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Lady Of The Lake - fb3_img_img_85455e52-0c5b-5476-8a92-64d3a333e6df.jpg

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Excerpt

Dear Reader

Title Page

About The Author

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Author note

Copyright

“Release me at once, Viking!”

Tala commanded.

“Lady,” Edon warned her, his patience dwindling fast. “Speak to me again in that tone of voice, and I will have no choice but to teach you to respect the man you see before you.”

“Strike me and I will kill you with my bare hands, Viking.” Tala gulped, struggling for her breath.

“And how will you do that, hmm?” Edon taunted her. “With what weapon will you slay me, woman? Your viper’s tongue?”

Edon used his head as a pointer, nodding to her bared breasts—exposed in the beam of moonlight that spilled into the chamber from the open portal.

“The only success you have had thus far is in baring your breast. Continue the show. I shall enjoy seeing what other charms your struggles reveal.”

Dear Reader,

A pagan princess and a Christian warrior must form an alliance if either of their people are to survive in RITA Award nominee Elizabeth Mayne’s Lady of the Lake. Forced to surrender her heritage and marry Edon, the man responsible for her father’s death, Princess Tala fights her feelings for her new husband, afraid that she will let down her guard and reveal a secret that could tear their gentle truce apart. Don’t miss this intriguing tale.

Cally and the Sheriff, by Cassandra Austin, is a lively Western about a Kansas sheriff who falls head over heels for the feisty young woman he’s sworn to protect, even though she wants nothing to do with him. And in Judith Stacy’s The Marriage Mishap, two people who’ve just met, wake up in bed together and discover they have gotten married.

In our fourth title for the month, Lord Sin by Catherine Archer, a rakish nobleman and a vicar’s daughter, whose lack of fortune and social position make her completely unsuitable, agree to a marriage of convenience, and discover love.

Whatever your tastes in reading, we hope you enjoy all of our books, available wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

Lady of the Lake

Elizabeth Mayne

Lady Of The Lake - fb3_img_img_2e0c2444-0f39-536a-9cbb-f2e191778cce.jpg
www.millsandboon.co.uk

ELIZABETH MAYNE

is a native San Antonian, who knew by the age of eleven how to spin a good yarn, according to every teacher she ever faced. She’s spent the last twenty years making up for all her transgressions on the opposite side of the teacher’s desk, and the last five working exclusively with troubled children. She particularly loves an ethnic hero and married one of her own eighteen years ago. But it wasn’t until their youngest, a daughter, was two years old, that life calmed down enough for this writer to fulfill the dream she’d always had of becoming a novelist.

With love,

Delores Maynard Cherveny

Chapter One

Summer, 889 A.D.

Eleventh year of the reign of

Alfred of Wessex

Mercia

Silently, the atheling of Leam, Venn ap Griffin, followed his sister up a trail to the Seven Sisters and their overlook of the Avon Valley. The standing stones thrust up from the earth at the edge of the forest. Neither Venn nor Tala could read the ogham symbols etched upon the stones, though both were well versed in the Latin of the abbeys and the court of their cousin and guardian, King Alfred.

Venn cupped his hands together and boosted Tala to the topmost ledge. She lay down on the hot, sun-heated stone and drew her mantle across her fiery hair to hide it from sight. Far below, the forest ended at the confluence of the shrinking Avon and the positively dusty Leam.

This time of year the Leam should be running deep and fast, feeding the river Avon. But no rain had fallen since Beltane, the first of May. The gods were unhappy, the earth in turmoil. Spirits old and new warred against one another for who would dominate the world of men. The people were confused, not knowing who to beseech for relief from the bitter drought.

вернуться

“Release me at once, Viking!”

Tala commanded.

“Lady,” Edon warned her, his patience dwindling fast. “Speak to me again in that tone of voice, and I will have no choice but to teach you to respect the man you see before you.”

“Strike me and I will kill you with my bare hands, Viking.” Tala gulped, struggling for her breath.

“And how will you do that, hmm?” Edon taunted her. “With what weapon will you slay me, woman? Your viper’s tongue?”

Edon used his head as a pointer, nodding to her bared breasts—exposed in the beam of moonlight that spilled into the chamber from the open portal.

“The only success you have had thus far is in baring your breast. Continue the show. I shall enjoy seeing what other charms your struggles reveal.”

вернуться

Dear Reader,

A pagan princess and a Christian warrior must form an alliance if either of their people are to survive in RITA Award nominee Elizabeth Mayne’s Lady of the Lake. Forced to surrender her heritage and marry Edon, the man responsible for her father’s death, Princess Tala fights her feelings for her new husband, afraid that she will let down her guard and reveal a secret that could tear their gentle truce apart. Don’t miss this intriguing tale.

Cally and the Sheriff, by Cassandra Austin, is a lively Western about a Kansas sheriff who falls head over heels for the feisty young woman he’s sworn to protect, even though she wants nothing to do with him. And in Judith Stacy’s The Marriage Mishap, two people who’ve just met, wake up in bed together and discover they have gotten married.

In our fourth title for the month, Lord Sin by Catherine Archer, a rakish nobleman and a vicar’s daughter, whose lack of fortune and social position make her completely unsuitable, agree to a marriage of convenience, and discover love.

Whatever your tastes in reading, we hope you enjoy all of our books, available wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

вернуться

Lady of the Lake

Elizabeth Mayne

Lady Of The Lake - fb3_img_img_2e0c2444-0f39-536a-9cbb-f2e191778cce.jpg
www.millsandboon.co.uk

вернуться

ELIZABETH MAYNE

is a native San Antonian, who knew by the age of eleven how to spin a good yarn, according to every teacher she ever faced. She’s spent the last twenty years making up for all her transgressions on the opposite side of the teacher’s desk, and the last five working exclusively with troubled children. She particularly loves an ethnic hero and married one of her own eighteen years ago. But it wasn’t until their youngest, a daughter, was two years old, that life calmed down enough for this writer to fulfill the dream she’d always had of becoming a novelist.

вернуться

With love,

Delores Maynard Cherveny

вернуться

Summer, 889 A.D.

Eleventh year of the reign of

Alfred of Wessex

Mercia

Silently, the atheling of Leam, Venn ap Griffin, followed his sister up a trail to the Seven Sisters and their overlook of the Avon Valley. The standing stones thrust up from the earth at the edge of the forest. Neither Venn nor Tala could read the ogham symbols etched upon the stones, though both were well versed in the Latin of the abbeys and the court of their cousin and guardian, King Alfred.

Venn cupped his hands together and boosted Tala to the topmost ledge. She lay down on the hot, sun-heated stone and drew her mantle across her fiery hair to hide it from sight. Far below, the forest ended at the confluence of the shrinking Avon and the positively dusty Leam.

This time of year the Leam should be running deep and fast, feeding the river Avon. But no rain had fallen since Beltane, the first of May. The gods were unhappy, the earth in turmoil. Spirits old and new warred against one another for who would dominate the world of men. The people were confused, not knowing who to beseech for relief from the bitter drought.

“Tell me, little brother, what price did you ask for Taliesin the White at Warwick’s market?” Tala broke their silence when she was settled on the flat stone.

“He is a worthy horse, full of spirit and courage. I asked a hundred gold marks, but one Dane wanted to steal him from me for twenty and six pitiful sacks of last year’s moldy grain.”

“Six sacks of grain is a lot.” Tala studied Venn’s profile as he intently scanned their parched, dry valley.

“Knowing Vikings, it could have been six sacks of stones,” Venn replied scornfully. “I did not want to be cheated and was wary of making any trade for fear of coming up the loser.”

“Ah, I see.” Tala nodded. Venn prized the white horse and really did not want to sell him.

“It won’t be a problem. I can take Taliesin farther afield to graze.”

“Strong horses like oats and grass,” Tala replied. “So do cows and sheep. They care not for oak leaves and dried-up ferns. We can’t keep them if the drought continues.”

“I know how to make the drought end,” Venn answered.

Tala cut a sharp look at his set profile. Venn was just a boy, too easily influenced by the old ones in Arden Wood. “I don’t want you listening to Tegwin’s babbling. He speaks nonsense, Venn. Do not credit his far-fetched predictions as truth.”

“That’s men’s business,” the lad argued peremptorily. “And no concern of a woman.”

“I beg your pardon.” Tala responded with a scowl that effectively squelched her little brother’s high-and-mighty attitude. “You will do as I say, Venn ap Griffin!”

“Yes, yes,” the boy said, dismissing her concern with an impatient wave of his hand.

“Look to this side of the river Avon, Tala. That is what I brought you here to see.”

Between the sluggish river and the dried-up course of the Leam, a dozen Vikings labored, guiding oxen and plow, cutting furrows in the earth. Pairs of them stripped the bark from logs gleaned from the felled trees. Others tended a huge brush fire, burning drought-dry leaves and limbs.

The smoke from the hot fire was acrid with the scent of tannin. The black plume rose straight up to the sky, then flattened like an other worldly goshawk soaring in flight.

Venn eased himself up beside Tala on the hot stone. He didn’t bother covering his head. His brown hair, tanned skin, leather jerkin and breeks all blended into the neutral colors of the rocks. Only the vivid gold and red in Tala’s hair and the glittering torque at her slender throat needed to be hidden in this landscape.

Tala gave the valley a cursory inspection, from the high stockade dominating Warkwick Hill to the distant slopes at the limits of the fertile valley. Two ancient Roman roads bisected it, Fosse Way and Watling Street. Warwick controlled the crossroads and the bridge over the Avon River. Every scrap of land not covered by Arden Wood was taken up by fields planted by Viking usurpers.

In truth, the forest shrank by the day because Vikings constantly slashed and burned trees to till new fields, and yesterday’s oaks became the grazing pens of the next herd of cattle.

Near the fields stood their longhouses, each one spawning countless other wattle-and-daub outbuildings. They multiplied like poisonous fungi on the trunks of the sacred oaks in the wet years.

Tala saw much difference between the land today and what she had seen on the first of May. Not a drop of rain had fallen in two months, so the earth was drier, browner, the river Avon lower, its current slower. “What am I supposed to see, little brother?”

“They felled the oaks on this side of the Leam.” Venn pointed to the new cut.

“No!” she whispered. “They can’t. Watling Street, on the high ground north of the Avon, is the border. They can’t cut into our grove. It’s against two kings’ laws.”

“What heed do Danes pay to Wessex law? I see no man of King Alfred’s ordering the Vikings to keep to their side of Watling Street,” Venn sneered. “They will not stop until they reach the sea at Glamorgan.”

“Curse Embla!” Tala made a fist of her hand and slammed it against the stone. “She must be stopped! She has to be stopped.”

“Who will stop her? Not you. Nor I.”

Tala couldn’t go so far as to sit up, thereby exposing herself to the view of the Vikings working on both sides of the river. With all her heart she desired to protect this brother of hers from all the dangers that surrounded him.

“I can and I will—somehow!” she vowed.

“Wheest!” Venn whispered. Riders galloped out of the woods on Fosse Way.

“Don’t ‘wheest’ me,” Tala scolded, quieting all the same.

“Embla has taken on more airs,” Venn remarked, mindful of Tala’s long-standing hatred for her rival. “Now wherever she rides she makes a Viking boy carry her colors on a staff before her.” He slipped his bow off his shoulder and pulled an arrow from his quiver. “I’ve half a mind to pierce her silks.”

“Wait,” Tala said, putting a stilling hand on Venn’s wrist as he fitted the notch into the bowstring. Fosse Way passed close beneath them, along the valley of the Avon. Only the height of the oaks prevented the brother and sister from being spotted by Embla Silver Throat and her party of warriors as they galloped up the rise. “Let’s see who it is she rides out to greet. Look, there are many riders coming. Where do you suppose they hail from?”

“East Anglia, by the color of the dust on their horses,” Venn whispered, cautious now, for sound could travel easily over the trees.

They listened to the clop of the iron shoes of the oncoming horses. Embla and her guard rode out to meet the newcomers. Her standard refused to spread out in the still, dusty air. The day’s ferocious heat battered down cloth the same way it hammered people into exhausted lethargy. Sweat prickled Tala’s scalp and ran between her breasts. She twisted her head, straining to hear the greetings the Vikings exchanged.

“By the gold offerings at the bottom of the sacred Leam!” Venn whistled. “Look at the size of that wagon train! More settlers for sure, Tala.”

Appalled, Tala counted the wagons following the crush or riders. Behind the vanguard came a clutch of beasts of burden, pulling sleds piled with chests and bundles. When they ran out of oxen and horses, thralls pulled the remaining sleds. Tala had never seen the like in her life! Not even King Alfred brought such a massive train on his annual progress to the frontier.

Next at the hilltop appeared a jewel-bright chaise draped in shimmering silks. It was borne on the shoulders of a dozen sweating thralls. Women peeked out from behind the cloths. Jewels on their heads and throats sparkled in the dazzling sun.

Embla’s party of six riders came to a halt before the kingly procession. The oncoming Vikings had cast off their cloaks to accommodate the day’s grilling heat, presenting an almost dazzling spectacle of sun-bronzed arms and sweaty, glistening chests.

