Highlander’s Viking Seductress (Preview)
“We will raid the west again.” Jarl Stáli’s declaration made the crowd at the feast holler.
Idunn was among them, clattering her stone cup of mead onto the table with exhilaration. The cacophony of cups thudding against the long wooden table was soon quietened by the Jarl, who urged for silence. He beckoned with his hands at the far side of the table in the longhouse. As he spoke, his voice echoed up to the tall wooden timbers of the cavernous ceiling above.
“My folk. We have seen the signs. The omens are good. As the weather changes and the new moon rises, we will return to Scotland.” The Jarl was a dominating figure. His height, bold features, and heavy build made him the most imposing person in the room. As he threw his thick arms into the air to emphasize his words, cheers broke out again, and Idunn joined them.
Scotland. She had a particular love for that part of the west. In their last raids, she had grown fascinated by the landscape, the castles, and even the food, so different from their own. She recalled her last visit there – on a raid, she had tried a smoked fish that was a local delicacy, and she had craved the taste ever since.
“Join me, my warriors.” The Jarl continued, waving his arms at the gathered crowd.
Idunn tossed her braid of light blonde hair over one shoulder and stood with the rest of the warriors in the room, raising their cups in a toast.
She stood shorter than the men around her, but few in the room could match her fierceness in battle. Her physique was strong, and she could hold her own against any challenger.
The Jarl waited until he had his warriors’ attention, his gaze flicking between them, almost one at a time. Briefly, he found Idunn’s, and his lips quirked into a greater smile. With a last sweep of the room, he thrust his own bejeweled cup to the ceiling.
“To battle. For Tyr, the God of War!” The old man’s battle cry was matched by the sinews of muscle in his stretching neck.
His words were echoed by the warriors, and everyone downed their glasses, tipping their heads back and allowing the liquid to dribble into their beards.
Idunn winced at the sweetness of the mead as it tickled her tongue. She tossed the cup back onto the table as chatter broke out again and hurried to find Signý on the far side of the feasting table. With each step, excitement bubbled within her stomach. When she reached her friend’s side, she pulled at her apron dress excitedly.
“Signý, Scotland again.”
“Já, I thought you would like that one.” The young woman smiled as she turned to Idunn.
“Say you will come, Signý,” Idunn begged her friend. “You know as well as I that we are never so good in battle as when we are together.”
“How can I be calm?” She jumped excitedly, rearranging the ermine’s fur on her shoulders that would keep her warm in the autumn months. Thick and brown with an underbelly of white hair, she had slain it but a month before to see her through the cold of the year. “Think of it, the two of us in Scotland again.”
“Idunn, listen to me.” Signý took her hand and dragged her away from the feasting table to the corner of the room in the shadows of the orange candlelight. “I cannot go with you this time.” Signý shook her head, and the brown curls of her hair bobbed around her face.
“But… We always fight together.” Idunn straightened her spine, wary of her friend’s words. “Practically since we were bairns.”
“I know, my friend, but I am married now.” Signý’s bright eyes, bathed in the light of the amber candles, looked across the room to where her husband sat at the feasting table, Hallvardr.
Idunn could see the admiration in her gaze and followed its direction. Hallvardr was a warrior in his own right, but he owned a great farm on the outskirts of Oslo too. His family lands were a key part of the town’s wool trade, and he was responsible for its upkeep. On Signý’s marriage, she would have to take on the duties as a farmer’s wife as well as a warrior.
“He fell in love with you because you were a warrior, not because you were a farmer.” Idunn folded her arms, reluctant to release her closest friend to the company of another. It had been just the two of them for so long, the idea of having to do a raid without Signý made Idunn shift uncomfortably.
“I know, but we are only just married. I wish to stay and spend some time with him. Is that not natural?” Signý teased with raised eyebrows.
“I suppose so,” Idunn gave way to a smile, shifting on her feet.
“Besides, there is much fun to be had in being alone with your husband.”
“I shall take your word for it.”
“For now.” Signý laughed. “You will see in time.” Signý pointed towards Idunn’s betrothed across the room, yet she did not turn to look at him.
“But what shall I do without you. We are a partnership in battle. It is our tradition to go together, and –”
“Já, my friend. Next time. I promise you that I will be there. It is just this raid I wish to stay behind from. It is not a stance I wish to take forever.”
“As you wish,” Idunn’s smirk grew wider with mischief. “Consider it your loss when I’m riding through Scotland with all the wealth I’ve pillaged, and you’re churning butter.”
