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It was the girl’s howling that caught Brida’s attention at first. It wasn’t like the plaintive yelps that most of these Saxon cows filled the air of the hall with. The sound of their weakness was so annoying that Brida usually excused herself early from the festivities after a successful raid. But this girl’s voice held rage, defiance; resolve. Brida found she could not focus on the game she had been playing with some of the less lusty warriors. Excusing herself gruffly, Earl Ragnar’s woman stepped through the drunken mess that his victory feast had become, and sought out the source of the vengeful sound.

She found her cornered by three men; a lithe young woman with dark hair hanging half out of its plait, shadowing her face. They had given her a child’s wooden practice sword, and were amusing themselves by letting her try and defend herself while they aimed their own steel at cutting the clothes off her. The girl was holding her own better than expected. She clearly had no idea how to swing a sword, but she blocked more than a few of their thrusts and did not let the dripping red lines accumulating on her skin make her hesitate in the slightest.

Brida crossed her arms under the bear’s fur wrapping her shoulders. Many of the female captives did not survive their first night amongst the Danes, not when the men had appetites like these. Brida told herself to walk away before her sympathies could stir.

Instead, she found herself grinning when the girl got a lucky strike with the flat of the wooden blade right across Thorvald’s ear. He hollered like a petulant child and rounded on her twice as hard.

The Saxon kicked, scratched, and spit when the men got inside her guard and tried to bring her down to the floor. Even with her dress thrust up and four hands holding her down, she didn’t beg. Her shrieks sounded like seidr, like something that could call down the vengeance of a god.

“Enough.” Brida had not even made the decision until after she had commanded it, her voice a bellow that every one of Ragnar’s men knew to take pause for. Even Thorvald looked up at her, with his hand halfway through untying his belt. “Leave that one for me. I need a new slave, and I like the look of her.”

“I like the look of her too,” Thorvald growled, caressing her cheek and snapping his fingers back just before the girl could bite them. “You can take her from here when I’m done.”

Brida eased a step closer, hand on the hilt of the beautiful dagger at her hip. It had been a gift to her from Ragnar after the birth of his first son. “You’ll break her, Thorvald. Has anyone ever told you it’s a cock, not a battering ram? I need a slave that can walk.” She shoved one of the other lecherous men aside, and held out her hand toward the wretch on the ground. “I choose this one,” Brida announced again. “I’ll take her as my share.”

No one could deny that Brida had earned a warrior’s share in the day’s battle. She could feel dried Saxon blood sticking to the hair at her temple even now.

Ragnar’s warriors frowned, but they each stepped back in deference to her claim. “Get up,” Brida told the girl watching her through narrowed eyes. “You are my slave now. Follow me, I’m ready to leave this hall.”

 

“Your name, girl,” Brida prompted once she got her away from the crowd.

She looked sullen, her earlier fire now smoldering down to cautious embers. “Cynwise.”

Brida grunted. Saxon names were too grandiose.  “I hope you know how to wash blood out of fur, Cyn.”

She looked away from the girl, twisting her lip. Now that the heat of the moment had passed, Brida was not certain why she had felt such a strong impulse to claim her. She and Ragnar used slaves in their household, of course, but she had not felt that they particularly needed one more. She just… hadn’t wanted to see the girl’s fire put out. She would take her back to their tents and find something to do with her.

Brida continued on but Cyn did not move to follow. Her voice was almost too low to hear. “A slave…” she heard her say bitterly to herself.

Brida stepped back quickly, grabbing the girl under the chin. “You’re not going to give me trouble, are you? I’ll trade you right back to those men if you’d rather. With the way you fight, I don’t think you’ll survive them long enough to have to become a slave.” Even as she said it she knew she wouldn’t make good on that threat. There was something here that she wanted to preserve.

Cyn sounded more resigned than fearful when she responded. “No trouble, Lady.”

 

* * *

 

Cynwise knew she should thank God for her deliverance. The woman Brida – who she was now to call “Lady” even though her hands were crusted in blood and she swore worse than any man in the heathen camp – had saved her from the kind of cruel death that she wouldn’t have wished on her worst enemy. Her lips tried to form prayers, but it was hard to be grateful to an all-powerful deity that had allowed the Danes to sack her village in the first place.

There would be no going back. She had seen her family slain in the initial attack, knew that she herself had only been saved because she was young and unmarried. Everyone knew that the Danes only took women and children for slaves, and everyone knew what they wanted the women for. Even if she did manage to escape and find her distant relations further down the river, they would consider her tainted by this. There would be no good life for her among God-fearing Christians now.

She could do naught but swallow the bile that burned her throat and make the best of her life here. And so Cynwise tried her best to please her Lady Brida, wife of the Earl of these folk. Even on the days that it felt hard to be grateful.

The hard woman’s words rung in her ears every day. “You are pretty, Cyn,” she had remarked after showing her to the tent she shared with Earl Ragnar. Cynwise had ducked her head meekly against the compliment, but Brida clarified: “That is not a lucky thing, not here in your new life. Keep your head down, try not to attract attention. I helped you this once but I am not going to make a habit of sticking my neck out for a slave. You will have to protect yourself in the camp.”

She was introduced to two other slaves from Ragnar’s household, who had accompanied them out on this “raid.” An older man and woman, and neither of them talked much. They seemed equal parts suspicious of ‘Cyn’ and eager to shunt much of their work onto her. Still, she stayed as close to them as she could. She belonged to someone important, and that fact was likely to be her best shield against the ugly men that seemed to feel entitled to just take anything that they wanted.

Regardless of what Brida had said, she seemed to be finding excuses to keep Cynwise close, too. The first time she ordered her to serve her and her husband at supper, Ragnar leaned back and stared at the new girl long and hard. “Are we Saxon lords now,” he asked Brida, after the gaze emanating from under that strange tattoo had made Cynwise so nervous that she worried she’d spill the soup she was ladling out, “to have our food brought to us even while in camp? What’s next, will the slaves dress us and wipe our arses?”

That was when Cynwise realized Brida had been creating work for her to do.

“I thought I would like to try it, being served at our own table.” Brida responded lightly. “The raiding has been successful, and you are more rich and powerful than even, Earl Ragnar. Why not live like a king?”

Ragnar wrapped his arm around his wife, taking a long drink from his cup before kissing her. “There is more to wealth than just a box of silver hidden in the ground, is that it, woman? Your Saxon blood finally speaks.”

Brida frowned and smacked him on the arm; Ragnar tickled and murmured something at her until she relented and grinned for him. Then the Dane lord wiggled his cup for Cynwise to refill, catching her eye with a smile that seemed to share just a little of his own happiness with her, too.

 

* * *

 

The knife made a dull thud in the dirt when it landed at Cynwise’s feet.

“Pick it up,” Brida commanded her. They were momentarily alone in the clearing behind Earl Ragnar’s section of the camp.

It was an elegant weapon, hilt gilded with silver and blade too large to be intended to slice meat and cut cords. Cynwise just stared at it. “Slaves are forbidden to touch weapons.”

“That is true,” Brida said, throwing off her mantle and loosening her shoulders. “That is why I need to teach you to fight without one. Pick that up, come at me with it, and I will show you what to do.”

Why are you doing this for me? Cynwise wanted to ask. Brida’s face was impassive, her chin jutting with the hint of a challenge. Unlike Ragnar, she never smiled at the girl.

“Thorvald hasn’t forgotten about you,” Brida threw out. She looked down her nose at her knife on the ground, then her eyes ran up Cynwise’s body. “I would rather not have my slave fall pregnant, unable to work hard for me.”

Cynwise felt her blood start to boil. To defend herself, this was indeed a skill that she wanted. So why bother questioning her new Lady’s motives? She snatched the weapon from the ground and raised it over her head.

Brida spread her hands loose and open, sinking a little onto bent knees. “Try to strike me, Cyn.”

Cynwise ignored the fear that jolted through her body when she slashed at the only person in the world that had a reason to take care of her. Brida stepped into her attack, evading the blade and wrapping hands around her forearm. With one deft strike, she knocked the weapon from Cynwise’s hand. Then she bent her wrist until the pain made her stumble.

“The knife is scary but you have to look past it; go for the arm. The first thing you need to do is break their grip on the weapon.” She released Cyn’s wrist and left her shaking it out as she bent to retrieve the fallen blade. “Now you try.”

 

When Ragnar came upon them, they had been scrambling in the dirt for the better part of an hour. Brida had moved on to teaching Cynwise a maneuver for throwing a man off after he had caught her on her back, and it was much more difficult for her than Brida made it look. She planted her feet and thrusted her hips the same way Brida had shown her, but she couldn’t get the solid warrior’s body currently pinning her to move more than the width of a hand or two.

“I knew you liked the girl, Brida,” Ragnar’s voice boomed unexpectedly down on them, “but I did not expect to find you back here humping her.”

Brida scoffed, releasing Cyn and rising up to her knees. “I thought I could teach her how to fight,” she retorted, looking down at Cyn with assessing eyes. “But she is turning out to be weak and slow.”

Her disapproval was like a knife to Cyn’s gut. She shouldn’t care about the opinion of the woman who had made her a slave, but she couldn’t stop the sinking feeling of disappointment. She swung her leg out in one of the strikes Brida had just taught her, trying to prove her worthiness with another attack.

Brida rolled with it, lunging forward and pinning Cyn’s shoulders to the ground again.

“Don’t give up on me,” Cyn said through her teeth. It was not a very servile tone. “I want to learn these things.”

Brida inspected her face for a long moment. She must have been satisfied by what she saw there, because when she rocked back up to her knees, she extended her hand to pull Cyn up off her back too. “Time may improve you. And perhaps now that Ragnar is here, it will help you to see what I am doing.” She turned to her husband, who was still standing over the two of them, looking infinitely amused.

“We don't teach slaves to fight, Brida,” he said indulgently.

Brida only scoffed. “You taught me, you and Uhtred.”

“And you did not remain a slave, did you.”

She looked back at Cynwise, something that almost looked like affection in her eyes. “I want her to be able to defend herself. That is all. Our household should be strong.” Something significant passed between the two of them in silence, and then Brida waved Ragnar curtly to come nearer. “Watch closely now, Cyn. Ragnar: come down here and pretend you are some arrogant, drunken turd who is trying to have his way with me.”

Ragnar guffawed as he sank to his knees to join them. “This will be difficult! I have no idea what it’s like to be such a man as that.”

Brida scowled at him wryly. “Yes, this does not sound anything like you at all.”

They shared a private smile before Earl Ragnar growled and lunged at her. Cyn paid attention to the way Brida twisted her body as the enormous man pushed her down, positioning herself even as his knee slammed in between her legs.

“Normally I would strike fast at the balls before a man even got this far,” Brida said, staring into Ragnar’s eyes and making the statement both an instruction to Cyn and a unique sort of flirtation with her love. “But I am letting him win so that you can see how I recover.”

Cyn attended to the way that Brida squared her hips, getting her feet grounded at a much tighter angle than Cyn herself had been using.

“It doesn’t really matter how big the arseling is,” Brida said sweetly, “if you get your feet planted, and you commit with all the strength of your will.” Her pelvis rocked up and Ragnar flipped, landing with a thud and a bit of a groan over her shoulder.

“I see the difference,” Cyn said. Brida smiled, then yelped when Ragnar rose up and grabbed her from behind.

“I can’t just give up after that,” he roared when Brida protested, kicking and flailing. “I have a reputation.”

Brida had a little more trouble with him this time. It only made her laugh in his face as he pinned her to the ground with his full weight. “Now you are making me remember our first night together. So insistent.”

Ragnar grinned down on her; even from a pace away Cyn was struck by the warmth radiating from his face. She could see he loved his woman dearly. “You would not have it any other way. You had to make me work for it.” He bent his head and kissed her, deep and thorough.

Brida pulled back. “I have to make certain that you know my worth.” She feinted that she was going to try that flip again, then somehow rolled him over instead. She landed astride his waist.

Ragnar looked down the line of his body at her grasping thighs. “Now you are making me remember our first night.” His big hands wrapped around Brida’s waist and beckoned her down to kiss him again.

When their lips broke apart, Brida was breathing harder than she had during any of the fighting. With a start, she seemed to notice Cyn was still there. “Your lesson is over, girl.” She bent back over her husband, whose hips were already rocking in a mesmerizing rhythm. “Go find some washing to do, or something.”

Chapter Text

Cyn found that she was surviving the Danes better than she would have thought possible. Brida and Ragnar treated her no worse, and worked her no harder, than the Christian Lord who owned the lands she grew up on. And the fighting lessons, while difficult, felt like a kind of honor. Before Brida, she had never known a woman that carried arms like a warrior. To be initiated into any of those skills was thrilling. It was not long before Cyn became comfortable in the realization that not only was she grateful, but she was even beginning to respect the woman that had swooped her up on that terrible night.

The worst part of her tasks was preparing meals. Not the actual cooking, but the need to venture out of the circle of her masters’ tents, for the supplies. The other warriors still looked at her like something to eat, and she endured many frightful comments and grasping hands. Some of Brida’s lessons proved useful immediately, as she evaded idle grabs and proved she was no easy fruit to pluck. Even knowing she might be able to hold her own if one of them threw her down gave Cyn enough confidence to talk back, and carry herself well. Whatever she imagined would make Brida proud.

 

Earl Ragnar still sat at the table that Cyn was wiping up after the evening meal, nursing a cup of ale and watching the first few stars appear in the purple-hued sky. “You have continued your training with Brida?”

“I have, Lord,” she said dutifully, avoiding his eyes. She was still struggling to understand the way her wild Dane master made her feel. His look was as uncouth as the rest, and the strength that coiled in his tall frame should have intimidated her. But he didn’t. Cyn had never expected to see kind eyes on a heathen invader, but that was what he had. Ragnar Ragnarsson exuded good nature effortlessly, even if the steel lying underneath was never entirely hidden. He was a shield she was happy to hide behind; he only made her nervous when he noticed her.

His enormous hand wrapped around her wrist. “I would like to test your progress.” His smile was disarming, and he soothed her startled jump with a soft stroking of his thumb above her wrist.

Cyn’s instincts screamed at her to be cautious. She had observed that Ragnar did not always sleep in Brida’s bed, and recently learned that despite their obvious affection, the two had never actually married.

She flashed the ferocious kind of grin that she thought Brida would make, and twisted her arm from Ragnar’s grasp just the way his woman had taught her. “Do not bother yourself with me, Lord. I get along well enough.”

She moved to leave the table and Ragnar stood, attempting to corner her against it. His face was still lit up in that warm, playful smile of his, reassuring her not to fear his intentions. “I have no doubt,” he replied. But he wasn’t done with her, and Cyn could not help but shiver as she stared up at him, closing in. “I just find myself curious. Would you now be able to throw me off, as Brida did, the day I first came upon you in that clearing?” His hand was rising, as if he were about to dare to touch her hair.

Even as some tantalizing feeling rose up between her legs, reacting to Ragnar’s proximity and the faintest idea of what he might be implying, Cyn remembered the lost little look on Brida’s face on those nights when her man chose to spend his night with another. Cyn set her elbow against his chest, hurling him towards her right just far enough for her to spin out of his grasp to the left. She whirled and immediately offered him a submissive smile. “It is possible I could, Lord.” He grinned, seemingly pleased that she knew how to evade his grasp. He took another step toward her. “But now is not the time for sparring.” She put as much weight as she dared into her next words. “Your Lady is waiting for you in bed.”

Earl Ragnar bent his head to her, and spoke no more of it.

 

* * *

 

Cyn had been lucky that she made it this long without trouble. She knew her time had run out when the warrior Thorvald approached Ragnar’s table.

“I seek justice.”

Ragnar set his cup down, squaring his shoulders as surrounding conversations died down. “Justice will always be found under my roof.” The only roof was the stars, as they were in camp, still out a-Viking, but the words sounded formulaic. “What is your grievance, Thorvald? You have been my loyal man for a long time. Speak it, and see it redressed.”

His eyes narrowed as they sought out Cyn, clutching a silver pitcher at the edge of the high table. “That slave, Cyn.”

Her stomach dropped as Earl Ragnar’s gaze fell upon her as well. “Brida’s slave,” he corrected.

“Whether she belongs to your woman or not, she broke the law.” Ragnar’s head swiveled back toward the blustering warrior. “She fought me, Lord. Spilled my blood, in your own camp. I was only trying to have some fun with her.” It was true; Thorvald had come close to getting his prick between Cyn’s legs last night. He had only stopped when she crunched his nose with her elbow, along with a few other things.

Cyn straightened, trying to face her accuser bravely. She had not forgotten Brida had told her that she would not stand up for her again. She swallowed hard, preparing to speak in her own defense, when she saw her Lady stir.

Brida leaned forward from her place at Ragnar’s side, stalwart as a she-bear as she peered down her nose at Thorvald. “Did she raise a weapon against you?”

Thorvald sneered his outrage. “No, but she smashed my balls so hard I feared they might not work anymore. I demand justice! She is a slave, anyone can have her.”

“Anyone can try,” Brida corrected. “Not our fault that you couldn't catch her.” She sat back with a smug little smile as laughter erupted amongst the listening Danes.

Cyn thought she might faint from relief.

