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Chapter 1: I Love You More Than Life Itself
Chapter One - I Love You More Than Life Itself
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On the day that Godric Gryffindor was born, Leif Ravenclaw had to make the toughest decision of his life. He sat huddled with a few of his strongest men, his hunting gang, in an old tavern to escape the winter’s treacherous weather. It was indeed, as the peasant women whispered, the coldest winter ever. The three men were his oldest friends; Rolf Brodersen, Bjorn Fjerstad and Haakon Magnussen and each of them had nearly drunk the tavern out of all the alcohol the owner possessed. The buxom barmaid Elisa had laden them with so much drink that Rolf and Bjorn were both on the brink of drunkenness and were slurring their words so they were incoherent. It could be said that Haakon, the youngest of the four, was nearly paralytic. Leif however could keep his ale and so was sober, and his mind was totally free.
While his men downed their beer and chortled loudly Leif listened to the snow outside. It swirled around the aging tavern, making the building groan and shake right to its foundations. He could hear trees being whipped around and was thankful for the roaring fire to keep him warm. Leif watched as Elisa walked towards the table, her hips swaying seductively as she walked, her wooden tray laden with more beer and ale. The men pulled the flagons of ale off the tray hungrily, almost knocking poor Elisa over, until Leif roared loudly,
“Show some courtesy to a lady you dogs!” The three men burst into laughter at their old friend and began to drink regardless, ignoring the disconcerted looking Elisa. After shaking her head at his friends Elisa simpered girlishly at Leif’s last statement, running her thin fingers through her long flaxen hair. Bjorn wolf whistled lewdly but Elisa just ignored him, and she kept her deep blue eyes on Leif as she gave him a deep, respectful curtsey.
“Thank you my lord,” she whispered breathlessly, batting her long eyelashes furiously “it is so nice to know you look after your people.” Leif smiled to himself. He was the Jarl of Svalbard and that meant on top of being fabulously wealthy and having a large amount of power, all the best women fell at your feet. Elisa was considered a local beauty, and was now a wealthy widow after her husband died last winter. Many of the townsmen were trying to ensnare her heart to land their grubby peasant’s hands on the tavern.
“That’s okay Elisa,” he smiled as she leant in close. He could smell her soft skin; it smelt distinctly of the ale that she willingly served to all the men who were customers at her infamous tavern, the Wolf’s Den. Using one of her pale hands she tenderly stroked dark tendrils of his hair out of his bright green eyes that were the colour of emeralds and kissed his pale forehead, as only a lover can. Elisa was a strong woman and knew what she wanted, and tried every opportunity to become closer to the Jarl, and she was a ridiculous flirt. Leif however pushed her away and emotionlessly told her to get more drinks, at which she nodded happily and returned to the bar which was heaving with interested customers, buzzing around like insects over a dead wolf’s carcass.
Leif’s men roared with laughter and one by one the three of them slapped their leader on one of his muscular shoulders, failing to even hurt him at all. Leif was a colossal six foot five and towered over every other man and easily resembled the warrior kings heralded and worshipped in the legendary Valhalla. Bjorn hiccupped rather loudly and then brushed his white blonde hair out of his own large blue eyes taking another swig out of his flagon, draining it dry. In his drunken stupor he lazily pointed a stubby finger into Leif’s handsome face and slurred loudly,
“Good decision, you can’t go sleeping with easy women when your noble wife is nine months pregnant!” Leif laughed heartily and returned to drinking his ale, his friends knowing that he liked women, and there was no way his wife’s pregnancy would stop him going after the pretty girls that regularly threw themselves at his feet. He winked at a serving girl hurriedly cleaning the next table along which made her blush furiously, and avert her terrified eyes. His friends again roared with drunken laughter at which Leif joined them, wiping his long black beard clean of the drink.
A flash of light illuminated the little tavern from the lightning outside, accompanied by a loud bang as the door of the tavern swung open violently revealing a burly figure dressed in some of the most expensive wolf skin. The customers of the tavern swung round to gaze at the intimidating presence of the man who had just entered into their lives. It took Leif less than a second to recognise his brother in arms, the brave Henrik.
