Story Content Notes: Coerced consent, violence, patriarchal societies with deeply ingrained sexism (doubly so for the Norns), a woman with her own ideas, and some on-screen sex.
Reimund was roused from sleep by the sound of keys rattling outside his cell door. A few moments later, the door opened and the same warrior gestured for him to come. He obeyed but froze at the sight that greeted him. “John!”
John sagged in the warrior’s grip. Blood dripped down his face and tunic from a broken nose, both his eyes were blackened, his arms were bruised and bound behind him, he was favoring his right hip…
The warrior shook his head when Reimund reached for his knight, and reluctantly, Reimund fell back.
“I’m sorry, Reimund,” John mumbled around a swollen lip. “I…” The warrior shoved him into the cell, and he landed hard, crying out.
“It’ll be alright, John,” Reimund made himself say as the warrior closed the cell door. “It’ll be alright.
Then he turned and followed the battered old man, heart heavy and lost in darkness.
Once more the warrior escorted him up onto the tower walk. Lady Mildthryth waited there, the shoulder of her tunic torn and fresh blood on her sleeve. Damn it, John!
He sank to his knees, not caring in this moment how he shamed himself. “My lady, I beg you–”
“Stand up, Sir Reimund.” She cut him off. “You are not here to discuss your oh-so-loyal knight.”
He obeyed silently.
After a moment she sniffed and turned to look out over the mountains. “I would dislike hanging you and your men from my walls, Sir Reimund. It would be wasteful, and I prefer not to offend the Ancestors. But continuing to feed you and your men to no purpose would be more wasteful, especially when, for some reason, our food stores will be lower than expected this year.”
He took a grip on his temper. This was nothing he did not know. “Is it the Anglish way to talk endlessly about possibilities and never take action? If so, no wonder we conquered you so easily.”
She laughed, but it was a heavy sound, full of bitterness. He wondered what her true laughter sounded like. “No. My mother would say it is the Dragma way to talk endlessly about possibilities and then strike like lightning when the time is right.” She spun to face him, and there was something in her movements, in her face, that frightened him. He had seen men look so before they rode into a battle where they expected to die.
“I have a proposal for you, Sir Reimund. I doubt it will be to your liking, but you might find it has its merits.”
“I am, of course, at your service, Lady Mildthryth.” He said, choosing his words like his footing over those damnable rocks.
To his surprise, she laughed again. “Yes, precisely.” She took a deep breath, and Reimund braced himself for her charge. “You will take oath as my liegeman.”
She spoke softly, so only he could hear her. But the words landed like a blade through his guts. He snarled, unable, in that moment of shock, to control himself. “You dare…”
The guard stepped forward, but she held up her hand, stopping him.
“I suggest you control yourself, sirrah.”
Reimund forced himself to step back, to uncurl his firsts. “If you were a man, I’d challenge you for such an insult.”
She looked at him for a moment as if he had two heads, then shrugged, “If I understand you Norns, if I were a man, it wouldn’t be an insult.” She gestured out to the distant woods. “You have built your ship, invader. You may live with it or die in it.
“Your man was ready to die for you. Will you have the courage to live for him?”
She waited, but he said nothing. “For the time being, I would keep this oath private. None shall know of this except we two. Once you have given your oath, I will wed you, making you lord of Oak Haven. You will rule all here. I will rule you.”
Only the iron control he was holding prevent him from reacting to that second shock. It took him a moment to understand, but when he did was near as shocked by the woman’s cunning and ruthlessness.
In one stroke she satisfied the king, kept her freedom and power, and turned a burden—he and his men—into an asset. He himself got almost everything he had come here for.
But to get it, he would need to become what many would consider only half a man. Ruled, shamefully, by his wife, with no power over her or her actions. Some might say that death would be better.
She examined him as he did her, her face displaying a range of emotion, flickering between hope, fear, need, and what might have been… desire?
He didn’t think she intended insult. She had almost seemed surprised that he was insulted. No, she had found a solution to her problem, and if the solution was such that had another warrior even hinted at such a thing he would have called them out, what was it to her? She had her honor and her duty, and the honor of a prisoner who had sought to conquer her was not her concern.
But, oh, how he burned at the thought of it. To unman himself and bend knee to a woman — to his wife, no less!
He had already knelt to her though, to beg for John. Would this be any different?
Well, yes. There is a difference between a momentary shame and an endless one. But… “Sir John?”
“Consider him my betrothal gift, and deal with him as you will.” Her laugh had a breathless quality now, and he realized that he had been right before – she felt she was throwing herself off a cliff just as much as he did. “It was his loyalty to you that convinced me to trust you with this… chance. Would you rather reward him for that or punish him I wonder?”
Reimund shook his head, not sure himself how to answer that question. Thankfully she didn’t seem to expect one. “The rest of my men–?”
She waved a hand, dismissing his concern. “Will have whatever place here you find for them. I will not see my people displaced, but I believe there is room here for the men who are sworn to you.” Her tone darkened for a moment “Ancestors know we have enough dead whose shoes they can fill.”
He nodded and resisted the urge to lick his lips. Slowly this time, he lowered himself to his knees. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t force out the words of the ancient oath. Finally, he cobbled together something he hoped she would accept. “I will… take you as my liege, Lady Mildthryth. By my word, you shall have my loyalty and obedience for all my life.”
She placed a hand on his bent head and he shuddered at her touch. “It is done then.”
Mildthryth watched Wigmar lead Sir Reimund back into the keep – this time to the lord’s quarters. The risk she was taking terrified her.
Among the Anglish, her plans would be unusual but accepted. The Dragma, if her mother’s tales could be trusted, the idea of him giving his oath would be ludicrous – the difference in their ranks would mean her position would be assumed by all – including her husband!
But the Norns, with their refusal to admit a woman could rule…
She would not be able to treat him as an Anglish husband. Each day she would need to remind him of his subservience lest he forget that she ruled here.
He clearly inspired loyalty, she thought, carefully testing her bruising. Surely a man who knew how to inspire such loyalty knew how to give it? If he was capable of giving it, then her gamble would truly pay off.
But if he was one to swear an oath and then break it for convenience… at best, the holding would be turn apart as her people battled his, leaving them all ripe for plucking by the conqueror. The worst… was not worth considering.
I expect they’ll both have trouble sleeping tonight.