Duty and Obedience (or The Lovers' Rite)

Anneke Ryan | 06/12/2011

It was a dream as much as a memory. Greta felt the falseness of it inasmuch as she knew she was no longer thirteen years old; but the belt still hurt. It had been worth it, she reminded herself, as Dada landed line after line of pain across her legs; worth offering that filthy look of contempt for the flicker of discomfort it had left on the boy-man's cocky, pimply face. Offering for her hand as though he were a warrior. As though he were a man.

The thwack, thwack of the belt blended into the booming tap, tap of Dada shaping an axe head on the anvil, as Greta curled up on the floor in the warmth behind the forge, wishing away the aches almost as much as she wished a barbarian sword through the over-confident belly of Anwend Thursten. Just sixteen twelvemonths old and thinking he could... Tap... Tap...

"Greta."
...tap...

"Greta..."

...tap, tap...

"Greta, wake up. Greta."

...tap... tap...

Greta pushed the annoying thing... hand away from her face.

"Greta, wake up before I bring your Dada in here."

Greta gasped and sat bolt upright as Mama flung off the covers and left her shivering in the cold of a room in which the fire had long gutted.

"Mama..." She grabbed the nearest blanket back. "...it's the middle of the night. Who's been banging at the door?"

"It's all but dawn. Get up."

Greta pulled the blanket around her neck as she jumped up and down on the cold floor. Mama glanced at yesterday's dress on the floor by the bed then shrugged and pushed Greta out into the hallway.

Dada was dropping a log on the freshly lit fire as Mama manoeuvred Greta through yet another door. As though he owned the hold itself, Anwend Thursten, fresh back from the border, half-sat on Dada's work desk, papers pushed aside to make way for his broad muscular thighs. Broad... Muscular...

Six years had certainly improved his looks. He was taller, with shoulders the breadth of Grenwold Strongarm's, and a back straighter than any other Greta had seen return from the war. The blemishes had gone from his face, replaced with a neatly trimmed beard and a smattering of small scars. Though, as with all the warriors, it was tempered with grief, there was a certain satisfaction emanating from him.

The grief Greta understood. Twenty-five thousand dead. She tugged the blanket more tightly around herself. To someone unschooled beyond what she could count on the fingers of both hands, the number was all but meaningless, but the years of tending the wounded and laying out warrior after warrior for the death rite had brought the loss home to Greta. She had seen only one Northerner suffer for it. And that only until the man currently swinging one leg nonchalantly under Dada's desk had slit the barbarian's throat then ordered the corpse cut down from where it had been hanging by its feet at the main gate.

Maybe it was because she was but a woman that the satisfaction was less explicable to Greta. She had seen the scars. He'd ridden through the gates of Rognvald yester sunrise with snow drifting down onto his face and both sleeves rolled back. The blood scars on the left arm had aged during the course of the war and been tempered with a number of smaller, fresher marks. But it was the other arm which he'd lifted above his head, saluting those who had ventured out into the weather to watch the warriors' homecoming. Those who had ventured... everyone who was not approaching death in bed was there to see the arm reach for the sky, to admire the two long marks that had been made in the Cavern of Kings. It was said that the cavern had fallen back to the enemy army just hours after the rite.

The marks were so fresh, the young warrior was at this moment distracted by them, intermittently rubbing his right arm with his left through his great coat. Greta could sense the rite around him. Fresh as milk at the udder, it added strength to his young features. Twenty-five thousand dead. The rebellious streak in her wondered if those scars had been worth the cost, but the man...

She lowered her eyes so Anwend Thursten wouldn't see the admiration in them.

"The Warrior Lord has come to make his claim, Greta." Dada straightened from the hearth and brushed his hands one against the other. "You will go to him."

"What?" Greta took a step backwards. "Now?" And another step. "No."

Tiny creases turned up at the corners of the warrior's mouth. "Still argumentative, I see."

Dada crossed the room in two strides and wrenched Greta's upper arm, leaving the blanket's warmth on the floor at her feet. "I'll have the strap to her for her insolence, Warrior Lord. Greta, apologise."

Anwend Thursten's forehead creased. "I'll thank you to leave the discipline of my hold to me, Warrior Karlsef."

Dada's grip on Greta's arm relaxed. Greta expected the anger to worsen, but the tension in both men's faces fell away at the same moment. Dada grinned as though he had scored a great victory and moved back by the fire.

"Woman." The young warrior pointed one strong finger to the floor. "Apologise."

Greta dropped to her knees. "I meant no insolence, Warrior Lord." Taking the opportunity, she cocooned herself back in the fallen blanket. "I was just... surprised at the suddenness of it."

Mama watched. Dada watched. Anwend Thursten, Warrior Lord of Graenlending by both combat and the Kings' Rite, pursed his lips against a grin. Greta didn't apologise.

"I accept your words, woman. Now kiss your Mama goodbye."

Mama bent and kissed Greta's cheek. Greta felt numb. "Mama, you can't... Mama?"

"The deed is signed and paid for Greta." Mama touched her face one last time then turned and left her to Dada and the man she had resented for the last six years.

