Skalds claimed Odin fashioned the earth from the remains of defeated giants. He tossed their broken bones aside, the fragments forming islands. This morning the Norse god dressed Uppsala and her islands in thick, white mist, an innocent color when blood would spill and homes would burn.
The swirling fog kissed Sestra’s skin and messed with her curls, the damp air friendlier than her companion. She faced a churlish Brandr in a tiny boat cluttered with nets and baskets.
They were out to fish should anyone ask.
The Viking had showed up at sunrise with Lord Hakan at the Fyris River and swore an oath to protect her on this quest for stolen treasure for none doubted Gorm had stolen it. They were to deliver the hoard to Lord Hakan’s farm further upriver where someone would wait for them. Yet, all through the stealthy journey, Brandr hardly spared a word nor did he give reason for staying.
“You missed the ship to Gotland,” she said, uncoiling her braid.
Their little vessel sliced through water, powered by muscle and sinew rippling under his tunic. The boat hugged a shoreline dense with ancient trees and mist, vigilant guards hiding sacred Viking burial mounds. Water gurgled past two weathered posts marking the Haga River, entrance to the healer’s forest. Passing the mouth of the Haga, Brandr smoothly steered their boat toward open water.
She finger combed the wavy mass falling to her waist, the red vivid against her new black cloak. “I thought you wanted to get away from here, seek your new life on Gotland.”
He shrugged, focusing beyond her. “I’ll take another boat.”
“If there’s one to be found.” Head tipped sideways, she braided her hair with practiced ease. “Don’t forget you said this wasn’t your fight.”
The corner of his jaw ticked. “I remember what I said.”
“Then why are you here?”
He squinted at her as though she’d gone soft in the head. “Because I’m looking for the treasure with you.”
Her hands curled around her braid. Two words changed everything, bound them together and made them partners in this hunt. But more went on than his curt explanation gave. Brandr pulled long and hard on the oars, searching the distance, his hawkish eyes reading the mist the way others read runes. He avoided eye contact, a feat considering their knees almost touched from facing each other in the small boat.
She cast a nervous glance over the side rail. The size of their vessel on open water didn’t help her confidence.
“Is that how you want this to be?” she asked, tying the bottom of her braid. “We work around each other instead of with each other?”
“I lead, you follow. That’s how it’ll be.”
She nodded sagely at his edict, refusing to let him get under skin. “Well, you’re not in this for the silver and gold. I saw your face when Lord Hakan offered the reward. You were just as surprised as I was.”
“I didn’t stay for the reward, but I’ll take a palm of silver coins.” Brandr’s voice was stone rasping stone.
A palm, the Viking measurement used in trade, equaled a handful. Lord Hakan had told them upon the treasure’s safe return, they could both take one palm as reward. She cupped her hand. Would she grab twenty coins? Or thirty? Under her lashes she studied Brandr’s big hands wrapped around the oak oars. He’d grasp twice as much as her.
“You surprise me.” Her fingers skimmed morning’s vapor crowding the boat. “I’m beginning to think you are a man of honor.”
Water swished from Brandr’s long, determined strokes. His body flowed back and forth, a rhythm that was as calming as it was…agitating.
He glanced at her, the corner of his mouth curling up. No doubt last night’s conversation crossed his mind. “Don’t confuse me for a hero. Gunnar volunteered first.”
“Did he? Then why are you here and not him?”
Brandr checked one side of the boat and levered the oar’s tip on a half-submerged tree. “Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”
“Gunnar’s hardly a boy.”
“He’s a whelp.” He steered them around the fallen tree, his shoulder and back muscles bunching under black wool.
How was it Vikings were so big? Brandr settled the oar back in place, his gaze crossing hers with banked intensity. Warmth flushed inside her. He was muscle upon muscle, strength and bone with wet, black curls clinging to his neck.
Hard and soft.
One curl hung longer than the others. The uneven line had to be the work of the warrior cutting his own hair. Did no one take care of him?
“The whelp looked old enough to me,” she said, eyeing the curl. “You expect me to believe this is about doing a good job?”
“Doesn’t matter what you believe.”
She leaned forward, folding her arms about her midsection. Her knees bumped the plank seat between Brandr’s legs, and his warrior’s thighs snapped together, a reflex she was sure, but she’d make her point. The Viking couldn’t escape.
“You can try and sound as uncaring as you want, but I know better.”
Brandr grunted, and she scooted back on her narrow seat. He’d waded all night through chill waters, loading the three waiting vessels in the river. During the night, many came to the river’s edge pleading for a place on the ships. News had spread quickly. Gorm was burning Uppsala with plans to set fire to all the ships.
