Story [Vikings] "With My Lost Saints", Rollo/Gisla one-shot, 80's Roulette Response

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by Mira_Jade , Jul 6, 2015.

  1. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Jun 29, 2004
    “With My Lost Saints”

    Genre: Drama, Romance
    Time Frame: Post-S3, Pre-S4
    Characters: Rollo/Gisla, Sinric, OCs

    Summary: Count of Rouen, Duke of Normandy, Warden of the March of Neustria; no matter how her father dressed the savage, a heathen still he would be. It was a truth Gisla vowed to remember, no matter what.

    Or: Rollo, Gisla, and a beginning in Rouen.

    Author's Notes: Sooo, because inspiration works in quirky ways, my number from the [link=]80's Roulette[/link] gave me Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark", and as soon as I heard the: "you can't start a fire without a spark, this gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark," I knew exactly what I wanted to write. For, while the third season of Vikings was a let-down for me in many, many ways – which I will not rant about here [face_plain] - one of the things I did enjoy was Rollo's plot and development as a character. And thus, I could not resist the temptation to write his and Gisla's tale as I strongly wish for it to happen in season four.

    To that end, I have to start by disclaiming: I have a strong love for the history and culture of this time-period, but due to my amateur research - and the limited historical sources we have, at that - there are no doubt many errors within this. For example: things such as serfdom, manor-law, the title of Duke, the term Normandy, and even the use of forks in France are all used here earlier than they actually were in history. I have also adopted the show's admittedly . . . interesting interpretation of how the characters relate to each other and real-life time-lines as my own, simply because it's story-telling, and fiction is fun. But, numerous other things were researched for this - from the actual name of the Archbishop of Rouen at this time to the exact parameters of Viking law - so if something catches your eye, odds are that you just learned a fun fact from history.

    Because we do know this: Robert I (Rollo) and Gisla (or whatever the name of his wife truly was in history), were the founders of Normandy, and the great-great-great grandparents of William the Conqueror. Through him they are ancestors of the entire line of Kings and Queens of England down to this day, and their descendants have touched the family trees of every other royal house in Europe. The Seer wasn't kidding when he said that Rollo would go down and dance naked on the beach if he knew what his future held. It's a good one. ;)

    Yet, history aside, you can't give me all of that eye-contact during the Siege of Paris, and then:

    . . . and not expect me to jump on this ship. Because I totally did. [face_love]

    Now, my rambling done, I thank you all for reading, and I hope that you enjoy.


    “With My Lost Saints”
    by Mira_Jade

    Gisla had only been to Rouen once before, as a girl. Then, her father wished to show to her what he could of his realm while still remaining within the safety cast by the shadow of Paris. At the time her grandfather Louis' death had been fresh, and her father had not trusted his brothers to honor the wishes of their father over the division of the Empire, and he was ever suspicious of an accident befalling them throughout every twist and turn of their journey.

    But she did remember this: the gently rolling hills and the sharp cliffs that plunged into the restlessly churning sea. She remembered the quiet babble of the Seine against its cradle, and the soft silence of the cathedral on its banks, lit by the gently flickering candles from within, where she could hear the soft chanting of Vespers as the setting sun painted the low rooftops in shades of scarlet and gold. She remembered the apple orchards, and the pastures full of roaming cattle; all beautiful in their own way, with a quaint, pastoral sort of loveliness that was far and beyond the home she had long known, safe behind Paris' walls. There she had grown up surrounded by riches from the furthest corners of the known world: with detailed tapestries from East Frankia hanging upon their walls, and richly colored, plush Turkish carpets spread out upon their floors. The richest buildings in Paris were graced with glass serving-wear and marble and wood-inlaid tables from Italy, while the men and women of the Court dressed in the brightly coloured, flowing silks and brocades that were the height of fashion in Constantinople. Coloured glass was a luxury, brightly shining from the proud windows of Paris' Saint-Étienne Cathedral, while in Rouen any sort of glass would be a costly and coveted thing. In Paris she had dined as succulently as the west of the Empire could afford, while the majority of the population here seemed to survive on their beef and barely and beer. When she was a girl, the idea of living upon and cultivating such a rustic, bare land had seemed to be quite the adventure to her. Yet, now . . .

    . . . now, as she was assisted out of the carriage by the hand of one of the two knights her father had sent with her – for her protection, ostentatiously, though what protection two men could grant her against the likes of them was only for Him to know – she could not help but feel a sinking feeling, low in her stomach.

    The March of Neustria . . . Gift of the Northmen . . . Normandy . . . her father so grandly called the land while ransoming away the north of his realm and his sole child and only daughter in order to buy the protection of the Northmen against . . . well, more Northmen. Now, all the land from the river Epte to the sea . . . the beautiful Seine river valleys and the dangerously stunning coastline that her forefathers had fought to maintain and keep underneath Frankish rule . . . they could call it their own no more, no matter that Rollo Lothbrok had sworn fealty to her father as King above his duchy. Furthermore, Rollo had been promised the land of the Bretons as his own, should he help her father return that territory to the Frankish Empire as a whole. Had any mercenary ever been paid more before? she wondered. Even now she could only imagine how her uncles were laughing at their misfortunes . . . just as she could hear her great-grandfather Charlemagne despairing from Heaven for the plight of his people.

    For imagining such, she found her strength renewed inside of her, and she held her head up high as she waved her knights away. Mud sucked at the soles of her boots as she stepped forward, but she ignored it. The smallfolk – the freemen and villein and cottagers all - had come out in curiosity from their hovels and their farmsteads to watch their procession as they lumbered through the countryside – how could they not, with such a motley, barbaric host traveling before and behind her, confirming every horrible, nearly unbelievable rumor about the Siege of Paris as the truth while her carriage still bore the coat and livery of her lord father? What a picture they must have made!

    And now . . .

    Most of Rollo's men had arrived before them; sailing down the Seine in one of their hell-boats – which she had out-rightly refused to travel in. Oddly enough, her husband had honored her wishes, and chose instead to follow on land with her and the long procession of gifts her father had sent as her dowry – even more so than he'd already paid! - in order to aid with the modernization and . . . fortification . . . of Rouen as a whole.

    Gisla looked amongst the people now, and saw their wide, bewildered eyes – some hard with anger, and some quavering with fear . . . but silent . . . all so silent as to their King throwing them away as bones before dogs . . . as pearls before swine. She did not want to know what Rollo's men had seen fit to do to convince the local population to accept their presence, and now . . .

    For the first time since leaving Paris, she felt her purpose settle within her bones anew, grounding her against her own dismay and disbelief at her situation. These good Frankish men and women would need her now, being forced to live side by side with such a barbaric and heinous people as they were. She would not abandon them as her father had, she would not.

    Even as she squared her jaw and looked out over those gathered, she tried to think of something to say – anything to inspire their faltering faith in her father's rule anew.

    “We have been successful in turning away the vicious attacks of the pagan known as Ragnar Lothbrok,” she let her voice ring out in a clear and commanding way. Her words had been stronger when she yelled from the battlements, she thought, easier as it was to find bravery in the midst of war and destruction than it was before the smallpeople and their wary, tired eyes. Each gaze seemed to strike her as an arrow, as an axe blow, and inwardly she bled.

    Her mouth was suddenly dry, and she had to swallow in order to wet her lips. “These good men you see,” she tried to not let her voice drip with scorn as she spoke, “have been commissioned,” paid for, begged and bribed, “by my lord father, your King and Emperor,” the weak coward that he is, “to see to your protection when Ragnar's host returns in the spring to come. Here we will raise fortifications, and side by side we will protect not only your shores and homes, but the path the Seine grants into the rest of Frankia as a whole. It is a great, solemn honor being placed upon you, a weighty duty and an august privilege; but with our Lord in Heaven and his anointed King behind us, I have every faith that we can succeed with the task given to us.”

    There was only silence to greet her words, and the eyes locked upon her were still hesitant – afraid, even - and she could not truly fault them for their fear.

    Gisla looked, and saw where her Norse husband had dismounted from his horse, and paused to watch her impromptu speech. He truly was a hulking man, she thought, standing more than a head taller than she, and many stones heavier, at that; rippling with strength and dressed in hard leather, with a great bear skin flung over his broad shoulders. His mass of curling, dark brown hair was braided back at the temples, but otherwise left loose over his shoulders like a woman . . . but she could not call him feminine in any sense of the word beyond that. He and his men towered over many of the peasant folk gathered, she hated to see, standing out as so very different, as so clearly foreign, and once again she prayed that God would grant grace to these invaders, and protect her people from their rages and their lusts.

