempted to hold it closed, so that she might cover her breasts from view and feel less exposed and vulnerable as her face flushed with embarassment.
The porcelain skin of her back was marked with scars, scabs and fresh wounds from the nape of her neck to her waistline; some of the lashes extending further beneath the cloth of her skirt and across her buttocks.
Most of the fresh wounds were gathered together in a line that extended from her left shoulder to her right side where an angry, purple bruise extended from the impact point of the buckle.
Her skin was drawn tight over a prominent ribcage and Regina could distinctly see the single rib that had taken the worst and heaviest of the lashes.
'I must clean these wounds, please forgive me...' sighed Regina.
Delicately she extracted the pieces of straw from flesh and muscle until she could no longer get to them easily. Satisfied that she had done as much as she could, Regina pulled the basin closer and dipped a soft cloth into the clear water to wet it.
'I must cleanse your skin to remove the dirt and remaining debris. I hope that the water is not too warm. This may sting....the wounds are so deep....'
Removing the cloth from the water, Regina wrung the contents onto Svanhilde's back. She could hear Svanhilde's gasp of pain and the muffled cry released through her gritted teeth; her knuckles white as they gripped the cloth of the dress even tighter.
'I must continue to clean them or they will become infected. It will take few more times. I am so sorry....'
Svanhilde's head nodded slowly in permission and so Regina continued; same action, same reaction, until the wounds were clear and released only plasma and blood. Dipping one last time into the water, she wrung the cloth almost dry before blotting it against the wounds gently, feeling Svanhilde's back flinch and arch slightly with each contact.
'I believe the worst is over, ' whispered Regina as the palm of her hand caressed Svanhilde's bare, left side softly and unconsciously. She continued unthinking as she collected a small jar from the deep pile of the fur beside her, only stopping long enough to uncork the top.
The salve was thick and clear. Regina's father had used it countless times, to great effect, on the scrapes, bruises and cuts that she collected as a child, but these wounds were much more severe, and she could only hope that it might provide the same comfort and healing to Svanhilde.
Dipping her right, middle finger into the jar, Regina collected some of the balm onto the pad of her digit before placing her left hand against Svanhilde's side again.
Again, she leaned over to speak softly, gently rubbing the flat of her hand up and down the skin of Svanhilde's ribcage completely unaware of her own actions and the wanderings if her hands and fingers as they brushed the soft side of Svanhilde's breast only to return to squeeze her hip gently.
Before she could speak, a slight moan escaped Svanhilde's lips and Regina looked down confused, knowing that she had not yet even touched the ointment to Svanhilde's skin.
It took only a moment for her to put the pieces of the puzzle together and immediately she stilled her hand.
'Please, Regina, I beg you not to stop. It is all that gives me strength right now.....'
The only response was Regina's hand starting to move more deliberately up and down Svanhilde's side; fingers ligering briefly to massage gently into the soft skin at the side of her breasts and the side of her hip.
'Then close your eyes and concentrate only on this as I tend to your wounds, ' whispered Regina as she continued administering her soothing touches.
She felt the slight nod of Svanhilde's head that told her that her continued actions would not be rejected, and Regina brought the salve to raw skin with her other hand, filling the cracks and cuts with gentle strokes of her fingers.
No longer did Svanhilde's back arch or flinch. Her only reaction was the bumps of skin that raised in response to Regina's touch which encouraged and emboldened her fingers' exploration.
As Regina's fingers slipped to Svanhilde's right side, to the most severe and painful of her wounds, her left hand dared to move further as well, brushing against Svanhilde's nipple that had already hardened into a stiff peak before grasping, pinching and twisting gently.
She could feel the fabric of Svanhilde's dress release slightly as she allowed herself to indulge in the pleasure being provided by Regina's hand and Regina took the opportunity of Svanhilde's distraction to ensure that her bruising and fracture was well tended with the medication.
As Regina finished her work, she felt Svanhilde's left hand laid atop her own left to still its motion. Tugging gently, Svanhilde replaced their hands in a different location; this time, above her heart.
'Thank you, My Queen, My Regina, ' she breathed, squeezing Regina's hand strongly before her arm dropped to the floor and she slumped exhausted, the weight of the past several hours no longer able to be kept at bay.
Grasping Svanhilde's dress once more, Regina lifted it up and replaced it upon her shoulders carefully before moving the items she had used to treat her injuries to the side and then sitting upon the floor, back leaned against the bench.
'Come, Svanhilde, ' she whispered softly, 'rest your head upon my lap and sleep. You need to heal....'
Patiently, Regina watched and waited as Svanhilde slowly resituated herself, laying on her left side, knees drawn up towards her chest, cheek resting on Regina's thigh. Her hair spread about her shoulders and Regina's legs, covering her face.
With the tips of her fingers, Regina drew the strands of blonde hair away from Svanhilde's visage and pressed then behind her ear so that she might gaze upon her beautiful countenance and she smiled gently as she saw her closed eyes; the tension that was previously in her brow now erased. Softly, she trailed her fingertips over Svanhilde's cheek and watched as her eyes fluttered open tiredly.
'Will you read me a story, Regina?' she asked quietly.
'A story worthy of your ears does not exist upon these pages, My Svan, but, perhaps I may tell you of a beautiful place that exists only in my dreams?' asked Regina as her fingers continued pressing gently through Svanhilde's hair. 'The vision came to me on the same eve as the swans appeared to me as a child. I believe it is the place from which they came, but I cannot be sure. The memory was almost lost from me, but the dreams returned again the night after we met in the forest, stronger and more beautiful and more complete than ever. It is an amazing land of magic and mythical creatures....'
'I would like very much if you would tell me about this place, ' sighed Svanhilde as she again closed her eyes.
'I hope that the land of which you speak exists and that I might someday see it, ' offered Svanhilde quietly after Regina finished describing the dream which she had never told to anyone.
'As do I, ' offered Regina softly. 'Perhaps someday we may see it together....'
'I would very much like that, ' drowsed Svanhilde as she nestled in further, falling sound asleep.
Chapter 9: Tell Me A Story
The Castle of the High Queen, Kingdom of Uvhir - Present Day
Summer had passed quickly into Fall and Fall into Winter. The days had grown cold and short with only a few hours of daylight piercing a, seemingly, perpetual darkness.
A constant, blowing snow lingered and swirled in the air, penetrating structures, clothes, skin and bone, occasionally increasing and decreasing, but never-ending....
'Regina, the winds are strong and the snow falls heavy. I have silenced the forge and must be on my way, if I am to return to my village and home tonight, ' said Svanhilde as she lit the newest sconce in the library and descended the steps of the ladder.
'I am afraid that time has passed, ' responded Regina as she continued her concerned vigil at the window.
'The snow lays heavy in the air and in the boughs of the trees, and the window of opportunity has closed swiftly. Not even Rocinante may see you home safely now. The snow will pass by morning, and then, you may go safely, but you must stay here tonight....' finished Regina as she turned to look into Svanhilde's eyes, which were filled with dread and foreboding of what she would endure upon her return.
'But....' replied Svanhilde in panic.
'Please do not make me order you, Svanhilde....'
Svanhilde's brow furrowed at the formality of her address, but realized quickly that it was Regina's fear for her safety that made her now so adamant and determined. Even Svanhilde knew that a brief flogging was the lesser of the two evils; one resulted in gashes which Regina might tend gently; the other in frostbite or even death.
Regina chewed her bottom lip nervously as she continued watching the slowly deteriorating conditions.
'I am at your command,' replied Svanhilde after only a moment's hesitation, tipping her head in respect. 'You know that I would do anything that you ask of me....'
'Thank you, Svan. I know, already, that I ask too much of you and have brought you significant pain, but I am truly afraid this evening....'
'Please, Regina ' said Svanhilde as she touched Regina's arm gently, 'come away from the window and be at ease. I will remain at your side for the night....'
Walking over to the hearth, Regina sat upon the floor, leaned on hip and hand, atop the great, bearskin rug that was situated between the bench and the fireplace. Smiling gently, she patted the floor beside her and beckoned to Svanhilde,
'Come and warm yourself by the fire. There is food and drink enough for both of us to share,' encouraged Regina. 'Do not forget that you promised to do anything that I asked of you, ' she finished with a teasing smile and received a small, huffed laugh and shy grin in return.
Quickly, Svanhilde made her way over to the fireplace and sat atop the rug facing Regina.
Svanhilde's eyes could not help but take in Regina's dress of deep burgundy which was lined with a silver brocade and cuffed with fur.
The cut and fabric of the cloth and the color and smoothness of Regina's skin was all accentuated ten-fold by the firelight, and Svanhilde could not take her eyes off the beauty that sat in front of her. It was as if she was looking upon a goddess and she prayed that she was not dreaming.
'Please eat,' encouraged Regina softly, 'you know how I worry about you...'
Holding out her free hand, Regina offered a bit of cheese and meat on a crust of bread which Svanhilde took only tentatively. She chewed the bite slowly, watching Regina's eyes, before washing it down with a sip of wine from a pewter cup which they shared.
'You know that I should not share your food, Regina,' offered Svanhilde dejectedly. 'They bring only enough for one, and I have jerky in my bag of which I can partake so that you may eat your fill....'
'Each time, you say this, and, each time, we manage. Allow me to worry about you tonight...' said Regina with a shy smile as she offered another small bite of food from her fingers.
This time, as Svanhilde tried to take it with her own hand, the food was withdrawn.
Furrowing her brow, Svanhilde attempted again to take the offering, only to find it withdrawn a second time.
Looking up, she saw a playful grin dancing on Regina's lips, and she realized it was a game that she played. Svanhilde had seen it played before, but only by young lovers and she knew not if the expectation was the same.
Unsure what else to do, Svanhilde leaned forward, hands planted firmly on the ground, closing her eyes and opening her mouth slightly. She felt the slight tug of delicate fingertips on her lower lip as Regina deposited the morsel upon her tongue. As it has been in the barn, Svanhilde could not remember a more delicious bite.
Holding the chalice with one hand and supporting the base with the other, Regina offered a sip of wine,
'May I quench your thirst?' she offered softly.
Leaning forward, Svanhilde continued to stare into Regina's eyes as the chalice was brought to her lips and she drank a satisfying draught from its basin before the pewter cup was withdrawn and placed upon the hardwood floor.
'Tell me a story?' asked Regina as she looked into the gentle, green orbs that had become so familiar and welcome to her over the past several months.
'There are many stories in this land, Regina. What would you have me recount?' asked Svanhilde quietly as she refused to avert her eyes from the gaze that had brought her so much peace and happiness over the same time.
'Perhaps, we should simply write our own story?' offered Regina as her face leaned close to Svanhilde's.
'And what would the premise be?' asked Svanhilde softly as her lips brushed against Regina's and her breath warmed her chin.
'Courage....and beautiful love....' replied Regina on a breath before closing the remaining distance and capturing Svanhide's lips boldly with her own.
The returned kisses of Svanhilde were tentative at first; the hesitant explorations of a new lover, but it was not long before she sought more. Pressing her tongue forward, it was accepted eagerly by a warm, wet mouth and the gentle caresses of Regina's tongue as their kiss deepened and lingered.
Finding Svanhilde's hand with her own, Regina laid it atop her breast, encouraging her to take a next step. Reluctantly breaking their kiss, Svanhilde bowed her head embarrassed as she spoke her next words on a panting breath,
'I have never been with another, Regina,' she whispered hesitantly, 'I will be but a disappointment to you...'
'Nor have I,' responded Regina as Svanhilde looked at her perplexed.
'I have surprised you, I see,' Regina continued as she looked up shyly through her lashes with a slight smile.
'But you could have had any...' replied Svanhilde in disbelief.
'Perhaps, I was simply waiting for you....' offered Regina as she looked at Svanhilde with imploring eyes, 'and I can only pray that what I have to offer you is acceptable....'
'I am fairly certain that you have less to fear than I,' sighed Svanhilde sadly.
'If it pleases you, we may determine that together,' offered Regina hopefully.
'There is nothing that would please me more, ' breathed Svanhilde in reply.
Emboldened by their shared lack of experience, Svanhilde took the leather tie at the top of Regina's gown between her fingers, and pulled gently to release the bow that had been secured there. Regina looked down briefly at the bodice of her gown before looking back up between her lashes
'Promise me that you will not stop, ' she begged quietly.
'I could not tonight...even if I wished, ' replied Svanhilde as her index finger found the first cross of leather and pulled the stands from the grommets. Pressing her lips firmly against Regina's, Svanhilde kissed her deeply and passionately as her fingers found each of the remaining braids and released the taut fabric from about Regina's breasts and stomach.
Breaking their kiss, Regina looked down again to see the open bodice of her gown which now exposed a deep 'v' of olive skin that extended from the inside of her nipples to her navel, and she chewed her bottom lip nervously as she looked at Svanhilde expectantly.
'So, so beautiful, ' offered Svanhilde reverently as her index finger traced slowly from Regina's collarbone, between her breasts and down to her navel before repeating the pattern in the opposite direction.
'May I?' Svanhilde asked as her eyes looked to Regina's and the tips of her fingers slipped beneath the collar of the open gown, indicating what she hoped to do. Regina nodded in silent agreement and caught her breath as the fabric pulled away from her collarbone and Svanhilde's mouth found purchase there instead.
Kissing and sucking gently, lips trailed lightly over skin which Svanhilde felt raise into bumps in response. Slipping her fingertips further under the fabric, she pressed out, pushing the heavy velvet over Regina's left shoulder and halfway down the top of her toned bicep. Squeezing the top of her arm gently, Svanhilde scraped her teeth lightly over the skin of Regina's shoulder earning a quiet moan in response.
Breaking their kiss to catch her breath, Svanhilde rested her forehead lightly against Regina's collarbone. Looking down, she could see Regina's firm breast which had been exposed by the movement of her gown and she reached her hand so that her fingers splayed against its soft side. Drawing her thumb downwards she tugged gently at its already hardened peak before pressing upwards and then tracing the pad several times around the surrounding coin of rigid, darkened skin. Immediately the memories of the forest came to her and Svanhilde couldn't help but break their silence.
'I have wanted to be with you since the day that I saw you in the stream,' she whispered quietly in confession.
Smiling gently, Regina responded just as quietly,
'I know. I could feel you there...'
Raising her head, Svanhilde looked at Regina with puzzled eyes.
'I have felt you with me for as long as I can remember, but I knew not how to find you...On that day, I knew my wait was over, ' said Regina as she reached out to press a strand of long blonde hair behind Svanhilde's ear, trailing the side of her index finger across her jaw before withdrawing her hand and bowing her head.
'But you told me once that you love another...' replied Svanhilde sadly.
'To whom do you think my heart belongs?' inquired Regina quizzically as she took Svanhilde's hand from her breast and placed her palm gently over her heart instead. She held both of her own hands tight over Svanhilde's, unwilling to let go.
'I have waited an eternity to give myself to you and only you. I am yours complete, if you will have me...' said Regina hopefully as she raised her head to look into Svanhilde's gentle, green eyes that now sparkled with a fire all their own.
'Then let us not wait another moment,' replied Svanhilde as she leaned forward again to try to recapture Regina's full lips with her own.
She was startled when she found Regina's palm pressed into her chest, holding her back gently, and she looked into Regina's eyes, concerned that she may have misunderstood or, worse, imagined the words that she had just heard.
'Please do not do this only because I ask, ' implored Regina.
Smiling gently, Svanhilde cupped the side of Regina's face, brushing her thumb over her cheek several times before drawing it softly across her bottom lip.
'I don't do it because you ask, Regina,' she said quietly, 'I do it, because I love...'
Guiding Regina's face gently with her hand, Svanhilde leaned forward, bringing their lips together again in a searing kiss. Parting her lips, she pressed her tongue deep into Regina's mouth caressing her tongue over and over again.
Her head in a beautiful haze, Svanhilde finally broke their kiss, panting, and rose to her knees, offering her hand to Regina to encourage her to do the same.
Keeping Regina's gaze, but speaking not a word, Svanhilde slipped her fingers beneath each collar of Regina's dress, sliding the fabric slowly down her toned arms, over her delicate wrists and past her fingers, leaving the fabric to hang at her waist and her olive skin to indulge in the light and warmth of the fire.
Dipping her head, Svanhilde continued watching Regina's eyes until the last moment when her warm mouth covered an already hardened nipple that became even more rigid with the attentive ministrations of her tongue.
Closing her eyes, Svanhilde allowed herself to indulge in the decadence of Regina's body and was rewarded with the feel of Regina's fingers slipping through her hair and holding her head gently to her breast, encouraging Svanhilde to continue her explorations as Regina allowed her head to fall back, face to the heavens.
Releasing Regina's nipple with a soft pop, Svanhilde's mouth moved to the neglected breast, sucking gently and teasing relentlessly while her hands moved to Regina's back, fingers splayed, massaging and kneading the skin and curves of Regina's sides before slipping down to grasp her hips and draw their bodies closer together.
Finally satisfied that she had provided sufficient attention to Regina's full and resplendent breasts, Svanhilde again raised to her knees, slipping her hands into the waistline of Regina's gown.
Watching her eyes for permission and seeing it received, Svanhilde pressed the fabric slowly over beautifully curved hips until it pooled about Regina's knees and her gorgeous body was accentuated further by the firelight.
She could see Regina trembling slightly and her eyes grew concerned.
'Have I done something wrong? ' asked Svanhilde in a shaking voice, 'I told you that I have no experience, and I fear that I have hurt you or that you are afraid of me.... '
'I am scared only that I disappoint you, ' replied Regina softly as she crossed her arms over her breasts.
'Then you have not yet experienced true disappointment, ' replied Svanhilde trying to lighten the mood, 'forget not that I have yet to remove my dress, ' she finished with a teasing smile.
Her reward was only a shy and hesitant turning of one corner of Regina's lips and she could almost see the tears forming under her lower lids.
'How can you not know how beautiful you are, Regina?' begged Svanhilde in a whisper. 'I will spend my life and longer proving it to you, if you will let me. I beg you, Regina. Let me show you just how beautiful you are to me, ' finished Svanhilde as she smiled softly in assurance.
Looking into the comforting eyes of her lover, Regina released her arms and reached to wrap them about Svanhilde's shoulders and neck kissing her strongly, needfully and urgently as their bodies pressed together.
Wrapping one arm around Regina's back and one around her waist, Svanhilde pressed her body forward urging Regina to lay back against the soft fur of the rug as her other hand tossed aside the gown that had burdened them for too long.
Leaning over the length of her body, Svanhilde placed a hand to each side of Regina's head before lowering herself to touch her lips to Regina's ear.
'You are, and always will be, my Saviour and my life,' she whispered on a breath before lifting her body to kneel between Regina's legs. In a single, deft movement, she crossed her arms over her sides and lifted her threadbare gowns over her head before tossing them aside and bowing her head.
'It is now I who should apologize for being a disappointment, Regina,' stated Svanhilde sadly. The scars of a hundred cuts covered her chest and wrapped over her shoulders and under her arms to her back where there lay a hundred more scars to provide them with company. Her ribs showed beneath the pale skin of her sides and her stomach was hollow from too many years of too little food. The arms that had guided Regina's body were frail and thin as were the legs upon which she knelt, but her green eyes burned with passion and strength that was undeniable.
'I see only the beautiful woman to whom I will pledge my life and my love,' whispered Regina comfortingly. 'You will never be a disappointment to me.....'
Encouraged by her words, Svanhilde settled her weight upon her heels, grasping Regina's hips firmly and pulling her body up so that her shapely ass now rested atop Svanhilde's thighs. The position arched Regina's back from the floor, and she earned a gasp of pleasured surprise in return.
Reaching forward, Svanhilde placed the flat of one hand against Regina's heart before drawing it down between her breasts and over the flat of her stomach where muscles twitched and jumped slightly in anticipation.
'What would you have me do?' Svanhilde pleaded quietly.
Within the a single heartbeat, she had her reply,
'Whatever you desire....for I am yours....'
'I desire only to bring you happiness,' was offered as Svanhilde slipped one arm under each of Regina's thighs, wrapping her forearms over the tops of Regina's legs, and hoisting her further into the air so that she was supported only by Svanhilde's arms and her shoulders against the softness of the fur.
Watching her lover's eyes intently, Svanhilde lowered her head and dipped her tongue once into the dark, coarse hair between Regina's legs. Swiping her tongue lightly, she separated her warm, soft, wet lips barely enough to taste the juices that now bathed her tongue and she heard the sharp gasp of excitement escape Regina's lips. Tracing the tip of her tongue about her own lips, Svanhilde knew immediately that she would never find, in all the lands, a sweeter wine than the one that lay in the cup before her and she wanted desperately to drink her fill.
Supporting Regina strongly, she used her fingers to expose Regina's clit before bowing her head again and covering it with her mouth. Sucking softly, she swirled her tongue, flicking it quickly and teasingly over the bundle of nerves that stood in rapt attention and hardened further with each passing stroke. She watched as Regina's eyes fluttered closed and her hands searched for purchase, entwining in the thick hair of the rug and forming fists with such might as they turned her knuckles white.
Regina's gasps quickly turned into deep pants marked occasionally by a soft moan, stifled with only partial success, as she tried not to draw attention to their lovemaking.
Continuing her incessant teasing, Svanhilde could feel Regina pressing firmly against her mouth searching for a pleasure that she would readily and willingly provide. Reaching out to grasp Regina's searching hand, she entwined their fingers and was rewarded with a look of passion, adoration and love which she had never before experienced.
The lone word, 'please', played on Regina's lips and Svanhilde nodded slowly as she worked her mouth, lips and tongue strongly to bring Regina to the beautiful edge she sought. Her arms wrapped more firmly around Regina's thighs to hold her bucking hips as she exploded into orgasm behind clenched teeth and closed lips and Svanhilde held tight, continuing to lick and suck and tease until Regina's body was spent and she sagged in exhaustion. Placing a last, tender kiss against Regina's swollen, twitching, pulsing clit, Svanhilde helped to lower her body to the rug before hovering over her and catching her lips so that Regina may taste that same sweetness that she'd had the pleasure of enjoying. Their kiss was deep and probing and she felt Regina's tongue trace her lips and chin until every drop had been consumed.
Settling lightly atop Regina's body, Svanhilde held her tightly in her arms, laying an ear to her chest to hear the strong beating of her heart and providing her with what little protection she had to offer as Regina recovered slowly from their lovemaking.
As they lay, she could feel Regina's fingertips tracing the scars on her back lightly. The pain had subsided long ago, but the memory of every lash remained and she prayed that the deformity of her skin would not be offensive.
Eventually, Svanhilde settled onto her back beside Regina who turned to rest her head against Svanhilde's chest and shoulder. She was held tightly by Svanhilde who would lower her head occasionally to place a gentle kiss in her hair and Regina couldn't help but smile, though it was short-lived as her fingers once again found the dips and protrusions of the lashes across Svanhilde's chest.
'I am sorry that I couldn't spare you from all of this pain, ' murmured Regina as she looked up sadly into Svanhilde's face. Looking down, Svanhilde smiled back at her kindly.
'I would suffer a thousand more lashes, Regina, if I knew that they would always bring me to this day, ' she replied surely as she gazed deep into Regina's brown eyes and leaned down to kiss her lips.
As their passions escalated and tongues explored hungrily once more, Regina's hand slid across Svanhilde's skin; her eager palm finally lighting upon a small, but firm, breast which she kneaded strongly, feeling Svanhilde's nipple rise quickly into a stiff peak which she grasped between her thumb and forefinger, twisting, pulling and pinching gently, at first, then more strongly to match the intensity of their desire.
Slipping her hand further down, Regina's fingers pressed through the tight, blonde curls that were already soaked with abundant wetness, and she was amazed that her unpracticed hands could evoke this kind of response.
Emboldened, she pressed her middle finger slowly between warm lips and began to rock the tip back and forth against Svanhilde's swollen, hard clit.
Gasping strongly, Svanhilde's head swam with pleasure, and she broke the kiss that she was no longer able to return sufficiently. Leaning her forehead against Regina's, she rocked her head slowly from side to side as she closed her eyes and tried to memorize every brush of her lover's fingertips. Reaching up, she let her own fingertips trail from Regina's shoulder down the length of her arm before covering Regina's hand with her own.