Soon no one would be able to leave.
Come sunrise, Brandr quietly surrendered his spot to an old man. She’d surprised both men, emerging from the root cellar during their exchange. The old man raced to the ship as Brandr’s silver stare challenged her to say something. Between the heavy vegetable basket in her arms and the frantic calls of Lady Mardred, she couldn’t.
Now he sat with her, a riddle to unfold. And there was the reward, an unexpected boon. Like Brandr, she’d take it. Would her new lord allow her to purchase her freedom?
If they returned safely with the treasure.
She huddled on her seat. Water rippled harmlessly, darkening here, the depth too great to see the earth below. Morning would be better if the air cleared, but Brandr navigated like a man born to wind and water. She’d already described to him which island they sought when they started.
Light scraping noises brushed the boat as three gulls squawked overhead. Brandr paused to study the birds and the treetops poking through fog. A cluster of islands rose from the mist.
“Have you decided what you’ll do with your gold?” she asked.
Lines framing his mouth deepened his scowl. “Do you always talk this much?”
The scraping got louder under the soles of her boots. Brandr sculled the water in long smooth strokes, checking the boat’s wake. “Yes. When I’m nervous,” she said, checking the floor.
“Then you must be nervous all the time because you’re always talking.”
“That’s different. I’m supposed to make guests comfortable at my lady’s table.”
The seam of his mouth tightened. “Especially the men.”
She was about to give him a tongue lashing when the boat lurched violently. Heart in her throat, she gripped the side rails. “I don’t know how to swim!”
“We bumped a fallen log. That’s all.” He dropped an oar and cosseted her shoulder. “Shhh. See there.” Brandr pointed one long-boned arm at the water.
She stretched her neck for a better look, her nails digging into the boat’s wood slats. The tree lay in its watery grave, a thick, green-slimed branch reaching under their vessel.
Her fast thumping heart slowed, and she let go of the rails. “Thank you for not turning that into a jest.”
“You’ve nothing to fear. I’ll take care of you.”
Of course he would. He’d vowed as much to Lord Hakan. Watching over her was the Viking’s final labor before he departed for better places. She couldn’t let ideas about him get in her head. This surprising kindness was no different than what he did for the old man at dawn.
She hugged herself against the cold, tasting the watery air in her mouth. “I should’ve told you I don’t like boats and deep water.”
“No. You should’ve told me you don’t swim.”
Her lips wobbled with a half-smile. How like Brandr to slice the matter to its core. She’d convinced herself with fog hiding the open water, she’d be fine, but Brandr made her feel safe the moment she set foot inside the boat, his presence the lifeline she needed.
Still, her gaze skittered over the boat rail.
Brandr sliced the oars through water…back and forth, his body’s motion hypnotic and smooth. “Go ahead. Talk to me.”
The Viking could be a mystical warrior dressed in black against waning fog, his graveled voice working a kind of silken magic. Sun shined through clouds, the pearled orb anointing his head. Perhaps Odin did send Brandr to save the day.
Wraiths rose up from the channel as if to push them along. Did the Norse gods want them to succeed? She didn’t believe in Odin and his Valkyries, but the stories Vikings spun at night entranced her.
“You could tell me what you’ll do with your reward,” she said.
He snorted. “I said you could talk to me. Not the other way around.”
“That’s not how it works. People take turns talking and listening to each other. It’s called conversation.” She angled her head coyly. “Vikings can do it. I’ve seen it happen.”
Brandr squinted at tree tops rising above the mist. “Never been much for talk.”
Your mouth never stops when trading jibes with me.”
His chuckle was raspy and low. “You have a way of loosening my tongue.”
To her shame, his laugh cut a scorching path through her body and her legs fell open under her skirts. Her knees were heavy, and she left them open.
“You’re a warrior long in service to Lord Hakan. Surely you’ll get a bigger reward than a handful of coins?”
His tarnished silver eyes pinned her. “Maybe I get you.”
She burst with skittish laughter, her nipples tightening as images of lying naked with Brandr sprang to mind. He teased her same as always, nothing more, yet she squirmed, rocking the boat, as last night’s conversation with Ella came to mind.
There could be worse fates than belonging to Brandr.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with the likes of me.”
His smile deepened. “Give me time. I’d find a way.”
Her breath hitched, and she turned her face into the cooling mist, certain her cheeks were apple red. Water beaded on her skin. She was no stranger to men, yet this rough Viking played her like a seasoned musician. Brandr lacked the smooth qualities some men naturally exuded, but a direct look, a choice word, and he strummed her senses.
