Actions

Work Header

The leaves of Yggdrasill

Chapter Text

Kara was homesick.

She missed the roar of the waves frothing against the rocky shores of her ancestral home. The wind sweeping the small village as it huddled under a thick blanket of snow during the winter months. The ever present taste of salt, bitter on her tongue. Stinging her nose. Brine and frost and fresh snow making her teeth ache if she inhaled too deeply. 

It was a hard life, the one she’d left behind at her mother’s behest, fraught with peril and bloodshed, but she was starting to think she had traded it away for a worse one. 

This new land was softer. Kara hadn’t seen so much green in the same place in her entire life, and when they’d first come upriver some six months prior she could only stare open-mouthed like some sort of simpleton. 

She ought to be happy, and sometimes she was — when listening to Nia weave her stories around the fire for example, or as she stumbled on crumbling roman ruins to explore — but mostly she felt… disappointment.

The scents were all wrong. Strange to her nose, and unfamiliar. And the people! 

They’d left Norway behind because one woman was seeking to unite all clans under her banner, whether they wanted it or not, only to find out that things in England were the same. There were four kingdoms, as far as Kara understood, all squabbling for supremacy with one another. And inside a few, as was the case here in Mercia, people couldn’t even decide who among them should be Jarl of a settlement, let alone an entire realm.  

Her clan wasn’t the first to cross the sea; she had heard of more Danes further south, near Lunden, but instead of uniting against the common enemy, it seemed that their arrival had divided the Saxons even more. Some openly opposed them, it was true, but a few had sought out alliances. Her aunt Astra, who acted as their Jarlskona in Alura’s absence, had her hands full with emissaries from Saxon nobles so keen to see their opponents dead they were willing to pay the Danes in silver to do the dirty work for them. 

A consummate diplomat, Astra had managed to keep them all at bay, avoiding to tie their clan’s fortune to this or that Saxon noble house, but the delicate balance wouldn’t last forever. 

That was why she, Alex and their small band of warriors tirelessly worked to plunder what riches they could. The sooner work around their growing settlement was finished, the sooner they could send word to Norway. To where her mother waited news there was a safe place for the rest of their clan. Away from Rhea’s rule. 

“Still dreaming about home?” Alex whispered in her ear, the teasing smile on her lips visible despite the dwindling light. 

“Always.” 

An open field lay just ahead of them, and they fell quiet as they crossed it, crouched low among the swaying grasses. Most of the region was bogs and rolling hills, and the sound had a way of carrying for miles if one wasn’t mindful of the wind. 

Another thing Kara hated about England, or at least the bit of it she’d seen. The lack of mountains. All these open spaces, no obstacles between her and the horizon, made her feel overexposed. She couldn’t help but tense, always expecting an unseen enemy to plant an arrow right between her shoulder blades. 

Summer was at its end and nearly spent, the grass they trundled through already browning at the tips. Sprays of color broke the brown-green monotone, but the dandelions and the daisies, the kingcups and the harebells were at the end of their life; baked husks under the waning summer sun. 

This particular stretch of land was left for the wilderness to do with it as it pleased, but to her right — far enough they looked like a child’s wooden toys in the distance — Kara could see a cluster of farms. The land there was mostly bare, the harvest done and safely tucked away in Saxon cellars. 

On any other day Astra might have sent them to barter for what food they still couldn’t make on their own — Saxons had a fondness for mead just like the Danes — but tonight they were after something more important, at least according to her aunt. 

“So where’s this place Astra told us about?” Kara picked up as they left the fields for the cover of a copse of trees. The farms were far behind them now, and it felt safe enough to talk. “This priory .” She stumbled over the foreign word, her tongue knotting around it. Alex had tried to explain the concept to her, but Kara still barely understood. Like most of the things associated with the odd god the Saxons worshipped, this too seemed silly. 

Did gathering holy women in one place help them to be heard better when they prayed? Wouldn’t it be more useful for them to live among the people, healing and offering advice the way a Vølve did for a clan? 

Kara was sure that even if she lived in England another hundred years she’d never understand them. 

“On an islet in the middle of the river. We’re nearly there.”

Kara nodded. She could smell it. Mud and stagnant water. Reeds and the musky stink of rotting wood. The earthy combination wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but so different from what she’d grown up around it jarred her senses still. Made her heart ache for home even more.

“You mean we could have used a longboat to get here?” Winn chimed in, and when Kara turned to look at him he was rolling his eyes at Alex’s back. “Instead of, you know, walking cross-country for two days?” 

“Of course.” Alex spared him a long-suffering glance. “And have half the countryside alerted to our presence and roused in the priory’s defence.” 

Winn made an unconvinced sound, and they fell into soft-spoken bickering. Nothing new to see there, so Kara left them to butt heads over strategy and strode ahead, scouting the terrain. 

The thicket — nothing more than a tangle of bristling pine — gave way to another open field. The ground here sloped upward, a gentle incline at first, and then steeper near the top. A few paces from cresting the small hill, Kara dropped to her belly, crawling through bushes and wind-beaten ferns, fingers sinking into the crumbly soil as she pulled herself upward. She could hear the others do the same behind her, the argument shelved for the time being. 

She crested the hill carefully, pressed to the ground as much as she could. The sun was setting at her back, bronze-orange light spilling over her shoulders, and had she been standing her silhouette would have been visible against the glare. 

Their first few months in Mercia had taught them that any land that they did not control must be considered hostile. 

“There.” Alex, who had crept up to her side, pointed a finger. “You see?” 

Kara did.

“We’ll have to swim across.” She observed, trying to guess how wide the river was, how much time it’d take to gather the small warband on the islet at the foot of the priory. “We should wait till nightfall.” 

Her sharp eyes focused on a cove that would be perfect for regrouping once they’d waded across, and she tilted her head toward it, showing it to Alex. 

“Perfect.” Her half-sister clapped her on the back. “Good eye, Kara.” 

“I expected it’d be bigger.” Winn commented, his gaze fixed on the buildings at the center of the islet. “Doesn’t look like a place that will hold a lot of treasure if you ask me.” 

“It is sensible, if you think about it.” Querl Dox too was studying the convent, peering through the smooth piece of crystal he called a magnifying lens. “A humble place, swiftly overlooked, makes for a perfect hiding spot.” 

A mysterious man, Querl had joined their clan right as they were casting off for this new land, and set up shop in the middle of their village. Trading with whoever wanted his goods, and crafting things Kara had never even dreamed could exist. 

Nobody knew where he came from; some said he belonged to the Cimbri, others named him a Frank. He spoke those dialects fluidly, and many others too, but Kara suspected he came from a different place altogether. To her it didn’t matter — he was a friend and a brother in arms, just like the others. 

Neither him nor Winn were wrong. Kara had raided her fair share of saxon holy shrines, and most had been bigger. Imposing, with statues of their saints, and friezes adorning the cloisters. The only thing this priory had in common with the rest was how cold it looked. Like all their other places of worship. Stone and men of faith carved from the granite frowning from their plinths down at the penitent. 

“Don’t you think it’s a bit too guarded though?” Querl offered the crystal to her, so she could take a look as well. “There, you see? Near the gates.” 

Bringing the crystal up to one eye, Kara squeezed the other shut to help herself focus. Despite the stone’s bluish tinge the images were clear. Immediately, the group of buildings leapt closer, and she saw what her friend meant. There were guards near the gates and more scattered among the stone structures. About a score of them, and she groaned, passing the magnifying lens to Alex. 

“That’s not good.”

“Well, that’s an understatement.” Her sister fired back absently, shifting in the tall grass. “Do you recognize their colors?” 

“I can’t tell in this light.” Behind them the sun finally set, one last blaze of red scorching the horizon before the radiance completely disappeared. Far to the east, the sky had already turned the deep indigo of nightfall, and a few stars winked into existence, drops of silver against the velvet blue. Kara squinted, anyway. “Dark green, maybe? Could be anyone.” 

“So what do we do?” Winn had uncased his bow, and was fishing for a new string under his cloak, eyes already darting to possible targets. He would need to get a little closer, but he was the best bowman they had, even in the dark, and his arrows would provide invaluable cover while they closed in on the buildings. 

Pursing her lips, Kara considered.

The odds weren’t bad, but if they’d known they’d be facing such a sizable armed force, Kara would have asked her aunt to send more men. As it was, she had no doubt they would succeed, but it might turn bloody. 

“Wait till full dark, get a sense of the patrol patterns then approach. Keep things quiet as long as we can.” Her words were met by nodding heads. 

Their strategy decided, they left Winn to keep an eye on things up top and retreated further down, nearer the trees. 

Under the snarl of conifers, night had already fallen, and shadows wrapped tightly around the warband, hiding it from prying eyes. 

All those who had come along on this expedition were seasoned veterans, used to the lull before a battle. War was made up mostly of waiting, and Kara’s companions blended with the trees to do just that — only untested youngsters thought that a warrior could spend countless hours with axe and shield in hand. A few, like Sam, slept a little, while others ate a quick bite from their rations. 

Kara ate nothing, but when Alex handed her a waterskin she drank from it liberally, before finding a spot for herself under a crooked pine, and closing her eyes for a while. 

She didn’t sleep, but let her mind coast along the borders separating dreams from wakefulness until she was one with the drengr around her, with the tree her back was pressed against. Until she was aware of every sound, down to the scuttle of the mice in the underbrush, and could name all the scents filling her nose. 

The man-made smells; metal and oils, leather and the excited, near burnt musk of reavers who may be ending lives before the night was done. The rest; the river, the resin from the trees, the specific scent the ground had at night when it released the trapped heat of the sun. Even a whiff of frankincense, brought in by the wind. From the monastery.

And then, without her really being able to tell how much time had passed, Alex was touching her arm, face serious. 

“It’s time.”

With a sigh Kara stretched and stood, hand instincively falling to the axe handle at her side. She took an extra moment while the others too got ready, sending her mind up, high among the tattered clouds. Higher still. To pray Odin look upon them and send them all home safe.

Should one or more of them be called to Valhalla tonight, she hoped what Astra had sent them to recover would be worth it.

***

From her cell’s narrow window halfway up the belfry, Lena had a commanding view of the countryside around the Isle of Ely. 

The river flowed placidly by, and beyond it fields stretched as far as the eye could see. On fairer days, if the light was favorable, she could even glimpse a flash of white in the place where the ground and the sky met; the snow-capped mountains of Northumbria.

Too bad she wasn’t free to roam any of it.

Her cell, unlike those of the cloistered sisters, was a cell in practice as well as name. Four bare walls, a narrow bed, a chamber pot for her bodily functions and a crucifix hung above the cot for the needs of her soul. A rickety table, which currently held a chipped basin and pitcher with water she’d collected from the communal pump herself. 

Free to go wherever she wished within the convent’s walls, but forbidden from getting out. Where it counted. Where she wanted to be.

On her worst days Lena thought the canoness had assigned her these quarters on purpose, to torture her with the sight of that which she could not have. Not that Eve was so smart on her own — it had probably been Lex’s idea. 

Turning her back to the window, she let out a weary sigh and went to sit at the table. At sunset, she’d thought she’d gleaned a flash of metal atop one of the nearest hills, right across the river from the convent. Steel maybe, but it was gone in moments, as soon as the sun had set. Wishful thinking, or a piece of some old tool lost in the grass. 

She was about to light a candle when the door opened, revealing the canoness on the other side.

“Lena.” This was Eve’s domain, and she didn’t deem it necessary to use any of her titles. “Here you are.”

“And where else would I be?” Lena challenged, frustration rising inside her chest. “Gone for an evening stroll along the river?”

Refusing to swallow her bait, Eve threw her a condescending look. It bothered Lena all the more. Like her, Eve was an omega who had been forced into a life she didn’t want, and Lena had foolishly thought she would find, if not an ally, at least a bit of sympathy for her plight. 

It was not to be the case; the wretched woman was all too happy to do whatever Lena’s brother asked of her and more. If he ordered the hot iron be put to Lena’s flesh, she had no doubt Eve would warm it under the coals herself. 

“Has God in his infinite wisdom shown you the way, child?” They were the same age, but Eve loved nothing more than to treat Lena like she was being a stubborn toddler, throwing a tantrum. “Surely by now you understand your brother only wants the good of Mercia?”

“My brother wants men to fight his wars, and gold to line his pockets.” Lena replied, with her head held high. “And if the path to get what he desires lies between my legs so be it. He doesn’t care for me, and if you think you’ll be rewarded once you’ve done his bidding you’re an even bigger fool than I initially thought. Lex will forget you, and you should count yourself lucky he does.”

“Perhaps a night of contemplation without food will help you put order in your mind.” Only now, at the mention of food did Lena notice that the detestable milksop was holding a tray with bread and watered wine and what smelled like some sort of vegetable stew. “In time you will understand that King Lex—”    

“Lex is no king.” Not yet. “But his name is on your mouth so often revered sister, one has to wonder whether other parts of him find their way inside of you as well.”

The barb struck true — it was obvious from how quickly color rose to Eve’s cheeks. She burned positively red, and had a gaze been capable of murder Lena would have been lying in a pool of her own blood. The wicked joy she felt at the canoness’s fury was short-lived, however. 

Before she could even think of lunging for the tray the woman had retreated, wounded pride and all,slamming the door shut in her wake. In Lena’s face as well, the thunderous crash followed by the more ominous, sobering sound of a key turning.

Great

Even though she knew it was futile, Lena threw herself against the door with all her might. The heavy, iron-banded oak rattled on its hinges, but all she achieved was to bruise her shoulder.

That objective reached, she retreated, nursing the self-inflicted injury and sulked.

Once she made it out of this accursed place, she'd make sure to repay Eve with equal kindness. Her brother wished her to marry into one of the other noble families of Mercia — teghn Edge or Lockwood would be preferable since they both could raise quite the armed force — but any who could bolster his claim to the throne of Mercia would do.

And Lena just might agree, if only to ask for the canoness's head as a wedding gift from her new husband.

While it was all well and good to keep her blood up with thoughts of vengeance, Lena didn’t mean to marry. Not to any of the louts that would please her brother, at the very least. Someone of her choosing, sure. Eventually. 

Once she’d seen the world, perhaps aboard a longship the way that the Danes did, she would settle down. Find an honorable alpha, one who wouldn’t treat her as if her only purpose in life was childbirth, and build a home together. 

But that was something for the future. Present Lena wanted to leave Mercia behind, possibly England as well, and head across the sea to Francia, or further south to see Rome in all its crumbling glory. She wanted to visit places of learning, read everything she came across. Study under the great minds of her time. 

Lex knew of course, because when they were younger, his mind still free of ambition, it was a dream that they had shared. Travel together to see the wonders the world had to offer, returning home to Mercia only after they had had their fill. 

Then, their father died, and all of a sudden all Lex could dream of was the throne. 

Like she had done every other night since her brother’s men took her to the priory, Lena canvassed the small room for a way out. For anything she may have overlooked. She pushed-pulled at the brickwork, tried to force the door open again. Checked under the cot for anything she could turn into a tool of escape. Nothing. 

She should have expected as much — after all she had been looking for more than a fortnight — but giving up meant losing what little hope she’d managed to preserve. Admitting defeat would make it all too tempting to say yes to the plans Lex had for her just to regain some semblance of freedom. 

Lena hadn’t reached that point, but unless she found a way out soon — 

Eyeing the crucifix on the wall, Lena wondered whether she should pray. The nailed Christ had been deaf to her pleas for deliverance before — no reason in particular he should change his mind now — but it was worth a shot. 

What did Lena have to lose? What else was there to do? On an empty stomach and with the empty dullness of the night stretching ahead of her, it’d give her mind something to focus on other than despair. 

She was about to get on her knees when a gust of wind from the window made it into the room. The casements were old and ill-fitting, letting more than the occasional breeze through. 

If she was still jailed up here come winter, the sisters might find her frozen one morning, unless she was given a brazier. Which they’d never allow her to have, for fear she’d set fire to herself and the lot of them. 

The lone tongue of fire twisted in the current, burning brighter for a moment, and Lena’s gaze fell to the travel chest tucked at the foot of the bed. 

Held here against her will she may be, but Lex had made sure some of her personal things were packed for her. Harmless objects all — jewels and dresses, a small mirror of beaten bronze, vellum and inks so that she could copy verses from the scriptures and amend her errant ways. 

The latter, Lena had used to try and get messages out to whoever she thought was likely to intervene on her behalf, but either she was not important enough to warrant aid, or the guards she’d tried to bribe had burned the notes after pocketing her gold. 

Considering they were men Lex had hired to guard her that seemed… likely.

Among what she had been allowed to keep was a small cross carved from bone, given to her by Cat Grant, one of her ladies-in-waiting. The older woman had been a close friend of Lena’s birth mother, and followed her into the Luthor household when Lionel took Lena in. A wealthy noble in her own right, Cat hadn’t been required to accompany her, but she did so nonetheless. When Lena asked her why she never got a straight answer, and after some time, she stopped asking altogether. Too glad to have a friend among the wolves to care about her motives.

On a whim Lena unlocked the trunk, rummaging through its contents until her fingers brushed the pouch holding the bone token. To a cursory first glance, it would appear as what she’d named it — a cross, not unlike the ones the nuns here wore. Theirs, however, were fashioned out of wood. 

But it wasn’t just a cross. In fact, it was not a cross at all. It hadn’t taken Lena long to figure it out, to find the symbols engraved on the back. 

Cat gave her the token without any explanation, but Lena was well read, and had recognized the tiny etchings right away. Older signs, frisian runes similar to the ones the Danes still used. 

Wōdan’s name. Grounds to be declared a heretic if somebody as knowledgeable as her found the trinket in her possession. It explained why Cat had acted so suspiciously when handing it to her, pressing it into her hand as she was about to climb onto her horse for the first leg of the journey here. 

Among the dust and confusion, guards and servants darting all around to carry out last minute tasks, nobody had spared the two of them a glance. 

Just two friends, saying goodbye to one another.

Clasping the bone token in her hand, Lena knelt. Not by the bed, but by the window, eyes fixed to the darkness beyond. Where she knew her salvation lay. Somehow. 

There she called for Wōdan’s aid, prayers and words she’d only heard in passing from the common folk working in her brother’s fortress. All had embraced the new faith, but when the one god failed to listen many readily turned to the old ways.  

Lena wasn’t sure how long she knelt on the cold floor, but her mind slipped into a strange trance. Perhaps it was the words she was reciting over and over under her breath, or maybe just the chill, seeping from the hard uneven stone into her body. 

Then the candle winked out, making her jump, and the piece of bone she’d held so carefully in both hands snapped clean in half.

She barely had time to gasp before the abbey’s great bells started to toll.

***

Everything had been going well up until a guard they had not accounted for wandered outside to relieve himself in the shrubbery. 

Kara’s throwing axe had hit him squarely between the shoulder blades, but not before he screamed, raising the alarm. 

After that, things rapidly went from bad to worse. 

“How many are there?” Alex yelled, from across the cloister, bashing a Saxon’s face in with the edge of her shield. “This is definitely more than one bloody score!” 

“Just keep fighting!” Kara ducked under a spear thrust, headbutting another soldier into unconsciousness. “They’ll run out of reinforcements eventually!” 

Someone had set fire to one of the Saxsons’ standards — green and gold, bearing a sigil Kara didn’t recognize, even up close — and the air was filled by the stench of smoldering cloth. 