“Leif!” he spluttered, his blonde hair wet with the icy snow, bounding towards Leif like a dog “your lady wife, you must come quickly, she has gone into labour!” There was a moment when the whole tavern watched Leif silently, holding their breaths tantalisingly. Leif reacted suddenly by standing up quickly, knocking the table flying to the whole tavern’s loud wild clapping. Tonight was the night that Leif became a father and fulfilled his own father’s wish for him. Majestically, he ordered Rolf to get their furs from the tavern’s cupboard as he went and embraced Henrik in a friendly manner, shouting in triumph at his own fertility as the whole tavern began erupting with joy. People were clapping and hugging each other, some were shouting, others muttering silent prayers.
“A whole round on me!” Leif cried as he began to dance around clapping each man on the back. Several men began to sing a drunken song about pregnant women and Leif and Haakon began to dance a strange jig. He briefly peered at Elisa who gave him a warm smile to match the roaring fire, shouting him muffled congratulations he could not hear through all the noise. Henrik and Bjorn were busy giving him well intentioned advice as they were both fathers and had several noisy children to contend with. Leif swelled with inner pride of the thought of his impending fatherhood and felt happy that he had finally produced an heir, so maybe, just maybe, the world would let him leave his wife to be with the woman he knew he should have married a long time ago.
Elisa began serving more customers, weary travellers laden with goods for tomorrow’s market muttering at the Jarl’s success, drunks that had no will to live who were reminiscing the old days and people just wanting a room for the night. Tonight, however, had been mainly focussed on the Jarl who had come back from a day of hunting and given her one of the caribou they had captured for free. Elisa thought Leif Ravenclaw made a very good Jarl and was glad to see him so content in her dead husband’s tavern.
There was a gentle tap on Elisa’s shoulder and she pivoted on the spot to see who it was. It was the serving girl, Gunnhild, who worked in the tavern and rented a room in Elisa’s own house. She stood there, her face grave and hollow with shadows. Gunnhild was a plain girl with dishwater coloured hair and no curves but she worked incredibly hard, and for that, Elisa was incredibly thankful. Gunnhild looked at her cheap wooden clogs for a moment, then back into Elisa eyes.
“M’am,” she began her voice sickly sweet and barely a whisper “There was a messenger come in the back door; she says he wishes to see the Jarl. She says it’s urgent.” Gunnhild gave Elisa the little nod of the head that showed her everything she needed to know. Now was the time for Elisa to protect her good friend Alfhild from the horrors of a structured society. Elisa nodded quickly and demanded that Gunnhild stay in the back while she went a told the Jarl. The girl nodded sweetly, and returned to the back room, taking one rapid look at the Jarl who was now standing in the corner, his face flushed with happiness.
Elisa wove through the crowd, giving polite nods and a push to any drunken men who tried to make a grab for her, making her way towards Leif who was watching Bjorn dance with Old Magnus the Drunk. Elisa watched Leif sadly, distressed that she was about to ruin his sublime happiness, perhaps forever. She slipped silently past the gaudy celebrations until she reached Leif, and quickly took his large hand in hers, at which he turned to her, his face dancing with a curious expression. In the most secretive and quiet tone she could manage she whispered,
“My lord, there is a messenger for you in the back room.” Leif widened his eyes in shock as he began to straighten himself out. He was about to leave to see his wife, and this was evidently not the most opportune moment to deal with what he supposed to be a travelling salesman. Elisa watched him cautiously waiting for a reply. He put his hand on the hilt of his ruby encrusted sword and then used the same tone she had used to give a hushed reply,
“Can’t it wait?” Elisa shook her head nervously, looking over her shoulder at the celebrating revellers to make sure no one was watching. She did not want one of the Lady Mikayla’s men to witness this. She was looking for the flash of silver embroidered on the men’s tunics to see if any of them would betray her, but it seemed as if the coast was clear. Elisa turned cautiously back to the Jarl shaking her pretty blonde head in fear and sadness,
“She says it’s urgent,” Elisa said giving Leif the same nod that Gunnhild had given her. The Jarl cracked a smile as he breathed heavily, evidently realising what a terrible misfortune he was just suffering. Elisa swore he muttered “the God’s have it in for me” but then he shook his great shaggy head worriedly and gazed round the little tavern as he lowered his gruff voice to barely an audible squeak,
“Have you served anyone tonight wearing my wife’s insignia?” Elisa shook her head purposefully and warmly took his arm, willing herself not to hold his hand as she led Leif to the quiet of the back room, trying to drawn as little attention to the imposing Jarl as it was possible to do. When the drunks were looking away, they crept inside the little back room that Elisa used to store barrels of her best wine, to see the tired looking Gunnhild standing with a trembling maid from the Jarl’s castle who Elisa believed was the blacksmith’s youngest daughter, a pretty girl called Kristine. She was a fair girl with icy blue eyes but she seemed absolutely terrified at the mission that had secretly been entrusted to her – collecting the Jarl.
