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Bow and Arrow

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In his dreams Ivar was always flying. Legs that weighed him down like contorted vines disappeared into blue of the sky. Eyes black as night, the wings of a raven. A messenger of Odin that held an unmistakable war cry. The world was an endless labyrinth from sight of the sky. So many directions to go, an endless amount of time to waste. Brothers with foolish ambitions and murderous step mothers couldn’t grasp him in the clouds. Some nights he could taste the rain as it fell on feathered wings. He would forget it was a dream until the pain rushed back in one foul swoop, and the rotting ceiling above served as a welcome back to reality.

This night his dream was vivid as ever. The forest over Kattegat, where his brother’s once sparred with one another. Just boys unaware of the temptations of power and greed that would soon takeover. How Sigurd held a look of shock when his baby brother nearly wiped his head off clean with an axe. The foul irony of what was to come just months later like bitter blood on Ivar’s lips.

But his brothers were not there. Their boisterous laughter and clashing swords a song of the past. The grass had long overgrown, the deer carcass that once served as a target rotted out with maggots. Blood dried down a lone oak in a tear drop pattern--Sigurd’s blood. But when his claws landed in a dead branch he was not alone. One eye trained straight ahead, and the other a black abyss of nothing. The man stood below him with a smirk tugging against his pale lips.

“You’re late.” He whispers to the raven.

Ivar says nothing in return.

The old man often plagued his dreams. Instead of flying where he liked, the man would tug Ivar from the sky with an invisible string. Presenting images Ivar often forgot once he awoke from the trance that held him under. Why Odin would choose to torment him of all men was a mystery. A loyal servant, Ivar shed enough blood in his name. Yet the elder man continued to torment him.

The man holds out a free hand for the raven. “I fear you will forget this, just as you have the others. But if you remember it will serve you well.”

Ivar swoops onto his shoulder, talons digging deep enough to feel the flesh break beneath him. But the god hardly flinches in response. The stubborn bastard.

Indeed the one thing he remembers is that Odin sings that warning every time they find one another in the depths of his slumber. It is almost cruel now. They both know he will forget. In the beginning Ivar would pine over the lost dreams like smoke. Reaching out only to have it slip through his fingers. Perhaps the old man could find a way to visit him when he was awake. But luck only traveled so far for men such as him, and it seemed the God enjoyed haunting his dreams.

“Listen with your ears, Ivar the Boneless.” Odin cooes. “What do you hear?”

It would be easier if the old hack just told him what to expect. But that was not the way of Odin. So like a good student, Ivar listened with the ears of the raven.

A grunt fills his ears, though he cannot see another body. A rib cage that is breathing heavily, it reminds him of a panting dog. Has the god sent him a pet? But another noise quickly overpowers the breathing. He’s heard it thousands of times whether in battle or when he is bored. There is no mistaking the quiver of a bow as it’s tugged back with the string. Wound tightly, waiting to be set free.

The pop of the arrow’s release comes. But he does not hear the sound of a target hit. Only a sigh of disappointment. It is a deep sigh, though strangely feminine.

Odin’s voice interrupts Ivar’s trance.  “You are curious now. Look with the eyes the raven has gifted you.”

As the god commands Ivar can suddenly see more. The field laid out before him as ugly and dead as it was when he flew over. Only he and the old man are not alone. The unmistakable form of another covers the eyes given to him. It is tall enough that if he were looking with his own eyes Ivar would think it male. Though there is the unmistakable softness in the hips, the long plait far too intricate to be Ubbe’s.

Her stance is one he knows well. He remembers looking at the same expanse of land she is now. Bright blue eyes staring down a rotting stag head that Hvitserk cut down days prior. Now the flesh is almost rotted off. More skull than skin is visible. He wants to thank Odin then, for not permitting him to use his scent. For he could already sense the stink coming off the animal. But it doesn’t seem to phase the woman. Her light brow furrows, emerald gaze on the putrid head. There is a bow in her grip, with intricate designs he would normally admire if it weren’t so foolish. Bows often snap, unlike a sword they are disposable. If the woman were smart she wouldn’t waste her time or coin to fashion such a luxurious piece.

The sound of the string being tugged fills the air once more. Ivar’s gaze doesn’t waver as she prepares to strike. Her hand shakes, and if he could speak he would scold her. What is there to fear? The deer will not gain a voice to scold her. He will not sob that she hurt him. It is dead, a simple target.

The arrow flies quick enough that he almost misses it. A thud fills the air as it lodges itself into the center of the head. The entire post vibrates and Ivar wonders if the wood has rotted through. Perhaps it will fall into the dirt.

But it doesn’t.

“Do not look away yet.” The old man warns.

Ivar does not. He watches with less ambition now. It is just a girl with a bow hitting a rotten deer. There is no battle, there is no death.

A snarl fills the air. Like a wolf on the hunt it lingers through the forest. Ivar ruffles his feathers, surprise coursing through him like a violent sea. Her teeth are bared at the carcass, eyes a pair of daggers as they sink into the rotting flesh. She is angry, but why? Hitting the target is the goal one would expect to have.

Odin senses Ivar’s confusion, his smirk only wider. A sly fox enjoying the show before him.

“She searches for satisfaction in this forest. With that old target. But she finds none. Corpses are already dead.”

As he finishes his statement, her other hand balls into a fist. Long nails dig into the soft flesh of her palm, and Ivar can smell the blood before he sees it. Like an old friend he is all too aware of the scent it carries. How many times had he done the same thing? It’s as if he’s looking in a mirror as the crimson liquid pools in her palm. A silent river as it travels down her wrist. If she is in pain she does not show it. Her lips still curled like the wolf he imagines she would be if Odin made her into an animal too. Ubbe is a dog in comparison to this woman.

Ivar waits for her to do something more. Perhaps scream at the endless forest surrounding them. Toss her bow at the carcass until it finally spills onto the dirt. Or even snap the wood clear in half with her bare hands. But none of this happens, and Ivar finds himself disappointed.

Odin must feel it too, as the empty eye socket is now facing Ivar. “Some of us are better at controlling our anger than others. Some let it fester, and feast as much as it likes. While others bury it until it threatens to consume them.”

If Ivar could speak he would scold the old man for speaking in constant riddles. It is a blatant statement if he ever heard one. She is angry, but hides it away. Instead of acting out she stands there, seething. He remembers a time when he gazed at Sigurd and Ubbe the way she is gazing at the deer head now. She will succumb to her anger soon enough. And it will free her of the chains that keep her from doing it now.

“You think she is weak, for hiding her anger.” Odin observes. “You want her to lash out and destroy that deer.”

Ivar hates when the old man is right. So his eyes still remain on the girl. Her fist now stained red unfolds, and he just barely catches the grimace on her face before it is replaced with a straight expression.

“She comes here every day. Searching for the answers that this place cannot giver her..” Odin snaps his fingers, and Ivar’s beady gaze falls on him. “But perhaps you could give her what she wishes for. If she ever is able to figure it out.”

The mere thought of Ivar assisting another was laughable at best. He was not a paternal figure, patting on the shoulders of others. His smile more predatory than warm. Often those he inflicted it upon shook the way the woman’s bow did out in the field.

He wishes now more than ever that Odin allowed him to speak. For if he did the man would ask why the other wasted his precious sleep on women in the woods. If only he showed him images of his mother before she became consumed with anger and drink. Or Hvitserk tugging his cart through Kattegat when Ivar was a little older than a babe.

Or the old man has already showed Ivar those things, and now Odin punishes him with visions that mean nothing. If he only could recall what he was shown before. Pleasantries in comparison to this.

The old man pushes himself off the tree, his lone eye gazing at the sky above. A fog that fell upon Ivar the moment he took flight began to dissipate. Time was running out.

“Do what you will with this.” The old man says, as if he’s said it over a thousand times prior. Perhaps he has.

Ivar knows it isn’t worth remembering anyways.

“Leave me, Ivar the Boneless. You have closed those eyes long enough, your advisors will think you dead if you sleep much longer.”

Ivar once more ruffles his feathers in preparation for flight. As he ascends into the sky he steals one last glance at the field below.

The woman with the bow is gone.

*      *          *        *       *      *       *      *

The cold embraces him as Ivar’s eyes; the vey shade of the sea open. He gasps as if someone had been sitting on him while he slumbered. The numbing pain once more fills his lower body with such a force he wishes to cry out. But years of self control have prevented the man from doing such foolish things.

His torso flies up from the furs beneath him. A cloud of warm breath fills the air as he huffs. Ivar’s rib cage moves up and down vigorously. A pale light fills the chambers and he cannot tell if it is early morning or late afternoon. The coming winter leaves time indistinguishable. Kattegat nothing more than a pale shadow until spring graces them once more.

“My king?”

A sweet voice suddenly breaks his trance. It is far from the sound of gravel rubbing against itself, which is often what he associates with Hvitserk. It also is not the terrified tone of his elder brother’s former wife. Margrethe, for all her faults deserved more than Ubbe. Maybe more than any of them.

The wide gaze of the thrall stares back at him. She’s young enough to be a child in most eyes, and he cannot push away the disgust that fills him at the sight of her. It seems that they all get younger. Though he often forgets that he is getting older.

“You-you were shaking in your sleep, and mumbling words.” The girl adds.

Her pale palms are shaking, and he almost wishes to ask her why they are not stained with blood. Though he cannot place why. Instead a scowl marrs his features upon the realization that it was this girl who woke him from a dream of great importance.

Or so the old man claimed.

“What do you want?” His words are laced with venom.

She visibly flinches and he feels a victory. Wide blue eyes fall to the floor as her hands shake even more. Like a little mouse , he thinks. I would pity you, but no one ever pitied me .

“Well,” He snaps. “Why did you wake me? Is my kingdom burning to the ground?”

“N-no.”

“Is some fool with a deathwish storming the gates?”

“No.”

“Is a plague spreading through the port?”

“No.”

“Then why,” His lips curl into a sardonic smirk. “Would you be foolish enough to wake a king from his slumber? I need sleep too you foolish girl.”

Her gaze turns to glass and Ivar swears he can see the tears brewing beneath her eyes. When he was young the thralls had skin thick as leather. Now they were weak things scared of their own shadows. This girl would not last one minute in the clashes of war.

“Your brother, my king.” She nearly sobs. “He was worried that you would not wake. It is well past morning and--and I apologize but I have to do what I am told.”

Ivar shakes his head, a dark chuckle escaping his lips. “Stupid girl.” He snarls. “Is my brother the king?”

She shakes her head of golden curls.

“Then you do not need to listen to him. You listen to me.”

She nods her head, a glimmer of hope in her eye. Hoping for some form of praise from Ivar. It is unfortunate she does not know him well enough yet to know it isn’t coming.

“Leave.” The king commands. “And tell Hvitserk that I am alive, but angry that he ruined my slumber. He will pay for it later.”

The thrall rises, she cannot escape his chambers fast enough. She is willowy, and her stature reminds him more of a crane than a mouse. But he doesn’t say anything about it. He only watches with haunting blue eyes as she shuffles from the room.

When he is alone his head falls against the furs of his bed once more. Blood. Bloody palms and the snarl of a wolf is all he can remember. One minute he was flying free and the next he wasn’t.

The words of Harald haunt him even now. If dreams mattered, they would come true before our eyes. They are only a distraction from the greater picture.

Perhaps Harald is guilty of being the biggest dreamer of all. The king of all Norway wasn’t a simple goal. Only a man who dreamt of glory would be crazy enough to try and conquer every small kingdom around him.

Ivar reaches for the metal braces against his bed. Even after years of use, he still hasn’t grown used to them. They rub against the pained flesh of his legs until they’re raw. Each step he takes is filled with a pain he would only wish on his worst enemies. A dull knife slowly slicing away at each individual tendon until he is nothing but a contorted mess of lower limbs once more.

He rises slowly, with the help of a crutch. It takes years before he manages to pull a tunic over his head. Not willing to change his trousers, as if anyone will care if he wore the same ones as the day prior. Ivar did not harbor the energy or patience to watch a thrall struggle to put on a new pair. Especially the little thing that just fled from him moments before. She was far too rattled to handle the task. And Ivar feared he would mock her the entire time, only leaving the girl a greater mess than she was before.

When he reaches the hall, it is fairly empty. Most are wandering in the market, or training for future raids. Ivar welcomes the silence, for he knows it is only temporary. Soon enough people will come and go throughout the great hall as the day wears on. His colors of red and black adorn every inch of the hall. His people will not forget who won, even years after.

A sigh escapes the king’s lips as he settles into his throne. The screams of his lower limbs silence in a momentary reprieve. He leans back, gaze flickering to the few bodies left in the hall. Most of which are his guards. They carry shields of red and black, walking in continuous patterns until the next one comes to take over. What a mundane task to watch over a king. Ivar is grateful he’s never had to do it himself.

At the table below a small cluster of thralls whisper amongst themselves as they knit. With winter almost upon them they would be working tirelessly to have thicker cloth available to wear. Furs alone would not protect from the bitter winds that ripped across the sea. Ivar could not see the girl from his room amongst them, perhaps she ran to his brother to relay the message. As well as other things. Hvitserk had changed little over the years, so the notion held little surprise. A thrall was a thrall but they still warmed your bed when you asked.

One of the guards entered the king’s periferal. His lips upturned despite Ivar’s expression remaining stoic. “My king.” He states with a nod of his head.

Ivar simply nods in return. He takes in the image of the guard. A man large enough to look into the eyes of Bjorn. His bicep easily twice the size of Ivar’s skull. But Ivar is disappointed when he does not see a mighty sword in the man’s sheath. But rather a bow strewn across his back. An archer rather than a swordsmen.

An archer .

He remembers it then. The forest, his old training grounds. Where wild flowers and long grass have taken over, and the clanging of weapons is long gone. The corpse of a deer still remains tied up, though somehow it is still rotting. Ivar is frustrated with the archer. He doesn’t know why she won’t scream at the head. Why she would hide amongst the trees and shoot at old ghosts.

The blood pooled so thick in her palm that he wonders if she’ll be able to shoot again right away. Her nails must have been sharper than a wolf’s, the way they cut so easily through her pale flesh.

Her eyes are as blue as his. The long plait of honey tresses runs down her back. There is a scar above her left eye, but he can’t remember how fresh it was. She’s tall enough that they would see eye to eye. But not as willowy as the thrall. No she has cut her teeth on blood and sweat. She’s run through the very hills his brother’s would run through when they were younger. Ivar hated them for that. He always wanted to run through those hills too.

But he can fly. A raven high above the sky, he flies until Odin commands him to rest. Then Odin shares useless information that he forgets hours later. Until he doesn’t.

“My king?” The gruff voice of his guard fills the air.

Ivar realizes then, as he leaves his trance, that he has stood once more. His legs throb but he ignores it. The guards all look on with mild curiosity, and even the thralls have silenced their whispers. He must look crazier than they already assume him to be.

“I have just remembered something.” Ivar boasts. “I must leave for awhile.”

The guard tenses his shoulders, and Ivar already knows what he will say. “But my king, you cannot go alone. And the frost fell last night. It is slippery.”

Ivar does not hear him. He is already forcing himself toward the door of the hall. I must go to that field. I will find what Odin showed me once more. If only to prove it was not a silly dream.

He doesn’t know if the guards follow him. But he has long forgotten him when the bitter air kisses his cheeks. A plethora of bodies rush past, more concerned about their daily errands than their king chasing imaginary things.

The old training ground. He will go until his legs give out beneath him, then he will crawl. Because Odin showed him the angry girl in the forest with the bow. And for the first time, he remembers it.

Chapter Text

Ice spreads across her skin like a slap to the face. It’s needles seeping beneath her flesh, the pain so sudden she can’t shake it. The world is blurred and she can’t remember who she is or where she may be. If she exists at all. Only the cold. So freezing she wants to scream.

Except she is screaming. It’s a short burst, and over before she can quite realize she’s done it. The blurred world above comes together like the river when it’s muddled with mud and rock after a storm. A singular figure stares down at her form on the straw heap her mother dares to call a bed. Something large and round extends off their arm. Though she can’t quite pinpoint what it is exactly.

It moves, and the cold returns. It’s wet. She gasps once more and her body propels forward. As if by another entity, she is eye level with the figure that has turned her into a cold, wet, heap. Her body shakes like Thor’s thunder. Muscular arms wrapping around a soaked torso.

“Dagny! Wake up.” The voice of her sister, Yri is shrill, and more effective waking her than the water.

They are eye to eye when Dagny’s vision clears. Her sister’s eyes are wide as saucers, her pale lips in a pout. It is as if she is looking at a younger reflection. With honeyed tresses in an intricate plait, cheeks littered with freckles.

In Yri’s grasp is a mug large enough for the men to fill with copious amounts of mead. Except she’s filled it to the brim with water from the river, and Dangy can no longer feel her limbs because of it. She wants to shout at the younger girl. But she knows it is not Yri’s desire to wake the eldest from a deep sleep. When their mother gives a command they obey. No matter the consequences.

Dagny continues to tremble, her lips barely form words. “W-Why the water?”

Yri shakes her head. “Nothing else worked, and mother is growing impatient.”

They know why she is pushed to the brink of exhaustion. But they do not speak of it out of fear of their mother. The woman has refused to hear talk of it in her home. So it’s become the silent secret that grows exponentially with every day that passes. Only a fool would bring up why Dagny is still there at all. Instead of with a husband to care for her while she bears his children, and visits him on the docks before he departs for a raid.

The sun is just beginning to rise, and they are already behind. She can see the golden rays through the crack of their home. Enough evidence to support the fear in Yri’s gaze. If their brother’s are smart, they will have already started with work for the day. But one could never be sure.

Dagny does not waste time in dressing for the morning. Her breeches are too short, as they only come up to her shins. In the summer months it is a welcome reprieve, but as winter approaches it makes the farm work increasingly unbearable. The cold often nips at her bare ankles until they are the same shade as blood. Her boots are worn from years of use, and do little against the wind and cold. Her tunic that was once her father’s is too large in the middle. An awkward fit, but he is the only member of the family who was as tall as she is now. The arms fit, and the length. But she only has muscle and an awfully long torso to thank for that.

Her hair is too long. But her mother will scold her to no end if she cuts it. So she says nothing as it’s almost grown down the expanse of her back. A simple plait is all she can do to keep it out of her eyes. She does not like the intricate beads or mixture of plait and loose hair that her mother and sister often opt for. It is too elegant for a woman like her. She is a bull and they are lambs. That much she has always known.

The gods have blessed her that morning, for when she leaves the sleeping area of the home, her mother is not yet weaving with Yri beside the fire. Yri fumbles with the yarn and rushes to make up for the time she lost waking her elder sister. They do not say anything more to one another as Dagny exits their home. For every word spoken is more time lost to the impending day.

A pair of small heads bob in the distance. One is kissed by fire. His hair bright enough to be seen in the cover of darkness. The other matches Dagny’s, a warm honey shade. Their mother keeps Hlodvir and Bardi’s manes shorter than most. They despise it, but have learned from their elder sister’s that it is best not to argue. The dirt and sweat from farm work is too difficult to keep out of the tresses of young boys. Too often when they grow it out, the strands grow matted and look horrific. Hlodvir appearing more like a troll than a young man of fifteen.

Bardi is laying hay down for the horses. Their long snouts inspect his back while he spreads the food across their pen. Behind him, Hlodvir is mucking the pen for shit and dirt--mostly shit. His face has already grown the same shade as his locks, mostly from the cold. One of them will have to trek to the river with large pales to fill with water for the horses. Bardi is still small so that will be a difficult task if he chooses it. He is not yet like Hlodvir and Dagny who tower over their mother and Yri. Only a boy of twelve, their mother does not expect his growth to come for a few more years. But he still asks Dagny on a daily basis if he is cursed to be small like their mother, and not a giant like their father.

“Have either of you gotten the water yet?” A question she already knows the answer to.

They look up simultaneously, a mixture of annoyance and fatigue fills their faces. Because she has slept in they’ve had to make up for it. The horses are her job. While Hlodvir handles the unpredictable hogs and Bardi tends to the stagent cattle.

“No.” Hlodvir’s tone reminds Dagny of their mother when she is irritated. Never raising her voice, but there is enough bitterness on her tongue to make up for it.

“I will go to the river now, then. You can go back to your duties while I finish up.”

Bardi shakes his head. “No, we are almost done with your tasks and have barely started our own That isn’t fair.”

Hlodvir bites down on his lower lip and Dagny can tell they’ve been cursing her since they woke. Probably tending to the pen since darkness still covered the sky. She would be angry too.

With a sigh she replies, “Then I will take one of your tasks to make up for lost time, and you can finish with the horses.”

Bardi wants to give up the cattle, but Hlodvir beats him to it. “Take the hogs.” He grunts. “They haven’t stopped squealing since we came out here.”

Dagny sighs, but she doesn’t argue further. It is an apt punishment, and she will take it in stride. Hlodvir will be revealed to avoid his awful duty for one day. It will not be long until the largest pigs are butchered for the winter. Their meat meant to last until the frost subsided once more.

She feeds them the moment she arrives at the pen. Their pink noses wiggle feverishly as she tosses the slop into the pen. Dagny has always referred to it as such, since she never could quite figure out what it was. A mixture of whatever they didn’t eat the night before, rotten vegetables, and oats. The smell is putrid when it hits her nostrils, so she breathes from her mouth. The hogs squeal and shove one another to get the largest fill. Some of them expansive enough to knock the smaller ones off their feet. She ignores them, taking the moment of distraction to begin ridding the pen of shit.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It isn’t until the sun has risen to midday, and sweat has pooled beneath her tunic that Dagny is finished with her tasks. Most of it is labor. Bardi milks the cattle and goat while she tends to their pens. Hlodvir brings out planks of wood to repair some of the pens that will rot and crumble when the first snow falls. They have little crops to care for as the harvest has passed. But they still have to ration out enough for the evening feeds, and of course for their own supper.

Bardi lays on the cold ground, short breaths passing through his thin lips. Hlodvir chops one last log of wood before announcing he is going to check the fish nets by the river. Dagny sits on a rock, her gaze on the hills beyond their farm. Sometimes she imagines herself a wild animal running through them. Perhaps a wolf or a bear.

Her youngest brother must know she’s daydreaming as he tosses a pebble at her face. She swats it with a frown and he chuckles. Though the sound is more like bells to her then the deep chortle of a man. He is still too young for that.

“Are you going to run off now?” Bardi questions.

Dagny raises a pale brow. The answer in her eyes is obvious. “Once I’ve rested a bit more.”

Bardi takes this time to press, as he always does. “Can’t I go with you? Mother always forces me to ride into Kattegat with Hlodvir to trade, or help Yri with supper.”

Mother doesn’t want you to be like me. She thinks. She wants you to be a good farm boy, and not tempted by war like the rest of them.

But war haunts her dreams. Every night she hears the clatter of swords against shields, and battle cries. Her hand trembles at the thought of an axe grasped within it. She longs to be like Thor, but has settled for Loki. A secretive woman, wielding her bow and arrow under the cover of the forest.

She envies the shield maidens. How they walk through the town with shields strapped to their backs, and bloodlust in their eyes. As a child she would watch them train from afar. Her father bartered his crops while she watched the women dance perfectly in sync. Their bodies filled with muscle and adrenaline.

But like the men they never live long. Her mother scolds. They think we are strange for not wanting to charge into war. We are smart! We will live long lives with plenty of food.

“Mother will want you to go to town with Hlodvir.” It’s all she can say without disappointing Bardi further.

He is not his mother’s son. He is like Dagny. He will challenge their mother the way she does now, and she knows it. That is why he’s forced to go into town and barter. Why he always assists Yir with mundane tasks. The old crone believes she can beat the farmer into him. And maybe she can. But Dagny’s mother could never beat it into of her.

The boy huffs in protest, digging the heels of his worn boots into the soil. “Fine.”

He is angry with her. She can tell from the twisted scowl on his thin face. Just as she begins to speak the voice of their mother cuts across the barren field. “Bardi! Your sister needs help peeling the onions for supper.”

Her silver hair flies in the wind behind her. Like a sheet of ice, Dagny can’t help but stare at it. Bardi grumbles something she cannot make out and stomps toward the house with heavy feet. Dagny remembers when she used to peel the onions. She often rushed through it, as they made her eyes burn. Her mother would then scold her for ripping the layers apart so terribly. Sometimes she would still attempt to do it when Yri was behind. Dagny was more careful, but still dreadful nonetheless.

