AD 1022 Uppsala, the throne seat in the Viking kingdom of Svea
“You’ve been sold.”
“What?” Sestra’s pitcher plopped into a barrel of ale.
“To a man of Uppsala.” Lady Mardred raised her voice above the din and rescued the bobbing vessel. “Or Gotland. I’m not sure.”
The matron set the pitcher on a table where leeks awaited slicing. Lady Mardred cleaned her hands with quick, efficient swipes. Thralls came and went in her life. It was the Viking way.
Raw-boned men crammed into the longhouse, their coarse voices booming off smoke-hazed rafters. Warriors, farmers, fishermen. The kind of men to charge first into a fight and last to leave. All had gathered to have their say and argue who should be king. Ill-winds had come to Uppsala, the throne seat of the Viking kingdom of Svea. King Olof was freshly exiled by his son Anund Jakob, but a Dane called Gorm had come, claiming he was better fit to rule.
Two men vied for the empty throne. Who would win it?
But, Sestra was a lesser mortal with a simpler question. Who bought her?
She stared numbly at a craggy-faced man pounding his fist on a table. One hand touched the hidden scar on her neck. The ridged skin oddly soothed her.
“You don’t know his name?”
“Your mistress didn’t say.” The Viking matron plucked a copper-banded bucket off a high peg where eight more buckets lined the wall.
“Will I meet him soon?”
“You will,” Lady Mardred said, counting earthen pitchers waiting to be filled. “Tonight, I think. But you labor for me first until all these men are fed. This is all I know.”
All these men. The sea of masculine faces blurred in the cavernous longhouse. One of the men would take her. Tonight.
Lady Mardred’s blunt news crushed her secret wish for freedom, so did the kingdom’s troubles, but a rusted war hammer hung near the door, a heart-warming sight, and clear proof not all Vikings were blood-thirsty. Lady Mardred’s husband had an aversion for war. It was his purpose in calling Uppsala’s men together, a bid to peacefully choose one king.
“Sestra.” Lady Mardred gentled her voice. “I need you to fill these pitchers. Can you do that?”
She forced a cheery smile. “Yes.”
Hiding emotions was a skill she’d mastered long ago. Thralls, especially the women, couldn’t afford the luxury of honest feelings. Those who fought didn’t live long, survival had taught her as much.
“Good. The meat is almost done, and I fear if we don’t feed these men soon, they won’t have the patience to hear what my Halsten has to say.” The tall matron walked to her cooking fire, a long gold braid swinging from the crown of her head.
Sestra dunked a new pitcher in ale, the grainy sweet aroma filling her nose. With tempers on edge, she’d have to tread with care. The turmoil could make it easier to move unnoticed, except for the red-bearded stranger from Aland. His lustful glint cut across the longhouse. The leering visitor had pawed her bottom when she’d poured his drink earlier. His breath’s slimy feel still lingered on her neck when he’d whispered how he’d use her later. Thralls made easy prey for lust-addled warriors and could never refuse them.
Her grip on the pitcher’s handle tightened. She was done lifting her skirts for men.
Eyes narrowed on the roomful of noisy Vikings, she hefted the vessel with too much fervor, splashing cold ale on her chest.
“Uhhh,” she gasped. Gold droplets splattered her freckled cleavage. Her skin would be sticky all night.
Sturdy brown wool barely covered ample curves from an error when her mistress sized her. The poorly cut tunic brought her much unwanted attention.
“May my new lord prove generous in dressing me.” She pinched the sopping bodice. If she could move the neckline a finger’s breadth or two higher, she’d be decently clothed.
She crouched behind the barrel and yanked up her neckline. A stitch snapped. The strained fabric hardly budged. Chin to chest, she exhaled and tugged again with both hands, jostling her breasts for room that wasn’t there. If she could tie her apron higher and shield them…
The fine hairs on her neck stood on end as a pair of familiar black leather boots cross-gartered with frayed leather stepped into view.
Cheeks flushing hotly, a groan caught in her throat. There was no graceful way out of this.
She released the awkward grip on her bodice and raised her head, meeting the Viking’s mocking grin with a tight-lipped smile. Tarnished silver eyes pierced her from the shadows where the savage warrior stood, a thumb hooked in his belt.
Her skin prickled. Brandr’s deep voice marked her when he said her name, the same way a wild beast’s growl did when stalking prey in a midnight forest. Strength rippled under his black tunic stretched across shoulders broad enough to block out the light. By Viking standards, he was barely tame, preferring the woods to Uppsala’s people. His edge, born of a near-feral nature or simply hard man, weakened her knees. The warrior rattled her, and he knew it.
