tagRomanceIdunn's Apples

Idunn's Apples

bynicecthulhu©

I would like to thank my wife for all her support and help, and Lady Ver for her thorough editing and insightful comments. Any remaining grammatical and spelling errors are solely my responsibility.

This story borrows from history, but takes place in a time and place that never existed.


*****

Prologue

She woke with the realization that a change was coming to her life. A glance out her bedroom window revealed knights and soldiers waiting impatiently in the courtyard below, the nobles' horses shifting nervously in anticipation of the coming battle. Morag glanced with dissatisfaction at the reflection of her pale face framed by her long, unbrushed blonde hair, before dashing out of her room. Servants ducked out of her way as she flew down corridors and stairways until at last she stopped at the double doors leading from the inner keep to the courtyard. She took a deep breath, smoothed her green gown, then pushed the doors open.

"Morag! Come to see me off after all, have ye?"

She knew that he'd be waiting for her arrival just so he could play the forgotten sire. "Father! I've caught you trying to sneak away from home!" She glanced at the assembled warriors and realized that some of the knights were considering dismounting due to her presence. She shook her head. "Stay atop your steeds, gallant knights! I know how difficult it is to move about in your armour."

Morag and her father embraced. "Beware Lord Argent over there, my dear," he whispered in her ear. "If I should not return, he will doubtless press his suit."

Her eyes darted around the courtyard, noting that many of the young and unmarried men had turned her way. Morag picked out Lord Argent immediately in his gold and crimson tunic, atop the largest horse in the assembly. He had twice before attempted to acquire her, as she thought of his clumsy manner of courting. He had spoken eloquently enough on the economic benefits of a union between himself and the daughter of Lord MacLint but had never sought to woo her in any traditional sense. In fact, Morag had found it contemptible how the man had never even addressed her by name or title on any occasion, preferring to speak of her less so than he did his horse or his other beasts. She and her father had kept a civil tongue on both occasions, although both had been sorely tempted to make an un-Christian response.

"He has been bending your ear?"

Lord MacLint sighed. "He speaks often of my age and what will become of my lands should I fall in battle." He caressed her cheek, then tousled her hair. "I would have preferred an amorous and lust-filled wooing, one that would have had you smiling in mischief, rather than his business-like approach. If something should happen, Morag-" her father's eyes softened "-know that your happiness is all that you should strive for. Do not act purely from duty and obligation. I would give anything for your lasting happiness-"

"I shall count the days until your return, Father." Morag knew her father well enough that once he spoke of such things he would lose his tongue, being unsure of what to speak of next.

Several men helped lift Lord MacLint onto his horse. He thanked them, then looked down at his daughter. "God willing."

As the small army left the courtyard, Morag noted the many stares back in her direction from men probably wondering who would protect her if her sole living relative should perish in the coming fight against the Vikings. Among the knights there were a few calculating glances her way. Argent's was the most calculating, though she knew from experience that the man respected her father a great deal. Morag thought as she met Argent's eyes that his greedy glance was the most passionless as well.

Chapter 1: Cast Aside

"And what of the girl?" asked the fawning advisor. At a harsh look from his king he bowed his head and placed his right hand on the lush robes over his heart, covering a fine gold medallion as he did so. "I mean no disrespect, sire, but Lord MacLint was a brave and loyal servant to you." He raised his eyes and caught the shrewd stare directed his way. "Surely some small protection can be provided for his only daughter, a lovely young woman by all accounts and the last in his line?"

A deep sigh hinted at the sovereign's frustration and exhaustion with political scheming. A page entered the room, opening the door long enough that the sounds of revelry in the grand hall filled the room the two men had retreated to.

"They are barbarians!" The king lifted the crown from his head and examined it carefully in the flickering candlelight. "My kingdom must survive, and if one woman must be left to her fate, then so be it! It matters not who her father was, nor how bravely he fought against the Vikings, that I must now make peace with. Perhaps if MacLint had fought better his daughter's virtue would now be safely protected by the man and his retainers."