Even Embla had shed the ermine-edged cloak that she sported day and night as a badge of her rank—niece marriage to the king of the Danelaw. But she hadn’t sacrificed her plumed helmet to the heat.

As the two parties met on the open road, Embla drew her sword and clanged it against her polished shield. The words of her greeting were lost in the clamor of five other swords striking bronze.

Embla dismounted, as did the foremost rider from the east. The newcomer put out his hand in greeting. Embla clasped his arm in a familiar Viking greeting, then, wonder of wonders, put her knee to the ground, removed her helm and actually bowed her golden head before the man.

“Who is he?” Venn demanded, shocked to see proud Embla Silver Throat bow down before any man. “A king, do you suppose?”

Just as astonished, Tala shook her own head. “I don’t know.” Her eyes were riveted on the tall, dark-haired man towering over Embla. Bands of gold encircled his bare upper arms. Two glittering, bejeweled brooches held a cloth mantle fastened to the leather braces bisecting his powerful chest. He was as dark as Embla was fair, and his skin gleamed as though it were made of polished golden oak. “He is no one that I recall seeing at King Guthrum’s court.”

At his side walked a man darker than precious ebony, wrapped from head to toe in bleached linen that swept the dust on Fosse Way beneath his feet.

Tala lifted her hand to her brow and pressed against it, unable to fathom what her eyes beheld. She whispered to Venn, “Could they be Romans?” Her jaw sagged further, nearly touching the stone beneath her chest, and her blood quickened as she returned her attention to the uncommonly handsome man dressed in Viking trappings. “Who is he?”

“Let’s go find out.” Venn quickly put his arrow away and shouldered his bow. He slid down from the stone and put a hand up to catch Tala as she dropped beside him.

Just as curious, Tala nodded as she refitted her girdle to hold her short mantle close to her body. “Let’s! I’ll race you to King Offa’s oak.”

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Their passage out of the forest was silent and swift. Neither disturbed so much as a twig, for it was fence month— the time when does dropped their fawns. Both Tala and Venn respected all of the forest creatures and demanded their people do the same.

The short run took them to the very edge of the Leam, where a stand of silver beeches had broken the last time the river flooded, some three summers ago. The bleached trunks spanned the dry river. Only a few remaining puddles wet the caked bottom.

Tala skipped across the natural bridge and stopped at the base of a massive, ancient oak where their grandfather Offa had rested on the day of his coronation. Fed by an artesian river, the oak’s gnarled and twisted trunk supported the largest canopy to be found on a living tree beyond the Black Lake’s forest. Consequently King Offa’s oak shaded a goodly portion of Watling Street.

Nimble as a squirrel after a hoard of acorns, Tala shinnied up the tree and took her favorite position high above the road. Venn climbed up behind her. She could hear his lungs bellowing softly, the wheeze a reminder that he’d been deathly ill this winter past.

Tala spared a look at his face and found it damp with sweat. Pale blotches tempered the blush on his smooth cheeks. He settled on the limb adjacent to her and calmed himself. The sound of many horses approaching brought her attention back to the business at hand—spying on Embla Silver Throat.

A pair of greyhounds ran into the clearing, preceding the travelers. They paused beneath the great oak to sniff, jump and bark. Tala cast a quick spell that made them sit abruptly and whine in confusion, wondering where their prey had gone off to.

“As you can see, my lord Edon,” Embla boasted proudly as she rode into the shade of King Offa’s oak, “I’ve cleared the land south of Warwick to this river. The soil is agreeable here, as along the Avon. My best man, Asgart, and his thanes have applied for tenancy of the new bottomland. This time next year the valley to the south ridge will be plowed and planted. Oats and wheat and hops grow well here.”

“I see you have been most ambitious,” Jarl Edon Halfdansson replied, complimenting his nephew’s wife. All around him were signs of prosperity, save here by the Leam. He remembered the river as a wild stream, freeflowing and full. Now it had not enough water in its muddy bottom to quench the thirst of his horse.

Edon drew back on Titan’s reins, halting the black stallion in the cool shade of the oak. It was a blessing to have the hot sun off his head. He ran his forearm across his brow and squinted at the hill fort still some good five leagues to the west.

From the top of the last rise, the Avon valley had looked incredibly fertile and productive. On closer inspection, each field showed the effects of long-term drought. The heads of grain were small. The rich black earth was cracked and parched.

“How long has it been since the last rain?” Edon asked in concern. This drought was not an isolated problem. Fields in the land of the Franks were in worse shape. This was the third year of unexplainable drought.

“Too long, curse Loki’s hide,” Embla grumbled. “We’ve done everything we know of to gather clouds in the sky. We have made sacrifices to Freya, cast spells onto the winds for the four dwarfs. Nothing brings us rain.”

She shifted in her saddle and cast a hateful look at the woods beyond the dry river. Lifting her golden, muscled arm, she pointed as she spoke. “There is the root of all our troubles, my lord Edon.”

“How so?” Edon saw no malice in the woods nor felt any evil emanating from it. But he was not a superstitious man who gave credence to spells or omens.

“The headwaters of the Leam lay deep in that woodland. A witch has cursed the river and caused it to dry up as you see it now. Her charms are scattered all about yonder oaks. ‘Tis that evil incarnate that drives away every cloud that gathers in the sky.”

“And would this witch be known to Guthrum by the name of Tala ap Griffin?” Edon asked, his tone as dry as the summer day. Venn cut a sharp glance at his sister. Tala only motioned for him to remain still.

“Aye,” Embla assented. “That’s the one. Should she ever dare to cross the river onto my land, I’ll cut her into seven pieces and trap her soul inside a sealed jar.”

Edon changed his focus from the harmless woodland to his nephew’s wife. A tall, robust woman, Embla of the Silver Throat made a strong impression upon him. Her full breasts were barely concealed by her cotton tunic. Thick loops of corn-colored hair crowned her altogether elegant head. Despite her pleasing form, she was not an appealing woman. Her voice was strained and strident. Her mouth thinned to a grim, downward curve at each corner. Edon preferred women who at least tried to look pleasant tempered.

A finely crafted necklace of chased silver and amber was the only ornament she wore. Even though her breasts joggled freely, there was naught else feminine in Embla’s demeanor. She carried a shield and wore a helmet and leathern armor strapped to her forearms and legs. Edon could see that Embla considered herself a warrior first and last.

“Wait here,” he commanded.

He turned his stallion and galloped back up the dusty hill to intercept his train of possessions. The curtains of the chaise parted and Lady Eloya peered at him inquiringly, her kohl-lined eyes as exotic as her perfumes.

“Is it much farther, my lord Wolf?” Lady Eloya spoke to him in his own tongue, giving Edon a title of awe and rank.

“Not long,” Edon murmured in her native tongue, Persian. He put his hand forward to part the curtain more so that he could see into the dark and cool interior of the chaise. “How fares Rebecca?”

“She is bearing up, my lord, as all women must. The babe waits to present himself in good order. Allah wills it so,” Lady Eloya promised.

“I will do what I can to speed this infernal procession to Warwick, my ladies. You will be comfortable there.” Edon let the silk curtain fall and motioned to Rashid to stay close to the ladies’ caravan.

A woman of unique sensibilities, Rebecca of Hebron had refused Edon’s Persian physician’s assistance this morning when the water of her belly broke and the birth of her child appeared to be their next order of business. Edon had offered to delay their journey to Warwick to accommodate the laboring woman, but Rebecca had decried that suggestion, too. She wanted no part of sitting idle on the open road and insisted the gentle movement of the chaise would soothe both her and the babe. Still, Edon ordered Lady Eloya’s husband, Rashid, to remain close in case his vast skills became necessary.

Edon nodded to the bearers, who immediately lifted the chaise again, then began their steady, measured walk behind the hundred horses of Edon’s entourage.

More slaves pulled the sleds carrying Edon’s menagerie to Warwick. Horses and oxen could not be coaxed into the harnesses dragging the cages bearing Edon’s lion, crocodile and wolfhound. So men did what domesticated animals would not.

The wolfhound’s soulful eyes were as deeply intense and beautiful as Lady Eloya’s—if not more so to Edon. The black that outlined Sarina’s eyes was natural. She gave a mournful howl, unhappy in her whelping cage, crying out to Edon astride his horse. He monitored the sled’s slow progress down the dusty slope.

Caging the wolfhound was necessary. Without it, Sarina would surely have run off into the woods and reverted to the wild. Edon treasured the dog too much to risk losing her.

“Be patient, my lovely,” Edon crooned to the wolfhound, as much in love with her as he was with this land he had dreamed of returning to for so many years. “We are almost home, I promise you.”

Finally Edon watched his guards and the drovers pass beneath the ample shade of the great oak. He let the dust raised by a herd of woolly sheep and nimble goats settle before taking up his wineskin and removing the stopper.

Edon lifted his head and tilted the wineskin to his mouth. It was then his eyes located the spies in the oak’s leafy canopy. Both the boy and the girl held themselves as still as the dying Gaul’s statue on the colonnade in Rome. Leaves fluttered about them, stirred by a hot breeze fueled by the parched land.

When Edon had quenched his thirst, he lowered the wineskin and plugged it. He did not lower his eyes.

“So! You dare to spy on me, do you?” It had been a good dozen years since he’d spoken the odd language of the Britons, but Edon was certain he was understood, for the boy reacted by reaching for the knife at his belt.

“Don’t even think to try something so foolish, boy,” Edon cautioned. “I will have skinned you from ear to ear before you could strike one single blow.”

Venn stilled his hand, convinced the stranger’s words were truth. A more menacing soul Venn had never laid eyes upon. Tala’s quick gasp assured him his sister felt the same tremor of fearful respect.

“I do not take kindly to spies and sneaks. You have until sunset to present yourselves to me at Warwick, state your names and tell me who your thane and your father is.”

Edon gathered the reins in his left hand, preparing to follow his large train of people, baggage and animals to their new home at Warwick.

“Do not make me come looking for either of you. I never forget a face or forgive a slight.” He made his voice soft and low when he spoke again for the spies’ ears alone. “One word of advice to the both of you. Bathe before you present yourselves at my court. I can smell you from twenty feet away. Don’t risk insulting me again.”

He put his heels to Titan’s sides and galloped out from under the oak without looking back.

Venn dropped out of the tree and stood on Fosse Way, shaking his raised fist at the rider’s back as he rode away. “Come back, you dirty Viking, and I’ll show you who stinks!”

Tala joined him and grabbed Venn’s fist, yanking him behind the wide trunk of the oak, out of sight from those who traveled the road.

“Be quiet!” she commanded. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again, brother! If he did come back, he would cut you into pieces!” Though her voice was soft, she was obviously furious at Venn’s foolhardy words. To taunt a Viking jarl couldn’t be borne. Tala would not tolerate such an act of stupidity again.

Venn reached for his bow. “I’ll show him!”

“You’ll do nothing!” She cuffed his ears stoutly, then pushed him roughly back to the beech-tree bridge. Venn resisted the thrust of her hand as she herded him back to safety.

Tala proved how deeply upset the stranger’s discovery and words had made her when she prepared to beat any hint of rebellion out of her younger brother. “Don’t try me, Venn ap Griffin. Defy me and I’ll take a strap to your hide and wear you out!”

She gripped his narrow shoulders and shook him hard, then yanked him to her breasts, as if her arms smothering him could protect him from all danger. Her fingers spread into his dark hair and she whispered, “Never do that again! Never risk your life to provoke a jarl. Do you hear me? Have you forgotten our father and all of our kinsmen who had died at the end of Viking swords?”

“No!” Venn’s voice came to her muffled by the press of her breasts against his face. He was only a boy. Boys who taunted Vikings were not likely to live to become men. That fear justified Tala’s anger, and Venn well knew it.

Pushing him to arms length, Tala stared into his clear blue eyes. “Venn, I promise you, someday you will take your rightful place as a prince in this world,” she said earnestly. “The Vikings will fear and respect you. But today, brother, you are a boy and vulnerable. Time and King Alfred are on our side.”

“King Alfred does nothing for us, Tala. Every day more Vikings sail their long ships to our shores. Alfred does nothing to send them away. No, even when they land their ships in Wessex he merely shows them Watling Street and invites them to go and find the Danelaw. But they come here to Leam to set up their farms. They don’t go to Anglia or York—”

“I am aware of that.” Tala cut off his protests. “But Alfred can’t strike the Vikings down just because you don’t like it when their ships land on Britain’s shores. The kings have both signed a peace treaty. We must rely on their law to protect us. King Alfred promises me so.”

Venn shook his head. “What good are words on parchment? Or treaties with out enemies? A king must act.”

“Nay, we must give Alfred’s law a chance to work. Do as I say—return to the lake and your lessons with Selwyn. See that the girls have done their chores. I will be there anon.”

“Where do you go?” Venn demanded.

Tala shook her loosened braid back onto her shoulders. “Why, to Warwick…to present myself to the new jarl as he commanded. But you will not come, and do not think to disobey my command.” Tala delivered orders easily. At twenty she wielded complete authority over her siblings and their retainers.

