Kara was homesick.
She missed the roar of the waves frothing against the rocky shores of her ancestral home. The wind sweeping the small village as it huddled under a thick blanket of snow during the winter months. The ever present taste of salt, bitter on her tongue. Stinging her nose. Brine and frost and fresh snow making her teeth ache if she inhaled too deeply.
It was a hard life, the one she’d left behind at her mother’s behest, fraught with peril and bloodshed, but she was starting to think she had traded it away for a worse one.
This new land was softer. Kara hadn’t seen so much green in the same place in her entire life, and when they’d first come upriver some six months prior she could only stare open-mouthed like some sort of simpleton.
She ought to be happy, and sometimes she was — when listening to Nia weave her stories around the fire for example, or as she stumbled on crumbling roman ruins to explore — but mostly she felt… disappointment.
The scents were all wrong. Strange to her nose, and unfamiliar. And the people!
They’d left Norway behind because one woman was seeking to unite all clans under her banner, whether they wanted it or not, only to find out that things in England were the same. There were four kingdoms, as far as Kara understood, all squabbling for supremacy with one another. And inside a few, as was the case here in Mercia, people couldn’t even decide who among them should be Jarl of a settlement, let alone an entire realm.
Her clan wasn’t the first to cross the sea; she had heard of more Danes further south, near Lunden, but instead of uniting against the common enemy, it seemed that their arrival had divided the Saxons even more. Some openly opposed them, it was true, but a few had sought out alliances. Her aunt Astra, who acted as their Jarlskona in Alura’s absence, had her hands full with emissaries from Saxon nobles so keen to see their opponents dead they were willing to pay the Danes in silver to do the dirty work for them.
A consummate diplomat, Astra had managed to keep them all at bay, avoiding to tie their clan’s fortune to this or that Saxon noble house, but the delicate balance wouldn’t last forever.
That was why she, Alex and their small band of warriors tirelessly worked to plunder what riches they could. The sooner work around their growing settlement was finished, the sooner they could send word to Norway. To where her mother waited news there was a safe place for the rest of their clan. Away from Rhea’s rule.
“Still dreaming about home?” Alex whispered in her ear, the teasing smile on her lips visible despite the dwindling light.
An open field lay just ahead of them, and they fell quiet as they crossed it, crouched low among the swaying grasses. Most of the region was bogs and rolling hills, and the sound had a way of carrying for miles if one wasn’t mindful of the wind.
Another thing Kara hated about England, or at least the bit of it she’d seen. The lack of mountains. All these open spaces, no obstacles between her and the horizon, made her feel overexposed. She couldn’t help but tense, always expecting an unseen enemy to plant an arrow right between her shoulder blades.
Summer was at its end and nearly spent, the grass they trundled through already browning at the tips. Sprays of color broke the brown-green monotone, but the dandelions and the daisies, the kingcups and the harebells were at the end of their life; baked husks under the waning summer sun.
This particular stretch of land was left for the wilderness to do with it as it pleased, but to her right — far enough they looked like a child’s wooden toys in the distance — Kara could see a cluster of farms. The land there was mostly bare, the harvest done and safely tucked away in Saxon cellars.
On any other day Astra might have sent them to barter for what food they still couldn’t make on their own — Saxons had a fondness for mead just like the Danes — but tonight they were after something more important, at least according to her aunt.
“So where’s this place Astra told us about?” Kara picked up as they left the fields for the cover of a copse of trees. The farms were far behind them now, and it felt safe enough to talk. “This priory .” She stumbled over the foreign word, her tongue knotting around it. Alex had tried to explain the concept to her, but Kara still barely understood. Like most of the things associated with the odd god the Saxons worshipped, this too seemed silly.
Did gathering holy women in one place help them to be heard better when they prayed? Wouldn’t it be more useful for them to live among the people, healing and offering advice the way a Vølve did for a clan?
Kara was sure that even if she lived in England another hundred years she’d never understand them.
“On an islet in the middle of the river. We’re nearly there.”
Kara nodded. She could smell it. Mud and stagnant water. Reeds and the musky stink of rotting wood. The earthy combination wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but so different from what she’d grown up around it jarred her senses still. Made her heart ache for home even more.
“You mean we could have used a longboat to get here?” Winn chimed in, and when Kara turned to look at him he was rolling his eyes at Alex’s back. “Instead of, you know, walking cross-country for two days?”
“Of course.” Alex spared him a long-suffering glance. “And have half the countryside alerted to our presence and roused in the priory’s defence.”
Winn made an unconvinced sound, and they fell into soft-spoken bickering. Nothing new to see there, so Kara left them to butt heads over strategy and strode ahead, scouting the terrain.
The thicket — nothing more than a tangle of bristling pine — gave way to another open field. The ground here sloped upward, a gentle incline at first, and then steeper near the top. A few paces from cresting the small hill, Kara dropped to her belly, crawling through bushes and wind-beaten ferns, fingers sinking into the crumbly soil as she pulled herself upward. She could hear the others do the same behind her, the argument shelved for the time being.
She crested the hill carefully, pressed to the ground as much as she could. The sun was setting at her back, bronze-orange light spilling over her shoulders, and had she been standing her silhouette would have been visible against the glare.
Their first few months in Mercia had taught them that any land that they did not control must be considered hostile.
“There.” Alex, who had crept up to her side, pointed a finger. “You see?”
“We’ll have to swim across.” She observed, trying to guess how wide the river was, how much time it’d take to gather the small warband on the islet at the foot of the priory. “We should wait till nightfall.”
Her sharp eyes focused on a cove that would be perfect for regrouping once they’d waded across, and she tilted her head toward it, showing it to Alex.
“Perfect.” Her half-sister clapped her on the back. “Good eye, Kara.”
“I expected it’d be bigger.” Winn commented, his gaze fixed on the buildings at the center of the islet. “Doesn’t look like a place that will hold a lot of treasure if you ask me.”
“It is sensible, if you think about it.” Querl Dox too was studying the convent, peering through the smooth piece of crystal he called a magnifying lens. “A humble place, swiftly overlooked, makes for a perfect hiding spot.”
A mysterious man, Querl had joined their clan right as they were casting off for this new land, and set up shop in the middle of their village. Trading with whoever wanted his goods, and crafting things Kara had never even dreamed could exist.
Nobody knew where he came from; some said he belonged to the Cimbri, others named him a Frank. He spoke those dialects fluidly, and many others too, but Kara suspected he came from a different place altogether. To her it didn’t matter — he was a friend and a brother in arms, just like the others.
Neither him nor Winn were wrong. Kara had raided her fair share of saxon holy shrines, and most had been bigger. Imposing, with statues of their saints, and friezes adorning the cloisters. The only thing this priory had in common with the rest was how cold it looked. Like all their other places of worship. Stone and men of faith carved from the granite frowning from their plinths down at the penitent.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit too guarded though?” Querl offered the crystal to her, so she could take a look as well. “There, you see? Near the gates.”
Bringing the crystal up to one eye, Kara squeezed the other shut to help herself focus. Despite the stone’s bluish tinge the images were clear. Immediately, the group of buildings leapt closer, and she saw what her friend meant. There were guards near the gates and more scattered among the stone structures. About a score of them, and she groaned, passing the magnifying lens to Alex.
“That’s not good.”
“Well, that’s an understatement.” Her sister fired back absently, shifting in the tall grass. “Do you recognize their colors?”
“I can’t tell in this light.” Behind them the sun finally set, one last blaze of red scorching the horizon before the radiance completely disappeared. Far to the east, the sky had already turned the deep indigo of nightfall, and a few stars winked into existence, drops of silver against the velvet blue. Kara squinted, anyway. “Dark green, maybe? Could be anyone.”
“So what do we do?” Winn had uncased his bow, and was fishing for a new string under his cloak, eyes already darting to possible targets. He would need to get a little closer, but he was the best bowman they had, even in the dark, and his arrows would provide invaluable cover while they closed in on the buildings.
Pursing her lips, Kara considered.
The odds weren’t bad, but if they’d known they’d be facing such a sizable armed force, Kara would have asked her aunt to send more men. As it was, she had no doubt they would succeed, but it might turn bloody.
“Wait till full dark, get a sense of the patrol patterns then approach. Keep things quiet as long as we can.” Her words were met by nodding heads.
Their strategy decided, they left Winn to keep an eye on things up top and retreated further down, nearer the trees.
Under the snarl of conifers, night had already fallen, and shadows wrapped tightly around the warband, hiding it from prying eyes.