“She should be punished,” Thorvald insisted. “You should let me punish her.”

Ragnar frowned, tapping his fingers against his cup. He waved Cyn over. “Is it true, he tried to force you?” The Earl’s voice was pitched low, not intended for the whole crowd to hear.

Perhaps it was a trick of the firelight, but Cyn thought she saw his eyes soften with real concern. She nodded, and Ragnar’s mouth became a thin line.

Thorvald’s voice rang between them, interrupting whatever thoughts may have been running through Ragnar’s mind. “I demand satisfaction.”

It was true that Thorvald was an esteemed warrior, and as far as Cyn understood she had very few rights as a slave. It might not be worth it to Ragnar to shield her from this.

But his eyes twinkled warmly as he held his near-empty cup out for her to refill. She had almost forgotten she was still clutching the pitcher of ale to her chest. “My woman, Brida, likes this girl,” Ragnar announced loud enough for all to hear, “so I will not see her harmed to soothe your pride.” His gaze fell stern on Thorvald for a moment, then his face cracked into a conciliatory grin. “You know how it is with women. I would never hear the end of it!” He waved a hand out to Thorvald, a friendly offer. “I will send a different slave to your bed tonight. That was all you were after in the first place, yes?”

The charm of Ragnar’s gregarious nature was hard to resist. Thorvald seemed about to be swayed away from his anger, but Brida could not stop her tongue. “Be sure to send a more docile one,” Brida told Ragnar, loud enough that most people probably heard. “Something he can handle. Maybe an old woman. Or a sheep.”

 

When the high table was empty of everyone but Ragnar and his woman, he waved Cyn over to speak with him again. “Why did you not tell me that the warriors were giving you such trouble?” His voice was a rich, low rumble, and that softness was in his eyes for Cyn again. Not a trick of the fire, then. “I would have put a stop to it.”

Cyn shifted on her feet. “Brida has taught me how to put a stop to it already.” She glanced at the woman, happy to see her looking pleased with the answer. “See, he did not succeed.”

Ragnar rolled his head toward Brida and frowned. “He wanted to make me look weak, going after a woman of my household.”

“And now he is the one that looks weak,” Brida said tartly. “The fool.”

Ragnar looked back up at Cyn, eyes wide and solemn. “Tell me if something like this happens again. I cannot allow insults against me.”

But after he got up to piss, Brida had more to add: “You are the one who cannot allow further insult against Ragnar, Cyn. Don’t look to him for protection. Be your own shield. If you come running to him again, he will look like he tolerates weakness.”

Chapter Text

Cyn sat close to the fire that she had built up high and bright, squinting at the tunic in her hands. She really should have started mending it while the sun was still up. But Brida had pulled her along for another of their private training sessions just as Cyn had been ready to start on it this afternoon, and when they returned it was already time to start cooking the evening meal.

Now everyone was turning in for sleep but her and Earl Ragnar, who sat nursing a cup of ale and staring across the flames at Cyn. Every time she glanced up, his eyes were still upon her, stormclouds rolling across his usually cheerful face.

Finally she could take the silent tension no more. “Have I offended you, Lord?”

Ragnar’s face twitched. “No.” He took another sip from his cup before explaining. “I am trying to decide how much of a problem Brida had created.”

“What problem is that, Lord?”

“You.” He shifted, letting his gaze soften just a little. “The men all talk of you, these days. It turns out, Thorvald’s case against you has made you a little bit famous.” Ragnar’s lip twisted wryly.

“I am aware.” They were approaching her more than ever, the young men with something to prove. “Some of them even try to woo me now; it is no longer just assaults I must put down.”

“They are treating it as a contest. Who can be the first to hump Ragnar’s untouchable slave.”

“I belong to Brida,” Cyn reminded him stubbornly, looking back down at her work. “And thankfully, Brida does not want me to be humped.”

Her body stiffened as Ragnar rose, coming around to her side of the fire. He took a seat so close their knees could have touched. Cyn tried not to look like she was recoiling. She did not dislike Ragnar, and would not have him think it so. “And what about you, Cyn,” he asked, voice pitched lower, “what do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter what a slave wants.”

“I would like to know.”

She pushed the needle into the edge of the fabric so it wouldn’t fall, then stared coldly at his kind eyes. “Not to be ‘humped.’”

Ragnar grinned, then shrugged. “I am just telling you what they are saying. And trying to decide if this is a good distraction for my men, or a bad one.” He leaned back and Cyn found a little easier to breath. “I heard them telling each other that whichever man succeeds in bedding you will prove his prowess, and might even earn Frejya’s notice.”

Cyn made a dismissive sound. “I doubt your gods care about me.”

Ragnar tipped his head, studying her face for a long moment. She hoped he could not see the pain she strove to bury. The ways in which these Danes tried to use her, always for their own purposes, seemed endless. “I don’t pretend to know the minds of the gods.” He held her gaze with sympathetic eyes; Cyn could not bear to hold them and yet did not dare to look away. “I suppose is only a game, to pass the time as we travel home. And so far, you are winning!” Ragnar’s eyebrows jumped, crinkling his tattoo as he barked a laugh that broke the tension. “I love games. Pity this is one that I cannot play.”

The response came from Cyn’s mouth quickly, before any other answer could become possible. “No, ‘Ragnar’s untouchable slave’ cannot be won by Ragnar himself.” She stood up abruptly. The firelight was failing and the mending could be finished better at first light.

“Yes, where would the sport be in that.” He slid his fingers just above the back of her knees and she forced herself to ignore it. She could go weak with the remembering of it later.

“None at all.” She should walk away, but looking down at Ragnar’s upturned, carefully-neutral face, she found herself continuing the conversation. “At least they’re not trying to hurt me anymore.”

Ragnar’s eyes hardened. “No. Now they know that Brida values you. They would face legal consequences if they… damaged her property.” At least he seemed ashamed to refer to her in that way to her face.

Cyn’s smile was cold. “Another thing to be grateful for.”

Ragnar dipped his head. “You don’t like being a slave, and yet you feel truly loyal to Brida, don’t you.”

“She didn’t have to save me.” She had told Cyn as much, often, even if lately it was always with a smile on her face. “She didn’t have to train me. I’ve never known how to defend myself before. It feels good.”

Ragnar grunted his agreement with the sentiment. But something else was on his mind. “You should know that some of the men have approached me with marriage offers for you. So maybe this is more than just a game. You don’t have to be Brida’s slave forever.”

Cyn tensed. “They approached you, and not her?”

“They are too frightened of Brida.” Ragnar smiled and Cyn found herself smiling too.

“Is there anyone that is not?”

Ragnar’s answer was predictable. “I certainly am…” They both laughed then, and Ragnar rose to his feet beside Cyn. He peered down at her intently as he asked his next question. “Is that something you would want, Cyn? To marry?”

“Is being married to a Dane any better than being a slave to one?”

“Depends on the Dane.”

Cyn grunted softly, and turned toward her tent.

“If you want to take that path,” Ragnar called after her, “you should talk to Brida about it.” Cyn paused, but did not turn back to face him. “She won’t hear it from me. But if she knew you wanted that… she might listen.”

 

* * *

 

Cyn’s fingers were so cold they could barely keep their grip on the basket which held the laundry, wet from the river. She hadn’t taken the time to warm her hands before carrying the load back up toward Brida and Ragnar’s tents; a few of the warriors had found her while she was still bent over scrubbing in the cold water and had sat down nearby, to tease and talk. One of them was almost even charming, but Cyn was still ready to be away from them as quickly as she could.

As she walked, her thoughts returned to Earl Ragnar’s words the night before. Marriage offers, for her. She had thought perhaps that her new fate had taken that path away from her. She realized now she was even glad of it, had begun to enjoy the fierce warrior maiden that Brida was turning her into. She didn’t even think of herself as Cynwise anymore, preferring the name that Brida called her by. A new woman, arisen from the ashes of her past, untouched and untouchable.

In her old life, marriage was something she had been hoping to put off as long as possible. The bedding, in particular; her mother had said you get used to it, what husbands wanted, and some girls had even spoken of gentle lovers that brought them real pleasure, but the only thing Cynwise knew to be true was crushing weight and burning pain. She wanted to delay having to be under a man again for as long as she possibly could.

She had hoped that perhaps her new Lady might never want Cyn to marry, and she might for the rest of her days live out a life that didn’t hinge on trading her cunt for food and shelter, one way or another. But now Ragnar made it seem that she had a choice. She could escape slavery; if she were finally ready to become a wife.

The young man by the river had stepped close to her, speaking too quietly for his friends to hear, and promised that he was gentler than the rest of the lot: would caress her tenderly and slip his prick in so sweetly she’d feel no pain at all. Would thank him, even, and beg him to do it again every night. Cyn had rolled her eyes and shoved him away, but she wondered, now, if such a thing could be true.

Her thoughts became more practical as she stepped past the banners denoting Ragnar’s tents, pondering where exactly she should string the lines to hang the drying laundry. No one else seemed to be about, though she heard movement inside Brida and Ragnar’s tent.

The throaty, masculine groan that reached her ears sent a strange sensation down Cyn’s spine, but it was the girlish little moan that came next that stopped her breath. Her next step brought the inside beyond the open tentflap into view: Brida sitting on her heels, naked from the waist down, with closed eyes turned up toward the sky. She was swaying softly, face absolutely overcome with pleasure. Cyn had never seen her look like that before: so soft and lovely; joyful.

It wasn’t until the hand at Brida’s waist twitched that Cyn even noticed that it was there; with a shock she realized Ragnar’s body stretched out behind, and Brida must be sitting on his face. Was she— was he— the heavy basket started to slip from Cyn’s half-numb fingers. Scrambling to stop it from thudding to the ground and announcing her presence, she stole only one last curious glance at the ecstasy on her Lady’s face before hurrying out of view.

 

* * *

 

“Gunnar thought he could woo me by telling me how big his cock was,” Cyn said to Brida, mirth in her voice as she recounted the ridiculous ways the men had been trying to win her. It was a pleasantly warm day and the two of them were sprawled out by the river, arms plunged in almost to the shoulder as they felt under the bank for trout.

Brida scoffed. “Why is it that men think this impresses us?” She made a little noise in the back of her throat, then flipped another fish onto the bank.

Cyn’s lip curled in disgust. “Then he felt he had to show it to me.”

“And?” Brida killed the trout with one neat blow to the head with the back of her axe.

“I looked away as soon as I realized what he was doing but… like a thumb’s length? Is that big?”

Brida cackled. “No!” She lay back down on her side, dipping her bare arm into the water. “I’m going to call him Stubby Gunnar the next time I see him.”

The glee in her Lady’s face was a sweet balm to Cyn’s irritation. “I appreciate that they are not trying to take me by force anymore, but some of the things they are trying instead are just… One of them wanted to bribe me with sweets, like I was a child!”

“Was that Arne?” She nodded, and Brida grunted. “Arne is more used to horses than people. He probably thought his plan was brilliant! Distract you with a treat and then mount you like a mare while you’re pacified. Idiot.”

Cyn thought she felt scales brush across her chilly fingers, but when she wiggled them slowly, there was nothing in the water beneath her.

“What else do they try?”

Cyn thought a moment. “Oh, there are the flatterers. Your beauty is like the sun, your eyes are like the sea, your hair glints with gold…” Cyn flipped her braid over her shoulder in Brida’s direction, eyeing the tail end shrewdly. “Do you see even one strand brighter than tree bark in here?”

Brida took her arm from the water and hauled herself closer, flopping on the bank with one hand outstretched to take the plait. “They would have done better to compare it to the night sky,” she said, leaning in and squinting. “I think I see some stars in here.”

Cyn wasn’t sure why she felt her cheeks flush quite so hot.

Brida set Cyn’s braid back on her shoulder and flexed her fingers like they were stiff. “If only these men knew when to quit fishing, as we do.” She nodded toward the pile of silvery bodies on the bank. “We’ve got plenty there, let’s warm our hands.”

Cyn laughed at Brida’s comparison as they rolled onto their bellies and shoved their freezing hands together under the only fur in reach. They rubbed them vigorously to warm up, staring into each other’s faces and giggling like childhood friends. “I wonder what else they will try saying to me,” Cyn said. On a sudden impulse, she took Brida’s hand and started massaging it. She didn’t look at her when she said the next bit. “Yesterday a man promised he would make me feel so good I would be begging him every day.”

Brida guffawed. “Begging him to give up, more likely. Even when they’re good, they’re not that good.”

Her eyes twinkled when Cyn dared look up, and she smiled back, so happy to have Brida’s guidance through this mess.

“And what about Ragnar, what does he say when he tries you?”

Cyn froze. Brida was still grinning, but an icy chill went down her spine anyway. “Nothing.” She couldn’t lie to Brida, especially not when the woman’s stare grew level in reaction to her silence. “He doesn’t say anything… straight out.”

Brida snorted, but there was only a little mirth in her laugh. “Playing it safe.”

“A brush of the hand here and there, is all he’s ever done. I swear to you Brida” –Cyn started talking fast, her voice going higher-pitched—“I do not encourage him. I would never do that to you.”

Brida’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”

“What do you mean? I owe you everything, for that night that you saved me. I would never do anything to harm you now.”

Brida continued to inspect her face. Cyn was not sure what she was looking for. She became conscious of her hands again, realized that Brida now had them both caught tightly between her own.

“You are not the person I thought you were when I took you from Thorvald.”

“I’m not?”

“No. You have… a softer heart.”

Cyn felt her face droop. She knew Brida had no respect for the soft.

To her surprise, Brida’s smile became almost benevolent, only a little bit crooked. “It’s a good thing. Relax, Cyn. I believe you,” she said with that cheery voice that Cyn was never quite certain she could trust. Under the fur, her hands relaxed, thumbs circling softly to return Cyn’s favor of the massage. “It’s just that I know Ragnar, he can’t resist a game. He wants to win this one; he thinks I don’t see it but I can tell.”

“I am not a game that a man can just win.”

“Good.” Brida squeezed Cyn’s hands and then released them, rubbing at her own face as she looked at something over Cyn’s shoulder. “A few offers for your hand have come my way, did you know that?”

“Ragnar mentioned,” Cyn said carefully.

“What do you think, do you want to sell yourself into marriage to escape us?”

“No.”

Brida looked back at Cyn’s face, raising a skeptical brow.

“I have not yet met a man I would want to marry.”

Brida’s eyes were entirely unreadable. “Good,” she announced. “Now, we had better go prepare these fish before they start to stink.”

 

* * *

 

In the dark of night, Cyn’s mind came back to the questions that plagued her. What did she want from her life? She ran down her options, as she did every evening when she was not so exhausted that she fell asleep immediately.

She could attempt an escape, find a sympathetic Abbess and become a nun. They were still within the borders of her country, where she would have a chance of finding her way to a nunnery. But to run was a risk. And she had never felt close to God. Not when He allowed such terrible things as she had seen even in her own brief lifetime.

She could continue to serve Brida, make her peace with her fate and count herself lucky to be slave to a woman who treated her with at least a basic respect. And who taught her with those lessons in violence to be, in some ways, more independent and powerful than Cyn had ever felt before. She had not forgotten, either, that Ragnar said Brida had once been a slave. Clearly there must exist some sort of way to rise about that station if she stayed here. She was afraid to ask, but surely one day soon she would learn more.

And now a third choice. Marry a suitor here, and live life as a Dane. Maybe that was how Brida had done it. The free women of these people seemed happier than the women at home. Cyn might like that life even more than serving either God or Brida, if she could bear to fulfill the duties of a wife.

Her thoughts turned to the young warrior that had been trying to speak with her the whole time she was washing in the river. He had managed to make her smile a few times. She tried to imagine what it would be like to be his. Would he would lay her down gently? She relaxed on her furs, and pictured this young man caressing her body as he drew her clothes off with that shy smile he had had. Surely that would be pleasurable. But after a moment his face changed to Ragnar’s, and she caught herself wondering what the Earl’s long beard would feel like brushing across her stomach.

She took a deep breath, and forced herself to think of the youth from the river again. Brida certainly seemed to enjoy sex, it must not be impossible for a woman to do so. If the man were gentle, if he warmed her first as she had spied Ragnar doing to Brida, would Cyn enjoy it too? Her body tingled as she entertained these thoughts. It felt good to take control away from her fears and memories. Soon her fingers crept down almost of their own accord, seeking to ease the ache building between her thighs.

As she chased her own pleasure, her mind kept returning to Brida’s impassioned face, the soft sounds she made as she drowned in the joys of Ragnar’s mouth. Cyn almost made the same sound as her own climax overtook her.

Chapter Text

“It may be time to go back,” Ragnar mulled, staring into the fire outside his tent. “I am starting to miss the comforts of Dunholm.”

Cyn marked the way that Brida scowled at something in his words. “But we have not yet found as much treasure as the men expected to take back.”

“These churches are not as rich as people said.”

Finally Cynwise saw her chance to act, after all these long thoughts. “They are probably sending what wealth the little parishes have up to the big church by the sea. To protect it as you advance.”

Ragnar raised a brow, turning at her interruption. “How well defended is it?”

