Strian (Viking Glory Book 4), page 20
“Your man is awfully protective of a woman who has always claimed not to need a man.”
“Can you blame him after waiting for ten years? Whether I need him doesn’t matter since I want him.”
“So you have decided after all these years to once more be a Norsewoman. You gave up trying to leave us early in your time here. Now suddenly, you abandon the people you claimed were yours?”
“You know why I stayed. You forced me.”
“We did no such thing,” came a woman’s voice that set Gressa’s nerves even more on edge. Enfys appeared from behind Dafydd, and her tone matched the one she had greeted Gressa with all those years ago. It was no longer the lilting one Gressa had heard so many times when she believed Enfys was her friend and greatest confidante. “We ensured your babe would not be trapped in the fires of hell as a heathen. We cared for your child’s soul more than you did with your pagan ways.”
Gressa opened her mouth, but a murder of crows squawked in a circle overhead. A collective gasp traveled among the Norse longboats.
“I would heed my warning, Princess. These crows are Odin’s pets. The great god is near, and I doubt he appreciates your disparaging our ways in front of him.” Gressa could not believe her good fortune that the All Father chose to leave Valhalla to watch over them. She glanced back at Strian who was just as much in awe as she was sure the others were. “Huginn and Muninn lead those ravens. Huginn, known as thought, and Muninn, thought of as memory, are Odin’s favorites and bring him messages of those on Midgard.”
“What is this Midgard?” Dafydd demanded as he looked up to watch the black birds continue to circle above his and Enfys’s heads.
“Where we are now. The land of people. He has left Valhalla and Asgard to grant us his favor. And to punish those who would go against us, to punish Grímr. You have only til sundown before they tell Odin how you greet his people.”
“You spew blasphemy!” Enfys hissed. She pushed through the people until she reached Dafydd’s side. “We took you in, healed you, then welcomed you among our people and in our church. This is how you thank us. You bring your pagan bastards to our shores.”
“I sat in your church, but did you ever see me pray? Did you ever see me bow my head to your white christ? I refused baptism each time you demanded it. I was never one of you. My gods are the ones in my soul.”
“You ungrateful bitch!” Enfys wailed. “Seize her!”
Enfys waved her arm, and guardsmen rushed forward. At the signs of an attack, the Norsemen began clamoring across benches and jumping from one boat to another. As the hoard of warriors grew larger and closer to the docks, it was clear the Norsemen far outnumbered the Welsh present.
Strian strained to catch what was being said around him, but he knew he would understand none of it. But he understood when Enfys screamed and ordered the men to rush forward. Strian grabbed Gressa and pulled her back against his chest as he wrapped his shield bearing arm around her and pulled a knife from his waist. He could not reach nor wield his sword with Gressa in front of him.
“Cease!” Dafydd roared, and the Welshmen came to an abrupt halt.
“Cease!” Ivar and Rangvald echoed once they saw the prince ordered his men to quit their attack. Both jarls were already on the dock and storming towards Gressa and Strian.
“Are you well, child?” Ivar inquired softly. “Did they threaten you?”
“Not specifically. Enfys isn’t happy that I have once again renounced their god in favor of our true gods. She doesn’t believe Muninn and Huginn are here to gather news to take to Odin.”
“Then she is both a woman of conviction and a foolish one. Let her have her god. When the day comes of her death, she will learn the error of her ways.” Rangvald kept his voice low. “What have they said about Grímr?”
“Not much. The arrival of the ravens shifted our conversation,” Gressa explained. She pushed down on Strian’s arm, and for a minute she thought he would refuse to budge.
“Gressa, just stay near me. Please,” Strian beseeched. He wanted to lift Gressa back onto his boat and sail away to anywhere that would protect her.
She tapped her fingers against his arm before leaning further back against him.
“I’m not going anywhere without you in arms reach. My arms’ reach.” She murmured as she pushed the shield down.
