Halfdan shook, as did the pots on the table next to him. The king’s fury rivaled any bear that roamed the mountains.
“Aye, my king. I will ensure that she is never spoken of again.”
“I should have her head. Have her swinging from a rope. His too.” Njal drew a line over his throat. “Dead, that’s what they should be for this.”
“The wanderer has gone.” Halfdan wrung his hands together. “Fled before dawn.”
“I will have a bounty put upon his treacherous head.” Njal stomped to the table and poured a horn of mead. His blood was on fire—not the fire of war, but of betrayal, and it burned especially bright, stinging like a swarm of summer wasps. He drank his mead in one gulp.
“I will see to your bidding now,” Halfdan said, rushing to the doors of the Great Hall. “And ensure she is banished from the town walls.”
“Aye, and be sure she knows if she returns she will be sentenced to a traitor’s death. A blood eagle.”
Halfdan paused with his hand on the door.
Njal knew he had shocked him. Women didn’t suffer that fate; it was the law of the gods. But Njal didn’t care. His anger knew no bounds, even at the cost of upsetting the All Father.
“Oh, and…” Njal clicked his fingers. “Bring me more women before nightfall. I will need a new wife. A new queen.”
“Aye, of course.” Halfdan disappeared into the cold morning.
Njal stomped to his throne and sat. He’d given Halfdan a tricky task. The daylight hours were short now that winter was rapidly approaching. Soon the first snows would fall, lakes would freeze, and the fjord would pitch and toss as though boiling.
But Njal felt sure his faithful manservant would find him a line of women to choose from. He’d never failed before to fulfill his king’s bidding.
“Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, what did I do to deserve this?” He held his hands to the ceiling. “My gods, you are playing a wicked game with me.”
His emotions were stretched tight, bows holding arrows, and each arrow held the pain of anger, jealousy, deceit, and revenge. The queen’s cheating ways had as good as slashed him from throat to belly, exposing his insides to the world.
Wrapping his arms around himself now, he hunched forward and squeezed his eyes shut. His sons would never see their exiled mother again. Harsh as that was, it was necessary.
And made it all the more important for Njal to find himself a new wife and mother for them.
Three hours later the Great Hall began to fill.
Njal sat watching the arrival of the townsfolk and wishing his brother Leif was at his side. But Leif had traveled west some time ago. Journeying to Wessex to meet with King Egbert. His return was overdue. This made Njal’s temper all the sourer.
“My king,” Halfdan said, standing before him. “I have sought beautiful maidens for you to choose from. A new wife is here. A new queen is in this room.”
“That is for me to decide.” Njal slammed his fist into his palm. “Bring them out. Bring them to me.”
A murmur of conversation rippled around the crowd as they parted, allowing three women to emerge.
Njal narrowed his eyes and studied them. His heart was tight, his breaths hard in his lungs. The very blood in his veins had been laced with the acid of his wife’s disloyalty.
The first woman was petite with braided hair, big blue eyes, and delicate lips. A first glance at her sea-green tunic adorned with buckles and buttons and he guessed she was of good stock. Likely her father a warrior or hunter.
His attention moved to the next woman. Older, silver-streaked hair, a gaze that would not connect with his.
I’ll knock Halfdan to the other side of the hall for that one.
Finally he studied the last woman. Short, round, cheeks like cherries, and eyelashes that fluttered.
His cock stirred. Perhaps she’d do. But then again, the first one had potential, too.
He stood, wishing again that he could shake the cloak of dishonor his wife had laid there. He hoped she was afraid, cold, alone, hungry…
“Wench,” he muttered, striding to the first woman. “What is your name?”
“Eighteen summers, my king.”
He walked around her, the sleeve of his wolf fur brushing her shoulders. “And you are from Halsgrof?”
“Just yonder, to the south.”
“A hunter.” She wrinkled her nose and sneezed.
“A fine hunter?”
She sneezed again. “Aye.”
Njal peered closer at her face. Her eyes were misting as if about to weep and her bottom lip trembled.
She sneezed again, and again.
“What is the matter with you, Bae?”
