Sigurd and the Valkyrie – Vivienne Savage

The tiniest tomb in all of the Ridaeron Dynasty sported a single column of text wishing its inhabitants peace and an afterlife without the pain they’d known on earth. Atop the slender column, a lone Valkyrie stood with her sword, watching over those three little souls. Brynhildr wondered if they would be allowed to take their place in Valhalla. After all, they had not died in battle. Their only fight had been to survive birth. Perhaps that would be enough. A stormy day tore up and down the plains, pounding the guardsmen beyond the Royal Mausoleum, who waited patiently for the ceremony to end. For their king and queen to inter yet another child. The rain wouldn’t be enough to wash away Brynhildr’s anguish. She did not understand why the gods loathed her, not when she’d dedicated every moment of her life to earning their favor. She’d fought in Freya’s name, performed honorably in combat, but still the goddess wouldn’t bless her with a living baby. It had to be her womb. Just when she thought she’d cried it all out, she scrubbed her cheek with the heel of her palm. “I’m—I’m sorry, Gunnar. I tried.

This is my fault. I must have—I must have done something wrong.” She’d spent every day in bed as the midwife had ordered, drank foul teas, guzzled tonics, but nothing had helped in the end. “No, wife, the blame does not lie with you.” Gunnar settled his heavy hand on her shoulder. “We should speak.” “Of what? How can you even bear to lay your eyes on me?” Her husband turned her to face him, then he cupped her face between his warm, callused palms and lifted her averted gaze to his. Only concern shone in his blue eyes. “I can look upon you as I know the fault isn’t yours.” “How could you even know that? The midwife said—” “The midwife does not know what I know. Another served my mother, and my mother before her, but she died long ago. My family line is cursed. I hadn’t believed it—hadn’t wanted to burden you with such sorrow—but now I must accept it as truth.” Brynhildr jerked from his touch, her anger rising hot and fast. “Cursed? What curse? You have never spoken of a curse before.

” “I know, and for that I am sorry. As I said, I hadn’t believed it to be true.” “What curse? What have you not told me?” Gunnar’s broad shoulders sank. “The legend says only the seventh born child will live to draw breath.” Seventh. Six losses before she could hold a living child in her arms. As her teary gaze swung back to the three tiny plaques on the stone obelisk, she wondered if she could bear the heartache of burying three more. “Bryn, please.” “Do not touch me!” She recoiled from him, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. “How could you keep such a thing from me?” “I should have been honest from the start, but you are strong, Brynhildr. The strongest woman I know. I thought if anyone could prove the curse to be false, it would be you.” “You should have given me the opportunity to decide for myself.” “My mother bore several children after me. How was I to know a shred of truth was in those stories? Growing up, I believed the curse had died out.

That it had weakened over the decades.” “It didn’t,” she spit at him. “All that has died are our children.” “If I could have spared you this pain, I would have, dear wife. You must believe me that I would never knowingly cause you harm.” “Yet you did. At no point did you tell me after…after our first loss that it wasn’t my failing.” “I did not, and I do not deserve your forgiveness. Yet I must ask it anyway.” He closed the distance between them and lowered to one knee before her. Her king knelt for no one. Not even on the day he’d asked for her hand in marriage. The sight of him on the ground before her jarred her emotions. Hit her like a punch in the stomach. Gunnar never knelt.

Yet he knelt now. For her. “I love you, Bryn. I mourn with you. Please, don’t pull away from me.” Brynhildr wondered if she was a fool to entertain forgiveness. He couldn’t have known. It would be a greater crime to throw away the marriage she’d worked so hard to build. “Will you do this for me—for us? For our kingdom?” It was on the tip of her tongue to deny him, but the pleading look in his gaze and the earnest, naked love she saw shining there gave her pause. She drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered. “I am strong.” “You are. As strong as Odin and more beautiful than Freya. I know that what I ask of you is great, but your bravery is greater.