Dafydd watched the petite dark-haired woman he had lusted after for years as she leaned against the giant blond man who kept her pressed against him. Dafydd felt anger and jealousy grow within him as he watched another man handle the woman he had coveted since he first saw her upon the dock they stood on now. He had only agreed that his brother could wed her understanding that they would share. Rhys had balked at first, but both men desired her to an unreasonable level. Dafydd had not wanted to trade her to Grímr, but Enfys insisted. He knew his wife knew of his desire for Gressa. In fact, it surprised him that she had not had Gressa killed already but instead pretended to be her friend. In the end, the information Enfys gathered had been useful when Grímr appeared. Trading Gressa had been the price of peace with Enfys, and Rhys had sworn to return with the Norsewoman tamed and ready to submit to either of them in bed. Now it seemed his brother had failed, and from the fleet’s arrival, it appeared Grímr had, too. He turned his gaze to his livid wife and was once more reminded of the differences between the two. Enfys was a brilliant strategist, a manipulator, and a seductress who he loved and enjoyed bedding. He looked at her swollen belly, evidence of their fifth child. But his gaze swung back to Gressa, unattainable, independent, and sensuous. He wanted both. Dafydd looked back to the boats docked in his harbor and the three men who stood waiting for him to speak, guarding Gressa with undisguised determination.
“Why have you come here? It is clear you do not plan to return to your home.” Dafydd demanded.
“My husband and I had thought to, but circumstances have changed. And our welcome hasn’t been very warm. We came to inform you of Grímr’s failures. Rhys is dead and Rowan, Afan, and Afon are captives.”
Enfys screeched like a wounded animal and tried to lunge forward, but Dafydd whispered something in her ear, his hand resting on her belly. Once his wife calmed enough that he was sure he did not have to restrain her, he looked back at Gressa and the Norse warriors.
“How did that come to be?”
“Rowan and Enfys’s brothers made poor spies. Rhys angered the wrong person in Grímr’s camp.” Gressa shrugged. “They lost many your men in the battle in Scotland. The one they assumed would be Grímr’s certain victory. He underestimated the alliances the Highlanders held, and either he didn’t know or underestimated one of the jarl’s familial connections to one of those clans. They outnumbered us.”
“You refer to yourself as part of that force, yet here you stand with our enemies.”
“I was part of your band of archers, and they outnumbered us. But it was also where I found my husband.”
“And you gave up your life here. After you’ve always sworn you wouldn’t leave.”
“I didn’t go willingly at first. I admit that. There is something, or rather someone, who binds me to this land. But my husband knows of the child we lost. That’s why we thought to make our home here, but that doesn’t seem possible now that I understand the level of Enfys’s betrayal.”
“My betrayal!” Enfys once more pushed forward. “I would have had to care about you to betray you. You were a source of information and idle entertainment the way you carried on about your lost husband and dead babe. If I allowed you to follow me about, then it was less time you could spend in my husband’s bed.”
Gressa’s head jerked back as she grimaced.
“I never once shared your husband’s bed. I refused until he gave up and tried to pass me on to Rhys.”
“You’re a foolish twit if you think he gave up. He gave you to Rhys on the understanding that once you married, Dafydd would share you.”
Gressa thought she would be ill. She glared at Dafydd then En
“You are both very self-righteous to demand I follow the teachings of your white christ when neither of you can do the same. Just because I don’t believe in a god who allowed others to betray and murder him doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to your tales. Your false god spoke of turning the other cheek to those who wrong you, but Enfys, you sold me to an evil man when you thought I wronged you. Jealousy consumed you. Dafydd, you’re taught not to covet another man’s wife, but yet you did when you knew I was already wed and planned to continue if I had married your own brother. Neither of you are honest, and you both seem to live by the ways of your angry god from before the white christ came. An eye for an eye? That sounds more like our gods than what you preach. Your white christ died for what? For you to go to some place that no one knows of, no one can tell you what awaits you. Our gods tell us of the feasting and glory of Valhalla. Our god Odin sacrificed his eye for greater wisdom, but yours gave his life for what? You still sin, as you call it. Odin does not need food to sustain him. Wine is both meat and drink. Yours nearly sold his soul for food when he fasted for forty days and night. Bah. What do I need your gods for?”