Together, they played light circles about her clit before Svanhilde guided her hand further down and their fingers slid inside her warm, tight entrance. They pressed and withdrew their fingers to their full length several times before returning to tease her hardened bud, repeating the pattern several more times until the words 'please' fell from her lips and Regina moved her hand to quickly and lightly wave the flat of her fingers over Svanhilde's clit one last time.
'My Queen!' was exclaimed behind gritted teeth as Svanhilde's back arched strongly from the floor and her eyes fluttered closed in ectasy as Regina continued her incessant teasing, repenting reluctantly only when Svanhilde collapsed in exhaustion.
They made love in front of the fire for hours that night, until they created a perfect union of their souls and their bodies were spent.
The fire still crackled and popped as Svanhilde pulled the furs up to cover their naked bodies. Settling in behind Regina, she drew her tight against her front, unwilling to allow even a breath to come between them. She could feel Regina's body relax as her breathing slowed and deepened.
'I love you, My Queen.'
'And I love you, My Beautiful Svan.'
These were the last words whispered into the dark stillmess of the room before they drifted off to sleep in each other's embrace.
In the hearth, a fire burned bright and warm though there were no logs to be consumed in the grate and somewhere in the distance, an eagle screamed.....
Chapter 10: The Strength Of Love
The dawn of a new day broke over the horizon, and the sun cast its rays over the deep and drifted snows which surrounded the castle. The wind had calmed and the few flakes that remained in the air were drifting down from the high branches of the trees in the forest.
Inside the library, Regina snuggled deeper under the furs unwilling to let go of the night. There was a chill in the air, and the warm presence that she had felt behind her all night as she slumbered was noticeably absent. Reaching back, she slid her hand beneath the hides seeking the reassurance of Svanhilde's soft touch. Her hand had not far to go before it touched warm skin. She smiled and sighed deep as she felt a wave of comfort that all had not been a dream. Keeping her eyes closed, her fingers moved lazily and lightly over smooth skin which was stretched tight over solid muscle. Furrowing her brow, Regina sensed immediately that something was not right. Opening her eyes, she turned slightly to glance over her shoulder.
In an instant, she was wide awake and she scrambled to her feet, grabbing a fur from the top of the pile which she used to try to cover the front of her naked body as she pressed her bare back against the side stone of the great fireplace hoping for some protection. She felt dangerously exposed.
Regina's eyes were wide as she looked upon the woman that still lay sleeping, nestled into the fur of the bearskin rug. She was fully uncovered and naked, and her face was turned away from the fire, but her golden hair fell thick and rich over her back and shoulders. The porcelain skin of her back was without blemish and incredibly muscular, and Regina's eyes followed the smooth waves of her spine from the nape of her long neck to the small of her back and over the tight, ample curve of her rear. A tight waist gave way to small hips which led to long legs with solid, thick thighs and muscular calves. Broad shoulders, striated with muscle, extended her arms above her to support her head as she slept and her well-defined biceps and triceps relaxed and contracted slightly as her hands flexed into fists unconsciously beneath her head.
'How dare you lay beside me in this bed unwelcome, Stranger!' hissed Regina through gritted teeth. 'You are not invited here! What have you done with My Svan?'
The woman barely stirred at the sound of her voice, readjusting her body slightly before falling back asleep.
'ANSWER ME, DEVIL!! WHO ARE YOU AND WHY DO YOU LAY IN MY BED SO FAMILIAR?!?!' Regina repeated more loudly, so as to assure a response.
The woman opened her eyes groggily, disturbed by the noise around her, but still not recognizing it as words. Shifting her weight slightly, she turned her head to look towards the fire and her brow immediately furrowed in concern.
'Regina....you seem afraid,' said a familiar voice as the woman turned onto her side and propped herself onto her elbow, looking deep into the brown eyes that she loved and worshiped.
'Come back to bed and let me warm you. It is cold and you will catch your death. What has scared you so that you would leave my side and now look upon me with fear?'
Regina's mouth fell open slightly in disbelief as she stared into familiar, deep green eyes. She was stunned to silence by the woman upon whom her eyes gazed, and she could only open and close her mouth silently, trying to find any words of explanation.
Svanhilde kept her eyes fixed on Regina and pushed herself up to her feet; the look of concern growing exponentially with each passing moment. As she raised to her full height, Regina drew a breath and could breath only a single word,
'Who else would it be, Regina?' she responded perplexed.
'I know in my heart and soul that it is you that stands before me, but you are not the woman that I remember from only hours ago,' she said in reverent amazement as her eyes lowered to look at Svanhilde's body.
Following Regina's gaze, Svanhilde looked down as well, and her eyes went wide.
Her breasts, small before, had a new fullness and firmness. Her hollow and thin stomach had been replaced by solid abdominal muscles which dipped and rose in clear separation contacting and twitching as Svanhilde breathed in and out heavily, trying to control her mounting concern. The dip of the muscles at the tops of her hips pointed to the apex of her thighs where a small, thick patch of golden curls lay, and the muscles of her thighs stood at rigid attention. The frail arms that had supported Regina the evening before were now full, hard and strong, and the scars of the whip that had crossed her chest only yesterday had faded on the ivory skin of her chest which was now flawless and smooth.
Looking up at the same time, they locked their gazes and stared in silent confusion, trying to make sense of a situation for which they had no explanation. Before they had time to speak, however, the word 'FREYJA!' was barked outside the door and Svanhilde snapped her head in the direction of the sound only a moment before Regina did the same.
'I am home from my travels and you will join me for breakfast when the sun is full above the horizon. We have urgent matters to discuss,' came the emotionless, and almost cruel, voice of a woman.
Turning to Svanhilde quickly, Regina whispered desperately and fearfully,
'You must go! It is the High Queen, and she has returned earlier than expected. She cannot find you here, or we will both be lost.....'
Not bothering with a response and unable to wrap her mind around everything that had and was happening, Svanhilde reached for her dresses which she threw over her head. The fabric which had swayed light on her body before now clung tight to her skin and the seams of the arms pulled tight, threatening to break.
Frantically, she searched for her quilted long coat which was the only thing that she owned to protect her from the biting cold outside. Finally locating it, she slipped her arms inside and tied it in front. It had been a discard from one of her brothers and still hung somewhat loose, offering an adequate disguise....for the time being.
As Svanhilde dressed, Regina had done the same, and, now, they stood before each other, hesitant to part despite the imminent danger and uncertainty they faced. Stepping close, Regina brushed the backs of her fingers against Svanhilde's cheek and looked into her familiar green eyes in wonder. Her fingers tingled and warmed quickly at the contact.
'I cannot explain what has happened to your physical form, Svanhilde, but I know that it is you and that your heart has not changed. I feel your love now more strongly than ever. Give me time. I will study these books that surround us for an answer, but for now you must go. If the High Queen has returned, then the snow has abated and the way will be clear. Do not return until I send word that it is safe.....'
Svanhilde nodded her head hesitantly. She knew that Regina's words were right, but she knew not when she might see her love again, and it pained her heart greatly.
Stepping forward, Regina slipped her hands beneath the heavy coat that draped Svanhilde's shoulders and wrapped her arms tightly about her lover's torso. She could feel the muscles of Svanhilde's back contract and relax strongly under her fingers as strong arms encompassed her, pulling her close. She smiled sadly as she felt Svanhilde's lips nuzzle into her hair, and she placed a gentle kiss upon her head.
As Regina looked up, Svanhilde's head dipped slightly and she touched their lips together gently, seeking one last kiss and one last moment of closeness.
'Regina, you are my Saviour, my life, my love and my Queen,' whispered Svanhilde softly before placing a soft kiss on her forehead.
'I am yours always, My Beautiful Svan,' sighed Regina as she released her hold reluctantly.
'Now....GO!' she commanded desperately and Svanhilde turned on her heel, quietly opening the door and disappearing down the hall of the castle.
'My Queen,' murmured Regina timidly as she curtseyed deeply and tipped her head in respect.
Receiving no response, and expecting none anyways, she raised again to her full height and looked down the length of the table where the High Queen, its lone occupant, sat eating small bites of food.
'You are late and your food has gone cold. I should burn that library to the ground. Perhaps, then, you will listen and respond when I give you a command,' she spoke disgustedly without looking up from her plate.
'Mother....' gasped Regina. Immediately, she realized her mistake, and she was met with a glare of anger that made her blood run cold.
'I am sorry, My Queen,' replied Regina quickly in an effort to rectify her blunder. Stepping to the opposite end of the table, Regina waited as a servant pulled the chair from the edge and bowed low indicating that she may take her seat. Once comfortable, she nodded to show that it may be moved again closer to the table.
'Be gone,' said the High Queen to the servant with a dismissing wave of her hand. Bowing again, he moved through the door, closing it behind him and leaving them alone in the room.
'I have received disturbing news, Freyja, ' the High Queen started as soon as the servant was gone.
Swallowing thickly, Regina awaited the next words with dread, unsure of what may have been seen, or worse, told by nefarious or vengeful mouths.
'The raven has foretold great peril.'
Silently, Regina breathed a sigh of relief. She did not subscribe to the old ways and did not believe in the gift of sight. Even if the power existed, she doubted that the High Queen was its vessel. Had she been, then perhaps, her Father might still be alive. Still, the pretense and illusion of magic had the ability to make those closest to the Queen deeply afraid. Their trepidation of her abilities was widely known, and it kept her remaining subjects in line, lest they suffer her wrath. Fear was a very powerful weapon, too often wielded by the weak.
'A warrior has awakened with a strength and power yet unseen in this land, ' she continued. 'They are a danger to this Kingdom and must be eliminated,' she finished coldly.
Regina stopped chewing mid-bite and looked down at her plate fearfully, gripping utensils tightly in her fists. Her eyes had seen the inexplicable transformation of her love only an hour ago, but Regina could feel Svanhilde's heart and she knew it to be gentle and kind, not fierce or combative. Surely, her love was not the person of whom the High Queen spoke, and she dismissed it as coincidence, though she could not shake the feeling of uncertainty and dread that had been planted in her mind.
'I will remain at the castle for now, as will you, Freyja,' she added severely. 'We will await word from the scouts who have been sent forth throughout the Kingdom to eradicate this pestilence from our midst. You are not permitted to leave until I have been told that it is safe.'
Placing her elbow on the table, she looked out the window over the forest, tapping her lips thoughtfully with her forefinger.
'I fear this threat may be closer than we think....' she offered before tossing her napkin upon the table, rising from her seat and walking from the room leaving Regina alone at the table.
Within a moment, Regina exited as well, returning to the library to try to find answers to her ever-increasing number of questions.
Chapter 11: The Spoils of Victory
High Castle, Kingdom of the Enchanted Forest - Present Day
The King's Advisor slouched in the fur covered chair of his chambers. Arms resting on that of the chair, he watched intently as the fire danced in the great hearth.
His silk tunic lay open exposing his muscular stomach and chest that was covered in straight, thick, dark hair. The ties of his leather breeches had been loosened allowing them to be pushed down to his ankles where a whore knelt at his feet trying, unsuccessfully, to give him pleasure.
He was a handsome man. Steel-blue eyes were surrounded by thick, dark lashes, all of which were shrouded by dense, prominent brows. His strong jaw, chin and upper lip were covered in about three days of stubble which joined longer sideburns and blended into a dense thicket of black hair that was parted on the left and lay tussled about his face.
A goblet hung from his fingertips filled to almost overflowing, and his eyelids were heavy with too much drink. Still, he continued to bring the cup to his lips, thoughtlessly and lazily, causing some of the burgundy liquid to drop upon his chest and the face of the prostitute. She giggled at his clumsiness, but her laughter was not shared.
He wore a scowl upon his lips as he pondered his situation. The King must be replaced, of that, he was certain. He had been held too long in His Majesty's shadow. It was HIS skill and counsel that had brought the Kingdom to its current glory, yet the laud was given only to the King. The King was but a pawn in a larger and longer, strategic game. A pawn that had outlived its welcome. Yes, the King must be replaced. He just needed the opportunity to show itself.
The Advisor's annoyance and agitation rose as he looked down at the whore. She was useless, just as so many others had been to him; unable to give him the outcome that he deserved and had been promised as his own birthright.
As she looked up at him, biting her lip seductively, he became enraged. Drawing his right arm across his body, he swung hard, cracking the back of his hand against her cheek and knocking her to the floor. Terrified, she raised to her elbow, trying to pull herself away and crying in pain.
'Be gone from my sight, you incompetent bitch!' he hissed, waving his hand dismissively. Sobbing, she pulled herself to her feet and grabbed her tattered clothing from the floor. She was hit hard in the head by several coins that had been thrown from the direction of the chair.
'Here is for MY trouble,' he sneered, 'dress outside and close the door behind you....'
Retrieving her coins, she hurried to the door, holding her clothing to her chest, doing as he had instructed and leaving him alone.
Leaning on his elbow, he supported his chin with his thumb and curled his fingers in front of his mouth, losing himself in thought again. He was soon interrupted by a banging and scratching sound.
'BE GONE!' he barked again as he rose from his chair, pulling up his pants and drawing them closed tightly, 'OR I WILL PAY YOU IN FLOGS OF A WHIP!!'
Starting towards the door, he realized suddenly that the sound was not coming from in front, but from behind. Turning around, he saw a shadow moving quickly and randomly against the frosted, diamond-shaped panes of the window. As it continued its incessant banging and scratching, he squinted hard trying to determine what it might be.
Shaking his head to counter the effects of the alcohol, he crept slowly to the window.
Grasping the iron latch, he twisted it and flung open the sash, jumping back in anticipation of an attack. Instead, a large raven, finally able to catch its footing, lighted on the sill. It stared intently at the King's Advisor with narrow eyes. Shaking its foot a small, rolled piece of parchment tumbled to the floor falling from the tether on its leg. Satisfied that its work was done, it spread mighty wings and leapt from its perch, allowing the breeze to lift it into the sky and away over the forest.
Cautiously, The King's advisor knelt, still watching the window for signs of the raven's return. Seeing him no more, he grasped the piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger, unfurling it to its length. He read the entirety of the message twice before throwing it into the fire.
The moment that he had been waiting for had finally come....
'Again, ' ordered the master swordsman in a frustrated tone as he waited for the Prince to retrieve his sword from the ground for the third time. The hilt was barely secure in the Prince's gloved hand before the instructor advanced again, driving him backwards down the wide marble path towards the fountain that was situated in the middle of the courtyard. The loud clatter of steel filled the frozen air as the blades of their broadswords met over and over in attack and defense. Frustration and fury grew in the Prince's eyes as every swing of his sword was effortlessly deflected by the instructor, and he lunged forward haphazardly trying to find victory and flesh for his blade.
Stepping back strongly following another failed volley, the shallow wall at the base of the fountain hit the Prince's calf, causing him to falter for an instant.
It was all the opportunity that his opponent required.
Grasping the lapel of the Prince's doublet, the instructor threw him roughly to the ground before holding the tip of his blade to the Prince's throat and lifting his chin with the broad metal edge.
'Your anger and inattention will be your undoing, my Prince. It makes you clumsy and shortsighted....'
The Prince stared at the instructor, flaring his nostrils, enraged at the embarrassment of his situation.
'Do you submit?' the instructor asked calmly.
A single, curt nod was given and the blade was withdrawn. Offering his hand, the instructor helped the Prince to his feet.
'We are done for the day, ' declared the instructor as he raised the hilt of his sword to his face in salute and bowed curtly before turning on his heel and walking off, leaving the Prince to ponder his defeat.
Looking to the far side of the courtyard, the Prince saw his Father, and King, standing with his Advisor and tipped his head in acknowledgement.
The gesture was returned immediately by the Advisor, but was barely acknowledged by his Father who turned, instead, to look out over the thick forests of his Kingdom which were dotted here and there with settlements large and small.
Expecting nothing more, the Prince grabbed his sword one last time from the ground and sheathed it before briskly making his way back to the castle.
'Your son improves, Your Highness, ' said the Advisor as he stepped close to the King's side.
'Hmmmm, ' replied the King distractedly, as he continued to survey his lands. His mind was far from his current circumstance and there was a look of great sadness in his eyes.
'What troubles you, My Lord?'
'I cannot help but believe that she is still out there somewhere....'
'Your Highness,' the Advisor said with a frustrated sigh, 'it has been almost 28 years.
We have searched kingdoms far and wide for any news of her whereabouts, and our scouts have returned no information to give us hope,' adding hesitantly, 'Perhaps it is time that we assume the worst....'
'I promised her mother, the Queen, that I would keep her safe, ' the King responded as he placed his hands upon the stone railing and bowed his head in shame. 'I failed her....'
'My King, I know that it is hard for you, but do not forget that you still have a son. He is ready and willing to give you rest and take the throne, ' stated the Advisor earnestly, 'He will make a fine King, ' adding quickly, '...just as you once were...'
'Once. Were?' repeated the King slowly and deliberately as he turned to look coldly at his Advisor.
'Sire, I meant no offence,' stuttered the Advisor, 'I only meant that.....'
Holding up his hand, the King cut him off.
'For over 30 years, your Father and I broke bread at my table. He was like a brother to me and, as such, I have kept you like a son.
Upon his death, I promised him that I would look after you. In return, he instructed you on the ways of the Kingdom so that you could provide me with counsel when he was no longer able.
Make no mistake, though, your advice, while sage, does not compare to that of your father.
You are only slightly older than my son and, as such, lack experience and knowledge in the true ways of the world. Your counsel, and that of my son, is fallible and not always welcome......'
The Advisor swallowed thickly and ground his teeth as he bore the insults and degradation being heaped upon him. His only consolation was the knowledge that his father had failed in his quest, and the spoils of the victory, which would arrive as sure as the message did upon the raven's wing the night before, would be his and his alone to enjoy.
'Sire, you know that I have always tried my best to serve you and the best interests of this Kingdom, as did my Father before me...' he offered in mock humility while tipping his head in deference.
'It will do you well to remember that I am still in command of this great Kingdom. It is I who will decide what is in its best interests, and I who will decide when my son is ready to take the throne. That day does not lie in our immediate future. Not, at least, while closure eludes us....'
Pausing momentarily he added, looking directly into his Advisor's eyes,
'Do not be so quick to remove me from the throne, Killian. Some might be inclined to mistake your concern for personal ambition....'
Chapter 12: Family Business
'You did quite well in your lessons today, Sire,' offered Killian encouragingly as he stopped in the doorway of the Prince's chamber.
He bowed deeply at his waist, smiling slyly at the floor, as he waited to be acknowledged.
'My Father does not seem to share your opinion, ' grumbled the Prince as he removed his heavy gloves and threw them to the floor.
Pacing back and forth in front of the balcony windows, he kept his back turned to the door and said no more.
Unwilling to wait any longer for an invite and having business to discuss, Killian stepped into the middle of the room to continue their conversation.
'Fathers will always see fault more readily than achievement, ' responded Killian thoughtfully, 'plus, you know that his mind is occupied with other matters...'
'Yes, yes, ' said the Prince disgustedly, 'his mind is always occupied with other matters, and his thoughts are always elsewhere, yet they are always in the same place.... with a long-dead girl and on a damnable promise that he made my mother....'
'Your Highness, it is not easy to lose a child...' implored the Advisor.
'And yet, he loses another, more and more everyday, right before his very eyes...' responded the Prince coldly.
The conversation had taken a very welcome turn, and Killian was more than willing to capitalize on the situation.
'If it pleases you, My Lord, your Father seems to be finding significant fault in both of us these days, ' offered Killian.
'And why would that please me?' the Prince said with a huffed chuckle of amazement.
He paused a moment before adding with a wry smile, 'But I will be damned to the fires, if I don't tell you that it makes me, at least, a bit happier.'
As he said the words, he broke out in laughter and was joined immediately by Killian.
'Perhaps we should commiserate together then, my friend, ' said Killian as he clapped him heartily on the shoulder and waved his hand at the massive flagon of fresh ale that had recently been brought to the table.
'Nothing would please me more, Brother, ' said the Prince as he lifted the pewter tankard that had been poured to the rim.
Tipping the draught back, he emptied the contents in massive swallows, while Killian took his time, watching closely over the rim of the cup.
'Another!' demanded the Prince with a laugh as he slammed the mug back onto the table.
Refilling the tankard again to the brim, Killian motioned them to the two chairs in front of the fire where they could indulge in more comfort and leisure.
He grabbed the flagon from the table before following behind the Prince. He needed him to have a loose tongue and a foggy mind.
They laughed and drank for awhile, but with the coming of evening, the mood turned somber again, and the laughter that had been issuing forth from the Prince's lips soon silenced as the same frustration and anger that had been there before seeped back into his veins, joining the copious amounts of alcohol. It was awhile before the Prince spoke again.
'He is an old man, no longer fit to lead his own soldiers into battle or to rule this Kingdom, Killian. For how long do you think he will continue to deny me my birthright?' asked the Prince as he stared into the fire and swirled some of the remaining liquid at the bottom of the tankard.
'You know that he will not relent until he is certain of her passing, Fredrick, ' stated Killian matter-of-factly.
Standing up quickly, the Prince teetered on his feet a bit before walking to the fire and throwing the alcohol in the flames. A loud hiss was heard and the flames dimmed slightly before rekindling to their former height.
'I should be inclined to go myself and bring back her bones to drop at his feet, if it means that we can be done with this charade, and I can claim what is rightfully mine...' he spat disgustedly as he turned to look Killian in the face. 'I grow tired of playing hand maiden to the deceased.....'
Rising from his chair, Killian took his place by the Prince's side. Shoulder to shoulder, they stood looking into the flames.
'Fredrick, I have news, ' sighed Killian, 'I did not trouble your Father with it yet, as I know how this type of thing fills him too often with false hope....'
'Yes, but you may speak candidly with me.....'
'Of course, ' replied Killian with a tip of his head. Drawing a breath, he continued, 'I have received word from the East regarding people that have information about your sister.....'
'Do you believe it rumor?' questioned Fredrick. 'We have chased down too many an empty grave...'
'I believe it comes from a reliable source with whom my father has done business in the past, ' replied Killian as he glanced to the side to see the Prince's reaction. 'If this turns out to be true, then this may well prove to be the chance that you are seeking....'
Returning to his chair, the Prince fell down hard into it to ponder his options and opportunity.
'Where is this place that you speak of?' asked the Prince.
'It lies far across the North Sea. Conditions are harsh in those lands. The people are not as tame or civilized as we are here. It will require significant preparation, and the soldiers must be ready for a difficult journey, though we should not seek to send many, lest we be mistaken for a threat....'
'I do not wish a battle. I wish only to provide him the closure he seeks so relentlessly,' offered Fredrick dryly.
'Of course, My Lord, ' acknowledged the Advisor readily, 'we will send a few of our finest men.'
'No, Your Highness?' questioned Killian in a startled voice.
'No, ' he repeated definitively, 'I will no longer leave my fate in another's hands. I will lead these soldiers over the seas, reclaim my sister's bones and bring her home. My father cannot deny me once my work is done.'
Killian tipped his head at the Prince's words hiding a deceptive grin.
'As you wish, Sire.'
'Now, go, ' ordered Fredrick, 'there is much to be done and very little time to do it.'
Nodding once again, Killian turned and began walking to the door. Half way across the room he paused, turning again to the Prince.
'As I said before, your father is prone to false hope. He may be inclined to join us if he knows the true nature of our journey, and this trip will not be borne well by a man of his age and health.'
'Yes, ' replied Fredrick, 'I believe you to be right in that regard.'
Thinking on it a moment, he offered a solution.
'We will tell my father that we are travelling as a gesture of goodwill to those kingdoms that have supported his reign. I will tell him that you are coming with me as his Ambassador.
Our party will be small so he will have no reason to suspect otherwise. It will lengthen our journey significantly, but it is time that I make myself more familiar with the people who will become my strongest allies in assuring the continued safety of this Kingdom.'
'Well spoken and thought, My Lord. I will be honored to be at the side of my future King,' offered Killian as he bowed deep at the waist. 'I will take my leave now to select the finest among your men to accompany us....'
Turning on his heel, Killian exited the chambers, barely able to contain his mirth as he closed the door behind him. He was yet another step closer to his victory.
Chapter 13: Lying In Wait
It had been over a week since Svanhilde had heard anything from Regina beyond a cryptic note warning her to be cautious. Each day she would return to the blacksmith shop in hopes of finding another message hidden at her workbench that would assure her that her beloved was safe.
