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The Crimson Court; First Dusk

By Laura Garoutte All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Fantasy

Blurb

Kovac turned steely eyes onto Sigrid as she was mentioned, holding out his hand expectantly. The woman glanced towards Freyja before she walked off to retrieve the so mentioned tonic. Meanwhile, Freyja spoke again, stating, “How were the propositions today?” It was almost conversational, though he knew Freyja to loathe the courtly processions. “We have discussed your lack of respect to the station before, Freyja. You are our honored sister, but even you are required to follow the old tenets. I do not wish to remind you again.” Kovac watched her sternly as Sigrid approached, curtsying politely before setting the bottle in his hand. It was about as thick as his thumb and nearly as long as his hand. Examining the cork, he noted the thickness of the glass and glanced inquisitively towards the woman though Freyja spoke. “Yes, my apologies your grace, how rude of me. The glass is not so thick as it appears. Simply mix the contents into a small tin of cider before you begin, and drink it. I’m afraid it is quite bitter, but the cider should help.” “The propositions went fine.” He finally replied, turning the container in his hand slowly so that the contents glinted where the light hit....

Chapter 1

Desire is constant; whether in the longing of your lovers arms or the need for more than flesh. It is an element that cannot be ignored, only assuaged with the fulfillment of such lusts. Why then am I never satisfied…

“Enough, Rolf.” The man upon the throne commanded, his right hand waving the secretary to silence and shifting upon the warmed bronze and stone of the carved monument. The mounted torches on the walls had been lit hours ago, discouraging the darkness of night that threatened to creep its way through and give way to Loki’s tricksome shadows. Braziers, which stood intermittently between the thick stone columns of the throne room and hung from the ceiling high above where the iron beams used by the servants to light them were reflected from below, helped to warm the chill air.

With dusk having come, servants had begun to move among the attendants of the court that evening, providing spiced wine and warm bread to the King’s guests to help cast away the nip of the cold that drafted through the chamber. These men were dressed in simple tunics and trousers, sturdy leather shoes wrapped around their feet. Bits of yellow and blue dyed wool were woven into the long sleeves and some were lucky enough to have bits of actual silver-thread included.

The nobles, on the other hand, wore longer tunics of varying shades though none wore the deep blue of the man upon the throne or the Lady beside him. The women’s gowns were all long of sleeve, some donning fur upon the collars and cuffs to help combat the cold, but none were so glamorous as the matron near whom the king sat. It was out of respect for the station and acknowledgement of their own position that the woman, Hilde, was not outshone. Likewise, the men maintained cloth of courteous colors and patterns to not distract from their patron.

King Kovac had retained much of the classic Norse characteristics even with the encroachment of those from other realms to the south and east. His hair was flaxen with shadows of the earth among it. As was common to his position, his hair was uncut but for the smooth shave a scant couple inches above both ears, the remaining hair allowed to grow long and kept braided and bound at the back, often with a free tail at the top that was tucked beneath the silver crown he wore, the etchings of his House’s sigil visible to the Court upon it. The blue eyes of the patron were stern, regarding his people with a man both just and wise. The lines of his experience creased the edges and gave the deep blues of his irises a depth like the seas. A strong jaw was covered with a carefully maintained beard, a trio of braids adorning the two sides and the middle with a clutch of beads and dyed horse hide holding it closed underneath.

A dark blue tunic stitched with silver and patterned with the hunting wolf and fleeing stag of his House draped his frame, while a broad belt of leather entwined his waist, eld runes encircling the buckle. Black breeches and boots were snug upon the man’s limbs, reminding those who saw the King that even with his senior years approaching, he was a man of Battle still, as capable as Thor and as mighty as Odin yet to ride onto the battlefield and herald the valkyries still. He was a man who had fought and won the challenges brought to him and would continue to do so until his time was done and he could join his ancestors in Valhalla.

He looked so casual upon the stone throne, relaxed as the secretary fell to silence and waited for the patron’s response. But his realm knew Kovac was far from a man of leisure. He had lorded in battle beside his army and fought as terribly as if the world had already ended. He was firm and fierce but fair, a king that did his best to keep the peace among the people without bleeding the kingdom’s coffers dry. Knutsholstinden was not the largest realm, afterall, and one of the few holds that remained of the once mighty Vikings.