    When Rollo came to stand by her side, she raised her head even higher, and refused to look his way again. She made her hands into fists, but she could feel the way they trembled – traitorous things as they were. “This is my lord husband,” she found her voice stiff around the words, “Robert, Count of Rouen and the first Duke of Normandy, as these lands shall be referred to henceforth. He is baptized,” as his brother was baptized, most like, “and ordained by God for this calling,” proving that He truly works in mysterious ways, “and you should listen to his voice as you would my father's.”

    By Rollo's side, the odd wisp of a man they called the Wanderer translated her words into the Norse tongue. It was a hard, guttural language, she thought unkindly, and she did not at all care for the way Rollo looked at her when Sinric's translation was done. While everything about him was hard and harsh, his eyes were an unfortunately warm shade of brown – like the newly turned earth in the sunshine, she thought – and there was . . . something within them as he stared at her now. It was a something she did not care for, not in the least. (Even so, she remembered Ragnar's eyes as he held the blade to her throat . . . the unholy shade of clear blue that they were, and was suddenly glad that Rollo favored whichever parent that had refused him those piercing demon-eyes.)

    Following her introduction, Gisla had nothing more to say – not to the people, and certainly not to her husband. Instead of heading to the manor-house which was now to be her home – which was a far cry from most manors, and a shocking demotion from the palace she had known in Paris – she turned down the street to the cathedral that stood, seemingly waiting for her, in the low evening light. Her hands were still shaking, and she then needed the peace and sanctity of prayer. She needed the comfort that could only be found in the shadow of God, knowing that this was now the one place that her husband would not follow her. It would be hers and hers alone.

    She had Sirs Carloman and Childeric stand by the doors, and went in to bow her head before the altar. The plain stone cathedral was small compared to the Saint-Étienne in Paris, with its only riches being in the retable standing as the altarpiece, with its chipped panels depicting Saint Micheal with his sword held high in holy vengeance in the center, flanked by Saint Denis and Saint Mellonius to the left and the right, with their hands clasped together in solemn prayer. Her eyes flickered from the polished gold service sitting at the ready before the altar, to the cross with the Messiah stretched across its beams in agony affixed to the wall above it. Such was all she needed to kneel and bow her head to, then certain that she could feel His presence within the plain stones that housed Him.

    Gisla breathed in through her nose, and let her next breath out slow, feeling somewhat calmed, at last. She felt herself fill on Grace, and then hoped that Providence would protect her – and her people – as it had not before. She prayed, and when she prayed . . .

    Truthfully, she did not know how to pray in that moment. She knew not if she should ask the Holy Mother for her aid, or her son Christ Jesus for his mercy . . . instead, she merely bowed her head and knew for a certainty that the wordless cry of her spirit was heard. It had to be for how violently it retched and shuddered inside of her, still balking against her fate in every conceivable way.

    “Oh Lord, protect us from the fury of the Northmen,” she at last found the words to whisper her prayer aloud, trying to keep the bitterness she felt from her heart – hoping that, this time, her prayers would be heard as they had been so ignored before.



    They spent that night feasting in what pomp and circumstance Rouen could afford. The local landowners and minor nobility who had long presided over the north-lands of the Empire gathered together to pay their respects to the new Duke, as the honor had been coined. As such, it was to Gisla to receive their respects and their hesitant words of fealty - as her husband was still learning the Frankish language, and she did not have high expectations of his doing so quickly.

    For the most part, Rollo did nothing more than sit by her side and watch those gathered. His bright brown eyes took in everything around him as a wolf would – or a bear, she amended to herself, with more ferocity than cunning. His men were certainly enjoying the fare that Rouen had to offer, if one could go by their . . . energetic manner of feasting.

    Disgusted, she watched the way they talked loudly – some whilst partaking of their food – and laughed heartily, patting their brethren on the back and raising their voices when the conversation went a way they disproved of – or approved of, for she could not tell the difference. The Northmen mostly preferred to eat with their fingers, ignoring the forks provided for the foreignness of such a utensil in favor of using their knives and fingers as they had long been used to. They drank deeply of their wine and ale, and had no qualms about asking for more before each course was served – failing to understand that the food was merely to be sampled with each course, so that one did not gorge one's self as a glutton. (She did not acknowledge that Rollo carefully observed how she partook of her own meal, and awkwardly parroted her actions in return. She looked once at how the fork was nearly swallowed in his fist of a hand, and after watching the tendons and the veins there flex for a moment, she looked away, frowning.)

    Even more oddly did her eyes find the women amongst Rollo's companions to be – though, truly, not much distinction could be made between their male and female kind, as the women dressed as men and fought as men and even spoke and drank as men now. They demurred not against adding their voices to the fray, and they were uncaring if anyone else in the Great Hall noticed their flirting and carrying on as . . . as unmoral women with their welcoming the interest of their male companions and even freely offering their own . . . interest in return. It was disgusting, Gisla could not help but think, revolting, even – a shameless display of sin and gluttony.

    And yet, her eyes found those women more often than not – smiling and seemingly free and at peace with how God made them - and her gaze was, at times, traitorously slow to look away.

    Uttering a quick prayer in apology for the weakness of her heart, she turned back to what Archbishop Franco was saying. The Archbishop of Rouen was a kind, older man who wore the cloth out of a true love for their Lord and a proper humbleness for ecclesiastical submission – or so her first impression was, and, as such, it was one she very much hoped that time would prove true. Renuard, who had been instated in Paris at the untimely death of Archbishop Albert - (even now she could still remember Ragnar surging up like a demon from the false slumber of his coffin . . . how the priest's blood had spilled over the cathedral stones, splattering her dress and darkening her eyes with rage before she foolishly threw herself forward in an attack that would have been doomed had Ragnar not taken her hostage instead) – had been ordained on the condition of his conscience allowing him to marry her to her pagan husband, no matter how baptized Rollo claimed to be. That argument had been her one hope for the farce of her marriage falling through, and for chaining her to her vows she hated the clergyman's ambition, settled not in true scriptural belief and spiritual love as it should have been, but rather in the advancement and betterment of his earthly self.

    But Franco was one of the few who had the courage to even engage her husband in conversation – through Sinric's translating, of course - and if she was surprised when Rollo politely returned the Christian's attempt at civility, she kept it to herself. The Archbishop was searching, even she could see, wanting to know if her husband had a background in any sort of leadership – for his being brother to the King of the Danes, Rollo did not call himself a prince, nor did he claim the title of one the Jarls that the Northmen seemed to more locally follow – yet he led men in battle, and admirably so, at that. This Gisla had seen with her own eyes, and could not begrudge the truth of, even within the privacy of her own mind. She had noticed him through the chaos of warring men and flashing steel, even while she held the banner of Saint Dennis aloft and cried for her men to rally against the ravagers assaulting their walls. Rollo had paused at the sound of her voice, she remembered, standing as a still-spot in the battle. The sun had glittered off the sheen of sweat on his bare chest, and she had only been able to see the blood splattered on his skin as his eyes met hers . . . and then, when his single handed crazed assault ended with the river taking him, she had felt -

    - Gisla stabbed her fork into her pheasant with more force than was strictly necessary, and ruthlessly cut her own thoughts down before they took shape.

    When the Archbishop was satisfied enough by Rollo's answers to even offer his assistance in his learning in the Frankish tongue – and expressed his own interest in learning the Norse dialects, at that – Rollo surprised her by laughing, delight and surprise both brightening his eyes. He even went as far as to clap the Archbishop on the shoulder, inclining his head to say, “yes,” and, “thank-you,” in Frankish, without the aid of Sinric's translating.

    Gisla stared at him, both appalled by his assuming such familiarity with a man of God, and taken aback by the sound of his laughter. It was a sound that seemed to resonate in her bones – not for the first time - and she swallowed against it, turning again to her pheasant to distract herself from her own mind. Even so, she played with the awkward weight of her ring on her left hand as she ate, unable to wholly distance herself as much as she would have liked to.

    To that effort, she did not look at her husband again that night, and neither did she follow his lead when it was time to retire – instead walking down the hall a step ahead of him, and bristling with discomfort for the idea of their sharing a chamber together, wondering if, this time . . .

    Her cheeks flushed as she reflected that while her husband slept in her bed every night since their marriage – even going as far as to share a place next to her in the inns on the road - he had yet to sleep with her.

    That first night – over a month ago, now - still quivering in rage for her father inflicting such a man upon her, and refusing to acknowledge the fear that coursed through her veins and caused her heart to speed, she had entered their chambers. Her hair had been brushed to hang freely over her shoulders by her maids, and she had felt impossibly bare in the meager covering provided by her nightshift. As such, she had stood there awkwardly to find her husband already laying down in their bed - though not, she was curious to find, in any sort of eager anticipation of her arrival, but looking as if he was ready for sleep.