"Yes, sire," offered the advisor. He, too, had fought against the Vikings in that final battle and he once again thanked God that he had survived the slaughter so that he might shelter his own wife, mistresses, and children. Lord MacLint had voiced little liking for the king's close circle in the past, often having referred to them as scared children hanging around their mother's skirts. It was a simple matter for the advisor to think of the dead warrior unkindly.

"Sire!" reminded the young page. "Your guests...request your presence that the arrangements may be concluded as soon as possible. They claim to be eager to see what fertile lands have been ceded them."

The king nodded and then left the chamber to share the entertainments with his once-enemies and now-allies, leaving the advisor alone to finger the gold-filled pouch that had been slipped to him by Lord Argent. He pondered whether Argent would demand the return of the gold coins or consider it payment for future efforts toward his acquisition of MacLint's lands and daughter. The Vikings were likely to find entertainment enough in her from what he had heard, but surely Argent was pragmatic enough to ignore the girl's knowledge of the forbidden fruit?

Chapter 2: An Unsought Reward

Olaf sat back against the wall and surveyed the scene before him. His son-strong, young, and fresh from his first battle-was wrestling two men and being cheered on by the bulk of those who had chosen to fight under Olaf's banner. Snorri had acquitted himself well, killing at least a dozen men and showing no fear. Even when an axe blade had sliced his shoulder open, he had kept fighting. The Viking father nodded in satisfaction; Snorri would be a leader of men just as he had been. Those who had followed Olaf would follow his son just as readily.

Olaf turned, noting his daughter's raven hair as she went from man to man speaking words of praise and encouragement. These were his best captains, and she was wise enough to keep her trim figure in their view. She would find a powerful and respected husband, just as her honey-haired mother had done. Olaf had no fears for her future.

Thvaldi staggered across his field of view, an arm around a willing young woman. He'd been drunk since the battle, or perhaps just before it began. Olaf chuckled.

Life was good. He'd answered the call for battle, summoning a large force of Vikings to his command. They'd fought well and the battle had been won. The southerners had fought just as well, but only the living enjoyed the spoils. Did these Christian men fight on in this Heaven they believed in?

A young woman, comely enough and about the same age as his daughter Ingrid, sat down upon his knee and handed Olaf a horn of mead. He gave her a smile and a squeeze, then took a long drink. Times were good, although if all-seeing Ingrid spotted this maiden with him she'd fall upon him harder than the worst winter storm. Thankfully, her back was to them and she was far across the celebration in this southern king's castle.

Instead, Gunderr the Lucky approached him.

"Begone, girl! Olaf and I have something to discuss," the leader of the Viking force commanded. He sat down heavily beside his old friend.

The maiden pouted at Olaf, seeking permission to stay and enjoy his company. "Off you go, little one," said Olaf, giving one of her breasts a gentle squeeze. "Come see me after we're done and you can help an old man out of his armour."

She giggled, took a drink from the horn, and then left them.

"Do you recall being that young, Olaf?"

"I would've already planted my seed in her, and I would have said Hela take you and your talk!" Olaf said, laughing.

"Why do you suppose she sought you out?" the Viking asked, nodding his head at the girl's swaying hips.

Olaf stared at Gunderr, a man who matched his fifty years, and shook his head. "Your beard is as grey as mine! She saw a man of power, a leader of victorious warriors, and she either wanted a brief celebration or to seduce me into taking her as a wife. I'm not ready for Hela's cold embrace, Gunderr, and I can still make a woman moan so that her voice shakes the whole hall!"

"Women were less free with themselves when we were young, Olaf."

"Did you just wish to reminisce, or did you actually have something to say to me? If it's the former, then I'll just go find out how eager she is..." He made to stand, but the other put his hand on his arm.

"We need land here, Olaf."

"Agreed. More land means more farms. More farms mean more warriors. King Thrum of the Burning Skull isn't any friend of ours just because he's been attacking many of our less than friendly neighbours. What has this to do with me?"

"This southern king has offered me land in exchange for a promise not to attack his kingdom again." Olaf raised an eyebrow in response. "It's a lot of land. He lost a fair number of landholders and lords in the battle."

"That he did." Olaf's eyes wandered over to his son who had just raised his thick arms in triumph. "We could take his castle while he's weakened. Take what plunder we desire. There is much gold and silver here, and the women are quite fetching."