“How should I know?” she answered, feigning timidity. “I was only a peasant. But I know where it is.” She knew where the little nunnery was too, where her family had stopped on a pilgrimage up to visit the holy relic housed at that church. She remembered the kind face of the abbess who gave them water and thick slices of warm bread. That would be a place that a girl like Cynwise could claim sanctuary.

 

Brida smiled at her more often, on the road to the sea. Cyn could see the pride shining in her eyes, for this act of loyalty in helping them plunder her own people. She refused to let herself feel guilty about the deception. She was being strong by engineering her own escape. Brida might come to respect that strength too, when she remembered Cyn long after this was done. After she was finished with being angry at her loss.

Cynwise wished she cared less what this woman thought of her.

Ragnar’s forces moved fast, their advance scouts suggesting that the way to the great church was clear of resistance. If they did not give the local lords time to react, they should be able to sack the place before many warriors could be gathered in its defense. Cyn tried not to feel guilty about that, too. What did she care about the wealth of her betters, anyhow? Men with grand ambitions would clash with each other at this church, while Cynwise found her little corner to be safe from the world for the rest of her days.

Their camp behind a ridge above their intended target was a rudimentary one, little more than a dump for their supplies and slaves while all the fighters descended upon the church. Ragnar gave them only a single hour to rest before their surprise assault. Not even any fires were to be lit; everyone ate cold rations while they waited for the scouts to tell their leaders exactly how best to approach the tall stone church and the little village that sprawled around it.

Most of the slaves were gathered where they could be watched by two injured warriors left behind; recent captives were bound on a long line, but Cyn had earned more trust than that. She was treated more as the Danish thralls that had come along from Dunholm; casually observed but not expected to run.

She feigned a need to do some task for Brida not long after the warriors all departed. She would have to walk all through the day and night to reach the nunnery, so she had decided that it was worth the risk to gather a little food and a warmer cloak before slipping away.

Their group was already hidden amongst a copse of trees; it wasn’t hard to find a spot to sit and work her needle: off by the edge, where she was already obscured to more than half their eyes. It was an even easier matter to wander further away when she needed to make water, and then simply never return.

Still, she looked over her shoulder every couple of breaths as she picked her way up and down the first few ridges away from the camp. Cyn thought that after all her training from Brida she would likely be able to take down either of the warriors that had stayed behind with their injuries, if one of them gave chase. But still she hoped to be able to simply disappear.

It was through one of these furtive glances that she became aware of an approaching man, though he was not coming from the direction of the Viking camp. And, judging by his close-cropped hair, he was a Saxon. He rose over the crest of the ridge across from Cyn’s, coming quickly while looking over his own shoulder.

Cynwise ducked behind a thick trunk before he could spot her. She did not want to fall into the hands of her own country’s soldiers, either. No men could be trusted, and his lord might not decide to allow this fresh girl saved from the Danes to retreat to a nunnery.

She heard the scrambling of more feet, and then a clash of blades. The battle for the church was spilling over this way; something must have gone wrong with Ragnar’s plan.

A woman’s voice screeched, and Cyn’s heart stopped in her chest. She risked turning her head to look past her protective tree: Brida was there, fighting three men she had apparently chosen to chase down all by herself. She cut one down with a savage blow that split open the back of his skull, then launched herself to reach the next one.

Cyn rolled her back to the trunk again, thinking hard. She should run down her side of the ridge; Brida would not catch sight of her that way, and odds were that she would not hear her while she was occupied in combat like this. She should run right now.

She looked back instead. Brida had felled the next man halfway down the slope, but the third was giving her trouble in the gulley. Cyn gasped as his sword landed in Brida’s side and came away red. Brida howled like a cornered wildcat and buried her own blade in his neck. The man fell on top of her.

Cyn turned away, put one foot forward. Her escape was now clear. But … her mind tripped over the image of Brida dying slowly in the woods, bleeding out under the man that had killed her. Too far from the rest of the battle for anyone to find her in time.

She knew that the Danes believed this to be a good death. Brida had her sword in her hand, and would be taken to their highest version of heaven.

According to the priests Cyn had grown up hearing, Brida would soon burn in eternal torment, her soul joining the damned who delighted in murder and had never known the love of Christ.

And where would Cyn go, even after a life devoted in quiet service to a god she barely believed in, if she abandoned the friend that had once saved her own life?

She whirled around the tree and scrambled toward the place where Brida lay struggling against the dead weight on top of her.

 

* * *

 

Brida asked no questions when Cyn’s flushed face appeared above her at the bottom of that gulley, grunting with the effort of rolling the dead weight of stinking Saxon off her. But she had seen the pack hanging under Cyn’s arm, and she knew how far away they were from where the slaves were supposed to wait. They both examined the ugly hole in Brida’s side with matching frowns, and Cyn bound it as best she could with hands that were only shaking a little.

She held her tongue before Cyn helped her to rise, and then was barely able to speak anyway through the lancing pain of limping back to camp, braced against the silent woman’s shoulder.

Her thoughts were fractured by the sensations pounding insistently at her awareness, but Brida tried to decide what Cyn’s actions meant, and how she wanted to handle her now. An attempted escape should mean a flogging, at least. But Brida did not think she had any taste for that.

She glanced at Cyn, their faces close as Brida leaned heavily on her shoulder, taking short steps to try and reduce any movement of muscles that crossed the hole in her flank. The girl had a dusting of freckles across her creamy cheeks; Brida was not certain she had ever noticed that before.

She wasn’t even sure why she found Cyn’s beauty so distracting. She had meant what she had told her that first night, that her pleasing face would only make her life harder as a slave among the Danes. She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t just feel sorry for the girl over it, and move on. Why her mind still caught on little reasons to admire her.

It hurt a little, the thought that Cyn had been trying to leave her side. Perhaps she should have expected nothing else from a captive turned slave, but Brida had barely been treating her as one. She had even begun to assume that Cyn was happy in this new life with her; as happy as Brida herself had become in her own youth, in the household of Ragnar the Fearless.

But you were happier once you were no longer a slave there, she reminded herself. Perhaps she should start letting Cyn earn enough to buy her own freedom, that was the way these things were usually done. It would take years, but she could make those years friendly. And then Cyn might even want to stay close, after she had her freedom.

She had started to run, but she had come back, after all. Brida was quite certain it had crossed the girl’s mind to leave her there, bleeding out on the forest floor. And it seemed she could not bear the thought.

Cyn was the one that broke their silence. “How did the fighting end up out here, so close to the camp?” she asked as they picked their way along a thin game trail. Sly of her, to try and pretend they were closer to where she was supposed to have remained.

“There were more warriors than we thought,” Brida choked out, “hiding in the village.” Trying to speak made her side throb, but there was one truth at least that she needed immediately. She focused her gaze on the side of Cyn’s face. “Did you know they would be there?”

Cyn swallowed and refused to meet her eye. “No, I know nothing of this parish, its guards or its lord.”

Brida pressed her lips into a thin line, as much in skepticism as against the pain that wracked her body with every step. “Nothing but how much treasure this church should have contained.”

“Did it not?” Cyn sounded falsely casual, and busied herself scanning the trees ahead and to their sides.

“I do not know. I followed the fight out here, I don’t know yet if we won.”

“Oh.” Cyn took a breath. “I am sorry. I hope you don’t think I meant to mislead you, when I suggested coming here.”

Brida eyed her shrewdly. “You didn’t?” She could feel something rising in her chest, full of hope that Cyn was telling the truth, but she had to be sure.

“Certainly not.” There was something, some guilt quivering behind her wide eyes, but it may have been nothing more than the aborted escape attempt. “I had no reason to think that your warriors would have undue trouble here.”

The battle had certainly begun worse than it should have. Once Ragnar saw all those warriors, and the contemptuous lord at their head, he had expected negotiation. He was ready for an offer of a ransom to make them leave, but the lord was angry at all the raiding so far and wanted to make them pay in blood.

Still, the Saxons were breaking when Brida had let herself split off, to chase some cowards that had shouted vulgarities at her when they thought they were winning. It had not been smart to lose sight of Ragnar, but her blood had been hot and her confidence unshakeable.

Or perhaps it was the gods who led her out here, to the place where Cyn would see her, and help her. At the expense of her own flight. What did it mean that she had turned back for her?

It wasn’t until Cyn had got her settled back at the camp, had cleaned her wound and stitched it tight with her clever little needle, that Brida finally spoke on the matter that hung heavy in the air between them. She had decided to let it go unpunished, but not to let Cyn think she was getting away with it. “You were running,” she said flatly.

She watched Cyn flinch, but only for a moment. “Yes,” she admitted, and smoothly continued to wrap Brida’s flank up tight in the cleanest cloth she could find. Her face was still. Waiting to brave whatever would come next.

“Is that why you led us up here—you had somewhere to escape to?” Brida guessed.

“Yes.” Cyn drew the hem of Brida’s shirt back down over the bandaged skin.

 “So why didn’t you go?”

Cyn seemed the shrink into herself, thinking long and hard before she finally met Brida’s eyes. “I couldn’t leave you like that. You needed me.”

Brida tried to sit up, hissed and winced as fresh pain prevented her. Cyn’s arms were there to help haul her body higher. She peered up at Cyn from under furrowed brows. “And when I don’t need you anymore, will you try to run again?”

“I haven’t decided.”

 

* * *

 

Cyn saw that Brida was not the only one walking wounded, as Ragnar’s band made for Dunholm as swiftly as they could. But it seemed that they had hit the local forces hard enough that there was no pursuit. And spirits amongst the bruised and bloodied warriors were high, given the amount of treasure they were now loaded down with. The victory had been hard-won, but it had been rich.

Word had spread that Cyn was responsible for leading them to that church. The same men that had once laid hands on her now lifted their eyes from their evening fires and raised their cups in gestures of esteem to her as she passed. Cyn looked away quickly, still heeding Brida’s advice to avoid attention in the camp.

But Earl Ragnar was not content to let Cyn slip away on this night. They both knew well that Brida was already sleeping, exhausted from traveling all day with her injury. So there was little excuse for Cyn to use when he called her closer to his fire.

It was blazing in a long trench they had dug, so that most of the warriors that were not already abed could gather with the Lord all together in celebration. Ragnar sat at its head of course, on a log almost wide enough to be called a throne. “Cyn, the Unassailable,” he greeted her, with wide smile and sloshing cup, “who has now brought us great wealth, too. What other virtues are you hiding, I wonder?”

“I could think of one or two,” the man to his left leered. Ragnar waved him off, and there was a loose angle to his limb that let her know he had already become drunk.

“Sit with me, Cyn,” Ragnar beckoned, leaning back and offering his lap.

She shifted on her feet. She dared not, and yet Ragnar might lose face before his men if she rejected him outright. What would Brida want her to do?

The man to Ragnar’s right bumped her hip with his elbow before she could decide. “Not before she gets us more ale,” he demanded, wiggling his near-empty vessel in the firelight. “That’s the only thing I’m interested in her bringing for us next.”

“Of course,” Cyn said swiftly, giving Ragnar a long look before whirling away, one that she hoped would warn him to leave her alone when she returned.

But either he had missed it, or he simply preferred his own plans. She served him first and then poured ale for the near-dozen other men gathered around the fire in turn. When Cyn finished up the circle at Ragnar’s left, she found herself suddenly pulled down into his arms.

She prepared to resist, as she had been trained, but Ragnar whispered low into her ear: “Please, wait.”

The ‘please’ caught her, convinced her to settle on his knee and give him at least a moment to explain himself.

“Stay for just a few minutes, even.” He pitched his voice too low for the men sitting beside him to decipher what he was saying. “No one has yet won the challenge over you. I think it is good that you have not yet found anyone worthy, but please, let it look like I am in the running for this game.”

Cyn looked steadily into Ragnar’s face, gleaming in the firelight, and could not control her frown.

But Ragnar had lived with Brida for too many years, and would not be put off by something so simple as a foul mood. “Thorvald is still trying to undermine me. I must look… formidable, in every way that I can.”

She glanced at the man in question, who had chosen a seat at the far end of the circle. He did seem to be watching them closely, a frown set into his face.

Ragnar plucked the near-empty ale vessel from her hands and set it on the ground beside his stump. “And you know, it might help you too,” he offered.

“What do you mean?” Cyn asked, louder than Ragnar was speaking. But she dared to rest one arm on his shoulder, and lean in so he could answer her softly.

“Some of them will give off chasing you, if it appears that my victory is almost at hand.” On cue, his big palm ran over her back, gripping her flank just above the curve of her ass. Where everyone could see it.

Cyn tried desperately not to let Ragnar see how that touch affected her, holding her breath so that his caress could not tease a sigh out of her lungs. She still feared to go to bed with any man, but her body seemed to be following some deeper instincts whenever it was near to his.

Blessedly, Ragnar seemed to take her stiffening as a sign of reluctance. He inclined his face toward hers with a warm half-apology and kept his hand still, leaving it only to cup her waist and keep her steady on his lap. “Rest a while, Cyn.” He winked. “Share my ale. You deserve it; Brida has been running you ragged.”

Cyn nodded. “I did not realize how much work a slave-owning woman still did for herself, until she could no longer do any of it.” She accepted his cup, and helped herself to a long swallow.

“It will be worse when we get to Dunholm. Brida is never idle, and will hate that the injury will force her to be. She’ll have you spinning and weaving, making cheese and sharpening swords and the gods only know what else… She grew up as a servant, and even with the rank she has attained now she can’t stand to just sit on her arse.”

Cyn’s focus sharpened. “Brida was a Saxon, is that not what you once said?” Ragnar nodded. “Did she come to be among Danes the same way that I did?”

Ragnar leaned back a little, his gaze loosening as he got caught up in remembering. “She was younger than you. She was orphaned when my father, Ragnar the Fearless, conquered her part of Northumbria with Ubba’s forces. My father took her home, along with a boy, Uhtred. To help my mother with the farm.”

“As slaves.”

“Yes, at first. Uhtred was the son of an Ealdorman, and instead of ransoming him my father decided to pay the price himself, to Ubba, and adopt the boy as his own son. He liked his fire.”

“And Brida?”

Ragnar chuckled. “Had the same fire. I think Mother and Father just forgot over the years to treat her differently than their own children. She was freed sometime while I was campaigning in Ireland.”

Cyn regarded his face in the firelight. It was a lot to think about, the way rank and status could so easily change among these people. “Is that why you are not married, then? Because she is practically your sister?”

Ragnar waved off her comment. “I never thought of her that way. I was off making my fortune in Ireland while she was growing up. In fact, they wanted her to marry my brother Uhtred first.”

Cyn raised her eyebrows. “Really? Then how did she end up with you?” she dared to ask, expecting a man as playful as Earl Ragnar to give her a rather entertaining tale about how he had won his Lady.

But she was answered only by a heavy sigh, his eyes searching the stars above for a long moment. “That… is a story I would rather not tell on this night. Tonight is for celebration.” He looked across the fire at his men, joking and boasting amongst themselves. After catching a few eyes he thrust out his cup, shifting Cyn in a little closer to his body as he did so. “To wealth, and glory!” he shouted, and his men cheered and raised their own drinks. “And to this vixen who led us there!”

He gave Cyn a little squeeze that made her squirm, and when she looked up almost every eye was upon her. She didn’t know what else to do, so she took the cup from Ragnar’s outstretched hand and lifted it higher, before smiling at them all and downing it herself.

The men laughed even harder, some jeering at Ragnar or each other, and finished their own cups.

“They want you even more now,” Ragnar murmured in her ear. “Your value only grows.” She turned to him in surprise. “Two more have asked me about your hand. Proven men, ones that even a free woman might be proud to wed.”

Cyn only felt uneasy.

“You still don’t know what you want,” Ragnar said, reading her face. Cyn’s stomach jumped as she wondered whether he was referring to just the marriages, or to the escape attempt too. She did not know if Brida had told him.

As they stared at each other, Ragnar waiting for her to answer, the voice of one of the boasting warriors carried up to their ears. “—I cut down five men myself on the way to that vault—”

“Horseshit,” Ragnar shouted, almost dumping Cyn out of his lap in his eagerness to jump in on that conversation, “there were only two men on that door when we got there, and I stuck both of them before they even saw you!”

Raucous laughter erupted. Cyn shuddered and asked herself anew why she hadn’t left this band of heathens when she had the chance. Ragnar’s hand twitched around her ribs as he boasted, and though the sensation set a fine trembling in her limbs, still she thought that his grip made her feel safe in the middle of all these rough men.

Ragnar’s eyes focused suddenly back on hers again. “Are you cold, Cyn? I feel you shaking.”

The way he briskly rubbed her shoulders next was surely meant as a kindness, but the heat of his hands all over her only made the trembling worse.

He used the gesture to pull her closer in toward his chest. It scared her, the way that her body seemed to want to melt into his. Ragnar’s beard tickled her neck when he next spoke. “You are taking such good care of Brida,” he mumbled, sounding drunk again. “Don’t you ever want someone to take care of you?” He pressed his lips into the sensitive spot just behind her ear, and this time Cyn could not catch her breath fast enough. Ragnar brushed his nose across her cheek. “Kiss me. One kiss, just for them to see. So I look like I am winning.”

Cyn barely knew where she found the words, but she heard them flying from her tongue. “You dare talk about your woman Brida, and then ask me this in the same breath?”

