The battle cry of hundreds of men rang out over the tumultuous waters. Ladgarda barked orders and her lone feminine voice melted into the symphony of war. Her longships sliced through the sea toward the enemy’s rear. So busy were her enemies with their certain triumph over Ragnar’s army, they did not know they were pinched between two forces until her men screamed with their hunger for blood.
With her sword raised above her head, she clung to the dragon’s head of her drekar as they closed the distance. Ladgarda rode at the head of her fleet in the fastest of her longships. Her councilors had tried to convince her to at least stay back on one of the knarrs, but the boats did not move fast enough for her liking. Her tactics involved speed and stealth, and only a drekar could provide that.
She lifted her legs as her ship rammed the side of one of the enemy’s. The sound of the impact was like a volcano exploding and pieces of wood flew into the water. Ladgarda was the first on the rebels’ boat, waving her sword in a dance of death. Blood sprayed from her enemies’ wounds and her blade swiftly donned a crimson coat.
Her men followed behind her with ax and sword. There was no mercy for even the slaves that begged on their knees. Every one of her enemies fell, and she left a trail of corpses as she worked her way forward where the greatest numbers were already fighting with Ragnar’s men. Ladgarda leapt from one ship to the next without a care as to whom was in her path.
It had been Ragnar’s foolish pride and his desire for fair-haired maidens that had brought him to this. She had been tempted to let him fall and disappear into the salt waters. She had been one of those maidens, after all. Yet, time and again, she came to fight for him, and swore after each time, there would never be another.
She screamed as she hacked into a huge bearded man and kicked his corpse over the railing into the sea. Even in her armor, she appeared a dainty woman. Her long pale hair flew behind her like a silken cape. Many had underestimated her over the years because she was a woman. There would always be those who did, and she would use their stupidity to her advantage.
Rebel after rebel fell to paint the waters red. Longships burned as Ragnar’s archers cast flaming arrows into the heart of the battle. He was arrogant enough to believe that such a tactic would not harm his fleet, even as his foremost drekars went up in flames. At least it drove the enemy back toward her and she gladly delivered them to their gods.
Time meant nothing when she gave in to her lust for battle. The stars shone brightly as the rebels were defeated and Ladgarda sailed forward to meet her former husband on one of his knarrs. There was much celebrating going on amongst his men and the drink had already made them clumsy. Ships knocked up against one another and floated too closely to the fiery remains of the enemy’s boats.
Ladgarda kept her men in check. There would be time enough for celebration when they had their reward. She strode onto the deck, flanked by her fiercest warriors.
Ragnar greeted her, laughing, food and ale already stuck in his red beard. “Ladgarda!” His voice was the loudest on all the seas. “You have graced us with your presence again. I’m sure you’re honored to have witnessed our victory.”
His men cheered. One of them fell backward off the railing into the water. His comrades laughed as they teased him before pulling him up.
Ladgarda removed her helmet and shook out her thick hair. She tucked the helmet under her arm. “Yes, our victory, Ragnar.” She gritted her teeth, wanting to shout out how her tactics had saved his men this day. Yet, insulting a man who claimed to be king was not wise. At least not in front of his loyal soldiers.
“I wish to speak with you about our payment.” She gestured to the cabin behind him. “In private.”
There were several lewd comments and hoots at her request. Her men did not even crack a smile.
“Of course, Lady Ladgarda.” Ragnar flashed his toothy grin that always reminded her of a shark’s. He took one more long pull of ale from a mug and then led the way into his small cabin. The walls were too thin to provide them with any quiet, but at least their conversation would be private.
She was all patience until she slammed the door closed behind them. “What do you think you were doing? You would have lost everything!”
“Ah, mitt hjerte,” Ragnar cooed and held open his arms. His round face was a ridiculous mask of excess. “The rebels were nothing. I crushed them like bugs under my foot.”
“Vitun katyri,” Ladgarda spat at him and pushed at his broad chest. “If I had not come, you would have lost. Your men would follow you into the nine hells and back, but you’re a poor general. You would not have known which end of a sword to hold if I had not taught you.”
He snorted and puffed. A red flush suffused his face and she knew it had nothing to do with the alcohol. “Watch your tongue, woman. I’ve no more use for it, so don’t think I won’t cut it out.”
“Threaten me all you want, but you know very well that I saved your ass here. I only want my payment and then I’ll be gone for good.”
Ragnar laughed at the fury in her eyes and flopped down to sit on the bed. “You’ll always come back to help me, mitt hjerte. As you said, my men would follow me anywhere. You cannot help yourself, either. Come, celebrate with me.” He patted the lumpy mattress beside him. “Give me reason not to part you from your tongue.”