His kingdom was nestled against the mountainside of Store Knutholstinden in the Jotunheim ranges of Scandinavia. The shadow of the mountain loomed over the gorge in which he lorded over and provided optimal defense in times of war. A few sparse villages flecked the gorge below the castle, the surrounding town of the capital small when compared to more modern kingdoms in other countries. Less than ten thousand called the town around the castle home and the outlying villages were considerably smaller. The challenging terrain around them was defensible with outposts set high in the ranges that would light blazes in the night or day should an attack be made against them.

Unfortunately, their defensibility also restricted the the goods that came from his kingdom. Most of the trade they did came in the form of furs and precious stones and ores in the mountains, a mine in the south end of the gorge providing a strong supply of gold and iron that they could trade with the caravans that sometimes came through. The rocky soil was not suitable for growing much more than tubers unfortunately though some intrepid villagers in the north had cultivated a fruit-baring vine that made good ale.

But the best thing that came from the kingdom wasn’t in hide and meat or stones and gold, but the blood of the people, and more importantly the royal family themselves. The Kovacs had ruled Knutsholdinsten for four hundred years after claiming the land from a clan of barbarians. Their glories were hung in tapestries around the castle depicting victories and battles and heralds of the land in stitch. In each, runes of the Earth were shown, patterns of breaking earth, rising earth, stones and crystals and gems that were used against their enemies. The Kovacs were much more than just Vikings. They were witch-blooded.

Dalibor Kovac, the present king of Knutsholstinden, was as well, a warlock of the earth that could touch the stones and know from where his enemies had come and where they would go. He could call the earth out to swallow them and curse them with an un-growing plague. His soldiers wore the armor forged from the smiths of descendants whose steel was blessed with sharpness and strength and the people given courage and confidence when they entered into his realm. Blessed of the Gods the people would proclaim; perhaps they were.

“If they will not accept the stipend the crown has approved, then they will not work. It is that simple. Is it unfair to ask their labor be finished prior to compensation? We have not refused payment for finished work in the past, what reason have we to do so now?” Kovac shook his head slightly and stood from throne, adjusting the fur-lined cape that hung down the right side. “I have seen his forge, worked it and observed it in use; it is not in disorder and needs no repair. His grievances are lack evidence to support them. His request is denied.”

The secretary bowed his head as the king stepped down from the dais, the rest of the court soon following while he, and the raven-haired woman at his side, left the chamber in long, sure strides. A small retinue of guardsmen followed the king and his queen as they left the great hall to follow the winding corridors away. Once the doors were out of sight behind them, the retinue shrunk to one guard and the queen who stepped up beside him with all the grace and posterity of her station. Her hands were folded in regal relaxation in front of her, a soft hiss as the fabric of her gown brushed the polished stone of the outer hall.

“This is the third time he has requested a higher boon, your grace.” Her voice was soft like a lambs wool yet always managed to pierce the cloud of his thought when it was needed. The blue eyes of the crown turned upon her in quiet regard. Hilde was beautiful, a woman of shape and substance from the neighboring realm, a daughter of their high lord though not the king’s. Her betrothal to him had not been unexpected and while it was uncommon that the king simply settled for the woman who would bare him an heir, Kovac had a solid appreciation for his Hilde. Her hair was far darker than typical Viking fashion, looking more like ink that shimmered in the light from the torches set intermittently along the wall. Her eyes were amber points, intense and wild, filled with a passion he adored. Her shapely frame filled the gown she wore appreciably, though a modest bosom she had. But it was her mind that allured him most. She was as cunning as Loki, having fallen victim to a number of the subtle pranks she had pulled on him and his court over the years; yet, the humor in them had stayed his hand from aggressive response. She did it for the smile, her wit and intelligence as beautiful to him as she, even if she had no voice in the court. “You should set a heavy hand upon him or he will continue to plea.”