“Ha!” Signý offered her arm in a warrior’s handshake that Idunn took gladly, hand to elbow. They took hold with a good slap and shook firmly. “I do not doubt it, and I expect all the stories when you return. I will want to know everything that has passed.”
“All of them? Even the grisly details of battle?”
“You know I love those.”
“I do. So, I know you will grow tired of playing the part of a farmer’s wife very quickly.” Idunn’s smirk made her friend chuckle.
“You know me well, my friend. Share a drink with me before I have to return to my husband, and before you have to return to your betrothed.”
“Já, I must be with you while I can.” She followed Signý back to the table, trying to cover her sadness with a smile that was forced, pulling at the muscles in her cheeks. It made her all the more aware of the falseness.
She knew battle would not be the same without Signý. It could have been the superstitious part of her believing they brought each other luck, but her practical mind knew it was because they were accustomed to fighting together. They knew each other’s vulnerabilities and were able to compensate for them in combat. Together, they had been unstoppable. Where one was weak, the other was strong, and Idunn detested any sign of weakness. Without Signý, her own failings would show.
“Here, what shall we toast?” Signý passed her a horn cup full to the brim of sweet mead. “To husbands?” Signý’s loving eyes passed from Idunn to where Hallvardr sat at the feast.
Idunn swallowed against her protest for a second. Her own eyes did not seek out where her betrothed sat at the same table. She supposed they should have but did not want the moment to be tainted by anyone.
In the end, her protest found her lips.
“Nei.” Her firm word drew back Signý’s gaze. She pressed their cups together in the toast. “How about, to a new life instead? For us?”
“A new life?” Signý’s thin lips quirked into a smile. “Já, I like that.”
“To a new life.” They said together, gulping down the mead and clattering their cups down on the table with a heavy thud.
Idunn retreated outside as the celebrations grew. Behind her, she could hear the pipe music, the singing, and the constant tap-tap caused by the warriors dancing. Yet she kept her focus on the fjord in front of her.
The deep blue valley was framed by two dark mountains, mere silhouettes at this time of night. Above them hung a dappling of stars that reflected in the water in front of her feet. Her toes were so close to the edge of the fjord that with each lap, the water almost brushed her cow-hide boots.
Out here, there was peace, allowing her to think.
She understood Signý’s reasons for not wanting to go, but it was an ominous sign. They had always gone into battle together, and Idunn was happy to accept that going without Signý made her a little nervous.
Idunn wrapped the ermine tighter around her shoulders, watching as her breath clouded the night air. She peered down at the water, watching as her murky reflection appeared in the gentle current. Her light blonde hair was braided and hung over her shoulder in a tangle. She could not discern the color of her eyes in the darkness, but they were large, framed by her firm eyebrows. She knew her eyes were a mixture of blue and green, something that had startled her betrothed on their first meeting.
As though summoned by her thoughts, a silhouette appeared beside her in the water. Tall and broader than she, it was a familiar figure Idunn had grown accustomed to seeing.
“Idunn? Why are you not at the feast?” It was Einarr.
She turned to see him and forced herself to smile.
He was a handsome man with long light-brown hair and eyes the color of the blue sky. Toned from his many years in battle, he was always a strong presence in any room. When their courtship had begun, many women had been jealous of Idunn’s position. This was not only because of his handsome countenance but the fact he was Jarl Stáli’s son and heir.
With her eyes darting across Einarr’s features, she partly understood Signý’s desire to stay behind from the raid. She supposed that once she was married, she would have the same passion. Though at that moment, she enjoyed his company as much as she did anyone else’s. She presumed the want to be alone with him would come with time.
“I needed some air,” the lie tripped easily off her tongue. “The fire inside is strong.”
“Nei. You are excited about my father’s announcement? That is what is on your mind. I can see it, Idunn.”
“You can see it?”
“Já. Your eyes, sæta. They are windows to your thoughts.”
She looked away sharply, back to the great hall where the dancing was taking place. If her eyes were so easy to read, then she hoped he could not see how much she detested his nickname for her. Sæta. It meant sweet.
“Já, I am very excited. Did your father tell you beforehand?”
“He did. It so happens that I am to lead our raid.” At his proud words, her head snapped round to look up at him.
“It seems my father must stay behind, so he has put his trust in his eldest son.” He placed a hand on his heart with false modesty. Idunn could not help but laugh at his charm. It was a way he had – he could charm anyone to do anything he wanted. She had once said he could persuade a thirsty fish to leave the water.
“Your first raid as our leader? And to so far a place as Scotland? It is a long journey—a hard one at that. There is also the terrain of the place; it gives us many challenges. Já, to put you in command, the Jarl truly has put his trust in you.”