A constant, blowing snow still lingered and swirled in the air, and while the stalls remained open for trade, all had their heavy, hide curtains drawn about them to keep the weather at bay. The blacksmith shop was no exception.
As the twilight faded into night at mid-afternoon, Svanhilde sat at her small bench in the shop working an intricate design into the still-warm metal that lay before her. Her mind was a million miles away, recounting every detail of the night that she had spent with Regina in her arms. Every touch, every kiss, every gasp, every release was recalled in vivid detail and her heart swelled with the knowledge that her love was not one-sided.
She loved and was loved in return.
Despite the beauty of the night, though, her mind reeled from the revelations that had been brought by the dawn, and she prayed that Regina had found some answer in the books of the library that would explain her startling transformation.
So consumed was she by her thoughts that she didn't notice Agni until he stood right before her.
Looking up, she noticed that he teetered very unsteadily on his feet and his eyes were glazed over. His movements were erratic and his clothing was disheveled as a result of a recent bar fight; the evidence of which was manifesting rapidly in a swelling eye. The stench of alcohol was overpowering and Svanhilde wondered how he was even able to remain standing.
'Has the Freyja tired of her dog so soon?' he slurred vehemently. 'Your presence here costs me money and annoys me. I prefer you at the stronghold of the castle. At least I do not have to look at your ugly face.....'
Svanhilde remained still and quiet, not wanting to provoke confrontation.
'You have embarrassed me in front of our High Queen and the Freyja, ' he bellowed. 'They see you as an equal to me in skill and stature by selecting you to carry out their work, but you are nothing more than a slave and an unfree. You are no better than the whores of the village and you will learn your place.'
Enraged, he grabbed her, pulling Svanhilde from her stool before twisting her arm behind her back and slamming her face down against capstone of the broad, surrounding wall of the hearth that extended from the oven. Grabbing her other wrist he twisted her previously free arm back as well, holding both wrists tightly in one hand. Reaching down, he quickly bunched her skirt over her back before clawing and tearing at her undergarments.
She was stronger than before, but not strong enough to overpower a brute of Agni's size. Her hands, drawn behind her back and held firmly, were of no use and could not be budged. Agni was blinded by anger and desperate for an outlet to his rage and frustration. It had made him even stronger. It also made him sloppy.
Despite her current position and the consequences that her retaliation might bring, she was unwilling to acquiesce. What had been so beautiful between she and Regina would not be soiled by the filthy hands of another. Unsure why, she closed her eyes and focused on her love and a calm washed over her while a thrum of new strength radiated from her core to her limbs.
As Agni reached to open his belt, Svanhilde opened her eyes. The spark of the hearth danced on the glassy surface of her pure green orbs, but it was dimmed by the lightning like sparks that danced within them in time to the beating of her heart.
Finding her opportunity, Svanhilde slammed her boot down with the force of four men, crushing the arch of his foot with the sharp edge of her heel. Caught off guard, Agni yowled in pain and teetered, releasing his hold just enough to allow Svan to raise her upper body and throw her head back, catching the crown of her head on the bridge of Agni's nose with a sickening crunch. Warm blood spattered about the hearth and onto the back of her dress, and Svanhilde found her hands freed as Agni drew his own to his nose.
Lunging forward, she grasped an iron from the side of the pit; end glowing from having been buried in the hot coals. Wheeling around, the red-hot tip left a stream of residual light before making contact with Agni's temple, rendering him still on the ground.
Svanhilde knew not if he was alive or dead and had no time to be bothered with the assessment.
Assuming the worst, she collected herself enough to run. If he was dead, she prayed to Odin that no one saw. She had changed physically. Her clothes, until now, had protected that fact. Her mind was growing sharper each day and it seemed as though her heart and soul were the source. The mere thought of her lover drove strength into her veins.
Should she be caught, she could not explain this to the Elders. Any mention of Regina would endanger the life and position of the woman she revered. Their love was forbidden. Two women. Royalty and a common slave. It was not to be tolerated.
Further, the revelation would only serve as another bundle thrown on Svanhilde's pyre.
The magic of which she would speak was unknown and unknowable to her and her people. She would be tried as a heretic and a practitioner of dark magic, though she knew not what she had done to instigate its presence. She would be accused of challenging Odin himself, and she would pay dearly and painfully. No, she would hide in town and wait the night. By daybreak, word would reach her ears of Agni's fate. She would decide then what to do.
As the first light of dawn seeped across the horizon of her frozen home, Svanhilde lifted her head. She need not open her eyes. She had been awake all night pondering her fate and the fate of Agni.
Straining her ears, she heard the first, timid sounds of the waking village. Over the next hour, the volume grew, but not beyond that which Svanhilde was accustomed to hearing.
No screams of fear, cries of treachery or tears of remorse were expressed, and the name 'Agni' was not uttered by any passerby.
Svanhilde remained still, listening only, for the next hour. Hearing nothing of note, she rose from her position and crept quietly to the entrance of the barn where she had hidden.
Opening the door only a crack, she looked toward the Blacksmith's stall. The day was clear and the curtains had been drawn back revealing the apprentice that Agni had taken to fill the absence left by Svanhilde. The apprentice went about his work quietly and calmly showing no indication of concern or caution.
Looking to the ground where Agni had fallen, Svanhilde could see that he was no longer there. She hoped that this was a positive sign. Perhaps, Agni had wandered home to tend to his wounds and sleep off his draught of meade. Perhaps he had moved to the whorehouse having been left frustrated and unsatisfied by Svanhilde. Perhaps he had simply wandered to a nearby barn and passed out. Hoping for the best, she watched for only a moment more for any signs of danger. Sensing nothing, she opened the door far enough to allow her to slip out into the path between the stalls and barn.
Looking left and right, she saw no obstacles to her intended path, and so she lowered her head and made her way quickly toward the wood where she soon disappeared between the trees.
Chapter 14: The Invincibility Of Drink
Svanhilde crept along the side of the longhouse, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. Stopping for a moment to collect herself, she saw and heard quickly that the chores had been left unattended since the previous day.
In their pens, the pigs rolled about in their filthy straw trying to find warmth, while chickens pecked fruitlessly at the icy ground hoping for a morsel of seed. In the barn, the horses showed their disapproval and hunger through agitated neighs and the stomping of hooves to the ground.
The rubbish heap was piled high with burnt bits; evidence of more than one unsuccessful attempt at cooking the supper, and she wondered if these men would ever eat at all, if it were not by her hand.
Svanhilde sighed as she considered her situation. Regardless of Agni's fate, the punishment for these simple transgressions would be harsh, and she could only imagine what lay in store for her. The Freyja's name would not protect her this time.
Reaching the back door, she lifted the latch quietly, barely opening the heavy wood and slipping quickly into the shadow of the interior. Turning, she placed two palms firmly against the door to prevent it shutting too loud. She dared not draw attention to herself before she had a solid alibi in hand, and, currently, she had none.
Turning back to the room, she dared look up and was met with a sight that she feared more than any punishment.
Sitting across the table from her father was Agni. His temple was burnt, bruised and bleeding, and he stared at Svanhilde with a vengeance in his blackened eyes that could not be mistaken. He had been denied and humiliated, and he expected someone to pay. There was little doubt in her mind who that person would be.
'COME HERE, GIRL!' demanded her Father who was looking at her with equal disdain.
Slowly, she made her way to the end of the long table that sat in the middle of the room. There she stood, head bowed, waiting to be addressed again.
'Agni has relayed a disturbing tale that I would scarcely believe were he not my oldest and most trusted friend.....' her Father started, trying to keep his calm.
Awaiting a response or reaction, but receiving none, he continued,
'He tells me that, yesterday, he found you drunk and belligerent in the Blacksmith stall. When asked to leave, you denied your state and turned on him viciously, assaulting him with a fired rod and breaking his foot as you tipped a cart of rocks in an attempt to escape your due punishment....'
Astonished, Svanhilde raised her head to look at her father. Her mouth was agape as she looked alternately between he and Agni. She could scarcely believe her ears.
'He LIES!' countered Svanhilde vehemently. 'It was HE that was drunk, and he tried to have his way with ME! If he was injured, it was in defense of myself as I attempted to thwart his advances!'
After considering Svanhilde's words for a moment, both Thorin and Agni burst into laughter.
'You wish me to believe that my oldest friend would have any interest in your worthless, ugly cunt?!' laughed Thorin incredulously.
'What I say is true....you MUST BELIEVE ME!!' Svanhilde implored again.
'SILENCE, GIRL!!' Thorin bellowed at the top of his lungs. His laughter was no more and his visage displayed an unpleasant scowl.
'You dare to call one of the most respected warriors in the village a LIAR?!?!' he asked astonished. 'Even after he has brought proof of your actions?'
'What proof could he have? No one else was there!'
Immediately, Thorin threw several large flasks upon the table which clanged heavily as they bounced randomly across the surface.
'We found these hidden among the hay of the barn. One of them is my own flask which has been missing for some time, filled to the top upon its disappearance with some of the most expensive and potent ale in the Kingdom. Now, it lays empty before us along with these others. What say you now, Girl?'
'I have told you what I know to be truth. I know not from where the flasks have come, but they were not put there by my hand,' replied Svanhilde slowly through gritted teeth.
She could only imagine that they had been planted by Agni to lend more credence to his outrageous lie.
'See, Thorin,' Agni offered loudly, 'I told you that she would lie to deny her vice and avoid her punishment! I have smelled the alcohol on her before. This is not the first time! Her only advantage was the element of surprise....I never suspected, therefore, I could not defend!'
'I have heard enough,' said Thorin as he rose to his full height from his chair. Looking directly at Svanhilde, he passed his verdict.
'You have committed a crime against a member of this clan, but not of this family. As such, your punishment is not mine to decide.
You will be taken before the High Council in the village tomorrow and they will hand down a punishment that is befitting of your crime.'
'How can you not believe me?' begged Svanhilde with tears in her eyes, 'I am your daughter!'
'You are no daughter of mine, ' countered Thorin as he turned his back to Svanhilde.
Looking over, a sadistic smirk was wiped upon the lips of Agni as he considered all the possible ways that her punishment might be carried out. As victim of the crime, he would be allowed a say in its manner of execution.
Unable to breathe, Svanhilde ran from the table and burst through the back door of the longhouse. She had barely stepped outside when one of her brothers blocked her path.
'I hear you like the ale, Thorinsdottir, ' he stated tauntingly, 'too bad we didn't know or we might have invited you to partake with us in the barn. It might have made you feel, at least, a bit better about taking this punishment on all of our behalf. I know I feel better about you taking the punishment on MY behalf, ' he finished with a huffed laugh.
'Funny thing about the drink and your connections.....it makes you feel invincible,' he offered.
Grasping her chin between his index finger and thumb, he raised her head roughly so she would look into his eyes, 'Not feeling so invincible without your Freyja now, though, are you?' he said with a sadistic smirk.
The brothers laughed heartily at her misfortune and predicament as her brother flung her chin to the side and wiped his hand on his tunic.
Barely able to see through her tears and unable to focus her mind enough to provide a coherent response, Svanhilde pressed forward with her shoulder, trying to break through the wall of bodies in front of her. She just wanted to go to the barn so that she could indulge in the silence that would allow her to think of what to do as she awaited her fate in the morn.
Stepping back slightly, her largest brother braced himself and shoved her backwards so that she stood in front of them once more.
'I asked you a question, bitch!'
Breathing deeply, Svanhilde clenched her hands into fists several times trying to calm herself as she looked up through her lashes with a rage in her eyes.
Stepping forward, her brother stood almost chest to chest with her. His hot, stinking breath bathed her face as he whispered once again, harshly,
'Not feeling so invincible now, eh?'
He barely saw her move before the fingers of her right hand wrapped around his throat tightly and lifted him to his toes.
His eyes were wide with fear, and he scratched and clawed helplessly at her hand as he tried to relieve the unrelenting, vice-like grip that was constricting his airway. Looking desperately to his brothers, his eyes pleaded with them to help, but they remained frozen in place, mouths agape, as they tried to make sense of the sight before them.
Maintaining her grip, Svanhilde turned them both around and slammed his back against the side of the longhouse.
'I will no longer be your plaything,' she offered through gritted teeth, 'when I return, so help me, I will....'
Her world went black before she was able to finish her sentence, and she crumpled to the ground in a heap as her father stood behind her with the shovel he had used against the back of her head.
'Hoist her upon my horse,' he ordered his son who was kneeling on the ground, rubbing his neck and swallowing huge gulps of air that he had been denied just moments before. 'I will take her to the village myself TONIGHT!'
Chapter 15: Crimes And Punishments
The cold wind was sharp upon Svanhilde's face, and the sun almost offensive to her eyes as it shone bright through her lids. She was acutely aware of a throbbing pain at the back of her skull, and her arms, wrists, hands and fingers were frozen and stiff as a result of their position. Her knees ached as they rested upon a rough and splintered surface, and her buttocks sat hard upon her ankles in an effort to relieve the pain.
A murmuring of voices carried in the air as Svanhilde's head lulled against her bicep, and she tried valiantly to pull herself from her forced slumber in an effort to hear the conversations that the breeze carried. She failed many times to awaken before her lids acquiesced to open only a slit and her rolling eyes stilled.
Her first glance was to the heavens where she saw that her wrists had been bound tightly above her head by heavy, iron shackles. A short length of chain connected her cuffs and was passed through a thick iron hoop, held tight to a sturdy pole that passed through the wooden platform on which she knelt. Blood ran, clotted and free, down her arms; a result of the metal biting deep into her skin. She had no idea how long she had been in this position, but the amount of blood that had leached onto the sleeves of her dress told her that her tethering had not been recent.
Finally able to open her eyes further, Svanhilde dared to glance at the long, broad table that had been set at the edge of the platform in front of her. There sat the jurors who would decide her fate.
She was unsurprised to see Agni; same sadistic smile plastered on his lips as the previous day. Her Father had taken the chair beside, as deliverer of the initial verdict that had gathered everyone together. Various other villagers, some known and some unknown to her, also sat at the table, but it was the person that sat in the center seat that caused her to draw breath sharply and a lump to rise in her throat which could not be swallowed down.
There, seated directly in front of her, was the High Queen. Her countenance could only be described as a combination of severe and beautiful. High cheekbones were accentuated strongly by the thin, drawn features of her face while deep, rich, almost black, eyes bore a cold, calculating look under perfectly coiffed and arched brows. Her tastefully painted, full lips were pursed slightly as she considered Svanhilde, and her long, thick hair was pulled back tightly into a bun pulling the skin around her eyes flat where there might normally be the blemish of wrinkles. Svanhilde could not help but notice the resemblance of daughter to mother and, despite her circumstance, she wondered if the High Queen had once been as beautiful, kind and gentle as the Freyja.
Feeling another set of eyes staring at her intently, she dared a glance to the High Queen's left, and her heart was immediately awash with calm as she saw the brown eyes of her beloved.
She dared not show any recognition other than a working acquaintance, until she knew the nature of her crimes and trial. The High Queen was not here to pass judgement solely on an accusation of assault related to drink, of that, Svanhilde was quite certain. Even having only attended a few of these public displays in her lifetime, she knew that the High Queen would only sit the jury under extenuating circumstances.
No. Something was wrong. Something else was known, and Regina's eyes showed that she had come to the same conclusion. The look of desperation and pleading was pronounced, much like a rabbit caught in a snare, yet the subtle shake of her head told Svanhilde that she too did not understand fully what was about to transpire. As Freyja, she would be expected to sit at the Queen's hand as a silent observer, and the slight, returned shake of Svanhilde's head told her that she should remain that way, no matter what happened.
Placing her hands on the table, the High Queen rose from her seat before lifting her hands to silence the crowd. Both Svanhilde and Regina looked at her intently in anticipation of her decree.
'The woman before you has been charged with the crimes of intoxication and assault of the man at the end of this table,' stated the Queen loudly for all to hear. Immediately, Svanhilde and Regina looked at each other in confusion as they waited for additional accusations, but there were none.
After considering her words for a moment, the crowd erupted in laughter. The absurdity of charges for which the High Queen was sitting court could only point to a joke being made at their expense. Surely, this was the start of some unannounced festivities to which the High Queen and Freyja had been invited.
'SILENCE!!' ordered the Queen and the peals of laughter were immediately abated, though those in the crowd continued to look at each other in confusion and discomfort as they realized that this was, in fact, no joke.
'How do you plead to these charges?' asked the Queen as she lowered her eyes to look at Svanhilde.
'Not guilty, ' was the offered response.
'Yet, the evidence against you is overwhelming, to say the least....'
'I am not guilty, My Queen,' was repeated.
Scowling deeply at the woman before her, the High Queen considered her verdict.
'The punishment for your crime will be 50 lashes of the victim's whip.'
Immediately, a murmur swelled through the crowd as the villagers discussed the severe nature of the punishment in relation to the crime. Agni had received a worse beating from several of the drunk, village whores when he shorted them payment during a past visit to the brothel. After, he had simply gone off to lick his wounds and recount his tale of an evening well-spent and well-ended. These crimes were no different, and yet, somehow, they were.
'50 LASHES?!?!' erupted Regina incredulously as her head jerked to look at her mother in astonishment and disbelief. 'That is untenable, even for a great warrior. She will die!'
'You will hold your tongue, Freyja, ' offered the Queen slowly through gritted teeth. 'How dare you be so bold as to question my authority in front of this village? Who is this criminal to you?'
'She is nothing more than the blacksmith's apprentice who has helped me with Father's library, ' she offered quietly as she looked down and she winced at the pain of regret, betrayal and cowardice that she had just shown.
Looking up again at Svanhilde with saddened eyes, she saw nothing but kindness and love and thanks that Regina had withheld the true nature of their relationship, which assured that she would remain safe, at least, for now.
Shaking her head almost imperceptibly again, Svanhilde begged that she would say no more. She was cut off before she had the chance.
'Precisely, she is a nothing and a nobody, and you will do well to remember that before you attempt to speak again, lest you find yourself chained beside her, ' offered the Queen with a hateful look.
Satisfied that she would receive no additional interference, the High Queen turned back to Svanhilde, addressing her directly once more.
'You may find mercy, if you admit your guilt now....'
Lowering her head, Svanhilde remained silent.
'Very well then, ' sighed the Queen.
'Blacksmith, you may proceed with the administration of punishment, ' she offered coldly as she resumed her seat to watch the proceedings.
The heavy scraping of a chair against wood resounded as Agni rose slowly from the table, and Svanhilde could judge his proximity by the thumping of his boots upon the boards of the platform. As he drew closer, the light jingling of his belt could be heard as he pulled the whip from his side, and she twisted her hands in their shackles to make fists about the chains that tethered her. Keeping her head lowered, she closed her eyes tightly, bracing herself for the pain with which she was all too familiar.
Every lick of the scourge tore long slits in the thin fabric of Svanhilde's coat and dress and opened deep gashes on her back and sides.
Small droplets of blood were flicked high into the air, landing on both the surrounding platform and juror's table,as the whip was delivered and withdrawn, again and again.
Screaming through gritted teeth, Svanhilde's body twisted and jerked and her back arched forward as she tried unsuccessfully to escape the fire being branded into her skin by the hard leather. She could only wonder if her body or her mind would break first.
After ten lashes had been administered, the High Queen raised her hand, ordering Agni to stop.
Immediately Svanhilde slumped, exhausted, hanging from her chains and thanking Odin for her respite, no matter how short-lived it might be. Her head lulled against her bicep, and she struggled to wipe the tears from her eyes as her chest heaved and she gasped for breath.
'Are you ready to concede the truth?' Asked the High Queen again.
'What I have already offered is the truth. I can concede no more or no less,' offered Svanhilde wearily.
'You may continue, ' stated the Queen as she nodded at Agni.
Beside her, Regina looked on helplessly, torn between her obedience to Svanhilde's silent request and her desire to protect the woman she loved. She had seen the strongest men break under less than 20 lashes of the whip, and she was certain that her heart would not endure the loss of her beloved.
Laying his whip on the platform, Agni stepped forward. Grasping both sides of Svanhilde's coat and gown, he ripped his hands apart, taking the fabrics with him and exposing her back down to her waist. Leaning down, Agni placed his lips close to her ear and whispered,
'I told you that you would learn your place, ' before returning to his position and gathering his whip from the boards.
Several more cracks of the whip sounded, and Svanhilde found herself drifting in and out of consciousness; the bobbing of her head and the involuntary jerking of her body becoming the only reactions that she could offer.
The warmth of her own blood enveloped her torso like a blanket, and she wished only that she might lay down awhile to sleep. Several in the crowd had already turned away, unable to watch what was happening before them. The punishment did not befit the crime, and it had gone to far.
Again, the High Queen stopped Agni. Rising from her chair, she walked to the front of the table where she stood before Svanhilde.
'WAKE HER UP!' she demanded of the guards by the platform. Immediately, one of them appeared with a bucket of ice water that he threw onto Svanhilde's listless body. She gasped deeply and her eyes opened wide as the shock of the cold registered in her brain.
'Don't leave us yet, ' the High Queen taunted cruelly, 'we have barely started.....'
Drawing close, the Queen bent down to take Svanhilde's chin between her thumb and forefinger, raising her head so that their eyes would meet.
'You already know how to stop this, ' she offered helpfully, 'simply concede the truth...'
Svanhilde opened and closed her lips several times, whispering quietly.
'What is that you say, Thorinsdottir?' Asked the High Queen as she placed a hand to her ear. 'We cannot hear you. '
Mustering as much energy as possible, Svanhilde looked up through her lashes and directly into the eyes of the High Queen before speaking again. This time, her words were louder and more pronounced.
'Why bother when my truth falls only on the ears of the deaf?' she questioned before hanging her head again and panting for breath.
Enraged, the High Queen stood to her full height.
'CONTINUE!' she commanded Agni.
Agni drew back once more, but his arm was stayed by a single word.
Looking to the table, he could see the Freyja standing at her position with tears in her eyes.
She moved quickly around the table and positioned herself in front of her mother before falling to her knees, bending at the waist to touch her forehead to the ground.
'Please, My Queen, I beg you, have mercy upon this woman. The punishment she has already endured is befitting of her crimes, and she can bear no more. Show her leniency by sending her to live in the dungeons of the castle. There, she will serve as an example of both your capacity for authority and for compassion....'
At Regina's words, Svanhilde forced herself to look up once more. She wanted so badly to gaze upon the face of her Savior and her one true love, but Regina remained prostrate before her Mother awaiting her reply.
'Unshackle this filth from the post and bring her before me, ' ordered the Queen.
Immediately, two guards stepped forward, releasing Svanhilde from her chains.
Grabbing her roughly under the arms, they dragged her, toes scraping, and positioned her in front of the High Queen. Clamping heavy hands upon her shoulders, they forced her to her knees beside Regina, who had straightened from her prone position. Their shoulders touched and the cloth of Svanhilde's dress and Regina's gown disguised their hands from prying eyes.
Reaching over, Regina searched with her little finger, hooking it around Svanhilde's own, never daring to take her eyes from the Queen.
At the same moment that their skin touched, a warmth such that Svanhilde had never known scorched through her veins and the exhaustion that had threatened to take her just moments before was lifted as if she had slept for a thousand days and needed no more rest. The aches and pains which had coursed through her wrists, knees and head vanished instantly, and the wildfire that had raged on the skin of her back was extinguished.
Again, a murmur arose from the crowd before the piercing cry of a woman was heard.
Confusion ensued as both the villagers and those on the platform looked about for both the source of the accusation and its recipient. Eventually, a small clearing developed in which stood a woman of middle age.
'SORCERESS, ' she declared again as she pointed to Svanhilde on the podium. 'Look how she heals herself!'
Following the path of the woman's finger, all eyes turned to the platform, and they watched, amazed, as Svanhilde's deep wounds resealed themselves leaving no trace of her punishment on smooth skin of her back.
A swell arose as others took up the chant as well.
Assuming the worst and fully aware of what would happen next, the Freyja offered quietly to Svanhilde without turning her head, 'You must go. Find a way to escape, or you will die.'
'Please do not ask me to leave you, My Queen, ' was the whispered, pleading response.
'There is no choice, My Svan. I know her too well. She will destroy that which she does not understand.'