“And what would you suggest?” He countered, reaching an intersection and pausing to face her with hands held loose behind his back. “He will not be granted the additional gold he requests; it is unnecessary for the contract he possesses. The compensation for his labor to make these repairs is fair, but he is lax in its completion; should he wish for his payment, he will cease visits to the alehouses and gambling in the alley’s and do the work. Or I will declare the contract nullified and seek another.”

“His greed is his sin, your grace.” She replied, facing him as well with the guard stopping and turning to watch the corridor. “Use it to your advantage and he will cease. I would propose a curfew for a time. It would be to all of their benefits with a case of pox in the southern villages on the rise…”

Kovac pursed his lips slightly, a fraction of the displeasure he felt at this suggestion. “You are as bad as my sisters.”

“And yet, am I wrong?”

He shook his head at her and reached to hold her chin with thumb and fingers, his touch roughened by the years holding both country and axe but not unkind. “I suppose not.” Sighing, he moved his hand up along her jaw until her head was cradled against his palm, his eyes tracing her features in silent appreciation. “Fine. I will declare it in the morning. A curfew to keep that drunk fool working.” The smile she gave him made the king snort back at her. “Wretched woman, you must be Nidhogg…” Though he spoke with a smile in his eyes.

She returned his touch with her hand falling against it and lips turning in to kiss his rough palm. “Perhaps, but I am far prettier than He.” Kovac threw his head back and laughed at that, letting her take his hand down from her head and lace her fingers into his, warm and welcoming. The baritone of his humor echoed up and down the hall before a soft clearing of throat slowed him to a chuckle and drew his attention to the crisply dressed courier waiting nearby, his eyes politely averted from the king and his queen, a piece of folded parchment held at his side.

Kovac released Hilde and approached the messenger, accepting the letter once it was offered and breaking the seal with his thumb after noting who it was from. His eyes moved along the lines quickly, assessing before turning back to his wife. The messenger had already withdrawn. “Speaking of Sisters…” But Hilde just smiled and nodded, curtsying to him briefly before withdrawing. He had so been looking forward to enjoying his dinner alone tonight, too. Feasts and gatherings were reserved for celebrations with the people; his dinners in the castle were not all likened to that. Most were quiet, even peaceful. Enjoying a meal with his wife and the hounds without the interruption his Sisters so often desired. That their intrusions had begun to grow more frequent of late was disturbing in itself and he’d told himself that he would address it soon.

Watching her depart, Kovac waited until she was out of sight to turn down the other corridor, the guard following closely. She really was a beautiful woman, more Anglo than than he and his traditionally fairer yet square jawed features. Hers were softer, more roman though her hair was more alike to the Spaniards. He joked that she was like his Sisters, but she, unlike them, was no fox...A Raven perhaps. Clever, witty, and at times spiteful. He would have to check the bread tonight lest he swallow one of her infamous pins again.


A servant waited at the door for them when they arrived, the heavy winter cloak draped across his arms as Kovac approached. Like the cape, the cloak was lined in fur and oiled to keep the snow from collecting. The cloak was build off the thick pelt of a bear, heavy as he settled it around his shoulders and secured it with the metal clasps across his chest. The fur itself was mostly lynx and trimmed in fox that warmed the back of his neck as he shifted and let it settle before stepping out into the falling flakes, the bite of the winters air stealing the breath from his chest.

He puffed in response, curls of mist expelled through pursed lips before he strode ahead, descending the steps to opening in the side of the mountain. There were many such structures around the capital, coves that had been chiseled out to make room for various things, though most often were used as larders and pantries. The cool weather of his kingdom did not encourage much in the way of spoilage, but meat would still sour and fruits still rot if left untreated and not stored appropriately. The kitchen of the castle itself had one main cove, accessed via narrow corridor where the food was brought up from to prepare at meal times, with several divided caves inside that stored wine and ale, produce, meats, milk and cheese, and of course butter. The masoner maintained them, repairing fractured stone within the holds where able or declaring them unfit for further use.

The cove into which he and the guardsman entered was different, however. A winding path led down and back around to spiral below the castle into a natural cave where he both allowed and required his coven-mates, otherwise known as the Sisters, to work. Magic was dangerous and could at times be unpredictable. Given his kinsmen’s proclivity for at times questionable experiments, he preferred they perform their arts away from the populace. Granting them the use of this cave allowed him to keep an eye on them as much as prevent them from accidentally blowing up the city. Here in the cave, they’d only blow themselves up.

