The Ninth Lost Tale: Runa the Wife

Runa expects to live her entire life isolated in the woods until she meets Thorkell the Tall. She tries to conform to society through a traditional marriage, but at a very high cost to them both.

Written by Jayden Woods, Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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*

JOM

1001-1006 A.D.

She awoke in his heavy arms, and at first she panicked. The memories of the night before came back to her in shattered pieces. He chased her through the woods. She jumped on him from a tree and they fell in a breathless tangle. The underbrush scraped her back. His wiry beard tickled her stomach. They laughed, they groaned … they grew silent.

Now his breath roared and faded behind her, up and down the back of her neck, steady as an ocean current. She looked down at his large hands, still clasped around her stomach. He was the most magnificent man she had ever met. Thorkell the Tall … they did not call him so without reason. Her small fingers traced the thick, golden hair of his arms. He had returned to Jom with the rest of his army, victorious over Olaf Tryggvason. He had proved himself a mightier Jomsviking than his own brother, Jarl Sigvaldi, chief of Jomsborg. He could have had any woman he wanted, willing or otherwise. But she had not even given him a chance to choose. She wanted him for herself, so she lured him into the woods and she took him. Now what?

Now she was done with him.

She took hold of his hand and slid it like sand from her body. He sighed and shifted, but otherwise showed no signs of waking. The rumble of his breath almost made her want to fall back against him and drift into his dreams, but she resisted. She slipped gracefully from his relaxed grip and into the free air. She draped her dress over her skin, a light gray garment that looked blue in vivid sunshine and left very few lines of her body to the imagination. She left her hair loose and ruffled, a swirling and tangled mass of pale yellow strands, as wild and free as her own spirit. Then she tip-toed away.

Only once did she glance back at Thorkell, his partially-clothed body draped across the forest bed. His skin looked coarse where the shadows fell upon it, but seemed to gleam as smoothly as gold in the sunshine. The muscles of his torso were a sight to behold, bulging and tightening with the slightest motion, yet softening into a gentle ripple of his strength when he relaxed. She had observed this phenomenon many times the night before.

Leaving him now would be an unfortunate loss. But that loss was little compared to her freedom.

With a sad smile, she turned and hurried away.

*

Close to the shore, she sat facing north and cast the runestones into the soft earth. She watched the shapes roll and settle, their stony surfaces gathering a film of soft yellow dust. Then she studied the lines and drew her own conclusion from them.

She did not believe the stones had any magical power. She imagined that the gods perhaps nudged them one direction or another, with their knowing winds and earthly pull, but she cared little for the source of their design. No matter why they fell a certain way, the runes always spoke to her. Runa would always find a reflection of herself in the words and ideas they conjured. Often, her own interpretation of the runestones’ casting would reveal more about her inner hopes and fears than any other form of insight.

What she saw troubled her, so she closed her eyes and listened to the distant whisper of the ocean. She breathed deeply of its salty breeze. Her mind swam to the rhythm of the far-off crashing waves. She saw two different fortunes in her mind, but she did not understand how they could both be true, when in fact they strongly opposed each other. Two futures lay ahead of her, forged by her own decisions and willpower.

In one future she lived a settled life, in a single home, with a man who loved her and a community that supported her. She left the wildness of the fields and forests for the stability of a town and market. In her second future she traveled far, far away, further than she had ever imagined traveling, over the roiling ocean to some distant shore. She began a new life, doing whatever she willed, controlled by no group of people, inhibited by no man. She took what she wanted and left the rest to burn. She was a Viking.

She shuddered and opened her eyes again, steadying them on the knife-like edge of the horizon. Both futures excited and frightened her. She wanted both. She wanted neither.

And so she would not worry about them, she decided. She collected the runestones and returned them to her pouch. She stood and brushed the twigs from her dress. As she glanced at the ocean she thought of Thorkell the Tall, sailing the vast seas with his Viking army, gathering gold and reducing his enemies to puddles of fear. Bumps lifted along her arms, making her sensitive to every slight brush of the wind. She trembled and shoved him from her mind once more.

She slipped back into the woods, to the cave in which she lived alone, to the safe abode in which no one supported her, nor constricted her.

*

Runa waited for the winter to break. She waited and waited. She ate the last of her stores. She ravaged the last pieces of food from the cold earth. But she could not do enough to support herself. Her body rejected her. She rejected it. She ate strange flowers and herbs, even though she knew they would make her sick.

She and the baby would not last another fortnight unless she sought help.