Bowing her head, Svanhilde considered her options. Her love was right. If she stayed, she would surely be executed for witchcraft and sorcery. There would be no mercy for that crime. Closing her eyes, she nodded finally in acquiescence.
'I will always love you, My Regina. I will find you again someday.'
'Do not forget that promise, ' was the wavering and melancholy response.
Barely had the words left the Freyja's lips that another voice was heard above the fray.
'YOU!' hissed the High Queen through gritted teeth as she looked at Svanhilde with hatred and anger.
'SEIZE HER......IMMEDIATELY!' The High Queen shouted harshly to her guards.
Releasing Regina's hand, Svanhilde jumped to her feet, eyes darting about trying to find an exit.
'SEIZE HER, YOU INCOMPETENT FOOLS!!' the High Queen continued screaming as the guards, who had stepped back in fear, approached Svanhilde slowly and warily. Crouching low, Svanhilde prepared herself to fight until the death.
Catching a movement out of the corner of her eye, Svanhilde glanced to her right. Across the platform, Rocinante pounded the ground forcefully with his front hoof, bouncing his head hard with each impact. His nostrils flared, releasing an icy smoke with every heavy, insistent breath, and there was a determination in his eyes that was unmistakable as he stared directly at Svanhilde.
Taking off at a sprint, Svanhilde dashed across the platform, jumping left and right to avoid the guards that jumped at her feet in an effort to tackle her legs. Reaching the end of the wood, she pushed off with one foot, jumping with all of her might, trying reach the sanctuary of the saddle.
She was mid-air when the first arrow drove through her right shoulder, and past the apex of her jump when the second pierced her side.
She landed heavy and clumsy, stomach first, over the saddle; the impact knocking the air from her lungs as it pushed the tip of the second arrow back into her skin, seating the barbs firmly into muscle.
Gasping for breath and crying out in pain, she almost lost her tenuous grip upon the saddle.
Struggling mightily, she reached up with her left hand to weave her fingers through Rocinante's mane and held tight. As soon as she was secure, Rocinante reared, knocking his handler backwards to the dirt in a flurry of hooves before galloping off into the darkness of the forest, Svanhilde on his back.
On the platform, Regina was jerked to her feet by the High Queen who held tight to the tops of her arms.
'WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HER?!?! WHERE HAS SHE GONE?!?!' screamed the High Queen shaking the Freyja's shoulders hard, as if trying to pull her from a daze.
The confusion of the moment shown in the Freyja's face and eyes, and her mouth gaped as she struggled to find the words to respond amidst all that was happening.
'ANSWER ME YOU STUPID GIRL!!' screamed the High Queen again as she slapped the Freyja hard across the face.
The look of confusion was replaced quickly with one of shock, and the Freyja's focus returned immediately.
'I know not where she has gone!' she replied desperately, wincing as her mothers fingers tightened around her biceps, fingernails cutting through the fabric of her gown and into her skin.
'SHE'S YOUR CHEAP WHORE! SURELY SHE TOLD YOU SOMETHING?!'
'You knew?' questioned Regina incredulously.
'Of course I knew! Do you think my guards have not the eyes to see and the ears to hear? I know everything that you do. Perhaps, if you do not want your secrets told, you should be less inclined to make a mockery of the Commander in front of his men.....'
'You used this trial as a means of punishing us both....' whispered Regina as the full realization dawned on her.
'But, of course, My Dear,' responded the High Queen with a sickening tone and smile as she released the arms of the Freyja, 'Two women? A Freyja and an unfree? It would not be tolerated were it to reach another's ears. She needed to learn her place, and if she died in the process, then so be it....and believe me when I tell you that I am not through with her yet....'
Looking directly into her Mother's eyes, the Freyja could see a change in her gaze. What may have started as the persecution of a lover, had now turned into something much more sinister.
Turning back to her guards, the High Queen barked her orders again.
'You will hunt that trash down like a rabid dog. I do not care how long it takes or to what ends of the earth you must go. You WILL find her and bring her to me, intact! AM I UNDERSTOOD?'
The guards around the platform and ground bowed fearfully in acknowledgement before scattering to find their horses and riding into the wood in pursuit.
Turning back to her daughter, the High Queen finished her thoughts,
'There will be no mercy when I see her again. Do you understand?' asked the Queen as her lips curled into a sadistic smirk. Receiving no response, she asked in a different manner,
'Have you nothing more to say on her behalf?'
Gathering herself to her full height, the Freyja looked directly into the Queen's eyes before offering her response.
'Yes, I do.'
'Then what say you?' growled the High Queen.
Gathering her skirt, the Freyja ran quickly down the steps of the platform, hoisting herself onto the back of the closest stallion.
Grabbing the reigns, she kicked her heels strongly into its side to spur it forward, galloping blindly into the forest to find her lover and refusing to look back.
Chapter 16: Make Me Your Servant
Svanhilde slid slowly from the saddle and crumpled to the ground at Rocinante's side.
They had journeyed for several days and nights into the deep wood, but she could scarcely recall any details of the trip as she had spent the majority of time slumped over the saddle, drifting in and out of consciousness. She could only pray that Rocinante had led them far from danger, as she was certain that they had been, or would soon be, pursued.
Opening her eyes, she could see that they had arrived at a small house made of timber and thatch. The small windows at the tops of the walls were dark, but the chimney that extended from the roof released a thin stream of smoke, indicating its potential occupancy or recent abandonment.
No animals were present at the side of the house and the barn door stood open, devoid of livestock. Only a small, fresh bale of hay and trough of clean water lay in the entrance to the barn, and Rocinante meandered over to partake of a ready meal. The journey had been long and strenuous and his work was complete, for now.
Taking a few ragged breaths, Svanhilde forced herself to her feet. Holding her left side, she limped slowly to the side door of the cabin, wary of any noise or movement that might signify danger or ambush.
She had no weapons or defense. If occupants were inside, she could only hope them friendly and compassionate as her energy was sapped, and she had no strength to fight.
Knocking several times at the door, she stumbled back slightly and waited for a response. Receiving none, she knocked again, this time calling out,
'I mean no harm to you. My horse has eaten your hay, and I need a place to stay the night. You will be compensated....'
Still receiving no response, she stepped forward and lay a hand upon the door which swung inwards easily at her touch. Entering the shelter cautiously, she searched for signs of life before closing and locking the door behind her.
Dying embers were nestled low in the fireplace grate and new, dry wood had been lain against the hearth. Looking around, she could see that the table, chairs and mantle were covered in a thick layer of dust. The bed was made fresh, but undisturbed.
If someone had been there, they had arrived only long enough to build a fire, warm themselves and leave. Perhaps, they were trapping or hunting, expecting to return home for the sup. Perhaps they had abandoned the dwelling after gathering the warmth of the flame. No matter the circumstance, Svanhilde required shelter to recover and tend to her wounds, and she resolved to deal with the problem of the occupants, if and when, they would return.
Reaching down, Svanhilde tossed a few of the logs onto the grate, hoping to rekindle the fire. Within minutes, it burned high in the box again and cast a soft, warm light about the small interior.
Able to see better, she noticed a small bag hanging to the side of the hearth. Looking within, she found several pieces of jerky and a half-loaf of bread which was too soft to have been left for more than a few hours. Seeing no evidence of baking, she could only assume that it had been bought at a nearby village.
A full pitcher of water sat nearby on the floor, and Svanhilde lifted it to her nose to test its freshness. Smelling no foul odor, she poured a bit into her hand. It ran clear and crisp, and she wet her dry lips with a few drops from her palm before limping back to the table.
Placing the flagon on the surface, she settled onto the bench beside, staring into the fire.
Sighing heavily, she reached her left hand to her shoulder, finding the tip and short fore-shaft of the arrow. Gritting her teeth and closing her eyes tightly, she pulled forward, groaning deeply, drawing the fletching closer to her back. Twisting her wrist sharply, she heard a crack and cried out before pulling her hand away to find several centimeters of shaft and the arrow tip laying in her open palm. Throwing it forward, the shard landed somewhere in the furs of the bed.
Panting deep breaths, Svanhilde collected herself before reaching back again, this time, over her shoulder. Finding the staff at her back, she used her fingers to work it, centimeter by centimeter, from her body, crying out as the jagged edge passed, finally, from her skin. She slumped wearily on the bench, exhausted from her efforts, before tearing a strip of cloth from her skirt, wetting it with the fresh water of the pitcher and wrapping it under and over her arm several times.
Laying her flat palm against her left side, she could feel the tip of the arrow just below the surface of her skin. Reaching behind again, she found the shaft which extended from just above her hip and attempted to press it forward as well, hoping to repeat the extraction process. The tears fell from her eyes as, time and time again, the barbs tore at tender muscle, but refused to surrender their grip.
Frustrated, and making no progress, she again turned her wrist, breaking off the arrow close to the skin of her back. She would need to find a healer, but darkness had descended quickly over the forest, and she would not find her way that night.
Satisfied that the wound had reclotted around the arrow, she took bread and jerky from the bag. Tearing ragged hunks from both with her teeth, she attempted to fill the emptiness of her hunger. The food was consumed within only a few minutes, and Svanhilde rose from the bench to throw more logs onto the fire before collapsing onto the bed.
Lying still for a moment, she prayed to Odin that he would keep her Saviour and True Love safe from harm before her eyes closed and she fell into a deep sleep.
A rattling at the locked door pulled Svanhilde immediately from her slumbers. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but she could see that the sky was dark with clouds and a heavy snow. The winds howled fiercely and pierced every crack in the longhouse, barely kept at bay by the fire which still burned high in the grate despite there being no fuel to consume. Lying as still as possible, Svanhilde's fingers slid through the thick fur of her covers, trying to find the edge to draw it back. Her brow furrowed as her fingers found a short stick and a quick exploration told her that this was the arrow tip which had been extracted from her shoulder previously.
Gripping the short shaft tight in her fingers, she continued searching for the blanket's edge, finally finding it and drawing it away from her body so that she could place her feet on the ground and creep to the door.
Standing by the hinge, she watched as the inside lock turned slowly and she raised the arrow tip in her hand ready to strike at the slightest sign of danger.
As the door opened, she stepped back, trying to remain in the shadows and maintain the element of surprise. A cloaked figure slipped through the doorway, hood drawn up to conceal their face, looking around cautiously as they backed against the door to close it.
Unsure of the new arrival's intent, Svanhilde leapt forward, wrapping an arm around the strangers upper arms and chest feebly and drawing the tip of the arrow to their throat with a shaking hand. It was a meager weapon and she hoped that her ruse would be enough to scare the person away.
'Tell me who you are, quickly, before I am forced to do something that we both regret,' demanded Svanhilde in a panted whisper.
'I am someone who feared that 'someday' might never come,' replied the stranger in an all too familiar voice as their hands dropped the saddle bags that they held and lifted to the hood of the cloak, sliding it back to fall over their shoulders.
'My Regina, ' whispered Svanhilde in thanks and relief as she released her hold and dropped the tip of the arrow to the ground.
Turning around, Regina reached out immediately to catch Svanhilde under the arms as she began to collapse to her knees, helping to lower her gently to the floor.
'How did you find me?' asked Svanhilde weakly.
'Against, my mother's command, I followed you into the wood. I knew that Rocinante would bring you here, but I rode a day further to lose the guards that pursued you, and me, relentlessly. When I was satisfied that I was no longer being followed, I returned to this place, passing by the healer's house on the way for medicine, praying that I would find you still alive....'
'I know not who or what I am, Regina. I am afraid, and I wonder that you should leave me here to rot, lest I bring you harm...'
Placing her fingertips beneath Svanhilde's chin, Regina raised her head gently to look into her eyes.
'I know who you are, My Svan. You are My Love and My Life. I would rather stand in harm's way or die a thousand deaths than to be parted from you again. I am not afraid of you....' she whispered softly and assuredly.
'But we must tend to these wounds, or I fear that I might lose you again, ' finished Regina definitively.
Helping Svanhilde to her feet, Regina wrapped Svanhilde's left arm about her shoulders, gripping her waist and supporting her weight as they made their way slowly over to the bed. Once there, Regina lowered Svanhilde to sit at the edge.
'I must undress you to assess your wounds, My Svan....May I?' Regina asked softly.
Svanhilde nodded to provide her permission and bowed her head, leaning forward slightly to give Regina access to the back of her dress. Grasping the torn sides, Regina pulled them apart and forward, slipping the fabric gently over Svanhilde's arms and allowing the tattered cloth to pool at her waist. Taking one knee, Regina used her delicate fingers to unwrap the crude bandage that had been placed over the wound in Svanhilde's shoulder. The hole left by the puncture of the arrow was ragged and the surrounding skin showed tendrils of black from the onset of infection which leached thick and yellow from the center of the wound.
'It is not that bad, ' she offered hesitantly.
'You are a poor liar, My Queen,' responded Svanhilde with a weak grin.
'Let me help you lay back, so that I might see the other wound as well...'
Working together, they settled Svanhilde more comfortably onto her back, and Regina slipped her dress over her hips and legs so that she lay naked on the bed. Sitting beside Svanhilde on the edge of the mattress, Regina assessed the state of the wound on her hip. The sharp tip of the arrow could be seen sticking barely out of the skin of her side and the surrounding skin showed blackness similar to her shoulder. A mixture of blood and pus seeped from the front of the wound and ran slowly down Svanhilde's side onto the heavy rags that Regina had pulled from one of the saddle bags to place beneath her waist and buttock.
'I have tried already to extract it. It does not budge, ' sighed Svanhilde.
'The barbs are embedded deep and hold fast, My Love. I will have to cut it out, ' said Regina as she looked at Svanhilde with trepidation.
Entwining Regina's fingers in her own, she received her support,
'I trust you....'
Reaching into the saddle bag again, Regina extracted a sharp, hunting knife, and she thanked Odin for the fortune of having stolen the Commander's steed.
Pulling the razor-sharp blade from its sheath, she walked to the hearth and held the metal in the flame. Satisfied that it was heated sufficiently, she withdrew the blade from the fire and sat down again at the edge of the mattress. Placing the sheath between Svanhilde's teeth, she positioned the tip of the knife against the skin of Svanhilde's hip and pushed in firmly while dragging downwards making a shallow incision.
Biting hard into the leather, Svanhilde grasped the mattress in her fists trying to stay still. She moaned loudly around the sheath as tears ran from the corners of her eyes and beads of sweat broke out upon her forehead.
Separating the skin and muscle, Regina grasped the tip of the arrow wiggling it gently to try to free it from its position. After several attempts, she felt the metal give way and she pulled the arrow tip and remaining shaft up slowly clearing it from Svanhilde's body. Grasping a rag, Regina covered the wound applying pressure to staunch the flow of blood and reached up to remove the sheath from between Svanhilde's teeth.
'I am sorry that I had to hurt you, ' she whispered gently, 'and I fear that I must hurt you again. I must cauterize this wound to stop the bleeding. A bandage will not suffice. You must hold this rag while I put an iron in the fire....
As Regina started to rise, her left wrist was grabbed by Svanhilde's right hand, preventing her from continuing to the fireplace. Sitting back upon the mattress, Regina reassured Svanhilde once more.
'There is no other choice, My Love. I know that it hurts. Please let me do what needs to be done.'
Keeping her eyes locked on Regina's, Svanhilde pulled Regina's left hand to her shoulder laying her bare palm flat against the open wound and holding it there with her own hand. Reaching down with her left hand, she pulled the rag from between Regina's hand and her skin before placing their hands together over the open incision on her hip.
'My Queen, My Saviour and My Life, ' was all that Svanhilde whispered before she lifted her upper body from the bed, holding Regina's hands tight to her skin as she brought their lips together in a tender kiss.
Swiping her tongue tentatively at Regina's plump lower lip, she requested permission to deepen their kiss; an appeal that was immediately granted. Pressing her tongue forward, she found Regina's doing the same and their warm lengths stroked and caressed softly, becoming more bold in their explorations with each passing moment.
Not desiring to break their kiss, Regina pressed forward gently, urging Svanhilde's body back onto the bed where she straddled her hips lightly. She could feel Svanhilde's hands caressing the small of her back and Regina sighed heavily, thankful that she might still partake of the safety and comfort of her lover's touch.
Regina sat up quickly as she felt Svanhilde break their kiss, fearful that she had hurt her, but Svanhilde still held Regina's hands tight to her skin preventing her from moving away.
Green eyes unwavering from brown, Svanhilde spoke softly,
'I know not who or what I am. I know only that I love you with all that I am and all that I will ever be, My Beautiful Queen.'
Slowly, she lifted their hands from her body, never taking her eyes from Regina,
'Please...you will bleed out, My Svan.'
Looking down, Regina reached out quickly hoping to staunch the flow of blood that she anticipated from the removal of pressure. She froze midway, however, eyes wide, as she looked at Svanhilde's hip.
The incision that she had made no longer marred her skin, and the black and yellow of the infection was now masked completely by the soft ivory of her skin.
Blood that had coated her stomach and side had been washed away by invisible waters; the only evidence of its previous existence collected in the rag which lay beneath her.
Looking up, Regina saw that Svanhilde's shoulder, too, showed no signs of injury, and any scar that might have revealed its previous existence was vanished away. Fascinated, she reached towards Svanhilde's shoulder with her fingers, hesitating slightly before her fingertips touched the skin.
'I assure you that you will not hurt me to touch it, ' offered Svanhilde with a gentle smile.
'I-I don't understand, ' stuttered Regina as she looked to Svanhilde's face in confusion and amazement.
'Nor do I, ' responded Svanhilde calmly and thoughtfully.
'All I know is that, when I think of you, my mind has the calm of a baby at its mother's breast. The sight of your beautiful face gives my blood the warmth of a thousand fires which no cold may temper. Your touch is a cure beyond the explanations of the gods, and there is nothing that cannot be healed by its power. And your love, ' sighed Svanhilde reverently, 'well...your love has transformed me into someone; mind, body and soul, that I never believed that I could be...'
As she finished, she looked up at Regina with gentle and imploring eyes.
'I know that I may frighten you, and I understand if you don't....' continued Svanhilde dejectedly, but she was cut off mid-sentence by a searing kiss placed upon her lips.
Breaking that kiss, Regina looked down at Svanhilde with a wry grin as she gathered the skirt of her gown up so that her bare thighs rested to each side of Svanhilde's smooth, muscular hips.
'I must say that I do not believe my presence has improved your hearing...or perhaps you simply chose to ignore me when I said that I am not afraid of you....How could I ever be afraid of the woman that I love?' she offered questioningly.
Sitting up quickly, Svanhilde wrapped strong arms around Regina's waist, turning them over so that Regina's back now lay against the mattress, legs wrapped around Svanhilde's waist and back. She laughed quietly at Regina's surprised look as she lowered her face so that barely a hair's breadth was between their lips.
'I'm sorry. I am not sure that I heard you. Perhaps you could repeat what you said...'
Rolling her eyes and grinning, Regina repeated her words,
'I am not afraid of you...'
'No....not those words,' responded Svanhilde seriously and barely above a whisper.
Smiling softly, Regina repeated again,
'I love you, My Svan.'
Leaning down, Svanhilde kissed her lips, gently at first and then more and more eagerly and urgently; 'I love you' repeated over and over again between their kisses, until there was no longer an end to one and a beginning of another.
Reaching down, Svanhilde placed her open palm against Regina's knee, sliding her hand slowly over the outside of her thigh, willing her fingers to memorize every inch of soft, smooth, supple flesh. Reaching Regina's bare hip, she squeezed, kneading her fingers into the firm muscle of her backside over and over, until she received a moan of approval for her ministrations.
Breaking their kiss, Svanhilde sat up a bit, not daring stop the incessant rhythm of her fingers as she drew her left hand to the bodice of Regina's gown. Grasping the strings, she watched Regina's eyes for any sign of disapproval as she pulled the bow apart, releasing the tension of the fabric about her torso. Unable and unwilling to wait any longer to become one with the woman she loved, Svanhilde grasped the bottom cross of leather binding, pulling hard to release the full length of cord from the grommets and lay Regina bare beneath her as the sides of her gown fell away.
Lowering herself again, Svanhilde touched their lips barely, moving at the last moment to drag her tongue and lips over the outline of Regina's jaw, before kissing down the side of her neck, earning a throaty groan. She paused briefly to suck the skin above her lover's pulse point before brushing her lips slowly and softly over her collarbone and placing open-mouthed kisses on her shoulder. She felt Regina's back arch at the contact, and Svanhilde slipped her left arm under her waist to draw her body upwards and encourage her supplication.
Threading the fingers of her right hand into Svanhilde's hair, Regina held the back of her lover's head, guiding her mouth gently to her breast; silently begging for more.
Svanhilde kept Regina’s gaze as she flicked her tongue, barely catching the tip of Regina’s right nipple. She watched intently as Regina's eyelids fluttered, and she gasped slightly as her sensitive nub felt the quick brush of Svanhilde's tongue. Almost immediately, the dark skin surrounding her nipple hardened and the remaining skin of her breast rose in a pattern of bumps which continued across her chest, arms and stomach. Continuing to lock eyes, Svanhilde flicked her tongue several more times, pressing forward slightly each time to catch more and more flesh upon her tongue.
'Do not tease, My Love, ' was whispered imploringly as Regina begged to become one with her lover.
After several more light strokes, Svanhilde swiped the flat of her tongue against the underside of Regina’s nipple, lifting it slightly before taking the sensitive bud between soft lips. She sucked, gently at first, but quickly increased the pressure, urged on by Regina’s hand against her head and the moans that were rapidly increasing in volume.
As she sucked, her tongue flicked and swirled, teasing the nipple between her lips into an almost uncomfortable hardness. Her mouth and tongue worked hard against sensitive flesh, and she was rewarded by the feeling of Regina's lower back rising further from the bed; a silent affirmation of her increasing desire for Svanhilde's touch.
Regina’s hand gripped the fur atop the mattress tightly; her left joined by Svanhilde's right as they wove their fingers together trying to remain grounded, and her hips jerked and twitched as she sought to soothe, even slightly, the incessant ache that had started to build.
“I need more, My Svan, “ she gasped, holding Svanhilde tighter to her breast. Her request was met by the scraping of teeth across her hard nipple, and it earned a gasp of surprise that was immediately followed by a drawn-out moan.
Releasing her nipple with a soft pop, Svanhilde watched Regina's eyes as she released her hand, moving to place her open palm on Regina's lower abdomen, instead, feeling the muscles tense and release quickly under her touch.
Sliding her hand down firm abs, she slipped her fingers between Regina's legs without hesitation, parting her soaked lips and tracing small, tight circles against her clit with her middle finger, feeling the bud harden and swell instantly in response to her touch.
Tightening her grip in Svanhilde's hair, Regina held her firm so that their eyes remained locked and unwavering. Regina’s normal color had darkened to almost black, and her pupils were blown wide with lust as she panted in shallow breaths grinding and pressing down with her hips, trying to find some relief.
'Make me yours completely, My Svan....do not deny me the strength of your love, ' demanded Regina in a low growl.
Shifting slightly, Svanhilde repositioned herself so that one leg straddled Regina's right thigh. Moving her soaked fingers down further, the abandonment of Regina's clit was quickly met with a sigh of frustration, but it was soon replaced with a strong gasp of pleasure as she slipped one finger, and then a second, into her lover's warm, slick entrance.
Watching Regina's eyes, she moved her fingers in and out slowly, feeling the tightening and relaxation of her walls as they tugged on her fingers trying to deepen their exploration.
Sliding her thigh forward a bit, Svanhilde pressed it against the back of her hand, helping her fingers to overcome the resistance of Regina's tight walls and holding the heel of her hand against Regina's clit as it circled briefly with each push of her fingers, working the hard nub quickly into a frenzy.
She could feel Regina grind more frantically, seeking additional pleasure, and she laid a trail of wet kisses starting at the hollow of Regina’s throat and leading down between her breasts as she tried desperately to sate her lover.
Raising her knee, Regina placed her thigh tightly against Svanhilde's hot, wet core and she could feel her start to roll her hips slowly, spreading her wetness until she could move without resistance.
Freeing her hands from the fur, they wrapped instead around Svanhilde's back, delicate fingers tracing random patterns on soft skin before nails scraped gently from the small of her back to her shoulders.