Venn knew better than to question her, but he itched to strike out at the arrogant Viking who had taunted them in their own language. Venn would never admit it to his sister, but he was fascinated by the wondrous equipage in the new lord’s entourage and his cages of strange and curious animals.

Too smart to argue, he cast a disdainful glance at her. The two simple clothes that covered Tala’s torso were belted at her waist by a leather girdle. Embla Silver Throat would mock Tala if she went to Warwick thus attired. “You are not dressed to go to court,” he reminded her.

That remark reminded Tala of the stranger’s challenge about bathing. The jarl’s insult had stung her to the core of her femininity. She knew herself to be beautiful, an unattainable woman desired by men of two kings’ courts. Telling color swept into her cheeks.

“See, that is what I mean, little Venn. A grown man is skilled in the art of verbal baiting. He could not tell we were in the trees by our scent,” she said purposefully. “Not unless he has the nose of a wolf.”

“Fear not, I will go to Warwick via the village at Wootten and bathe at Mother Wren’s before I change into robe and crown. All will be well.”

Jarl Edon Halfdansson was disappointed by the appearance of Warwick upon his arrival. He’d bought Warwick Hill itself ten years ago from its last owner, a minor atheling of the old house of Leam. There was much to be disappointed over. Edon’s nephew, Embla’s husband, was missing, and the castle Edon had ordered constructed over the past decade was far from completed.

Warwick offered little respite from the scorching sun. The barest hint of a breeze wafted against the stone walls of the fortress and promptly died. A tremendous heat had built up, inside the great stone keep, and which remained steamier than the catacombs beneath Rome. Not one open shutter allowed air to move from chamber to chamber or floor to floor.

Oh, there were windows and openings, shutters and doors aplenty as per Edon’s construction plans. But Embla had thought it best to bolt the shutters and keep the entrances securely barred. She claimed there was no other way to protect from thieving Mercian thralls the treasures he’d had shipped to Warwick in the intervening years.

Edon didn’t care much for Embla’s disdainful dismal of his plans and orders. Nor had the woman the vision to see that Edon’s well-planned, thick stone walls should have made the vast keep cool in spite of such intense heat— provided the windows and doors were open. Instead, the handsome structure had the appeal of a brick kiln sealed to fire pottery.

Edon was aware of his attendants’ reactions to Warwick. Eli rolled his eyes each time he looked at the steamy green forest, nor could Rashid hide his own awe of the great woods blanketing acres and acres of land. Eloya and Rebecca were near to fainting from the unaccountable heat. They had, in desperation, taken over the bathhouse.

“Tell me,” Edon said easily, putting aside the goblet of watered wine his niece had provided him from her own stores. “When was the last you saw your husband? He has been missing seven moons now, Guthrum said.”

“Eleven moons,” Embla corrected. Her thick fingers tightened on the handle of her short sword. Were she a man that gesture would have made Edon wary. Were he less of a Viking, he might have taken insult. “Too long, my lord Edon. I have given up hope of ever seeing Harald Jorgensson alive again.”

“Surely not.” Edon lifted a hand, inviting her to sit and rest, but Embla ignored it. “You are a Dane’s wife,” he continued. “Your man could be on the high seas. He could this moment be turning his long ship into the north wind or trading for jewels and furs that will please you. Eleven months is nothing. I myself have been on voyages exceeding three years duration.”

“Forgive me for reminding you, Jarl Edon, but the Avon has no outlet to the sea,” Embla replied.

“Ah, but long ships do traverse the other rivers. The Severn and the Trent both have access to salt water.”

“Not good access from deep inland, Jarl Edon. Weirs prevent even the most stalwart of long ships safe passage. No, my Harald has not gone exploring. I know what has happened to him—he was murdered by the druids. Else he remains a captive in the dungeon of the keep on Black Lake.”

“If you think him a captive, why have you not assaulted this keep?”

“No one can reach the lake in the heart of Arden Wood,” Embla told him. “The druids have strewn charms all through the forest, disguising the trails. The witch has cast terrible spells that turn even my bravest warriors into terrified madmen. No, my Harald has been murdered, Jarl Edon. I know it, and none can convince me otherwise.”

Edon made a rumbling noise in his throat as he considered her words. “So my brother Guthrum has informed me, but he said there was no proof to that charge. Harald’s body has not been found. Is that true?”

“Aye.” Embla’s jaw tightened. “Harald disappeared the night of the great druid sacrifice to their god Lugh, August 1.”

“I had not realized there were druids still practicing in these isles,” Edon mused absently. “How curious…and here I thought the Romans put them all to the sword.”

“The savages exist,” Embla said intractably.

She turned her back to Edon, and for an unguarded moment she glared at his entourage. His wagons, sleds and carts filled the entire ward of her utterly inadequate wooden palisade. In Constantinople, where Edon had spent seven years as Guthrum’s hostage-emissary, such a structure intended for defense would have been torched the moment it was erected, just to prove how useless it was.

“Are you absolutely certain of the date of Harald’s disappearance?” Edon asked. “It was at Lammas?”

Embla grasped the wood stakes and tilted her chin, exposing a long throat and wondrous white teeth as she laughed scornfully. “Why wouldn’t I be certain? You haven’t lived here for years as I have done. It was August 1, the feast of Lughnasa. The night the druids sacrifice a living man to their gods of the lakes and rivers.”

“Granted, it has been years since I last lived in Warwick, Lady Embla,” Edon said smoothly, “but I remember the people well. They are for the most part a breed of peaceful, simple farmers.”

Embla snorted. “They are cannibals. Men are put to death over their Beltane fires. Infants are slaughtered and their bones thrown beneath the foundations of their houses.”

“That uncivilized, are they?” Edon remarked with a raised brow. “How amazingly similar we are then. Vikings leave their newborns outside to weather the elements the first night of their lives. By Byzantine and Roman standards we are both barbarians, are we not?”

Embla checked herself. Her blue eyes hardened in judgment of the Viking jarl before her. She thought him a lazy wretch, a weakling softened by the pampered life of a courtier. He was of no use to a woman determined to amass her own inviolate wealth.

Thank Odin, Guthrum had provided her adequate warning of the jarl’s arrival. She’d wished Edon Halfdansson dead many times over the years of her tenancy in Warwick.

Now that she saw him in the flesh for the first time, Embla gave the pampered Wolf of Warwick one sennight in his home shire, certain he wouldn’t last that long before he hightailed it to a retreat in Anglia.

She raised a brow, inquiring archly, “Does our home wine not suit your palate?”

Edon wasn’t so easily baited. “I saw no grapevines thriving in your arid fields.”

“How observant you are, Lord Edon.” Embla’s tone changed smoothly, and she smiled as she pointed south over the spikes of the wood palisade. “Crowland Abbey was fortuitously placed, as was another monastery in Evesham. Both were pitiful places where monks wore out their knees endlessly in prayer. Their vines were well established. Their cellars were also quite full. It was nothing to dispatch the monks to their Christian hell and relieve them of their surplus.”

Edon sampled another taste of the unpalatable wine and deliberately changed the subject. “So who is it that you believe murdered my nephew?”

Embla turned to face him. Her fingers clasped the hilt of her sword again. “The druid, Tegwin.” She straightened, as if refusing to grant Edon dominance over her, despite his height.

He set the cup aside. “What happened to the wine cellar I ordered my nephew to construct? Every casket I’ve brought with me will sour in this heat if it is not properly sheltered from the heat and the sun.”

Embla held a firm check on her simmering temper. She looked toward the fields, which she believed showed her best efforts very clearly. This hideous stone castle of Edon’s had no value or importance. The fertile land wrested from the hands of the lazy Leamurian farmers held the true worth of Warwick.

“I have altered some of your plans, Lord Edon. Owing to the bedrock here at the summit of the hill, it was necessary to place one or two of your requested conveniences elsewhere. Now that you have quenched your thirst, shall I give you a tour?”

“By all means,” Edon agreed, eager to inspect every inch of his property.

The stone keep was primitive and crude to Edon’s eye. But then he was accustomed to the splendors of Constantinople, that gem of cities bustling with artisans, philosophers and scholars.

In time, Edon knew, his own hand would change and alter what was begun here in Warwick. For this was now his home. He was finished with roaming the world, doing his brother’s—King Guthrum’s—bidding. Now, at the age of one score and nine, Edon intended to establish his own court and turn Warwick into a seat of learning to rival Byzantium.

The two-storied square keep was only the beginning of what he planned to build.

Embla proudly took him to her longhouse first. The building was completely roofed with luxuriant thatch. Its pitch was so high that no smoke from the cooking fires stung Edon’s eyes. A raised vent in the center let the smoke rise and allowed a beam of bright daylight inside.

The largest part was used as a hall for feasts and the daily meals. “My chamber is here to the east of the hall, my lord, but if you prefer my services in your keep, I shall move at your convenience.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Edon replied.

Looking around him he saw many thralls at their labors. Women made bread and tended the meat roasting on spits over the open fires. Edon had grown up in surroundings similar to this, as most Vikings did. Farmsteads were the backbone of Viking economy and culture. Embla’s longhouse was no different than any of a thousand like it Edon had inspected in his travels.

He thought fondly of the palaces at Rome and Alexandria. With their courtyards and splendid gardens, there was beauty everywhere a man looked. Given time, Warwick would become such a place.

He returned his attention to the woman, whose walk so reminded him of a proud man’s strut. Edon put out his hand to touch the carved bone handle of her dagger, which her fingers had flown to so often during their conversation. “This is a curious piece. Who made it?”

At the interest in her prized weapons, Embla offered a genuine smile, the first Edon noted. She proudly unsheathed the dagger and laid it in his hand, expecting his admiration. “Falkirk is my carver. He is good with bone and ivory. This is the goddess Freya hunting a boar.”

“An ambitious work.” Edon tested the weight and balance of the blade, but was truly enamored of the skill of the bone carving, the attention to detail and the beauty of the craftsmanship. This carver knew what he was about. “It is a worthy weapon. I trust you have little need to use it for defense.”

“Humph,” Embla scoffed. “Few are foolish enough to challenge me.”

“So I have heard.” Edon smiled and handed her back her knife, offering his own blade for her inspection. “Mine is more modest, but possibly more deadly in the tempering of the Damascus steel. That is what counts where weapons are concerned, is it not?” His smile faded from his lips. “It is far better to never need to have to unsheath one’s weapon in the first place.”

The jarl left Embla with those cryptic words. He walked to the well and took a dipper in his hand to quench his thirst.

Asgart, Embla’s best man, threw the bucket in the well and drew up a fresh supply after Edon had drunk his fill. Suddenly, the soldier gave with a shout and leaned over the rim. Before his eyes, the water level dropped ten feet.

Asgart’s cry of alarm brought everyone in the ward running to the well. The gathering crowd watched the water inch slowly back up the stones that lined the well. It foamed and swirled, a brackish, foul brine. The stench that arose was foul enough to make a strong man stagger.

“The well has been poisoned!” Asgard shouted. He threw the dipper and the bucket to the ground. Edon took a step back because of the stink. Sulfur wasn’t a pleasant smell, though the water he’d just drunk had been sweet and pure.

Embla ran to his side and waved her hand across the rising water, smelling the sulfur-tainted air. Fear and alarm darkened her fair cheeks.

“The well has been cursed!” she announced. “The witch has cast another spell upon us!”

Furious, she turned on Asgart, her hand clenching the hilt of her sword. “Damn you, Asgart, bring me that woman! Double your patrols. Find the witch before she causes any more harm. Bring her to me! She will pay for poisoning my well!”

“As you command.” Her captain saluted by striking his fist to his chest. Before Asgart could call his soldiers to him and comply with Embla’s orders, Edon stepped forward and laid his hand on the captain’s arm.

“There is no need to send out a search party.”

“But…” Asgart sputtered.

“Keep your men here and go about your usual business,” Edon commanded, taking charge of his land and defense of his property. “That was rather presumptuous of my niece to make such a command. I am here now. My men will see to the shire’s defense when necessary, Embla Silver Throat.”

Both the captain and the woman were stunned by Edon’s contradictory order. Only Embla spoke out against it.

“What? You don’t know what goes on here,” she sputtered.

“I know enough to realize that wells fail during droughts, and it doesn’t take witchcraft to accomplish that,” Edon replied sternly. “Send your people back to their work.”

“Get back to work!” she shouted at the thralls who had come to see what was happening. Edon found it hard to decide which frightened the people more, their mistress or their superstitions. In either case, the poor slaves backed away in alarm.

He didn’t believe in such nonsense as wells being cursed by witches. He was astute enough to see that Embla and her people did.

Edon sent one of his captains into the keep to see if the well inside had also been affected. He was met by a servant Lady Eloya had sent running from the bathhouse, to ask what had happened to the water. The sluices in the bathhouse had suddenly gone dry. Rig returned, reporting that the same rotten-egg smell affected the water well in the keep.

Edon gave his head a firm shake, regretting the bad luck of that. “Then we will have to cart water from the river below the palisade. This is quite unacceptable.”

