Magick (The Dragonfly Chronicles Book 2), page 10
His jaw rubbed along her temple, then across the top of her head to the other side. He paused and she heard him take a long inhale before his lips touched her other ear.
“I believe in the magick of the gods, not of humans.”
Merewin dared not move, afraid she’d break the contact. As his open lips brushed her ear, warmth poured over, down to the pit of her belly, down to the junction of her thighs that rubbed with each slow movement of the horse. Merewin focused on Hauk’s large hand that casually held the reins. His other hand cupped under her ribs as he tucked her tight against him.
“Are you then?” he continued and Merewin tried to recall what he just said. “Freyja, goddess of passion and love?”
Merewin wet her rapidly drying lips. “Nay, no goddess of love. I am yet a maid.” She spoke soft and felt a flush prickle the skin of her neck.
“If you were a Dane, you would have been wed years ago, had six children by now, and possibly be a widow.” He lifted his mouth from her ear so that she only felt his chin brush her hair.
Merewin breathed again, although his arm branded her skin with heat through her gown.
“Navlin kept me hidden from most. She was afraid that someone would harm or steal me from her,” Merewin said, her voice hinting at the irony. “No suitor braved the great Witch of the Woods for her daughter’s hand.”
“A land of cowards,” Hauk chuckled behind.
Merewin turned and frowned. “A land of people who respect magick,” she countered.
“You mean, fear magick,” he said arrogantly, as he steered the horse over a large log covered with mushrooms.
Merewin raised her eyebrows in mock innocence. “And doesn’t the denial of magick indicate a fear of it?”
Hauk’s grin faded, his expression turning to stone. “I have seen so called magick worked before,” his eyes grew distant as he scanned the woods ahead. “Smelled the burning herbs, heard the thunderous chants to expel wickedness and disease, watched the sacrifices made and yet none of it worked.” His icy blue eyes looked down into hers. “The hope that their false magick brought, only added to the pain once the disease won. The magick I saw tortured those who eventually succumbed to death. The survivors being kept alive cruelly were tortured as well with the lies of recovery.”
Merewin blinked but couldn’t pull her gaze away from his. She knew that optimism, that peak that the hopeful climbed. “Yer wife?” she whispered and Hauk looked away into the trees as he continued on the trail.
Merewin turned back to watch the yellow tipped leaves fluttering like butterfly wings. Autumn was already descending. A rustling sound caught her attention, and she watched Bela jumping merrily along the side of the trail. Her pet always followed. Merewin had stopped worrying about her years ago.
As they came to the edge of the woods, Hauk tapped his horse back into an easy run, eating up the ground leading across another meadow. They flew towards a large home built in the shade of a small mountain. A stream wound through the valley. Several women and men worked along the lines of ripe gardens, harvesting plump vegetables. Two children ran and laughed with a dog near the front of the dwelling.
Their joyous sounds made her think of Ivarr and his reaction to Bela. His interest in the animal had given her an idea. Perhaps if she could find what the boy loved, what he would miss if he returned to the Earth Mother, maybe she could convince him to fight to stay. His disease was immense and intertwined through every bit of his small body. Even with his desire to live, it would be difficult to strip the clinging vileness from him. Without his desire to live, it was futile. Aye, she needed to make him want to live. But how could she discover what he truly loved?
The misty face of an old woman came to mind. Drakkina. The witch could read thoughts, desires. She could read Ivarr’s.
Merewin hadn’t seen Drakkina since her cottage, but suspected the old crone followed somewhere near. If she had a chance to be alone, she would try to summon help.
As they stopped before the dwelling, a blond haired girl ran out, her cherub-like face radiating happiness. “Papa!” She ran up to them and wrapped her hands around Hauk’s leg. Merewin felt him unwrap his arm. The absence of his heat chilled her.
“Dalla, you get bigger each time I come home,” Hauk said, and dismounted. His hands squeezed Merewin’s waist as he lowered her to the ground.