Moving her hands down again, Regina massaged the taut muscles of Svanhilde's back that tightened and relaxed in time with the motion of her hips, encouraging and urging Svanhilde to not be shy in continuing to seek her own, mutual pleasure. Sliding lower, Regina grabbed handfuls of her lover's beautiful ass and squeezed tightly, unwilling to let go.
Slowly, Svanhilde worked her way up Regina’s chest placing light kisses against her skin. She hovered over her, face to face, breasts touching lightly as she bowed her head to capture Regina’s lips in a deep, sensual kiss that she hoped would convey the swirl of emotions that she was feeling but couldn’t verbalize.
She moaned into Regina’s mouth as the sensation built steadily between her thighs, and she wondered how long she might hold on. Touching her forehead to Regina’s , she closed her eyes, concentrating on their building pleasure and reveling in the closeness of their bodies, skin on skin, sliding easily and melding into one. Emma’s breaths were coming hard and Regina could feel the warmth of her exhales against her lips and chin as Emma panted and gasped, open mouthed, above her.
'My Queen, My Saviour and My Life, ' being the only words she was capable of offering.
Bowing her head, Svanhilde touched her flushed cheek to Regina’s and she could feel the heat and dampness of Svanhilde's skin against her own as strands of thick blonde hair, wetted from the sweat of their exertion, fell around her face. Regina felt the heat rising in her core again as Svanhilde whispered her thoughts once again,
'You are my Queen, My Love, My Life and I devote myself to you, now and forever....'
Regina could feel the ache building fast between her thighs as Svanhilde conferred her deepest desires, and she reached down to urge Svanhilde's thigh forward against her core, holding it from behind to maintain pressure against her lips and clit. She slid easily against Svanhilde's thigh and lifted her hips slightly to drive her lover's fingers deeper and to place even more pressure against her core, simultaneously pressing her own thigh further against Svanhilde.
Their strokes were long and fervent and both could feel their walls tightening almost painfully. Laying their damp foreheads against each other and closing their eyes, they bucked, twitched and jerked their hips desperately, trying to relieve their aching and achieve the union that they so desired.
'I PLEDGE MYSELF TO YOU ALWAYS, MY ETERNAL LOVE!' cried out Regina into the soft light of the room.
'OH MY QUEEN, MAKE ME YOUR SERVANT!' moaned Svanhilde loudly in reply, pleading desperately for her own release.
Almost immediately, her words drove Regina to the edge, and they teetered there only for a moment, before both toppled over the beautiful precipice.
Surrounded by a blinding, white light, they remained suspended in time for only a moment, before a burst of energy separated them, throwing Svanhilde out of the bed and onto the floor.
Her body slid hard against the legs of the table and chairs, scattering and knocking the furniture about the room, before all was still.
From her position, Svanhilde looked toward the bed with slitted eyes. She could see that Regina lay naked and unmoving, eyes closed. Svanhilde tried to move to the aid of her lover, but she felt bound by invisible chains that were tightening their grip upon both her mind and her body, and as her eyes closed and her consciousness was taken from her, the light that had surrounded them dissipated into nothingness and all was consumed by a thick darkness.
Chapter 17: The Price Of Magic
Svanhilde opened her eyes to a dimly lit cabin. The fire in the hearth was burned low in the grate, having reignited at some point during the duration of her unconsciousness.
She had no idea how long she had been out, but her first thoughts were of Regina and she looked to the bed to find her naked body still there, eyes closed, unmoving. Pushing herself to her knees and then to her feet, Svanhilde stumbled to the side of the bed, looking down upon her love. Regina's chest neither rose nor fell. Grasping her shoulders, Svanhilde shook her hard trying to wake her.
'PLEASE DO NOT BE GONE FROM ME, MY LOVE!' she cried and pleaded to no avail as her lover's limp body moved in her hands without resistance.
'WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU?!?!?' Svanhilde screamed into the air as she released Regina's shoulders and pressed her fingers through her hair, grasping handfuls of her golden locks and pulling the strands from her scalp harshly as she stumbled around the room trying to make sense of the situation.
'WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU?!?!?' she screamed again as she released one hand to beat herself mercilessly upon her breast in punishment. The tears fell copiously from her eyes, dashing upon the floor around her.
Confused by her grief and unsure of what to do, Svanhilde gathered the remnants of her clothes from the floor, pulling the tattered and torn rags about her body as best she could before moving again to the side of the bed.
Reaching down, she arranged Regina's body neatly on the mattress, weaving her fingers atop her stomach before pulling the heavy hides over her to mid-chest.
The frozen ground would be unyielding to a shovel or pick and a pyre would surely draw attention to their location, though she briefly considered it, as her capture, punishment and death would be a welcome relief to the emptiness and sorrow that she now felt.
Reaching down with her left hand, Svanhilde cupped Regina's cheek gently, brushing her thumb over Regina's lips which had parted slightly.
'Though my body will move, I will never again live, and I most certainly will never again love as I have loved, and will always love, you and only you. I will devote this life to finding a way to take this curse away so that I may never hurt another. Believe me when I promise you this....'
Turning quickly from the bed, she hesitated only a moment to grasp the saddlebags from the floor before flinging open the door and stepping out into the blinding, thick snow and howling wind.....
....and with the click of the latch still hanging in the air, Regina's back arched strongly from the bed as she gasped deeply for a breath, eyes opening wide to darkness.
The tears were frozen solid to her cheeks as Svanhilde stumbled about the woods for hours. The driving snow offered little visibility and even less directionality, but she continued moving forward slowly, not knowing where she was going, but knowing that she wanted to leave the longhouse far behind her.
She cursed herself mercilessly for the destruction she had wrought upon the life of the only person that had ever loved and believed in her and wondered why she should be alive while Regina was consumed by an eternal slumber. All she wanted was to be rid of the scourge inside of her so that she might never do harm to another.
Stopping briefly, Svanhilde squinted, shielding her eyes with her hand, trying to protect them from the large flakes that were falling around her. She thought that she had caught the glimpse of a lantern, and, as the winds abated for a moment to ready themselves for the next onslaught, she caught sight of the lamp again.
Lifting her knees high to pull her booted feet from the drifts of snow, she inched forward slowly, unsure of what she might find. After an hour more of slow progress, she reached the outskirts of a clearing. Looking up, she saw that the perimeter was lined with poles in close succession atop which were settled the skulls of boars and bears, alternately.
The leather straps dangling from the jaws were being whipped about by the gusts of wind, and the lanterns attached below rang hollowly as they bounced against each post. The few that were still lit struggled to hold their own against the wind and darkness.
Looking to the center of the clearing, Svanhilde could barely make out the outline of a longhouse.
The light glowed dim in the windows, but the smoke rose thick from the chimney, and Svanhilde wondered if she might warm herself and rest for an hour before being on her way again.
She had not even knocked at the door before it was opened to her. A man stood inside dressed in a heavy, black cloak whose hood had been pulled low to partially conceal his face. On his upper lip and chin grew the stubble of a beard which was a mix of brown and grey and she guessed him to be in his fortieth year, though she could not be sure. She had barely enough time for her eyes to adjust before he spoke.
'Svanhilde...the Master has been expecting you, ' he said in a soft voice.
'H-how...how do you know my name?'
Ignoring her question, he continued,
'Please, come in and warm yourself by the fire. You are among friends, and we wish you no harm.'
Stepping back, he smiled slightly at her, tipping his head in benevolence and welcome.
Still unsure of his familiarity, but too frozen to run or continue her journey, she accepted the offer, stepping cautiously inside the door of the hut.
She continued watching the cloaked man carefully as she stepped farther into the room, which was lit with the soft glow of a well-tended hearth fire, but he remained in place, showing no movement except to close the door and stand beside, looking quietly into the room with his hands folded in front of him.
Pausing a moment, Svanhilde waited for her eyes to adjust so that she could take in her new surroundings. The hut was small, a single room with the long wall opposite the door dominated by a curved hearth and mantle around which were hung several small cauldrons that bubbled, hissed and steamed smokes of various colors. Herbs of healing and plants of poison thrived in a large box against the short wall to her left, despite the absence of sun, and a heavy table of cracked, aged, worn wood sat directly in front of the garden, laden with glass vials, parchment, books, quills and ingredients both foreign and familiar.
The short wall opposite held a collection of sleeping benches, fur blankets and ancient books; some stacked high and precariously and others arranged neatly on sagging shelves. Hundreds of dusty volumes extended to the ceiling and several feet from the wall.
The only, true pieces of furniture in the hut were two, massive high-backed armchairs that had been covered and recovered in a patchwork of leather and hide. They sat facing the hearth, turned slightly to each other to accomodate the conversations of the occupants. Wide, wooden arms had been worn down from years of repose and activity, and Svanhilde could see that one arm of the right chair was draped over by the cloak sleeve of an occupant, yet unseen.
'Locksley?' Came the cracked, elderly voice from the chair.
'Yes, My Master,' came the quiet reply from the man beside the door as he stepped forward into the light of the hearth.
'You should be on your way. As we discussed, time is of the essence...'
'Yes, Master, ' replied the man named Locksley with a tip of his head before turning to the door and exiting into the cold and snow without another word.
When the door was closed, the voice spoke again,
'Come, Svanhilde, warm yourself by the fire and rest. As Locksley has already told you, we mean you no harm...'
Svanhilde craned her neck trying to see the face of the man who now beckoned to her.
Creeping forward slightly, she could barely make out the profile of an older man whose face was cragged and cracked with the passage of many year's time.
'A man of my age has no quickness to offer...only knowledge, ' he stated in assurance as he sensed her drawing closer.
Leaning forward slightly, he patted the cradle of the seat to his left with a gnarled hand, offering again, 'Come and warm yourself and tell me what troubles you so deeply that you would seek me...'
'I believe you have mistaken me for another, Sir, ' responded Svanhilde confusedly as she took tentative rest in the chair beside the old man. 'I have only just stumbled upon your cottage during my journey. I was not searching for anyone, only for warmth and rest so that I may soon be on my way. If we have met, then I must apologize as I do not remember and know not who you are....'
'No. Rest assured that we have not met before, so there is no need to lament, but I also assure you that no one finds me that does not have great need or desire, ' he offered slowly while taking her hand and looking deep into Svanhilde's pained, green eyes with orbs of steel blue.
Almost instantly, a feeling of safety and trust washed over her, and she felt as if she was talking to someone that she had known for many years.
She blinked as brief visions flashed through her mind of a beautiful young girl and a young man running at play in the once-pleasant gardens of the hut while two, older men laughed at their antics. She knew not the children or elders though the blue eyes of one of the men told her that she might be in his presence, many years after the fact.
Soon, the scene morphed and a young woman, so familiar to her, walked in the same yard holding the arm of the other elder in support. There was happiness and concern as she watched his progress as if she feared that he might someday leave her alone and afraid.
And, last, she saw her beautiful Regina as she reached to gentle and craggy hands, the same that held hers now, to take the medicine that she had brought the previous night to treat Svanhilde's wounds.
She wanted to hold onto that picture forever, but her thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the man beside her.
'She was beautiful as a child, ' the old man offered quietly as if he had been witnessing the same scene right beside her, 'and the years that passed only enhanced and nurtured that beauty. It is no wonder that you fell in love with her....'
'You knew her...'
'And loved her like a daughter...for all of her life....Now, tell me Svanhilde, what is it that you desire so much that you would be out on a night such as this?'
Sighing, Svanhilde sat back in the chair and stared into the fire before bringing her hands to her eyes to wipe away the tears that were forming anew. She had no energy or defenses to deny him the responses that he sought. He should know the truth. He deserved that much.
Almost silently, she responded,
'Forgiveness. Absolution. Freedom.'
'Mmmmmmm,' answered the old man thoughtfully. 'Forgiveness for her death? Absolution from your unmerited and undeserved guilt? Or freedom from what lies within...the thing of which you are now most afraid?'
Jerking her head up quickly, she looked directly at the old man, mouth open but unable to speak.
Waving his fingers, he silenced her before she found her voice.
'I know that you do not believe it right now, but what you possess is not a curse. For thousands of years, men have killed for that which you have...'
'And men have died because of what I have, ' responded Svanhilde quietly and remorsefully while shaking her head in shame.
'Mmmmmm, ' was his repeated, non-committal response.
Arising from his chair, he grasped a crooked walking stick before limping slowly to the table at the far side of the room.
'I appreciate your hospitality, but I must go. The snow abates and I may still cover some kilometers this eve...' stated Svanhilde, discomforted and saddened by the conversation.
Not acknowledging Svanhilde's observation, the old man hobbled back over to the center of the hearth where he placed a large, lidded glass jar on the flat stones before retaking his seat. Closing his eyes, he stated his next words softly and measuredly,
'Though my body will move, I will never again live, and I most certainly will never again love as I have loved, and will always love, you and only you. I will devote this life to finding a way to take this curse away so that I may never hurt another. Believe me when I promise you this...'
Upon hearing his words, the tears started to fall from Svanhilde's eyes. She could not remove the last vision of Regina's beautiful face from behind her lids and the sorrow of her deeds came flooding back anew.
Weaving her fingers into her hair, Svanhilde rocked a bit in her seat.
'Remove yourself from my head. You know too much already and should know no more lest it bring you the same pain it has brought me!!' Svanhilde cried in vain.
'I see only that which you permit me to see and hear only that which your mind and heart call out. I can help you find some comfort if that is what you want....'
'You cannot provide me the peace that I seek. It is to late....and she is already gone....' Svanhilde trailed off softly as she shook her head in defeat and cried into her hands.
'She is gone at my hand. Taken by this plague that infects me....'
'My Child, ' said the old man softly as he reached out to lay a worn hand upon Svanhilde's shoulder, 'I cannot fix or change the events of the past, but I can help to relieve you of the precious gift that you seek so desperately to abandon, if that is truly what you desire....'
'Will you destroy it?' Implored Svanhilde.
'I have not the power to create nor destroy, but I know of the corruption, destruction and death that it may cause should it fall into the wrong hands...'
'Like mine...' interjected Svanhilde despondently.
'Believe me when I tell you that it is not to you that my mind wanders when I say those words. I do not fear one who did not ask for, and who willingly gives away, strength and power because they do not want it or do not trust their ability to control it.
It is others, those quite near and those yet far, who will seek both at any price. They care not if they are able to shoulder the weight of its responsibility.
No, I will keep it safely hidden away. You may find someday that you need to call upon it to serve you again....'
'What would you have me do to be released of this scourge and for you to forgive me for what I have done....' begged Svanhilde as the tears fell heavy from her eyes, and she dropped to her knees in front of the old man, burying her face in his lap to hide her shame.
'It is already done,' he responded as he stroked her hair gently to comfort her.
Raising her head, she looked at him confused and he nodded towards the jar on the hearth.
Within its confines, a white light swirled and ebbed, bouncing against the front of the glass as it tried, unsuccessfully, to rejoin its owner and master.
Rising to her feet, Svanhilde walked to the jar.
Placing her fingertips to the glass, she watched as the frantic swirl raged against the impermeable barrier trying to find its way home.
'It will seek you always. Do not forget that, ' stated the old man.
'Then it will look forever, ' answered Svanhilde definitively.
'Where will you go?'
'I do not know'
'There is a village, not far from here, which has been all but forgotten. They are part of the Kingdom, but they ask no questions and offer no information. I know that they are in need of a blacksmith's services. Perhaps, you may find sanctuary there and offer your talents in return? I assure that you will find no where safer in this Kingdom.'
Having no other options, Svanhilde nodded her head in agreement.
'As you said, the storm has abated, so you should take your leave before it blows again. Your saddle bags have been filled with food and a key to the blacksmith shop lies within. There is lodging above and customers await already at your door.....'
'How may I repay you for all that you have done?'
'Why should there ever be repayment for simple kindness? You are not in my debt, but I would appreciate your assistance, should the need ever arise...'
'I am yours always, ' assured Svanhilde with a bow, 'you need only ask...'
Moving to the door, she gathered her bags which were laden much heavier than she had left them before. With what she had seen, she questioned it not, instead, thanking Odin for the fortune of finding an enduring friend in her time of need.
Opening the door, she braced herself against the bitter cold and snow before venturing forth, while behind, the old man moved the despondent jar for safekeeping.
Chapter 18: Blinded By Love
'WHO IS THERE?!?' demanded Regina as her hands reached out into the darkness.
She could hear the whispering of voices and could vaguely determine their direction, but, despite her best efforts, her eyes refused to see the source.
Unwilling to accept what she already knew to be truth, she reached to her face, attempting to lift the blindfold that did not exist.
The touch of fingers against one of her hands caused her to startle. Flinching hard, she recoiled to the corner of the bed, slamming her back into the wall and grasping her knees as she tried to curl herself into a ball for protection. Her actions were met with only marginal success as she struggled to draw her knees any closer than half way to her chest. Reaching to her stomach, she could already feel the swelling of a child.
'No, no, no, no, ' were repeated over and over in a whisper as she drew her fists to her temples, rocking back and forth as she tried to make sense of all that swirled in her head.
Waves of nausea passed over her as she considered how she might have come to be in her current state, and she swallowed hard to keep the bile down as tears of anger, self-pity and hopelessness fell from her eyes.
From her size, she estimated the passage of 2-3 moons, though she could not remember anything of that time.
Her last memories were of the Master as he helped her with the medicines needed to treat Svanhilde's wounds and of her Svan as they made love passionately in the abandoned cabin after the miraculous healing of her wounds at their touch.
If they had been found, she did not recall the events and could only assume that her captor or captors had kept her well drugged as they had their way with her, and she breathed a silent prayer that she had not been awake to endure the shame and degradation of their actions.
Suddenly enraged, she demanded again to the room,
'WHO ARE YOU? WHERE AM I? AND WHO IS THE FATHER OF THIS CHILD SO THAT I MIGHT KNOW WHOSE THROAT TO SLIT FIRST? HOW DARE YOU KEEP ME HERE AGAINST MY WILL!'
Receiving no response, she continued to speak through gritted teeth as her body shook with rage.
'BASTARDS AND COWARDS!! MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN TO ME AND PLACE A SWORD IN MY HAND, SO THAT I MIGHT THANK YOU PROPERLY FOR YOUR KINDNESS AND HOSPITALITY!
'You are safe, Regina. You know that no harm will come to you while you are in our care, ' came the cadence of a familiar, quiet voice as a weight was settled at the edge of the bed.
A brow, previously furrowed in anger was transformed almost immediately by one furrowed in confusion.
'Robin?' she asked quizzically.
Bringing his hands to his face, the man called Locksley pulled his hood from his head, letting it fall back onto his shoulders. He was a handsome man, only five to ten years older than Regina, though his brown and grey hair belied his age. His blue eyes danced in the light of the fire at the sight of his oldest friend and he smiled, despite the situation, at the chance that he had been given to see her again. She was exactly as he remembered her, and her fire and spirit had only grown from what it was as a child when they had played together in the yard.
'It is me, Regina, ' he offered as he placed his hands over hers, drawing them from her face and holding them tightly in his own, 'and the Master is here as well.'
Not daring to believe, but needing to be certain, she asked her question quietly and astonishedly,
'It is YOURS?'
'No, Regina, ' he said with a gentle smile, 'You know in your heart that I would never be so bold as to take that which you did not allow.
I loved you as a child, and, as a young man, you refused me your hand, and I understand now why. I could never love you as she does.
You also know that I have taken a vow of celibacy, so it cannot be mine....'
'Then WHOSE?!' She asked as confusion and panic set in again. 'Where is Svanhilde and what has happened in these months? I do not understand! Why are my eyes open only to darkness? How did I get here?'
Finding herself unable to breathe, Regina stopped speaking. She looked to Robin in panic, eyes wide, as she tried over and over to draw air into her lungs.
Sensing Regina's struggle, the Master assumed Robin's place at the side of the bed.
Grasping her hand gently, he lay his open palm against her forehead before closing his eyes and mouthing a few words in repetition.
Within time, he could feel Regina relax and breathe again in a normal cadence, and he breathed his own sigh of relief in turn. He dare not lose her. Her importance to the future of the Kingdom was beyond measure and her safety, as a surrogate daughter, was paramount. Sensing, finally, that she would be able to hear and understand his words, he spoke,
'My Child, I know that you have many questions and are afraid. There is much that you should know, but also, much that I cannot answer.
I can tell you that what seems like 2-3 months has been only a single eve, but your tale, and hers, started long ago, even before you were both born. If you will indulge an old man to tell you a story, just as I did when you were just a child, then all will be revealed to you.
Closing her eyes, Regina nodded her head and allowed herself to be led from the bed and settled into one of the chairs by the hearth.
Her dress was unfamiliar and loose, but comfortable and soft, and she cupped her hands beneath her stomach, already in love with the child that lay within, regardless of its status, heritage or lineage. It mattered not who the Father was, only that she was the child's mother and she knew already that she would give her life for its safety.
She was interrupted only briefly by Robin's offering of food. She was not hungry, but she accepted gratefully as nourishment for her unborn child. As she heard the old man settle in his chair, she waited with great anticipation for him to begin his story.
'For many hundreds of years, the Kingdom of Uvhir has sought the wealth of other nations as a means of providing for its own.
Kingdoms far and wide were scouted and raided based upon their potential to bring treasure, and I am loathe to admit it, but your Grandfather, King Leopold, was most ruthless in this quest.
Nations unwilling to submit to his rule would succumb by a warrior's hand, and fall they did; people of the defeated lands bring taken as slaves that still live amoung us as the unfree.
Some 30 years ago, Leopold heard rumor of a Kingdom of boundless wealth in the West; more than anything ever encountered previously. The lands were vast and contained an overabundance of the natural resources needed by Leopold to strengthen our armies and extend our reach. Their coffers were filled with gold and gems beyond imagination, and their influence was strong.
Numerous Kingdoms, stretched far and wide, provided them with their allegiance in return for the protection of their incredible army.
It was a daunting, but perfect, scenario; like cards stacked upon their ends. Fell the strongest, control their armies, and all others would fall in line to maintain their protection.
The success of Leopold in securing this Western Kingdom would ensure that Uvhir's rule would be unchallenged and absolute in the known lands.
Knowing that Uvhir could not match the strength of an army as large and strong as the one described, Leopold sent forth his scouts to observe his new enemy. As I am sure that you have been taught, the best way to defeat one's foe is to know and exploit their weaknesses.
For almost two years these spies collected information, reporting back anything that might provide advantage, and believe me when I tell you that there was much to learn.
The castle of this Kingdom sat atop the ledge of a stone plateau which rose from the middle of a vast wood dotted by settlements, large and small. Its situation provided defensive advantage and visibility to all four corners of the Kingdom while allowing privacy for their monarchy. The King and Queen, Henry and Eva, were benevolent and well loved monarchs; not one subject could find fault in their rule or situation.
They sat as equals upon the throne, even though she was the true heir by right of her birth. They were very much in love, and it was that love that gave them their strength and power. You see, the place in which they lived was no ordinary land. As the scouts quickly learned, the forest itself was alive with enchantment. It was not the typical pixies and sprites of which I speak, although, of those, there were numerous reports as well.
The magic of which they spoke existed in the people themselves.
As Leopold learned over time and careful observation, every person in the Kingdom he sought to conquer is born with the gift of magic. The extent to which it manifests itself and to which each person's physical strength develops is determined by the depth of their love for another. Those who find their 'Predetermined', as they are called by the people, are the most powerful of all.
These are matches determined by fate, even before birth. It is extreme rarity that these people should find each other, though. They exist across Kingdoms and time and the chance of meeting is slim, though not impossible. Those unwilling to settle for a love less than perfect venture out to find their Predetermined, though most never return and only a few extremely lucky or brave ever succeed.
Of course, this revelation further weakened the chances of Leopold ever taking the Kingdom. An army with a strength bourne of love could never be defeated.
It was some unexpected news in the second year, however, that made Leopold reconsider his tactics.
It was during this year that the Queen gave birth to twins; one boy and one girl. The girl, Emma, being the eldest by moments, was the rightful heir to the throne upon the King and Queen's death, and, by all accounts, she was far above average ability for her age.
Cunning and intelligent, she showed propensity for great strength of both body and mind, even at a very young age.
It was believed that, were she to find her Predetermimed, she could be the most powerful ruler ever seen in those lands; more powerful than even her Mother and Father combined. And, being of noble birth, she would have the means to seek her Predetermined to the ends of the earth and time, should she so choose. Of course, even if they were never found, any love she might have would give her the strength to be a more than capable ruler.
