[TW] Ritual of the Blood Eagle
#1
   
Azariah Renouf

The silver moon hung full in the sky over the city of Whitlock. The ground was frozen solid by Skadi the goddess of winter. Fresh snow fell from sparse cloud coverage adding to the beautiful backdrop of the mountains that jutted up from the edges of the sea. A village rest upon the shores of the white sandy beach, the homes puffed smoke from the chimneys into the night sky. A layer of fresh snow rest upon the rooftops as the crackle of fires filled the air. A cry was heard over the village. From inside of a home, the great hall of King Renouf. His wife lay upon their bed in the midst of birthing his second child. The room was filled with people. From the women whom were patting cool rags upon the kings wife’s forehead to other warriors of the city to a strange man that stood in a cloak. His eyes were glazed over, a marble like white color, his skin was ashen and old. He stood with a cane made of bones, his cloak that he wore over his head was old and tattered. This man was the oracle, a seer of the future and of the will of the Gods.

King Stav Renouf stood, his fingers laced into Queen Lila’s fingers as she cried and gasped. He looked up with his ocean blue eyes, a thick blonde beard upon his face that was kept clean and neat, his head was bald with the exception of tattoos along his skull. “Oracle, what do you see?” He asked as the child was wrapped in blankets and his wife curled into his chest.

The oracle stepped forward with a bowl of fresh goat’s blood. He dipped his fingers into it and pulled them along the baby’s face starting at the forehead and dragging down to the chin. The child cried as the oracle took it into his arms. He whispered a few words in old norse and closed his eyes. After several long moments of silence a grin split his lips. He stepped forward and placed the child into the arms of Lila whom cradled the child carefully. “My King. I see great things from your daughter. She has been blessed with a gift of Odin.” He spoke with a smile, something the oracle rarely did.

Stav’s jaw loosened as he looked down to the beautiful baby. He knelt next to his wife. “A gift from Odin? Surly the Gods have us on their side.” He spoke as he kissed his wife’s cheek.

Lila leaned her head against him. She had long blonde curls of hair and bright blue eyes. She glanced over to a young child that stood at the edge of the bed, Otta her oldest son. “Do you want to see your sister, Otta?” She smiled sweetly.

The young boy stepped forward, “What is her name?” He asked as he touched her forehead. He was 6 years old, a bright young boy with light hair like both of his parents.

“Azariah.” Lila spoke, “Azariah the gifted.”

**

Whitlock flourished with the news of the young child. She was cherished and worshiped, the oracle spoke highly of her gift that she was blessed with from Odin. Some questioned her gift, others believed fully in the gods. Azariah trained alongside her older brother Otta as she aged she learned from her mother Lila to be one of the best shield maidens that Whitlock had seen in its time. This only caused the people of Whitlock to adore her more. As the years pushed forward Azariah was soon old enough for the grand celebration of her coming of age.

“Azariah.” Stav stood within his home the great hall. He had grey hairs within his thick beard now with his age, more tattoos lined his skin. A few wrinkles rest upon his face. “Tomorrow we will begin the Blood Festival, your celebration for your 20thbirthday.” 

Azariah stood a beautiful young woman, she had eyes of silver and dark chocolate locks of hair that tasseled down past her shoulder blades. Her skin was flawless like a porcelain doll. She wore a thin silver tiara that held a beautiful rounded jewel of the life tree that hung between her brows. Her cheeks were adorned with red paint that marked her as the princess of Whitlock. She wore a leather corset that held intricate carvings within the tanned leather. Upon her legs she wore black pants with a pelt skirt around her hips that hung longer on one side. Around her shoulders hung a black cloak, the hood rest upon her shoulders at the moment. Her hips held several belts that hung at different angles, one held her sword, another held a money pouch. Upon her thigh was a dagger with a hilt forged from bone. She looked much more like a warrior than that of a princess. “Father.” Azariah spoke as she watched him. “Otta was not forced into such a ritual.” She spoke and shook her head.

“Azariah, you are blessed by Odin. This is something that we cannot afford. We must make the sacrifice to the blood moon as it rises upon your birthday. Do you not see it as a sign?” He questioned with a raised brow. “Besides your brother completed his own ritual as a right of passage into manhood. You will not complete the same ritual.” Stave cupped her cheek as he gazed into her eyes. “You’re something special my dear, both in battle and to our people. It must be done this way.”

Azariah stepped back from her father slightly. “Do auction me off?” She questioned as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Father.” She scoffed slightly. “Am I nothing more than a prize to you?”

“Az.” Lila’s voice entered the room. Her mother strode from the back room, a mug within her hands. She wore a simple dress, her hair was braided and pulled back. “This is nothing like what you think it is.” She gave a gentle smile. She sipped from her mug and looked to the king a moment, frustration filtered across his expression. “The men that arrive tomorrow morning will be here to fight in honor of your name, in honor of Odin’s gift. We must find a man that is worthy of having our daughter’s hand and what better way than to celebrate beneath the blood moon? It is a right of passage, Azariah.”

“If the gods will it.” Azariah spoke her silver eyes gazed to her father a moment. “If Odin wills it so, then it must be.” Her jaw was tight as she spun and walked away disappearing into the shadows of the home.

**

Azariah sat upon the throne next to her mother and father, the entire city had gathered at the center of town for the celebration, to see who had come to fight for Azariah’s hand in marriage. The princess looked out over the crowd, trying to pick out who may have come for such an event. She knew by the end of the fighting a blood eagle would be drawn upon the back of an unfortunate soul. That was the way of the blood moon, a sacrifice must be made. Be it a volunteer or some poor bastard that the gods deem must be punished for their crimes. Today she was dressed much the same with her pelts and leather boots. She ran her thumb over the hilt of her sword as her silver hues watched the crowd and she awaited her father to begin the celebration.

The crowd grew, those not competing were already drunk on ale, clapping their horns together with cheers of delight. Azariah glanced to her father as he finally stood. The crowd grew silent. “People of Whitlock.” He spoke a smile upon his lips.

Azariah glanced to her right where her brother Otta sat with his own wife next to him. He looked to her and gave her a gentle smile. “Don’t be so afraid, sister.” He spoke as he nodded his head. “The gods are watching.” He looked back to their father then.

Stav glanced over the crowd. “I ask that the men whom will be competing in the festival please step forward.” He paused as he watched people begin to move forward in the crowd. It was at least thirty men, all from across the viking country. He glanced through them quickly, some he hoped would not survive the gauntlet. Others he wanted to make it through to the end to complete the blood eagle sacrifice to the gods. But only one would be worthy of completing such a sacrifice. “The first round of competition will run through the gauntlet. As winter bares down upon us the gauntlet becomes more treacherous with the chilling wings of Skadi.” His eyes looked over the men as he walked along them. “You will leave and must make it through the canyon, past the wolves den, you must scale Mt Bakva and descend upon Whitlock. This is a long and treacherous journey. Few will make it back alive. Mountain lion lairs line the path as well as bears. But be not afraid of the living obstacles. The climb from the base of the canyon to the top of the mountain will be the most dangerous of them all. Aside from the men you stand next to.” He paused as a few men stepped from the crowd of men that had lined up for the challenge. A smirk curved up his lips. “The first man to return to Whitlock….alive...will gain my daughter’s hand in marriage. Remember gentlemen, the gods are watching. Make Odin proud. Fight for the honor to be bonded with Odin’s Gift.” He glanced to his daughter a moment before he looked back to the men to continue his speech.

Azariah stood slowly she held a metal band in her fingertips. The band of a warrior. She walked down the stairs carefully and stepped up to a man that stood among the men that were to compete in the gauntlet. A young man that she’d grown up with in Whitlock. She gave a soft smile as she clasped the band over his wrist. “Don’t back down no matter how many tricks Loki throws at you.” She spoke softly. It was clear that this man before her was the one that she wanted to win. But would Odin find him worthy? Would he make it through the gauntlet? His size was not nearly as large as others around him. The princess stepped to her father’s side as he beckoned her, he had been speaking still as the princess gave the band to the boy. Azariah stepped to his side. She looked to the men. “May Odin gift you with strength.” She spoke, her expression soft.

The crowd erupted into cheers as the king raised his horn of ale. “Now we feast to give you strength! Tonight you will walk the gauntlet!” He stepped toward the great hall where a feast had been prepared.

**

Azariah sat at the dining table, her eyes looked over the men. She didn’t recognize most of them. A few she knew from neighboring cities. But most...she wondered how word had traveled so far. Her eyes stopped on a few brute looking men and she winced slightly at the thought before she continued gazing over the men that sat around the table with her and her family. 
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#2
[Image: marcello-zibetti-char-marcello.jpg?1468337731]

As the days grew longer and Skadi began to touch the ground and sky with her icy grip the tribe of Skajadol began to prepare for a long journey to Whitlock. The people of Skajadol lived far to the north and only ventured south during the peak of the winter season. This year, however they were traveling far more south than they normally did. A summons had been spread throughout the land that the King was offering his daughter's hand in marriage in a contest during the Blood Eagle ritual. Normally the people of Skajadol wouldn't have been interested in such affairs and would have simply remained in the north at home. Recently the city had seen a change of hands in their leadership and the older, battle-worn man who had lead them for nearly two decades was succeeded by a much stronger and ambitious youth. 

Varmod Atlisson was a man whom the people of Skajadol had adopted as a child. Abandoned in the snow as an infant the dark haired, bright eyed child was found wrapped up with a single, perfect white feather that was as long as he was. The people saw the child as an omen to bring them wealth and good fortune. The child was raised by the shaman of the village and each year that passed the boy grew stronger. Even when he was a lad of only a dozen years he had grown passed his peers in height and strength. His prowess was nothing short of impressive and as he completed his passage from boyhood into that of a manhood he immediately challenged the town's reining jarl for his title, and won.

A couple years later is when the announcement of the contest for the King's daughter reached Skajadol. Varmod, not yet having taken a wife, saw the chance as a great opportunity to further his standing with the other cities. The isolation Skajadol had subjected itself to was preserved their ways and made them a strong and hardy people, but for reasons unknown to his brethren he decided it was time for to them to join the rest of the viking people. 

When the fur clad, and rough convoy arrived in Whitlock they were greeted as Varmod had expected, with suspicion and wary looks. The mirth of the eminent celebration kept those displeased to simply whispering among themselves and keeping a healthy distance. The King, however, was gracious enough to grace them with his presence and give as warm of a welcome as he could muster to the group. Varmod had only brought his most trusted warriors and their families. The rest of Skajadol remained at their home. The King had known the previous jarl but Varmod was a new face to him, though the stories of a child found with a feather had reached him, and he did his best not to look the fool standing before a man who had several inches of height on him surrounded by warriors who preferred to paint their faces with white and a blood red paint rather than the traditional black and browns. He greeted and welcomed them to Whitlock with a smile on his face, though that smile waned slightly when he learned of Varmod's intent to compete for his daughter. The story of the feather was not the only one he had heard about the youth. Tales of his thirst for blood had spread faster than a crow could fly. 