Dalla looked to be between nine and ten years old. It wouldn’t be too many more years before she left this home to marry, Merewin thought as she watched the childlike playfulness of the girl on the verge of being considered a woman.
“Did you bring me something, Papa?”
Merewin watched Hauk check his bag. He frowned as he searched around for something that wasn’t there. Finally he gave up and turned to Merewin, his hand on her shoulder.
“Aye love, I’ve brought you this woman to care for you. Her name is Merewin.”
Merewin’s heart dropped into her stomach. She was a gift for his daughter, like a rag doll or a puppy? Anger surged and she took a step away from Hauk so that his hand fell from her shoulder.
Recovering fast, she forced a smile on her face. After all, she was a thrall, Hauk’s property despite the way he had spoken into her ear. “I am pleased to meet ye, Dalla,” she said, bending slightly.
Dalla raised one eyebrow at her and then turned a frown on her papa. “I don’t need a new mother.”
Merewin straightened up and stepped back.
“She’s not to be your mother, Dalla.”
Merewin looked at Hauk who seemed to look everywhere else. Could he feel her subdued fury?
“Then she is a thrall,” Dalla perked up. “A slave for my very own.”
The child’s happiness caused a chill of unease to race up Merewin’s spine.
“I brought Merewin here under orders of the king. She is known as a healer in Northumbria.”
“Another healer?” Dalla asked, looking Merewin up and down. “She doesn’t smell like one.”
Merewin wondered momentarily what a healer was supposed to smell like.
The dog ran up to them and Hauk scratched the beast’s large head.
Dalla continued to frown as she examined Merewin. “I would rather have had some jewelry,” she said petulantly. Then smiled as her gaze locked on Merewin’s jade stone that hung from a cord around her neck.
“I can have that one then, if she is mine,” Dalla pointed to the stone from Merewin’s birth mother.
Merewin felt her face flush with the thought of someone taking her only connection to her mother. Merewin grasped the stone in her hand, covering it from the spoiled child’s view.
“We’ll discuss that later, Dalla,” Hauk said uneasily.
Dalla gave Merewin a challenging look but turned to go inside. “Come Papa, I want to show you what Svala brought for me.”
Merewin hoped that Svala was a common name and that the hateful woman did not actually visit Hauk’s home often.
Hauk motioned Merewin to follow his daughter into the hall. It was large, larger than Ragnar’s but of the same build. A central fire pit warmed the interior as the smoke drifted up and out through a vent in the thatched ceiling. Several raised ledges stuck out around the room. They were probably used for beds for the slaves. Would one of these be for her? Or would she be sharing Hauk’s? Her stomach flipped again. Merewin saw two curtained doorways out the back. Did Hauk sleep in one of those rooms?
Dalla ran through one door and came back out with a small silver pin.
“She brought it last week,” Dalla said breathlessly as she showed the treasure to her father.
Hauk nodded and fluffed her hair. He looked around. “Where is Vivien?
Dalla shrugged her shoulders. “I have no idea where she hides herself. She doesn’t seem to like my company.”
Merewin didn’t doubt that. How many children did Hauk have? Were they all like Dalla? Would she have to take care of them? The thoughts tumbled and she sneezed.
Dalla jumped back. “She’s ill!”
“She caught the ague on the voyage over. She is here to rest and grow healthy so she can help Ivarr.”
Fear paled Dalla’s small face as she backed up farther.
“Merewin has a simple illness, Dalla, not a plague.”
She nodded but fear still lurked.
“Papa, you should not touch her, just in case.” Dalla pulled Hauk’s hand so that he took several stiff steps away from Merewin, leaving her to feel even lonelier than she already was.
Merewin took several deep breaths and rubbed at her itchy nose. “Perhaps I could lie down.”
Hauk nodded. “There is a small room between Dalla’s rooms and mine,” Hauk said and bent to pick Merewin up.
“I can walk,” Merewin said briskly and looked to Dalla.
