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In Old Norse culture, love stories were called ‘maidensongs’ and they were actually forbidden in some regions. They were seen as stories too powerful to tell because love was the most powerful thing in Midgard (the Viking word for our world. It roughly translates to Middle Earth. Hello, Tolkien!)
I’m sharing a bit more from MaidenSong today. If you haven’t been following the blog and need to catch up, here’s the IQ test. Follow these links to read what comes before this excerpt:
Chapter 1-First scene
Ready to go forward? Here’s the rest of Chapter 1.
“I suppose you call yourself a hero and imagine a saga will be composed about your exploits. All you are is a murderer and a thief,” Rika railed at Bjorn, hoping to shame him.
She knew baiting the man was foolhardy, but only her focused hatred of Bjorn the Black kept her on her feet. She couldn’t be silent. Words had always been her only weapon. White-hot rage boiled out of her, whether it was wise or not.
“Are there no more monasteries on the Isle of the Angles?” Her voice bordered on shrill. “No more fat Frankish towns for you to plunder that you must stoop to murder of your own kind?”
“If I were a murderer, your big friend here would be joining Magnus on his pyre,” Bjorn said with icy calm. “I’ve done no murder. I did what had to be done. I lift my hand only against those who oppose me. And as for being a thief, it’s no theft to take back your own.”
When they reached the ship, Bjorn turned to face the smoldering village. The survivors huddled in miserable clumps.
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“People of Hordaland! We’ve fallen upon you because of your raid on Sognefjord last month.” His deep voice reverberated on the mountainside. “The Jarl of Sogna has a long arm. In his name, we’ve taken back the livestock that was stolen and punished the guilty. Don’t make the mistake of trying us again. The men of Sogna will not stand for it.”
Bjorn thrust his sword into its scabbard and bound a sniffling Ketil’s hands together with a leather strap. When he turned to tie Rika, she jerked away from him.
“Fine sentiments, Bjorn the Black.” She fired the words at him like arrows. “And what of the innocents you punished with the guilty?”
“I advise you to give me your hands, girl.” He met her frosty stare with one of his own. “And see you give me no further cause to bind your mouth as well.”
Rika clamped her lips together, giving him no excuse to gag her. She submitted to the leather strap Bjorn knotted around her wrists, glowering at him when he pulled it tight. Then Rika climbed into the swaying longship and hunkered near the prow. She wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and that dark-eyed fiend.
His crew bent to the work and hauled away. Once the vessel was far enough from land, they shipped the oars, locked the mast into place and hoisted the big square sail. A stiff breeze filled the woolen cloth and the ship came alive, lifting in the water despite its full load. The keel of the dragonship sliced through the gray swells, the waves dividing like the wings of an eagle on each side of the craft. It rode lightly on the sea, as though at any moment it might rise and take flight.
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Rika had always loved sailing with Ketil and Magnus in their little coracle, the sharp scent of the sea and the cries of gulls wheeling overhead. Her whole life had been one long voyage, interspersed with pleasurable stays as welcome guests. At Magnus’s side, she was greeted with something akin to awe. The old skald’s mantle was broad, easily covering his little family of foundlings. Even the lack-witted Ketil was sheltered under its protection.
Now that part of her life was at an end. In the prow of the dragonship where the sea spray would obscure them, she wept silent tears for the only father she’d ever known.
A few tears fell on her own behalf as well. Rika had tumbled from the high status position of the old skald’s daughter to the hopeless condition of a thrall. She was now the property of some faceless jarl and might expect even worse treatment than the captured livestock.
Ketil curled up beside her to sleep, as he often did in a rolling ship. His pale eyelashes quivered against his ruddy cheeks. Rika’s chest tightened. Ketil was so big and strong, though he had but a child’s heart and mind, easily hurt and confused. How could she hope to protect him in their new and bewildering circumstances? She had no idea, but she knew she must try. Right alongside her father’s tutelage in the lore and legends of the Norse people, Magnus had taught her loyalty.
Oh, Father! Why had she argued with him that morning? And over so trivial a thing. Magnus had insisted she try harder to memorize the Havamal, the sayings of Odin. The sagas of heroes were more to her taste than the homilies of the One-Eyed All-Father. Now she’d happily learn a thousand of them if she could only take back her harsh words.
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A prickle started at the nape of her neck and tingled down her spine. She turned to seek the source of her unease. At the far end of the dragonship, Bjorn the Black stared at her from his seat at the steering oar. She’d felt his eyes, hot and intrusive on her skin. They were darker than a bog and more menacing. She was forced to look away.