Dagny’s mother remains outside, a silent invitation to come back to the home. The woman wants something, and she will wait out the rest of the afternoon to tell her daughter of it. Their stubborness was the only attribute they shared.

“You need to take care of the sow tonight.” Her mother commands as she approaches. “The very fat one. I was going to save her, but we have the others to breed. None of the males are big enough to butcher yet.”

It’s been Dagny’s job to kill the hogs since their father passed. Bardi is too small, and he would be too reckless with the hammer. It wouldn’t surprise Dagny if he missed and swung at a tree stump instead. Hlodvir claims he can do it, but shakes like a leaf whenever the hammer is in his grasp. His face grows green, and Dagny is forced to do it alone. But she doesn't mind. It is only the pain radiating in her back whenever she has to try and lift the pig alone to drain the blood. She always needs Bardi and Hlodvir to help her lift the thing and tie it to the tree.

She nods.

“Bring your brothers. But only Hlodvir can try.” It’s a silent plea that her eldest son will grow a backbone. Or that the youngest will gain enough curiosity from the task that by the time he grows big enough, he will want to do it too.

Perhaps if you made them warriors instead of farmers they would enjoy killing things. “Yes, mother.”

The woman’s forehead crinkles as she frowns. Her age evident as ever with the harsh winter approaching. Dagny’s knows she’s paranoid. The gods are punishing them all for the mistakes of the few. “We are short on meat. That is why we need it.”

Dagny interjects. “I could hunt a stag.”

Her mother shakes her head. “Not enough.”

“But it’s something.” She presses. “And it has plenty of fur on its pelt. It will be easier to weave into a cape than several of the foxes that Hlodvir traps.”

Her mother knows she is right, but the stubborn thing will never admit it. “Just kill the hog when you return.”
And just like that, she’s dismissed. Her mother whirls back into the home with smoke on her heels. Dagny desires nothing more than to scream. Have I brought you that much shame that you refuse any help?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

She runs until her lungs burn. The hills are never ending, but she welcomes the pain radiating in her legs. Her late father’s bow and arrows are strapped to her back. The designs engraved into the bow are too intricate and beautiful for someone like her. But she cannot afford to be picky. She wouldn’t have a bow at all if it weren’t for this one. It was once heavy on her back, but she’s grown used to the weight of it. Some days she runs with the hog pales filled to the brim with water. Gasping for air while they slop and spill onto the forest floor. But most days she runs like this, if only to pretend she’s running into war.

She sprints until the familiar training ground comes into view. To the average hunter passing through, it is long abandoned. A forgotten stronghold where she pretends that warriors once trained. The grass has grown to her knees and the planks that once held targets have rotted. But that doesn’t deter her from returning every day. The best of King Ragnar’s men fought here , she thinks. Or perhaps that’s what she hopes. That it wasn’t just a group of bored men looking to let loose with their swords and bows. It was far more exciting to imagine she trained on the same ground as famous warriors.

The stag head she placed on one of the targets days prior has begun to rot. The flies surround it feverishly in attempt to get their fill. It won’t be long until it is nothing but bone. The smell alone reminds her of such. Nose wrinkling in distaste at the scent of death and decay. It will not be long before she has to replace it with another. Her mother will receive that pelt whether she wants it or not. But Dagny knows her well enough that the woman will make use of the pelt without showing any gratitude. Only for the sheer nature of why her daughter obtained it.

The removes the bow from her back, studying the designs in the wood for a moment. If her father knew it would fail him would he have put so much effort into its construction?

Before she can linger on her thoughts longer a cry fills the trees, sending her a good foot off the ground in fright. She raises the bow despite the lack of arrow and whips toward the sound. Though relief and embarrassment fill her at the source of the sound. A raven, large and obsidian stares down at her from a branch. Humor glints in its eye as if it wanted to frighten her. She would think to shoot at it, if it weren’t for the creatures tie to Odin.

As if Odin would be watching you of all people right now.

Regardless, she stifles a sigh and lowers the weapon. The bird continues to stare and squawk, but doesn’t move. It does not fear her, as it shouldn’t. She will not harm a creature of the gods. No matter how annoying it may be.

Dagny turns back to the stag, and pulls an arrow from the pack on her back. She doesn't think of the raven watching her back with beady eyes. As her gaze focuses on the head hundreds of  yards away, she channels her thoughts on other things.

Yir, who suffers everyday because of her. As a girl of seventeen, she should be married by now. But their mother needs her to do what Dagny cannot. They couldn’t afford the luxury of a slave or servant. So Yir takes that position. Only a blind fool would miss the way she gazed at the men in town. Longing for someone simple like a farmer, not even a jarl. She often argues that Dagny will never marry, and that their mother will always have her around to make up for Yir’s absence. But the woman does not listen.

Hlodvir, who is not one ounce their father except in appearance. He is soft and timid. He prefers the secluded area of the farm to Kattegat only a couple miles away. When he barters he does not get the best price. For he fears that he will anger the merchants or find himself beneath another man’s sword. He is a mouse, and Dagny wishes he knew his own strength. Nothing ever fared well for a gentle giant.

Bardi, who is so much like her that she feels an endless pit of guilt. He dreams of weilding a sword and shield, and crossing the sea in a longship. When they do the daily chores on the farm his eyes grow dull with boredom. She wishes to tell him that it gets easier with time. That the itch to do more than scoop shit or till vegetables will fade, and he will be satisfied with a simple life of isolation. But if her daily escapades are any indication--the desire never leaves. He will be like her, and leave their mother with a permanent scowl. As a man he can do as he likes without repercussion. Something she has never quite been able to achieve.

Her mother wasn’t always that way. Or perhaps she was and Dagny was too young to remember. But red hot rage surrounds her vision like a tidal wave at the thought of the elder woman. Her own fear kept them isolated. Her doubt of the potential her children held outside of farmwork. They were vikings, but behaved like the English. She could run. Barter a group of sailors to take her with them, find work in another kingdom.

But what use was a woman who acted like a man, and only mastered a bow?

No use at all.

The arrow flies from the string. She doesn’t need to look to know it’s pierced right through the rotting head. The loud thump of the arrow piercing the skull is enough confirmation.    

Piercing blue eyes stare down the carcass. The flies have scattered from the rapid movement, and the melted flesh and matted fur stare back. If she looks hard enough she can see her mother. A rotting old thing, miserable and alone. Outside of them she has nothing. Sometimes she thinks she can see her father. His head rotting the way the stag’s was now. The anger subsides when Dagny’s thoughts turn to him, she has nothing to blame him for anymore.

A snarl rips from her lips. It’s raw and deep enough to fool one into thinking she were a wild dog. Pain radiates from her right hand. So full of anguish she doesn’t notice the blood that pools in her palm from piercing the flesh with fingernails. She’s learned not to flinch from it anymore. But she can’t resist looking down at the mess of crimson. It pours down her wrist, and she can just make out the half moon rips in her palm.

Blood has never frightened her. Not in the way it should. When Yir was just a girl Dagny taught her how to slice the carrots. But the girl had fat fingers and was clumsy from the lack of experience. The blade sliced through her finger like soft margarine, and the blood refused to cease. Yir wailed and wailed, but only from the sight more than the pain itself.

But Dagny could only stare, fascinated by the entire spectacle. How could so much blood come from such a small girl? Were all humans so easy to cut and bruise?

She wants to hit more than a rotting stag head, or witness something truly exciting instead of Yir slicing a finger on a dull knife. There are tales of their king’s great army. How they cut through men like nothing, and conquer kingdoms near and far. But a farm girl will never know the trials of war. She has to settle for the tales she overhears from others when her and Hlodvir scour the market.

She rubs her palm on the dirty breeches. They are covered in enough dirt and muck that blood won’t make them any more awful. More pools through the cuts but she ignores it. The sting is a welcome reprieve from the numbness she’s felt since Yir poured the water on her.

Her gaze falls to the pale winter sun in the sky. The days have grown short. It leaves very little time to get much training done anymore. Dagny will run home, and she will butcher the sow as her mother requested. Her brothers will gawk and likely turn varying shades of green. But the act will sate her long enough until she can kill another stag tomorrow. Hoist its large head onto the old target, and do more than howl like a spoiled brat.

She takes a few more shots at the rotting head. Each of them hit near the first. Blood stains the bow string, and some of it splatters onto her cheeks like paint. But she is no more satisfied than with the first shot. A still target provides no fun. It cannot fight back.

The raven squawks in the tree above. It's been silent as death, and Dagny forgot it was even there. It stares down at her, louder than ever. It continues to squawk as if it were screaming at her. 

"What do you want from me, you stupid bird?" She hisses.

It only continues it's tantrum. Great black wings flap against the tree branch, and she wonders if it will fly away. But it only settles on a lower branch. They are eye nearly eye level, and she can feel its sharp gaze on her. A chill runs up the woman's spine. No it was not Odin watching over her this day indeed. Perhaps it was Loki playing a terrible trick on her. 

She pulls the bow from her back, slowly loading it with an arrow from the pack. Her movements are slow as she aims at the creature. It seems to notice, but takes no care. It only squawks and squawks until Dagny's ears ring. She pulls back the string, and the bow whizzes upward into the tree. With a defeated squeal, the bird is punctured in the throat, and satisfaction fills her. 

Its limp body falls to the ground and she kicks it as she walks by. "Stupid bird, you wouldn't shut up." 

The sun is about to set as she begins her run back to the farm. Dagny’s strides are long, knowing that her mother will be flustered. They will have to kill the hog just before darkness covers the farm. The temperature will be cold, and her hand may shake with the hammer in hand. Her brothers will be exhausted, and the blood may drain sloppily. But she will make up for it tomorrow. She will wake when she is supposed to, and finish her tasks early. If only to return with a deer pelt and more meat. Her mother can’t shake her head at that.

Then she will only find something else wrong with me. So I will shoot at the stags and howling ravens until they turn into her. 

Chapter Text

 

He never makes it to the old training ground. The crutches get him to the forest, but he’s forgotten about the roots. They curl and dip in every available spot. He trips several times before landing face first in the dirt. The ground is chilled and hard. It reminds him of ice, even if the frost hasn’t come yet. Pain radiates in Ivar’s lower body. If it were a terrible day a bone would snap or crack from the impact. Instead the wind is knocked out of him, and he feels bruises blooming on his flesh. Any sane man would have gathered himself and turned around. It was a fool’s wish to pursue a vision in a dream. Afterall it was just a girl with a bow.

Except he is Ivar the Boneless, and he does not give into the temptation to turn around. Instead he drags himself on the forest floor, his legs screaming with every inch forward. His breathing grows heavy, and sweat pools at his brow as the distance grows.

He’s always crawled, since he was just a babe and had no other means to move. But the training ground is far from Kattegat. As boys and even young men, his brothers would each carry him on a platform. It provided a reprieve for the youngest and shortened the amount of time it would take to get there.

It was then that Ivar missed the platform. He wasn’t even sure if he was going in the right direction anymore. The wood had long overgrown and the trails he knew as a boy were gone. He only remembers that it is uphill, and it is one of the only places where there is a clearing of few trees. The rest of the forest is covered in a blanket of green, and there’s little room for much else with all the roots and stumps.

The vision of her returns to him and he can’t shake the look in her eyes. The raw desire when her arrow pierces flesh. The carnal reaction to violence and death. He knows it well enough. His men unleashed wild cries of war when they once tore through battlefields and won back Kattegat.

But the anger in her eyes reminds Ivar of himself. The way it’s carefully buried beneath years of resentment and anguish. Like a pot over the fire it simmers over time until it overflows onto the floor. If such a woman really exists, she is more than just another shield maiden with a bow. She is war in a stare, and he can’t recall ever witnessing it in his best soldiers.

It is only when the sun peaks highest in the sky that he hears another. But it is not the feral snarls of the woman from his dream. He is too far from the training ground to hear her yet. Hooves pound through the forest, and what sounds like wheels. They creak and howl as they’re jostled over the roots. Rage pools within him, already aware of who came looking. The one vice of his crown is that he’s never left alone. They all assume he’s dead or on the brink of it when he wanders off. It was easier in the days when they all looked at him with upturned noses and strange looks.

It’s Hvitserk who finds him. The familiar sight of Ivar’s chariot as it barrels through the forest is a dead giveaway. The horse at the helm stumbles over upturned roots, but it didn’t succumb the way Ivar did. Hvitserk steers the beast with clumsy uncertainty and his gaze is filled with determination. Ivar desires nothing more than to slap it right off his brother’s face.

The elder Ragnarsson is out of breath when he catches sight of Ivar. His eyes are saucers when they get a good look at Ivar. Hands buried in the dirt, blood on his lower lip from splitting it during the fall. Mud cakes his forehead and his cheeks are crimson from the cold.

He knows Hvitserk desires to scold him but knows better. Instead he fumbles over excuses as to why he barrelled through the forest on Ivar’s chariot like a bat out of Hel.

“Brother.” Ivar croons.

Hvitserk is physically winded. “One of the guards said he saw you go into the forest and I-I.”

“I-I-I” Ivar mimics, his voice nothing but pure venom.

A sigh of defeat leaves Hvitserk. “I was only worried, brother. We have collected many an enemy over the years.”

“None foolish enough to attack me in the forest like some kind of bear.”

Hvitserk longs to argue over the state he’s discovered his baby brother in. Ivar welcomes it, as well as the victory he’ll claim when Hvitserk continues to fall down a hole of stuttering excuses.

“Why are you even here?” His brother presses.

Ivar’s answer isn’t exactly a lie. “I was looking for something.”

Hvitserk shakes his head of blonde braids, and the mare snorts with impatience for added dramatics. He has always been good to her, his Alva. And now his brother as trudged her through the thick wood like a hunting hound. He will have to make up for it with apples and sugar later. The only woman Ivar answers to outside of his late mother is his mare. And she will likely buck and bite until he makes up for Hvitserk’s heavy hand with the reigns.  

“How far are we from the range where we used to practice?” Ivar inquires.

Hvitserk’s mind is already trying to grapple as to what his brother would be scouring the forest for when the other speaks. It only leaves him more puzzled, and Ivar enjoys watching the small cogs in his brother’s brain struggle to turn.

“Not far, I would think.” Hvitserk scratches at his scalp with dirt riddled fingers. “It’s been years since I’ve ventured there.”

Since before the war.

“Do you suppose we could go there?” Ivar’s voice has a touch of innocence in the tone. Alarming in itself as suspicion fills Hvitserk’s gaze.

“Why?”

“For old times sake. I may even find what I’ve been searching for on the way.”

Then he can gloat to Hvitserk about his discovery. Even if he wasn’t sure what he planned to do with her just yet.

“There is already rumors of your absence, Ivar. We should really be getting back.”

He desires to continue on without his brother. But Hvitserk will follow him with the chariot until darkness falls and they eventually reach the destination. Except Hvitserk will nag him the entire way and Ivar will lash out just as he always does.

There is also the possibility that the woman isn’t real. Merely a trick of smoke and mirrors concocted by his mind. Odin must have had greater tasks at hand than showing Ivar the Boneless a woman.

Unless he didn’t.

So after much contemplation and a pang of regret Ivar mounts the chariot. He rips the reins from Hvitserk’s grasp and shoves him nearly over the edge. All while images of the woman played in his head.

If Odin sent him another dream tonight he would return. But this time he would have to be more careful about it.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When they return Ivar spends most of the early evening in the stables repaying Alva’s hard work in the with sweet apple slices and a good grooming. Hvitserk found his crutches on the way home, and Ivar leans more heavily on them now.

His feet drag as he brings the brush against Alva’s cream pelt. He silence’s the pain by focusing on the sound of her teeth against the apple slices, and humming a melodic tune on his lips. The stable boy insists he can do it, but one glare from Ivar and he’s disappeared into one of the dirty stalls that need mucking. The king doesn’t mind such a mundane task, for it allows him to focus on anything except the minute issues from his citizens.

When he hears the soft patter of footsteps he expects it to be a thrall notifying him that supper is prepared. But rather it is Hvitserk’s wife. A woman of few words and uneasy stares, Ivar never bothered to get to know her. They are little more than strangers, their only bond that she is married to Hvitserk and the mother of his young nephews. Ivar’s blue gaze falls past her expecting to see the youngest tugging at her skirts, but she is alone.

Eira is her name, the daughter of an Earl that pledged himself to Ivar and in return Ivar married her off to Hvitserk. The Earl was displeased to learn his daughter wasn’t good enough for Ivar, but eventually dismissed the issue when he threatened to annul the marriage and alliance.

She leans in the doorway, inky tresses flying in the wind. She’s far from hideous, and Ivar would go as far to say she’s prettier than most of the women in Kattegat. But motherhood has aged her, leaving dark circles beneath her eyes and a softer middle. He can’t imagine it’s easy being the wife of Hvitserk either. Like a dog in heat he often wanders to the nearest thrall or sheild maiden that opens her legs for him. Eira shows little discomfort toward it besides a scowl at dinner or red rimmed eyes after consuming too much ale. But Ivar can’t help but wonder what grievances brew beneath that carefully tailored smile.

Her voice reminds him of a shy child when it breaks the silence. “I told him not to go looking for you.”

The king snorts. “Little good that did.”

Eira flinches as if he’s slapped her.

His honesty is a knife cutting away at raw flesh. Few know how to tolerate it, let alone throw it back with just as much rage. Eira is not of that kin. There was a point in his life when he would have welcomed a gentle creature such as her, but life has hardened Ivar since then. No longer did he crave a warm body to lie against at night. Only the blood of enemies flowing between his open palms as they announced defeat.

Miraculously the woman finds her voice. “He loves you, so he worries. He paces like a fool whenever you run off.”

Is that before or after he’d buries himself in my slaves?

There was nothing to fear. Only a fool would try and take what was rightfully his. Some had, shortly after the war. His elder brothers amongst them. But with time the rebellions settled and the people grew used to the shift of power. They enjoyed the trade that opened up with his rule, the increased raids that provided settlement opportunities elsewhere. Ivar learned to quit fearing death long ago when his mother decided not to throw him to the wolves.

“Why are you here?” His tone no less poisonous than before.

If he wished to speak of Hvitserk and his issues with detachment from the past, he would. But Alva needed to be brushed and he would clean himself after before going to sleep He has a god to deal with once the night settles.

Her eyes that remind him of blades of grass fall to the floor. Shaking hands rest against her chest and Ivar sighs realizing he’s become subject to more than a simple visit. It’s times such as these where he wishes Hvitserk instilled more confidence in the woman. She was viking, not a waif.

His tongue clicks with impatience. “Eira.”

It seems as if time stood still before she speaks up. “A messenger came from my home today with traders.” She pauses, expecting Ivar to interrupt but he doesn’t. Instead he leans his crutch against Alva’s rump and gazes at Eira with a curious eye.

“Unfortunately,” She continues. “My father is dying.”

Ivar knows the request before she asks permission. “And you wish to see him?”

She takes a step back and Ivar holds back a snicker. Such a lithe, little thing.

“I do. I miss him so much that my heart aches, Ivar. And I worry about my little brother, he can be so defiant. It would be best to make sure everything transitions properly.”

Of course it did . “Mm. I see.”

“But Hvitserk said we--I would need permission from you since you approve any expeditions.”

The king raises a dark brow. “Hvitserk plans to go with you?”

“Well,” Her voice slightly falters. “He is my husband. A wife shouldn’t travel alone.”

His mother did when she sought out his father. Her belly filled with his child, she embarked to Kattegat to claim what she had won. But Aslaug and Eira were very different breeds, and Eira would never set foot anywhere without his brother.

But it could bring about opportunity. Lands to steal further north, a bargaining chip for Harald when he inevitably desired Kattegat once more. If Eira’s brother is smart he’ll surrender willingly, and Ivar’s kingdom will expand. And if he doesn’t, well Eira would have to prepare two funerals.

“I’ll consider it.” Once he’s confirmed with Hvitserk that they will take the land for their own. It would do good to have his brother out of his hair for a few months.

It shocks him when her small frame falls into him. He stumbled into Alva and she grows uneasy from the sudden contact against her rear. Eira’s scent reminds him of roses as she continues to embrace him. Such a simple request returned with intense gratitude.

It was a shame he was only using it for personal gain.

“Thank you, Ivar. Thank you.”

He pushes her from his grasp with a nod. “Of course.”

She bites down on her lower lip nervously. He thinks she might stand there all night if he lets her. But once he’s finished with Alva he dismisses the woman back to his brother and their children. His mind already focused on the upcoming evening.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

He ate feverently. Barely sparing a glance to Hvitserk or the squalling children at the table. Eira remained quiet as she picked away at the stew that was prepared for them. Ivar thought she would bring up their conversation, but she doesn’t. The woman is smart in that regard. She knows when to speak and when to shut up. If only his brother was the same.

As expected Hvitserk tages advantage of the silence. Ivar then reaches for his filthy crutches and pulls away from the table. He just barely caught the cusp of a question leaving his brother’s lips as he stormed from the hall.

“Why did you really go--”

He bathes quickly as well. Not taking enough care to scrub feverishly at the dirt and blood caked on his flesh. Normally Ivar remains in the basin of water until it grows cold. The thralls were careful to heat it over the fire until steam rose. But tonight their hard work was put second to his rest.

When he finally falls onto the expansive bed of furs, sleep refuses to welcome the king. He stares at the ceiling above with malice. His legs ache and throb more so then normal. Like a doll in the hands of a negligent child, he imagines he’s been throttled by the roots and branches that cover the forest floor.

Healers often bring tonics for him to try. Ones that claim to numb the pain or rid him of it all together. But the king isn’t a fool, he knows they won’t work before he even tastes them. Most of the time he doesn’t bother to try them at all. False hope was wasted time in his opinion.

The pain would momentarily subside once sleep overcame him. It took it’s time though. Slowly it tugs at Ivar’s eyelids until they grow heavy. It numbs the pain below his torso enough to briefly forget it was there at all. It leaves him warm in the tanglement of thick furs.

His mind floods with images of the girl. If she’s real, is she laying in bed right now? Is her mind littered with dead stags and broken arrows? He wonders where she is if she is real. Perhaps she’s right under his nose, in one of the small homes cluttered around the port. Or she’s in his service and he passes her every morning while heading for breakfast.

But no slave or servant could hold that gaze. Whoever she is, wherever she is, it is far away. Far from his large and lonely kingdom that has spent the past ten years thriving more on trade than war. Did she lay in bed at that moment cursing the monotony of her life the way he does his?

He sees her in the forest, her wild braid flying behind her head like a tail. He hears her footsteps as they pound against the forest floor. He can feel the symbols carved into her bow. He can taste the sweat on her brow, and feel the rough fabric of her breeches that are too short for her tall frame. He thinks if he waits long enough she’ll run right to him.

The image of her fades to blackness, his thoughts rip away like parchment. Ivar’s legs are forgotten things and his body is floating somewhere else. He’s becoming someone else.

The the king is fast asleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

This dream is different.

When Ivar flies he it isn’t through the thick wood any longer. But rather his wings are an expansive shadow over endless open land. In the distance he can spot Kattegat. It appears harmless, the sight of flowing bodies and a consistent traffic of trade ships too far away. It’s deceivingly peaceful from this height. The ravens must think one could hear a pin could drop in his kingdom from this height.

The grass is brighter here. As if a painter took a brush and stroked the blades of grass until they were a blinding green. Flecks of white litter the ground as well--snow? It is so early. He loathes the sight of snow and frost. It’s a commodity though. Grass has never looked so alive when the rest of the world is bare. The trees have lost their leaves, and winter is waiting with bated breath.

He isn’t flying long before he’s pulled to the ground. His talons wrap around a dead tree branch, and it only takes seconds before he notices Odin appear beside him. Except the old thing is focused on something other than Ivar. His singular eye staring ahead.

Ivar curses the god once again for withholding the right to speak. Only a squawk leaves the raven’s mouth in complaint. Why are you showing me this? Where is the girl? Where is the forest? I don’t play games, even with you.

He catches the smirk that tugs at the side of Odin’s lips. A sickening humor that he’d expect from Loki or Tyr. He enjoys tormenting the young king with what he doesn’t understand. Ivar can see it from the glint in his singular eye. How he’d love to sink his talons into that one eye until it’s paste beneath him. Good luck being the king of gods without any sight over your subjects.