Reaching the bottom, the tunnel widened and Kovac emerged to find the five women leaning over a table, chattering eagerly among one another. From an outsiders perspective, the women were no different from any other, the Europeans distrust and lack of understanding of magic often pegging such artisans as hags and devils, warped by the sacrifices they have made. The truth was far simpler, of course, their visage quite normal, though the eldest and only one of the five directly related to him had suffered a terrible accident during one of her spells that had shriveled her left hand and left black burns up along the limb. The rest varied from blonde and brown eyes to red hair and grey while the eldest, Freyja matched him in appearance.

Prior to his ascendance to the Crown, Kovac had worked with the others of their coven, training his talents of the Earth for when he took his place upon the throne. Freyja, on the other hand, had taken to psychokinesis and a profound comprehension of the spirits and had often been caught, when they were children, communing with them instead of studying. Their father had tried to marry her off, but the would-be husbands always wound up dead. Whether by bandits, weather, or the earth’s rage, she never was bound to a man and so was eventually allowed to remain in study of her magics under the supervision of her brother and conve-mates.

Once Dalibor had obtained the crown, however, supervision of his sister was relaxed and aside from the stipulations of keeping their questionable experiments contained within the cave, he allowed them what freedoms they wanted. “I assume there is something of importance to be shared that this could not wait until the morning.”

The king stood with hands held in front of him and the knight waiting just behind and to the right. He watched them with a wolf’s intensity, patient but fierce, prepared to chastise if it was needed. Freyja straightened and turned to him, clapping her hands together as she did so and drawing his eyes to the table again just as the illusion spell fell over it, concealing what they had been discussing from him. Odd, he thought, lifting his gaze back to the five women as the others stood and Freyja began to approach.

“Ahh, brother.” The woman said, her withered hand disappearing into the sleeves of her dress when her hands were lowered once more. “We are so glad you could come tonight! Please, come, come-” She gestured with her right hand for him to come forward though Kovac did not budge from his place, showing his displeasure with stern apathy. He often called them Foxes for they were clever, too clever. And dangerous. One of the women, Anna, he had caught purchasing kids from one of the goat farmers on the western slopes. It would not have been so unusual, perhaps, had the skulls and hooves of the young goats not been found in the refuse pit one day while the sculleries were cleaning. That the meal the night before had been swine and not goat had surprised the boy that reported his findings and inevitably led the king to the coven to inquire about the goats. “-Sigrid finished the tonic you requested. We thought perhaps you might wish to see its making? You do not attend our circles so often these days and it is important to keep your skills strong.”

Kovac turned steely eyes onto Sigrid as she was mentioned, holding out his hand expectantly. The woman glanced towards Freyja before she walked off to retrieve the so mentioned tonic. Meanwhile, Freyja spoke again, stating, “How were the propositions today?” It was almost conversational, though he knew Freyja to loathe the courtly processions.

“We have discussed your lack of respect to the station before, Freyja. You are our honored sister, but even you are required to follow the old tenets. I do not wish to remind you again.” Kovac watched her sternly as Sigrid approached, curtsying politely before setting the bottle in his hand. It was about as thick as his thumb and nearly as long as his hand. Examining the cork, he noted the thickness of the glass and glanced inquisitively towards the woman though Freyja spoke.

“Yes, my apologies your grace, how rude of me. The glass is not so thick as it appears. Simply mix the contents into a small tin of cider before you begin, and drink it. I’m afraid it is quite bitter, but the cider should help.”

“The propositions went fine.” He finally replied, turning the container in his hand slowly so that the contents glinted where the light hit. “What successes have you of this?” Again, directed at Sigrid though his sister answered once again.

“We tested on four pairs of older rabbits, each who had shown reduced productivity in the breeding hatches in town. Three of the four pair showed dramatically increased reproduction with five successful litters between them over the two months we tested.”

“What happened to the sixth and why did the fourth pair not breed?” He asked, already distrusting what he had asked them to make.