Hauk nodded and motioned her to follow. Before they were half way across the room, a woman came in, followed by the dog from the yard. The large animal trotted over.
Merewin scratched the dog’s head and it turned his sloppy tongue to lick her hand. Merewin grinned at him. “Yer son’s pet?”
“Aye,” Hauk said and gave a quick command to send the dog on his way.
“Where is yer son?”
“Dead,” Dalla said from the other side of the room. “Dead with the rest of them. The healers let them die, all of them. Iann, Grandpapa and Grandmamma, my own mama, and Uncle Hector and Edwyth too, and she with child…”
“Dalla enough,” Hauk’s voice cut across his daughter’s list. Merewin stared at Hauk’s back.
“All dead,” Dalla’s little voice continued. “The plague made them cough and waste away. But it was the healers who killed them.”
“Vivien, take Dalla to the kitchens out back until she remembers to listen to her father,” Hauk said and pulled Merewin behind him as they walked into a small room.
The healers had killed them. The words charged through Merewin’s mind like battle hungry warriors. The healers had killed them. All of them. Merewin saw several other rooms off the small one. No wonder the dwelling was so large if it had been built for a large extended family. And now it stood nearly empty.
Merewin sat down on the furs covering a ledge built into the side of the wall. The spongy tick of fresh smelling hay made a comfortable, if not large, bed.
“How many died?”
Hauk set her bag on the floor. He didn’t look at her. “Six, including my son.”
“Only ye and Dalla remain?”
Hauk straightened, and looked at her as if deciding whether he wanted to answer.
“Three years ago come winter.”
“And ye had healers come to cure them?”
Hauk moved to the doorway. “Rest Merewin. You will need your strength.”
Hauk followed the snapping flames as they licked black char along the logs in the pit. Shadows danced in jagged splinters against the walls of his home. Dalla was finally asleep in her large chamber off the back of the house. It had once belonged to his parents before the plague hit, before Hauk’s life had crashed around him. Leaving him to play mother to his remaining child, a head strong girl who grew into more of a terror every day. Oh, he loved Dalla, her strength and intelligence, her endearing laugh still edged with innocence. But how to raise her? He ran his hand through his unbound hair. Was that self-pity he felt gnawing?
Hauk shook his head in disgust and took another swig of strong ale. He hadn’t let self-pity break his soul before when he had laid his son’s limp body in the funeral ship. Self-loathing, yes, but not self-pity. Anger at his foolishness had strengthened his arm as he held the torch, lowering it to light the ship carrying his entire family out to burn in the sea. His father and mother, his younger brother and his new wife, and his ten-year-old son, Toki. They traveled to Asgard across the rainbow bridge. The body of his wife, Ingun, had been returned to her parents near Sjaelland where she was buried.
Foolish hope that they would survive. He’d buried himself in it. And on his darkest nights he could even admit that he had hid in it, allowing the so-called healers to torture those he loved until their poor bodies surrendered to death.
The night stood guard around the house, so unlike the familiar cacophony of snores and nighttime movements the house once held during the dark hours. Now the silence taunted him, depriving him of sleep. No wonder he preferred to roam these days. His house was no longer a sanctuary.
Hauk leaned back against a high backed chair. A whisper in the darkness punched a hole in the stifling silence. He felt Merewin’s presence enter the room, there in the back where the shadows sliced haphazardly. It was the end of the second day since he’d brought Merewin to his large empty, silent house. Could she be trying to escape?
“You should be asleep, Merewin,” his low voice filled the space and made her jump.
“I slept most of the day,” she spoke softly as her body seemed to float out of the darkness like a shadow expanding into life. “Ye should be asleep now.”
“I require very little sleep,” he said, and took a slower sip of the warming brew. His eyes remained on the fire, yet his senses caught her movement out of the corner of his sight. Graceful, her tall form, draped in a linen sleeping rail from Bera, came closer, until she stopped at the edge of firelight.
