Ragnar the king, who had slain many dragons in the past, was terrified of women. His first wife had frightened him until the moment she died, and sometimes he still dreamed of her, bone-shaking nightmares in which she clawed at his throat and begged him for something in a language he could not understand. So he was never happier than when he was on his ships with his men, far from the longhouse his wife had always ruled more than him. Of course, that detail was often left out of the songs and stories that called Ragnar great.

A woman. This was Ragnar’s thought the moment his men returned to the ships with burnt-black bread and skin paler than wool. He felt it down to his marrow: a woman must be involved. And when he demanded to know the reason for his men’s failure, that was precisely the answer they gave.

We were watching the girl, said Sigurd, the youngest with the patchy beard. She was so beautiful that we lost track of time and burned the bread black.

You burnt the bread, the king drawled, because she was beautiful.

Summon her, my lord, Sigurd said. Then you will see for yourself that we are telling the truth.

Ragnar the great king felt the eyes of his men on his back. They pricked at his skin like needles, probing at the fear that would have him run from this cursed place and never return. A king did not run from the things he feared; he rode toward them. Yet Ragnar had no intention of meeting this woman, or any woman, if he could help it.

An idea occurred to him as a blast of icy wind swept over the beach—an idea which would ensure that he would never have to encounter the girl who had so bewitched his men, an idea which would allow him to retain his freedom for another day under the sun.

Have her come to me under these terms, Ragnar said. She must not be clothed or naked, fed or starving. She must not come alone, but there can be no other person with her.

His men laughed amongst themselves. Their king was crafty as the trickster god himself. If only they shared his wit—then they, too, might have avoided marrying their wives!

« Previous | Home | Next »