“Well...The sixth litter were stillborn, though there were significantly more than the first two she bore.” Freyja paused. “...The fourth buck’s heart burst during the first coupling.”

Except for the metallic chink of the guard shifting behind him, there was no sound for a moment as Dalibor stared at the vial and the Sisters. The odds he was given were not what he wanted. “So...she may get with child and bare it uneventful, she may get with child and bare death instead, or I will die in the process. I believe you should improve this before making such a disastrous suggestion to me again.” He started to thrust the vial back at them, prepared to leave when Freyja stepped closer, shaker her head adamantly.

“Oh no your grace, that isn’t our intent at all! We tested many combinations and this was the best of the batch. It is the safest with the highest chance of success. Please, try it before you shun this. Think of Hilde.” Kovac pursed his lips again as they brought the queen back into this. The man did not want to think that his wife might be barren and that was the reason that, after eighteen years, they still had not been able to produce an heir, much less any child. He did not want to turn to a courtesan either and risk a bastard that he would have to later acknowledge should Hilde never bare fruit. But he knew that Hilde feared it was her as well; so finding a potion that could possibly help them both in virility as well as fertility was better than nothing.

“I do think of her, but you ask of me to flip the coin, toss the axe. Head or handle, what gets cut?” His words were bitter as he tried again to give the potion back. The Sisters often neglected to consider the safety of the recipients of their spells, something Dalibor tried to grant with his own talents; wielding the Earth as both bane and boon required responsibility and tact, of which the coven lacked. “I will not a martyr of her make for this.”

The man forced it into his sisters hands finally and turned away, leaving them and the cave in full, long quick strides ascending the slanting loop of stone out and back into the winters air. It was beginning to look as though the gods had determined him to be the last king. His brother would have assumed the thrown after him if Dalibor could not produce an heir, but he had died in their childhood, which left only Freyja, and she was not something the kingdom deserved. The girl was greedy and prone to sinful acts. More than once he had heard from the barracks of the so-called company she kept with the cotters and porter. She was unwed and yet her promiscuity was already renowned. Another Cleopatra in the making, he thought as he reached the top and felt the cold bite of the winter once more burn his lungs.

Dalibor stopped there, the cloak pulled around him to keep the fat white flakes off the silk and fleece clothing beneath. He was not a man of many vanities, but he tried to take pride in his appearance and not neglect the stock of his wardrobe. Ruining the material from exposure was negligent and would cost the state in taxes to repay. The balance of his realms happiness, population, religious power, military presence, and funding was precarious though the wealth of the realm never seemed too in danger with the mines to support them.

Turning down the pathway, the king approached one of the arched allures near the wall, the chiselled columns that curved overhead speaking of roman influence. The battlements were thick, cut from the quarries near the western villages and consisted mostly of granite. They were thick and strong, like much of the rest of the castle, reflecting the Viking pride and strength. Scars from old battles painted the walls white in places as the dark blue-gray stone had been assaulted, memories of battles from earlier generations of his heritages kingdom. Unlike most castles in the south, the primary keep of Knutsholstinden were carved into the mountain side, allowing for greater protection than a common castle could provide. While they did not want to anger the dwarves with their presence in part of their realm, utilizing the mountain had simply been logical.

There were three towers for the keep that rose above the battlements, bastions lined with brass balustrade topped the towers that looked down upon the gorge like a nocked arrow. Slits along the body of each tower provided points of attack for the men in them, their position on the mountain allowing them the uphill boost that attackers would lack. A series of thick buttresses connected the towers to the tiered land below, steps along the buttresses providing access to the towers for the guardsmen approaching on the street. In the night, the shadows of the towers looked like spears thrust to the sky, the whisper of the wind slithering through the stone work to sing their songs to the Gods. It was a sound that Dalibor enjoyed as he stared out into the night and watched the slant-roofed houses below spread light from the windows into the streets.

Hearing a shuffle of leather and steel again, the King glanced over his shoulder at the guard and said, “Tryvge mentioned that Astrid had her child.” Turning away from the balustrade, he began to walk again, this time taking the path towards another point of entry in the castle nearby. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, your grace.” The man replied. “They are doing well.”