When the day came and the nature of the contest was announced Varmod abstained from drinking any ale, less his focus be dulled, and mostly kept to himself as he watched the others competitors and how they carried themselves. His icy blue hues seemed to peer directly into the souls of the other men when they caught his gaze. The large red blotch of pain over his eye seemed as if he were already covered in blood and the black furs of a wolf that he wore made his broad figure that much more intimidating. 


Sitting at the table assigned to him and his men the group enjoyed the provided feast and spoke loudly of their satisfaction with the age of the ale and tenderness of the meat. Even the slave women who served the meal were pleasant for the Skajadol men to tease and stare at, but Varmod kept his gaze towards the royal table where his prize sat with her family. She was lovely, that much was evident, but her supposed gift was something that Varmod was more wary of than anything. Either way he fully intended on securing her as his own by the time the sun cast its light over the mountains. 

When the time came for the contest to begin Varmod was the first to stand from his seat and toss his cloak from his shoulders. The men were not permitted weapons beyond a single dagger. Most men of more noble decent had daggers of shining bone, polished to reflect the light, jewels, or precious stones. Varmod's dagger appeared to be made of black steel. Glistening in the firelight as if the surface were still wet with the blood of his last kill. Under his cloak he wore a simple cloth shirt with leather cords around each of his thick, corded arms, and black leather pants that had been fashioned to fit his form perfectly. He also tied back his hair to keep the dark locks out of his eyes. 

Stepping outside, away from the warmth of the hearth, he seemed unbothered by the cold bite of the winter wind as if Skadi held no power over him. Others who were competing tried to lighten their encumbrance as well but still wore enough furs to keep the heat close to their bodies. Varmod smirked at them. They would not succeed. Then he caught sight of the man who the princess had so graciously granted her favor to. He was in good health and seemed strong. No doubt a formidable warrior in battle, but he would not be permitted to cross the finish line before him. Underneath his breath Varmod sent a silent prayer up to the gods, though his gaze looked out over the water as the snow fell as if he half expected to see something out in the flurries.
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#3
Azariah took a drink of her ale, though she did not down it like much of the men whom sat around the table. She drew her brows together slightly as her eyes fell upon a peculiar man. Strong. She could see his muscles even with the thick pelts he wore. She looked to the rough exterior of the man, the red paint over his right eye. “Azariah?” The queen questioned as her gaze moved to the man as well for a moment, his bright eyes were almost entrancing.

The princess looked to her mother as she set her horn of ale upon the thick oak table. “Mother where is that man from? He looks nothing like the others...he may as well have come from a cave...” She questioned.

The queen looked back to her daughter, “He is from Skajadol, the Jarl actually.” The queen glanced to the king whom nodded.

“Please tell me that a man from Skajadol is not allowed to compete for my hand, Father.” Azariah’s jaw tightened, her lip stiffened as she looked to her father. Her expression was cross as she gazed into the man’s eyes.

“Anyone is allowed to compete, Az.” Stav spoke as his eyes watched her closely.

“So the most secluded of tribes….the most...” Azariah was at a loss for words, she pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned into her hand slightly. “The most violent of the men? The most animalistic?” She scoffed. “He can have my hand? Hm? But you won’t simply allow Tyr? A man that I have known my entire life, a man that has fought at your side in battle?” She challenged her father. “A man you can trust. You can’t trust the men from Skajadol. They are blood thirsty animals.” Clearly the same stories of Varmond’s blood lust had reached the ears of the princess as well.

“Enough.” The king slammed his horn down, his eyes narrowed. “If the gods find him worthy he will have your hand.” He leaned forward toward her, “You will obey the will of the gods, Azariah. This is how it is, and you will respect it. If Tyr is first to return then he may have your hand. But only the first man to return will be allowed such a honor, and only the first man to return will perform the sacrifice of the blood eagle under my command and graces.”

Azariah looked away from her father then, her hand that was upon the table was balled into a tight fist, her knuckles turned white. “I pray that the gods protect me.” She spoke as her silver eyes looked back to her father. With that she fell silent for the rest of the meal. Her eyes would move about the room, but she didn’t eat. She didn’t drink another drop of her ale. She took in the men that were drinking and those who were not. Her eyes fell upon Tyr, he was one of the few that refused to drink ale, he wasn’t gorging himself in food either. Just as Varmond seemed to be planning his steps.

**

Soon enough Azariah stood upon a platform above the men, she looked out over the sea of men that would fight for her hand. She was to give her blessing, to send them off into the gauntlet. She counted as she’d sat inside, a total of 33 men had arrived to compete for her. “Tonight.” She began as her silvery eyes looked over the group. “Tonight may Thor’s hammer remain silent, may Odin’s wisdom guide your path...may Skadi not freeze the blood within your veins...and may Loki not confuse you with trickery.” The princess’ eyes fell upon Varmond, she lingered there for a moment, staring to him before she continued. She walked down to the level of the men. Walking before them, between them as she continued. A few she would graze with her fingertips as she walked behind them, in front of them. This was her offering her blessing, offering her luck. Willing the gods to protect them. Though she only did this to a few men. A few that she deemed worthy of her hand. “The gauntlet, as the king has mentioned is full of many dangers.” She took deliberate even paces. “The rules are simple. There are no rules, so long as you return in one piece.” She stood before Varmond now. She could tell he wasn’t bothered by the kiss of Skadi’s cold. She raised a brow slightly as she stared into his eyes. “Or a few pieces, if you lose a finger or toe.” She smirked as she watched him. Her eyes were mystical in a way, as if galaxies of stars hid behind the silvery shimmer. “So long as you’re the first to crawl back into Whitlock...” She brushed passed Varmond then, her own pelts of fur grazed against his side this was not like the touch she’d given to a few of the others.

Azariah continued then walking through the men. Some of the men bounced slightly to keep their warmth. “Killing another competitor is not frowned upon. In fact, it may be what secures your win.” She stopped before Tyr, a soft sweet smile curved up her lips as she gazed into his blue eyes. “If you want my hand, if you want to be a protector of Whitlock and even king one day...you must make decisions much as you would upon the battlefield. There are no second chances.” She traced her fingers down his arm as she brushed passed Tyr. “If you hesitate, you will fail.” She spoke as she made her way back upon the stage. Her eyes glanced up to the moon then, it was full and offered a good amount of light. Though, something began to happen, an eclipse of sorts, the moon began to turn a pale red. The blood moon. Azariah looked over the men for a moment. “May the gods guide you.” She spoke as her father took the stage next to her.

Cheers came from the crowd of men and onlookers. As the king took his place he drew his sword and held it into the sky. “May the blood moon light your path! Begin!” He yelled in a thunderous roar.

**

Tyr took off in a sprint, breaking away from the front of the pack. He may have been smaller, but he was strong and he was nimble. He had an advantage over the men that had traveled to Whitlock. He’d run the gauntlet before. He’d run the gauntlet for his own coming of age, to become a man one must survive such a treacherous voyage. It was in the summer, during the day, but...he knew the path.

**

Azariah crossed her arms over her chest as she turned and looked to the men rushing off, a few fell to the ground, stabbed by daggers, their throats slit. She let out a slow breath as she looked away. Most of the men would not return, be it the elements or the other vikings...many would die at the hands of the gauntlet.

“Az.” The king spoke, a smile upon his lips. “That was a wonderful speech.” He grinned then, proud of his daughter in that moment. “Tomorrow we will know who is worthy of your hand.” He nodded, “Then, once you are married your gift will surface. Such as the Oracle has told us.” He spoke before he walked off.

Azariah let out a long breath as she stepped from the stage. She walked through the town as the people drank and celebrated. She pushed through the crowds and found her way to a home that had bones hung outside of the door. The plume of smoke from a warm fire emitted from inside. She pushed the door open and a chuckle came from within. “Princess.” A voice came from the shadows. “I have been expecting you, it troubles me that it took you so long.”

The princess stepped forward. She knelt down before the oracle, her eyes looked up into the shadows of his hood. “Oracle….wise one...” She bowed before him before she sat up and gazed at him.

“Azariah the Gifted.” He spoke a smile upon his lips as he reached forward and ran his fingers along her cheek. “What is it that I may do for you?” He tilted his head slightly.

“Who will win the gauntlet, wise one?” Azariah questioned softly, her brows tucked together in worry.

The oracle grinned then, his yellowed teeth showed from the shadows as he chuckled. “Ah yes, I have seen the victor.” He spoke as he leaned forward. “He is a strong man. As strong as Thor.” He lowered his hand, “He will lead Whitlock and our people into great riches, great power will be gained from him.” He fell quiet then.

“What is his name, oracle?” Azariah questioned. “Is it Tyr?”

The oracle chuckled, “I have said enough, princess.” He held his hand out.

Her breaths shuddered as she looked to the man. His answer was no help, just a riddle that only gave her more questions. “You didn’t answer my question...”

“I believe I have.” He grasped her wrist then and held her hand palm up. He drew a pin from his pocket and pricked the tip of her finger. He squeezed her blood into his mouth before he released her.

Azariah stared to the oracle another moment before she left his home. She moved through the city quickly, her eyes glanced up to the blood red moon as the howl of a wolf echoed in the distance. She glanced to the rooftops to see a crow that cawed. “Watching me again, Odin?” She questioned and shook her head. “Have I displeased you?” She looked up to the crow a long moment. “Is the want to know so bad?” She questioned softly and shook her head as the crow flew away. The made her way back to the great hall where she climbed into her bed. She lay away most of the night, her eyes stared at the ceiling. Her heart pounded. A rock formed in her stomach as she thought of the words of the oracle. Who was he speaking of? She could only hope it wasn’t the brutal animal from Skajadol.

**

As the sun began to rise the next day Azariah stood upon the stage her eyes gazing toward the mountain where the men would return from. It had gotten rather cold overnight. Skadi had let out her wrath upon the men. The ground was frozen solid, a new blanket of snow had fallen as well. Though the rays of the sun glistened over the landscape in the morning, offering a glimpse of hope. The townspeople began to filter from their homes to see who would return first. Azariah stood with her arms wrapped around herself, she shivered slightly. She’d been awake since before dawn, watching….waiting...who would be the victor of the gauntlet?
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#4
There was a great number of individuals that were participating for the princess's hand. Without teams and the burden of loyalty it was sure to be a rather bloody race. Of course that didn't bother Varmod any, but it would be unfortunate to lose any warriors in such a contest. He could only hope that the gods saw the gauntlet as a noble death and allowed them to enter the feasting halls of Valhalla. Everyone's eyes diverted from their competitors as the princess began her speak. More than two dozen men hoping to be the one to lay claim to such a prize, and even the on lookers stopped to listen as she gave her speech. When she made her way down to the ground and gave small favors to a few select individuals there was clear jealousy in other's eyes. When her eyes fell upon Varmod he simply stared back as a smile pulled at the corners of is lips. It was amusing to see the distrust in her eyes. When she had passed by him Varmod set his sights back on the trail before him. He couldn't see much, due to the snow, but he knew that it would be a very rough night. 