A dark haze had fallen over the priory, hiding the stars and the river from view. Men and women flickered in and out of existence around Kara, emerging from the smoke like wraiths, before they disappeared just as suddenly. Sound was muted as well; the clang of steel on steel, the war cries, the terrified screams. 

It was a dream, and Kara moved through it in a daze, lungs burning with the heat of the fires and eyes watering. 

To her the battle lasted hours, but when she lowered the axe to her side, muscles knotted, Kara reassesed. Due to the smoke, it had felt as though there was no end to the Saxons, but when a cold wind blew the smog away, cleansing the air, she realized their initial count hadn’t been too far off. 

Most of the guards had been subdued, and sat in an unhappy gaggle with her warriors watching over them. A few had been killed, which was inevitable, but the sight still soured Kara’s mood. She didn’t like killing if it could be helped, and regretted they hadn’t managed to complete their task as stealthily as planned. 

“The women?” She asked, taking stock of their forces. Except for a few cuts and bruises everyone seemed fine, and her shoulders unclenched.

“I sent Querl, Sam and James to round up the nuns .” Alex replied, leaning on her spear. She would never admit it, but Kara could tell that she was tired. As leaden with fatigue as Kara felt. “They shouldn’t take too long.”

She was just done talking when the three of them reappeared, herding the Christian holy women. Most looked and smelled terrified, but the one at their head — who was dressed far more richly than the rest and whose cross was of solid gold, not wood — held herself as if the drengir surrounding her were an honor guard. 

“That’s their leader.” Querl advised, siding up to Kara. “And that one at the back, dressed differently? We found her in the belfry, away from the rest.”

“A prisoner?” Alex inquired, frowning. 

“Possibly.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Kara cut them off. The one they were talking about had donned a cloak, the deep hood shrouding her features. She stood as apart from the nuns as Kara’s warriors let her, back as straight as that of their leader. A noble no doubt, if Querl was right. Which meant more trouble than she wanted or had time to deal with. “That’s not why were here, remember?” She didn’t quite reach the authoritative tone she’d been going for. The hooded woman was looking her right in the eye, Kara could feel the weight of her gaze despite the cowl. It was distracting.

“Right.” Taken to task, her sister refocused. “The relics. Some of the others found an ornate chest inside the church. Behind the altar.” She nodded to the building on their right. It was small, barely enough to accomodate the sisters, the outer walls crawling with ivy. 

“But?” Alex’s demeanor suggested they’d encountered some difficulties.

“But it’s locked.”

Of course it was.

“Alright.” Kara sighed, the start of a headache building behind her eyes. Why did everything have to be so complicated? “Alex, do your thing, please?” 

Wasting no time, her sister got right down to it.

She strode over to the huddle of women, twirling the spear in her hands until the foot of sharp steel capping one end of it glowed the same gold-orange of the fires. 

A few of the nuns shuffled back at the sight, scared and wide-eyed, Alex  openly sneering at their fear. Kara didn’t care for this part as much as she didn’t like killing, but if a bit of play-pretend could loosen tongues and save them time she’d go along with it, the way Astra and her own mother had taught her. 

“So.” Pressing her thumb to the spear’s tip, Alex pricked herself, letting a streak of red dribble onto the metal. “There’s a chest we can’t open inside your church. Which one of you wants to hand over the keys?”

***

These Danes were nothing like Lena had expected.

Not that she believed the stories that the servants exchanged around the kitchen fires when they thought no one else was listening. She had discounted the blood-drinking rumors with a scoff, and openly laughed when a stable-hand suggested the invaders ate children — even their own.

“Impossible.” She told Cat later with a roll of her eyes. “There’s just too many of them in England for that particular piece of gossip to be true.”

She would admit, if only to herself, that when one of them had broken her door down she’d been afraid. The most outlandish rumors were just that, tall tales spun by men afraid of their own shadows, but the truth was bad enough. 

Lena had never been involved in a raid before, nor war, but she’d seen the aftermath. The pillaging and rape. The screams she’d heard come from the nuns below had her fretting about the second. 

She didn’t want to be married against her will, and most certainly did not want to be taken against it either.

But the Dane who’d taken her downstairs had been kind-mannered if distant, and the moment she was pushed among them she could tell none of the women had been harmed. The same couldn’t be said for her brother’s soldiers, but try as she might, Lena felt no pity for her jailers.

The reek of fear was almost overwhelming in her nose making it wrinkle in disgust, but although bothersome, it wasn’t what held her full attention. 

No. Green eyes had met blue across the smoky courtyard, and she had been unable to tear her gaze away since. 

This warrior was even taller than the others, her hair the color of spun gold, shaved on one side to expose the bluish black tattoo on her temple. Her eyes were the brightest blue Lena had ever seen, as stormy as the sea she’d seen only once in her life when she’d accompanied her father to the cliffs near Dover.   

Lena should be grateful to the man who had collected her for allowing her to grab a cloak before taking her downstairs. At least, she had the small mercy of her blush being hidden by its cowl. 

The rest of them, soldiers and nuns alike, seemed to believe the woman now threatening them — a tall warrior with hair kissed by fire — was the leader of this warband, but Lena knew better. She had noticed how the Dane had moved to speak to them only after blue-eyes had motioned her on, and the way the remainder of the invaders acted, watching over blue-eyes like she was to be protected at all costs, was enough for her to know who the true leader was. 

“Well?” The red-haired Dane was saying, voice thick with irritation. “The key to the chest, where is it? Things will get bad for you if you don’t talk.”

“We could roast one of them over the fire.” Another warrior-woman suggested with a smirk when none of the nuns balked. “I’m feeling peckish.”

“Good idea.” This was the warband leader, and the growl edging her words made Lena shiver. Although… She frowned, studying the woman’s face with care. Her jaw was set, the line of her mouth unyielding, but her eyes — her eyes sparkled with amusement she could not completely conceal. “Or sacrifice a few to the All-Father. We already have a pyre.” The leader added, gesturing to a nearby stack of burning wood, but now that Lena had caught on to their game, she easily picked up on the amused lilt in her voice. 

She must be the only one, though, for the other sisters screamed in horror. 

Eve was the only other one who didn’t, but her face had paled to a shade of green that would perfectly match one of the Luthor household’s banners. 

How lovely. 

“If it’s the key to the Saint’s relics you want, she has it.” Lena shouldered past two cowering nuns to point a finger in Eve’s direction. “Carries it with her everywhere she goes.” 

“Search her.” Blue-eyes ordered, making it clear to everyone who truly was in charge. 

Red-hair and another warrior woman leapt to obey, Eve sputtering in indignation as they bracketed her between them and frisked her for the keys. 

“Heathens!” She spat, including Lena in the hate-filled stare she directed at the Danes. “You’ll burn in Hell for this sacrilege! All of you!” 

“Oh, shut up .” Red grumbled, pawing at the pouch that hung from Eve’s slender waist. “Here!” She tossed her prize to the quiet man who’d escorted Lena into the courtyard and nodded to the church. “Let’s get those dusty bones and go. Preferably somewhere far away from here.” She rolled her eyes at Eve, who was still prattling on about sin and the fires of Hell which would consume them all.

A few of the warriors headed to the building, evidently sharing in her eagerness. 

“Once we’ve gotten what we came for, you’ll be free.” The Dane leader stepped forth to fill the silence, doing her best to sound reassuring. 

It was a stark contrast to the bloodthirsty image she’d been projecting in order to make somebody talk, and most of the nuns seemed torn between relief and lingering terror. Eve spat at her feet. “We won’t hurt you.” The Dane continued, ignoring the offending gesture. “You have my word.”

“You don’t take prisoners?” Lena asked, unable to keep a note of disbelief from the question. If there was one thing all the rumors agreed on, it was that the Danes took people as thralls, or to sell them. 

“My clan doesn’t trade in flesh.” Anger bolted across the blonde’s face, gone so quickly Lena thought she’d imagined it. “And we don’t keep slaves for ourselves. You should be glad.” 

Lena was, in a way. But she’d hoped the Danes might take a few hostages, if just to secure their exit. 

She had planned to use what gold was still in her possession to buy passage, as far as Mercia's border and out of her brother's reach if possible. Or maybe to a port  where she'd be able to secure a spot on a ship. Eire or Francia didn't matter, as long as it took her far, far away from Lex.

“Here they are.” 

Her reflections were cut short by the warriors returning from the church. Lena had never seen the holy bones of Saint Tibba for herself, but had seen other such relics. The outer chest ornate as it was — the one Eve had guarded the key of — was for protection only. The bones would be kept in a much smaller box of beaten silver or some other precious metal. Honestly, if it was riches the Danes were after, the container was far more valuable than the bones themselves. 

Yet, they might also find a devout Saxon noble willing to pay his weight in gold to see the relics safely returned. 

Such a box was what one of the Danes was holding up now, so that her leader could inspect it. 

“This is it?” Blue-eyes seemed surprised. Disappointed, even. “I expected something more…” 

“Portentous?” Red-hair suggested, examining the engraving on the lid. A falcon, its wings spread as it took flight. “You said it yourself. These Christians are a strange lot.”

“Be as it may, this is what Astra sent us to get.” The leader continued, brows knitting in thought. “Although I can’t imagine how it’ll make the Saxons listen to her more.”

“Astra knows best.” Red hair dismissed her leader’s doubts with a shrug. “Let us be off. I want ale and —” She halted, glancing to the one who held the box, and her hard face softened. “And our bed.” She added, so softly Lena heard only because she was standing closer to the Danes than to the Saxons. 

They were going to leave, she realized, heart thudding loudly in her ears. They were going to vanish back into the countryside, and she’d be left here at Eve’s mercy. She had figured that helping them get what they wanted would gain her a measure of gratitude, but no. The uncouth idiots were going to leave her here to rot, and judging from the murderous glances Eve stole in her direction, once the canoness was done her brother would be lucky to have a hunk of meat to marry off.

“Wait.” She hurried forward, reaching out to grab the leader’s arm. Up close she was even taller, towering a good head over Lena. And she smelled… 

Oh, Lord have mercy

Nose saturated by the pungent smell of smoke, Lena hadn’t registered it, but now there was no denying the undiluted alpha scent that rolled off of the Dane in waves. 

She’d never cared for such things; the alphas her brother had paraded round his fort to entice her into choosing one reeked too much of ale and sweat and violence to elicit anything other than disgust. But this Dane— 

Her scent was clean underneath the blood and battle grime. Snow, barley fields and open water. Sunlight, warm over a forest. 

Lena blinked, inhaling, and when the Dane pushed back the hood that still obscured her face, she did not resist. 

“What is it?” Lena noted her grip on the woman’s arm had tightened only when muscles jumped under her fingers, flexing in response. She snatched her hand back, almost choking on a whine. 

“Take me with you.” How embarrassing for her to sound this needy. Lena came close to taking the words back before reasoning her cracking voice may play to her advantage. “Please, don’t leave me here.”

She could tell her closeness, if not the words themselves, was having an effect. The Dane couldn’t take her eyes off of her. 

The reverse also being true was entirely accidental. In order to meet the taller woman’s eyes at all, she had to crane her neck just so, and it was not her fault that the motion left her throat wholly exposed. 

It wasn’t

“I already told you.” The Dane sounded as though she’d been dragged through a quarry by the throat, then forced to eat chalk. “We don’t take prisoners. We don’t need slaves.” 

Her scent shifted as she spoke, letting Lena know that a fight had broken out behind the unruffled surface of those eyes. Instincts and honor went to war inside the Dane, and it was not clear which one would win. 

“You busy yourselves with crumbling bones when there’s something of far greater value right here in front of you.” 

“Such as?” Red interjected, scowling. “If you mean her pretty cross—” She gestured at the crucifix hanging from Eve’s neck, and the canoness clasped it to her chest. “We have plenty of such trinkets. One more won’t make us rich.” 

“I mean me .” Opening her arms with a pinch of theatrics, Lena turned in a slow circle. “I can be of importance to you, more than you imagine. I’m Lena, daughter of—”

“No! You fool ” Your brother —” Eve flung herself at her, and would have clawed at her eyes if Red hadn’t been swift to intercept her, knocking her flat on her arse with the butt of her spear. 

“Alex!” The Dane leader looked on horrified. 

“What? I had warned her to shut up.” Alex nudged the canoness with the toe of a boot, getting a pitiful moan out of her. “See? She’s not dead. She’ll just have a headache when she wakes, like the one she gave me.” 

“As I was saying,” Lena resumed, sensing the two of them would devolve into arguing if she didn’t harness their attention. “I am the daughter of Lionel Luthor, who was teghn of Repton before my brother.” 

She had imagined the revelation would bring shock to their faces, perhaps recognition, but the Danes stared blankly as if she’d spoken a load of gibberish. 

“Luthor you say?” Alex wiped at the soot on her cheek with little result. “Which one would that be, Kara?” 

"I'm not sure." 

Lena had some trouble following the conversation. They spoke in their own tongue for starters, which was similar enough to the saxon dialect she roughly understood, but also stuffed with words unknown to her. Secondly, she was too engrossed repeating the Dane's name under her breath. 

Kara .

It was strangely delectable.

"Repton, she says. Is her brother the bald one with the face of a weasel?" Alex mused, thoughtfully tapping a finger on her chin. "The one who sent a lackey to petition the Jarlskona instead of coming in person?"

"Maybe. There's just so many here claiming to be Jarls or Kings I can't keep track." Kara lifted one shoulder, signalling she didn't care one way or the other. "Makes no difference to me. She'll only slow us down."

"I am here and I can hear you." Lena reminded her sternly, deliberately putting herself in front of her to block her path. That Kara could lift her out of the way with ease seemed irrelevant. "If you leave me here, I shall rouse the countryside from the priory to Leicester. Every able-bodied Saxon will hunt for you once I tell them you ground the Saint's remains to dust and drank them with your mead!"

The bright red flush that invaded Kara's face was a sight to behold. Stuff one could write an entire song about. 

"We wouldn't! We don't—!" Devastatingly handsome, but a bit slow on the uptake. "You would lie to get what you want?" 

"Most definitely." Lena was proud to come off so steady, but couldn't stop her gaze from falling to the axe at Kara’s belt. She might have been just a tad too hasty.

“Now listen here. I won’t—” 

“Oh, for Odin’s sake! She wants to come so badly, just bring her along. We can always drop her off somewhere .” Alex’s eyes darkened. “The river, for example.” 

“Ugh. Fine .” Kara rumbled, and before Lena could understand what was happening, she was being grabbed by the waist and hauled onto Kara’s shoulder.

“Wha— what are you doing?” Talking was doubly difficult when one was hanging upside down, and she had to be careful not to bite her tongue when opening her mouth. As though Kara’s stunt was a signal, the small warband had set off at a trot, leaving befuddled nuns and tied up soldiers behind.

“Why,” Kara answered, mirth coating her voice as thick as butter on warm bread. “I am taking you with us. Just the way you asked.” 

***

Wading across the river was no joke, especially for somebody who’d never crossed a river on foot before. The warriors had an easy time of it; all of them wore breeches, even the women, and sturdy clothes under their chainmail. Ideal for long travels. Lena did not. Plus, the cloak that had fended off most of the night’s chill thus far became so waterlogged Kara made her shed it halfway through the river. 

The Dane was strong, had carried her all the way to the riverbank, but there was no way she could cross safely with Lena slung across her shoulders.

And Lena wouldn’t have wanted her to.

“When I asked to come along, I didn’t mean for you to handle me like a sack of grain!” She hissed incensed as soon as her feet were on the ground. “You— you—!” 

“Big oaf?” Alex supplied, with a grin that nearly split her face in two. “Kara I like her. I changed my mind, don’t drown her in the river, please.” 

“Gods, if you like her so much why don’t you ask Sam whether she’s willing to share?” Their banter sounded like that of two sisters. 

Lena understood. Growing up she and Lex had been as tightly knit. Until his hunger for power had unraveled their lives, turning her into nothing more than means to an end. 

Kara’s words were deliberately lewd, the intent behind them clear. But she was to be disappointed; Lena had heard coarser language from Lex’s guards, and obscene suggestions when they knew he wasn’t listening. One had even tried to corner her in the stables, only to find her knee firmly planted in his crotch. 

Whatever astute quip she had been ready to deliver was lost when her body’s instinctual reaction left her short of breath. At the mere idea Alex could consider what Kara had said in jest everything inside of her rebelled, as if what primal urges governed them all had already chosen Lena’s path. 

Never. 

She was not about to exchange an idiot Saxon for a foolish Dane. No matter how blue her eyes were. 

The Danes set off again, Kara sheltering Lena from the worst of the current as they navigated the river. It flowed strongly here, squeezed as it was between a steep slope and the islet, and without Kara’s help she’d have fallen over. 

It wasn’t until they’d clambered up the far bank that Lena regretted the loss of her cloak. The nunnery’s low walls had been poor protection against the incursion, but kept the worst of the wind out. The hill was treeless, and here the wind blew much more strongly. Colder too, with an extra humid chill added by the closeness of the river. 

“Here.” She jerked in surprise when a warm pelt was wrapped around her shoulders. “You’re shivering.” 

Part of Lena wanted to be snide, to tell Kara she wasn’t as delicate as the alpha seemed to think. But the fur was soft, and the wind didn’t bite so badly with it draped over her slender frame. 

“Thank you.” She murmured — and she meant it — Kara’s pleased scent sending her heart into a wild gallop. 

“You’re welcome.” 

Did the Dane’s eye linger on her a moment longer than was proper, or was it just a quirk of the moon? Lena wasn’t sure, and then there was no time for questions. 

The warriors picked their march up where they’d left off, and she was too preoccupied watching where she was going, the uneven ground hard to see in the shifting play of light and shadow, to wonder further. 

Kara didn’t try to pick her up again, and Lena thanked the heavens that her shoes were built for durability rather than style. Still, by the time they started their descent down the other side of the hill, she was gasping for air, and her legs were on fire. 

“Still sure you want to come with us?” Kara inquired soberly, without a trace of humor. “We can leave you near a village.”

“Can’t.” Lena panted, her throat so raw her voice had dipped an octave or two below her normal. “They’d send me back to my brother.”

“And that’d be bad because?” On the other side of her, Alex looked as if she could walk the entire night, and a whole day after that. “I thought that’s what you wanted?” 

“I never said that.” Lena loosened the pelt, allowing a little air to slither underneath it. The exertion made her hot. Sweaty. 

She was willing to concede that Kara’s presence did little to alleviate the prickling warmth she felt. 

“Then why?” Kara pressed, concern wafting strongly from her. Lena was under no illusion that the worry was for her. The Dane must be wondering whether she’d unknowingly made a new, insidious enemy.

“He sent me to that convent to begin with. Against my will.” It still stung enough she quivered with rage as she spoke. Uprooted from the life she knew and her own dreams. Bundled off in the space of a day because she didn’t bow to his every whim. God, but Lena wished she was born alpha, or a man so that she could command her own forces and teach Lex an overdue lesson. 

Or that she’d been birthed by a Dane, instead. Unlike Saxon women, Dane ones were allowed to learn the sword and axe if they so wished. And it didn’t seem to matter if they weren’t born as alphas. The one named Sam was proof enough. 

“That makes no sense.” Kara was speaking slowly, evidently sifting through her words with care so that they wouldn’t cause offense. “No one can be forced into the path of a Vølve against their will.”