    Misery and anger and nervous discomfort had all churned within her as a truly nauseating maelstrom, and her feeling so was only made worse by just standing there, expecting for, at any moment . . .

    For she had married him in the eyes of God – (no matter that Rollo had stumbled over the foreign words, and that ridiculous Archbishop had stuttered to match, as if fearing the pagan's retribution should he falter in his task) - and such vows were legal and binding. While Gisla did not at all care for the brute who had ravaged her city and made mockery of her God with his very existence, she would do what she must for those vows, even if she did not intend on enjoying – or letting him enjoy – a single moment of it.

    Her embarrassment was only made all the worse when Rollo cracked an eye open and patted the bed next to him. Offended, and her hackles more than certainly raised, she had stood her ground and, dumbfounded, stammered, “No.”

    Without Sinric there to translate between them, they were left to gestures to communicate. When Rollo's gestures failed, he finally got up with a sigh, and came around to her side of the bed. She eyed him the same as she would a serpent, all but daring him to touch her. When he pushed her down, and her back met the soft feathers and down of the bed, she had thought that to be the beginning of a no doubt demeaning experience – for both of them, she was determined to make it so. She had raised herself up on her elbows, and stared at him, still glaring with all of the fire she could muster. Her lips drew back so that her teeth were bared in an animal's cornered snarl, and yet, she was left to her surprise and confusion when he simply smiled back at her – a smirk, more accurately, one that made her blood thunder in her ears – and reached over to pointedly close her eyelids.

    There were no words said between them, but she thought to dumbly understand him when he climbed into bed beside her, and immediately closed his own eyes. Not even ten minutes later his soft snores filled the room, while she laid awake, staring at the ceiling. She had remained stiff as a board the whole night through – for her giant of a husband took up most of the bed, and a great deal of the blankets, as well – as if afraid that any movement, any motion on her part, would awaken him, and remind him . . .

    After she finally fell into an uneasy sleep with the dawn, she awakened near noon to find her new husband already long gone. She was alone, her virtue untouched, and she could not tell her confusion from her frustration and embarrassment, unsure precisely what she was feeling and why.

    Biting her lip, she had called her maid in to help her ready for the day in silence – donning the cap of a married woman and slipping on her wedding band as truly foreign items - before finding her husband where he was readying his men to sail for Rouen, determined as she was to find answers.

    “Robert,” she called, inordinately annoyed when he did not respond to his Christian name. (For the savage had insisted on his baptized state to appeal to her spirituality - do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers, the scriptures were clear in that regard - and so, it was to Robert she spoke her vows, and it was to Robert she was determined to speak to now.)

    “Robert,” she repeated sharply, unafraid to reach up for his shoulder and turn him bodily so that he faced her. “I do not understand,” she immediately launched into her speech. “You are my husband, I am your wife, why . . . why did you not . . .” for all of her fierce determination, she could feel her cheeks flame, then hating that Rollo had to turn and ask Sinric to translate for them. This was not a conversation she wanted to have through the ears and mouth of a stranger, but it was a conversation she would have.

    Rollo raised a dark brow as Sinric stuttered to repeat her words, and she hated the lazy sort of smile he gave along with his reply. For a moment, she wanted to scratch it from his face.

    “A thrall – a slave woman - has no choice in such matters,” Sinric delicately translated Rollo's answer. He shuffled on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with the situation he found himself trapped in. “Yet, you are no thrall, Princess. Wives are protected by Frigg herself, and her attendants are slow to grant sons to such unions, just as a daughter of force is said to bring bitterness and ill omen to her father's house. He would not risk the Gods' displeasure after so recently finding their favor again.”

    She had blinked at the Wanderer's words – for even the most devout of Christian men would see little qualms in taking their husbandly rights on their bride – her wishes or participation in the matter having little bearing once their vows were spoken. In all things, a husband was to be obeyed as a head, just as Christ was the head of the Christian congregation. Submission permeated all aspects of the married life, and what the husband wanted it was to the wife to see fulfilled and obeyed.

    “Who is Frigg?” she dumbly asked in reply – the only question she could think to utter, as bewildered as her jumbled thoughts still were.

    “Odin's favoured wife, and Queen of the Aesir,” Sinric returned as if his answer was obvious. “She is All-mother of Asgard and equal in might to the All-father.”

    The equal resonated with her as a blow, even as she heard weaker vessel play over and over again in her mind from her own ecclesiastical learnings. She swallowed, and her throat was dry.

    “Such beliefs are an affront to the true God,” she found herself saying automatically, hating her moment of weakness in seeing, and finding favor with the likes of them and their unholy ways. “I'll hear no more of them.”

    “As you wish, Princess,” Sinric respectfully inclined his head before turning to her husband to convey her words. Rollo's smile only seemed to stretch, and something hot touched his eyes, turning them a shade of warm brandy. She felt herself flush at his words, even while able to understand him not.

    “Though he says that he does pray to Freyja that you do not hold onto your coldness and enmity for too long,” Sinric's eyes sparkled to say, and she did not need to have the purpose of that goddess explained with the way her husband laughed - a full and hearty sound that seemed to resonate in her bones – sickeningly so, she forced herself to believe. “You are, after all, a beautiful woman.”

    “And if I make him wait forever?” she returned, finding her temper sparked. “What if, even when we are old and grey, I will suffer not of him laying a finger on me?”

    Sinric raised a brow, and turned to relay her words. Rollo's expression then seemed to soften, all of the heat and humor leaving him as he spoke. She found herself strangely taken by his words, unable to look away.

    “You were foretold to him by the grace of an Ancient One, in a vision from the Norn themselves,” Sinric translated, his own voice softening with a reverence that she easily understood as the holiness of belief. “As such is in the hands of the Gods, he believes that he will not have a cold marriage for all of his days.”

    She stared at him, unwilling to believe such a thing. She could feel the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand on end at the mention of such witchcraft, such demonism, and she shivered.

    But it was Rollo himself who bowed his head to say, “You . . . blessing,” as if that alone should explain everything, when really, it revealed nothing.

    . . . but he had not tried to touch her since then, and a part of Gisla was curious for how long he would wait. Did he really speak truly with his vow, or would he, now that they were settled . . .

    Her fear from their wedding night was now gone, but she was still ill to the thought of his touch. Even knowing that her marriage was technically incomplete in the eyes of the law did not move her to rectify the way things stood between them. She couldn't . . . she didn't know if she ever could if the decision was left solely to her.

    That first night in Rouen, she let her maid help her undress and braid her hair back to keep it from tangling in the night. As she should have expected, she once again arrived to find her husband already underneath the blankets and seemingly searching for sleep. The room was cold, she thought, for the spring nights still carried a chill, even this close to summer, and the old manor let in drafts through the cracks in the bricks and the ill fitting glass in the windows. There was a scant fire in the hearth that would burn throughout the night, but that did not seem nearly enough to warm the room. She sighed, noting the dampness of the air, and added both to her mental list of things she wished to improve – everything from the slanted floors, to the low ceilings, to the poorly tended gardens in the square courtyard. As she burrowed underneath the blankets, she resolved to speak to a builder upon the morrow, wanting to immediately set to work in readying Rouen for the year to come.

    When Rollo reached over to place a hand on her shoulder, she started. A wild sort of panic then stole through her as a jolt, thinking that, now -

    “You . . . are . . . frigid.” Noticing the way she recoiled, Rollo carefully explained himself in his awkward, looming accent. In reply she felt her anger surge through her, strangely made greater for her prior moment of fear.

    Gisla sat upright, her emotions careening as she interpreted his words to critique the current lack in their marriage. Yet, seeing the angry flush to her cheeks, she saw the way her husband's brow furrowed, and he quickly amended, “Cold,” the word sat oddly upon his tongue as he tried to fix his mistake. “You are cold.”

    He too sat upright, and he mimed shivering as he hugged his arms to his torso. She watched him, and felt her cheeks flame for her misunderstanding, feeling as a child as she inclined her head in reply. “A little,” she answered stiffly, holding her thumb and first finger the slightest bit a part so that he could understand her answer.

    She then laid back down, and held herself still and unwelcoming as he carefully wrapped his arms around her. Her heart hammered in her chest, and though she did not care for the idea of him being close enough to feel such a reaction from her, at least she was then warm. His body was solid, impressively so, she hated to admit, and a part of her did not completely hate the feel of his strength surrounding her – though such was something she would deny unless He Himself asked it of her at the end of her days. For all of the heat pouring off of his skin, he had a cool scent, she thought, like a pine forest after the rain, and she turned her face into him before realizing that she did so. She then laid very stiffly, her arms held rigidly at her sides and her eyes held tightly closed.