Ladgarda hissed with irritation. “I help because you leave me to sail the sea. If you do not rule, another would try to hunt me down and I will not give up my freedom.” She set down her helmet and folded her arms. “You’re drunk already. I see the color of the drink stealing into the whites of your eyes. Who is going to command your fleet when you pass out?”
He waved a big hand dismissively at her. “Bah, it matters not. I have my commanders and there is Bjorn. Ivar is here, too.” He belched and glanced up at her frightful glare. “No worries. I left Sigurd and Hvitserk back at the capital.”
She fought the urge to strangle him at the mention of their sons. She had never wanted to be a mother, but she had given herself over to Ragnar and birthed him four strong boys. Ladgarda had not seen any of them in nearly a decade. Though she did not have the maternal urges of softer women, she was proud that her boys were becoming powerful warriors and considered them her safeguard if Ragnar foolishly got himself killed. In the past few years, it seemed more and more likely such would happen.
“My payment.” Ladgarda could manage no other words without wanting to curse him.
Ragnar sighed and kicked a chest under the bed with his boot heel. “You know where it is.” He leaned back and dug a bottle from the mess of blankets. He thumbed it open and took a long drink. She yanked out the chest as he did so, ignoring the stench of him.
“I remember when I first saw you. A beautiful Shieldmaiden. So young, so fierce. You fought so well—you still do—and I had to have you.” He took another drink and it dribbled into his beard. “Remember the first night I had you in my bed?” Ragnar chuckled before he fell back, lost to his memories. “How I had to fight to get the upper hand. It made the prize all the more worthwhile. I had more bruises from you in the morning than I did from the battle.”
Ladgarda flipped open the chest to make sure it was as full with coin as she expected. The moron carried half his treasury with him wherever he went. He always said it was in case something came up, and she supposed it was all the better for her. It made their transactions quick and nearly painless.
She slammed the lid shut. “You loved your prize until something younger and prettier came along.”
Ragnar held out his hand to her. “Ah, mitt hjerte, let me kiss it better.”
She couldn’t pick up the chest herself, but pushed it to one side and opened the door. Ladgarda called to one of her men to come fetch it. She looked back over her shoulder at her former husband. “And how is your newest little whore? What’s her name? Helga?”
Ragnar bared his teeth at her. “I have myself a princess now. Thora of Sweden. Don’t you dare call her any such name. She will be my wife come the next full moon.”
The warrior picked up the chest and didn’t wait for her order to take it back to her drekar. She had her men trained to know what she wanted without question. Ladgarda stared at Ragnar with cold eyes. Her chest constricted and she silently cursed herself for it. She snatched up her helmet and pulled it hard onto her head. “May the Allfather bless your union, Ragnar. This is the last you’ll see of me.”
Spinning on her heel, she marched off through the rowdy festivities on the knarr without looking back. Ladgarda did not utter another word until she was back on her drekar and then it was only a command to leave the king’s fleet for the open sea.
The frigid winds whipped at the fleet. The sails had been tied down and her men chopped at the ice that had gathered on her ships. Ladgarda knew she would lose men and at least a few of her drekars if they stayed on the open sea for this storm. She handed command over to her most trusted man.
“Sail west to Stockholm. We’ll find relief from the storm there.”
The pale hair of his impressive beard mingled with the furs he wore. He gave her a stern look, but before he could open his mouth to say something, she marched down the center of the longship.
“Row! Row for all you’re worth, you filthy dogs!” She shouted at the men on the oars. Sweat poured from their foreheads already, even with the cold.
Ladgarda did not stop to spur them on with the whip or her sharp tongue. She continued forward to her cabin and shut the door behind her against the foul weather. The storm was ill-timed. She had not had all her ships repaired from the battle. There was also word of a ship from the southern countries prowling her territory.
Removing her weapons and armor, she seemed a much smaller woman in the lantern’s flickering light. She seemed young still, despite the many scars on her body and the weight of leadership always threatening to crush her. She wrapped herself up in furs on the bed, even though sleep felt far away.
There was a sharp knock at the door. She chided herself from startling. “What do you want?”
The Skald pushed open the door and fought to close it against the wind. He grunted as he finally shut it. “Blasted weather. I’m freezing my balls off.”
“There was a day when you said winds like this were like Freya’s kiss, Alrik.” Ladgarda said without humor. “You even wrote a poem about it, an epic story about all the things she could do to a man.”
Alrik laughed and rubbed his arms. “Ah, I remember that story. Many of the men still mutter it to themselves when they’re settling down for the night and need a bit of relief.”
“What do you want?” She repeated with a tone ready to dismiss him.
Sighing, the tall man shook his head. “Stockholm, Ladgarda? There are other places closer and safer to find shelter from the storm. We know why you want to go there. It’s a bad idea.”