“A what?” Lena was so confused by the foreing word she tripped over a rock, and only grabbing onto Kara’s arm kept her from falling. Heat spiked through her once again, without mercy, the blush on Kara’s face a reflection of the one alighting hers.

“A holy woman.” Alex explained. “That’s what we call them.”

“Oh no.” Lena’s laughter was strangled by bitterness and hurt her parched throat on the way out. “He sent me there because I wouldn’t marry who he chose for me. He wants to be King of Mercia, you see?” This was a gamble. Her story. These Danes seemed decent enough, but they could very well decide to sell her back to Lex for a hefty sum. She would warn them not to trust him, of course, but why should they trust her , instead? After all, she too was using them for her own goals. 

“That is not allowed in our clan either.” Kara spoke so softly the words were snatched away by the wind. Lena had to strain to hear her. More curious still was her scent. It had changed again; now she smelled protective, but surely that was her misinterpreting. 

The Danes were fraught with scents she didn’t understand. They carried the wilderness of the forest around their shoulders. Untamed and free, the whole lot of them. They could go wherever they pleased, where the sea and plunder took them. 

Lena envied them.

“So that’s why I’d rather come with you back… well, wherever it is you’re going.” She continued when it was clear nobody else would speak. “Your offer of leaving me near a Saxon village is kind, but misguided. They’d sell me back to Lex.” Or would do worse. A lone woman on the road could incur into all sorts of trouble. The Danes were a kind she knew. “I can hold my own. Not in a fight.” She hastened to add when Alex quirked a dubious eyebrow. “But I know herbs, and should somebody stop us, I know these parts well enough. You could pretend you’re my escorts. It’s not uncommon.” 

Many feared the snow-bound invaders, most loathed them. Plenty would still rather pay them than come to blows, and a few hired them on purpose. Danes had a knack for warfare a lot of Saxons lacked, the bloodier the fight the better, and some nobles had been quick to recognize that a trained wolf, however dangerous, was better than hundreds of rabid dogs barking at their doors. 

“It’s not a bad idea.” Kara nodded, eyes studying her intently. “I expect that if word of what we have done tonight gets out we may—”

“Saxons!” 

A short man that had rejoined them after the river crossing was hurrying toward them, returned from scouting the ground ahead. “If we keep going this way we’ll run into them!” He must have run all the way here, but was not even breathing hard. Lena hated him a little. 

“Do they know where we are?” 

Without breaking stride, the column veered east. 

“They didn’t spot me, but sure as Thor’s beard they’re coming to the priory. Must have seen the flames.” 

By now, the nuns would have freed the men Lex had left behind to guard Lena, but the Danes had taken all their weapons, and even though they could give chase they would not be much of a threat. 

Both Alex and Kara must have followed the same trail of thought because they threw a glance over their respective backs, almost in unison. 

“I’ll distract them.” They said right after, on top of one another. 

“Kara, no.” Alex drew herself up, but her tone was a pleading one. As if she already knew what the outcome of the discussion would look like, but still had to try.

“Kara, yes.” There was a ponderousness to Kara’s reply, a sense of the inevitable. Something unchanging, as was the passing of the seasons. “I am the leader. The task falls to me.”

“That’s exactly why it shouldn’t be you.” Alex countered, gaining momentum. “Let me go. Or any of the others.”

“No. If I fall you lead. That’s how it’s always been and how it’ll continue to be.” Kara’s eyes were the hard blue of tempered steel. “Go and I’ll catch up to you once the danger’s passed. If I fall, keep going.” Her eyes met Lena and she added. “Take them all home.”

“I will not go all the way without you.” Alex insisted. “The strange ruins with the dancing statue you showed me last spring? We’ll camp there and wait for a day. If you don’t come—” She trailed off, unable to continue.

“If I don’t come, sister, I will see you in Valhalla.”  

And, just like that, she broke off at a run, darkness closing in around her.

***

The wait took a toll on them all. They had reached the ruins Alex had mentioned around dawn, but even though exhausted, Lena hadn't slept a wink.

Neither had Alex, if the black ravines under her eyes were any indication. 

As the day dragged on, the sun climbing ever higher as though in mockery, an anxious stillness had descended over their makeshift camp. The warriors talked little if at all, and only in whispers when they had to. Lena shared in it too. The somber mood. The sense of dread, blended with anticipation. 

When she couldn’t take it anymore, she joined Alex who was keeping a watchful eye over their meager fire. They’d started it in an alcove so as not to draw unwanted attention, and had taken turns guarding it. When Kara returned, she could be wounded, and hot water would come in handy. 

“Tell me more about her?” She opened with, lowering herself next to Alex. Her body ached, muscles she didn’t know she had spasming every time she moved. 

“Kara?” 

“Yes. Your sister.” 

Alex crumbled the twig she had been playing with and tossed the pieces into the fire. The flames painted her face orange, her gaze turning inward as she pondered Lena’s request.

“We’re only half-sisters in truth. Being our seer and healer, my mother Eliza could not raise me. Kara’s family took me in, and we grew side by side.”

“You are sisters in all but name, then.” Extending her hands toward the fire palm-first, Lena sighed warily. “There are bonds stronger than blood and family is what you choose, not what you’re born into.”

“That is very true.” Alex smiled, and although worry didn’t lift completely from her features, it was obvious she didn’t mind talking. “I couldn’t ask for a better sister. A better friend.”

“Can I ask you something else?” 

Grabbing another stick, Alex poked at the fire, embers filling the air as a bigger piece of wood folded into itself, devoured by the golden-yellow heat. 

“Go ahead.”

“I’ve noticed… Well, you all seem very honorable and—” 

“For Danes, you mean.” Alex’s jaw tightened, and she stabbed her twig into the fire again, like she held a grudge against it. Well, better the flames than Lena.

“That’s not it at all.” She raised a hand in a placating gesture. “What I meant to say is I noticed that violence doesn’t seem to sit well with your sister. When you were threatening the nuns… Kara couldn’t conceal the dislike for such methods, not completely.”

“Ah. Yes.” For a time, Alex didn’t speak, and Lena began to wonder if she’d asked something too personal. It never ceased to surprise her how different yet similar their two peoples could be. So much so that an additional level of caution was required to coast society safely. Too many words or too little were liable to spark a duel. 

But, even though some Saxons hadn’t yet caught on, Lena knew better. The Danes were here to stay, and one day all of them would be one tribe.

“It’s complicated.” One of the scouts Alex had sent out to cover the surrounding area had returned, bearing rabbits for a meal, and she stepped away long enough to exchange a few words with him. 

“No sign of her yet.” She said, having caught Lena staring. “Don’t fret. The day isn’t over.” 

She sat back down, opening the first of the rabbits up with economic movements. Rolling up her sleeves, Lena produced a slender dagger they hadn’t bothered searching her for, and grabbed a second, sending a slanted look Alex’s way. 

The Dane didn’t react, save perhaps for a slight jolt of the shoulders. Her gaze, however, was heavy. Assessing. Then, while Lena cleaned her rabbit almost as fast as she, Alex’s scent changed. It hadn’t been exactly cold before, but now it definitely lost some of that edge. It wasn’t pleased, but pleasantly surprised.

“Like I was saying, it’s complicated.” Each rabbit was skewered then placed to roast over the fire. “But you’re not wrong. Kara is a formidable fighter. Best in the clan, but…” Picking up her waterskin, Alex sipped from it, then offered it to Lena. “When the fight is toughest, a red mist descends on her. Like a berserkr , except it’s hard for her to snap out of that state. There have been accidents .” 

The sadness in her eyes made it clear she would not say anything more.

There would have been no time for more questions anyhow. A commotion at the other end of the ruins drew them away from the fire at a run, the food forgotten. 

They were the furthest away, but still managed to get there ahead of the other warriors, just in time to see Kara shamble out of nearby trees, looking like death herself had been made flesh.

Lena told herself it was the haunted look in Kara's eyes spurring her forward ahead of Alex, and not the desire to make sure that the alpha was truly alive

“It’s done.” Kara was mumbling, gaze unseeing and clouded. “All dead. They’re all dead.” 

She took another shaky step and collapsed in Lena’s arms, bearing her to the ground under her weight.

***

They were about half a day away from the clan’s settlement, but Kara was in no condition to travel. 

She had been covered in blood, and while most of it wasn’t her own, the nicks and cuts Lena and Alex found after they’d removed her clothes and armor could fell anyone combined. Especially if left untreated. 

“You said you know herbs.” Sam told Lena, eyes flitting between her and Kara’s waxen face. “Tell us what to look for, and we will gather what you need.”

“Yes.” Alex agreed from the other side of the fire, checking that the water they had poured inside a small iron pot was heating properly. “And Winn, I want you to go on ahead and take word of what occurred to Astra. It’s possible that after a day or two of rest Kara will be able to walk the distance, but if not she should send somebody to meet us. At the very least have the road from here to there watched, so that no Saxon will ambush us.”

“As you say, Alex.” He accepted a piece of meat before swiftly departing, disappearing among the trees at the ground-eating pace Lena was now familiar with. 

If the day had trickled by at a snail’s pace before, after Kara’s return the camp looked like a kicked anthill. Sam took Querl and James along to look for the herbs Lena had requested, and Alex doubled the watch, taking part in it herself at Lena’s urging. 

“I’ll come back to help when they bring you the herbs.” She acquiesced begrudgingly. “You know of this more than I do, but I can grind the ingredients down for you.” 

The older alpha meant well, but she was hovering and getting in the way wouldn’t make Kara get better any faster. 

Lena cleaned up the cuts first, relief flooding her chest as it became apparent none needed to be sealed with fire. The greatest danger now was that of infection, but between the warm water and the poultice she applied to the wounds with Alex’s aid, that was warded off as well. 

“Thank you.” After they were done, Alex hugged her something fierce. That act of simple, genuine affection left Lena at a loss. She wasn’t used to it. Her mother was but a distant memory, washed out and pale like something that had been forgotten underwater. Lionel had been affectionate in his own way, but always too busy to pay her any real attention. And Lex… Lex’s affection came at a price. Once Lena had shown she was not willing to pay it, his true colors were revealed.

“You have nothing to thank me for.” Her eyes dropped to Kara’s sleeping face. She looked peaceful, and some color had returned to her already. “I don’t know her well at all, but I feel — promise not to laugh — I feel a connection to her I can’t explain.” 

“I’m not laughing.” Alex promised. Her smile was tremulous, sunshine bounced off of agitated waters, and still tinted with fear. “We believe that each life is a thread, their path preordained. It is not surprising to find that your thread and Kara’s are entangled. Unexpected, yes, but her life never was meant to be ordinary.”

Lena could make little sense of what Alex was saying. She was just too tired to ingest and comprehend such a complex belief system in one day. All she knew was what her heart was telling her.

“Why don’t you go to sleep?” She deflected.

“What about you?” Alex countered, a protective scent swaddling Lena like a blanket. “You can barely stand on your feet.”

“I will take catnaps while I watch over her.” Lena promised. “It’s more important that you warriors are well rested. Just in case.” 

None of the scouts had reported movement, but despite what Kara had done, more Saxon forces could be on the way.

“If you’re sure.” Alex was putting up a valiant effort, but a jaw-splitting yawn chose that moment to betray her. “Call me if you need?” 

“I promise. Now shoo . Go.”

Surprising them both, the Dane went, meek as a lamb.

***

Kara woke to a warm body pressed against her own. She took a breath, a heavenly scent seeping down into her lungs. Without her being able to prevent it, her body reacted, propelling her to search for the source of the heady musk. 

Not that she had far to go at all. 

Lena was lying next to her, green eyes bleary with sleep. Evidently, Kara’s shifting had jostled her awake.

“Hey.” The mysterious scent — honey and cloves and soft, intimate things — came from her. 

Omega , Kara’s fragrance-addled brain clamored, pushing her to bury her face in the crook of Lena’s neck. The scent was stronger there, and soothed all the aches of her body. For a few idyllic moments they lay suspended, then rational thought caught up to her and she pulled back, her face rivalling the nearby fire for the heat it generated. 

“S— Sorry. I didn’t mean—” 

“It’s alright.” To her surprise, Lena wiggled closer, chasing contact. “I don’t mind.” Her eyes veiled briefly, not green, not grey-blue but a mixture of the two. “I was afraid we’d lost you. I shouldn’t care about you at all.” Her eyebrows drew down, and her mouth curved in displeasure, but Kara said nothing. She had the impression Lena wasn’t really talking to her, but thinking out loud. 

The words were just a consequence of that process. 

“But I do.” Lena’s fingers snaked under the blanket covering them both, threading with hers. Compared to her hand, the omega’s was tiny, her skin unbroken where Kara’s was scarred and rough with callouses. “I do and I don’t understand why I should give a toss about such an empty headed idiot who went off alone and almost got herself killed.”

Alright. Now Lena was mad at her. A bit. 

“You make me empty headed.” Kara told her, unburdening of something she had the time to come to terms with while she’d been away. It had started in the priory, when she’d felt Lena’s hand tighten around her forearm. She had stopped Kara in her tracks then, and even after, while she carried her on her back down to the river, Kara had scarcely managed to put one foot in front of the other. 

Lena was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen, and something had stirred inside her — not only physically. That she could have easily discounted, but the furious storms that even now shredded her heart were much harder to ignore. Impossible to put out of her mind. And Kara didn’t want to.  

“I— what?” Lena husked, her scent swirling, dancing inside of Kara’s lungs.

“You make me empty headed.” Kara repeated, and succumbing to the irresistible pull that unseen hands had forged between them since the start, she cradled Lena’s cheek and kissed her.

It was sloppy to begin with. Wet and frantic with the relief that often overwhelmed Kara after a battle. That she was still alive. Still breathing. Not maimed, or captured. 

And, when Lena’s mouth opened under hers, warm and pliant, it was a homecoming, long overdue. 

Kara was no flailing stripling in this matter. She had kissed people before. Men and women, during festivals or in celebration of some victory. Drunken smooching that led nowhere and meant nothing. 

This meant everything .

“Are you sure?” Kara felt obliged to ask, when they broke apart for air. Lena’s lips were red and kiss-swollen, her eyes nearly all pupil. 

“I’ve seldom gotten to choose anything in life.” Lena replied, carding one hand — oh, so gently— through her hair. “I choose this. And you, if you’ll have me.” She whispered timidly, gaze averted. 

“I feel the same way that you do.” Kara confessed, pressing her lips where Lena’s raven hair and temple met. “I shouldn’t care about your fate, or if your brother marries you off. But the thought someone would lie with you—” She had to bite her tongue to stifle a snarl.

“Anyone other than you?” Lena’s tone was sly, and tugging free of Kara’s hand, she let hers drop lower. Inching down, past Kara’s belly to the tuft of unruly hair between her legs. Where the omega would find out that she was achingly hard already. 

“Yes.” Lena’s fingers skimmed along her shaft, and her hips rutted responsively. “I—” 

“You don’t need to worry about others.” Kara’s alpha instantly mellowed out. “I only want you.”

Cupping her firmly, something made easier by the fact she was not wearing a stitch, Lena stroked up as if to underline her words. 

“Have you done this before?” Kara gasped, her heartbeat quickening, thump-thumping into Lena’s palm. 

“No.” Lena shook her head, then brought their mouths back together. The kiss was slower, a savoring of one another. “But I’ve overheard the servants talk about this and other things. Enough to get a general idea.”

Because of her injuries, as light as they were, sex should be the furthest thing from Kara’s mind, but it wasn’t and the way Lena’s voice had dropped to a sultry kind of timbre when she’d mentioned other things caused her length to strain with eagerness. 

“Wha— What other things?” She managed in a strangled whine that was all need. 

“Guess you’re gonna have to wait and see.”

She could have sworn that the smile dawning on Lena’s lips was cocky. 

“What if I don’t want to— ah!” Lena had added a twisting motion at the base, and Kara saw stars. She had pleasured herself other times, but this sort of bliss was unknown to her. Leaving her raw and oddly vulnerable. She felt herself falling, but was not afraid of the landing. Sure that Lena would be there to catch her. 

Her belly tightened with the urge to thrust, to grab Lena by the shoulders and pin her underneath the solid weight of her body. She was laughably close to coming already, Lena’s scent not unlike the potions seers sometimes gave warriors to facilitate communion with the gods. 

And the omega was godly, haloed by the firelight. A valkyrie, or Freya herself, arrived directly from Odin’s hall of corpses. 

“If you keep this up, I’m gonna— gonna—” She couldn’t finish, but Lena surely felt the pressure build under her stroking hand. 

“Come?” She asked, licking a wet strip up Kara’s throat. “And you don’t want that?”

“Y---Yes, but.” Regaining a little focus, Kara covered Lena’s hand with her own, effectively stilling her. “Inside. You.”

Lena was of noble blood, and despite the readiness with which she had reciprocated Kara’s kisses — the hunger as she sucked on Kara’s tongue and bit her lower lip — she half-expected her to balk at the idea. 

The omega didn’t, pulling back long enough to tug herself free of her dress. Kara helped as best she could, but mostly ended up with a handful of her soft, pillowy breasts. Unable to resist temptation, she scratched her nails on Lena’s perfectly pale skin, rolling one of her hardening nipples between thumb and forefinger until Lena was arching into her, mouth hanging open in a silent moan.

“I’ve never done this before.” Lena was holding herself up by leaning on her elbows, and with her out of the covers, Kara had an unobstructed view of her nakedness. She drank her in, reverently so, but her eyes were inevitably drawn to the crux of Lena’s thighs. There, a tangle of hair as black as that on her head obscured the omega’s most secret places, but Kara could tell by the sweet scent of her she was already wet. Ready. To be filled and claimed. To be bred and rounded with her pups. 

“I’ve never… you know.” Lena whimpered, following the scorching path of Kara’s eyes. “I don’t—-” She took a big breath and wet her lips, smelling of uncertainty. Of fear. “Will you be gentle?” 

“As best as I know how.” Kara solemnly swore, guiding her back beneath the blankets and under her. “I promise.”

***

She was. 

Gentle.

“You’re beautiful.” Kara whispered over and over into the dip of her throat, her hands roaming Lena’s body without restraint. The rest of the war band may as well not have existed; Lena was aware of them at the periphery of her conscious mind, but they had become irrelevant. More importantly, understanding what was happening between them, they were keeping their distance without being asked to. 

To be fair, she was so enthralled by the sensation of Kara’s hands all over her, she would not have cared if they had been watching the alpha ram inside her from behind. Still, she preferred it this way — just the two of them, with the rest of the world fading to the background. 

When Kara had tipped her back into the furs, climbing on top of her, Lena thought she’d be mounted right away. Had braced for it even, and felt herself grow shamefully wet at the thought. 

But, surprising her yet again, Kara hadn’t. Instead she’d explored her with gentle fingers, parting her outer lips to dip one close to her throbbing center. It was torture. It was a pleasure beyond compare. 

Kara was hard. Harder than steel, Lena could tell, because the alpha’s ardor pressed into the swell of her thigh whenever she shifted to avoid squishing her. But, even though it must be hurting her not to bury inside of Lena’s cunt, where she needed to be, Kara was taking her time. Running her thumb over and over against a particular spot, a small nub of oversensitive flesh Lena had only occasionally brushed her own fingers against, never meaning to. 

