Authors: Julia Knight
The Viking’s Sacrifice
By Julia Knight
Viking raiders destroyed Wilda’s home. She witnessed the murder of her mother and would have been killed herself if it weren’t for the Viking boy Einar, who saved her from his ruthless brother. The blood and murder left Wilda cold and shorn of feeling.
Eight years later, the heathens return for Wilda. As a captive in the Viking village, she finds protection and silent comfort in the man who once gallantly saved her.
Einar has been cursed to silence by his brother. With the dark net of his brother’s power cast over their village, silence is a small price to pay for his family’s safety. But Einar is immediately drawn to Wilda, and the need to protect her from his brother awakens his Viking courage. Can Einar break his brother’s curse in time to save the village and the woman he loves?
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To Scarlett, for getting it. Me. Whatever. Thanks, babe.
Thanks to my dedicated betas, Sue and Scarlett, for their incisive comments of “I really liked it.” Absolute Write and their helpful hints about research, not to mention writing. As always, to Deb, but especially for inspiring this story with an offhand “Have you thought about writing an historical?” three days before I left for Norway. This one’s her fault! Thanks to Olaf, the world’s most giggle-inducing guide, whose knowledge was awe inspiring. And thanks to Geirangerfjord, Lodalen, and Norway for being so damned beautiful I had to write about you.
While I have strived to be as accurate as possible, I suspect there will be some inconsistencies, not least because not everyone agrees on all the actual facts, and the facts that are known are contradictory.
For example, there is much disagreement over whether the Norse invaders and the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of England would have understood one another at the start of the raiding period. Both languages come from the same/similar roots, but it seems likely that, at the least, they would have only understood a word or two, in much the same way that English has many words based on Latin, or West Germanic, and I fail at both those languages. Also I note that due to accent and local idiom, I can fail to understand the spoken words of someone who is nominally speaking the same language as me, and they will fail to understand me.
So while I’ve made every effort, please forgive this poor writer for any errors.
With regard to the mention of Tristan and Isolde, while the first known manuscripts are later than when this novel is set, Mark of Cornwall (Isolde’s husband in some versions) probably lived in the sixth century, and other speculative dates for the tale’s timing are in the seventh or eighth centuries. Many tales were well known before they were first committed to paper, and I have assumed that the story of Tristan and Isolde is one such tale.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Northeast England, in the year of Our Lord 836.
Wilda ran, not to anywhere or from anywhere, but for the sheer joy of running. Along the beach or through the orchard, scattering sheep in the fold and startling men from their reaping, always she ran.
Today she ran along the beach through the edge of the waves, salt spray wetting her dress, damp sand sticking between her toes and the hot, heavy air of late summer whisked to lightness by the sea breeze. She ran for the wind whipping her hair in her face, the screech of the gulls as she swooped among them, and the guilty knowledge that she should be at home, spinning and sewing, but had escaped for an afternoon.
Movement caught her eye and she hunkered down behind a sand dune to peek through the rough grass. What one of the kitchen maids was getting up to with the new stable boy was far more interesting than rock pools or looking for seashells.
The stable boy shifted and slid a hand inside the bodice of the maid’s dress. Wilda blushed and thought to turn away, but she was eleven now. It wouldn’t be long till she was a lady, till she was married to Lord Bayen as a peace-weaver between him and her own lord father. Mother had steadfastly refused to elaborate on what would be expected of her when she married, except for the cryptic comment that “it wasn’t something to look forward to” but was “something to be borne.” She could gather some of it—she’d seen plenty of sheep tupping and once her father’s prize stallion sent to cover a mare—but people were different from animals, surely? The stable boy leaned over the maid again and Wilda pulled back. She shouldn’t be watching, no matter how much she wanted to know.
A glance behind her at the last half of the sun as it dipped over windswept hills made her decision for her. She had to be back by dark, always. She couldn’t wait till she was old enough to stay out as late as she wanted. The sand was soft under her bare feet, with little bits of shell and grass prickling her skin as she snuck away from the maid and stable boy and made her way along the high tide line back toward her home, Dunburh, the fortified town perched on the highest hill. She dawdled along, trying to put off the inevitable chores and bedtime, but not so much that she’d incur her mother’s wrath.
She reached the path that led away from the beach, up to the town. A raven sat in the oak tree where the path forked. She stopped, alarmed, then berated herself. Superstitions were for the ungodly, for heathens and sinners to cling to, so the priests said. Those who looked to God had nothing to fear. She took a step and the raven flapped on its branch and cawed at her, its beady eye boring straight into hers. Superstition, that was all. Still, there was another path, one where she needn’t pass the raven, down around the base of the cliffs and up the other side. That path was longer but came out closer to home. If she ran, she wouldn’t be late. The raven flapped its wings at her again, and she turned.