Ragnar tried an innocent smile. “Brida and I have an arrangement.”

“An arrangement for children, not for your lust.”

Ragnar sighed, and pressed his forehead against her temple. “You two care for each other so much,” he mumbled. “It is plain to see. Why can’t I care for you both, too.”

Cyn’s entire being tingled at those words. Surely he was just drunk, and barely knew what he was saying. She pulled back before his lips could start seeking her skin again. “I thought you were just trying to show off for your men with me.”

“Yes, that is all,” Ragnar agreed swiftly.

“Then might I suggest, my Lord,” she said, pulling herself from his grip and shifting her weight to stand, “that you will find more solidarity with them tonight if you are seen to be rejected by me, just the same as they have all been, too?”

The way Ragnar smiled at her as she walked away haunted Cyn well past the time that she closed her eyes for sleep that night, her bundle of furs right next to Brida’s in case the injured woman needed her help in the night.

 

* * *

 

Cyn stayed close to Brida each day of their return trip, making sure she took her turn resting in one of their few wagons on the road, and preventing her from straining her wound. She changed the bandage every night, applying a compress of herbs that so far had kept any signs of infection at bay. She stayed near even when she did not have to. Cyn did not want to be caught alone with anyone else, not even Earl Ragnar. Not until she knew her own mind better.

Brida was a difficult woman to play nursemaid to. Cyn had to watch her like a hawk because she would not ask for help on difficult terrain, refused to move slowly, and then would snap at everyone as soon as some slip or twist would pain her wound again. When they stopped for sleep Cyn would catch her trying to unload supplies or gather firewood herself. Then when Cyn finally got her to lay down, the woman would become demanding, complaining loudly of being cold or hungry. Anything to avoid admitting to the pain that was so clear in her face.

Cyn was not the only one that worried about her. They were still a few days’ travel away from Dunholm when she heard Ragnar speaking urgently from inside their tent. Cyn paused outside, arms full of firewood, to avoid interrupting. “You have nothing left to prove now. You do not need to risk yourself like this. Everyone respects you. You are my woman,” Ragnar went on, “and I would love to see you home in our hall, taking care of—”

“Don’t you dare say it, Ragnar Ragnarsson, or I will gut you and leave you to the crows.”

When Cyn did not hear any further words she allowed the wood to fall from her arms, clattering next to the weak fire they had already kindled.

Ragnar burst from the tent a moment later, limbs jerking with frustration as he narrowly avoided crashing into Cyn. “I’ll handle the fire,” he barked. “You go in there and see if she’ll let you check her stitches.”

Brida’s face was sour when Cyn stepped inside the tent. “I’m fine,” she snipped before Cyn could even ask her anything.

“You know we have to keep the wound clean,” Cyn said, in the even tones one used to calm horses and children. She gathered her bandaging supplies without waiting for Brida to agree. “Let me change it while Ragnar stokes the fire. Then you can come sit outside, and warm yourself by it with us.”

“Ragnar can go warm himself by another fire tonight,” Brida scoffed. “Maybe find himself a weak little woman that will just do everything he says.”

They both heard Ragnar growl from outside. “Perhaps I will do just that.”

Brida’s face was a bitter, triumphant grimace as she listened to him stalk away.

Cyn began unwrapping the bandage. She was only beginning to understand the depth beneath this argument that simmered so often between them. Ragnar and Brida were so obviously devoted to each other, despite it. Cyn wanted to think of something to say that might comfort Brida, even as she braced herself to have her soft words slapped down. When her Lady was angry, she usually wanted to stay angry.

“He doesn’t really mean it,” she tried. “He loves you for your fire, loves having a warrior for a woman, right at his side.” It was a kind of relationship Cyn had never seen before, and she admired it. “He’ll take it back.”

Brida looked at her flatly. “Listening, were you? Well, you heard it straight from his lips, then. He wants me to stay home next time. He wishes that I would give him children, and never feel the joy of battle again.”

“But, he knows that you can’t have children, isn’t that why you let him—”

Brida barked a laugh that wasn’t fooling anyone. “Let him,” she repeated, and shook her head. “What Ragnar wants, he takes. A true Viking. I look the other way, and then we both get everything we want, see how that works?” Her false grin faded as she slumped. “Until now. I get this little scratch and suddenly he wants me in a dress for the rest of my life.”

Cyn removed the last cloth covering the wound and hissed at what she saw. “Your ‘little scratch’ has broken open again. Some of these stitches have ripped out.” She clucked her tongue as she pressed gingerly around the reddened flesh.

Brida’s face was flat looked down at it herself. “I’ve seen worse. You can sew that back up.”

“It’s going to hurt,” Cyn said, “and I can only imagine how terrible the scar is going to be now. You really need to be more careful, Brida. Stop trying to do so much.”

“Not you too,” Brida growled. She laid her head back against the furs, and fixed her gaze at the converging tent poles above them. “Just fix it.”

Cyn prepared the area as gently as she could, then made the new stitches as cleanly and quickly as she was able. Brida groaned through her teeth but remained still. Through all of it, Cyn kept thinking about her and Ragnar, and if there was anything else she could say that might help.

“Would you want to be a mother, if you could?” she asked softly.

“No.” Brida’s answer was so swift that Cyn wondered in a flash if Brida were doing something, with spells or herbs, to keep it that way.

The silence between them was heavy until Brida broke it with a lighter tone. “Perhaps years from now, I might settle down and find myself wishing for it… but that time is not now.” She tipped her head to the side and cocked her brow at Cyn. “What about you?”

“I never thought I wouldn’t,” Cyn replied. Except for when I planned on that nunnery. “I like children well enough. I’m sure I will be happy to have my own. I worry more about how I’d get them, than what it would be like to have them.”

Brida only grunted. Cyn wondered if she had given the right answer.

The silence stretched between them again as Cyn spread the herbal salve over Brida’s re-stitched wound, hoping for no further infection. Ragnar’s last statement was still burning in her mind. And Brida’s, which had goaded him in to it. After she had wrapped Brida’s side up tight, Cyn laid a hand over the bandage and looked her in the eyes. “Have you ever told him how much it hurts when he goes with other women?” Brida seemed to flinch, and Cyn tried to make sure all her caring showed on her face. “Perhaps if he really knew what he was doing to you—"

“If I ever want your thoughts on that,” Brida growled, cutting her off, “I’ll ask for them. I don’t need a slave’s opinion.” She all but sneered up at her.

A curtain of red came down over Cyn’s vision. After how close they had become, after all she had done for this woman… Heat bubbled up in her throat. “You’re not better than me,” Cyn spat as she recoiled. So many of their conversations flashed through her mind; she couldn’t believe Brida would say something like this now. “You don’t even believe that you’re better than me.”

But Brida held firm, lifting her chin high. “You were taken in battle, Cyn. You were bested. I haven’t known defeat in years. I took the head of the man that gave me this cut. Yes, I am better than you.”

It felt like something was squeezing tight around Cyn’s heart. “Is that really how you feel?” Their eyes stayed locked together, even as it seemed a chasm was opening in the ground between them.

“It is the way of things,” Brida said quickly. “Everyone has their place.” Her face looked lost, but her voice was still iron.

“My place.” Cynwise’s anger boiled anew. “I was ripped from my place, by you.” But she thought of that spot on the floor Brida had rescued her from and quickly changed her statement. “By your people. Don’t you dare tell me that here is where I belong.” She stood up, legs trembling with the emotion that overwhelmed her.

“You can’t go back,” Brida said, voice infuriatingly cold. She laid still on her furs and just watched her.

“Maybe so. But I refuse to accept that a slave’s life is all that’s left for me.”

Brida arched one brow. “What are you going to do, take one of those marriage proposals?” So she did know. “Those men aren’t worth my spit. You’re better than that.”

“I’m better than a lot of things.” Cyn turned to sweep open the tentflap, refusing to wait to be dismissed today.

“Alright, Cyn.” Something in Brida’s tone changed, enough to turn Cyn’s head. “I took you in so I could save you. I can admit that. Here. To you. I have a softer heart than anyone needs to know. I started training you so that I could save you, too. So. I’ll tell you this. The day that you can best me in single combat, Cyn, is the day that I will give you your freedom.”

Cyn’s body froze, wavering between paths. She felt too angry to show genuine gratitude, but her mind screamed at her that here, this was the solution she had been waiting for. And that she needed to keep that path open at all costs, even if the cost was her pride. She forced her eyes to flutter to the ground, her shoulders to sag. “That is… fair.”

“You’re nowhere near good enough, yet,” Brida said tartly, and Cyn did not need to fake a flinch at that insult. She held herself back from anything but a simple nod. If Brida felt like this offer had won her something, it was more likely she would let it remain on the table. “But we will train again after I’m healed.”

Cyn sighed, making herself release as much tension as she could. “Then rest, Brida.”

 

Much later, Cyn heard Ragnar make his way into the tent just as she was falling asleep. “I don't want to find another, easier woman,” he muttered as he crawled under Brida's furs. “I can be warmed by no one but you.”

She held her breath as she listened for Brida’s response. Despite their earlier argument, Cyn was ready to throw the man out on her behalf if that became necessary.

Brida’s voice was sardonic, but suffused with affection. “Couldn’t find anyone that would take you, then?”

“Quiet, woman,” Ragnar purred, settling in beside her. “If you don’t believe me yet, I’ll just have to find another way to convince you of my devotion.”

Cyn heard the rustle of fabric as their bodies rubbed together, saw in shades of grey in the dim light that Ragnar was kissing his way along Brida’s jaw. She gathered her own body to rise, and give them their privacy.

“Cyn,” Ragnar rumbled, “you are still awake.”

“Yes, Lord,” she said demurely, just as Brida answered too: “Cyn is always watching out for me.” Her eyes looked playful as she rolled her head towards her. “What do you think, should we let him stay?”

Cyn had no idea how to answer, feeling flushed as she looked at the two amused pairs of eyes staring over at her as she lay just an arm’s length away from them. “Surely – surely that is your decision to make, Lady,” she stammered. Brida’s face shifted and Cyn tried to think of a stronger answer, more to her liking. “For what it’s worth – if now you want your slave’s opinion –” she couldn’t resist adding that dig, “I believe his devotion is true.” She wrapped her thickest fur around herself as she rose to leave. “But just as well, you might enjoy making him work to prove it.” She marveled at her own boldness, it was not like her to make such a bawdy jest.

But Brida’s delighted laugh was like a balm to Cyn’s heart.

Cyn fixed Ragnar with her sternest look before she left the tent. “Be gentle with her. I’ve only just stitched that wound afresh.”

Ragnar’s eyes were amused and grateful all at once. “I'll make certain she stays on her back tonight.”

 

* * *

 

Cyn waited until almost noon the next day, to approach Ragnar without Brida hearing. “I… have a request.” She had deliberated this all morning, and anger had won out over fear.

The softness that fell upon Ragnar’s eyes, just for her, contrasted unnervingly with the rest of his warlord appearance. He slowed his step and even dared to place a welcoming hand across her back. “Anything.”

She lifted her chin, swallowing down her last hesitation. “Seeing as Brida is in no condition to train with me, would you continue my lessons, Ragnar?” She let her lips curve, hopefully just enough to appear beguiling, so that Ragnar could not even consider refusing her.

“Of course, Cyn. It would be my honor.”

“I am ready to start with sword and shield.” And since Brida was not there to see, she allowed Ragnar’s hand to remain there at the small of her back for quite some time.

Chapter Text

“What made this one? The edge looks jagged.” Cyn had found herself fascinated by Brida’s scars. She let her finger ghost over the pale, lumpy mark on the back of the woman’s shoulder, and followed it with the wet rag before the curious tenderness could be noted. Brida needed help with both dressing and bathing while her wound was still healing, and she didn’t seem to want anyone but Cyn to do it.

“I think it was a hatchet, dragging through my armor,” Brida answered, twisting to look down her own back. “Can’t quite recall. But I do remember gutting the man that did it.”

Cyn shivered, picturing the beast she knew Brida to be on the battlefield. Could she herself ever be so ferocious, so unafraid? In her old life she had never thought she had a taste for violence, but as she listened to the confident, casual way Brida recollected the incident she knew that she wanted to feel that strong too.

No matter how stubbornly Cyn tried to hold on to her anger over Brida’s harsh words, her grudges always seemed to be overwhelmed when they were together: by the intensity of her admiration, and other feelings that were harder to name. She dipped her rag into the bucket she had drawn from the river near the day’s campsite, then drew it down the taut muscles of Brida’s back, watching the gooseflesh rise in its wake. A chill shivered between Cyn’s own shoulders just in sympathy, but Brida did not complain about the temperature of the water. Cyn tried to finish rinsing her quickly.

“Only a few days left to travel, now,” Brida remarked.

“And what happens when we reach Dunholm?”

“I get to lay in a comfortable bed!” Brida laughed. She leaned forward, so Cyn could better scrub down the curve of her lower back. “Ragnar will make a sacrifice, to thank the gods for the successful raids. We will feast the warriors for a few days, and then most of them will go back to their own farms, or trades, if they’ve got them. Some will stay. Ragnar’s closest sworn men live at the fort with us.”

“Oh,” Cyn said. “Mostly… the unmarried ones?”

Brida looked over her shoulder at her. “Still worried about the idiocy they cooked up with this ‘contest’ over you? I wouldn’t think too much of it, they have their own diversions at home. Stay scarce, and they’ll forget about you.”

Cyn passed the wet rag to Brida so she could wash her own chest. “Ragnar says you will be keeping me very busy after we arrive.”

Brida smirked. “Does he. Well, there’s plenty of work to do, that’s true. As long as I don’t have you serving ale, you’ll probably never even see those layabouts. All they do is throw dice and stink up my hall all winter.”

Cyn thought of the young warrior who had taken her aside yesterday and told her he had enough silver from these raids to buy both her and a farm near the coast, if she’d have him. “Is Hjalkar one of these ‘sworn men?’”

“Hjalkar, that goat-fucker, what’s he been saying to you?” Brida eyed her sharply. She paused her washing, water dripping down over her breasts.

Cyn looked away, now embarrassed to have brought it up. But, she had wanted Brida’s perspective on the man before she took his offer any more seriously. “He said he wants to settle down, bring me to a farm he’d buy, if I’d have him. Said he could afford to pay for my freedom.”

Brida’s lip curled. “He does seem the type to buy a woman rather than win one.”

Cyn frowned. “He approached me with respect.”

“It wouldn’t be freedom,” Brida dismissed. “He’d remind you how much he paid, every time you spoke out of turn. The only reason he wouldn’t call you ‘slave’ would be so that the children would be legitimate.”

“Oh.”

Brida nudged her. “Are you that eager to leave me?” Her tone was light, but the memory of their earlier conversation haunted her eyes.

“Not if that is the price,” Cyn said coolly.

Brida’s grimace was probably meant to be a smile. “Good.” She suddenly became very interested in strip of light emerging from the tentflap. “I like having you with me.”

They were silent for some time after that. Cyn wondered if Brida was waiting for her to respond with some similar sentiment, but how could she? Yes, she did enjoy Brida’s company. Even when she was being prickly as a hedgehog, nothing seemed to exhaust the unexpected affection Cyn felt for her. But how could she, or anyone, just decide that they were happy to be someone’s slave? Did Brida not realize she was being unfair to ever want Cyn to accept this place under her foot?

Brida was evidently contemplating similar things. Her voice was soft and level as she asked her next question. “Do you still want to go home?”

“No, there would be no place for me. My reputation is surely ruined.”

“Then where were you going while we raided that church?”

Cyn regarded her for a moment, not certain she wanted to have this conversation. “A nunnery,” she finally said.

Brida actually rolled her eyes. She gave Cyn back the rag and reached for a dry cloth. “Do you even believe in the Christian God?”

Cyn was not going to answer that one. When Brida looked to be finished drying her front, Cyn took the cloth from her hands and rubbed it briskly down her Lady’s back, then along her uninjured flank.

Brida grunted, as if responding to her own thoughts. “I remember wanting to run,” she said, without turning around. “I was so small, but I remember raging over it. But… the anger fades. You should stay. It is a much better life for women among the Danes. More freedom, and respect, than Saxons give.”

Cyn shook her head, just a little. “Freedom, and respect. These two things are denied to a slave.”

Brida twisted just enough to smile at her, ferocious. “And I told you how to win those things,” she said brightly. That forced cheer she used when she wanted to be done with uncomfortable talk. “Fight me in the square. I’ll be healed enough to train you again soon.”

 

* * *

 

Dunholm was a forbidding block of walls perched atop a lonely hill, but the inside was spacious and welcoming. Brida felt well enough to ride in, and a horse had been found for Cyn, too. So that she could “stay close” in the event that Brida needed swift assistance. Even though Ragnar was right there on her other side, and much more suited to catch a falling woman.

Cyn knew that this meant her first impression to the inhabitants of Dunholm would be as if she were a person of rank and respect. She wondered if Brida had engineered that purposefully, or if the woman just did not care much about formalities. They were greeted in the courtyard by the man that had been left in charge of the fort, who looked curiously at Cyn until Brida identified her as “my new slave.” Then it was as if she didn’t exist, and with a jerk of his head the horse was whisked away from her as soon as she dismounted.