All those who had come along on this expedition were seasoned veterans, used to the lull before a battle. War was made up mostly of waiting, and Kara’s companions blended with the trees to do just that — only untested youngsters thought that a warrior could spend countless hours with axe and shield in hand. A few, like Sam, slept a little, while others ate a quick bite from their rations.
Kara ate nothing, but when Alex handed her a waterskin she drank from it liberally, before finding a spot for herself under a crooked pine, and closing her eyes for a while.
She didn’t sleep, but let her mind coast along the borders separating dreams from wakefulness until she was one with the drengr around her, with the tree her back was pressed against. Until she was aware of every sound, down to the scuttle of the mice in the underbrush, and could name all the scents filling her nose.
The man-made smells; metal and oils, leather and the excited, near burnt musk of reavers who may be ending lives before the night was done. The rest; the river, the resin from the trees, the specific scent the ground had at night when it released the trapped heat of the sun. Even a whiff of frankincense, brought in by the wind. From the monastery.
And then, without her really being able to tell how much time had passed, Alex was touching her arm, face serious.
With a sigh Kara stretched and stood, hand instincively falling to the axe handle at her side. She took an extra moment while the others too got ready, sending her mind up, high among the tattered clouds. Higher still. To pray Odin look upon them and send them all home safe.
Should one or more of them be called to Valhalla tonight, she hoped what Astra had sent them to recover would be worth it.
From her cell’s narrow window halfway up the belfry, Lena had a commanding view of the countryside around the Isle of Ely.
The river flowed placidly by, and beyond it fields stretched as far as the eye could see. On fairer days, if the light was favorable, she could even glimpse a flash of white in the place where the ground and the sky met; the snow-capped mountains of Northumbria.
Too bad she wasn’t free to roam any of it.
Her cell, unlike those of the cloistered sisters, was a cell in practice as well as name. Four bare walls, a narrow bed, a chamber pot for her bodily functions and a crucifix hung above the cot for the needs of her soul. A rickety table, which currently held a chipped basin and pitcher with water she’d collected from the communal pump herself.
Free to go wherever she wished within the convent’s walls, but forbidden from getting out. Where it counted. Where she wanted to be.
On her worst days Lena thought the canoness had assigned her these quarters on purpose, to torture her with the sight of that which she could not have. Not that Eve was so smart on her own — it had probably been Lex’s idea.
Turning her back to the window, she let out a weary sigh and went to sit at the table. At sunset, she’d thought she’d gleaned a flash of metal atop one of the nearest hills, right across the river from the convent. Steel maybe, but it was gone in moments, as soon as the sun had set. Wishful thinking, or a piece of some old tool lost in the grass.
She was about to light a candle when the door opened, revealing the canoness on the other side.
“Lena.” This was Eve’s domain, and she didn’t deem it necessary to use any of her titles. “Here you are.”
“And where else would I be?” Lena challenged, frustration rising inside her chest. “Gone for an evening stroll along the river?”
Refusing to swallow her bait, Eve threw her a condescending look. It bothered Lena all the more. Like her, Eve was an omega who had been forced into a life she didn’t want, and Lena had foolishly thought she would find, if not an ally, at least a bit of sympathy for her plight.
It was not to be the case; the wretched woman was all too happy to do whatever Lena’s brother asked of her and more. If he ordered the hot iron be put to Lena’s flesh, she had no doubt Eve would warm it under the coals herself.
“Has God in his infinite wisdom shown you the way, child?” They were the same age, but Eve loved nothing more than to treat Lena like she was being a stubborn toddler, throwing a tantrum. “Surely by now you understand your brother only wants the good of Mercia?”
“My brother wants men to fight his wars, and gold to line his pockets.” Lena replied, with her head held high. “And if the path to get what he desires lies between my legs so be it. He doesn’t care for me, and if you think you’ll be rewarded once you’ve done his bidding you’re an even bigger fool than I initially thought. Lex will forget you, and you should count yourself lucky he does.”
“Perhaps a night of contemplation without food will help you put order in your mind.” Only now, at the mention of food did Lena notice that the detestable milksop was holding a tray with bread and watered wine and what smelled like some sort of vegetable stew. “In time you will understand that King Lex—”
“Lex is no king.” Not yet. “But his name is on your mouth so often revered sister, one has to wonder whether other parts of him find their way inside of you as well.”
The barb struck true — it was obvious from how quickly color rose to Eve’s cheeks. She burned positively red, and had a gaze been capable of murder Lena would have been lying in a pool of her own blood. The wicked joy she felt at the canoness’s fury was short-lived, however.
Before she could even think of lunging for the tray the woman had retreated, wounded pride and all,slamming the door shut in her wake. In Lena’s face as well, the thunderous crash followed by the more ominous, sobering sound of a key turning.
Even though she knew it was futile, Lena threw herself against the door with all her might. The heavy, iron-banded oak rattled on its hinges, but all she achieved was to bruise her shoulder.
That objective reached, she retreated, nursing the self-inflicted injury and sulked.
Once she made it out of this accursed place, she'd make sure to repay Eve with equal kindness. Her brother wished her to marry into one of the other noble families of Mercia — teghn Edge or Lockwood would be preferable since they both could raise quite the armed force — but any who could bolster his claim to the throne of Mercia would do.
And Lena just might agree, if only to ask for the canoness's head as a wedding gift from her new husband.
While it was all well and good to keep her blood up with thoughts of vengeance, Lena didn’t mean to marry. Not to any of the louts that would please her brother, at the very least. Someone of her choosing, sure. Eventually.
Once she’d seen the world, perhaps aboard a longship the way that the Danes did, she would settle down. Find an honorable alpha, one who wouldn’t treat her as if her only purpose in life was childbirth, and build a home together.
But that was something for the future. Present Lena wanted to leave Mercia behind, possibly England as well, and head across the sea to Francia, or further south to see Rome in all its crumbling glory. She wanted to visit places of learning, read everything she came across. Study under the great minds of her time.
Lex knew of course, because when they were younger, his mind still free of ambition, it was a dream that they had shared. Travel together to see the wonders the world had to offer, returning home to Mercia only after they had had their fill.
Then, their father died, and all of a sudden all Lex could dream of was the throne.
Like she had done every other night since her brother’s men took her to the priory, Lena canvassed the small room for a way out. For anything she may have overlooked. She pushed-pulled at the brickwork, tried to force the door open again. Checked under the cot for anything she could turn into a tool of escape. Nothing.
She should have expected as much — after all she had been looking for more than a fortnight — but giving up meant losing what little hope she’d managed to preserve. Admitting defeat would make it all too tempting to say yes to the plans Lex had for her just to regain some semblance of freedom.
Lena hadn’t reached that point, but unless she found a way out soon —
Eyeing the crucifix on the wall, Lena wondered whether she should pray. The nailed Christ had been deaf to her pleas for deliverance before — no reason in particular he should change his mind now — but it was worth a shot.
What did Lena have to lose? What else was there to do? On an empty stomach and with the empty dullness of the night stretching ahead of her, it’d give her mind something to focus on other than despair.
She was about to get on her knees when a gust of wind from the window made it into the room. The casements were old and ill-fitting, letting more than the occasional breeze through.
If she was still jailed up here come winter, the sisters might find her frozen one morning, unless she was given a brazier. Which they’d never allow her to have, for fear she’d set fire to herself and the lot of them.
The lone tongue of fire twisted in the current, burning brighter for a moment, and Lena’s gaze fell to the travel chest tucked at the foot of the bed.
Held here against her will she may be, but Lex had made sure some of her personal things were packed for her. Harmless objects all — jewels and dresses, a small mirror of beaten bronze, vellum and inks so that she could copy verses from the scriptures and amend her errant ways.
The latter, Lena had used to try and get messages out to whoever she thought was likely to intervene on her behalf, but either she was not important enough to warrant aid, or the guards she’d tried to bribe had burned the notes after pocketing her gold.
Considering they were men Lex had hired to guard her that seemed… likely.
Among what she had been allowed to keep was a small cross carved from bone, given to her by Cat Grant, one of her ladies-in-waiting. The older woman had been a close friend of Lena’s birth mother, and followed her into the Luthor household when Lionel took Lena in. A wealthy noble in her own right, Cat hadn’t been required to accompany her, but she did so nonetheless. When Lena asked her why she never got a straight answer, and after some time, she stopped asking altogether. Too glad to have a friend among the wolves to care about her motives.
On a whim Lena unlocked the trunk, rummaging through its contents until her fingers brushed the pouch holding the bone token. To a cursory first glance, it would appear as what she’d named it — a cross, not unlike the ones the nuns here wore. Theirs, however, were fashioned out of wood.
But it wasn’t just a cross. In fact, it was not a cross at all. It hadn’t taken Lena long to figure it out, to find the symbols engraved on the back.