The god’s tone is mocking. “So impatient, Ivar the Boneless.”

The young king cannot say a thing in return. He only stares down at the man with  narrowed black eyes of the raven.

“You should have been less careless in the forest today. You would have stumbled right into her as she was leaving.”

Ivar’s heart races. How did he know?

“I kept an eye on both of you, though it can be difficult to do so with only one.” The god lets out an earthly chuckle but Ivar remains still. “She killed one of my ravens. A woman of the gods sent an arrow through my messenger without a second glance.”

How he longs to witness that image. The snarl in her teeth and the gleam of victory in her eyes. How did it feel to kill a creature of the gods? Did it bring more power than killing a simple man?

Odin continues. “But as she left your brother arrived. It is a good thing you decided to turn back, or she would have been long gone by the time you reached the training ground.”

Ivar picks through his brain, trying to remember the sight of a raven flying above. But his thoughts were consumed by honey and girls shooting arrows at ghosts. He didn’t look down much less up. The forest was filled with birds, a raven wouldn’t have stuck out the way it should have.

“I’m always watching, Ivar.” Odin’s tone sends chills down his spine.

So he was. He watched as Ivar crawled and pulled over upturned roots and mud just to witness a woman. He must have looked pathetic then in the grand scope of things. A king struck by something so stupid and simple.

Except Odin wants him to find her. Or he wouldn’t have let him remember the dream.

“I will show you something else, Ivar. If you’re lucky enough to recall your dream again it will assist you in what you’re looking for. But you must pay close attention. For what can help you isn’t always the obvious.”

If he’s lucky enough. If a raven could scoff Ivar would have.

Just as Ivar’s processing the words of the god, three figures appear on the horizon. Well, three and one that belongs to an animal. As they draw closer Ivar can make out the details of their silhouettes. The first is quite small, a little older than a child. A mop of sandy hair is atop his head, and excitement fills his gaze. His cheeks are stained with dry mud, and his shirt sleeves are far too short. They stop at his elbows, the ends frayed. The other towers over him. His russet tresses fall past his chin, and he’s constantly tucking them behind his ear every time a gust of wind hits. Just like the first his eyes are a pale blue, only they are filled with fear and uncertainty. With large fingers he tugs nervously at his shirtsleeve. Although this one is the proper length, it’s too tight for his growing frame. His biceps threaten to tear away at the fabric with every move he makes. He leads what Ivar has realized is a great sow with a rope. Feverish whispers leave his lips that are too far for Ivar to hear. But to him it almost looks like an apology.

The third figure is even taller than the second, though not by much. He’s too focused on the weapon in their grasp to fully realize just who it is yet. The hammer itself is large and littered with splotches of red. It rests over the carrier’s shoulder with ease. Though Ivar can tell from the size of it, that the weapon is dense in weight.

Ivar’s breath hitches as he takes in the figure. It’s tall, beautiful and impossibly her . Odin chuckles at his side but the king ignores it. She looks just as she did in the first dream. Her hair pulled back into a braid, her clothes littered with sweat and dirt. The dark breeches on her legs end just inches above her boots, leaving a sliver of pale flesh exposed to the cold. Her gaze is clouded, as if she’s calculating every next move to make. The others share her high cheekbones and button nose. The tufts of hair on the smallest boy are the exact same shade as her endless braid.

They are too old to be her children . He thinks. But they all looked so impossibly alike. Siblings .

“You will find that all siblings act quite the same. These three aren’t all that different from you and your brothers.” Odin’s voice flows in one ear and out the other. For Ivar’s focus is still on the woman ahead, and his brothers are no more than ghosts.

They walk until the quartet settle at the tree next to his. Ivar stares at the ropes tied around a thick branch, and he already knows what three of them have to do. The pig is blissfully unaware of her role in all of it. She snorts and sniffs at the elder boy. He strokes her large ears and continues whispering sweet things to her. The other two ignore it. The younger boy tugs on the ropes to see if they will stay when they are needed, and the woman settles the hammer onto the ground.

The sun begins to set behind them, casting an orange glow. It’s a lovely image. Their bodies bathed in golden light, as the kingdom below them continues to rage on. It’s so quiet up here that Ivar can hear the thumping of his heartbeat.

But the silence doesn’t last as the eldest lifts the hammer once more. To Ivar’s disappointment she doesn’t swing it. Instead she holds it out to the older boy who is too focused on the animal to notice.

“Hlodvir.” Her voice reminds him of honey. It’s impossibly smooth and thick as it fills his ears. “Mother demands that you try.”

Where the sister is a warrior, the elder brother is not. He’s more of a child with an innocent gaze. Dread fills his face at the woman’s words. He wraps two thick arms around the sow, and Ivar thinks he might cry.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Fat tears flood the boys eyes, and his face grows red as his hair. The sister lets him blubber into the ignorant pig for a few moments. It surprises Ivar to see the compassion in her gaze. If it were him he’d kick his brother and demand the idiot wise up. A pig was a pig, nothing more.

But the youngest steals the words right from Ivar’s thoughts. “It’s just a pig, brother. Not your first wife.”

The elder boy stiffens. Ivar can smell the rage brewing within him, but not nearly strong enough to withstand the others.

“Bardi.” Their sister’s warns.

But the elder boy is already offended. “I spend everyday with them, Bardi. I take care of them while you play with yourself and pretend to spread grain for the cows.”

“He won’t do it, sister. Mother’s just attempting the impossible.” The younger boy snarls.

But then Hlodvir rises so quickly Ivar almost misses it. He shoves the younger boy--Bardi, to the ground in a blink. As if he weighs no more than a leaf. Bardi falls with an oomf , and glares daggers at his elder brother.

The eldest appears amused. As if she’s witness to this everyday, and it’s just become a way of life. The way the sun rises everyday and sets every night.

Hlodvir holds out a large hand. “Give me the hammer.”

She doesn’t protest, even if Ivar can see the hesitation in her gaze. She lifts the hammer with ease, and her brother pulls it into his grasp. The sow remains in her place, chewing at the grass with blissful ignorance. Her soft snorts are the only noise that fills the air outside of Bardi’s heavy breathing.

The hammer shakes in his grasp. His breathing is shallow, and Ivar thinks the boy may faint. The tears come again. Fat, wet, things that pool down the apples of his cheeks. For such a giant, the boy is painstakingly gentle. He expects the sister to press him, as Ivar would if Hvitserk or Sigurd once did the same. But she remains silent, watching closely as her brother comes undone.

“She’s testing him.”

Ivar was so focused on the scene before him, he forgot the god was still beside him.

Odin nudges his chin toward Hlodvir. “It should be him that’s cutting down doe in the woods, and slaughtering sows with hammers. But everytime a weapon is in his hand the boy breaks down like an infant.”

What a waste .

“Her patience is running thin.” The god calculates. “Do you notice how she’s tapping her foot, and chewing her lower lip? She wants to get it over with.”

So why doesn’t she?

Ivar thinks back to her only statement. Mother demands that you try. Not, mother asks that you try, or mother wishes you would try.

A woman frightening enough to even make her eldest yield.

Hlodvir shakes his head, and strands of red fly in the wind. His thick arms tremble, and large thighs threaten to give. His sobs grow louder until even the youngest, with his defiant gaze and harsh words, is silent. Bardi’s gaze on anything but his pathetic sibling.

Before Hlodvir can say a word it happens. His mouth opens with a planned protest and the hammer is torn from his grasp. Like a punished child, he stares at his empty hands in surprise.

His sister lifts the hammer and strikes the sow upside the head. A blood curdling squeal fills the air, and blood sprays onto her face. Like a second skin, it covers her cheeks and lips. She drops the hammer as the sow falls to the ground, and pulls a knife from her pocket. It’s long and the sharp edge shines under the falling sun. She slices the pig’s thick throat with grace, and more liquid pools into the grass. The rust tinge of blood as bright as the green blades or white flakes of snow.

Ivar doesn’t notice Bardi as he whoops and cheers from his spot on the ground. He doesn’t notice how Hlodvir’s face turns to the very shade of the grass and he clutches his middle. He doesn’t hear when that same boy wretches into the ground and leaves his supper everywhere.

He only notices her. The wild fury in her eyes as the hammer hits the sow. The lust and pleasure that leaves her lips in a quiet moan as the blood covers her face. Her blade cut through the pig’s neck like butter, and he watches as her fingers linger against the gaping wound. When they withdraw they’re coated in the brightest shade of crimson, leaving Ivar’s mouth watering.

She whacks Hlodvir’s spine with a clenched fist and he howls in pain. “Dagny I--”

Her voice is ice. “Help me with the body, you fool.”

Dagny

A name. Not just the woman, or the girl. But Dagny. Dagny with her long legs and stormy eyes. Dagny with the blood smeared across her face and droplets of it in her teeth.

It didn’t appear to fit. But not a singular word could fit someone like her. A nickname like his would have been more suitable. Whereas he was The Boneless, she was--well he wasn’t sure yet. She was more than just a name. But for now it would do.

Bardi rises from his place in the grass. They each grab a leg and pull the sow toward the tree. Dagny and Hlodvir tie the back hooves with the rope and pull upward with pained expressions. The pig rises until it’s inches from the ground. She pulls out the knife once more and begins slicing down the animal’s middle.

The flesh peels away and blood flows down its torso. Bardi is out of breath and leans against the tree trunk with a red face. Hlodvir continues to shake and look anywhere but at his elder sister. The trio sit in silence for what feels to Ivar like hours.

He assumes Odin will pull him away, but the god watches them as intently as the king is.

“You should take the ears to the market tomorrow. The children can purchase them as treats.” Her voice is surprisingly softer. No longer does it hold the malice Ivar relished in before.

It may be that she’s focused now, slicing away cuts of meat and tossing them to Bardi who wraps them in a cloth. She reminds Ivar of an artist, the blade slicing through like brush strokes and changing the canvas. The rage has subsided for now.

“What about the hooves?” The youngest suggests. “Last time men were fighting over them.”

She ponders the decision before nodding. “That will help too. Mother would just toss them away if we kept them.”

Hlodvir somehow finds his voice. “And the fat. The woman like to use it.”

The other two gaze at him the way Ivar used to look at Sigurd whenever he managed to say the right thing. Incredulous.

Bardi acts as if it hasn’t phased him. “That with the fish from the river should do plenty. We may have to bring the cart instead of riding the horses with baskets.”

Hlodvir nods in agreement. “The walk will be slower, but we may have no choice.”

Odin looks up at him with his empty eye. The socket appears endless and dead, surrounded by veins the shade of a plum. “This is where we take our leave, Ivar.”

No . They hadn’t seen anything. Just the slaughter of a pig and the bickering of siblings. His talons dug into the bark of the branch. A silent protest against the god beside him.

A soft sigh escapes Odin’s lips. “You have witnessed all you need to know. Do what you will with what I have given you. One can only hope you remember once more.”

How many times hadn’t he remembered? Were those dreams better? Did they show everything he needed to know? If so, then why did he only remember the one from last night?

Ivar still watches her despite Odin’s push. His gaze doesn’t leave the sight of her bloodied hands as they continue to slice and pull away at the pig meat. For something so mundane he’s fascinated by it. But then again he’s never watched a person take care in a simple task. Most were in a hurry to complete the task and hacked away in every which direction.

Odin appears to have come to the realization that Ivar is beyond his reach. With a the shake of his head he says the command that leaves rage in the king’s belly.

“Leave me, Ivar the Boneless.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ivar rises with a gasp. No longer is he surrounded by lush greenery with a wingspan that rivals his own. Instead he is sprawled across the bed in his chambers. Darkness still covers the room in a soft enough light that he knows the sun has yet to rise. Such a short dream.

It wasn’t enough .

Ivar’s head falls back into the furs as he recalls the events of the dream. There’s a sheer hestiance as he fears that he’s already forgotten it. Except he can still smell the copper scent of the sow’s blood. He can hear the soft moan leave a woman’s lips as she takes away the life.

Dagny.

It comes back in a flood. Her brothers standing beside her in the field. How the eldest boy trembled like a child when presented with the murder weapon. The youngest reminded of Hvitserk when they were boys. Pushing and teasing at the elder brother, but desiring the sight of gore all the same.

But he didn’t have the slightest idea of where they were. It could have been a two hour or two day ride from Kattegat. The hills that surrounded the kingdom were deceiving in that way. It was far enough that silence engulfed the area, and he envied the trio for never being subjected to the kingdoms never ending chatter.

Odin’s statement lingers. You have witnessed all you need to know.

But what flew over his head that was so important? He dug through the dream. Processing the sow being slaughtered, the eldest brother showing his cowardice. But perhaps what he needed to know was beyond the act itself.

He thought of the siblings. The largest named Hlodvir, the smallest named Bardi. Then Dagny. How would he find her again? It could have been on any hill and she doesn’t have been any woman. Many women possessed that name. He couldn’t simply should the name Dagny through the market until a woman turned her head. It wasn’t as if she would be there anyways. Not when she could be shooting arrows in the forest.

Except they need to go to the market to sell their meat.

The conversation plays in his head on repeat.

You should take the ears to the market tomorrow. The children can purchase them as treats.

You should take the ears to the market.

You.

He rises instantaneously as it comes to him. Eyes bright from recognition and not brittle bones. It was painstakingly obvious. Bread crumbs that Odin left right before his eyes. The old fool was right.

If they were real they would need to go to the market to sell their slaughter. The boys would be there.

The boys would lead Ivar to her.

Chapter Text

Patience is a virtue never gifted to Ivar the Boneless. He longs for nothing more than to go to the market and drag those boys back by the roots of their hair. Demand that they take him to their sister so he can sate the dreams that continue to haunt him with every night that passes.

But when he discovers Odin’s hint, the sun has barely risen. Restless thoughts plague him while the rest of Kattegat remains in slumber. If the boys come, it will not be for hours. When the market is bustling and the merchants heckle at anyone passing by to purchase their goods. Time will crawl for Ivar the way it did when he fought his brother’s for the first time. Each minute spanning the length of years.

He leaves the warmth and comfort of his bed for the outside world. When he crawls through the great hall it’s eerily silent. Not the footstep of a thrall or whisper of a guard to be heard. Though they are there. Hidden in the very shadows he assigned them, they loom and wait for a threat that will never return. Ivar wonders if he listens close enough he will hear them follow.

The frigid morning is welcome after a restless sleep. It seeps into the king’s flesh until the blood in his veins feel as if its turned to ice. He dons nothing but a pair of breeches. His bare torso emits heat that fills the air like smoke, and fresh snow crunches beneath clenched fists. It’s the only noise to break a rare silence. For when Ivar stares at the vacant stalls of merchants, it’s a foreign sight. Empty and void of the plethora of bodies that come and go. The port is filled with ships that hold sleeping bodies, and some even litter the streets. Curled up like children they fight the cold even in slumber.

Ivar has always existed within chaos. Noise, violence, and pain have defined his life for as long as he can recall. There’s something beautiful and terrifying about witnessing the world without any of that. The innocence that rests over his kingdom at that moment is one he hasn’t witnessed since childhood. A momentary illusion that the world is void of anything except for him. He wonders if such a world could ever exist for a man like him. When anyone with half a mind can be sure Ivar will stir chaos himself if he cannot find it first.

He isn’t sure how long he gets to enjoy the silence before it’s interrupted. The sound of footsteps as they crush fresh snow leave him full of disappointment. So much for a moment of peace. He seethes. And the world has returned from slumber .

“What are you doing?” Hvitserk’s voice radiates suspicion.

It looks strange, he’s more than aware of it. The king of Kattegat sprawled in the snow--almost as bare as the day he came into the world. His lips have shifted to a deep shade of purple, and his fists shake from being buried beneath the snow.

But Ivar is anything but normal. “Enjoying the morning.”

He can envision the look of confusion and disbelief in Hvitserk’s eyes. “What is there to enjoy about the cold and snow?”

Everything and nothing . The answer is too vague for someone as dense as his brother. The cold left many craving for warmth, so they curled by fires and avoided it by sleeping a little later. It gave the farmers less work to do with the harvest long dead, and the warriors mostly drank until they were dead to the world. They would not raid until spring returned once again.

The cold kept Kattegat silent, if only for a few valuable moments. Within the silence Ivar was left to only his thoughts. Thoughts that demand his full attention in the same nature of battle plans. Only this time he wasn’t going fight war. He was going to bargain with it.

Ice blue eyes stare at the hills beyond. He thinks of the woman-- Dagny . Was she just waking for the day to kill another hog? Did she see him every night the way he saw her? Or did she remain ignorant in her little hut years away from Ivar the Boneless and all his schemes?

If she is ignorant to it all, it won’t be long until she isn’t.

“Ivar.”

The King shifts his attention to the other for the first time. Hvitserk’s blanketed in fine furs of white and silver. His hair neatly pulled back into a set of braids. It’s a stark contrast from the usual sight of his brother’s bloodshot eyes and disheveled tunic. Who are you trying to impress? He thinks. Then it occurs to Ivar that perhaps Hvitserk happened upon him by accident. Even his brother desired to keep secrets before the world could smell them out.

“I came out here to think,brother.” Ivar sneers. “It is something people frequently do.”

Hvitserk isn’t satisfied with the answer, but he doesn’t appear in the mood to argue. “You will freeze before coming up with a solution.”

Ivar’s gaze displays a mock surprise. “Who says I am pondering over problems? Did it ever occur to you that I was simply figuring out a way to get what I want?”

What Hvitserk wishes to say is that the king already has everything he desires. But they both know it is a lie deeper engrained than the bond between their brothers.

“And what is it that you want?”

Ivar battles the urge to dismiss him. How could Hvitserk even hope to fathom the situation at hand, or even support his brother in the chasing of dreams? When Hvitserk sought out women it was to bed them. Ivar has the slightest suspicion that until they crossed paths, that was his goal for the morning.

But Ivar did not want to lie with Dagny. There was more to the dreams than just a simple woman to warm his bed. If he desires such a thing he can find it anywhere. No girl with a sound mind refuses a king.

He needs something more. Something his brother’s nor anyone else could ever seem to provide him with. It was an ambitious notion, but the king couldn’t imagine Odin would waste his time on something minuscule.

Unless it really is all in your head.

“The gods have given me something. But in order to have it, I must find it myself.”

Hvitserk raises a tan brow. Ivar can feel the skepticism rolling off his brother in waves. “And what have the gods have gifted you this time, Ivar?”

This time. The jealousy is so thick off his tongue Ivar can taste it. Hvitserk is never as favored as he. Cast aside and living the life of a shadow, is what has become of Ivar’s older brother. And while it may have left Hvitserk filled with discontent and shame, it gave Ivar more than enough advantages.

“If I tell you,” His voice dangerously low. “You mustn't laugh. Or my axe will find its way into your skull.”

Perhaps it is the threat of death, or Hvitserk having enough sense to know the right and wrong time to test Ivar’s patience. But Ivar’s elder brother listens as he tells the story of Odin and his dreams. He can feel the doubt radiating from Hvitserk as he describes the girl in the forest with her bow and snarl. Then he speaks of her brother’s and the dead sow in the hills. Events he’s witnessed all in the form of a raven. Ivar attempts to hide the desire in his voice when he talks of flying. How Odin will never realize the torment he placed upon the king by giving him a taste of freedom--the ability to go anywhere as he pleased. Or the gods were crueler than he imagined, and Odin wished to torment him in the same stroke of aiding him.

When Ivar’s voice finally grows silent nothing fills the air but soft howls of the wind. He dares a glance back at Hvitserk. His eyes are clouded over, teeth digging into the soft flesh of his lower lip. Perhaps contemplating the possibility of it all. Or if Ivar is cruel enough to lie to him again. But Ivar would never not be cruel enough.

“Why does Odin send you visions of this woman?”

Hvitserk doesn’t surprise him, it’s a warranted question. One he’s thought about plenty. “I believe she is of use to me.”

“In what way? You have plenty of thralls to do as you’d like.”

Ivar scoffs. “She can kill without hesitation. From what I’ve witnessed she may even enjoy it. I could make a warrior out of a woman like that. Not a slave.”

“But there are plenty of warriors in our army capable of such traits. Ones that have already been trained for battle.”

Ivar understands his brother’s point, yet there is so much he doesn’t know. “None of them have been given to me by the gods.”

“No.” Hvitserk sighs. “They have not. But you don’t know for sure if she is real.”

It was a harsh blow. One well deserved from his lack of information outside the work of dreams. “That is why I have a plan, brother.” Ivar says. “I will find out if she is real, and if she is then I will go from there. The gods have not failed me yet.”

Hvitserk crosses his arms in what Ivar assumes is doubt. “And what if they have fooled you?”

“Then they will get a laugh out of it all, and not another sacrifice in their name.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

After Hvitserk convinces Ivar to return to the hall before he freezes to death, Ivar convinces him to help with the plan he’s concocted. His brother is hesitant, and perhaps the only thing that brings him to say yes is the possibility of Ivar’s humiliation. But that is enough for him—for now.

He peers alongside a stall, crawling along the ground and below the eyes of many. The old crone who sells her herbs to healers isn’t aware of the king sprawled beside her stall. His head tilted round to see the other merchants and observe as their customers come and go. In the surrounding area his men walk with shields of black and red strapped to their backs. Hvitserk leans against a stall, more interested in the foreign fruit grasped in his palm than the boys supposedly arriving for trade.

For awhile nothing happens. The crowd is thinner than usual. The cold and snow providing enough of a deterrence for the weak natured. It was easier for the king to make out the faces in the crowd this way. His eyes of ice drifting to every boy with straw atop his head or a body too large for his demeanor. But each time he is met when disappointment upon discovery that it isn’t the boys from his dream.

He doesn’t tempt himself with the latter option. That they don’t exist or decided to abandon the cold market for a warm fire at home. The fear looms over him like a second skin but Ivar shakes the thought before it threatens to consume him.

But the the shadows of his doubts cease from the familiar sound of bickering.

“Will you let me hold the basket? I am stronger than I look.”

“No. If we drop any of the meat mother will have both our heads.”

The sound of a snarl fills the air as the pair stride past Ivar. Both oblivious to the king at their feet, they walk through the market in sync. The taller boy hoists a basket over his shoulder, the fire atop his head blowing in the wind. The younger one has to take longer strides to keep up, though he doesn’t show much sign of struggle.

That one will be the problem . Ivar thinks. A boy aware of his own strength, and pushing beyond it’s boundaries”

The king looks to one of his men just feet away. Giving him a curt nod and smirk like a knife, Ivar waits for him to inform the others. And like a troupe of gossiping women each of his men pass the other with a nod toward the two boys. When the last reaches Hvitserk, Ivar notes the disbelief in the elder Ragarsson’s gaze.

It is wonderful to be right, isn’t it Hvitserk?

The boys have paused just moments away. Their eyes trained on the thick furs for sale or trade. They silently bicker back and forth with each other over the value of their meat, and the worth of the pelts. The large one points to a large cloak of what must have once belonged to a bear, giving statements out of Ivar’s range.

The king decides to change his position, if only to enjoy the upcoming show. He pulls his body through the frozen floor, until positioned beside another ignorant shopkeeper and their stall. From this view the boys are only a stone’s throw away.

Ivar can make out the younger brother as he hisses through venomous fangs at the larger one. “It’s too much and it’s hideous. Let us look elsewhere.”

But the elder boy was as dense as he appeared. “It is not hideous. I need a cloak.”

“And Yir needs a new dress, but she did not request we trade our meat for one.”

“Yir did not kill the sow.”

The younger boy bears an expression of shock. “Neither did you!”

This causes the elder one to stiffen. Before he can whirl a pathetic comeback at his brother, Hvitserk has already come in for the kill. He rests a pale hand on the elder boy’s shoulder, a wicked grin painted on his lips.

Ivar’s heart only races.

“It is quite a hideous cloak.” Hvitserk releases a dark chuckle. “Your bounty is best suited elsewhere.”

He expects the recognition to set in. Two farm boys in the presence of their prince is a rare sight. Yet neither expression changes except mild confusion over the interruption. It’s as if Hvitserk is any other man trudging through the frigid day for goods. His cloak and garbs are much finer than that of the boys’, yet they either don’t take notice or care. Ivar cannot decide which is more foolish.