    “Home . . .” Rollo swallowed to find his words. “Winters . . . cold . . . family whole together.”

    Gisla blinked, and looked up at him in the dark, not understanding what he was trying to say. She watched him frown, clearly frustrated with his inability to communicate.

    But she only understood that there was no danger in the embrace; and she no longer felt the cold of the night. “Goodnight, Robert,” she pointedly said into his chest, the syllables falling from her tongue like stones as she freed him from his need to explain.

    She felt him sigh against her hair, even so, and he held her the slightest bit closer as they surrendered to the night.



    The next morning, still puzzling over Rollo's words, Sinric explained to her that entire families and their households would sleep huddled together on the coldest nights of the Northern winters. She then understood that such was not an attempt at seduction, so much as it was a survival instinct – and a comfort . . . a familiarity, reminding him of a home that was now far behind him - though she doubted that her husband would ever identify his doing so as such, even within the privacy of his own mind.

    Gisla swallowed her voice before asking of his family, telling herself that she did not want to know . . . that she did not care to know. She did not, not truly, and there were many other things more deserving of her attention that day. The conundrum that was her husband, and the odd state of their equally odd marriage, could wait for another time.



    Their first month in Rouen passed quickly.

    While Gisla met with the builders and sought about improvements to the city, Rollo spoke with the same builders about reinforcements and strengthening the defenses of their walls. She was first surprised when he wished to do such together – and insisted on Sinric translating every word said, even if his doing so slowed their proceedings down considerably.

    The local manor-lords, as the chief landowners, were of particular interest to her husband. Her father had bought a truly sickening amount of land from the landowners and monasteries in order to grant farms to the Northmen – for they were farmers when not holding axes in hand and pillaging as demons out of hell, this she had first found hard to believe – and Rollo was truly interested in the cultivating of the land and the appropriation of the cattle that made Rouen bountiful. Not only did he listen in detail to the Frankish methods of farming, but he was eager to share his own people's techniques and traditions. Gisla silenced the part of herself that was surprised by the care and thoughtful consideration he took with leading his people – their people, now.

    Which was not to say that it was an easy transition; not by any means. Though the newcomers were surprisingly quick in learning the Frankish tongue – and a few already knew scatterings of Latin, this she was surprised to hear – there was a great barrier between their two peoples in communication. Then, where worship was concerned . . . Mass and Vespers were held daily, much to the confusion of the heathens, and Sundays were a slow day of work due to a holy observation that the pagans did not share. Most of the Northmen seemed to worship with the time of day and the turn of the seasons, singing with the dawn and lighting fires and giving thanksgiving to their collection of deities in rituals that she closed her eyes to and pretended that she could not hear from her room at night.

    So far, the most disturbing incident came from a man who tried to sacrifice a goat after sealing a deal with a Christian landowner. When he went to paint the goat's blood on the affronted nobleman's face, the Christian, had - of course – refused. Offended, the Norseman had then seen fit to return violence for the perceived insult done to both him and his gods.

    So far they had prevented outright violence – the spat over the goat's blood aside. Rollo commanded a great deal of respect from his followers for his showing on Paris' walls, and she held an iron hand over the Frankish populace along with the help of Archbishop Franco, knowing that they – as much as she hated to admit it – needed this alliance should Ragnar Lothbrok and others like him come seeking to plunder their shores again.

    . . . for they had heard tales from Anglia, and to become as one of those decimated places such as Lindisfarne . . . or Winchester . . . no. No.

    While Rollo did not yet have much interest in the written missives they tended to, he was, however, very much impressed by their maps, and she watched as he touched the lands of Bessin . . . Hiémois . . . and Évreux, as Franco explained their significance as lands that traditionally belonged within the Archdiocese of Rouen, though such boundaries had been lost to them over time. Thoughtfully, Rollo next touched the Breton lands on their peninsula, and she wondered what he pondered, curious for what thought was at work behind the new sort of glow that sat hungry in his eyes. Following, Rollo was quick to ask questions about the people living on his new lands, and long was he at work with Archbishop Franco to tally their available men and fields and forests they had to provide for local subsistence and profit through trading, both.

    As the days passed, her indignation and discontentment never quite faded, so much as it simply dulled into an old ache – a bruise, as it were. Slowly but surely she found a purpose in Rouen - a place and a belonging in aiding the people there – and, as she traced her fingers over the blueprints of the tower the architects had presented to her, she thought that maybe, just maybe, she was leaving a mark on the history of her people – for the better.

    Unfortunately, all of their forward progress had been halted by the storms that had dominated the weather the last two days – keeping the farmers and the builders indoors until the heavens ceased to pour.

    Even so, Gisla made her way to the small cathedral to say her prayers, her two knights trailing in her shadow as they always did. Yet, she did not take long in her devotions due to the thunder seemingly shaking the ceiling above her head and the steady song of the rain as it fell to soak the earth below.

    The hem of her dress was muddy when she returned to the manor, and her hood had done but little to save the coils braided into her hair underneath. Heading to the chambers she and Rollo shared – for the concept of separate rooms was not yet one she could seem to explain to him, as baffling as he found it to be - she was surprised when she was greeted by the low sound of a man humming from within. Normally, Rollo was polite enough in letting her have her space – as if to gild a prettier bar upon her cage – and he did not go where he knew she would be unless it was for business and their affairs of leading together – for which she supposed she should have been grateful that her husband continued to include her, just as her father so long had before him.

    Yet, this was, perhaps, the one room where he would find peace from others as well, and as she peered within, she was surprised to see him kneeling next to the room's one window. The storm had turned the light of day dark with shadow, no matter that it was nearly noon, and the yellow glow of the flashing storm-light lit strange patterns over the strong planes of his face and the dark shade of his hair. He sat bare-chested and bare of foot, the primitive markings he had permanently inked onto his skin now joined by the dripping, freshly applied stick-like characters his people used in place of a written language. The symbols were painted onto the strong lines of his chest and torso in a pattern that she could not translate, nor even begin to understand – not that she had much wish to.

    To that end, she tilted her head, puzzled to see a small bowl of some dark liquid – wine, she first would have assumed, until something within her whispered blood, wondering then what poor creature had suffered so that he could commune with his false gods. He was muttering underneath his breath, his words low and strangely melodic, no matter that she had always thought his language to be a harsh one to the ears. Though it was no hymn sung aloud, there was a raw, base sort of beauty about it – something primal, full of an ancient sort of power . . . this she shamed herself to think, instantly telling herself that such was surely the doing of the Devil.

    The thunder then rumbled – louder than it had yet to do, seemingly crashing above their heads, so much so that Gisla could feel the storm behind her heart and within her very bones – and only then did Rollo open his eyes and smile, clearly pleased by what he saw as the proof of his patron's favor. At first, she had thought that he held a small cross in his hand, and prayed to that, but she now saw the heathen markings upon the token, and recognized the symbol of the hammer so many of them revered – the shape of it strangely being so similar to that of their own crucifix. Yet, this . . . did it belong to Thar? Tror? She could not remember, and told herself that she did not much care to learn the right name for the imposter deity.

    As the thunder continued to build above them, Rollo traced one last symbol on his forehead, the ritual then complete as he closed his eyes and bowed his head low to the floor in supplication. Though his Gods were not her God, she nonetheless understood the nature of belief, the nature of worship, and for a moment, the empathy she felt for the peace she saw upon his features surprised her.

    Disturbed by her thoughts, she forced herself to remember him as she had first beheld him: as some hell-spawned demon with steel in hand, as fearsome as a tempest and as mighty as a leviathan as he led his men when they faltered for the massacre upon the walls, certain as he had been of his Gods' blessing, and completely surrendering himself to their mercy in both life and death as he offered up soul after soul to their greedy hands. She shivered, and told herself that such was from her disquiet, from her revulsion for the pagantry of his ways.

    Gisla then turned while the thunder still rolled, seemingly chasing her steps as her thoughts raced through her mind, allowing her no respite with the way they continuously circled.



    The storms continued on well into the next day, and though the rain spoiled their work out of doors, there was still much to be done with quills upon paper indoors as plans were made for the future months to come. After returning from her morning prayers, she worked through midday and well on into the afternoon hours - so much so that she was surprised when a plate of black bread and sharp white cheese was placed down on the scroll she had open before her.

    Gisla glanced down at the plate, and then over at the hulking shadow her husband threw over her shoulder.

    “I am not hungry,” she dismissed his offering - no matter that her stomach gave a greedy pang at the thought of sustenance. Had she broken her fast that morning? she tried to remember. She had not had her midday meal, she did recall that much, and now . . .