Cat gave her the token without any explanation, but Lena was well read, and had recognized the tiny etchings right away. Older signs, frisian runes similar to the ones the Danes still used.
Wōdan’s name. Grounds to be declared a heretic if somebody as knowledgeable as her found the trinket in her possession. It explained why Cat had acted so suspiciously when handing it to her, pressing it into her hand as she was about to climb onto her horse for the first leg of the journey here.
Among the dust and confusion, guards and servants darting all around to carry out last minute tasks, nobody had spared the two of them a glance.
Just two friends, saying goodbye to one another.
Clasping the bone token in her hand, Lena knelt. Not by the bed, but by the window, eyes fixed to the darkness beyond. Where she knew her salvation lay. Somehow.
There she called for Wōdan’s aid, prayers and words she’d only heard in passing from the common folk working in her brother’s fortress. All had embraced the new faith, but when the one god failed to listen many readily turned to the old ways.
Lena wasn’t sure how long she knelt on the cold floor, but her mind slipped into a strange trance. Perhaps it was the words she was reciting over and over under her breath, or maybe just the chill, seeping from the hard uneven stone into her body.
Then the candle winked out, making her jump, and the piece of bone she’d held so carefully in both hands snapped clean in half.
She barely had time to gasp before the abbey’s great bells started to toll.
Everything had been going well up until a guard they had not accounted for wandered outside to relieve himself in the shrubbery.
Kara’s throwing axe had hit him squarely between the shoulder blades, but not before he screamed, raising the alarm.
After that, things rapidly went from bad to worse.
“How many are there?” Alex yelled, from across the cloister, bashing a Saxon’s face in with the edge of her shield. “This is definitely more than one bloody score!”
“Just keep fighting!” Kara ducked under a spear thrust, headbutting another soldier into unconsciousness. “They’ll run out of reinforcements eventually!”
Someone had set fire to one of the Saxsons’ standards — green and gold, bearing a sigil Kara didn’t recognize, even up close — and the air was filled by the stench of smoldering cloth.
A dark haze had fallen over the priory, hiding the stars and the river from view. Men and women flickered in and out of existence around Kara, emerging from the smoke like wraiths, before they disappeared just as suddenly. Sound was muted as well; the clang of steel on steel, the war cries, the terrified screams.
It was a dream, and Kara moved through it in a daze, lungs burning with the heat of the fires and eyes watering.
To her the battle lasted hours, but when she lowered the axe to her side, muscles knotted, Kara reassesed. Due to the smoke, it had felt as though there was no end to the Saxons, but when a cold wind blew the smog away, cleansing the air, she realized their initial count hadn’t been too far off.
Most of the guards had been subdued, and sat in an unhappy gaggle with her warriors watching over them. A few had been killed, which was inevitable, but the sight still soured Kara’s mood. She didn’t like killing if it could be helped, and regretted they hadn’t managed to complete their task as stealthily as planned.
“The women?” She asked, taking stock of their forces. Except for a few cuts and bruises everyone seemed fine, and her shoulders unclenched.
“I sent Querl, Sam and James to round up the nuns .” Alex replied, leaning on her spear. She would never admit it, but Kara could tell that she was tired. As leaden with fatigue as Kara felt. “They shouldn’t take too long.”
She was just done talking when the three of them reappeared, herding the Christian holy women. Most looked and smelled terrified, but the one at their head — who was dressed far more richly than the rest and whose cross was of solid gold, not wood — held herself as if the drengir surrounding her were an honor guard.
“That’s their leader.” Querl advised, siding up to Kara. “And that one at the back, dressed differently? We found her in the belfry, away from the rest.”
“A prisoner?” Alex inquired, frowning.
“It doesn’t matter.” Kara cut them off. The one they were talking about had donned a cloak, the deep hood shrouding her features. She stood as apart from the nuns as Kara’s warriors let her, back as straight as that of their leader. A noble no doubt, if Querl was right. Which meant more trouble than she wanted or had time to deal with. “That’s not why were here, remember?” She didn’t quite reach the authoritative tone she’d been going for. The hooded woman was looking her right in the eye, Kara could feel the weight of her gaze despite the cowl. It was distracting.
“Right.” Taken to task, her sister refocused. “The relics. Some of the others found an ornate chest inside the church. Behind the altar.” She nodded to the building on their right. It was small, barely enough to accomodate the sisters, the outer walls crawling with ivy.
“But?” Alex’s demeanor suggested they’d encountered some difficulties.
“But it’s locked.”
Of course it was.
“Alright.” Kara sighed, the start of a headache building behind her eyes. Why did everything have to be so complicated? “Alex, do your thing, please?”
Wasting no time, her sister got right down to it.
She strode over to the huddle of women, twirling the spear in her hands until the foot of sharp steel capping one end of it glowed the same gold-orange of the fires.
A few of the nuns shuffled back at the sight, scared and wide-eyed, Alex openly sneering at their fear. Kara didn’t care for this part as much as she didn’t like killing, but if a bit of play-pretend could loosen tongues and save them time she’d go along with it, the way Astra and her own mother had taught her.
“So.” Pressing her thumb to the spear’s tip, Alex pricked herself, letting a streak of red dribble onto the metal. “There’s a chest we can’t open inside your church. Which one of you wants to hand over the keys?”
These Danes were nothing like Lena had expected.
Not that she believed the stories that the servants exchanged around the kitchen fires when they thought no one else was listening. She had discounted the blood-drinking rumors with a scoff, and openly laughed when a stable-hand suggested the invaders ate children — even their own.
“Impossible.” She told Cat later with a roll of her eyes. “There’s just too many of them in England for that particular piece of gossip to be true.”
She would admit, if only to herself, that when one of them had broken her door down she’d been afraid. The most outlandish rumors were just that, tall tales spun by men afraid of their own shadows, but the truth was bad enough.
Lena had never been involved in a raid before, nor war, but she’d seen the aftermath. The pillaging and rape. The screams she’d heard come from the nuns below had her fretting about the second.
She didn’t want to be married against her will, and most certainly did not want to be taken against it either.
But the Dane who’d taken her downstairs had been kind-mannered if distant, and the moment she was pushed among them she could tell none of the women had been harmed. The same couldn’t be said for her brother’s soldiers, but try as she might, Lena felt no pity for her jailers.
The reek of fear was almost overwhelming in her nose making it wrinkle in disgust, but although bothersome, it wasn’t what held her full attention.
No. Green eyes had met blue across the smoky courtyard, and she had been unable to tear her gaze away since.
This warrior was even taller than the others, her hair the color of spun gold, shaved on one side to expose the bluish black tattoo on her temple. Her eyes were the brightest blue Lena had ever seen, as stormy as the sea she’d seen only once in her life when she’d accompanied her father to the cliffs near Dover.
Lena should be grateful to the man who had collected her for allowing her to grab a cloak before taking her downstairs. At least, she had the small mercy of her blush being hidden by its cowl.
The rest of them, soldiers and nuns alike, seemed to believe the woman now threatening them — a tall warrior with hair kissed by fire — was the leader of this warband, but Lena knew better. She had noticed how the Dane had moved to speak to them only after blue-eyes had motioned her on, and the way the remainder of the invaders acted, watching over blue-eyes like she was to be protected at all costs, was enough for her to know who the true leader was.
“Well?” The red-haired Dane was saying, voice thick with irritation. “The key to the chest, where is it? Things will get bad for you if you don’t talk.”
“We could roast one of them over the fire.” Another warrior-woman suggested with a smirk when none of the nuns balked. “I’m feeling peckish.”
“Good idea.” This was the warband leader, and the growl edging her words made Lena shiver. Although… She frowned, studying the woman’s face with care. Her jaw was set, the line of her mouth unyielding, but her eyes — her eyes sparkled with amusement she could not completely conceal. “Or sacrifice a few to the All-Father. We already have a pyre.” The leader added, gesturing to a nearby stack of burning wood, but now that Lena had caught on to their game, she easily picked up on the amused lilt in her voice.
She must be the only one, though, for the other sisters screamed in horror.
Eve was the only other one who didn’t, but her face had paled to a shade of green that would perfectly match one of the Luthor household’s banners.
“If it’s the key to the Saint’s relics you want, she has it.” Lena shouldered past two cowering nuns to point a finger in Eve’s direction. “Carries it with her everywhere she goes.”
“Search her.” Blue-eyes ordered, making it clear to everyone who truly was in charge.
Red-hair and another warrior woman leapt to obey, Eve sputtering in indignation as they bracketed her between them and frisked her for the keys.