Rika was usually good at reading people. As a performer, she had to be. She’d seen desire in men’s eyes before, but this was different. She couldn’t decipher the meaning of his intense gaze. The dead stare of Bjorn the Black was more like the look of a wolf stalking a hapless kid who’d strayed too far from the rest of the flock. In spite of the sun on her shoulders, she shivered.
Surely someone in the settlement where they were bound would’ve heard Magnus perform. Perhaps they might also recognize her and Ketil. This whole misunderstanding could be laid to rest. She shot a glance from under her lashes at Bjorn, who now strained to keep his ship out of the pounding surf. Perhaps she’d even be able to charge him with murder before the Lawspeaker and demand a wergild for the life of her father. Someone must be held accountable for the death of so great a personage as Magnus, and Bjorn was clearly in charge of this murderous raid. With any luck, she’d even see the blackguard banished.
She swiped away her tears. Her lips flattened into a hard line, along with her resolve. Her dream of being recognized as a skald in her own right suddenly seemed a small matter indeed. But seeing justice done to the man responsible for her father’s death was the best reason she could think of to keep breathing.
The setting sun slid beyond the curve of the water. Before the brief twilight deepened into the short Scandinavian spring night, Bjorn ordered the flotilla to pull up as close to the land as the sailors dared. The cliffs were too steep to beach the armada for the night.
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Bjorn grappled with the heavy anchor stone and heaved it overboard. “Break out the nattmal, Jorand,” he said to the flaxen-haired youngest man on board.
As Jorand passed out the spartan meal of flat barley bread, dried fish and wrinkled cloudberries, Bjorn stepped around the crew to check on his captives.
“Hold up your hands and I’ll free you to eat,” he said to Rika.
Scowling, she lifted her hands to him, but said nothing. “What? No cutting remarks?” Bjorn cocked his head at her. “Out of insults already, I see. You must not be much of a skald after all.” He ignored Rika’s uplifted wrists and freed Ketil’s hands instead.
“Anything I might say would stir your wrath, Bjorn the Hero, vanquisher of defenseless women and unarmed old men.” Rika’s tone was smooth as butter, making her words all the more biting. “However, if it pleases the great jarl’s brother, I’ll compose a saga about his restoration of livestock to be remembered for the ages. You’ll be known as Bjorn the Boar-bringer, savior of lost pigs everywhere.”
When a couple of his crew chuckled, he silenced them with a frown.
She slid her gaze toward the sailors, who had erased the grins from their faces. “Ah! I see it is not only bound captives who must be careful with their mouths around you.”
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“Seems you’re giving no heed to yours, girl.” Bjorn knelt beside her and lowered his voice. “I don’t know why I should bother explaining it to you, but this was a matter of honor. What a man has, he must hold. If he won’t protect what’s his, he deserves to lose it. We couldn’t let the raid on our farmsteads stand. More would be lost than livestock the next time.”
“Ja,” she answered, dry-eyed and staring, the image of her father face down in the straw swimming before her. “More was definitely lost.”
Bjorn seemed to see the same grotesque vision. “It’s a sad day that sees Magnus Silver-Throat dead, if that’s indeed who he was. But you know as well as I that it’s something that couldn’t be undone. We all wear our fates around our necks like you wear that little hammer.”
He reached out a broad finger to stroke the amber pendant nestled in the slight indentation at the base of her throat. When she shrank from his touch, he pulled back his hand.
“The way of Magnus’s death was decided long ago,” Bjorn said. “It just happened that one of my men delivered it to him.”
Rika narrowed her eyes to slits. “And for that, I’ll never forgive you.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Bjorn said. “I’m only trying to untie your hands so you can eat in comfort.” He worked the knot free and pulled off her bonds.
“I’m surprised you trouble to feed us.” Rika rubbed her tingling wrists.
“If you’re weak or sickly, you’re of no use to the jarl. You’ll find I look out for all of my brother’s interests,” Bjorn said. “But perhaps I should warn you that Gunnar’s not as tolerant a man as I. If you irritate me, I’ll just bind your mouth.”
“What?” Rika’s eyes flashed. “Will the mighty jarl carve out my tongue and eat it with his herring and turnips for nattmal?”
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“No. Something much worse than that.” Bjorn handed her a generous portion of fish, bread and berries. “He’ll set the Dragon of Sogna on you. His wife, the Lady Astryd.”
This time, Bjorn’s crew laughed heartily and loud.
“No!” Ketil thrashed beside her in the dark. She wrapped her arms around him, trying to quiet him before he roused the wrath of any of the raiders snoring in their hudfats, the leather two-man sleeping sacks.
“Hush now, Ketil,” she whispered. “It’s just a dreyma.”
Ketil subsided into soft sobs, his great body still shuddering. “Don’t let it happen.”