    “Mind weak when body hungers,” Rollo shook his head and pushed the plate closer to her. His speech was still simple, and his accent was thick and cumbersome – yet, he was learning, and learning fast, at that. When she had first been bound to him, she did not think him capable of ever coming as far as he had in learning her tongue, but he now understood much of what others were saying and he could communicate a limited range of words in reply. Only his reading and writing was coming along slowly – but such, she had come to find, was not through fault of his, but through the lack of skill his people had for such arts as a whole. This, she had first been pleased to learn, was merely a mark of how her God favored His people over Rollo's own deities by lifting their minds from equality with the dumb beasts of the field through their pursuit of the academic studies.

    “My mind is able enough,” still she pushed the plate away.

    Nonplussed, Rollo pushed the plate back again. “Please.” The word was kind, but the sharp line of his smile and the glinting of his eyes were more mocking than polite. Pointedly, he tapped the plate with his first finger.

    With a stony look, she reached over and tore off a bite of bread. Still looking him in the eye, she plopped it in her mouth before pointedly turning back to her scrolls. Across from her, she had the unsettling notion that Archbishop Franco was trying not to smile at their interaction. The older churchman had been nothing but gracious to their new neighbors so far, convinced as he was that the kindness of the ways of Christ would be an enticement to the Norsemen after their knowing only the bloody and warring rites of Odin for so long. The Archbishop considered himself a missionary, and this was his flock-to-be – such was a holy calling from God, and that call was one he was determined to answer as best he could.

    “No,” Rollo shook his head, and pushed the scroll away from her. “Clear mind . . . be good to body first.”

    She frowned, her mouth making a hard line as she stared at him. “Yet, this must be done,” she protested. “And I am the one to do it.”

    Will be done,” maddeningly, Rollo agreed with her. “But first . . .” he walked to the end of the long wooden table that was empty, and pulled out a chair for her – bowing in a mockery of what he had seen her own knights do for her.

    She merely stared at him, wanting to ignore him out of principle, and yet hesitant to appear so childish in front of the Archbishop - especially when her husband asked nothing unreasonable of her, but rather, he had . . .

    Yet, Rollo then had to ruin her moment's positive thought of him by saying, “You Christian wife . . . but not obey?” He still wore his sharp smile, and his eyes said that he was enjoying their exchange more than she cared to acknowledge. Still pouring over the scrolls, and acting as if he heard not a word of their exchange, Franco gave a betraying snort of amusement.

    Gisla merely set her mouth in a thin line, and told herself that it was only because she was hungry that she acquiesced to his wishes. Nothing more. She placed her quill down, and went to sit in the chair he had pulled out for her.

    However, she was surprised when Rollo took a seat across from her, and nonchalantly reached across the table to help himself to a piece of her cheese. She stared at him, her mouth turned down in distaste all the while. But he ignored her in favor of reaching into the satchel she had not first realized he carried in order to bring out a board. It was some sort of game, she soon understood, with seven squares by seven squares, and pieces arranged in two rows for each player.

    She raised a brow, wondering if he truly intended . . .

    Hnefatafl,” Rollo said, spreading his hands to encompass the game. The word was unfamiliar to her, so she assumed that it was the name of the game.

    “Pawns,” he explained, gesturing at the smaller pieces – carefully carved from a strangely smooth and beautiful white material. Each side had one larger piece – the “King” - which was more ornately carved, and stared at her with deeply engraved eyes. The nature of the game was one Rollo could explain mostly through gestures, and she was reminded enough of the Chess game they had long ago learned from Constantinople to guess the rules of the game from there.

    This was, she begrudgingly admitted, a good way to get to know another being when they were limited by speech. After he was satisfied that she understood the rules, and set up the game for their first real match, she tried not to look at her husband too closely and stare, wondering again what precisely he saw their marriage to be, and – a question that had her stomach turning in a way she refused to ponder – what he wanted from their union in the future.

    “It learns strategy,” Rollo inclined his head to say.

    “It teaches strategy,” she corrected as she stared critically at the board. “Yet, I did not think that your people much cared for tactics,” she confessed, unable to keep from cutting with her words. “Brute strength and sheer force are the Northern way, are they not?”

    “Yet it was strategy that won us Paris, no?” Rollo returned in kind, little moved by her rancor. Rather - the thought was an unsettling one - she half suspected that a part of him enjoyed it, with the way his eyes filled with a delighted sort of amusement. She knew a few dozen courtiers in her father's court who would be bristling by now. Many would have already left her, their egos bruised and their tongues lashing out against a woman who would dare speak to her betters so. But Rollo merely raised a brow, and smiled that smile that reminded her more of a hunting wolf than anything truly human.

    Trickery,” she spat the word as if it were a rancid taste in her mouth, “won Paris for you. Lies and deceit – not strategy.”

    “Which you would have thought . . . smarter . . . than us before?” Rollo raised a brow to inquire.

    “Yes,” she had no fear of offending him. “I would have thought such deceit above your comprehension at the first.”

    “Yet, I now wish to see your . . . comprehension,” Rollo was able to use enough context clues to add the new word to his vocabulary. In his eyes there most certainly was a challenge.

    So, she reached forward and boldly made the first move. Rollo took another piece of her bread, and this time she let him, finding herself much taken by the strategy the game did indeed require. In the end, she lost the first three games – which she would attribute to her being unfamiliar with the game and underestimating her opponent, this she was loath to confess. But, by the end of the fourth game she took Rollo to the very end, and it was only by a fluke chance that he beat her once more. Next time, she felt confident in her ability to steal a victory.

    Next time, the thought of her subconscious mind was a betraying one for the ease with which it formed, and Gisla frowned as Rollo took her now empty plate and put the game away. He had his own men to see to, and he would see her for supper, she knew . . . but that did not stop her from watching him leave, unsure what to do with the small, barest of whispers within her mind that would have rathered him stay.

    Deciding that she was disturbed by such a thought, she shook her head, and turned back to the scrolls she'd abandoned while the rain continued to steadily sing above their heads.



    Gisla taught the game to her knights later that same day, and if she was disappointed that they did not pick up on the game as quickly as she would have liked - nor presented half the challenge that Rollo did - she kept such an emotion to herself. She stamped such a knowing down deep within her heart, content to hide the truth inside the black, unacknowledged spaces of her own mind.

    When Childeric backed away from the game after losing to her once again - declaring the strategy of it fit for savages - and Carloman demurred from learning at all, Gisla sat back, and tried not to frown as she stared at her king, the only piece left remaining on the board. It continued to stare at her as if it knew something she did not, and after a moment, she turned it over so that it joined his fallen comrades, ill content, though she knew quite not why.



    That Sunday following worship, many came to gather and dine in the Great Hall together, as they often did at the week's end.

    Especially amongst the Norse, the mead-hall of their Jarl was where the men would gather to share sport and tales and gossip, and where a leader could keep an eye on his men, and benefit from their council in his turn. Even their own nobility saw the wisdom in doing so; and, as such, their evenings on the last day of every week were often loud and . . . interesting gatherings as their two cultures merged and meshed into one.

    For that evening, the Northmen had tired of the Frankish minstrels, and were eager to show their new neighbors how a story was truly passed on through song, or so they said. They called their own poet – a skald, Sinric explained to her – and had him string his lyre to sing for them.

    Though the language was still one she could not understand, nor much desired to, Gisla had to admit that the skald's voice was beautiful. Deep and rich, he strummed a haunting tune on the strings, and told a tale full of longing and wanting - this even she could hear, telling the rhythm of the story from the tone of his voice and the wistful cry he was able to coax from the lyre. As his tale went on, he even mimed differing voices for her characters - taking on a deeper tone for a disagreeable character, and a sweet, smooth pitch for what she assumed was the voice of a woman.

    She looked to Rollo, and asked, “What tale does he tell?” Her curiosity was then greater than her aversion.

    “He sings of Freyr, and Gerðr his love,” Rollo answered her, before gesturing at Sinric. Though his Frankish was quickly improving, it still did not favor such long stories, and she looked at the Wanderer, then curious for his translation.

    “Freyr, son of the sea-god Njorðr, once stole upon the high throne Hliðskjálf – where Odin and Frigg would sit in order to look out over the boughs of Ygdrassil and observe the Nine Realms below,” Sinric started his story, his own voice taking on a low and reverent cast – the voice of a born story-teller. “There, marveling at his ability to see far and wide, his eyes locked upon a beautiful maiden as a blow – Gerðr, whose light beamed from her arms and shone over both sky and sea, so that all the worlds were made bright by her attentions. Instantly he was struck with love for her, and viewed this love as his curse for sitting upon the throne he had no right to sit, for now he could find joy in nothing – not in the gay fields of Álfheimr, nor in the company of his beloved and beautiful sister, Freyja.

