Authors: Erin S. Riley
Table of Contents
Sons of Odin Series
ERIN S. RILEY
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
ERIN S. RILEY
Cover Design by Fiona Jayde
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
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Macedon, New York, 14502
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Husband, lover, friend and soul mate.
I knew you were The One the moment I saw you
and have never doubted it since.
I love you more than all water in the ocean.
~Te semper amabo~
Thank you to my husband and children for supporting my need to write, including a willingness to eat cold cereal for supper without complaint whenever I’m on a roll. A special thanks to Carmen Vanscyoc, Nicole Armstrong, Kim Freeman and Kelley Franks, wonderful friends who were my first readers and are still my biggest supporters. Thank you to Susan Ward and Terry Wilson for their positive feedback and encouragement through this sometimes overwhelming journey. Thank you to Regan Walker for her ongoing support. Thank you to Hannah Howe for reading my manuscript to ensure I did justice to the beautiful country of Wales. And a heartfelt thank you to Diana Deyo, a friend and mentor who refused to let me give up. Above all, thank you to my mother, Karen S. Ward, who was taken from this world too soon but taught me what unconditional love truly is. Everything I am and everything I will be, I owe to her.
I am so grateful to Debby Gilbert from Soul Mate Publishing for providing the opportunity for me to pursue my dreams. A special thanks goes to Victoria Vane, cover designer extraordinaire. And finally, thank you to my brilliant editor, Char Chaffin, who understood my vision from the beginning and who polished my story with unwavering patience.
“You will not have her buried there, Ragnarr! I will not stand for it!” Mother pushed her food away and rose from the table, her face red and angry.
The tone in her voice made Alrik’s belly hurt, and he watched cautiously as Father took a drag of ale. Dagrun grasped Alrik’s hand under the table and gave it a squeeze.
“And him,” Mother continued, gesturing at Ulfrik with an ugly expression. “Your bastard will not sit at our table with our children. It’s not proper! I will not allow you to disrespect me so—”
Father slammed his cup down, splashing ale on the wooden planks, and leveled his gaze upon Mother. The look in his eyes sent a familiar wave of worry through Alrik’s body. It meant Mother was about to get hurt.
He held very still. Dagrun gripped Alrik’s hand so tightly his fingers ached.
Ulfrik kept his head lowered, but Alrik saw a fresh tear trickle down his cheek. Ulfrik’s mother was dead. He’d been sniffling all day, his face puffy from crying, but Alrik hadn’t taunted him as he usually liked to.
Alrik felt sick about what he’d done to Treasa. Mother told him everything would be better once the slave was dead. She’d told him Father would love them again. Alrik had poured the powder Mother gave him into Treasa’s cup. He was supposed to put it in Ulfrik’s cup too, but he hadn’t.
Mother had slapped him when he told her he hadn’t done it.
She was wrong; this wasn’t better. This was worse, so much worse. When Alrik had seen Treasa’s dead body, her pretty eyes had stared at him as though she knew what he’d done.
The slaves had wrapped her in a blanket because she was cold. Now her eyes were covered. Alrik was glad Treasa couldn’t stare at him any longer. Father had shouted and cried, and threatened to kill Mother if she had done something to make Treasa die. He was still angry now, even though the slaves had brought him many cups of ale.
Alrik missed Treasa. She’d always been kind to him. She’d thanked him for not allowing Gunnar to hurt Ulfrik. He wished he hadn’t put the powder into her cup. Alrik wanted to cry but he wasn’t weak like Ulfrik.
Father rose from the table, knocking over his bench, and Alrik shrank close to Dagrun. Father didn’t come at Mother, but instead froze where he stood. He turned his head toward the bedchamber where Treasa was wrapped. Sometimes Father heard things no one else could hear, and his face now assumed the look that told Alrik dead Treasa was speaking to him.
Alrik felt a bitter taste rise up in his throat. What would happen if dead Treasa told Father what he’d done?
Mother’s lip curled in a sneer. “Your whore is dead, Ragnarr!” She cackled. Her eyes held a look of triumph. “I will not have her bastard son sitting beside our own—send the boy to the slave quarters where he belongs!”
Father lunged, swinging to hit her. She ducked but his hand grazed her head, and Mother tumbled from her bench, screaming furiously. “She’s dead! She’s dead—”
The door slammed against the wall as Jorulf entered the house. He liked to visit the slave quarters to bed the pretty thralls. Alrik felt a mixture of relief and anger at the sight of his brother. Jorulf was mean, nearly as mean as Father. He’d pushed Alrik down when he’d shown him the tattoo Father had given him for beating Gunnar so hard his eye was ruined. He told Alrik he should have let Gunnar kill Ulfrik.