And searching the water she knew. He wasn’t the one who bought her. He would’ve said as much by now. She touched her neck, finding the ridged scar in her hairline. The unknown tortured her.
The last day she hugged her mother taught her that.
The skin she stroked thickened long ago, but memories of the Cordoba Caliphate’s sapphire waters stayed tender as a new wound. She and her mother had served a Greek seller of Tyrian purple, the most sought after dye in the world. The unmarried merchant lived and breathed color, especially the gold and silver coins he counted each night by the light of his oil lamp.
“Kokkinos.” He’d frown and wave her off. It was the name their portly master called them. Greek for red.
She’d scamper away and bury her nose in her mother’s skirts. At night her mother would hold her close, whispering, “Never forget, you are Sestra.”
By day their master herded hand-picked slaves to a rocky beach. There he’d stand, hands clasped over his paunch, watching over swimmers as they surfaced with a flat shell cupped in their palms. No one rested until they filled their baskets with lapas, the ocean creature prized for the costly purple dye.
Swimmers shouted that the waters had been stripped clean, but their master greedily sent her mother, his best swimmer, to scour the rocks once more. Waves crashed jagged cliffs dropping into azure water. Her mother’s had head broke the roiling blue surface, dark red hair plastered to her skull, a pained grimace wrenching her face. From a cramp in her leg? Sestra would never know. Their master clapped his hands twice and pointed down. Her mother dove under and never came up again.
For a year she ran to the beach and stood on the shore. Cold, briny water slapped her bare feet as she stared at the same spot, hope filling her heart that her mother would pop up and swim ashore. She never did.
Loss was the open water, a still deceptive place too deep to fathom too wide to escape.
Holding out her hand, deep set lines from years of labor wrote a story in her palm. Sestra’s mouth twisted on bitter truth. A Cordovan master stole her mother’s life for a palm-sized creature of great value. A Viking master, she hoped, would set her free for one palm of silver and gold. But, hope was dangerous.
She folded her hands in her lap. These were secrets best kept to herself.
“You’re quiet,” Brandr said, breaking the silence.
“Because you prefer the sound of rowing to me.”
His lazy smile spread. “Do you think me that bad a companion?”
“Worse than most,” she said, smiling to soften the insult. “You taunt me for friendliness to men, but they at least talk to me.”
He sculled the water, a grumbling sound rising from his chest. “Hakan and Sven agreed once Anund Jakob’s on the throne, the hoard will be split among the families who’ve suffered. With my portion, I plan to buy sails for the ships I’ll build on Gotland.” His dark eyebrows rose. “Satisfied?”
“You’re building ships on Gotland? I can scarce believe it.”
“Believe it. I’m good at working with my hands.”
Under her cloak, one hand cupped a heavy curve. Her fingers rubbed the fine wool, warmth and fullness filling her hand. What would it feel like to have his hand on her breast?
“And here I told you I didn’t like boats,” she said, her hand dropping to her lap.
“You’d like mine.”
Her head snapped up. A playful light sparked his grey eyes. His deep voice, the long even strokes he took, dipping the oar in and out of water and she was mesmerized. Was the surly warrior…flirting?
“It’s small boats that bother me.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “Bigger is better.”
“Building boats,” she said, her pulse threading a touch faster. “I didn’t think your talents went beyond swinging a sword.”
“Now you know I have more than one.” Brandr’s body flowed with easy rhythm. Masculine knees bumped hers as he rowed harder. He wasn’t winded at all. Chest and shoulders swayed back and forth with each steady turn of the oars.
His pace hadn’t slowed since they left the river.
Was he as unflagging in other exertions?
“What about you?” he asked. “What will you do with your portion?”
“Nothing. I’m a thrall, remember?”
She twirled a loose thread on her cloak. How could a woman with no control over her future make plans? She never learned who bought her. Everyone was busy saving family and goods, and Sven was too forbidding to approach. The traitorous warrior probably didn’t know his mother had sold her.
Sven and the Aland warriors had circled the longhouse with torches blazing while everyone else worked fast to move people and spare belongings onto the ships. Those torches had set fire to Lady Mardred and Lord Halsten’s longhouse, the flames licking home and outbuildings alike to charred ruins. Skardsbok Gard, the farm belonging to generations of Lady Mardred’s family, was no more.
She eyed black smoke clouds on Uppsala’s distant horizon. “Except I’m glad to stop that.”
Brandr twisted around. “That’ll stop soon. Hakan will make certain of it.” He faced her again. “And because of you.”
“You were the bravest person last night, standing up, telling your knowledge of the hoard like you did.”