By the time she walked to the fortress of Jomsborg, her dress hung in ripped tatters. Bruises and scrapes covered her skin. Her elbows were sharp enough to rival a pair of spear-tips. She was thinner than she had ever been in her life—except for her belly, protruding from her body like some sprite-infested mass. Between her legs, blood trickled out and caked on her thighs. She didn’t even know when the bleeding had begun.

The guards of the land-gate stared at her with a mixture of disgust and fascination.

“I’m here … for Thorkell the Tall,” she said.

“Er … no women in Jomsborg,” said one.

“Then I’ll sit right here and wait for him to come out,” she said.

Once she sat she fell asleep, and her mind became lost in the evening’s cold embrace.

She awoke in a peasant’s lodge and smelled food. Her stomach flipped within her. The sensation felt strange … like her body had changed shape. She touched the swollen lump of her belly and groaned. The ceiling flickered above her with the orange light of the fire. Shadows flitted over her vision and made her head ache.

“Drink this.” A woman’s hand touched her clammy forehead. She poured cool water down Runa’s throat. Runa struggled not to gag.

“It’s killing me,” she rasped, her fingernails digging into her own stomach.

“No,” said the woman. “I think you’re killing it.”

This seemed inexplicably true.

Runa’s dizzied gaze fell on a large man standing in the corner. She recognized the towering frame and soft gray eyes of Thorkell the Tall. She tried to smile at him.

Her pain overcame her and swept her away. Her body writhed and jerked in the clutches of agony, battling itself, struggling to expel the fetus like a poison from her body. She became lost in the struggle and thought of nothing else. She roared a battle cry. Her muscles ached and stiffened, as if they became rods of ice cold steel twisting within her. Her vessels throbbed. Her loins heaved. The blood flowed.

By morning she expunged the baby’s small, dead body from her womb.

She heard Thorkell’s heavy breath next to her. It heaved less steadily than she recalled. His hands enveloped hers, coarse but comforting. She looked to him, her lids heavy, but her gaze bright. She saw tears on his cheeks. She wanted to reach out and touch one, but she felt too weak.

He met her stare and jerked with a sob. It was strange to see the giant cry. “It … was a girl.”

“It was nothing,” said Runa. “A lifeless piece of flesh.”

He did not have a naturally expressive face, but his eyes crinkled and his lips twisted with despair, shifting his yellow beard. Her heart lurched, giving her the strength to squeeze his hand. Water stung her own eyes, and it was an unfamiliar feeling.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She thought of the plants she had eaten, knowing they would weaken her body. “I didn’t want it.”

He squeezed back against her fingers, a gesture that sent pain up her arm, but she ignored it. “Why not? Why did you go away?”

She didn’t respond at first, only stared at him, not judging, only observing. Had he really missed her all this time? She thought he would have forgotten her, written off their night together as a meaningless jaunt through the trees, and yet she could she see in his eyes that he had searched for her, longed for her. And she had longed for him as well, though she had tried to ignore the feelings as trivial lust, when in truth they ran deeper. The warrior had raided helpless villages, slaughtered innocent people, and taken what did not belong to him. But somehow, he did not frighten her. He was a Jomsviking. It was his job. As for the rest … she trusted him completely.

“I don’t know why,” she said at last. “But maybe I’ll stay this time.”

*

At first she did not stay by choice. She remained sick. Two well-off peasants of Jom took care of her on Thorkell’s command. With rest, and food, and Thorkell’s kind attentions, she felt well again by the time winter lifted and the morning dew ceased to frost.

By then she was restless, and ready to leave. She longed to return to her forest home, no longer burdened by the energy-sucking weight in her body.

As she walked from the hut one morning, ready to leave and never come back, her knees buckled underneath her. She fell into the wet grass and wept.

Thorkell came to see her that evening. The smell of fish and butter filled the peasants’ lodge as they prepared the night meal. Thorkell and Runa huddled in the corner, far away from the quiet couple who had been caring for her.

“I want to leave,” said Runa. She glanced at her hosts again, and they glared back. They were more than ready for her to leave, as well.

Thorkell nodded. “I know. I have found a place for you.”

She reached out and ran her fingers over the gold and silver rings encircling his wrists and arms, reminding herself of how rich he was. “What sort of place?”

“A home. Where I can visit you.”

Her hand fell away from him. “And if I didn’t want you to?”

His face went so still she could hardly read it at all, only speculate. She had come to see that he could hide his emotions completely, if he wanted. But she knew they were in there somewhere. His ability to do this infuriated her, and she suspected he knew it.