This one, she lasted so much longer in the womb than the other two. Surely next time, our child will live. You will defeat this wicked spell.” When she opened her eyes, Gunnar was standing again. He stroked her cheek and smiled, then leaned in and claimed her lips. Yes, she decided, she could forgive him. The only cost would be three more babies. And maybe, maybe if her body was strong enough, there would be no cost at all. G C H A P T E R 1 uilt sometimes twisted into Sigurd’s guts when he rode into the lush Ridaeron countryside and traversed the highlands of the western vale. During those moments, he hated the man he had become when he forsook his ancestors, his gods, and the family he’d left behind in the great kingdom of Eisland. Then there were moments such as now, when he and Geri galloped over those majestic hills, the wind against his face and rushing through his hair. It had grown in the year since his arrival and passed his shoulders. Several thralls, especially a pair of female servants, had pleaded with Sigurd to allow them to braid his hair. Where he came from, men did not wear braids. Of course, where he came from, slavery had long been outlawed and ruled an injustice.

In Eisland, he would be free. Not that servitude had hampered his activities for the past year. Would a slave have the freedom to come and go as he pleased, oftentimes for days without returning to the palace? Would a slave own possessions, especially a horse gifted to them personally by the queen? When it came down to it, Sigurd had been treated to the everyday life of a pampered guest, but he knew there were thralls across the kingdom who suffered unimaginable indignities. What he and Brynhildr had was not the norm by any means. Sigurd didn’t know when he ceased to loathe his new kingdom, but something about the open fields brought him the serenity needed to face another day. Accepting his new name hadn’t been as easy as falling in love with the rolling meadows. Letting go of Camden felt like his biggest betrayal to his homeland and the parents who raised him, but he told himself it was only a name, and that Eisland still had his loyalty, no matter how much he enjoyed racing alongside the wild ponies of expansive valley. Cresting a hill, he brought his mount to a halt. He saw the river glinting in the distance, a faint sliver of blue against the horizon with a ferry drifting down its gentle current. It led westward for a few hundred miles then emptied into the sea. He should have missed sailing and the soothing sway of the waves beneath the hull, but something had changed. He no longer felt the sailor’s call and couldn’t remember the last time he yearned for the sight of the open Viridian Sea surrounding him on all sides. Would Joren ever forgive him for that? Closing his eyes, he prayed to Eisen that it was so. Often, he wondered what his close friend and former admiral thought of whatever story Cara had taken back with her a year ago, on that momentous day when he’d broken her out of the mage’s prison. A quiet voice in his mind questioned why he hadn’t escaped with Cara.

Had he left with his twin, he wouldn’t have to live this lie. Except it wasn’t all a deception. Deep down, part of him had grown to love the kingdom, its people, and the land. Twisting in his saddle, Sigurd looked toward the distant castle, the tall towers visible for miles in the valley. Things were terribly wrong in Ridaeron, he had seen as much with his own eyes, but he had also learned that not all was as it seemed. Not all Ridaerons shared their high king’s bloodlust. Like Her Majesty. In contrast to her king, no queen had ever been more beloved by the people of the nation. He knew this because he’d spent much of the year in her company exclusively, accompanying her to one village after the next, to the small farms of the east, and the fishing villages of the west. He’d seen with his own eyes how much the people preferred her over their cruel king. Thinking of Queen Brynhildr stirred up a confusing tangle of feelings. Now that he had been assigned as her personal bodyguard, one of the honored húskarlar assigned to protect her, matters had become even more complicated. Húskarlar were assigned only to royalty and members of the drottin, whether they were jarls or the lesser nobility. Given the opportunity, despite all that had happened, he’d come to respect and adore her, as well as acknowledge that the greatest threat to Brynhildr was one he could not protect her from—her husband. Day after day, Sigurd was forced to watch the king treat her like a pawn on a chessboard.