She had no name for it — what scriptures she had found that talked about the mating of an alpha and an omega did so only from the former’s perspective — and there had been no hedgewomen in the castle she could talk to. Only slobbering priests, who reminded her of sin and the duty to her household at every turn. To bear children, they had told her, that was an omega’s sole purpose. To bring spawn into the world and serve their alpha in all things. Pleasure was for higher beings. The lot reserved to her and kin was different. The pain and blood of childbirth. Its perils too.

Kara didn’t seem to share the priests’ ideals. She circled and rubbed that spot until Lena’s hips were jumping off the ground at every touch, and after disappeared under the blankets, to switch the press of her fingers with that of her tongue. 

“Oh, God—!” She wailed, high and desperate for more, forgetting all about the warriors who were forced to listen in on their coupling. “Kara—-!” 

“Shhh. ‘s all good. You ’re good.” Heated kisses were scattered all over her inner thighs, followed by playful nibbles. “I can feel you flutter against my tongue. Let go, Lena. I’ve got you.” 

Lena wasn’t sure what Kara meant by it, but when the same pliant lips that had kissed her sealed around that aching knot of flesh she got an inkling. 

She had never come before, was untouched, and had never experimented with herself, too interested in other things to care about what she had been told she couldn’t have anyhow. 

Why the stars burned the way they did, how did the moon not crash down onto Repton, squishing it under its weight had felt like puzzles more interesting to solve. 

Now, with Kara’s mouth moving along her slit in silent prayer, the stars guttered out. The celestial vault could crumble moon and all for what she cared, and if it happened to grind her brother into paste as it fell, even better.  

“Kara!” She called again, grinding herself on that wet mouth, desperate for something she knew was looming over her. Mayhaps she was teetering instead, on the edge of a precipice. Waiting for somebody to push her into the emptiness below. 

Kara did, plunging one finger inside her — a shallow thrust, compared to what waited for her after, but enough to cause Lena to fall. 

“Lena.” Kara was holding her. Kara was cradling her to her chest as she gasped her release, her hands so tight round the alpha’s shoulders she knew they would leave welts. “Lena.” Kara repeated, and her eyes were black. Darker than a moonless night, but bright in a way that a sky orphaned of stars never could be.

“This is gonna hurt more.” Kara cautioned, lining herself up to Lena’s still shuddering entrance. “I’m so sorry.” 

It did. 

Hurt

Briefly. As much as the bite of the cold river had stabbed into her flesh when she had waded across, fearing the Danes would leave her behind if any weakness showed. 

Kara wouldn’t leave her, though. She worked the flared head inside — Lena was so slick it was a matter of slipping in, rather — then paused, telling her to breathe.

“You’re doing so good.” She praised, and a dam broke in Lena’s chest. Never in her life had she been addressed with so much adoration and respect. “Gods above, you feel so good Lena.” 

“So big.” Lena sighed, fretting Kara wouldn’t fit. The alpha preened. “Kara I don’t know if—” 

“You can take me.” Hand splayed over her tense belly, Kara rubbed slow, calming circles into her flesh. “Breathe for me. Just breathe.”

She did, and inch by devastating inch, Kara sank inside her. 

Lena had gotten only a glimpse of the alpha’s womanhood, as they were outside and the evening air was too cool to frolic without the extra warmth of blankets. She’d gleaned an impression of extraordinary girth, and feeling how Kara stretched her was only confirmation. 

The pain rose slow, a fire simmering under her skin. Big logs to build it, and fast-burning kindling to start the first spark. It wasn’t long before Lena went up in flames, the line between agony and pleasure blurring until she could not tell where the one ended and the other began. 

At Kara’s first, tentative thrust, her thighs fell just a little wider, but she felt no shame in wanting it so badly. To be taken, marked as hers, filled to bursting with the alpha’s potent seed. None of the things the priests had warned against happened. 

God didn’t descend from heaven pointing fingers, and the earth beneath their joining bodies didn’t open. If demons prowled the world in search of sinners they could drag down into hell, they were giving the small band of Danes a wide berth. 

Funny how Lena had already started to consider herself one of them, and the words she’d told Alex earlier sprung to mind. 

Family was the one you chose, not what you were born into. 

***

The sheer soaked warmth of her.

The heat was unbearable. 

Too much, and at the first spasm of Lena’s walls around her Kara almost came. The omega’s cunt was silk. A sheath. No, a glove. Built for her and for her only, just as she belonged to nobody but Lena. 

The channel of Lena’s body was tight, not yet broached fully, and Kara did her best to take things slow, sinking in as carefully as the primal instincts waging war inside her would allow. 

The cuts Lena had tended to, the bruising; all of it was forgotten in the face of Lena’s silken depths. Kara could die here and now, and she would do so content to have known such sweetness in her life. 

There had been a spring near her village, her home across the sea, and for the longest time she’d thought its transparent waters were the sweetest thing she’d ever know. How wrong she had been! 

Lena tasted a hundred, a thousand times better — mead and honey on her tongue. And she felt…

Perfect.

A home away from home. 

“I think you can go faster now.” Lena incited, fingers gripping at her sides. “I— I want you to.” Kara had been rolling her hips at a leisurely pace, but at the omega’s words the tempo of her thrusts increased, and soon enough the space near the fire they had claimed for themselves was full of the wet smack of flesh striking flesh.

Lena never tore her eyes away, watching Kara claim her. Moaning when she buried her face into her breasts, sucking and biting purpling bruises on her unmarred flesh. 

Kara knew she’d never tire of looking into those eyes, of getting lost among the green. Lena didn’t seem aware of it, but she held an entire forest in her chest. Unruly and not to be trifled with. A wild side that her Saxon handlers had tried and failed to train. 

Kara had no intention to. She and Lena would run free, side by side like wolves. The rest of the war band on their tails. 

They had kept away, but their approval was palpable to her. It made the air heavy and warm, was a touch of sunlight on her back. Lena tending to Kara’s wounds would have won Alex over, but the others must have seen the same indomitable spirit she was so attracted to. Astra would feel the same, Kara was certain. 

And if her aunt didn’t understand, she’d ask her mother permission to found her own clan. Those who had come with her to the priory were sure to follow where she led. 

“K— Kara?” Lena bucked, muffling a moan into her hand. “Kara, please, I think—” 

Lena had opened fully for her, and Kara had speared inside as far as she could reach, gaining ground with each new thrust. She was not in rut — therefore there would be no knot to seal her seed inside the omega — but that wouldn’t deter her from trying. 

She wasn’t concerned about it not taking the first time; she’d rather breed Lena properly whilst they were warm and cozy in her bed. She swore to herself that, upon their return to the settlement, she’d keep the omega there for days and see to her every need. 

Underneath her, Lena gasped, fingers scrabbling for her biceps. It was all the warning Kara was going to get, she discovered moments later, the welcoming walls of Lena’s cunt seizing around her hard enough she couldn’t rut deeper nor pull out. 

She was just… held there, Lena quivering, tense to the point of breaking. With a warbled cry, the omega came and went limp at the same time. Her eyes were glassy, her mouth slack, a near constant moan tumbling from her lips. The clenching of her inner walls beat the rhythm of her heart — squeeze and release, over and over — and the pressure she’d coaxed into Kara’s length with her hand returned. This time, there was no holding it back. Lena pulsed, plush and velvety around her, another climax or the same stretching on forever Kara did not know, but she was swept alongside it. 

She screamed her own release and shook with it, the heavy spurts she was releasing inside the omega, mirrored by wetness dripping down her ribs. One of the cuts she’d suffered had reopened, a trail of scarlet falling from her body onto Lena’s. 

The omega saw, but instead of flinching away or voicing her disgust, she gathered some of the blood with trembling fingers and smeared it on her neck. Right over her pulse. 

The message was unspoken, but as obvious as if she’d shouted it from a rooftop.

Claim me , her hooded eyes seemed to say, make me yours .

Baring her teeth, Kara snapped forward, not surprised in the slightest when she felt the acute pain of a matching mating bite piercing her shoulder. 

***

Lena slept, and in her deepest slumber dreamt.

She saw snow, endless and perfectly white. Mountains so high their tops were shrouded by clouds all year round. She smelled the open sea, the brine and salt, the pitch of a ship’s hull. Heard the sea as well — waves plish-plashing against the curved wood. 

Watched birds she’d never seen before soar high above her head, and hunted with a skill she knew she didn’t possess when she was awake.

When she did wake, it was with a small start, heart climbing in her throat before it settled. The camp was quiet, but she saw a figure watching her just beyond the circle of light cast by the fire. Alex.

Their eyes met, and even though Lena couldn’t see her face very well, she knew the older alpha was smiling. Not just at her, but at Kara too — the dumb lummox snoring softly still. 

Her idiot warrior, Lena realized, touching the mark on her throat with no small level of affection. Her brave, loyal, lovingly stupid oaf of a Dane. 

She ruffled Kara’s hair, and watched her sleep, wondering if she was dreaming of Mercia the way Lena had dreamt of Norway.

She thought about many other things; if she could convince Kara to teach her how to hunt and fight for starters, and what kind of welcome she would receive once they’d made it back to the Danes’ village.    

Would Lex send men to look for her? Was Eve going to tell him what had happened, or would she make up a lie, to cast her own actions in a better light? That she’d pleaded with the monstrous Danes to not take Lena, perhaps, and had to watch as they burned her alive, eating her after? 

Lex believing her dead would be best for all of them, and thus Lena immediately dismissed that it would happen. Prepare for the worst, that was what she would tell Kara, so that if it came to pass they would be ready and if it didn’t they’d have a greater cause to celebrate.

As if feeling she was being observed, Kara stirred, a blue eye cracking open. 

“Hey you.” Bending down, Lena kissed her at the corner of her mouth, careful to keep things chaste. Not doing so would mean rekindling what she felt ready to boil over already. The thought of a kiss being enough to make her quicken was a sign that her heat was due soon. Kara had sensed something too, because her eyes had gone as wide as saucers, and she smelled alert. Keen. 

“I had a strange dream.” The alpha mused, tugging her back into her arms. Lena went willingly, shivering when the tips of Kara’s fingers found her mating bite. 

“Me too.” She whispered hoarsely, closing her eyes and almost purring when Kara stroked her hair. “Your homeland is beautiful, Kara.”

“Yours too.” There was an ache in Kara’s words, the sorrowful edge of a blade striking true, but Lena didn’t want to ask. She could very well imagine the dreams the alpha must have had; not just of Mercia, but of what Lex had tried to do to her. 

“I can’t wait to take you home, and for you to meet Astra.” Kara said instead, tone wistful.

“I can’t wait to be there.”

They fell silent after that, basking in one another. Knowing that soon enough Alex would call for them to break camp and head back on the road. Lena was impatient to be going, but so many things had happened to her in the space of a few days, that this unpredicted peace was not to be discarded. Treasured while they could. 

She relaxed against Kara, drifting in and out of sleep. Letting the alpha kiss the mark on her neck and licking at the one she’d left on her muscled shoulder.

The bond between them was new. Untested and for the greatest part unknown. 

The mating bite was fresher still.

But one thing Lena was sure of. Its roots reached as deep and strong as those of Yggdrasill, the Danes’ cosmic tree, and under those protective, verdant branches the two of them could only thrive.

 

Chapter Text

Lena knew they were nearing the settlement without needing Alex telling her she’d get a first glimpse once they crested the next hill.

She could smell it, for one thing, and it was nothing like the reek that always seemed to hover around most Saxon towns. In Repton there was the muddy stench of the river and the fisheries to contend with, the foul fumes wafting up from the vats of urine the local tanners used in their work. 

And, although her brother had decided to move his court to the crumbling roman fort overlooking the town proper — an effort to appear more regal in the eyes of the other teghns , no doubt —  there was no escaping the smell. It was different in the castle; not that of so many people living in squalor, too close to one another, but the intrusive smell of the alphas vying for her favor. They postured and fought all day long and got worse at night, drunk on her brother’s ale. 

Lena had been forced to sit through it all, at least until she’d angered Lex enough he decided to confine her in the convent. 

But she was past it now. 

She needn’t fear her brother, or Lockwood’s groping hands. 

The scar Kara’s teeth had left on her throat was not healed yet, and it made her wince to touch it, the flesh around it raised and livid purple with a bruise, but Lena did it anyway. She couldn’t help it. 

If she closed her eyes and ears to the world, looking inward, Lena could feel her mate in her blood but, as she’d already discovered, it wasn’t advisable while walking. 

She’d given in and tried earlier that day, and barely avoided ending face-first in a ditch. It was just — the scriptures said nothing about that . Lena wondered how many things the church left out or hid, so that God-fearing omegas never questioned their supposed duty. If they knew more would refuse arranged matches like the one Lex had tried to force on her, Lena was sure. 

“Are you worried?” Sam, who had been walking next to her all day, shot a meaningful look to Kara, a few paces ahead. Lena hadn't been as discreet as she thought in touching the mating bite, apparently.

She didn’t need their newfound bond to know the alpha was still in pain from the wounds she’d suffered. The warband covered ground much slower than when they’d first left the priory behind, and Alex called for breaks often. Nobody complained, or commented on it for that matter, but it wasn’t only Lena’s eyes that lingered on Kara when they stopped. It wasn’t just her shoulders that clenched in concern when the warrior stumbled. 

They had rested at the ruins for two days, and it was Kara who insisted on heading home, maintaining she was feeling well enough to cover the distance. 

It was tiredness that made Lena say it, but the next thing that came out of her mouth was, “I fear she pushes herself too hard.” She regretted the words immediately. “I mean, it isn’t for me to question my mate.” Just because the Danes — Kara — seemed different, didn’t mean they were.

Sam snorted. 

“On the contrary.” Alex and Kara had their heads together, and it was unlikely they’d overhear, but she lowered her voice anyway. “That’s exactly your place.” Lena blinked, so many questions crowding her mind she didn’t know which to ask first. 

“They are stubborn and hot-headed.” While the fondness in Sam’s voice was clear, Lena detected more than a touch of exasperation. Lena's eyes were drawn to the mark on the woman’s throat. It was a near reflection of her own. “Part of our job is to disagree. To question their decisions and find fault with them. How else can they make the best choice otherwise?” 

Lena shook her head. There was so much she didn’t know. So many rumors already proven false. Saxon gossip painted the Norsemen as little more than savages, barely above the feral beasts of the forest. Men and women in name and appearance, but certainly not character.

“The priests teach us that we must obey our alpha in all things.” She started slowly, Sam’s eyes widening in shock. “That not doing so leads to unruliness, and that disobedience begets sin.” 

The broken fetish to Wōdan burned a hole in the pouch at her waist. If the priests’ hell existed she was already headed there. 

“But you don’t believe that.” It was not a question. “If you did you wouldn’t have been where we found you.” Sam eyed Lena the way one eyes the scab over a wound. Knowing it might be dangerous — even hurtful — to scratch it, but unable to leave it alone. “You’d have married the man your brother had chosen for you.” 

At Lena’s answering frown she added. “I heard what you said after the river crossing, and Alex told me more. I’m sorry if…” Sam bit her lower lip. “It was your story to tell, but we don’t keep secrets from each other.” 

“It’s fine.” It wasn’t much of a secret, and anyway Kara’s clan sheltering her gave them all a right to know. “And you’re right. I don’t believe the priests.” 

She never really had, even before seeing with her own eyes that another way of life was possible. Before she heard the servants gossip about what happened in the marital bed. Lena had always known there was more , that the vision the priests offered to the herd was too simplistic. Skewed in the alphas' favor — but that only if they were men. 

“It’s just—” she shrugged, her face easing into a small, self-deprecating smile. “I guess old habits are hard to break.” 

“That I can understand.” They were passing by the ruins of what Lena guessed had been a watchtower in ancient times. Now a stub of the original structure remained, the rest knocked down by rot and weather. A crumbling finger pointed at the sky. “I’ll never get used to the old temples and the ruins,” Sam continued, jerking her chin in that direction. “They creep me out.”

“A lot of people think they’re haunted. Especially the temples.” 

“Are they?” 

“I’ve been to a few when I was younger.” Sam made a curious sound, like she couldn’t quite reconcile the woman walking next to her with the image of a mud-footed girl exploring roman ruins her brain was offering. “With my brother.” The memory was bittersweet; the man she thought she knew now a complete stranger. “We never did find spirits, but once he convinced me we should spook some of Father’s men.” 

“And did you?” 

It was Kara who asked. 

She’d left the head of the column to fall in step with them, but Lena had been so caught up in conversing with Sam she’d not noticed.

“Yes.”

Kara really did have a lovely laugh. Teghn Lockwood’s had been cutting. Teghn Edge’s condescending. Kara’s was… it was everything .

Watching Kara’s face transform, the lines that pain had etched there disappear, Lena felt herself smile as well. Blush a little too, heart skipping an uncomfortable beat at the fear Kara may object to her behavior. 

But there was only fondness in her gaze that Lena could see.

“We’re here.” 

Before Kara could ask anything more about her youth, the way she appeared inclined to do, Sam pointed ahead. 

Following the motion, Lena got her first look at the village, just like Alex had promised.

She couldn’t see much aside from a few roofs, but the scent of woodsmoke hung heavier in the air. Of cooking too; roasted meat, if her nose wasn’t deceiving her. 

The only indication they’d entered the settlement was the amount of people around them. Some stopped to watch them pass, others called to this or that warrior with a wave and a smile. Most spared them a brisk nod, but did not halt their work.

“You have no need for walls?” In trying to drink up every detail all at once, Lena risked giving herself whiplash. “Aren’t you afraid of the Saxons— That they can—” She bit back the rest with a wince. Not my people . The Saxons. Strangers in the dark. Unsure of her place among the Danes, but already othering herself from the folk she’d known all of her life. 

“We will have a palisade by winter.” Kara replied, shifting closer. “But you needn't fear. Not your brother. Not your… suitors .” Kara’s tone lowered at that, and it was clear she was doing her best to hold in a growl. Her lips snapped back, showing the white of her teeth, but while such a display would have disgusted Lena in the past, she felt only warmth now. It spread outward from the bite, and had they been alone Lena would have pulled the alpha close to kiss her. 

There would have been no time to.

“Kara!” A young woman was bounding toward them, almost vibrating with excitement. “You’re back!”

“Nia.” Kara grinned. “I was hoping we could have a few moments to settle.”

“I’m sorry, but no. The scouts already sent word and your aunt ordered you and Alex to join her in the longhouse as soon as you arrived.” Nia sounded apologetic. “Is it true? Did you find the bones?” 

“You’ll have to wait and see.” Lena wasn’t surprised that Kara moved to obey without protest, Alex in tow, bearing the cloth covered silver box. She had no translation for the term Jarlskona , but her guess was that Astra’s rank was equal if not above that of a teghn or a reeve.

"Nia can show you around, if you'd like." The brush of Kara's calloused fingers against the back of her hand jerked Lena back to the here and now. "I'm sure we won't be too long."

It was tempting to say yes. Most of all, it was Kara doing her a kindness. There had been an eager note when she’d talked of her meeting Astra, but all Lena felt was apprehension. 

They were mated, true, but what if the Jarlskona decided to send her back to her brother anyhow? It wasn’t unheard of, omegas being split from their mate to be packed into an unhappy, loveless marriage. 

