The squat candles to Ingrid’s right shivered as a gust of mid-winter wind blew beneath the door, bringing with it two leaves and a long black raven’s feather. Rain pelted down on the turf roof, sounding as though Thor himself was paying the valley of Ravndal a visit.
A visit in the dead of the night—a visit during the month when the sun chose not to rise from its slumber on the horizon.
Everything and everyone had hunkered down, hibernated, and was waiting for spring to thaw the land and once again provide.
Except for Ingrid. She’d taken to the highest hill to seek providence.
She tugged her hood tighter, the rabbit fur velvety on her cheeks. Being here was dangerous. A girl of her position shouldn’t be consulting the seer of Ravndal. Her destiny was planned. There was no need to question it—or at least that was what the king, her father, would say.
Not that she was afraid the seer would spread ghostly whispers about her visit. Being hundreds of years old, blind, and dwelling somewhere between men and the gods—life and death—the seer had more pressing matters to attend to.
Which is why Ingrid was grateful for this precious moment—the moment where he looked into her destiny and saw the truth. For much as she loved her father, and trusted him, she knew it was truly the gods who determined everyone’s fate.
“Ah, how I suffer…” The seer grimaced and used his palms to tap and assess where the bones and beaks now lay. “To see such things.”
“What do you see?” She fought a rise of trepidation.
He was silent, his bottom lip trembling, as though murmurs of the future were hovering there but wouldn’t spill out.
Ingrid resisted the temptation to demand more information for she knew she must not. The seer wasn’t known for his patience, and she did not wish for him to tell the gods—whose ear he had—that she was an impertinent, ill-tempered princess.
“A bear wishes to marry the wolf, a wolf that is wild and free.” His voice was hoarse, as though his throat had worn out from centuries of casting prophecies.
Ingrid bit on her bottom lip. To her right a string holding bird bones separated by twigs and clutches of heather hung from the roof. She stared at it to again prevent herself from pushing the seer.
“No man or animal can tame a wolf unless the wolf wishes to be tamed.” His voice grew more strangled with each word.
Although his eyes were milky, with no center, the seer stared at Ingrid. “I see a bubbling, broiling ocean.” He held up his hands. “Aegir, the god of the ocean is unhappy. Aegir wishes to rise up, then swallow, sink back down, sink back down into the ocean… be warned.” He sucked in a scratching breath. “Be warned, little one.”
“Be warned of the bear or the ocean?”
“Both!” He slammed his hands onto the table; the beaks and bones jumped, and wax over-spilled and leaked from a candle, the ensuing drip running tear-like down its length. “I cannot do this.” He stood, unfolding a spine that seemed to be held together with dust. His long black robe dragged on the floor as he stepped to the right, using a tall wooden chair for support. “I cannot do this.” Breathy, agonized words.
“Please, I beg you.” Ingrid also stood.
“Why, why do you beg?” He paused and tilted his chin. “You are a princess and a shield maiden, are you not?”
“Ja, that is true, but…” She hesitated. “A privileged birth means my path is not an easy one.”
“Many would say the opposite.” He was hunching forward again, reducing in height and retreating into his hood and the folds of his cloak so she could barely see his face. The small white skull pendant—a mouse most likely—hanging from his neck swayed with the ticking of her heart. “Many would say you have everything a woman could desire. A father who loves you. Comforts and treasures many have not. The gods have blessed you.”
“And I am grateful, really I am.” Ingrid twisted her hands together. If Thor or Odin were listening, she needed them to believe her. Her heart was thankful for all that she had, truly it was.
The seer turned and dipped his hand into a wooden box.
A squall rattled the door, shaking the iron latch.
Ingrid ignored the wind as the seer withdrew something from the box. He held it in his fist and turned to her, gnarled fingers clenched.
“This,” he said, “will help you find your way, child.”
“What is it?”
He didn’t reply, instead he turned his palm over and revealed a small dark rune stone. Red flecks shone from its green surface and it was the shape of a plump berry.
“Bloodstone,” he said as she took it. “It will help a lost soul see change on the horizon.”
“Change on my horizon? Am I the lost soul?”
“I give you this rune as a protective talisman. It will give you the strength and courage you need to brave the storm.”
Ingrid trapped it in her hand and glanced at the wooden door, which was still rattling as the wind beat it. Was this the storm the seer was talking about? The one that shook her village right now. Or were there more on her horizon?
“I am tired,” he said, staggering a little to the right before clutching a table littered with dried herbs. “You must see the change and summon courage. But beware the bear and the wolf.”
“But I thought I had to beware of the bear and the ocean.”