When the men were released there was the distinct sound of death all around Varmod as others around him expired before they were even able to take a single step. One man, Tyr, sprinted straight ahead as did several others. This, in Varmod's mind, was foolish. They would gain ground on the first straight away but their stamina would deplete more quickly and he could easily over take them later. Others around him had the same idea as they began the race with a more moderate run. 

The first obstacle to overcome was the canyon. Jagged crags, pitfalls, savaging beasts and other treacherous things would lay in their path. Varmod was not the first one there, but he was also not the last. As the approached the area with more unstable footing most of the competitors slowed down. Varmod did not. He continued with his pace and leaped from jutting rock to rock to stay above the gravels and pebbles below. It was in the canyon that Varmod caught up with two of the men who had sprinted ahead. They had exerted a bit more energy than they had accounted for and were having to stop to take a breather before continuing on. It was easy to simply jump over their heads as they walked between the boulders, snaking their way through the canyon slowly. However, there was no sign of the boy the princess had been favoring. 

When he reached the end of the canyon where the foot of the mountain began he paused for a moment and listened to the silent fall of the snow around him. As he chest rose and fell and he breathed in the frigid air he caught the faint smell of blood. It lingered but also seemed stale in a way, old. He had smelled something similar before when he found a bear's cave once during a hunting trip. There was a hunter's home nearby and he did not want to catch the attention of any of the fauna in the area during the competition. Someone else, not quite as aware as he was, continued to run along the path before them to favor the easier footing. It was a game trail and not wise to travel along less you intend to become game yourself. 

Varmod's idea was to climb up the sides of the canyon and up to the steep slopes of the mountain. To essentially circumnavigate the den but still stay within the rules of the race. It wasn't until he heard the chilling howl of a wolf, enough to make even the mightiest of warriors pause, and then heard horrified scream a little further down the path. He knew that he should press onward. Everyone knew the risks of running the race. However, there was a part of him that couldn't simply ignore a cry for help. With an exasperated groan he released his hold on the rock face he had found to be suitable to climb and jumped back down to the ground. He quickly made his way through the thick underbrush of dormant ferns and sharp branches till he came up on a horrific scene. 

Blood was splattered across the snow, a blazing red again the white of the snow under the full moon, and a pack of wolf gorging themselves on the fresh corpse of a man who had been caught in their trap. Just above the wolves, with only a couple members of the pack focused on it, another man hid in the tree. High enough in the branches that kept him just out of reach, but just barely. It was Tyr, and he looked rather panicked as he looked down at the scene. As soon as they had picked the bones clean of their fist kill they would not turn down a second. Looking at the pack, as the wolves climbed over each other trying to get their fill of warm flesh, Varmod counted eight. It was a decent sized pack and it would be difficult to prevent them from eventually getting Tyr. 

Looking over at another, smaller branch jutting out from the edge of the canyon Varmod saw the large yellow eyes of a snow owl looking at him with an almost expectant expression. At first he looked away, trying to ignore the creature, but he was pulled back into its captivating gaze only a moment later. "Fine." He mouthed silently to the owl to which the creature responded by spreading its silvery wings and taking flight back into the moonlit sky. With a slight shake of his head he turned his attention back to the pack before him and watched for a few more moments and slipped his blade from its sheath on his belt. Picking out the largest of the wolves, the alpha, his muscles tensed as he prepared to leap forward. 

When he finally flung himself from his hiding place he managed to catch the pack by surprise and drove his dagger into the side of the alpha dog as he landed on the beast's back. The blade touched the wolf's heart and he fell to the snow, dead. The other wolves scattered at the sudden movement, disorientated by the surprise, and growled at the man that had attacked them. Seeing their alpha between his feet as he quickly brought himself up once more to face the pack they seemed hesitant to move in immediately. Varmod parted his lips to give one of his battle cries to which the wolves winced and then scattered back into the thicket. They would return though, once they had managed to regroup. Looking up the boy in the tree he nodded and then quickly broke into a run once more continue the race. He didn't have time to check on his physical state. They were still competing after all. 

The mountain was far more trying than Varmod had expected as Skadi unleashed the full fury of winter in the form of biting winds and stinging flurries that made it difficult to see. Not to mention cold rendered Varmod's limb numb and he slipped on his grasp and footing more than a few times. "Is this girl really worth this?" He asked himself as he held onto a ledge before being able to heave himself over. It wasn't until he heard the sound of a owl's cry that he wad prompted into motion once more. "Yes." He told himself and willed his frozen body to continue. 

Several more slips and curses later Varmod managed to make his way over the mountain and then down the opposing side before staring his sprint back towards Whitlock. Ahead of him he could see no competitors. Had someone already crossed the finish line? He wasn't sure, but he would finish regardless. The sun was starting to cast its light across the landscape now. Had he really been climbing all night? No, now wasn't the time to think about it. As he neared the city and then finally crossed the marker that signaled the end of the race he fell to his knees as exhaustion finally took its hold and his chest drew in the cold air trying to fill his burning lungs with air. 

Around him he could hear a strange sound, voices? No, cheers, as people celebrated the end of the race. Varmod had been the firs to cross and as he looked up he saw that several other competitors were making their way into town just behind him. Then a heavy weight fell onto his shoulders and he felt something wrap around his body. One of this brethren had wrapped a warm fur cloak around his exposed body. He then felt himself lifted up to his feet and a mug was placed up to his lips to bring warmth back inside of his body as well. He sipped and felt the burn flow down into his belly and gave a relieved sigh. He had won.
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#5
Tyr had watched with wide eyes as Varmond came to his rescue. He would have died had Varmond not killed the alpha. It was then in the middle of the night that Tyr realized he was not meant to win. He was not meant for Azariah’s hand. He looked up to see a crow perched upon a nearby tree as he slipped to the ground. “I will not stand down, Odin. Even if it isn’t I that claims her hand.” He took off in a sprint with a bit of a limp. One of the wolves had sliced into his calf.

**

In the morning hours Azariah stood her expression of disbelief as she stared to the man that had crossed the finish line first. She watched as the warm fur was tossed over his shoulders graciously by his own brethren. Azariah sucked in a breath as her eyes caught her father’s whom watched her closely. She walked forward, her arms still tucked around her body as slight shivers ran down her spine. The princess stepped to the victor her silvery eyes gazed upon him as a warm mug was pressed to his lips. “The Gods surly do watch over you.” She spoke as she stepped forward to him. The men and women that had surrounded him stepped aside for the princess. “Not a scratch I see.” She noted the blood that was matted into his pelts, though she knew not that the blood was from a wolf. Nor did she know he had saved Tyr’s life. She gave a weak smile as she reached her hand forward to touch the frozen blood within the thick pelt. “Come, you deserve a hot meal and rest.” Azariah turned then. Her eyes fell upon Tyr whom had a branch that he had made into a crutch as he limped his way into town. Her expression softened as she saw him, she’d thought that he would be dead. That if he wasn’t the first to return that someone had killed him.

Azariah wiped the expression from her face as she turned to lead Varmond away from the cheering crowds. Though a few eyes within the crowd were wary of the victor, those of Whitlock seemed to almost fear this man from the north. The princess laced her arm around Varmond’s and led him forward, though she did not look up to him. She made her way through the village and to the great hall where maidens awaited with steaming hot pales of water. Azariah led him into the back room where the slave maidens would tend to his every need. She glanced to him a moment, her eyes caught on his a long moment. Her lips parted to speak but her eyes adverted as someone called her name from the hallway. She drew her brows together slightly and gave a wince. “You’ll have to excuse me...it seems I am needed elsewhere.” She watched him a moment. “The maidens will help you clean up and once you have thawed from Skadi’s harsh winds I will join you in a breakfast feast.”

With those words the princess slipped from the room. The door was shut and she walked down the hallway. She glanced about, “Who is it that called me?” She questioned as she stepped into the main hall where the long table rest for feasts.

“Me, princess.” Tyr leaned heavily against the crutch. He held the metal band forward. “I’m sorry that I have failed you...it was not Odin’s will for me to win your hand.” He spoke as he looked away from her, ashamed.

Azariah took the band into her fingertips and turned it over a few times before she clasped it back onto her wrist where it had been for many years. “If Odin did not will it so. He must have plans.” She placed her finger beneath Tyr’s chin. “I do not blame you, the gods will is not something that can be interfered with.” She gave a gentle smile.

Tyr stared into her eyes a long moment. He glanced to the hallway and then back to her. “Odin acted through that man.” He spoke his eyes serious. “He saved me from a pack of wolves. An Alpha as large as Fenrir himself, fur dark as the night...and he stopped to save me and still he was the victor.”

Azariah’s brows rose, a soft laugh came over her lips. “The man from Skajadol?” She raised a brow. “Tyr, it must have been someone else.” She pat his shoulder. “Get some rest, you’re tired.” She kissed his cheek then before she stepped away to the empty feast table.

Her father had demanded that she spend time with the victor, whomever it was to be. So, she would follow the king’s command. She was to have the victor bathed, to eat a hearty breakfast to fuel the man that was strong enough to come out on top. Then she was to spend the day with him for, tomorrow she would be wed to the man before the ritual of the blood eagle sacrifice. Azariah stood with her arms crossed as she watched the slaves begin to bring fresh food to the table for her and Varmond to enjoy. “Az.” Lila stepped into the room, a soft smile upon her lips. She pulled her daughter into a hug. She kissed her cheek and stepped back. “I heard.” She spoke and searched her eyes. “You will be protected, no need to worry. The gods are with you.”

Azariah gave a faint smile to her mother. “If it is the gods will, I will obey it.” She spoke, “I may not agree, but I will not fight with the gods.” She let out a slow breath as she took a seat at the table. She glanced to the crackling fire as she heard the retreating footsteps of her mother down the hallway. This afternoon her father would make the announcement, the oracle would bless the couple to be. She’d seen it so many times and yet, this time...it would be her and it stuck fear into her heart. She knew nothing of this blood thirsty man from the north. She closed her eyes to the thought. She imagined that most of the men that competed did so simply because the prize was her. She was auctioned off, to put it plainly. If any other woman had been placed on such a pedestal she imagined that not nearly half the men would have turned up. But place the child blessed by Odin himself upon the pedestal...the men who competed came from miles away. The princess let out a soft breath as she leaned her cheek into her palm, her other fingertip drew in circles upon the oak table. As good of a front that she put up in front of the people of Whitlock, she clearly was not pleased with the result of the gauntlet, nor the circumstances that she was now placed in.
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#6
Varmod was barely able to focus as Azariah came over and helped to guide him out of the cold. The feeling of her warm arm laced with his made him give a small sigh before shivering made his entire body tremble. Once inside the great hall he was greeted by several other women wearing ceremonial type clothing. It was only then that he was able to look down to his future wife and hear the words she offered him. They were short and to the point. It seemed she wasn't overly excited with the outcome of the gauntlet but that didn't matter. All that that mattered was that he managed to secure his victory. 