“Heathens!” She spat, including Lena in the hate-filled stare she directed at the Danes. “You’ll burn in Hell for this sacrilege! All of you!”
“Oh, shut up .” Red grumbled, pawing at the pouch that hung from Eve’s slender waist. “Here!” She tossed her prize to the quiet man who’d escorted Lena into the courtyard and nodded to the church. “Let’s get those dusty bones and go. Preferably somewhere far away from here.” She rolled her eyes at Eve, who was still prattling on about sin and the fires of Hell which would consume them all.
A few of the warriors headed to the building, evidently sharing in her eagerness.
“Once we’ve gotten what we came for, you’ll be free.” The Dane leader stepped forth to fill the silence, doing her best to sound reassuring.
It was a stark contrast to the bloodthirsty image she’d been projecting in order to make somebody talk, and most of the nuns seemed torn between relief and lingering terror. Eve spat at her feet. “We won’t hurt you.” The Dane continued, ignoring the offending gesture. “You have my word.”
“You don’t take prisoners?” Lena asked, unable to keep a note of disbelief from the question. If there was one thing all the rumors agreed on, it was that the Danes took people as thralls, or to sell them.
“My clan doesn’t trade in flesh.” Anger bolted across the blonde’s face, gone so quickly Lena thought she’d imagined it. “And we don’t keep slaves for ourselves. You should be glad.”
Lena was, in a way. But she’d hoped the Danes might take a few hostages, if just to secure their exit.
She had planned to use what gold was still in her possession to buy passage, as far as Mercia's border and out of her brother's reach if possible. Or maybe to a port where she'd be able to secure a spot on a ship. Eire or Francia didn't matter, as long as it took her far, far away from Lex.
“Here they are.”
Her reflections were cut short by the warriors returning from the church. Lena had never seen the holy bones of Saint Tibba for herself, but had seen other such relics. The outer chest ornate as it was — the one Eve had guarded the key of — was for protection only. The bones would be kept in a much smaller box of beaten silver or some other precious metal. Honestly, if it was riches the Danes were after, the container was far more valuable than the bones themselves.
Yet, they might also find a devout Saxon noble willing to pay his weight in gold to see the relics safely returned.
Such a box was what one of the Danes was holding up now, so that her leader could inspect it.
“This is it?” Blue-eyes seemed surprised. Disappointed, even. “I expected something more…”
“Portentous?” Red-hair suggested, examining the engraving on the lid. A falcon, its wings spread as it took flight. “You said it yourself. These Christians are a strange lot.”
“Be as it may, this is what Astra sent us to get.” The leader continued, brows knitting in thought. “Although I can’t imagine how it’ll make the Saxons listen to her more.”
“Astra knows best.” Red hair dismissed her leader’s doubts with a shrug. “Let us be off. I want ale and —” She halted, glancing to the one who held the box, and her hard face softened. “And our bed.” She added, so softly Lena heard only because she was standing closer to the Danes than to the Saxons.
They were going to leave, she realized, heart thudding loudly in her ears. They were going to vanish back into the countryside, and she’d be left here at Eve’s mercy. She had figured that helping them get what they wanted would gain her a measure of gratitude, but no. The uncouth idiots were going to leave her here to rot, and judging from the murderous glances Eve stole in her direction, once the canoness was done her brother would be lucky to have a hunk of meat to marry off.
“Wait.” She hurried forward, reaching out to grab the leader’s arm. Up close she was even taller, towering a good head over Lena. And she smelled…
Oh, Lord have mercy .
Nose saturated by the pungent smell of smoke, Lena hadn’t registered it, but now there was no denying the undiluted alpha scent that rolled off of the Dane in waves.
She’d never cared for such things; the alphas her brother had paraded round his fort to entice her into choosing one reeked too much of ale and sweat and violence to elicit anything other than disgust. But this Dane—
Her scent was clean underneath the blood and battle grime. Snow, barley fields and open water. Sunlight, warm over a forest.
Lena blinked, inhaling, and when the Dane pushed back the hood that still obscured her face, she did not resist.
“What is it?” Lena noted her grip on the woman’s arm had tightened only when muscles jumped under her fingers, flexing in response. She snatched her hand back, almost choking on a whine.
“Take me with you.” How embarrassing for her to sound this needy. Lena came close to taking the words back before reasoning her cracking voice may play to her advantage. “Please, don’t leave me here.”
She could tell her closeness, if not the words themselves, was having an effect. The Dane couldn’t take her eyes off of her.
The reverse also being true was entirely accidental. In order to meet the taller woman’s eyes at all, she had to crane her neck just so, and it was not her fault that the motion left her throat wholly exposed.
It wasn’t .
“I already told you.” The Dane sounded as though she’d been dragged through a quarry by the throat, then forced to eat chalk. “We don’t take prisoners. We don’t need slaves.”
Her scent shifted as she spoke, letting Lena know that a fight had broken out behind the unruffled surface of those eyes. Instincts and honor went to war inside the Dane, and it was not clear which one would win.
“You busy yourselves with crumbling bones when there’s something of far greater value right here in front of you.”
“Such as?” Red interjected, scowling. “If you mean her pretty cross—” She gestured at the crucifix hanging from Eve’s neck, and the canoness clasped it to her chest. “We have plenty of such trinkets. One more won’t make us rich.”
“I mean me .” Opening her arms with a pinch of theatrics, Lena turned in a slow circle. “I can be of importance to you, more than you imagine. I’m Lena, daughter of—”
“No! You fool ” Your brother —” Eve flung herself at her, and would have clawed at her eyes if Red hadn’t been swift to intercept her, knocking her flat on her arse with the butt of her spear.
“Alex!” The Dane leader looked on horrified.
“What? I had warned her to shut up.” Alex nudged the canoness with the toe of a boot, getting a pitiful moan out of her. “See? She’s not dead. She’ll just have a headache when she wakes, like the one she gave me.”
“As I was saying,” Lena resumed, sensing the two of them would devolve into arguing if she didn’t harness their attention. “I am the daughter of Lionel Luthor, who was teghn of Repton before my brother.”
She had imagined the revelation would bring shock to their faces, perhaps recognition, but the Danes stared blankly as if she’d spoken a load of gibberish.
“Luthor you say?” Alex wiped at the soot on her cheek with little result. “Which one would that be, Kara?”
"I'm not sure."
Lena had some trouble following the conversation. They spoke in their own tongue for starters, which was similar enough to the saxon dialect she roughly understood, but also stuffed with words unknown to her. Secondly, she was too engrossed repeating the Dane's name under her breath.
It was strangely delectable.
"Repton, she says. Is her brother the bald one with the face of a weasel?" Alex mused, thoughtfully tapping a finger on her chin. "The one who sent a lackey to petition the Jarlskona instead of coming in person?"
"Maybe. There's just so many here claiming to be Jarls or Kings I can't keep track." Kara lifted one shoulder, signalling she didn't care one way or the other. "Makes no difference to me. She'll only slow us down."
"I am here and I can hear you." Lena reminded her sternly, deliberately putting herself in front of her to block her path. That Kara could lift her out of the way with ease seemed irrelevant. "If you leave me here, I shall rouse the countryside from the priory to Leicester. Every able-bodied Saxon will hunt for you once I tell them you ground the Saint's remains to dust and drank them with your mead!"
The bright red flush that invaded Kara's face was a sight to behold. Stuff one could write an entire song about.
"We wouldn't! We don't—!" Devastatingly handsome, but a bit slow on the uptake. "You would lie to get what you want?"
"Most definitely." Lena was proud to come off so steady, but couldn't stop her gaze from falling to the axe at Kara’s belt. She might have been just a tad too hasty.
“Now listen here. I won’t—”
“Oh, for Odin’s sake! She wants to come so badly, just bring her along. We can always drop her off somewhere .” Alex’s eyes darkened. “The river, for example.”
“Ugh. Fine .” Kara rumbled, and before Lena could understand what was happening, she was being grabbed by the waist and hauled onto Kara’s shoulder.
“Wha— what are you doing?” Talking was doubly difficult when one was hanging upside down, and she had to be careful not to bite her tongue when opening her mouth. As though Kara’s stunt was a signal, the small warband had set off at a trot, leaving befuddled nuns and tied up soldiers behind.
“Why,” Kara answered, mirth coating her voice as thick as butter on warm bread. “I am taking you with us. Just the way you asked.”
Wading across the river was no joke, especially for somebody who’d never crossed a river on foot before. The warriors had an easy time of it; all of them wore breeches, even the women, and sturdy clothes under their chainmail. Ideal for long travels. Lena did not. Plus, the cloak that had fended off most of the night’s chill thus far became so waterlogged Kara made her shed it halfway through the river.