“All of them, the bear will drive the wolf to the ocean.” He slumped into a chair beside a waning fire. The skull hanging from his neck settled on his chest. “Now go, the gods have exhausted me with their instructions and delivering them to you has drained the energy from my bones, sinew, and tendons.” He held out his upturned hand.
Ingrid poked out her tongue and dragged it over the cool, dry flesh of his palm. She had so many more questions for the seer but it was clear her time with him was over. Now she had to get back to her home, to her father, for there was a royal banquet being held in honor of a faraway visitor. If she were late for that, there’d be displeasure in the king’s eyes, and since losing her beloved mother, she hated to give him further reason for pain.
She had one last glance around the seer’s abode then slipped the bloodstone into a pouch attached to her belt. Once it was safely nestled beside her strike-a-light, she slipped through the door.
Instantly the wind whipped around her and she battled to refit the iron latch; it seemed the angry air wanted to take the door from her and hurl it toward the gods. When she’d finally managed the task, she clasped her cloak beneath her chin and ran down the dark hillside, using her free hand to steady herself on passing tree trunks that were dotted with lichen. It was wet and slippery underfoot but Ingrid wore leather trousers beneath her cloak and her boots were new and made by the finest tanner in the village so she traveled with swift ease.
The rain pelted her face and stung her cheeks. Twice the wind gripped her hood and yanked it from her head, sending her dark hair flying out behind her. The winter seemed to penetrate her soul, invading her lungs with its rusty brew of storm rain, mud, and fungi. But soon she was back in Ravndal making her way past longhouses, stables, and pens of chickens and goats.
Peeking inside the great hall it was apparent the banquet was about to start. Two of her father’s servants were stoking a crackling fire, above which three vats of bubbling fowl stew were suspended. Another servant was setting out tankards of mead on long tables that were littered with apples and nuts. Three more fires in cast-iron bowls hung from the ceiling on chains and kept the night chill at bay.
Several villagers were already there, picking at a plate of smoked fish and talking loudly, clearly excited about the evening and merriment ahead.
Unseen, Ingrid rushed home, keen to remove any evidence of her trip up the muddy hillside to visit the seer.
Quickly slipping into her chamber area at the west of the longhouse, she dragged the weaved curtain across to afford some privacy. Then, using an old rag, she wiped the worst of the mud from her boots. She removed her cloak, hung it up to dry, and slipped from her trousers.
“Ingrid. There you are.”
She turned. Her handmaiden, Helga, stood there, face pale, long neck peeking from a woolen tunic.
“My dress.” Ingrid pointed.
Her father had asked that she wear a dress, plait her hair, and displayed her mother’s jewels. She’d barely given herself time to preen yet alone be presentable for a village feast hosting guests. One particular guest her father seemed unusually keen to impress. Ingrid had no idea why even though he’d talked of Bjorn Har many times over the last few days.
She pulled on a white under-top, then her maiden assisted her with a red yarn dress with golden embroidery running from her shoulders to her waist. The neckline was low, the pale skin of her slight cleavage visible.
“I will get the scent, Princess.”
The handmaiden disappeared.
Pausing in her frantic movements, Ingrid slowly ran her fingertip over the soft orbs of her small breasts. She had yet to be with a man, but she’d seen and heard others in the village mating. Men planting their seed in the hope of sons. Privacy for intimate moments wasn’t something her people craved, especially when the mead was flowing and revelry was in full swing. She, however, wanted her first time with a man—her husband—to be special.
In fact her father had ordered that be the case.
What will it be like to be touched here… and down there?
Not for the first time her mind wandered into the future. She hoped her husband, her soulmate, her betrothed, would be handsome, and a fine warrior, a great provider, and brave and loyal. She’d yet to marry him, but already loved him. For she knew she’d only settle for a Viking of the highest quality, and she knew her father would only hand her over to such a person.
She sat and picked up a decorative comb made from an antler—a gift from one of the young men in the village, Raud Lothi—and set to her task of preparing for the feast again.
She smiled as she thought of Raud. He was one full moon older than her, and they’d grown up together, riding, hunting, chasing, and learning the ways of the forest and fjords. When Ingrid’s mother had passed with the fever four summers ago, Raud’s mother had comforted Ingrid, knowing when to speak, and when to stay silent as sorrow shrouded Ingrid’s life for the longest of winters. Raud had been the one to remind her how to smile. His playful nature, his quick genuine laughter, and his refusal to put her on a pedestal despite her father being king were a salve for her grief. She’d always be grateful to him for that.