"You're going to settle down, Olaf. No more a-Viking for you."

Olaf thought about arguing the matter, but settling down didn't sound so bad. This battle hadn't been as thrilling as they used to be. Perhaps he could take over a local keep, install some of his best men as landowners, and collect a few pretty faces to keep him occupied until he was finally slain in some petty border skirmish.

"I've picked out the place. Very fertile lands. Snorri and Ingrid will be going with you."

"Freya's tits! They're going back home with you, Gunderr. Snorri's taking my old lands there, and Ingrid's going looking for a husband. It will do them both good to be out from under me."

"No. My decision is made. Their future is here, Olaf. As is yours. There is wealth here and it will only assure the futures of Snorri and Ingrid." Gunderr rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "And I was thinking I might send one of my sons to visit you next year. Ingrid could do worse than a Viking prince."

His shoulders slumping, Olaf considered the situation. It was far from ideal, but if Thrum did make a move into Gunderr's territory-and it did seem likely-Olaf's homeland would fall quickly. It would be up to someone here to raise an army and return home to help Gunderr fight off the invaders. If Snorri were to be that man, then there would be nothing Gunderr would not give him...

"This place better be all that you say it is, Gunderr." Olaf glanced slyly at his king. "Or Snorri and I might have to go a-Viking along your coast."

Gunderr grinned and slapped Olaf on the back. "And I'll meet you on the beach! Or you bring that eager, ample-bosomed friend of yours that I shooed away a few moments ago and you'll be so distracted that you'll row south instead of north!"

Olaf's eyes caught that same young woman, and the younger and more energetic warrior whose lap she now sat on. Gunderr, too, saw that she'd found a new friend, and the two men laughed.

Chapter 3: An Unsought Arrangement

Morag bowed low to the priest. He'd ridden up smartly to the gate of her father's keep, his horse decorated with silver and a fine leather harness. The older man seemed somewhat nervous, and she prayed it was not because he bore her the terrible news she feared must be true.

"Daughter, you do me much good seeing your smiling face." The priest reached down, put his gloved fingers under her chin, and tilted her head up. "Makes me believe I'm a younger man. Surely God has blessed you with charm, grace, and beauty for a reason."

"Thank you for your kind words, Father. However, I must dispense with civility and ask if you have any news of my father, or any of the other men who left in my father's service." Morag turned her head slightly as if to regard the others in the great hall who awaited news of their loved ones who'd gone off to fight the Vikings. In truth, her goal had been to partly and politely draw away from the priest's fingers, and it had worked.

"Alas, it has not gone well. Many were lost in the battle with the Vikings!" he announced with raised voice. Morag's eyes narrowed as she considered how unsympathetically that news was delivered.

"I have come to remove your mistress from danger!" the priest then said with a louder voice while circling around Morag.

There were cries of sorrow and some spoke the names of men who had not returned. Morag scowled, then hid her disgust.

"What danger am I in? When will my father return?"

"I fear he shall not return, child." Morag's heart went cold as all that she had feared was confirmed. "He was struck down by the very man who has been given possession of this keep and your father's lands."

"Given?" she asked with rising anger.

"My child, we must away before the Vikings come. I left the king's castle as soon as I heard the tidings. I came directly here, knowing my Christian duty was to protect such a fair flower from the demons who hurry here. I will keep you under my cloak, and that will protect you. We will ride together and stay together until we arrive at a place of refuge."

She did not like the look in his eyes, nor the way his eyes took in the curves of her hips and breasts beneath her blue velvet dress. "And how long before we arrive at a refuge, Father?"

He looked away. "Well, we must travel from place to place for some time. I have duties to perform, people to warn, services to conduct. Since there will only be two of us, you may have to help me from time to time. Lady Morag, you must come with me!"

"And all the others here? Left to the mercy of the Vikings?"

"And what will they do to you, Lady Morag? I can see you stretched out upon this very floor, a mere plaything for their bestial lusts! Think of what I can offer you!"

"Get out."

The priest struck the end of his staff upon the stone floor. "You must come with me, Lady Morag! Do you deny my authority?"