Not many would accept spoiled goods, but with an appropriate dowry someone like Lockwood could be persuaded to turn a blind eye to the mark on her throat. 

Some of those rogue thoughts must have flickered across her face, because broad shoulders blocked her vision, Kara stepping like a living wall between her and the others. Crowding in until Lena’s personal space was wholly taken up by everything Kara. Steel-blue eyes, warm hands on her hips, wisps of blonde hair tickling her cheek when the alpha bent down to rub the tips of their noses together. 

“Nobody is taking you from me.” The tension that had been simmering inside her for the entire journey, burning under her skin just a flash away from boiling over lessened, and not caring who would see, Lena sagged against Kara’s chest. 

“In that case,” she replied, cupping Kara’s flexing jaw. “I go where you go. Take me to Astra.” 

*** 

The longhouse reminded Lena of an upturned ship.

It was carved wood with wattle and daub walls, cozy inside with a haze of smoke rising from the communal fire in the middle. At one end of it Lena spotted a raised chair draped in animal pelts, and on it sat a woman broader across the shoulders than Kara was. 

Dark where Kara was fair this Astra bore little resemblance to her niece, but despite being a different shade, her eyes held the same sharp intelligence of those Lena had already fallen in love with. 

“Niece.” She had a voice that’d carry across the din of a battlefield without her needing to shout. “It gladdens me to see you have returned to us in one piece. You both.” She added, gaze shifting to Alex. For a moment — it was so quick Lena would have missed it if she hadn’t been watching her closely — her demeanor softened. But it was just a moment. 

“Show me.” 

She stood, descending the dais in one leap, and motioned for them to gather in the light of the fire. 

“This is it?” The Danes were staring at the silver reliquary in a fashion that was reminiscent of the scene Lena had witnessed in the priory. Puzzled stares which told her they understood as little of Saxon customs as her people did of theirs. 

“We were expecting more as well.” Alex folded her arms across her chest, defensive in her posture. “It’s just— well, it’s weird. Them keeping bones in a box.” 

Lena didn’t disagree. 

Weirder still was that objects such as these, meant to inspire devotion, were instead worshipped like the idols of old. Odd, coming from men who preached about one God and painted the Danes as heathens. 

“Have you opened it?” Astra was asking, fingers tracing the delicate filigree atop the lid.

“We didn’t want to dally.” Kara lifted her shoulders in a tired shrug. “Besides, we wouldn’t have been able to recognize the bones of...what was the name again?” 

“Tibba.” Astra’s eyes snapped up to hers, and Lena wished she hadn’t spoken. The woman seemed to be staring right into her soul. “Saint Tibba.” 

“Yes, that.” 

“And this is?” When Kara simply reddened, Astra beckoned Lena forward. 

She’d tried to hang back where the shadows were thicker and the air gauzy with smoke, but her big mouth betrayed her. Again.

“This is Lena, the Saxon Kara kidnapped.” Alex must be oh, so glad, to have her aunt’s full attention focused elsewhere. 

“I didn’t!” Kara protested, cheeks heating further. “She kidnapped herself!” 

Really?

“You threw me across your shoulder like a sack of stones.”

“You asked me to!” The tips of Kara’s ears were on fire too, and embarrassment rolled from her in a cloud. Like a summer storm closing in, damp and swelling with rain. It was endearing. “You begged , if I recall correctly.”

It was Lena’s turn to blush. 

“This doesn’t answer my question, really.” Astra zeroed in on the imprint of Kara's teeth, and Lena had to clench both hands into fists to resist the urge to hide it. Among the Saxons, showing off the mating bite was considered immodest. Men and women alike covered it up; other things were used to let the world know they already belonged to somebody. 

“This is Lena, of the House of Luthor.” Pride entered Kara’s voice, and she stood straighter, almost in challenge. She’d be as imposing as her aunt one day. “And she’s my mate.” 

“Ah.” Astra’s fingers came to rest under Lena’s chin, tipping her head back so that she could get a better look. “I see. You are teghn Lionel’s daughter.” 

Lena jerked back in shock.

“You—?” She couldn’t finish. 

“I have heard stories.” Astra’s eyes veered to a sad grey. “Everyone I spoke with agreed he was a just man. Things would be easier if he were still alive.” She tilted her head, considering her next words. “No offense to your brother.” 

“My brother isn’t half the man my father was.” Grief that Lena had thought long buried broke her heart anew. “What will you do with me?” 

She tried to get a read on Astra’s intentions via her scent and failed. The woman was like one of the books monks spent years illuminating. Complex, but written in a language Lena didn’t understand. It was a good quality in a leader, she conceded, this ability to keep her thoughts close to her heart, but the fear Kara had managed to banish from her earlier on returned tenfold.

“Why, nothing.” Astra’s hand moved to her shoulder, squeezing lightly. “It is evident you have chosen one another.” Kara’s mark, which Lena had bit lower on her clavicle, was covered by her leathers, but the fact their scents were almost indistinguishable mustn’t be lost on Astra. “You are one of us now.” 

Upon hearing her aunt’s words, Kara smiled and it was brighter than the fire. 

***

“You don’t need— I don’t require—” 

Lena knelt in front of her, which would have been enough to make her stutter on its own, but her fingers were drawing lazy patterns atop Kara’s thighs, dangerously close to her crotch. 

Kara was stiff there already, and it made sitting just that much more awkward. 

“You’re not required to service me.” She tried again, reaching out to grip Lena’s hands with her own. “We’re equals. You’re not—” 

“But what if I want to?” Lena stared with big, hungry eyes, and licked her lips. 

Kara couldn’t drag her gaze away, that simple flash of pink tongue enough to make the hardness between her legs rise further. Enough to make her imagine the damp heat of Lena’s mouth around her cock. 

“What if I want to, Kara?” Lena tugged her hands free, and this time, when her fingers started to undo the leather laces that held her breeches closed, Kara didn’t stop her. “What if I think more than your wounds need tending?” Her mate’s hands were cold against flesh itchy with heat, and as Kara was carefully freed of the cloth’s tight, suffocating confines, she failed to contain an expectant shiver.

Sweet Freya have mercy, their quarters were perfumed in Lena’s need. Kara was sure everyone inside the longhouse was able to smell her mate, but couldn’t bring herself to care. She smelled so delectable, like the sweet, dripping honeycomb she and Alex used to steal from the food stores when they were kids. 

It made Kara salivate.

“I mean,” her words were eaten by a gasp. “If— if you wanna— ah!” Hips jerking up, she chased Lena’s hand. Her touch. She felt so good. The only thing that could keep the fire burning beneath Kara’s skin from leaving her a pile of ash. 

It hadn’t really clicked how aroused seeing Lena in such a subservient position had made her, until Kara took stock of her own shaft. Under the slow glide of Lena’s fingers she’d hardened fully, the erection tilting up even unassisted. Back toward her belly. 

Kara knew , from memories of stupid games played as a youth, that she was… sizeable compared to other alphas. Not exceptionally longer than average, but broader in girth for sure. 

Every youngster she’d known went through that stupid, knot-for-brains phase. The posturing and sneers. The comparisons with the others of the clan during morning ablutions at the river. It usually lasted a few weeks, a month or two in the worst cases, right after they were declared adults in front of the entire village. After the Vølve had given each of them the starting rune for their first tattoo. 

They’d sneak oblique glances at one another, the more brazen among them staring openly. And then comment, rib one another until somebody pushed the boundaries too far and got dunked in frigid water for the trouble. 

She was positive that Saxon alpha teens went through the same.

So Kara knew, but she’d not had cause to dwell on it for a long time. And didn’t care either, nor boast the way some did when they were too full of mead to behave any better.

But, by the gods , the way Lena stared was making her conscious of it. Of the girth and solid weight, and how it bobbed whenever Lena’s pre-cum slicked hand released it at the tip with a twist and a hard squeeze. 

“Can you suck me?” The words flew from her unbidden, and Kara squirmed a bit in Lena’s tender grip, ducking her head to try and hide a blush. When she’d messed around during feasts, it was awkward, bumbling touches. Just enough to rile her up, to seek her release in the privacy of her furs after the last song was sung and the fires had been extinguished. 

Nobody had ever done for her what she was asking Lena to do now. 

“Scoot back.” Lena released her, but not before she’d given her a parting tug that left the swollen head of her cock beaded in anticipation. “So I can climb in bed with you. The floor’s not all that comfortable.” 

Kara liked that idea. Liked it even more when she got to watch Lena do some chasing of her own. It was warm in their room, the fire much smaller than the one roaring in the middle of the communal space but no less hot, and Lena only wore a light linen shift. It reached mid thigh, and was so thin that Kara could see the silhouette of her nipples, hard with arousal, push against the fabric. 

It was an effort not to just… ruck it out of the way, pull Lena onto her lap and split her cunt open. 

But Kara wanted — needed — her mouth.

“Suck me.” She ordered, more gruffy than intended, once Lena had situated herself next to her, propped up on an elbow. 

The rash words were instantly regretted, Kara expecting that someone as strong-willed as Lena would balk at the display of dominance. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Lena nodded with a kind of spaced-out expression Kara had not seen her wear before. Her eyes never left Kara’s cock, straining and twitching inches from her parted lips.

“Yes alpha.” Not Kara. Simply what Kara was to her. Her mate. And Lena, her omega to ultimately breed. Just as Kara was hers. 

It was frightening, the reaction one word could cause inside of her. Violent almost, like the merciless gales sweeping Norway’s coasts in winter. 

Kara woved to be gentler.

Unaware of what she was doing — of what it did to Kara when she saw it — Lena licked her lips again, Kara’s eyes dropping helplessly to the omega’s mouth, memorizing the path Lena’s tongue was picking so that she could map it out later.

With her own.

“Suck.” She growled again, voice thicker than the tack they employed to build their ships, and with another willing moan Lena did just that. 

Her quickening breath skimmed across the inflamed head, a cool breeze on Kara’s fevered skin, and she was done for.

Then again, it was hard not to get lost with Lena. Like a longship blown off course by a gust of wind. Kara was always losing something when her mate was near. Her thoughts, her words, the awareness of her surroundings. 

Common sense. 

All she wanted to do was touch and hold and fuck — Alex had laughed when she’d talked to her about it, the night before they made it to the village.

Perhaps unused to walking such long distances, Lena fell asleep as soon as she crawled under their blankets, and Kara had taken the chance to sneak off to the edge of camp, where her sister was standing guard. 

“It’ll lessen.” Alex told her, fighting down a smile. The moon had moved maybe half a hand across the sky, but already Kara felt it. A deep ache in her bones, calling her back to Lena’s side. “It never goes away, and you won’t want it to, but the pull won’t be so...so…”

“All encompassing?” An itch she couldn’t scratch or soothe. Her belly tight, her cock hard whenever she let her mind stray too far. 

“As if she’s the only thing that matters in the entire world.” Alex had sighed, and Kara didn’t need to check to know she’d turned, staring at the spot where Sam had laid their bedding. 

“Well, but she is.” 

Alex had been right, of course.

And now that Lena’s lips were sealed around the tip of her cock, sucking lightly, the rest of the world just faded from view. From her mind too. 

Lena’s unbound hair fell forward, a silken caress on Kara’s hips, but also they were getting in the way. Kara wanted to watch. 

Reaching down with one hand, she gathered them into her fist and realized that, keeping them out of the way of Lena’s mouth aside, she could also use the newfound hold to direct the omega where she needed her most. 

She steered her, pushing down experimentally, then a touch more forcefully when Lena offered no resistance. Kara didn’t know whether it was sheer desire or her omega nature, but Lena’s throat was opening for her, and she sheathed deep inside it without really trying. 

The heat of Lena’s mouth was welcoming bliss, the paradise that Christian priests always talked about. Valhalla, with Odin’s longhouse, the trestle tables laden with all manner of food. The drinking horns never lacking mead. 

Kara was overflowing too, thrusting up as Lena whimpered, staring entranced as the omega’s elegant throat swelled with her girth. 

Lena slid down another inch, the tip of her nose burying in the tatch of coarse curls crowning Kara’s pelvis, and the visual alone was enough to send her over the edge.

She tumbled over with a scream and a sharp angling of her hips, accompanied by the sloppy, gurgling sounds of Lena swallowing her seed. 

“Again.” The omega commanded, once she’d released Kara from her mouth with a wet pop. Strands of her spit draped all over her length, making it glisten in the firelight. 

Eyes matching hers for darkness, Lena tore her nightshift off. 

“But this time make sure to come all over me, darling.” 

Kara clambered on top of her and moaned. 

***

Shreds of night still lingered underneath the canopy of trees, the grey glow of early morning too weak to pierce the places where the foliage was thickest. 

Lena was not sure she’d ever get used to it. The quiet. The trees, creaking and sighing with a language of their own when the wind blew. 

There were the smells too, so confusing they left her fuzzy-headed. Pine and wildflowers mostly but also, underlying the rest, the foul scent of decay. Everything was constantly rotting around her, and then regrowing. A cycle without end. 

The light fell dappled and strange, always shifting. Differing stages of green when the sun shone. This early it was black, or murky where a tree had been knocked over. 

The endless swaying of the branches created false shadows, and it was hard to see sometimes. But it was impossible to miss the silhouette of the deer they’d been stalking for the best part of an hour, neck bowing so that it could graze at a patch of low grass. 

“Slowly now.” Kara whispered in her ear, gesturing for her to stand and carefully take aim with the shortbow they’d been training her to use. Lena knew that Sam and Alex were hidden somewhere to their right, and as she nocked one of the goose feathered arrows, drawing the bowstring to her cheek with the economy of motion Sam had taught her, Lena consoled herself.

Should her shot go astray, she wouldn’t need to worry about injuring them.

“Like that.” 

Lena wasn’t sure what happened next. Except, maybe, for the fact that kara ended up pressed tight against her back. Almost draped over her shoulders like she wanted to replace her cloak. The alpha’s warm breath tickled the nape of her neck, stirring the finer hairs there, and Lena blanked.

All of her calculations, all her thoughts of trajectory and headwind, every lesson Sam had imparted her — Lena forgot them as though she’d never learned them in the first place. 

The one thing she could think about was Kara’s hips so perfectly cradling her ass. She firmly believed that the alpha didn’t do it on purpose, but her hands had dropped to grip Lena around the waist — to steady her? — and her body, well, her body lit up with the fierce heat of a bonfire. 

She ground back absently, making the both of them gasp, and the sound, while soft, was carried by the breeze right to the deer.

Panicking, Lena let the arrow loose, but her aim was off and their prey had already bolted. Crashed through the underbrush in a mocking flash of brown.

“Uhm,” Kara took a sheepish step back, a chilly gust of wind wedging itself between them. Lena missed her warmth immediately. “Sorry?” 

“You should be.” Alex emerged from behind a nearby tree, a frown shadowing her face. “She had it, and you blew it because you can’t keep your hands to yourself, apparently.”

“I wasn’t—!” Kara glared. “I so can!” Still, she hid the hands in question behind her back. “I totally can.” Her voice was a grumble so low on the last part, only Lena heard her. 

“It doesn’t matter.” Sam waved Alex complaints away. “We can catch another. But maybe, uhm, you two should take care of…” She didn’t finish, but her eyes flicked down to Kara’s — 

— Kara was hard. 

“I’m sure I can—” 

Lena didn’t let her mate finish. Throwing a grateful look over one shoulder, she flattened a hand to Kara’s chest and pushed hard, making her stumble into the nearest tree. 

“Meet you at the waterfall.” She heard Sam call, followed by the offended noise of an Alex who was obviously being pulled against her will in said direction. “No rush!” 

Going down on her knees, Lena smirked. 

The Luthors took their time in all things. As long as was needed.

***

It was a blissful time. 

Something out of the tales her nursemaid used to tell her and Lex when they were still young enough to be impressed by giants and forest spirits. 

Then, on a morning in which the air was so cold it seemed to bite the lungs with the threat of the winter to come, her brother arrived. 

He was not alone. The Mercian nobles that had been at one another’s throat for the right to take the throne came with him summoned to the village, just as Astra had hoped. 

Each had brought small retinues; ten, fifteen armsmen in their lord’s or lady’s colors who sneered at one another twice as hard as they did at the Danes.  

In seeing their numbers, no matter how divided they appeared, Lena felt a numbing chill shoot up her spine. Astra’s clan had courted risk. Them pilfering Saint Tibba’s bones may have united the Saxons, but instead the barons and reeves, the teghns and other lesser nobles were squabbling once again. This time keen to decide who among them should have the honor of returning them. They all knew that proving steadfast in this task would win over the populace. And the powerful bishops of the Mercian church. 

“So you took the relics simply to summon us in one place?” Lex asked the Jarlskona as they all gathered in a circle on what functioned as the village square. He sounded like he wanted to be impressed, but was loath to give her the satisfaction.

“Obviously.” Astra shrugged. “I have no use for old bones.” At that some of the nobles grumbled. “And we tried other ways, but when you agreed to talk, others wouldn’t. And so on, and so forth. You think of us as foreigners, but the hate you have for one another runs too deep to comprehend. Giving you a common goal seemed like the only way.”

“And aren’t you worried we’ll just take the reliquary and your fertile omegas, then kill you all?” Lex countered. As the word omega rolled from his lips, his dark eyes found Lena’s. She refused to be the first to drop her gaze, but could not suppress a shiver.

The tension, tasting heavy and unwanted on her tongue, was broken by Astra’s uproarious laugh.

“Is that before or after you’re done murdering one another?”  

To Lena’s surprise, Lex joined in. 

“Ah, you’re not wrong in talking about hate.” He wiped tears of mirth from his eyes with a gloved hand, his gaze hard and calculating. “So you best say your piece before someone remembers an old blood feud and decides to start trouble.”

“You need to choose a king.” Lena had become accustomed to Astra’s bluntness, but her directedness sent shock rippling through the Mercians. “With no guidance, your land suffers.” Astra ignored the murmurs and went on. “And we all want the same thing, in the end. To prosper. Peace.”

“I agree.” Lex took a step forward, letting the light of the bonfire the Danes had lit to keep the cold at bay wash over his face. He’d always had a taste for theatrics, and as he drew himself up now, eyes glittering with flecks of orange, he looked every inch the king. Only the circlet of iron around his brows was missing.

“And who better than me?” He pointed a finger at Lena, and next to her, Kara bared her teeth. Having embraced Dane custom, Lena didn’t cover up her mark, and Lex’s eyes had always been as sharp as his mind.

 “Already my sister has tied our family to this powerful clan! At my behest, of course.” Lena rolled her eyes. Kara muttered something about insolence. Astra simply looked amused. “I agree with the Jarskona !  Our people want, no, they demand peace! But how can they tend to their stock and fields with serene hearts when not a day goes by without us having stolen from one another?”  

His words were having an effect, especially on the lesser nobles. Those that had come with only one or two men for escort, since their shires were too poor to raise a proper fyrd

“No!” Edge elbowed his way to the front row. “You had promised her to me! Not this---this—!” He glared at Kara, who had put an arm around Lena’s waist in open challenge. His nostrils flared.

“Careful now.” Astra had exuded calm thus far, but now she tensed and many among the Danes reached for their weapons. “I would consider my next words very, very carefully if I were you. It is my niece you are speaking of.” 