And tonight he’d sought her.
“What are you looking at?” she snapped, rocking back on her heels. It was a good effort to restore faltering confidence.
“You.” His graveled voice rumbled with humor.
“At least we know your eyes work.”
Brandr’s grin split wider. “The rest of me does too, but you won’t get your work done hiding back here.”
She itched to slap the smirk off his face. Of all men, he had to be the one to witness her, ducking behind a barrel, ale-splashed breasts jiggling as she struggled with ill-fitting clothes.
The Viking leaned against a post, holding a drinking horn casually against his thigh. “Got a problem with your clothes?”
“I’m sure you have better things to do than worry about my tunic.”
“Looked like you needed help. You usually do.” He took a drink, eyeing the table full of empty pitchers and uncut vegetables.
Her knees hurt, a reminder she hunkered down on the floor. Bellows rose from the crowd and through a crack between two barrels, she witnessed two red-faced men. One banged a fist on the table, sending wooden bowls clattering against empty drinking horns in their stands. Someone needed to fill the drinking horns of angry men.
“You could be the last man standing,” she said, pushing to full height. “And I’d not ask for your help.”
She snatched her apron to her chest. Dabbing the excess ale bothered already sensitive skin. How was it her ears found his voice in all the noise? The Viking was never friendly.
Brandr taunted her most nights in his unhurried way, but she got him back. Spilling mead on his boots at feasts. Serving food to others first, giving his portion last. Or not at all. His self-assured gaze would follow her before the warrior got off his seat, giving her a slight nod as he ambled off to fetch his food.
Besting him thrilled her, made her blood race at their strange game of cat and mouse. Drying off her skin, she had an inkling Brandr fed on it too. Yet, he’d never groped her and never demanded she lay with him. He’d not touched her at all.
Her hands slowed on her breasts. Was that why he sought her now?
“Missed a spot,” he said, eyeing her low neckline.
Her nipples pinched to hard, pebbled points as a slow trickle of wetness disappeared in her cleavage. Brandr’s grin was a slash of white against black whiskers as if he knew what her body would do and wasn’t disappointed. Her mouth opened with a ready retort, but she froze.
Was he the one who’d take her?
Brandr was a House Karl, a humble fighter of Uppsala. He excelled at scouting for the chieftain Lord Hakan. The role fit. Nothing escaped his keen eyes, including a wayward droplet of ale. When others bragged of their exploits, the silver-eyed Viking stayed silent. Warriors young and old nodded respectfully when he walked through Uppsala. At feasts, people always made room for Brandr on crowded benches. The rough-souled Viking kept to himself most nights, gambling with one or two others to improve his meager fortune, which gave her pause.
He couldn’t be the one. He lacked adequate coin.
Brandr tapped his chin, chuckling. “Might want to close your mouth.”
Her fingertips touched her lips. He didn’t goad her the way he did most nights. His teasing was mild at best, but a black-eyed warrior hailed Brandr, interrupting a moment that went on too long. Dropping her apron, she exhaled slowly.
Brandr straddled the bench, a secret smile on his lips as though he read her thoughts. She leaned a hip against the barrel and smoothed her apron’s pleats. Get through this night. She didn’t have time to trade barbs with Brandr. The matter of who bought her hung over her head.
Ella, a fragile-framed thrall, balanced pitchers in both hands, wending her way around tables and men. She plunked down the empty vessels on Sestra’s table. “My feet ache already and the evening’s not half done.”
“Then why don’t we take a much deserved rest? The men aren’t drinking much tonight.”
“Because their tongues wag of war.” Ella’s blue eyes dimmed. “I’ve lived here all my life and never has there been fighting in Uppsala.”
“I miss the old king.” He at least kept the peace.
King Olof had tried to abolish the old ways of worship, but the people of Uppsala would have none of it. They wanted sacrifices of animals and men every nine years as was their pagan custom. The king’s young son, Anund Jakob, swore to keep the custom the day he forced his father to leave. All of Uppsala marveled at the bloodless exile until another caused trouble. Gorm. The Dane had lurked all summer, a predator sniffing weakness, waiting for the right moment to claim to the throne.
All for the love of power and their Norse gods.
Sestra stared at the fire pit’s dancing flames, remembering the day the king left Uppsala.