Gressa took a deep breath. She had vented more than she intended, but the betrayal still stung. She had misplaced her trust, and for that she was sorry, but she was not sorry for pointing out their faults and hypocrisy.
“You would do well to fall on your knees and pray now to your god because we are far stronger than you, and you are stuck with no way to flee. We can come to your table peacefully and await Grímr’s arrival. We can have our last fight and defeat him with none of your people coming to harm. Or we can pillage and plunder, ravage your homes and fields, and leave you all for dead while we destroy Grímr. Choose as I can sense my countrymen grow impatient.”
“We are a well-fortified town, you know that. And I am not without allies.” Dafydd pushed forward his chest, but he only elicited howls of laughter from the Norsemen and women who could see him.
“You won’t make it off the dock alive. Dead men don’t speak, so what allies will hear your call? We are already in the village.” Gressa pointed behind Dafydd and Enfys to where she had spotted a band of Highlanders fighting their way through the village towards the dock. “I suppose they are even less patient than we are. They must have gone ashore while we carried on like old women. It seems they have already made your choice.”
Gressa pushed back on Strian and turned to let Ivar and Rangvald pass. With the forward movement of the jarls, the entire Norse band surged forward once more. Ivar grabbed Dafydd and held a knife to his throat as the captured prince pulled a knife from his belt. A bolt of long blonde hair hurtled through the wave of Norse warriors. Lena’s knife embedded itself in Dafydd’s upper arm before he could strike with his own knife.
“Thank you, wife,” Ivar grinned.
“I will be sure you thank me tonight, my love.” Lena tossed back.
Lorna had run alongside Lena but continued on until she reached Enfys. While she was aware and careful of the pregnant woman’s belly, she ensured Enfys could not summon any more guards nor bellow anymore orders.
With both the prince and princess captured with little effort, Tyra signaled for the birlinns to sail closer, and soon Highlanders swarmed the shore from both directions. Welsh men and women screamed and ran for shelter, but unlike a raiding party, the Norse were not interested in ransacking homes or overrunning the people. They would let the people live to tell the tale of the Norse invaders who battled their own people and prevailed on the foreign soil.
Gressa watched as Freya stepped forward to help Lorna maneuver Enfys towards the royal keep. The woman continued to fight despite her condition. Lorna and Freya attempted to control her without hurting her, but Enfys became so unruly that Freya slapped her hard across the face. The stunned princess became more compliant. Ivar and Rangvald each seized one of Dafydd’s arms, showing the Welsh people that their prince was no longer in control and that his fate depended upon the two men who held him as their prisoner.
Leif helped Sigrid onto the dock as Tyra and Bjorn came to join them.
“Sigrid, did you summon the crows?” Tyra inquired.
Sigrid held her belly as she shook her head.
“I don’t have that kind of power. All Father sent those on his own. I would like to cast my runes soon though. I foresaw this confrontation just before we arrived, and along with it, I saw spies leaving the village. I don’t know whether they are Grímr’s, one of the prince’s enemies, or even an ally’s men. But I feel a need to hurry.”
“I want you to rest as soon as you’re done.” Leif whispered none too quietly.
“I won’t break.”
“But you might have our babe here.” When Sigrid bit her lip and looked away, Leif exploded. “Damn it, Sigrid! I knew we shouldn’t have come. How could you endanger yourself again?”
“Again? I don’t recall ever voluntarily putting myself in danger. My gift put me in danger with Hakin and then being your wife isn’t without its own risks.” Sigrid stood toe to toe with her husband, her hands on her belly as she leaned so far back, she looked like she might topple, but it was the only way to see her husband.