“My lord,” she began, tears in her scared eyes, “I’m sorry this is tonight, it is more dangerous than ever because it is this day, Lady Mikayla’s men were following me in town but I believe I shook them off.” She paused for a moment at which point Elisa nodded quickly, bidding her to continue, ”But I am here to inform you that Alfhild Gryffindor is giving birth.” The room descended into silence, as the three women turned their eyes to the trembling Jarl, but his stony voice, devoid of the usual warmth it usually held, cracked over it.
“So you mean, tonight is the night I must choose between duty to my wife, my heir and my country and the love of my life and my heart’s true desire.” Elisa, Gunnhild and Kristine were shocked at his frankness, and for a moment none of them moved for the impact of the Jarl’s words. Finally Kristine began to nod silently, wiping the large tears from her eyes, begging for an apology. The Jarl had tears in his green eyes too, and it seemed very soon he would be sobbing, but Elisa walked up to him in an attempt to get him back to his senses.
“I know I am biased in this as Alfhild is like a sister to me, well closer than a sister,” she began wiping Leif’s tears away with a handkerchief from her apron, “but you must decide. The Lady Mikayla is offering you immortality. She is offering you a dynasty with you at the head, and is offering you your name in history, recalled forever.” She paused for a moment seeing if her words had any effect, “Alfhild on the other hand is offering you the son you’ve always wanted, her son. She’s offering you a family.” Elisa watched as the Jarl put his head in his hands and then his body shook with violent sobs, his head falling onto Elisa’s shoulder, his tears running into her hair.
“Why on the same night? Why must my two children be born on the same night?” Elisa patted his broad back with one hand. Elisa gazed over the Jarl’s shoulder as Gunnhild gave Elisa a surreptitious nod and returned to the bar, not taking one more look at the sobbing Jarl. After the door had slammed shut, Elisa patted Leif’s shoulder and ran her fingers through his dark hair, but then made up her mind and pushed his hulking body away. At the sudden mothion he opened his mouth in shock.
“You must be a man Leif,” she said as Kristine moved to stand next to her, nodding along with Elisa’s noble sentiments, “Both Mikayla and Alfhild are in pain and both need you tonight. Mikayla needs you as the Jarl; Alfhild needs you as a lover. I cannot make that choice for you Leif.” Elisa took his hands in hers as she kissed him tenderly, “I’ve always hoped you’d love me, but I, and the rest of the kingdom, know you are will never be able to love anyone else other than Alfhild. But you must not use that love to make your decision, you must choose which child you want most.”
“I don’t...” Leif stuttered as he began to pace around the room wringing his hands in distress. Kristine stood quietly in the corner, wanting nothing more than to return to the warmth of her room and curl up in the corner. Elisa still strolled around Leif willing him to make the decision, the repercussions of which would resonate for years Elisa was sure. If Leif chose Alfhild, he would be resented by his wife and maybe even his unborn heir. On the other hand, if he chose Mikayla, he would lose the love of his life forever. Leif stopped dead still, mopping his mane of black hair out of his face; it was evident to Elisa that Leif had made his decision.
“I need Mikayla’s baby to make my hold on the Jarldom stronger,” he said, slowly walking towards Kristine, comprehension dawning on his face, “but I want Alfhild’s baby as a man.” Elisa’s eyes widened in shock, in her opinion he had entirely made the wrong decision. In the long run it would be better for him if he left the Muggleborn and her baby and continued his family with his pureblood wife.
“Leif, think about this,” Elisa began, her voice tinted with panic. She grabbed his arm fiercely to stop him moving away and spat with a venom that was lodged deep inside all purebloods, “You don’t even know if the child will be magical,” Leif looked at her in hurt confusion at which she began, “you know that Alfhild’s parents were Muggles. You also know that Mikayla’s parents are two of the most skilled wizards sent to Camelot Court ever.” Leif angrily shook her arm off and bowled towards Kristine, grabbing her delicate hand.