Soon her hair was twisted into tight plaits and piled at her crown with several sprigs of dark rose heather sticking from it. She added dark brown streaks made from crushed walnuts and soot above and beneath her eyes, and dabbed dried berry paste onto her lips to give them a bruised shine.
“Ahh, there you are, daughter.”
“Father.” She turned, a smile forming on her face.
The king pushed the curtain aside and stepped into her space. He filled it with his wide shoulders adorned with a shimmering onyx wolf pelt. Two large iron buttons connected by a chain were pinned either side of his chest.
“Are you joining us?” he asked, ramming his hands onto his hips and his thickly coiled red beard shifting as he spoke.
“Of course.” She stood. “I just need to put on Mother’s amulet.”
“Here. Let me.” He reached onto the table and picked up the bronze chain; from it hung the runic compass symbol, vegvisir.
He held it up and looked between it and her. “This is a beautiful piece but nothing could ever outshine you, my dear daughter.”
“Thank you.” A little rush of heat bloomed on her cheeks.
“Perhaps I don’t say it often enough, but I do love you.”
“As I love you.”
“And sometimes…” He paused. “I grieve for you.”
“But I am still here.” She was confused.
“Yes.” He sighed and stepped behind her, positioned the amulet at her throat. “But you are a grown woman now. I miss the little girl who used to sit on my lap listening to stories of the gods even when you could hardly keep your eyes open. I miss our trips to the forest, where every new thing put a shine of wonder in your eyes.”
“I still love to listen to your stories.” She rested her hand on his. “And perhaps when spring comes we could journey into the forest together again, on a hunting trip. It has been a long time since we did.”
He sighed and worked on the clasp of the necklace. “It is true what you say, you do have a journey ahead, my child, and there will be much change with it.”
‘Bloodstone. It will help a lost soul see change on the horizon.’
Ingrid said naught though her mind galloped as the seer’s words came back to her. Did her father know she’d visited the seer? Had the words of the gods traveled so quickly? Did he also know she had a bloodstone in her pouch?
“Now more than ever you need your mother with you,” he said, “to guide you into womanhood. She is not here, but this, her favorite piece is. I am glad you will be wearing it tonight.”
“It will not be easy but it will be for the best.” He paused. “It is time for you to put your family first.”
“Of course I will, Father.” She rested her hand on his. “You are my family. I will always put you first.”
“And I you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Please remember that.”
“Of course.” She frowned. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“You’re all I have and my most treasured possession,” he added.
With the clasp fastened, Ingrid turned. This type of sentiment from her father—the firm but fair, and also feared King Baardsen of Ravndal—was most unusual. “Is there a problem?” She waited, hoping he’d take her into his confidence.
“No.” He shook his head though there was sadness in his blue eyes. “This day was always going to come.”
Ingrid frowned. “I thought you’d be happy. You have a guest from faraway lands visiting. A guest you revere.”
“That makes me both sad and happy.”
She tipped her head. His riddles weren’t making sense. A spindle of unease weaved its way through her thoughts, tugging into a knot that tightened into a fist.
“Come.” He pressed his hand onto the small of her back. “Let’s not keep everyone waiting to see your astounding beauty.”
Ingrid donned her cloak again, and with her father, made her way to the great hall. The rain still pelted down, and in the glow of torch flames the puddled ground shimmered pewter.
“I hope Thor will soon need to rest,” the king said. “We have enough water on our land now.”
“Ja. It is sodden.”
The door to the great hall was opened for them and they stepped into the flare of warmth.
The room quieted upon the arrival of King Baardsen and all faces turned their way.
Ingrid stood a pace behind her father and slipped her cloak off; it was quickly taken by a servant. She smoothed her dress then checked the heather in her hair and her mother’s amulet resting below her throat.
“In honor of the gods,” her father said, holding up his arms and beaming at the crowd. “Let us sup good mead and feast on fine food.”
A drum banged and the jabber of chatter struck up again as people took to benches set at long trestle tables. They were piled high with oxen, goat, buttered root vegetables, freshly baked bread, and cheese. Mead flowed freely and at the head table, wine goblets had been set for the king, his guest, and for Ingrid.
The king spun around, his attention settling on a man Ingrid didn’t recognize. “Bjorn, my friend.”
Bjorn’s wiry black beard twitched as he smiled, but his mouth wasn’t visible. His pockmarked nose was red and wide, his cheeks a similar ruddy texture. His eyes were thin and dark. Bushy eyebrows curly with metallic gray hairs were just visible beneath a mop of hair that matched his beard and cascaded over his shoulders in a greasy, unkempt curtain.
