A Viking Maiden for the Marquess
Katarina Larsdottir strode along the rocky shoreline, the cool summer air biting her skin. The sun was descending into the sea, its rays gleaming upon the dark waters brushed with crimson. With every stride, she kept her hand upon the blade at her waist.
For she dreamed of vengeance.
In her memories, she could see the faces of her enemies. Geilir, son of JÃ³sep…Jokull, son of Ãfalstr. Although both of the Norse warriors had left the shores of Rogaland, Katarina had sworn to the gods that she would find them…and they would die.
Her steps slowed as she reached the small cairn of stones upon the hillside. Bitter regrets flowed through her, and she rested her palms upon the limestone, dropping to her knees beside her sister’s grave. One day soon, the men would regret what they had done. Only then would she find peace within herself.
Even now, after a year, she could not forget what had happened. Gentle IngirÃºn had barely reached the age of thirteen. Her beautiful sister had been ravaged by those drunken men, and she’d died at their hands.
A hard lump formed in her throat, and Katarina clenched her fingers against the cool stones. â€œOdin, grant me vengeance,â€ she whispered. â€œLet me bathe my blade in their heart’s blood.â€ She would give anything in exchange for their deaths…anything at all. One day, her sister’s enemies would pay for her death with their own lives.
Perhaps then, Katarina could forgive herself.
When footsteps resounded behind her, she spun, her blade in hand. But it was only her brother, Hrafn. He wore a cloak, hiding the stump of his missing right arm. â€œYou should not be out here alone, Katarina. It will be dark soon.â€
She only shrugged and shielded her eyes against the setting sun. â€œIf I choose to visit with our sister, what harm is there?â€
â€œYou are watching for ships,â€ he predicted. And in that, he was right. Each day, she watched to see if the striped sail would arrive, unfurled in the wind as the boat crested along the waves toward the shore.
â€œNone of them have returned,â€ she said.
â€œNot yet,â€ he agreed. But her brother knew she would never stop searching. Her enemies had gone a-viking to East Anglia …but when they came back, she would be waiting.
Hrafn’s gaze narrowed, and he remarked, â€œLeave it be, Katarina. If they do not return by next summer, I will find their settlement and bring them here to face judgment.â€
â€œIf you go, I am coming with you.â€
â€œNo. This, I will not allow. You cannot travel with us,â€ he insisted.
She said nothing but turned back to walk toward their settlement. Hrafn didn’t understand. He had not been there that night, never suspecting that his sisters would fall prey to men of their own tribe while he was away.
Katarina closed her eyes a moment, pushing back the dark memories. Her sister had been attacked and raped by the raiders before she could save her. When she had found IngirÃºn, her sister was lying motionless while blood streamed from her head.
And then Katarina had been attacked. The men had beaten her, tearing at her clothing. She’d been battered and bruised, trying in desperation to fight them off. Thankfully, Valdr, the jarl of their tribe, had arrived along with Leif Tormundsson. Although she had not been harmed, it was too late to save IngirÃºn.
Katarina’s eyes blurred with hot tears. Even when she’d tried in desperation to bring IngirÃºn to the healer, it was impossible to save her sister. She’d never awakened, for the men had struck her head against a stone during the attack.
She slowed her pace, fingering the scar at the corner of her mouth. One day they will die for what they did, she promised herself.
Katarina continued walking toward the settlement before she cast a look back at Hrafn. Her brother had remained near the rocks, letting her return alone while he kept watch. He had hardly left her side since that night. Hrafn carried his own burden of guilt for not being there that night. And always would.
Just inside the walls, she saw MÃ³Ã°ir Gerda. The old volva was seated upon the dirt, her legs folded beneath her skirts. Both of her palms faced the setting sun, and she was chanting to herself in words Katarina had never heard. A strange chill crossed down her back, and the hair stood on end at her nape.
The volva was chanting a name, she realized. Arik Thorgrim.
Without meaning to, Katarina took a step backwards, her face flushing. As a young girl, she had been deeply in love with Arik. She had once dreamed of sharing a life with the stoic warrior. She had twined locks of her hair with charms, hoping that one day he would look upon her with interest. But he had left the settlement, traveling across the sea with another woman, Svala.
Why would the volva speak of him? The coldness slid over her spirits, making her worry that Arik was dead.
She remained frozen in place, wondering if she should leave. But an invisible force seemed to draw her closer, until she knelt beside the old woman.
â€œHe is coming,â€ the woman said, her eyes opening. One blue eye was already blind, and she seized Katarina’s arm.
â€œYou must be ready. At dawn, he comes.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
The old woman closed her eyes again, rocking back and forth. â€œHe will be the shield to protect you from what was never meant to be. But his life lies in your hands.â€
The seer’s words made her uneasy. She tried to tell herself that MÃ³Ã°ir Gerda was caught up in a vision, one that might not be true.
There was no denying that Arik Thorgrim held more power than any man of this tribe. As the son of the jarl and the one who would rule them all, he could indeed bring justice against her attackers.
But how could Arik’s life be in her hands? And what was she meant to do?
