To Sin with a Viking

Ireland, 875 A.D.

The tribe was slowly starving to death.

Caragh Ó Brannon stared at the grain sack, which was nearly empty. One handful of oats remained, hardly enough for anyone. She closed her eyes, wondering what to do. Her older brothers, Terence and Ronan had left a fortnight ago, to trade for more food. She’d given them a golden brooch that had belonged to their mother, hoping someone would trade sheep or cows for it. But this famine was widespread, making anyone reluctant to give up their animals.

“Is there anything to eat, Caragh?” her younger brother Brendan asked. At seventeen, his appetite was three times her own, and she’d done her best to keep him from growing hungry. But it was now evident that they would run out of food sooner than she’d thought.

Instead of answering, she showed him what was left. He sobered, his thin face hollow from lack of food. “We haven’t caught any fish, either. I’ll try again this morning.”

“I can make a pottage that we can eat later,” she offered. “I’ll go and look for wild onions or carrots.” Though she tried to interject a note of hope, both of them knew that the forests and fields had been stripped long ago. There was nothing left, except the dry summer grasses.

Brendan reached out and touched her shoulder. “Our brothers will come back. And when they do, we’ll have plenty to eat.”

In his face, she saw the need to believe it, and she braved a smile she didn’t feel. “I hope so.”

After he went outside with his fishing net, Caragh stared back at the empty hut. Both of their parents had died last winter. Her father had gone out to try and catch fish, and he’d drowned. Her mother had grieved deeply for him, never recovering from the loss. She’d given her own portion of food to Brendan, lying that she’d already eaten. When they’d discovered the truth, it was too late to prevent her death.

So many had succumbed to starvation, and it bled Caragh’s conscience to know that both of her parents had died, trying to feed their children.
Hot tears rose up as she stared at her father’s forge. He’d been a blacksmith, and she was accustomed to hearing the ring of his hammer, watching the bright glow of hot metal as he shaped it into tools. Her heart was as heavy as the anvil, knowing she would never hear his broad laugh again.

Though his boat remained, she didn’t have the courage to face the larger waves. Her brothers knew how to sail, but none of them had ventured out again. It was as if evil spirits lingered, cursing the broken vessel that had returned without their father.

She wished they could leave Gall Tír. This desolate land had nothing left. But they lacked the supplies to travel very far on foot. They should have gone last summer, after the crops had failed to flourish. At least then, they would have had enough to survive the journey. Even if they traveled by sea, they had not enough food to sustain them beyond a day.

The hand of Death was stretched out over everyone, and Caragh had felt her own weakness changing her. She could hardly walk for long distances without growing faint, and the smallest tasks were overwhelming. Her body had grown so thin, her léine hung upon her, and she could see the thin bones of her knees and wrists.

But she wasn’t ready to give up. Like all of them, she was fighting to live.

She picked up her gathering basket and stepped outside in the sunlight. The ringfort was quiet, few people exerting the energy to talk, when there was the greater task of finding food. Her older brothers weren’t the only ones who had left to seek supplies. Most of the able-bodied men had gone, especially those with children. None were expected to return.

A few of the elderly women nodded to her in greeting, with baskets of their own. Caragh thought of her earlier promise, to find vegetables, but she knew there was nothing out there. Even if there was, the others would likely find it first. Instead, she made her way toward the coast, hoping to find shellfish or seaweed. She stopped to rest several times when her vision clouded and dizziness came over her. The water was nearly black this morn, the waves still and silent. Her brother was standing along the shore line with his net, casting it out into the waves. He waved his hand in greeting.

But it was the sight of the longship on the horizon that evoked fear within both of them. The vessel was large, a curved boat that could hold over a dozen men. A massive striped sail billowed from the mast, and a single row of white and red shields hung over the side. In the morning sun, a bronze weathervane gleamed upon the masthead and a carved dragon head rested at the prow. As soon as she spied it, her heartbeat quickened.

“Is it the Lochlannach?” she cried out to her brother. So many tales she’d heard, of the barbaric Vikings of the Norse lands who ravaged the homes of innocent people. If their ship was here, they had less than an hour before the nightmare began. Gooseflesh prickled upon her skin at the thought of being taken by one of them. Or worse, being burned alive if they attempted to seize her home by force.