Brida stayed astride her own mount for longer. Cyn guessed by the tightness of her jaw that she was not looking forward to the pain that was likely to come when she tried to twist out of the saddle.

“Papa!” came a high-pitched cry from the edge of the yard. A young boy, hair so blonde it was almost white, burst out running toward them.

Earl Ragnar had barely set his feet upon the ground before he whirled and wrapped the child up in his arms. The delighted sound the man made resonated right through Cyn’s chest. Her eyes went to Brida, whose smile was tight as she watched Ragnar’s joyful reunion with his son.

Cyn walked to her side, letting her shoulder brush Brida’s knee as she patted her horse’s withers. Before she could say anything, her attention was distracted by a golden-haired woman who was approaching Ragnar with a baby propped against her shoulder. “Is that—”

“Asta,” Brida said softly. They both watched in silence as she turned the babe in her arms, trying to get her to look at the Earl. Ragnar’s face was soft and bright as he sought to catch his daughter’s attention. “The mother’s name is Ingirid.”

Brida’s fingers closed over Cyn’s shoulder. Cynwise reached up to cover her hand comfortingly with her own, then realized as the other woman shifted her weight that she was only trying to get assistance dismounting her horse.

Brida sucked in her breath, trying to swallow a small cry as she aborted the attempt. Ragnar came to her swiftly, brushing Cyn out of the way with a concerned look.

“Let me help you, my love,” he said softly, reaching up easily to swing her off the horse.

Ingirid was behind his shoulder. “Oh, Brida, have you been injured?”

Brida stretched as she found her footing, releasing herself from Ragnar’s arms. “It’s just a scratch,” she said to the air above Ingirid’s head.

“I’ll send up a healer,” the other woman promised.

Brida’s face twitched. “Come on, Cyn,” she said, taking hold of her hand, “let’s go see what they’ve done with my Hall. We have to make room to display our new treasures.”

When Cynwise looked back over her shoulder, Ragnar had taken the baby into his arms. She couldn’t have been more than a year old, and she bubbled and cooed as her father made silly noises into her face.

 

* * *

 

“Why are we whispering?”

Not that Cyn minded it; her face was so close to Brida’s their noses were almost touching, and she had no interest in pulling away. Though the smell of spiced ale, thick on Brida’s breath, did make her long for another swig from her own cup.

“Because I want Ragnar to feel left out,” Brida responded, her mischievous grin showing a wide row of teeth. “Maybe then he will leave more quickly.” She smoothed her hand down Cyn’s shoulder and tugged her closer on the bed.

Cyn giggled.

Earl Ragnar, who had come into the room to change his soiled shirt, whirled to look back at the two women sprawled out on his bed. “You are drunk,” he accused, like he had only just realized it. “Both of you, in the middle of the day.”

Cyn resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him. “It is the only way I could think to make her stay in bed,” she defended. “We’ve only been back four days, and she has barely rested.”

Ragnar smiled his approval down on her, the warmth of it hitting Cyn like the sun. “Then I like this idea.” He pulled his soiled tunic off over his head, and did not move to pick up a new one. Cyn felt her cheeks heat as she took in his bare warrior’s chest, glinting with golden hair and wound about with tattooed green lines. “I was thinking of taking a nap, myself.”

They both squealed as he dropped to his knees on the foot of the bed. “There’s no room,” Brida growled, swatting at him.

He fended her off easily. “Sure there is. It’s a big bed.”

“And, you smell,” Brida continued. She pulled Cyn against her chest like a favorite doll. “Don’t you dare get that stink on us.”

Ragnar loomed forward, a glint in his eye that made Cyn’s heart stop. Brida kicked at him, and Ragnar caught her foot, holding it still with placating hands that seemed intended to remind her not to overexert herself. His gaze grew heavy as it ran over the both of them, lying tangled in each others’ arms beneath him, and Cyn felt her first wash of nerves as she guessed what his heathen mind might be thinking.

But Brida would not let Cyn pull away. “What is that smell?” She crinkled her nose. “Were you wrestling with the pigs all morning?” To Cyn he did not smell any worse than usual, just sweat and perhaps a little earth, but she pretended disgust to keep up with Brida’s game.

Ragnar just shrugged, refusing to be shamed. “More or less.”

His eyes fell to the side of the bed. Brida’s tight embrace had pulled Cyn to the middle, and there was now plenty of room for his large body to crash into the space she had vacated.

“Get out!” Brida screeched while he plummeted. There was more playfulness than anger in her tone. She reached across Cyn to push at him.

Ragnar shouldered her off and twisted to lift the cup Cyn had left on that side of the bed. He drained it of ale in one pull before turning his refreshed face back to them. “Relax, woman. I am all the way over here.” He settled down into the mattress. “Maybe Cyn will be kinder to me than you.”

“Don’t count on it,” Cyn answered, using the entirety of her bravery to roll her back against Brida and look Ragnar in the face.

His eyebrows jumped as he peered at her over the pillow they were now sharing. “Don’t you mean, don’t count on it, ‘my Lord’?”

Cyn gasped at her slip. Brida held Cyn’s shoulder, pulling herself up on one elbow to glare at Ragnar over her head. “Don’t you frighten my girl.” She pressed her lips swiftly into Cyn’s cheekbone. “We were having such a nice time before you showed up.” The whole line of her body was pressed against Cyn’s back now. It felt wonderfully comforting, and Cyn’s drink-addled mind forgot to be worried about Ragnar’s proximity as she settled back into Brida’s warmth. “I told her she doesn’t have to call me Lady when no one’s around.”

Cyn was sure she missed some communication that passed between them overhead as Ragnar regarded Brida. “Is that so.” A smile tugged at his mouth. “But I am the Earl. She would still have to call me Lord, even if she were a free woman.”

I’m a free woman, and I don’t call you Lord,” Brida smirked.

“You should,” Ragnar retorted.

Brida rolled her eyes and pulled Cyn to face her again. “Did you hear something, Cyn? I thought for a moment someone was in here with us.”

She giggled, squaring her body toward Brida, ignoring the other side of the bed. “No, I hear nothing.”

“Probably just some dog, that likes to hear himself bark,” Brida winked, lifting Cyn’s hand and threading their fingers together. “Now, what were we talking about? Oh yes—”

Cyn lost all ability to listen to Brida’s words when she felt Ragnar’s fingers brush up and down her back. She caught her breath when they ventured as far as the back of her thighs.

Brida stopped talking, craning her neck to peer over Cyn’s body. Still refusing to meet Ragnar’s eyes. “Are you listening to me, Cyn?”

“I think” –she struggled to speak through the flutter in her chest—“I think there is an ant crawling on me.” She reached back and knocked Ragnar’s hand away.

As soon as she brought her arm back in front of her, his fingers were dancing across her flesh again, with more pressure this time. Was he trying to tickle her? When she refused to squirm, he took hold of her side and pinched the flesh above her ribs.

Brida whacked him this time. “Definitely an insect, it bites!”

Brida grabbed her ale while Cyn squeezed her teeth together and fought the urge to turn around and fight back. Her muscles were singing for action as Ragnar’s fingers continued to probe at her back and neck. “Is he always this irritating?” she asked Brida when she felt about ready to crack.

“Yes.” Her eyes sparkled. “Is it terrible that I’m glad he’s annoying someone other than me for once?”

“Yes, it is,” Cyn complained between her teeth. His scurrying touches tried to find any sensitive point he could reach while she resisted every urge to flinch.

He tried another pinch, this time on her bum, and as he did it he let the rest of his fingers stray right between her thighs. Cyn yelped and pressed her legs together, but that only seemed to trap him there for a moment longer, pressing his hand against some wickedly sensitive bit of flesh that relaxed something deep inside her even as it drove her to jump up and away.

“What did he do?” Brida demanded.

Cyn opened her mouth to tell, but Ragnar chose that moment to grab her flanks and tickle her in earnest, allowing her to produce no sounds other than laughing gasps as she struggled to free herself. She tried to plead with Brida for help, but she seemed too amused with Cyn’s flailing to intervene.

Cyn howled in betrayal when Brida started tickling her too, running her fingers up the sides of Cyn’s neck and down her chest. Her nipples tightened when the struggle caused them to brush against Brida’s palms.

They were all laughing now, and Cyn’s heart swelled even as she thought she might lose her mind from the overstimulation. “Mercy!” she managed to choke out. “Mercy, Lord!”

Ragnar roared in triumph, and rounded on his woman. “See!” He bypassed Cyn and started to assault Brida instead, mindful of her side but still pushing her down to the furs. “One of you knows how to address me!” Now Brida was the one gasping and sputtering, and grinning the whole time.

Cyn lay still beside them, trying to catch her own breath and calm the wildness whirling through her own body.

“Say it,” Ragnar urged, feigning severity as he made Brida squirm and pant. “Call me Lord.”

Brida seemed like she was trying to say something, but Ragnar had her laughing so hard she couldn’t get anything out. Her eyes rolled toward Cyn. “Help me!”

Cyn lunged at the barechested man kneeling over her Lady, pushing him just below his collarbones. She didn’t really think she could knock him off the bed, but it was worth a try. Ragnar twisted at her impact, leaving off Brida to grasp Cyn around the shoulders. They were laughing in each other’s faces as she tried in vain to dislodge him from his stance.

He was pulling her in, closer and closer against his rippling chest as she fought her losing battle. Ragnar’s eyes gleamed just before he shifted his weight, pressing her back toward the empty side of the bed.

He landed with one knee between her thighs and Cyn felt as if she might be burning and freezing at the same time. In her lessons, they had practiced this position dozens of times, but it was different in a bed, different when everyone was grinning and her head was light from ale and Brida’s laughter…

Her hands trapped against the soft hairs on his chest, Cyn looked up at the darkness clouding Ragnar’s eyes and realized he was feeling it too. She pushed at him but her limbs had gone weak, her senses burning with the unintended sensation of her open palms sliding over the Lord’s warm skin.

His eyes glittered with the effort of controlling himself. With a growl, he buried his face in the crook of her neck and scraped his teeth across her skin.

Cyn couldn’t stop herself from looking to Brida. She found her lying on her side, quite close, a glint of fascination in her eyes. Her hand came to Cyn’s face, fingertips barely brushing her cheek as Ragnar lifted his head.

“Are you all right, Cyn?” Brida asked.

Her tone made Ragnar pull away. He removed his knee from between Cyn’s and rolled onto his hip beside her.

Shame clouded Cyn’s face. “I’m not—” she lost her words, and tried again. Brida stroked her face, but she found the gesture more embarrassing than comforting. “In our lessons, you taught me better than that. You must be disappointed that I could not push him off.”

Brida dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. “We are just playing. In a real fight you would have severed his balls from his body. No shame in being overpowered by a beast like that one,” she jerked her head over Cyn’s shoulder, “when you’re trying not to actually hurt him.”

Ragnar gave another growl behind them.

“Quiet, beast,” Brida said.

Cyn sat up, shimmying down the bed and out from between their bodies. Her skin was prickling.

“What’s wrong?” Brida asked again. “Do you want me to kick him out?”

Cyn shook her head, biting her lip in awkwardness. “The Lord wanted to take a nap.”

Brida’s lip twisted, and she turned to regard the man sprawled out beside her. “He doesn’t look very sleepy to me.”

“And that’s why I should go,” Cyn said swiftly. Ragnar was already reaching for his woman, though they were both looking up at Cyn almost… wistfully?

Their eyes followed her as she found her shawl. She was halfway through the door when Brida called her name. “Cyn.”

Her shoulders jumped.

“There was one thing that I was planning to get done today, before you seduced me to laze about in this bed.”

She turned, wondering why she felt so guilty. Brida’s hand was on her wound, and Cyn worried suddenly that their play had strained it.

“Go down to the storeroom and check the cheeses for spoiling? And then the grain. And report back to me before you go help with supper.”

 

* * *

 

The first time Cyn had met Ragnar out in the woods for training, somewhere so far away that no one would overhear the clang of swords and realize a slave was being taught to kill, she had been so apprehensive she had hidden behind a tree just to catch her breath and calm her features. She had always found him to be trustworthy, if mischievous, but it seemed entirely foolhardy to meet with a marauding Viking somewhere so alone. Ragnar was over a head taller than her, close to twice her weight, and she already knew that he desired her body. Even with Brida’s lessons, Cyn doubted that she could do anything about it if he wanted to press his advantage out here.

And yet. Ragnar had greeted her with a broad smile and moved slow and careful as he guided her on that first day through the basic positions with wooden swords and shields. She supposed she must have looked like an anxious doe when she first walked up to him, and it warmed her more than she wanted to admit that this patient reassurance was his instinctive response to her fear.

Day after day, lesson after lesson, Cyn had found it too easy to warm to those kind eyes, watching her from over the edge of his shield. As he instructed her, he reminisced about training with Brida, long ago; he encouraged Cyn every time she faltered with stories of the other woman’s mishaps and struggles.

“Brida’s greatest fault was her impulsiveness.” Ragnar blocked Cyn’s strike and spun into a jab of his own. “Still is,” he added after Cyn deflected him easily. After so many sessions together now, she was starting to understand the rhythm of this kind of fight. With her eyes loosely focused, she watched Ragnar’s arms, and the angle of his shield, as much as the direction of his gaze. “You don’t share that problem, do you Cyn.”

She swung wide and Ragnar’s shield flew into place well before her sword could penetrate the opening she thought she saw.

“If anything, your trouble is the opposite. You wait too long, considering too much.” He hammered at her shield, slinging four blows in succession without giving Cyn room to do anything but hold her shield up high and try not to lose ground. “Sometimes you just need to act.”

She had acted quickly, back in her homeland when she had tried to run. And moved just as impulsively when she turned back to save Brida’s life. Cyn wasn’t so certain that Ragnar was right. Impulsive action was futile when her heart and her mind still did not move with one single purpose.

She swiped at his legs after his final downstroke, making him jump back. Then she rose and struck at his sword-arm, forcing him to block with the weapon rather than his shield. She stepped in with a twist like he had taught her, and for the first time in all their practice she succeeded in knocking the sword out of his hand.

“Good!” Ragnar roared, overjoyed by his student’s success. He tipped her shield out of the way with his own, and then Cyn found herself wrapped up in the man’s biggest bear hug.

She let her body relax against his, returning the embrace for at least a moment. Pride tugged a smile at the corner of her lip, and the expression spread further when she imagined succeeding in the same maneuver against Brida one day and winning her freedom.

“One day soon, you will conquer, Cyn, beside Brida and I on the battlefield,” Ragnar said into her hair, not releasing his warm grip by even an inch.

Cyn had led Ragnar to believe that Brida had asked for her to be trained with weapons so that they could stand together in the shield wall one day. Even though it had never been her true intention, Cyn was surprised now how much the image stirred her.

Of course, that feeling may have just been the flutter she got in the chest every time that Ragnar’s body was near to her own. Safe now in her assumption that Ragnar was never going to force himself upon her, Cyn had begun to indulge herself, only a little, in enjoying casual touches such as these. Especially since just a little flirtation ensured that she would keep his interest long enough for him to train her well enough to have a chance in a fight against Brida. “I look forward to that day,” she whispered in reply. So far, the plan had been working; Brida’s wound was almost healed but he had never once suggested that they no longer needed to train together out here.

Ragnar pulled back, only far enough to look her in the eyes. His strong arms kept the rest of her body melted against him. The laugh lines around his eyes were slackening as he searched deep within her face. That gleam of pride was turning into something else. “Just once, Cyn,” he rumbled. “I need to know what you feel like beneath me.”

He never gave up. Cyn forced herself into a sardonic smile, even as her stomach flipped. “You already know what that feels like, Lord. You’ve bested me onto my back many times.”

Ragnar let a little smile break the intensity on his face, but he pressed on. “Then I want to feel what comes next, if this time instead of letting you up, I slid my hand between your legs.”

She cursed her body for trembling. It happened every time she tried to be brave. “You know I won’t betray Brida.” She straightened, pulling herself from his arms. “Especially not for a few minutes of pain, on my face in the dirt. Just so you can feel like you’ve had your victory.”

Ragnar let her go, crinkling his brow as he watched her retreat. “Is that what you think sex is, Cyn?”

She picked her shield up from the ground, then tossed him his. “I’ve heard all the sweet words men can think of. But I know the truth at the end of the game, once they get your clothes off.” Ragnar looked sad for her. Somehow that only made Cyn feel more angry. “So if you care for me at all, Ragnar Ragnarsson, you will not speak about bedding me again.” She leaned forward and picked up her practice sword from where she had dropped it at his feet. “Can we get back to training?”

She pointed the wooden tip right at his throat, but Ragnar made no move to retrieve his own weapon. “I think,” he said, lifting his hands in a placating gesture, “maybe you should talk to Brida about this.”

“Do you? Do you really want me talking to Brida? About things like this? The kinds of things you’ve been saying to me?”

Ragnar only smirked. “She already knows. You don’t think I would be trying to bed you without her blessing, do you?” Cyn’s sword and shield suddenly felt very heavy. She wasn’t sure that she should believe that. “But I think you might learn something, if you told her what you told me. Women feel a lot more than pain, if a man knows what he’s about.”