Her brother, Fredrick, was not so blessed by the gods. Of only average ability, there was great fear by the people that he could be overtaken or controlled, if his sister were not to survive to assume the throne.
Upon hearing these details, Leopold became obsessed with the power that he could have at his disposal were he to take young Emma alive.
Knowing her potential, the desire for her return to the Kingdom would be great, and he could demand the wealth, armies and servitude of the King and Queen for her safe return without delivering a single blow.
Of course, he had no intention of giving the young girl back. Once the transaction had been agreed, he would keep her as a slave, determined to find a way to tap and harness her great power to do his bidding.
And so, a diversionary attack was planned to allow access to the castle for his elite soldiers. Trebouchers hurled great boulders against the castle walls, eliciting terrible damage and loss of life; including that of Queen Eva. The King survived, but was badly hurt, and, by the time he could amass his remaining soldiers in pursuit, Emma had disappeared into the shadows.
Fearing he might be challenged by another who knew of the young girl's power and wanted it for their own, Leopold ordered the slaughter of his elite forces and spies; anyone that might have knowledge of the young girl and her capabilities.
He ordered her sold to a family who would take her as a daughter, but show her no concession and no regard which might draw forth her abilities.
By denying her basic comfort, then taking her to the castle and lavishing her with gifts and opportunity, he believed he might cultivate her power, as she fell in love with him as her new father and provider.
No, he was not her Predetermined and she would never love him as a woman loves a man, but, if rumor were true, she needed only a nudge....
Ultimately, his plan mattered not. Killed in battle shortly after, the last person with knowledge of this young girl took the secret of her existence to the grave, and she was left to languish, unloved and unwanted for many years.
Of course, the rumors of Emma's existence would not be entirely squelched by Leopold's purging. Word will always pass by mouth faster than it may be staved by the hand.
The details were varied and scarce, jumbled like sticks, as they were passed along until lie could not be separated from truth. Her whereabouts were unknown, and since the very few that had actually looked upon her were all dead, she could be any friend or stranger......'
Pausing for breath, the Master looked to Regina who sat quietly contemplating the words of his tale as her palm stroked her buldging stomach in soft circles.
'You believe Svanhilde is Emma....' she offered quietly.
'Yes, for me, there is no longer doubt. She is of the right age, and her power is immense, albeit wild and untamed. She knows not how to use or control it....'
'Can you teach her?'
'I, nor any other in this Kingdom, is capable of teaching her. These children are nurtured and instructed from a very early age regarding the capabilites and limitations of their magic.
The love of their mothers and fathers helps them to grow physically and mentally stronger each day, and it gives them just enough magic and power to learn, practice and hone their skills over many years.
Only when they find their betrothed, do their abilities and physicality blossom further, and, by this time, they are prepared for these changes.
No, Regina. This love and instruction has been denied for far too many years. Whatever she had learned, it has been long forgotten, and it would take a very powerful hand to reign her now....'
'But she would only have been a babe at the time of her capture, incapable of being taught, ' offered Regina in confusion.
'Ahhhh, yes, one would think, but these children do not develop as we are used to seeing ours grow.
As I mentioned, Queen Eva's delivery of her children was a surprise to Leopold's men. They recognized no sign of her pregnancy, even having seen her only one month before.
The arrival of twins would not have been easily disguised, nor was there reason for secrecy. By the time Leopold attacked, not 6 moons later, Emma was our equivalent of 3 years old....'
'Three years?!' repeated Regina with a furrowed brow, 'with the passage of only 6 moon's time?'
'While these peoples have an incredible ability to heal their injuries, they are not invincible.
Wounds, plagues, disease....they are still susceptible and may be taken by any, if severe enough.
For their own safety, they are born and mature very rapidly at the start of their life.....for who is more susceptible to the devastation of illness but the unborn and the new?'
Pausing for a moment, he added, 'But...you above all should know that, Regina....'
He could see the bare nod of her head as he continued to speak,
'By around one year, the equivalent age of 7 or 8, this process slows, and they will mature gradually just as our own children do....'
The Master looked intently at Regina's face as she stared, unseeing into the fire of the hearth, rubbing her tummy gently and unconsciously over and over.
He could tell that her inquisitive mind was reeling with a thousand questions about the people of this far-off Kingdom, and, for a brief moment, he could see again the child that he had tucked into bed on many-a-year's cold, hunting night, answering pleas for 'one more story' until her eyes grew too heavy, and her mind too tired, to ask for another.
He knew that she had yet to ask some of the most important questions, so he waited patiently for what was to come. It would not be an easy discussion, but it was necessary.
Eventually, Regina's hand stilled and a light of realization shown upon her face. Almost tentatively she spoke her next words,
'You said that what seemed like months to me has only been an eve.....'
'Yes, ' he offered in reply.
'And yet my stomach grows heavy, filled with a life not there yesterday.'
She furrowed her brow, unsure of how to state her next question. In anticipation, the Master offered,
'They do not align themselves to the laws of this Kingdom. Their love is not bound, and their children are not only from the betrothal of a man to a woman.'
'The child is hers?' Asked Regina in a voice both incredulous and unbelieving.
'Yes. Conceived by the magic bourne out of your love and devotion to one another. I may only offer conjecture, but I know that her magic is stronger than anything that I have ever read or studied Finding one's Predetermined is rare, indeed, but not impossible. And I can not help but wonder, if, perhaps, you are hers....'
'I must find her, Master. If it is her child that I carry, then she must know!'
'You must believe me when I tell you it is better that you remain separated, ' he implored.
'You do not understand, Master, I cannot do this alone.'
'You will not be alone, Regina. I assure you. Robin and I will be here to assist you...'
'I do not need simple assistance!' she said as tears of frustration began to fall from her eyes.
'LOOK AT ME!' she cried, 'I cannot even do basic things without help! How can I care adequately for a child when I cannot even care for myself? I am blind...' she finished, panting hard from the swell of emotion that she was trying to both convey and withhold.
'Yes.... the blindness was an unfortunate side effect of her uncontrolled magic, ' he confirmed in a quiet voice.
'Please, Master, you must help me find her, ' pleaded Regina frantically, 'I am afraid and I need her help and protection now more than ever....'
'She cannot protect you as she once could, Regina, ' he responded in a stern voice.
'Her magic is powerful....you said so yourself!' she responded in turn as her volume raised to match his.
'It lacks control!'
'It is at least more than what I have alone!'
'SHE DOES NOT HAVE IT ANYMORE, REGINA!!' he finished, almost yelling, before silence fell upon the room.
'What do you mean?' she asked slowly through gritted teeth as her fear began to turn to impatience and anger.
'When she left you, she believed you were dead by her hand. She was devastated with grief and wanted only to be rid of that which she was afraid and did not understand.'
'And because of that desire, she found you here...' trailed off Regina quietly and exasperatedly.
'Yes, just as your father's desire to save the life of his only daughter, and your desire to save the life of your beloved, allowed you both to find me...'
'And you did not even try to stop her?' she questioned incredulously. 'She could not have been thinking clearly enough to make a decision such as that!'
'It is not mine to influence the desires of another, Regina. Only to offer assistance, if I am able. And I believe, in this case, she was right to let this power go.... She knows that she cannot control it, and, while she cannot, she is a danger to herself and others....'
Leaning forward, the Master took Regina's hands in his own, holding them tightly.
'Regina, you are in more danger now than you can possibly imagine. You must understand that you carry the heirs to two Kingdoms, and should someone find out....'
'HEIRS?!' repeated Regina incredulously, praying to Odin that she had just misheard.
'Yes, Regina, there will always be two born to royalty....'
Infuriated, Regina pulled her hands away and jumped to her feet, turning to address the location where she believed the Master to be sitting,
'Is there anything else that I should know about this damnable Kingdom or its people or its customs before we continue? I have grown quite tired of surprises this evening and am ready to take my leave of you both, so that I might have a moment's peace to think....'
Receiving no response, she turned to the corner where she believed Robin to be.
'Robin, ' she addressed commandingly, 'I demand that you bring me Rocinante at once. I am quite certain he can find the way back to the cabin without the help of either of you. And, I would venture to say, that he could cook better than you as well....'
Robin, who had been sitting quietly in the corner during the course of their dialogue, snapped his head up immediately at the call of his name. Catching the Master's eye, he could not help but grin. Receiving a similar reaction, they both shook their heads in mock hopelessness at the stubbornness and independence that would not be suppressed by any circumstance. In that moment they knew, Regina would be fine.
'Regina, you must promise that you will not look for her. She is safe and will not be found, unless you draw her out of that hiding.
If you do, and she is found, she will be taken and tortured to give up a power that she can no longer provide. She WILL die at their hands. Worse, should you be seen together, your pregnancy will confirm what may be already be suspected; that you are her Predetermined and that the children are hers.
What Emma cannot give to them WILL be extracted from your children. And believe me when I tell you that both will have power beyond any imagination....'
'But you said that all were lost that knew of this power and of Svan.....I mean....Emma....'
'Yes. She was close to your Grandfather and would have heard both rumor and truth. He was blind to your mother's cunning and ambition.....and all she need do was wait......'
'She recognized her on the platform, ' offered Regina.
'Perhaps. But, more than likely, she was simply startled and surprised by Emma's presence.
The High Queen would have been aware of Emma's existence. Though, I know she could not confirm her location or her appearance. I learned that much from your Father.'
'What else does the High Queen know?'
'Likely the same things that I have already told you. The King's men were braggarts. One need only ask for all to be revealed.....'
Sighing, Regina conceded,
'I will not look, but I will also not be coddled. Bring me Rocinante, and I will make my way as best as I am able at my father's cabin. If what you say is truth, I cannot return home now, either. I must protect my children....'
'As you wish, ' said the Master with a tip of his head to Regina and the click of his fingers at Robin.
In only a few moments, Robin had led Rocinante, fully saddled, to the door. As Regina stepped out into the abating snow and wind, the Master touched her arm gently.
'You will allow us to look in, now and again?'
'As long as Robin doesn't insist on cooking....' she offered with a wry smile.
'As you wish, ' he offered with a smile and tip of his head.
Robin returned to the Master's side, after helping Regina into her saddle. Seeing her ride away they spoke.
'You will visit her?'
'Every day, Master.'
'Before the next moon, she will have these children. I watched as her belly grew even fuller this eve. They know that they are, and will be, loved by both of their mothers. Of that, there is no doubt, and they grow stronger by the moment because of it.'
'Odin, help those children no matter what, ' Robin offered with a chuckle, 'I am honestly not sure if they should be more fearful of their enemies or their own mother at this point...'
'A keen observation, my friend, ' exclaimed the Master as he clapped Robin on the shoulder, 'perhaps we should take a drink and ponder this dilemma?'
'After an evening like this?' questioned Robin, ' I most definitely will not refuse....'
Chapter 19: Navigating The Darkness
'If you insist on continuing to speak, then I swear by the Gods that I will kill you with my own hand, ' were the angry words offered through gritted teeth.
'Regina, ' groaned Robin as he twisted and turned his arm, trying unsuccessfully to release his hand from her grip, 'I am only trying to help....'
'If you truly want to help then.....SHUT UP!!!' she offered definitively before driving her heels into the mattress, arching her back and crying out in pain, squeezing his hand even harder.
'By Odin, ' he moaned to the midwife as he crumpled to his knees beside the bed, wincing. 'Please assure me that these children will make an appearance before my fingers are crushed beyond use!'
'SHUT UP!! ' offered the midwife and Regina at the same time, before huffing their disapproval at his impatience and fragility.
'One more push, ' assured the midwife calmly.
'You said that the LAST. THREE. TIMES.' screamed Regina as she turned her ire on the midwife. Locks of dark hair, laden with perspiration clung strong to her forehead and cheeks, before releasing their liquid to roll down her neck and chest, soaking the top of the fur that had been been lain over her naked body for warmth.
The bottom of the blanket was pushed up, bunched below her protruding stomach, exposing her hips and legs. Blood and clear fluid coated the inside of her thighs, raised knees, calves and feet; remnants of the announcement made earlier that her children would no longer wait to be born into the world.
Despite her current irritation with him, Regina was most definitely grateful that Robin had happened by for his daily visit at the time that he had.
She'd had no signs or symptoms that day of anything out of the ordinary, so she went about the business of performing her simple daily routine. It was while she was drawing water at the well that her water broke, and she was struck with a wave of pain and nausea unlike anything she had ever experienced.
Beads of sweat instantly covered her forehead as she placed her hands on the cap stones of the well wall, trying to maintain her footing. She could feel the warm wetness cascading down her legs which pooled in her boots and stained and melted the snow beneath her feet.
Barely enduring the pain of the first, hard contraction, she attempted to get back inside where she would have, at least, some comfort and safety from the elements.
She managed to stumble halfway from the well to the door before a second wave of contractions hit, bringing her to her hands and knees in the cold snow.
It was there that Robin had found her alone, shaking, crying and afraid. Carrying Regina inside, he had stayed with her for many hours already, leaving her company only briefly to bring the midwife to the cabin.
Exhausted beyond any recollection, Regina held her breath. Red-faced, she bore down with all of her might praying that the midwife was right this time. She could not imagine having the strength for another push.
'But this time, ' the midwife stated positively, 'I am most correct.'
Reaching forward, the midwife pulled strongly, but carefully, and Regina breathed a sigh of relief as some of the pain caused by the incredible stretch of muscle and skin was slowly removed. She knew her respite would only be short-lived, but was thankful all the same.
A slap was heard, followed by a healthy cry from a strong pair of lungs.
Taking a sharp knife from the table, the midwife heated it in the flame of the nearby candle to sterilize the blade. Catching herself at the last moment, she inquired,
'Perhaps the Father would prefer?' as she offered Robin the hilt of the knife.
Immediately, Robin went wide-eyed. Should he refuse, the midwife might suspect something. Should he accept, he might be killed instantly at Regina's hand.
'I....uh....ummmmm......ahhhh......' Robin waffled as he considered which alternative would be preferable to his continued livelihood. His musing were interrupted by a sweet, but somewhat threatening, voice.
'You should, My Beloved....'
As he took the hilt of the knife, he found his hand squeezed harder than ever before as his ear was pulled tight against Regina's lips.
Whispering very softly, she coveyed her brief message,
'I may be blind, but I know that you are not. I suggest you remain focused on your work and nothing more....'
She smiled as she felt the fearful nod against her lips and heard the gulping at his throat, knowing that he had received clearly the intended message.
Barely peeking over Regina's knee, he stared only at the spot indicated by the midwife.
Making the cut swiftly, he lay the knife quickly back onto the table before being pulled back hard to resume his place at Regina's shoulder.
No sooner had the cord been cut that Regina began to feel the pangs of her second labor, and she prayed this would be an easier delivery than the first.
Quickly the midwife swaddled the newborn and lay it on the bed to keep watch on its progress as she delivered the other babe.
Focusing only her breathing, Regina closed her eyes and hoped that this delivery would be over sooner than the first. She was relieved when she heard the words of the midwife.
'I see the crown. One push is all that is required....'
'Just once more, Regina, you have always been strong....you can do this, ' came the quiet, supportive voice of her lifelong friend and Regina found renewed energy at his helpful words.
Nodding her head in understanding and thanks, she bore down one last time, screaming to the heavens to provide her strength. Her plea was rewarded with a empty belly, freedom from her pain and the strong cry of another child.
'Sir?' Came the tentative words of the midwife after holding the blade of the knife over the flame for a moment.
Sliding forward slightly to grasp it from her hand, Robin felt a squeeze upon his fingers to which he replied softly and exasperatedly,
'I know, I know, ' before grasping the hilt of the knife and focusing on the work at hand.
He was back at her shoulder before Regina could even think to reprimand him for his tardiness, sighing heavily and remorsefully for having ever taken a vow of celibacy.....
Having washed and swaddled both babies, the midwife was ready to present them to their anxious mother.
'This is....' said the midwife, but it was Regina that finished the sentence definitively.
'....my daughter, Eva.'
Astonished, the midwife looked at her.
'How did you know?''
'I can simply feel it in my heart,' she responded quietly as she reached out expectantly.
She smiled as she felt a healthy weight placed in her arms and she drew her daughter in quickly, laying Eva face down upon her upper chest and placing a thousand light kisses into her downy hair. She hoped that Eva, in return, might feel and hear the familiar, soothing beats of her heart which now resounded with an even stronger love for her and her brother.
A trembling, unsure, novice hand passed delicately over a small face as fingertips explored every detail of Eva's features, and Regina smiled as she imagined the picture of her child which was being created.
'And my son, Henry?' Regina asked as she held out her arms again. Drawing him in, she placed him beside his sister, burying her mouth and nose into his soft tuft of hair as well, breathing deeply to memorize his innocent scent which she knew would be gone too soon.
She traced Henry's features with her fingers just as she had done with Eva. They were so alike, yet so different, and she couldn't help but laugh as he yawned wide beneath her soothing touch. She prayed only that she might someday see their beauty with her own eyes.....
She lay contentedly with her children for a bit, recovering as the midwife continued her work of delivering the afterbirth, bathing Regina's legs and torso of blood and fluid and withdrawing the blankets and furs that had been soiled during the delivery.
Having finished the remainder of her work, the midwife came quietly to Regina's side. She could see that the children were beginning to root, seeking out the nourishment of their mother's breast.
'You should feed them, M'Lady, ' she offered gently and encouragingly.
Regina turned her head toward the sound of the midwife's voice, furrowing her brow in confusion and fear, unsure of what to do next.
'Perhaps you would prefer that I assist you this first time?' She asked, not wishing to overstep her place. 'You need not your eyes, only your touch. They will help you.'
'I would be honored to have your guidance, ' responded Regina quietly with a sigh of relief and a grateful nod of her head.
Working together, they situated Regina upright in bed, piling thick furs upon her lap. Her torso was exposed to her waist and she felt more vulnerable than ever, almost like a child herself, born into a role of motherhood that she had never even conteplated and for which she was ill prepared.
It did not matter. She was Eva and Henry's primary protection now, no matter what her own shortcomings may be, and in an instant, she resolved that her lack of sight would no longer be her weakness. Smell, touch, taste and hearing would become her guides, and she would rely on them alone to paint the pictures of her world. She would not fail her children.
The midwife helped to position Eva solidly in the crook of Regina's left arm, drawing the baby close so that its face was near to her breast. Laying her hand atop Regina's, she helped to pinch the nipple of her left breast between her index and middle finger before guiding it to the eager mouth of her daughter who accepted readily and began to suck strongly. Satisfied that Eva was nursing properly, the midwife situated Henry in Regina's right arm.
'Would you like to try yourself?' Asked the midwife. Seeing Regina nod, she stepped back slightly to observe, but remained close in case her assistance was needed.
Pinching her right nipple, Regina could feel the warmth of her own milk flow across her fingers, in anticipation of her son's hunger.
Bringing her nipple to him, she brushed it lightly upon his lips, encouraging him to open his mouth to eat. Her actions were rewarded immediately with eager pulls of a strong jaw and, smiling, she huffed a small laugh of proud accomplishment.
'See, ' offered the midwife with a smile, 'they know their mother needs them just as they need her....'
Closing her eyes, Regina nodded before starting to rock her children slightly, indulging in the serenity of a perfect moment. Without thinking, she hummed a soft lullaby. It was the same one that she sang at the stream on the day of Emma's meeting. Though she dare not speak Emma's name, Regina promised that her children would know their mother in some way, even if only in the familiar tune of an ancient song.
'I believe that she will be just fine, ' offered the midwife quietly to Robin, so as not to disturb Regina's time of bonding.
'Yes, I believe you are right, ' he offered lazily in reply, unwilling to turn his head or take his eyes from the most beautiful sight that he had ever witnessed.
Laughing to herself, the midwife patted his shoulder gently, gathering the few things that she had before exiting the small cabin and leaving Regina and Robin alone with Eva and Henry.
Regina indulged her children until their suckling became intermittent, eventually feeling both release their mouths from her breasts in restful slumber.
Finding herself exhausted and almost unable to keep her eyes open, Regina worked diligently to situate herself at the edge of the bed.
Nestling Eva into the thick furs that covered the mattress, she held Henry tight, reaching with her hand to grasp the side of the cradle that had been positioned nearby.
Kissing his forehead and cheeks, she whispered a soft 'I love you' before laying him down to sleep, tucking the covers warmly around him. She repeated the process with Eva, breathing a sigh of relief once they had been lain down safely in their cribs.
'You know that you may ask for help, ' came the quiet voice of Robin as she pulled a fresh dress over her head, 'it is not a sign of weakness.....'
'No. It is a sign of independence and knowledge that you will not always be here to guide my hand. I must learn, and there is no better time than the present....' she offered thoughtfully.
After a few moments, she spoke again,
Balling her hand, Regina swung hard, landing her fist squarely upon Robin's jaw and knocking him out of his chair.
'WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!?!' he cried as he jumped to his feet, holding the side of his face.
'For looking when I specifically told you not to, ' offered Regina matter-of-factly, 'or perhaps you would rather I simply tell the Master of your indescretion?'
'You wouldn't dare!' offered Robin as he cocked an eyebrow at Regina and curled one side of his mouth into a playful grin.
'Then you admit it!!' fired back Regina with a wry grin of her own.
'I refuse to say any more, fearing that it will implicate me in something for which there is no evidence, aside from your conjecture....'
'And historical precedent....' offered Regina thoughtfully, 'I do seem to remember you being disciplined by the Master more than once as a young man, after having hidden by the side of the stream to watch me bathe....'
'It was a misunderstanding, you see. I was seeking mushrooms... nothing more....'
Listening close, Regina could hear the slight crackle as his lips parted into a smile, and she could not help but smile in return as she thought about their adventures and mischief as children. It seemed so long ago now....
'Robin?' she asked once more in a quieter voice.
'You know that I will always be here for you, Regina, ' he assured as he pulled back the furs atop the bed and encouraged her to slip beneath them for warmth.
'I know, ' she trailed off, the last thing remembered being the gentle kiss of his lips on her forehead before she fell into an exhausted slumber.
Returning to his seat beside the bed, Robin rubbed his jaw gingerly before flexing his still sore fingers, addressing the babies that slept in the crib,
'The two of you will most definitely be safe in her hands. I, on the other hand, believe that your mother may someday be the death of me.....but know that I still love her, and you in turn....'
Closing his eyes, it was only a moment before the only sound in the cabin was the crackle of fire and the soft sounds of fitful sleep....
Chapter 20: A Single Blemish
'Someone is hungry today, ' whispered Regina with a soft smile as she trailed the backs of her fingers gently over Henry's forehead, temple and cheek. Her chair rocked in the same rhythm as his fingers, which grasped and kneaded at her breast, trying to draw more milk for him to eat.
Softly, she hummed an old Norse tune, but she stopped suddenly when she heard the bay of a wolf, turning her head slightly in the direction of the sound and furrowing her brow. The sound came from closer than she had expected and seemed to be starting earlier than normal.
She wasn't surprised. The snow had rarely abated over the past month, leaving very little prey for the hunters, let alone the wolves, to capture and eat. So scarce was food, in fact, that the wolves were beginning to starve, and a few of them, in desperation, had become more brazen, plucking some of the smaller, weaker livestock from the nearby homesteads.
Hearing nothing more, she began her tune again, only to be interrupted by another howl, this one, even closer.
'Henry, I am sorry, but I must close the barn quickly. I know that you are not yet sated, but I promise that you get your fill upon my return.'
Reaching to her breast, Regina pulled her nipple from Henry's mouth, earning a hearty cry of protest that she attempted, in vain, to soothe and shush.
'I promise that I will only be a moment, My Prince, ' she whispered quietly as she kissed his head tenderly and laid him in his crib before re-lacing her dress.
Grasping her shawl from beside the door, she threw it over her shoulders and braced herself before throwing open the door, feeling herself immediately surrounded by the swirling snow and biting winds.
Cautiously and slowly, she made her way across the small clearing between the long house and the barn. She could hear the goat bleating, chickens clucking and pigs snorting inside, and she thanked Odin that they'd had the sense to remain in the stables.
Finally reaching the barn, Regina walked quickly from pen to pen, entering for a moment to count the occupants by feel or sound and assuring that all were accounted for.