The Dane was strong, had carried her all the way to the riverbank, but there was no way she could cross safely with Lena slung across her shoulders.
And Lena wouldn’t have wanted her to.
“When I asked to come along, I didn’t mean for you to handle me like a sack of grain!” She hissed incensed as soon as her feet were on the ground. “You— you—!”
“Big oaf?” Alex supplied, with a grin that nearly split her face in two. “Kara I like her. I changed my mind, don’t drown her in the river, please.”
“Gods, if you like her so much why don’t you ask Sam whether she’s willing to share?” Their banter sounded like that of two sisters.
Lena understood. Growing up she and Lex had been as tightly knit. Until his hunger for power had unraveled their lives, turning her into nothing more than means to an end.
Kara’s words were deliberately lewd, the intent behind them clear. But she was to be disappointed; Lena had heard coarser language from Lex’s guards, and obscene suggestions when they knew he wasn’t listening. One had even tried to corner her in the stables, only to find her knee firmly planted in his crotch.
Whatever astute quip she had been ready to deliver was lost when her body’s instinctual reaction left her short of breath. At the mere idea Alex could consider what Kara had said in jest everything inside of her rebelled, as if what primal urges governed them all had already chosen Lena’s path.
She was not about to exchange an idiot Saxon for a foolish Dane. No matter how blue her eyes were.
The Danes set off again, Kara sheltering Lena from the worst of the current as they navigated the river. It flowed strongly here, squeezed as it was between a steep slope and the islet, and without Kara’s help she’d have fallen over.
It wasn’t until they’d clambered up the far bank that Lena regretted the loss of her cloak. The nunnery’s low walls had been poor protection against the incursion, but kept the worst of the wind out. The hill was treeless, and here the wind blew much more strongly. Colder too, with an extra humid chill added by the closeness of the river.
“Here.” She jerked in surprise when a warm pelt was wrapped around her shoulders. “You’re shivering.”
Part of Lena wanted to be snide, to tell Kara she wasn’t as delicate as the alpha seemed to think. But the fur was soft, and the wind didn’t bite so badly with it draped over her slender frame.
“Thank you.” She murmured — and she meant it — Kara’s pleased scent sending her heart into a wild gallop.
Did the Dane’s eye linger on her a moment longer than was proper, or was it just a quirk of the moon? Lena wasn’t sure, and then there was no time for questions.
The warriors picked their march up where they’d left off, and she was too preoccupied watching where she was going, the uneven ground hard to see in the shifting play of light and shadow, to wonder further.
Kara didn’t try to pick her up again, and Lena thanked the heavens that her shoes were built for durability rather than style. Still, by the time they started their descent down the other side of the hill, she was gasping for air, and her legs were on fire.
“Still sure you want to come with us?” Kara inquired soberly, without a trace of humor. “We can leave you near a village.”
“Can’t.” Lena panted, her throat so raw her voice had dipped an octave or two below her normal. “They’d send me back to my brother.”
“And that’d be bad because?” On the other side of her, Alex looked as if she could walk the entire night, and a whole day after that. “I thought that’s what you wanted?”
“I never said that.” Lena loosened the pelt, allowing a little air to slither underneath it. The exertion made her hot. Sweaty.
She was willing to concede that Kara’s presence did little to alleviate the prickling warmth she felt.
“Then why?” Kara pressed, concern wafting strongly from her. Lena was under no illusion that the worry was for her. The Dane must be wondering whether she’d unknowingly made a new, insidious enemy.
“He sent me to that convent to begin with. Against my will.” It still stung enough she quivered with rage as she spoke. Uprooted from the life she knew and her own dreams. Bundled off in the space of a day because she didn’t bow to his every whim. God, but Lena wished she was born alpha, or a man so that she could command her own forces and teach Lex an overdue lesson.
Or that she’d been birthed by a Dane, instead. Unlike Saxon women, Dane ones were allowed to learn the sword and axe if they so wished. And it didn’t seem to matter if they weren’t born as alphas. The one named Sam was proof enough.
“That makes no sense.” Kara was speaking slowly, evidently sifting through her words with care so that they wouldn’t cause offense. “No one can be forced into the path of a Vølve against their will.”
“A what?” Lena was so confused by the foreing word she tripped over a rock, and only grabbing onto Kara’s arm kept her from falling. Heat spiked through her once again, without mercy, the blush on Kara’s face a reflection of the one alighting hers.
“A holy woman.” Alex explained. “That’s what we call them.”
“Oh no.” Lena’s laughter was strangled by bitterness and hurt her parched throat on the way out. “He sent me there because I wouldn’t marry who he chose for me. He wants to be King of Mercia, you see?” This was a gamble. Her story. These Danes seemed decent enough, but they could very well decide to sell her back to Lex for a hefty sum. She would warn them not to trust him, of course, but why should they trust her , instead? After all, she too was using them for her own goals.
“That is not allowed in our clan either.” Kara spoke so softly the words were snatched away by the wind. Lena had to strain to hear her. More curious still was her scent. It had changed again; now she smelled protective, but surely that was her misinterpreting.
The Danes were fraught with scents she didn’t understand. They carried the wilderness of the forest around their shoulders. Untamed and free, the whole lot of them. They could go wherever they pleased, where the sea and plunder took them.
Lena envied them.
“So that’s why I’d rather come with you back… well, wherever it is you’re going.” She continued when it was clear nobody else would speak. “Your offer of leaving me near a Saxon village is kind, but misguided. They’d sell me back to Lex.” Or would do worse. A lone woman on the road could incur into all sorts of trouble. The Danes were a kind she knew. “I can hold my own. Not in a fight.” She hastened to add when Alex quirked a dubious eyebrow. “But I know herbs, and should somebody stop us, I know these parts well enough. You could pretend you’re my escorts. It’s not uncommon.”
Many feared the snow-bound invaders, most loathed them. Plenty would still rather pay them than come to blows, and a few hired them on purpose. Danes had a knack for warfare a lot of Saxons lacked, the bloodier the fight the better, and some nobles had been quick to recognize that a trained wolf, however dangerous, was better than hundreds of rabid dogs barking at their doors.
“It’s not a bad idea.” Kara nodded, eyes studying her intently. “I expect that if word of what we have done tonight gets out we may—”
A short man that had rejoined them after the river crossing was hurrying toward them, returned from scouting the ground ahead. “If we keep going this way we’ll run into them!” He must have run all the way here, but was not even breathing hard. Lena hated him a little.
“Do they know where we are?”
Without breaking stride, the column veered east.
“They didn’t spot me, but sure as Thor’s beard they’re coming to the priory. Must have seen the flames.”
By now, the nuns would have freed the men Lex had left behind to guard Lena, but the Danes had taken all their weapons, and even though they could give chase they would not be much of a threat.
Both Alex and Kara must have followed the same trail of thought because they threw a glance over their respective backs, almost in unison.
“I’ll distract them.” They said right after, on top of one another.
“Kara, no.” Alex drew herself up, but her tone was a pleading one. As if she already knew what the outcome of the discussion would look like, but still had to try.
“Kara, yes.” There was a ponderousness to Kara’s reply, a sense of the inevitable. Something unchanging, as was the passing of the seasons. “I am the leader. The task falls to me.”
“That’s exactly why it shouldn’t be you.” Alex countered, gaining momentum. “Let me go. Or any of the others.”
“No. If I fall you lead. That’s how it’s always been and how it’ll continue to be.” Kara’s eyes were the hard blue of tempered steel. “Go and I’ll catch up to you once the danger’s passed. If I fall, keep going.” Her eyes met Lena and she added. “Take them all home.”
“I will not go all the way without you.” Alex insisted. “The strange ruins with the dancing statue you showed me last spring? We’ll camp there and wait for a day. If you don’t come—” She trailed off, unable to continue.
“If I don’t come, sister, I will see you in Valhalla.”
And, just like that, she broke off at a run, darkness closing in around her.
The wait took a toll on them all. They had reached the ruins Alex had mentioned around dawn, but even though exhausted, Lena hadn't slept a wink.
Neither had Alex, if the black ravines under her eyes were any indication.
As the day dragged on, the sun climbing ever higher as though in mockery, an anxious stillness had descended over their makeshift camp. The warriors talked little if at all, and only in whispers when they had to. Lena shared in it too. The somber mood. The sense of dread, blended with anticipation.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, she joined Alex who was keeping a watchful eye over their meager fire. They’d started it in an alcove so as not to draw unwanted attention, and had taken turns guarding it. When Kara returned, she could be wounded, and hot water would come in handy.