Red sunset bounced off waves and all but blinded her, but for a moment she thought she saw something, some movement down on the beach beneath the headland where the hills blocked the town’s view of the sea. She glanced over the hill at the setting sun. Enough time to look, if she was quick. Mother would never know. She ran as she always did, everywhere, her feet making little spurts of cloudy sand.
It was a ship, but not one she recognised. Not one of the fishermen’s craft that sailed whenever they could, bringing back all manner of tasty things to eat. Not a trading ship either. Dunburh didn’t have much of a harbour, and there were better opportunities south in Bamburgh. She found a fold of land where she could hide see without being seen, and watched.
A young man, boy really, jumped off the prow and into the water, starting the laborious process of hauling it up the sand. He didn’t look much older than she was, though for all his young age he was big, bigger than her older brother who was fifteen. This boy’s hair was fair, braided in an unfamiliar way, but he looked quite handsome beneath. She had a brief, silly daydream that he was a noble warrior come to take her away from the manor and title she’d been born to, from arranged marriages and older brothers and fathers who scolded her lack of domestication, mothers who always insisted she walk like a lady rather than run. He would take her away to palaces and knights, daring feats, epic loves and kings that the bards told of.
Another two men landed in the knee-deep water beside him, older, bigger and broader. A second ship nudged onto the beach. A niggle started at the back of her mind, grew when yet more men jumped into the surf. They wore trousers and cloaks—and leather armour. One of them worked on a pile of torches, lighting them and passing them round. The niggle turned to outright fear when one of them called down to the boy, “Einar!” and threw down a spear and shield.
The ship’s figurehead loomed large in her vision. A raven’s head, a motif repeated on the single square sail. Her breath stopped and she took in the rest of the ship. Long and lean. Not a trader or a fisher. Men busied themselves taking shields from the side of the longboat, grabbing spears and swords, neatly shipping many oars.
One of the other men shouted something she couldn’t understand. Then she knew, when she realised why her mother always insisted she be back by dark. When she realised the raven had warned her as surely as Dunburh’s alarm call might, only she’d not listened. They’d all heard the tales that raged up and down the coast, of the warriors who sometimes came from over the sea and pillaged and plundered and burned what they didn’t take. The priests intoned a prayer at church, every week now as the raids became more frequent.
Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms.
The raven had warned her in time. The heathens were here. Wilda turned and ran for home.
Einar stepped onto the sandy beach and adjusted his shield with fingers that shook with excitement and, yes, maybe a little fear. His first raid. His first chance to prove himself to his father, to his half-brothers, Arni and Bausi. He tightened his grip on his spear and looked around. It all looked too open, too low. No steep-sided fjords, no high, sweet meadows or sweeps of dark fir trees cut by wispy waterfalls. Here it was all rolling grass, hills little more than rounded humps in the ground, and dour oaks. A settlement perched atop a low headland, dark against the setting sun.
A flash of movement caught his eye and he squinted into the sunset. A raven swooped over a tuft of tough sea-grass and a small face grinned at him from among rocks at the bottom of a tumbled cliff. Her dark hair whipped across her face and her eyes were alight with interest. She reminded him of a fox, the sharp, intelligent face, the air of wildness that nothing could tame. For a heartbeat he grinned back. He hadn’t expected this. Her gaze moved over the ships, took in the armed men, and her face pinched with fear. Then she was a figure in a sky-blue dress, running along the beach where it met the small cliff. The raven perched on a rock and began to preen. A raven, one of Odin’s birds perhaps, but a bird of portent always.
“Arni, over there.” Einar pointed with his spear.
His eldest brother shaded his eyes and his mouth lifted in a grin. “Well done, Einar. And she’s leading us the way. Good girl. Let’s get after her before she gets too far and raises the alarm.”
Bausi glared at Einar from under lowered brows and barged past him, deliberately smacking Einar’s shoulder with his shield as he passed. Einar hung back, let Bausi get ahead before he followed Arni along the beach at a swift trot. Bausi had been short with him the whole way over, sneering at his attempts at rowing, laughing at his knots, making fun of how Ragnhilda had come to see him off with a chaste kiss.
Yet Bausi had argued long and hard with their father that Einar was old enough to come on his first raid. Einar’s marriage to Ragnhilda was set for later in the year, the bride price paid, the families’ jostling done, and a boy old enough to be married was a man, so his argument went. Other boys his age could, and did, go on raids. Besides, Father was too old now, in failing health, a sad shadow of a man knowing that now it was too late, he would die in his bed instead of in battle, with a blade in his hand.
Bausi had argued that his sons stood for him, that they needed all the men they could get, and Einar had filled with pride that even the temperamental, sneering Bausi included him in that. He could forgive a little teasing—it made him more determined to show everyone he was ready, to bring some glory and riches back to Ragnhilda for the wedding.
The raiding party passed under the cliff and out onto more open land, verdant pastures and tilled fields almost ready for harvest. The path to the village, and the figure running along it, was plain to see as it cut through barley and fields of sheep up to the log wall that surrounded the houses. Arni stepped up the pace, hoping to get to the wall before the girl could raise the alarm, or the men roused enough to defend.