“It is the wolf pelt, my king. It always… does this to me.”
He frowned, irritation warring with his other emotions. “What is this, Halfdan?”
“I do not know?” He held out his arms. “What shall I do?”
“Get her out of here.” Njal pointed at the door. “What good is a woman who sneezes in the presence of fur? My bed, the bed I wish to lay with her on, is covered in fur.”
“I am sorry, my king.” Bae stepped back, sneezing once more. “I don’t know why…”
“Get out!” Njal roared.
The woman seemed to jump within her own skin, then turned and melted into the crowd with her palm covering her face.
Njal held out his hand. “Mead.”
A full horn was passed his way. He drank then handed it back. This had not started well.
The second woman seemed to shrink into her clothing.
“Mina, my king.” Her voice was naught but a whisper.
“And how many summers are you?”
“I do not know, my king. I cannot count them.”
“Which means you are of too many,” he roared with his face close to hers. “You will not give me sons, will you?”
A sob caught in her throat.
Njal growled and turned to Halfdan. “Do you take me for a fool?”
“No. I am sorry. I was given on good advice that—”
“You are not to take advice, Halfdan, not when I seek you to provide me with a new queen. You use your own counsel, do you hear me?”
Silence descended, Njal’s fury seeming to fill the space, weaving around the townsfolk and rising to the lofty ceiling.
He wondered if his anger would ever dissipate. Had he ever been so shamed, so hurt?
He didn’t think so. Pain had made itself at home in his bones.
“Please, my king, this is Helga.” Halfdan rushed to the third woman.
“Mmm.” Njal stood before her.
“My king.” Helga smiled and bobbed down then up. “I am at your service.” She licked her lips, her pink tongue leaving a sheen on them.
“As is everyone else in the Great Hall,” Njal snapped. “They are all at my service. Summers?”
“Twenty-three or maybe twenty-four.”
“See, that is good. And look at her, she has fine, fair hips.” Halfdan waved his hands around as though offering Helga as a worthy prize. “Everyone in this room can see what a pretty queen she would make.”
“I cannot see it.” Njal drifted his gaze to Helga’s chest. The firm flesh of her breasts rose and fell against the neckline of her tunic. “But I do wish to see it.”
Curling his fingers into the material, he yanked hard.
Helga staggered forward to the satisfying sound of her clothing being shredded.
Her large breasts spilled out, her nipples dark and round.
Njal didn’t let up. He wrenched some more, snatching the last of her tunic away and leaving her utterly naked.
There were a few gasps from the crowd. A couple of warriors stepped closer to her as if drawn by the sight.
Njal retreated a few steps but kept his attention on her. “You are a fine woman.”
The juncture of her thighs held a thick patch of black hair. The dips of her waist were highlighted by the flare of her hips. An image of a snake wound its way around her left thigh.
“You are pleased, my king.” Halfdan rubbed his palms together.
“I am as yet undecided.” Could he feel affection for this woman or had the previous queen tainted him forever? Would his cock rise for her, fully rise?
Would she be loyal? Would she obey?
“Turn around,” he snapped.
She swallowed. Her fists were clenched. Without clothes she wasn’t as confident.
“Aye, my king.” Quickly she spun to face the crowd.
Njal looked at her ass. Plump and pale, the flesh wobbling slightly as she moved from one foot to the other.
Shoving his hand down his pants, he gripped his stiffening cock.
“Bend over,” he said.
Helga hesitated, then tipped forward, exposing the lips of her sex and her asshole.
Aye, this could work.
Njal stepped up behind her and clasped her buttocks. They warmed his palms and his cock swelled some more. “Be still, like this until I tell you to stand.”
“Aye, my king.”
He licked his lips. Perhaps a good hard coupling would shift some of the angst from his body. Rid the tension in his mind. He could do it here and now. An audience wouldn’t concern him. He was the king. A brave warrior king with many needs.
Slipping his fingers to her cunny, he pushed into her wet heat.
“Oh!” She pitched forward.
He clasped her hip with his free hand. “Be still. You are mine.”
“She is not!” a voice to his right said.