Confusingly, despite her strength, Brynhildr bowed to her husband’s will. She deserved better. In his deepest fantasies, he dreamed of sweeping her away to Eisland to live in peace, but he knew she would never leave. She loved her land and her people. Skittering pebbles and the creak of wood drew him from his thoughts just as a wagon rounded the bend and came into his peripheral view. He twisted in the saddle and raised his hand in greeting, recognizing the two men on the seat. “’Lo there, Sigurd!” the old man called from the wagon. “It’s a fine day we’re having, no?” “It is, Arden.” He smiled and brought his mount around, approaching the farmer and his son. Barrels filled to the brim with apples were loaded in the wagon. “Are you and Stenvar headed to market?” “I wish it were so. No, these are bound for the garrison, where my fine apples will likely end up in a mash rather than a pie.” “Their loss, my friend.” “But not yours,” Arden said slyly. “I dropped two barrels at the castle for our lovely queen and have promised more when her favorite variety ripens.

She asked that if I saw you on the road to send you back to her.” Sigurd chuckled. “Then I best get back to her. Travel safely, you two.” “We will.” Stenvar grinned and reached out to clasp Sigurd’s arm in a friendly manner. “Do you have anything you need carried that way? Or is there anything we can get for you?” The tempting offer gave him pause and brought his mind to the letter hidden beneath his tunic. In the year since his naming day, he had written Cara a dozen letters—and burned them all. The fear of discovery kept him from trying to smuggle a single note out of the country. “No, I need nothing. Thank you for the offer.” “Good day to you then.” Arden tipped his hat then clucked at his horses, guiding them onward. Sigurd waited until the wagon was a distant speck before pulling the note from his shirt. Taking a match from the pouch on his belt, he dragged the tip against the saddle then held the small flame against the parchment.

No one could know of his attempts to contact home. Not the queen, and most especially not the king. A FULL MOON hung overhead as Brynhildr placed her offering on the altar to Frigga. Soon as the small cake touched the plate, she regretted it. She scooped it up and cupped it in her palm, reconsidering yet another useless prayer to the goddess of marriage. All others thus far had gone unanswered. Why would this be any different? If she couldn’t save her floundering relationship by her own power, what hope did she have of a goddess concerning herself with the happiness of a mere mortal? Bryn laughed bitterly and considered pitching the cake over the side of the rail to the ground below. All of these wishes and prayers. What good are they? A boot sole touched the stone floor behind her then fell silent. Bryn didn’t lift her head, for she knew the identity of her visitors by their behavior, by their smells, by the simple presence of them. When Gunnar came seeking her, he never entered if he wasn’t furious. If the servants came, they merely waited, meek and apologetic. And if it was Sigurd, he joined her. He knew nothing of why she prayed, but he often knelt alongside her, saying nothing. The steps came nearer than typical for a servant, and the smell of ale and spices filled her nose.

Gunnar’s steward. Spineless bastard. “I hope this evening treats you well, my queen. King Gunnar humbly asks that you meet him in his private chambers to disc—” “No,” Bryn said, slicing through the man’s request before he finished. “No?” Knud appeared aghast, deep wrinkles forming in his heavy brow. “But, Your Majesty, our king has asked—” “I will not join him in our chambers. I wish to sleep alone tonight.” The steward sputtered, at a loss for words for once in his miserable life. Good. She remained kneeling in prayer, primed to ignore the man. Eventually he caught on and hurried away, rushing back to his master. Gunnar would be angry, she knew, but she was too damned tired to care anymore. Finishing her prayers, she rose, joints stiff from kneeling on the cold stone floor for so long. As she made her way through the halls to her chambers, she expected Gunnar to come storming out at any moment, but he never appeared. That was fine by her.