Mother loved Jorulf more than she did Alrik. They would frequently whisper together, becoming silent when Alrik entered the room. Jorulf hated Treasa and Ulfrik. Perhaps Alrik should have put the powder in Ulfrik’s cup after all. Perhaps they would both be pleased with him now instead of angry at him.
Father grabbed Mother’s wrist and jerked her to her feet. She screamed, twisting in his grasp.
“Let her go!” Jorulf shouted.
Father smiled at Jorulf. The smile always frightened Alrik more than Father’s angry face did. Dagrun jumped up from the table, pulling Alrik by the hand, and grabbed Ulfrik as well. She moved behind Jorulf with them in tow.
“Let her go!” Jorulf repeated. His eyes flashed a furious blue, just as Father’s did. He drew his sword with a metallic hiss.
Father spun Mother around so she faced them all. She cried out, struggling, as his big hands wrapped around her throat. Jorulf rushed toward them with his sword drawn, just as Father gave Mother a hard shake.
Laughing, he dropped her to the ground. Mother lay still as though asleep, but her neck was bent oddly and her eyes were open. They stared up at Alrik just as Treasa’s had. Dagrun sobbed, pressing him and Ulfrik toward the door.
Jorulf lunged at Father with a bellow of rage. Father blocked his attack and disarmed Jorulf, making his sword skitter across the floor and stop at Alrik’s feet. They struggled, shouting at each other, then Jorulf’s cry stopped short as he sank to his knees.
There was blood on his stomach.
Father turned to look at them; Alrik, Ulfrik and Dagrun. His eyes shone very bright as he smiled his frightening smile. Red coated his hands. He nodded at the sword, keeping his gaze locked on Alrik.
“Pick it up, boy. Try to kill me.”
A noise came out of Alrik’s mouth at the same time something warm and wet trickled down his leg. Alrik stared at his breeches, realizing with shame he’d just urinated on himself, then gaped up at Father.
Father’s laughter sounded like an animal howling. Dagrun grasped Alrik and Ulfrik, and turned to run. As she pulled them outside, he could still hear Father’s laughter from inside the house.
Laughing at his cowardice.
Ulfrik rushed forward as Selia stumbled toward him over the debris of the forest floor. He caught her before she fell, wrapping her in a tight embrace. She clung to him, digging her fingers in desperately as a drowning woman might, as she buried her face in his shoulder.
The ensuing fury that coursed through Ulfrik’s body burned hot and quick, making it difficult to think clearly. Although Ingrid had prepared him for Selia’s shocking appearance, the sight of her still seemed like a physical blow.
She let out a small, shuddering sigh, the sound of one exhausted who could now rest, and Ulfrik felt the tension in her body ease as she curled in to him.
What had Alrik done to her?
The vibrant, spirited beauty of Ulfrik’s memory had been roughly stripped away, replaced with the ghost of a woman who now trembled in his arms. His brother had broken her, crushed Selia like a fragile flower under his boot. He had reduced her to
Never in his life had he wanted to kill Alrik more than he did at this moment.
He tucked her in closer as though comforting a small child. Ulfrik would keep her in his arms for the rest of his life, if only she would allow it. “It’s all right, Selia,” he whispered. “Everything will be all right now.”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she choked out. “I thought you were Alrik . . .”
“I know,” he murmured. “I will never let him hurt you again. Any of you.”
Ingrid had told him of the reasons for their flight from Norway. Alrik had snapped, nearly killing one of his own sons. It had been bound to happen eventually, and they were lucky no permanent damage had been done. Ulfrik knew only too well what his brother was capable of.
He gazed at the two boys who stood over them now, both appearing uncertain, yet defensive. The handsome blond youth with Muirin’s eyes he recognized immediately as Geirr. He’d been but a suckling child the last Ulfrik had seen him. The smaller boy must be the babe Selia had been carrying. Other than his coloring, he looked very much like Alrik, down to the hostile expression on his familiar features.
“Are you my father’s brother?” the boy asked.
“Then you are the reason for all of this.”
,” Selia admonished. “That is enough—”
Ulfrik shook his head. “It is all right.” He rose and helped Selia to her feet. She seemed unsteady and he wanted to keep his hand on her, but the two boys stepped in protectively.
The golden rays of the rising sun dappled through the dark grove, catching Selia’s face clearly for the first time. The smooth skin of her cheek was split, swollen, and discolored. Ulfrik’s breath stilled in his chest.
“Who hurt you?” he asked. His voice sounded calm even as his insides shook with fury.
Selia dropped her gaze, bringing her hand up to her face as though ashamed. “No one hurt me. I fell.”
He stared down at her. She was lying, that much was obvious. But why? The wound was too fresh to have been caused by Alrik. Who was Selia protecting?