She growled. “Thorkell. I don’t understand what you’re giving me.”

“I think you do.”

She pitied their eavesdroppers on the other side of the room, who no doubt heard the reverberating grumble of his voice, but probably could not understand the conversation. Neither, however, could she. Her eyes searched his desperately for clarification, but she could not find it. “Thorkell!” she cried. “I would not be your bed-slave!”

Without a doubt, their listeners understood her words. Runa hoped she would embarrass them enough to go away. But they were too stubborn to leave their own home.

Thorkell, however, achieved her desire by simply twisting his head and staring at them. The inhabitants seemed to understand immediately; they wiped their hands of fish and walked outside.

“Not a slave,” he said in their absence. “A wife, in the eyes of Frigga.”

She shrank back against the wall. The smell of fish guts seemed to grow too strong very suddenly and nauseate her. This was far too much, far too quickly.

“But … but … I have nothing to offer you. Not even …” She did not want to admit it. Whether he guessed it or not, she had no idea. But she did not want to give him confirmation of the truth: that she had no family.

Then she understood that despite his great status—or perhaps because of it—this mattered little to him. He had nothing to lose by taking a wife of low status. He could marry again, and again. He could have as many wives as he wanted. She would be nothing more than a possession to him, whether he called her a wife or a concubine. From her perspective, the two seemed very much alike.

Sweat beaded along her brow. Her heart palpitated against her ribs. Her head spun. “No,” she gasped at last. “I won’t do it.”

She got up to go. He caught her arm, and perhaps he tried to be gentle, but his grip lurched her to a halt.

“Live there for a month,” he said. “I’ll leave you alone. Then you decide.”

The simple kindness of his request melted her resolve. Pulling against him, her eyes drawn away as if to her thorny home in the woods, she marveled at the choices in front of her, and cursed herself for nearly making the wrong one. A Jomsviking chief wanted her as his wife. She practically killed his child, and yet he had nursed her back to health. So far he had not requested a single thing from her—only given.

She leaned into his strength, sweeping herself towards him. She wrapped her arms around him, then her legs. He held her against him effortlessly, as if she was a part of his own body. She breathed with him, their breath flowing back and forth long before their lips touched.

He carried her down to the floor, then pinned her there. She could not have escaped if she wanted to—but she did not want to. She laughed, thinking of the poor peasants outside the door, and pulled him closer.

*

Her new lodge was a wonder to her, and very much to her liking. Thorkell kept his promise to her and did not visit her for a month. Instead, she visited him. She was not supposed to, of course—“no women in Jomsborg.” And yet she delighted in breaking the rules. She prided herself in the fact that she was quiet and agile enough to slip past the legendary Jomsvikings. Once, Thorkell said to her, “Perhaps you should be a Viking, too,” and he laughed, a pleasant sound that shook the bedframe. But his chuckles faded quickly when he realized she was not laughing with him.

She did not need to work much, for Thorkell provided more than enough. But she engaged in various tasks for her own pleasure and satisfaction. She tried to mingle with other women in the village, sometimes helping them churn butter or dye a piece of fabric. She quickly learned that she could not make friends, even if she wanted to. Most of the women regarded her with suspicion and distrust, especially once they learned she had spent most of her life in the woods. And even when some of them grew interested in her, going out of their way to be kind, Runa found herself lashing out at them, stirring up trouble against her own intentions.

When she could no longer endure the frustrations of such acquaintances, she wandered into the woods. As she did not need to spend much time hunting for food, she began work on a new creation, one she had visualized for a long time but never had the means to produce. She decided that this would be her gift to Thorkell on their wedding day. Normally, a wife would give the groom a sword that had been passed down her family. But she had no family, let alone an heirloom.

The time eventually came for her wedding, at which point the support of the community surprised her. Thorkell had assured her that it did not need to become a large event, and yet everyone seemed to know about it. In the morning a group of wives from the town led her to the bath-house, where they scrubbed her with soap, and sprinkled water over hot stones to fill the room with steam. Once Runa was both sweating and sopping, they led her into a cold pool to douse herself, and she cried out with delight.

She put on a dress embroidered with golden thread, and she wore a crown on her head beset with crystals and flowers. She had never felt so extravagant in her life. When she saw Thorkell waiting for her on a soft loping hill, she found herself blushing. She had never felt so honored—and yet so incredibly vulnerable—ever before.

