She strolled down the marketplace, all eyes on her, queasy, reaching for her swollen womb. She could tell they still saw her as a slave. Even dressed with queen Aslaug's old dresses, arrayed with silver, hair reaching her waist, coins in a heavy purse, key, scissors and a dagger fit for the wife of a desitute prince, Magrethe still felt like a slave around here. Her child was but a shackle further. Her marriage started to smell like slavery all over again.
If it were for her, she would have joined Ubbe in Wessex. If it were for her she would run the household of a jarl, a king even, if she was so bold as to tempt the Fates. She would not be satisfied with a farmstead. She could count lager numbers but accounted smaller poorly. She knew she was capable of the feat.
Instead she contented with what her husband wanted, did his every wishes, his every whims – like a slave. It was the fate of wives after all.
A man glowered at her but she took no notice of it. Rather, she took the full notice of it but let it slide around her like she was made of something more than mere flesh.
Let them glower, when she will be queen, they shall cower. Perhaps she will make them grovel to win her every favors. The thought was of honey. She knew it a dream, Ubbe being reluctant to take on the throne that was rightfully his and was usurped by Lagertha.
She still quivered thinking about that fateful day she was "borrowed" to serve a darker purpose; keep the sons of Aslaug afar for the mighty shieldmaiden to take over Kattegat. Her wrists still felt numb at times, the ropes had almost cut her to the bones. She had been treated as little as a bowl. Even fawl were provided better care than she had been. She had been gagged and whipped into playing the part of a seductress, thrown into the princes' beds. She had left a slave and returned a whore, all her pride slaughtered, all humanity crushed. She had wanted to die then.
Then sweet Ubbe freed her and married her in spite of it all. Sweet Ubbe and his sweet dreams, his sweet eyes, his sweet hands and his sweet newly-forged shackles. Were she a queen, she would take her life back, grasping it tight and steering it wherever she wanted.
She was not a queen. She was nothing. A look at Lagertha and her minions were proofs of that. At least Aslaug asked her questions. Lagertha just took. She didn't need permission. Why should she?
The thought made her heart pound in her ribcages, as though it tried to burst through her frail bones. She was weak. Fear made her weak. She hated it.
Heavy breaths came in, as well as tears, violent and quick. She couldn't breathe.
A hand landed on her shoulder. "Are you alright?" Helga asked.
Magrethe wiped off her tears and tried to steady her breathing. "Yes. Yes I am." she croaked, voice hoarse and thin.
She had been brought lower than the ground. She would rise higher than summits.
Helga took her arm in hers and strode down the marketplace with her. Her smile was gentle, her hands soft. Magrethe almost ached from so much tenderness.
"You must rest. Your child will be restless if you do not." Helga said.
"I need to tend my house."
Helga frowned. "You have slaves for that, don't you?"
Magrethe flinched, tears pearling on the corner of her eyes. "Never slaves. I'll never have them." her voice was cold, a dangerous edge covering it.
"Why not? Isn't Ubbe a Prince? Isn't he an important man?" Helga's voice softened. "As his wife and the master of your household, you could consider having them. It is seemly for a woman of your standing to get slaves."
"I was a slave." Magertha's voice was so thin it resembled a whisper.
"You were freed. You are a free woman. A free woman has rights."
"A free woman is not free when married."
"To a prince. A prince's wife will always be under the yoke of power. If you are to be a prince's wife, you must at least have servants." Helga said. She released her soft grip on Magrethe's arm. "You must have them to take care of you when you are busy with overseeing your husband's estate."
Magrethe winced. "It is hard. I used to do everything myself."
"Take it one day at a time. You can start with one servant. That way you'll still do chores."
A single tear rolled down her cheek. "Even if I had a servant, this wouldn't feel like me." her nostrils flared with anger. "And even with a presence in my house, it would still feel lonely without my husband." It would be lonely even then. She had no friends. Not even Helga she could consider a friend. She was completely and utterly alone. Who would want a slave as a friend while other options existed? Who would stand by her and understand her? No one.
"You remind me of someone." Helga forelornely said. "She left Kattegat. I've always wondered what became of her."