More than likely he’d call for one of his preferred concubines. Usually the thought didn’t bother her, but this time, something felt wrong about it all—a slap in the face of a marriage where once they had been enough for each other and they needed no additional bodies in the bedroom. No concubines, no trysts. It was yet one more way Sigurd had changed her perceptions of the world. As if her thoughts summoned him, Sigurd rounded the next corner. He skidded to a halt and dipped into a respectful bow. He had taken to his role as one of their own well, sometimes making her forget he came from foreign shores. Bryn didn’t know when things changed, but Sigurd was both a gift and a blessing, her gilded lantern when all other lights had dimmed. She’d known from the first time she saw him at the slave quarries alongside the other thralls from his kingdom that she’d never want another man as badly as she wanted him. For the first time in her decade-long marriage to Gunnar, she’d finally wanted to take a consort of her own. That hadn’t happened. Instead, a cruel twist of fate had made the man one of her closest friends and confidants. How? Looking at him, it was difficult to believe a year ago, when Captain Njal wrongfully sank the Giddy Madeleine, Sigurd had been the spoils of initiating war with Eisland. He’d been captain of that ship, their nation’s prince, the admiral, on board. And he’d loathed her as much as he loathed their kingdom.

Back then, Bryn believed every word her husband said. That the other ship shot the first cannon and initiated war with them. But Sigurd had told her another tale, that their people sailed in for combat and rained fire and hell down on Prince Joren’s vessel after seemingly seeking them out for the fight. It had taken her a year of careful prying and investigation to determine the foul little cretin wearing the crown had ordered his best warships to take every foreign vessel suspected of harboring mages, and everyone on the gulf knew the best mages came from Eisland and Samahara. Bryn had no respect for liars. And were the kingdom not counting on her, were they not in need of her steady head alongside their warmongering king, she would have long since divorced him and moved home to Koldgrun. Sigurd’s sunny smile dragged Bryn from her morose thoughts. “I received your message, my queen.” “I’m glad Arden found you. We’ll have snow tonight. I did not want you to be caught far from home when the blizzard came.” “But the sky is so clear. It’s…it’s the end of summer!” Grateful to have something else to think about besides her husband, she smiled as Sigurd fell into step beside her. “Sometimes an unusual summer snow storm sweeps in from the east. The frost never lasts beyond morning.

Only time will teach you how to watch the skies and read the wind. You’ll see.” She imagined by now the rest of the Epleberg family would be lighting heat lamps and lanterns in the orchards to save the fruit. “I look forward to such lessons.” She glanced at him, wondering at his words. There were times she sensed interest in him, though he never acted upon his lust. Two men couldn’t be more different, Sigurd and Gunnar, in more ways than one. The former Eislander made her laugh, he discussed her interests with genuine curiosity, and rarely, if ever, turned any conversation back to himself. She imagined, were he her husband, he would have mourned beside her each time she lost a child; offered more than fleeting comfort before finding his way into his consort’s bed. “My queen?” She blinked, drawn once more from her wandering thoughts, and gave him a quick smile. “Forgive me, I was lost in my own head for a moment.” “That’s all right. You seem troubled lately, Your Majesty. I was only asking if we should place a wager regarding the snow.” “You think my weather sense is wrong?” “I think it’d be an interesting exercise, is all.

And a chance for one of us to come out with a prize. Let’s say…loser has to give up their portion of Arden’s apples for the week.” “Then be prepared to lose, Sigurd, for there will be snow tonight and I will win our bet.” He smiled and ducked his head, his laughter both a welcome and familiar caress against her senses. She smiled, already more at ease, and when they reached her chambers, she lingered in the doorway. “Is there anything I can get for you this evening? Tea? Wine?” Company, she wished to say. Instead she dropped her chin a fraction and shook her head. “No. I think I’ll retire early tonight with a book.” “Then I’ll bid you goodnight.” “Goodnight, Sigurd.” He bowed again and turned to leave. Before he made it more than a few steps, she quickly called out after him, “However, I’d enjoy that tea in the morning. We can share a pot while I enjoy your share of the apple fritters I requested from the kitchen.” He looked back over his shoulder and grinned.

“As you wish, my queen.”


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Updated: 12 October 2021 — 16:52

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