“And why ever should he not?” He smiled with a jest. “I have proven myself many times. Both on the battlefield and here in Oslo. I am a born warrior and leader.”
“Já, but you have also proved you are perhaps not the most modest of men.” Her wit was something that not all welcomed, but Einarr never appeared to mind.
“What would I need modesty for?” He laughed and moved to take her hand. He laced their fingers together, pulling her towards him. “Do you not think me a fortunate man? I have position, status, strength, and a warrior woman to marry me. How could I be modest with so much to enjoy?”
Idunn thought she should be feeling something more. Perhaps there should be warmth from his hand in hers or excitement from his words.
She felt content; that was certainly true. Perhaps that was love?
“Be careful, Einarr!” She cried, making him dart his head to the side.
“What is it?”
“They say pride comes before one falls and hurts themselves.”
“Mischievous woman.” He laughed and pulled her with him. “Come, let us return to the celebrations before we are missed.”
“Wait.” At a sudden squawk, she pulled tightly on his hand, urging him to stop.
“What is it?”
“Sh!” She ushered for him to be quiet as her eyes darted past the nearby townhouses and across the fjord.
The squawk echoed against the mountains again, and Idunn saw a brief dash of black across the large white moon.
She tore her hand from Einarr’s grasp and hurried back to the water’s edge.
“Idunn, it is only a bird.” He made no move to follow, and she did not wish to reply. She stood at the water’s edge, her head flicking back and forth until she found the bird.
With the third squawk, the bird landed. On a rock but a few yards away from her, the raven stood. With his great black wings and ochre beak, he turned his head to the side, with one beaded eye watching her. Its black feathers gleamed in the moonlight, and its feet were but withered claws.
Idunn grasped the edges of the ermine’s fur across her shoulders, watching the bird back with as much intensity.
“See, sæta, it is just a bird. Come back to the celebrations.”
She turned away reluctantly, her feet moving quickly beneath her. She did not look at Einarr as she passed, but her thoughts found her voice.
“It is not just a bird, Einarr. It is a raven. Ravens are omens.”
“Do not be so superstitious,” Einarr’s tone was firm as he followed her as she looked back towards him with sharp eyes. In the corner of her gaze, she could still see the raven with its head tilted to one side.
Rúna had been watching Idunn.
Idunn could sense it. She had seen the young girl following her throughout the feast and celebrations. As she danced and ate with Einarr, Rúna looked at them, making Idunn shift and fidget.
As Einarr’s sister, Rúna, was welcome to join them on their side of the table at the feast, yet she stayed back, apparently wary of joining. She would fidget uncomfortably and distance herself when people approached her to talk.
Idunn hated feeling powerless, and Rúna’s keen gaze made her feel as though something she was missing. Something she did not know. She resolved to return the hard stare throughout the night, only growing more curious at the girl’s odd behavior as the evening passed.
After her third dance of the night with Einarr, his attention was begged by the Jarl, and Idunn saw it as her opportunity to confront her watcher. She slipped away into the shadows of the candles and crept around the edge of the room to watch Rúna.
The girl stood at the side of the longhouse, her head flicking through the crowd, having apparently lost its target. Idunn smiled, knowing she had obtained the advantage, and crept towards her watcher. When she stood behind her, she tapped the girl on her shoulder, smiling as she jumped around.
“Rúna.” She nodded with coldness, watching as the girl darted between her feet. “Do tell why you have felt the need to stare at me all night?”
The girl looked down at her feet with blue eyes that matched her brother’s, apparently ashamed.
“Have you lost your tongue as well as your manners?” Idunn regretted her harshness when the girl looked up with pained eyes.
“I need to speak with you. Alone.”
“Alone? Whatever for?”
Rúna looked back over her shoulder, her gaze finding her father, the Jarl, and Einarr in the far corner of the room. Idunn followed her glance, growing more curious. The two men were huddled together in conversation, laughing at each other’s jokes.
“It is important. Please. Come with me.” Rúna beckoned her to follow and led the two of them through the dancers and pipe players to the doorway of the longhouse. On one side of them was the warmth of the hall with the great fire and orange candles. On the other was the blue darkness of night.
“You look in pain, Rúna,” Idunn observed as they came to a stop. She leaned on the doorframe, tilting her head to look at the girl closely.
“I am – in a way. If fear is a type of pain.” Rúna stepped towards her, with a countenance suddenly firm and sharp. “You must listen to me, Idunn.”
“I am listening.”
“You must be careful in this raid against the Scots.”