"What was her name?"
"Thorunn." the sounds rolled on her tongue like soft thunder. "Aslaug freed her. She was – is Siggy's mother."
Magrethe scoffed. "The broken shieldmaiden? The other slaves used to sneer at her in the barn. Said she was weak. Ungrateful."
"She was lost." Helga said with a shrug. "So are you."
Lost? Perhaps. Ever since she was freed, she had felt aloss with herself. Before, she was nothing, just a tool to be used, freed, she became her own woman, with a name, dreams, ambitions, things of humanity. She was weak, perhaps. She wondered if the slaves sneered at her now. The ungrateful bitch who whored her way to freedom and power. The slave who would want to lie with a prince. She had never pondered about who she was, or perhaps pondered too much. For now she was a wife, but she wanted to be queen. At least queens were remembered. At least, queens knew themselves.
"I thought you would want to know: Lagertha is back." Helga said with utter concern.
Magrethe's blood iced in her veins, cold shivers running down her spine, feeling like crawling in her skin, ears ringing, heart teeming. She was alone. Undefended. Her house could burn and herself with it. Lagertha could send men to rape her, or else she could come, beat her and force her into chains. She couldn't be a slave again. She couldn't be whored for the queen's best interest. She was free and would remain so.
She lurched towards her house. "I must go."
"Magrethe?" Helga tried to hold her back.
"I must go." Magrethe said again, her heart pounding. "Thank you Helga, but I must go."
Her feet strode, then ran. She hurried to her house, counting what she would need, gauging what to take, what route to march, how she would be able to escape in case everything went bad. She would need to leave Kattegat, find allies for Ubbe, find something, anything to keep her away, safe, far from the town and its queen.
And then what? She would cower in her little corner of the world? She would raise her children in a wolf's den? What use would that be? She would be tracked down even then. Better die by fire like in the sagas, like the queens of old, than flee like a coward. Surely there was something to be done, to take advantage of this dire situation.
Surely she could rise from her ashes and thrive in Lagertha's shadow. Surely her fear would allow her a spot by the queen's side until she knew enough to feed Ubbe with and establish a plan. Surely she could play the part of the obedient little minion well enough. Surely Lagertha wouldn't suspect anything. Surely she would keep her alive only to have a better use. Surely she would be killed but she was done cowering. Queens didn't cower. They rose.
She would lower her eyes, always, feel the knot of fear tighten in her throat. She would shudder at her touch, taste the venom on her tongue when she would speak with her, hate herself when she would bow, despise everything about herself in her presence; she would loathe how debased she had been and fear strike at every corner of the city, she would have nightmares of her, but she would withstand it all proudly. She was the wife of a prince. She had seen worse.
She was to act like her bitch. Anything for Ubbe. Anything for herself.
A blade came close to her face and Solveig dodged in a haste, rising her shield to counter another blow. A volley of arrows rained down the battlefied. Chtak chtack chtack chtack. She almost ran to avoid them but they kept cleaving the air. Between the warcries and the wails of women and children who had not yet taken shelter uphill she roared a cry of her own and fought her way through the chaos and deafening clatter of steel against steel, of ripped flesh and fresh blood melting the thin crust of fallen snow.
She barely saw the next warrior rampaging and raving towards her, but she thankfully hit his jaw with the rim of her shield and drove her blade throught his chest twice for good measure. Another one came and her breathing grew heavier. This one was tall and hard-seasoned, his muscles sharp and his aim sharper. She ran in a dark and narrow alley between two houses and let go of her shield as the man followed her, his bulky figure darkening the whole scene.
Solveig swallowed and unsheathed a dagger, her hand firm around the shaft of her ax. She nimbly stepped forward lithe and quick, dancing in between the smashes and blades of the warrior that slit the wooden buttresses asunder. Her dagger in hand she slit and slashed, rampaging of her own and caught the warrior's blade in mid-air. Her heart skipped a beat, her fear sharpened, but she had to go through it. She needed to survive. This was why Thorunn had trained her. Protection.
She felt the sting of a cut and the throb of a punch that send her on the ground, rattled and exhausted.