“I’m coming with you,” he said to her menacingly at which point she gave a trembling nod and turned to leave into the icy wind through the back room door, “no matter what you say Elisa. I love Alfhild, and nothing can stop that.” Leif suddenly realised he did not have his furs, but instantly decided that Alfhild was in pain giving birth to his child so he should suffer too by going through the cold in his drinking clothes.
“Elisa, go and tell Henrik that I’ve already left to see my wife,” he said gruffily as he beckoned Kristine to leave the little tavern. When Kristine obliged he followed her soundlessly, leaving Elisa standing silently in the back room, among the barrels of her most expensive wine. She sighed gently and then swung open the door to the tavern, and making her way over to Henrik. It did not matter to Elisa whether Leif loved her or not, she would always love him, and would carry out whatever he asked of her.
The snow battered Alfhild’s full figure as she staggered through the deserted streets around the Jarl’s formidable castle. Ice hung in her fiery red hair and her hazel eyes shone with determination. Of all the nights she spent in Leif’s arms she despaired at the thought that on the black evening she gave birth to his child, she was left to die like an animal on the cold streets. She hadn’t even been offered a warm room at Elisa’s tavern by either Elisa, her supposed closest friend, or her lover the Jarl. Just because she was penniless nobody cared whether she lived or died on the street, isolated from the warm fires in people’s homes.
She had grown up side by side with the Jarl, they used to play together in the magical private gardens and used to always pretend that they were husband and wife, and Leif a famed knight. It had been a common sight in the grounds of the castle to see a dark haired boy and a red head girl skipping in the courtyard. Alfhild had been taken in by Leif’s kind late father when he discovered her innate extraordinary powers on the tragic day of her parent’s death. He had treated her like an equal to his own son and she had learnt her magic together with Leif. It had seemed inevitable, like a predestined path that a passionate relationship would occur between the handsome biological only son of the powerful Jarl, and the pretty young ward, an orphan with no magical ancestry. Servants recalled, in moments of nostalgia arranging secret meetings in the castle grounds between the handsome young couple.
The Jarl’s father had secured her a job as the medicine woman to the city, and the people had adored her, and she adored her work. She used her knowledge of magic, especially potion making to care for the cities many citizens. Through the time when Leif became engaged and married to the Lady Mikayla her job was the only thing that kept her waking up in the morning’s. It had all changed since the Jarl’s father had died however, as Lady Mikayla pressured her weak willed husband to banish his love from the court, in a fit of jealous rage, leaving Alfhild jobless and penniless. Where could a Muggleborn ever find work in a Wizarding city if she wasn’t a whore?
Alfhild was made of sterner stuff than Leif however. She was resilient and ploughed on through the snow and ice for the sake of her unborn child. Her waters had broken, and she knew she, and her child would die if she gave birth to him amongst the snow on the street. Alfhild knew in her heart she would get to the castle, and be reunited with the man she loved, Jarl Leif. Alfhild hoped she would be welcomed as she had made a few friends amongst the winding passages of the castle and she was sure one of them would get a message to Leif of the impending birth. Then he could never turn her away, or their child, he would remember his love for her and realise how much he missed her. Lady Mikayla would never be able to hurt her again.
On she went, dragging her bare feet through the snow until she reached the castle courtyard. This led to all the servants’ quarters and houses. She was sure she would be able to find some help amongst the down to earth kitchen workers, especially as she had saved most of them from death several winters ago. Her body contorted with pain as another contraction came. She did not have enough strength to stagger onwards for much longer, so when she reached the old oak door leading to the kitchen she slumped to the floor and with both arms used all her remaining energy to bang on the ancient oak door.
The door opened and the sound resonated through the empty courtyard through the silence of the snow. Alfhild looked up into the bright light streaming from the kitchen to see a rather rotund woman in a rough woollen dress looking down at her. Her mouth was full of meat from dinner, obviously a gift from the generous Jarl. The woman spluttered but then managed to shout to the other workers in the kitchen,
“Ingrid! Alfhild has returned home!” Alfhild fell to the ground, her thin dress soaked from the snow at which a woman with bony features ran to stand next to the rotund woman and they both lifted the exhausted Alfhild into the warmth of the kitchen. The heat was intoxicating and Alfhild willed herself to stay awake, even though she was starved, exhausted and freezing she was not going to die, her child needed her. Without her, Alfhild was sure the baby would be devoured by Lady Mikayla’s insatiable hatred and jealousy.
