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Fic: The Queen and the Soldier

Well, it's 3 June this side of the pond - not sure when the US gets there, but having for once managed to write the fic before the deadline, I don't aim to miss it! The prompt was "The Queen and the Soldier" which is apparently the title of a song by Suzanne Vega, and the story's gen. Thanks for organising the challenge, btw - enjoyed it.

Quick explanation: Gunnhild Mother of Kings ruled Norway, through her husband and sons, for over two decades in the 10th century. Depending on whom you believe, she was a clever, imperious woman or a nymphomaniac witch. Sagas tell two tales of her birth; she was either the daughter of King Gorm of Denmark, or of a Finnmark chieftain and brought up among the "Lapland witches". The custom of fosterage at the time makes it vaguely possible (if unlikely) to cobble both legends together. In 1835 a body exhumed from a peat bog was thought to be Gunnhild. In fact it was an Iron Age woman, but since sagas say Gunnhild too was buried in the bog, and peat does indeed preserve bodies, she may yet reappear...

The Queen and the Soldier

The hesitant scratch at the door is welcome. She has been long enough alone in the apartment to which she was conducted; her brother the Danish king is certainly taking his time deciding whether to receive her. He always was a ditherer. She calls a gracious permission to enter.

Her visitor is a man, young and tall, his fair hair tumbling to his shoulders. Broad shoulders, she notices, and long legs. She eyes them appreciatively. She has never seen why being what the world calls old should change the way she looks at handsome young bodies.

He carries a short-sword and wears the colours of her brother's guard. Also he does not meet her eye. She is used to this; she says, amused, "Come, I shan't put a spell on you." He flushes to the roots of his hair and looks up shyly, under his eyebrows; he really is irresistible.

She smiles. "Do you believe those stories, then? The witch-queen from Finnmark?" He stammers a denial and she takes pity on his embarrassment. "My father was Gorm the Old, who was father to your own king Harald; I am your countrywoman. But it is true that I was fostered in Finnmark."

Maybe more than fostered. Gorm's daughter, but not his queen's…. She can see the young soldier eyeing her doubtfully, weighing up the clear, sharp Nordic features, so like his own and his king's, against the eyes that look nothing like Harald's. Her hair, once dark with a glow of redness, is grey now, but her eyes are still that deep peaty black a man could drown in.

She slows her voice, softening and flattening the consonants a little: d for t, g for k. "I have passed most of my life in Norway, ever since I married Eirik. But here I was born, and they say folk hanker at the last for their kin, and their old ways."

She sees his face relax, registering the familiar accent, and knows that he believes her. Indeed she has not told him a word of a lie, though what she means by "kin" may not be what she has let him think.

He would call them Lapps, the people she grew up among, but that was not their name for themselves. It was a name others gave them, those who feared their wandering, ungovernable ways and their knowledge of leechcraft, of plants, animals and stars, the habits of the land they lived in. On their own tongues they were the Sami, the People of the Land.

Was she born here, in Gorm's hall? She supposes so; she has no reason to doubt it, but no memory either, or not from childhood. All her childhood pictures are of tents, cloth in brilliant patterns of red and blue, reindeer breath steaming sweet on the cold air, and the vast, unending distance of the Finnmark sky.

The People, whom she was with but not of. She played with the other girls, learned with them from the old women how to weave bright cloth and brew herbs into bitter concoctions, but there was always a distance. Staring into a lake, she would see their eyes, their hair, but a different shape to the face and, under the sunburn, a paler skin. Assur, her foster-father whom she could have loved no better had he been of her blood, made sure she always kept in mind that she was the daughter of a king, way down in the south, from a people she was of, but not with.

Her first memory of this hall dates from when she was seventeen, and rode in through the gate with Assur, because her father the king had sent for her. She remembers being presented to him, realising where her firm jawline came from. Meeting her brother for the first time; his fair hair and pale blue eyes so like their father's, so unlike hers. Even then, she thought his face a weak one; maybe after all it was his dead mother he took after. Everyone around her so tall, so blond, so pale; her eyes went past them to Assur's dark, strong face on the edge of the circle, his black eyes laughing in response to hers.

The young soldier coughs politely. "Ah – King Eirik Bloodaxe…. he was a very great king, was he not, madam?"

She gives him her sweetest smile, recognising a born hero-worshipper. "Well, he was a great fighter, certainly." She sees him longing for more; obliges. "And very handsome; I thought I had never seen a man so handsome." From his face she knows what story is in his mind and goes on calmly, "When first I met him, here in King Gorm's hall, as it then was."