"I will stay and protect my people from the Vikings." She glanced at those servants who stood quietly by watching the two argue.

The priest grabbed her arm and squeezed it painfully. "Lady, I do not think you understand what foul things they do to women!"

She shook her arm free and stepped away from him. "I understand what foul things some men do to women, Father. I may yet be a maiden, but I am no fool. And I would be a fool to trust my safety in your hands. Now, get out of my keep and off my lands before I chase you out!"

The priest glowered at her for a few seconds, then turned on his heel and left without another word. Morag shook as she watched him go.

"Lady Morag!" called a familiar voice.

Her maid, Winnifred, had just come running into the great hall. "You should have fled with the priest! He could protect you from the barbarians that are coming!"

"You heard?"

The young woman nodded, some of her brown hair tumbling free. Winnifred and Morag had been friends since childhood, and the lady of the keep was reminded again why she loved her friend so dearly.

"I cannot flee while my people are in danger, Winnifred. Surely you can see that. But you-"

"And I cannot flee while my lady is in danger. Surely you can see that."

They smiled at each other briefly. Then Morag sent the servants off to resume their duties. She'd thought of telling them all to flee, but flee to what? The Vikings might be cruel masters, but even they needed their meals cooked and clothes mended. Fleeing into the wilderness would mean a slow death by starvation for those that did so, especially as the fields had almost been picked clean for the king's army.

"Perhaps..." suggested Winnifred, "perhaps a brave knight will come to our rescue."

"Perhaps," agreed Morag, although she felt that sentiment was but a childish fantasy.

Chapter 4: Lord Olaf Arrives

The train of horses, wagons, and Viking warriors followed the muddy track across the field that surrounded the keep. Olaf, still occasionally pained from the battle a few short weeks before, shifted in his saddle and scrutinized the landscape.

The stony and somewhat moss-covered keep sat alone in the midst of a large, rolling grassy field. Trees had been cut well away from the high walls of the stone keep, and towers were tall enough to allow guardsmen to see a fair distance. There was no well or stream near the walls that he could see, and from what he had heard of this Lord MacLint Olaf was positive there would be a reliable water source somewhere within those daunting walls.

The land was fertile. Farmers, those who had survived the battle and those who had hidden in fright at home when the call to arms had come, toiled in the fields now as he and his men rode by. None waved. Every peasant's eye had been turned fearfully to the Vikings as they passed, and for good reason, knew Olaf.

He turned around to glance at his men, grunting as he did so. They yawned and complained about the long journey they had just undertaken. Doubtlessly, some wished they were on a dragon-headed long ship bound for their beloved fjords and farms, and not stuck in this southern land amongst these Thor-forsaken people. His most trusted officers nodded back at him but also stared around in boredom. Olaf wondered if any of them had recognized the great wealth of this land; its farms would bring a bountiful harvest for each landowner, perhaps not this year but certainly in the next.

Snorri swatted a fly away from his horse's ear. His father looked on him with pride. The lad was as tall as he was, but stronger. And he now had his first battle scars! No longer would others whisper that Snorri was fearsome in appearance only. It was also clear to Olaf's observant eyes that Snorri felt none of the hungers and lusts that men of his age usually mistook for purpose.

Turning his eye to Ingrid, Olaf was given a brief smile by the raven-haired beauty. He recognized it for the mask it was. His daughter was sour in mood and would wait for an opportune time to voice her displeasure to him. So much like her mother had been, Olaf thought wistfully, although Ingrid's appearance was so unlike that of his beloved Brunhilde. Two halves of Hela in appearance, but both were as passionate as the death goddess was not.

"Lord?" asked the man leading Olaf's horse.

The Viking chieftain shifted around in his seat and peered at the keep that his man was pointing to. He could make out something in front of the gates. Was it a pair of small trees, or bushes? Age had weakened his eyes, just as it had stolen some of his strength and energy, but in return it had given him a sharpness of mind that those around him appeared to lack. The gifts of Loki in exchange for the curse of Hodr. Olaf chuckled at the thought, raising the eyebrows of those around him.

"Two women, lord," whispered the keen-eyed man leading Olaf's steed.

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