"Shit." she spat and it was blood. "I'm so tired." she breathlessly groaned.
This was just yet another battle, another brawl; one of those she had known ever since she was a girl. If there was rest it wasn't now, amidst battle and carnage and fear. She fought her growing anxiety and stood up. Survive. She just had to survive.
Her steps grew lighter and she quicker, and if she was punched from times to times, getting rid of her shield made it all the more easy for her to fell the man with her hatchet. She eventually caught his throat with her blade and stabbed it with her dagger until his massive brawn was down on the snow, obtruding the alley.
Her breath caught in her throat and she felt herself gag. Her whole body felt like agony and she was sure she would be bruised. Her hands would be scarred, her face would be swollen and she would not see with her right eye for a while. She bled from nostrils, lips, mouth, hands, arms and guts, but she was alive and she had some fight left yet.
She sniffled and gripped her weapons, reeling out, dizzy and exhausted, and brandished her shield to protect herself from another volley of arrows.
She caught sight of an archer. She laboriously ambushed him and snapped his neck.
She was ambushed by three men. She roared and gutted them, working mechanically while striving to survive.
Another man came at her. A lad, barely older than Siegfried. He was shaking, she could see, but it was war and war has no mercy. She thrust her axe on his head and cracked his skull open.
She reeled and laboriously killed another man, and another and another and another, until her path became clear and she saw her: Thorunn, her face half painted in black, her eyes as red as ever, surrounded by her own men, berserkers wearing little but wolf and bear skins hollering war-cries, showing teeth, exposing their tatto-and-blood-laden bodies to their foes, shaking them to the bone.
Solveig let a growl of her own join them and bared her teeth. The sun dipped slowly below the horizon, sinking, red and bloody, while all around blood blurred with light. It smelled of rotten corpses, of shit and blood, of metal and sea spray, it reeked of sweat, it tasted of flesh and blood, it blazed with fire and sparse flames, it clattered with hollerings, desperate pleas for mercy.
Thorunn was a sight to behold. With little consideration for herself, she was fighting her way to the quays, felling man after man, her own berserkers fighting beside her. Solveig saw her being punched, being cut, being tossed around in the battle, but she kept smiling, as though her place was there, in between vengeance and fury. Whatever she was when Helga knew her, she wasn't that person anymore; she was more beast than woman and Solveig squinted to see her ripping the throat of one of her opponents with her bare teeth.
"Fall back!" someone screamed.
But it was too late. Some of the ships were already burning and Thorunn's remaining troops were smearing tar, oil and ale on the decks of those that remained.
Solveig allowed herself a quick survey over the scene. The battle had died down to the harbor and some of the better trained villagers were battling against archers, some coming to slaughter them up close, others using their own bows and arrows, shooting from behind walls to avoid enemy arrows.
Solveig huffed and trudged towards the archers, protected by young warriors it seemed. One of them flinched every time a berserker hollered.
Solveig slit his throat.
Then she proceeded to stealthily cut them down one by one, but was soon noticed by what seemed to be an experienced warrior who stood in front of her while the remaining of his men ran to the waters. Their was a broken shieldwall. It had yielded as soon as Thorunn's charge broke through their defenses, as soon as fear had settled amidst their ranks.
Solveig settled firmly on her spot, ready to fight was promised to be her last fight. Gods she was exhausted! Her breathing seemed to echo all around her. Peace settled in in place of fear. She was ready.
Her trance was broken by a gurgling sound behind her. She swiftly turned around to see another warrior, pierced through and through with a spear. Then her eyes fell on Siegfried, spear in hand, eyes wide with terror, gagging and reeling. It was his first kill. Her brother. Her pure little brother!
She was suddenly struck by the rim of a shield. The world danced around her, her teeth rattled, a chime covered every sound and for a moment she didn't know if everything was real or not. A throbbing pain awoke on the side of her head. She was bleeding. She coughed out some blood and scrambled to her feet, but fell again. Her sight faded, and faded.
She she saw it. The warrior. Hand firm around his shaft. Sword drawn. Shield up. Decades of battles carved on his towering body. And in front of him, her frail little brother. Red-faced laden with freckles, red-haired, small and fresh. A lad with barely a beard. A mere spear – a stick – in hand. Terrified.
