Disclaimer: I don't own Vikings. I make no money from any of this.
Ragnar followed behind his brother Rollo and his brother's friends as they walked through the woods outside of Kattegat. The older boys already had their arm rings; Ragnar was a year or two away from receiving his.
"You should be glad we let you come along with us," Rollo had told him smugly. He never missed the opportunity to tell his younger brother what to do. Ragnar took it all with equanimity, secretly believing that one day their roles would be reversed.
Eventually the group came to a small clearing. "This is the place I was telling you about," said Rollo, pointing to a somewhat dilapidated hut that stood in the middle of the open space. "Why would someone live way out here with nothing but the trees for company?"
On closer inspection, it seemed as if someone was indeed living there. Faint tendrils of smoke rose up through the roof as if from an old cooking fire and there was a rabbit pelt drying on a rack by the door. But there were no indications that anyone was currently at home.
The boys crept closer, Ragnar right at the front. He was so intent on the mystery in front of him that he barely heard the whispers from those behind him. Suddenly, Ragnar felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned to see his brother smirking down on him.
"You think you are ready to get your arm ring, little brother?" asked Rollo. "Then go inside that hut and bring something back for us. A trophy. A cup, a bowl, something to prove your bravery. We dare you."
Those last words made Ragnar's decision for him, because he would never back down from a dare. After a brief glance back at his companions, he went up to the door and pushed it open.
Someone had obviously taken up residence in the hut. There was a pile of furs on a frame in the corner and a table with two chairs by the smoldering fire. A rude shelf attached to the wall held an assortment of herbs, most of which Ragnar did not recognize. The remains of a meal sat on the table, and Ragnar reached for the empty bowl.
Out of nowhere, Ragnar felt a strong hand clamp down on his wrist. He instinctively let out a yelp as he tried to pull his arm free.
"Are you alright in there?" That was Torstein, the one friend of Rollo's who seemed to actually like Ragnar rather than just tolerate him.
The strange man gripping Ragnar's arm raised his other hand briefly to Ragnar's mouth. "Shh," he whispered, shaking his head.
"I'm fine," called Ragnar. "I'm just looking around. I'll be out in a minute."
Ragnar finally freed his arm and looked at the man who had been holding it. He was wiry, skinny, and of no determinable age. Instead of the long hair and full beard favored by most Norsemen, his head and face were dotted with seemingly random tufts of hair. But the most striking thing about this odd apparition was his eyes. They were ringed in kohl like a woman's, with lines of kohl extending down the man's cheeks. The irises were the same color green as the trees outside the cabin, but when the man smiled they seemed to turn silver for just a moment.
The man was smiling now, suppressing a titter. "You owe me a bowl, Ragnar Lothbrok," he whispered in a strange, sing-song voice, indicating the item Ragnar still clutched in his hand.
"How do you know my name?" Ragnar replied, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
"Oh you would be surprised just how much I know. Now go, before your friends leave without you." With that, he shoved Ragnar, trophy in hand, toward the door. Before he went back outside, Ragnar turned for one last look at the man. The hut was empty. Had he imagined the whole thing?
A few days later, Ragnar was by himself in Kattegat. Rollo and his friends had deserted him when they went off in search of female companionship. Ragnar was glad of the opportunity to be by himself, and even happier when he came across the Earl's new bride.
"My lady," he said, dipping his head.
"Oh Ragnar, it's still me, Siggy," she replied with a smile.
Ragnar thought that the person in front of him, with her elaborately braided and decorated hair and fine clothes, did not resemble the Siggy who was at one time one of a group of girls that followed Rollo and his friends around.
"That may be, but you are still the wife of our Earl."
Siggy leaned close to Ragnar. "Will you give Rollo a message for me?"
"What is the message?" replied Ragnar, an expectant grin on his face.
"Tell Rollo that I will try to meet him tonight. He knows the place."
"Do you love him?"
"No, your new husband, the Earl."
Siggy looked down, unconsciously smoothing the rich fabric of her dress. "My parents made a good match for me. He's kind enough towards me and I suppose in time I will grow to love him." She looked up, smiling ruefully. "Rollo is a pleasant diversion for me, as I am to him. Will you give him the message?"
"Of course, if you will do something for me. I need a bowl from your hall."
"That's an odd request, but one easily granted. Go by the kitchens and tell one of the serving girls that I sent you." Siggy removed one of the ribbons from her hair and handed it to Ragnar. "Give her this so she will know you speak the truth. She will give you what you want."
With another dip of his head, Ragnar turned to leave.
"Don't forget to pass my message along," Siggy admonished.
Ragnar allowed himself a small sigh. Although he knew from his brother's boasting what the older boys did with girls, he was only starting to be interested himself. And he had yet to meet a girl that caught his eye. They all seemed too soft to him, like newborn lambs.