Water numbed her feet. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Throngs milled about the shore, the silence uncanny. Wood creaked from King Olof stepping aboard his ship. He gripped the vessel’s dragon head, his penannular ring gleaming on broad shoulders. Grim-faced men churned oars in water. The king faced Uppsala, watching his people with stoic eyes until morning mist swallowed him whole. One by one and two by two everyone left, their footsteps whispers on the sand until she stood alone.
King Olof, the only man to ever show her fatherly kindness, was gone.
Ella nudged her. “See how they finger their weapons.”
Sestra blinked and focused on the raucous longhouse. “Because they itch to use them.”
“If chaos comes, what will you do?”
“Hope my new lord takes me far from here.”
Ella’s smooth brow furrowed. “I heard you were sold.”
Sestra gripped the barrel’s edge. Laboring for Lady Henrikkson had been a gift for both thralls. The older woman was more mother hen than exacting mistress.
“You don’t seem vexed by the news,” Ella went on.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said, eyeing a group of men snarling at each other.
“You could ask for your freedom.”
A farmer stumbled into Red Beard, and the stranger from Aland shoved the man all the while watching Sestra the way a serpent eyes a mouse. She turned away, but his eyes burned holes in her back.
“Freedom?” Sestra’s voice notched higher.
“Better to serve a wealthy master. That means security.”
One she thought she’d found serving the Lady Henrikkson and her warrior son, Sven. Lady Henrikkson was a reasonable soul, the kind of woman Sestra believed would listen when she raised the subject of her freedom.
“You don’t want to be a free woman?” Ella asked.
To say no to a man? To stand as his equal and speak her mind? Viking women did, and men listened. The sight of it stunned her. No one had ever asked if she wanted freedom, not until she came to Uppsala. Nor’men and women lived with passions as sharp and bright as their long summer nights. Nothing could contain them.
Growing up a slave of Frankia formed her differently. Sex was her currency. Survival was all she knew. Yet, she loathed men handling her like common goods. Her favorite trick to evade unwanted attention, ply a man with ale until he passed out.
She winced. Sometimes the ploy didn’t work.
“Freedom.” The word tasted unusual on her tongue. Yes, she wanted it. Badly. But, she hoarded that truth. Life was safer if no one knew what she truly wanted. A secret hope couldn’t be taken away. Scratching her thumbnail across the barrel’s wood grain, she finished, “I’ve been a slave from birth. This life is what I know.”
Ella rested both elbows on the barrel’s lid, her cat-like blue eyes flaring at the sight of the man with Brandr. “Well, if I had to be sold, I wouldn’t mind belonging to him.”
The raven-haired warrior diced for paltry coins. He was only a few years older than Sestra, but his handsome face bore the openness of one not scalded by life.
And like metal to lodestone, her attention shifted to Brandr.
His profile could be hewn from a distant wilderness. Harsh places had built his rugged frame. He stretched one long, muscled leg along the bench, showing trousers coarsely mended in three spots. Probably done by him. The Viking had little more than her.
“No. I need a lord dripping with gold, someone to make life easy.”
“Sestra,” Ella giggled. “You’re a thrall.”
“But a smart one.” She winked and bent to fill another pitcher. “There is one thing. I tire of men grabbing me. I’d like to be free of that.”
Ella looked blissfully at the roomful of warriors. “Lady Henrikkson keeps me close most nights for anything to happen.”
“Be glad she does,” she said softly.
Lady Henrikkson had taken Ella in as a babe. It was only natural the matron would be especially watchful of her. When male guests stayed at the Henrikkson longhouse, Lady Henrikkson beckoned Sestra to give comfort if needed.
Most thought her quick-tongued and flirtatious, but years of rutting men left her heart brittle. No man could truly touch her.
A dull ache yawned in her stomach pressed against the barrel. Memories of gentler times threaded her mind. Her mother’s warm smile on a cold day. A kind touch and laughter shared. Those images frayed the way of old cloth, the cost of seasons passing.
She blinked thrice, wetness prickling her eyes. Dust must have caught on her lashes. “I say find one master who guards his house well and all others leave you alone.” Her voice lightened. “Life needn’t be so hard for the likes of us.”
“I know what you want, less work or none at all.”
Her forced grin faded. Would she ever stay in a settled home and have a place to live until her final breath?
“What about him?” Ella bumped her shoulder, her gaze sliding to Brandr. “I vow he’d guard a woman well.”
“Brandr?” She wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t want him to have control of me. He’s too…too…”
“Too what? Too handsome? Too strong? Or too smart to let you lead him by the nose?”
“No. More like too big, too poor, and too…too…” She huffed, searching for the right word. “…too hard a man.”