Her blood icened in her veins. He would die.
The warrior rose his sword in the air...
She parred with her shield, the rush of energy pulsing through her every limbs. Her arm was sent back with the impact, but already she was counter-attacking, ripping his sword-hand with her hatchet, yoawling, growling, roaring. She cut through the flesh then through the bone and the warrior screamed and screamed and she took the sword from his hand while he hit her back with the shield and finally he let go and she took the sword and sent it through his head. Suddenly his grasp released her and her fell on the bloodied ground.
Solveig's face was streaked with tears and blood and spit. When she turned around, Siegfried's eyes were still wide and his face had taken the color of fear, of terror.
Solveig's erratic breathing sent her crying. Her shaking hand stroked Siegfried's cheek, smearing blood on his pristine skin. She slowly drew a trembling breath.
Siegfried pressed his own hand on hers and nodded, gulping and sobbing.
She closed her eyes and gave a faint smile.
Only one ship was not burning now. It almost sank with all the warriors retreating on it, the ones still in the water finished off with a rain of arrows, drowning, left bleeding to death. And on the quays, red and bloody was Thorunn, looking at the ship plowing its way away from the partially destroyed village.
The night fell on corpses, on dead warriors and dead villagers, none of them Solveig had truly spoken to. But she knew them. She had relished their laughter, their stories and their smiles. They were dead now, farmers and traders turned warriors for a single night when they had to step up. And now they were dead, weapons in hands unfit for them.
"May the gods reward them for the lives they've led and the death they'd have." she wheezed as she scrambled up to Thorunn on the quay.
As she saw her, Thorunn gave some sadness away but it was concealed by the black part of her face; that which gave her the allure of Hel, that which bore her scar, that which had been molded in iron. "You fought well." she said with a half-voice.
Solveig's whole body quivered and begged for a moment's rest but Borghild would come back soon enough. Now, among Thorunn's fiercest warriors, she needed strength. She needed them to see her an equal, to admire her, to respect her. Using the last shreds of her willpower she steadied herself on her spot and gave a long breath.
Thorunn frowned. "Borghild will kill me. This will be a long recovery."
"I'm not dead I reckon."
"I am glad. I would hate it if my little sister were to die before she had bloomed fully."
Solveig wanted to laugh but it strained on her chest. "Quite a battle. Never seen one so violent before."
Thorunn shrugged, half a smile on her face. "There will come others that will demand more of you."
"Not as much is all I ask." the village burned behind them and already people were putting out the fires while the berserkers carried their injured into the great hall and finished off their enemies that were still breathing. "Who were they?"
"The ships belong to the king in Uppsala. They fly his banner. The warriors, well, a few are his but Olaf recognized some as coming from Saxland." Thorunn grabbed a sword from the wooden pontoon. "Frankish swords. Those were no ordinary warriors. They must have some strong and powerful allies."
"Mercenaries?" Olaf, a towering brawny man, asked.
"Not quite. Theirs was a sharp warcraft. Mercenaries wouldn't have fought so orderly. Who rules in Saxland?"
"A man called Louis."
Siegfried had stepped forward. He had clumsily given his voice a deeper tone and he was red to the root of his hair. His eyes almost glazed when Thorunn noticed him which made him squirm and gasp. Solveig gave a faint smile full of tenderness for her awkward brother.
He ran his hand on the back of his neck. "I- the merchants said so – I – I listened. That's all." he stammered.
"What else is there that you can tell us, boy?" asked Olaf as gently as possible given his stature. It was almost comical seeing a man so brawny adressing a lad so scrawny.
"I – I heard from a merchant in Novgorod that king Louis has have issues with rebellious earls of late. Some want their independence from the kingdom Charlemagne left his grandson. Their ambition lay north as I have heard and they recently came together to conquer Jutland. Louis is adamant in letting them attack there but still, he resolved on thwarting their little rebellion."
"They cannot seek help to Kattegat or the southern petty kingdoms of Norway. One of them albeit big and cohesive is the one they seek to conquer and we know that the high queen does not take conquest fondly. The others are too entertwined in their petty wars to help the earls." Olaf continued. "This only means that they went to the king in Uppsala for help and he agreed to help them."