She tried not to discourage herself with the fact that very little of his own family or great following had come out to witness their union. To them, this wedding did not matter. They gained nothing from it. And yet at least a few warriors did leave the fortress to represent him, and she knew from the way they all joked and teased each other that they were among his dearest of friends. They were the ones who cared about Thorkell’s well-being, so perhaps it was best this way.

They sacrificed a goat for Thor, and the priestess dipped her hand in the bowl of its blood and flung it upon the congregation. Then they exchanged gifts. Thorkell gave her a sword, and when she took it in her hands, the weight of it spread like a shock through her body. She knew it was meant for their son one day. She did not want it for a son. She wanted it for herself. But she ignored this, and continued with her role. She could hardly wait to give him her creation. When she presented it, everyone in the field grew quiet, so that nothing could be heard but the rustling wind. For a moment, Thorkell only stared at it, his gray eyes wider than usual.

Runa ran her hands longingly over the wood. “It is a bow,” she said. “The best bow you will ever use. Look … you can even set the string, so it can be shot at a whim.”

She was speaking too quickly due to nervousness, and she bit her lips shut. Thorkell recovered from his surprise and took it, balancing it uncertainly in his grasp. “Thank you,” he said at last, and the ceremony continued.

For the most part, the rituals meant little to her, and she carried through them easily. When it came time to say her vow, something changed within her. A terrible fear washed away all the warm feelings of joy and pride that had thus far collected, replacing them with a gut-piercing panic. Suddenly she wanted to bolt away, away from all these staring eyes, away from Thorkell. But he must have sensed her urge, and he reached out and clutched her arm. No doubt his touch appeared casual, based on the effort he put into it, but his constraint was absolute. In a sense she was grateful, and knew he was right: she had had her chance to change her mind, and she had not taken it. And so she professed her devotion.

Nothing went wrong until time for the wedding feast. At this point the men and women split into separate groups and raced to the feasting hall. It was a competition filled with laughter and shouts of joy. Thorkell and his Jomsviking friends ran further and faster than most of the women. But the mood began to change when Runa pulled ahead of all of them. Her crown flew from her hair and she did not pause to retrieve it. She pulled up her skirts to free her legs. She sped over the fields, and when the hall’s threshold appeared before her, she did not slow down—she only raced faster. She had heard that the groom was supposed to bar her way with a sword and lead her inside, as a sign of his guardianship. Instead, she made to race through the door on her own.

Then she stumbled over the lip of the doorway.

The crowd behind her fell deathly silent, but for their panting breaths, which turned into gasps and sighs of dismay. The wife’s entry to the hallway signified her transition to the life of her wife-hood. The way Runa had stumbled indicated the interference of evil spirits; her union with Thorkell would be full of conflict and hardship.

Thorkell appeared next to her, reaching to help her to her feet. She flung herself away from him and hurried inside. She heard the grumble of Thorkell’s voice, and words which were something like, “I guess I’ll serve the ale, then,” and people began to laugh nervously. But she trembled with rage and frustration. Why had she been so careless? Why had she ruined everything that seemed to be going well, as she so often did? She did not understand herself. It was almost as if she did not want to be happy.

Perhaps it had not been her fault, she thought with trepidation. Perhaps her marriage with Thorkell truly was doomed.

*

Their first year together was one of happiness. She cooked and mended his clothes for him. Sometimes, even though she did not need to, she hunted for them with the great bow she had created. Often she played games with him—or at least, he thought of them as games at first—in which he would teach her some of his fighting skills. At first he would tease and trifle with her, seeing such an activity as little more than foreplay. But he began to see that she progressed steadily from one skirmish to the next, and their games became something more like training sessions. Thorkell enjoyed training her, because it was a form of practice for him, as well; soon he would receive King Sweyn Forkbeard’s own son, Canute, to train and foster like his own.

Runa even made friends with another woman in town named Halla. Halla was an old runeswoman, full of strange tales and mythical knowledge. She taught Runa the names of many of the flowers and herbs she had long gathered in the forest and showed her new uses for them. She also demonstrated new ways of reading the runestones.

During one such lesson, Halla stopped suddenly, looking deep into the criss-crossing patterns before her.

“What’s wrong?” asked Runa.

“There is evil in your past,” said Halla in her dry, scratchy voice. “You ran away from it, but it lingers within you.”

Runa’s heart thudded in her throat. She reached down and tossed the stones with a sweep of her hand. “A vague reading,” she snapped, somewhat breathless. “You could say that of anyone!”