“For you to manage you mean,” Ella said, tossing back her ebon braid. “I’ve heard highborn ladies whisper about him. They seem to like him very much.”
A hot pang hit her. No wonder the surly Viking didn’t touch her. Why would he when highborn women beckoned from lavish, fur-covered beds?
She dragged another pitcher through the ale, banging the insides of the barrel. “And those highborn ladies are welcome to him.”
Brandr bent his head over the game. Light from a hanging soapstone lamp shined on black-brown locks curling at his nape. He was a rarity, a Viking with black hair cropped short. The uniqueness made him stand out among the people of Svea. Did highborn women like his hair that way?
She set the earthen vessel down with a satisfying thud. He was the wrong man for lots of reasons. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t put them into words.
“Ella. Come quick.” Lady Mardred rose from her cooking fire, balancing a platter of meat. Lips pursed, she raised an eyebrow at the unfilled pitchers. “Sestra, serve the ale.”
She balanced a full pitcher on her hip. The black-eyed warrior dicing with Brandr waved her over, waggling an empty drinking horn. A gold arm ring gleamed brightly on his wrist. A cross and sprouting plant carved the metal, the mark of the exiled King Olof.
“You’re just in time,” the younger warrior said when she approached. “I need to celebrate my victory.”
A small pile of coins sat on the bench between his legs.
“Ah, I see you’ve won much tonight.”
“Beware, man. A woman’ll lighten your purse before they know your name.” Brandr held out his cup, admiring her unbound hair. “Especially the redheads.”
Her lips tightened at the slight. “At least he has something to give a woman.” She softened for the younger warrior. Him she graced with her best smile. “What’s your name?”
She poured his ale first.
“Gunnar.” His name rolled gently off her tongue. She rubbed her hip slowly, ignoring Brandr’s outstretched cup. If he painted her a heartless seductress out to fleece a man, she’d play the part.
Brandr’s stare locked onto her hand stroking her hip, a dark light flaring in his eyes.
“You look new here,” she said to Gunnar. “So let me give you some advice. Keep your earnings. Then you won’t end up like other warriors who have nothing to show for their effort.”
Brandr clutched his chest in mock pain. “Wounded by the fairest of thralls.”
She took his cup, her heart fluttering a split-second. Did he think she was the fairest?
His attention dropped to her neckline. “How modest she looks tonight.”
“And you look like a man running out of coin,” she shot back, pouring his ale. “As usual.”
“Less for a man to spend on women.” His taunting grin showed white within black whiskers. It had to be several days since a blade touched his jaw.
She held out the cup, and warm calloused fingers covered hers, sending a pleasant tingle up her arm. His crooked excuse for a smile played her. Or was it the way Brandr’s gruff voice stroked her skin? The Viking always sounded like he spent too much time in smoky places.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, shaking off his odd effect. “Of all the warriors here, you spend only barbs on me.”
“My charm’s lost on you.”
“Charm?” She huffed. “Did your mother ever teach you such a thing?”
He cradled his cup with both hands, black lashes shuttering his eyes. “That woman gave me nothing but misery.”
Brandr took a long draught of ale, lost to a dark place by the distance in his eyes. She shifted the pitcher to her hip, wanting the churlish warrior back. Sparring with him was better than thorny silence. Behind her raised voices debated the merits of the old king against his usurper son.
“I’m surprised you’re not giving your opinion on who should be Svea’s king,” she said. “Everyone else is.”
“Don’t have one. Don’t care.”
“What?” she gasped.
“Have you no sense of loyalty? No sense to do what’s right?”
Gunnar raised a finger. “I for one think—”
Her hand went up, halting Gunnar. “I don’t believe it.” She dropped onto a bench and angled herself toward Brandr.
He drained his cup and stared into the empty horn. “It’s true. I’m loyal to me and me alone. Always have been.”
“What about your vow of service to Lord Hakan? Isn’t he loyal to the old king?”
“I don’t speak for Hakan,” he said, harsh lines framing his mouth. “My service to him ended at Lithasblot.”
Lithasblot. The festival celebrated the beginning of harvest. Men and women considered their accomplishments and asked their gods for strength to achieve what lay ahead. Farmers culled animals deemed too weak to survive winter. Though the season of snow and ice was far off, Vikings refused to waste fodder on unworthy livestock.
It was a time of cold, hard decisions.
And while all of Uppsala had feasted, Brandr had eaten in silence that first night before disappearing into the woods until the festival passed. Now the Viking avoided eye contact, pinching his drinking horn hard enough his fingertips turned white.
