They say that the original valkyrie were birds who chose to become women, discontent to remain in the air when the battle raged below them. From the heavens they descended, ice-pale hair and flashing eyes, to take up sword and spear. And the men of the cold north found them fair, and so took them to wife: by force or sorcery or seduction, and from these unions came the people of Ragnival: the giant broad-shouldered men and the sleek fine-boned women, the deadliest and most dangerous of people.
Even Odin’s Witch, at her core, is no different: Oswald can put his hands around her wrists and touch thumb to ring finger without straining. He marvels each time at the delicate way she’s put together — he’s seen her cut through entire battlefields of soldiers without breaking a sweat, and even in exhaustion her spear never trembles in her grasp, and yet he just needs to squeeze a little to feel every single bone in her wrist. He can lift her with one arm and pin her with the other, and she puts her small slim hands on his throat, her thumbs stroking his jaw in sweeping lines.
Oswald’s new wife is a solemn creature, with her dark eyes and serious mouth, but she smiles for him when he leans over her, careful with his weight on her bones. She accepts his kisses with gravity and returns them in kind, always with the pressure of her fingers on his throat.
“Would you kill me on my marriage bed, then?” he asks her. “Do it swiftly, then, and I’ll close my eyes.”
Her brows draw together. For a moment she tightens her grip on him, and then she relaxes, but she doesn’t let go.
“My lord husband,” she says quietly. “Forgive me, I did not intend to cause you insult.”
“It was no insult.” He takes her wrist again, and pulls the one hand away, so he can press it flat to his chest instead. “It would be a greater insult if you didn’t speak honestly here, of all places.”
Her lips quirk. “Your veranda window is open, my lord. It does seem a place where nothing can hide.”
It’s not quite a smile, but Oswald feels himself relax a little at that, like some tiny seed has taken root in a withered landscape. If she can look like this, proud valkyrie under a man’s weight, then perhaps even without spell or artifice, he might someday …
“My lord,” Gwendolyn says. “I may be a virgin, but I am no frightened girl. I grew up among the warriors of my father’s court. You needn’t worry so about courtesy.”
“I do,” he says. “It would be disrespectful of a warrior of your status to do otherwise.”
Her eyes darken. “I am no longer a warrior,” she says. She turns her head away. “I am yours to do with as you wish.”
Oswald releases her wrist, and pulls the laces of her bodice open. Her skin is pale and battle-scarred; even the best of armor cannot turn away everything. One in particular reaches from her navel to curl around the swell of her left breast; he traces this with a finger and feels her shiver.
“What I wish for, I will only accept if freely given,” he says. “Tell me, how did you get this?”
Gwendolyn licks her lips. “A Unicorn Knight,” she says. “I had landed, and he came down from above. My sister killed it as I lay stunned.”
“Stunned,” he repeats, and traces the scar again. “Just that?”
She regards him with unblinking eyes. “No Halja came for me that day,” she says. “And none on any day since, until I am here before you now.”
“Would I could say the same,” he murmurs, and bows his head. He can feel her indrawn breath, but her question strangles on a small noise when he kisses the top curl of the scar, just alongside the nipple. Under him she goes rigid — less out of terror and more out of calculation, as she sorts out the feeling and apparently decides she likes it: her hand curls in his hair and pulls him down.
Oswald remembers that he intended to be gentle — because his wife still is a virgin, though a warrior well-blooded and seasoned. He remembers Blom admonishing him to go slowly, for disgraced or not, Gwendolyn was still the daughter of Odin, and any small insult might be enough to draw the king’s ire.
But Gwendolyn makes an impatient noise and surges up against him; in a moment Oswald finds himself turn on his back and she weighs nothing as she sits aside his hips. She leans forward, and her hair slips over her shoulder onto his chest, coarse and perfumed for the night, but still with the smell of blood and smoke in its fall. Her eyes are nothing like that day on the battlefield: she glares down at him with fire snapping in her eyes, and she’s magnificent.
“My lord,” she says, and he makes a strangled noise as she reaches to unfasten his trousers; her hands are nimble and callused. She is nothing like the giggling fairies of his youth, with their soft perfumed fingers and petal-sweet skin; his wife is a hard creature, a sharp creature, and he will not insult her by speaking of the fear that makes her fumble, nor the plain unfamiliarity that makes her fumble and her nails catch against him. The sting is fleeting and he hisses, and Gwendolyn looks down at him with the same wild eyes.
“Gwendolyn,” he says; she starts at the sound of her name, then bites the corner her mouth hard. He sets his hands on her waist, under her ribcage. Her skin is warm to the touch. I am not your enemy, he wants to tell her, knowing she would not believe, and so closes his eyes. “The first time will be unpleasant. After that, it will be easier.”
Under his hands, Gwendolyn draws in a quick sharp breath. She shifts, spreading her skirts wider around them, and presses her knees to his hips. Oswald is not shamed to realize he holds his breath when she presses her hands to his chest and rises — no matter that she is prisoner of his estate, he has always been her captive.
When she sinks over him, she gasps once — a thin, sharp noise — and is silent. Oswald keeps his eyes closed as he reaches for her hands, and she clutches him so hard he knows he is bleeding. It might be, he thinks, the first time he has done so for a reason other than death.
He whispers her name like a talisman and she begins to move.
At some point he opens his eyes to watch her and sees her watching him in turn. There is blood on her mouth and blood on his hands, and she presses a biting kiss to his knuckles like it’s a challenge. Up he surges, his arm thrown hard around her thin waist, so close that her breath is quick upon his cheek and her second startled noise is pressed to the corner of his mouth.
Once more he says her name and once more she flinches, all whipcord muscle tightening in his arms. He kisses her and she bites him back in return, and her blood tastes no different from his, sharp and metallic and hot with life.
“My lord,” she whispers in his hair, her voice grown soft, almost gentle. She slides her hands around his throat again, her thumbs pressed to his pulse. “… Owswald.”
Ahh, he thinks, his cheek to hers, her heartbeat thundering against his own: perhaps this is all he’s wanted in life.
Later, as she sleeps, he turns the ring Titrel over in his fingers. It’s another thread in the gilded jesses he’s braiding for her, and he cannot quite bring himself to give up hope. A valkyrie may be taken by force, sorcery, or seduction; he is no wizard, and she is his match in battle, so he can only kiss her ring and hope if he keeps her close long enough, she will relent beyond the duties of the marriage-bed.
Silent, he waits for morning.