“Perhaps,” said Halla. “But you …”

Runa glared at her until the old lady grew silent. Soothsayer or not, she could see that the subject should be dropped. And because she did, she remained Runa’s friend, and their meetings continued peacefully so long as Halla did not broach the topic. When Halla ran out of herbs and recipes to teach her, she began to teach Runa English, for the woman knew the language well. At first she did not know why Runa would ever wish to learn it, and Runa did not have a good answer. But her lessons continued, nonetheless.

Every time Runa began to tire of Thorkell and the monotony of her life with him, he would leave for some sort of battle or voyage. In his absence she would long for his kind words, his playful roughhousing, and his surprisingly gentle embrace. When he returned she would throw herself upon him, just as she had in the woods the night of their first encounter.

Then she became pregnant again.

At first she did nothing. She did not tell Thorkell. She tried, even, to shut it from her mind, as if ignoring the fact would make it go away. She was able to do this until one night, she had a horrible nightmare.

The darkness trapped her. A monster called to her through the walls. Breath became scarce but she could not leave the dark hole. She pressed her lips to the cracks and savored the slightest breeze. Screams of the tormented echoed from the shadows. The same victim cried again and again for help. She recognized the scream. She knew it by heart.

She awoke to Thorkell’s arm, heavy around her waist, and she thrashed from his grip. He stirred but did not awake as she slipped from the bed, sweating and panting. She dressed and grabbed her most important belongings. Then she left, not sure when she would return—knowing only that it would not be anytime soon.

At the break of dawn she visited Halla on the edge of town. She paid the woman for a large supply of pennyroyal. Halla knew well enough not to ask too many questions, but she could not refrain from saying something before Runa hurried off.

“Perhaps you should stay here, so I can care for you through the sickness.”

The offer tempted Runa, but she fled from it, before she could say yes.

Returning to her cave caused a strange emotion to stir within her. She expected to feel cozy and nostalgic. Instead she felt alienated, as if she was no longer the same woman and this dank hole belonged to someone else. At the same time this saddened her. She did not belong here anymore, but nor did she belong in the city of Jom, pretending to lead a normal life as the wife of a great Jomsviking. She belonged nowhere.

She stayed in the cave only long enough to build a fire and brew her tea, infused with all the pennyroyal Halla had given her. She drank until her stomach burned and sloshed when she walked.

As the sickness seized her, she spread out on the forest floor. She rested upon the incredible weight of the earth beneath her, reveling in the little sensations of bugs and worms scuttling beneath her and causing the surface to ripple with life. She fed herself on the warm breeze and loosed her moans to its sway; she cried openly and shamelessly, releasing her pain into the soil and wind because she could not endure it all herself.

When it passed—perhaps over two nights or several days, she wasn’t certain—she found a stream to wash away the blood between her legs. She used the next few days to gather berries and nuts, catch birds and rodents, and slowly nurse herself back to health.

At last she returned to Jom.

Thorkell was not home at first. Anxiously, she passed the time by throwing herself back into her daily chores. He did not arrive until the sky outside glowed orange with the sun’s descent.

At the sight of her, a strange look came over his face. She tried to decipher the emotions beneath his pale brows as well as she could. First, she hoped, there was joy. But this was fleeting, and replaced quickly with anger. And once the anger appeared, it would not go away. Such fury flared in his stony irises that she felt the nausea of fear in her belly—an unusual sensation, for not much frightened her more than all she had already endured.

“Thorkell …” She struggled to find her breath. “I’m back.”

He slammed the door behind him so hard she jolted. He did not speak for a long time, and the boom of the door continued to resound in her ears like a thunderclap in the distance, foretelling the oncoming storm.

Then a shudder went through him, and he rushed forward, capturing her in his arms. “Runa …” he gasped. “Runa, I worried …”

She closed her eyes as his fingers massaged the tangles of her hair. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll always come back. And if I don’t … consider me dead.”

He held her tighter to him, and did not pester her with the questions she feared. He did not even try to make love to her. He simply held her, as if he never wanted her to escape again. And for a time, she did not mind.

After that her life felt normal again, for the most part. She tried to pretend as if her disappearance into the woods had not occurred, and it seemed as if Thorkell ignored it, as well. When they met again, Halla gave her a disapproving glance, but also one of relief; then she proceeded to provide Runa with all sorts of elixirs—herbs that would cleanse her body of the remaining toxins, she hoped.

But Runa could not cleanse herself of what she had done, and it continued to plague her, more than any toxin could have.