Hvitserk has noticed the same vein of ignorance. Daggers replace the once friendly gaze in his eyes. Any lies that slipped through his thin lips of not desiring glory the way Ivar did are proven now. His feathers are ruffled, not receiving the response he hoped for.

Ivar can only observe with mild glee. He would surely have these boys before the noon sun rose to dusk.

The youngest shakes his head with a chuckle. While the other’s ears turn a bright shade of pink.

“You hear that Hlodvir? Even the locals know you waste mother’s pig.”

A frightened yelp fills the air as Hlodvir slams his ridiculously large foot onto the younger boy’s.

Hvitserk hasn’t removed his hand from Hlodvir’s shoulder. Something the boy remains ignorant to while he silently scolds his little brother. From the depths of his hiding place Ivar notices Hvitserk’s fingers dig further into the boy’s shoulder with determination. A slight punishment for his own mistake.

A tuft of red hair meets the eyes mixed with mud and green. Ivar longs to witness the fear in Hlodvir’s gaze.

“S-Sir?”

“I could provide a greater purpose for it.” Hvitserk’s eyes narrowed to slits. The gaze of a fox cornering his chickens. “For a reasonable price or trade of course.”

“What would that be?” The youngest garners his confidence.

“Bardi!” Hlodvir scolds. “Hush.”

Hvitserk seizes his opportunity with the greedier party. “Information.”

“Information?” Bardi’s expression is incredulous. “What would we have to share?”

“Plenty that I wish to know.”

The brothers exchange glances before Bardi presents another challenge. “What would that be, exactly? We don’t hail from here.”

“The hills are still territory to the king, boy .” Hvitserk scoffs.

It’s then that the tension rises. A thick wall surrounding the trio, and encasing them against one another. The two painfully ignorant farm boys unaware of the greater powers working against them. A damaged prince who believes their pain and confession will only lead to greater respect in his king’s eye.

The boys are suspicious. White hairs rise on the back of their necks, and a cold sweat brews. Bardi’s gaze studies the guards that have closed in like a pack of wolves. The intricate design may of black and red reminds him of Surt. The fiery inferno closing in. Hlodvir hasn’t turned his attention from Hvitserk, who appears as if he’s a bear discovering honeycomb.

Neither Hvitserk or Ivar are aware of the boys’ knowledge. They haven't a clue that their mother told stories of Ivar. The petulant child famous for his useless legs and lust for death. Therefore Hvitserk is not the king in their eyes, but he is just as dangerous. For anyone in their right mind didn’t take notice of two boys carrying a basket of pig meat. Not unless they desired something more.

Ivar knows the youngest is trouble. It’s confirmed in a flash when a fist flies through the air. A crunch fills the air, the copper scent of blood follows. A curse leaves Hvitserk’s lips, a pale hand grasping his nose. Crimson tendrils pool down and gather against calloused knuckles.

“Run!” Bardi tugs his brother’s arm.

They only make it a few steps before one of the guards slams his shield into Bardi’s face. He collapses to the ground with a whimper. Hlodvir tosses the basket to the ground, meat long forgotten in the presence of fists. He swings and the guard falls like a chess piece. Another charges, only to be throttled to the soil. Others take notice of the skirmish. Some hoot and holler, while others idly watch, some simply slip away. Ivar does none of this. He revels in the violence before him. His mouth waters as blood spills from open wounds. What a beautiful sight to witness.

Bardi rises just to meet a charging Hvitserk. The boy swings and Hvitserk catches the fist midair, twisting his arm and pulling the boy to his chest. With a free hand he raises a knife to Bardi’s pale throat. Despite the danger he still howls like a wolf pup against Hvitserk’s grip. Hvitserk applies pressure and small droplets of crimson stain the blade.

“Stop or I’ll slice him clean in two!” The prince commands.

Hlodvir’s head spins in the opposite direction. Mouth agape at the sight of Bardi, though it’s more fuzzy than anything. One of the guards whacked him good with a shield, and his left eye is slowly swelling shut. An array of yellows and purples spread below the socket like a painting.

Hlodvir isn’t Bardi. He doesn’t claw away at every obstacle until it’s shredded beneath his claws. The boy is more buck than wolf, more man than monster. Fear ripples off his wide shoulders. Prey ensnared in the jaws of the predator. Guards that haven’t been rendered incapacitated surround him. Approaching with care Ivar wonders if they do it for show. The only danger is Bardi, and Hvitserk will kill him before he’s a problem.

But I won’t get her on my side if he’s dead.

Two guards restrain Hlodvir, while another carries the basket. Bardi still snarls and twists beneath Hvitserk’s grip, but the prince has little care for the wolf pup. He shoves the boy into the arms of another guard, his hand gingerly pressing against his nostrils.

From his hiding place the king revels in his victory.

Chapter Text

When she arrives home Dagny’s breath is short, and sweat sticks to her breeches. A cold sweat,she decides, is the worst kind of sweat. It fills the body with heat, but teeth remain chattering like the irregular beat of drums. At the moment her jaw is sore from chattering, and her palm is numb from the bow string. A crusted line of crimson brands the flesh where the string rested and her nails dug in only yesterday. It could have been days or hours spent in that forest, for the time appeared to stop. The work of magic or the trick of the sun. Dagny knows it’s the latter, yet she still carries a doubt. The gods are fickle creatures, and Dagny doesn’t put their tricks past her. Their love for humanity is only as strong as their desire to torment.

Another trick is the silence surrounding the farm. The animals hardly stir, and Dagny can’t make out a shout from Bardi or the thump of Hlodvir’s feet. She’s just below the hill they reside upon. From this view not a single silhouette rests against the pens. Yir usually enjoys sneaking sweets to the horses before supper.

Dagny battles the panic that swells in her chest. Her gaze rises to the setting sun. Has she arrived too late and missed supper? That is the logical solution. Winter is a fickle mistress. There are times when she welcomes the evening earlier, and others where she begs for a few more moments with the sun. Winter’s unpredictable mood isn’t an excuse for Dagny’s mother. If the girl doesn’t want to worry over being late, she shouldn’t go into the woods.

But there’s something off to the silence she can’t place. It isn’t from peace of mouths greedily shoving in soup. There’s an edge to it. Like a blade grazing against skin with the threat of pressing too hard. Something was grazing her home, and it wasn’t a gentle hand that led the knife.

A raven squalls in the sky above, sending Dagny almost as high in the air. The birds flies past as if she isn’t there, and comes to a stop on the roof of the hut. Her skin prickles in discomfort. Have you come to take revenge for your friend?

Except there’s something greater to fear below the roof. Outside their home stands her mother. The rage that consumes the woman is thick enough that Dagny can pick up the scent. Her posture rigid in an attempt to appear taller. Slightly wrinkled hands press into her round hips, eyes narrowed into slits. She’s angry, raw, and absolutely terrifying to Dagny. A predator bathing in the remnants of sunlight. Dagny lacks a feminine touch, but she doesn’t lack common sense. She sprints toward home with the little energy that remains.

“What did you do?” Her mother’s voice echoes across the mountains. A haunting song of rage. She waits until they’re inches apart before she speaks once more. “Does that forest render you deaf? What did you do, you stupid thing?”

They stand before one another--mother and daughter. Identical in the face, but that’s where it ends. One resembles an archer and the other resembles the wife. But Dagny’s father once told her long ago, that in arguments with the warrior—his wife always wins.

What did I do? Dagny wonders. I killed a raven. Did the one on our roof tell you about it? Has the king of the gods sent him here to kill me and our livestock? Are you all to starve this winter due to the blood on my hands?

For a woman lacking the skill to sew or cook, she doesn’t lack dramatics. Though her gods don’t either. Their flair for drama and betrayal leave her a victim of curiosity. You don’t scorn Odin and come out unscathed. That is something even the greatest fool is aware of.

Dagny’s voice is smaller than she’d like. “Is this about the raven?”

Her mother’s perplexed. “The raven?”

“Nevermind.” Ignorance is bliss.

If this were another time, her mother would prod. She’s an expert at poking and exploring the dark corners of places. Her daughter is no different. An anomaly that she can’t even decipher completely--or so she claims. Long gone are the days she’s tried to make a lady of her eldest. Now she silently seethes, gaining revenge through endless passive aggression. Dagny expects nothing less. She suspects she’s a terrible daughter, but a blessing of a son.

“I know you’re lying.” Her mother’s stare oddily reminds Dagny of that dead raven. “Or you insist on making this family’s life more difficult for your own pleasure.”

Dagny’s sigh is heavy. “Unfortunately I haven’t done a thing today outside of the morning chores, and shooting arrows at a rotting stag’s head.”

This is the problem. Neither woman trusts the other, and therefore they often end up in an argument before the night is through. This night isn’t an exception, and Dagny can feel it on the tip of her tongue.

“You!” Her mother jabs a thin finger into her chest. “You did something! I know you did. You might not know what it was, but it was something awful enough to get his attention. For years I’ve kept the four of you safe out here, and now it’s ruined. Do you know how mad they say he is? We might as well throw ourselves on a funeral pyre!”

She fights the rage bubbling like boiling water. “Why is it always me that you blame?”

“Because you’re the only stupid enough to wander off where you shouldn’t go. You’re lucky Bardi has any teeth left after what happened today.” What exactly transpired, seems to have escaped her mother. Punish first, explain later.

Panic rises within her. Bardi. Her Bardi. The shadow that never fades when the sun goes down. A boy with a sharp wit and sharper tongue. He’s capable of trouble without her influence. Like a caged animal he rages and rots until he’s set free. And once he is, there’s no going back. Dagny finds it beautiful, her mother deams it disgusting. How dare a viking act like a viking.

Her mind races. It was something awful enough to get his attention. You’re lucky Bardi has any teeth left.

Whose attention?

She yearns to ask, but Dagny’s mother will only provide the scolding she doesn’t have time for. “Where is Bardi?”

Her mother raises light brows in disbelief. How dare Dagny cut her tantrum short. “You haven’t told me what you’ve done.”

“And you haven’t told me who hurt my brother.” She snaps.

They stare down once more. Two stubborn mares, one filled with pride and the other with malice. They will do it the entire night. Even after the moon is full in the sky, and the snows continue to fall. Neither plan stand down until soft footfalls fill the air behind them.

“Dagny?”

It’s the clumsy voice of Hlodvir. She’s relieved and unsettled all at once, for it isn’t Bardi. But it’s a more sound mind than that of their mother.

She whirls. “Hlodvir. Where is Bardi, I--”

But the next sentence doesn’t leave her lips. It’s as if Surt has risen from his fiery inferno to swallow her whole. That in itself would be a less painful experience than the sight before her. Her little brother’s face a mess of yellow and purple. Where one bruise ends another begins. The skin on his face is a swollen mess of irritation and broken blood cells. His lip is split clean down the middle, a scab of brown and crimson lightly crust the cut.

What have I done? What have I done? What have I done…

Dagny’s mother is quickly forgotten. In two quick strides Hlodvir is the only thing in front of her. Dagny’s hands are gingerly cupping his face, the most maternal thing she’s ever done. “Who did this to you, Hlodvir?”

Her brother’s voice is younger than his body. “The king.”

The king?

“Hlodvir.” She shakes her head. “Who bruised your face? I will cleave him in two with the hammer we used on Skaldi last night.”

“I told you Dagny,” He presses. “it was the king.”

Perhaps he’s mistaken. There were plenty of men who thought of themselves as a king. Plenty of men in the village claimed to be king of ale or king of the seas. Some boast that they’re Odin and demand woman to fall at their feet with kisses and lust. An old drunkard on the road to Kattegat once told her and Bardi that he was king of the waves, and if they didn’t give him their bounty, they would drown in the near future.

The actual king never crosses her mind. He may as well not exist for someone like her. Even if she did tempt the thought of him, it was a wound too deep within their family to reopen.

But Hlodvir tempts that memory. He shakes his head, the eye that isn’t swollen shut fills with tears. Fear, raw and unhinged surrounds him. She’s never witnessed such a thing. He’s a soft boy, but never this soft.

“It-It’s the king.” He grips Dagny’s shoulders, nails digging into the fabric of her tunic. “I thought maybe it was thieves, but it was him !”

Tension coils in her back. There’s only one other time she remembers anger threaded this deep. Back before she towered over most men, and could wield a bow. At that time she didn’t know what to do with it. Now was no different. Only she had a person this time. A person who left her large brother trembling in his boots.

I have to see Bardi.

Dagny’s attention is back to her mother. “Where is Bardi?”

“Inside.” The woman’s voice surprisingly loses the malice that plagued it before. “Yir is caring for him.”

Only Yir can bear such an effect. To take the violence and strip it away like a strong gust of wind. It’s impossible to be angry with Yir. In that moment Dagny can’t recall a time she’s ever been. But there is something painfully intimate about their relationship. Often they speak with their gazes instead of tongues. Words, Yir often says. Have a habit of getting caught in your throat.

She pulls herself from Hlodvir’s grasp, and in exchange he clings to their mother. The woman floats to his side the second it occurs, already aware that he needs to trade one sturdy wall for another.

Dagny can feel the heat from the fire inside the home when her mother calls after her. “Wait! Dagny there’s something you should know—”

But her mother’s voice is swallowed by the sound of foreign laughter.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Their home is uncomfortably small. A lifetime ago, when it was just Dagny, her mother, and father it was liveable. Then came Yir. The two girls shared one bed of straw and their parents shared another on the other side of the room near the fire. It was crowded then. Elbows rested against one another during dinner, bodies collided in attempt to complete the daily chores. When Hlodvir was born their home was suffocating, and when Bardi arrived it was bursting at the seams.

The death of their father left it merely suffocating again. There is still a need for three beds. One for the boys, one for the girls, and one for their mother. Privacy isn’t a concept, and neither is silence. There is always noise. From a whistling tune on Yir’s lips, to Bardi’s feet stomping in rebellion. Her mother enjoys reminding Dagny that she is a waste of the little space they have. If she were married, she wouldn’t fill a bed or eat their food. But her mother would lack the furs for the beds and cloaks. She wouldn’t have the fresh butchered meat to bring to Kattegat for monetary gain. Dagny is a necessary evil, that much she knows. Even if it lingers amongst their family like a silent sickness.

The moment she passes through the threshold, there are more bodies than ever before. The structure radiates with heat comparable to summer. Some of the strangers are pressed against the thin walls, while others linger near the fire. Two sit at the makeshift dining table, their mugs filled to the brim with ale that Dagny knows her mother didn’t possess this morning. They mingle with one another as if the woman never entered the room. Some boast with animation of hand gestures and booming voices. Others resort to hushed whispers of opinions best kept to themselves.

It’s the strangest sight she’s ever witnessed. And in that moment she can’t decide if it frightens her, or contributes to her fraying temper.

She expects to see Bardi, with his face cut up and ego bruised. He should be sitting in front of the fire while Yir applies a salve to his wounds. The softness of her voice will distract him from the stinging pain of antiseptic. Just as it’s done for Dagny many times before.

Instead her baby brother is sitting on his bed of straw, with a mug in hand. Another man sits beside him, pushing the cup to Bardi’s swollen lips. Her brother stiffens as murky liquid fills his mouth, and the man lets out a jovial chuckle. A meaty palm slaps Bardi’s back, and he nearly chokes on whatever is in his cup. His face is an endless bruise. A painful canvas of purple, black, and yellow. His nose is crooked, a trail of dried crimson beneath it. It’s as if the god’s decided to take her brother’s face and shake it forcefully. A mess of swollen flesh, and bruises.

This is not the Bardi that Dagny knows. Her Bardi is chaos in a boy. The loudest thing in the room and proud of it. He’s thunder conjured by Thor, and tricks shaped by Loki. Her stomach lurches. Who could cause such ruin to the boy with fire in his eyes?

“Don’t touch him!”

Silence fills the air. It happens at a frightening pace. One second the structure is consumed with sound, and the next not a breath is taken.

The man beside her brother stiffens. His eyes reflect a mixture of humor and disbelief. His beard matches the inky shade of a raven feather, and it’s unruly enough that she can barely catch the smirk on his lips. It reveals what he must be thinking. Who is this strange woman to demand something from him? She isn’t his commander. He bears the badge of a taker. Though that is the viking way, to take and take until it is gone. Then move onto the next endeavor and rob it of everything.

“Why?” His voice is consumed with a silent threat. “What do you plan to do about it?”

Hit your face until it resembles his.

“Eirik,” A smooth voice purrs. “That is no way to speak to our host.”

It reminds her of honey. Smooth and addictive, her ears find the sound more appealing than fearful. It’s unlike the grunts and hoarseness she’s accustomed to. A higher pitch that holds more authority than voices twice it’s age. It renders the other man mute. Suddenly his steel exterior just a trick of the light. She sees he’s nothing more than forged armor and liquid courage. A puppet blindly obeying his master.

She tries to locate the owner of such a voice. But before she can, something more urgent grasps her attention. A woman hidden in the corner. Her small form pressed to the wall, taking shelter against the shoulder of a man who does his best to shield her from sight. Her cheeks are flushed from both the heat and something else. Perhaps the lips of the man which are pressed to her ear in hushed conversation. It fills Dagny with discomfort to witness such intimacy. A display she’s only heard of in passing from others with more interest and experience.

But what adds to the discomfort, is that the woman is Yir. Yir, who catches the eye of every man at the market. Yir, who flushes at the fantasy of marriage and a home full of sons. Dagny’s never shamed her for such dreams. Some woman desire one thing, other woman desire something else. If everyone was built for the same purpose, life would be a mononity of nothing.

She knows Yir is a romantic. A woman who hums love ballads, and gazes longingly at the couples united after a long raid. But Yir isn’t a toy to be thrown around and used. She deserves more than to be stained by the dirt of careless hands.

“Don’t touch her either.” Dagny hisses.

Yir immediately recoils from the man. Her look of lust now replaced with embarrassment and disgust. It’s an act, nothing more than a shield to protect Dagny. But she will take it. If only to bury the sight she just witnessed.

The honeyed voice returns again, and it fills the air with wicked laughter. The man with Yir pulls himself from the wall, hazel eyes narrowed into slits. Dagny only stares back. Her father once said a lifetime ago that life was decided with dominance. The creatures that could maintain authority over others would come out on top. While the others would follow blindly. Only a coward looked away when staring death in the face.

Except the man wasn’t death. He was a follower. It took seconds before his gaze fell to the floor and Dagny revered in her silent victory. All of these men answered to a power higher than themselves. They answered to their king.

The one with the honey on his tongue.

Her father often spun tales when he was still alive, but it is Dagny’s mother who is the true story teller. When they were young she often spoke of the kings who dwelled in the village below. They often changed. One rose up, then another, and another, until one solidified his rank. Then his sons lusted for the crown and fortunes they’d been promised since birth. War broke out, and brother’s bathed in one another’s blood until nothing remained but battlefields littered with decaying bones.

The king’s sons were unlike most boys. Each was a different beast that lusted for power. The eldest was a bear who guarded his mother more than he ever protected his own cubs. Then a wolf that wore the skin of an alpha, but bowed to beasts lesser than him. Next came the dog that followed whatever brother was most convenient. His loyalty muddled by cowardice and lack of desire when it came to the subject of kingship. Then there was a dragon destined for greatness. But it was stolen from him before he took flight. Finally, there was the youngest. The most powerful son who was underestimated all along. A snake that lingered beneath tall grass with venomous fangs. So many brushed him off as useless. A life that shouldn’t have been spared. Until years later when he bit at the ankles of his brother’s until they fled or fell to his great army.

She was ten when the first war broke out. The scent of death lingered for months after as bodies rotted on the battlefield. Every brother but the dragon threw their sword into the ring, and only the snake emerged victorious by the end of it.

Dagny knows the snake is in her home now. He lingers in the shadows, waiting for the opportune time to strike. But it troubles her. A dull throb in her head due to the information she can’t seem to recall. Why is the king in her simple farmhouse? Why does he terrorize her brother’s and leave her sister under a spell of lust? Dagny is no friend of kings or soldiers. When she walks through Kattegat her head is down and she only speaks to sell her goods. He shouldn’t know who she is. Her existence is an enigma for someone like him.

“For a woman full of rage, you make little use of that tongue.” The king declares in mock disappointment.

Her face grows hot, plumes of pink cover her pale skin. “For a man who's tried so hard to gain my attention, you have suddenly mastered the art of hiding.”

“Or you’re forgetting to search within plain sight.”

What a fool she is. A snake always hid in plain sight. How else can he strike so quickly and violently?

You little fool.

Behind her the serpent sits on his throne, which has been reduced to Dagny and Yir’s bed of straw. Though his posture is straight, and his gaze is authoritative as if he’s positioned on a chair of gold.

Her mother has always described him as a monster, so that is how she’s pictured him. A grotesque creature that slithers at their feet and drinks the blood of children. But he has neither horns nor fangs. His eyes remind her of a summer sky rather than a black void. His face is more lovely than terrible, with sculpted cheekbones and plump lips. Braids twist through his scalp into a small ponytail against his upper back. It’s the face of Baldr instead of Jormungandr. The most interesting quality the king possesses are the twisted limbs beneath his torso. Braces of metal cling to the extremities like a second skin. But the fault makes him no less intimidating. Nor does it cause him to look any less of a king. Dagny wonders if his suffering is lessened by the pain he inflicts on others.

Their eyes meet. Two gazes of fire that burns brighter than the kindling in the pit. His lips form into a wicked smirk, filled with the cockiness of a hunter who trapped its prey.

“Leave us. Now. ” His tone is chilling. A command and a threat interwoven into a single statement. Those that did not heed the command would succumb to the threat. A torment that Dagny herself couldn’t fathom, for her darkness did not hold a candle to his.

They all rise or file out like puppets with tugged strings. Yir passes Dagny with her head down, the man who was beside her follows at her heels. Braids of sand brush against his armored back.

Bardi limps off the bed and hobbles past. Though not without a swift tug at the arm from his eldest sister. They huddle close, his ripped lips attempt to form a whisper.

“He wouldn’t tell me why he’s looking for you.” Bardi croaks.

She nods solemnly. “I think I’ve done a terrible thing.”

He shakes his swollen head. “No you haven’t. He wants something, or else he wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”

He wouldn’t have knocked the life from you unless he really wanted something. She silently laments. But what does a man like that want with me?

A grunt from the serpent results in a shudder from Bardi. Never has fear struck him so deeply in the eyes. It’s as if war has knocked on her doorstep and her family forgot to bring swords.

The youngest pulls away from his sister’s grip and follows another man out the entrance. He dwarfs Bardi considerably. A mountain beside an ant hill. He has to duck down just to fit, and she wonders how he managed to get through the threshold in the first place.

When they are gone they only noise that remains is the crackling fire. Rage, fear, curiosity, and grief plague her all at once. All a vicious cycle that stems from the king sitting across from her. His calloused fingers brush against the stag pelt on the bed, but his eyes never leave her. She feels like an animal on display. With every twitch of a finger or movement of her eyes, he asses her.

Have I been your real prey all along?

Dagny’s voice is a knife. “Are you just going to stare at me until the sun rises tomorrow morning?”

His smirk only grows. “Is that any way to speak to your king?”

She’s never come across a being so arrogant. A man who remained faceless and out of thought until minutes before, expected to be worshipped. Perhaps she would have played the game if the circumstances were different. His army is large, filled to the brim with skilled warriors and shield maidens, who fall to few enemies. How many nights did she dream of conquering lands beyond her reach?

But now she only gazes into the eyes of a child. One who’s never willingly been refused a thing. She thinks of Bardi with his face torn apart, Hlodvir bloodied and bruised, even Yir being stared at like a rack of meat. The anger rises faster than her heartbeat. A violent heat courses through her blood, setting her temper ablaze.

“The only king I bow to is Odin.” She seethes.

He recoils and it’s the swiftest action she’s witnessed from the man. The facade melts, his smirk dropping into a scowl and eyes blazing with an icy flame. It’s the face of a man who left earls trembling for mercy. She flinches at the harshness of it. The jarring swiftness that he went from a politician to a cold blooded killer.

The realization hits her at a sluggish pace. This is a man who refuses to be denied anything. Those who cross him hang in the market until their bodies grow bloated with death. What she doesn’t realize yet is the calculation brewing beneath his physical demeanor. How quickly the cogs are turning in his brain as he searches for the upper hand.

In the blink of an eye he discovers it. “Then why would you kill his raven?”