Idunn scoffed with a shake of her head and folded her arms, realizing the girl’s strange behavior was nothing but concern for battle. She was not a warrior woman, not one as trained as Idunn and Signý.
“You have never seen me in battle, so you do not know what care I take. You do not need to be concerned. Though I will say, you are bold to make such a warning.”
“You misunderstand me completely!” At the sudden harshness, Rúna looked around to make sure she’d not been overheard. Idunn watched her fidgeting manner as she ran her hands through the tendrils of her brown hair. She quickly realized whatever was bothering the girl appeared to be very real.
“Then explain it to me.”
“I will,” Rúna nodded, returning her gaze to Idunn. “You will have heard already that Einarr is to lead the raid.”
“I know my brother well, Idunn. Better than you.” Rúna stepped closer to her, but Idunn made no move to argue. She did not deny that she wasn’t excessively familiar with her betrothed. “I can tell you that he is not to be trusted to lead this raid.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Idunn scoffed again and shook her head. “He is one of the most fearsome warriors we have.”
“And one of the least trustworthy.” Rúna’s voice was pleading, almost begging to be understood. “I love him dearly, of course, I do. As my brother, how could I not? Yet that does not mean my eyes are not open to the man’s failings, and he has many.”
“You think he has a failing as a warrior or a leader?”
“You have never seen him in battle as I have done. On what grounds do you base this judgment on?” Idunn looked down at Rúna. She was not the tallest of Norse women, but she still had a little height over the girl.
“Experience of a lifetime as his sister.” Rúna’s voice was calm now. “I do not tell you this to cause difficulties in your betrothal. I am warning you because I am genuinely afraid of what is about to happen. Einarr has never led a battle by himself before.”
“He has been in enough of them to prove his worth.”
“I know the darkness of his mind better than you. Trust me, Idunn.”
“What is it you want from me?” Idunn shook her head with firmness. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I want you to be wary, that is all.” Rúna stepped even closer to her, so she could whisper. “Take care in battle, and do not trust him more than you would your own sword.”
“I trust nothing more than my sword.”
“Good.” Rúna moved away again. “Just, please promise me… You will be careful?”
Idunn paused for a minute, staring at Rúna with narrowed eyes and folded arms. Seeing the girl’s twitching face and fearful manner was enough to convince her that Rúna believed herself to be telling the truth.
Idunn nodded, breathing a sigh of relief as Rúna left her alone to her thoughts.
“Is all well?” The familiar voice of Einarr reached her through the crowd. Idunn tore her eyes from the retreating form of Rúna and turned to see her betrothed reach her side. “My sister has been bothering you?”
“Not at all. She merely wished to speak about the upcoming raid.” Idunn lied, forcing that familiar fake smile back to her cheeks.
“She did?” Einarr turned his eyes to find her sister.
“It is nothing. Merely a sister’s love and worry for her brother.”
“Well, for that, I must be grateful.” He turned back with a charming smile. “Come, play a game of tafl with me?”
He offered her his hand, and she took it gladly, staring into his sky-blue eyes for a moment.
Content. There was that feeling again.
“Of course,” she smiled, this time it was a genuine one and followed him to a table at the far side of the room where the games were played.
Einarr eagerly set up the game of tafl as Idunn watched, her mind more concerned with the conversation that had just passed with Rúna.
Her eyes followed his hand movements as they placed the brown and white pieces in the center and corners of the engraved board, his face frowning with concentration. She knew by now it was one of his favorite games. It was a game of strategy, one he liked to win, and one that was often played at such celebrations.
“Are you worried about the raid?” Idunn moved one of her pieces to begin the game, curious to delve into his thoughts now her mind had been unsettled by Rúna.
“Not at all. Tell me, sæta, when was the last time the Scots beat us?”
She laughed as he moved his own piece.
“I have never known it to happen.”
They continued the game in quiet, both absorbed in their strategies.
“I have seen you in battle so many times.” Idunn’s words came out softly. She was uncertain whether she meant them to offer comfort to her betrothed or if it was an attempt to persuade herself. “I trust you. Just as everyone here trusts you.”
“If you are trying to build my confidence ahead of this raid, I would say you are succeeding.” He smiled as he took one of her pieces from the board. She masked her own delight that he had fallen for her trick of carefully sacrificing one of her pieces.
“Your confidence does not need building.” She moved another piece to the center of the board, finishing the game with a flourish. “I believe you have lost the game, Einarr.”
Einarr’s happy countenance shifted to a frown as he gazed down at the board, baffled by her move.
“That is not possible. I was about to win.”