That old tale. The young prince Eirik, heir to Norway, wandering with his friends in Finnmark, meets a beautiful girl in company with the Lappish warlocks who are teaching her witchcraft. She falls in love with him; puts a magic sleep on the Lapps so that he and his friends can kill them, and he brings her back as his bride.

Rubbish, all of it. He was with her father and brother the day she came to the court; how not, since it was the prospect of this marriage alliance that had caused her father to recall her existence and send for her from the north? She had been prepared to hate this enforced bridegroom. But when they were introduced, she looked up into eyes that were a darker blue than her brother's, in a sun-tanned face framed by hair the colour of ripe corn, where Gorm's and Harald's hair was like pale straw. He smiled; he looked bold and merry. And he would be king in Norway after his father; he would make her a queen.

No warlocks, no magic sleep, no killings. That was all the invention of the Icelandic skalds, who have always hated her. As if she would ever have sold the People of her childhood to the pale southerners.

Only sometimes, even now, she thinks of the taste of reindeer milk, the smell of hide and seething herbs, Assur's sad face as she dragged her eyes away from the handsome Norwegian prince, and it seems to her that the story is true after all.

She lets her eyes rest on the soldier, feeling a flicker of pleasure at the way he flushes and looks down; do her eyes still have that power? "Has King Harald sent you to say he will receive me?" she asks.

He looks ill at ease; she can guess why. "Ah. My brother was always a… cautious man." A vacillating trimmer, she thinks, and the slight curl of the young man's lip at the word "cautious" suggests that he has had the same thought. "King Eirik and I were more for action; such folk make enemies. Harald thinks it will be embarrassing to have me about his court." Or dangerous, perhaps, if he too believes in witch-queens. She smiles winningly. "Yet what harm could I do him, an old widow woman come back to end her days at home?" She is half-waiting for a flicker of surprise and denial in the soldier's eyes at the word "old", but sees none. This is disagreeable; seeing her age reflected in others' eyes is the only thing that ever makes her believe it.

But she must concentrate on charming this young man. Irritating as her brother may be, he is the only place she has left to go; it will be inconvenient to say the least if he turns her away. If she cannot get sight of the king, she must make sure his representative carries a favourable report to him. "I have no other family left", she says, managing a catch in her voice, "my sons are dead - I had four sons kings, did you know that? " She smiles wistfully at him. "You have a look of my son Harald Graenske."

Actually he reminds her of the chieftain Olaf Hoskuldsson, who was one of her lovers, long after Eirik died, when she was ruling Norway through her sons. But she has a feeling he doesn't want to know that. She winces: telling a handsome young man "you remind me of my son" is another guaranteed way to feel old. But he looks flattered, though she can see he is trying to work out which son Harald Graenske was. She has trouble remembering which was which herself, sometimes.

"The one who was killed by the usurper Haakon Sigurdson," she tells him helpfully, and his face clears. "Haakon the heathen," he says and she nods fervently; she has already noticed the cross he is wearing. For herself, the only thing that mattered about Haakon was that he killed her son and ended her rule in Norway; what set of gods he favoured strikes her as supremely unimportant. For the People, everything had a spirit, a force of life from the earth or sky or sea that bore it. "King Eirik and I took the true faith from Bishop Wulfstan, when we ruled in Jorvik," she says, with what she hopes is the proper enthusiasm. Of course the sky and the earth and the sun and the thunder are immortal, but to give them names, like God or Thor, to worship them, as if they cared for such a thing? If there is a point to that, it has always passed her by.

Anyway the mention of Jorvik has rekindled a different enthusiasm in her young listener. "That was a great thing, that he could say he had been king in three countries: Norway, Orkney and Northumbria".

And ruled in none of them, she thinks, I did that. It had taken her a while to see that bold, hot-headed Eirik was, in his way, even weaker than her hesitant, calculating brother. Not in battle: he could fight well enough for a kingdom, but what to do with it when he got it was another matter. She smiles ruefully. "It might have been better if he could have held on to Norway and not had to go seeking a kingdom elsewhere." She sees the soldier's face fall and adds, "But yes, he took three countries and wherever he went, he looked like a king." She feels oddly reluctant to disappoint this young man in any way. His face lights again at her words. So simple, to bewitch a man, as they say. And it takes no potions, no spells, just the magic of pleasing, the trick of feigning interest, of telling him what he wants to hear.