She bent down to sit on a stool close to the warmth, but said nothing. Hauk’s gaze drifted over to her despite his somber mood.
Merewin was beautiful, her long hair brushed and free to hang over one shoulder, pooling in her lap. Over the normal tang of wood smoke, he smelled the faint floral spice of woman’s soap. She’d requested a bath earlier in the day and he had Vivien bring in his mother’s bathing barrel.
Hauk’s look traveled up into her face. Her profile was delicate with fine lines and high cheekbones brought into sharp contrast in the shadows. Her lashed eyes tilted slightly at the corners. In the sun they would be a warm mossy green, deep and knowing, thoughtful but also easy to spark into irritation. Those eyes had sparkled with laughter when she smiled at Gamal. Full of fury or full of joy, or even soft with calm, Merewin’s eyes were beautiful. Windows to the soul, his mother had said often. But was it true with this woman who called herself a healer, who swore she could summon magick to cure? How could her soul be so beautiful with such lies inside?
“I will not have you lie to Dalla about your magick.” Hauk’s abrupt command caused Merewin to twitch forward. The fire in the central pit leapt upwards and then settled back down.
Merewin pulled her shawl around her shoulders and turned to glare at him. Spark, there it was in those beautiful orbs reflecting orange flame.
“I doona lie.” Merewin spoke evenly, proudly, as if she could boast about a thousand incidents where she could have lied and hadn’t. Truth or a convincing tale?
“You couldn’t heal me.” He glanced at the bandage that still wrapped around his bare bicep. Merewin’s forehead crinkled, and he had an impulse to rub the lines away with his thumb.
“I doona understand that. I know the limitations of my powers, and I should have been able to heal ye.”
Hauk uncrossed his ankles and sat up square to look closely at Merewin. Threat evident in his voice, he spoke low. “There is no power in chants and sacrifices and foul smelling incense.” He slowly lifted the battleaxe, watching the light shine against the polished steel. “There is only power in this.”
Instead of respectful acquiescence or even awed silence, Merewin snorted a sardonic little laugh. “That would make men the most powerful creatures in the world, with their iron and steel and war.”
“Some of us are more powerful than others,” he answered arrogantly. The look of indignant surprise on her face was almost enough to make him smile. Easily baited.
“All I’ve seen in yer blades and war, is more work for me, more bodies to heal.”
Hauk frowned again at her unwavering pretense.
Merewin’s eyes flashed with suppressed anger, her cheeks flushed deeply, and her hair fell like a curtain.
But what intrigued him even more was the passion and intelligence of her words. Also his obvious physical mastery didn’t frighten or subdue her. Merewin of Northumbria was unique. But even in her exquisiteness, she was still lying about the power. He had learned the hard way that all healers exaggerate their talent, even to the detriment of their patients.
“I’ve seen destruction at the hands of women. Men are not the only harbingers of death and torture, Merewin.”
She held her tongue for a moment, the fire cracking between them. “Ye speak of the plague that took yer family?”
Hauk stared back into the brightness, feeling its heat wash over him. Why should he answer her? He didn’t speak of it to anyone and no one brought it up to him. No one until Merewin.
“This house was full of life once,” he said evenly, without emotion. “My brother had just married, and his wife was growing full with child,” Hauk looked over to Merewin.
She sat still and watched the flames.
Good, the words came easier if she didn’t look at him. “My parents were still strong, helpful, never a burden. And Toki, my son,” he stopped to take a slow breath, letting it out in a rush as his face broke into a sad grin. “Toki, loud and full of skinned knees and bumps from climbing trees and chasing his dog. He was so full of laughter, bright and eager to grow into a warrior.”
Hauk tipped his ale horn up, but found the vessel empty. It thumped the packed dirt floor as he dropped it. “Even Ingun, my reluctant wife.” He grunted slightly, remembering her initial wailing when her family made the arranged marriage between them. “Even she had warmed to the constant hum of our life.” As if an afterthought he added, “she was an accomplished weaver and loved her children greatly.”
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