Her last stop was at Rocinante's stall, and she rocked her forehead against his as she petted his cheeks.
'The wolves draw closer, Rocinante. I will keep the door closed tightly tonight to ensure they are kept at bay. Please be safe.....'
Her response was a stuttered huff through closed lips indicating both thanks and caution.
Walking back to the entrance, she strained to pull the heavy, oversized door closed tightly, feeling the frozen lock carefully with her fingers before pressing on the door several times. Satisfied that all was secured, she walked back to the long house, stopping midway and furrowing her brow as she fought to determine if she had actually detected the scent of wet fur in the air or if it was her concerned mind playing tricks on her.
Breathing deeply again, she shook her head warily before continuing on her way.
She could hear Henry's frustrated wails from three meters. They had not abated since her departure, and her gown was quickly saturating with milk in anticipation of his continued feeding.
'Oh, Henry, I know that you are hungry, ' she offered exasperatedly as she entered the door to the long house, pushing it closed behind her, but neglecting to verify the sound of a clicking lock.
'I am so sorry, ' she whispered in a harried voice as her hand reached to loosen the top of her gown, and she started across the floor to his crib. She froze immediately when she heard the creak of the door hinge and felt the draft of cold enter the room, and she prayed to Odin that it was nothing more than the wind and her haste combining to scare her.
The tap of long claws upon the floor solidified the gravity of their situation, and she turned quickly to place herself between the door and the cribs. Immediately, the tapping stopped.
Breathing deeply a few times, she focused her attention on the sounds about her. A fire crackled in the hearth to her immediate left, while Henry continued to wail behind and left. Soft breathing assured her that Eva was still behind and right. Based on her position, the table and chairs would blockade her immediate right, making the only clear path to any of them directly through Regina.
She kept her gaze fixed in the direction of the growling while she crouched, searching with her fingers until she found the handle of the heavy cast iron skillet that sat upon the hearth. Rising again slowly to full height, Regina gripped the handle with both hands, drawing it over her right shoulder in preparation to defend herself and her children, to the death, if need be.
She could hear the crackle of saliva as the wolf drew its lips back over its teeth, darting its tongue out quickly between a firmly clenched jaw as its growl became ever louder.
Seeing no movement from Regina, the wolf started forward again slowly, the clicking of its claws growing louder with each step.
Regina continued to take deep breaths, trying to stay focused on the sound in front of her so that she might judge distance and intent. She heard the clicking stop only a moment before she recognized the scrape of claws indicating its intent to pounce, and she drew back the pan a few more inches before screaming and swinging across with all of her might, catching the side of the wolf's head solidly mid-jump. It yelped as it was thrown sideways onto the mattress of the bed that lay to Regina's front left.
Immediately, it jumped to its feet, crouching defensively before springing at Regina, knocking her sideways into the table and then onto the floor where it jumped atop her quickly. The clatter was almost deafening as the table rocked and fell towards them; items, large and small, spilling on to the floor around them.
As her body hit, so did Regina's elbow, and the shock and pain caused the pan to be knocked from her fingertips. With nothing left to defend herself, she raised her arms and hands to protect her face, grasping her fingers into the thick hair of the wolf's neck and chest as she pushed with all of her might.
She rolled side to side, trying to throw the wolf off of her body, but his weight was almost suffocating. She could smell its fetid breath as her arms started to weaken, and it pushed its way closer, teeth snapping open and closed constantly, trying to find something into which it could latch.
Releasing her grip with one hand, she flung her arm to the side, searching with desperate fingers for something, anything, that she might use to help herself. As the wolf pushed strongly, her straightened arm buckled slightly, and Regina cried out as she felt its left fangs sink into her upper lip on the right side, piercing and tearing at flesh. Despite the searing pain, she continued searching frantically with her fingers, finally feeling the hilt of her butcher's knife. Wrapping her fingers tightly about it, she swung up and across, plunging the long blade deep into the side of the wolf's chest. It released its bite to yelp loudly before falling over dead.
Breathing heavily, Regina relaxed into the floor, and, almost instantaneously, a brutal wave of pain from the injury to her mouth hit her. Turning to the side, she vomited violently; the bile and acid stinging and scorching her lips like fire. The tears fell from her eyes, and she was still gasping for breath when she heard the tapping of claws again upon the wood.
'Please, Odin, no....' she breathed as she wondered for the first time if she had the strength to fend off another attack.
Focusing on the cries of her children, both of whom were awake now, she found renewed strength and pushed herself again to her feet, knife at the ready.
'Come on then, you bitch, ' she whispered through gritted teeth as she turned to face her new attacker. Again the snarls came, but were silenced almost instantly after a terse yelp.
Confused, she listened as heavy boots ran across the floor towards her, and she wondered if this was one of her mother's soldiers or one of the older trappers that used semi-domesticated wolves for the hunt and was now looking for repayment for his loss.
Startled by the touch of a gloved hand on her left arm, she raised the knife overhead before another hand grasped her wrist to prevent the blade's downward descent. The man squeezed her wrist hard until her fingers could no longer hold the knife, and it clattered to the floor.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, Regina swung across with her left fist, catching the man square in the jaw, and she felt the brush of stubble across her knuckles as he stumbled sideways a bit, still holding her wrist firmly in his grasp. Her right knee found its mark against his nose with a sickening crunch, and he crumpled to the floor, finally releasing his hold as both hands went to his face.
Falling to her hands and knees, Regina searched frantically for the dropped knife, quickly finding herself lifted from the floor by strong arms wrapped around her from behind.
A very muffled voice spoke indistinctly; all words lost as Regina kicked and screamed and wriggled, trying to break from her attacker's grasp, and he tightened his hold with his left arm before releasing his right to pull his thick neck and face wraps down so that he could be heard.
'Regina!' he cried without success before wrapping both arms around again trying to still her motion.
Her movements became less persistent as her ears attempted to catch up with her thoughts.
'Regina, it's me....It's Robin.... You're safe now...' came the familiar voice, and he could feel her finally stop fighting him.
'Let me GO!' she cried as she sprang from his grasp and ran to the cribs, reaching in with bloodied and bruised hands to feel the faces of Henry and Eva. Shaking fingers felt flushed skin and heaving chests as both babies cried loudly.
'Oh, thank Odin, ' she sighed, sobbing with relief and slumping straight down to the floor beside the cribs, exhausted.
'They are safe, thanks to you, Regina, ' whispered Robin as he lifted her in his arms and placed her on the bed.
'Henry and Eva need me, ' she said desperately as she heard both of them still crying loudly from fear and hunger, but she found herself restrained by a gentle press upon her shoulders, urging her back onto the mattress.
'I know that you want to hold them, but I need to care for you first....' comforted Robin. 'I am certain that they will wait a few moments more, if it means their mother will be tended...'
Regina sighed and nodded her head reluctantly. This was an argument she would not, and probably should not, win. The pain was intense, and her lip throbbed in time to the beating of her heart. She could still feel the warm blood dripping down her chin, cheek and neck and the taste of iron coated her tongue and teeth. She winced and drew a strong breath as a clean, damp cloth was placed against her mouth, and she felt Robin take her shaking hand gently, lifting it up to encourage her to hold the rag in his stead.
'Let me discard the carcasses, ' he offered before retreating from the bed. Quietly, he hoisted the dead wolves, one at a time, carrying them far from the long house before returning and securing the door with latch and lock.
Sitting beside Regina on the bed, he could see that the cloth was well saturated with her blood.
'Regina, allow me to take a look?' he asked quietly as he lay his hand atop hers.
She nodded barely as she withdrew her hand and whimpered quietly as he pulled the cloth away, tugging at the injury slightly as the dried and clotted blood released.
The tears rolled from the sides of her eyes and into her hair as the weight of the evening finally caught up with her.
The cuts and punctures continued to seep as Robin inspected the wound carefully.
'Well, it needs to be cleaned thoroughly, and you have a significant cut that needs to be stitched....' he offered as Regina groaned and rolled her eyes.
'Do you want some ale to help with the pain?' asked Robin
'I cannot as it dulls my senses, ' answered Regina.
'Then I will be as quick and gentle as I can...'
Reaching into his pack, Robin extracted a needle and thread that he carried in a crude, first aid kit. Holding her lip gently, he began his work, talking the entire time, trying to take her mind off the pain of the procedure.
'The Master and I heard the wolves drawing closer, ' he acknowledged as Regina drew a breath through gritted teeth and winced hard. Her fingertips dug strongly into his thigh while her other fist twisted, white knuckled, into the furs beside her hip.
Robin knew he added insult to injury, literally and figuratively, and the dullness of the needle meant that she must endure every painful pop as it entered and exited her skin sloppily.
'I knew the snow fell thick, but I also knew that you would disregard your own safety for that of the children and livestock, and I could not bear for you to be alone in your duties to them.'
'Dammit, Robin, ' stuttered Regina as she grasped his thigh even harder, and the tears fell from her eyes.
'Almost there....' he said gently as the last stitch was administered and he tied off the thread, cutting it with a sharp knife.
Almost immediately, Regina expelled a sigh of relief and pressed herself up into a sitting position, but the motion of her legs over the side of the bed was stopped by Robin's hip.
'I will bring them to you, but first, you will hold this against the stitches to help with the swelling and bleeding, and you will not argue, ' he added as he watched Regina's mouth open in protest and then close quickly.
A very cold cloth, filled with snow, was placed against her lip and she determined, quickly, that it hurt more than the stitches themselves. He grinned and chuckled silently as he realized how much she looked like the petulant child that he'd met so many years earlier.
'Who shall I bring first to you, Regina? They are both quite wide awake as you can hear...'
'Henry, ' she whispered quietly, 'as he has not yet drank his fill.'
'She calls for you, little man, ' stated Robin cheerfully as he lifted Henry from the crib and brought him to the bed, laying him in Regina's lap after she had arranged the furs and placed the compress aside.
'I will take my leave to the barn to give you privacy....'
He had only taken a few steps when he heard Regina's voice.
'Robin, ' she sighed, 'we both know that it is too cold for you to stay out there for that long. We also know that you have already seen far more of me from the bank of the stream than you will see today.'
Pausing for moment, she added quietly,
'I need your help....more than I am willing to admit easily.....'
Hearing only silence, she tried once more.
'Please, Robin.....do not make me beg you to stay....'
She heard his footsteps drawing closer to the bed and offered a gentle smile.
'Thank you....' she sighed.
'What would you have me do?' he asked quietly.
'My hands and arms shake badly still, and I am afraid that I might drop him. Will you help me support him....please?'
'Regina, I.....' he offered hesitantly.
'I am giving you my permission, Robin. Come, sit behind me....'
Leaning forward slightly, Regina felt Robin slip behind her, one leg to each side of hers, and she relaxed back against him, still quivering strongly.
His palms remained flat against his thighs as he tried to calm his breathing. He had imagined this scene a thousand times in his mind, but the children had always been his.... hers.... theirs.... not those of someone else.
'I need you to slip your arms under mine, Robin, so that I might feel your support.'
Sensing that he was not moving, Regina continued quietly.
'I know that I ask too much of you, Robin, but I do need your help tonight.'
Tentatively, his hands lifted from his legs and he slid his palms down her forearms trying to memorize every detail of the arms that would never hold him at night, that would never cling to him as they made love. His eyes closed and his chin trembled as he considered his loss.
Pressing his palm against the back of her hand, he felt the steady, strong shaking of her right hand as she touched Henry's face tenderly, searching for where he was positioned in relation to her breast and he continued with her as her hand moved to the bodice of her gown, barely able to find the laces.
Realizing her dilemma, he guided her fingers gently to the strings, allowing her to pull the end to loosen the bow.
Together, their hands slid beneath the left side of saturated cloth, pulling the fabric away to reveal her breast that was full and firm in anticipation.
Grasping her nipple between their forefingers and middle fingers, Robin could feel the warm wetness of Regina's milk as they guided her shaking hand to Henry's mouth where he eagerly latched on. Hearing his gentle sucking, Robin moved their hands to support Henry's back as he bowed his head to rest his temple against the crown of Regina's hair; his tears falling softly into her curls.
'Robin, ' sighed Regina, but she trailed off, not knowing what to say to bring him solace.
'I know you could never have loved me as you love her. Still, I cannot help but dream of that which might have been...'
Threading her fingers between Robin's, Regina held his hands tightly.
'I cannot give you any more than this, Robin.'
'I know, ' he offered quietly.
'My heart belongs to her, even if she is gone from me forever....'
'I know, ' he interjected again before being cut off.
'I would not blame you, if you needed to leave us....'
'Regina...' he said quietly.
'As I said.... I know that we... I...ask too much of you already.....'
'Regina...' he tried again.
'We keep you from living and seeking your true happiness....'
He could feel her grip tighten around his fingers as she spoke through trembling lips, and the urgency and panic was causing her voice to raise.
He knew that the words she spoke were not what she desired, nor was it what he wanted, but he also knew that Regina would, selflessly, give her up her own security and happiness, to ensure that of the ones she truly loved.
'Shhhhhh, ' calmed Robin as he pulled his left hand from hers and brushed the backs of his fingers on her cheek, feeling the wetness of her tears.
'You have always used too many words where few or none would have sufficed...even as a young girl, ' he chuckled sadly.
'And you know full well that I could not leave you or Henry or Eva...even if I desired or tried....'
'I will be with you in whatever way you will allow me to be, Regina. Just do not shut me out complete.... please....'
The desperation was now clear in his voice as well as he returned his hand to hers and gripped it tightly.
'Please....' he reiterated as held her and Henry tightly in his arms.
He felt the nod of her head beneath his and he breathed a sigh of relief that she would allow him, still, some place in their lives.
'I will love you, forever, Regina, ' he offered quietly as he kissed the crown of her head before resting his cheek against it again.
'And I you, 'she replied as she settled back comfortably into Robin's arms for the night.
Chapter 21: The Gift of Uncertainty
'Eva, you will give Henry his toy and apologize for taking it without his permission, ' said Regina sternly without looking up from her work at the table where she was preparing supper.
She had already heard the slight scuffle and drawn breath that typically signified an impending argument.
Handing the toy back, Eva apologized briefly before sticking her tongue out at her brother.
'And now you may apologize for that as well, ' stated Regina without pause.
Again, Eva mumbled an apology which Henry accepted with the smug smirk of a 4 year old.
'I would suggest you accept her apology a bit more humbly, Henry, or I might be inclined to allow her to keep the toy next time, ' Regina offered with a slight grin as a frown fell upon his face.
Regina had not a sibling growing up, but she could remember the childish squabbles that she'd had with Robin when she and her Father had visited the Master during her father's many seasons of hunting trips. She often wondered if Emma and Fredrick had similar exchanges before they were so brutally separated.
'I am beginning to wonder if you have the same gift of premonition and intuition as the Master, ' chuckled Robin as he looked across the table at Regina. A grin formed upon her lips at his observation, but he could see in her eyes that she was exhausted.
Reaching across the table, he touched her hands to still them from dicing root vegetables for soup. Taking the knife from her fingers, he grasped her hands in his, feeling their slight trembling.
'Regina, please tell me what's wrong...'
'Robin, you know that I do not complain...'
'No. And you do not rest either. I know that you work from well before the sun rises into the late night to provide for your children, but the pace is excessive and it catches up with you.....'
'It must be done. The coming of summer has already started to provide that which I must gather and prepare for us to make it through the next winter which, you know, will come all to soon. The cow and chickens, while generous in their bounty, require tending, as does Rocinante, who I feel I have neglected greatly despite his constancy for me and his patience for the children.
Eva and Henry grow more by the day and their continued needs of clothing and nourishment and study must be met.
And, as you can see, they are like any other children in regard to their curiosity and mischief. I must be diligent in my watch, lest I find another toad has taken up residence in my cooking pot, as I encountered last week. I believe both the toad and I breathed a sigh of relief that it had not been above the flame at the time of his hiding...'
Despite her attempt at humor, Robin could hear in her voice that the mere mention of this list of items was causing her to become anxious, so he squeezed her hands gently again to calm her and let her know that she had his support and was not alone.
'Regina, might I suggest something? And please hear me out before you decline....'
Regina nodded her head slowly, unsure of what she would hear next.
'Tomorrow, I will go into the village for your weekly provisions. Allow me to take Henry and Eva with me on this trip. I will do the chores tonight and you may be left on your own for the entirety of tomorrow to rest, assuming you are capable of that....'
Furrowing her brow in concern, Regina immediately responded,
'You know that we cannot allow them to be seen or recognized, Robin. Why would you suggest such an arrangement?' she asked, baffled.
'Because you know there to be little or no danger in doing so, and because you need some rest. You cannot continue this way, Regina!' he stated in a slightly louder voice than before, lowering his tone to a whisper when he noticed the children taking interest in their dialogue.
'I think that we play with fire, Robin, and I do not condone it...'
'The people of the village know that I am bound to the Master. They are not eager to engage in rumor and will assume that the children belong to someone that has sought his help and requires peace to address their need.
Eva and Henry have seen nothing of this world except what surrounds them here. The books that the Master has them read and the stories that you tell are no substitute for true experience. You KNOW this!' implored Robin as he watched Regina's face for any sign of reaction; his concern for her well-being far outweighing the potential risks of their trip.
'Your children are brilliant and well beyond their years, Regina, ' he continued earnestly, 'it will not be long before they seek out, independently, what we do not and cannot provide. You, and the Master, have opened up worlds to them that they will want to explore. Would you rather they have some or no protection in sating their curiosities?'
Despite her fears, Regina could see that Robin was right. She had seen so much in her lifetime, yet her children had seen nothing.
Despite their occasional transgressions, they were helpful and obedient, kind and patient, and she could ask no more of them. She had fed their thirst for knowledge from the moment they were born, and they would need to be encouraged and supported in spreading their wings and gaining their eventual independence, even if that meant she would someday be alone.
The thought of it frightened her, and she wished that she could protect them in a chrysalis of her love and company forever, but it was an unreasonable and selfish desire.
'You would be solely responsible for their well-being, Robin, and it would be IMPERATIVE that you be diligent in their care. Do you truly WANT that responsibility? It is a heavy burden, indeed, and should even a breath of rumor or curiosity or recognition reach my ears, then I will never forgive either of us for putting them in harm's way....'
'I understand, Regina....'
Sighing deeply, she bowed her head before speaking softly again,
'I will allow it.....on one condition....'
'Children, ' said Regina as she knelt in front of them at the door, helping to arrange their clothes one last time, 'remember the rules of the game that we talked about. You each have a new name to use with each other throughout the day. Henry, you will be 'Thorin', while Eva will be 'Agnatha'. You will call each other by these names and will recognize them immediately, if called by Robin. He will watch you closely and will tell me who played the game best tonight. Whoever wins will receive a prize for their diligence.....do you understand?' she asked hopefully.
'Yes, Mother, ' they responded immediately and excitedly. It would be a day of amazement made even more special by the introduction of a game and the possibility of a secret prize, and they both vowed silently to themselves that they would be victorious.
Cupping each child's cheeks in turn, Regina placed a gentle kiss on their forehead, whispering 'I love you' against their skin before releasing them to run out the door. She could hear Robin adjust himself in the saddle of his horse, leaning down to offer a hand before hoisting them each up in turn to sit in front of him in the saddle.
The journey was an hour's ride through dense forest, and Regina prayed that it would be uneventful as she threw a nervous smile and wave from the doorway and listened until she could no longer hear the clopping of hooves.
Turning, she went back inside to take a seat in the fur laden chair that was situated in front of the hearth. She smiled as she remembered rocking Eva and Henry to sleep in front of the fire on so many nights; soothing illnesses, chasing away nightmares and satisfying curious questions that had entered their minds as they slept.
Despite Robin's best intentions, she knew that there would be no relaxation or rest today....and so she began her long vigil until her children were safely in her arms again.
The journey to the village was uneventful, but noisy. What started off quietly, soon became an ongoing, volume-increasing conversation of questions and answers, and Robin could not help but laugh aloud at how much Eva and Henry resembled their mother's temperament, curiosity and brilliance, though only Henry truly resembled her in appearance with his dark brown hair and brown eyes.
As they approached the outskirts of the village, Robin quieted their chatter,
'Thorin, Agnatha, we are close. Let us take a moment to prepare for our day ahead in quiet....'
Immediately silenced, the children watched in rapt attention for the first signs of the people and stalls of the village. They were rewarded after only a few minutes as a bustling world of new smells, sounds, sights, people, animals and businesses came into view. What started as a voluntary quiet soon turned into a stunned silence as they struggled to take in everything in at once.
Bringing their horse to the nearest stable, Robin slid from the saddle before helping Henry and Eva to the ground next to him. Paying the stable boy a few coins, he retrieved his saddle bag and slung it over his shoulder before taking a knee in front of the children.
'Remember our game, ' he reiterated quietly to them, 'and remember to stick close. No wandering off. There is constant commotion here, and we have too much to accomplish to spend time trying to find each other if separated. Do you understand?'
His inquiry was met with sincere nods of both small heads, and, taking one small hand in each of his own, he led them down the street in search of the week's provisions.
Walking between the food stalls, the children knew not which way to turn as there was such an incredible amount to see. Ducks, geese, rabbits, pheasants, quail and other animals, familiar and unfamiliar, dangled, feathered and furred, by their hind legs awaiting new owners while cured meats and fishes sat all around in heavy, wooden boxes of salt.
Strapped barrels filled with brine, fruits and vegetables sat upright or lay on their sides, corked to contain their contents.
Occasionally, the men or women of the stalls would uncork the side, allowing amber, clear or deep red liquids to flow into water skins, jugs or flagons which they handed to patrons in exchange for a few coins.
Rare and common furs lay in heaps upon tables, sold to those without the skill to trap or skin animals independently or to those in search of something less ordinary, while woven cloth was arranged neatly on bolts, ready to be measured and cut for an agreed price.
Finally, stopping at one of the food stalls, Robin prepared to do business with the shopkeeper. Henry's head continued to swivel, taking in all that lay around him, while Eva's attention had become fixated on something the next lane over.
There, in one of the stalls, was displayed the most brilliant array of swords, armor, helmets and knives that she could only imagine, until now, thanks to the stories told by the Master and her Mother.
Craning her neck, she looked for the blacksmith, himself, wondering if he might resemble the dwarf Eitri who had fashioned Thor's hammer. She had not seen a dwarf, but had heard tales of their mastery with the forge, and she wondered if all blacksmiths might be made in his likeness.
So intent was Eva in her thoughts that she had not noticed that Robin and Henry had moved further down the lane and become lost in the throng of patrons. Startled by a sharp noise, she drew her attention back to her present position only to find herself alone.
Panicked, she bobbed her head looking for some sign of Robin or Henry. Seeing none, she dashed down the dirt street, not noticing that they had stopped at one of the nearby stalls, where they were coming to the same conclusion about their separation as she had already realized. Frantic, she continued onward, ducking and weaving between patrons, unseeing, except for any sign of their familiarity.
It was not long before she found herself in front of the stall at which she had been staring when she lost her way, and an unexpected wave of calm and curiosity washed over her.
Approaching slowly, she stood upon her toes to see over the railing that separated the patrons from the dangerous heat of the hearth. Looking about the empty stall, she sighed in disappointment when she did not catch a glimpse of the dwarf that manned the bellows or forge. Seeing no one at all, her attention turned to a small display of silver animals in front of her. They were creatures of the forest and farm, simply detailed, yet realistic, and she wondered what it might be like to hold one. Daring not to touch, however, she simply stood, staring for a long while, unaware that the blacksmith had appeared from behind the forge and now stood directly in front of her.
'Do you like animals, ' asked the blacksmith quietly so as not to startle the little girl.
Immediately, the little girl jumped back and stood stock still as she tried hard to reconcile the picture in her mind to the voice that she heard. It was not a man, nor a dwarf, that stood before her dressed in a heavy apron of blackened and worn leather, but a woman with brilliant green eyes and soft golden hair tied loosely behind her head, and it did not make sense.
'You are not a dwarf, ' stated Eva, stunned.
The blonde haired woman before her laughed heartily before offering the most beautiful smile Eva had ever seen aside from her mother's.
'Well, I should hope not!' the woman exclaimed before motioning to Eva to come closer. Leaning down to get nearer to the small girl's ear, she whispered,
'From what I have heard, they are quite unattractive and a surly lot, and I would hope my disposition more preferable than that....'