    “For, you see, this Gerðr was of the race of Jötunn kind – enemies of the Gods in all things, and she would welcome not the suit of one of her father's foes. Even so, Freyr knew that he would find no happiness until he had her as his wife, so he commanded his servant Skírnir to go to this giantess and win her hand for him – if so, he would be rewarded. For his reward, Skírnir chose the great sword that Freyr would use to fight and triumph in Ragnarök – the end of the world.

    “Knowing that doing so would be his own death, Freyr nonetheless gave away his sword, and sent Skírnir to the lands of Gerðr's father to win her hand. There Skírnir offered the apples of eternal youth to Gerðr, but she refused, saying that lasting love was made not of youth and beauty. Next, he offered her nine golden rings, and still Gerðr refused, saying that true love could not be bought by gold and riches.

    "For nine days, and nine nights, Gerðr refused all of Skírnir's clever requests, until, on that final night, Skírnir at last drew his sword on her in anger, and threatened her with all sorts of unspeakable curses should she deny the hand of his lord again. Yet, Gerðr saw only the sword, and recognized it – baffled, she asked why Freyr would give up his life for one such her, and, touched, she saw his love reflected in his sacrifice.

    “Unwilling, however, to wholly believe in the fleeting interest of the Gods, she vowed that if after nine more days and nine more nights, Freyr still desired her, she would then grant him her hand and her heart.”

    As Sinric spoke, Gisla looked down to where she had been swirling her May wine in her glass, the story touching something inside of her as the skald continued to hum and pluck and his strings. She felt the notes seemingly settle behind her heart, and she breathed in with them.

    When she looked up, Rollo was staring at her – in that open, shameless way she so often caught him doing. He never looked away in embarrassment when she noticed him, nor did he smile lasciviously, or look right through her as if she was not there – normally, such were the only ways that men would gaze at her. She was unsure what about her warranted such a stare, seeing nothing particularly striking in her features or her figure – no more so than most – and yet, when he looked at her . . . she felt open and bare, her very bones laid out for the taking, and it was a feeling she swallowed against.

    After another sip of wine for her nerves, tasting the woodruff to be strong on the back of her tongue, she then found her voice enough to lowly speak – not wanting to interrupt the skald's rendition. “And Freyr?” she asked. “Did he wait?”

    “Freyr waits,” Rollo was the one to finish, rather than Sinric. “After nine days Gerðr gives him her hand and her heart.”

    “And . . .” Gisla swallowed. “At Raganork -”

    “ - Ragnarök,” Sinric supplied for her.

    “At Ragnarök,” Gisla repeated the foreign word in a thick voice, finding it to be cumbersome in her mouth, “What then becomes of Freyr?”

    “He dies when the end comes, as all the Gods must die,” Rollo answered. “But made worth it by how he lived.”

    He was still staring at her, she noted uncomfortably. She let her eyes fall from him in order to look back at the skald as he finished his song on a long, bittersweet note, and took a final sip of her wine, tasting the last bit of spring in the goblet before the summer came.



    Mass the following Sunday was interrupted by a ruckus from outside the cathedral.

    Gisla, as most of the congregation did, rose with the commotion, surprised when two of the local manor-lords stalked in, followed closely by two of Rollo's warriors – one, she thought, disturbed, literally had blood on his hands, in a way she did not think was from his own worships that day.

    “Murderer!” one of the Franks called – a man Gisla recognized as Einhard, a younger lord who had just inherited his father's lands. He had been ill appeased by her father's payment when surrendering a part of his fields for the Norse to farm, calling it Judas' silver, and so far touching not of it.

    Behind Einhard was the lord just to the west of his own lands, Gothello, whose grandfather had been knighted and granted land at Charlemagne's behest and favor; and was thus of young blood to the nobility. His eyes were red rimmed, and his face was grim. His hands, she noticed, were shaking; the knuckles white from where he clenched his fingers into fists.

    “I call murder, and ask you fine people to stand as my witnesses to see justice done,” Einhard called out again. In reply, Gisla frowned, the other man's love for showmanship already sitting ill at ease with her through the councils they had held together. She would not allow him to turn the house of God into another one of his stages.

    Yet, Archbishop Franco thought much the same as she, for he stepped forward from his service to say, “This is highly irregular, Lord Einhard, and not the place to see such a grievance addressed.”

    “Is it not?” Einhard returned. He was an unfortunately handsome man, and his charisma normally had him encircled with followers and admirers aplenty. Already his popularity with the people and his hungry ambition for more were traits she had marked, and knew to watch closely in the days to come. “The jurisdictions of Charlemagne have fallen into ill-organization, and the good King Charles has not sent out his Missi to watch over the courts in years now. The manor-courts see to all in these days, and it is they I wish to convene on this holy ground with all of my good fellow Christians to see.”

    “Then, as such,” Franco was little impressed by the young lord calling on ancient law – not in the least, “you need the presence of the Manor-lord to see your . . . justice done.”

    Einhard's eyes flickered over to her. She did not much care for the way they glittered. “I would have the Princess listen on this, and accept her ruling as the voice of God.”

    Gisla frowned, for while she often felt herself constraining against the roles placed upon her due to her sex, they were still God's roles, and for her to step aside them in such a way . . .

    Franco glanced at her, and though there was kindness in his eyes, he nonetheless said, “But our Gisla, though wise, is a lady fair. It is her lord husband who should attend this matter, as I believe he would agree.”

    The Archbishop then glanced to the back of the cathedral, where Rollo and a half dozen of his men were just then entering. At Rollo's side the Wanderer looked winded and out of breath, as if he had been running to keep up with them. She looked, and saw that Rollo's face was hard. His frown only deepened at the gasps of more than one church-goer who protested having their holy ground profaned by the presence of the Northmen.

    “As if we could trust a fair ruling from the likes of -” wisely, Einhard reconsidered what he, perhaps, wished to say as Sinric translated. He swallowed his words, and, “from a foreigner,” he finished grudgingly.

    “And yet, this foreigner was selected by your lord King, his Imperial Highness, who was anointed by the grace of the Most Holy,” Franco pointed out, “Count Robert is a foreigner no more, both by marriage and vows of fealty, and his word in such matters is binding.”

    Einhard frowned, but she saw the way his eyes then brightened. She felt her stomach twist, seeing the moment of opportunity he then sensed. If Rollo ruled as Einhard was so certain he would rule - in favor of his own - then he would only have more fuel to add to the flames of discontent he was trying to stir. He had already voiced his objections – he had witnesses aplenty to voice that tale later – and now he would play at graciousness, for the time being.

    Surely enough, Einhard then bowed his head deep with respect. “As the Archbishop says, who am I to disagree? Let ruling over this matter be to our Count's judgment, then.”

    A rumble went through those gathered, and Gisla looked about, understanding then just how much would weigh on this one crucial moment. She tried to meet Rollo's eyes over the crowd – wishing that she could whisper to him the importance of fairness and justice now, no matter which side was in the right, and which side was in the wrong. But Rollo was not looking at her, but at Einhard. Though the Frankish lord would underestimate it of him, she could see the same thoughtful, intense look in her husband's eyes he wore whenever they played hnefatafl together, and she knew . . .

    Gisla held her breath, and like everyone else gathered, she listened carefully.

    “Go on, man,” Einhard elbowed Gothello forward. “Tell them what happened.”

    Gothello looked from Einhard to the Archbishop, and he swallowed before saying. “I -”

    “ - like many of us,” Einhard interrupted in a stiff voice.

    “ - like many of us,” Gothello haltingly agreed, “had a portion of my lands bought by the Emperor to give to his new . . . Northern subjects.”

    There was a ripple of rumbling through the crowd, Gisla heard. From the deepening of Rollo's frown, he heard it too, and understood.

    “But payment for the land had not yet come to me in whole,” Gothello said, “and, as such, I did not turn over all of my fields. Yet, these men,” his voice stiffened over the words as he nodded his head sharply at the two Northmen – the one with bloody hands only glaring as he looked back and forth at the proceedings he could not understand. Yet, Gisla strangely noted, he did not once speak in protest, nor did he ask Sinric to translate for him. He trusted Rollo to handle his fate for him, she then understood, and his faith in his leader was absolute.

    “These men started to plow the fields, regardless,” Gothello continued. “They even . . . blessed the ground . . . according to their own ways,” this he stumbled awkwardly to say, not wanting to speak badly of his Lord's beliefs while addressing him directly.