“Go back to our house,” Brendan commanded. “Stay inside, Caragh, and for God’s sake, don’t let anyone in.” He pulled in his fishing net and hurried back toward the ringfort.

“What are you going to do?” She caught up to him, afraid he was about to do something foolish.

Her brother’s gray eyes turned cold. “They have supplies, don’t they? And food.”

She was horrified at his sudden thoughts. “No. You can’t try to steal from them.” The Norsemen were ruthless warriors who would murder her brother without a second thought.

“They’ll try to raid the fort. They’ll be gone while I take what’s on board their ship.”

“And what about the rest of us?” she demanded. “If we’re fighting for our lives, we might all be dead by the time you return. If you return,” she added. “No, you can’t do this.”

Her brother entered their father’s hut, searching for a sword among the blacksmith tools. “If you’d rather, go and hide in the forest. Climb one of the trees as high as you can and wait until it’s over.”

“I can’t abandon the tribe.” There were elderly folk remaining, who were too weak to fight. Though her own strength was waning, she couldn’t turn her back on their kinsmen.

Her hands were trembling, the fear rising up from inside. Brendan took her hand and squeezed it. “If we don’t take their supplies, we’ll die anyway. Either today or a fortnight from now. We both know it.”

She did. But she didn’t like stealing. Though she’d lost nearly every possession they’d owned, she still had honor. And that meant something.

“We could ask,” she said. “If they see how little we have, they may share with us.”

Her brother’s expression darkened. “Since when do the Lochlannach possess mercy?” He belted the sword at his waist. “Gather the others and take them from here, if you wish. Leave the ringfort unprotected, and perhaps they’ll take what they want without hurting anyone.”

She stared at him, her thoughts caught in a tangled web of fear. “Don’t go, Brendan. The risk is too great.”

“Don’t be afraid, a deirfiúr.” He bent down and kissed her forehead. “I’d rather die in battle than die the way our parents did.”
She could see that no argument she made would influence him. But perhaps she could speak to his friends. He might listen to them, though he paid no heed to her warnings.

All she could do was try.

No man ever wanted to admit his marriage was dying.

Styr Hardrata stared out at the gray waters cloaked with mist, watching over his wife Elena. She stood with her hands upon the bow of the ship, her long red-gold hair streaming behind her in the wind. Beautiful and strong, he’d always been fascinated by her.

But that strength had now become a coldness between them, an invisible wall that kept them apart. She blamed herself for their childlessness, and he didn’t know what to say. He’d tried everything until now, she grew sad every time he tried to touch her. Lovemaking had become a duty, not an act of passion.

Though he’d tried to ignore her growing reluctance, he was tired of her flinching whenever he tried to pull her near. Or worse, feigning pleasure when he knew she no longer wanted his touch.

The slow burn of frustration coiled inside him. This was a war he didn’t know how to fight, a battle he couldn’t win. Styr approached the front of the boat and stood behind her. He said nothing, staring out at the gray waves that sloshed against the boat.

“I know you’re there,” she said after a time. But she didn’t turn around to look at him. There was no smile of welcome, nothing except the quiet acceptance she wore like armor.

He didn’t know how to respond to her coolness but said the only thing he could think of. “It won’t be long now before we arrive.” And thank the gods for it. Their ship had been plagued by storms, and he hadn’t slept in three days. None of them had, after the strong winds had threatened to sink the vessel. His mind was blurred with the need to find a pallet and sink into oblivion.

In fact, the moment his feet touched ground, he was tempted to lie there and sleep for the next two days.

“I’ll be glad to reach land,” she admitted. “I’m tired of traveling.”

He reached out to touch her shoulder, but she didn’t turn to embrace him. She held herself motionless, staring out at the water. In time, he lowered his hand, suppressing the disappointment.

In truth, Elena had startled him when she’d agreed to leave Hordafylke and journey with him to Éire, for a new beginning. Though their marital troubles had worsened over the past year, he wanted to believe that she wasn’t ready to give up yet. He held on to the hope that somehow they could rekindle what they’d lost.