“Tell me more about her?” She opened with, lowering herself next to Alex. Her body ached, muscles she didn’t know she had spasming every time she moved.
“Yes. Your sister.”
Alex crumbled the twig she had been playing with and tossed the pieces into the fire. The flames painted her face orange, her gaze turning inward as she pondered Lena’s request.
“We’re only half-sisters in truth. Being our seer and healer, my mother Eliza could not raise me. Kara’s family took me in, and we grew side by side.”
“You are sisters in all but name, then.” Extending her hands toward the fire palm-first, Lena sighed warily. “There are bonds stronger than blood and family is what you choose, not what you’re born into.”
“That is very true.” Alex smiled, and although worry didn’t lift completely from her features, it was obvious she didn’t mind talking. “I couldn’t ask for a better sister. A better friend.”
“Can I ask you something else?”
Grabbing another stick, Alex poked at the fire, embers filling the air as a bigger piece of wood folded into itself, devoured by the golden-yellow heat.
“I’ve noticed… Well, you all seem very honorable and—”
“For Danes, you mean.” Alex’s jaw tightened, and she stabbed her twig into the fire again, like she held a grudge against it. Well, better the flames than Lena.
“That’s not it at all.” She raised a hand in a placating gesture. “What I meant to say is I noticed that violence doesn’t seem to sit well with your sister. When you were threatening the nuns… Kara couldn’t conceal the dislike for such methods, not completely.”
“Ah. Yes.” For a time, Alex didn’t speak, and Lena began to wonder if she’d asked something too personal. It never ceased to surprise her how different yet similar their two peoples could be. So much so that an additional level of caution was required to coast society safely. Too many words or too little were liable to spark a duel.
But, even though some Saxons hadn’t yet caught on, Lena knew better. The Danes were here to stay, and one day all of them would be one tribe.
“It’s complicated.” One of the scouts Alex had sent out to cover the surrounding area had returned, bearing rabbits for a meal, and she stepped away long enough to exchange a few words with him.
“No sign of her yet.” She said, having caught Lena staring. “Don’t fret. The day isn’t over.”
She sat back down, opening the first of the rabbits up with economic movements. Rolling up her sleeves, Lena produced a slender dagger they hadn’t bothered searching her for, and grabbed a second, sending a slanted look Alex’s way.
The Dane didn’t react, save perhaps for a slight jolt of the shoulders. Her gaze, however, was heavy. Assessing. Then, while Lena cleaned her rabbit almost as fast as she, Alex’s scent changed. It hadn’t been exactly cold before, but now it definitely lost some of that edge. It wasn’t pleased, but pleasantly surprised.
“Like I was saying, it’s complicated.” Each rabbit was skewered then placed to roast over the fire. “But you’re not wrong. Kara is a formidable fighter. Best in the clan, but…” Picking up her waterskin, Alex sipped from it, then offered it to Lena. “When the fight is toughest, a red mist descends on her. Like a berserkr , except it’s hard for her to snap out of that state. There have been accidents .”
The sadness in her eyes made it clear she would not say anything more.
There would have been no time for more questions anyhow. A commotion at the other end of the ruins drew them away from the fire at a run, the food forgotten.
They were the furthest away, but still managed to get there ahead of the other warriors, just in time to see Kara shamble out of nearby trees, looking like death herself had been made flesh.
Lena told herself it was the haunted look in Kara's eyes spurring her forward ahead of Alex, and not the desire to make sure that the alpha was truly alive .
“It’s done.” Kara was mumbling, gaze unseeing and clouded. “All dead. They’re all dead.”
She took another shaky step and collapsed in Lena’s arms, bearing her to the ground under her weight.
They were about half a day away from the clan’s settlement, but Kara was in no condition to travel.
She had been covered in blood, and while most of it wasn’t her own, the nicks and cuts Lena and Alex found after they’d removed her clothes and armor could fell anyone combined. Especially if left untreated.
“You said you know herbs.” Sam told Lena, eyes flitting between her and Kara’s waxen face. “Tell us what to look for, and we will gather what you need.”
“Yes.” Alex agreed from the other side of the fire, checking that the water they had poured inside a small iron pot was heating properly. “And Winn, I want you to go on ahead and take word of what occurred to Astra. It’s possible that after a day or two of rest Kara will be able to walk the distance, but if not she should send somebody to meet us. At the very least have the road from here to there watched, so that no Saxon will ambush us.”
“As you say, Alex.” He accepted a piece of meat before swiftly departing, disappearing among the trees at the ground-eating pace Lena was now familiar with.
If the day had trickled by at a snail’s pace before, after Kara’s return the camp looked like a kicked anthill. Sam took Querl and James along to look for the herbs Lena had requested, and Alex doubled the watch, taking part in it herself at Lena’s urging.
“I’ll come back to help when they bring you the herbs.” She acquiesced begrudgingly. “You know of this more than I do, but I can grind the ingredients down for you.”
The older alpha meant well, but she was hovering and getting in the way wouldn’t make Kara get better any faster.
Lena cleaned up the cuts first, relief flooding her chest as it became apparent none needed to be sealed with fire. The greatest danger now was that of infection, but between the warm water and the poultice she applied to the wounds with Alex’s aid, that was warded off as well.
“Thank you.” After they were done, Alex hugged her something fierce. That act of simple, genuine affection left Lena at a loss. She wasn’t used to it. Her mother was but a distant memory, washed out and pale like something that had been forgotten underwater. Lionel had been affectionate in his own way, but always too busy to pay her any real attention. And Lex… Lex’s affection came at a price. Once Lena had shown she was not willing to pay it, his true colors were revealed.
“You have nothing to thank me for.” Her eyes dropped to Kara’s sleeping face. She looked peaceful, and some color had returned to her already. “I don’t know her well at all, but I feel — promise not to laugh — I feel a connection to her I can’t explain.”
“I’m not laughing.” Alex promised. Her smile was tremulous, sunshine bounced off of agitated waters, and still tinted with fear. “We believe that each life is a thread, their path preordained. It is not surprising to find that your thread and Kara’s are entangled. Unexpected, yes, but her life never was meant to be ordinary.”
Lena could make little sense of what Alex was saying. She was just too tired to ingest and comprehend such a complex belief system in one day. All she knew was what her heart was telling her.
“Why don’t you go to sleep?” She deflected.
“What about you?” Alex countered, a protective scent swaddling Lena like a blanket. “You can barely stand on your feet.”
“I will take catnaps while I watch over her.” Lena promised. “It’s more important that you warriors are well rested. Just in case.”
None of the scouts had reported movement, but despite what Kara had done, more Saxon forces could be on the way.
“If you’re sure.” Alex was putting up a valiant effort, but a jaw-splitting yawn chose that moment to betray her. “Call me if you need?”
“I promise. Now shoo . Go.”
Surprising them both, the Dane went, meek as a lamb.
Kara woke to a warm body pressed against her own. She took a breath, a heavenly scent seeping down into her lungs. Without her being able to prevent it, her body reacted, propelling her to search for the source of the heady musk.
Not that she had far to go at all.
Lena was lying next to her, green eyes bleary with sleep. Evidently, Kara’s shifting had jostled her awake.
“Hey.” The mysterious scent — honey and cloves and soft, intimate things — came from her.
Omega , Kara’s fragrance-addled brain clamored, pushing her to bury her face in the crook of Lena’s neck. The scent was stronger there, and soothed all the aches of her body. For a few idyllic moments they lay suspended, then rational thought caught up to her and she pulled back, her face rivalling the nearby fire for the heat it generated.
“S— Sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s alright.” To her surprise, Lena wiggled closer, chasing contact. “I don’t mind.” Her eyes veiled briefly, not green, not grey-blue but a mixture of the two. “I was afraid we’d lost you. I shouldn’t care about you at all.” Her eyebrows drew down, and her mouth curved in displeasure, but Kara said nothing. She had the impression Lena wasn’t really talking to her, but thinking out loud.
The words were just a consequence of that process.
“But I do.” Lena’s fingers snaked under the blanket covering them both, threading with hers. Compared to her hand, the omega’s was tiny, her skin unbroken where Kara’s was scarred and rough with callouses. “I do and I don’t understand why I should give a toss about such an empty headed idiot who went off alone and almost got herself killed.”
Alright. Now Lena was mad at her. A bit.
“You make me empty headed.” Kara told her, unburdening of something she had the time to come to terms with while she’d been away. It had started in the priory, when she’d felt Lena’s hand tighten around her forearm. She had stopped Kara in her tracks then, and even after, while she carried her on her back down to the river, Kara had scarcely managed to put one foot in front of the other.