When she departed, leaving him alone with the other women, he offered no resistance as they disrobed him. Though as soon as the warm pelt left his shoulders he longed to have it back. Once he was naked he was sat upon a chair and the women methodically bathed him. Removed the frozen blood and dirt it was easy to see he did obtain several scrapes and cuts along his arms and legs, and even a few on his chest from his climb up the mountain. The women were careful with these spots and wrapped a couple scrapes as they started to bleed once cleaned. There were no words shared in the great hall as Varmod sat quietly and with his eyes closed as the feeling in his limbs slowly returned. 

After he was cleaned, dried, and sweet smelling oils were worked through his hair he was dressed in fresh clothing. A black shirt with traditional black pants and a white wolf's pelt hanging from his left shoulder while a fur lined gauntlet covered his right forearm. He wore a leather band around his forehead to keep the hair from his face and his usual blood red mark was painted over his eye. The last thing added was a single white feather into the cord upon his brow to lay with his hair. Once finished the women ushered him back out and to where he was to share a meal with his future wife. 

His mind was far more clear than it had been with the frost threatening to freeze him solid. So when he saw the princess sitting at the table looking less than pleased he simply smirked and shook his head as he made his way over to join her at the table. He did not try to prevent the chair scraping across the stone floor as he pulled the chair back and sat down with a sigh. He was tired, but sleep would come later. He needed to eat to restore his strength. "Princess." He greeted her in his rough voice and offered her a nod of acknowledgement.
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#7
Azariah looked up to the sound of footsteps as Varmond made his way into the room. She winced slightly as the chair scraped against the floor. It seemed to echo in the empty room, to which her expression became a cringe. She looked to him as she took in a breath. “Jarl of Skajadol.” She spoke, though her voice was soft. She offered a weak smile. “I see you did obtain a few scrapes.” She reached forward then and lifted a cloth napkin from the table. She moved and brushed a bit of blood from a scrape on his cheek that the women had missed. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the gauntlet.” She spoke as she folded the cloth and set it upon the table. Her silvery eyes moved from him as she focused on the folds. She let out a soft sigh, though she didn’t speak her mind. She wanted to berate him. To call him an animal. She wanted to tell him to return to the north where his people belonged, secluded away from those of Whitlock. Though Azariah only gazed back to him with a forced smile. “It is a victory that the gods will cherish.” She spoke as she poured two mugs of hot cider.

“The celebration will be rather grand.” She pushed the mug in front of him before she began serving him food. “Have you ever performed a blood eagle?” She questioned and paused watching him. “It truly is something to see. The man that will be sacrificed to the gods must uphold his strength through such agony...through torture really. But he shall see Valhalla in the end.”

Azariah had piled his plate with bacon, eggs, grits and the like. It truly was a feast for two. She began picking a few things for her, though she didn’t fill her plate up as she had his. She lifted a piece of bacon to her lips and took in a breath, the conflict showed in her eyes a moment before she yet again offered a smile to him. “After your feast we shall stand before the people of Whitlock as my father announces our marriage to be.” She took a sip of her cider. “Tomorrow...” She paused for a long moment after she spoke the word. Tomorrow she would belong to this man, she would be the prize that he had claimed in his victory. She let out a soft laugh. “So quick, hm?” She gazed up to him. “I’m not even certain of your name, only that you are the Jarl of Skajadol...” She raised her brows. “The man that is thirsty for blood.” She tacked onto the end before she took a bite of her food. “But, the gods have willed you to become my husband.” She paused again as she gazed into his eyes, she took in his features. After the maidens had cleaned him he didn’t look terrible. The white pelt of fur looked nice against the black tunic and coincided with his dark hair and his piercing eyes. “I wouldn’t dare question the gods.” She smiled then, this was more of a true smile than before. She lingered there a moment before she looked back to her food and she took another bite.
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#8
Though her words were kind her expression and gestures were very practiced. Everything she did was forced and Varmod could see the displeasure that lay just beneath the fair facade. When she commented on the gauntlet and what it would have been like he gave a deep chuckle. "You could always travel the gauntlet yourself. See what it's like. I'll even go with you if you require company, your highness." His tone was almost mocking but still held enough of a genuine air not to really be rude.

He watched as she poured his cider and served him his food. Just as a wife-to-be should do for her future husband. At least she knew her role. Even if her words were pointed and on the verge of being rather rude, it did not bother him. It showed her spirit and he was glad she possessed some. When she passed over his plate he began to eat, enjoying the warm meal immensely.

"I have performed the blood eagle ceremony." He confessed. "Though only once so it's still fairly new to me." He glanced over to her as she focused back on her own plate of food. "My friends call me Varmod, my enemies call me Blood Seeker." He told her. "You may choose which to call me, it matters not, and it is good not to question the will of the gods. They tend to get rather upset if you go against their design. I've witnessed their wrath first hand." He paused as he took a couple more bite of food and sipped his drink. "You don't seem impressed with my winning, if I may say, Princess. I am sorry your chosen youth did not manage to win." He didn't bother to look at her this time as he spoke and simply continued to eat.
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#9
Azariah’s brows raised to Varmond’s comment. The small smile that was upon her lips faded away and she cleared her throat as she looked to her meal. It was almost more of a challenge than anything else, as if he didn’t think she could make it through the gauntlet. The princess forced another smile, “Perhaps one day you will lead me through the gauntlet, hm?” She took another bite of her food. It took a lot for her not to snap at him. It took a lot for her to not respond with argumentative statements of who she was, how well she could fight, how strong she truly was. No, to him she was a princess. To him she was nothing more than a prize that he’d won. A woman to own. She nearly scoffed as she ate another bite of her food, her plate was nearly cleaned by this point.

The princess looked to Varmond as he introduced himself, a smirk curved up her lips slightly as he stated it didn’t matter what she called him. The man that was to be her husband cared not if she called him by his true name or the savage name his enemies had given him. Though the curve in her lips turned flat as he spoke of Tyr. She took in a breath and her jaw tightened. Her lips parted to speak, her brows tucked together. The true emotion of her disgust with the situation finally showed in her expression. “If I had any say in the matter--...”

“Azariah.” A stern voice came from across the room. The queen walked across the great hall and gave a smile to Varmond. “Jarl.” She spoke as she gazed to him. “You look well, not too tired I hope?” She stood between them, her hand upon his shoulder. “It is time for the announcement, hm? The people of Whitlock are most interested to learn whom the victor is that is to claim your hand, my dear.” She stepped to the left of Azariah, her hand upon her back. “Your father is already at the center of town, you should see how the people have gathered. The other competitors have returned as well. One told a great tale of this fine man killing an Alpha wolf.” She nodded her head. “I would love to hear the story this evening near the fire, Varmond.” She gripped Azariah’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t you, Az?”

Azariah grit her teeth slightly, another forced smile. “Of course, mother.” She watched as the queen retreated from the great hall. Her breathing had increased slightly. “Another time, perhaps….hm Varmond?” She looked to him with her silvery eyes. “It seems the town would like to know who you are. Just who the man strong enough to finish the gauntlet first is.” She stood and watched him a moment, waiting for him. She looked away as she crossed her arms, her eyes looked to the sound of cheering from outside, from the center of town where her father was speaking. The disinterested look crossed over her face again as she once again thought of the wedding that was to happen the next day...
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#10
He had displeased her, that much was painfully obvious, but he hadn't said anything with the intent to provoke her. It was unfortunate that the gods blessed a woman with such a short temper, but then again the gods had strange ways of getting what they wanted out of mortal men. Just as the princess seemed she was going to respond to his comments the current Queen entered the room and prevented her from speaking further. As the Queen looked at him and spoke of him killing an alpha he leaned back in his chair and gave an amused smile. He shouldn't have been surprised that little detail of the competition was quickly spread around. At the time he didn't think anyone would even remember or would have really seen what had happened. "I would be more than happy to tell that tale, Your Highness." He told her with a small nod of his head. 

When his eyes shifted back over to the Princess and her displeased expression he held his pleasant smile and simply watched as the Queen made her way from the hall and outside where the announcement would be made. He lifted his mug and drained the last of the warm mead before getting up from his place at the table. "Now for the hard part." He mumbled under his breath and walked around the table to stand next to his bride. "Shall we?" He could already feel that his body was going to be sore the next day with just the motion of getting from his chair. Perhaps their shaman would have a remedy to help his aching muscles. A problem for a later time. 

Taking her arm he gently placed her hand in the crook of his elbow. It wasn't a move to show possession but rather to show that he fully excepted their impending union. The gods were always watching after all and if they had been kind enough to bless him with the fortune of being victor then he wouldn't displease them by seeming ungrateful. As they emerged from the hall and he felt Skadi's kiss upon his skin once more he inhaled and looked out at the faces that had turned to see the couple emerge. Several faces he knew, most he did not, and those that were foreign to him bore looks of distrust or even fear. He didn't expect must else, nor did he care what they thought of him. 

There was a platform that had been constructed so that the royal family and himself could be displayed for all to see during the announcement. This was his least favorite part of leading. Speaking to groups was not his forte, though he had been told he still commanded respect the same way he did on the battlefield, his confidence was far less in these endeavors.
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#11
Azariah looked to Varmond a moment, the muttered words, she’d heard them clearly. She allowed him to take her hand and her expression softened slightly. He had been much gentler on her when he touched her than when he had pulled the chair along the floor harshly causing a ruckus in the great hall. As they stepped outside a shiver ran down her spine and she almost seemed to move closer to the warmth that came off of the tall man that was her husband to be. Azariah looked to the eyes of the crowd, the eyes of those that watched warily as they saw their princess that had linked arms with the man that appeared to be more animal than human. Azariah sucked in a breath and shook her head slightly as she looked to her mother and father.

“People of Whitlock.” Stav began as he stood before them. “Our victor.” He held his hand toward Varmond and his daughter. “He showed great strength in the gauntlet, returning well before the other competitors. He is Jarl Varmond of Skajadol.” He paused as he looked to the crowd, a few of the expressions that may not have been wary became that way. The stories of the men from the north spread like wildfire, the blood thirsty savages that would take what they wanted. “Let me put your minds at ease.” He spoke and offered a smile. “Tyr.” He looked into the crowd for the young man that Varmond had saved. Tyr limped forward still using a tree limb as a crutch, though his leg was wrapped and properly cared for now. “This young man was saved by the Jarl. In the midst of competition, he stopped to save his life from the wolves.”

“I saw it.” A man spoke from the crowd.