Rig stood beside him as the others moved away. “These people are very superstitious, Lord Edon,” he said quietly.

With a meaningful glance at the retreating form of his niece by marriage, Edon said, “That they are, Rig. Let us hope that we can educate them somewhat over time. Shall we adjourn to the keep?”

вернуться

The day’s heat refused to dissipate until the sun sank within a handspan of the horizon. A soft breeze off the river gently cooled Tala ap Griffin on her walk to the top of Warwick Hill. The fine red glow of the setting sun made it easy for her to slip unnoticed through Warwick’s open gates and approach the stalwart keep. Her hair and her mother’s scarlet cloak simply melted into the vibrant colors of the dwindling light, making any spell for invisibility redundant. She had no need to cloak herself magically when the dwindling light accomplished all. Inside the wood palisade, a commotion drew the curious to the fortress’s communal well.

Curiously, most of the Vikings had gone inside their huts and houses. It was the time of day when their noses led them to steaming pots and fragrant haunches of sizzling venison and pork. Those that lingered in the ward paid no attention to her as she quietly approached the keep and slipped inside.

No dogs barked a warning, no shouts broke the stillness that had come over the land when the cooling breeze lifted off the river. Nothing living took any notice of Tala ap Griffin until she reached the topmost step inside the fortress and came face-to-face with a wolf.

Distracted by the beauty of the setting sun, Edon turned his attention from his crowded table to the wide window aperture gracing his hall. Sundown had come.

He noted the time somberly as he sighed deeply. Come the rising, he would have to go looking for the spies in the oak. He could not allow his authority to be challenged, not even by Warwick’s curious children, else he would not be respected in his own shire.

Sarina’s throaty growl brought Edon’s attention back to the present. At the top of the stairs stood a woman in an exquisite white gown, sheltered by the increasing shadows and a long, flowing scarlet cape. She held herself so completely still in the increasing darkness that Edon almost believed the beautiful woman was an apparition—a vision solely in his mind. He caught his breath, thinking that she could have stood there forever unnoticed by everyone in his hall.

Only Sarina inched toward her, her hackles lifting, her growl a soft warning to Edon’s sharp ears. The woman had eyes for only one thing—the wolfhound coming to the end of her leash.

Edon inhaled deeply of the charged air in his hall and discerned that curiosity was the overriding emotion exchanged between the woman and the wolfhound.

Smiling a welcome for the beautiful woman, Edon came to his feet, lifting one hand to Sarina in a command to halt. Edon’s motion alerted Embla. She started and looked around, then lunged to her feet, upsetting the balance of intrigue between the woman, the wolfhound and Edon.

“Seize her!” Embla shouted.

The newcomer was obviously not a welcome sight to any of Embla’s guards. All six of her Vikings lurched to their feet, bumping their neighbors’ elbows as they drew swords from their scabbards. Embla moved hastily, tipping her goblet and spilling wine across the table.

“Seize her, I said!” the Viking woman screamed.

Edon’s hand clamped onto his niece’s wrist, slamming her sword back home where it belonged. “You overstep yourself, wife of Harald Jorgensson. We are in my hall, at my board. Here the rules of hospitality are more sacred than all the gods in Asgard.”

Tala tore her gaze from the wolf to the black-haired Viking jarl. He spoke without raising his voice, but the authority in his command fixed Embla to marble. Tala had never seen or heard the woman crossed before. Her eyes glowed with venom; her body tightened like a snake poised to strike.

Embla found her voice, recovering as she spun around and confronted the jarl in a shrill voice. “You would allow a Mercian witch to enter your hall? A witch who has tainted Warwick’s wells? She’s come to gloat! She will curse you and steal your soul, suck the breath from your mouth and blood from your heart. Banish her, Lord Edon. You know not what evil you allow.”

“My word, all of that?” Edon undercut Embla’s venom, halving it with an amused chuckle as his gaze returned to the beautiful lady. He envisioned that lovely mouth sucking the breath from his mouth and found the idea appealing.

Sarina crept closer, sniffing at the woman’s trailing scarlet mantle, lifting her nose as Edon did, searching the wind for the newcomer’s scent. Edon considered the lady’s face and white throat and the firm press of her lush bosom against an elegantly crafted tunic.

Two gilded brooches held the separate cloths fastened at her shoulders. A fine gold girdle rested at the peaks of her hipbones, bringing the sheer white linen to a narrow tuck that widened across her hips and fell in graceful folds to her ankles. A jeweled diadem circled her brow and held a wealth of flaming curls away from her face.

Thus far, Embla’s vitriolic attack had only made the stranger smile. And a beautiful smile that was, Edon thought, full of promise and mystery. He allowed his gaze to linger a moment longer on the lovely oval of her face before turning to Embla’s restive guards and commanding them to put down their arms.

“The lady bears no weapons on her person. Sit down and be civil, else you will be evicted from my hall. Rig, bring my visitor to the table and make her welcome. Eloya was wise enough to order a setting prepared for her.”

“I will not eat of the same food that is served to a Mercian,” Embla hissed bitterly.

“Then you will likely starve before our eyes in this hall tonight, Lady Embla. If it so pains you, you may leave and sup in your own hall.” Edon dismissed her, satisfied that Rig had moved to the newcomer’s side and no harm would befall the beautiful lady should Embla choose to leave in anger.

“I see that blood means nothing to you,” the Viking woman sneered.

“On the contrary, wife of my nephew,” Edon said with telling candor. “Blood means everything to me.”

Embla blanched. Her pale lips tightened and her chin jutted out in fury. Edon saw no gain in allowing Embla to think she retained any power now that he’d returned to his shire.

He was not ready to condemn her for the murder of his nephew, but he had his suspicions. So did his brother, Guthrum. Nor would Edon tolerate any direct challenge from her. Best she learn that now.

“Will we be killed in our beds?” Rebecca murmured fearfully from the near side of the table.

“No, we will not,” Edon said resolutely.

Theo turned to distract Rebecca from the commotion of Embla’s exit with her six foul-tempered guards. The newborn’s mewling became a soft undercurrent punctuating Sarina’s throaty growl.

The growling continued until Embla was gone from sight.

Edon realized that it was Harald’s wife the wolfhound took such great exception to, not the Mercian newcomer. He started to settle back into his chair, then realized that the newcomer had yet to take a seat. She had paused to greet Sarina and to speak to the two thralls manning the wine casket. Granted, they were only children that Eloya had selected from the compound, but Edon took umbrage that the woman chose to acknowledge anyone before she had made proper abeyance to him.

Blind Theo turned from soothing his wife and small son, chuckling, “So it begins, Lord Wolf.”

Ever quick to sense any change in Edon’s mercurial temper, Lady Eloya cast a knowing smile his direction. Then she did the unthinkable, speaking out in her clear contralto, in well-practiced Saxon. “Princess, Lord Edon feels ignored.”

Tala turned about so quickly she startled the thralls. Another blotch of wine splattered on the unvarnished floor. Sarina rose to her feet and ambled to the stain, sniffing it noisily.

As she gave ground to the wolfhound, Tala found herself the censure of all eyes. She didn’t know which was worse—standing still for a wolf to come close enough to devour her or confronting the dark Viking’s unfathomable eyes. Frissons of heat skittered over her neck, pebbling the skin on her arms as she turned around to face him. It was the same feeling that had overcome her that afternoon when he’d spied her in King Offa’s oak.

“Why did you call me ‘princess’?” She addressed the women at the table, not knowing which of the ladies present had spoken to her.

A very beautiful lady at the far end of the boards deigned to reply. “Because Lord Edon’s oracle, my husband, Theo the Greek, told us we would have a true princess dine at our table our first night in Warwick. We are in Warwick and you are the only visitor that has come to the hall.”

“Ergo, you are the princess.” Edon finished the theorem with simple logic. He saw no reason to add the dictum that the gold torque encircling her neck also proved the theorem valid. He came to Rig’s side and took hold of the woman’s hand. Her fingers were warm and moist, pale against his sun-browned skin.

“I am honored to be given such rank,” Tala replied. She dipped in a proper bow of respect to the lord and all of his guests at the table. “Forgive my interruption of your meal, but I was ordered to present myself at sunset.”

Edon blinked in surprise. This beauty standing before him was the bare-limbed nymph in the oak? He shook his head in denial. “You are not the girl I saw hiding in the oak.”

“And you said you never forgot a face.” She delighted him with a playful smile. “‘Haps I should have disobeyed your command and tested your memory, as well as your eyes.”

Edon looked closer, admiring the neatly tamed curls held by a net to her diadem. Her fair skin was kissed by the sun, warm and glowing. Wispy red curls escaped at her temple and brow.

“I did not command that you come alone,” Edon responded tersely. He felt slightly chilled at the idea of her facing Embla’s animosity unprotected.

“I did not say I came alone.” Tala chose her words carefully. “It is no matter at the present. You have ample swordsmen and warriors at your table to protect many ladies, be they princesses or not.”

Edon deliberately let his gaze move to the empty stairs. “Then summon the boy. He will sup with us as well.”

“What boy? I know no boys, lord.”

So she would spar words with him, would she? Did she think his eyes were as sightless as Theo’s? Edon motioned to Rig. “Have you discovered the princess’s name?”

A handsome smile lightened the planes of Rig’s lean cheeks. “Indeed I have, Edon. May I present Tala ap Griffin? Princess, this wolf in fine clothing is Edon Halfdansson, Jarl of Warwick.”

The dancing amber lights in the princess’s eyes dimmed slightly, as if she’d suddenly recalled a sobering thought. She removed her hand from Edon’s. “You are brother to Guthrum and son of Halfdan, late king of the Danelaw?”

“Guilty as charged,” Edon answered. He drew back the seat beside his own and placing his hand firmly at the small of her back, guided her to it. She stiffened at his touch, declining to take the seat immediately. By doing so, she wrested control of his hall from his hand. If she would not sit, he could not. If he did not sit, the food would grow cold and no one could eat.

“What ill do you bear my late father?” Edon asked, playing her game momentarily. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. His hand warmed to the sweet curve at the small of her back. “Halfdan has been gone to Asgard a score and five years. You are not old enough to have been ravished by him, and I know for a fact he did not venture this far south of the security of York.”

“Perhaps I am not from the south,” Tala countered.

“Ah, but you are, Princess. You are a royal Leamurian. The torque at your throat proclaims you that. Embla bears you great ill and openly calls you a witch. Has she reasons for her animosity, valid ones?” Edon asked silkily.

He allowed his hand to move slowly up the delightful curve of her spine, enjoying the way she pressed back into his hand, seeking a distance he wouldn’t allow. He smiled deliberately, as if to ask who is in control now?

“Embla Silver Throat is well-known for her malice.” Tala couldn’t take her eyes from his. “She spreads it about her indifferently, sparing no one.”

“She empowers you with the cunning of a witch.”

Tala’s laugh at that bald charge echoed into the high ceiling of Edon’s hall. “Aye, so she does.”

“You do not deny the charge?”

“To what purpose? Vikings are known for their stupidity and superstitious ways. Both run hand in hand with brute force. Embla has mastered all there is to learn of that.”

“Now you try to provoke me. Sit down, Tala ap Griffin. The food grows cold and others in this chamber want to have their bellies filled before the moon rises. Mind the insults you levy, lest you find there are no stupid Vikings at my table.”

That the warning bore a truth was as evident as the deep cleft in the jarl of Warwick’s handsome chin. Tala gave in to his command and took the seat beside him. Sitting allowed her some measure of relief, as he removed his possessive hand. But the imprint remained like a brand from a hot iron, tormenting her.

A servant hastily cleared away Embla’s spilled goblet, whisking clean linen and gold plate in its place before Tala. She squirmed on the hard chair, tearing her gaze from Eden’s face to look at the people at his table. Her palms grazed the lovely carved wood at her hips as she adjusted the chair closer to the table.

Edon watched her fingers unconsciously caress the carved wolf heads and wondered what the stroke of those same fingers would do to his own flesh. He watched as she gave in to a moment of curiosity, studying the various personages at his table. That allowed Edon more time to enjoy the pure curve of her cheek and the symmetry of a perfect nose above lips so sweetly red and full he imagined she’d consumed a handful of berries prior to coming to his hall.

Her gown was in no way unattractive, with its classic lines, but it was not something constructed just for her. The bright kirtles and fitted silk gowns his ladies favored would better suit her strong coloring and lush figure.

She wore not a trace of perfume, neither oil of attar nor the modest scents of herbal soaps. That appealed to him deeply, for he loved the scent of a woman. That was the richest perfume of all.

The food was served and the meal commenced, during which Edon introduced her to his guests and friends. As ladies were wont to do, she and Eloya struck up a fast friendship, asking about the gowns each was wearing, the source of the rich cloths. The princess seemed very pleased to learn that Eloya and two of her ladies were skilled with needle and thread. Warwickshire needed more such talents.