The air leaves her lungs. Impossible. It’s ludicrous, a coincidence to catch her off guard. The woods is her safe haven. A place where nothing exists outside of herself, the forest. Except she’s never questioned how her hunting ground appeared. Who may have once occupied the targets of rotted wood and overgrown grass. The safe assumption is warriors or shield maidens. Ones who were bored with the mundane task of guarding a king, and decided to partake in greater fun. But what if it belongs to someone far more significant? What if her eyes weren’t the only ones searching through the trees?

The expression on her face is obvious, and Dagny’s rewarded him with a small victory. But his discovery isn’t complete, it’s only just begun. “Did it feel good, when you defied him? Watching that arrow slice right through its throat?” He shifts closer, bottom on the edge of the bed. “I’ve always found Odin too loud. He yearns for all the attention with theatrics of war and death. But you silenced it all in seconds. I felt a similar rush when I defied a corrupt queen a lifetime ago.”

“I didn’t feel anything.” A lie. Regardless, she doesn’t deny what she’s done. He must be here to punish her for it, just as she thought the moment her mother was waiting outside the door. “I just wanted it to stop squawking. I yearned for silence.”

His ever changing mood is whiplash. One second he’s a storm of bellowing thunder, the next he’s an enamored little boy. There’s a sudden glow to him, the way she describes her motivations. As if something has clicked, and his purpose is fulfilled. But she cannot explain her desire for silence, except for that it exists. Just as strongly her desire kill exists. They eat away at her long into the night. Plaguing her dreams with rivers of blood and chants of Hel.

“Does noise leave you unsettled?” He probes with a gentle tone as if he’s speaking to a child. “I don’t like it either, unless it’s the sound of my enemy greeting his death. Everything else is useless chatter.”

It did. She nods weakly. There is some noise she likes. The sound of Bardi’s growls, and Hlodvir’s clumsy chuckle. Yir’s sigh when she’s weaving by the fire. But then there’s noises she loves. Her arrow piercing the throat of a stag, the melody of blood rushing from a wound, the scream of livestock when her hammer hits their skulls-- stop .

“Stop!”  

The king releases out a dark chuckle. “Stop, what?” His voice drips in mock innocence. “I was only asking you a question.”

“No you weren’t.” She doesn't care who he is. The king of everything, or the king of nothing. Her mind is a guarded place, and it’s no place for a viper to go lurking.

He tsks with the click of a serpent’s tongue. “Such a defensive thing you are. You are a starving wolf pinned down by a herd of sheep.”

She scoffs. “That’s impossible.”

“Yet here you are,” He counters. “A girl with blood stains on her breeches from the murders of sows and stags. Surrounded by nothing but domestic sisters and farm boys.”

A wolf. The word runs through her mind for several moments. She never thought herself a wolf. More a dog. An obedient dog that yearns for the approval of her master. Except her master will always appear disappointed no matter how plump the rabbit is that Dagny lays at her mother’s feet.

“Even alphas are bested by weaker beasts.” His voice is gentle once more. As if he’s combing through her thoughts, and adding encouragement. “My brother was a wolf. They tried to tame him and he submitted like a dog. He didn’t fight it, and it cost him greatly.”

Sorrow fills her for the first time that night. A disappointment she isn’t quite sure she’s capable of. Then I am that dog too. I bow my head and do as I’m told.

“But you are not my brother.”

She lifts her head that’s fallen to the floor in shame. Already submissive, already losing. Fire ignites in her belly, the warm coals pressing against her flesh. You are not. She is not the prince that fled. She is not the king that could have been, but something else. Something more?

Her gaze meets an ocean of blue. “Then what am I?”

“A wolf cutting her teeth on game.” His tone rises, the intensity drips from his lips like blood. “But you want more--so much more. You want bodies in the river, and kingdoms burning to the ground. You want to wield a sword that cuts through bone and wear the blood of lesser men. You want war .”

She does want war. Endless war with nothing but chaos and the scent of death in the air. Her knuckles twitch as the word escapes his lips. An indescribable urge consumes her, like an animal in heat. The screams of innocents deafen her ears, and her heart races. She isn’t aware of the smile that tugs against her lips for the first time that night. Or the light that’s filled her eyes for the first time in moons. But the snake takes notice, and his smirk is a sharp blade that mirrors her own.

“I can give you war, Dagny . I can give you all of it.”

It’s the first time he’s called her by her proper name, and a chill travels down her spine. It rolls off his tongue like every other word, covered in honey. The incarnation of death sitting on her bed welcoming chaos. The words hang on the tip of her tongue. Yes, my king. Yes, I will ravage the world if you can give me the means to do so.

But they do not come out. For beneath the bloodlust is the voice of her father. She’s only a girl now, with her hair loose and whipping in the wind. Sitting atop the pony as her father walks by her side. He’s to journey to Kattegat and fashion himself a proper shield, one that isn’t made of simple farming tools. War is on their doorstep and he must answer to the call of their monarch. Even though the state of the rulers change more than the seasons. Only two summers before did the willowy seer sit atop the throne with her husband long lost to another land.

This is before he’s sprawled on a newly red battlefield. Before his body is bloated with death and picked apart by the ravens he prays to every night. He looks to his daughter and chuckles at the breeches that fall past her feet. What a terrible but wonderful little thing she is.

“Why do you go to war Papa?”

“Ivar the Boneless has come to kill our Queen.”

She furrows tan brows “But you and mama whisper ill of the queen every night.”

He shrugs. “We do. But her offer to join is too great to ignore. We need the coin.”

She doesn’t know yet what a hardship it is to be a farmer. She finds it fun to scoop shit and lay straw in the pens. He fears one day she will learn, and if she does neither he nor her mother will see her lift a pitchfork again. But rather a bow or a sword. Something to dip in blood instead of shit.

Her next question forces his heart to sink. A prophecy fulfilling before his eyes. “If she ever requests that I to go to war, should I papa?”

“That is not my decision but rather yours.” A decision he will never be able to stop. “ Just know that every promise comes with a cost. No wish comes true without sacrifice in return.”

Bardi and Hlodvir fill her mind then. The cost of the king’s offer. Two victims of circumstance now tainted by her desires. Their skin peppered in bruises, and scars forming over their fresh wounds. The man who offers war is war himself. No one is safe from it. What she longs for most has already ruined the two she holds dear. A small price in his eyes, for all the glory he can give. But a price nonetheless.

The king nudges forward on the bed, waiting for her answer. He studies her with sharp eyes and a growing smirk. He thinks he has her in his trap. The venom spilling into a fresh wound.

Her gaze narrows suddenly. “No.”

It’s the second time she’s surprised him tonight, and it’s evident within his expression. Eyes bulging in disbelief, fists curling in anguish. A slight semblance of the monster her mother’s warned of. “What do you mean, no?”

“No.” She repeats monotonously. “I do not want what you can offer.”

“No one refuses me.” He seethes. “No one.”

She takes a step forward. “Well I have.”

He doesn’t flinch, instead a snarl escapes his lips. A feral warning of the beast stirring within. “Then you are a greater fool than I imagined. You do not want to make an enemy of me.”

Perhaps she already has. “You broke my brothers, and for that I cannot accept whatever you may offer me. There are plenty of warriors in your kingdom. You can make a berserker of them.”

He’s off the bed in a flash, crawling to her at a speed she didn’t think possible for a man like him. The crutches that rested against the bed fall to the floor with a loud crack. Or perhaps it’s the dining table that she’s stumbled into while avoiding his wrath.

Her hand finds a dull knife hidden in the pocket of her breeches. A sad blade used to skin the stags she hunts so often. But she doesn’t let the fear penetrate her gaze as she points the blade right between his eyes.

The king pauses in his path, his gaze burning into her like molten coals. “No one refuses me.” He repeats. “Odin comes to me every night and whispers tales of you. The girl in the forest who stretches as tall in the trees, and who has a trail of blood behind her. It appears he was wrong. For I’ve only found a broken wolf reduced to a dog by her ungrateful mother.”

It slices through her and the pain is greater than it should have been. Even if it is all a lie spun by a trickster to rival Loki himself. The wound is still gaping and raw. She fights the urge to run, or to kick at the fragile limbs beneath his waist. “Someone has refused you, Ivar the Boneless. Go find a proper warrior to lick your wounds clean.”

The snake crawls away without a fight. One the chairs suffer, and shatter into endless splinters across the hut. But moments pass and he’s through the threshold. Only the man who was with Yir returns. He doesn’t look her way as he lifts the makeshift crutches from the floor and takes his leave.

She is a deer after escaping the hunt. A shaking and pathetic thing. Her mind racing too quickly to decipher any of it. The king of Kattegat in her home, offering her everything she’s wanted on a silver platter. A violent and cruel being who became exactly what others whispered of him the moment she said no. If Odin does really speak to him, then he will no longer favor her. For she killed his servant and refused a king. A selfish, foolish, girl with pride larger than any monarch on his stolen throne.

If Odin would rather side with that king, then perhaps I have been worshipping the wrong gods all along.




















Chapter Text

Ivar’s crawling. Gone are the wings of freedom that help him soar above the forest every night. They’re clipped with punishment, and Ivar must return to the body that’s failed him since birth. Smoke burns his lungs, and flame leaves his face flushed. The ground is ruin. A hot endless pit of ash consumed by the anger only Surt could conjure.

She sits in the center of it. The moon in a sky of darkness. Her mass of golden tresses is tied back into the braid he’s seen on her every time. Some nights when she comes to his dreams he wonders what it looks like down. Perhaps a mop of waves or a halo of curls. It’s difficult to imagine such a sight. She’s unaware of the chaos surrounding her. How the stags race through burning brush, and ravens scream above the smokey pines. Where she sits there is nothing, a silent void of grief though over what he cannot pinpoint just yet.

With her gaze of blue trained on the ground, Dagny doesn’t react as Ivar pulls forward. His palms sting from the heat, and blisters seep into the soft flesh. Despite this Ivar trudges on through the waste until he’s sprawled beside her. His burned palm brushes against the worn fabric of her breeches, and he wonders if this is the closest he will ever get to her. For only snake charmers can tame a viper.

Ivar finds the source of her attention, and its more beautiful up close than he originally imagined. The bow she’s known for with all its intricate runes dug into the wood. Whomever made it was an artist first and a warrior second, or so he assumes. Since Ivar would never have thought to fashion such beauty into a weapon that was easily replaceable.

His doubts have come alive. The wood is snapped clean in two. The string a forgotten thing, he can’t even locate it amongst the burnt grass. A wave of anguish overcomes him, though the king has no one to blame but himself. Even if it’s a cruel illusion from Odin. Ivar should feel a small victory, for Dagny has paid a price for her refusal. But he cannot recruit a broken thing.

“What happened?” He uses the voice of the serpent to coax her submission.

Her gaze doesn’t lift from the broken bow. “It’s ruined.” Her voice is hoarse. A tired tone filled with hopelessness rather than the fire he witnessed just nights before.

“You can fashion another.” Ivar suggests.

It’s what he would have done. He isn’t an archer. Though gifted with a bow he often found it limiting. A useless weapon for short range, and often too fragile not to snap or break. Once the arrows ran out it was deemed useless. Not to mention more thought and resilience went into the fashioning of a sword,knives, axes, or hammers. Often blades told a story. Each fashioned from different ore with various runes or handles. He couldn’t recall a single man or woman who fashioned their soul into a bow. Until he met her.

For the first time she looks up. Her gaze a violent sea aimed directly at him. Once more he witnessing the woman he met before. Only now there’s a sadness to the storm that wasn’t there at their meeting. A mixture of grief and anguish all in the small space of a pupil.

“No, I can’t.”

He releases a sigh. His patience is often tested with little reprieve, and now is no different. “Why not, then?” He could have ten bows with similar runes fashioned, one ready to replace the next once it snapped.

“A new bow isn’t the same, even if it is made to look just like the one before it.” It’s as if she’s read his mind. Her tone more of a mother scolding a child than a wounded wolf. “It is only a shadow of what originally was there. The sentiment is gone.”

Ivar’s lips dip into a frown that doesn’t go unnoticed beneath her narrowed gaze. The sentiment . Was this weapon gifted by someone important? Or perhaps it was not her own. Then who did she take it from? What possible sentimental value went into a shaped piece of wood? He of all people should have understood, but Ivar’s days of latching onto temporary things were long gone. Also gone were the days of attaching himself to anything at all.

She blinks. “Does my answer not please you, Ivar?”

It didn’t. He doesn’t know a thing about her, yet he knows the gods have given him a challenge. Her purpose is futile, for he’s already been refused from whatever destiny he was meant to have. One soldier did not make an army. Yet he claims responsibility for the broken bow before him. Whatever sentimental value it held ruined over his endless pride. He shouldn’t feel anything. Yet Odin’s ensnared her existence into his mind, and he can’t let go. Not until he’s done what he’s meant to do. Whatever that may be.

“Does my answer not please you, Ivar?” She repeats. Except her voice is different. It’s softer, more submissive than the one he’s witnessed before. Her face becomes blurry, lost in a dark cloud from the surrounding fire. Her blonde braid darkens into shadow. Ivar reaches into the air toward her, only to come back with a fistful of smoke.

“Does Torvald’s skill not please you Ivar?” Eira squeaks beside him.

He’s thrust unwillingly into the present. The dream that’s haunted him every night since that fateful meeting reduced to the ash and smoke that it was. Ivar wonders if Odin wishes to drive him mad for his failure. For only Ivar the Boneless could bring lesser kings to their knees but be bested by a farm girl. A terrible farm girl with a tongue sharper than his.

His gaze lazily falls on Eira, who tries to hide her shaking limbs by grasping onto her youngest, Leif. She fails miserably. Ivar wants to scold her for acting so weak. No harm could befall her eldest when practicing with his father.

“He is alright.” Ivar drawls and the woman flinches.

Before him Hvitserk circles his eldest son, a sword of wood in his grasp. Ivar often witnesses the training of his nephew since Hvitserk began only a few short months before. Vikings were bred young. Torvald would be expected to follow his father and uncle to raid by twelve. Even if they themselves had been spared the duty until their bodies developed into young men. But Torvald is only a boy of six, soon to be seven if you ask him. So Hvitserk torments himself and the boy by teaching him with those foolish wooden tools. If you were my son I’d still use a sword of metal Ivar thinks. For Torvald would learn how easily death lingers on the battlefield after being nicked with a blade once or twice. But Ivar is not the boy’s father, and this is one of the only situations he can not hold over Hvitserk. A father taught his son in the way he desired.

Eira desires to hear that her son is a young talent. That the king swells with pride looking at his nephew, impressed with the skills he hones at such a young age. But while Torvald is quick, he is clumsy. He often drops the sword or stumbles when encroaching his father. Hvitserk gives him a good whack several times before the boy’s sword touches his father’s chest. He’s still too light to carry a shield, and too fragile to break his skin with a real blade. Time will crawl until he is ready to board a longship.

Hvitserk is painfully aware of it. Ivar notices the way his lips form a frown with every swing the boy makes. They are impatient men, Ragnarssons. They forget the days of being children, fumbling with swords too heavy for their stature. Missing every target with the arrow, or almost taking out their mother’s ear with a throwing knife meant for one of the guards. Time was a fickle mistress. Some days she sprinted, some she crawled. And his nephew’s progress would crawl until the boy died and the man was born.

“Do not frown,wife.” Hvitserk chides with heavy breath. “He is only lamenting over his dream woman.”

Torvald waves his arm in a clumsy swing toward his father, and Ivar wishes for the second time that day that the sword was sharper than wood. His nails dig into the arms of his seat until his knuckles turn white. The dog always pushes the serpent.

“Shut up.” Ivar seethes.

Eira tenses beside him, her young son squirms in her arms as a result, feeding off her fear.

His brother snickers. “It is not my fault the gods tricked you Ivar.”

“Then you shouldn’t have an opinion on the matter.”

Hvitserk shakes his head of honey braids and shoves his imposter blade into Torvald’s chest. The boy falls to the hardened dirt with a grunt and Hvitserk whistles in victory.

“Dead again, boy.”

“He is too harsh with him.” Eira whispers.

Ivar withholds the urge to snicker at her. “It is our way Eira. Would you rather he die on his first raid?”

A shake of her head is enough affirmation that she wouldn’t. Though Ivar is aware she would rather not have her son raid at all.

“Did you train with your father?” Eira asks. Her pale hand clutching Leif to her breast.

“No.” The king replies. The harsh nature of his tone enough of a warning for Eira not to press into the past.

She nods. “Then Torvald is lucky to train with his.”

If anyone considered Hvitserk’s guidance to be anything less than foolish.

His nephew would learn the proper way. When a sword was aimed at his chest in the midst of a shield wall. And the boy will either block it or join the others into Valhalla.

He may have understood the desire to protect a child if he had one. They felt painfully replaceable. If one passed another could be produced. Though that was a simple notion for him, for Ivar wasn’t the one who would have to carry it. Regardless of that notion, he held little care for children anymore. There was a time when his heart swelled at the thought of becoming a father. Such a difficult feat for a cripple. But many forget his run in with the dream woman isn’t the first time the gods attempted to make a fool of Ivar the Boneless. He certainly never would.

One of Ivar’s guards approaches then, his features puzzling to even the king. For the man’s expression bears no anger, but rather nervousness. As if he’s worried of what the king will say to him. Ivar hardly has a submissive body in his ranks. They were just as cruel as their king in their own terrible ways.

“My king.” He approaches with the bow of his head.

Ivar nods, gesturing for the man to continue.

The other’s eyes begin to wander, his gaze of green falling on anyone but the king. Tarnished teeth bite down on his lower lip, an appearance that fills Ivar with impatience.

“Have you lost your sense?” Ivar scolds.

The guard shakes his head. “No sir it’s just-“

“Just what?” Ivar spats. “If I wanted a waif for a guard I’d have Hvitserk’s wife protecting me instead of you.”

A snarl fills the air from his brother’s direction. But Ivar ignores it. It’s only a public display to comfort Eira.

“It’s a boy my king.” The guard lets out a sigh. “He demands he see you.”

Ivar roars with laughter and the guard flinches in response. What a pathetic notion that any boy could demand an audience with the king. Ivar wonders to himself how to properly punish the man before him for falling for such tricks. No one demanded anything from the king.

“You don’t understand—“ the soldier begins but is quickly cut off by Ivar’s short temper.

“If anyone is lacking anything here it is you.” Ivar hisses. “Do you know what happens when we allow anyone to just have an audience with the king? They all think they can do it. Until my ears are dripping with blood from the torment of all their grievances.”

The guard shrinks beneath Ivar’s wicked gaze. “I know my king, but this boy is different.”

“Is he a king as well”

“No.”

“A prince perhaps? A jarl from a foreign land coming to offer his allegiance?”

“Well no but—“

“Then he is of no concern.” Ivar waves a hand dismissively.

Hvitserk clears his throat. “I will go see what the boy wants.”

Ivar shakes his head. “It is a waste of time.”

“Aye that it may be.” Hvitserk gives a shrug of his broad shoulders. “But at the very least he should be reminded of his place. And that it is not wasting the king’s time.”

The guard before Ivar let’s out straggled breath, and Ivar loathes Hvitserk for diverting his brother’s rage away from the fool. But he does enjoy the thought of the mysterious boy learning his place. No doubt a common beggar or worse demanding help from the king. Perhaps he had a father always gone on raids and a mother more enamored with ale than her own child. A problem Ivar couldn’t solve.

“Fine.” He spats. “Take this one with you, Hvitserk. If it is a waste of your time teach this one a lesson as well.”

The guard grinds his teeth as a mischievous smirk crosses Hvitserk’s features. The dog has always enjoyed inflicting pain. Even when they were boys a satisfied smirk always rigged at Hvitserk’s lips when he wrestled Sigurd to the ground,  or when he sliced Ubbe’s flesh with his sword during training.

Hvitserk takes his leave, the guard walking with a hunched posture beside him. No doubt he’s internally licking the wounds inflicted by his king. The viper watches intently with a narrowed gaze as they disappear ahead toward his hall.

Torvald brushes the fresh dirt that’s marred itself on the fabric of his breeches. With a clumsy grip he spins the sword until it toppled onto the hard ground. His lips a fresh shade of blue due to the cold as they form a small frown.

“What does a boy want, uncle?”

“Probably everything and nothing.” Ivar drawls.

The boy’s tan brows furrow and the king releases a dark chuckle.

“Your uncle means to say that the boy has grievances he cannot fix.” Eira interrupts, her patience for nonsensical questions a longer thread than Ivar’s ever would be.

Her diversion is a welcome surprise, though he doesn’t show it. It often goes over the king’s head that he’s a man that can be learned. Perhaps Eira has spent enough time silently observing Ivar’s temperament and mannerisms. What caused the king to lash out at others, and what left him silently seething in his seat.

His nephew on the other hand, remains blissfully ignorant to his uncle’s turbulent mood swings.

“But what if he has something important to share?” Torvald presses and Ivar is suddenly reminded how irritating a child can be if provoked.

Ivar narrows his gaze. “He doesn’t.”

Torvald’s gaze falls at the displeasure in his uncle’s tone. “Oh.”

Ignorant Ivar thinks. Ignorant just like your father.

Eira shuffles from her seat, as always on cue. Leif stirs in her arms with a wail. He’s discontent with his mother’s stirring and prefers the latter where he is laying against her without interruption. “Come Torvald, your training has finished for today.”

“But father--” The boy protests.

“Is busy.” She chides. It’s the most dominance Ivar has witnessed from her in a conversation.

And while her son’s eyes gleam with protest, he gives in. Without his mother he will have to face Ivar’s ever changing temperament alone. A task not for the faint of heart. The only thing currently keeping him under control is the fact that Eira is there, and he despises listening to Hvitserk complain that Eira is too frightened to even breath because of Ivar.

The boy approaches his mother, and she runs a pale hand through his honey tresses. A small frown pulls her lips downward as Eira’s gaze travels down the small frame of her eldest. His flesh is peppered with scratches and blooming with fresh bruises. Ivar wonders if she will say anything on the matter, but she simply brings her lips to the top of his head and turns toward the hall.

“Come, son.”

A gaze so hauntingly similar to his elder brother’s finds Ivar, and his spine clenches in the process. That same narrowed look of doubt he’s endured since childhood. Torvald’s lips twitch, as if he has one last thing to suggest, but he doesn’t. He turns and jogs to catch up with his mother who is already steps ahead, comforting the stirring babe in her arms.

It’s better you kept your mouth shut.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

To Ivar’s displeasure, he isn’t left alone for long. The sound of approaching footsteps is another headache begging to disturb his lone moment of peace. Even so is the fact that it is multiple footsteps which fill his ears. Not Hvitserk returning alone to gloat about the punishment he’s given. Instead his brother has only brought another problem to Ivar to fix.

If he wants anything done right, he has to do it himself.

“Hvitserk, is there a reason you haven’t returned alone?” There’s an edge to his voice that stops the footsteps all together.

Hvitserk and the guard exchange a wary glace. The third body ignorantly placed behind the pair so the king cannot sneer and chide as he longs to.

“I thought it best if you spoke to him, Ivar.” His brother’s reply isn’t delivered weakly as he’s expected, yet it’s no less irritating.

Before Ivar can return with a snide comment, Hvitserk and the guard both step aside to reveal the boy that’s made his men momentarily foolish.

Ivar’s jaw drops despite his best efforts. But just as quickly as he’s lost his composure, it’s regained. A deadly smirk tugs against the lips of the king as his gaze falls on the boy before him. Still his flesh is marred with violet bruises, but the split lip is healing nicely. It appears as if he’s aged five years in just five days. He returns Ivar’s gaze, his posture tall even though his head only falls to Hvitserk’s shoulder. A boy who has arrived as a man. One that’s come for retribution for the wrongs Ivar has caused. Why else would he bother to come from that secluded farm in the mountains?

There was one reason, and it only caused Ivar’s smirk to grow.

“You’re here about the bow.”

Bardi blinks, his expression shifts in seconds from a hungry wolf pup to a befuddled child once more.

Hvitserk looks to Ivar with the same confused expression, but the king ignores it. His only prerogative at the moment is the boy before him.

“How--”

“I know everything, boy .” Ivar sneers.

“Then you know who broke it?” Bardi tests, and Ivar searches for the obvious answer.