    “My brother . . . Godfrey,” Gothello's voice broke over the name, “tried to tell the Northman that the fields were not yet theirs to do with as they pleased.” He then glared at the warrior with the bloody hands, who stared intently back. “But he did not understand what we said, nor did he attempt to – so my brother pushed him. The Northman . . . he pushed my brother back. Godfrey stumbled, and when he fell . . .” Gothello's voice broke, and he could not finish his sentence.

    “Godfrey's head struck a rock,” Einhard found his words more easily. “And now he is dead.”

    A gasp went through the congregation, and Gisla looked around to see many dark looks, shaded with anger. A shadow fell over the crowd, and she found herself holding her breath, knowing how the tempers of her people had long been pushed – and now merely waited for a reason to snap . . . and a death of one of their own was certainly an impetus poised to do just that.

    Sinric finished his translation, and Rollo looked to his man. “Alfr, what say you to this claim?”

    Through Sinric, Alfr repeated much of the same story – only glaring to say that the brothers Gothello and Godfrey protested their claim of the fields only after they saw them seeking the blessing of their Gods. They knew that their payment for the land was coming from King Charles, and had not stood in their way – until that moment.

    Rollo frowned at that new information, Gisla saw, and even she felt a flush of shame at the actions of her countrymen.

    “Yet,” Einhard was quick to clear his throat and recover himself. “The fact remains that a murder was still committed. Such a fact cannot be overlooked.”

    “Nor do I intend to,” Rollo said clearly, speaking slowly and carefully in Frankish. She watched, and thought that it was only her knowing of his struggles from the beginning that let her see where he had to fight to keep his accent clear and understandable to all in the room. He would not speak through Sinric's mouth in such a case as this. “This was manslaughter,” carefully, he pronounced the word, “not murder. Alfr will pay the bau-tor to Godfrey's family in silver and from a yield of his first crop for the dead man's life.”

    Alfr blinked, clearly surprised by the ruling, just as Einhard and Gothello too looked as if they would protest.

    “Yet, for a loss of life -” Einhard protested.

    “ - did Godfrey not push first?” Rollo interrupted, raising a dark brow. “He pushed after the field was no longer his to own.”

    “It was nearly theirs to do with as they would,” Einhard protested. “Payment from the Emperor -”

    “ - payment? You wish payment?” Rollo interrupted, and Gisla could see where anger at last touched his brow, no matter that he had tried to keep his annoyance and his frustration at bay the whole conversation through. Shaking his head, he walked down the aisle and approached the altar – no matter the gasps of those gathered, and the normally kind Archbishop Franco stepping forward as if to protect the riches displayed there.

    But after a glare from Rollo, the Archbishop would not stand bodily in his way, and Rollo brushed past him to look down at his choices. He stared at the panten and the chalice, clearly considering his options – he only glanced at the larger ciborium once before thinking the better of it. At last, he picked up the golden chalice and dumped the wine within out on the floor. He then tossed the treasure to Gothello, who nearly dropped the chalice before securing it in his hands.

    “Yet, my lord -” Franco protested, before Rollo turned to stare at him.

    “ - this is King's cup, no?” Rollo asked, his voice sharp.

    “This was purchased through the generosity of the crown, yes,” Franco stuttered to answer, “yet, it is holy -”

    “ - then ask King for another,” Rollo interrupted. “The field is now paid for.”

    Watching the entire proceeding, Rollo's men did not look appeased – especially Alfr, who would have to pay to see justice done for the dead man. Upon catching Rollo's eyes, he vocalized his complaints, his speech coming fast and fervent as he gestured to the whole of the assembled congregation, anger clearly seen in his eyes and heard from his tongue.

    “The Gods took the life of Godfrey for his insults against their names,” Sinric translated Alfr's angry words for the rest of those gathered. “He believes that he should not have to pay for the crime, for he was not the one to fell Godfrey for his blasphemy – it was the Aesir, whose ears hear all things, and eyes see all deeds from the heavens above.”

    “Then the Gods shall see that you have crop enough this harvest to reimburse the family you took a son from,” Rollo returned tersely in his own tongue, Sinric translating his saying so for the rest of those gathered to hear. “Or would you rather fight Gothello now, and give him the opportunity to avenge his brother's blood?”

    Alfr stepped forth proudly – and eagerly, Gisla thought, ill at ease with the idea. He was a large man who shaved half of his pale blonde hair away to proudly display the long healed battle-scar on his skull, and every part of him was clearly a veteran warrior, callused and rippling with strength - while Gothello had known only his fields and his mock sparing against his peers with his grandfather's sword.

    “The gods will guide my hand in this as well,” Alfr promised in a low voice. “They will grant me my victory; of that I am certain.”

    “Yet, when we face our enemies at our own walls in the days to come, will I be better served with two men, or the one who will be left standing from a battle fought over an accident?” Rollo reasoned. He placed a heavy hand on his man's shoulder, and looked him squarely in the eye. “You think only of now, Alfr, and not of the time to come. You will pay the bone-price, as the law demands, and the Gods will be satisfied knowing that their names were proven this day – twice,” he said then, glancing at the chalice that Gothello had nonetheless refused to donate back to the church. Rollo then turned, and raised his voice in Frankish for all to hear: “The next time another man has issue over the legal purchase of his lands, know that I have more means with which to pay him.”

    With a last glance at the now lacking altar, he then turned, his bearskin cloak flaring out to trail behind him. Gisla watched him go for a long moment, sternly telling herself to keep her place until the entire assembly broke, and then turned to follow him.



    Gisla did not search for Rollo in the manor-house. Instead, she knew that he would follow the river, seeking out the orchard of apple trees that grew on the bank just after the cathedral and before the nearest dwellings, offering a natural respite from the city of wood and stone.

    The river was running white that day, full from the seasonal rains and heavy as it fought to find the sea. Its babble was a rushing noise in her ears as she walked to the shadow she could see on its bank, staring down at the current as if answers to life and all of its riddles could be found there.

    Robert,” she called, her voice lined with a cross edge. She felt herself come upon him as an opponent on the battlefield, and she did not hesitate before launching her first blow. “That was a consecrated item that you so blithely gave away. The people see holiness in such relics; it helps them commune with God – even if that God is not your God, and you cannot understand our belief. You should not have, you cannot - ”

    “ - and was my people blessing their field any different?” Rollo turned on her, not hesitating to match the growing fervor in her voice with an anger of his own. For the first, he raised his voice with her, but she did not feel as a child scolded – but instead matched as an equal. “Your people did not respect my Gods; they could not let the heathens attend to their rites in peace and private - but we are expected to see the holiness in your God?” He snorted, incredulous.

    “The field was not yet theirs to do with as they wished,” Gisla returned, attempting not to stammer over her words. She knew that her reasoning was thin, but she was at a loss for how to defend her people, and yet unwilling to relinquish her point to him. She only knew that she was fairly buzzing with indignation, and the worst part was that she was unsure precisely who – or what – her ire was raised for.

    Rollo paused from his pacing by the riverbank in order to turn a dubious brow on her, and she had no words with which to further argue. She had nothing but to stubbornly repeat: “It was a holy object. It ought not to have been moved.”

    “Wasn't your Christ-god supposed to hate the greedy?” Rollo did not hesitate to throw his words at her in reply. His voice held a razor edge, and he spoke quickly in his ire, muddling many of his words together as a result. She had to concentrate to understand him. “Your Christ overturned the tables of the money lenders . . . he denied the Devil's riches three times . . . he had nothing but his robes to divide when he was executed. Treasures in heaven, he said, disapproving of the rich man who built up his storehouses . . . do you think he would have been angry for what I did today . . . or would he himself have given the cup away when a man laid dead for the debt your father did not honor? It is not your Christ who demands such riches in his temples, but your Christ-priests who do not listen to what your own Gods say.”

    She narrowed his eyes, suddenly wondering on his scriptural knowledge. His words slipped into Latin with a few of his biblical phrases, and she paused, knowing then that there was a further tale to tell. But now was not the time to ask.

    “Even so, you will not win the love of the people if you continue in such a way,” for this, Gisla could only shake her head to say. She could not speak on the greed of the Church - she could not, when she had thought much the same herself, more than once. Instead, she wondered, and finally asked aloud . . . “What are you trying to accomplish here? It is a nearly impossible fight you wage, and your people and my people will most likely never see as one over a great many things. Why do you fight this fight? Why do you claim this war as your own?”

    “The Gods do not bless a man who seeks only peace,” Rollo answered reflexively, as if by rote. He paused to run a hand through his hair, his great shoulders then slumping. “Until this spring, though, I would say that I did not know what they saw fit to bless at all.” But he then spoke as if she was not there, and the rest of his sentence was given in his own tongue, underneath his breath. She could not understand his words; she did not even know how to say goodbye or hello in his language . . . good-night or good-morning . . . the knowledge was suddenly a shameful thing to her, and she frowned.