She told herself that her decision had been for the best. A child would trap her. A child would pull out the monsters within her and reveal her ugliness to all. A child would be in danger of getting hurt by her in return. It had been for the best.

And yet her nightmares worsened, and she dreamt of the baby she might have had, warm in her lap as she cradled it. When she awoke her empty stomach felt cold and knotted.

Young Canute Sweynsson arrived at Jomsborg the next year and fell under Thorkell’s tutelage, a responsibility which greatly benefited the married couple. Runa rarely saw the boy, for he remained mostly in Jomsburg, but Thorkell cared for him as if he had acquired his own son. He picked out gifts for the young prince and spent his short nights with Runa speaking of him. She had never heard Thorkell speak so much about anything.

Runa only met the boy a few times, but he made her uncomfortable. Most kids did, but he even more so. Though well-behaved, his eyes glittered with a conceit that struck her core with fury. It was a conceit that made everyone around him a means to an end, a toy to play with, and nothing more. If such a characteristic was so strong now, when he was but a boy, and if all the people around him—even Thorkell—fed such unfounded pride, how much worse would it become once he was grown? It made her want to hurt the boy, to poke a hole in his bulging sack of confidence, to watch him squirm when no one could raise a hand to help him. She recognized such self-importance from the monsters of her nightmares, but at least in her sleep, the monsters chased her and no one else. The monsters within Canute chased after everyone.

She managed to keep her impulses at bay for a long while, and Thorkell stayed away often, and Runa enjoyed her freedom. But one night something changed. Thorkell had unusually high spirits. He seemed full of hope and joy, so much so that he brought Canute home and told Runa that he would be staying the night.

“Why?” snapped Runa.

“Because,” said Thorkell. “He has been a long time without a mother.”

Fear gripped Runa’s heart like ice. There was no use in arguing, she knew. Thorkell’s love for the boy blinded him.

So that evening she fiddled with her bow, and in the morning she took Canute outside to use it. “Set the string like so,” she told him. She even demonstrated, dropping a bird as it flapped through the sky. She could see by his expression that he was truly impressed. “Now you try.” She handed it to him, struggling to suppress her smirk.

“I don’t see any more birds,” the young boy said grumpily.

“Shoot that tree, then.”

“Easy,” he snorted. He aimed and pulled the switch, as she had demonstrated. But the string flew back and snapped him in the face. He cried out as the arrow spiraled uselessly across the grass.

“What was that?” said Runa. “You did it all wrong!”

“I did what you told me!” He blinked back tears as he touched the swelling welt on his nose. “It’s the stupid bow’s fault!”

“No it’s not, and no, you didn’t do it right.” She took it from him, set another arrow, and shot it cleanly forward. He stared in awe as it sank into the trunk of a distant tree.

“But—!” His shock became outrage. “Give it!”

He grabbed the bow. He set another arrow. When he released it, once again, the string smacked him in the face, this time even harder. He dropped the bow and staggered backwards.

A long silence hung in the air. Then proud little Canute burst into tears.

Runa couldn’t help herself. She grinned.

“What happened?” Thorkell stormed from the house. Runa had a sinking feeling that he had been watching for some time.

Canute just sobbed and sniffled. Runa attempted to meet Thorkell’s gaze with defiance, but found she could not.

Thorkell clenched his fists, his knuckles bulging like spikes from a mace. Canute just kept crying. The sound had been entertaining at first, but now it grated on her. She wished he would simply grow silent.

“Canute,” growled Thorkell at last. His voice sent chills down Runa’s back. “You used the bow like she showed you?”

“Yes, Thorkell, I did!” cried Canute.

“And yet it hurt you anyway?”

“Yes!”

“Then it is a danger to you,” said Thorkell. “Or something here is.” His eyes remained on Runa. “And what do you do to something that is a danger to you?”

Canute stopped crying. Joy flared suddenly in his eyes, but Runa went cold with fear. Canute looked at her, a sneer crawling up his puffy red face. Then he picked up the bow.

“No!” shouted Runa.

But Canute scurried away, taking the bow with him. He found the nearest rock and smashed the bow against it. Nothing happened at first; Canute was too little to put much strength in the swing. But he swung again, and again; and at last, a crack split the air.

“You little bastard!” Runa moved towards him, but Thorkell stepped into her path, and she dared not cross him. She seethed at him with fury and even hatred, staring into the black silhouette of his shape against the searing blue sky. Pain sapped the strength from her voice. “It was my wedding gift to you!”

“Much good that did us,” he said.