“Always good to hear. You two have been married a few years now, yes?”

“Yes, your grace, five at Samhain.”

The king nodded thoughtfully. “But you suffered some loss before.”

Silence followed his statement before the guard murmured the affirmative.

“The council believes that I should wed anew.” Dalibor said. “That the queen’s failure to conceive is a detriment to the kingdom. An heir must be had and I...well, I am certainly not getting any younger.” He chuckled, though the humor was dry as they approached the next point of entry, a pair of guards standing at stiff attention there as well. “And neither is Hilde.”

A heavy silence fell upon him as they entered and they followed the halls towards the smaller dining chamber that he knew she would be waiting in, probably already eating. He had not been disloyal to the queen since their union, though there were times he was confronted with somewhat more salacious maids hoping to gain favor in a less than honorable way with him. She was masterful with the birds in the falconry and though she underplayed her ability among others, he knew her to be the better rider. There had been more than a few days in their youths following their union that they had escaped the watchful eye of the guards to enjoy one another in private. With her, he simply felt whole, and yet no matter the passions of those years, nothing had ever come but a period of illness for her.

“Perhaps the tonic will not be of risk.” He mused aloud, nodding his head at a passing pair of guests currently staying at the castle. “Perhaps it will work and my heart will not burst to the strain they’ve proposed. How ironic would that be to die in the throes of passion and not on the field of battle?” He spared another laugh before they reached the refectory and the scrumptious scents of dinner reached their noses. The sweet and salty sere of pork wafted through the doors and was accompanied by the fresh bread that still steamed slightly when the doors were opened and they moved in. A bowl of pickled fruits and vegetables sat upon the table along with skewers of dark potatoes and white carrots served with cubes of loin from the stock pot sitting on the center of the table.

The guard left him at that point, taking a position near the wall to watch over the pair of royals present and the few guests they kept when posterity could be relaxed. Dalibor undid the heavy cloak from his shoulders and handed it off to one of the servants that approached before making his way around the table to join Hilde on their side, her shoulder and neck brushed with his calloused hand. Having stood at his arrival, the two other guests waited patiently until the King took his seat upon the bench beside his wife.

Crossing his ankles under the table, he laid his left hand upon her leg once he’d sat and squeezed it companionably before he nodded to the waiting staff that the meal could be served. The refectory was reserved for dining in private, familial settings. A few guests might be included at his table, but usually it was just he and her and perhaps one of the hounds from the kennels. Tonight, he had invited the Lord Captain to join them, the military commander having brought his wife as well.

Captain Villum had originally lorded over a rivals campaign to take Knutsholstinden from the Kovacs, though when the other patron had found the realm to be too well defended and prepared upon arrival, he had abandoned the army to return to his seaside district, leaving their fates to Kovac and his men. They were then given the option to go home and return only if they sought the glory of Valhalla, or they would be welcomed as new citizens and dispersed to serve the Kovac’s kingdom loyally. Of the nine thousand brought into his realm, four thousand remained, Dalibor splitting their ranks to prevent any possible uprising following their induction. Villum wound up joining the barracks and ascended the ranks to captain the king’s arms swiftly, earning Dalibor’s trust both in battle and at home. Villum was among the few that the king would allow to sit in private with him without the watchful eye of a guardsman at his back. Such trust did not extend to everyone, afterall, and respectfully Villum had not abused this allowance from the king.

The meal was spent listening, for the most part, Dalibor’s mind on matters other than the river path that was being constructed in the north along the glacial steppe and its positive progress despite the harassment of the unaligned roaming bands amid the ice. There was talk of progress from the men in the science council regarding their exploration for a cure to what they were calling slip-tongue (though the king hardly believed it could be called an ailment or illness; men would say what they wanted). The belief that it was a sickness of the mind made it, as they proclaimed ‘difficult to treat’ and simply cutting the tongue out was a solution reserved for the truly ill. They all shared a laugh at that. Dalibor would need to speak to the Church about the far-fetched beliefs they were spreading and sending wives and husbands into fits over their so called “sick” partners.