“I think you to be many things,” she said. “But a man without honor isn’t one of them.”
As soon as the words were out, she regretted them.
Brandr’s jaw tensed. “Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t have to think of me anymore.”
She went still, her body tensing as if a blow would come. “What do you mean?”
“He leaves on the morning tides.” Gunnar scooted into her side vision. “To Gotland. For good.”
Brandr would be gone forever?
Her feet were planted on the floor, yet the ground could be spinning. She squeezed the clay pitcher in her lap, its coarse surface biting her palms. The weight anchored her on this night of bad tidings. To not see Brandr anymore? They didn’t like each other, but there was comfort in seeing his broad shoulders in a room.
If he was nearby, she was safe.
Her lashes dipped lower at the revelation.
Brandr rested his elbows on his knees, and the iron amulet he wore swung free of his tunic. “Miss me already?”
A quiver skimmed her backside. His voice was low and there was something intimate when he leaned toward her, his hands linked together. She glimpsed skin where Brandr’s tunic opened at the neck. His chest wasn’t tan. Noticing the small detail struck her as seeing an inner sanctum, as personal as the scratched amulet he wore honoring Tyr. A spear had been stamped into the metal, the symbol for the Viking god of war known for courage. Yet, few spoke of Tyr. Thor, Odin, Loki, Freyja. The folk of Uppsala relished discussing those Norse gods along with tales of giants and women warriors flying across the skies.
The well-worn metal dangling from his neck captivated her, a tell-tale secret of the man who wore it. “I thought you’d stay for the fight that brews.”
“You thought wrong,” he said softly.
His silver stare pinned her. The moment strung tautly and for once she wished the abrasive warrior would indulge in open, friendly conversation. But, he didn’t.
Gunnar scooped up his coins. “Ask him why he goes—”
“Why don’t you keep your mouth shut?” Brandr sat up, scowling at the warrior.
Her gaze shifted between the two men. Did Brandr’s business on Gotland have to do with King Olof?
“Even so, he who rules Uppsala rules Gotland,” she said, hugging the pitcher. “Don’t you care who sits on the throne?”
A tiny line cleaved the skin above Brandr’s nose. “The island’s far enough away.”
“Not so far from here.”
He rocked his cup on his thigh, the slanted indent between his brows furrowing deeper the more he held silent. The warrior cared fiercely about something. Or someone.
Why was she pushing him? She craved security but mostly the kind found by a wealthy lord who promised a safe home. Let the man she’d serve sift through the kingdom’s shifting sands. Men determined war and peace, never women like her.
“Do you leave because this fight yields no gold?” she goaded. “This would be a fight for honor and the good of Svea’s people.”
“Careful,” he growled.
“She’s a woman hungry for battle.” Gunnar dropped his winnings in his coin pouch. “Put her in the fight. She’d have no time to think of you.”
“No.” Brandr’s crooked smile slid back in place. “She’ll miss me.”
“Like I’d miss a pebble in my boot.”
But, her feeble insult had no bite. Air thrummed between them, raw and mysterious. Brandr’s eyes traveled the length of her red hair to her hips. Noise faded behind her. They could be the only two in the longhouse. She sat taller under his attention, the adjustment thrusting her breasts higher.
Men’s stares had latched onto her before.
Yet, none made her squirm or…want. Not like this.
“This isn’t my fight. I’ve stood in the shield wall with many here.” He shrugged but a bruised quality colored his voice. “It’s time I leave. Make a home on Gotland.”
The way Brandr spoke, Gotland could be an escape, a place he willed into existence as though any could do the same. She nodded, lost in the comforting image of an inviting longhouse on the fabled green island, but the fine image crumbled.
Brandr sought her out tonight to say good-bye.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. It shouldn’t matter that he was leaving. The hard-edged warrior would sail to Gotland, and she would serve a new lord—be he cruel or kind.
Behind her, shouts rang out. Brandr sprang to his feet and reached for his sword. She twisted around. Men clamored for weapons, knocking over tables and benches. The longhouse door swung wide, a vicious war axe lodged in the wood. Blood dripped down the handle.
She jumped up, a metallic tang coating her mouth. The earthen pitcher smashed to pieces at her feet.
Was this a raid?
Brandr jabbed a finger at her. “You. Stay inside.” And he ran for the bloodied door.
~ ~ ~
I‘ll post chapter two tomorrow. You can get auto-delivery to your inbox.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the writer’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
To Find a Viking Treasure Copyright © 2016 by Gina Conkle Ebook ISBN: 9781943772582 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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