“My good man.” Lex put himself between Edge and Kara. “I promised you nothing. All I did was allow you to court my sister. And she’s mated anyway. Surely you’re smart enough to know a bite can’t be undone?” 

Edge shook his head, refusing to be swayed. Him and Lex exchanged heated words, but it was clear that her brother’s honeyed tongue held no sway over the man. 

Lena held no pity for Edge in her heart, but she could understand why he felt betrayed. Lex had dangled her like a piece of meat in front of every unmated noble in the region, all but promising her to a few. His supporting her mating now meant nothing; he just saw the Danes as stronger allies. 

Lena had no doubt Astra understood, but once this farce was done with, she’d make sure to warn her. Lex could not — should not — be trusted. 

“He will not listen.” Lex had turned his back on Edge, and his body language couldn’t be more clear. The idiot alpha was on his own now. “ Jarlskona , we are guests in your village, so if you see a solution…” 

A strange look passed between Astra and Kara, then her mate nodded.

“A holmgang .” The Jarlskona said, and Lena stiffened. She didn’t like the sound of that. 

“It’ll be fine,” Kara’s knuckles ran down her forearm. “You’ve seen me fight. And Astra won’t let it get too far.”

“A duel?” Edge snorted, but his voice had climbed in pitch, and color had drained from his face. “You want me to fight with a woman ?”

“A warrior, same as you.” Astra replied, calmly. Her eyes burned cold. “If you have honor.”

“I—!” Edge sputtered, indignant. “Yes! Fine! I accept!” He spat the latter in Kara’s direction. “I’ll deal with you and then take what’s mine .” His gaze was on Lena like grease. 

***

“I still wish there was another way.” 

They were waiting for the plot of land where the duel would take place to be prepared. Eliza had blessed the earth, and warriors from the clan were now using powdered chalk to draw a square on the ground. 

“I know it’s the only way.” Lena resumed before Kara started to argue. “But I don’t have to like it.” 

“I will win.” Astra was striding forward, which signalled that the duel was about to start, and Kara pulled Lena in for one last hug. So rough it made her ribs scream in protest, but Lena didn’t mind. She wrapped her arms twice as fiercely around the alpha’s broad shoulders, and sucked a mark on the side of her throat. 

“Try not to get hurt.” 

A loud rumble shook Kara’s entire chest, and faster than Lena could follow, she leaned in, her teeth tearing at the mating bite. 

“I will beat Edge and then I’ll put a child in you. I’m going to keep you on all fours until you’re bred.” Kara panted against the wound she’d just reopened, licking at the blood pooled there, and Lena’s knees went weak. “You’re mine.” 

“Yours.” Reluctantly, they let one another go. “Only and always yours, my alpha.” 

***

The duel was over almost as soon as it began. 

“First blood.” Astra cautioned, evidently aware that a duel to the death would only birth more violence. Kara and Edge had agreed. Then, Astra exited the duelling ring, and they went at one another. 

He was a decent swordsman, but Kara’s axe was a blur of grey-blue metal splitting the air with a lethal hiss. Edge managed to hold his own through the first flurry of blows, but the moment he tried to press the attack, Kara rolled under his overextended arm, axe slashing upward. 

A fine red mist filled the air, and Edge screamed, staggering back a step. His left cheek had been sliced open. 

“It is done!” Astra made to intervene and call an end to the hostilities, but Edge moved before she could, and lunged at Kara again. Letting go of the axe she sidestepped, and broke his sword arm with laughable ease. 

“Enough!” 

It wasn’t just Astra now, but warriors rushing in from both sides. Two of Lex’s men dragged a whimpering Edge away, but Lena had eyes only for her mate. Three people had surrounded her, corralling her in, and still it seemed that she would tear free and go after the disgraced teghn to finish the job. 

Lena had to do something. 

“Wait.” Sam blocked her path. “The last time she was this way, she ended up hurting Alex.” Lena remembered the story Alex had shared over the fire. Kara overtaken by the bloodlust. “A berserkr can’t be reasoned with. And if she injured you, she’d never forgive herself.”

“I am her mate.” Lena declared with far more confidence than what she was feeling. “She’ll never hurt me.” 

Sam gave her a dubious look, but at Astra’s call, she let her through.

“Kara, darling. It’s done.” Some of the Saxons had dispersed, perhaps sensing this was a private affair, but the clan was there, tense and alert. “You won.” 

Up close, Kara was a terrifying sight, and Lena’s voice wavered. The alpha stared at her, but her eyes were empty, a malevolent red gleam burning at the bottom of her pupils. And the rest of her was red as well; it was Edge’s blood, Lena knew, but the lines it had sprayed on Kara’s face seemed to glow and pulse with inner light. 

“Kara it’s me.” She cradled her mate’s face in gentle hands, wincing at the scorching heat she found there. Kara burned like the sun in summer, but her scent was all wrong. Gritty with hurt. She was hurting, but not physically and the bite on Lena’s throat throbbed in sympathetic feedback.

“Mine!” The alpha roared all of a sudden, pushing Alex away. She crushed Lena to her chest, then lifted her clear off the ground, calloused hands grabbing under her thighs. Alex got too close again, and Kara snapped her teeth right in her sister’s face. 

“Yours.” Twisting shaky fingers in Kara’s braids, Lena tugged, redirecting Kara’s attention so that she could kiss her. It was open and deep, teeth and tongue as if they hadn’t kissed with far more tenderness that same morning. 

Lena didn’t care for tender now. 

Kara’s half-mad state bled through the bond they shared, making her crazed with need. Her heat, which should have been at least another moon away, sparked low in her belly. Lena could feel Kara’s cock, caught between their bodies, and rubbed subtly against it, enjoying the way the alpha’s breaths stuttered and stalled.

“You promised me a breeding, darling.” Kara’s teeth were worrying at her mark again, sending spikes of pain to embed under her skin. “I want it. I want you to use me and knot me and stay inside of me until your seed takes root.”

“Breeding.” Some of the fog clouding Kara’s eyes lifted. “Yes. Mine. My breeding bitch.” 

Her body snapped taut against Lena’s and, for a moment, she thought that Kara would throw her onto the ground and mount her there. 

“Bedroom.” Slanting their mouths together again, Lena bit and sucked at Kara’s lower lip, moaning when the alpha’s eager tongue slid into her mouth. “Bedroom now.”

***

Edge had tried to take Lena away from her. 

Given the chance, Kara would stalk after him and rip his throat out with her teeth, but her mate was squirming in her arms. Begging for her cock. 

That was far more important than a stupid alpha who had to be reminded of his place.

Still, as she carried her omega to bed, Kara made sure her scent spread all over Lena. Her mate hadn’t even spared a glance for the meddling teghn , but he dared— he’d wanted— 

“Easy, love.” Lena nosed along her jaw. “You’re going to crack my ribs.” 

Hurt Lena? Inconceivable. Kara would never. But, as her mate’s words sank in, she understood she had lost control over her strength. Kara took pride in it, usually; she could run faster and further than anyone in the clan. Lifted more weight than anyone else, only Alex coming close. 

But at the thought she was the cause of her mate’s discomfort, Kara felt only shame. 

“M’sorry.” In the bedroom, she set Lena down with care, and took a step back, even if it was hard. Even though it felt like she was cutting her arm off. “‘m… I… need .” 

Need. 

Such a simple word, and yet what Kara felt was so complicated. 

Lena had filled her head with thoughts of round bellies and pups, and Kara needed. She wanted . She missed her own mother so much, and here she was, aiming to become a mother herself. What if she wasn't ready? What if she couldn’t keep her violent streak under control? Even now, wariness lurked beneath Lena’s look of adoration. She could hide the fear from others, but never from her.

“I need you too.” Lena shimmied out of her clothes, and Kara’s breath caught in her throat. She was so beautiful. So conscious of it too, and Kara loved the way her mate showed herself off for her without reticence. 

Kara’s eyes roamed all over her, like she could drink the sight of her in. Bottle it up inside herself, somehow. Her breasts, small enough they fit easy in her hands, the tuft of dark hair at the crux of her thighs. The hint of a curve to her belly. Kara thrust a hand inside her breeches and fished herself out, pumping a fist up and down her shaft until it was fully erect. 

“Mine?” 

“Yes.” 

She expected Lena would come to her, but the omega turned away, and crawled on the bed on all fours. “Yours.” 

“Mine.” Kara grunted, closing in. Her breath was coming in short bursts, and she didn’t bother closing her mouth, greedy for more of Lena’s scent. She didn’t think she’d be able to sit in front of a fire again without this moment springing to the forefront of her mind. Lena’s scent was that of a forest burning, of sunlight over water. She was bright and warm, and Kara wanted to sink into her depths and melt there. 

She would.

“Make me your whore.” Kara couldn’t tear her eyes away from Lena’s cunt. It was puffy and pink, dewy with the omega’s arousal. The alluring fragrance of Lena’s heat was stronger there, and Kara didn’t bury her face into her folds simply because she wanted to bury something else in there. 

“My breeding whore.” Kara was upon her, pushing her legs further apart. Lena fell forward, face pressed into the pillows, ass up in the air. It was the perfect position. Kara instinctively knew the angle would allow her to sink her knot right in. 

It had already formed, a momentary burn sizzling her marrow when it popped. Her rut. Kara’s alpha howled its triumph and she knelt behind Lena, one hand on the omega’s hip. Her rut had come. 

“Yes.” Lena’s voice was muffled, but dripped with her submission. “Your whore.” Her scent was a blanket wrapping tightly around Kara’s mind. Making her a being of single, hyper-focused purpose. 

“Gonna fill you up.” Kara’s voice dropped into a lower register, dirty and liquid at once. “Keep you on your knees until you’re bred.” She pushed a hand between Lena’s shoulder blades, pinning her in place as she lined up to her already clenching hole. Sloppy, messy work, but her mate didn’t seem to mind the accidental bumping against her clit. 

“If it doesn’t take the first time, I’ll chain you to the bed.” Lena moaned responsively at that, something as dark as what what rearing up inside of Kara, causing her to grind back into her cock. “Collared and chained, the way a breeding bitch should be.”

“Please, alpha!” Lena reached back blindly, nails scratching at Kara’s thigh. “ Please .” 

“Did you know my aunt keeps a breeding bench in her quarters?” Astra had never taken a mate, but she’d sired plenty of bastards. “She chooses a willing omega each season and gets them heavy with child. You can hear the moans all over the village. Sometimes she makes them scream for days.”

Lena did cry out then, like she could already imagine herself strapped to the pelt covered bench, Kara’s cock buried inside her to the hilt. Kara making use of her holes in turn, until she was left leaking cum from them all. 

Maybe it was the idea somebody would listen in or even watch, but Lena jerked into her again, absolutely frenzied for the fucking.  

Having pushed her own resistance to the limit, Kara was more than happy to oblige. 

The first thrust made them both gasp, arch into one another. 

“I think I’m going to ask her.” Kara was babbling now, but her words were having such a delicious effect on Lena, she couldn’t make herself stop. “Ask her if she wants to stay and watch us fuck. My aunt can be very creative… maybe she’ll have a suggestion or two for me to try on you.” 

“Anything you want.” Lena lifted her head to catch her breath, but having decided she’d filled her lungs enough, Kara pushed her back down.

“You’re such a filthy whore.” She praised, her cock pulsing its agreement. “So open for my knot. And you’re all mine. My slut.” Kara slammed into her, setting a punishing pace. Truth was she couldn’t bear the ache in her knot much longer. She needed to force it inside of Lena’s walls, and needed to spill. Already, pressure was building at her base alongside her frustration. The knot popping before she was fully wrapped in the clingy, slippery warmth of Lena’s cunt, meant there was no way to get as deep as she wished to. 

“You need to let me in.” Grabbing her mate by the hair, Kara yanked her head off of the pelts, baring the unmarked side of her throat for another bite. “Be a good slut now, and breathe. Feel yourself open.” 

Lena’s reactivity to dirty talk was something they’d discovered by accident, that first day they went hunting together. Lena had been sucking her off, teasing until Kara was a bundle of tension, and when she’d finally taken her fully into her throat, the words had just flowed out of Kara. 

“You suck me so well.” Kara had encouraged, hand resting atop Lena’s head. “Such a slut for my cock.” 

Lena had whined then, and the animalistic sound had brought Kara to her knees. They’d coupled in the dirt, and were very, very late to the rendezvous point at the waterfall. 

Sam had given them a knowing look.

“Good.” Lena reacted now, going ragdoll-like underneath her, moaning when Kara worked her clit to help the stretching of her cunt. “Good girl.”

The tight ring of muscles at the omega’s opening slackened enough to let Kara’s sizable knot through, and she sighed her approval around a mouthful of Lena’s pale shoulder. “That’s it. Made to be my cum-slut. That’s what you are. You’re gonna be so good and give me children now.” Lena rippled around her. “Yes, yes. I will keep you round.” Kara soothed. She couldn’t thrust as much, tied as she was to her mate, but being full of her seemed to be enough for Lena. 

“As soon as you give birth, I’ll put another child in you. By the time my mother crosses the sea we’ll have five or six.”

“Yes!” Lena bucked, writhing against her. “I want it! I want everything you said! The bench, the breeding. I need it. I need— ” 

Judging that her fingers were slick enough, Kara let go of Lena’s clit and brought her hand around, stuffing the omega’s gasping mouth. 

“Suck.” She sneered, knowing that Lena was close to her release by the way she clenched when the taste of her own slick hit her tongue. “I’m going to make you clean your own filth up.” She worried briefly, that she had pushed things too far, but then Lena’s tongue swirled around her pumping fingers, the omega coming undone underneath her. 

With her mouth full she couldn’t scream, but Kara felt it anyways. Her cries of release vibrating all along her arm like aftershocks from a blow. 

One heartbeat later and it was Kara’s turn to seize up, go rigid against Lena’s sweaty back. She didn’t bother muffling her own scream. Let Edge hear. 

Let them all hear as she gave Lena a child. 

***

It took forever for the knot to deflate, and when Kara finally slipped out of Lena, a trickle of cum smearing on the furs, the omega greeted the loss with a mewling, plaintive sound. 

“Was I too rough?” The red fog had cleared, and spotting a few bruises on her mate’s pale skin, Kara feared she’d crossed a line. 

“You were perfect.” Taking her hand, Lena placed it flat to her belly. It was slightly swollen, a sign that the seed might have indeed taken hold inside her. “Can you feel how full you made me?” 

The fugue state was gone, but feeling Lena’s belly stretched by an overabundance of seed, picturing her womb flooded with it, was enough to make Kara hard again. 

“Sorry.” She huffed, trying to push her cock down. “I know you’re too sore for—” 

“I just need a few hours.” Lena’s pupils blew outward, devouring the green of her eyes. “But nobody said I can’t help you spill your seed other ways. 

Long fingers closed around Kara’s thudding base, milking her length in an upward motion, and it wasn’t long before they were making a mess of the bed. 

***

Lena felt bloated.

Round, and as full as the long house after a fruitful hunt, when it was packed with everyone in the clan.

"I look horrible." She complained to Kara one evening, the wind blowing with so much strength the fire spattered and hissed even in their room. As tucked away as it was.

"Nonsense." Kara ran a finger along the curve of her belly, laughing when the skin there tented with a kick from their child. "You are beautiful, round with our pup and I am so very proud of you." 

The praise was melted butter lathering Lena's tired bones, and she purred in pleasure. Kara always said the right thing. Especially when Lena felt vulnerable. Particularly now, with her spine aching and her ankles swollen, and her breasts sore and leaking milk. 

“It’s only a little more than a month now.” Kara’s hand spanned her belly possessively, and Lena whined, letting her head fall back to show the throat. “And whatever is required in the meantime, you know I’ll do.”

It was true. Lena really couldn’t complain about that. Kara was the most attentive mate she could have desired, always ready to fetch her water in the middle of the night, bringing back the choicest morsels from the communal fires when Lena was hungry. Fowl and mutton, something she called honey cakes if Lena was craving something sweet.

Lena liked the time they spent together in the evening the best, when they left the others by the fire to listen to Nia’s tales and retired for the night.  

It had become some sort of ritual. With the birth so close, Lena rarely left the longhouse, spending her days by Astra’s side, or learning more about healing from Eliza. 

At dusk, which came early this deep in the winter, Kara would come in smelling of frost and sawdust if she’d done work around the village. If she’d spent the day hunting with Alex, the smell of the forest was trapped in her clothes instead, but it was all the same to Lena. She liked to spend long moments scenting her regardless, face ensconced in the crook of the alpha’s neck, no matter who saw. 

Then, once they were alone, they’d talk about their days and cuddle until one of them invariably fell asleep in the other’s arms. 

But tonight Lena felt strangely wired up. Heat ignited where Kara was touching, and the alpha seemed to respond to this tense undercurrent too. Her hand sought Lena’s breast, and she squeezed it roughly through the fabric of her dress, rumbling her approval when the cloth grew damp with milk. 

“Whatever is required, you said?” Lena sought her other hand, and guided it down between legs that were already falling open in invitation. “Anything at all?” 

Kara hadn’t touched her in a fortnight, afraid despite Eliza’s reassurances, that she’d end up hurting Lena or the baby. Both, maybe. 

She didn’t seem opposed now, however. As Lena tugged her hand down urgently, the alpha’s eyes were wild, pupils rapidly expanding like ink carelessly spilled over parchment. She smelled hungry, and when she spoke, her voice was gravel from a landslide. A low growl, pacing circles in her chest. 

“Anything.” She murmured. Her teeth flashed at Lena’s earlobe, tongue darting out to soothe the sting of the bite. 

Lena had been sitting between her mate’s legs, leaning back against her chest, and could now feel Kara’s own excitement push at the base of her spine. She tried to twist around, but Kara anticipated her. Her nipples were pinched and twisted in turns, and Lena’s plan ended before it began, with her arching into Kara’s touch, her mate’s fingers spreading her open, rubbing the mess of slick coating her cunt. 

“You’re so wet.” Kara tongued her earlobe again, softer this time. “So needy .” She teased and stroked her slit insistently, fingers scissoring between Lena’s swollen lips. “Is that it? You felt neglected elskan mín[my love] ?” 

When Lena didn’t immediately reply, Kara tapped a finger against her clit, causing her to buck.

“I just—” Kara twisted one of her nipples again, and Lena cried out. The more her alpha played with her, the more she leaked. It was embarrassing, but at the same time, it turned her on beyond reason. “Please? Please, Kara. Alpha, I’ll do anything.” This sounded very close to what Kara’d said only moments before. 

“All you have to do is lie there and let me take care of you, love.” Wiggling out from under her, Kara made quick work of her nightshift and tipped her back onto the furs, mouth latching at her right breast, the pressure of her teeth unbearable. 

Lena wept and writhed and moaned. The line between pain and pleasure was first blurred, then completely erased from her mind. She was a being of pure need. Action, on Kara’s part, and reaction on her own. 

Spurred by the noises she was making, Kara tried to fit as much of her breast inside her mouth as she could, jaws stretching, tongue lashing at the reddened, leaking nipple. 

“Too much, too much.” Lena tried to push Kara away, but in truth her body wanted more. Kara’s teeth didn’t hurt, exactly, it was just that Lena was feeling too many things at once. Kara’s mouth, hot and urgent — everything about her was so warm — her tongue flicking and circling, then held flat against her puckered nipple to gather whatever her mate could coax out. 