“What do you speak of?” Njal glared at the woman who had spoken.
“I have seen her with Bjorn of Dalken many times.”
“What?” Njal turned to Halfdan. “What do you know of this?”
“I know nothing, King Njal. She told me she was unwed.”
“She is wed,” the woman said. “I saw it with my own eyes, the celebrations were two Winterfests ago. She is here for power and treasure to share with Bjorn when you are dead.”
Red mist descended over Njal’s vision for the second time that day. Not one but two women trying to deceive him—the first one with success, this one almost.
“Lying wench.” He withdrew his finger and delivered a slap to the round ass in front of him.
Her body jerked but he kept a tight hold of her hip.
“Are you denying Bjorn is your husband?” Njal demanded to know.
A tremble went up her spine but she did not speak, just continued to stare at the floor.
He spanked her again, harder, and on the other cheek.
She cried out, and the crowd jostled to see the show.
“Take what you have brought upon yourself!” He slapped her again, and again. Each smack of his hand on the orbs of her buttocks relieved a fraction of his frustration. She’d earned this punishment by trying to fool him. Njal was no fool and would not be seen as one.
Red bloomed on her buttocks as he continued with the spanking. If he’d had his flogger within reach he’d have taken that to this traitor amongst them and really striped her ass.
“You see,” he bellowed. “What happens to you who are disloyal, who underestimate me, your king.”
The townsfolk had surrounded him, keen to see Helga’s burning ass. Her glistening cunny and her shaking limbs. They told of regret for her failed plan and of shame and humiliation.
Njal was glad, for that was what he felt too. Shame and humiliation.
“I beg you,” Helga sobbed.
“Begging is futile.” Njal slapped her sore behind with even more sting in the blows. The snap of flesh on flesh rang loud. He was delivering punishment to his unfaithful queen as well as Helga because he’d been unable to stand the sight of her face after he’d learned of the transgression.
“Oh… this is bad,” he heard someone say.
“She’ll not sit for a month.”
Gripping Helga’s hair, he set to spanking her lower on her ass, so he caught her cunny lips too.
Her high-pitched yelps were satisfying, but nowhere near enough.
Suddenly Njal had had enough. He stopped, released her, and pushed her away.
He banged his chest. “I demand to have a queen who is truthful, obedient, and loyal from the first moment I set eyes upon her. And I will have that!” He was breathing fast, his palm stinging. “Halfdan, you will set up a new line of women for me to choose from. Spread the word far and wide and this time do not fail me.”
With his blood pulsing in his ears and his broken heart aching, Njal stormed to his bedchamber, his broad shoulders barging into anyone and anything that got in his way.
The ex-queen had broken a part of him. Njal didn’t like that. He wasn’t used to it. He was a man who commanded respect from warriors and women alike.
But the gods had dished him up a feast of pain and humiliation, and sit before it he must even if he didn’t like the flavors.
Even if he never got rid of the taste.
“What? No. I refuse. You cannot do this to me! For the love of the gods, no, no, no!” Tove searched her mother’s thin face for signs that she might change her mind. “How could you have put my name forward to become nothing more than a glorified sex slave? Why would you? Why?”
“I’m sorry, Tove.” Ingrid scraped the skin off a turnip with a bone-handled knife. “But times are hard. We have little food, and the grain has been contaminated with mold. And without your father to hunt elk for us, I need to know you will be somewhere warm and fed this winter.”
“I’d rather freeze and starve than be wed to him! To lie with him! Who knows what perversions the gods have given him.”
“Do not talk foolish.” She paused. “And anyway, you might not be wed to the king.” She sliced the turnip in half. It was small; their stomachs would rumble all night. “If he doesn’t choose you, you’ll return and winter here with me.” Her mouth downturned as she looked at the meager pile of food supplies on the wooden shelf.
“Surely, I can find another husband, Mama? A man more… suitable.”
“You’ve had two years since your father died to find a husband, Tove. You have failed in finding even an unsuitable husband.”
