Chapter 1: The Dream
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.
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?”
“Is some fool with a deathwish storming the gates?”
“Is a plague spreading through the port?”
“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.
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.
“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.
Some notes about the ages of the characters. I based Ivar's age off of his wiki page that says he's 18 in 5A. So now he would be about 28 and Hvitserk is about 31-32. Dagny is 20, Yir is 17, Hlodvir is 15, and Bardi is twelve.
Chapter 3: Bloody Sow
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 4: The Plan
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.
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.
“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 5: The Serpent
Life has been crazy. I have also had a terrible bout of writers block and couldn't get this chapter finished. I've been working on it for over a month. I am not completely happy with all the execution, there is a lot of inner conflict taking place. But I hope you all enjoy it regardless. Thank you for understanding and putting up with my absence.
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.
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.
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.”
“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 .
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.