As the dinner wound down and Villum and his wife finally bid them good night, the King reclined in his seat and rest his chin atop his knuckles, his other hand claimed by his wifes who lightly stroked her fingers along the backs of his in a slow and soothing caress. “Your thoughts are heavy, your grace.” She said after the servants had finished clearing the table and only they and the boy currently sweeping the floor were left. “Will you share the load?”

Studying her with his fairer eyes, he lowered his hand from beneath his chin and turned the one she soothed over to capture her hand in his. His thumb rubbed across the outside of her daintier grip and then folded together their fingers. “Have we angered Frigg?” He asked the familiar question, watching the way her eyes changed in response; those southern hazels of hers were unusual and mystifying; they often warped through many shades and were her most obvious tell to what she was feeling for him. When she was thinking of him, they were often dark and ringed in amber; when she was joyful, they softened to a warm brown. And when she was concerned, they were almost as blue as his, just as they were now.

“How do you mean, husband?”

“You have been mine for eighteen years. And still, we have been unblessed of child. Is Balder not welcome in our Hall? Have we offended his daughter?” The old gods were important to the Viking descendant. They held great significance in his court and though the Christian faith had begun to seep its way into prominence among his people, the old tales were still strong. “I should think our devotion good, our justification pure.”

Hilde stood beside him and stepped between him and the table to face him, sliding into his lap as she pulled the layers of her dress up around her knees. She released his hand and enclosed his face in her soft touch before laying a kiss upon his lips that warmed him in ways the meal or the burning hearths could not. “Who knows what the gods think, my lord. We are simply subjects to their games. Why should you worry of these things?” She laid another kiss upon him, her hands settling around the column of his neck while his own found her hips, holding her close as she tried to soothe him of his thought-bound burdens.

“Because I am king. I must worry of these things. I need an heir, Hilde, and you deserve a child. You would make a marvelous mother.” Her nose touched his as he spoke and her to see her smile warmed him even more, his hands sliding up the velvet of her dress in a soft caress. “You would teach them all those wretched things a woman must that all young lads loathe so that I can learn them in the ways of war and kingship and encourage the rebellion good mothers loathe.” It was his turn to kiss her, pulling her closer still until he had her in an ideal position.

“Suppose it is not I to give you your heir, your grace.” Her voice whispered a little breathily, his head withdrawing from the allure of her body. The heat in her voice that had arisen from his attentions was more than attractive and the feel of her hands sliding down his chest from where they’d crept beneath the tunic and shirt was exciting. His body responded eagerly. “Suppose that we find another of more suitable age and heritage to surrogate for us instead.” Dalibor blinked at her then, and frowned, his hands falling back to her hips as her own settled just behind his neck, her fingertips fiddling with the hair there.

“The church would never approve such a thing.” He told her firmly. It was one thing to acknowledge a bastard after it had been discovered, though most brothels discouraged the keeping of children. It was forgivable for a man to bed a whore, the litigations for such proposing it almost healthy as it would help maintain a woman of purity from the wan desires of unfettered men. Dalibor did not refuse the presence of brothels in his kingdom for that reason. If it protected a girl from rape and ravage, then it was a matter to be supported. But her proposition was ludicrous.

“The church needn’t know, sire.” She countered. “The surrogate can remain in the castle with us throughout and I will dress to the part. A tailor can easily adjust my clothing to fit such a need, none would be the wiser.”

“But we would.”

Dalibor leaned forward, his hands sliding down to her bottom to keep her against him for a moment before standing and sitting her on the edge of the table. They were alone now, the boy having slipped away at some point while they talked. Pushing her skirts up slowly, he revealed her legs more, her hands working down from his chest as well and underneath the dark tunic to release the sash around his waist. “I am not keen to the idea of sharing myself with another woman, Hilde.” He told her during this, stepping closer until their bodies touched.

Withdrawing her hands from him, she set them on the table behind her and slowly wrapped her legs around him, the invitation hardly needed for his eager form. Hilde reached for him with her left hand then, closing her fingers onto his shoulder just as he settled himself within. “I will always be yours, Dalibor.” She breathed. “But if I cannot give you what is needed...it is only fair another should. Are you still mine as well?”

“Always, dearheart.” He replied, surrendering to the fire being stoked. “Always.”

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