And the other potions and spells some accused her of using, on men she hated rather than loved? That Icelandic poet Egil, whom Eirik had promised to pardon if he composed a praise-poem in a night; he claimed she'd disrupted his composing by coming to his window in the form of a swallow and twittering all night. She almost laughs at the simplicity. That ill-will can travel she does not doubt, but has no one ever noticed that it only works if the man you wish ill knows of it? No doubt, in his mind that night, every bird-call, every drip of water or rattle of wind, was Gunnhild the witch-queen.

And anyway he got his wretched poem composed, did he not, and the king listened graciously while she seethed, wondering how even Eirik could fail to hear the mockery behind the empty words of praise. But he let the man go, to spread lies about them both that would outlast their days. All my life, she thinks, I have been surrounded by weak men.

Talking of which, there is still her brother to be persuaded. From the pouch at her girdle she takes a heavy brooch, gold with garnets; Harald was always a having sort of man. "I wish," she says coaxingly, "you would take the king my brother this from me and tell him, as you have seen, that I come in all kinship. He need not turn me away."

The room seems suddenly colder and stiller. The young man does not answer, and the look in his eyes, before he stares downward again, is unmistakable; it is fear, but not of her.

"Oh my," she says softly, "Harald fears me indeed. He did not send you to turn me away, did he?"

The lad gazes fixedly at the floor, his fingers working on the hilt of his sword. Not just for decoration, then. He does not like his task, she can see, but he is a king's guard; it will take a lot to make him refuse a direct order from his lord. Even a few years ago, when her hair was still dark and her step more supple, she might still have tried and succeeded. But now… it would have to be pity she stirred in him, pity for a harmless old woman, and she is not sure she wants to live on those terms.

She raises her chin. "Well, I will not beg." She holds out the brooch to him. "Take it; my kinsman has jewels enough. I wish I might see him lamenting at my funeral; no doubt it will be a splendid one." She laughs, but the silence in his face warns her again. "What is it, boy?"

"Why did you come in secret, madam, and alone?" he blurts out, and she is taken aback by the seeming irrelevance.

"Why… there was some trouble in Orkney; I found it best to leave suddenly -" She stops and breathes in, catching his drift. "Ah. There will not be a funeral. He will say I was never here. I drowned on the voyage, no doubt, or met with brigands. So much simpler. A tidy man, my brother. What are you to do with my body?" Even at this moment, the double-entendre makes her smile.

"There is a bog, madam, nearby; many miss their way and drown there…."

Oh, yes. Earth or water must hold a witch, lest her ghost plague you. Primitive little king. And he knows nothing of them, nothing.

She laughs out loud, with real joy, and the soldier looks her in the eye, astonished.

"No, my dear, I am not mad. And I do not fear the earth from which we all came. Have you ever seen a dead body taken from a bog?" He shakes his head. "I have. There is a virtue in those places; it preserves what is put in them. I saw a man they said was many hundred years dead. He was not beautiful; he was like tanned leather, but he was whole, not fallen to bone. It may be, after all, I shall outlast my brother, and even the lies of poets."

She presses the jewel into his hand. "Now," she says gently, "you must hold me close and strike upward, as I show you, and I shall die quickly. And then you will take me and give me to the earth. It is lucky I was always a small woman; I shall weigh light when you carry me." His face works with grief and she strokes his hand. Then she closes her eyes and nestles, for the last time, in a handsome young man's arms, and it feels as good as it always has.

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Comments

( 6 votes — vote! )
altariel
Jun. 3rd, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC)
Ooh, excellent!
wendelah1
Jun. 3rd, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)
This is lovely, and sad. I can see your main character, and her setting very clearly.
trialia
Jun. 3rd, 2008 03:12 pm (UTC)
*squeaks* That was one of my prompts! I love the song and the story it tells dearly. And now I'm going to go read this ^_^ just wanted to thank you in advance.
hafren
Jun. 3rd, 2008 04:24 pm (UTC)
I didn't know the song, so I just used the phrase and what it suggested.
altariel
Jun. 14th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC)
The song is on YouTube here (with bonus extra song). Lyrics here, although I guess you got them with your prompt.
kalypso_v
Jun. 3rd, 2008 05:26 pm (UTC)
That's lovely; I'm glad that she manages to go out in control of her own killing.
( 6 votes — vote! )

The Challenge

Celebrating the possibility that (at long, long last) either a woman or a person of color will be the next American president by writing stories and producing icons, vids and graphics about people of color and women in positions of political power.

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