He knew Selia had bought passage out of Norway on Gunnar’s ship. It was Ulfrik who had answered Elfrad Audunarson’s door when Gunnar had come knocking two days earlier, inquiring insistently about the mysterious woman Inga Elfradsdottir.
Had Gunnar been the one to hurt Selia? Cousin or not, a shallow grave would be Gunnar Klaufason’s final resting place if Ulfrik learned his suspicions were true.
Ulfrik motioned for the others to follow him. He would revisit this later when he could speak with Selia alone. “The sun is rising quickly. Come, this way.”
Selia shivered in the dusty darkness under Ulfrik’s cloak. She lay in the back of the cart with Ingrid and the children, covered with a heap of sweet-smelling straw. Eydis sneezed and Ingrid shushed her, just as the cart rolled to a stop.
“We’re here,” Ulfrik whispered. “But don’t get out just yet. I want to make sure Gunnar’s men aren’t watching the house.”
They waited for what seemed like an eternity for Ulfrik to return. Finally there was the sound of footsteps approaching, then Ulfrik’s voice as he pushed aside the straw. “Hurry, now.”
Morning had broken. Selia blinked into the harsh rays and got a brief glimpse of a large log dwelling, not long like Alrik’s house in Norway but instead tall, two stories high. The house had narrow windows on the second story, shuttered over. Ulfrik urged them inside, then latched the massive carved door behind them.
Selia’s eyes adjusted to the dim light as she stood in the main room of the house. A long plank table took up a good deal of the space, with two looms along the front wall. The side walls held sleeping benches. A welcoming fire burned at a large hearth in the back of the house, with twin doors on either side.
A stairway rose in the vaulted space to a loft above the middle of the main room, open to access the heat from the hearth below. A woman came down the steps, with three children behind her, two boys and a girl.
“Oh,” the woman gasped, gazing at Selia with a sympathetic expression. She was tall and well formed, sharing her brothers’ striking good looks. Her red-gold hair was dressed in a lovely pattern of braids. Her eyes, however, looked very much like Hrefna’s, and Selia’s heart tightened in her chest at the thought of the woman she would never see again.
“Are you Dagrun?” Selia whispered.
“I’m sorry to come to you in such a manner. We didn’t know what else to do.”
Dagrun nodded. “I understand. Ingrid told us what my brother did. I will help you and your children any way I can.”
Selia released a relieved breath. “Thank you.”
The first obstacle was crossed; Dagrun would allow them to stay. The knot of anxiety in Selia’s belly began to ease somewhat.
“Would you and the children like something to eat? Or would you prefer a bath first?”
The boys perked up immediately at the mention of food. Selia felt nearly faint with hunger, but a hot bath was the most wonderful suggestion she had heard in quite some time.
“I would like a bath, if it isn’t too much trouble,” she said quietly to Dagrun.
Dagrun smiled, revealing a missing front tooth. Alrik’s sister was beautiful even with the imperfection, but Dagrun closed her mouth quickly and turned toward the back of the house where a few thralls stood in the shadows. “Draw a hot bath, and bring clean clothes for them all. And food, plenty of food.”
The thralls scurried off, and Dagrun motioned for the three children behind her to step forward. The girl and one of the boys resembled her in coloring and build. The girl appeared to be about ten summers; the boy a bit younger. The older boy had white-blond hair and a sharper bone structure, and seemed to be around twelve. “These are my children, Jora and Bjarni. Valdrik Haraldson is my husband’s nephew.”
Selia flushed at the expression of shock she saw in the children’s faces as they stared openly at the group of dirty strangers standing in their home. The girl, Jora, seemed scandalized at the sight of Selia’s legs. She looked away briefly, then turned back to gape again.
Selia was acutely aware of the impropriety of her clothing. The thrall’s tunic left her legs bare from the knee down. Somehow the disguise hadn’t seemed nearly as awful until just now. She felt dirty, ugly, and exposed. Shifting uncomfortably, she pulled Ulfrik’s cloak tight to cover her shame. As soon as she walked her legs would show again, however.
“These are my sons, Geirr and Faolan,” Selia responded. “Eydis is Ingrid’s daughter.”
Where had Ingrid gone? To the privy, perhaps? Surely not to the bath. The sooner Selia could bathe and change into appropriate clothing, the better. She had no desire to use Ingrid’s tepid bathwater.
Dagrun studied the boys, her eyes resting on Geirr longer than on Faolan. Her gaze flickered toward Ulfrik, where he stood behind Selia.
“Welcome to our home, children. Jora, show your cousins the house. Stay inside, and keep the shutters closed.” Dagrun waved them along, and after a nod from Selia, Eydis and the boys followed the children.
Dagrun regarded Selia for a moment before she spoke. “I’m sorry my brother did this to you. I will help you as much as I am able to. My husband has no love for Alrik, and he will not be happy to hear such trouble has come to his home. He is away but will return soon, within a few days I think. Have you anywhere else to go, if . . .?”