The two men embraced. Ingrid’s father was much bigger than his friend, stronger and a little younger too. Bjorn was as wide as he was tall, his limbs short and stubby, his torso thick and round as though the gods had modeled him on an apple.
“It is good to see you,” the king said. “It has been many years.”
“It has,” Bjorn agreed. “And the journey just as long.”
The king laughed. “It was you who wished it.”
“I don’t deny that.” Bjorn looked over the king’s shoulder at Ingrid. “I was anxious to set plans in place.”
The king hesitated. “More of that when we have begun to sate our hunger. Come, take a seat with Princess Ingrid and me.” He turned and clicked his fingers.
A servant rushed to fill the goblets with fruity wine. At the center of the table a baked pig’s head, aflame and surrounded with apples and walnuts, was set down. The meaty, salt-laced scent had Ingrid’s mouth watering. It had been many hours since she’d eaten.
“Ingrid, take your seat.”
To Ingrid’s surprise she was seated between her father and Bjorn. But she knew better than to question it. Her father ended feasts pliant and jovial with mead, but to begin with he had to be handled with the usual care. Like most Vikings, he wasn’t known for his patience, or his tolerance of the women in his life disobeying him. Her mother—may the gods protect and entertain her always—had been upturned and spanked on several occasions when she’d gotten on the wrong side of his mood and gone against the grain of his rules.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Princess Ingrid,” Bjorn said, leaning close.
His clothes were musty and his breath stale.
“My father is delighted to have you as his guest,” she replied, shifting away as far as she dared without appearing rude, then taking a sip of her warm wine.
“And you are every bit the beauty I have been told.”
“You are too kind.”
“I believe I am very lucky.”
She turned to him, wondering what he meant. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Raud entering the hall. As tall as the other warriors in the village he towered over the servant who handed him a pale horn filled with mead. His blond hair was peppered with rain that glistened in the flame light, and his wide shoulders were draped with a leather cloak tied at his chest with a crisscross of lace.
As he drank, his attention settled on Ingrid.
She had a weird sense of the room slipping away, fading into the distance. The muggy scent of Bjorn wilted as did the chatter of her father with a villager standing at their table. It was as if only she and Raud were in the room and her heart beat all the faster with the new heady sensation of it.
But I’ve known him all my life. He’s just a friend.
Could he be more? Did Raud want more from her?
Perhaps it was time to admit her feelings for him. Raud was a fine warrior and seafarer, he was quick thinking, handsome, and kind. Could she find a man better suited to spend this life and the next with?
She smiled as he drained his horn and held it out for a refill.
“You will like the south, Ingrid. Goshard is a pleasant land in the summer months with fertile soil and abundant harvest,” Bjorn said.
“Goshard? Why would I travel to Goshard?” Still Ingrid watched Raud. When had he become so handsome? Ja, she’d always thought him a fine-boned man and his eyes and skin clear. His beard was neat and lately fashioned into a plait on his chin decorated with a single golden bead at the end. He always smelled nice too, when she was near him; soap and leather, and a lingering hint of a late night fire on a cold evening.
He walked over to the head table, his boots leaving a damp trail of footsteps. A couple of the younger village men glanced at him. It was clear Raud was someone they looked up to and aspired to be like.
A lovely warm sense of ownership and pride went through Ingrid. This big gorgeous Viking was going to be hers and in a way he always had been. There was a closeness between them that couldn’t be taken away. They knew each other too well. Now that closeness of minds just needed to become closeness of bodies—warm, naked, mating bodies.
A shiver went through her and a gentle tug pulled at her belly and between her legs. She wanted to be naked with Raud, to feel his hot skin, his strength, and his pleasure. And the sooner that happened the better. She wanted to give him sons, many beautiful warrior sons, who would one day be kings of Ravndal.
“King Baardsen.” Raud nodded at Ingrid’s father.
“Raud, it is good to see you,” the king said gruffly. “And at a perfect time as I am just about to make an announcement.”
“You are?” Raud glanced at Ingrid.
She shrugged. An announcement was news to her.
“Ja,” the king said. “A very important one.”
He stood and Raud stepped to one side, took from his drink again.
“Attention, everyone.” As the king’s bellow roared around the great hall, everyone silenced. A few warriors continued to rip meat from bones with their teeth but mostly eating was halted.
“I have called this mid-winter feast to welcome my old friend Bjorn Har and I hope you will join me in doing so.”
A murmur of greetings rolled up to the beams.
“He has traveled for many days to be here, and it gives me great pleasure to offer him my daughter as his wife.”