Leif put their debate to an end with a searing kiss that had Sigrid clinging to his tunic and yanking him back down when he tried to pull away. Leif swept Sigrid into his arms and followed everyone else who seemed to be following Dafydd and Enfys. Gressa wondered how any of them knew where to go.
Gressa and Strian followed the others, and Gressa led the way to the prince and princess’s home. The royal family lived in a large brick castle that sat upon a raised mound of earth towards the center of the village. A brick wall surrounded gardens and training fields Gressa had spent hours in. As she entered through the gate, she saw men sparring along with targets set up for the archers. After years on these grounds, she expected she would feel a sense of familiarity and comfort returning to them, but now they felt cold, austere, and repressive. A chill shimmied along her spine as she heard the familiar thwack of an arrow hitting the straw and wood target. She considered refusing to continue any further, rather wanting to return to Strian’s boat. A sense of foreboding consumed her.
Strian sensed as much as saw Gressa trepidation as they entered the royal grounds. Gressa seemed even more on edge, if that was possible, than she did when she argued with Dafydd and Enfys. He lifted his arm, inviting her to walk closer. She needed little persuading. Gressa pressed against Strian’s side, and he felt her tremors.
“What’s wrong?” Strian murmured.
Strian had not heard Gressa sound so defeated since the day they returned to the homestead, and she burst into tears before collapsing.
“Gressa?” Strian’s concern was clear as Gressa wrapped her arm around his waist and clung to the fabric near her hand.
“This doesn’t feel right. Like something very horrible is about to go very wrong.”
Gressa looked around and spotted Sigrid who had stopped near a tree. Leif whittled over her, and in turn, Sigrid was trying to shoo him away. Gressa pointed in their direction, and Strian led them to the other couple.
“Sigrid, you feel it too, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Sigrid panted. Her face was drawn and pale, and there were beads of perspiration on her forehead and temples. “I just don’t know what it is.”
“An omen, a harbinger of bad tidings. I don’t know what it is either, but it makes me want to run back to Strian’s boat and hide.” Gressa’s tone was hushed, careful not to let her fear filled words travel.
“I feel the same. I need to get somewhere I can cast the runes. It needs to be soon.”
Gressa looked around, when she was fairly certain no one was paying attention to them, more interested in the larger group of Norse and Highland foreigners, she led them to a rarely used storage building. Part of the roof had caved in during the winter, and Da
Sigrid pulled the small sack of bones and pebbles from her waist and upended it on the table. She waited until the pieces found their resting place. She examined them as they lay then closed her eyes as she rolled each one in her hand. She was on the third pebble when her eyes snapped open, but they were glassy and unseeing. Leif reached out, but Strian pulled his friend’s hands away and shook his head.
“You have to leave her alone. You know that,” Strian whispered.
“Doesn’t mean I like it.”
“It’s not a spirit walk. Let her concentrate,” Strian reminded him then ignored Leif’s glare for mentioning an experience Leif swore he would never allow Sigrid to repeat. Strian understood the man’s fear for his wife when she entered another realm that existed between the living and the dead, but it was during that spirit walk that he learned the truth of his father’s death, and his father’s spirit found peace at last.
Sigrid rolled the pebble in her hand over and over before dropping it onto the table as though it scalded her. She yanked her hand away and made a fist as if to protect it. Her eyes drifted closed, then she blinked several times as she came back to them.
“No one can sleep inside the keep tonight. Dafydd and Enfys would rather burn their home down than allow us to remain here. They hope to kill us in our sleep or murder us as we flee the fire. Somehow, they know that Rhys didn’t die because of Grímr. They need the wealth Grímr promised after he defeats us. Dafydd had debts to another prince, and he wants the coins and jewels to buy alliances. He has his sights set on unifying Wales under his banner. He thinks he is doing Grímr a favor.”