Somewhere in Rogaland, Norway, October 15, 874 AD
The scent of blood was so thick Hakon tasted iron on his tongue. Swords and axes thumped against wooden shields. Screams rang through the air as metal pierced flesh and bone.
His men were falling. He was losing.
Hakon stabbed the tattooed warrior under the ribs with his scramasax, kicked another one in the stomach, then whirled and drove his battle ax into the chest of the third one.
King Nyr sat on his horse across the clearing where their forces clashed, woods and mountains surrounding them. He watched Hakon with a triumphant sneer.
Rage ignited within Hakon, giving him power. He was the lightning that struck the tree. He was the spear that pierced the elk.
He was Thor’s hammer.
He was vengeance itself.
And King Nyr was his target.
One after another, men fell under Hakon’s ax, but he saw only King Nyr. The men fighting around him were flashes of hair, muscle, and iron.
Finally, Nyr was in front of him. He’d throw the man off his horse and drive his ax through the bastard’s heart. But as he tensed his muscles to lunge forward, his body slowed and stopped. His limbs were weighed down as if he had sunk into a swamp.
He looked around. Men.
They held him, their eyes round, their eyebrows snapped together. Nyr sat high and proud on his horse, eyeing him from above. His bald head, with its dark, shadowed eyes, looked like a skull.
Hakon roared and jerked with all his might. Like Fenrir, the giant wolf bound by unbreakable chains, he fought and bit, teeth gnashing, claws flashing. But he could not get free.
“They say you are unstoppable, Beast,” Nyr said. “I see that it is not true.”
Hakon gritted his teeth. “Thor, give me your hammer to strike this snake.”
“Why so hostile, Hakon? Your father and I were friends.”
“I remember. Friend. I remember your visit sixteen winters ago, the freezing night my mother took me into the woods after a blizzard. I remember the traces of the wolf pack in the snow after they followed her horse away from me. And I remember the remnants of her body after they tore her apart. I have asked myself over and over, why she suddenly decided to take me to her family that night. Why she insisted it was no longer safe at home. Now I know. It was because of you.”
Nyr’s face straightened and paled as he listened. “You know?”
Hakon nodded. “My father told me on his death bed two years ago. You suggested he let the gods test my curse.”
Hakon’s left eye—the one with a birthmark around it—twitched. “She died because of your wicked scheme. You took the dearest person in the world from me. And now it is time to pay. The Beast has come for you.”
Nyr’s throat bobbed under his short white beard. “I am growing weary of your rage, Hakon. I never intended for your mother to die, and I never intended for us to be enemies. Be my ally. I want you by my side.”
A low, animal growl escaped Hakon’s throat. Fury was burning his gut like hot vinegar. Be his ally? Give up? Never. He had lost the battle, but not the war.
Nyr’s chin rose. “First choice, you die. You, your men, and every single person in your village. Your lands become mine—something I have wanted for a long time. But I do not wish your death. I want the Beast on my side. I want you to fight for me like you have fought against me. Second choice, you become my kinsman.”
The urge for revenge made his hands itch and burn as if he had just rubbed his palms in nettle. He growled again, a mixture of laughter and threat. He would never be kin to this monster.
“You were robbed of your mother.” Nyr lifted one shoulder. “Let me give you another woman who would love you. Marry my daughter.”
Hakon froze. “What?”
“I have nine girls and no boys. My daughters’ task is to bring me the sons and alliances I need.”
Hakon could not believe what the worm was suggesting.
“Become my son-in-law.” Nyr tilted his head back slightly. “You will keep your lands and pay me tribute as your king. You will protect me if I need your warriors, and you will back me at the assembly, the Thing. What say you?”
“Have your brat for a wife?” Hakon spat. “What Loki’s plan is this?”
He could not have a wife. Not the least the daughter of his enemy.
“I am not jesting.”
“Do you hate your daughter so much that you will marry her to the Beast?” Hakon heard the thunder in his own voice.
Nyr did not even twitch. “Do you not want a family?”
Hakon had abandoned the hope of having a normal life long ago. “You said that I was cursed. Are you not afraid your daughter will be cursed, as well?”
Nyr chuckled. “I have so many, nothing will change if a little curse comes to this one.”
Hakon watched Nyr from under his heavy lids. He felt as if he were caught in a trap, looking for a way out.
And he had found one. Nyr had just given Hakon a way to destroy him. Loki must have sat on his shoulder and whispered a scheme. A truly cunning scheme.
All Hakon needed were allies with more men. Marrying Nyr’s daughter would be the best way to make connections while gaining his enemy’s trust. Hakon straightened, his shoulders relaxed. His fury still thundered in his stomach, but it had taken a form.
The form of a spear.
“Marry your daughter, you say?”
“Yes. My daughter, Arinborg. She’s the next one of marrying age.”
Hakon did not care if she was an old woman. It would not be a true marriage anyway. “How do I know that you will leave us alone?”
Nyr cocked his head. “I give you my word.”
Hakon laughed. “Your word. Your word is like spitting into a fjord. It means nothing.”
Nyr’s eyes darkened. “What do you want as a guarantee?”
Hakon narrowed his eyes. Nyr could use his daughter as a spy. The only way to avoid that was to isolate her from her kinsmen. She needed to be completely under Hakon’s control.
“Let her come alone. No one will accompany her. No one will attend the wedding. If she comes alone, I will take it as the sign of peace. If I hear a twig break near her, she’ll die before her heart can take its next beat.”
Nyr’s jaw moved from side to side. “The way is long. Winter is upon us. Let it be next summer solstice. She will be there, alone.”
Triumph spread in Hakon’s stomach like warmth from a hot stone. “The day of summer solstice. There is a sacred grove with a rune stone up the mountain by my village. I will wait for her there.”
“Let it be so, Beast. Send word when the thing is done.”
Hakon gave a curt nod. Nyr gestured, and the men let go of Hakon. His jaw tightened. Now that he was free, he itched for his ax, for a chance to kill Nyr.
Nyr’s men began retreating into the woods, and the king turned his horse away and rode off.
Hakon’s fists clenched and unclenched, gripping empty air. He had agreed to marry Nyr’s daughter, to become mágr to the man who had caused his mother’s death. Was he mad?
Hakon’s birthmark burned, reminding him of his curse.
He would need to keep his distance from his future wife—she would surely spy on him, even if he did keep her away from her kin. But at least he need not worry about developing feelings for the daughter of his enemy.
His ability to love had died with his mother.