And Kara wasn’t being careful with her teeth, biting enough to leave red marks. But a lesser presence would have been even worse. Her breasts hurt all the time — awake or asleep — and some days, if Kara wasn’t at hand to help the way she was doing now, Lena tormented them herself. It was not the same. 

There was nothing comparable to her mate’s touch.

“Not enough.” Kara growled, hot puffs of air buffeting Lena’s sweat-salted skin. She sucked , and Lena forgot all else after that. 

Even her own name.

***

Push !” 

It was stifling inside their quarters, or maybe it was just the exertion slicking every inch of Lena’s skin with sweat. She felt like she’d done nothing but push for hours. Her entire existence was distilled down to the act; push, breathe, push again. 

Lena dreaded to think about what she must look like; hair sticking to her brow and eyes wild, half-feral like those of an animal caught in a trap. 

That was how she was feeling, anyhow. 

As she was going into labor, Eliza had given her a herbal tea for the pain, but its effects — mild to begin with — were now long gone. Lena had recognized a few of the ingredients that went into it, and knew she couldn’t ask for more in her condition. Not if it risked hurting the child. A child who seemed hellbent on hurting her as much as they could on the way out. 

Another contraction ripped through her and she screamed, pushing for all that she was worth before falling back limply onto the bedding. 

“I am pushing.” The words left her in a hiss, pain lancing through her. The death grip she had around Kara’s hand tightened, but the alpha only gave her an encouraging smile. Her mate was doing a better job of staying calm than she, but her eyes scanning her face closely for every subtle change of her expression, betrayed all of her worry.

“You’re doing so well, Lena.”  She wasn’t. She was about to rip open. “You’re almost there. Just another—”

“Go ahead, Kara.” Lena chewed out. “Tell me to push one more time. Just do it.” It was unfair, but she couldn’t help it. 

“She would push in your stead if she could.” Sam interjected softly, wiping her brow with a wet cloth. She had been as much of an anchor as Kara through the hours, fetching water, stoking the fire, taking turns in holding Lena when the pain became too great and the tears impossible to stop. 

The particular custom — that Lena could choose an omega to sit with her through labor —  had come as a surprise, five months into the pregnancy. 

It was Kara who explained one evening as they lazed in bed, the alpha’s hand splayed atop the curve of her belly to feel the baby shift. The first surprise had been that the sire of the child was required to witness the birth as well, or be labelled craven. Among the Saxons it was just the midwife. A few maids if the woman about to give birth was a noble. Plus a priest outside, in case the child was stillborn, or the mother required last rites. 

From the moment Lex had told her he was looking for a suitable husband for her, the idea of facing the trials of birth alone had kept Lena up at night. 

But here, despite the pain, she wasn’t lonely. Both Kara and Sam bore the signs of her suffering. Bruises on their hands and wrists where she had grabbed too hard, red welts where her nails dug in. 

Neither complained. 

“I see the head.” Eliza’s hands worked between her legs, wiping away the mess of blood-speckled fluid there, then shifted Lena’s hips for a better exit angle. “I need you to push with all you have now. On my mark. One, two—” 

Lena didn’t wait for her to say three. The respite had been as needed as it was brief. Her entire body seized up into one endless spasm, and she didn’t even have breath enough to scream. Her lungs just didn’t fill, chest hitching, heaving, her vision gray at the edges. Time slowed to a crawl, then stopped completely, and all sound around her ceased. Swallowed by the roar of her own blood, the frantic drumbeat of her heart against her ribs.

Kara was saying something to her, Lena could see her lips move, but she couldn’t hear the words. 

There was too much pain, sharp and immediate, right at her core. As though some foreign force was pulling her body apart, flensing the muscles from her bones. The next contraction hit, smashing her back into reality with a sickening lurch. Somebody was crying, shrill and desperate. Too high in pitch to be her. 

“There’s another! It’s twins!” Eliza was shouting and Alex — who she knew had been pacing grooves of worry right outside the door — burst into the room to lend a hand, arms full of clean linen. 

Twins . Lena’s thoughts were so slow and scattered she could barely understand the word. Her very existence was agony; she couldn’t comprehend anything else. Only the base instincts which whispered that, if she stayed very, very still, eventually the pain would go away. 

“I’m sorry, I can’t—” Something warm and sticky trickled down her inner thigh.

“You can.” Gathering her to her chest, Kara pressed a kiss to the mating bite. “I’m here. You can do this, love. It’s almost done, I promise.” 

Desperate, Lena clung to the words, forcing herself to soldier on, beyond all pain and reason. Her mate’s quiet strength lent her what energy she needed to push their second child into the world, and in moments a throatier cry was joining the first. 

“It’s done.” Kara beamed, not bothering to hide the sheen of tears in her eyes. “You did it. My love, I am so proud of you.”

“Hurts so much…” Lena mumbled through fissured lips, tongue almost too thick to form words. “Kara…” She wanted to ask to see the children, but her eyes were drooping shut, and she was fading fast. An odd chill spread through her limbs, and her teeth started to chatter. “Kara…” 

Lena was no healer, but she knew this wasn’t right. It took all that she had left to grasp Kara’s hand and squeeze, hoping she’d understand.

“Lena?” The last thing she got to see was her mate’s joy dissolving into horror. “ Lena !” 

She didn’t remember anything else.

***

Kara came to with a startled shiver, eyes darting around the dimly lit bedroom as she scrambled to a crouch. Her heart jolted, throbbed at her throat like it did during battle. But there were no enemies here. Just a dying fire, and her mate lying under a heap of furs.

“Is she—” 

“Sleeping.” Alex’s voice was rough with lack of the same. “As are the twins.” 

Their babes. 

Silently, Kara stood, legs still a bit rigid as she walked to the crib she and Alex had spent weeks building. It was big enough to hold both of her children for now, but they’d need another once they’d grown into it some. Soon, since kids had this strange power of outgrowing things in the space of a night. 

She peered into the crib, as mesmerized as she had been the first time. A boy and a girl, and they’d name them as soon as Lena was well enough to decide on that. It was tradition for the omega to have the last say, as they endured the burden of pregnancy and childbirth. 

“They are so small.” She whispered, awestruck, watching her baby boy bring a tiny fist to his mouth. The top of his head was soft with white-blonde fuzz, while his twin’s — a girl — had hair as dark as Lena’s. Kara secretly hoped one of them would also inherit her mate’s striking green eyes.

“They’re perfect.” Alex joined her, a fond smile curving her lips. “And your hands are going to be so full .”

“Don’t forget you’re their aunt.”

“Oh, how could I?” Alex had a few years on her, and was harder than Kara in many ways, but looking at her now one would never guess. She practically melted as she spoke, scent full of yearning.

“And Sam’s not changed her mind? After… y’know.” The red-soaked rags they’d used to stem Lena’s bleeding had been taken away, and Eliza burned lavender in the fire to purify the air. All that notwithstanding, the metallic tang of Lena’s blood would fill Kara’s nose for months. 

And the terror of losing her might keep her awake longer than that,

“If anything she’s even more determined.”

“As if you mind what’s required to—” A rustle, coming from the bed, cut Kara off. 

“Shhh.” She was at Lena’s bedside in a flash, an anxious noise building at the back of her throat. “Shhh, it’s alright. You’re alright.”

“Kara…” 

“Hush, love.” 

“The children—”

“Hush.” Kara lowered herself to the bed, and Lena’s whimpers tapered off. She was having trouble staying alert, and her speech was slurred by fatigue and the brew Eliza had carefully poured down her throat after she tended to her other hurts. She’d warned Kara that it would make Lena mostly unresponsive, and woolen-headed once she woke. 

“And don’t you dare disturb her sleep.” She’d wagged a warning finger right under Kara’s nose. “I know how you alphas get, when you’re all soft with worry. But she needs rest, not you fretting and waking her up just to ask how she feels.” 

Kara was quick to reassure the Vølve that; no, of course she wouldn’t wake her. Whatever Eliza said. 

“The children are asleep.” Cradling Lena in her arms, she dipped to kiss the corner of her mouth, letting out a quiet, relieved huff as her mate relaxed against her. It didn’t take long for Lena to fall back asleep, a strand of drool dripping down her chin.

“Kara?” Alex lingered at the foot of the bed, waiting to see whether they needed anything like water or an extra blanket. She was doing her best not to stare, but couldn’t banish completely banish the wistfulness Kara read clear as day on her face.  

“We’re fine, Alex.” She reassured in a croak. She hadn’t really realized how drained the last few hours had left her until she felt Lena, fragile and far too light, snuggled in her arms. But it was getting to her now, and she’d rather her sister didn’t see her cry. It’d be impossible to convince Alex to leave them alone, then. 

“Go find Sam.” Her voice wasn’t as strong as she wanted it to be, but her accompanying grin proved to be enough. “You two have work to do.”

***

“Well?” 

Eliza poked and prodded at Sam’s belly without replying, and Lena felt her friend grow tense next to her. It wasn’t the first time Alex’s seed took, but the others had ended in miscarriage. It was off-putting to see someone as strong as Sam this close to tears.

“All will be well.” She whispered, cupping Sam’s cheek and trying to act as the single, immutable place of safety her friend had been for her during childbirth. “All will be well, Sam.”

Swallowing back tears, Sam nodded. 

“You are with child.” Eliza announced after more careful prodding,and moved off to gather several different types of dried herbs. “I will give you a powder to take every morning with your breakfast, and gods willing, you’ll have a babe to dote on before winter comes round again. But you will need to rest as much as you can. No hunting, no raiding, no lifting heavy things.”

“So you want me to die of boredom, basically.” 

Sam’s playful tone fell just short of being convincing. She was doing her best to come off as unaffected, but fear and hope were going to war inside her eyes. Lena wrapped her fingers around Sam’s hand more tightly, saying nothing, and got a grateful half-smile in return. 

“I’m not sure I want to tell Alex yet.” 

Eliza’s small hut rose on the village outskirts, closer to the forest than to the other buildings, and they took a slow walk the long way round, passing by Sam’s favorite spot near a small waterfall. The roar of the water was loud enough they could talk of private things there without anybody overhearing. 

“You know, the other times she got so excited and then—”

“I know.” Lena couldn’t even begin to imagine their pain. Helping her and Kara with the twins might have been a balm — at the very least it was a distraction — but the children were also a permanent reminder of what the gods had so far denied. “And your secret is safe with me. I told Kara we were going to go check the snares we laid out where we found those burrows the other week.” 

“We should do that, then. Just in case she asks more questions. The place isn’t far, and Eliza said nothing about not walking.”

“I heard what Eliza said, and it included the word rest .” Ignoring Sam’s protests, Lena grabbed her by an elbow, steering her back toward the village. “We’ll tell Kara the burrows must have been old if she asks.” 

“Alright, alright! There’s no need to push me, I’m going!” But Sam’s tone was softer than Lena had ever heard it. “If—” Sam paused, feet dragging, lower lip caught between her teeth. “If things go, y’know, if everything goes well, would you stay with me during the birth?” 

“I would be honored.” Lena drew her into a hug, unable to tell who teared up first. “I would be so happy to, Sam.” 

Sam’s daughter was born right as the last leaves were falling, the way Eliza had predicted, and even though her hair wasn't red like her sire’s, they called her Ruby. 

 

Chapter Text

They had peace.

For the first time in Kara’s memory, they had peace.

In Norway, before Rhea’s red dreams, they had the cruel cold to contend with. An early storm, a sudden turn of the weather meant lost crops and barren animals. Starving children. Not a winter had gone by without them burying someone. 

And if it wasn’t the weather, it was neighbouring clans attacking right before winter’s grip tightened on the land. To steal their cattle, raid the stores of salted cod and grain they had stockpiled during Norway’s short summers. Sometimes, they stole fertile omegas too. 

Mercia was a hard land in its own way, but winter was kinder here, the snow lighter on the ground. She still couldn’t believe more than a year had passed since they set sail under the cover of night on Alura’s orders.

Find land that we can settle , her mother had commanded from her throne inside the longhouse. 

Kara had found so much more.

“I don’t know what to do with myself sometimes.” She blurted out over the sputtering fire she and Alex had started under the hanging branches of a tall pine, where the ground was free of snow and even.  

They’d left the village early that morning with every intention to bring back fresh deer. Lacking that, a rabbit or two. Childbirth had been gentler on Sam than it was on Lena, but Alex never passed up the chance to spoil her mate with game when the weather permitted. 

It was fair when they set out, the sun a mere intention of light on the horizon, but a cold wind blew down from Northumbria mid-morning, carrying a storm on its wings. 

Black-streaked clouds spilled across the sky like ink from an upturned jar. The blue was at first muted, and then it completely disappeared. A wind picked up, whistling, howling among the trees as feral as a pack of wolves, and with the passing hours the colors overhead grew threatening and intense. Early dusk descended on the forest, and by the time the first snowflakes fell, ethereal in their beauty, Kara knew they’d never make it back to the village in time.

Their best bet was to find shelter, and so they had searched for a spot that would offer some protection, gathering wood for a fire as they walked.

Kara didn’t mind the storm. She’d seen, survived through worse, sometimes on the open water. They both had. The wind didn’t bother her much either, and with her back to a pine tree, the snow only whipped her cheeks occasionally, but she fretted anyhow.

Worried that Lena would think something had happened to them and worry in turn. 

“Quit it.” Alex caught her forearm in a firm grip and squeezed. “Lena is smart. She’ll know we stopped to avoid travelling through a storm. And if not, Sam will tell her.” 

“I know. I just—”

“You wish you were back in the longhouse, under a pile of furs with a full belly and Lena’s mouth—” 

Stop .” 

Her face was flush with heat, and the fire had nothing to do with it.

“It’s true, though.”

“I don’t need to hear my sister say it!” 

They laughed, and for a while she could forget the rest.

“You have two children and a niece,” Alex resumed eventually, picking up the thread of their conversation. She threw another piece of wood into the fire and watched the flames leap up around it. They ate at the sap with greed, and she leaned forward, hands outstretched to soak in some of the warmth. “I’d say you have plenty to do with yourself.” 

“You know what I mean.” Kara dug into the inner pocket of her tunic for her whittling knife and plucked a promising twig from the pile at Alex’s side. It’d always been easier to talk with her hands occupied, and under the flashing blade a shape started to take form. A longboat to which she would add a proper sail once they were back at the village. A pile of such toys rested at the bottom of the trunk in her rooms, waiting for the day hers and Lena’s pups would be old enough to play with them “I want the peace to hold as badly as the next man, but we both know it won’t.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it while it lasts.” They had brought provisions to eat on the trail, and since it looked like it was going to snow for hours still, Alex started on their dinner. A few handfuls of melted snow would provide the base for a poor but filling stew, and their water skins were still half full. “I’ve seen you on the palisade at night, even when it’s not your turn. Time you should be spending in bed with your mate, or coddling your children.”

“I can’t sleep.” Kara lied. 

She did sleep, and it was always nightmares. Every night, when Kara closed her eyes the Saxons came. Edge ripped Lena from her side. Lena died of childbirth over and over again.

Kara .” Some of the horror must be showing on her face, because Alex shifted closer, pressed in until they were shoulder to shoulder. Kara may be one of the best trackers in the clan, attuned as she was to her surroundings, but Alex was the best at reading people. Eerily perceptive, and even more so when it came to Kara. It didn’t matter that they did not share the same blood; Alex read her moods as easily as she spotted deer prints in the dirt. Could anticipate her darkest, most dangerous ones days before they manifested.

Right now, her sister was giving off the protective scent Kara remembered from their youth. When she would fall on the ice and run home with skinned knees and a runny nose. “Breathe.” The stew had come to a boil and Alex poured a measure of it into a wooden cup, pushed the portion in Kara’s hands. “Eat. We will be ready when war comes.” 

***

“You can’t sleep.” Lena didn’t bother replying. It wasn’t a question.

“I can’t either.” Astra straddled the bench next to her, reaching for the pitcher of cider that sat near the coals so that it would keep warm throughout the night. “I never sleep during a storm.” 

Lena knew the story. She’d heard Nia tell it time and time again around the evening fires. It was a favorite tale among the clan, and somebody always ended up requesting it. How Astra had been the first to sail to Vinland and back, the weather so foul on the return trip that her ship had limped more than glided into port, most of the crew drowned, the oars smashed to kindling by the fury of the sea. That way Kara’s aunt had earned the title of Stormbreaker, displaying more courage than warriors who were four, five times her age. 

Even now, despite the shock of gray in her hair and lines on her face, she projected an aura of power. Astra was as hard as the frozen lands she hailed from, but always just, which was not the same as being fair. Lena was still getting used to her bluntness; where Lex used tricks and empty promises to rule, Astra said what she meant, always. And yet, she was a more skilled diplomat than all of the nobles of Mercia combined.

“The children?” 

“Sleeping.” Lena scrunched up her nose and smiled a little ruefully. She envied the innocence of her pups; they could sleep without a care despite the wind shrieking outside the longhouse as long she or Kara sang to them softly before bedtime. 

Kara. On her lips, the smile soured.

“You’re worried about her.” Too late Lena realized she’d spoken out loud. “My nieces will have stopped somewhere safe to ride out this storm.” It made sense, and Lena would have done the same in their shoes, but she couldn’t smooth the lines that worry had dug on her face, no matter how hard she tried. 

“We control these lands, Lena.” Astra continued patiently. “The forest is no danger to them.” Her tone wasn’t exactly kind — if she had a gentler side, Lena’d ever only seen it in fleeting flashes — but a touch of warmth seeped through. And her eyes, as grey as the snow-laden sky outside surely must be, were full of understanding. “She will be back and in your bed before dawn.”

The hour was so late that they had the longhouse to themselves, and with the majority of the fires banked for the night, Lena felt like they were sitting inside a cave instead. Impenetrable shadows hid the vaulted ceiling, and the hole in the roof through which the smoke from the fires dispersed was just a half-glimpsed silhouette, darker than the rest. 

A rustle of feet to their right and Astra sprung up, putting herself between Lena and the source of the sound with a hand on the dagger at her waist. A moment later she was sitting back down, snorting into her cup.

“Here comes another who should be asleep.” She quipped as Sam emerged from the murk, blinking against the light of the fire. “But this one ought to know better.”

“What can I say? Misery loves company.” Sam took the half full cup straight out of Astra’s hand and downed its contents, before sitting on Lena’s other side. “I hope those two idiots found someplace safe to stop.”

In the flickering glow cast by the fire she looked gaunt, her cheeks hollowed out, her eyes sunken. Instinctively, Lena shifted closer, doing her best to transmit confidence even if she felt none of it herself. 

She was still getting used to this. In Saxon culture, omegas were discouraged from using their scent — their wiles the clergy said — to influence others. Those who tried were often accused of consorting with the devil, shuttered within convents. The unrepentant ones simply vanished. 

But, even if she still had trouble adapting to Norse customs, what she was doing seemed to have an immediate effect. Sam leaned into her, her entire posture unclenching, and sought out Lena’s hand to hold. 

Lena wasn’t sure how long she sat by the sputtering fire, sandwiched between Astra and Sam. It didn’t matter. It was warm here, with the flames reddening her cheeks and their solid presence. Astra was saying something, perhaps telling a story, perhaps discussing with Sam what needed to be done around the village come morning — check the roofs for damage, clear the paths from snow, throw some gravel where ice had formed so that people wouldn’t slip and break an ankle — Lena couldn’t keep up with the conversation. 