Leaning back, she looked directly into the eyes of the little girl, before giving her a wink and standing back to her full height, crossing strong arms over her chest.
Hesitantly, Eva continued to crane her neck, looking around the young woman, unwilling to give up the image she had created in her mind and trying to catch a glimpse of the real Blacksmith.
As the woman watched, she couldn't help but furrow her brow in curiosity at the young girl's blonde hair and deep green eyes that were so similar to her own, yet so rare in the Kingdom. In fact, she could never recall having met or seen another having the same characteristics, aside from herself. Unsure what to make of it, she turned her attention to the girl's actions, realizing that she still sought a dwarf or man at the hearth.
'Ahhhhhhh, ' stated the woman thoughtfully, 'I see that you seek the Blacksmith still?'
Unable to speak, Eva nodded her head slowly, wondering if she truly would see a dwarf appear.
Cocking an eyebrow, the woman grinned slightly before holding up her index finger,
'One moment, please, ' she said kindly with a tip of her head, 'and I will see what I might do to help....'
Walking to the far side of the hearth, she made her way around the back of the forge, waiting a moment before reappearing on the other side and walking again to the rail.
Bowing deeply to the young girl, she presented herself,
'Blacksmith Svanhilde at your service, M'Lady. May I ask who I have the pleasure of addressing?'
'Eva....' said the young girl quickly, but quietly, before remembering the game that she had committed to play. Catching her breath sharply and widening her eyes, she corrected herself, 'I mean, Agnatha...'
Her reaction did not go unnoticed by Svanhilde.
'Hmmmm. I see, ' said Svanhilde curiously, 'I have never met someone with two names. Which do you prefer?'
'Agnatha...' she responded with a hint of sadness, barely above a whisper.
'Agnatha is a very pretty name, though I do believe that I prefer Eva. It suits you. It is unique and elegant and strong. You might reconsider your choice someday, M'Lady, ' she said with a smile and a tip of her head.
'Now, are you alone today or do you shop with your husband?' asked Svanhilde playfully, curious as to why this young girl was here all alone.
'No, ' responded Eva with a roll of her eyes that brought back memories to Svanhilde of another. 'I am with my brother and....ummmmmm.....' she hesitated, not knowing what to call Robin except by his name.
Eva shook her head in response.
Again, Eva shook her head.
'Perhaps an Aunt or Uncle?'
Vaguely, Eva could remember her mother once speaking of an uncle. Her impression had been that he was older with grey and brown hair, just like Robin's. Twisting her mouth in thought, she nodded her head slowly, watching Svanhilde's eyes to see if her response had been right.
'I see, ' said Svanhilde as she began to doubt any of the responses that she was receiving and wondering what this young girl might be trying to hide. While interested, it was not hers to inquire. She had learned that much from the people of the village, and she believed it good policy. It kept both her secrets and theirs.
Hopping over the railing, Svanhilde knelt down near the girl, looking at the display of animals that had caught her eye earlier.
'Which one do you like best?' asked Svanhilde of Agnatha as she swept her hand over the lot.
'That one, ' she said immediately, pointing to the Shire horse that stood near the back and was almost as large as her hand.
'Hmmmmmm, I believe that it is my favorite too, ' replied Svanhilde as she reached for the statue of silver.
Holding it up between them, they looked at the horse from opposite sides.
'I believe that he should belong to you now, Agnatha ' stated Svanhilde definitively as she held out the horse to the little girl.
Awestruck, the little girl took the statue of silver gingerly from Svanhilde's fingers, holding it delicately as she turned it this way and that, studying it's features.
'I called him, Rocinante, ' said Svanhilde softly.
Surprised, the little girl looked up, 'That is the name of my mother's horse, ' she said astonished, but her words were lost on Svanhilde who had stood already to look to the end of the lane where a man waited with his back facing them, holding a young boy's hand and calling out desperately.
'AGNATHA!' could be heard very clearly in the air and Svanhilde looked to the little girl who had not even flinched at the the mention of her name, though it had been repeated several times.
'I believe your Uncle looks for you, Agnatha, ' said Svanhilde quietly as she knelt again in front of her.
Looking over Svanhilde's shoulder, Eva saw Robin and Henry at the end of lane, and she took off running, though not before placing a kiss on Svanhilde's cheek in thanks for the gift. As she ran, she placed the horse securely in her pocket before approaching Robin who immediately swept her up into a thankful, relieved hug.
Settling her feet back onto the ground, Robin did not turn around, walking away from Svanhilde instead. She watched the family take a few steps down the path before her eyes went wide, and she caught her breath.
Turning his head over his shoulder, Agnatha's brother looked directly at Svanhilde with eyes of rich, chocolate brown which were surrounded by soft, long, dark eyelashes and topped by arched, thick eyebrows. The color was matched perfectly to his head of thick, brown hair that highlighted and shone beautifully in the sunlight. The light olive skin of his face showed no imperfections and the smile that he offered to Svanhilde was not only stunning, but entirely too familiar. She had seen that same smile offered by another too many times before for it to be mistaken.
She could still not see the face of their caregiver, whom she was fairly certain was NOT their Uncle given the hesitant reply, but she immediately recognized the mix of brown and grey hair. Something was not right and was not making sense, and despite her better judgement, Svanhilde resolved to find out what was going on.
Regina ran from the door when she heard the clop of hooves outside the cabin and knelt on the ground, arms outstretched waiting for her childrens' embrace.
She snugged them in quickly when she sensed the familiar touch and scent of them in her arms. Hugging them tightly, she kissed their heads several times before standing and giving Robin a hug for bringing them back safely.
Over dinner, the children recounted everything they had seen at the market, while Robin recounted his brief separation from Eva. She had assured him that she had not stopped playing the game or revealed any information to anyone in the village, and Regina rewarded both with large slices of homemade apple pie which she had baked herself while they were away and which was still hot from the cast iron.
Exhausted from the events of the day, the children's eyes grew heavy at the dinner table and Regina helped them into bed clothes before tucking them in and saying goodnight to Robin who decided to return to the Master's home for some much needed rest, peace and quiet.
Regina stood near Eva and Henry's bed, listening to the soothing sounds of their breathing for a bit before reaching down to collect their clothing from the floor. She heard the heavy sound of metal bounce against the wood floor as she drew Eva's apron into her arms.
Kneeling down, she felt about with her fingertips, finally wrapping her fingers about a small, cold figure of silver. Standing, she traced her fingers over the details of the object, finding it quickly to be a replica of a horse. Bringing it to her lips, she could feel the smoothness and cold of the metal which told her that it was silver, and she weighed it in her hand, estimating it to be several ounces.
Sighing to herself, Regina rubbed her temple.
What had been a good day was now marred by the uncertainty of the origin of this statue. Sitting in her chair by the fire, she held the horse in her lap and waited for the sun to rise.
'Eva, I would like to speak to you, ' requested Regina sternly, 'please sit down at the table.'
'Yes, Mother, ' came the meek reply of a waking child as she moved slowly out of bed and sat on the table's bench, yawning to try to awaken further.
'Would you be so kind as to explain how you have this in your possession?' asked Regina as she placed the small statue of the horse on the table between them.
'Yes, Mother. The Blacksmith in the village gave it to me....'
'It is a very expensive gift, Eva, did he ask you for anything in return? Anything at all? Something that you might not feel comfortable telling me? Are you certain that he gave it to you and that you did not accidentally misunderstand or take what was not yours?' she asked impatiently, concerned about the answer that she might receive.
'No, Mother. I promise that it was a gift. And the Blacksmith was not a man or a dwarf, but a woman....'
'A woman?' repeated Regina as her brow furrowed and she caught her breath.
'Yes, Mother. She said that she called him Rocinante, ' offered Eva casually as she picked up the horse and moved him to gallop back and forth across the table, 'I thought only we had a horse named Rocinante, but maybe there are others just like him....'
Regina had already tuned out her daughter's words, deep in thought over the possibility of it being Emma, and her having been so close for so long. Surely, the Master would not have hidden her in such plain view...
'Eva, ' asked Regina softly, 'I was wondering if she might have told you her name?'
'Yes, but, ' sighed Eva, 'I don't remember it exactly. It was a funny name about a bird....'
'If I said the name, might you remember?'
'I guess, ' said Eva with a shrug of her shoulders.
'Was it 'Svanhilde' perchance?' asked Regina expectantly.
'I think so, ' answered Eva.
'What was she like...I mean....the Blacksmith? Did she seem..... ummmm.... happy?' asked Regina tentatively, wondering if her daughter thought her odd for inquiring so deeply about a complete stranger.
She need not worry as her daughter was more than forthcoming in her reply.
'She laughed many times and teased me when I wondered why she was not a dwarf like Eitri or Bokkr. She must have met some dwarves before because she assured me that they are ugly and mean, and she hoped she might never be one....'
Covering her mouth, Regina smiled and laughed quietly into her hand as she tried to imagine the dialogue that had taken place between the two of them. The few times that she and Emma had the opportunity to laugh together were some of the most treasured memories that she had, and she could sometimes hear the melody of Emma's voice in her ears as she fell asleep.
'Her arms are very strong. I hope that mine may be as strong someday.....'
Closing her eyes, Regina could picture clearly the muscled arms of her lover, remembering how they had supported her during their lovemaking and then embraced her tightly afterwards while Regina's fingers traced delicate patterns over the flesh of her taut stomach.
'She has gold hair, just like mine, and green eyes that dance when she talks. Her smile is just like yours. It makes me feel safe and happy, and it stays upon her face, so I think that she is happy too...'
Sighing forlornly, Eva added,
'I hope that I may see her again someday. I did very much like her....'
'Well, I wish that I might meet her some day as well, Eva. You seem quite smitten with her, and I would very much enjoy meeting anyone that can capture your attention as she seems to have done...'
Finding the horse upon the table, Regina handed it to her daughter with a grin.
'Thank you, Eva. It is a fine horse indeed, and you are lucky to have received it as a gift. The work of this artist will never be repeated or duplicated. Guard it carefully.'
Hearing her daughter get up from the table, Regina moved from the table herself, stepping outside the door of the cabin into the rising, summer sun.
It was warm on her face and body, and she closed her eyes, breathing in deeply before wrapping her arms tightly about her torso.
Wandering about the small clearing, Regina considered briefly if she might try alone to ride into the village while the children met with the Master for their studies. Surely, Rocinante would know the way and might even lead her directly to the woman that she knew and loved as both Svanhilde and Emma.
Almost as quickly as the idea had entered her mind, she refused it. Were it only herself to think of, she would already be upon the saddle, but, under the current circumstance, it would be nothing more than a selfish act that would endanger the lives of their children.
However tempting it might be to reunite with her beloved, to feel the security of her arms, the kindness of her touch and the softness of her lips, she must deny herself the pleasure, though she wondered how long she could live without Emma, knowing she was so near.
A thousand things flooded her mind as she walked.
How would she explain Eva and Henry? Even she did not believe their origin when she had first heard the words. They had only lived a few full moons upon this earth, but showed years of age in their faces and bodies. Their curiosity was limitless and their intellect beyond imagination; even Regina and the Master struggled to keep up with them sometimes.
Did Emma even know who she was, where she was from and of what she once been capable; not only strong enough to heal herself, but to create life in another? If she introduced herself as Svanhilde, then perhaps, she knew not her true name. Or, perhaps, she simply allowed her given name to die with her magic so that she might live out an ordinary and uneventful life, blending in with those around her until the end of her days.
It was then that a thought occurred to Regina that she had not considered previously. When they had parted, Emma had believed Regina dead at her hand. Both of them had endured many months apart, attempting to build independent lives that they had neither wished for nor anticipated. During that time, souls and hearts had started to heal, though Regina knew that hers would never truly return to what it was.
Perhaps Emma had grieved sufficiently. Perhaps, her heart had mended better than Regina's, and she had moved on to seek another love. Perhaps she preferred the peace of singularity. Perhaps it was for the best. What could Regina offer her now that her sight was gone? She was independent, yet bound to the generosity of others. She was confident, but terrified every moment of every day. What used to come easy to her hand was now an ongoing exercise in humility, patience, repetition, and correction. Her impatience with herself and her blindness during her pregnancy had eliminated most of the original crockery in the cabin. Luckily the iron ware was not so easily damaged, though she had done her best to test its limits as well.
No. Eva had assured her that Emma was happy. Maybe things were best left alone, so that they could both move on.
And so, Regina resolved, they would remain separate until fate and circumstance might tell them otherwise.
Chapter 22: Cat and Mouse
I am including a trigger warning for violence and non-graphic/implied rape. If you have any concerns, please skip the section denoted by:
********TRIGGER WARNING START*****
********TRIGGER WARNING END*******
'Quiet, you damn fools, ' hissed Killian at the three guards that were still conscious and awake. 'The liquor too much loosens your tongues, and the language we speak is conspicuous. We cannot raise suspicion...'
Immediately the other men silenced, but the Captain of the guard looked up from his mug with a scowl on his lips.
'If we must sleep again with animals, surrounded by the fetid stench of their shite and piss, then, you'd be wise to allow us our drink and conversation,' he slurred in an irritated voice. 'It is the one thing that keeps us sane anymore....'
'Am I to take that as a threat?' spat Killian disgustedly.
'Take it as you will, but you know as well as I do who holds the power to determine all fates....'
'You are an ass, Thane, ' groused Killian.
'Perhaps, but as an ass AND a Captain of the Guard, I have grown accustomed to certain 'benefits' that I have been denied for far too long now.'
'We are here only long enough to gather information...'
'And the only place not deserted at this hour is the whore house. As castoffs, they are rarely believed, but often confided in. You want information? That is the place to go, but you will take me with you...' the Captain offered definitively.
Killian glared at the Captain as he considered his words and reasoning.
'And, fear not, ' chuckled the Captain, 'I will hold my foreign tongue, though I assure you that she will not. What I desire is quite easily satisfied without speaking a word, except in the form of coin....'
'Very well. Let us go. But, no others...'
'Of course, ' he bowed to Killian, 'to the victors alone go the spoils...'
The entrance of the whorehouse was the same as any other tavern. A few tables and benches surrounded a central hearth above which was skewered a half-carved boar that provided sustenance for patrons and workers alike during the long night.
Nestled into the far corner was the bar where bottles and barrels were stored and stacked in arbitrary order, while the other corners hosted a few, additional tables that stayed well-buried in the shadows; typically occupied by the affluent and influential, so as not to draw unwanted attention or rumor.
The night seemed slow. Several of the prostitutes meandered through the unconscious and half-conscious, trying to entice them for a few minutes fun in one of the back rooms while others stood by the bar whispering and laughing.
The most talkative among them, and the one that seemed to be capturing the most attention from the others with her stories, was a short, slight, red-haired, blue-eyed woman who wore a simple, peasant dress of sea green trimmed in brown with cream-colored short sleeves. She was young, not as worn and haggard as many of the other women whom Killian could tell had made this their life's work for probably as long as he had been on this earth. Her lips were the color of ripe cherries and she had a flush upon her porcelain cheeks from the stale heat that surrounded her which was only marginally offset by a door that had been half-opened near the bar.
'Let us sit nearer to the bar, Thane. I see several things there that I wish to indulge in....' offered Killian in a quiet, yet threatening, tone.
'Wherever you prefer, my Lord, ' offered Thane distractedly as he took in all of the women and quickly selected tonight's conquest.
Settling on the bench, Killian took a brief look about him to identify any threats or hints of suspicion. Seeing nothing, he folded his hands and lay them on the table in front of him, bowing his head slightly.
'What can I get you, Loves?' asked the older barmaid in her Nordic tongue.
'Two ales, ' grunted Killian in the same Nordic language, earning a surprised and confused look from Thane.
As the woman turned from the table and walked back to the bar, he leaned forward over the table.
'You speak this language?'
'I speak enough to get both of us what we want tonight...'
'Good, then you can get me the raven-haired woman with the green eyes. She looks like she'd take it nice and rough....'
The barmaid returned with the ales and set them in front of the men.
'Anything else?' she hinted.
'Raven-hair. Green eyes. For my friend. When he finishes his ale.'
'An excellent choice, ' she nodded as she waved to the girl to approach. Immediately, she was by the woman's side who nodded her head at Thane.
Sitting in his lap, she ran her fingers through his hair and beard, giggling, whispering in his ear and kissing his lips between his draughts of ale. Kissing her back finally, he took her lower lip between his teeth biting down hard enough to draw blood which he licked from his lips.
Slightly alarmed by his aggressiveness, the woman stopped giggling and her smile fell a bit as she looked to the barmaid who showed no reaction or concern. She soon resumed her attentions but her actions seemed to be more hesitant and cautious as she realized what her night ahead would now hold.
'And for you?'
'I have not yet decided, but we will take another ale as I do, ' replied Killian.
Nodding her head, she left them again and Killian focused his full attention to the bar where he could hear quite clearly the words of the red-haired woman.
'I tell you that I have not seen anything like it in all of my days. The Freyja begging mercy for an unfree...It is no wonder she is better loved than her mother...'
'You should not say words such as this, Belle, lest the wrong ears hear. You are among friends, but enemies should always be assumed near...'
'I simply say what I saw and know, ' she responded back confidently. 'And what I know is that even the strongest of our men have never endured as many lashings. It was unnatural....'
Killian listened intently from his seat, both hands grasping his tankard, head bowed to feign disinterest in anything but his drink.
He barely noticed when Thane arose from his seat and grasped the wrist of the raven-haired woman roughly, jerking her forward to lead the way to the room
'Of course, she was unnatural anyways ....blonde hair, green eyes, weak stature.... Neither her father or mother, Odin hold her, has that appearance despite calling her 'daughter', so I must wonder if perhaps the woman whored while her husband was away in the fight.....'
Killian's grip tightened about his tankard until his knuckles were white, and a wave of anger and hatred passed over him.
'Belle!' gasped one of the girls before tittering behind her hand.
'A woman has needs as well....I do not hold her in malice....'
'Though, I do believe that the Freyja was quite shocked when she found out that she had begged mercy for.....a witch...'
Looking up through his lashes, Killian observed the woman's mannerisms which seemed slightly unusual compared to the other women, but not unfamiliar.
Closing his eyes, he relaxed completely, allowing himself to sense what could not be seen. The corner of his lip turned up slightly when he identified the exact thing that would give him the most leverage to attain his information quickly and easily.
Almost immediately, Killian motioned for the barmaid.
'I believe I have made my selection...' he offered raising his chin at Belle.
'She is intact and inexperienced...'
'I will pay four times the highest rate....She will be safe in my hands....'
The old woman hesitated a moment before nodding her head in agreement. Walking to the bar, she whispered a few words to the woman they called Belle, and she looked to Killian's table confidently before making her way over.
'I hear that you ask for me?'
'I hear you tell tales, and I do love a good story...'
'It is not a story. It is truth.'
'Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe you would indulge me with more of the details, so that I might make that judgement for myself.'
'My storytelling is extra...' she teased as she kissed his lips, completely unaware of his mounting frustration and impatience.
'And who shall I pay for that pleasure, ' he offered sweetly through gritted teeth.
'Only me. In private....' she stated as she continued running her fingers through his hair, capturing his lips with her own.
'Then let us retire quickly as I wait anxiously for the rest of this story, ' said Killian as he arose from the bench and motioned for her to lead the way.
The three, cloaked men stepped silently through the paths and alleys of the village, blending easily with the shadows.
They stopped only briefly by the wall of the inn that neighbored the whorehouse before the first in line motioned for the two remaining men to split off from him and assume a position nearer the back of the brothel.
Clearing the open distance in only a few steps, he positioned himself along the outside wall of the whorehouse at the hinge of the bar door which was swung wide enough to the inside to offer a view of a few of the patrons.
His interest was peaked by the dark-haired man and his companion who sat drinking; one with a beautiful, raven-haired woman in his lap.
It was not long to wait before the companion and the woman took their leave only to be replaced at the table by a red-haired woman.
He strained his ears in vain, unable to hear the words that they spoke. He knew, however, that an opportunity would present itself soon enough.
Seeing them both finally rise from the table, he hurried towards the back of the building where he stopped under each of the open windows to determine which door they had entered. He was rewarded soon enough with the sound of a latch and the shuffle of feet.....
****************************************************************************TRIGGER WARNING START*********************************************************************************************************
Stepping through the heavy leather curtain, Killian could see that they were in a long hallway with five or six doors on each side. They were closely spaced, indictating very small rooms behind, likely only large enough for a bed and night table.
A single door at the end of the hallway led to the small alley behind where men, and the occasional woman, could exit undetected.
From one of the furthest rooms on the right he could hear the hard slaps, pleas and muffled sobbing of the whore who'd had the unfortunate luck to be favored by Thane that evening.
He was unconcerned and uncaring about her well-being, but could see Belle's anxiousness growing as she continued down the hall, finally stopping at one of the left hand doors.
'W-w-we a-re h-here, ' she stuttered out; all confidence gone from her voice and demeanor.
'Excellent, ' whispered Killian as he placed a soft kiss on the curve of her neck, feeling her relax and let her guard down slightly.
Opening the door, she entered, Killian close on her heels.
No sooner had the door shut behind them than Killian grasped her roughly and spun them. Slamming her back against the door, he wrapped his fingers about her neck with one hand and held a knife to her stomach, directly above her hip, with his other hand.
'Now, ' he snarled, 'I am tired of playing your games, so we are going to play one of mine. It is called 'How Much Do You Value The Life of Your Unborn Child?''
Belle's eyes were wide and brimming with tears that were streaking down her face. She gasped for air, but dared not move to claw at his hands; remaining, instead, frozen in place.
'I-I am n-not...'
'DO NOT LIE!' he raged through gritted teeth as his grip tightened about her throat.
'I-I am s-sorry. P-please do n-not t-tell my father....'
'Your fate and the fate of this child is entirely up to you....'
'W-what do you w-want from m-me?'
'I want the details of that story.... NOW....then, I want your legs spread wide on that bed while I fuck you any way that I desire. Do as I ask, and I will allow you to crawl eventually from my sight with your child unharmed. Do not and I will put you both in a grave tonight.... now TALK....'
Loosening his grip only slightly so that she might speak, she sobbed and gasped as she spoke quietly.....
'How long ago was this?' demanded Killian.
'Almost six moons...' whispered Belle meekly.
'And where is she now?'
'I do not know, ' she squeaked out as she felt his grip tighten.
'I do not, ' she gasped, 'she escaped into the wood and no one has seen her since. The High Queen's guard followed, and they are relentless. She must be dead. If not, she hides well, perhaps, in a neighboring village to remain close to her family.'
'And what is the next closest village?'
'Helmstadt, about three day's ride northeast through the wood...'
'If I detect that you are lying, then so help me, you will get infinitely worse than your friend. As it stands, you might be lucky to get only the same....'
'I do not lie, ' she sobbed as she raised her arm to point the direction.
Almost immediately, Killian's demeanor changed, and he released his grip on Belle's throat to pet her hair and dry her eyes, smiling ingeniously.
'You see, that wasn't so bad....' comforted Killian, '.....I cannot say the same for the next part, though, ' he offered with mock sympathy...
'If I find out that you have told anyone about our little conversation here, I will hunt you down like an animal, ' stated Killian calmly as he pulled on his pants and boots.
'Do you understand my words?' he asked sternly as he looked to the bed where Belle lay, curled into a fetal position, crying softly.
She barely nodded her head but it was sufficient to placate Killian as he pulled on his remaining clothes.
'For your story....' he huffed as he threw a few coins upon the bed, hitting her in the back and head.
****************************************************************************TRIGGER WARNING END*********************************************************************************************************
Walking out the door and through the curtain, he laid a leather pouch filled with coins in front of the barmaid.
'For our troubles...' he grumbled before exiting the tavern and stepping into the street where he found Thane waiting.
'Did you get what you needed?' he asked Killian.
'Much to her dismay....'
'Let us go. We ride for Helmstadt...'
The cloaked man released a low whistle to gather the others, and they made their way back across the lane, blending into the shadows from which they had come.
He had heard all that he needed and all that he could stomach.
'Tomorrow. Daybreak. Northwest to Helmstadt. Inform the others....' he said quietly.
'Yes, Sir, ' offered the other two men before all three scattered to the wind to prepare and wait.