Cyn threw her weapons with a clatter onto the ground. Clearly he was not going to take her seriously any longer today. She turned her back and started back to the fort.

“And she will tell you, that I do. Know what I'm about.”

Chapter Text

Cyn suppressed a laugh the third time that the little spoon fell on the floor. Ragnar’s children were their guests at dinner tonight, along with their mother Ingirid, and Ragnar had insisted on attempting to feed his daughter himself. Despite the unruliness of the babe.

Ingirid had a strained look on her face as she bent to reach for the spoon. Cyn got to it first; she was serving the table tonight, and such things were her responsibility. Ingirid flashed her a nervous smile when their eyes met. Cyn couldn’t help but return the friendly expression, though she smoothed her face quickly as she turned in Brida’s direction. She wiped the spoon on her apron and handed it back to Ragnar.

He was the picture of a proud father tonight, gazing in little Asta’s eyes with a look of pure indulgence as she ran her porridge-covered fingers through his beard. “It tastes better from a spoon than my face, I promise, little one.”

While Ragnar dipped the spoon in the bowl for another attempt, Ingirid leaned over to quickly wipe off the girl’s fingers. Cyn thought she seemed worried that Ragnar would grow frustrated and ask the children to leave early; she didn’t seem to see how happy he was in their presence.

Brida was the one who kept sighing and pulling faces; she did not seem to find the headstrong child to be quite so adorable. “More ale, Cyn,” she snapped.

Perhaps Cyn’s feet moved a touch more slowly than usual at that brusque command. She understood that Ingirid’s presence was wearing on Brida, and that her Lady tended to throw sparks in all directions when her frustration was kindled. But Cyn herself had less patience for Brida tonight, too. Ragnar’s words were still swimming in her ears.

You don’t think I would be trying to bed you without her blessing, do you?

If that were true, if Brida thought she could just hand out permission for men to use her now… it ruined everything, all the peace and security she had just started to think she could enjoy here in the woman’s service.

The night’s meal was roast duck with apples and summer vegetables, served with great loaves of crusty bread. Brida was pushing food around on her plate while Cyn silently filled her cup. “These are not the apples I asked for tonight,” she complained. “It was supposed to be the yellow ones.”

“I think these are nice,” Ingirid said. Cyn winced. “Very sweet.”

Brida’s heavy gaze settled on the other woman. “Yellow are better in this dish.”

Ingirid’s smile was submissive, but she kept talking. “Gellir likes them.” She motioned her elbow toward her son, who had indeed eaten all the apples from his plate and was eyeing the edge of the platter for more.

“Then have some more,” Ragnar said, his warm voice filling the cool air between the women. He bounced Asta on his knee while he reached out to sweep more food in front of his son.

Brida’s mouth pinched, and she said nothing else. Cyn thought that for Brida, that was practically pleasant. Ragnar brought his family in for a private dinner at the hall at least once a week, and Brida never excluded herself from that table, regardless of the distance she kept at most other times.

Brida turned to the boy. “And how did you spend your day, Gellir?” The other thing she was sure to do was to not take her pain out on the children. She had told Cyn that she was happy Ragnar could have the son he wanted, and though her patience often ran thin she did hold affection for the boy who bore her lover’s face.

“Fishin’,” Gellir responded, and then shoved another large piece of apple into his mouth.

Asta started fussing, refusing the spoon that Ragnar wiggled in front of her and flailing her little fists. Ingirid did not let him struggle with her for long before sweeping the girl up into her own arms. “There now, sweat pea, what’s all this?”

After a few minutes of coaxing and bouncing, Ingirid gave up and declared it time for her to take the children home. Brida stood immediately, faking her most hospitable smile of farewell to rush them on their way. Ragnar embraced his son, slipping another piece of apple into his hand, and walked them down to the door of the hall.

Cyn felt her stomach jump when she watched Ragnar’s hand settle on the small of Ingirid’s back as he said goodbye to the baby, and then to her mother. They exchanged some low words that had the woman tipping her head coyly, while Ragnar stood taller and rubbed his thumb once, twice along her spine before letting her go.

Cyn turned to Brida, who had marked the gesture too. Cyn looked at what was written across her face and could not conceive that this woman had actually told Ragnar she was happy for him to pursue Cyn if he wished. He had to have been lying this afternoon.

Ragnar looked only a touch sheepish as he strode back to them at the table. He resumed his seat without saying anything. He had been so focused on the children that he had hardly touched his own food, which he now dug in to heartily. Brida sat back down as well, poking at her mostly-empty plate with the tip of her knife and gazing wordlessly at her man. Cynwise set herself to clearing up the messes left near the children’s places.

When she noticed Ragnar draining the last of his cup, Cyn grabbed the flagon of ale and approached him at the elbow. He acknowledged her with a smile and she felt compelled to break the silence. “Your children are beautiful, Lord.”

“Thank you. I do make them handsome, don’t I?”

Cyn smiled at his pride as she filled his cup, despite the deeper anger coiling in her gut. It was just waiting to discern the right target. Was the man sitting before her a deceiver, or did her Lady think her a whore?

“Sit down, Cyn,” Brida said suddenly.

She turned in surprise.

Brida was smiling, but there was something tight behind her eyes. “Help yourself to what’s left on the platters before you take them back to the kitchen.”

Before they had returned to Dunholm, they had sometimes been that informal, but Cyn had never seen a slave eat with the Earl and his Lady at any time since she had been here.

Brida nodded at the seat so recently vacated by Ingirid.

Despite the apprehension twisting her stomach, Cynwise did as she was told. Brida reached out and clasped her hand for a moment. Cyn could not read what was in her eyes. Did she want support, after such a tense dinner? Brida motioned her toward the food, releasing her quick grasp. Cyn nodded and tore off a piece of bread for herself as Brida’s eyes moved to Ragnar. “You want another child.”

Ragnar grunted, sucking duck grease off his thumb before answering. “Yes.” He looked up at her, guarded but confident. Ready for a fight.

“Have you started sticking it in her again already?”

Cyn cringed a little, but Ragnar didn’t flinch. He held Brida’s eyes for a long moment. “No,” he said, then let his voice warm. “I wanted to talk to you about it first.”

“I don’t like her.”

Ragnar took a heavy breath. “Since when.”

“I have another idea.” Brida said instead of answering. She leaned onto her elbows, lifting her cup between her hands without drinking from it. “What if Cyn carries your next child?” Her gaze slid to the woman in question. “If she—”

Her words were cut off as Ragnar choked loudly on his ale. Cyn could barely even hear him struggle to clear his throat over the rushing sound rising in her own ears.

“You don’t like the idea?” Brida’s voice was calm, but her face was going sour as she watched him flail.

“No—” he barked out, coughing once more. “It’s not that. Actually, I was hoping you might be feeling this way.” His watery eyes turned to Cyn, who felt herself gaping like a fish. “What do you think, Cyn?”

That simmering anger that had been with her since the afternoon finally boiled over. She turned to face Brida squarely. “How long?”

Brida looked confused.

“How long has this been your plan,” Cyn ground out. “Is this why you wanted me? Why you took me from those men? Just to be your brood mare.” Brida shook her head, holding out her hands and starting to say something, but the roaring in Cyn’s ears wouldn’t let her hear it. “You would use me like that. And to think, I turned back for you.”

Something cracked in Brida’s face on that final statement. There was enough remorse in her eyes that Cyn was able to stop, and catch her breath, force her trembling fists to let go of the table edge. Brida’s voice was low when she spoke, though it was strong. “That was not why I saved you. I didn’t know why I claimed you. I just… didn’t want you to be broken.”

Cyn’s lip twitched. She had heard that before, and right now Brida’s pity was not enough.

“I only thought about this… more recently. As we became closer.”

Cyn shook her head. She had felt that closeness, too. But this… this would destroy it all. How could Brida not see that? “If you feel… close, to me,” –she hesitated, then just said it—“just as I thought I felt close to you,” she ignored the way Brida’s face softened to hear those words, “then why would you set this between us, Brida.”

Brida’s eyes shifted to Ragnar. There was a sharpness in them when they came back to Cyn’s face. “I am not setting anything between us that is not already there. I see the way you two look at each other.”

Cyn shrank. Ragnar did not. “I told you,” she said to Brida, “I would never betray you.”

She would have gone on, but Brida spoke over her. “This way it would not be betrayal. You could be helping us fix a problem that has no easy solution.”

Cyn shook her head. It didn’t feel right. “Why are you doing this, Brida?”

She sighed, and her eyes hardened. “ Because Ragnar will do it again, no matter what I say.” She looked right at him, even as she spoke to Cyn. “So I would rather he choose someone I can trust;” her eyes flitted back to Cyn, “someone I like.”

“Someone you can control.” Cyn said, as bitter understanding snapped into place. “Someone you own.”

Brida gives her a flat look, her own deep anger smoldering through. “I am doing what I can. I cannot give Ragnar the children he wants, myself. So yes, having control is part of the appeal of the idea.”

The rage that flooded Cyn after that felt cleansing. Purifying. She stood, stepping away from the table but keeping her body pointing squarely at Brida. “How is your wound?”

Brida’s brow creased. “What?”

“How has your wound healed? Does it still bother you?”

She took in Cyn’s bristling stance, the determination in her face. “Only a twinge here and there.” She nodded, like she knew what was coming. “Nothing to hold me back.”

“Then tomorrow we make the square. Tomorrow, I fight you for my freedom.”

There may have been grief deep behind Brida’s eyes, but she covered it with a laugh and grit her teeth. “I accept, although you’re a fool. You know that it’s done with sword and shield, don’t you? You’re not going to stand a chance."

“I am ready.” Cyn felt a cruel smile of her own twisting her features. “Ragnar has been teaching me.”

Brida’s head whipped to the other end of the table. Ragnar’s hands were already up. “I thought you knew, I thought that was what you wanted!”

They both watched the real fear hit her. Then rage filled up Brida’s eyes. “Have you two both been playing me? Conspiring to—” she cut herself off. She stared at the table for a moment, then her gaze lifted to her lover. “You’ve never kept anything from me Ragnar, not like this.”

“I thought you already knew!”

Brida just sniffed her disbelief.

The guilt closed in swiftly. Cyn hadn’t wanted to see Brida hurt this badly, not to make her fear that Ragnar planned on leaving her. “The fault is only mine,” she volunteered. “I misled him. He is innocent.”

Brida stood. “Is he.” She turned, and Ragnar clambered to his feet. “Ragnar, do not even try to follow me.” She stepped toward their chamber. “You can sleep in the stables tonight. And Cynwise, I will meet you in the square in the morning.

Chapter Text

Cyn told herself that she was only going to check that he was in the right place. Though anger still flushed the back of her neck, she felt compelled by the last shred of loyalty she had left for Brida. If Ragnar was not bedding down in the stable tonight…

But there was a flicker of candle light in the farthest stall, and when Cyn crept past the last divider she saw the familiar blonde ponytail swinging as he spread a blanket over a huge pile of fresh straw. Something about the soft light called attention to the way his tunic hugged the broad expanse of Ragnar’s back. He was bigger than almost any man she had ever seen. It was no wonder, Cyn thought, that a man like that had risen to lead this group of violent barbarians.

Ragnar turned before she could pull away, spotted her lingering at the threshold to his chamber for the night. The warmth in his eyes pulled at her, as always. Inviting her to let her guard down, to come shelter under his arm from the cruelty of the world. It was not only his strength that attracted the loyal to his side. “Cyn,” he said simply.

“I only came to see,” she said, already setting her feet in the other direction, “that you were doing as Brida asked. You had better not try to sleep anywhere but where she expects you to be tonight.”

Ragnar lifted his brows, crinkling the tattoo etched above them as he swept an open palm toward the bed he was creating.

“Yes, I see. I’ll be off then.”

“Cyn.” Heavier this time. His voice vibrated between her shoulderblades.

Maybe there was one more thing she needed from him. She took a step back into the little space of the stall. “Were you telling me the truth this afternoon, when you said that you had Brida’s blessing already?”

Ragnar leaned his back against the wall at the side of the wooden enclosure. “I… may have embellished a bit,” he admitted, trying the charming grin of a little boy that knew he had been caught out. “She had never said it so plainly as that. But see? She gave us that blessing tonight. So I was right.” He crossed his arms tightly over his chest.

Cyn shook her head. Before she could decide what to say next, Ragnar continued.

“You have been less than truthful with me, too. Pretending that Brida wanted you trained at sword and shield. A grave lie. And a dangerous game to be playing, with your Lady’s own man. Did you not fear I would mention it to her, what we were doing?”

“Every day,” she admitted. “But every day that you didn’t, the better my chances became. I am sorry I deceived you both, but I was desperate.” Cyn’s feet carried her further into the stall, her open palms imploring. “She offered me freedom if I could best her. You cannot blame me for seizing on any advantage I can get.”

Ragnar pushed off the wall, looming forward. “Was it all just part of the strategy, then, to get my lessons?”

Cyn refused to shrink away from him. “Was what?”

“You know what.” His arms came up to embrace her and then Cyn did try and turn. He wouldn’t let her. “You are settling it with Brida tomorrow. Let us settle some things between us right now, you and I.”

Her hands had come up between them, landing on each of his biceps, holding him a small distance away. Though his movement had been sudden, she did not sense violence in the grip of the arms that now spanned her back. Still her heart leapt into her throat. When she tilted her head up to meet Ragnar’s eyes, she found them intent, but warm. Curious.

“You tremble every time that I touch you. Is it fear, or desire?”

She watched her hand vibrate upon his arm, her body betraying her already. “In truth, I am not certain, Lord.”

“Then let me kiss you until you know.”

He brought his face so close that his breath warmed her cheek. She smelled the cloves that had spiced their dinner. How many times had it been now, that he had been this close, and she had turned him away?

“I will stop as soon as you say,” he rumbled, eyes turning down to contemplate her lips.

It was always Brida, that gratitude, turned admiration, turned loyalty, that had stood like a stone in his way toward Cyn’s heart. Tonight, her last rush of anger removed it.

All Cyn had to do was twitch one muscle, lift her chin almost imperceptibly toward Ragnar’s face. He filled that gap between them like the rising tide, pressing his mouth over hers, drawing her shoulders in closer as his arms swelled and tightened.

She had never felt a kiss like this. Coaxing and pleading and demanding all at once. Trembling turned to shimmering as the play of his lips went on. Something was rising in her, some needy feeling he was drawing out that had all her skin begging for his warmth. Cyn pressed herself against him, and Ragnar folded her in until their bodies were flush from belly to knees.

But he was so tall. The more her body melted against his, the tighter the angle her neck was forced to bridge, until she began to feel she could not get enough breath. She broke the kiss with a sharp inhale, dropping her chin so her airway became once again wide enough to fill her lungs.

He rumbled a questioning sound.

“You are so tall—I can’t breathe.”

Ragnar’s soft chuckle suggested he was familiar with this problem. “Lie down with me.”

Cyn looked up at him sharply.

“Not ‘lie with me,’ just lie down with me. You will be more comfortable. While you continue deciding.” His smile was slow and more than a little arrogant. “I can tell you need more time with this, to make up your mind about me.”

He thought he was teasing her. He thought he had already won. But to lay down on the straw with him… it would bring unpleasant memories. “Fear might yet win over desire.” She said it softly, looking only at the ground.

Ragnar took her chin between his fingers, gently bringing her eyes to meet his. “I am not going to force you into anything,” he promised. “I only want to keep kissing you, and to feel your body next to mine.” He ran his hand down her side, calling attention to the way she was still pressed against him. “I think you want this too.”

She stirred in his arms; her muscles felt sticky and slow. Her body was indeed reluctant to part from his. Her mind started to remind her of the reasons she should walk away, and tonight that list only infuriated her. Brida wanted her to do this. That was what she said. Besides, Cyn felt now that she stood on the cusp of freedom, to make her own choices, to go after what she wanted. And right now she wanted to keep feeling the way that Ragnar was making her feel. She kissed him again, and let him draw her down onto the blanket covering the hay.

The pile he had made was surprisingly comfortable. They lay on their sides, faces lined up, and Ragnar drew an errant lock of hair off her forehead with his finger. “I did not want to admit until now, how much I’ve longed for this,” he confessed to her. “You have bewitched me, Cyn.”

She shook her head softly at the accusation. “I did not. That was never my intention.”

“I know.” He kissed her softly, the barest brush of lips. “And yet here I am, captivated. Helpless under your power. I want to show you how you make me feel, for as long as you will let me.” His mouth pressed in with more urgency, and something in his words sparked her to meet that passion, to explore that power that he offered her. She ran her palm over his jaw, along his neck, and down the breadth of his shoulders as she kissed him soundly. It was his turn to shiver.

Knowing that he expected her to pull away at any moment helped, somehow. The fears and doubts receded, making room for the exploration of nipping lips and velvety tongues. Pleasure coiled like a happy cat inside her ribs and down through the bowl of her hips. Their bodies rocked together, softly, and Ragnar was careful not to press her for more. He only rose to meet her with the kinds of touches she seemed ready to allow.

She forgot everything, for a while.

