The tale of the great king’s marriage to the crow girl was sung many times in the years that followed. The poets praised the girl’s bewitching beauty and cleverness, her wisdom and wit, and these things almost made people forget about their queen’s peculiar knowing, the way her expression darkened just before a death or a birth, and how her fingers tightened around her husband’s arm just before bad news arrived or good news was declared. Even Ragnar himself was in danger of forgetting, until his wife came to him with some revelation or other: that horse will go lame by season’s end, that ship is blessed with good fortune, the battle today will end in victory, these fields will reap a great harvest. He counted himself gods-touched to have married such a woman. He loved her well, if not fully.

So when her servant found him one afternoon, while he and his men were on their way home from the harbor, and told him that the queen would speak with him at his leisure, he leapt at the invitation with all the eagerness of a lovestruck boy. His wife so rarely wished to talk with him alone. He wondered what she might have seen this time: a hard winter ahead, perhaps, or another child on the way. He swung down from his horse in a single movement and told the servant that he would answer his wife’s command. His men jeered at his urgency. Their king, it seemed, was only a man until his wife summoned him.

Ragnar’s hall was befitting of a great king. Though it was shaped like the hull of ship, it was larger than three cargo vessels pressed together, with ceilings that towered and doors that made the broadest man feel small. Carvings from the land’s most skilled artisans curled up its wooden sides and columns: terrible beasts not unlike the ones Ragnar and his forefathers had slain, dragons and serpents and giants, spiraling around each other until their painted heads were indistinguishable from their tails. Here the crow girl had been crowned queen. Here Ragnar had celebrated every raid with music, mead, and freshly-roasted meat. Here they had honored the births of every one of his children. It was a good life they had built for themselves, he decided, one worthy of remembrance. It was the only thing he feared more than his wife: being forgotten, or worse, remembered poorly.

Ragnar knew that he would find the crow queen beside the cooking fires which burned in the center of the longhouse. She preferred to spend her evenings here, rather than in their chambers, a fact which was much talked of amongst the servants and slaves. But when the king entered the hall, his wife didn’t look up to greet him. She simply stared into the flames and stroked the raven on her shoulder, as if he wasn’t there, at all.

Kráka. He called her by name, but she did not answer. He tried again, calling her as Gríma once had: Kráka, Kráka. Still nothing. Ragnar’s joy subsided into suspicion. Though wrinkles lined her mouth and brow, the firelight set the queen’s golden hair alight—it smoldered in her eyes—and for the first time in many years, he found that he did not know her. She seemed to have stepped over the invisible border into that other land, and he felt the oddest desire to capture her all over again, roping her to the earth like an errant sail.

She finally spoke after what seemed an age. Her voice was a whisper in the dark.

My mother’s people will rise against you, she said. I have seen it. They are building ships and assembling men to take back the land that was once theirs. They are tired of great kings. They wish to rule themselves.

Then we will strike them down as we would any rebellion, replied Ragnar without hesitation, in his matter-of-fact way. I will tell Sigurd, and he will prepare the men.

His wife’s gaze swung up like a battle axe.

You swore to me, she said. You swore that you and your men would never raise a blade against me again.

Of course. But I made no such promise to your mother’s people.

I am my mother’s people.

She drove the words like rivets into the wood of his chest. He bristled at the sting. Not since you became my wife. You are a member of my house, Kráka, as are our children.

She turned back to the fire. Her fingers fiddled with the brooch at her chest; he had had it made for her, though he couldn’t remember what the occasion had been.

I am a member of many houses, she said, one of which is yours.

Not these riddles again.

You call them riddles only because you do not try to understand them. I have tried. I am always trying.

You have already threatened to break an oath made before the gods tonight, she said. Be wary of adding a lie to your wrongs.

I am the king, Kráka. Ragnar’s temper broke away from him like a wayward horse. It is mine to pass judgement, not yours. If Gríma’s people take arms against me, I will meet them sword for sword, as I would any other enemy.

Any other enemy, she repeated.

What else would you have me do?

Surrender. My mother will ensure that we are offered protection.

You cannot ask that of me.

You would deny your oath then?

Yes, if I must.

A dark mist suddenly clouded his wife’s eyes, and Ragnar fell silent. He had seen that look many, many times, but it had never been directed at him before. A bolt of ice shot down his spine; he shivered in spite of himself.

Kráka. He spoke her name as he would a frightened foal’s. What do you see?

For all her many secrets, his wife had never once hidden her sight from him. But tonight, though he asked once, twice, and then three times what she had seen, she did not answer him. He stepped towards her; her raven cawed, stalling him where he stood. Then his wife raised her head, the mist still swirling in her eyes, and spoke three words:

You are forgiven.

A second chill gripped Ragnar’s throat in a vice. Once again the king watched the crow girl walk away from him; once again he could do nothing to stop it. When the hall door slammed hut behind her, he sat on one of the long, wooden benches and pressed his forehead into his hands. He had thought he understood the mysteries of battle.

Clearly, he knew nothing at all.

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