Viking Born (Vikings Saga Volume 2), page 1
About the Author
Also by Jo Grafford
Copyright © 2015 by Jo Grafford
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To Joseph, who explores magical realms every day while gaming
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October was much colder than it should have been—a bad omen. Icy winds battered the longship with a fury that could freeze the blood in most men’s veins. But not his.
The cold no longer phased Sven. The thick sable cloak draping his shoulders was more for show than necessity. The wind whipped freely through his long brown hair while he squinted at the heavens, only mildly relieved not to glimpse any seething, swirling clouds.
A storm was coming.
He sensed the disruption in the atmosphere deep in his bones. He closed his eyes and allowed the picture to form in his mind. He’d seen it often enough lately in his dreams.
The last traces of autumn heat slamming into the indomitable wall of bitter coldness. The splintering protest of lightning, the answering boom of thunder, the unforgiving sheets of rain mixed with hail, and the cries of the dying.
The storm in his dreams always left a trail of death in its wake. It might be minutes away, hours, or even days but it was coming.
He abruptly opened his eyelids. A signal of his arm sent a dozen men on deck dashing to their places to lower the wide rectangular sail. The canvas billowed downward and fluttered against the semicircle oak step that anchored the ship’s mast in the belly of the ship. Kerling, they called her, for she was as steady and reliable as a wise, old woman.
Scanning the churning sea waters, he felt the lurch of the longship underneath his feet as the Viking rowers returned to their posts and dug in their oars. Their urgency was visible in every movement. Thick muscles bunched beneath their tunics as they dragged their vessel along a northeasterly route. Home to the mystical land of New Dorset. That is, if the capricious gods stayed on their side…
He doubted they would make it much further up the coastline of England before they would be forced to pull ashore to weather the coming storm.
Serving as bo’sun to his half-brother, Jarl Eirik, Sven strode between the two ranks of rowers lining the sides of the longship, more than fifty men. He paused to tighten down one of the round, iron shields mounted to the outer rails.
In the next few days, they would venture away from England into the open sea. They would skirt the southerly coast of Iceland and Greenland on their way to the upper islands and peninsulas of the New World. New Dorset lay cradled in its craggy ridges, a haven for demigods like himself and Jarl Eirik. A city clutched within the invisible gates of Valhalla itself. Or so he’d been told. He’d never had trouble seeing them or the shadowy warriors who lived beyond them, a troubling fact he chose to keep to himself.
Gripping the high dragon’s neck of the prow, he squinted through the morning mists beginning to lift. Puffs flitted here and there, damp specters who hovered until the sun burnt them away. On quiet mornings, their whispers haunted him. Most times they were distant murmurs. He could rarely make out their words, which was fine with him. The aimless babbling of ghosts drifting into oblivion was far preferable to the occasional vengeful one who sought him out to wrangle a special favor.
“A good morning to you, sailor.” The low musical voice tightened his gut with its whispery, ethereal quality. A sound so soft and fragile should not so easily have cut through the muted wail of the winds and singsong shanty of the sailors rowing behind him. But it did, capturing his full attention.
The woman wavered in and out of transparency as she emerged from the mists, her face framed by a silvery-white waterfall of hair tumbling over her shoulders. Her violet eyes skittered across his face, fixated on the hard set to his jaw. Her tresses twinkled and glowed as if powered by tiny lights, blowing in the wind and partially hiding her pale, fine-boned features.
Fascination and dread thundered through his gut as he recognized her. She and her mer sisters had attacked their longship only a handful of days earlier, arriving with the numbers and strength of an army to sing their siren song. Trying to coax them to their watery deaths. They’d almost succeeded.
He remembered her because he was a man, and she was no ghost. Far from it. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever encountered.
Without warning, she leaped from the water to cling to the lower, wider base of the prow. Her bosom pressed against the carved length, two perfect orbs barely concealed by a narrow weave of seaweed and shells. A delicate ribcage tapered to a tiny waist, and a long, slender tail with gossamer green and purple scales flipped and swished the surface of the waters.
The mermaid moved quicker than he expected. He cursed himself for allowing her beauty to distract him. He only managed to half draw his dagger from its scabbard in the time it took her to mold herself to the prow of the ship.
She tipped her lovely face up to his, no more than a hand’s width from the hilt of his blade. “Hold your weapon, Viking,” she implored, raising a porcelain pale hand. “I did not come to pick a fight. Not this time.”
“Then what do you want?”
“You,” she breathed. “Only you.”
Immediately, her eyes widened, the pupils dilating to dark pools of distress. She slapped delicate fingers over her mouth. "By the gods, Coralie will pay for this. She must have laced my morning tea with truth serum again."