Ragnar’s hand moved down her belly, a slow caress that savored her every curve. Cyn lifted her knee, hooking her leg around his hip, an instinctive opening that she did not let herself think too hard about. That hot hand pressed on, bunching the fabric of her skirt as he slid between her legs.

The pressure of his fingers against her sex was so foreign that Cyn caught her breath. Ragnar responded to her sudden tension with a soothing noise, and he adjusted until he was pressing her just in the place where she pleasured herself. It was so different, to feel the touch of another. Cyn moaned and rolled on to her back.

“Yes, open to me,” he murmured, following her movement to press his body on top of hers.

That was too much. The weight of him trapping her legs sparked a familiar panic, made her fists ball up and her arms move to shove him off of her. “No.”

Ragnar removed himself as quickly as he could, rolling to his side and creasing his brows in concern. “What is wrong?”

Cyn swallowed, pressing her knees together and scooting her hips a little further away. She still tingled where Ragnar had been touching her, but now she felt like she was waking up after a heavy dream. “I don’t—” she couldn’t decide what to say. She feared angering him, though she saw no ire in his clear eyes.

“I won’t hurt you.” He reached for her cheek. “It won’t let it hurt.”

She shook her head, pressing her own hand on top of his. She was amazed to find that she wanted to believe him, and that her loins were begging her to let him try. But she was awake now, and there were other things to hold them back. “We can’t do this now, not before I settle things with Brida.”

Ragnar nodded. She saw him struggling to wake up too. He relaxed back into the straw, though he kept his face close to hers, and laced his fingers between her own. He settled their clasped hands on the blanket between them. “Call off the challenge tomorrow. You two don’t need to fight when we all want the same thing.”

Cyn shook her head, feeling her teeth set against each other. “We must.”

“You love her.” His fingers squeezed hers. “You are so angry with her because you love her. And she loves you too.”

She shook her head again, pulling her fingers from his grasp and sitting up.

“There may be a lot I don’t understand about my woman’s feelings, but that much is plain to see,” Ragnar continued, following her movements and sitting up on his hip. “Don’t let this misunderstanding tear you two apart.”

“I won’t take the challenge back.” Cyn straightened her skirt as she sat back on her knees, facing him. “I would lose what little respect I do have from her, if I did that.”

“You’re both being foolish,” Ragnar insisted. “It doesn’t have to come to this.”

“Yes, if I just accepted my place as your willing slave,” Cyn snapped, “and made babies for you and Brida just to take from me. Then everyone would be happy.”

Ragnar’s face softened. “No, Cyn. They would be ours.” He bent closer to her, his eyes brimming with sympathy and another feeling she wasn’t ready to see. “I have never wanted you for a slave. You could be my wife.”

A chill shocked through her. “But Brida—” As angry as she was, she never wanted to steal Ragnar away from her.

“You could both be my wives.” He smiled to himself. “She always dodged the question before, but Brida would not let you become first wife before her, I can assure you of that.”

Cyn struggled to keep up with him. “I… I forgot that pagans can do that. Take more than one wife.” She hadn’t thought that there was a way for her to live with Brida and Ragnar without remaining their servant. But.. she met his eyes shyly. “Why have you never married Ingirid, then?”

Ragnar did not hesitate. “I do not feel about Ingirid the way that I feel about you.”

Cyn looked down, though she let him take her hand again. She had refused to let herself ever contemplate what that pull that she felt toward this man could truly mean. Did she want him for a husband? With Brida sharing everything by her side? Just the thought of it made her body warm all over.

“We could have it all, Cyn. Everything we desire.”

She shivered at the temptation of this vision, but she knew what was most important in her heart. She pushed his hand softly away. “What I desire above all else, is to have Brida’s respect. None of this means anything without it. And respect is not what she treated me with when she ordered me to your bed tonight.”

“Not ordered. Suggested.”

“Without asking me.”

“Do not think too harshly of her for it. Has she not treated you well before now?”

“Perhaps that is not the point, have you thought of that? She sees me as her inferior.”

Ragnar huffed. “I will convince her to free you before anything else happens.”

“No, I will convince her to free me,” Cyn countered, straightening her shoulders. “By defeating her tomorrow.”

Ragnar shook his head, still imploring her to change that plan. “You know that as the Lord here, you need my permission to make the square.”

She rocked forward, glaring at him with narrowed eyes. “Don't you dare take this away from me!”

He met her passion with steady consideration. “The swords you use will be sharp. And emotions run high in the square, surrounded by men screaming for blood. Many a time, warriors leave with permanent wounds. Or they don’t walk out of the square at all.”

“I am not afraid. I must best her in combat. She was very clear, that this was the only way she would see me as an equal.”

Ragnar rolled his eyes. “I wish you would ask her again, if she really meant that.” Cyn set her jaw, and Ragnar sighed. “If you agree to end the fight at first blood, I will allow it.”

“Is that all this is about? You are worried about us?”

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I do not want either of you to get hurt. Yes, I am afraid it will come to that before someone yields. You are both stubborn as mules.”

Cyn could not help but feel touched by the way his concern seemed to be equal for the both of them.

“She already does respect you, Cyn. She was just angry with me tonight. It was a slip.”

“A slip. To offer me up like livestock.”

“You know she doesn’t think about you like that.”

“I will know tomorrow. When I see the respect dawn in her eyes behind the point of my sword.”

Ragnar could not seem to stop a smile from cracking through his disapproval. “It seems we’ve made a Dane of you already, Cyn.” He chuckled.

Cyn smiled back at him, though she was not entirely comfortable with the implications of those words. Her life was changing so quickly. All she knew was that she wanted to choose strength over fear. And that whether she felt ready or not for tomorrow, she had no choice but to win.

Ragnar shifted his weight, leaning closer to her on the bed of hay. “I see your determination. Go find your bed, get your rest, so you will have all your strength in the morning.” He kissed her cheek, lips lingering for only a moment. “I will go to Brida now, and see if she will let me in this time. I will tell her these things we have discussed. What I want, and what I think you want too: that we can all be a family. Two wives, one household, for the rest of our days.”

Cyn’s stomach tingled. “Do you think she wants that too?” It seemed a lot for Brida’s pride to swallow.

Ragnar only smiled, looking much more confident than Cyn felt. “I see the love she has for you. Sometimes Brida is very impulsive, but sometimes she needs time to think things over. I will go plant the seeds.”

He caught her lips once more before either of them rose to leave, in a kiss that lingered much too long to be a simple good-night.

 

* * *

 

Brida buckled on her sword belt as she stepped into the early morning light.

Last night Ragnar had tried to warn her that her pride could cost her everything. Brida thought that was rich; he knew as well as she that pride and reputation were all that a warrior had. That was why she and Cyn still had to make the square today. Even if she was no longer angry, even if Ragnar had convinced her that he was not planning to leave her, regardless of the outcome, or that granting Cyn freedom would not mean losing her forever. Even if Brida had no desire to hurt a hair on that girl’s head.

No desire, that is, until Brida saw how the men were taking bets against her. She was shocked to hear that Cyn was favored to win by the gossips drawing out the square in Dunholm’s courtyard, and that many of the men that the girl had fought off in the past were now staunchly in her corner. Including Thorvald, who was apparently more prepared to forgive Cyn’s insult to his balls than the one that Brida had delivered to his pride.

Pride is everything. Though Brida told herself that this boded well for how much respect her friend would carry once she was free, it still irked her that Ragnar’s loyal men did not hold her own ferocious reputation higher than that of a slave. She had been planning to go easy on Cyn, let her earn the freedom that she already knew she deserved. Now she found herself justifying the need to hold her own for perhaps a bit longer. Lest the men forgot who they were dealing with.

Cyn walked up to the square like a queen, head held high and every footstep precise and secure. Brida almost forgot herself, the urge to beam her approval with a bright smile just about overwhelming her. It was easier to stay stone-faced once Cyn locked eyes with her, however. The girl still looked angry. Ragnar’s talk with her must not have gone quite as well as he claimed.

The corners of the canvas they were to fight upon were still being secured, but the crowd was already forming. Warriors brushed elbows with thralls and even a few gawkers from the town below the fort, who had somehow already heard the news of the impending fight. It was good, Brida told herself. Cyn would begin her new life of freedom with reputation, a story that would be carried by many. What did it matter if all these people were about to watch Brida lose, to this thin little whip of a girl.

Cyn had nothing to say as she stepped next to the corner opposite where Brida was standing. Neither of them would stand on the cloth until Ragnar declared the challenge was to begin. She had met Brida’s eyes, but perhaps her courage went no further. Or perhaps she was saving all her rage for the combat. She had better be, Brida thought. She wanted Cyn to win, but she didn’t want to have to throw the fight. Ragnar had better have trained her well enough to hold her own.

Brida’s confidence faltered just a little when she noticed what Cyn was hefting in her hands: a sword that belonged to Ragnar, and a shield bearing his colors. Last night her man had soothed her insecurities, but seeing that… The colors on Brida’s shield were her own. Now everyone watching would think they knew which outcome their Lord favored. She jerked her head, then turned the irritated move into a stretch. She rolled her shoulders as she waited for Ragnar to appear. She had no doubt that he would officiate this match with as much drama as he introduced all his favorite games.

He went to Cyn first. By the way the girl’s body sagged for just a moment when he touched her, Brida could see that she was terrified to be here, though she hid it well. It was right for Ragnar to offer her comfort, and confidence. Brida herself wished that she could be in his place, to be the one bolstering Cyn up before she set foot in the square. For this was a challenge that Cyn had to meet, a rite of passage that would cement a place of respect for her here among the Danes. Much better than freeing her quietly. She had forced Ragnar to understand that much.

Brida banged her sword against her shield, and was proud to see that Cyn did not jump at the sudden sound. She and Ragnar both looked over, and Cyn raised her own weapons. Brida nodded. It was time to begin.

“We make the square this morning,” Ragnar bellowed, stepping to the center and addressing the crowd, “on the challenge of the Saxon slave Cyn. Who some already call ‘Cyn the Unassailable.’” It was mostly Ragnar that called her that, but Brida had no doubt it would catch on now. “My woman Brida has agreed to grant her freedom, if she can defeat her in the square.”

The crowd cheered. It reassured Brida to see that they were agreeable to the idea of these terms, for it was not the way these things were usually done.

Ragnar stepped back without looking, a great sweep of his leg that brought him off the canvas covering the ground, marking the boundary of the field of combat. “The fight will be to first blood only,” he announced. Brida knew that had been his personal stipulation; she scowled even as his protectiveness warmed her just a little. “Or of course, if anyone sets foot outside the square.” Ragnar had, in fact, counseled Brida to let Cyn push her out. But that signified cowardice. That would not be the way that she lost this match.

Brida stepped in, squaring her shield. Cyn mirrored her. The girl’s face was full of grit as she peered above the wooden edge and pointed Ragnar’s sword over it.

“Begin!” Ragnar roared, and the other warriors howled along with him as the two women crouched and began to circle each other.

* * *

Cyn rushed to land the first blow. All apprehension must give way to determination; the entire course of her life hinged on this moment. She did not fear that Brida would hurt her, not truly, but if she could not impress her then nothing else would matter. Her sword, the one Ragnar’s men had brought to her this morning, gouged a chip from Brida’s shield and the onlookers cheered.

Brida’s eyes wore that same flat, unreadable look that she used whenever she felt threatened. But her face had been fixed that way since Cyn had walked up to the square. Cyn wondered if Brida still felt hurt by her challenge, by her lies, or if she still feared that Cyn was trying to steal Ragnar’s heart from her. The Earl had not returned last night to bear news of the conversation he had intended to have. Cyn had no idea if any of the insults she had delivered had been softened.

Cyn ducked under the swing of Brida’s sword, twisted to counter but was met by her shield again. The insult that Brida had paid to her had not been resolved yet, anyway. Best to focus on that and attempt to win this fight before worrying about any of the rest.

Cyn shouted as their swords clanged together a moment later. She felt that impact all the way up her arm. Ragnar had been trying to teach her to spin out from direct clashes like that, since she was lighter and weaker than any opponent she might face. Brida included. But it was a style Ragnar himself had never needed, and it was possible he had not been able to instruct her very well.

She missed Brida’s foot, coming around to hook at her leg and pull Cyn off balance. Before she recovered, Brida had squared herself, and hammered on Cyn’s shield so hard that she knocked her onto her ass. Both their eyes went straight to the edge of the canvas; Cyn had the wind knocked out of her but she was still inside the square.

“Are you going to give up?” Brida demanded, eyes stormy as she stared down the point of her sword. Cyn knocked it away with her own and scrambled to her feet in answer.

Brida was on her instantly, slamming their shields together and reaching around to poke at her ribs. Cyn rolled her momentum to the side and almost sliced Brida herself as they rotated. It would only take one hit like that to end this match. Cyn told herself she could do it.

Before she could make another strike, Brida sent her sprawling again. Cyn heard her bark “Get up” before she had even gotten her feet under her. Cyn rolled instead, guessing that Brida’s sword was about to come down if she did actually stay put and comply with the command. She had to drop her shield to pull it off, but the sound of metal thunking into earth reassured her of the correctness of that choice.

Cyn held her sword out in front of her with both hands now, ready to use it for both attack and defense. The warriors at the edge of the square were shouting, but she couldn’t focus on what they were saying, unsure if they were cheers and jeers. There was only Brida before her, and watching which way that blade might twist next.

She managed to turn the first few strikes, but she was clumsy. She thrust her own sword into what looked like an opening. Brida’s shield cracked down, knocking Cyn’s momentum toward the ground, and then pain sliced through her upper arm. She clapped her hand over the spot as she whirled away. When she let go, her palm was wet.

“Blood!” called a few harsh voices from the crowd. Cyn’s stomach tried to drop through her feet as she realized what had happened, what it meant. Brida hissed and did not strike again. Cyn looked to Ragnar, mouth gaping as she panted for breath.

“We did say first blood.” He looked significantly at her left hand, clutching at the sting just below her right shoulder. The line of burning pain was already starting to fade, but a scratch was a scratch.

Cyn felt her face drop into a grimace as she removed her fingers, showing him. A line of red stained her shirt, where it had clearly been sliced open. She could smell her own blood in the air, a sharp, bitter defeat.

Ragnar shook his head in sympathy, but Brida interrupted. “There is no blood on the groundcloth!” She pointed the tip of her sword down, below Cyn’s feet. “That’s what it’s there for, after all. The duel is not over until it turns red at someone’s feet.” She glared significantly at Cyn as she wiped her sword across her thigh, leaving a dark smear along her trousers. Making sure not a drop of it might fall from her blade.

Cyn rubbed at her shoulder, making sure that any more escaping blood was sopping into the fabric of her own tunic. Ragnar nodded slowly. “Yes, that is the old way.” He waved a hand. “Carry on, then.”

Brida had bought her a little more time. And was that an encouraging smile edging past her sternly-pressed lips? “Last chance, Cyn.” She threw her own shield to the ground, reducing her advantage.

Just that moment, that shining half-moment where it seemed that Brida wanted her to succeed, was all it took to invigorate Cyn’s limbs, to reignite her resolve. As they clashed blades again, she found her arms moving more quickly, her mind better anticipating Brida’s moves which had them dancing around the square.

They were both panting through their mouths when Cyn realized she had to end this before fatigue set in. She was already tasting that metallic tang that arose from overworked lungs. It was time to claim the life that she wanted. She threw herself toward Brida with a series of attacks Ragnar had taught her, fast and brutal and meant to establish a pattern just long enough to lull an opponent into thinking they knew where she would strike next.

Brida met her next blow just as she was led to, and when Cyn twisted her sword unexpectedly the momentum carried Brida’s arm out wide. Cyn stepped inside her guard and grabbed her about the waist with her free arm, ignoring their swords and switching to a grappling hold that Brida herself had taught her. She felt the woman’s arm brush against her back as she shifted to hook her leg, but Brida did not find anything to hold on to before Cyn threw her to the ground.

She remembered at the last moment to knock the sword from Brida’s hand while she was still sprawling.

And before her opponent could scramble up onto her feet, Cyn had the point of her own sword resting under her chin. Brida stopped moving, staring up the blade into Cyn’s face. At first Cyn thought her gaze held defiance, then her heart swelled as she realized Brida was looking up at her purely with pride.

The onlookers were roaring at them. Cyn heard them only as a distant buzzing, something that maybe one day would have meant something. Right now there was only that connection, that recognition that passed between her and the woman who had changed everything in Cyn’s life, who had made all this strength and exhilaration possible.

Brida nodded at her, and lifted her chin. Time to end it.

Trying not to let her hands shake, Cyn touched the point of her sword to Brida’s cheek, just in front of her right ear. She dragged the tip up along her jaw, applying only enough pressure to split the skin. The blood that welled up in its wake was barely enough to form a few droplets, but when Cyn tapped her sword on the ground beside them, a single point of red stained the cloth.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day was busier than Cyn had expected; it turned out that there were traditions to follow when a thrall was made a freedwoman.

A sheep was to be slaughtered, signifying the death of her old life, and a feast prepared from its meat. Ragnar’s household warriors and all the villagers who had come up to watch the fight had been invited to partake, and as day turned to night word seemed to have spread farther as more families trickled into the fort for the festivities.