My. Daughter. As. His. Wife.
The words had been spoken, but they roiled around Ingrid’s mind as though unreal, a figment of imagination. Except she never would have imagined that.
She was to wed Bjorn Har?
Live forever with the stench of his breath and clothes, the sight of his greasy hair… lie with him in bed… let him do that to her?
Nausea swirled as she looked from her father to Bjorn.
Bjorn grinned and for the first time she saw he had very few teeth and what he did have were blackened with age and decay.
“Father,” she gasped, turning back to the king. “What are you doing? What are you saying?”
A frown creased his brow. “Look happy, daughter.”
“But… but I don’t know this man.”
“It is good for our families to join.”
“Princess Ingrid. Stop!”
Anger and frustration warred with disbelief. How could her father be giving her away to a man who was old and disgusting? He’d said not long ago how much he loved her, yet now this…
She caught Raud’s gaze. He appeared as shocked as she was. And while the rest of the crowd stood and cheered and held tankards aloft in jubilation, Raud’s cheeks stained red and his jaw tensed. He lowered his drink; it tipped, a trickle of mead splashing to the floor. His opposite fist clenched.
“We will wed in the spring.” Bjorn took Ingrid’s hand and pressed her knuckles to his lips.
The scratch of his beard sent bile into her gullet and she bit back the burn. Every instinct in her wanted to recoil, get away, run, but she stayed glued to the seat, knowing that to do anything else would embarrass and in turn displease her father.
“It will be a three-day ceremony,” the king said to Bjorn. “We will feast like never before.”
“And then Ingrid and I will make many sons.” Bjorn’s gaze dipped to her breasts. “Many, many sons.” He licked his lips and leered toward her. “And not stop mating until we do so.”
Ingrid snapped her hand from his.
I can’t marry this man. I can’t lie with this man. I’d rather die.
She pushed back her chair. She had to get out of there. She’d suffer the wrath of her father and the gods. The thought of being married to Bjorn sickened her. It was a fate worse than death. Worse than not being welcomed into the afterlife.
Suddenly Raud was behind her. He pressed his hands on her shoulders, keeping her seated. “Smile,” he said against her ear. “Smile and get through this feast.”
The heat of his palms seeped onto her shoulders, down her spine, and into her core.
“Get through this,” he whispered again. “Then we’ll make a plan…” He paused. “A plan of what we’re going to do.”
He lifted his hands and walked to a long table and where he sat with his back to her.
‘What we’re going to do.’
Thanks be to the gods, Raud understood her dilemma, and his fast brain would be concocting a plan, a way to persuade her father that this was all a terrible mistake. Perhaps Raud would offer to marry her morrow—that would certainly be a tolerable resolution.
“We will make many sacrifices to the gods, Ingrid, to garner good luck for our union,” Bjorn said as he chewed on a goat shin. “And when you bear me sons we will make more sacrifices to ensure Thor and Odin watch out for them in battle.”
The spittle at the corners of Bjorn’s mouth was white and frothy and caught in his beard along with shreds of meat.
Ingrid gulped her wine. There was no way she could eat a thing, not now—not now that she knew what her future held.
She closed her eyes. Was this what the seer had meant when he’d said change was on her horizon? Was that change marriage to a revolting man whom she would never or could ever desire? Would the bloodstone help her weather the storm of having to spend her nights being pawed and groped, penetrated and inseminated by a great bear of a man?
A shiver went through her. ‘Beware of the bear and the wolf.’ Was Bjorn the bear? And if so, who was the wolf? Her father? He favored his wolf cloak and there was no doubt about it, this had been a sneaky, conniving act. He’d never even hinted that he wanted her to marry a friend of old to further the family position.
Is he losing his mind?
“Eat, Ingrid.” Her father pushed a plate of cheese and a bowl of boiled oxen her way. “It is mid-winter, you need strength and meat on your bones.” He nodded past her at Bjorn, who was now devouring bread and butter as though he’d never seen it before. “And that man there won’t want a skinny bride.”
“I don’t want to be his bride,” she whispered through gritted teeth. “Surely you know that, and—”
“Stop.” Beneath the table he squeezed her knee. “I will not hear of it. I cannot hear of it. The arrangement has been made and announced.” He paused; a flash of sadness crossed his eyes but then his jaw tensed and the sorrow was replaced with iron. “And you will do as you are told.”
There was no point arguing with him, not now when he had that look. There would be a loser and it would be her.
She reached for a square of cheese and nibbled the edge.
“Good girl,” he said, releasing her knee then sighing. “Eat.”