“As did I.” Another spoke.

Whispers ran through the crowd as the people of Whitlock looked to one another and then to their Princess whom didn’t move a muscle. Though behind her soft smile that she held upon her lips she was full of surprise. Her brows furrowed slightly, but only for a second. Azariah looked up to her soon to be husband a moment before she looked back to the king. “Tomorrow as the sun crests to noon in the sky we will perform the ceremony of bonding these two in marriage.” Stav continued. “It is with great pleasure that I offer Azariah’s hand to Varmond as the gods have willed it so.” He paused a moment, “Tonight we celebrate the bride and groom.” A cheer came from the crowd then, though it was not as loud as the cheers had been for the gauntlet, it was still something. Stav nodded and he stepped to Varmond’s side. “After Jarl Varmond takes Azariah’s hand in marriage tomorrow evening we will complete the blood eagle sacrifice.” He gripped Varmond’s shoulder a moment as the crowd cheered happily. The king waited for the crowd to settle before he looked to Varmond. “I would like you to speak to the people, Varmond.” He spoke only loud enough for the man to hear. “Ease their minds of the stories that they hear of Skajadol, hm?” He pat his back.

Azariah offered a smile that neared the level of a smirk in that moment. “Ah yes, ease the minds would you?” She raised her brow as she looked up to him. “Tell us you’re not such a savage.” She spoke the last bit as she leaned up toward him, her words were only loud enough for him to hear. To others outside of the two it would look as though Azariah was offering friendly words, as she’d placed her hand upon his chest as she leaned up toward him, almost as if she were to kiss him, but not quite. The princess then resumed her place at his side. “After this, I will take you to the shaman and we will get you a tea to relax your muscles and ease your pain.” She glanced up to him, “I can only imagine how exhausted you must be.” She glanced to her father then as he motioned for Varmond to speak.
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#12
As Varmod made his way through the crowd and then stood up for the entirety of their people to see, still linked with Azariah, he stood almost perfectly still. Like a statue and only gave a slight nod whenever he was motioned to. When the story of him killing the wolf arose and a couple voices in the crowd confirmed it he shifted uncomfortably. He knew the lad he had saved would have seen but since apparently more people saw it would be hard to simply write it off as delirium from the cold or exhaustion. He didn't want the mantle of savor, it was a heavy one and he much preferred to simply be called a beast or blood thirsty. When both the current King and Azariah insisted that he speak to the crowd he shifted his weight once more and looked between the pair before releasing his bride's arm and stepping forward.

His blue eyes bore into the crowd before him, who still mostly looked at him with disbelief or skepticism, and he let silence reign over them before he inhaled the frigid air to speak. "People of Whitlock." His voice carried well over the people and snow and had enough strength to demand their attention away from their whispering among each other. "I've heard the stories of my people that have reached your ears. You're hoping that I can stand here and tell you that what you've heard are just that, tall tales. I'm afraid I can't simply dismiss them." He paused as more murmurs swept through the crowd and several people distanced themselves between them and his kinsmen. "Why would I dismiss them? Tales of our victories over our enemies, no matter the cost, are not to be discredited. Though between the north and the south there are many differences that may cause you to fear us I can assure you that we have always viewed those in the south as allies, brothers in arms, and kinsmen. We in the north believe that there is no stronger bond than that, even if there is vast land between us. So those stories you hear, the ones that make you shy away while standing in our presence, take comfort in them. Know that you may depend on the Savages of the North will lend you their strength in times of hardship or conflict."

Varmod looked back to Azariah for a moment, his expression almost as if he were debating on saying something else, then he turned back to the crowd. "I came here to compete for the Princess's hand to give you more tangible proof of that bond. I hope that through our union you may come to trust us from Skajadol." His speech did little to dismiss the fears of those he saw, but he did see looks of guilt pass through their eyes as well. Fearing your allies was disrespectful at the very least and he had essentially called out everyone in the town.

Finished speaking he returned to Azariah's side and waited for the King to finish up the announcement and for them to be dismissed. He was tired after all.
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#13
Azariah could feel that Varmond had become uncomfortable, she could see it in his eyes as she taunted him. In a way this made her feel better, it made her fear him less than she had before. If he was uneasy about speaking before a crowd, there must be other things, other weaknesses to the man. Maybe he was not the ruthless murderer that the stories made him out to be. Maybe his roughness was just from his northern descent. Just maybe…

Though as he released her arm and stepped forward a knot began to form in her stomach as he spoke. As he brought the fears to life, as he stated that all the stories that they heard were in fact true. Azariah sucked in a breath as she glanced to her mother and father whom stood next to her. Her mother’s eyes glanced to the crowd, just as Azariah did. She could see the expressions change, the whispers and murmurs arise. He spoke of Skajadol as an ally to Whitlock. They had not been attacked by these men from the icy cold, but...they had not fought with them in battle either. Azariah was tense as she slipped her arm through his once again, she glanced up to him with her silvery eyes, her smile had disappeared from her expression. If she hadn’t trusted him before her mistrust had only grown, her eyes were wary. She missed the words that her father spoke as her mind ran in circles. Though soon enough she found a way to return her attention to her father.

“We should welcome the people of Skajadol as well as Jarl Varmond. They will be a great ally against any future enemies that we may face. Whitlock is only as strong as our weakest fighter. To have more warriors in our ranks, warriors with such experience will help us. We may secure more land. We can defend our children. Just as we added to our ranks with the union of Otta and Siggy.” He nodded to his son whom stood with his wife in the crowd toward the front. “We will once again grow and become one with Skajadol.” He glanced to his daughter and then to Varmond. “So enjoy the festival, tonight we feast, tomorrow Jarl Varmond and Princess Azariah will be bonded as will our lands.” A cheer came from the crowd, the king had a way with his words that Varmond did not. He turned to the two as the people began to disburse.

Queen Lila stepped forward, “Will you be seeing the shaman?” She questioned.

“Yes mother.” Azariah responded. “We will go there now.” She looked to Varmond, her fingertips curled around his arm and she gripped gently.

“I can see your exhaustion, Jarl.” The queen touched his other arm, “Our shaman will take great care for you, I have arranged for him to come to the great hall. Azariah will tend to you as you need. Won’t you?” She looked to her daughter.

Azariah took in a breath, “Of course mother.” She spoke and gave a forced smile. She glanced up to Varmond a moment before she nodded, “Come on then.” She led him fro the stage.

“Welcome Jarl.” A maiden bowed to him. As they made their way through the city several of the people welcomed him and congratulated him. This was a bit of a change. The king’s speech had helped, yet fearful eyes still gazed upon them. It would take time for him to gain the trust of the people, especially with their princess not showing fully that she was invested in this union.

Azariah led him into the home. She led him down a hall and pushed a door open. The shaman was already in the room, he had a roll of herbs that were burning and it made the room smell incredible. “Ahhh princess.” The man spoke. He stood in pelts, black pain across his eyes and cheeks. Bones and beads hung from him. Runes were carved into his skin in intricate tattoos. He stepped forward. “Jarl.” He smiled, “Come, let me mend you. Tomorrow you will not feel the pains that you feel now.” He led him over to the bed. “Sit, brave warrior.” He moved about gathering items that he tossed into a pot of boiling water that he cooked over the hearth.

“Come princess.” The shaman motioned to her. “Your soul must be mended as well, dear. So that you are ready for the union.” He shook the burning herbs over her head and began to chant a few things in old norse.

Azariah watched him as he worked her eyes glanced to Varmond as the shaman shook the herbs over him. The shaman held a mug of a substance to her and he nodded. Azariah looked to the floating herbs within the mug before she drank it quickly. Her nose wrinkled and she coughed to the foul taste of the mixture. The shaman then turned his attention to Varmond to continue his ritual.
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#14
Varmod was glad they didn't have to stand out in front of the crowd much longer and even more pleased when he heard the shaman had already been sent for on his behalf. When they arrived where the shaman had set up his rituals Varmod was quick to remove his large pelt that covered the majority of his body. He left the skin bare for the gods to be able to touch with their blessings, if they found him worthy.

When he sat on the bed the shaman had instructed him to he exhaled as his weight settled on his haunches. As the shaman stated that Azariah needed healing as well he couldn't help but to smirk a bit before closing his eyes to allow the sweet smelling herbs to soak into his being. He could feel the power the shaman commanded penetrate the room. This man had the favor of the gods and in a way it was comforting, to know that he could perform the miracles he spoke of, but anyone in contact with the gods was to be respected if not feared.

Varmod continued to sit quietly with his eyes closed till he heard the man's chanting stop and the room fall silent. When he opened his eyes to see what had happened he saw the old man's milky eyes were now clear. They were also a bright silver color that made Varmod sit straight up on the bunk as he looked back into those silvery orbs. The shaman smirked, gave a slow nod, and then he closed his eyes and almost seemed to fall asleep where he stood. After a moment he rose his head up once more and the old man's eyes were once again milky white as he stared into space from his lack of sight. "Sorry, guess I lost my train of thought.." He apologized and then continued his chanting to mend Varmod's tired body.

The rest of the ritual Varmod didn't take his eyes off the shaman. Though he did feel his muscles relax and some of the aches start to fade. He wouldn't be near as stiff the following morning, but now that he had relaxed more his exhaustion seemed to grip him even tighter. At the ritual's conclusion Varmod swayed a bit on the bunk, almost as if he had drank far more mead than he had. He looked over at Azariah and his eyes had a hard time focusing on her, but he could just make out her facial expression. "Lay down, Jarl Varmod. Rest." The shaman told him in a gentle voice and guided the man to lay back on the bed before covering him up with some furs to keep Skadi at bay.

Turning back to Azariah he smiled said another prayer over her as well. "He will be back to his full strength in the morning. He will also be rather hungry I imagine, so please make sure there is food to break his fast when he wakes." He pat her arm gently and then turned to start gathering up his supplies.
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#15
Azariah took in a breath as she closed her eyes. Her body began to loosen from the mixture that the shaman had given her. As she listened to the chanting she relaxed to the point that she couldn’t be sure if she was awake or asleep. It wasn’t until she heard the shaman tell her to keep food near the Jarl in the morning as he would be hungry. “Of course.” She breathed, her entire body felt heavy, as if she’d drank her weight in mead. “Thank you shaman.” Her eyes were heavy as she stood slowly. She glanced to the fire the still crackled in the hearth. The room was warm, the sun had set over the horizon. Her fears were at rest for the moment from the concoction that the shaman gave her. Azariah stepped forward and she tossed another log onto the fire before she turned to Varmond. She stepped back over to the bed and sat down on the edge heavily. “Perhaps the Shaman was right, my soul needed cleansing.” She spoke her voice soft, tired. “I trust in the gods that they have brought you and I together for a reason, Varmond.” She unlaced her boots as she watched the flickering flames of the fire. She moved and lay upon the bed next to him, though she did not touch him, she pulled her own blanket over her body as sleep tugged at her eyes. “Tomorrow we shall come together in union, hm?” She hummed softly, nearly asleep. “Tomorrow you will be my husband, and I your wife...” Her voice was softer yet. “Tomorrow the gods will watch over us...tomorrow...” Her words trailed off as she slipped asleep. Her expression calm, her breaths even.