Amused, Edon and his men let the conversation drift along those lines while they ate their fill. When asked where she had come by her jewelry, Tala ap Griffin became quite animated in her speech, praising the talents of her craftsmen. Her goldsmiths were all Celts trained in Erin who traveled the ancient trade route from Dublin to Anglesey. They, like every goldsmith in the land, congregated in the great trade center of Chester, which used to be Tala’s home.

It wasn’t all that long before amber eyes turned fully to Edon, catching him in his most thorough inspection. A soft auburn brow rose in an arch. “Am I to be devoured, sir? Like the mutton on your platter?”

Edon moved his shoulder closer to hers and lowered his voice so that she alone could hear his words. “You are not the sprite I spied in the tree.”

“What makes you think so?” Tala asked.

Edon considered his answer with care, because it was not his way to give in to an instant attraction. Women surrendered at his beck and call, not vice versa. This woman had a seductive, enchanting power about her that spoke volumes to the barbarian inside him. He wanted to conquer her, take her to his bed in the next chamber and pull her beneath him.

It was a strong and powerful urge, fueled by the fact that he had the consent of two kings to compel her into marriage. Both kings knew of the ancient taboo prohibiting the marriage of the princess of Leam, the Celtic equivalent of Rome’s Vestal Virgins. Edon acknowledged only that she was lovely and highly desirable, not the untouchable woman he’d been led to expect, a woman whose allure would be somehow both sacred and profane.

“The sprite in the oak tree was all impulse and curiosity, while tonight you are a mysterious princess deliberately choosing each word and action. You are the kind of woman to be tasted again and again, one delicious bite at a time.”

Tala inhaled sharply and drew back enough that the flambeaux illuminated his dark face fully. The jarl was overpowering this close. Her heart racketed in her chest, making it difficult to draw a full breath. He was a wickedly attractive man, handsome and earthy. His black hair spread back from his head like a lion’s mane, full of curls and waves.

His brow was wide but his jaw wider, and unlike many of his peers, his cheeks were sleekly shaved. He did not allow even a mustache to grow upon his upper lip, to spoil the deep curves of his expressive mouth. Her gaze fled from them to the brilliant blue of his eyes, so dark they almost seemed as black as his hair. The Romans had a word for a man like him: satyr.

“I see that you are a man of vast appetites,” she said carefully, with a telling glance at the table before them. “Many ladies grace your table, one suckling a newly born son. Do not look at me with such hungry eyes. I am not your next conquest, I promise you, Lord Viking. I am here because it suits my purpose to meet and address you.”

Edon smiled and took the pitcher of wine from the trembling hands of the young thrall so that he could have the pleasure of refilling the princess’s goblet himself. “And what purpose is that, princess?”

Tala moistened her lips and told herself to be bold. No timid heart would secure Venn’s future.

“Petitions have been sent and recorded by the king of the Danelaw and the king of Wessex. Twenty of my thanes and more than a hundred freeholders and their families and thralls have been maimed, enslaved or murdered by your agent, Embla Silver Throat, since the kings signed the Treaty of Wedmore.”

“Is that so?” Edon set the pitcher aside. He knew the facts and was here to set the record straight. Like any woman, the princess exaggerated to prove her point.

“Aye, it is,” Tala continued, gaining confidence by the moment. He was not as intimidating as she’d first believed. She lifted the gold goblet full of wine, drank its delicious contents and said clearly, “I was sent word from Winchester that Jarl Harald would be replaced by another.”

“Were you?” Edon smiled.

He would choke on that smile in a moment, Tala thought, smiling in tandem. “My cousin, King Alfred, assures me the wergild due me is to be paid in full.”

“Did he?” Edon remarked, casting not a single glance at any of the gold on his table. The silly fool mistakenly thought a wergild was paid to her. She was wrong. It was a penalty tax—paid to the king.

“Yes, it is so. I am happy to see this evidence of your wealth spread so generously on your board. Suffice it to say the wergild for hundreds of slain and captured Leamurians will beggar Warwick to redeem it. At long last Guthrum and Alfred’s treaty brings justice to my people.”

Undaunted, Edon smiled for the bold lady’s enjoyment. “I, too, am glad that you so willingly and openly expose your trump hand, Tala ap Griffin. You are not the only flea in the ear of kings. I come fresh from court with orders of my own to enforce on the land called Warwick.”

“My land,” Tala declared forcefully. “Viking land ends at Watling Street, well above the Avon. Every scrap of earth between the Severn and the river Trent belongs to the kingdom of Learn, from Weedon Bec to Loytcoyt. The rivers, the forests of Arden and Cannock and all the creatures in them are mine to harvest, not yours.

“Furthermore, I want this fortress razed and the bridge cleared of obstruction. I order my thanes and thralls released from the enslavement imposed upon them by King Guthrum’s agent, Embla Silver Throat.

“Secondly, I want your freeholders to take their cattle and their wives and concubines and children to the other side of Watling Street, where you belong. Do that and I will rescind the death warrant sworn against Embla Silver Throat by Alfred of Wessex. He is my kinsman and will listen to me.”

Edon sighed. His raised his palm, commanded her to silence. “I am here to end the bickering and enforce the peace of two kings. The disputed land known as Warwick has become a troublesome shire. Both kings wish to see their realms well peopled by men of war, men of God and men of work. They tire of women who squabble like children behind their backs.”

“Squabble like children?” Tala took exception to that odious description. “I squabble with no one. Your king claims it is a matter of law, not heredity, that proves title and ownership. To that end we Leamurians have put our efforts into drafting laws of ownership sanctioned by our king, Alfred. I do not engage in useless bickering.”

“Are you saying Embla Silver Throat does?” Edon asked.

“Embla Silver Throat engages in murder and mayhem, slaughtering any who oppose her or stand in her way.”

“How is it then that she has not slaughtered you, Tala ap Griffin?”

“Because I am never so foolish as to try to face her alone. I choose to call her to task before the court of kings.”

“But you came here to my hall—alone,” Edon reminded her.

“You assume that.”

“Very well.” Edon gave her that point. She was crafty and smart, adept in using the arts of the diplomat. Her endless petitions to Guthrum proved those facts. “May I tell you that my duty is to enforce all the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore, to which you have already referred?”

“You cannot enforce what you will not respect.” Tala’s eyes narrowed cautiously. “I will not listen to arguments that put my people at fault, when they are the victims of Embla’s vast greed and ungoverned cruelty. Every day she burns more of my forest.”

“There will be no more burning of the woodlands,” Edon said with quiet authority. “Such fires put us all at risk in times of drought. I have ordered them stopped.”

“Will you also move your people behind the agreed boundary of Watling Street?”

“That I cannot do,” Edon replied.

“Well, you shall, else there will be no end to—”

“Hear me out, Princess.” Edon stopped her tirade. “This is not an eyre. This is my supper table. Here we dine pleasantly and converse upon ideas to stimulate thought and creativity. You will save your complaints for the judgment of my court when it is convened.”

“How convenient Viking law is,” Tala replied, without holding back her scorn. “I have not risked my life coming here merely for the civility of your board.”

“You came because I commanded you to come.”

“No.” Tala assured him. “I came to state my terms and demand reparations. The sooner made, the sooner we’ll have done with one another.”

Edon very deliberately shook his head. He cast a look across the table to Rig, who had quietly returned to his seat after searching outside for the boy Edon had told him to go and look for. A jerk of Rig’s head told Edon the boy had not been found.

“Very well, lady.” Edon sighed and leaned back against the cushions of his high-backed chair. “You have given me your terms. Now I must give you the terms of two kings. Tala ap Griffin, I present to you Nels of Athelney, King Guthrum’s confessor.”

A man directly across the table from Tala rose to his feet and bowed deeply from the waist. Tala blinked at him, not certain if she had seen him before. He seemed rather familiar, dressed in a brown woolen tunic with a broadsword belted to his hips. As strong as any man at the jarl’s table, he befitted the sword.

“Princess Tala, it has been a very long time coming, but I am most pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Nels of Athelney. She was nearly a legend in King Alfred’s court—a reminder of the days of Camelot and Arthurian epic, closely tied in the minds of Alfred’s subjects to the Lady of the Lake and mystical Avalon.

“Tell the princess your purpose for being here, Bishop Nels,” Edon prompted.

“Simply put, my lord Wolf, I am charged with the duty of seeing that all persons residing in Warwickshire are baptized Christians…with a sword at their throat if necessary.”

“You may have noticed, Tala ap Griffin, that I came with soldiers enough to see that joint edict of King Guthrum and King Alfred fulfilled within the month granted us to accomplish it. My general, Rig, has already accepted the teachings of the Christ and proudly wears the cross King Guthrum has given him.”

Tala looked from the soldiers to the dangerous man seated beside her. Edon of Warwick continued speaking horrifying words.

“Once the conversions are done, I am to staunch the wounds that cut so bitterly between neighbors on the same land. As palatine of this shire, I will hold a monthly eyre to judge and settle grievances. The morning after the new moon rises, you may bring to me your petitions, which have harried two kings. I shall deal with each charge as it is proved.”

“What?” Tala gasped. “You could not possibly sit in fair judgment over my people. You jest, Viking!”

“Nay, I do not,” Edon growled, not liking her reaction one bit. She glared at him as though he was something vile and unspeakable, not a polished, educated man of the world. “Make use of your days of grace as you will, Princess. Once you find yourself charged with treason before this Viking, there will be no more skulking in trees, spying upon the unwary and conducting mischief with the waters that fuel this land.”

“What now?” Tala demanded scornfully. “Do you accuse me of witholding the rain and drying up the rivers?”

“Not I, Princess.” Edon held back a laugh at her preposterous words. Her humor was not the issue. “It is time you learned you are not the only person capable of delivering ultimatums to kings. As you have harried Alfred, Guthrum’s niece has pleaded with him for redress.”

“So?” Tala replied hotly.

Edon smiled wickedly, taking a small taste of satisfaction in her discomfort over that news. She was truly naive, a mere innocent in the ways of wielding power. He leaned deliberately closer to her, inhaling her sweet fragrance as he allowed his fingertips to stroke soothingly across the satiny skin of her bare arm.

“Nor did you deny being a witch when the question was put to you at the beginning of this meal,” he said huskily. “So tell me, Tala ap Griffin. How does that slipper fit now?”

вернуться

Tala’s answer came as a resounding slap on the jarl’s face. Refusing to stay and be insulted further, she bolted from his table.

Halfway to the bottom of the steps, Edon caught up with her, jerked her off her feet and flung her over his shoulder.

“You bastard, put me down! How dare you touch me! Selwyn! Stafford! I need you!” Tala screamed. She pounded her fists into the jarl’s massive back, aiming for the soft flesh at his kidneys.

“Bar the gates!” Edon commanded the astonished soldiers standing in the keep’s lower chamber. “Arrest any man who draws a weapon in her defense. Detain him for questioning.”

Without further words, Edon spun around and marched back up the stairs and through the hall, bearing the screaming, struggling woman on his shoulder. She was not easy to contain, fighting him with all her might. What she lacked in muscle and weight she made up for in sheer determination.

The moment Edon entered his chamber and dropped her on his box bed, he caught hold of her hands and flattened her to the feather mattress. In spite of the great difference between their weights, she continued to whip about, as slippery as eels in a bowl of oil, twisting and bucking beneath him, screaming her throat raw, piercing his eardrums with her shrieks.

Her terror increased tenfold as her struggles caused her simple gown to tear from the brooches at her shoulders.

Still angered by her effrontery, by the insult she’d delivered him in slapping him publicly, Edon let her wear herself out. His grip upon her hands remained firm, keeping her spread beneath him.

Sarina bounded into the chamber and jumped on the bed. The wolfhound stuck her wet nose in the howling princess’s face, whining and wiggling, distressed by the woman’s ear-piercing shrieks.

“You are only making it worse for yourself,” Edon said at last. He felt no sympathy whatsoever for the headstrong woman. Did she think he had no pride? Had she not given a single thought to the fact that he, too, was an atheling, the son of a king? Striking him in the face was an unforgivable insult. “Get down, Sarina!”

The wolfhound whined and nuzzled his cheek. Then, concluding that Edon would not play, she bounded off the bed and sat, thumping her tail on the floor.

Tala commanded, “Release me at once, Viking!”

“Lady,” Edon warned her, his patience dwindling fast, “speak to me again in that tone of voice and I will have no choice but to teach you to respect the man you see before you.”

“Strike me and I will kill you with my bare hands, Viking!” Tala gulped, struggling for her breath.

“And how will you do that, hmm?” Edon taunted. “With what weapon will you slay me, woman? Your viper’s tongue? These hands that you cannot remove from my grip?”

Edon nodded to her bared breasts, exposed in the beam of moonlight that spilled into the chamber from the open window. “The only success you have had thus far is in baring your bosom. Continue the show. I shall enjoy seeing what other charms your struggles reveal.”

“Barbarian!” Tala screamed. “You tricked me. I will not be mocked.”

“You do not dictate terms to me, woman,” he responded with terrifying severity.

“Selwyn!” Tala gave her all to one last scream, knowing full well it did her no good. In her arrogance, she had come alone. There was no valiant warrior lurking in the shadows to take down this Viking. Alone, she would defeat him or surrender to him.