Lena was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen, and something had stirred inside her — not only physically. That she could have easily discounted, but the furious storms that even now shredded her heart were much harder to ignore. Impossible to put out of her mind. And Kara didn’t want to.
“I— what?” Lena husked, her scent swirling, dancing inside of Kara’s lungs.
“You make me empty headed.” Kara repeated, and succumbing to the irresistible pull that unseen hands had forged between them since the start, she cradled Lena’s cheek and kissed her.
It was sloppy to begin with. Wet and frantic with the relief that often overwhelmed Kara after a battle. That she was still alive. Still breathing. Not maimed, or captured.
And, when Lena’s mouth opened under hers, warm and pliant, it was a homecoming, long overdue.
Kara was no flailing stripling in this matter. She had kissed people before. Men and women, during festivals or in celebration of some victory. Drunken smooching that led nowhere and meant nothing.
This meant everything .
“Are you sure?” Kara felt obliged to ask, when they broke apart for air. Lena’s lips were red and kiss-swollen, her eyes nearly all pupil.
“I’ve seldom gotten to choose anything in life.” Lena replied, carding one hand — oh, so gently— through her hair. “I choose this. And you, if you’ll have me.” She whispered timidly, gaze averted.
“I feel the same way that you do.” Kara confessed, pressing her lips where Lena’s raven hair and temple met. “I shouldn’t care about your fate, or if your brother marries you off. But the thought someone would lie with you—” She had to bite her tongue to stifle a snarl.
“Anyone other than you?” Lena’s tone was sly, and tugging free of Kara’s hand, she let hers drop lower. Inching down, past Kara’s belly to the tuft of unruly hair between her legs. Where the omega would find out that she was achingly hard already.
“Yes.” Lena’s fingers skimmed along her shaft, and her hips rutted responsively. “I—”
“You don’t need to worry about others.” Kara’s alpha instantly mellowed out. “I only want you.”
Cupping her firmly, something made easier by the fact she was not wearing a stitch, Lena stroked up as if to underline her words.
“Have you done this before?” Kara gasped, her heartbeat quickening, thump-thumping into Lena’s palm.
“No.” Lena shook her head, then brought their mouths back together. The kiss was slower, a savoring of one another. “But I’ve overheard the servants talk about this and other things. Enough to get a general idea.”
Because of her injuries, as light as they were, sex should be the furthest thing from Kara’s mind, but it wasn’t and the way Lena’s voice had dropped to a sultry kind of timbre when she’d mentioned other things caused her length to strain with eagerness.
“Wha— What other things?” She managed in a strangled whine that was all need.
“Guess you’re gonna have to wait and see.”
She could have sworn that the smile dawning on Lena’s lips was cocky.
“What if I don’t want to— ah!” Lena had added a twisting motion at the base, and Kara saw stars. She had pleasured herself other times, but this sort of bliss was unknown to her. Leaving her raw and oddly vulnerable. She felt herself falling, but was not afraid of the landing. Sure that Lena would be there to catch her.
Her belly tightened with the urge to thrust, to grab Lena by the shoulders and pin her underneath the solid weight of her body. She was laughably close to coming already, Lena’s scent not unlike the potions seers sometimes gave warriors to facilitate communion with the gods.
And the omega was godly, haloed by the firelight. A valkyrie, or Freya herself, arrived directly from Odin’s hall of corpses.
“If you keep this up, I’m gonna— gonna—” She couldn’t finish, but Lena surely felt the pressure build under her stroking hand.
“Come?” She asked, licking a wet strip up Kara’s throat. “And you don’t want that?”
“Y---Yes, but.” Regaining a little focus, Kara covered Lena’s hand with her own, effectively stilling her. “Inside. You.”
Lena was of noble blood, and despite the readiness with which she had reciprocated Kara’s kisses — the hunger as she sucked on Kara’s tongue and bit her lower lip — she half-expected her to balk at the idea.
The omega didn’t, pulling back long enough to tug herself free of her dress. Kara helped as best she could, but mostly ended up with a handful of her soft, pillowy breasts. Unable to resist temptation, she scratched her nails on Lena’s perfectly pale skin, rolling one of her hardening nipples between thumb and forefinger until Lena was arching into her, mouth hanging open in a silent moan.
“I’ve never done this before.” Lena was holding herself up by leaning on her elbows, and with her out of the covers, Kara had an unobstructed view of her nakedness. She drank her in, reverently so, but her eyes were inevitably drawn to the crux of Lena’s thighs. There, a tangle of hair as black as that on her head obscured the omega’s most secret places, but Kara could tell by the sweet scent of her she was already wet. Ready. To be filled and claimed. To be bred and rounded with her pups.
“I’ve never… you know.” Lena whimpered, following the scorching path of Kara’s eyes. “I don’t—-” She took a big breath and wet her lips, smelling of uncertainty. Of fear. “Will you be gentle?”
“As best as I know how.” Kara solemnly swore, guiding her back beneath the blankets and under her. “I promise.”
“You’re beautiful.” Kara whispered over and over into the dip of her throat, her hands roaming Lena’s body without restraint. The rest of the war band may as well not have existed; Lena was aware of them at the periphery of her conscious mind, but they had become irrelevant. More importantly, understanding what was happening between them, they were keeping their distance without being asked to.
To be fair, she was so enthralled by the sensation of Kara’s hands all over her, she would not have cared if they had been watching the alpha ram inside her from behind. Still, she preferred it this way — just the two of them, with the rest of the world fading to the background.
When Kara had tipped her back into the furs, climbing on top of her, Lena thought she’d be mounted right away. Had braced for it even, and felt herself grow shamefully wet at the thought.
But, surprising her yet again, Kara hadn’t. Instead she’d explored her with gentle fingers, parting her outer lips to dip one close to her throbbing center. It was torture. It was a pleasure beyond compare.
Kara was hard. Harder than steel, Lena could tell, because the alpha’s ardor pressed into the swell of her thigh whenever she shifted to avoid squishing her. But, even though it must be hurting her not to bury inside of Lena’s cunt, where she needed to be, Kara was taking her time. Running her thumb over and over against a particular spot, a small nub of oversensitive flesh Lena had only occasionally brushed her own fingers against, never meaning to.
She had no name for it — what scriptures she had found that talked about the mating of an alpha and an omega did so only from the former’s perspective — and there had been no hedgewomen in the castle she could talk to. Only slobbering priests, who reminded her of sin and the duty to her household at every turn. To bear children, they had told her, that was an omega’s sole purpose. To bring spawn into the world and serve their alpha in all things. Pleasure was for higher beings. The lot reserved to her and kin was different. The pain and blood of childbirth. Its perils too.
Kara didn’t seem to share the priests’ ideals. She circled and rubbed that spot until Lena’s hips were jumping off the ground at every touch, and after disappeared under the blankets, to switch the press of her fingers with that of her tongue.
“Oh, God—!” She wailed, high and desperate for more, forgetting all about the warriors who were forced to listen in on their coupling. “Kara—-!”
“Shhh. ‘s all good. You ’re good.” Heated kisses were scattered all over her inner thighs, followed by playful nibbles. “I can feel you flutter against my tongue. Let go, Lena. I’ve got you.”
Lena wasn’t sure what Kara meant by it, but when the same pliant lips that had kissed her sealed around that aching knot of flesh she got an inkling.
She had never come before, was untouched, and had never experimented with herself, too interested in other things to care about what she had been told she couldn’t have anyhow.
Why the stars burned the way they did, how did the moon not crash down onto Repton, squishing it under its weight had felt like puzzles more interesting to solve.
Now, with Kara’s mouth moving along her slit in silent prayer, the stars guttered out. The celestial vault could crumble moon and all for what she cared, and if it happened to grind her brother into paste as it fell, even better.
“Kara!” She called again, grinding herself on that wet mouth, desperate for something she knew was looming over her. Mayhaps she was teetering instead, on the edge of a precipice. Waiting for somebody to push her into the emptiness below.
Kara did, plunging one finger inside her — a shallow thrust, compared to what waited for her after, but enough to cause Lena to fall.
“Lena.” Kara was holding her. Kara was cradling her to her chest as she gasped her release, her hands so tight round the alpha’s shoulders she knew they would leave welts. “Lena.” Kara repeated, and her eyes were black. Darker than a moonless night, but bright in a way that a sky orphaned of stars never could be.
“This is gonna hurt more.” Kara cautioned, lining herself up to Lena’s still shuddering entrance. “I’m so sorry.”
Briefly. As much as the bite of the cold river had stabbed into her flesh when she had waded across, fearing the Danes would leave her behind if any weakness showed.
Kara wouldn’t leave her, though. She worked the flared head inside — Lena was so slick it was a matter of slipping in, rather — then paused, telling her to breathe.