“Your mother no doubt.”

The wicked thing he’s only seen once. Yet she weaves stories of Ivar the Boneless as if she was his own mother. He remembers the look of hatred in her eyes when he crawled through her door. How her voice filled the outside with rage as her daughter came home to find a king in her hut and two broken brothers.

“Why have you come?” Ivar crosses his arms. “I have enough to do without granting an audience to foolish farm boys.”

Bardi’s gaze falls and Ivar doesn’t doubt his reasoning. The boy didn’t come for anything other than to yell at the king for ruining his sister’s bow. Even if it was not Ivar who snapped the wood, his stunt is what caused it all. There was something admirable about the boy standing up for his sister, but Ivar knew that she of all woman did not need another to fight her own battles. Her pride was the reason it was Bardi and not Dagny standing before Ivar demanding some form of retribution. She knew better than to demand anything at all.

“So you can repair your mistake.” Bardi replies.

It’s the answer Ivar is expecting and he can’t help but chuckle at the notion. “I’ve made no mistake, it was you who attacked my men.”

“And you lost any hope of earning my sister’s loyalty in the process.” The boy chides.

“Shut up.” Hvitserk growls, and gives a kick to the boy’s shin. Bardi yelps in pain, but his stance doesn’t falter.

Ivar’s grip curls into his seat, crimson filling his vision. He wonders if Bardi will be so confident when he finds himself wedged between Ivar’s sword. But there’s a better strategy for getting what he wants, so Ivar pushes the rage away.

He reaches into his pocket, and Bardi stiffens. The king takes his time discarding the throwing knives that rest in his pocket. They’re sharper than wolf’s teeth, and darker than the night sky. A single digit slides into place, spinning the blade around his finger. His gaze finds the boy again, who has grown rigid as a board.

“Have you ever thrown a knife, boy?”

Bardi shakes his head and Ivar gives a subtle nod.

Ivar tosses the blades to the ground in front of him. All three of the men jump back, and he internally criticizes their weakness.

“You.” Ivar points to the guard. “Come stand beside me.”

The guard hesitates, but a glare from the king is enough to subdue him. His heavy feet drag beside Ivar’s seat facing Bardi and Hvitserk. His gaze is a panic despite best efforts, and Ivar is sure the man knows what comes next. His king bears many habits that haven’t changed with the passing years.

“Go on.” He urges. “Pick them up.”

Bardi is still as a statue, yet his gaze is wild and alive. A longing fills his blue eyes that’s identical to his eldest sister from Ivar’s dreams. The need is there to grasp the weapon in his palm, feel the sharp blade against his cold flesh. Ivar’s felt that desire more than any other. He’s always hyper aware when another bears the same expression of bloodlust.

Hvitserk produces a shove against the boy’s shoulder and he tumbles forward. Thin knees scrape against the hardened dirt. Ivar’s gaze narrows on the red hands that reach for the trio of blades. He takes note of how they shake in the cold air, though the king knows it has nothing to do with the winter afternoon.

“If you can hit my guard one time with these knives, my brother Hvitserk will spare you from acquiring a split lip once more.” Ivar begins, his tone booming throughout the yard. “If you pierce his flesh twice then I will teach you to throw one properly--”

“If I can hit him more than once why would I need your help?” Bardi cuts.

Ivar’s glare pierces Bardi, and the boy’s gaze falls to the ground. “You barely bear the strength to swing a hammer, let alone throw a knife wherever you please. It takes more than a simple flick of the wrist you know.”

“And what if I hit him with all three?”

This produces a chuckle from the king. For he doubts the boy can produce the accuracy to hit the guard once, let alone twice. But he’s a cruel creature and the enjoyment he’ll receive watching Bardi fumble with the blades is more than enough reason to allow this silly game to occur at all.

“If you can manage a third strike, I’ll find a way to replace that wretched bow you and your sister worship so.” He waves his hand dismissively as if the action itself is ridiculous.

“I suppose I have no say in this.” The guard grunts.

“Of course you don’t.” The king barks. “He will hardly cause a scratch.”

A chuckle escapes Hvitserk’s lips as Bardi’s gaze darkens. There’s a defiance within the boy that Ivar’s witnessed before. That semblance of a challenge that Ivar rarely witnesses anymore. For who would ever challenge a king outside of two children whose mother hid them away like thieves in the night from his incumbent rule? It was there once with Ubbe. His elder brother thought he was so smart. With his meddling and desire for a simple life, he fashioned himself beside Ivar’s enemy and it was Ivar who had the last laugh. Then there was Sigurd. Who challenged Ivar from the moment he came into the world. Whether it be with fists or words, Sigurd never relented. Until an axe embedded itself into the young prince’s belly and Ivar couldn’t even conjure feux tears.

This boy couldn’t hold a candle to those two.

Bardi sucks in a breath, his finger swings the blade in hand. Ivar wonders if fear consumes him. If the pressure mounting to be the hero his sister was never given will overpower any hope of accuracy.

The first blade glides through the air. It’s impossibly slow, time crawls for the king as he follows its path. The boy’s eyes are sealed shut, a whisper reverently escapes his lips. A silent prayer to the gods that threw them all into their situation. All of whom were likely laughing with goblets of mead and cursing their very existence.

A hiss escapes the guard’s lips, and it’s only then Ivar realizes the blade has pierced the flesh above his knee.

Impossible. Yet it isn’t. A singular ribbon of red glides down the guard’s leg, welling into a small pool when he rips the blade from the wound, his palms pressing into the hilt with a snarl.

“You little-”

“Hush.” Ivar hisses, his gaze as wide as the plume of blood on his man’s leg.

Bardi looks no less relieved. For he’s only escaped the torment Hvitserk was so eager to inflict upon him. He is still far from accomplishing the task he came for.

“It’s only beginner’s luck.” The king retorts. “A flesh wound.”

The guard reluctantly regains his stance, shoulders straight and fists closed at his sides. Ivar idles by with bated breath as Bardi prepares to throw the second blade. This time he tests the weight of it, shifting it from hand to hand.

When Ivar flashes a curious gaze the boy only shrugs. “Dagny does this when she throws knives.”

Bardi shifts the knife once more between his palms, before tossing the second into the air. This one is faster, and Ivar loses sight of it in a blink.

His guard only stiffens in response, and Ivar assumes that the boy misses his target. But then the king notices it--the plume of crimson staining his guard’s tunic. The knife protruding from his flesh like a spike.

Ivar’s never felt more insulted by the gods.

There is only one blade left. His heart tumbles to his belly, breath hitched in anticipation. Ivar the Boneless has never lost. Even if this is not a battle of sword and shield, it is a battle of the mind. One where the boy was meant to collapse on himself in his own doubts. But their mother has raised stubborn stock, and Ivar’s guard is now nursing two wounds.

The final blade leaves Bardi’s grasp. It soars through the air, immune to the harsh wind that blows through Kattegat. Ivar can’t tear his gaze as the hilt takes flight. His eyes trace the blade as it heads right for the guard, each breath it only grows closer.

Then a howl fills the air and Ivar’s stomach clenches. His nails seep into the wooden bark of his chair until pain shoots up his palm. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve snapped from his temper.

Hvitserk breaks the silence. “You said you couldn’t throw a knife.”

Bardi whirls, fighting the smirk on his lips. “I never have.”

“Liar.” The prince spats.

Ivar’s guard tears the final knife from its place above his chest. It falls to the ground in a single swoop, and his emerald gaze falls on the king.

“Allow me to punish the boy, my king.”

Ivar shakes his head. “There will be no punishment.”

Both men share an expression of bewilderment. “But Ivar--”

Hvitserk’s protest is cut off by a hiss from Ivar’s lips. “Unlike you Hvitserk, I keep my word. This boy may have defied every odd, and perhaps the gods have bewitched him for my misery. But I must uphold my half of the bargain. As any just king would.”

Hvitserk opens his mouth to protest once more, but Ivar’s attention is on more important matters. His gaze of ice focused on the boy before him. Bardi stands with a confidence that wasn’t there before. His eyes lit with glee even if a frown plagued his lips.

“You earned your sister a new bow, boy.” Ivar produces a smirk. “A newfound hero you’ve become. After crying in her arms just days ago.”

He waits for the sarcastic retort but it never comes, the boy bears half a brain. He’s aware that he will receive what he desires if only to tolerate Ivar a moment longer.

“Return tomorrow. I will show you how to properly throw a knife so that you hit an eye instead of a knee. Then you will return every day until the bow is complete. If you fail to arrive, then I will use it as kindling for my fire.” Ivar gives a dismissive wave with his hand. “Now leave. I’ve had enough entertainment for one afternoon.”

“But you never said I had to come every day.” Bardi protests.

What a petulant child you are. The king thinks. “I am the king, I decide how you get your bow. Now go before I go against my own word.”

The boy doesn’t move, and for a moment Ivar believes he won’t. Until he spins on a heel, and turns away. A hurricane heading back into the forest that consumes Ivar’s dreams. The king’s gaze doesn’t falter until Bardi becomes a mass among the other bodies beyond the yard, and it’s only then that Ivar’s guard decides to renounce his presence.

“My king--”

“Go clean your wounds.” Ivar says. “We are done here.”

With a nod the guard is gone, though Ivar doesn’t care to follow where he went. It is not only he and Hvitserk.

“Why did you agree to it?”

 Hvitserk’s question isn’t a surprise, in fact he expects it. His brother’s curiosity a never ending spider’s web.

“Because Hvitserk.” He replies with a sigh. It’s an obvious answer afterall. “He will have to return every day until the bow is finished.”

“I know, Ivar. That is what I don’t understand.” Hvitserk’s bears a confused expression “Why not rid yourself of him?”

“He is a farm boy, is he not?”

“Yes?”

“Then it will be difficult to find time to journey from the hills all the way to Kattegat. Even if he can, it will be difficult to do it everyday. It’s almost impossible to sneak away from a farm when every hand is needed.”

It takes a moment, but Ivar notices when Hvitserk finally comprehends his plan. The way his eyes light up mischievously in the afternoon gloom. A slight smirk tugs and his lips and for a moment Ivar recalls the brother who stood by his side when others wouldn’t. A ghost of the past that haunted him still.

“Someone will notice his absence.” Hvitserk chides. “And when they do--”

“When she does.” Ivar corrects.

“You will gift her the bow.”

The king nods. “And she will be in debt to me.”

“That’s if she accepts it.”

“She will.” Ivar replies. The vision of his dream returns to him. The sorrow in her eyes tattooed into his memory. The bow is her second skin, no doubt she won’t be able to resist it. “She has no choice.”

Chapter Text

The tale is engrained in her skin, the deep ink of a tattoo she can’t cover up. It starts when she’s young. Too young to understand the world takes more than it gives.

The world takes the serpent's legs before he gasps a first breath. He was supposed to be a dragon. A great beast that burns kingdoms who dare to challenge him. He was supposed to tower above even the greatest warriors. He was supposed to crush the skulls of his brother’s beneath his great feet. But instead he comes out only a shell of what was meant to be. Only one son of Ragnar will bear the beast of a dragon, while the other slithers by his toes with a venomous smirk.

His father trudges to the woods, determined to rid the world of the stain it’s spilled. But the cries of his mother are swords in battle. The blade cuts through his father’s chest until he’s bleeding out on the floor. So he gives in, and the serpent survives. A cruel little reptile that thirsts for more than the milk in his mother’s breast. He nips until she bleeds beneath him, and he licks the blood clean. Her little snake is hers alone. Her heart swells, ignoring the pain at her chest. For her boy lives, and his greatness will spread a shadow over his father. Until the man is forgotten and they all boast the babe’s name.

But his life starts as just that--slithering in the grass. Sometimes he’s pulled in a cart where the wheels often bump and crack. Many avert their eyes to the sky in his presence, either disgusted or embarrassed at the sight of him. More of a worm, wriggling through the dirt at his mother’s skirts. He learns quickly the cruelty that children possess. Their words are venom as they point and prod at the failed appendages. His father is absent more than present. He only stares at his serpent with a gaze of regret. Regret that he wasn’t filled in the belly of wolves. It’s the king’s greatest weakness, listening to his wife. The decision will haunt him long after he leaves this world.

He takes his first blood before he understands what he’s done. Children are cruel, but the serpent is crueler. At night he whispers the name of every child who wrongs him. Dreams are filled with blood spilt and flesh torn. When the serpent wakes his hands shake and his mouth is dry. Only violence can sate such an abomination. Only the music of a child’s wail can stir his belly with satisfaction as the knife plunges deeper. He’s a prince, so when the child crumples to the ground there’s no retribution. No death sentence is announced, and the child’s father never demands retribution. It’s wasted on the queen who tucks her little monster against her breast. She coos in his ear, and doesn’t wipe the blood from his cheeks. For it’s his prize for bravery. For ruining the thing that tried to ruin his pride.

His brother’s grow and grow until they dwarf their mother. Each one leaves women breathless and men envious. For each is more handsome than the last.  But he only grows horizontal. While they become taller he grows longer. He drinks blood the way the rest of them sip from the springs. He’s a demon of wild eyes that resemble a turbulent sea. The serpent’s torso grows thick with muscle, his arms two steel weights trudging through the mud. But his legs remain two twisted plant roots below the waist. They refuse to do much else outside of breaking and bending to the point where he no longer comprehends any emotion outside of rage and pain.

And that’s when it begins. Bodies go missing, maidens leave the hall crying. Their tears a mixture of salt and blood as his fingers imprint their flesh. They think he’s dead for awhile, when his father’s ship leaves the shore a final time and doesn’t return. There’s a reprieve, a stolen breath taken after years of being held. The world goes on. A changing of the guard occurs. One queen exchanged for another. Bodies collect in droves, and the dragon and the wolf bow to a usurper who tore their future away in her firm grasp.

But then he returns, and the world splits in two. War occurs. A war so terrible the smell of rotting flesh fills the hills for months. The river bears a red tinge, and crows feast on bodies littered for miles. The bodies continue to add up. People whisper of a god in their mist. The serpent a violent and bloodthirsty god. War incarnate, he leaves nothing but death in his wake. No human is capable of such terror. No human is so volatile.

Dagny’s father perished in that very war. With a grimace on his lips, and head held high he marches to his death. They can’t even find him when it’s done. His feet never cross the threshold again, her mother weeps when they believe she’s asleep. All that’s left is that bow. It’s returned by his friend who fled from the serpent's French armada.

So their mother establishes fear. She warns of the creature below, and all the terror he brings with every blink of those terrible eyes. Her children grow weary of that place. They never venture alone to their kingdom, even in the desperation of winter when the cold has reduced them to flesh and bone. They fear for the serpent that will strike and their ankles and feast on their bones. Even when her eldest decides to venture into the forest everyday, it isn’t the same. He never took notice of the land his legs couldn’t carry him to. Until he does.

Their house is colder since the serpent slithered away. Such a crowded space has never succumbed to deafening silence the way it does now. The last noise uttered is the snap of wood and the howl of a defeated wolf. She lays beside the battered thing like a broken child. Only does she rise when Yir whispers that it’s time for supper, or when Hlodvir wakes her for chores. Their mother seethes by her loom from sunrise to sunset. It’s a surprise her fingers haven’t cracked from all the weaving. Perhaps she’ll make a great blanket sewn from the rage over her eldest. Dagny would never take it off.

But that void of silence is broken with the shove of an arm. She’s staring at the bow again, convincing herself that her mother wasn’t wrong in her decision. That she didn’t ruin the only object that held any meaning out of spite. But rather for punishment. Every foolish decision came with a punishment.

But what did I do wrong?

The woman’s gaze is ice. An identical expression stares back as the temperature in the room drops.

I exist. My very being is what shames you.

Hasn’t it always?

“You need to find your brother.” The woman’s voice is abrasive, pressing against her bruised ego.

Blonde brows furrow. “Which one?”

“Which one do you think?”

Bardi .

“Is he not tending to the rotting cattle pen outside?” It’s an honest thought. For she hasn’t thought much about either brother. Their eyes only bring her shame. She’s failed them as a sister, and as a protector. Their bruises fade but the scars remain.

Her mother shakes her head. “No, he hasn’t been around all day. In fact he’s been sneaking off for weeks. You haven’t noticed?”

The guilt is a knife twisting in her stomach once again. It slowly guts Dagny as she’s forced to come to her realization. If Bardi has wandered off it is her fault. For he’s either angry with everyone or doing what he sister has not--exploring the forest for an answer. The accusatory tone of her mother suggests the latter.  

“He does not know how to hunt.”

“And you expect me to believe that’s all you ever did out there?”

She will bleed out, she’s sure of it. Out there the beast within was fed. A wolf rumbling for blood that couldn’t be found within these four walls. It lingers even now but wounded. It refuses to show its face until the wounds have come together again.

Does her mother really comprehend what plagues Dagny every night when her eyes close? Does she know that her daughter often trembles with rage that can’t be traced back to any definitive source? The woman has grown old, her hair the same shade as dirty snow. But her wit is not lost, nor her memory. She must remember the nights when only three occupied this dwelling. When Dagny woke in a sweat filled haze, screaming and clawing away. On more than one occurrence her mother was the victim to sharp nails swiping at the body pinning her down. Other times it would be so terrible her father would have to pour water on the girl, until she was a sopping mess of screams and visions of war.

I remember what I did to you. And I do everything not to let it happen again.

“He didn’t go into the woods.”

Both heads spin. Yir is once more the savior she’s never deserved. From her place at the table she peels potatoes without directly gazing at either woman.

Dagny is aware of her disappointment. It wafts through the dwelling to the point of suffocation. Yir has never understood the thirst for violence, or craved a dying body beneath her grip. But she understands that her sister shares a body with a monster that does. Ulfhéðnar often falls under her breath. But just as their mother has never discussed it, the two sisters never discuss it. But she knows not to dwell on punishment, and it was not her lip split by the serpent. She only had to endure the compliments of the dog.  

Their mother’s voice is softer with Yir. “How are you aware of this?”

“I watched him leave after he delivered Hlodvir’s knife to peel the potatoes.”

“Then where else would he go?” The elder woman questions aloud.

There is only one other place, and the mere conception of it leaves Dagny shaking in her boots. “Kattegat.” She whispers.

Yir only nods in response.

“Kattegat?” Their mother spats. “Why in Hel would he ever go there alone? Did he not learn his lesson? Stupid little boy.”

Dagny bristles. That’s your stupid little boy. She thinks. And you will only be a shadow in his growing bravery.

“I do not know mother.” Yir’s sigh fills the air. “I only watched as he took one of the horses in the direction of the port. You told us it’s better not to question what we don’t understand.”

It’s a backhanded comment but Yir will remain unscathed from it. Their mother only stiffens in posture, her shoulders sagging slightly. If it were Dagny her cheek would sting as a palm whacked against it. That is the difference with Yir. She is gentle, she is not a threat to their existence.

“Knowing that boy he’s still mad at the thing that slithers through that city like a disease. None of this will end well for us.”

The end of their mother’s sentence is filled with enough venom to rival Ivar the Boneless himself. His poison is nothing compared to the woman’s wrath. The words are weaved and stitched to hide the true meaning. Your brother is hellbent on harming himself because you couldn’t keep your nose out of trouble.

“Mother is right, sister. You need to find him.” Yir’s voice lacks any semblance of sympathy.

Fear brews in her belly, and Dagny despises herself for it. She shouldn’t fear a man who couldn’t chase her. Or his empty threats that ceased the moment a blade was pressed to his throat. But she can’t forget the rage in his eyes. The sheer lust for blood as he lunged at her in a matter of seconds. How even if he can’t run, he would likely drag himself through every terrign to return the threat she spewed. And while the king spared her of his wrath, Bardi was ruined the first time. A second meeting is fatal, and she may already be too late.

If her brother is beyond her help, dishonor will shroud her. Her face will no longer be shown in their home, for her failure would outshine even the largest of game brought to her mother’s feet. The loss of a child outweighs the loss of anything else.

She rises from her place on the floor, shoving the battered wood beneath the bed of straw. Her trust is thin. It’s painful to leave it alone with the woman who shattered it with the clenching of a fist. But her hands are tied, and only bringing Bardi home unscathed will remedy that.

“I will find him.” She announces, though neither woman acknowledges it outside of meeting her gaze.

It’s expected of you.

Her feet guide a path to the entryway. On the hook hangs the furs that are too short for her tall frame. But the winter is unforgiving, and they have little to spare. The sleeves awkwardly rest above her wrists, the bottom just grazing where her torso ends and hips begin. If one could even call them hips. She doesn’t deserve a new coat. Yir desires one, and her need for it is greater. She does everything without a blink of protest. It’s difficult to recall a time when their mother did scold her outside of asking for marriage. But Dagny could not blame her for that. Why provide for her mother and three siblings, when she could only provide for a single man that didn’t need everything split into fourths?

“Dagny.” Her mother’s voice cuts across the room before she can step out.

Are you going to reprimand me? Remind me that I am better off not returning at all if our brother isn’t with me?

She whirls toward her elder image. “Yes, mother?”

The woman purses her lips. “Do not let the serpent go for your throat.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Her mother’s statement is a haunting melody playing back the entire ride to Kattegat. She’s careless in her riding. The reins often slip and her mount takes advantage of her lack of grip by tugging his head in every which direction. But the dread pooled in her belly is enough to keep her from gaining control. It’s a led weight sinking deeper and deeper. Will she find Bardi cut open at the king's feet? His innards covered with dirt and his bones picked between the serpent’s teeth?

She feels the eyes first.That sickening gaze that delves past every layer of cloth and skin. They’re expecting her arrival. She wonders if the soldiers carrying shields of black and red have wasted hours away in the cold. Did the cold slowly bite away at their skin until she arrived? At the command of their king they graze through every pathway her horse jogs. Until there is no separation from when one body ends and another begins does she end up on foot. And the matching footfalls that gather behind her only leave bile in Dagny’s throat.

Will I have to cut them all down to get to you?

If only she possessed a sword.

Two of the soldiers cut ahead of her. Their shields are Dagny’s only greeting. The symbol of the serpent’s sun stares back, a collection of blood, gold, and death. A small voice in her head teases to touch it. Let the pad of her thumb graze the symbol that’s haunted the city for years. But she resists the temptation at the sight of two others on her opposite sides. It’s only a twist of the knife to the back when Dagny’s gaze falls behind her to reveal two more men at her flank.

Surrounded on all sides.

The panic surges but she buries it deep. Distress will only encourage them. It’s a tactic, and a clever one concocted by the serpent himself. Suffocate her with his men, and in the process they lead her right to the trap laid out. She tests their strength in attempt to veer slightly to the right. It’s responded with a rough grunt and shove of a shoulder. The man to her right refuses to break his wall. So Dagny’s footfalls cease, and a torso slams into her spine with a jolt.

A shove thrusts her forward with enough momentum that her face nearly tastes the dirt. “Move.” One of the brutes command.

They refuse to loosen their hold, and she has no choice but to obey. Her curiosity lingers. Do all the citizens of Kattegat suffer such scrutiny? Do they duck their heads hoping the serpent doesn’t take notice of them? There is a realization then, almost appreciation for her mother. The woman understood the nature of the king. How he ruined everything he touched with a single stroke of a finger. She imagines of a different life. One where they are living in an overcrowded home clustered with plenty of other overcrowded homes. The pens of their animals spilling into the pens of other animals. And the woman gossiping together over a communal fire while their husbands raid on foreign soil. In this life they risk becoming one of the bloated bodies hung from the center of the city with one wrong look. It was the life of nightmares, a suffocating fever dream that only ended when the serpent grew bored and moved onto his next victim.

Now it’s her turn to crash into a mass of flesh. The guards ahead cease abruptly, and she’s once more set off balance. Though this time she gains her composure quickly, and only the man whose suffered takes note with a snarl on his tongue.

She’s passed this building hundreds of times. Oftentimes it’s when she’s scouring the market with Hlodvir, trying to trade their bounty of fish or meat for furs and spices. It’s existed as long as she has. A looming thing that stares down at all who pass. Dagny’s never taken note of the inside, nor has she ever been invited to witness it. Only now standing before the great hall of Kattegat does she realize its significance. There’s an aura to it--a fortress amongst the crowd. An impenetrable structure that withstood the rise and fall of every monarch that dwelled within it. Lavish feasts sometimes fill the hall. The bodies crowd until they’re flushed and scented with ale. Dagny only discovered this after noticing some of the party guests stumble through Kattegat days later drunk on a night of blood sacrifices and bounties of the gods.

