The chapters begins where the last book ended: in Queen Gunnhild's bed chamber.
In the previous book, The Bitch Queen, Sigve the Awful defeated a fearsome adversary, but he had to pay a high price. In the new book, he has sworn allegiance to King Harald Greycloak of Norway, an old enemy. Queen Gunnhild, the king's mother, demands more and more of Sigve.
War is building in Denmark, and when King Greycloak is dragged into the conflict, Sigve seeks to take advantage of the situation and get out of his thralldom. He still wears his rune sword, and he gets help from Life, the king's subdued lover thrall.
|History and myth, love and action in John Snow's next book|
1I could kill for those hands, Sigve thought.
Sigve the Awful watched Life, the woman tending his wounds. She rinsed the cuts at his shoulders and turned to fetch a bowl of soothing ointment. The cut-washing hurt, but Life’s fingers lessened the pain; the salve would relieve the ache even more. It was not the first time Life had treated his sore skin.
They sat on a bench in a small nursing house. A fire was burning in a pit on the floor, and a tiny beam of light swept down from the smoke vent. On a timber along the bench, two oil-lamps were set up to help Life in her treatment. In times of war, the sickroom could be packed with wounded warriors. Today they were alone in the room.
Sigve studied Life. Her hair was bundled up and pinned with a polished bone stick; it was shining black, and usually the hair hung down her back. Life was a healer, not very tall or slim; she was small and oozing of woman. Her hands were warm, and turning to Sigve, she used the tip of her fingers to stroke his shoulders, preparing to rub salve into the wounds. When she turned towards him, Sigve caught her eyes; they were almond-shaped, dark, and sad.
"You’ve grown stronger," Life said. Steering clear of the cuts, her fingers rubbed his bulging muscles.
"Yes," he answered.
For more than a year, Sigve had been sworn into the hird of King Harald Greycloak. He had grown muscles rowing up and down the coast, collecting taxes and chasing vikings. When not rowing, he had been training with the rest of the king’s guard. They practiced sword and spear, shield-wall, and ship-boarding. Thor Blackhead, their captain-of-arms, was a relentless leader. The first moons Sigve had been so battered at night he had had trouble falling asleep.
The days of the hird had been hard, but Sigve had endured, moons had passed, and he got used to the life of a fulltime warrior; his hands callused and his muscles hardened, and during the winter he had beaten many comrades in arm-wrestling and glima, their favourite sports. Sigve had a natural talent for fighting; he excelled in swordplay, but he still learned new strokes and feints, especially in real battle.
Beside the bench in the sickroom, Life had placed a hewn table, and on the table lay knives, pouches of herbs, and a pile of clean rugs. Between bowls and cups, two magic sticks lay at the ready, and over the fire pit hung a big cauldron. Using a wooden ladle, Life filled an empty bowl with hot water and placed it on the table.
Thrice on board the king’s ships, Sigve had fought raiding vikings, and every time the reavers had been killed to the last man. The king’s orders were clear, and Sigve had learned to kill swiftly.
The Bjarmi-trade belonged to the Norwegian king, to Harald, and the king grew wilder the more he saw of the costly wares. The knorr’s crew, twenty men in all, were chased ashore on a small island, stripped naked to the skin, beaten, and whipped. Covered in blood, they were forced on their knees and raped by Harald's hird. Debased and disgraced and full of blood and sperm, the traders were tied and lined up, and the king’s men ripped off their members and balls; slowly the captives had all died in a fit of violence. Sigve had never seen such cruelty.
Only one man was spared.
"We’ll patch him up and send him to Dublin," the king had said.
During the slaughter, the screaming and the stench had made Sigve sick, but he believed he could be used to the ways of the hird. What he could never get used to was the treatment he received from King Harald’s mother, Queen Gunnhild.
"The queen has long nails," she said, rubbing salve into a cut.
Sigve nodded. The queen’s nails had dug deep into his muscles.
"What do you do to her?"
"You must do something…"
"I fuck her, that’s all."