She barely had time to think about her new freedom, and what she would do after this night: the feast was in Cyn’s honor, but it was also hers to prepare. Some other symbol of her transition in status. No one cared that Cyn had no actual property to her name; everything came out of Earl Ragnar’s stores, and the meat slaughtered from herds he owned. The feast came from the same kitchens and storehouses that Brida had been training Cyn to run on her behalf all these weeks anyway. Great casks of their strongest ale were rolled out, and Brida kept nudging her to bring up extra as they watched more and more unexpected guests arrive.

There was no room for discussion of what Cyn would do afterwards, now that her life was her own again. She had claimed it so suddenly, without ever coming to a conclusion over where she would go, how she would live. She felt hollow as she looked around the bustling and cheerful activity of Dunholm. She could no longer imagine that a nunnery would be preferable to this place.

You could be my wife.

Ragnar’s words still reverberated through her mind. She had never met anyone like Brida and Ragnar. She should be terrified amongst these Danes, but from the start the two of them had made her feel strong. To live as Brida’s equal, to continue to share her life… no matter how hard Cyn searched her mind, she could not think of a single thing she wanted more. She knew that to be a Dane’s second wife was heathen, and sinful, and the thought made her heart swell more than anything she had ever experienced.

But what hope did she really have that Brida would be agreeable to this?  The day was too busy for Cyn to find a way to broach such a question.

Ragnar ruled over a gregarious people, it seemed. Fires blazed as their guests laughed and danced while evening wore into night, but Cyn’s feet were too sore to join in. She shook her head at the man that reached a hand out to her for a dance as she passed; instead she hefted the clay pitcher she had just gone to refill with ale for the fourth time this night.

For the last piece of the Danes’ custom was this: Cyn was to serve her former masters at this feast, for one final time. And Ragnar’s thirst, as usual, was bottomless.

“That’s the last one, Cyn,” Brida said, looking up with a smile as Cyn stepped between her and Ragnar at the head table and poured the potent ale into both of their cups. “I am done with my food and drink, and now you serve me no longer. Sit down.”

Cyn thought of her quiet hopes, of how happy she would be to prepare food for her sister-wife’s table, or to reach over and fill her cup. This might not yet be the last time she served Brida.

Ragnar rose tall beside her, climbing out of his chair so close that his body brushed her thigh. She had not been able to speak with him alone today, either. But in the brief moment that he caught Cyn’s gaze, she saw all of his promises from the night before. “Take my seat,” he urged.

When Cyn hesitated, Ragnar’s strong arm guided her down anyway. “Your task is complete. You are now free of obligation to us.” Then his other hand came down on Brida’s shoulder, and he tugged the two of them toward each other. “Talk,” he urged, giving them each a significant look before sweeping up his brimming cup and turning to enjoy the festivities among their guests.

Brida’s flitting gaze looked as apprehensive as Cynwise felt, eyes just as restless as the butterflies in her own gut as they each tried to decide where to start.

“I’m sorry—” Brida began, just as Cyn spoke too: “Did Ragnar—”

They both stopped.

Brida’s lips flexed in a quick smile, then she took the initiative to continue. “I am sorry that I spoke about you to Ragnar the way that I did. I should have asked you first. Though I did intend to. Those would have been my very next words, had he not interrupted.”

Cyn nodded. She could believe that.

“I would never have ordered you to his bed. I only thought…” Brida trailed off, staring at the surface of the table for a moment. “I understand your anger. How it sounded. But…did you really believe I would ever force such a thing on you?”

Cyn took in a deep breath, and studied the face of the woman she had called “Lady” since the night this long ordeal had begun. Brida’s brown eyes were warm in the firelight, if a little tight with apprehension. Such a contrast from the night she had rescued Cyn, when she would barely look her in the eye, and had gruffly warned her not to expect help again. And yet Brida had continued to look out for her, and had always treated her with respect, in every day to follow. In another, less complicated life, Cyn would have gladly called her friend by now. “I was surprised,” Cyn said. “I will admit, that I assumed the worst, that you didn’t care about me as much as I wanted—”

“I do care about you, Cyn.” Brida reached over her lap and took her hand.

They had already been in the habit of touching each other, but something about this moment felt different. Cyn pressed her palm more snugly into Brida’s, and clasped her fingers tight between her own. A fresh burst of butterflies tingled through her belly as she contemplated their hands.

“Every day since I saved you,” Brida began, then took a breath and changed her thought. “But now you have earned your own freedom. And well-deserved.” She gave their clasped hands a little shake. “What will you do with it?”

Cyn’s stomach flipped again. She didn’t dare to meet Brida’s eyes, kept her gaze fixed on their entwined fingers as she spoke the terrifying truth. “I don’t think, after knowing you, that I could go back to my people.”

Brida let out her breath, her thumb sliding along the back of Cyn’s hand. “Then don’t.”

Cyn finally looked up. “But what would my place here be?”

Brida’s gaze looked kind, and worried. Some strands of hair had come loose from her braid, and the firelight was turning them to the color of rich honey. “Under our laws, I am still responsible for your well-being, should you need me. You can have a place in our household, if you truly wish to stay.” The skin around her eyes tightened. “Or, you can find your own way. I would make you a great gift to get you started in your own life, anywhere on Ragnar’s lands. And then of course,” she smirked, “there are still those young men who desire your hand in marriage.” Her quick grin reminded Cyn of all the ways Brida had mocked those very men, but her mirth looked forced, and faded quickly. “You are free to make your own choice now.”

“Oh.” Cyn swallowed, looking down at her lap. She could stay, even without marrying Ragnar. She should be pleased, but the freedom of choice only made it harder for her to suggest her heart’s true desire. “I don’t…” she swallowed, and hoped her timidity looked more endearing than weak as she squeezed Brida’s hand. “I don’t wish to be far from you, Brida. I want to stay in your household.”

Brida’s true smile beamed down on Cyn like the clouds opening up in the heavens. Her hand came to Cyn’s cheek. “I hoped… but it was hard to hope. I don’t want you to leave me, either.” The friendly caress ended as suddenly as it had started, though Brida pulled their clasped hands closer into her own lap. “Can you forgive me, for not freeing you earlier? Now that I know you, I wish I had freed you the same day I saved you. You were never lesser than me. I was blinded by my own pride, and my fears.”

Cyn had to look away. “I know how your world works,” she said softly. “Though I will never say that what happened to me was right. And when it happened to you, it wasn’t right, either.”

She felt Brida bristle. “I am grateful every day that I was spared the life of a weak Saxon woman. I need no pity.”

“I know.” Cyn studied her friend’s knuckles, flecked with scars both old and new. “I know how you have made your peace with it. I desire to make peace with it, too. To make peace with you.”

“We have peace,” Brida said fervently. She nudged Cyn to meet her smile. “All our contention is behind us now.”

Cyn’s attempt at a smile came out half a grimace. “Perhaps. There is yet one matter we have left unspoken.”

Brida’s eyes tightened behind her smile.

“Did you truly mean that you want me and Ragnar to make a child?”

Brida leaned in closer to her. “Yes,” she said, gaze unwavering. “Do you want this too?”

Cyn ignored her question. “The thought doesn’t make you jealous?”

Brida shifted on her hip, thinking about it. “I tolerated Ingirid. A good and respectful enough woman, I thought. I know my choices, and my reasons, and I want Ragnar to have the children that complete his life. As I know that I do not want to bear a child of my own. So I dealt with the feelings that I have about that woman.” Brida pulled Cyn’s hand in closer again, just about nestling it between her legs. “But you, Cyn, when I think about you with his child, even, you in his bed…” she tilted her head like she was surprised with herself, “I only feel happy about it? To have you with us in this life, even in that way.”

Cyn felt her chest begin to swell.

“I know he will give you pleasure, and I like to think of that.”

A strange thrill ran down Cyn’s spine. She had to look away from what was in Brida’s eyes, though she liked seeing it.

“It may be strange,” Brida continued, looking down with a furtive, self-conscious little smile, “but it makes me happy to imagine you happy. I would share everything with you; even him.” She beamed a smile at Cyn that made her warm all the way down to her toes. “But only when I imagine it as something that you want for yourself, too.” A little insecurity graced her face. “Ragnar said last night that you do. But he does not always excel at seeing something other than what he wants to see. So please, be honest with me Cyn. How much do you want from us?”

Emotion, hot and thick, seemed about to close Cyn’s throat, but still she managed to choke out her truth. “Everything.” With every successive word that Brida had poured out of her heart, Cyn had found her own beating faster and faster. “I want to share my whole life with you, Brida. You and him.”

Something was propelling her lips toward Brida's face, and Cyn pressed an urgent kiss to the woman's cheek.  Brida twisted her head so she could return the gesture, then her arms came up to gather Cyn against her chest so tight that she could feel their frantic hearts beating against each other.

They stayed like that for a long moment. Cyn found herself savoring the feel of Brida’s strong arms around her, and the curve of her waist in Cyn’s own grip. She nestled her face into the hollow of Brida’s shoulder, breathing in the sweet scent of the woman. “Let us never be parted.”

“Never,” Brida agreed, in a sighing rush of breath. She pulled back just far enough to be able to meet Cyn’s eyes. Their bodies remained pressed together, like their very beings still needed reassurance of their bond.

Cyn looked up at Brida, and her eyes fell to the red scab across the left side of her jaw. “I am sorry for this,” she murmured, fingertip tracing just underneath the line she had carved into Brida’s skin this morning.

Brida shook her head, nothing but amusement painting her features. “It is no more than I deserve. I will cherish the scar as a reminder of this day.”

“The day that I freed myself to love you.” Heat rushed to Cyn’s face as she immediately regretted the boldness of her words, but Brida seemed pleased to receive them, kissing her again upon the cheek.

Cyn’s next words came out almost a whisper, a prayer spoken into the small space between them. “Ragnar spoke to me of marriage. Will you marry him with me? It is something that I want, but not if it means I would be his wife before you. I do not wish to take your place.”

Brida’s arms tightened around her. But before she could answer, Ragnar strode up to them, arms wide and voice booming with joy. “We are all friends again now, yes?”

As he looked down at them Cyn became aware once more of the tightness of their embrace, and how long she and Brida has been holding each other like that. “Yes,” she answered.

Before she could say more, Brida looped her arm over her shoulder and beamed a fresh smile up at her lover. “More than that now. We are family.”

 

* * *

 

Dozens of candles illuminated Ragnar’s face as he looked down at Cyn. Their warm glow softened the stone walls of the Lord of Dunholm’s bedchamber, and made the golden-haired Dane’s tattooed face look almost gentle. “Are you ready, Cyn?”

The wedding had been a giddy, whirling blur for Cyn, of merry faces, strange, heathen prayers, sweet mead and splattered animal blood. Brida and Cyn had stood before the priest together, and he had married them to Ragnar each in turn. After their bellies had filled at the decadent feast, Brida had generously offered to give Cyn the first night with their husband. She had laughed that there was nothing new under the sun for her and Ragnar to do in the bedroom, making Cyn’s face flame red. It was only right that she let them take their time with their own consummation.

Cyn had tried to conceal her fluttering nerves as she stripped down to her underdress, somehow unable to meet Ragnar’s eyes once they were alone together. She reminded herself how much she had wanted this, how she trusted Ragnar… he caught her wrist and pulled her up close to him, pressing a kiss onto the back of her hand. “Are you ready, Cyn?”

The heat beginning to smolder behind his kind eyes made something soften and warm between her legs. Surely the tingling in her limbs was only excitement, she told herself. “Yes, husband.” Cyn rose up on her toes to press a kiss to Ragnar’s mouth.

His hands felt so hot as they ran down the sides of her body, nothing in his way but the thin linen of her gown. He returned her kiss eagerly, and gathered her up in his arms before her neck could get too strained by his height.

It was only three paces to the bed, where he deposited her gently. He gave her one deep, searching kiss before rising up to remove his tunic and loosen his belt. Cyn marveled anew at expanse of his chest, the golden hair that glowed in the candle light and the dark green lines that wound over his pectoral muscles.

Ragnar knelt upon the edge of the bed and opened his arms, inviting her to come to him.

Cyn came up on her knees before him and raised her hand to his skin. Never had she even dreamt that she would be wed to a man that looked like this, a fearsome, wild Dane with decorated flesh, but she felt drawn to his strangeness. Her fingers traced the animals drawn upon his chest. “What are they?”

“The wolves that chase the sun and the moon,” Ragnar answered, his own fingers coming to rest lightly upon her hips. “They are called Skoll and Hati. One day, when the world ends, they will devour all the light in the sky.”

“Then they are devils,” Cyn said in surprise.

Ragnar only smiled. “I need the strength of devils in my arms when I go into battle.” He flexed the muscles in question as he gripped her tighter about the hips, making the lines in his skin ripple with the effort.

Cyn felt something that could only be described as lust as she covered those dancing wolves with her palms. There was a burning need to press herself against this heathen body, to let him push her down to the bed as he peppered kisses along her neck and jaw.

Ragnar was trying to be gentle but she could feel the urgency in his hands. He touched her boldly, squeezing her hip and spreading his palm over the whole of her breast, scooping it up before kneading it in his hand.

Cyn began to feel very, very hot. She returned Ragnar’s kisses and tried to recapture the way that she had felt with him in the barn the night before, but this was so different. Where last night he had been patient, now he was eager, assured of his victory. Her head was starting to spin as his weight covered her, his hands seeking to remove the last of her clothing. Everything he was doing felt good, but still something seemed wrong.

My husband, she told herself. Ragnar is my husband now, he can do this. But as he bared her legs, Cyn’s blood began to run cold. It didn’t feel right, to be alone with him like this, wedding night or not. “Brida…” she found herself saying.

Ragnar stopped, his warm eyes seeking her own. “You are still worried about her? Do you truly not believe that we have her blessing?”

Cyn wasn’t sure what she was thinking, her thoughts spinning and swirling too fast for her to catch hold. “I must…” she scrambled out from under her new husband. “I’m sorry,” she said, and bolted for the door.

Cyn’s bare feet slapped against cold stone. This corner of Dunholm was dark; everyone was either still at the wedding feast or already warm in their beds. But she felt she knew where Brida would be. There was a corner of the ramparts where her sister-wife liked to look at the sky. A place to be still, and alone with one’s thoughts.

Cyn's heart leapt when she padded up the steps and saw the silhouette of the woman, wrapped in her great bear-skin. Brida’s complicated wedding braids flipped over her shoulder as she turned, marking the sound of Cyn’s approach.

“What has happened?” she asked as Cyn launched herself into her arms. Without hesitation Brida tucked her in under her own fur, covering her scantly-clad body against the chill of the night. “What did the arseling do to you?”

Cyn only hugged her tight for another moment, calming herself against Brida’s steady presence and warm, sweet scent.

“Cyn. What happened?”

“I couldn’t do it.”

Brida stroked her back, carefully. “What do you mean?”

“I…” Shame replaced fear as Cyn thought over what had just happened. She had just run out into the night in nothing but her underdress, leaving Ragnar to think she feared him, leaving anyone who saw her to conclude he had been a beast… “He was fine. He was kind. I just… don’t know how to do this.”

“What—” Brida began to ask, but suddenly Cyn knew what she wanted.

“Come back with me,” she pleaded, looking up to meet Brida’s eyes. “I want you with us.”

Brida blinked, taken aback.

“You have always guided me… you taught me so well how to keep a man off of me. But I don’t… I don’t know what to do with one on me, either.”

Brida just stared at her for another long moment, then threw her head back and guffawed. “It’s easy, Cyn. It will come to you, have no doubt. You only have to relax, and enjoy yourself.” Her smile was fond and only a little condescending. “Don’t worry about pleasing him. A man will be pleased with anything. Just focus on enjoying it, yourself. Ragnar will make sure it feels good.”

Cyn shook her head, fingers squeezing into the flesh of Brida’s arms. Both their heads turned as they heard Ragnar coming up the steps behind them.

“Cyn,” he called, his voice hesitant. His clothes were back on, though a bit askew.

“Were you not gentle?” Brida scowled down at him.

Ragnar spread his hands wide. “I thought I was. We had barely started.”

Brida looked down at Cyn, burrowed into her arms. “I did not think… are you a maiden, Cyn?”

She barked a bitter laugh, pulling back a little into herself. “No. But only by one time.” Ragnar came softly up close to them, not presuming to touch her but listening carefully as she went on in a low voice. “And not by my choice.” She looked fiercely at Brida. “That is why I fought so hard to prevent it happening again.”

Brida’s voice was level, her eyes warm and equally intense. “I understand.”

Cyn looked to Ragnar. “I want to move on from it. I know it might not always feel so terrible. But it is hard for me, to put myself in your hands.”

Ragnar’s face was soft. “I am sorry. I was too eager. I can be as patient as you need.”

“I want to be brave. I want to face this challenge, too. I want to let you—” She couldn’t say it, but heat started prickling anew between her thighs just from thinking about it. She pulled Brida’s arms tighter around herself. “I’ve asked Brida to come back with us,” she told Ragnar. “To help me. To guide me.”

A strange sort of smile tugged at Ragnar’s face.

Brida amended Cyn’s statement. “To guide you,” she said to their husband. She looked down at Cyn. “I will make sure that Ragnar is good to you. We will make you feel ready.”