In this moment it no longer carried the semblance of celebrations. But rather a tomb to hold Bardi’s cold body until she came to collect. Her knees knock at the steps, hesitation brewing within. Another harsh shove is the only means to propel her forward. Though it wasn’t met without gritted teeth and a sharp hiss. The guard only chuckles in response. As if he was wrangling a kitten instead of a wild wolf. The heat only rises, coating her cheeks in bright crimson.

I am not a skittish little girl.

The light is dim when the group steps within. Seconds pass before her blue gaze adjusts to the darkness. The lack of light is to preserve heat. Hardly any dwellings contain openings to the outdoors, out of fear that the winter winds should consume the occupants inside. Though she expects a grander fire. One that threatens to consume the main room they reside in. Several torches adorn the space between tables that occupy several bodies, only they remain void of any flame. It’s larger than five of her homes combined. The ideal setting for a monster indeed.

Several bodies circle the front of the room. Between them she can just make out the footfalls of another. Grunts escape their lips like a young sow. The shoulders only falling far below those that circle them. Above them is the seat of the king. His gaze burns into her like a violent flame. But she refuses to look up to meet it. The smile is evident on his lips without needing to look, a satisfied smirk that has haunted her for weeks. When she pushes forward toward the circle the men who shielded her disperse. Their task completed. With every step her heart races, a violent beat within her chest it threatens to crash through thick rib bone.

The body in the center of the circle crashes to the floor with a whine. It’s only when she’s closer that she notices two bodies stand where she only noticed one previously. Her gaze catches a cluster of thin braids as they fall down the neck of the bigger body. A hitch in her breath is the only indication of the familiarity of him. The one from her home whose gaze feasted on her sister like a starving dog. Heat rises in her chest, fists clenched at her side. The temptation to walk away is great. Watching the man she desired to harm wrestling on the floor is a pastime unworthy of her. But then there’s a tuft of blonde just below the chest where the braided man grips onto two smaller arms.

“Bardi!”

Her shriek has startled the group. Their focus is on the match before them, and not the woman who snuck in only moments before. Dagny shoves the nearest body in attempt to open the circle. It’s met with a shove back and snarl from a woman twice her girth. In any other instance she may have submitted. This isn’t her home, these aren’t her people no matter how close their farm resided. They were strangers. Cruel strangers hellbent on tormenting her baby brother for their own satisfaction.

She shoves through the woman again. This time breaking through, but not without the woman hissing “bitch” in response. Her insult is too far away to acknowledge. She bursts into the center, a blinding light. Long fingers wrap around braids that adorn the man on top of her brother.

With brute force she tugs at them. “Get off of him!”

A cry leaves the man’s lips. “What the f-”

He whirls, ready to pounce on the fool that dares challenge him. His eyes differ from the serpents. Instead of mischief and cold calculation Dagny is met with wild hunger. It’s raw intensity is enough temptation that she almost looks away from the severity of it. Instead she latches onto his arm like a wild animal, nails digging into the thick material that covers his upper body. With a violent tug he’s thrown off balance, and the body below becomes visible.

The bruises from weeks before have almost gone. No longer does Bardi wander around the farm painted in purple and blue. Instead only a yellow sheen plagues the flesh of his face. But now she notices the bright red that stands out so significantly. His lip split clean down the middle and pooling at the clean tunic Yir washed days before.

The wolf is awakened. Only deep crimson consumes her vision as she pounces on the man with braids. The sheer force of the attack slamming to the ground beside Bardi with a painful grunt. Gasps fill the air, those from the circle dispersing in an unorganized fashion. His head slams into the wood of the floor as the grip on his shoulders tightens. She raises a fist but it’s caught by a hand. The braided man snarls and lunges forward. Their positions shift, now she’s beneath him. A manic laugh escapes his laps as he presses the weight of him to her chest. Her breaths are shallow, sinking. Panic flutters in her breast.

Relax.

She can’t. With a wild shriek she thrashes against him, but he doesn’t shift. His laughter only grows.

Relax.

The sharp talons of her nails find his cheek. They dig until he shoves them away. Little pools of crimson well up where they pressed. He ignores it, a death grip on her arm pinning it to the ground. She’s never felt so pathetic.

“That’s enough, Hvitserk.”

The serpent’s command sends the room into silence. The man--Hvitserk stills above her. His grip grows loose as his gaze falls to the left. She doesn’t want to look. From the moment she entered the hall his gaze was on her. Exposing the flesh beneath her furs, she’d never felt more insecure. Hvitserk pulls himself off her, offering a hand as he rises to full height. He’s taller than her, one of the few. The temptation to tug him back to the ground his great. So she ignores his hand and rises on her own accord.

Behind her stands Bardi. His lip still spills fresh blood, and his gaze reminds her of a frightened child. What does she say to him? Where does one even begin?

The serpent decides neither of them will speak first. “I wondered how long it would take you to figure out. I must say, I thought you were more clever.”

The insult stings when it shouldn’t. His opinion means nothing.

“Leave us.” The command booms through the hall.

Several bodies pool out the entrance in which she came. Others shuffle to a hallway beyond this room. It baffles her. There’s more to this place? How could one live in a dwelling so expansive? She wonders if anyone ever becomes lost. Dagny surely would. She’s knows nothing outside of four walls and a mass of bodies on cots too small for one let alone two.

Only one guard remains, posted at the entrance. Likely there to prevent her escape. The man with the braids shifts from beside her closer to the throne that looms ahead. Bardi remains beside Dagny. His gaze falls every which way except toward her.

Dagny will have none of it. “What were you doing here?”

Bardi shifts uneasily.

Dagny pushes forward, her grip finds his chin and her gaze bores into him. “Mother knows you’ve been sneaking off. I wanted to prove her wrong and just say you were in the woods, but then Yir said you’ve been coming here. Are you that foolish?”

Her tone is harsh. The flinch of his body is enough to know she’s cut through his ego. It only brings pain without satisfaction. No part of Dagny ever wants to scold her baby brother. For he’s the only sibling that’s like her. The only one who understands the pain of residing in a body that felt more like a cage than anything else.

“I did it for you.” Bardi’s voice falters.

It was easy to forget the king and his dog shared the room with them. For her only focus in that moment was Bardi. I did it for you. Did what? Made a fool of himself in front of the monsters that lurked below? She didn’t want to ponder the idea of what their mother would do when she took sight of her little brother’s disheveled appearance. The only thing Bardi does is complicate an already twisted set of events.

“He is right, Dagny.” The serpent speaks.

She whirls, violent blues trained on the creature that brings chaos with every breath he takes. Bardi coming here did not do anything to benefit her. It only hinders an already fractured relationship with the woman who carried her into the world.

“You fought well against my brother.” He decides to change the subject and anger simmers in her belly. “Few could pull him to the ground the way you did.”

The dog bristles and Ivar only chuckles.

“But he defeated you regardless. You’ll need more work than I thought.”

Her gaze widens. “Excuse me?”

“When you train.”

“I’ve already refused you, Ivar the Boneless. My decision has not changed.”

Hvitserk gives his brother a knowing look, she imagines it’s his way of saying I told you so. But the serpent ignores him. Their tension is awkward. It’s an uncomfortable cage that settles between the two. Like fire and ice, living in fear of touching one another.

“It hasn’t?” His voice boasts mock disappointment. “Then your brother has suffered for nothing.”

“I have not--”

A hiss from the serpent cuts Bardi off. “He has come here every day to learn. Every day a different guard pins him to the ground, and I force him to throw knives until his arm refuses to rise. Every day he travels on a saddle too small for him.”

It’s a guilt trip. She’s never asked this of her brother, they’re all aware of it. Yet the weight of regret and grief tugs at her ribcage once again. She doesn’t want the image of brutes harming Bardi engrained in her mind. They are rough, unforgiving. Now that her mind wanders she thinks of how slow he’s moved in these few weeks. How in the morning he stumbles doing his chores, and flinches when the cows try to press his body closer to the pen. His bruises must have been beneath clothing, where they could remain hidden from the scrutiny of their mother.

She tugs at the tunic her brother dons, and shoves him closer when he tries to tug away. Only an inch is pulled away before she witnesses the plume of bruises. It’s a painful canvas where blue bleeds into violet and violet bleeds into black. Yellow puffs the outer edges, and shallow scars are imprinted in his flesh like a tattoo. This is just the surface . Bile rises in her throat.

Her gaze pleads. “Why, Bardi?”

“I told you sister,” He sighs. “I did it for you. When mother snapped father’s bow I saw what it did to you. I knew this was the only way to get it back.”

She shakes her head, floored by his statement. “You can’t get it back Bardi, it’s broken .”

“King Ivar offered to fashion another one for you, and he didn’t harm me when he offered it. In exchange for the bow I’ve also had to come here everyday and learn from him. It’s helped tremendously, even if I look battered and bruised. I can fight now sister, I feel like I can breathe for the first time.” Bardi’s eyes shine with a glow she’s never witnessed. It leaves her chest tight, for she understands the suffocation of being trapped in your own thirst for blood. It haunts her everyday, whispering in her ear to give in.

Regardless, there’s still rage at the thought of the serpent using her brother. Everything held a price. Bardi’s was his innocence with combat. Dagny knows at some point he will approach her to teach him. But she’s only ever known the bow.

“He’s hardly come against his own will.” The king interjects dryly. It’s followed with a snicker from the dog.

But would he come if he didn’t have to pay a price? At the very least it was a beneficial one.

“Our mother carries hate in her heart, sister.” Bardi adds. “It was once grief but it’s been shrouded into something far more cruel. Ivar the Boneless is no different from her in some ways. But he agreed to help me when mother said he would feast the meat off our bones.”

Dagny places a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “Hush now.” She says gently. He’s made his point. Charmed by the snake himself instead of the other way around.

But when her gaze meets the body on a throne of stone and bone it’s difficult to see anything beyond the monster in her mother’s tales. She can’t forget the face of her brother’s that night she returned home. How they were reduced to shells of wounded pride and torment.

Ivar only stares back. It’s an expression she can’t quite read, which only causes more frustration. It’s as if he’s waiting, curious as to what her next move will be. Her gaze falls first, submitting to the ocean tides that bore into her skin.

She looks to his brother. “Take my brother outside. I will get him when I’m finished here.”

Hvitserk scoffs, as if she is so bold to request something from a prince. Perhaps she is.

“You heard her.” Ivar scolds. “Go.”

The dog throws daggers with his gaze. The tension between brothers thick as a stone wall. It’s a silent challenge. One dominating while the other submits. Just like with her, the serpent’s gaze is the last to fall. So Hvitserk motions for Bardi to follow him out the hall. The boy looks to his sister with a wounded expression. His guilt will drown him . She thinks. But once this is over she’ll assure him on the ride home that he is a brother worth bearing pride for. Even if he’s made a deal with the devil himself. She nods for him to follow, and so he does. With his head tipped down, Bardi shuffles behind the elder Ragnarsson until only Dagny and Ivar remain.

The only other semblance of life is the guard who stands stoically at the entrance with his hand against a sheathed sword.   

She’s the first to speak. “Does your cruelty know no bounds?”

“I’m not sure I understand?”

“He’s just a boy.” Dagny presses. “He is gullible and easily swayed. Was humiliating him once not enough?”

His lips form a line. “No.”

It’s a slap to the face. The blunt honesty of a man who cares for little outside his own ambition. Would a lie have been any better? Perhaps it would have stung less, to be cushioned by a false promise. But from her little exposure to him, Dagny knows he isn’t one to soften a blow.

Her gaze refuses to find his. “Why not?”

“You refused me. I needed to get creative.” It’s as if he’s speaking about something as simple as the weather.

“And you think using my brother once more will convince me to join you? I am no shield maiden. I use a bow and that is it. I hunt game for my family and practice on the heads of my kill. Nothing more. Whatever that voice in your head told you, it was mistaken.”

Their eyes lock then. His a turbulent storm at sea. The waves crashing from light blue to deep, almost black. His fingers grip the side of his seat, nails scraping against stone. She’s testing him, and he easily loses whatever semblance of control is set. Until his face is once more neutral, the beast pushed away.

“It isn’t a voice in my head. It was Odin.” The confidence exudes off of him.

Odin has a horrific sense of humor. To torment her with a man such as this. How many lies did the wicked old god force down the king’s throat? How many suffered because of his cruel tricks?

She shakes her head. “Are you sure it was not Loki?”

“I know when I am in the presence of the allfather.”

“And what does he want from me?”

“Not from you.” His tone even. “From me. He wanted me to find you, and get you on my side.”

Her patience begins to thin. She’s never been a player of games. “For what reason?”  

“I don’t know. He’s only made it clear that I will suffer if I don’t succeed. And I refuse to lose all that I have gained in the past decade.”

She desires to slap him, if a farmer could do such a thing to a king. She’s green with war, a child in many aspects to the nature of it. But one woman didn’t make an army. And the ones that suffered were often the lesser men marching into shield walls, not the monarch who warmed his throne.

“Perhaps he’s mistaken. As I said before I am no shieldmaiden.”

“You’re not yet.” Ivar presses. “But you long to be. I saw it in your eyes when you killed a raven in one of my dreams.”

Crimson floods her cheeks “It was just a dream.”

“Was it?”

They both know the answer. As long as she’s existed the gods have never presented her with anything outside of a storm when the summer grew dry. But nevertheless she prays to them. In the late hours with a shaking hand clutched to the hammer of Thor, she begs for a soundless sleep. Other times she asks Odin for some sign of a purpose every time her hammer ricochets off the skull of an animal. If this is his answer, the god’s humor is as cruel as the tales spun.

Ivar the Boneless is a man of sense. One with enough of it to know when his argument is futile. This much she knows, as he begins to try a new tactic. It doesn’t miss her how his gaze grows soft, or when he reaches behind the throne for an object well hidden. There’s a grim side of her that almost wonders if it’s a set of knives he plans to slice across her throat. One doesn’t have to obey the gods when he destroys what they desire from him.

Instead it’s something worse. Enough to lodge Dagny’s racing heart into her throat. It’s a trick of the light--it must be. Her father had a keen eye for detail. He swore he could count every star in the sky, and was twice as accurate when consumed with a bit of ale. His bow was no less intricate. Every rune served a purpose. From the type of wood, to the curve of the arch. His arrows were even embellished with runes. Something their mother found useless when they’d only be, “embedded in a man’s back”. But in front of her is an identical replica of the broken wood beneath her bed. It’s glorious in all its new glory. The shine of the wood has returned, the runes more defined than the worn ones on its counterpart. It’s beautiful. Enough to strangle a near sob out of her chapped lips.

A mischievous smirk fills the lips of the serpent, and she idly wonders if he’s capable of a genuine smile. “Do you like it?”

Do I like it?

Adoration fills her gaze. It’s potent enough that she cannot hide it beneath layers of careful conditioning. For her father’s bow has risen from the dead, and it’s so close. Her nose takes in the scent of stain against the wood.

The serpent holds it out in front of his torso. “Would you like to touch it?”

Her hesitation is obvious, as her hand rises and falls within seconds. But he only pushes her with a nod of encouragement.

It feels as if hours have passed before she takes a hesitant step forward. Like a doe she carefully places each foot in front of the other, as if walking on fresh ice. Ivar continues to hold it out as an open invitation. A feather light touch run the length of the weapon. It’s smooth as fresh butter when it makes contact with the pads of her finger tips.

“Take it.” He urges.

There’s no hesitation this time. Her grasp is tight as she tugs the bow from his grasp. The serpent is more than willing, his grip falling as her’s catches it. She suddenly forgets he’s there at all, observing every movement with those eyes of the sea. It feels natural in her grasp. An old friend back from a journey away. She raises it eye level, testing the string. Her stance hasn’t faltered in the weeks lacking her usual training. If anything it’s only a matter of muscle memory. Her body contorts to the position that feels most natural. Her finger plucks against the string, ears absorbing the soft sound omitting from it. When her eyes close she’s returned to the forest, a fresh stag head staring back.

Until it’s gone, and only serpent king is watching her aim the bow right in his direction with a satisfied smirk. The reality sinks in. Her father’s words are a blessing and a curse. For they often keep her out of trouble, but remind her of the life she’ll never possess. The bow falls to her side with a heavy sigh.

“I can’t accept this.” She laments.

Ivar’s expression doesn’t falter. “And why is that?”

“Everything bears a price, and I know yours.”

“It’s already being paid. You will bear nothing as a result of this.” The king’s tone that of a father lecturing his child.

Bardi.

“You tricked my little brother.” Her voice a snarl.

The serpent chuckles. “I did not. I told him I would fashion you a bow if he hit my guard with three knives, and he did. Then I informed him that he would need to come here everyday and learn to fight properly while I worked on the bow. He came of his own free will.”

“Because he felt guilty for the loss of my bow.”

“He is soft in that regard. You are one of his few weaknesses outside of the size of him. But if you are an indication of anything,” He pauses--gaze traveling down her figure. “I believe he’ll be alright.”

She shifts in discomfort. No his gaze, even in an attempt to be harmless is anything but. “You still tricked him. He believes it to be in his favor but it’s not.”

“Oh really, and why is that?”

“You knew that I would come looking for him, and my distress over his situation would be enough to--”

She pauses, her limbs growing numb with the venom of his trap. Like a blind mouse she stumbles right into it. What an awful thing you are. She thinks, a scowl pressed to her lips. You’ve made a fool of us all.

The king lifts a hand as an invitation to continue her statement, but Dagny only shakes her head. The finality of it too consuming to voice aloud.

He decides to finish the thought in her stead. “Enough to take his place.”

She didn’t have to accept it. Give the bow back, take Bardi back to their homes miles away from kings and serpents alike. They would never have to see this terrible place again if they so desired. Mother would gain more skill sewing furs, she’d learn to fashion a bow of her own if it meant providing more fur and game for the winter months. Yir could peel any vegetable with her eyes closed. Hlodvir a master animal herder…

“I know what you are Dagny, even if you don’t.” Ivar tears right through the safety of her own thoughts. “It will consume you, if it hasn’t started to already. Your mother fears it, so she tries keeps it tucked deep inside of you. Eventually you’ll have to feed it, and it’s either the blood of my enemies, or the blood you share with them .”

Ulfhéðnar, Ulfhéðnar, Ulfhéðnar. The voice of Yir chants in her head.

“You know nothing about me, Ivar the Boneless.”

“The first time I saw you through Odin’s eyes you were in the forest. It consumed you then. One moment an arrow pierced the flesh of your kill, the next your nails pierced the flesh of your palm. Do you still bear the scar of it? You do, don’t you? Imagine doing that to anyone you want to, giving it free reign and setting yourself free.”

Her gaze falls to her free palm. A dark line covers the expanse of it, a reminder of what lies beneath. There’s almost sympathy in his voice. The first person to encourage the beast within to come out and stretch her legs. “Don’t you know you’re never supposed to let a monster loose?”  He looks at murder as if it’s art, and death an honor.

“Actually,” Ivar counters, voice filled with a challenge. “I’ve found it’s only brought me success.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When Dagny exits the haul a violent breath escapes her chest. For the first time it feels as if heart inside her ribcage is beating once more. It’s violent thunder enough to rival Thor’s music within the clouds.

Bardi is with the serpent’s brother. The reins of their horses remain in his grasp, and she can’t control the guilt that consumes her at the sight of him. You’re just like me. She thinks. One day you won’t be able to hide it either. One day you’ll feel this weakness that I do, and wonder if ruined everything because of it.

Their conversation is silenced at her approach, and she wonders if they were speaking of her. Two sets of eyes take in her form, the pale complexion of her face. As if Ivar the Boneless held her down and showed her spirits of the dead. But it isn’t the worry etched into her brow, or the paleness of her flesh that has them staring. But rather the new bow strapped across her back. Beside it a pack of fresh arrows, all sharpened to a deadly point.

“Thank you.” She says to the dog with her approach.

His smile is sharp teeth that hold more resentment than an acceptance of her gratitude for watching over Bardi. Hvitserk begins to walk away from the pair, but not before the weight of his torso slams into her shoulder. “See you around.” He says with a snicker.

She ignores him, despite the urge to turn around and yank at the thin braids once more. Instead she holds out a palm for Bardi to hand her the reins. The sooner they left the better. No doubt their mother was already burning sage and preparing a funeral pyre.

They walk through Kattegat side by side in silence. The mass of bodies have slightly thinned out, but it isn’t until they’re toward the path between the shore and the hills of their homes that the pair mount their rides. Together they gallop until the pathway of stone and slush turns to grass embedded in shallow snow. The flat land slowly turns to rolling hills, and trees blanket the fading winter sun over head until only flickers of precious light peak through.

“You took the bow.” Bardi announces when they’ve let up on pace.

She nods. “Aye, I did.”

“Then you will lie to mother when I leave again tomorrow?”

She’s thrust into the conversation fresh on her skin like new ink. The triumph that lit the serpent’s face with victory, and plundered her’s with defeat. A deal with Hel’s male incarnate.

“For now, I will only train under you. I am not yet ready for acts of war.”

“Not yet. One day you will be, and when you are not even Hvitserk will be able to defeat you.”

“You’re so sure of yourself, Ivar the Boneless.”

“Never doubt your king, Dagny.”

She’s thrust into the present. “No, I will not.”

“But she will--”

“Not care, because you won’t be going back there. I am.”








Chapter Text

The forest is paradise once more. The chaos of smoke and flame diminish until only the scent of newly grown spruce trees leave a pungent scent in the air. There’s a bit of grief he didn’t expect to experience at the sight of it. Though the impending doom of the forest’s violent demise left him with little, unsettled sleep, he appreciates the beauty of it. Watching something suffer and wither to nothing. It’s unlike anything life can produce. Only death can harness such a violent storm.

Blades of grass kiss his cheeks as violent blues stare at a sky bearing the same shade. A sweet summer breeze rises the hairs brushed against his pale forehead. He is painfully aware of his own humanity, no crow lays in the grass. But the haunting ache below his torso is diminished. It’s so foreign, he’s sure something’s terribly wrong. Has Odin in all his symbolism and few words chopped the twisted limbs right off of him? Ivar the Boneless lifts his chest now sitting upright. Relief floods him at the sight of his legs, even if they still are the broken things that have ruined him. But a dark brow raises at the realization that they are painfully small. The legs of a child. The king’s gaze flickers to his fist grasped in a handful of green. It’s the fist of a child. The limbs of a child.

“You cock!” His insult to Odin is laced in a voice Ivar hasn’t used in years.

It’s a voice too high for a man as old as he is. It’s scratchy and filled with memories that only bring pain to his chest. For he thinks of his mother, with her golden curls and feline eyes. The smile so contagious even in the worst of moods he mimics it. When he was this size once before she would cradle him against the breasts he no longer drank frome, and whisper sweet nothings in his ear. But just as he is a child no more, his mother is only alive in memory.

“I have been a raven, I have been myself as I am now, and now you have made me a child.” He speaks to the trees. “I believe you are having an identity crisis and wish to take it out on me Odin.”

A deep chuckle fills the air, rustling the surrounding trees. A wind blows, until Ivar’s hair is a tunnel above his head and his cheeks are raw. The cry of a raven fills the air as one settles beside the child. It’s obsidian gaze bears the feeling that Ivar’s soul is being assessed, and the thought unsettles him. Another raven, just as large and intimidating opts for the branches that canopy the forest above. It boasts another cry and looks to it’s twin below.

Ivar feels the weight of him. He is the forest, the ravens, the breeze, even the sun hidden above. Every ounce of this dream is conjured by the deity himself. It’s a reminder that the king of Kattegat is man, and that Odin is another beast entirely. Even in his youth, green with a fresh crown he boasted that he was a god to his people. But Ivar cannot compete with the mere presence of a true god. It’s a silent recognition he’s accepted with resentment.

I will never be a god. God’s aren’t broken things.

“It appears the balance has been restored here. Hasn’t it?” Odin’s voice booms from behind his back. It echoes through every inch of the forest until it fades to nothing.

Ivar doesn’t look back as footsteps crunch the grass behind him. With each footfall the god nears the king. The first glimpse he catches is the gaping, rotting hole where Odin’s eye once rested. Even now he can feel the empty stare as if the eye was never torn out. The price for knowledge is heavy, but Ivar can’t help but agree that he would sacrifice his sight for it too.