â€œAt dawn, by the edge of the sea,â€ the old woman prophesied. â€œYou must be there when he comes.â€
* * *
Off the Coast of Norway
One thousand years later
The moon glowed blood-red over the dark waters of the sea. It hung within the sky like an omen of death, and more than one sailor sent up a silent prayer for protection against evil. Eric Fielding, the Marquess of Thorgraham, knew it was only the moon-and yet this night held an otherworldly aura.
A cloud slid across the sky, and the winter wind began to shift and blow. The hair rose up on his forearms, and the waves grew rough. Though he supposed it was only weather approaching, an air of tension tightened among the men. Eric approached the bos’n and asked, â€œDo you need help with the sails?â€
â€œMr. Thorgraham, stay out of the way,â€ the bos’n warned. â€œOur sailors know how to handle a storm. Go below deck where it’s safe.â€
None of these men knew of his true identity as a nobleman. Eric had allowed them to believe that he was a merchant’s son, an ordinary passenger of no consequence. He preferred working among men who were content to earn their living with the sweat of their brow. They didn’t know what a gift it was to have that freedom. Many of his friends had envied his place as a future duke-he knew that. And yet, that life had never felt like his own.
The wind’s intensity heightened, whipping the sails and increasing their speed. The ship began to toss in the waves, and the night sky had turned so black, they could hardly see where the heavens met the sea.
â€œYou need the help of every man,â€ Eric told the bos’n. â€œIt’s not safe for any of us.â€
After the man nodded permission, he joined one of the sailors and helped pull a rope tight, tying it off. But the ship lurched against a wave and tossed him backwards. Eric struck his head hard against a barrel, and violent pain resonated through his skull.
Now the storm raged higher. The sea had become a monstrous being, spewing icy water while the wind howled.
You’re going to drown, an inner voice taunted. You turned your back on your estates and your father. Was this what you wanted?
No. But the idea of spending his days in Parliament, arguing over the laws and learning to become the Duke of Somerford, seemed like an excruciating fate. All his life, he’d been trapped among dusty ledgers and books, learning to govern the estates that his ancestors had built. The need for adventure, the fierce desire to sail across the sea, had burned within his veins. Even now, when he inhaled the sharp tang of the sea air, it held the scent of freedom.
It was possible that he might die this night if the storm continued to batter the vessel. He should have been afraid. But instead, Eric stared up at the moon, and a strange calm descended over him.
He ignored the throbbing in his head and seized a piece of rope. The hemp cut into his palms, but he tied himself to the upper deck, while the waves tossed the vessel within the tempest. An icy spray drenched him, and he shuddered against the frigid ocean water.
If the ship could not withstand the storm, all of them would die. And still, his uncertain fate felt preordained somehow.
The winds battered at his face, and he wondered if he would ever see his father again. His death would devastate Gregory, and Eric didn’t want to imagine how that grief would consume him. Regret cloaked him, along with stinging rain. He tried to imagine Gregory’s face, tried to hold the vision in his mind, as if it could push back the horrors of this night.
Bitter winds ripped the sail in half while waves pounded against his ship. The ship’s captain shouted orders to his men, but to no avail. The mast cracked, the wood shattering into jagged pieces. Salt water covered the deck, and all around him, men were praying for mercy.
But no pleas came to his lips. Instead, Eric turned his gaze to the clouded skies, his thoughts in turmoil. If the sea took him, there would be no redemption, no chance to see his father again. His father was the only family he had left, and he didn’t want to die with enmity between them.
A large wave crashed against the ship, and salt water sloshed against his mouth and nose. His ropes had come loose, and before he realized it, a second wave swept him overboard. The frigid water iced his limbs, dragging him under. For a moment, all grew still underwater, and the cold seemed to freeze his very bones. Beneath the water, he saw the reflection of the moon, and the light was tinted red.
Eric clawed his way to the surface, fighting to break the surface. I will not die.
An unseen force seemed to hold him beneath the water as he struggled for life. The cold darkness surrounded him, like a ghostly embrace. He knew he ought to be terrified, but within his consciousness came an awareness that he was not alone. Someone was with him, an unknown presence, speaking words in a foreign tongue.
He churned his arms, finally bursting through the waves and sucking down gulps of air. His body was numb, and when he looked around him, the storm had abated. The waves grew calmer, and the blood-red moon rose high above him, the rosy amber light illuminating the water.
Not yet, a woman’s voice whispered.
Eric took more breaths of air, not knowing if he’d imagined the sound. His skin tingled with awareness, as if something had parted the veil between life and death. Was this real? Had he survived the storm? Or was this his first glimpse of the afterworld?
He struggled to swim, not knowing where he was going. The water’s surface gleamed with the reflection of the blood moon. In the distance, the sky was transforming from dark blue to lavender. It would be dawn within an hour.
As he continued swimming, he grew somber at the realization that there was no ship remaining-only bodies floating and shattered pieces of wood.
I’m alive, he thought. Somehow, he had survived this shipwreck, though his friends and shipmates had not.