She bucked in a futile attempt to unman him, thinking she would leap out the window if she got the chance. Raising her right knee only increased the intimacy of their position, centering his hips more firmly on hers.

“You are crushing me, Viking. I will be bruised from head to foot.”

“The damage is of your own doing. Cease your struggling and it will go better for you.”

“I would rather die now and be done with you, cur.”

Edon shifted her wrists, forcing her hands into the bedding beside her head. “I think you will not die tonight, Tala ap Griffin. That would add injury to insult. I have a much different plan for you. You are to be used to heal the breach between Wessex and the Danelaw.”

She clawed at his forearms, scratching at the golden bands he wore for protection. “You will not use me!” she declared vehemently, revealing the pride inherent in her soul. She needed to be taught a lesson, that much Edon saw quite clearly.

He wanted to kiss her fury from her mouth, taste her lips and slip his tongue inside. Astutely, he knew conquering her by force would not satisfy him. There was no pleasure in having his tongue or his lips bitten. So he tipped his head to the vulnerable column of her throat and tasted her heated flesh. His teeth nipped at her ear. The sharp sound of her breath whistling against her dry lips pleased him.

“Please get off me.” Tala swallowed enough of her pride to make a request out of necessity. He had her pinned to the edge of his crude bed. “The wood of your bed is cutting me in two. I do not lie.”

“Open your legs and the pain will cease,” Edon drawled, preoccupied with the soft exposed flesh of her pebbled breasts. A shiver skittered down her spine as he deliberately stroked his chin across her nipple. Then his hot, wet mouth closed upon her breast.

“No!” Tala jerked her head back violently. She tried to twist out from between the wood and his hips.

The intimacy of the cradle she made for him was not lost upon her. Nor did her altered position give her anywhere near enough relief. It made matters worse.

“Viking, you come dangerously close to violating me,” Tala hissed, her words strained. “All of Mercia will rise in revolt to avenge the dishonor you do me.”

Edon took his own time answering. He enjoyed toying with her breast, which was as responsive and sweet as any he’d ever fondled. He left it a wet and quivering pebbled peak when he raised his head at last and gazed into her narrowed, angry eyes.

“All of what once was Mercia has sued for peace, Tala ap Griffin. You are the talisman King Alfred offers to pacify the Danes. There will be no man standing forward, challenging my rights over you. The pacts have been sealed and accepted by two kings. You will surrender to their will…and to mine.”

“I will kill you with my bare hands if need be, Viking,” she promised.

Edon dropped his head to her breast again. She was powerless, but her pride was such that she would not admit it. As he nibbled a sensitive trail across her chest and began to lave and kiss her other breast, she called down a rain of insults upon his head, imploring her gods to avenge her and strike him dead. But no thunderbolt fell. No keening spirit took shape and form and stirred the wind.

In due time his ministrations began to have their effect. She squirmed deliciously against him, moaning involuntarily against the pleasure of his intimate touch. Through the thin linen of his tunic, Edon felt her belly tighten exquisitely and her loins begin to dampen, readying itself for the conquest that was still to come.

That she could not control her desire satisfied Edon for the moment. It was important to him to know that the woman he must marry was not immune to him physically. She would be the mother of his heirs…the sons who would inherit Warwick in the years to come. He could not bed her without pleasure there for the both of them.

“Tell me when you exhaust your font of threats.”

His caustic words made Tala look sharply at his face, seeking his eyes in the shadows. Moonlight allowed her to see his tempting mouth and straight nose and the wickedly superior arch of his black eyebrows. He took liberties no man had ever dared to from her and preened like a peacock because of it.

Her heart pounded inside her chest like a drum. She could barely moisten her mouth enough to speak above her fear. “You are not going to ravish me?”

“Is that what you want? Proof that I am a barbarian?” Edon asked plainly.

“You take pleasure in mocking me.”

“As I am taking my pleasure in ravishing you this very moment. What next, Princess? Shall I carry you to the cliff and chain you to the rocks above my quarry? Sue your king for a ransom? Await the brave knights of Wessex, come to slay the dragons in the caves and free you?”

“This is preposterous. We have nothing to discuss. Let me go, I implore you.”

“Not until you give me assurances that you will behave as a lady, contain yourself and sit at peace within my manse.”

“I will mouth no empty promises to a Viking.” She spat out the words with a full measure of scorn.

Edon straightened his arms and raised his shoulders. His movement increased the pressure of his hands upon her wrists. “Rig!”

In an instant his man appeared in the gap of the open door. “Lord, how may I serve you?”

“Bring me two strips of braided leather and a cloth suitable for gagging this woman. I tire of her vapid conversation.”

“You oaf! We are not conversing.” Tala jerked her right hand off the bedding, trying to slap him again.

“Your powers of deduction astonish me,” Edon growled, and he slammed her arm back onto the feather bed. He gave her wrist a punishing twist to teach her the futility of her struggles. Then he grew serious, ending the game between them. “Why did the boy not come with you?” he demanded.

“Because I sent him home,” Tala snapped.

“Where is your home?”

“You built a damned fortress on top of it!”

Edon dropped his elbows onto the bed beside her. Her swollen breasts were very fetching now, displayed so prettily by her uneven breathing and the dishabille of her gaping gown. Rig returned and tossed long strips of cloth and two rawhide laces onto the bed at Edon’s right hand.

Tala looked to her left as the objects landed. She quickly looked back at the Viking, too aware that her heart had begun a new cadence inside her chest. His mood had changed. A moment ago his threat had contained a playful edge to it. Now the air between them throbbed with true danger.

“You wouldn’t dare tie me up.”

“Lady, I dare anything.”

“Release me and we will begin anew.”

“Nay.” His eyes fixed firmly upon hers, granting no quarter. She had foolishly walked into his trap.

“You can’t be allowed to wander in and out at will. My niece wants to cut you into seven pieces and store your soul in a jar. My king wants you baptized and made into a Christian. Your king wants you married with unseemly haste. And I, lady, wish to relieve my bladder. This position is becoming more untenable by the moment.”

“By Anu’s shrouds, you are an ass. Go and piss into the wind and leave me be, Viking.”

“Shortly.” Edon released her hands all at once and took up the bindings.

Tala didn’t bother to resist being gagged and bound. The Viking had already won the struggle. Her hands were too numb to do any harm to him. He stuffed the cloth in her mouth and bound the gag around her face, flipped her onto her belly and tied her hands securely at the small of her back.

Smugly satisfied with his work, he slapped her bottom soundly as he removed his weight. Edon of Warwick gave the wolf a command to guard her, and departed. Tala choked on her own fury.

As uncomfortable and miserable as she was, Tala still dozed as the night lengthened. Where the Viking had taken himself to, she couldn’t guess. The manse quieted quickly. Voices in the hall became muffled, their owners respecting the mewling cries of the newborn infant. The wolf fretted between spells of whining and turning round and round in a circle, her claws clicking on the floor.

Tala felt just as anxious as the beast. She had to get home. Venn would be worried sick. Stafford would be ready to call out the guard and storm the hill if Venn dared to admit where Tala had gone.

An eon later, Edon of Warwick returned. He unfastened his breeks, stripped them from his lean hips and dropped onto the bed beside her. Tala flipped her head to the other side, glaring at him in mute entreaty.

He slid his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling, pretending he couldn’t hear her muffled groveling.

“Lady, ‘tis late. Do not start your bellyaching. I do not intend to listen.”

To prove that he closed his eyes and ignored her for a good long while. Tala lay absolutely still, impotently raging against the urge to kick him into the otherworld. After a long, long while he opened one eye, peeking at her. She blinked. She heard larks singing and was certain the sun would rise any moment.

The mattress shifted as he turned to his side, facing her. He lifted her diadem from the back of her head. With surprisingly gentle hands, he removed the sheer net that had held back her hair.

Edon let his fingers spread through the tangle of fiery curls gathered at the back of her head. He marveled at the soft texture of the strands and the vibrant color that moonlight could not diminish. The knot of the gag tangled in the curls.

He dismissed the churlish feeling that hounded him for having left her bound so long. Gruffly, he said, “Are you going to cooperate with me now, woman?”

Tala nodded mute agreement. Her downcast eyes did not impress him. Rebellion clearly simmered under the surface of her submission.

Edon grasped her shoulders and sat her up. Her gown fell to her waist. His breath caught in his throat at her shocking beauty and he made a vain effort to hide the effect the sight had upon him. The gods had not known what they were doing when they made women so beautiful that strong men fell weak in the knee before them. Steeling his resolve to ignore her abundantly pleasing attributes, Edon took his knife from the table next to the bed and unsheathed the blade.

“Do not move!” he commanded in a surly voice. He cut the bonds from her wrists, then slid the blade inside the knot at the back of her head. The binding fell apart. He tossed the blade onto the bedding beside his right knee and pulled her back against his naked chest. He removed the wad of cloth from between her teeth, tossing it to the floor.

She wagged her jaw back and forth and swallowed hard several times. Edon grasped her hands, holding them before her. They were cold and stiff, her fingers swollen. Her head fell back against his shoulder as he rubbed her fingers and palms, massaging firmly.

“The pain will end shortly,” he said.

Her response was a curt nod. He renewed his efforts at restoring the blood to her numb extremities. Her naked breasts brushed his hands and forearms. The soft, tempting cones stood out against the pale cloth of her gown pooled low over her hips.

Edon deliberately laid her useless hand on her thighs, knowing she would not move them voluntarily—not before the painful tingling of waking flesh abated. He stroked his hands up her bare arms and caressed her shoulders, gently massaging her neck and throat.

“You are very beautiful, Tala ap Griffin. No, do not try to speak. I will tell you what I think, and you will listen to my words because I am going to be your husband very soon. There is only one logical solution for the question of who is entitled to rule Warwick. That is to unify our separate claims by marriage. I am glad your breasts appeal to me. I want to put my hands on them and rub them like I am rubbing your hands, but you are angry and I won’t. Later you will be very happy to let me touch your breasts and see you naked. You won’t want to clobber me, because you will be grateful for all the pleasure I give you.”

Tala swallowed. She’d been choking with that gag in her mouth. Now she couldn’t muster a drop of saliva to spit in his eye. The monster deserved to have his throat slit with his own knife. She would do it, just as soon as the stinging pains in her arms abated.

Edon placed a chaste kiss upon her temple. He did not dare kiss her quivering mouth. It would be over if he did, for he could not control his desire for her much longer. He got up, reaching for his breeks and drew them on, minding the discomfort of his arousal.

King Alfred insisted she was a virgin, revered by her people and untouched even at the advanced age of twenty. She had the freedom to roam the forest of Arden—nay, all of ancient Mercia—protected by the golden torque encircling her throat. None who saw her dared molest her, for a princess of Leam was as sacred to the Celts as their Lady of the Lake herself.

Whether she was virgin or not, Edon didn’t care to strain his control further by lighting a lamp and seeing her naked before him when he was fully aroused. He’d had enough sweet temptation to last him a good long while. When next he toyed with her, he would take her.

But that delight was for another day. Fastening his belt at his hips, he reached for flint and iron. He coaxed a flame onto the wick of the tin lantern, then hung the oil lamp on the hook beside his bed.

The princess of Leam’s slanted amber eyes gazed at him. He stared at her breasts and the faint cinnamon freckles that glazed their plump curves and her shoulders. Cinnamon freckles were very nice.

He reached for her, saying, “Come. Stand before me and I will do what I can to fix your gown. You look a fright. My people will think I have already bedded you.”

“Ass,” Tala croaked as he brought her to her feet.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Edon wagged a finger under her nose. “Provoke me and I will push you onto your back and have my way with you now. I am a man. I am as weak as any other man. Your king wants this nonsense in Warwick ended, and I know exactly the way to end the squabbling between two women. I do what kings command. You have no say in the matter whatsoever, so we will not argue about such silly things again.”

Edon turned her slightly, to grasp the top of her gown and bring the halves together at her left shoulder. He unpinned the brooch and folded the cloth securing the pin. He frowned, judging his work satisfactory, then turned to her other side, repeating the process.

“There. That will work. You are much more desirable with your clothes gathered at your hips. I will not mind having a Brit with such beautiful breasts for a wife, so long as you can keep your tongue behind your teeth.”

Tala tilted her head as she glared at him. The Viking sod hadn’t the good sense the gods granted the sparrows. How dare he so abuse her—a princess of Leam. She would kill him before she consented to marry him! She turned aside and reached toward the bed, grasping his knife. But when she straightened to stick it in his throat, the handle slipped out of her numb, tingling hand. The blade fell and thrummed as its point stuck in the wooden floor.

Startled by her quick move to the offense, Edon bent and retrieved his weapon. Resolving not to be so careless in the future, he put it back in its sheath, secure on the belt at his waist.

Ignoring him and angry at her own ineptness, Tala stalked out into the darkened hall. The trestle had been taken down, but a sideboard held a pitcher and cups and a wooden bowl of fruit. She filled a cup and drank it dry. By then Edon of Warwick had donned his leggings and shoes and covered his wide chest with a tunic.