"Who?" He was entranced despite his determination to rid himself of the deadly creature as soon as possible. Lust stirred him as the voluptuous young mermaid kissed him with her gaze. Her hungry eyes gobbled him up, from the windblown locks tumbling around his broad shoulders to the well-corded thighs encased within deerskin trousers. Trousers that grew snugger the longer she looked.
"My younger sister," she complained.
"Why would she do such a thing?"
"She thinks I keep secrets from her."
"Of course, but please do not ask what they are because I'll be forced to tell you and...just do not. I am begging you." Her anxiety vibrated from every pore, every incandescent scale.
His breath caught at the plea twisting her lush, pouting mouth as she strained closer. It shouldn't have moved him, for her kind were highly skilled in the coquettish arts. It was woven deep into the fabric of their nature to flirt and woo in order to kill. He knew this, but it failed to keep every muscle beneath his waistband from tightening further. His response to her bordered on pain.
"What do you want from me?" The words gra
"You are relentless.” She ducked her head, dipping the pink stain of her cheeks in the rising mists. "This conversation is not going at all the way I planned. Mayhap I shall return after the truth serum wears off." She swiveled her body and poised herself against the longship to leap back into the water.
Sven slapped one of his large hands over hers, holding it in place against the prow. Her smooth, unblemished skin felt deliciously cool, making him immediately want to touch more of her. Blast it all! He wanted to blanket her entire body with his, to plaster each damp and scantily clad curve to his harder frame, to shield every lovely inch of her from the blustering wind—though she seemed no more affected by the cold than he. She wasn't even shivering.
"Answer the question, wench."
"You possess a cruel streak," she muttered, raising and lowering fragile shoulders. "A gentleman would not insist I bear my soul to him in this manner. Against her will," she added pointedly.
There it was. The condemnation he’d been expecting
"I am Viking born and aspire to be nothing more, nothing less," he sneered, "Now, answer the question." Her words added a fresh bruise to an already sore spot. As the bastard offspring of an impoverished working class woman, he would never rise above the class of karl, or free peasant.
"Very well. I do not possess the power to refuse you at the moment." She gave a nervous laugh so tinkling and beautiful he had to fight the urge to snatch her into his arms and bury his face between her breasts.
She trembled beneath his touch, her gaze darting all over his face like a wild animal caught in a trap. “Mermaids are attracted to loneliness and sadness, and never before have I witnessed such bleakness in a man. Such desperation. One glimpse into your sad, grey eyes a few days ago and..." Her pink lips bowed in a rueful smile. “Here I am.”
Lonely and sad? He glared at her, weighing and rejecting her description of him. Desperate? Aye, maybe where she was concerned, for he wanted nothing more than to claim her lips and explore the flavor of her. He was willing to wager an entire sack of English silver coins she would taste ripe and full, like berries.
He shook himself, grappling with and beating back his baser urges, ashamed to realize he'd been allowing the siren to spin her sensuous web around him without even the aid of her song. If she was indeed dosed with truth serum, he should be plying her with questions, not daydreaming about plundering her sultry secrets.
"You attacked our longship.” He took a menacing step closer. "Are you and your sisters truly tired of all the combs and jewels and trinkets we toss into your watery shrines?" Despite the generous offerings of his comrades, a whole army of mer creatures had slammed into their longship a week prior, injuring dozens.
"Nay," she cried. "We treasure your gifts. See?" She craned her slender neck to better display the white-gold choker inlaid with an enormous amethyst. Beneath it rested a white conch shell suspended from a separate seaweed cord.
“That was one of my gifts,” he exclaimed, recognizing the amethyst from the raid of a Spanish warship.
“I know.” Her fingers clenched around it, as if fearing he intended to take it back.
"I ask you again. Why did the mer turn on us?"
“It was the fault of the dark mermaid. The one who led our attack. A complete stranger, she entered the City of Mer and demanded an audience. In our own palace courtyard she compelled us to sing our siren song to you. 'Twas black magic, I swear, and would have ended far worse for you and your men if the good witch you sail with had not come to your rescue."
Mista! She was the sorcerous who’d plagued their Viking crew for nigh on a year now. He could only hope his brother’s affianced, a woman of ever-growing magical powers of her own, had sent the meddling sorcerous somewhere far from the waters they currently sailed.
Though the explanation made sense, he was far from finished with his interrogation. "Why should I believe you?"
"More mer creatures were injured than sailors. One of ours died." Emotion shivered through her voice.
Though he refused to let it show in his expression, Sven hadn’t been unaware of the casualty till now. He was not normally given to cruelty, but this was war. “It amounts to one less siren to lure my sailors to their watery deaths."
Anger sparked in her eyes. "She is greatly mourned by those who loved her. A talented and promising young mer, she did not deserve to have her life cut short at the whim of a mad sorceress."