“You’re doing so good.” She praised, and a dam broke in Lena’s chest. Never in her life had she been addressed with so much adoration and respect. “Gods above, you feel so good Lena.”
“So big.” Lena sighed, fretting Kara wouldn’t fit. The alpha preened. “Kara I don’t know if—”
“You can take me.” Hand splayed over her tense belly, Kara rubbed slow, calming circles into her flesh. “Breathe for me. Just breathe.”
She did, and inch by devastating inch, Kara sank inside her.
Lena had gotten only a glimpse of the alpha’s womanhood, as they were outside and the evening air was too cool to frolic without the extra warmth of blankets. She’d gleaned an impression of extraordinary girth, and feeling how Kara stretched her was only confirmation.
The pain rose slow, a fire simmering under her skin. Big logs to build it, and fast-burning kindling to start the first spark. It wasn’t long before Lena went up in flames, the line between agony and pleasure blurring until she could not tell where the one ended and the other began.
At Kara’s first, tentative thrust, her thighs fell just a little wider, but she felt no shame in wanting it so badly. To be taken, marked as hers, filled to bursting with the alpha’s potent seed. None of the things the priests had warned against happened.
God didn’t descend from heaven pointing fingers, and the earth beneath their joining bodies didn’t open. If demons prowled the world in search of sinners they could drag down into hell, they were giving the small band of Danes a wide berth.
Funny how Lena had already started to consider herself one of them, and the words she’d told Alex earlier sprung to mind.
Family was the one you chose, not what you were born into.
The sheer soaked warmth of her.
The heat was unbearable.
Too much, and at the first spasm of Lena’s walls around her Kara almost came. The omega’s cunt was silk. A sheath. No, a glove. Built for her and for her only, just as she belonged to nobody but Lena.
The channel of Lena’s body was tight, not yet broached fully, and Kara did her best to take things slow, sinking in as carefully as the primal instincts waging war inside her would allow.
The cuts Lena had tended to, the bruising; all of it was forgotten in the face of Lena’s silken depths. Kara could die here and now, and she would do so content to have known such sweetness in her life.
There had been a spring near her village, her home across the sea, and for the longest time she’d thought its transparent waters were the sweetest thing she’d ever know. How wrong she had been!
Lena tasted a hundred, a thousand times better — mead and honey on her tongue. And she felt…
A home away from home.
“I think you can go faster now.” Lena incited, fingers gripping at her sides. “I— I want you to.” Kara had been rolling her hips at a leisurely pace, but at the omega’s words the tempo of her thrusts increased, and soon enough the space near the fire they had claimed for themselves was full of the wet smack of flesh striking flesh.
Lena never tore her eyes away, watching Kara claim her. Moaning when she buried her face into her breasts, sucking and biting purpling bruises on her unmarred flesh.
Kara knew she’d never tire of looking into those eyes, of getting lost among the green. Lena didn’t seem aware of it, but she held an entire forest in her chest. Unruly and not to be trifled with. A wild side that her Saxon handlers had tried and failed to train.
Kara had no intention to. She and Lena would run free, side by side like wolves. The rest of the war band on their tails.
They had kept away, but their approval was palpable to her. It made the air heavy and warm, was a touch of sunlight on her back. Lena tending to Kara’s wounds would have won Alex over, but the others must have seen the same indomitable spirit she was so attracted to. Astra would feel the same, Kara was certain.
And if her aunt didn’t understand, she’d ask her mother permission to found her own clan. Those who had come with her to the priory were sure to follow where she led.
“K— Kara?” Lena bucked, muffling a moan into her hand. “Kara, please, I think—”
Lena had opened fully for her, and Kara had speared inside as far as she could reach, gaining ground with each new thrust. She was not in rut — therefore there would be no knot to seal her seed inside the omega — but that wouldn’t deter her from trying.
She wasn’t concerned about it not taking the first time; she’d rather breed Lena properly whilst they were warm and cozy in her bed. She swore to herself that, upon their return to the settlement, she’d keep the omega there for days and see to her every need.
Underneath her, Lena gasped, fingers scrabbling for her biceps. It was all the warning Kara was going to get, she discovered moments later, the welcoming walls of Lena’s cunt seizing around her hard enough she couldn’t rut deeper nor pull out.
She was just… held there, Lena quivering, tense to the point of breaking. With a warbled cry, the omega came and went limp at the same time. Her eyes were glassy, her mouth slack, a near constant moan tumbling from her lips. The clenching of her inner walls beat the rhythm of her heart — squeeze and release, over and over — and the pressure she’d coaxed into Kara’s length with her hand returned. This time, there was no holding it back. Lena pulsed, plush and velvety around her, another climax or the same stretching on forever Kara did not know, but she was swept alongside it.
She screamed her own release and shook with it, the heavy spurts she was releasing inside the omega, mirrored by wetness dripping down her ribs. One of the cuts she’d suffered had reopened, a trail of scarlet falling from her body onto Lena’s.
The omega saw, but instead of flinching away or voicing her disgust, she gathered some of the blood with trembling fingers and smeared it on her neck. Right over her pulse.
The message was unspoken, but as obvious as if she’d shouted it from a rooftop.
Claim me , her hooded eyes seemed to say, make me yours .
Baring her teeth, Kara snapped forward, not surprised in the slightest when she felt the acute pain of a matching mating bite piercing her shoulder.
Lena slept, and in her deepest slumber dreamt.
She saw snow, endless and perfectly white. Mountains so high their tops were shrouded by clouds all year round. She smelled the open sea, the brine and salt, the pitch of a ship’s hull. Heard the sea as well — waves plish-plashing against the curved wood.
Watched birds she’d never seen before soar high above her head, and hunted with a skill she knew she didn’t possess when she was awake.
When she did wake, it was with a small start, heart climbing in her throat before it settled. The camp was quiet, but she saw a figure watching her just beyond the circle of light cast by the fire. Alex.
Their eyes met, and even though Lena couldn’t see her face very well, she knew the older alpha was smiling. Not just at her, but at Kara too — the dumb lummox snoring softly still.
Her idiot warrior, Lena realized, touching the mark on her throat with no small level of affection. Her brave, loyal, lovingly stupid oaf of a Dane.
She ruffled Kara’s hair, and watched her sleep, wondering if she was dreaming of Mercia the way Lena had dreamt of Norway.
She thought about many other things; if she could convince Kara to teach her how to hunt and fight for starters, and what kind of welcome she would receive once they’d made it back to the Danes’ village.
Would Lex send men to look for her? Was Eve going to tell him what had happened, or would she make up a lie, to cast her own actions in a better light? That she’d pleaded with the monstrous Danes to not take Lena, perhaps, and had to watch as they burned her alive, eating her after?
Lex believing her dead would be best for all of them, and thus Lena immediately dismissed that it would happen. Prepare for the worst, that was what she would tell Kara, so that if it came to pass they would be ready and if it didn’t they’d have a greater cause to celebrate.
As if feeling she was being observed, Kara stirred, a blue eye cracking open.
“Hey you.” Bending down, Lena kissed her at the corner of her mouth, careful to keep things chaste. Not doing so would mean rekindling what she felt ready to boil over already. The thought of a kiss being enough to make her quicken was a sign that her heat was due soon. Kara had sensed something too, because her eyes had gone as wide as saucers, and she smelled alert. Keen.
“I had a strange dream.” The alpha mused, tugging her back into her arms. Lena went willingly, shivering when the tips of Kara’s fingers found her mating bite.
“Me too.” She whispered hoarsely, closing her eyes and almost purring when Kara stroked her hair. “Your homeland is beautiful, Kara.”
“Yours too.” There was an ache in Kara’s words, the sorrowful edge of a blade striking true, but Lena didn’t want to ask. She could very well imagine the dreams the alpha must have had; not just of Mercia, but of what Lex had tried to do to her.
“I can’t wait to take you home, and for you to meet Astra.” Kara said instead, tone wistful.
“I can’t wait to be there.”
They fell silent after that, basking in one another. Knowing that soon enough Alex would call for them to break camp and head back on the road. Lena was impatient to be going, but so many things had happened to her in the space of a few days, that this unpredicted peace was not to be discarded. Treasured while they could.
She relaxed against Kara, drifting in and out of sleep. Letting the alpha kiss the mark on her neck and licking at the one she’d left on her muscled shoulder.
The bond between them was new. Untested and for the greatest part unknown.
The mating bite was fresher still.
But one thing Lena was sure of. Its roots reached as deep and strong as those of Yggdrasill, the Danes’ cosmic tree, and under those protective, verdant branches the two of them could only thrive.