She was not exactly sure what he meant. She was not sure she wanted to know. The bow cracked again, finally splitting in half, and Canute laughed with triumph.

Runa turned away, hoping to hide the sorrow consuming her, along with the unquenchable urge to enact some manner of revenge.

*

The time she slept with another man was the night Thorkell changed his attitude. She had been gone for several days and nights again, as happened somewhat often. But this time had been different. This time, not every night had been spent in the woods.

Thorkell knew. In a sense she had planned on it. She had slept with a man dumb enough to brag about bedding the wife of Thorkell the Tall.

She strolled through the door feeling as proud as a cat. Thorkell sat next to the hearth-fire, his large shoulders slouched, his eyes staring deep into the blaze. The flames illuminated his hair like threads of copper. She yearned for him suddenly, but she stayed away, and her blood quickly grew cold again.

“Runa …” He took a deep breath, and she was surprised to hear it shudder as he exhaled. “Did I do something wrong?”

This reaction surprised her. She had expected an argument. Her mouth flopped opened and closed a few times before she could form her own words. “You broke my bow.”

“You hurt Canute. You leave my bed cold whenever you feel like it. And now …” She thought that he, too, was trying to be angry. But his beard quivered. “Now you’ve betrayed me.”

All of her defiance, anger, and rebellion melted immediately away. She trembled from head to foot and struggled not to fall and splash at his feet like a puddle. “Oh Thorkell …”

“I don’t understand, Runa. I tried to give you anything you wanted. I tried to let you do what you want. But … this …”

She cocked her head as high as she could. But he wasn’t even looking. “And what will you do about it?”

“I already killed him.”

She stiffened again.

“I had to. Everyone knew. Someone had to be punished: either him or you. Now that he’s dead, all they’ll need to do at the next husting is pardon me. And they will.”

She felt her anger strengthening her once more. “You’re the one who wanted to marry. Did you think I would change? Did you think I would become a different woman than the one that tackled you in the woods? Well I won’t. No one can change me. No one can restrain me!”

“Then perhaps we should divorce.”

His words shocked her. She had expected a greater argument, she realized. She had expected him to explode, to become violent, or perhaps to attempt to enact some sort of restraint on her. She thought perhaps she would provoke him to some sort of evil. Had she actually hoped for as much? The revelation made her sick to her stomach. She had wanted to prove to Thorkell that he was a bad person; that by making her his wife, somehow, he had trapped her. She clutched her own arms, as if suddenly cold. How often did she cause trouble simply to provoke other people into believing the world was as dark as she thought?

“I … I …” She forced a swallow from her dry mouth. “I don’t want a divorce.”

“Then what do you want?” For the first time since her return, he looked at her. His gaze undulated with emotion. The sight broke her heart. “I love you, Runa. I don’t want to change you. But … I can’t let you keep doing this.”

Restrained tears burned in her nose. “You won’t let me.”

His gaze became simple, pure. “Divorce me,” he said, “or stay. But if you stay, have a baby with me.” His voice grated with bitterness. “A baby we’ll know is mine. And if you ever think you’re pregnant by another man, you’ll kill it.”

She covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. So this mattered to him most? Or was it simply a desperate request? Somehow she suspected the former. Perhaps she had hurt him a great deal more than he could ever hurt her. And if he had figured out that she knew how to “kill” a pregnancy …

Something within her gave way. She fell against him, pressing her cheek to the sharp edges of his beard, raking her fingers along his biceps. “I’ll try.” A sob wracked her frame. “I’ll try. I’ll try …”

At last he reached up and held her, and she wondered whether she had lost the argument, or won something greater.

*

When they had their first baby together, she wept, and named him Harald. She brushed his perfect skin with her fingers, holding his warmth to her breasts, and marveled at his beauty while hot tears rolled down her cheeks. The baby’s life was a miracle, she realized; a miracle she had denied herself, as well as Thorkell. Here was a human being not yet tarnished by the world, unmarked by the evils of other people, unscathed, even, by the evil she knew to be within herself.

She spent long days and nights holding him, rocking him, singing to him. One night Thorkell found her thus and walked up behind her, wrapping them both in his arms.

“I’m sorry, Thorkell,” she whispered. “I didn’t think it would be like this. I never thought I would create something so … so …” She could not find a word for it, so she didn’t try. Thorkell nuzzled his beard against her shoulder and kissed her neck.

At first she enjoyed staying with little Harald always. She even tolerated his crying throughout the night, and his constant thirst throughout the day.