**

“Azariah.” A voice spoke. The cold of the world sunk into her skin, penetrating to her bones.

Azariah woke with the shake of her body. She was sitting in the center of a lake, it was frozen beneath her. The mountains rose up around her, jutting toward the overcast skies. Her body shivered as she lifted her eyes. A man stood before her with a long grey beard, a bright glowing white eye and a deep black socket where his eye was missing. Odin. He had a raven upon his shoulder and two wolves behind him. “Princess of Whitlock. Azariah the Gifted.” Odin chuckled in his deep voice. He reached forward and touched her cheek. “The time has come for the world to see the power that I have bestowed upon you. Yes?” Power seemed from Odin’s hand into Azariah’s body, her eyes began to glow a bright white as Odin’s eye did. Her breaths trembled to the feeling. “After the ritual you will see, child.” He pushed against her forehead then.

The world began to spin. Azariah took in quick breaths as the ice beneath her broke. Water filled her lungs, she choked and fought against the water pushing against it quickly. She screamed as she kicked toward the surface. It felt as though the harder she fought the further she drew away. Her muscles felt as though they were encased in concrete as she sank deeper into the water until darkness took over her vision.

**

Azariah slept through the night, her brows would tuck together and her breathing quickened a few times with the vision. As the sun rose the next morning the skies were a beautiful clear blue. Welcoming the ritual and welcoming the wedding ceremony. Azariah’s eyes opened slowly, the heaviness of the night before was worn off. Though the strange vision held in her mind. She glanced to Varmond a moment before she rose from the bed and she laced her boots. Azariah slipped from the room quietly to allow him to sleep.

Azariah returned with a platter of food upon a tray and two glasses of mead. She slipped into the room and set the tray upon a nightstand. “Jarl.” She spoke as she sat on the edge of the bed next to him. The smell of warm bacon filled the room from the platter, eggs and bread lined the plates as well. It truly was a feast. “I hope you slept well. How do you feel?” She asked, another forced smile upon her lips. She was following orders, doing as she was told. If the princess had a choice in the matter this wouldn’t be what she was doing on this morning. But the shaman had told her to feed him and the shaman was a direct contact to the gods...of which she spoke with Odin in her dreams. She couldn’t disobey the gods and their will.
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#16
Varmod slept like the dead. The herbs and magic of the shaman had sunk deeply into his soul and even the usual spirits who haunted his dreams could not reach him. It wasn't until he heard the soft voice of a woman next to him did he finally wake from his deep slumber. His eyes were focused on the ceiling at first and slowly shifted down to see the visage of Azariah looked at him with that practiced smile. She was quite beautiful, that much was certain, but she was had hardened as any warrior that he had ever met. "Good morning, Princess." He told her in a gruff voice still laced heavily with sleep before sitting up in the bed and taking a deep breath as he straightened his back.

It was then that he smelled the bacon and his eyes wandered over to the tray she had brought in and he gave a light chuckle. "Indeed I did sleep well and feel well rested. I hope you can say the same." He told her and maneuvered to sit next to her on the bed before reaching for one of the cups of mead. "Is to be another exciting day." He stated and sipped the sweet drink before clearing his throat and then glancing over to her. "You slept next to a savage and survived the night." His tone was nonchalant as he reached to grab the plate she had brought for him and set it on his knee before plucking a piece of bacon from it and eating it.
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#17
Azariah watched the man as he woke, she could see the sleep in his eyes as he stared at the ceiling. She held her smile as she looked to him. “I slept well.” She responded, though she did not speak of her vision of Odin. No, she never spoke of her visions of Odin. The only being she spoke to of her visions was the Oracle. She’d ask him questions and look for answers, yet she only found herself with more questions from the riddled words of the oracle. But he could not light the whole path, that would give too much away to those not connected fully to the gods like himself and the shaman.

The princess chuckled softly to Varmond’s comment. “Ah yes, 1 night of survival, many more to go.” She raised a brow as she looked to him. His nonchalant tone was interesting to her. She grasped her own plate and began munching upon the bacon and bread. “Most of Whitlock would be proud of me for the bravery that I showed sleeping next to such a savage.” She grinned to him, her silvery eyes watched him. “But, the gods watch us, I do not doubt them, so I must work to not doubt you. Hm?” She took a drink of her mead before she fell silent and continued eating her food.

There was a swift knock from the door then. Azariah lifted her eyes to the door as it pushed open. A maiden stood, she bowed her head. “Princess, I have been sent to fetch you to prepare you for the ceremony.” She spoke, her voice mousy and small.

Azariah drank the rest of her mead. She looked to Varmond and gave another well practiced smile. “The next I see you we will be bound in union.” She nodded. “It seems Skadi has graced us with a warm day for the ceremony.” She stood and set her empty plate upon the tray. She hadn’t grabbed nearly as much food for herself as she’d made for him. “I will see you soon Jarl Varmond.”

The maiden watched Vamond a moment as Azariah made her way toward the woman. “The other maidens will be by soon, Jarl, to assist you.” She spoke before she left the room with Azariah.

The princess walked down the hallway and followed the woman out into the warm air. Water dripped from the roofs of the homes to the warmth of the sun. It was odd to have such a warm day in the middle of winter. Truly the gods must have agreed with the union, that was the only explanation for such a strange weather pattern. Skadi had been relentless in her cold this winter. Azariah followed the maiden into a small home, the shop of the seamstress. She was led into the back where a bath had been drawn. Her clothing was stripped from her body and she climbed into the steaming water. She leaned her head back as the water relaxed her muscles and the maidens sponged her arms.

Soon enough she stood before a mirror a beautiful dress was pulled upon her body. White flowing ruffles descended down from her hips toward the ground, beneath she wore her leather knee high boots. The torso of the dress was a beautifully decorated grey corset that was cinched down tight to accent her figure. Azariah gazed into the mirror as the women worked upon her hair and her makeup. She was truly stunning as they worked shadow over her eyes and the beautiful red paint upon her cheeks. Then the final step, the maiden carefully fit a headpiece over Azariah’s face. It covered down to her cheekbones and lay over the bridge of her nose. The headpiece was in the shape of a raven the beak reached down to her upper lip. Black feathers lined the mask and stuck back from the back of the head of the piece.

“Beautiful.” Lila’s voice spoke as she stepped into the room. “Truly.” She smiled as she ran her fingertips down her daughter’s bare shoulder. “Skadi has graced us with such lovely weather.” She spoke and smiled brightly. “The gods agree, Az...how are you feeling?”

Azariah nodded, “The gods have shown their grace.” She nodded, “That I understand and I will obey it.” She glanced to her mother from within the mask.

Lila hugged her daughter a long moment. “You’re strong, child.” She spoke before she stepped back. “Soon you will walk to your husband.” She nodded before she stepped from the room.

**

The afternoon came swiftly after Azariah had been dressed. Soon enough the town had gathered near the overlook near the outskirts of town. It had a beautiful view of the ocean, the perfect place for a ceremony. Green grass stuck up through what little snow was left on the ground from the warmth of the day. Drums began to play and soon enough Azariah stepped forward down the aisle of people that bowed their head to her. She took in a breath as she came next to Varmond’s side. Her hands held forward to clasp onto his. She glanced to the shaman whom would bond them eternally. Her heart bound within her chest. This was it. This was the moment that the oracle had spoken of since she was a child.
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#18
Azariah was wise to put her faith in the gods and their decisions, but sometimes that was also a fault. He would have to keep vigilant around her. Else she might do something drastic in the name of the gods and he couldn't have that. When the maiden came in to collect Azariah to ready her for the ceremony he simply watched her get up to leave and gave a nod of acknowledgement when she stated that others would be by shortly to assist him. Once she was gone he finished his meal and stood up to flex some of his muscles that were still heavy with sleep. There shaman was a good one. No soreness remained in his body. It was as if the gauntlet hadn't happened.

When the maidens came in to dress him he watched with slight amusement as the timid girls worked carefully and quickly. They were uncomfortable while standing in his presence, that much was obvious, but he simply ignored them as best he could. They cleaned his body with warm, wet rags and applied fresh paint to his face, chest and arms. Ceremonial paint that would suite both a union ritual and the Blood Eagle ritual afterward. Red paint that looked like wings across this chest and black bands around his arms. His face was painted with designs for the union rather than his normal red mark. They tried to remove the white feather from his hair but he managed to frightened the poor girl when he grabbed her wrist to stop her hand. "Leave it." He instructed and she quickly pulled away and moved on to the next task.

When he emerged from the home to attend the ceremony he was wearing darkly colored furs with a feathered mantle to represent the wings of Odin's crows. He wore a belt with an empty sheath, for the ceremonial sword after, but it was a bad omen to be armed during your wedding. His chest was exposed to display the red paint and a few charms hung against his leg from around his waist. He stood at the alter, still as a statue, waiting for his bride. When she finally made her way to join him before the rest of the town he couldn't help but to crack a smile as he looked down at her with her white dress and ceremonial headdress. She looked fierce and beautiful. Just as any woman should on her wedding day.

When he grasped her hands his touch was gentle yet firm and even when the Shaman tied a sash around their wrists to signify their bond he continued to look into her eyes without a trace of fear in his light eyes. "Brothers and sisters of Whitlock." The Shaman began. "Today Frigga has blessed the union between this man and woman in a sacred ritual that will bind them together for eternity. Jarl Varmod of Skajadol completed the Gaunlet and was first to return to earn him Princess Azariah's hand. Any who contest this marriage please step forward and speak so that the gods may hear you." It was challenge that no one was willing to meet, but the offer was always made. After all, the gods weren't completely unreasonable.
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#19
Azariah looked up to Varmond as he took her hands. Her eyes moved over his painted body a moment before she locked onto his eyes. The entire ceremony she didn’t leave his gaze. Her breath trembled slightly, though that may have been more from the tightness of the corset than anything else. When the shaman offered for anyone to speak up she glanced out to the crowd of people. Silence reigned over the ceremony. Azariah looked back to Varmond as a maiden stepped forward to remove the headdress from the princess’ head. She bowed her head slightly as the raven mask was lifted away. She then looked back to Varmond with a soft smile upon her lips.