Knowledge is power.

The god stands before him. A towering sight that has Ivar feeling like a bug rather than a king. He realizes why Odin’s reduced him to a puny thing. The power of intimidation. The wrath of a small child only dwarfs the wrath of a god. A snarl rips through the king’s pink lips, and Odin’s throaty chuckle shakes the trees once more.

“Do you fancy yourself a wolf, Ivar? I don’t believe I summoned Ubbe.”

“Ubbe is a dog.”

“He is not.” The god’s tone is firm. As if he’s actually speaking to a child. “He may not be one of mine, but he is a wolf all the same.”

Or a mangy mutt wearing a stolen pelt.

Odin drops to the grass with a thud. The bird beside Ivar squawks, hopping on two thin legs to the shoulder of his master. “Rest my Muninn.” He coos. With the click of the god’s tongue, the raven nestles itself into the crook of his weathered neck. Above the other raven bears down with a jealous stare that the Allfather blatantly ignores. “You’ve had your rest already Huginn, the watch is your burden to share.”

The king’s brow raises with curiosity. “Watching for what?”

“We are never alone, even in dreams.” Odin responds. “It’s best a wandering creature never stumble upon our conversations.”

“I’d hardly call them conversations. You either turn me into a squawking bird or try to have a pissing contest with Surt.”

“And have you not learned, Ivar the Boneless?”

He has. It’s a monotonous process that requires more thought than obvious answers. Everything contains a deeper meaning. The burning forest is Ivar following a different path, one that will bear his end. The raven is everything he cannot be. Free . Roaming wherever and whenever he pleases without dead weight below the belt.

“You have made me a child because I have questions for you. Children are always curious.”

A smile that crinkles at Odin’s eyes tugs against pale lips. “You have learned then.”

The king scoffs. “I didn’t have much of a choice. You speak in riddles, Allfather. I spend most of my mornings trying to arrange them into sense until my skull bears a greater ache than my legs.”

“It should. Nothing in this world is handed to you, Ivar.”

No, nothing was. He spent a life clawing and pulling to the top. Every body he’s drawn blood from serves as a step for his path. He can’t remember the days of being a babe. The days when Ivar was too small to defend himself, and his mother bore the burden. They thought him weak--an abomination. Perhaps he still is a creature unknown to most, but he’s more powerful than any of the children that mocked him a lifetime ago. The scars they inflicted were shallow, they fade away with every victory he claims.

Ivar’s gaze falls on the empty socket on Odin’s left. “Can I ask you whatever I’d like? Or am I limited?”

“Whatever is on your mind you may ask.” The bird at his neck seems to shiver with the heavy tone of the diety’s voice. “But be aware that you may not receive the answers you seek.”

Curiosity is a double edged sword.

Their gazes meet as the king’s youthful voice penetrates the sudden silence. “Is my son feasting in Valhalla?”

It’s rare to get a reaction out of a god, and it’s unheard of to surprise one. Ivar doesn’t miss the way Odin’s lone eye grows to the size of an egg. He’s taken aback by the bold statement, and the king feels satisfaction course through him.

It’s centuries before the god manages a reply. “No.”

There’s an unbearable ache in his chest. Enough so that the little hand he bears presses to his chest. It’s a feeling he’s buried deep, for grief is no friend of the king. He thinks of the babe alone in Hel, crawling and searching for his sire. Time has no meaning in such a place, and Ivar’s son will wander forever.

“Then I will never see him again.” His voice shakes.

“No, you won’t.” Odin’s voice holds a trace of sympathy that heats Ivar’s cheeks with irritation.

Ivar decides it’s best not to dwell on the cruelty of creation. “Is my throne in danger?”

“Kingdoms are always held in the balance, one wrong move and they fall.”

The king decides that fate is cold enough toward him to try and thrust the throne into the arms of another unworthy usurper. Who will come knocking this time? So much blood spilt over a single chair. But he would rather dine in Valhalla before his time before succumbing to defeat.

“Does this person who desires my throne plan to use my expanding kingdom as a vantage point?”

He only possesses one settlement; York. There is more to claim. More fertile soil to take from, and filthy Christians to ruin. There’s land north of there where some claim it is always green. The people are more savage than they are in England. They bear war paint the same shade as his eyes. Their Christianity is not as rigid. He plans to go there when the ice melts and spring graces him with the first rain. But others lurk in the shadows, waiting for his departure. He can smell the betrayal like a heavy musk against their flesh. Very few leave him sleepless at night, but those that do haunt every inch of his thoughts.

Odin considers the question. “One of them does, but they are an insignificant influence. Another dreams you will sail to his shore and plans to challenge you then. Three share your blood. The final one has been there all along.”

Ivar’s fists uproot the grass from its soil. So many enemies, enough to suffocate him. His life has been an endless saga of waging war with his own blood. Brother against brother since the moment he came out screaming from his mother’s womb. Such volatile siblings they all were. The bond of brotherhood meant little when power came to play. Suddenly the knife embedded in your back is your brother’s, and his blood stains your flesh like permanent ink.

“And the girl will stop them?”

The god’s single eye beams. Finally, the king asks the looming question. It hangs over them like the trees above. What is her purpose in all of it? If she bears the title he believes she does, then no enemy will stand a fighting chance unless they acquire one of their own. And they are the rarest, only once has Ivar even witnessed one in the flesh.

“If her potential is reached.”

“She’s one of yours, isn’t she?” Ivar learns forward, drunk off his newfound discovery. “That is why I need her. No one else has one.”

The smirk of a god says more than any words ever can.

Ivar furrows his brow. “So she is. But there has only ever been men.”

“No one has ever bothered to look for the ones who are women. Their behavior isn’t as blatant as the summer sun.”

And violent women aren’t looked at with honor the way the men are. They are mad things, shrewd and cruel. They often meet a quick end if their madness hasn’t already consumed them. He wonders how she maintains such composure, the beast within only showing itself when a knife was pressed to his throat, even then her composure filled him with surprise.

“Her mother has taught her well. Whenever it rises, it’s beaten down again.” It’s as if the god is listening to the king’s thoughts.

“How do I pull it out of her then?” Ivar presses.

Odin shakes his great head of white hair. It brushes the bird who only bristles in its slumber. “You don’t force a Ulfhéðnar to be a Ulfhéðnar. That behavior is harnessed, not created. I think you’ve learned what happens when you take what she loves by force.”

The blood in his veins grows thick with rage. Odin is mocking him for his stunt with her brothers. A blatant reminder that she is no thrall, or like the others he’s met. If you take from the Ulfhéðnar they do not give anything in return. A fully trained one would have attempted to slaughter him for such an act of disrespect. Luckily though for the king, her urges are only acted on in the form of stags being shot with arrows.

He will have to train her into more than just a shieldmaiden, this much he knows. The beast within will only come out when her body has created a suitable vessel for it to inhabit. “I will have to shape her then, like clay.”

“In a way you will, and in others she will shape herself. You will guide her to the water, but only she can decide whether or not to drink it.”

“And if she decides not to?”

“Then it will consume her one day, just as it has consumed many who have been blessed as Ulfhéðnar. Only few embody what it is in the end.”

If she doesn’t take to it, it will not bode well for him. He can feel it, their fates intertwined. Odin’s riddles are useless in this sense, for he’s known it the moment he first dreamt her. Ivar has won every war by establishing a weapon his enemy didn’t possess. None of them had this, none of them had her .

The ground trembles, a soft earthquake interrupting their conversation. The raven on Odin’s shoulder wakes, and squawks a violent call that reminds Ivar of war drums. The god isn’t taken aback by the sudden intrusion. If anything he almost appears pleased by it.

“Our conversation has been cut short, Ivar the Boneless.” The god’s smile doesn’t yet reach his lone eye. “Take what you will from it. Do not force nature to take its course.”

Then Odin disappears into a cloud of smoke before Ivar can comprehend a valid response.  

* * * * * * * * * * * *

His body is shaking, violently throttled to the point of nausea.

“Ivar.”

A groan escapes plump lips. With the swing of an arm he thwarts whatever cruel thing wishes to disturb his content slumber. But the other creature isn’t having it.

“Ivar.”

He knows that voice. It brings him no joy, nothing but irritation. Its owner is a constant reminder of what he despises most about his kin.

“Ivar your she wolf is here.”

His eyes flutter open. The figure above him isn’t who he hopes it is. His precious slumber is ruined by Hvitserk, who is clouded from the king’s vision. “Where?” His voice cracks.

“Outside.”

It doesn’t take long for the king to awaken fully. He skips his breakfast, stomach filled with nerves rather than nourishment. The thralls don’t utter a single protest when his crutch leads him past the table where his nephews tear at their meal like feral animals.

“Uncle.” Lief, the youngest calls for him. “Sit, uncle sit.”

Ivar pauses, his turbulent gaze falling on the pair at the table. Their mother is in conversation with a thrall. It’s gentle enough that Ivar desires to scold her for being too kind. He notices the empty cup in her right hand, and the stain of liquid on her skirts. If it were him the knife would have already raised the soft flesh of the girl’s neck. Lief is the image of his father. From the sand of his hair to the hazel tint in his gaze. Porridge cakes his lower jaw like a beard of food. A toothy grin is spread for Ivar, and he raises two grubby hands covered in the same sop to demonstrate his excitement over the king’s presence. Torvald just silently eats, bristling over the scene his baby brother displays. He’s the hidden side of Hvtiserk. The unnerving calm that only diminishes when in the presence of something of interest.

“Not now, Lief. I will sit with you at supper.”

The boy’s smile falters, his eyes suddenly glass. It twists at Ivar’s gut when it shouldn’t. He isn’t a father, and children mean little when they’re not your own.

“Sit down.” Torvald hisses.

Lief is defeated, slouching into his seat the porridge even begins to fall off his face in globs. It’s enough to leave the sick feeling in Ivar’s belly the entirety to his limp outside.

After being crowned, he commissioned to have a training yard finished behind the great hall. On days such as this, where the cold seeps into his brittle bones, it’s difficult to travel far. This way he’s only steps away from the training ground. It also keeps many of Ivar’s warriors under his watchful eye. Witness which ones are struggling, which are successful, and those that prove to be more trouble than they are valuable.

When he arrives there’s only one body taking up the space. He feels her gaze on him the moment he steps outside. As always her clothing is ill-fitted. The sleeves of her furs never quite cover her wrists, the gap between her breeches and boots leaves a raw red line of flesh. He’s never witnessed something so awkward. It’s as if her mother gave up sewing with only little time to spare.

Her face is something else entirely. She bears the same blue eyes, yet they’re duller than his. There’s a constant glaze over them, as if she’s always somewhere else entirely. The structure of her face isn’t entirely feminine, but then again not much of her is. There’s a severity to the look of her that he’s sure intimidates most men. None of the guards look at her the way they do Eira. Their gazes don’t linger a moment too long. Nor do they attempt to smack her rump and snicker when the blush fills her cheeks. The only feminine touch is that plait. It’s the shade of honey as it cascades down her back with a fluid assurance. Deep within Ivar notes he admires the severity of her cheek bones, and how they could cut flesh. He admires the muscle that defines everything from the plane of her thighs to the arch of her shoulders. The gods never fashion women who look like her.

When he approaches they remain that way, simply watching one another. He notices how her gaze lingers on the braces that encase his mangled legs. It’s a neutral expression that doesn’t bear the same bitter taste of sympathy or disgust he’s accustomed to. As if she’s observing flowers in her mother’s garden. The king longs to scold her for it, but the words never make it off his tongue.

Strapped to her is the bow and arrows he fashioned. They are the only part of her that looks like it belongs. A natural huntress that possesses more qualities of her kill than the humans around her.

“You’re early.” He notes in a dry tone.

She shrugs. “I am always up before the sun. Once I finished my duties I was free to come here.”

He wonders if she’s faced the wrath of her mother once more. There’s no physical trace of it, but Dagny isn’t the type to sit back while being beat. The woman uses a different tactic. The mental scar of failure proves to be more fatal than any form of lashings.

“You were allowed? I thought you might end up locked in an ivory tower.”

Laughter leaves her lips, but it’s void of any emotion. “My mother said I let you go for my throat, and the poison will ruin me.”

Of course she did. Superstitious nut.

“Perhaps you’ll learn not to stick your neck out for others next time.”

The harsh tone of his voice is enough to cause her to flinch. The muscles on her upper back grow tight, jaw clenching in newfound irritation.

Ignoring this, he points to the weapons at her back. “Take those off. You won’t be needing them today.”

“Why not?”

It’s like talking to a child , he decides. A violent but necessary child. “A shieldmaiden is more than a huntress. Bow and arrows only get you so far on the field of battle.”

The arrows drop to the ground with a thump at Dagny’s feet. With more delicate hands she pulls the bow away from her torso, and gingerly places it beside the arrows. He doesn’t miss the adoration in her gaze when it’s trained on the weapon.

I did that. I made her look that way. He immediately dismisses the thought. There’s more important matters to attend to.

“What will you have me do then, hmm?” She crosses her arms, so sure of herself. Ivar knows she’s wet behind the ears. He held the same confidence as a young boy, until Ubbe knocked the breath right out of him with the swing of a fist. That’s the only time he’s ever been humble in any regard. If one could even imagine a being such as him humble.

The king’s head turns to watch the guards that have followed him out. Their footsteps softer than the cushion of clouds, he hardly heard them appear. Their stealth commendable in situations where it’s needed. In this case, it’s only left him cursing that he didn’t catch the soft tap of leather boots against soil.

You always have to be aware of what is behind you.

Turbulent ocean waves fall on one of the two. Her eyes remind him of the forest in his dreams. She’s shorter than Dagny, and filled out. Where Dagny’s hips are bone, this woman’s are round. Her arms carry the bulk of muscle gained from lifting a sword and shield everyday. And despite the soft shape of her face, there’s no mistaking the bloodlust in that emerald gaze. The way her mouth is always contorted into a silent snarl, fingers itching for a challenge. She’s one of his best, breaking the weaker ones like rotting sticks. He already feels the desire rolling off of her when she catches sight of Dagny. A challenge , fresh meat.

“Asta.” Ivar nudges his head toward his position. “Come.”

He doesn’t watch as the woman approaches with the confidence and grace of a warrior. Instead the king’s gaze rests on Dagny. Her expression rapidly changes every moment the shieldmaiden draws closer. From surprise, to fear, then determination. The weight of what’s expected of her already is felt. But Ivar will explain regardless. She will need to know every expectation and step from now on. It will be ingrained in her mind like a second skin. Do this, don’t do that. If he were a softer man Ivar would pity her. For Bardi’s ‘training’ was only childs play. A test to see if the same beast that possessed his sister stirred inside of him. One day Ivar would come for him too, when he was beyond the years of a child. Until then, his focus is her.

“Drop your weapons.” The command to his shieldmaiden is soft, but holds no less authority than if he had screamed.

The expansive shield slams into the dirt, then a long blade of dulled silver follows suit. He doesn’t miss the way Dagny’s eyes widen at the sight of it. Something far more lethal than a simple hammer used to smash a skull.

Ivar’s attention falls onto Asta, his arm gesturing toward the woman beside him. “This is Dagny, she will be training under me until she joins our ranks.”

Asta doesn’t mouth a response, her gaze only glows with mischief as she acknowledges Dagny with a sharp nod.

“This is Asta.” His attention directs back to the huntress. “She’s a shieldmaiden, and you will fight her and lose.”

The temper he’s been longing to witness hits him full force. “Excuse me?” She seethes.

Asta’s laughter fills the air, and Ivar shoots her a warning glare. “She’s one of my best fighters. You will not win.”

“Then why fight her at all, and without a weapon?” Disbelief plagues Dagny’s tone like a whining child.

“You’re not trying to kill each other, and you must master your fists before any blade.” He knows she’s going to challenge that she possesses no blade. But that conversation is for another time. “You’ll fight Asta every day until you win. Once you beat here you move onto the next fighter, until you’ve defeated all my best soldiers.”

“And what happens when I do that?”

A glimmer of mischief tosses in his blue waves. “You fight me.”

Her laughter fills the air and Asta stiffens. You never mock Ivar the Boneless, never. Heat pools in his belly, vision tinted to crimson. His glare is death, and the moment she takes notice Dagny’s grown silent.

“You laugh now, but no one has ever bested me.” He seethes.

The last time he lost he was still a boy by most standards. Ubbe often used his height as an advantage. He’d press his weight to Ivar’s legs, knowing the pain would distract his arms from exerting the proper force. It wasn’t until Ivar figured out Ubbe had weak ankles that he began to best his eldest brother. Tug them just right, and he’d crash to the dirt. It only took seconds before Ivar was on top, hands pressed to his throat demanding surrender.

“Teach her our ways Asta, do not hold back.” His command carries weight, she cannot disappoint him. He needs her to defeat Dagny. Give the girl a taste of humiliation, remind her that she never wants to feel this way again.

He limps back, giving enough space for the two women who focus on one another. Asta circles Dagny like a hungry panther. The charcoal smudged around her eyes only adds severity to the lethal stare she has for Ivar’s she wolf. Dagny doesn’t miss this, dull blues note every step taken and in which direction she goes. The circle for several minutes, two opponents studying one another. He grips the crutch at his side with urgency. He longs for the scent of fresh blood spilt.

Asta lunges first. It’s caught Dagny off guard, for she isn’t finished assessing her opponent. But Asta cares little for formalities, this fight is meant to teach a lesson. The shieldmaiden collides with the she wolf, and a cry escapes her lips that rings music to Ivar’s ears. Dagny’s body hits the dirt hard enough that vibrations tremor in the dirt. A fist cracks against those sharp cheekbones loud enough to garner a gasp from the other guard. A wail fills the air as Asta winds up for another blow.

This time Dagny’s ready. Legs as tall as the trees in the forest wrap around the shieldmaiden’s torso. With one tug Dagny throws Asta off balance, and they both lie in the dirt. The she wolf takes precious seconds to mount the other, grasping Asta’s right arm and twisting it with a deafening pop. The shield maiden screeches, and wildly slugs her loose arm in the air. Her sharp talons meet Dagny’s eye, piercing the sensitive flesh that rests below the socket. A copper scent fills the air, first blood is drawn.

But Dagny doesn’t falter as he expects she will. Instead she takes a swing, the ivory knuckles making contact with the cartilage of Asta’s nose. It isn’t hard enough to snap the fine bone, but a river of red flows from her nostrils like water.

A wild smile tugs against Dagny’s lips, a small moment of victory that’s careless. Never lose your focus before the battle is over. He’s made that mistake, in a time when his first battle was fresh bodies on the field in Northumbria. Now he knows better, and Asta does too. She takes advantage of the way Dagny’s legs loosen their hold, how the other woman’s mind is consumed in her successful blow. It occurs in a blink, one second she’s pinned to the ground, the next she has the she wolf pinned to her side.

Asta has a death grip on the plait he admires, and Ivar shifts with uncertainty as his shieldmaiden tugs on the braid, slamming Dagny’s head into the dirt. She does this several times, each more forceful than the last. A cry escapes the she wolf, but Ivar ignores the way his nails dig into his crutch. She has to learn . He tells himself. She will not learn if he intervenes. A puddle of blood fills the dirt, Dagny’s nose in a similar state to Asta’s. The dirt clings to the surface of her face. A mixture of brown and red against swollen features.

“Submit.” Asta Commands.

Dagny doesn’t. Her back leg raises in a swift kick, just missing Asta’s skull. The shield maiden retaliates by shoving her head into the dirt again. This time she pins her down, another hand wrapping around Dagny’s pale throat.

She squeezes. “Submit.”

A feral cry leaves the other’s lips. She thrashes in the dirt, any attempt to free a limb to save her skin.

Asta doesn’t relent, once more Dagny’s face slams into the dirt. He wonders if her heads gone numb from the death grip against her plait. He keeps a sharp eye, waiting for the stirring of anything within. The moment man loses itself to what lies within. But not even a flicker of it fills her defeated gaze. Disappointment courses through him.

Bow your head little wolf, you’ve been bested.

Asta grips her throat again, this time the action is meant with more force. A violent gag penetrates the air as Dagny gasps for any form of oxygen. Only dirt particles and blood return.

“Submit.” Asta’s voice is laced with more force now. In disbelief of the stubborn woman below her.

A whimper escapes the bloody lips of the she wolf. The defeat an extra layer of skin that doesn’t quite meet her eyes. She’s disappointed, it’s a dreaded feeling that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. A shaking hand meets the battered neck where Asta clutches at her throat. She taps against it, her submission hanging heavy in the air.

Asta’s quick to release her, and Dagny’s greedy gasps fill the air. She rolls onto her back as Asta retreats toward Ivar. A hand clutches at the throat that’s now painted with plumes of black and blue. It’s beautiful in such a savage way.

“Good work, Asta.” Ivar gives his shieldmaiden a nod. “Clean your wounds.”

It’s the closest to praise he can achieve. In the eyes of Asta it’s more than enough. For when she only began under his rule he hardly glanced her way. Now he acknowledges her efforts in more than just a grunt.

He doesn’t approach Dagny as she remains on the ground, clouded gaze staring at the grey sky above.

“Dagny.”

A moan penetrates the air, it’s the only acknowledgement that she’s heard him at all.

“Dagny.” His voice hardens. “Get up.”

Her movements are slow, but she still responds to his command. Her face isn’t anything less than a mess. Cuts decorate nearly every inch of it. A plume of purple and red rests below her left eye, the swelling more evident with every blink. Blood pools from her nose to her lips, making it difficult to decipher which area it originates from. Another soft moan of pain escapes her lips and Ivar swears he can feel the tightness in his chest, but blames it on sheer surprise. He doesn’t expect such a visible show of weakness. Perhaps this is her first real fight, the first time she’s ever lost. That’s a bruise that never quite fades.

She limps over toward him, her left foot dragging in the dirt. “I’m not doing that again.”

“You don’t have a choice.” His voice is cold, devoid of emotion. “It’s the only way you’ll learn.”

She’s in front of him now, the marks on her face more severe up close. “I refuse to be beat to a pulp everyday. This isn’t training it’s torment.”

“Then give back the bow.”

“No.”

“You know as well as I do everything bears a price, Dagny. This is that price.”

The bow is her. One does not exist without the other. That is why her brother came everyday despite the risk. That is why she spent weeks crumpled against snapped wood with little desire to do much else. To take the bow away is to tear away a piece of herself. She can’t stomach it, this much Ivar knows. He sees it then. For the first time since the time with the hammer. It’s subtle, almost missed. Her eyes stir with heat, a severity that wasn’t there seconds before. Her fists shake, pressed to her sides. She’s fighting it with more strength than was attempted with Asta.

Wake up little wolf.

“You’re fighting it.” Ivar scolds. “Why won’t you let it out?”

“Because,” Her voice strained. “I can’t.”

“Let go.” He presses.

Her entire body shakes, it’s violent enough that the guard behind Ivar has a hand pressed to his blade. Her jaw clenches, revealing a row of teeth that threaten to bite down  on him in any moment. But he yearns for the Úlfhéðnar to reveal itself.

But it doesn’t. With sharp movements she turns away, coaxing the beast back beneath the layers of careful protection.

There’s plenty he wishes to say. How she’s blissfully ignorant of the potential held within. That men kill for a power like that, and she only wastes it. That bloodlust and violence aren’t such a terrible thing to crave. If he were weak he’d confess his jealousy, that he’d give anything to possess the Úlfhéðnar inside of him. And that if he did, nothing in this world would be safe.

“Tomorrow you will run here, no horseback. When the run becomes to easy, stuff your pockets with stones. When that is too easy, carry logs for the fire in my hall. Asta will fight you until you win. Once you defeat the string of warriors we’ll focus on weaponry. I want you ready when the ice thaws.” His voice is no less severe, despite the conflict raging inside.

She doesn’t look back, only a simple nod. Dagny’s exhaustion is evident, the war beaten right out of her.

“Go home, clean your pride and be prepared for tomorrow.”

She’s dismissed, and doesn’t waste a moment retreating away. Not once do those stormy blues meet his, he only gets a glimpse at her backside as she disappears into the crowd of people eager to trade pelts for the bitter cold.

I’ll make a warrior of you. He thinks. And I’ll make an empire for myself.