But one day she longed for the woods again. And then she realized she was trapped.

She paced round and round the lodge, listening to Harald scream, wondering what to do. She couldn’t just leave him. But now that she wanted to for the first time, her inability to do so filled her with rage. What other options did she have?

She stayed with the baby, but by the time Thorkell came home, she was seething. In the past, she had never told Thorkell before she left him for days on end. She never had to deal with him asking her not to leave, for she never bothered seeking his permission or approval. All she had to do was leave, and then when she returned, he would be so happy to see her that all would be well. This time, she had to state the truth.

“We need to find someone to look after Harald whenever I’m … gone.”

The baby seemed to sense the distress in the room. He wailed, only quieting when Thorkell picked him up and rocked him. The father glared at her over the writhing form. “But you’re his mother.”

“Would you rather I leave him alone?”

Thorkell got the baby to quiet again, and gently returned him to his bed. He spoke softly, though it was a strain to do so. “He needs you to feed him.”

“Another woman could do that, as well.”

A terrible silence followed her words. His response struck her like a splash of cold water in her face. “Then perhaps I’ll marry another woman.”

She struggled to breathe. This was the first time he had ever threatened her with such a thing. She never had to say how strongly the idea revolted her, for he had already guessed.

“There’s an offer,” he went on relentlessly. “From Chief Asgaut of Denmark. For his eldest daughter.”

She bit back her words of argument. She could not forbid him to do it. She had already shared herself with another man, so she had no right. And in truth, she wanted him to be as free to pursue his desires as he allowed her to be. She simply did not think she could endure it.

She turned to leave.

“Runa.”

Something in his voice stopped her.

“What do you want?”

The question surprised her. What did she want? She thought the answer would be simple. Freedom. But that wasn’t all she wanted. Freedom alone did not make her happy. There was more she wanted to do with her life, more that she wanted to see and accomplish, which she simply had no opportunity to achieve on her own, no matter how much time she could spend as she pleased. The answer arose from deep within her, where it had already been for a long time. “I want to cross the seas. I want to see Engla-lond. I want to plunder and rape.” She laughed at the silliness of it all. But her eyes sparkled with joy as she turned them back to Thorkell. “I want to be a Viking.”

He blinked with surprise. As well as he knew and understood her, this came as a shock to him.

She walked over to him, gripping his arm in her excitement. “Think of it, Thorkell. I am already a master of the bow. You have also trained me with a blade. We could have so much fun together.”

He looked away, his jaws grinding. She knew that “fun” had been the wrong word to use. Thorkell did not find any of the pillaging and killing “fun.” It was his job, his duty, and so he did it. She was not even sure she would find it fun, herself. But she had to try it at least once. It was her ultimate act of defiance against society, against her father … against everyone.

She stroked his neck lovingly, twirling his hair in her fingers. “I’ll stay with the baby until your next voyage to Engla-lond, if you would let me go with you.”

He took a deep, heaving breath. “Very well,” he said at last. “If it means that much to you.”

She let out a helpless cry of delight. She pushed him back into a chair and straddled his lap, the poor wood creaking under their weight. “It does,” she said.

To her surprise, a smile tugged at his mouth. “You understand that if you’re in my army, you’re mine to command.”

“Am I? I suppose that’s true.” She leaned against him and nibbled at his ear. “Then I am yours.”

His hands slid up her waist, but when another thought struck her, she pulled back again, tensing. “You must do what you must,” she said, her heart racing nervously in her chest. “But I have to know. Would you really marry another woman?”

He chuckled. “By the mercy of Thor,” he said, “not if I could help it. You’re all the wife I can handle.”

She fell back against him, losing herself to the pleasure of his embrace. When next she slept, she dreamt of the shores of Engla-lond, and awoke knowing that she would live to see them.

**

RELEASING SEPTEMBER 21,

The Tenth–and Final!–Lost Tale of Mercia:

Young prince Edmund, the same who will later become known as Edmund Ironside, fears for his father’s safety. He catches whispers of a plot against the royal family but he can prove nothing. How can he know who to trust?

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as compiled by various monks until the year 1140, were my primary sources of information. So, too, were the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester and the Chronicles of the Kings of England as written by William of Malmesbury. Without the devotion of these men to chronicle the chaotic events of their time, so little of the Dark Ages would be known. A full list of sources is available in the sidebar.

WORKS CONSULTED

Ward, Christie. “Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia.” Viking Answer Lady. Web, July 2010. http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wedding.shtml

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