"Makes sense given how the king could takes Kattegat's attempt at claiming lands in Gotaland." Thorunn finished. She grinned. "It doesn't matter. They're all dead now."
"Why attack here? What tells us they will not come back?" Solveig asked, fear settling back in.
"They will come back." Thorunn said with certainty. "Because we have made this town a thriving place and places like this are seldom rife around here. They will come back because we are rich. We have prevailed but for them it is only a setback, but a setback enough for us to prepare, to build walls and train more men so that next time, they will not get past the shore. Winter will be good for us in that effect. I want a wall."
"And the women? The children?" asked Borghild, shoving her way to Thorunn. "What of them when we will get attacked? What of them and what of life when we will live under threat?" her voice was hard, a dangerous edge to it.
Thorunn frowned. "Train the women to protect the children and elderly. Valhalla is honorable but delaying the feast with Odin has its perks." she gave a heavy sigh. "I am aware of the peril I brought upon you and I am grateful that you let me stay, but I believe we need more victories to fully coax fear of us into their hearts. For victories there needs to be wars and raids, and we can prepare for that."
Borghild cast a glance to the berserkers, her eyes hard and menacing. "After your victory tonight more men will come."
"I believe so."
"They will need to be disciplined. If they attack us instead of defending us that will be an issue."
"They will not. Not if they care for Valhalla and their balls."
"Lady, we will not." Olaf's booming voice said. "I swear. On this arm ring I swear." the gold around his forearm glinted.
Borghild pursed her lips, dissatisfied. "Know this Thorunn: you saved us many times but there will come a time you won't be there to protect us. What will you do, then? What will you do when this town is in ruins?"
Solveig placed a light hand on Borghild's shoulder. "Trust in our childern to learn and fight, to be fearless and cunning in battle. I hear your worries but Thorunn is not our only asset here."
"You?" Borghild wrinkled her nose. "You are away, always! Either you follow your brother either you wander on your own!"
"I don't mind." Siegfried casually said.
Borghild raised a finger which made him look down at once and blush yet again. "Our children will die!"
"Everyone dies." Thorunn bitterly said. "Little girls die, young mothers die, old crones die! But teach them how to fight and they delay their deaths." her gaze fell on Solveig, pride filling her eyes. "Had I not come, had I not fought, many a girl would have died and this village would be nothing but ashes on a charred mudhole. Our being attacked and raided is only the price of success. It needs some getting used to but in my experience, we thrive just as well under siege." she grew softer. "You know I wouldn't let anything happen to you. Never."
"I know that." Borghild suddenly seemed ten times older, her hands knobblier, her face wrinlkier, her skin ashier, her back more withered. "Then what of Uppsala? What of the king of Saxland? What of those powers that are no match for us? We are but a town in the end; We do not belong in the greater scheme of things."
"So long as I live, this place will remain untouched by those kings. So long as I am here, we are independent; no jarl to govern us, no king to rule us, just the ting." Thorunn said; "I screamed it to them, you know. I said that this town was under my protection. Whomsoever would be so foolish as to attack us will perish. I swore it. I am a woman of my word."
"And we will be beside you in that endeavor." Olaf said.
"I'll – I'll learn how to fight, Thorunn." Siegfried stammered. "For – for us I mean."
Solveig smirked. "I'll beat your ass."
"Shut up!" her brother hissed, visibly vexed.
"We'll need all the strength we can get." Thorunn smiled and Siegfried choked. "I will protect you. I swear."
The king of Uppsala sought their lands and was helped by the Germans. Kattegat sought the lands of the king in Uppsala. Each of the players on the tafl board made their way to them, a most dreadful thought.
Fate worked in mysterious ways. Without seeking it, her path led straight back to Kattegat, to war, to battle.
To Bjorn Ironside.
Alright so I hope you enjoyed this chapter! It'll probably be a while until the next update but it's getting there (I guess). I kind of like what I wrote here and I am proud of how the battle came out. Let me hear your thoughts y'all. See you next time.