Bausi kept close by Arni, watching him with an intentness that shivered Einar’s shoulder-blades. Bausi was a tricky character at the best of times, liked to throw his weight around and bluster. Loki’s child their father called him, sometimes joking, sometimes not, because not all the bluster was harmless.
Arni had said, with a warm, strong arm around Einar’s shoulders, that all got a few nerves before a raid. Most likely, Bausi’s temper was only that. Though Einar didn’t think nerves applied to Arni, not the big, bluff warrior with a bigger voice that could scare pigs at a hundred paces, a booming laugh that would tame a wolf and a grin or a tale always ready. One day, when he was at his full growth, Einar hoped to be half the warrior Arni was.
The girl ran through the gateway to the village and her thin cries carried to them on the soft sunset air. They were heartbeats behind her. The gate began to swing shut but Arni shouldered into it and burst it from the hands that would bolster it. The rest of them charged in, yelling and brandishing weapons and torches.
The Saxons never stood a chance, taken by surprise. Not up to the challenge, not up to this band of raiders. Fear and excitement thrilled through Einar, lent strength to his spear, courage to his shield. A Saxon came for him, spear high. Einar sidestepped and lunged for the unprotected back. Arni’s interminable lessons paid off, and Einar had survived his first fight.
His heart thudded, pulsed its beat through him in a glorious appreciation of now. Nothing else mattered but that. This instant, when a sword came for him, or a shield went up, or a man went down in a bloody mess. Now was all that mattered, this heartbeat, because there might not be another.
He pulled his spear out of a Saxon body and looked around. He was on his own. Bausi was running toward the great hall. Where whatever lord they had would be, whatever riches, what they’d come for. Not theft—that wasn’t their way. But a raid was a challenge to a fight and if the Saxons weren’t up to that challenge…
Einar ran after Bausi, wanting to regroup. He ducked down a narrow cleft between two burning buildings and came to a space. It took him a heartbeat to register what was happening. A boy knelt on the ground—begging, it looked like—a woman behind him screaming “Wilda, Wilda!” Arni stood waiting for the boy to take up a sword, a spear, anything. To make the fight, the challenge, real. Bausi was two steps ahead of Einar, and he didn’t wait for the challenge. His spear ripped through the boy, through his chest and out again. The woman screamed, louder, more desperate.
To Einar’s side was the girl, the one who’d raised the alarm, her sky-blue dress marred now with dirt, her face pale, dripping blood from a cut under her eye as she tried to hide behind a stack of hay that was already smouldering. Her eyes caught his, and he couldn’t move. The absolute fear in them, the aching wildness turned to terror now. The way she shrank back from his gaze, the tears that lurked but tried not to be shed. Trying to be brave. He understood that. The trying, because courage was everything to a Norseman, and Einar held a secret fear he’d be found wanting.
A scream from the side made him turn. Not the woman. Arni, with Bausi’s spear in his back. Einar’s eldest brother, heir to the jarlship, fell like a skewered bear, eyes staring and unbelieving. Bausi stood over him, his mouth awry with an odd smile. He yanked the spear out, pulling a gurgle of blood with it, and cast his gaze to Einar. Bausi licked at his bottom lip and came forward. He threw down the spear and drew his sword.
Einar stood no chance. None. Third son, with no sword as yet, only his spear and a scramasax at his back. His shield was a tattered mess somewhere behind him, shattered by a Saxon spear. Bausi had the weight of his full growth and ten more years’ experience.
Einar stepped up to Bausi’s challenge.
The woman took her chance, lunging toward the hidden girl with a cry of “Wilda!” Too soon. Bausi slashed at her, took her in the back of the neck, shook the body off his blade with an impatient push of his boot and came on.
Einar swapped the spear to his left hand and planted it, his best chance would be to manoeuvre Bausi onto it and let the solid earth make up for his lack of muscles, at least compared to Bausi. With his right hand, Einar drew out his scramasax.
Bausi hesitated and his twisted smile split his blood-splattered face. “Come now, Einar, don’t tell me you never dreamed of being the eldest? Let me kill the girl, let only us two know what happened, and we’ll talk. Think what I could give you. No longer third son now. A trusted right-hand man you could be, with rings of gold and oaths of fealty. Ragnhilda wouldn’t make that man stop before he went too far, wouldn’t tease him and then say no.”
Bausi took a careful step forward. “No, you’d be in her bed, quick as a hunting wolf, marriage or not. And as that man, well, there are better families than hers to arrange your marriage to. I hanker for a wife close in kin to Harald Gulskeg King. He’s named no heir as yet. We’re strong, we men of Raven’s Home. We could become stronger, a force to be reckoned with in Sogn. A fitting tribute to our father’s glory.” He took a sideways step, his eyes never leaving Einar as he tried to get round him.