“It’s the largest harbor and we can buy all the materials we need to repair the ships. I have more than enough gold.” She scowled at him, sitting stiffly within her cocoon of furs.
“We don’t need anything special. We can get what we need at any port. Give the order to go elsewhere. Osthammar. Or Oxelosund to the south, if you think that’s better.”
Ladgarda rose up on her knees and her furs drooped around her. “Did you just tell me to give an order?”
Alrik held up his hands. “I don’t want to tell you to do anythi—”
“You best not be telling me to do anything,” she growled.
“Ladgarda,” the Skald dared to take a step toward her. “You’re only asking for trouble by going to Stockholm. The others and I have talked about it.”
“What others?” Ladgarda snapped and threw off her furs before they tumbled down on their own. She wore only a linen shift, which drew attention to her womanly curves and hid the knives she had strapped to her body underneath.
“The others and I.” Alrik did not name any names. “We decided we have to stand up to you on this one.”
“Mutiny!” she said with a hiss, and a blade she removed from a sheath on her thigh echoed it.
“Vittu saatana, Ladgarda!” He jumped back with a hand on the handle of his sword. “This is no mutiny! We are yours, faithful to the end. We will drink and laugh in Valhalla together. Listen to us on this.” He let go of his weapon. “Sweden’s fleet will be in Stockholm for the festivities and you know they have no love for us. No matter Radgar’s promise, he will not stop them from taking us, especially when he has a pretty maiden to distract him.”
“I could kill you where you stand.”
“You could try.” His gray eyes did not look away.
There was a tense silence for several heartbeats until, with a frustrated snarl, Ladgarda drove her knife into the mattress beside her. “Tell the men to signal for a change in course. Osthammar.”
Alrik let out a long breath. “As you say, Ladgarda.”
“But—” She withdrew the knife and pointed it at him. “After I’ve seen us set ashore and repairs are underway, I’m going to Stockholm.”
“It’s folly, Ladgarda. You know it.” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his beard. “I compose the stories. I know how the heroes fall. If your adventures come to an end, who is there to inspire me?”
Ladgarda was fast out of the bed and holding a fistful of his beard. She yanked him down so that his eyes were level with her own and held the tip of the knife to his throat. “Heroes? There are no heroes here, Alrik.” She dragged her tongue along his full bottom lip. “Go tell them my new orders and get your ass back in here. I have a need tonight.”
She made to release him from her grip, but then jerked his head down harder. “I could kill you if I wanted. Just remember that.”
Ladgarda let go of the Skald and returned to her bed to lay in wait amongst her furs.
The drekar had dropped her off on shore outside the city when the night was young. Ladgarda stole a horse from some poor farmer and rode it hard to Stockholm. The animal stumbled with exhaustion when they entered the city proper. Even before she went through the first set of gates, she heard the noise from the celebration.
She wore a dress with her hair up and that was all the disguise she needed. The Ladgarda that people feared wore a man’s armor covered in blood and had long hair that whipped her enemies’ faces as if it were made of leather. So many forgot that she was not a monster under that armor, but a woman who looked like any other.
The only questions she received going through the three sets of gates were if she wanted to share a drink and celebrate with the guards. Ladgarda laughed at their lewd remarks and flashed them a bit of leg. Entry into the castle would not be so easy, but she had other means to do so.
She shed the bright outer layer of her dress and left it in a heap in a dark alcove. The next layer was black and made of material that would not swish as she crept along. She unwound the length of silken rope that she had around her waist and attached the small grappling hook to one end. Choosing her spot, she climbed over the castle wall and dropped silently into the garden.
The layout to most castles was the same. She could hear the revelry coming from the great hall, and smelled fire and meat from the kitchen. Within the castle, she knew, the guards would be lazy. There were two powerful armies in the city at the moment. That fact would be enough to make even the most vigilant of guards ease off his duty.
Ladgarda entered through the garden door and found the servants’ staircase to the upper levels. At any other celebration, she would not expect Ragnar to return to his room until the sun’s rays touched the eastern sky. This was not just any celebration, though. This was his wedding night and he would have been eager to get his new bride alone in their chambers.
She gnashed her teeth and walked to the uppermost floor. All the servants were occupied below in the great hall and no guards were posted here. It was late into the night and she guessed that anyone who was going to be abed had already retired. She went down the hall and checked each room systematically.
There were a few people sleeping in their rooms, but Ladgarda was quiet opening the doors. One of the men let out a great snore when she peered in, but she knew it wasn’t Ragnar.
She came to the last door at the end of the hall. There was a wreath made of white flowers, a blessing for marriage, on the handle. She pressed her ear against the door, but she heard nothing from within.
Shedding the black clothes, she was left in an off-white shift. It revealed more leg than was proper and stretched tight across her chest. She let down her hair and pinched her cheeks to give them color.