Not a drop of cider had touched her lips, but a strange lassitude pervaded her. She felt lightheaded, not quite there with the others, not quite elsewhere. She was staring at the fire and, at the same time, watching herself from the shadows.

There was something among the flames. Images. Figures. The sparks filling the air turned to swirls of snow and if she squinted, Lena could see— She could—

She jolted awake in her bed, hours later, shivery and cold despite the weight of a warm body pressed against her own. 

“How—?” She struggled to sit up, feeling out of sorts and bewildered. The last thing Lena remembered was staring into the fire, the flames contorting oddly as she watched. And then, nothing.

“Shh.” Sam pulled her back into her arms, and after a brief moment of resistance, Lena allowed it. “All is well, systir [sister]. You dozed off by the fire and Astra carried you to bed." She hesitated, fingers tormenting the edge of a worn fur. “I hope you don’t mind that I stayed.” She sounded unsure, a far cry from the stoic warrior Lena had come to know. “I just…” 

Sam’s gaze cut to the ceiling, and even if it was dark in the bedroom, Lena could easily imagine her expression. Admitting fear didn’t come easy to any of the Danes. 

“The pups are asleep,” Sam’s voice was so low the wind all but drowned it. “And I didn’t want to be alone.”

“I’m glad you stayed.” 

Lena closed her eyes, burying her face against Sam’s shoulder. She’d never really had friends, excluding Cat, but the older woman had been more of a mentor anyway. There were ladies-in-waiting at her brother’s court, and a few of the maids had been friendly to her, but Lena grew up painfully aware their acts of kindness only went so far. Like her, they were pawns, moved by the whims of the noble families behind them. Some, Lex never failed to remind her, wished her own family ill. 

Andrea was the only one Lena really felt close to, and all of that changed too when her father married her off to an Earl in East Anglia. 

And none of the women she’d called friends at one point or another ever shared her bed the way Sam was doing now. 

It was customary among Danes. The long cold winters, the awful storms. They forced people on a constant search for warmth. It meant survival, and on nights like tonight, it meant comfort too.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Lena mumbled again, feeling her limbs become heavy. She tried to fight it, to keep the sleep at bay a little longer. Her dreams had been odd; more snow, an impenetrable forest. Above all else, a sense of dread that lingered even now, like a bad taste in the back of her mouth.

“Then sleep.” Sam whispered in her ear, so close her lips brushed against the shell of it softly. Her scent curled around Lena pleasantly. Herbs and leather, with a note of honey underneath. A balm, to soothe away the worry. “It’s nearly dawn. They’ll be back soon.”

As it turned out, she wasn’t that far off.

***

Something hard was nudging into her side. 

“Five more minutes.” Kara huffed, rolling away from the intruding sensation. Gods, but she didn’t recall Lena having such sharp elbows.

She threw an arm across her eyes, screwing them shut against the growing light.

“Oh, no you don’t.” 

The nudging resumed, persistent, and she growled low in her throat. A warning. The nudging stopped, only to continue the next moment, so irritating it was impossible to ignore. She might pin Lena down for this and— 

Heat stirred inside her, and the growl mellowed into something of a whine. She would roll over and bury into her mate’s sweet— 

“Kara.” Alex’s voice poured in her ear, falsely sweet. “If you don’t get up right now, I’ll have to shove snow down your collar.” 

“Wha—?” Kara’s eyes had barely opened that her sister followed her threat with action. A handful of frigid snow was pushed down the front of her tunic; her body was warm enough that it instantly melted, running down her chest in icy rivulets. 

“Odin’s beard!” Kara bolted up, hands swatting ineffectually at her front. “Why—?” She gasped, and had to clench her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. “What in Hel’s name, Alex?” 

“You weren’t waking up fast enough.” 

“That’s—! It’s not—!” Kara hugged herself, still shivering. 

“Come on.” Alex ignored her protests and nodded to the forest around them. “The storm’s dying out. If we hurry, we’ll be home before the sun is fully up.”

Home. Back to Lena. 

That made Kara forget about the cold altogether. 

Breaking camp was quick with just the two of them. Still, despite the desire to reach the village as soon as possible, they took care to do it properly. 

Alex poured a measure of water over the coals, then kicked dirt over them for good measure. Having rolled their blankets up, Kara used a fallen branch to sweep any other traces of their passing from the ground, then took out her whittling knife again, and subtly marked the trunk of the nearest pine tree. This was a good spot for camping, and others within the clan may want to use it sometime.

When they set off, the off-gray light of morning was reaching through the canopy of evergreens. A light snow still fell, but the cloud cover was starting to part, and shreds of vivid clear sky peeked through. 

The storm, visible but on the opposite horizon, moved away at a steady pace. It’d bring its chilling touch to the southern realms then, eventually, hit the sea. By then it would long since have lessened to rain. 

The weather may be improving, but they didn’t travel as quickly as they liked. Snow was thick on the ground, moulded into low hills by the wind, and they had to clamber over them, sinking into the powdery white layers to their knees before skid-sliding down the other side.

Around them, the forest was waking up as well. Fresh deer tracks crossed their path a few times, and a hare watched them struggle by, nose twitching in the morning air before it decided they were a danger to it and darted off. 

“What is it?” 

They had been walking in silence for some time, Alex leading the way, when she slowed and threw a glance over her shoulder. “I could feel your foul mood a mile away. You’re not cross about the snow, are you?” 

“No, it’s not that.” The exertion had helped dry her tunic off, and besides it was a stupid thing to be mad over. “I just—”

Kara didn’t know how to explain it. 

Once the fog of sleep had cleared from her mind, she started to feel it. A restlessness, the same mood that sometimes took her before battle was joined. Walking helped contend with it. She failed to shrug it off, but it was relegated to the back of her mind. It wasn’t dread, but some sort of anticipation. Kara knew, without the shadow of a doubt that something was bound to happen soon. She just didn’t know what, or when.

“It’s nothing.” Alex rolled her eyes, but didn’t prod her any further, for which Kara was grateful. 

She felt it, her own mood, like a bowstring pulled too taut. A wrong word and it might snap. Hurt everyone nearby. And Kara didn’t want that.

She trudged after her sister in sullen silence, lost in her own thoughts. Doing all she could not to succumb to the bleakness gnawing at her bones.

Only the sight of the longhouse shingled roof, sprayed white by the latest snowfall as it peeked above the trees dragged Kara from her misery.

It was early, but on the approach she saw the streets bustled with activity, full of people tending to the animals after the bad weather. Assessing what sort of damage the storm had left behind. What was dangerous enough it needed to be fixed right away. What could wait till later. 

There wasn’t much, not that Kara saw at a first glance, and most of the paths between the houses had been cleared already. She let her gaze wander, hoping to spot Lena, but they were too far, the people like colorful blotches against the white glare of the snow.

“Look,” A note of awe entered Alex’s voice. “The river. It’s frozen.”  

She followed where her sister pointed, and it was true. The river glittered under the rising sun, its water motionless. Their longboats were caught in the ice’s grip, unnaturally still, but Kara wasn’t worried about the wood splintering. In Norway’s harsher climate this was a common sight, but she’d never expected to see it in England.

An omen, but of what kind she wasn’t sure.

“Come on,” when Alex didn’t move, she tugged at her arm, impatiently. “Us staring won’t unfreeze it any faster.” 

They slipped into the village through the northern palisade, where a bleary-eyed guard let them through with barely a shuddery nod. Kara sympathized. The storm was a barely visible smudge on the southern skies, a shadow to the sun, but it had left behind a bitter wind that cut every exposed part of her it could find.  

To compensate she hastened her step, and Alex was left trailing behind at a half-trot in an attempt to keep up. 

They found Astra outside the longhouse, head tilted back as she appraised a spot where a few shingles had come loose. 

“Your mates are still asleep.” She answered the unspoken question without turning. “They had a rough night and I figured they could use some extra rest.”

“Thank you Aunt.” Kara paused long enough to clasp Astra’s forearm in greeting, before hurrying inside, Alex close on her heels. 

Everyone in the clan spent some time inside the longhouse, with the consequence that in the enclosed space, individual scents became so intertwined there was no hope of picking them apart. And yet, she smelled Lena everywhere, somehow. Just wishful thinking of course. Even after so many months, it physically hurt to be apart for any length of time. 

Breakfast simmered to a low boil over the communal fires and Kara's stomach rumbled loudly. Alex went as far as to throw the pot of porridge a wistful look, but they didn't stop to eat.

In their own way, both of them felt the urge to be with their mate.

On the threshold to their rooms, she halted so abruptly Alex walked right into her back with a soft oof

“Kara, what—” 

“Hush.” She made an unnecessary shushing gesture, then tilted her chin toward the bed. “Look.”

Amid a sea of furs, Lena and Sam were fast asleep, cuddled into one another. As endearing as the sight was, it sent a pang of guilt ringing through her. It tolled deep, in mourning, like the bells the Saxons put atop their churches to call the faithful to worship. 

"Do you think I can lift Sam up without disturbing them?" Alex murmured in her ears, choked full of the same emotion that sent Kara's heart to careen against her chest. "I'd never forgive myself for waking them up."

"We must be careful. If we're careful, maybe."

In unison, they creeped forward. There was no need to speak. They moved like they had done so many times in far more gruesome circumstances. 

The beginning of a smile pulled at Kara's lips. This was a pleasant change of pace.

She reached the bed first  and sat down on the edge of it gingerly, on the side closest to Lena. 

Alex went around the other side in silence, quieter than a shadow, but Kara paid her little attention. Her thoughts, her senses were consumed by her mate, and the worry that had been throttling her heart in a vise started to ease.

Lena slept on, completely unaware, but peering into her face, Kara could tell her dreams were troubled. They dug deep furrows across her forehead, knitted her brows, caused her eyes to dart around behind closed eyelids. Like she was tracking an enemy, or running from one.

Even her scent was off. Not wrong, or ripe with sickness, but colder than Kara knew it to be, yet burning uncomfortably inside her nostrils. 

She was six winters old when, on a dare with the other children, Kara had held onto a piece of ice longer than advisable. At first her flesh went numb and she thought nothing of it,  but a few heartbeats later she was screaming, the cold hotter than fire on her skin. Among laughter she dropped the nugget of ice to the ground, crying for her mother when some of her skin came away with it.

The smell that came from her mate bit just as bone-deep.

Leaning down, so close her breath stirred Lena's hair lightly, Kara deliberately scent-marked her, trying to tell her without words that she was alright. Safe and protected.

A few moments and it seemed to work, or at least Lena's jaw relaxed, her mouth falling slightly open as she subconsciously pulled Kara's scent in.

On the other side of the bed, Sam stirred, blinked at nothing, but a murmured word from Alex and she let herself be lifted without protest.

One look of understanding to her sister, and Kara took Sam's place, fitting to Lena's back like she'd never left

She stopped barely long enough to shuck off her snow-crusted boots and send them tumbling to a corner, then positioned herself the same way Sam had, one arm draped over Lena's middle, legs tangled around each other's.

The effects of her presence were immediately noticeable. Tension eased off of Lena's spine, and she sank back, abandoned herself to Kara. Unable to resist, she teased careful fingers through the dark mass of Lena’s hair, watching as silky strands flowed from her palms, with the same mannerism of water. Weak sunlight filtered in from small imperfections in the tatch, and in its glow, Lena’s hair was alive with sparks of vivid copper. 

Her own must be a mess after a night of sleeping rough. Kara was sure that, if she combed through it, she’d find pine needles and bits of bark. 

Feeling Lena start to come awake at her side, she carded through her hair again and let her nails catch lightly against her sleep-warm scalp. A sound, almost a hum of contentment came from her mate, and Kara repeated the gesture, encouraged. 

“Kara?” 

Lena’s voice was that of someone trying to claw a path away from sleep. Rough, grainy like sand. “Kara… I dreamt—” 

“Not a dream.” Kara buried her nose behind Lena’s ear, eliciting a gasp. “I’m here.”

“Mmm. You’re cold.”

“And you’re warm.”

Lena twisted in her arms, wiggled until they were face to face. Her green eyes were forest deep with sleep, still a little glassy, but when Kara sneaked cold hands under her tunic they widened in outrage, regaining some of the sharpness she was so familiar with.

“Kara, stop!” Lena tried to unsuccessfully swat her hands away. “You’re really, really cold!” 

“And you’re really, really warm.” Kara grinned. She leaned in, so close she felt Lena’s ragged breath hot on her lips. 

She loved mornings like these. With two children they were hard to come by, moments in which they could laze in bed and bask in one another’s presence. Kara treasured each and every one, and did more so today.

Muscles she didn’t know were clenched released, and the restlessness that haunted her throughout the trip back to the village was put to rest. On instinct, Kara let the hand that had been cradling Lena’s nape fall to her chest, rested it flat atop her breastbone. Felt Lena’s heart leap up, thunder into her palm. Its rhythm grounded her. Calmed her when nothing else would. Listening to it, its beat as steady as a set of oars slashing through open waters, always brought her peace.

“Oh, gods .” Next to her Lena grew frantic. “I slept in, didn’t I? The children— they need—” 

“Easy love.” Kara wrapped herself around Lena like a cloak, refusing to let go. “They have been taken care of. We have a little longer.”

Raising children was a communal endeavor in Kara’s clan. As far as she understood, it was not the same for Saxons. Poor women brought their pups out to the fields, nursed them as they worked, but rarely could they ask somebody else to watch their spawn. Nobles had a wet nurse, maids to take some of the responsibility away.

Alphas never helped.

Among the Danes it was different. Children were moved to the most secure part of the longhouse as soon as they stopped nursing, and everyone took turns watching them as they grew. The clan’s Skald would tell them stories, the warriors would protect her, artisans and craftsmen carved toys for them to play with. That way, should the natural parents die — of war or of disease — the pups had countless aunts and uncles to rely on.

Akvar and Faora had started to sleep in the nursery before the start of winter, and as such, someone would have fed them by now. Tomorrow, she and Lena would get up earlier than the rest, and do the same so that another couple could sleep in. 

Or do other things.

Lena must be having the same thought, because her gaze fell to Kara’s lips, as heavy as a touch. 

“I’ve missed you.” She rasped, and the shadow of something Kara didn’t quite like flickered in her eyes. 

“I’m here now.” 

They were inches apart, and surged forward together, tangling in the furs. Kara gasped into Lena’s mouth, heart fluttering so wildly she could taste it on her tongue. It always felt like a first time, kissing Lena. The first time she raced a newly-tamed horse on Norway’s frozen shore. The first time she took to the sea. The first thunderous crash of shieldwall against shieldwall. 

The feel of Lena’s lips on hers sparked a desperate hunger in her chest, one that Lena startlingly reciprocated. Outside of heats, she was demure in her affection. Shy and almost reticent. She had been bred that way, trained to be pliant, attentive to her alpha's every need. She was to be the kind of partner Saxons favored; pious, submissive, ready to meet a husband’s every need. 

But in living with the Danes, Lena was coming into her own. She was still tentative, but as time went by she grew more and more assertive. Kara wouldn’t have it any other way. Who’d want a mate who only — always — said yes? 

As Lena’s teeth caught around her lower lip, Kara lost herself entirely. They kissed ferociously, a sharp bite and her mouth was flooded with the taste of Lena’s blood. She attempted to pull back slightly, to apologize, but Lena wouldn’t have it. Cradling her face between both hands she reeled Kara back in, and licked her own blood from her alpha’s lips. 

“We don’t have that much time.” Lena started, making short work of the strings that kept Kara’s trousers closed at the front. “The longhouse is awake.”

It was true. 

Astra’s voice drifted to them clearly, easily discernible through the din of conversation. People would be coming in for their first meal of the day, then disperse and tend to their affairs. 

“We will be expected to join them.” Lena continued, like her hand wasn’t stroking Kara’s shaft. As if she could keep focusing when she was being teased like that. “I don’t know…” 

“We have enough time.” Kara pulled her hand away, flipped her over and rucked her nightshift up, exposing her backside. “I will make sure it is enough.”

Kara .” They had no room for foreplay, but there was going to be no need. Lena was slick with want. Kara smelled it. An enticing musk, and she’d have buried her face in her sweet cunt if she wasn’t so keen about burying something else. 

Still, she spared a few moments to lay messy open-mouthed kisses along Lena’s spine. Her mate squirmed, moaned into a pillow, hips twitching in open invitation.

“Don’t pull out.” She panted, and as soon as the words sank in, Kara went utterly still. “Please, Kara. I want you to spill inside me.”

It was a point of contention between them. Friction without it being an open fight. Perhaps that might have been better. It may have helped them work things out sooner. It wasn’t that Kara didn’t desire more children — sweet Freya knew she wanted a litterful of them — but the pain Lena had been through to bring their two babes into the world of the living was indelibly sealed into her mind. No matter what Eliza said, no matter her reassurances, Kara was terrified it would happen again.

And that, this time, she would lose Lena. 

“Ást Mín [my love],” Lena threw a glance over her shoulder. Her eyes were blackened by hunger, her voice unsure. Sam had been teaching her more of their language it seemed, and if the lilt of it on her lips was unfamiliar — dark with grit yet as pleasing as a song — hearing her speak Norse sent a thrill through her. It scorched her spine like lightning and Kara crumbled atop her mate, face pressed between her shoulder blades. 

“I am not in heat, and you are not in rut.” Kara felt the words vibrate in Lena’s chest. “The chances your seed will take are low.” It was true, flawless reasoning, and Kara wanted to give in. Their cycles hadn’t been in sync since the birth, and she missed the mindlessness of it. The all consuming lust, the days spent in bed without a care other than knotting her mate until she was bred. 

“We will not have another child until we are both ready.” Lena added gently. With Kara pinning her down, she couldn’t turn, but reached back until her hand brushed Kara’s hip. She took comfort from the gesture, and sucked at the small freckle on the side of Lena’s neck, right below the mating bite. “I will ask Eliza for one of her teas.” 

There were herbs Lena could take. Remedies to ensure that whatever Kara spilled inside her womb didn’t take root. But that was not the tipping point. It was the ache she heard in her mate’s voice.

“I’ve wanted to.” Admitting to it lifted a great burden off her back. Her eyes pricked with unshed tears, but the splinter lodged inside her hearth finally shook loose. “For so many months, Lena.” 

Something came unbound between them. A tension of the soul they both had known to have been there, but were too scared to acknowledge. While the noises outside grew, the day now in full swing, they made some of their own. A frantic, near violent coupling. Sweat-slick bodies, nails painting the flesh red. Teeth that marked much deeper than the surface of their skin. 

Being surrounded by Lena’s heat was a homecoming. It was enough to make Kara weep. She did so, as she thrust, not ashamed to show how vulnerable she was. How badly she had missed their shared intimacy. How needed Lena was. As necessary as water to a longship. 

It was over far too soon, with Lena crying out loud enough they surely heard her all the way to Valhalla and Kara echoing her in triumph. 

After, she scooped her mate into her arms, held her close while Lena shuddered through the aftershocks and tried to slow her breathing. They kissed again, deep and languid, stealing a moment to explore each other’s mouth like they had not done in some time. 

It wasn’t long before they’d have to leave their bed, but with Lena at her side, with her smiling into Kara’s heaving chest, they both knew peace.

For a time.

TBC