“On that we can agree." His shoulders relaxed. Her grief appeared genuine, but it never hurt to tread with caution. "What is the real reason behind your visit?”
Her lips parted in surprise. “I already told you.”
“Who sent you?"
She shook her head, sending the white-blonde ringlets bouncing and spinning across her shoulders. "No one. I am not even supposed to be here. After what happened last week, our queen forbid us to come anywhere near your jarl's ship again. Ever."
"Yet here you are," he drawled, tracing a lazy circle across the back of her hand with his thumb. "Hasn't anyone ever told you it is dangerous to play within sticking distance of a warrior's blade?"
This time she did not cringe beneath his touch. Her lips quirked with mischief. "We both know I can trance your crew with my song quicker than you can strike me down."
"Can you now?" he taunted, whipping the dagger from its scabbard and holding it to her neck. She’d caught him off guard once. He would not allow her to do so again.
A shout sounded behind them as one of the crewmen, probably having caught sight of the mermaid, issued a warning to their shipmates.
"Hold fire," he roared into her face, not daring to drop his gaze from hers for even a second. He did not doubt a dozen or more crossbows were pointed in their direction.
"Bo'sun?" Alf called. He was a hulk of a man, the most senior member of their crew and a damn good oarsman. "Are you in need of assistance?"
“Nay, Alf. As you can see, my blade has convinced this one to hold her song.”
"Please, do not let them kill me." She gasped in a shallow breath, as the metal pressed deeper.
He saw no reason to enlighten her to the fact he held the flat of the blade against her skin instead of the edge. Regardless, any movement on her part would be ill-advised.
"I am sorrier than I can express for the mer attack on your crew,” she babbled, a dazed sheen dimming her eyes. “And I take back the insult about your cruel streak.”
His brows went up. He’d expected more sass from a mermaid. A baring of her shark-like teeth. Anything but a renewal of her apologies.
“You are a fair man, Sven. Everyone knows this. From the towers of Olympus to the depths of the Underworld. I have faith you will grant me a fair hearing before lopping off my head."
His heartbeat quickened. "You know my name."
"All the mer creatures do. Your Jarl Eirik shouts it often enough."
A smile worked its way up the edges of his mouth. "I would know your name as well." He slid the dagger back into its home despite Alf's groan of protest. However, he continued to clasp her hand against the prow, effectively holding her prisoner.
"So would I." She offered a shaky laugh. "My sisters call me Sibyl and Claire and many other derivative nicknames for a clairvoyant, since I often see more than others would like me to see. Pray forgive me, my lord, but I cannot seem to stop talking when I am nervous."
"Your name," he reminded crisply.
"Er, yes. My mother calls me Willow, for will o' the wisp. I am adopted, you see. I appeared to her years ago in a burst of light with no memory of who I am or where I am from."
"Willow." He repeated the name in his deep baritone, savoring the feel of it in his mouth. It suited her. By Thor, it suited him, too. Aye, everything about her suited him just fine. Forget the bloody storm and his fears of how it might set off
Staring deeply into her wistful violet eyes, he lowered his head and closed the distance between them, allowing his eyelids to drift closed. Reaching down to scoop her lithe, young frame against his chest, his arm swept the cool, damp morning air instead.
Alf caught him by the shoulders and jerked him back from the prow. "Are you unharmed, m'lord? Did she sink her teeth into—“
"Nay, I am well. Packa, my friend.” It was the Norse word for thank you. Sven shook off the hands of his would-be rescuer. "This one only wished to talk." He dashed to the railing, scanning the waters for Willow. She was gone. Naught but the frothing, eddying waters greeted him.
"Before or after you put a dagger to her neck, m'lord?"
"Both, actually. I only drew my blade as a precaution, since most folks tend to wax more honest at knife point." He stalked away from Alf, between the ranks of rowers in search of Eirik. "Every man about his business," he barked. "We are in no danger."
Eirik stood outside the makeshift tent below the mast. It had originally served as his captain's quarters but now served as the sleeping chamber for his betrothed, Branwyn O’Tyre. Arms crossed beneath a navy cloak richly embroidered with silver threads, he studied his bo'sun's approach.
No one would guess by his own much humbler apparel that they had been raised as brothers in Eirik's father's household. The orphaned son of a chambermaid, he’d refused their offer to elevate him above his birthright, instead serving Eirik as boatswain once they were adults.
"I'll be the judge of what is safe and what is not, since all of your arses are my responsibility.” Eirik announced coolly. "Since when do you parlay with our enemies without your captain?"
"Is that what it looked like from here, Jarl?" Sven curled his lip, knowing Eirik hated to be addressed by his titles from the man he stubbornly called brother. "Must have been the sun in your eyes, your worship."