“Come, you may show me the way to your home now, Tala ap Griffin. Your servants will be worried sick.”

“I’m never speaking to you again,” Tala croaked in the best voice she could muster.

The Wolf of Warwick cocked his head to the side, staring at her quizzically. “Frankly, lady, I count that a relief. Women have a great tendency to chatter overly much, so I shall appreciate having one in my household who is silent. Come, my men have the horses ready. I have a great deal of work to do on the morrow.”

Ignoring him completely, Tala headed down the stairs. She prayed for him to trip and fall and break his neck. When he reached the bottom floor in one piece, she realized prayers weren’t the answer. She should have cast a spell.

Wise enough to outsmart most Vikings in the Danelaw, Tala gave Jarl Edon instructions to the village of Wootton instead of to the forest. Mother Wren was beside herself, pacing the parched, brown grass outside her cottage, fearing the fate that had befallen her charge in Warwick. She gave a shout of joy when she spied Tala on the jarl’s mount as he rode into her yard.

Then, because the crone was matriarch to all and sundry that remained of the dwindling folk of Leam, she lit into the Viking.

“You had no right keeping my lady out to the wee hours of the morn!” the old harridan complained. She gathered the princess against her bosom, cooing over Tala as if she were Wren’s very own chick.

Edon gave the cottage a good look, fixing it in his mind. He intended to return very soon and visit his bride-to-be. The more time he spent with her, the less she would resist their approaching nuptials.

“Where are the princess’s guards, Selwyn and Stafford, and her brother, Venn?” he asked the old woman.

“Out!” Mother Wren snapped testily. “Searching the fens for her. Where else would they be, lord? In the loft asleep like lazy, uncaring curs? Not our brave Selwyn and Stafford. As for Venn, he may be a boy but he knows his duty to his sister.”

Edon grumbled under his breath. He wanted the boy in his custody, now more than ever. If he took Venn ap Griffin back to Warwick, there’d be no argument whatsoever from Tala when the king’s confessor recited the vows. “When the atheling returns, tell him I will send my man Rig to fetch him midafternoon. He may accompany me hawking.”

“Oh! Venn will like that, he will.” Mother Wren cackled, pretending to agree, when she knew better. Venn would spit in the Viking’s eye. “Now be off with you. My lady’s near to fainting as she stands.”

Wren hurried Tala inside the cottage, slamming shut the half door. They both hugged each other for support, lest they collapse as they listened for the Vikings to ride away.

“My lady—” old Wren exhaled deeply, her hand pressing hard upon her heart “—this night my hair went from gray to white in the span of a moonrise. Do this to me again and I’ll be laid out from stone to stone.”

“Wren, you are a more splendid mummer than the stagmen of Arden Wood.” Tala hugged the old woman tightly and kissed her wrinkled cheek in deepest gratitude. “Thank you, thank you. I feared you would give the game away when he demanded to know Venn’s whereabouts.”

Wren cackled and patted her arm. “It takes little guile to fool a Dane, child.”

It wasn’t long before Tala paced the cottage in high dudgeon, raising small clouds of dust on the hard-packed earth floor with her feet. She’d exchanged her royal mantle and sadly mangled gown for her hunting dress and had put her gold armbands and diadem in the casket where they remained safe between uses.

“Have you heard a single word I’ve said, Mother Wren?”

“Yes, yes, I heard every word.” the old woman sat on her stool, yanking at her distaff. She jabbed a favorite bone on the bottom and gave it a twirl, making the stick spin. Bent fingers fed the spinning wood a hank of wool, and a thread formed in the blink of Tala’s eye. “All of Leam is to become Christians and you’re to marry a Viking. I heard you say it all only moments ago. What of it? Being a Christian isn’t so bad.”

“What of it?” Tala’s hands tightened to fists. “These Vikings murdered my parents!”

“Nay, Tala. That isn’t true. Jarl Edon and his Vikings had nothing to do with your parents’ death and you know that. Just as you know you must yield to the kings’ will. Tegwin has no power. Half the old stories are jumbled in his head. Why can you not listen to those who are wiser than you? We all see the end of it.”

“Wren, not you, too?” Tala said sorrowfully. “Venn is trying to hold on to his birthright. He has the right to believe in the old gods of Leam, gods that made our land what it was. It isn’t just a tradition to him to make gold offerings to the Lady of the Lake, it’s a ritual. He believes the gods will speak to him. That their spirits show themselves in his vision dreams.”

“Venn is a boy. He knows what he is taught. Send him to an abbey and he will learn of the Christ. Foster him out as your father would have done. Let Venn learn the new ways. He will adapt. You know, Saint Ninian converted all of Wessex. Why does Leam resist? The days of the druids are over.”

“You don’t understand, Wren. Venn refuses to abandon the last living druid. I have tried to convince him to return to Chester or go study in any abbey. He will not. Not unless I allow Tegwin to go with him.”

“Then you must do something drastic.”

“Such as?”

“Marry the Viking,” Wren cackled. “Had I a man such as that plowing my belly, I’d have never gone to the convent at Lyotcoyt. I saw him ride into Warwick on that black horse of his. Ooch, I’d nay let a man such as that get away…a black Dane. His mother was Irish. He’ll give you sons aplenty.”

Tala rolled her eyes and asked the gods for patience. Wren was so old she was addled. “You are not helping. I’d kill the Viking’s sons to repay them for killing my father.”

“You speak where you know not. King Alfred gave you leave to take your sisters to summer in Chester and you come to Warwick to stir up trouble in the grove. Take the Viking. It will go better for you.”

“And then what? Do I turn my back on my brother? You know what will happen if I do. If I leave Venn here alone this summer, Tegwin will convince him to be the sacrifice on the night of Lughnasa.”

The distaff wobbled to a stop in Mother Wren’s gnarled hands. She stared balefully at the small peat fire in her hearth, which gave so little light to her rude cottage. “Truly, Tala ap Griffin, I am no help to you. Venn is of royal blood, chosen for his fate by that blood. We cannot change it. Not you or I. He will be happy in the Other World.”

Tala dropped to her knees before the old woman and gripped her gnarled fingers between her hands. “Mother Wren, I love my brother. I have cared for him since he was a very little boy. I cannot let him go to the otherworld, not even if by doing that his sacrifice will save this world of mine. My life will be empty without him…as it would be without Lacey and Audrey and Gwynnth. They are all the blood I have left. They are my life, my heart, my soul.”

“There, there,” Mother Wren said, pulling her hands free so she could console her. “Marrying the Viking need not end your world. The Dane is strong hearted. ‘Haps he can protect what you cannot.”

“Don’t tell me to do foolish things, like accepting a black Viking for a husband. Help me find a way to stem the flow of change. If the Vikings could be turned back to the Avon, then Venn could take his rightful place in this domain. Venn is Leam’s last true son. Think you of what it would mean if he lived a full measure of years and had sons of his own.”

“Aye.” Old Mother Wren nodded. “He is the last of our kings. No more and no less deserving of a long full life than the first king to pick up a club and make all obey him. I do not know what to tell you, child. You must seek your answers from souls wiser than I.”

“Aye,” Tala said. But who? she asked herself on the long walk home through the forest in the dark of night.

The old gods did not appear to Tala. Years had passed since the old temple in the clearing had appeared to her as the legendary Citadel of Glass. She saw it now as only a vitrified stone hall, emptied of its former greatness and mysticism by the changing times.

It was not yet dawn when Tala reached the lake. She walked far out onto the stone causeway until she stood with water completely surrounding her. The sky was clear, full of its fading stars. A blue, waxing moon hung low in the western sky, its pale orb reflected a thousand times in the tiny waves on the still, dark lake.

The water moved as it always did, with strange currents skating from bank to bank. Swells rose midlake and ran off to flood the fens. Whirlpools churned, then abruptly ceased, and the black water went as flat as a griddle. There were none alive who could divine the portends of the lake. In ages past, the princesses of Leam could interpret each omen they witnessed. But Tala couldn’t.

The only power that had come down to her generation was the ability to find water in dry earth. The chain of knowledge had been broken with the coming of the monks.

But it was an unheard-of catastrophe for no rain to fall between Beltane and Lughnasa. The three most fertile months of the growing season had so far passed without a drop of rain to replenish the rivers and streams.

And that tragedy had opened the ancestral mind of the people of Leam. They remembered the old rituals and sacrifices that had saved their land long years ago.

Like Tala, Venn and Mother Wren, every remaining soul born of Leam knew that if no rain fell between today and August 1, the only thing that would save them was the blood sacrifice of the atheling of Leam. The feast of the first fruits—Lughnasa—was Leam’s last chance to redeem the gods’ favor.

If they ignored the dire predictions of the past, in less than a generation they would all be dead.

In the fat years recently past, the ritual had dwindled to sacrificing the first grains and fruits gleaned from the fields, as a symbolic offering to guarantee the harvest. In years of dire tribulation such as this, only the sacrifice of the first blood—the son of the king or the king himself— could appease the angry gods.

Venn was the atheling of Leam. Only he could end the drought. Only his blood and body offered in sacrifice could guarantee Leam’s survival past this year. That fact may as well be written in stone. Everyone knew it as truth. Venn’s only salvation was rain. Plentiful rain falling in the days left in July was the only means to avert Venn’s early and untimely death.

Tala had no more faith in the old ways than she had trust in the new. She didn’t believe her only brother’s death would bring on the rain. She didn’t believe the old druid Tegwin had the power to work such magic. In her heart she believed that Venn’s sacrifice would change nothing. He would give his life and the drought would continue, unabated by divine intervention.

Tala knew even less about the new god, this Christ that her guardian, King Alfred, revered. But she knew he must be powerful if King Guthrum was willing to put his people to death if they did not accept the talisman of the cross.

If only there was someone wise and knowing she could talk to who could explain all of this to her. But she had no one. She had only this ancient lake of her ancestors, the silent spirits hidden in its depths and the confusion of her thoughts.

She prayed hard, pouring out her troubles to the Lady of the Lake. Tala sought insight and clarity, hope and solace. To make certain her desperate petition was heard, she removed her gold torque from her throat. Prayers without a sacrificial offering were an abomination to the gods.

“Lady, I beseech you. Give me a sign. Show me what I must do to save my brother’s life. He is just a boy, a puny man-child of no value to you. Venn cannot bring the rain, make the seeds sprout in your earth or hold the mighty Vikings behind your river Avon. His thin body will not feed your fish for more than a day. So why must he be taken from me? I need him. I love him. Take this torque and forget my little brother. You’ll be much happier with the gold.”

Tala extended her torque over the water. She held her breath, waiting for the Lady of the Lake to rise up from the water and accept her offering.

The dark water at her feet moved, then churned as if gathering power. A shadowy form broke the surface at Tala’s feet, throwing silvery drops onto her bare legs and breaking up the reflection of her golden torque. Her eyes followed the dark wake that bisected the still waters and her heart hammered in her throat. This was what she sought—a sign.

The fluid tension of the surface erupted in a blinding, foamy arc of silvery water beads. Tala threw her golden torque at the breaking wave. The ring of gold spun far, far out over the black water.

A pale limb shot up from a bank of waterweeds. It snatched the gold torque in midair and splashed below the surface.

Ripples washed quickly back to the pier where Tala stood. The lake undulated softly, then stilled once more. And Tala ap Griffin burst into tears.

The precious golden torque that had declared her a princess to all of her people—that she was willing to sacrifice for the life of her brother—had been snapped out of the air not by the Lady of the Lake, but by a fish.

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The granary was first on Edon’s scheduled tour with Embla Silver Throat the next morning. He found the dusty building well stocked and dry. All provisions stored in barrels and well-constructed crates were in good shape. Ample seed was put aside for next year’s planting. Edon was a stickler for such details and always insisted upon holding back more than necessary.

Best of all, the granary was clean and rat free. Varmints were kept at bay by having numerous good mousers where they were most needed.

The deep well sunk in the center of the stockade and the one inside the keep were rank and fetid. Water for all purposes had to be carried from the Avon River, outside the gates of the fortress. The river itself had dropped five feet below the lip of the gate built to flood the moat surrounding the fortress on the deliberately raised motte of Warwick.

The absence of water in the deep moat to put out an assaulting enemy’s fire made Embla Silver Throat’s wooden stockade even more ridiculous, especially with so much ready stone about. Edon couldn’t see how she could be so dense. And in her greed to acquire more and more land, she allowed her freemen to continue to slash and burn the woods, when the land was dry tinder!

His second order of business that morning was to stop the felling of the woods. Edon had already outlawed all fires save the cooking fires in the fortress kitchen, the hearth fires in each Viking’s longhouse and the forge in the ironmaster’s shed.

The stillroom wasn’t as cool as it should be. Cool meant icy to a Viking, and Edon was typical in that regard. The room was located at the bottom of a declivity cut into the hill. The spring beneath had also run dry because of the drought.

The groove cut in the stone floor of the stillroom, where normally chilly water from the spring should flow freely, was covered with a layer of moss. Edon used his knife to dislodge it. His reward for that effort was a few beads of water.