Dada stopped mid-step on his way out into the hall. "Honour your Dada, Greta. And remember that this was once your hold."

Her betrothed watched the older warrior close the door. "Come here. Let me look at you."

The blanket dragged on the floor as Greta crossed the room.

He rested against the desk still, one arm across his chest, the other hand rubbing the blond stubble of his beard. It was the second hand he used to point again. "Drop it."

Greta touched her protection from the cold and creased her eyes. "Warrior Lord?"

"I expect obedience when I speak, woman."

The blanket fell to the floor.

"Now take that off."

Greta loosened the ties and lifted the night shift over her head, standing naked before him, just as she had six years ago when Dada had negotiated the price. She fingered the pendant Dada had given her on the last night of cold death.

"Leave the jewellery on the table."

"But..."

"And the hair tie."

Greta unwove the plait and let her hair fall loose around her hips. The warrior collected a few locks. Rubbing them between his fingers he lifted them before her eyes. "This is as much as I'll permit you to bring from your Dada's hold. My woman is to wear my belongings." He bent to the pile of discarded warmth and tossed it into the nearest corner.

-Warrior cleaning.- That's what Mama would have called it.

Then he smirked. "I brought rope... just in case." He lifted the coil from Dada's desk. "For a moment there I thought I might have to use it."

Greta watched the rope land on top of her forbidden outfit then turned her gaze to his face. In his eyes she saw that their minds had both found the same past moment. "I know my duty, Warrior Lord. I've grown some since I was thirteen years old." There were no marks of her dada's belt on her bare thighs today.

The warrior grabbed those thighs. As he lifted her he pushed aside old hides and new scrolls and sat her on the desk. As he positioned himself between her legs his lips brushed hers. "Yes, Greta. You've grown."

The first time she'd heard him speak her name and he'd all but breathed it into her mouth. With the cold wood beneath her and his swollen desire above her, Greta started to fear he would dishonour her dada and take her immediately. She shivered and he stepped back.

"You're cold." He lifted her in his arms and dropped her back to her feet, right by the fire. "Warm yourself while I inspect my purchase."

Greta wrapped her arms around her exposed breasts and started rubbing her shoulders. "As the warrior desires."

There was a calm thoroughness to each movement he made. She could feel the calluses on his hands as he ran them over her legs, as he squeezed the muscles of each calf, as he pinched the newest of the bruises on her inner thigh. She could hear the low groan of desire as he brought himself upright, as his fingers lingered on the coarse curls of her lower hair. There was a lot more of that than there had been the last time Dada had permitted him a look.

"Who trained you?"

Mood change as abrupt as the question, he stepped behind her and started tapping his closed fist along her back bone. A warrior's hand; strong enough that she coughed.

"Warrior Orm, at first. Then Warrior Ragnar. Warriors came and went from the border after that." The hand stopped. "And Dada had me to Warrior Ejuld once word came of..."

"Ejuld." The palm opened, settling proprietarily on her ribs, sliding under her arm, brushing her breast.

"Dada said..." Greta swallowed. "...to know more makes for a better..."

"Enough." He tugged her against him, settling his swelling into her back.

Greta stiffened and he loosened his grip.

"You've nothing to fear from me, Greta. You'll not need the skills forced on you by Ejuld in my lifetime. I see no pleasure in leaving bruises on a Graenlending woman's thighs."

The tension eased from her muscles and she stepped back into him.

"Enough." He brushed the coarse hairs of his beard down her neck. "If you're dutiful and obedient I'll temper your spirit to something the rest of the women of Rognvald will envy. You have my promise on it. All of it."

Greta could feel her heart thudding in her chest. "Warrior Lord?"

"Anwend."

She turned and looked at him, creased her forehead.

"In private, Greta, for you I am Anwend."

"Anwend." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Are we to start the Lovers' Rite?"

Anwend kissed her on the lips. "To start? We have started. You have my full attention, my empty belly and my promise. What more do you want of me in preparation?"

Greta knew he was right because the dawn had barely broken yet she could no longer imaging a life without him in it. "The preparation takes a day." She breathed the words into his chest.

Anwend lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. "Yes it does." He pointed to the carved wooden box on the floor beside Dada's desk. "To preserve my sanity for the wait. I wish you would open it."

Greta bent down and lifted the lid. There were shifts of soft winterwool and an embroidered over-dress. There were leather boots with sheepskin inners. There were leggings. The shifts were smooth against her skin, the over-layers warm. The ties flattered at her waist and neck. The shoes, soft and warm after jumping around on freezing feet, seemed decadent.

"I hope you can repair the dress."

Greta fingered the fabric of the bodice then lifted the top skirt and checked the neat stitching of the seams. "It's beautiful, Anwend. Perfect. There's no damage to repair."

The Warrior Lord all but growled. "There will be this evening."

Greta giggled.

"What promises will you make to me, beloved?"

"Not to tempt you... too much, ahead of the offering." She took his huge hand in her smaller one. "To weave plenty of distraction tomorrow. A feisty babe in your arms nine months from the acceptance... and... I'll cook you dinner after the strengthening."

Anwend brought the hand to his lips. "Well. So much for duty and obedience."

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