The door was unlocked. No one would think to disturb a couple on their wedding night. Ladgarda slipped in and shut the door, standing motionless in that spot. The only light in the large room was from the fire, quietly crackling to her right. Thick fur rugs covered the stone floor and a large wardrobe prevented anyone in the bed from seeing the door.
She let her eyes adjust and stood listening for the occupants of the room. She heard the steady, heavy breathing of a man. There was no snoring, so she knew that he was not yet deeply asleep.
She crept along the wall until she could see the pair in the immense canopied bed. The princess was lying on her stomach with her long yellow hair splayed out around her. Her breathing was much softer than her new husband’s, but she was sleeping the exhausted sleep of a deflowered bride.
Ragnar was stretched out on the other side of the bed. Ladgarda walked across the room to stand at his side. The moment her body stepped in the way of the fire’s warmth, Ragnar let out a small snort and rubbed his face before opening his eyes.
Ladgarda put up a hand to shush him as he started and made to bolt from the bed. “I’m not here to fight, Ragnar. As you can see, I’m not carrying any weapons.”
He eyed her and leaned back against the headboard. He reached over to his other side to touch Thora and discovered she was unharmed. His eyes narrowed as he looked back to Ladgarda. “Why are you here?” His voice was quiet and rumbling. “You sneak into my room like an assassin. What am I to think?”
“You’d be smart to be suspicious, of course. Yet, haven’t I proved all these years that I don’t want you dead?” Her whisper was accompanied by a sly smile. “I thought I’d give you a wedding present.”
“Really, now? Does it include strangling my new wife?”
Ladgarda chuckled and shook her head. She crooked up a leg onto the bed and leaned forward. “She’s a lovely girl, Ragnar. I’ve seen some of the whores you’ve bedded, but this one is, by far, the most beautiful. Though—” She lowered her voice further so that he had to bend his head towards her to hear. “I bet she doesn’t know a thing about pleasuring a man. I bet she blushed to see you naked and laid there trembling when you took her.”
“Yes, she’s a pretty thing.” Ragnar’s chest puffed out. “And she was a virgin. What do you expect? She was soft and tight and warm. What else matters?”
“I’m willing to teach her some things for you.” Ladgarda purred and lifted up her other leg to kneel on the bed. She crawled forward toward him. “I could teach her all those tricks I know that drove you wild. I could demonstrate on her so she knows how it feels, and then she and I can practice on you together.”
There was no mistaking his arousal under the blankets. Ragnar wet his lips, looking back and forth between the two women. “This is your gift to me? How do I know you’re playing me true here, Ladgarda? You’ve wanted me always for yourself. You could never let go.”
She kept the seductive look on her face and sat up on her knees, raising her arms above her head. “I know what this marriage means for our country, Ragnar. Plus you get this lovely girl in the deal. I have no desire other than to sate you. Check me if you wish. I have no weapons.”
Ragnar ran his hands along her sides and back, lingering on her taut behind. His hands dipped down and lifted her shift to her waist as if searching for any blades that might be strapped to her thighs. Seeing nothing, not even underclothes, he grinned. “Well now, what a gift this is, mitt hjerte.”
“I had a feeling you would like it.” She scratched her nails along his broad chest and lowered her head to kiss downward across his stomach. He groaned and fell back, linking his hands behind his head.
“Wake the girl before you start,” Ragnar told her. “Maybe later, after we tire her out, you can have me alone like I know you want.”
Ladgarda distracted him with a nip just above his groin as she reached between her breasts. She was as swift as her drekars and far more deadly. She buried the spearhead she had concealed there deep in Ragnar’s stomach. She twisted it and yanked upward. Her cold eyes never left his as she stole his life from him.
“I never wanted you, Ragnar. I only wanted the sea, and that you gave to me.” She thrust the weapon in as deep as it could go. “Now, here you go marrying this bit of fluff. Did you know that doing so would give the Swedes free reign in my waters? I won’t have it.”
He attempted to speak, but only blood burbled out from his mouth. Ragnar reached for her and his hands fell trembling at his sides. She yanked the spearhead sideways to open him up and his intestines spilled out. They steamed even though the room was warm.
Ladgarda pushed herself off him and tossed the spearhead to the side. She glanced at the princess. How the girl was sleeping through this, she didn’t know, but it saved her from having to kill her, too. It was a much more satisfying thought to imagine Thora waking up to the disemboweled body of her new husband.
Ragnar stopped moving. One more bubble of blood popped between his lips and that was the end of the king. She had never loved nor even liked the man. The rest of the world thought what they wanted, but she knew the truth of it. She was the mistress of the sea and she loved no one else.
Ladgarda wiped her hands off on the sheets at the end of the bed and walked out of the room without looking back.