    “Yet,” Gisla said carefully, her determination to argue then fading for a want of understanding. Such was a curiosity she'd harbored, perhaps, since he had first accepted her father's offer. “You could have merely waited for your brother to return . . . you could have fought by his side . . . you could have gained your riches and your Gods' favor underneath his leadership. Why betray him?” she finally asked. “Why strike forward with this path, when its end is an unsure one, at best?”

    Rollo was silent for a long, long moment. At first Gisla did not think that he would answer her, but, at last she understood that he was merely gathering his words, thinking of how to convey his thoughts in her language, as loaded and weighty as they were.

    “Ragnar first betrayed me . . .” Rollo finally answered, his voice a low sound that nonetheless held uncovered depths of feeling within. She could hear anger there . . . hate and love and envious longing all. “He did not tell me of his plan in Paris . . . he let me believe him dead. He let Lagertha believe him dead . . . all of us he used like pieces in a game of hnefatafl,” he swallowed, and had to take in a deep breath. “Power has done . . . odd things to my brother, and since the death of his . . . of his priest . . . he has not been the man I knew since childhood, and loved . . . even when I hated him,” Rollo sighed, and then met her gaze. The sunlight through the leafy canopy of the apple trees threw shades of green in the warm brown of his eyes, and she stared. “For many years I have tried to stand with my brother – and even against him – in order to win the favor of the Gods, and every time that path has come to dead ends. But . . . this time . . . this is a path far from Ragnar, and the Gods have whispered that I may have something here to make my own . . . I will take that path for as long as I have their blessing, and see what road I may forge.”

    He sighed, and ran a hand through the thick mass of his hair. He looked out at the river as if he could find what he wished to say in the white babble of its current. When he turned to look at her, she thought that she could see a bit of the water's restless churning in his gaze. “I felt like Freyr when I fought on Paris' walls,” Rollo finally admitted, and she felt a strange sort of tingle trace its hands up and down the ridges of her spine as he stared at her. “I looked down on a bright, gleaming land, and there I saw a woman . . . a Valkyrie to my eyes, furious and vengeful . . . for she did not remind me of lovely Freyja, or golden haired Sif, nor ever-young Iðunn, each beautiful beyond compare. Instead . . . I saw Brünnhilde . . . I saw Skaði . . . I saw Thrúd - all fierce women, full of battle-glory, who are not afraid to fight for what is theirs to protect. I did not know you then, but a part of me recognized you, even so . . . Then, when your father offered me your hand, and I realized that you were whom the Ancient One spoke of . . .

    “Like Freyr, I now sit on a throne that is not mine to sit, with a woman at my side who was not mine to take . . . and I am waiting for the Twilight to come without a sword to fight it with. My thoughts are heavy over the days to come, and yet I am unsure what I would change if I could . . . Sometimes, I am unsure of where to go from here, only knowing that there is a from here to go on from, for as long as I may.”

    It was the longest she had ever heard him speak in her tongue, and though the words were muddied in some places, she thought to understand him perfectly. She did not know precisely how to reply, knowing only that she too had seen him from the walls, and her eyes had been captivated. She had not been able to look away, recognizing him much as he had recognized her – though she would later account that moment as a weakness in her flesh, one that she had thought prayer and devotion enough to wash away.

    Yet . . . now . . .

    She bit her lip, and looked to the river again. She was not sure what to say, but knew that she could not let such an offering go unanswered. She then pondered, admitting that everything in their marriage so far had been on his shoulders to make smooth – he had taken her faith, even in name only . . . he had learned her language, her customs, and now sought to justly lead her people. He went at a pace that she was comfortable with physically, and he cared about her health and happiness. She did not know him, not truly, but a part of her - she at last admitted then - cared for him in a way that was as a ray of sunshine after the rain, promising that, perhaps, someday . . .

    She then closed her eyes, and breathed in deep. When she opened them, she looked down at the grass at her feet, gathering her courage before saying, “The chalice aside, you did well in judging today. It was a fair sentence you passed.” If told on the day of her marriage that she would ever say such a thing, she would have laughed outright in the face of whomever dared to speak such nonsense.

    “Men who are led well follow well,” Rollo shrugged to say. He fiddled with the ring of twining metal he wore about his wrist as he said so. “My brother will come again with the spring, and when he does . . . these petty squabbles are just the thing Ragnar will delight in using. Men will not follow if you are not a worthy leader, but if I give them a reason to follow – all of them – then we just may have a chance.”

    “Even with your giving away their holy treasures?” Gisla could not help but raise a brow, even so.

    “Perhaps that part was for my men,” Rollo at last admitted. Yet, even for giving the truth of his motivations, he was not shamed. But he sighed, and looked away from the river to meet her eyes. “I will donate a new one,” he offered. “Will that appease your Christ?”

    It will appease me, she wanted to say, but did not . . . for she knew that it was not Christ whom he wished to please. The knowledge was as an unexpected warmth in her veins – knowing that she was sought for comfort, for council . . . for approval, even. She could think of few of her father's noblemen who would have done the same in a marriage, and now . . .

    Seized by a moment of boldness, she reached out and took his hands in her own. He had strong hands, she thought, marked by war and hard labor, and they all but swallowed her own. He looked down to where she had willingly touched him, and she fought the urge she had to flush at the question she could see in his eyes.

    “Will you return with me?” she asked of him. “I have tired of beating my knights in hnefatafl, and I wish for an opponent equal of me.” She looked levelly at him, and did not blink to hold his eyes.

    “You wish to lose again, Princess?” at first his smile was hesitant, but it soon sharpened, and she saw the challenge there.

    “I am learning the nature of the game,” she returned boldly. She tightened her grip about his hands, and drew him a step away from the river. “I do not think I shall lose.”

    He did not offer her his arm as a Frankish man would have, so she did not wait for him in order to wind her arm through his own. When they left, he matched his stride to hers, and for the first, she did not try to outpace him.



    That night, she was first one of them to retire to bed. She remained awake, however, staying alert and aware until Rollo returned late in the night – he having lingered beyond the evening meal to sooth over any irked feelings amongst his own men, and staying through to see the field properly blessed. To which God they beseeched, she could not guess, for every warring deity they had was matched only by a god who blessed the fields and their crops, or so it seemed.

    Gisla held her breath as he joined her in bed, his arms reflexively finding their places about her body, even though the nights were warming with the onset of summer. She turned into him, breathing deeply of the scent of cold pines, and exhaling as a new form of contentment seemed to steal over her.

    She swallowed, trying to summon her voice in the dark, yet finding it to be oddly beyond her reach. When she opened her mouth, it was as if she were preparing to dive into cold water. She held her breath, and, anticipating the sting of the plunge, she whispered, “Sof þú vel, Rollo.”

    Her accent was awkward, and the syllables were terribly harsh - as if she spoke around a mouthful of river stones. But they were spoken – just as she had practiced with Sinric, and she was understood . . . in more ways than one. The dark hid her look of triumph, and she further turned into his chest, just in case the embers from the hearth revealed her smile. Though his language was cumbersome to her, his name was oddly fluid upon her tongue, and she did not stammer to say it.

    Rollo said nothing in reply, but she imagined that she could feel her husband smile against her hair – pleased, and understanding her offering for what it was. The idea brought a fluttering of joy to her stomach, one that she did not immediately fight away – not this time. Instead she simply relaxed her body and closed her eyes. This time, for the first time in too many weeks, she was the one to first surrender to dreams, and slept peacefully the whole night through.

    Sof þú vel: "Good night" in Old Norse

    ~MJ @};-
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  2. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Aug 31, 2004
    Oh - :) [face_sigh]

    The scenery - all the senses are engaged! I felt like I was looking at a gorgeous painting or tapestry. =D=
    The political/cultural details - the tension of what needs doing for an alliance between dissparate peoples blended with the personal dynamics - brilliantly portrayed.

    I adore the process of Gisla/Rollo's relationship and coming to understand and respect one another and to be poised on the brink of more. :)
    You write strong women of courage and forthrightness stunningly well. @};-


    I do think the artist/professional in Idrelle_Miocovani & the worldcrafter in Findswoman would be simply and truly impressed. [face_batting]

  3. divapilot

    divapilot Force Ghost star 4

    Nov 30, 2005
    Amazingly beautiful. I have not seen the last few episodes of Vikings but I am very interested in this era. Your use of description is gorgeous and the wisdom of Rollo and Gisla shines through. They will be a formidable king and queen.

    I enjoyed this immensely.:D
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