Life had asked the same question many times, but Sigve was reluctant to talk about his meetings with the king’s mother, who everyone called queen. Once a month he was invited to Gunnhild’s hall half a day’s rowing south of the king’s farm. It had been part of the deal when Sigve swore fealty to King Harald Greycloak. When he had come to offer his loyalty, he had first stopped at Queen Gunnhild’s farm on his way to the king at Avaldsnes.
His friends had warned him against her, but the queen exerted great power over her son; some said the country was ruled by the king’s mother’s cunt. For Sigve, satisfying the queen had been vital for his intention to win the king’s trust.
She had preferred to make love in the dark with only a small candle burning on a beam, but Sigve had known what to do. When he had played with Yljali, his first lover, she had taught him to hold back – and how to wait, how to push, and how to force. He had learned where to use his tongue, and the queen had loved it.
When he left Utstein, Queen Gunnhild said she wanted more, and Sigve hadn’t refused when King Harald asked him to visit his mother from time to time.
In the nursing room, Life treated his shoulder-wounds. Her fingers gently opened a slit and applied ointment along the edges. The cuts were still fresh, as Sigve had just arrived from a meeting with Gunnhild.
In the beginning the queen had shown him her good side, and Sigve had enjoyed their meetings. In the dark, among the furs in her bed, he had taken her hard and long, and the queen had screamed and jerked. He had taken her again, and again next morning, and so they continued throughout the day. It was only on his third visit that she started to scratch his back.
A southern girl served him bjor and a cake with green stripes of hemp in it. Gunnhild’s hall was a woman’s room with carved posts and colourful tapestries depicting Freya, the goddess of love. The bjor was brewed with mind-bending herbs, and when Sigve drank, he got drunk and dizzy. The carvings on the posts turned into mating snakes – so near him he could touch their slithering skin. All around, wall hangings came very much alive. The tapestries showed pictures of Freya’s love life, her meetings with all kinds of males: with men, gods, dogs, and bulls – and with Frey, her brother.
In her chamber, he had entered the queen, and his mind had crept into his bursting manhood. He had felt the inside of Queen Gunnhild. For a long time, he was both his own hard member and Queen Gunnhild’s warm grasp. His mind twisted; he was Frey taking Freya. Hard. Then he suddenly changed, being Freya riding her brother, and – with a stretch of his skin – he was himself, fucking the extremely lascivious queen.
On his next visits, she got worse. On the second day – it was always on the second day – the queen had demanded he take her more directly, more brutally, and the harder he took her, the harder she held on to his body. With strong legs, she locked him in a tight embrace and dug her nails into his shoulders.
After several bloody visits, Sigve had spoken to the king and asked him to be released from this particular duty, but King Harald had recoiled and said that his mother should have her will in the matter.
Life was King Harald’s woman and pet. She had been captured on a trading voyage among walrus hunters in the far north, and the king had demanded that people called her Queen Life.
When Life had started to nurse him in the healing house, Sigve realized why Gunnhild had shown such interest in Life’s education.
On the bench in the sickroom, Life finished rubbing the cuts in Sigve’s shoulders. On the beam, one of the wicks flickered out, and Life fetched more lamp oil. She also got a new bowl of hot water from the fire pit.
"She didn’t bite you this time," Life said.
Pure luck, Sigve thought. We never got to that.
This time, on the second day of their lovemaking,while Sigve used his tongue, a man had knocked on the door.
"The Danes have arrived," he said.
"The Danes!" The queen pushed Sigve’s head away and sat up in the bed.
"Are they here?"
"No, they sailed to the king at Avaldsnes."
"Directly to my son!"
Queen Gunnhild was furious; she told the captain-of-arms to make ready a fast-rowed faering.
"Send three men to Avaldsnes," she said. "I want to know every word that is said in the king’s hall."
"And you" – she had pointed at Sigve – "will follow the faering."
Sigve had dressed, pulling on his tunic and trousers and donning his cloak. He hadn’t had time to wash, so his back was bloody, and his face was reeking of cunt when he sat down in the rowboat. The four men were lucky; their rowing was helped by a southern wind. A square-sail made their trip to Karmey both fast and easy. But on his thwart, Sigve’s wounds had started to ache.
"I will send Queen Life to patch you up, and you have better fresh up quickly," the king had said.
"The Danes have come, and I may soon have use for you."