Tove gave into the urge to stamp her foot, her worn leather boot huffing dust into the cold air. “Is it my fault you chose to raise me, your only daughter, in a place where time stands still? Where there is naught but the odd wanderer. How can I find a husband? It is a full day’s walk over a mountain to the nearest town, and when the snows come, the pass is impossible for many moons.”
Ingrid clenched her teeth. “I agree, we should have thought about that.” She dropped the diced turnip into a pot of boiling water over the fire. “But it is too late for regrets. The great spinners beneath the earth have weaved your fate, and now it must be accepted.”
“Accepted?” Tove stomped to the log basket, stooped and gripped a chunk of wood. Emotions were swirling. Disbelief. Anger. Frustration. She threw the log onto the dwindling flames, sending a rush of sparks flurrying upward.
The light danced upon her mother’s features, accentuating the shadows beneath her tired eyes. She was still a beautiful woman, but her hard life had taken its toll. “Aye, Tove, accepted. Accept your fate. Freya, in her goddess wisdom of the complex nature of love, sex, and marriage, has set you on this journey. You will be in the lineup before the king. He will cast his eye and judgment over you.”
“No, Mama, you have made my fate, not Freya or the spinners. By sending word to Halsgrof that I am to be one of the victims, you chose my path.”
Her mother scoffed and folded her arms, her long fingers tapping on the wool of her tunic. “Hardly a victim. Whoever King Njal chooses to be his will be treated in the manner any queen should be treated. Lavish feasts, maids, a warm home, the protection of his skilled warriors should there be a raid.” She pointed at the fire. “You won’t even have to lift your own logs. You’ll have a servant to do that for you. One click”—she snapped her fingers—“and it will be done. Anything you want will be done.”
“What if I don’t want that?”
“Only an unwise woman wouldn’t want to be warm, comfortable, and fattened.”
“And the dark hours of winter, when I have to spread my legs and take his cock? Then how comfortable will I be?” She wrapped her arms around herself in a tight hug, frightened just at the thought of giving her body to a man.
“You will do your duty, and give him lots of sex and sons.”
Tove shuddered, a long, cold tapping sensation down her spine. She’d never seen King Njal. Her trips to his busy port of Halsgrof had always been brief, and he hadn’t been in town. He was fond of exploring west. But she’d heard of his strength and size; indeed, his name meant ‘giant.’ He ruled his people with a firm hand, the man bold and courageous. An adventurer who had won many battles and served the gods well.
“Why does he not have a wife?” Tove asked.
“He did have one.”
“And where is she now? No, don’t tell me—she’s with the gods, her head sliced from her neck.” She made a cutting motion at her throat.
“No, she was banished north for taking a wanderer into her bed and deceiving the king.” Ingrid spat on the floor. “A well-deserved fate. Traitor.”
Tove pulled a stool her father had made nearer to the fire and sat. The longhouse was cold, and she could see her breath. “Did she give him sons?”
“Yes, two—Knud and Frode. They are not yet men.”
“So, maybe he won’t want more sons with his new wife, just a woman for Knud and Frode to call Mama. Perhaps he would not desire sex.”
Ingrid huffed. “All men want sex as well as lots of sons, kings even more so.”
Tove knew that was true. She also knew her only hope of escaping a life of service to a giant king was to not be chosen in the lineup.
But how could she do that? She was bony and small-breasted, but she wasn’t ugly. Often enough her father had told her she’d bewitch men when she was older with her long white-blonde hair and eyes the color of the summer sky.
“We’ll mend the red tunic,” her mother said, studying Tove’s face. “And get you looking as pretty as a spring morn. He won’t be able to resist you.”
Tove frowned. Sometimes she could believe her mother read her thoughts. “I don’t want to be a spring morn. I want to stay here. I can hunt for us. I can—”
“If it comes to that then, yes, you will have to try and hunt for us both. But I am going to make a sacrifice to the gods that King Njal chooses you. For I wish my dear daughter to be a fat and warm queen, and the mother to many royal sons.”
Tove’s mouth hung open as she shook her head. “What are you going to sacrifice?”
She stood. “No, I forbid it. We have only one chicken left. The wolves took the others.”