She bit her lower lip, thinking he spoke of Magnus’s death and imagined it only a dream. “Some things can’t be helped,” she said softly. “Father is gone, and we can’t change it.”
He pulled back from her, blinking. “I know that. I just don’t want you to go, too. They’re trying to send you far away to a big, big city with a wall where the sun burns so hot. And they won’t let me go with you.”
“It’s only a dream.” She pressed her palms against both of his cheeks. “No one will separate us, brother. I won’t let them.”
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Even as she promised, she wondered whether she’d be able to keep her word. A thrall had no say in where she was sent, but Rika had no intention of remaining a slave. Almost in reflex, she put a hand to the amber hammer at her throat. If she’d been destined for servitude, surely Thor wouldn’t have allowed Magnus to save her from the icy water as an infant.
Magnus had always been Odin’s man. But even though the stoic All-Father was a favorite of skalds, Rika could never warm to him. From her birth, she’d belonged to Thor, whose passions burned white-hot and dissipated like fading lightning. Of all the gods in the Nordic pantheon, the Thunderer was the least capricious and cruel to his devotees, and judged most likely to save them in a tight spot.
This certainly qualified as a tight spot.
A fresh wind stirred the sea, sending its chilly breath rippling over them. Ketil shivered beside her. “I’m cold.”
“Here you are.” Rika pulled the green wool cape from her shoulders and tucked it around her brother. It wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
“Go back to sleep, Ketil.” She crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself against the wind. In a short while, his deep, even breathing told Rika that Ketil had slipped back into his childish slumber.
Ketil’s nightmare troubled her more than she wanted to admit. Magnus had been devoted to truth-telling above all else, so he was never evasive about how she’d come to be his daughter. He told Rika that one of Ketil’s dreams had led them to the precise spot where she’d been abandoned on the ice. Her brother hadn’t had another episode of prescience since then, so Rika discounted the tale as the fancies of a doting father with a vivid imagination. Now with Ketil’s dreyma of a looming separation, she wondered.
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The moon rose, cold and distant, over the steep cliffs and crashing surf. The silvery light was just bright enough for Rika to make out Bjorn the Black in his leather sleeping sack by the steering oar. The man’s eyes flashed at her, fiery and threatening, like the feral predator she knew him to be. When he stood and walked toward her carrying his hudfat, her shivering had nothing to do with the wind.
“Get in.” He stepped into the bag and held it open for her.
She glared up at him. “I’ll tie loom stones around my neck and drown myself before I become your bed-slave.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to rut you,” Bjorn said. “Not in a bobbing longship with two dozen other men around.”
When she still didn’t budge, his lips twitched, whether with irritation or amusement, Rika couldn’t be sure.
“Rape isn’t to my taste,” he explained. “I prefer my women willing and a good bit cleaner than you are at the moment, little she-wolf.” He stroked a patch of dried mud from her cheek.
It was spring, but the breeze sliding over her felt more like winter’s icy breath. Rika didn’t want him to see her quiver, but she couldn’t help herself.
“There’s no profit to you to spite me in this,” he said. “I only want to see you warm, I swear it.”
Her chattering teeth decided the matter and she climbed into the supple leather sack with the black Viking. The hudfat was designed for sharing bodily warmth so she stopped shivering in only a few moments. The big man seemed to radiate as much heat as a roaring central fire in a longhouse.
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Earlier, he’d removed his mail shirt and the bloodstained tunic beneath it, leaving him smelling only of fresh sea air, tinged with honest male sweat. It was a strangely comforting combination. Even though he was her enemy, his warmth made Rika drowsy. She settled back against his chest as she sank toward exhausted sleep.
“Why did you do that?” his voice rumbled in her ear.
Every hair on her body stood at full attention. She should’ve known better than to trust him enough to climb into the hudfat with him..
“I was cold. You promised only to warm me,” she reminded him. “Nothing else could lure me into your bed.”
He snorted. “There are those who could assure you that my bed is not such an odious fate, but that’s not what I meant.” Bjorn jerked his head toward Ketil. “I know you were cold. Why did you give him your cloak?”
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“He’s my brother,” Rika answered simply. “We share everything. That’s what families do.”
“Very touching.” His voice was hard. “But not very practical when there’s only one cloak.”
She turned to look at him. The lines and planes of his face were as stony as the granite cliffs they sheltered under. “Wouldn’t you share a cloak with your brother?”
Bjorn’s dark eyes flickered down at her and then back up to scan the sea again. “No. My brother would just take the cloak.”
Like it? Be sure to come back tomorrow for the next installment of Maidensong. Or if you just can’t wait, order it today! ;-)