If Elfrad Audunarson decides we can’t stay
. “My brother Ainnileas lives in Baile Átha Cliath. I must warn him Alrik means him harm. Then, I plan to go to the Icelandic settlement. I have enough silver to start a new life there with the children.” Selia felt her cheeks heat again. Ulfrik’s silver.
Ulfrik spoke up from behind her. “Iceland? In the spring?”
“No.” Resolute, she faced him. “Now—as soon as I know Ainnileas is safe.”
Ulfrik and Dagrun exchanged a glance. Ulfrik seemed about to speak when one of the thralls entered the room and announced the bath was ready.
Dagrun nodded, then turned back toward Selia, scrutinizing her injury. “Your eye looks very painful,” she said. “I can stitch the wound for you after your bath. I’m not sure if it will heal cleanly, though. When did this happen?”
“Not long ago,” Selia hedged.
Dagrun’s expression relaxed. “So my brother did not do this?”
“No one did it. I fell.” Selia looked to the floor as she lied. The humiliation of nearly being raped was too disgraceful to disclose. A woman raped, or nearly so, was always held in suspicion. Selia knew she’d done nothing to provoke Einarr’s lust, but the thought of seeing doubt in the eyes of Ulfrik or Dagrun was just too much to bear.
“But Alrik put that collar on your neck?”
“Yes. He thought to keep me from leaving him.”
The shame of it all was just too much, to be standing here in front of Alrik’s brother and sister, wearing a slave collar and dressed in rags. Asking for help like a beggar. She wanted to sink into the floor.
Ulfrik leaned close to examine the collar, and Selia shrank from his touch. How must she appear to him? The woman he had expressed his undying love for seven years ago, was gone. In her place stood a dirty thrall, face disfigured, hair clipped to the scalp.
How disappointed he must be.
“I will send for a blacksmith to have this removed.” Ulfrik dropped his hand to his side. “Bathe now, and eat. Then we will speak further.”
Selia stayed in the bath until the water grew cold. She soaped up three times, scrubbing the filth from her hair and skin. The soap stung the numerous scrapes and abrasions on her body from her struggle with Einarr and her flight through the forest afterward.
There was a soft knock on the door, followed by a female voice. “Mistress, I have a clean gown for you. Would you like me to bring it in?”
. It had been quite some time since anyone had called her that.
“Yes, please,” Selia answered. The thrall entered, placing a folded parcel of clothing on the bench next to the wooden tub. “Thank you,” Selia said to the woman’s downcast face.
The slave nodded and hurried out. Selia dried herself, hating the bristly feel of her hair as she toweled it. How long would it take to grow back? Or at least cover the awful dent in her skull?
The gown was a deep red shade, with a matching apron dress. It was a bit snug in the bosom, but loose in the waist. A child’s gown, cut for freedom of movement rather than alluring appearance. Selia realized it must belong to Jora, Dagrun’s daughter. The shoes, most likely Jora’s as well, were too big, but Selia would have gratefully worn Ulfrik’s enormous boots if it meant she didn’t have to go barefoot any longer. Dagrun had also thoughtfully provided a wrap for her head, somehow understanding not only Selia’s need to hide the shame of her shorn hair but to keep her exposed skin warm, too.
Selia entered the main room where Dagrun and the children were seated at the long table. Platters of food lined the wooden planks; bread, cheeses, meat and sausages. Dagrun’s children ate slowly, watching the strangers with fascination.
The boys and Eydis had shoveled food onto their platters and ate like hungry animals, hunched over, stuffing their mouths as if afraid someone would come and snatch the repast away. Geirr paused to gulp from the cup of ale in front of him, spilling some down his shirt in his haste.
Selia was mortified. “I apologize for their lack of manners,” she said to Dagrun. “It has been some time since they have had anything other than berries and fish.”
Dagrun gave Selia a closed-lipped smile. “No need to apologize. Sit, Selia, and eat your fill. I told the children to go ahead, but I wanted to wait for you.”
Indeed, Dagrun’s platter was untouched. Selia’s cheeks heated once again. She shouldn’t have stayed in the bath so long and made Dagrun wait.
She eyed the food, suddenly dizzy with hunger. She took a hunk of succulent-looking sausage, dripping with fat and juices, as one of the thralls brought her a cup of ale.
Selia bit into the sausage and the familiar taste flooded her mouth. This had been her father’s favorite meal; the very item Selia had bought in Dubhlinn the day she met Alrik, over seven years ago. How appropriate that it would be her first meal back on Irish soil. She found herself blinking tears away as she chewed.
Dagrun was watching her. “You are very comely, Selia. As are your children. Your son Faolan favors you with his dark coloring. Geirr, though, looks like his father.”