“Then, without any argument to challenge the will of the gods...” The Shaman spoke, “I announce the union of Princess Azariah and Jarl Varmond.” He gave a smile as he tied another knot around their arms locking their wrists together. Azariah gripped onto Varmond’s forearm as she gazed up to him. She moved forward then and slipped his hand to her hip as she stepped close to him, her fingertips curled around the side of his face as she leaned up and pressed her lips to his to seal the union. The crowd surprisingly enough cheered as the princess remained there a moment before she stepped back. Azariah took in a swift breath as she gazed into his eyes, as she looked up to him, a soft smile upon her lips. Her silvery eyes seemed to search his soul before she turned and she laced her fingertips into his. Their arms still wrapped in the beautiful ceremonial cloth. Azariah led him down toward the city, flowers were tossed toward them, the people offering their grace to the newly wedded couple.

Azariah held onto his hand as they walked toward the city and into the center of town where her father stepped onto the stage with them. He had a beautiful sword that was on display for the city to see. The king smiled as he squeezed Varmond’s shoulder. “You look strong, noble.” He spoke before he looked to his daughter. “And you my child, absolutely stunning.” He kissed her cheek. Azariah only gave a soft smile to her father. The king stood next to Lila as the city crowded in around them. Soon enough the city had formed around the lifted platform.

The king stepped forward and nodded, he held a beautiful ceremonial dagger in his hands. “By the will of the gods my daughter has been given to this man Jarl Varmond.” He spoke as he stepped to them. He brought the dagger to the tightly wound scarf. “I grant my daughter fully to this man, may Odin guide him in her protection and may he defend her at any cost.” The king cut through the cloth releasing Varmond’s arm from Azariah. “I give this sword as an embodiment of strength and good fortune.” He handed it to Varmond. “May riches and power follow you.” The king then turned and nodded to the crowd. “Tonight at dusk we will perform the blood eagle. Tyr Uttn has volunteered as sacrifice.” The crowd filled with murmurs as Tyr limped forward. His leg still wrapped. “May Valhalla welcome him with open arms and restore his leg.” He turned and nodded to Varmond. “Shall we feast my son?” He smiled.

Azariah’s breaths shook slightly as she stared to Tyr in the crowd. Her grip upon Varmond’s arm had tightened when her father mentioned who the sacrifice would be. She lowered her eyes slightly when she felt her father’s eyes upon her. This was the gods will. That is what she reminded herself. That is what she kept telling herself. The gods willed this to happen, and Tyr would be welcomed and healed in Valhalla. It would be painful still to watch him hacked apart by her husband...to watch his lungs pulled from his back as Tyr holds in his screams of pain. If Tyr were to make a sound during the ritual...his acceptance into Valhalla would be lost...
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#20
The ceremony went on without a hitch. Perfect in every way. Even with how calm and collected Varmod may have seemed throughout the entire thing when Azariah's headdress was removed he suddenly felt the eyes of everyone on him more acutely than before. A kiss was traditional to share at the end of the ceremony and showed that even the bride and groom accepted the union, but it was still an intimate act displayed for all to see. As she leaned up towards him he had to stoop down a bit to reach her. When their lips touched he felt as if a spark had occurred between them and he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of an owl taking flight from the top of a house as he opened his eyes once more.

Afterward and they were showered with their people's favor and they received the King's blessing he felt a sense of relief wash over him. However, when the volunteer for the Blood Eagle ritual was announced even Varmod furrowed his brow in confusion as he looked at the boy. After Varmod had prevented the boy's death it was odd to him that he would so quickly offer it up once more, even despite his injury.  "Yes, a feast." Varmod agreed when the King spoke and squeezed Azariah's hand gently with his placed over hers on his harm when he felt her grip tighten.

No doubt there would be turmoil in her heart after the next ritual. Perhaps Loki had taken an interest in their union as well. The trickster loved to cause trouble. 

As the people left to go enjoy the roasted meats, fresh vegetables, baked goods, nuts, and other delicacies in the feast Varmod turned to glance down at his wife. That practiced smile was gone. He knew that he could offer no words of comfort, but he knew what it was like to lose a close friend. "Shall we?" He asked her as he gave a light tug on her arm to lead her to the high table where they were to sit with the King and Queen along with her brother and his wife. There would still be entertainment and toasts to suffer through.
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#21
Varmond’s words sounded as if they were beneath the crashing waves of the ocean. Azariah finally tore her eyes away from Tyr. The gentle tug she felt upon her arm brought her to the realization that they should be moving. “Of course, yes...” Her words didn’t hold much emotion behind them, her voice was almost flat. She forced a smile, but it was almost painful to watch as her eyes glanced to Tyr again. She didn’t understand why he would do such a thing. He was throwing his life away. Tyr was young, just a year older than her. Would his leg injury not heal? Had the oracle or shaman had a play in these chain of events. Were the gods punishing Tyr for losing the gauntlet? These questions racked her mind as she stepped alongside Varmond behind her parents.

As they entered the great hall a feast was set for just the royal family, the king and queen took their place at the table and Otta and his wife Siggy sat at two other spots, only two seats remained for Varmond and Azariah. A pitcher of ale was carried around by a maiden, she was filling each cup to the brim. She said her congratulations to Varmond and Azariah, her voice soft, a gentle smile upon her lips. Azariah barely responded with a nod as she sat at the table. Otta sat across from her and his eyes gazed to his sister, he nodded to her as if to say he understood the pain she was going through. He reached forward and lifted his ale in his hand. “To my sister.” He raised the glass. “The bravest shield maiden to have graced Whitlock. The strongest willed woman I know.” He grinned and looked to Varmond. “You have your hands full brother. Welcome to the family.” He chuckled. His wife tapped her horn against his and the king and queen followed suit.

Azariah tapped her mug in before she took a long swig of the ale. “Thank you, Otta.” She gave a weak smile that melted away rather quickly.

The king clapped his hands and servants rushed into the room with platters of roast pork and grains, vegetables and the like. Whitlock was flourishing, this was evident in their available food in the midst of winter. The king was clearly just showing off at this point. “Varmond, you are now one of the family. My son.” He nodded and took a sip of his ale. “You may do the honors of cutting the meat.” He passed a knife to Varmond. “What plans do you have for Whitlock? What can we do for Skajadol? I am at your dispense, son.”

Lila glanced to her daughter and her brows furrowed slightly, she could see the turmoil in her daughter’s eyes. “What will you do to keep my daughter safe, Varmond?” The queen spoke up quickly, her blue eyes locked upon Varmond then.

Azariah lifted her eyes to Varmond a moment before she let out a breath, she placed another practiced smile upon her lips. “My husband is rather tired, he did just complete the gauntlet yesterday. Perhaps drilling him with such questions….” She paused, “Perhaps another time would be better?” She asked as she looked to him, her fingers curled around his forearm as her silvery eyes watched Varmond closely. She’d spoken up for him, defended him against her own family. Even her brother’s eyes widened slightly and a grin split his lips as he watched his sister.

“Perhaps the gods have gifted us with a well tempered, Azariah?” Otta chuckled as he took a bite of his meal that had been served.

“Otta.” Siggy elbowed her husband to shut him up. Otta only chuckled again.

Azariah lifted a piece of bread and tore it before she tossed a piece into her mouth. The corset was rather constricting and she didn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Though, she would remain in this dress until the end of the day, that was ritual. She would stand at her husband’s side as he hacked into Tyr. She would watch as the gruesome scene played out before her eyes and she would have to refrain from the tears that already threatened to roll over her cheeks at the thought of Tyr’s death. "Father, why must it be Tyr?" The princess finally spoke up, her eyes locked upon the king, "He is young..."

The king took in a breath as he set his food down. He looked to his daughter a long moment. "Az, he has chosen this path on his own. His leg is wounded and will not heal. It is an honorable decision and I will not question it. Just as you should not question it." Stav resumed eating then.

Azariah let out a shaken breath, "I will challenge it." She spoke, her voice strong. "I will not have him die in such a manner. He does not deserve such a death. He isn't a criminal father."

"Azariah." Lila watched her daughter. "Tyr has made his decision. It would be a disgrace to challenge such a decision. Do you want to embarrass him in such a way?"

The princess set down her horn of ale hastily upon the table, the ale splashed out upon the oak wood. "I didn't ask for any of this and I have gone along with all of it just as you've asked mother. But I will not stand idly by and watch Tyr hacked to pieces." She stood abruptly then and rushed from the room.

Otta chuckled from where he sat his eyes looked to Varmond. "As I said dear brother, you shall have your hands full with that one. Mother and father have had their hands full for 20 years." He grinned.

"Otta." Lila shot a stern look to her son. She then looked to Varmond. "You'll have to forgive Azariah, Jarl..." She offered a soft smile. "This has been a stressful time for her and Tyr is a very close friend of hers. But it was his decision to become the sacrifice."

"Friend?" Otta giggled only for Siggy to elbow him again to quiet him down.

The queen shot another glance to Otta before she looked back to Varmond. "She grew up with the boy. He's her closest friend." She assured. "But we cannot change the will of the gods." She nodded as she returned her attention to her meal.

**

Azariah had left the home. She marched through the streets and made her way through the town hastily. She held the front of her beautiful white dress up slightly to aid in her movement. She pushed into the pub and walked up to Tyr whom sat upon a stool. He turned his head and gave a soft smile. "Princess." He spoke only for a harsh slap to land across his face which nearly caused him to fall from the stool.

"Throwing your life away will not fix anything, Tyr." Azariah glared at him a long moment before she walked from the pub. She made her way up the stairs to the overlook where she sat on the edge of the rocks. Her legs dangled down toward the ocean as she watched the crashing waves. This was a place she'd come many times to think as she grew up. It offered her a sense of calm. She took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Odin do not judge me." She whispered softly, "Be it your will, this is as painful as losing my own brother..." Her voice quivered as she spoke.
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#22
Weddings and the following celebrations were usually full of mirth, music, and laughter. Even arranged ones, but as the royal family spoke and welcomed Varmod into their folds he could feel the tension in the air as the next ritual drew near. The man across from Varmod, Azariah's brother, seemed to be the most lighthearted of the lot and even teased his sister a bit as she spoke. Even when she tried to stave off the questions in Varmod's defense he simply watched with an amused expression. The conversation quickly took a turn, however, when Azariah began to question the volunteer for the blood eagle sacrifice. When his bride got up to run from the room Varmod didn't bother to stop her and simply continued to eat his meal. 

"There's nothing to be forgiven. Losing a friend is something that should bother anyone. If she were indifferent to the news then I would be worried that she held no love in her heart at all." He said after the others tried to offer their apologies on Azariah's behalf. "I am also curious about the boy's willingness to be the one offered to the gods. I did not leap into the middle of a wolf pack to spare his life only to have it forfeit the following day. If I had known that I might have let him die out in the cold." He paused and sipped his ale before continuing. "I don't discredit the honor of being the one to undergo the ritual, but at the same time it feels as if Loki has his hand in this, does it not?" 

Varmod looked to each member of the family as he spoke, his tone remaining nonchalant the entire time as he continued to enjoy his meal. "Either way, I wont stand in the boy's way if that's truly his choice and I will perform the ritual in its entirety." There was a bit of a stunned silence in the room at what Varmod had said. If a bride had run from any other man she might have been punished severely for embarrassing him, especially in front of the King, but Varmod was different. Once he finished his meal he stood up from the table and gave a nod to the family. "Excuse me, I think I'll go fetch my wife." 