“I’m afraid you fell for my trick. I sacrificed a piece.”
“You must have cheated.” He sat back in his seat with folded arms.
“I did not.”
“You must have done.” He pointed down at the board. “I always win this game.”
“We all lose at some point.” She chuckled, trying to usher him into a more jovial spirit, but it was a fruitless endeavor. “Would you like to play again?” She moved the pieces back to their starting place.
“No, I have had enough for tonight.” He stood to walk away, leaving her staring down at the board.
Perhaps the raid on the Scots’ was what the two of them needed. They were a good couple in their courtship, but they still had problems. Standing together and fighting side by side could help them to bond. They could learn from each other and become even closer.
Idunn watched Einarr retreat across the room, suddenly certain that Rúna was wrong in her warning. He was a man to be trusted; it was proven by how poor a loser he was in their game. He would never give up the fight until they had beaten the Scots.
Gavin lay on his back amongst the long grass with the scent of thistles and heather around him. The grass tickled his arms, and he rested his leather boots on a nearby rock. With his eyes closed, he was trying to ignore the sound of the gentle patter of rain on the Davenon Loch beside him. It was like a soft whisper, one easy to forget.
“Gavin? Gavin! Ye must wake up.” A voice broke through his peaceful doze, but a minute later, he was back in the depths of his nap, his head rested back on his hands. “Gavin!” The voice practically screeched, making him open his eyes with a flicker.
“Kenna? I thought we came out here for some quiet. Ye are nae exactly aidin’ that aim.” He closed his eye again, trying to return to his nap and ignore the cries of his sister. She had spent most of their time by the loch dancing around, picking bundles of heather, but something had changed to make her so agitated.
“Gavin, if ye daenae get up now, so help me, in the name of the wee man above, I will dump ye in the loch.”
“I would like to see ye try. Leave me be.”
“Ye have to see this!”
“I will see it when I wake. Just give me a few minutes more.”
As his mind was pulled back into the darkness of sleep, one of the horses beside him whinnied and cried loudly.
“Aye! I will get up!” Gavin sat up, scratching the dark auburn hair on his head. “Well, it must be somethin’ to see that ye even have the horse upset.”
He looked around but was suddenly aware that Kenna was not beside him. The horse reared back on its legs, continuing to neigh in fear.
“Daenae worry, lad.” Gavin jumped to his feet and tugged at the reins, pulling the horse down again. It was a wild thing, easily skittish and frequently unnerved by strangers, but Gavin could always tame it. “There, now. Ye are alright, arenae ye?” The horse snorted, looking past Gavin’s shoulder.
“Now, lad. I’m goin’ to look for Kenna. Ye stay calm, ye hear?” The raspy tone of his voice drew deeper, a manner that kept the horse in its place. The horse merely snorted in reply, allowing Gavin to look away.
He turned his eyes from the loch to the bank of the hill; Kenna was nowhere to be seen. He walked up the hill in the direction of where the horse had been staring, looking for any sign of her wild brown hair.
“Over here, ye bampot!”
“I thought we agreed ye were goin’ to stop callin’ me that.” Gavin followed her voice, relieved when her white arisaid came into view.
“When ye stop bein’ a bampot, I will. Until that day comes, ye will have to suffer the name. Now – look!” She pointed out across the clifftop toward the sea. Her hand was still clutching the yellow and purple heathers collected from the side of the loch.
Gavin followed her hand to peer through the mist and grey cloud. He brushed the droplets of cold rain from his eyes and looked again, feeling the fear settle in his stomach as his vision focused.
It was a Viking longship, almost masked from view by mist, but just about visible. As the sun attempted to peer through the clouds, a brief gleam of light fell across the boat, revealing the flag. Atop the white flag was a black raven, painted with ornately carved lines. It was difficult to see from so far away as the material rippled in the wind, but Gavin knew the symbol.
“What flag is that?” Kenna asked, her feet already backing up the slope, eager to be away from the cliff edge and the new danger that the dark green sea posed.
“Norse.” Gavin’s eyes darted back behind the ship, out to the green and grey horizon. Beyond the one ship, there were more shadows following. “In the name of the wee man…” He trailed off as his eyes scoured the swarm of longships skimming the waves.
“How many are there?” Kenna asked, darting her head back and forth.
“That hardly matters. It is a lot. Too many.”
“And they are here because?”
“Well, I daenae think it will be for trade with so many ships, do ye? Or a chance social call?” He snapped, turning and grabbing Kenna to drag her back up the hill, but she shook him off, determined to sprint ahead of him. “We must get back to the castle. Now.”
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