“And when you become queen, Tove, you will buy me more chickens and pay for a good fence to protect them. You will buy me more of everything.”
“And if I don’t become queen?”
“You will.” She set her lips in a determined line. “You will. I know it in here.” She pressed her hand to her heart, then stirred the pot of boiling turnip chunks.
It was clear the conversation had ended. Tove would go to Halsgrof when the full moon came, and throw her destiny at the feet of a giant king. A king she had no intention of serving or obeying.
Why the hell should she? What had he ever done for her and her family?
Tove watched the stars filling the sky above the longhouse. Like small pricks of Valhalla’s crowning light shining down through a black blanket, they filled her vision.
She wondered if she’d be better off making her own deal with the gods. Sacrificing herself so her mother wouldn’t have to worry about her.
Because she wouldn’t be chosen by the deviant brute King Njal.
There was no chance she would be his new queen. Despite her mother’s best efforts with the red tunic, she still would be the poor, thin peasant girl in the lineup. She had no fine brooches, or jewels to adorn her hair, and her boots were old, leaky, and cracked.
On top of that, she’d decided not to smile at King Njal, or even talk to him if he addressed her. That way he’d think her stupid and mute, and not worthy of sitting on a throne beside him or lying in his bed. How could a brainless, silent woman be a mother to his sons?
She pulled her cloak tighter and stepped back into the longhouse. In the morn, at first light, she’d rise and walk the frozen path to Halsgrof. Her mother wasn’t accompanying her; her legs were too weak for the journey. Besides, there were things to do to keep their tiny farm ticking along, and the goats couldn’t be left to the mercy of the elements and the wolves.
“Here.” Ingrid handed her a horn of warmed goat’s milk. “Drink this. You will need strength for the walk.”
“Yes, Mother.” She’d stopped arguing about going to Halsgrof. It was a waste of breath.
Tove did just that, then set the horn to one side and climbed into her cot beside the fire. She dragged the furs up to her chin and closed her eyes.
Her mind filled with the folklore her father had told her about love and inn mátki munr—the great passion. Tove thought of King Fairhard who loved his wife Snøfrid so much that he paid no mind to his kingdom, his gaze only on her. When Snøfrid died, his love kept her intact, and he continued to gaze on her for three years, waiting for her to reawaken.
That was the kind of love Tove wanted. One that made her heart beat fast, her skin prickle, and her courage glisten. A love that would never die even when her body did.
To be married to a giant king would never make her glisten, and it would surely make her feel dead even when her body was alive. How could their marriage work? They were as different as fire and ice, as opposite as the moon and the sun.
Her father had told her about Skadi, the giantess from the mountains. When she’d visited Odin’s halls she was required to marry a god, choosing only from his feet and legs. She picked the cleanest and best built believing they belonged to Baldr—the most handsome god of them all—but in fact, they belonged to the sea god, Njord.
The marriage lasted just eighteen days.
Skadi couldn’t tolerate the awful constant crashing of the sea, and Njord feared the mountain wolves’ calls.
If Freya made a grave error and wedded Tove to King Njal, their marriage would be doomed the way Skadi’s and Njord’s had been. A poor, skinny peasant girl from the mountains and a giant, powerful king. How could it possibly be anything other than doomed?
She fell into a dream-filled sleep. Wolves, giants, and huge waves blustered through her mind. Her heart raced as she ran over snow-covered hills, and through frozen forests escaping an unknown enemy. She searched frantically for a weapon without success, then climbed a mountain, scrabbling on loose rocks that tumbled her into the arms of a king with wild hair and wilder eyes. He was naked, erect, and growled like a bear as he spread her legs, grasped her breasts, and set his weight on her, in her…
“Tove, Tove, wake up.”
“Mmm… what?” She opened her eyes and stared at her mother. Her heart was thudding so hard it was rattling against her ribs.
“It is time to go.”
Tove frowned and dragged in a deep breath. She hardly felt rested. The night had been full of terrors and turbulence. But still she sat.
This was it. The day had arrived. She must walk to Halsgrof and present herself to the king.
She only hoped he didn’t like what he saw.
It would save them both a lot of strife.