When Ragnar reached the clearing, it was deserted, except for the aroma of something cooking. He called out. "I'm here, and I brought you what you asked for." He heard nothing in reply but the singing of the birds overhead. Huffing in frustration he turned to leave, only to come face to face with the strange man.
"I see you've come back, Ragnar Lothbrok, but without your friends this time."
"They are my brother Rollo's friends."
"Ah, the one with the wolf in his eyes."
Ragnar had never heard Rollo described this way, but he immediately knew it was true.
Ragnar nodded. indicating his bare wrist. "They already have their arm rings,"
"Well then, I will be your friend, arm ring or no."
Ragnar tensed, taking a step back. He knew the kind of friendships some men cultivated with young boys. The man saw the look on Ragnar's face and raised his hands in protest.
"I'm interested in what's up here," he said, tapping Ragnar's head with a bony finger. "Not what's in your breeches."
Ragnar relaxed his shoulders. "If we're to be friends," he said with a half-smile. "You should at least tell me your name."
The man thought for a moment. "Floki, you can call me Floki." He giggled. "Now, let's see what you brought me."
Ragnar looked down at his hand. The conversation with this strange man had almost made him forget the purpose of his visit. He held the bowl out to Floki, who took it and immediately put it up to his mouth, biting down gently on the rim.
"This is gold," said Floki. "Where did you get it?"
"From the Earl's hall."
"And the Earl, is he also a friend of yours?"
"I doubt he even knows I exist. His wife is a friend of Rollo's."
"Ah, the inimitable Rollo. Do not fret, Ragnar Lothbrok. Someday your shadow will eclipse his." Ignoring the questioning look he got from Ragnar, Floki put the bowl into a pouch that hung at his waist. "Now you will come with me. I can use some help." And with that, Floki took off down a path through the woods, almost skipping as he went.
Ragnar at first thought to turn around and return to Kattegat, but his curiosity got the better of him. Soon he found himself standing next to Floki on the banks of a beck. Floki pointed to three large dark shapes half-submerged in the water.
"Do you know what those are?"
Ragnar looked more closely. "They look like trees."
"Yes, but do you know what is inside those trees? Masts!"
"What do you think I do here in the woods? I am a shipbuilder! The trees tell me which ones are to be masts, which are to be planking, and which are to be left alone. These will be masts for the boats I am making for your Earl."
"Why are they in the water?"
"They've been soaking here all through the winter. When they dry, they won't twist or bend or splinter. Now help me turn them over."
Floki proceeded to wade into the water and Ragnar followed. The trees were heavy, but the two men were able to roll them over.
"What would you do if I were not here to help you?" asked Ragnar.
"Oh, the gods would provide," answered Floki with a wink. "Now let's go dry off by the fire and have something to eat."
With that, Floki began to walk back up the path to his hut. Ragnar followed, his sodden boots leaving dark footprints on the forest floor. Looking ahead, he noticed that Floki was not wearing shoes.
Floki seemed almost dry when they reached the cabin, but Ragnar was still dripping wet. "Take your boots off, boy," instructed Floki. "And pour them out outside."
Ragnar did what he was told, and entered the hut in his bare feet. He found that Floki had already spooned some stew into two bowls. Ragnar saw that Floki was using the Earl's bowl for himself.
"I wonder, will this rabbit stew taste different eaten out of such a fine vessel?" asked Floki with a grin.
"I think it will still taste like rabbit stew," replied Ragnar with an amused smile.
Ragnar's smile left his face at Floki's next words.
"So tell me all about yourself, Ragnar Odinsson," he said.
"Why do you call me that?" Ragnar bristled as much as he could with a mouth full of food. He swallowed, and glared across the table. Instead of the mocking expression he expected to see, Floki was smiling kindly.
"Isn't that who you are?"
"My mother was gotten with child when her husband was away on the summer raids. When I was born, she said Odin had come to her bed and fathered me. Most people did not believe her,"
"And do you believe her?"
"My mother is not a whore." Ragnar's blue eyes flashed in warning.
"Of course not. But I ask again, do you truly believe you are the son of Odin?"
Ragnar's shoulders slumped. "I do, even though I have been told it's not possible. I feel his presence inside me."
"And if the Allfather could grant you a wish, what would you ask for? Gold? Power? Women?" Loki smirked at that last word.
Ragnar did not even pause for a moment before answering. "None of those things, A drink from Mímisbrunnr, even if it meant pledging as Odin did."
Floki reached across the table and took Ragnar's chin in his hand. "That would be a shame," he murmured. "Your eyes are very much like your brother's."
"My eyes are nothing like Rollo's," protested Ragnar. "His are brown and mine are….." He suddenly shook his head free from Floki's grip.
"I know who you are," Ragnar whispered.
Floki laughed. "I am Floki, the shipwright. Who else would I be? Now," he said, pointing to the bowl in front of Ragnar. "Finish your stew, so you will grow big and strong….like your brother."
Two ravens rose unnoticed from atop a tree in the clearing.