Varmod eventually found Azariah, after asking around for a little bit, and when he discovered her sitting on the ledge looking out over the crashing waves of the cold ocean he hooked his thumbs in the front of his belt and leaned on one leg as he gave a short sigh. "This had been a hard couple of days for you." He told her in an even tone and paused as he listened to the crashing waves beneath them. "I know there is nothing I can offer you to ease your turmoil, but I offer my condolences regardless." He took a couple of steps forward and knelt down behind Azariah as she sat. "I haven't given you a wedding gift yet." He told her in a more gentle voice. "You can ask me one favor and I will do everything within my power to make sure it is done. As Jarl of Skajadol that is the best I can offer that might actually interest you."
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#23
Otta chuckled as Varmond left the room, he looked to the king and queen. “Perhaps he will be able to handle my dear sister after all? Hm?” He grinned. “He doesn’t seem as savage as the stories make him out to be, maybe in battle but sitting at this table.” He raised a brow. “He may be the only thing that can keep Az grounded.”

Lila sighed as she set her cup of ale down, “I pray to the gods that you are right, Otta.” She looked to him with soft eyes. “I would hate to think that my daughter’s hand was given to an animal.” She glanced to the king then, “When there were plenty of suitors within Whitlock that would have done well as her husband.”

Stav drew his brows together, “That is enough.” He shook his head. “We will grow this way, we must keep growing in order to survive. Do you want to end up like Sitvar? Hm? Demolished by other warriors from the south. No. That cannot be the tale of Whitlock. I am the king and I will not allow such a thing to happen.”

“For now.” Otta spoke a smirk upon his lips. “What if Varmond challenges you father? What then?”

**

Azariah didn’t glance over her shoulder as she heard the crunch of boots upon the dirt. She only sighed and shook her head slightly. To her surprise Varmond was not lashing out at her. He didn’t berate her for leaving the table. There were no lashings. She drew her brows together slightly as his words sank in, he understood her grief it seemed. She took in a breath as she felt his presence kneel behind her. Her jaw loosened slightly to his next words. “A gift?” She asked, her voice still trembled slightly. “The favor that I wish to ask of you is not something that can be changed.” Azariah fumbled with her hands slightly as she looked down over the ocean. “I would never ask you to change the will of the gods...it is disrespectful to them and thus we would forever feel their wrath upon us. To anger the gods when Skadi has blessed this day...our wedding day with warmth.” She shook her head.

Azariah turned slightly, just enough so she could look into his eyes. “Promise me that you’ll make his death quick, Tyr does not deserve to suffer and...” She grit her teeth slightly. “The blood eagle is one of the most trying things a warrior may go through to gain access to Valhalla. He believes he has failed the gods.” She sighed at the end. “I believe that is why he has made this decision. He believes he has failed me as well.” She looked away then as she let out a soft laugh. “As a child you see the world through such innocent eyes, you make a fairytale of your life and what it will be.” She ran her thumb over the band that she wore around her wrist. “At a young age Tyr promised to protect me. He has been at my side in battle...his loss of the gauntlet weighs heavily upon his soul.” Azariah slowly stood. She offered her hands to Varmond. She ran her thumbs along the backs of his weathered hands as she let out a trembling breath. She gazed up into his eyes for a long moment. “It is you who must protect me now.” She took in a breath as she released his hands and she turned once again to the ocean, her arms hugged over her body as she fought against the corset to breathe. “Odin visited me in my dreams last night after the shaman cleansed my soul.” She spoke softly, changing the subject. “He spoke of his blessing, after the ritual is complete...” She stared at the water, remembering how it felt to drown in the icy depths of the lake that Odin had spoken to her on. “I do not know what to expect, Varmond...” She glanced to him with a soft expression. “I trust in the gods but, I am terrified...this moment that the entire city has been waiting on...” She bit her lower lip. “What if it is not as grand as everyone seems to think it to be?” She fell quiet then as she watched the waves crash below.
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#24

Varmod simply listened to Azariah as she spoke and when she asked for him to make Tyr's suffering quick the corners of his mouth turned down slightly in a frown. The request an admirable one but at the same time the ritual was meant to be a trial. Criminals and volunteers were put to the ultimate test to prove they were a true warrior worthy of sitting at Odin's side in Valhalla. Asking for Varmod to end his pain quickly was like getting a free pass and he wasn't sure Odin would accept those terms. However, he had promised her that he would fulfill one promise, and he would keep his word. "I will do my best to ensure his suffering is as short as possible."

When Azariah spoke of a vision concerning the gift bestowed upon her Varmod tilted his head every so slightly as his interest was peaked. So even she didn't know the extend of her gift which was a surprise. He had thought that out of everyone she would know her own gift, but it seemed Odin wanted to play some games as well. He chuckled when she spoke of being afraid of what would happen after the ritual. "Only a fool would be completely confident when the gods are meddling in their lives." He told her. "I wouldn't worry to much though. Your gift was given by Odin, not Loki, and I think that the wise god has a very good reason for giving you whatever gift it is he bestowed upon you." He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and gently pulled her body against his as an act of reassurance.




On the other side of Whitlock the sound of a horn could be heard to alert every citizen that the Shaman was preparing the site for the ritual. It had to be cleansed and attuned so that the gods would accept the sacrifice. Varmod's jaw tightened slightly when he heard the horn as he thought about what he would have to do before the whole city. Tyr only had a matter of hours to live and he would be the one to send him on his way to Valhalla, just like so many others. "Come, Princess." He told her and placed a hand on her shoulder to pull her away from the outlook and direct her back inland. "We must return to the Great Hall to prepare." 

Just as he turned away from the ocean he heard the sound of thunder off in the distance and when he turned to look back out over the water he could see dark clouds out on the horizon. "It seemed Skadi intends to release her full fury on us once more at the conclusion of the ritual. Perhaps you should ensure that everyone is prepared for ice and snow?" She would get a better response from the people than he would, even if it were only a friendly warning to guard themselves against the weather.
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#25
Azariah drew her brows together slightly when Varmond frowned. A sigh escaped her lips, though he said he would try to lessen Tyr’s suffering, the frown did not reinforce the words that he spoke. A soft smile turned up her lips as he spoke of her gift. She even let out a soft chuckle, “At least I have been blessed with Odin’s gift, you are right. If it were Loki who knows what would happen. I may as well turn into an ogre over night.” She grinned at Varmond, “What a trick that would be hm? Marry a woman whom you think is beautiful only to find out that I am a disgusting monster after I have been given my gift.” She laughed once more before she looked toward the city. “At least you don’t have to worry about that, I am more worried about being overcome by the gift than anything. You must ground me Varmond, that is your responsibilty, yes?” She glanced up to him a long moment, “My husband is to protect me, at least that is what my mother has always told me. Even if he is protecting me from myself.” She laced her arm through his as they walked back toward the city. She looked toward the imminent dark clouds in the distance, “Skadi is always at play this time of year.” She raised a brow, “It would not surprise me if we were to receive several feet of snow. It is surprising that she has allowed us such a warm day for the ritual, a true sign that even Skadi herself agreed with the ceremony, as well as the one to be sacrificed to the blood ritual.”

A sigh escaped over her lips when she mentioned the blood ritual once more, her mind played over Tyr. Her history with him was extensive. She knew him better than nearly anyone in this city, even her own brother whom she clearly had her quarrels with. Azariah tightened her grip slightly, her fingers curled around Varmond’s arm a bit more. She knew the people of Whitlock didn’t trust the savage next to her, and she was having a hard time finding trust in him as well. Some of his actions spoke highly of him, but then he would contradict himself. Such as his speech that was given. Possibly it was something he would have to learn. A way to communicate with the people of Whitlock so not to come across as a savage. Unless he preferred it, which he seemed to prefer such a reputation.

As they stepped into the town she glanced about to the eyes that followed them, a few would smile to the princess and a few still held wary looks toward the couple. Azariah’s eyes fell upon Tyr whom was in a drunken stupor. Her brows drew together slightly. “You’ll have to excuse me, Varmond.” She spoke as she released his arm.

The princess walked toward Tyr, a few of the citizens of Whitlock hastily moved from her path. Tyr leaned against the side of the pub, a mug of ale in hand, his eyes lazy as he glanced up toward her. “Azariah.” He spoke, his speech slurred.

“What are you doing Tyr?” Azariah asked as she stood before him, her expression concerned. “Do you intend to drown yourself before the ritual? Do you think that Odin would see that as honorable? For a warrior such as yourself to beg for entrance into Valhalla in such a manner.”

“You speak as if you know what Odin would want.” Tyr glanced up to her with his drunken blue eyes.

Azariah raised her brows, “Tyr...no one can truly know the will of the gods unless it is the Oracle. Hm?” She crossed her arms slightly, taken aback by his response to her.

Tyr chuckled as he stood, he staggered slightly as he managed to get his weight leaned against his makeshift crutch. “Well, well.” He spoke as he reached his arm forward and grasped upon her shoulder. “So you don’t know Odin’s will, do you?” He was inches from her face, his breath smelled heavily of ale. “Aren’t you supposed to have Odin’s gift, princess?” His words were cruel. “Or is that just a lie from the Oracle? What is the will of the gods hm?”

Azariah stared to him shocked that he would say such things. What was he doing? Her breath shook as she tried to muster words. She drew her brows together finally. “I pray that Odin wills you to enter his paradise and that Hela does not welcome you with open arms, Tyr. To say such things about the gods, on a day that you have chosen to sacrifice yourself….” She scoffed as she brushed his hand from her shoulder. “How dare you, Tyr.” Her voice was full of authority, full of anger. “If Odin finds it in his will to allow you into Valhalla consider yourself blessed.” She stepped away from him and shook her head.

By this point several of those of Whitlock had arrived to view the spectacle. A few splashed their ale upon Tyr as Azariah stepped from him, her expression clearly hurt. She glanced once again to the dark clouds in the distance. Perhaps Skadi was angry because of Tyr’s actions? Thunder rumbled in the distance as well. Thor was hitting his hammer upon the anvil...it was clear that the gods had been angered.

Azariah took in a breath, “Prepare for the storm that Tyr has brought upon us, the gods are angry with not only him, but us as a whole for allowing such words to be spoken.” She grasped Varmond’s arm before she led him back toward the feast hall. Her breaths shook as she fought back the urge to cry, she couldn’t believe such words had been spoken by Tyr. In all the years she knew him...did she truly know him? The man that stood next to her seemed more of an honorable warrior that Tyr. Especially now. Though this in any case would help Varmond’s standing with the princess, and possibly the standing with the people of Whitlock when the ritual was performed on such a traitor as the people would now see Tyr.
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