“Kristine, clear the table girl,” Ingrid cried. A terrified looking girl eating some bread dropped what remained of her crust and leapt up and cleared the table of all the wooden bowls and cutlery laying clumsily there from dinner. Alfhild was laid unceremoniously upon the dirty table as she screamed as another contraction came. “Brigitta, the baby is coming soon. Kristine go and fetch the Jarl!” Ingrid thundered as Kristine scuttled from the room, exiting from the door that Alfhild had just entered from.
For two painful hours Alfhild pushed, being coaxed along by Brigitta and Ingrid. The pain was excruciating and Alfhild cried silvery tears that fell down her cheeks like the rain. In the warmth of the fire she got more energy and she pushed for her life, hoping and praying that Kristine would reach Leif in time for him to be there for the baby. Her mind whirled with thoughts of her own family she had lost so very long ago, and the idea that she could as loving mother as her own mother had been spurned her onwards. At thought the door opened to reveal Kristine and Leif, both covered with snow, Leif’s man of hair plastered to his head. His face was red with cold, but his warm smile shone brightly through the dim light of the kitchen fire.
“Oh, Alfhild I’m so sorry!” he sobbed kneeling next to her and clasping one of her delicate hands. Alfhild’s heart glowed in triumph; Leif loved her and had travelled back to the castle to see her. He kissed her sweating brow and his beard tickled her face. Leif presence gave her the will to continue pushing for their love and the family they would have together.
Within five minutes of Leif’s arrival the baby was born. The little boy had flaming red hair like his mother and green eyes like emeralds that were his fathers. Alfhild held the little boy in her arms as Leif looked at him, holding Alfhild’s smooth shoulders. He kissed the top of her head and then promised her he’d never leave her again and they could be a family together. He promised to love and care for her, and raise the baby as his son. Alfhild hoped Leif would keep his promises, she highly doubted he would. He was weak willed, and Alfhild was sure that the heartless Lady Mikayla would get her own way in the end.
“I want to name him Godric after my father,” whispered Leif, stroking the little boy’s red head. Alfhild nodded in agreement. They both loved Godric, the old Jarl, and they both instantly knew what the baby was to be called. Alfhild secretly hoped her son was like Godric Ravenclaw, more than his own father, as Godric had been brave, noble and just. Brigitta and Ingrid cooed over the little boy and agreed with the name choice.
“Mikayla was also giving birth tonight,” whispered Godric, trying not to scare Alfhild, “it will be dangerous for you as she will be full of hate, but I couldn’t leave you Alfhild,” Alfhild broke into a smile as he continued, “I love you more than life itself.”
Mikayla had cried far too much that night. As the sun rose she was still crying. The tears mingled with her hair and drenched her dress but she still cried. Not with sadness that her husband had abandoned her in her time of need, but with a burning anger that would incinerate anyone who came close. He had chosen some adolescent fancy rather than his own wife. The girl was scum, and the jealousy filled Mikayla’s body and heart. She was not even caring about her son, who she had instantly named Harald after her own father. Mikayla had decided in her anger if Leif was not there for the birth he could not partake in the name giving. Harald was being held by his wet nurse, another nameless servant to Mikayla. The only emotion that consumed Mikayla’s heart was jealousy.
She had first met Leif a year before their marriage and had instantly fallen in love with him, and she knew he belonged totally and only to her. In the early days he had been sweet and attentive, but his attention had waned, and ultimately died after the news broke of her pregnancy. Mikayla did not quite understand what she had done to turn him so cold. She was as beautiful and unobtainable as ever, with her midnight black hair and dark eyes, totally unheard of in Svalbard.
“M’lady,” murmured the wet nurse, “do you want to hold Harald?” Mikayla shook her head and let the tears roll down her cheeks. Harald’s father was as distant to her as the moon was, and her son would only remind her of her great loss. She had banished Alfhild from the court, ruined her chance of getting a job and left her nothing more than a penniless beggar, but Leif had returned to her, like a puppy to its owner. She had ordered her men to search the city for her when she discovered the girl’s pregnancy and put her to death, but the girl had survived and was now safe in Leif’s arms. Mikayla cried with the injustice of it all, after all, she loved Leif more than life itself, and she had lost him.