Styr waited for her to speak, to share with him the thoughts inside, but she offered nothing. He considered a thousand different things to say to her, questions about what sort of house she wanted to build. Whether she would want a new weaving loom or perhaps a dog to keep her company when he was fishing at sea. She loved animals.

“Do you-”

“I’d rather not talk just now,” she said quietly. “I’ve not been feeling well.”

The words severed any further conversation attempts, and he stiffened. “So be it.” He went to the opposite end of the boat, needing to be away from her before he said something he would later regret.

Disappointment shifted into anger. What in the name of Thor did she want from him? He wasn’t going to lower himself and beg for her affections. He’d done everything in his power to make her happy, and it was never enough.

Frustration surged inside him, though he knew it was unwarranted. She was tired from the journey, that was all. Once they built a new home and started over, things might change.

The shores of Éire emerged on the horizon, and he stared at the desolate, sun-darkened grasses. Though he’d heard tales of how green the land was, from this distance, it appeared that they were suffering from a drought.

His friend Ragnar stepped past the men rowing and stood beside him. “I still don’t know why you wanted to settle here, instead of in Dubh Linn,” he remarked, pointing toward the east. “The settlements there are a hundred years old. You’d find more of our kin.”

“I don’t want Elena surrounded by so many people,” Styr admitted. “We’d rather begin anew, somewhere less crowded.” As they drew nearer, he thought he glimpsed a small settlement further inland.

Ragnar sat across from him and picked up an oar. Styr joined him, for the familiar rowing motion gave him a means of releasing physical frustration. He was glad his friend had decided to journey with them, along with a dozen of their friends and kin from Hordafylke. It made it easier to leave behind his home, when his closest friends were here. He’d known Ragnar since he was a boy, and he considered the man like a brother.

“Has she said anything to you about this journey?” Styr asked, nodding toward Elena. She, too, had known Ragnar since childhood. It was possible that she might confide her thoughts in someone else.

Ragnar sobered. “Elena hasn’t spoken much at all. But she’s afraid-that, I can tell you.”
Styr pulled hard on the oar, his arms straining as the wooden blades cut through the waves. Afraid of what? He would protect her from any harm, and he was more than able to provide for her.

“What else do you know?” he demanded.

“The men are tired. They need rest and food,” Ragnar said. His friend’s face mirrored his own exhaustion, after they’d been awake for so long.

“I wasn’t talking about the men.”

Ragnar rested the oars for a moment, sympathy on his face. “Just talk to Elena, my friend. She’s hurting.”

He knew that was the obvious answer. But Elena rarely spoke to him anymore, never telling him what she was thinking. He couldn’t guess what was going on inside her head, and when he demanded answers, she only closed up more.

He didn’t understand women. One moment, he would be talking to her, and the next, she’d be silently weeping and he had no idea why. It made him feel utterly helpless.

As their boat drifted closer, he eyed Ragnar. “I’ve been saving a gift for her. Something to make her smile.” He’d bought the ivory comb in Hordafylke, and the image of Freya was carved upon it. When he showed it to his friend, Ragnar shrugged.

“It’s a nice gift, but it’s not what she wants.”

Though his friend was only being honest, it wasn’t what Styr wanted to hear. “Do you think I don’t know that? Do you think we wanted to be childless all these years?” His temper broke out, and his words lashed out louder than he’d intended. Elena was holding on to her waist, and she didn’t glance back at either of them. He didn’t doubt his wife had overheard their argument. But as cool-headed as she was, she’d never confront him.

“I’ve made offerings to the gods,” he admitted, dropping his voice lower. “I’ve been a good husband to her. But this curse is wearing on both of us. It has to end.”

Ragnar stood, preparing to lower the sail. “And if it doesn’t?”

Styr stared at his hands, not knowing the answer to that. But he strongly suspected that there was nothing he could do to make his wife happy again. He stole a last look at her, and at that moment she turned back. Her pale face was shadowed, her eyes holding such pain, he didn’t know how to heal it.

In the end, he busied himself with the ship, unable to bridge the growing distance between them.

From the Book To Sin with a Viking
Copyright © 2013 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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