If he didn’t reach land, the ocean would become his watery grave. Eric continued swimming, trying to conserve his remaining strength while he searched for something to hold on to.
There. A large piece of the ship floated nearby, and he swam as hard as he could to reach it. His fingers seized the wood, and he crawled upon it, his heart pounding. He held tight, praying that the tide would bring him to land.
His cheek rested against the wood, and he shivered violently against the cold. Yet, he clung to life, refusing to surrender. He floated for what seemed like hours, until a tiny light caught his attention.
Was it the flare of a torch or a fire? The crushing fears lifted, for it meant land was surely nearby. Eric closed his eyes with thankfulness. He let himself drift toward the shore…and when dawn broke, he saw the light more clearly. It was indeed a flickering torch, though he could not see who held it.
The ocean waves slid across the sand and a rocky beach, while behind it, taller gray hills dotted with limestone rose up. He didn’t know where he was but suspected Norway was a possibility. They had been sailing near the country on the way to England when the storm had struck.
The view of land encouraged him to swim harder, still holding on to the makeshift raft. When his feet finally touched the ground, he lifted his face to the sky. Thank God. Today was not his day to die, and he was grateful for it.
Eric trudged through the water until he reached the shore. He sank to his knees, digging his hands into the wet sand. For a moment, he steadied himself, so thankful to be alive. He longed for home, wishing he could see his father again and apologize for all that he’d said and done.
He’d been so angry at the legacy of his forebears closing in around him…of his requirement to sit in the House of Lords, debate laws and, of course, marry an heiress from a good family.
Now, he didn’t care.
He would bind himself to the life he didn’t want if it meant he could see his father sitting by the fire, reading his favorite book, Gulliver’s Travels. He could envision the older man seated in his wingback chair, a cup of cold tea on the table beside him. And he imagined the joy on Gregory’s face when his only son returned.
And he would return to England, as soon as he could hire a new ship and a crew.
The wind whipped at his skin, and Eric forced himself to stumble forward along the rocky shore. His first priority was to find shelter and get warm.
As he walked, the sense of familiarity grew stronger, almost as if he’d been here before. Which was impossible, since he’d never set foot on Norway…or wherever this was. But he couldn’t shake the sense that he knew this place somehow. He’d dreamed of it.
A narrow pathway led north toward the open meadow, tempting him to follow the road. Yet he’d seen the torch flare on the west side. Through the rocky hills, he would find shelter-he was convinced of it.
He trudged through the sand, realizing that his shoes had fallen off during the shipwreck. His clothing was in tatters, soaked and torn. But strangely, his head no longer hurt. When he studied his palms, they had healed, with no trace of the rope burns. An uneasiness caught him, for he couldn’t understand it. Another injury plagued him–something upon his back. He didn’t even remember being cut, but his spine burned as if someone had stabbed him.
Eric climbed through the rocks, and beyond them, he saw green grass and trees covered in leaves. Again, the disquiet passed over him, for it was February. There should be no leaves on the trees, nor green grass. If they were in Norway, he expected to see snowy fields. Instead it seemed to be… summer.
He gripped his hands together, willing himself not to imagine the impossible. Either he was dead and this was his new existence…or he had somehow lost the memories of the past two seasons.
There were too many questions, and he felt a dizzying sense of apprehension. But if he allowed himself to think too much, he would lose his grasp on control. Find shelter, he reminded himself. And food.
Eric took another step forward, and a dark vision came over him, of being struck down with a battle-ax by a …Viking. His spine burned with agony, and he nearly dropped to the ground from the force of the phantom ache. And yet, no one had touched him. With effort, he caught his breath and steadied himself. What was happening?
Strange words mingled within his mind in a language he’d not heard before…but somehow he could understand them.
Svala betrayed me.
His skin tightened with fear. Who was Svala? Was he hearing voices now and had he gone mad? Or was he, in fact, dead? Eric knew that the seasons didn’t change within hours. And he most definitely should not be hearing voices in his head. He blinked a moment, forcing himself to continue walking through the rocky sand.
You hit your head on board the ship, he reminded himself. Perhaps he was unconscious right now and dreaming. Yes, that was it. He had to be imagining all of it. The thought calmed him, and he decided to continue on with the dream, letting it take him where it would.
But with each step, he felt the sense of foreboding heighten. He stopped a moment to touch his head, trying to force back memories that did not belong to him. God above, what was happening to him?
He was Eric Fielding, the Marquess of Thorgraham. And yet…he was not. Another name came into his consciousness, Arik Thorgrim.
That’s not who I am.
He wondered if the violent storm had caused him to see and hear things that weren’t there. It was as if his life had been unseated, torn apart at the seams.
Before he could question it further, a beautiful woman emerged from the shadows. Her golden hair hung unbound below her waist, and several braids were pinned like a coronet across her head. Never had he seen anyone like her. She was taller than most women, and she moved like a warrior goddess, a torch in one hand.
Her blue woolen gown hung in folds, and a long apron was pinned at her shoulders with two golden brooches. The moment she spied him, she stared at him in shock. â€œArik…I thought you were dead.â€
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