He squinted in the dim light of the underground stillroom. Was it smaller than he remembered? Ten years was a long time to recall details.

“This is unusual. Springs of this sort rarely dry up,” he remarked casually.

“Aye,” Embla agreed testily. “Warwick’s wells churn out nothing but poison or dust, thanks to the witch.”

Here we go again, Edon thought. He remained on one knee, studying the chamber carved into the bedrock. The stillroom retained some but not much dampness, a quality necessary for the preservation of meats and vegetables. The trench in the floor had no pools in it, though it should. “Did you enlarge this chamber, niece?”

Embla started, surprised by his question. “No, it is as it was. I saw no need to improve it,” she said gruffly.

“Thank you,” Edon said.

He’d built the stillroom himself ten years ago, when he’d chosen Warwick as his home. It was curious. Rivers might alter their course, but in his experience, waters in the bedrock rarely did.

He rose to his feet, brushing off his hands. “I’d like to see the quarry next.”

On their way to the granite quarry, they encountered Embla’s soldiers riding out for their daily patrol. Edon spoke to the captain of his nephew Harald’s disappearance. When Asgart replied, he talked of Harald in the past tense. Edon noted that.

Of course, Guthrum had told him what he believed had happened to their nephew. Edon did not want to accuse Lady Embla of murdering her husband without proof. That proof might only show up in the form of his nephew’s body. Edon intended to investigate the matter thoroughly.

The truth would out eventually.

He spent the morning at the quarry, making careful notations on the drawings Maynard the Black prepared for him. Embla disdained to discuss anything with Maynard, even though he was obviously trusted by the jarl. She thought all Mercians fit only to be thralls and therefore unworthy of conversing with her. Edon was glad when the woman walked off to another part of the quarry.

“Do you see any indication of the work here at the quarry having any effect on the springs under the cliffs?”

“None, my lord,” Maynard said somberly. He was always somber. Maynard dwelt in concrete reality and predictable certainties.

“And what do you make of three wells and two springs on Warwick Hill gone dry as yesterday’s cake?”

Maynard shook his head. “It defies explanation, but proof of the drought is abundant There has been no rain since the first of May, I am told. Each of the rivers we crossed in coming from Anglia were low. Low, but not empty, lord.”

“And what do you make of the Leam?” Edon leaned on a rock and gazed over the forest In the distant wood, the sun glistened and sparkled on the canopy of trees, lighting them with silver. The riverbed that meandered east toward Willoughby could be traced by the march of brown, dying trees lining its dry bank.

“Were I a gambling man,” Maynard said cautiously, “I would wager someone has damned the Leam or diverted it. A river that size does not dry up in a year of no rain. Perhaps when the rains come, the springs will flow.”

“You believe there must be rain above the earth for water to flow over it? How do you account for the vast quantity of water in the seas? Rock and soil are porous. Wouldn’t you assume the sea presses against its shores and seeps underneath? It does not rain in Syria, yet we have both drunk from springs as sweet and as pure as fresh rain. Remember how good the water in Petra tasted to us?”

“I remember.” Maynard nodded. His prominent forehead furrowed in deep ridges. “What we need is a water diviner. There were many such among the druids in years past.”

“A good idea. I shall make inquiries of the Mercians. Now, let us walk to the top of the cliff and have a good look over the valley. Perhaps we can trace the water-courses from the highest mount.”

“An eagle would be the best mount,” Maynard suggested dryly. It was the closest he’d ever come to making a joke.

When they finished viewing Warwick valley from the highest pinnacle, Edon left Maynard to his work of plotting and mapping. The jarl strolled down into the quarry and stood beside Embla, watching her laborers toil in the pit.

Huge slabs of granite were cleanly split from the rim of the crater using the time-honored tools of fire and water. The slabs were then chiseled into quarter-ton blocks, suitable for the walls of Edon’s fortress and keep.

“I don’t believe I saw buildings enough at your compound to house this many stonecutters.” Edon made a casual observation. It seemed ludicrous to him to consider the woman his niece when she was at least five years older than he. “Are there barracks nearby?”

“Stonecutters?” Embla countered, looking surprised by the question. “These are not the skilled masons you hired, sire. They are thralls, slaves taken in conquest of the land.”

“Then let me put my question another way. Where do yonder thralls sleep?”

“There.” Embla pointed to a cave in the pit.

A yawning chasm gouged out of the earth provided little shelter from the elements for the men forced to work in the quarry. They were a sorry lot, to Edon’s eye.

As a commodity, slaves were as important to a large holding as its cattle, and should be as well fed and well cared for. Clearly, Embla was not of the same opinion as he about many things. Her slaves labored endlessly to the crack and rhythm of a whip. Judging from the look of their thin bodies, their food was at subsistence level.

“I see,” Edon said. “Then you have more slaves tending the fields, do you?”

“Nay, the freemen have that right. Surely, Lord Edon, you have not been so long in the east that you forgot the ways of your own world?”

“No, I’m just curious about the changes here. I recall no slaves on Harald Jorgensson’s last accounting, and I am new to this wergild that Guthrum has imposed.”

Embla ignored the scold inherent in Edon’s words. She had her scribe making the accounts ready for his immediate inspection. She would prove him in error about her there, too. She could account for every gold mark put into and taken out of the jarl’s holding much better than stupid Harald ever could have. He would have given one-tenth of everything away as a tithe!

By her reckoning, the long-absent owner, Jarl Edon Halfdansson, had always made a handsome profit off her farmstead and his shire. A profit that by rights she should have kept, for it was her labor at overseeing all the work that accomplished any gain.

“The kings’ wergild takes some getting used to,” Embla granted. “The truth is it has little effect in a frontier where Watling Street peters out in yon miserable haunted wood. King Guthrum thinks his road an open avenue from London to Chester, but north of Warwick it comes to naught. As for the Mercians, they stay out of my way or else pay dearly for entering Warwick.”

“These men—” Edon pointed to the pit “—are Mercians paying your dear price?”

“Aye. A pity they are so weak they die quickly. But there is a goodly supply, for they breed endlessly and are stupid as horses. My patrols easily replenish their numbers.”

“Pray tell me what you do with women so foolish as to walk on Watling Street?”

Embla answered his appalled question without batting an eye. “There is work in the kitchens and at the looms or at whatever task they are assigned. I have found it expedient to give my thanes free use of captured Mercian women. It keeps them better controlled, and I have heard no complaints from my soldiers regarding that.”

“No, I imagine you haven’t,” Edon murmured. “I can’t help but remark upon the fact that I saw no Mercian farmsteads as I crossed the shire. There were as many Mercians as Saxons here when last I visited. Danes were the oddity. I had to pay a very high price to acquire the rights to Warwick Hill.”

“Only Danes may be tenants in the Danelaw, my lord. That is Guthrum’s law.”

Edon thought it pointless to discuss Guthrum’s law with this wife of his nephew. Her interpretation and his would never match. “I suggest we table a discussion of politics until evening. Nothing is to be changed until I have toured the tin and silver mines. We will do that tomorrow.”

Edon met Rig on his way down from the quarry. His general’s face was twisted with anger, his large jaw thrust forward. Edon could tell he was grinding his teeth to keep from cursing a blue streak. Edon dismounted and handed Titan’s reins to a stable boy. “What has happened? Don’t spare me the news.”

“The village of Wootton is on fire.” Rig answered in a clipped voice. A fire of a different sort burned in his cool blue eyes.

“How so?” Edon asked, tamping down the alarm that started in his chest. Tala was at Wootton…in Mother Wren’s cottage.

“I went to fetch the atheling as you commanded, lord.” Rig spun on one heel and pointed to a group of four Vikings leaning on their axes in the shade of the ironmonger’s shed. Their faces were contorted with anger, matching Rig’s. “They went to Wootton to cut wood, against your command of this morn.”

“What of Mother Wren?” Edon asked, feeling a chill squeeze his heart Tala would have been sleeping in Wren’s cottage.

“Asgart claims the villagers fled into the forest They captured none of them, not even the old woman.”

That bit of good news relieved Edon’s worries somewhat. Then Rig squared his shoulders and gave him the rest of his news. “The cottage where you left the princess of Leam in the care of the old woman was empty when I got to Wootton to inspect the fire’s damage. There was no proof that anyone was living in that abode.”

“What?” Edon said, confused.

“I found a chest containing the lady’s clothing, and her jewels among the smoking ashes, lord. I have put it in your keep. But that was all I found worth retrieving. There were no furnishings or cooking pots or beds of any kind. I fear you have been tricked, lord. The princess of Leam does not live in the village of Wootton.”

“Humph!” Edon grunted as he crossed the ward to the ironmaster’s shed. So much for his plan of visiting his bride in the evening ahead. The little minx had done him in. He turned his thoughts to the problem of the burned village and the Vikings who’d disobeyed his orders. Tala would have to wait.

The Vikings were newcomers to Warwick. They were refugees from Lombardy, Danes that had been trapped in the terrible famine that had racked province after province on the Continent. Edon looked from one wary face to the other and elected the eldest of the four as their leader. “Did you not hear my orders this morn, Viking?”

“Aye, lord, we heard you.” The man stood his ground on crooked legs, bowed from starvation. “I am known here as Archam the Bent. I am responsible for the fire, not my sons.”

“Why did you disobey my order?”

The four men exchanged glances. “Our holding begins at Wootton Wood,” the youngest answered. “Father, tell the jarl the truth, else he will have all of our heads up on stakes.”

“Be quiet, Ranulf,” said a brother.

“Are these your sons, Viking?” Edon directed his words to the elder. His grizzled head rocked up and down in affirmation. Edon could not place his age; his face and throat were too wrinkled and worn by the sun and wind and the loss of a great deal of weight.

“They are each my son. Once I had ten sons all as straight and tall as you. These three are all I have left.”

“Then why would you endanger them by going against my orders?” Edon demanded. When no answer came, he turned to Rig and commanded, “Take the eldest beyond the palisade and cut off his head.”

All four Vikings started as Rig and his soldiers stepped forward instantly to carry out Edon’s command.

“My lord!” the youngest protested, struggling to protect his brother. “We had no choice in burning the village. Asgart told us to clear the village land and plant it today. It was the only hide he would spare us.”

“Aye.” The father broke his proud silence, speaking from desperation. “We must plant our field now, else there will be no grain in our larder this winter. Midsummer is past.”

“When did you arrive in Warwick?”

“Last full moon, Jarl Edon,” said the youngest son. “We were just given our land assignment this rising.”

And from the look of them, a month ago they could not have swung an axe, any one of them. “How many are you? Wives, children and thralls?” Edon asked.

“We four survived the journey overland and the voyage, lord,” said the father.

“Who showed you where your holding was and gave you leave to burn your fields today?”

“Asgart of Wolverton rode out to the woodland with us and said we could plow from the top of the hill to the first stream behind the village. It was all the land there was to spare. He said to burn the cottages in our way, for the people inside were only squatters.”

“We didn’t want to burn them out, Lord Edon.” The eldest son finally spoke in his own defense. “Lord Asgart told my father to burn the huts or else to move north to York and ask for a hide of land from someone else.”

Edon was not surprised by that answer. He turned to Rig and said, “Send Thorulf to fetch Asgart. I will deal with him.”

These men were being used, victimized, as were the Mercian thralls in the quarry. Edon’s quarrel was not with them. Still, they had started a fire that cost a village, and someone must pay. Edon glared at all four of them and came to a summary judgment on the spot. “My man Maynard has surveyed the shire and parceled it as to my orders. There is good land, cleared and ready for planting, east of the quarry. Three of you may farm there beginning on the morrow. You, Ranulf, will pay for the damage done the village of Wootton by two months service to my general, Rig. Give your axe to your father. You will have no need of a weapon until you are released to your father’s house at the end of your duty.”

Edon turned to the father, asking, “Have you a longhouse, Archam the Bent?”

“Nay, we sleep under the stars. We will build a longhouse when we have land.”

“Rig, take the father to Maynard. You will go to my man, Maynard the Black. He will show you the fields you may work and issue you seed to plant in your field. Do not fell any trees that you cannot use for your longhouse. I will tolerate no more fires in this shire, is that clear?”

Gratitude was not a common virtue displayed among Vikings, but these men were clearly grateful for Edon’s leniency. Archam and his sons were not the type of Vikings that had gone out seeking fortunes and land forty years ago with Edon’s grandfather, Ragnar Lodbok. These Vikings had been farmers all their lives. If it came to battling with axe and sword they would be hard-pressed to defend their own, much less be of good service to Edon in a war.

That was the reason he took the healthiest son into his household to be trained in weapons and fighting by Rig. Instinctively, Edon knew where the real challenge to his authority came from: Asgart, Embla’s man.

It was time for the jarl of Warwick to assert his authority. Sighing, Edon dismissed the offenders. He went up to his keep and visited with his ladies and conferred with Theo, allowing him to use his mazer bowl on this occasion.

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Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

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Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

вернуться

Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.

Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес».

Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию на ЛитРес.

Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.

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