Her body stilled save her boot-covered feet rubbing at the toes. Such high praise was foreign to her ears, its source all the more baffling, yet Brandr’s direct gaze was open and honest.
His boot nudged her foot. “You could purchase your freedom.”
Freedom’s whisper had grown stronger after Hakan offered the reward, a steady drum beat in this quest with Brandr, but she wouldn’t confess the seed of hope inside her. Not to him. At least lives would be saved if they were successful.
She searched the fog. “I’m not sure. Where would I go? What would I do?”
“Those would be your choices to make.”
“But a woman alone?” She shook her head. “I’d rather have a safe home where few demands are made of me.”
“Freedom gives you that.”
The words rolled easily off his tongue. Brandr wouldn’t understand. He’d roamed the world, fighting and raiding. Two hawk owls flew overhead. The birds of prey circled and swooped, so graceful. Those two had a better chance of living in a safe home than she did, and the animals had each other. She had no one.
“There’s no certainty I’ll gain my freedom. A thrall doesn’t get to decide how her life will go.”
He scowled at her. “You believe that?”
“What else can I do?”
“Start by remembering you came into the world naked and screaming, same as everyone else. You have choices.”
“You don’t understand,” she shot back. “I have no control over what I do or even what I wear. And don’t forget, the lord I serve decides where I make my bed.”
Brandr’s jaw set. “Good enough reason to fight for what you want.”
“Fight?” she scoffed. “Just to be cut down by someone with power over me?” Her hands fisted on her lap. “I’ve borne enough cuts and bruises to know better.”
The oars stopped. Brandr took a good, long look at her. “You’re giving up.”
“I’m not giving up. I’m staying smart. I learned long ago those that fight don’t live long.”
She sat at the edge of the bench, her heart pounding in her chest. Her rush of words said, she found herself leaning forward, glaring at the Viking.
Why did he prod her?
Brandr didn’t move, holding the paddles suspended over the water. “Are you afraid to be free?”
She pushed back on her seat, his question like salt on a fresh wound. Clenched hands rubbed soft russet wool. The pretty tunic and black cloak were given to her by Lady Mardred. The tall Norsewoman loathed the idea of Gorm possessing her things, so she bestowed them on Sestra along with supple, knee-high kid boots and a small knife.
Sestra parted her cloak, and Brandr’s gaze dropped to her bodice where her hand grazed the pretty neckline stitched with shiny saffron and bright blue thread. The tunic was finer than anything she’d ever worn, though she had to squeeze herself into the bodice. Her breasts caused the most comments from lust-hungry men.
One hand traced enticing cleavage, but not with seductive intent. “These are how I’ve made my way in the world. They’re what I’m known for.” She sucked in a deep breath and confessed, “I don’t know what I’d do all alone in the world.”
As soon as the words were out, she wished she could take them back.
Wetness pricked her eyes and she jerked her cloak tightly shut. She faced away from Brandr, not wanting the Viking to see her weakness.
“What?” she said hotly. “Aren’t you going to make some jest?”
She tensed, ready for a fresh jibe to strike.
Warm tears rolled down her cheek, each salty drop pelting the unseen shield against Brandr.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Let them all out. You’ve had a long night.”
His brusque voice, oddly kind, beckoned her. She turned. Softness eased the angles of his rugged face, and Brandr rested the oars on his knees as if waiting for her.
“A good cry’ll make you feel better.” His crooked smile spread. “Hakan and I…we’d always have a good wallow before battle. Made us feel better.”
And then he winked.
This tender humor showed a rarely seen nice side of Brandr. She grinned back, the abrasive warrior surprising her yet again. A few more tears fell, and her body lightened from the tiny drops rolling down her cheeks.
“It’s surprising,” she said, wiping away tears with the heel of her hand. “Crying does help.”
A red curl came loose from the braid and fell across her cheek. She tucked the lock behind her ear.
“You have beautiful hair.” His voice thickened.
She studied Brandr through wet lashes. His fingertips touched her knee bumping his, the faint contact reassuring. Often this summer past, he’d comment on her hair, but never with gentle appreciation.
“And you have much to offer—” his gaze dropped to ripe swells beneath her cloak, “—much more than your obvious charms.”
Their quiet connection was fleeting and tender the way skin was sensitive from a newly healed wound, but she welcomed it, smiling brightly. Brandr sat back and dragged the oars through water, eyeing the horizon beyond her. The air was clearing.
And the rough warrior liked red hair. Her red hair.
She tugged her long, thick braid over her shoulder, the tip coiling in her lap.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “My hair is a source of pride. I’d die if it were ever shorn.”
He snorted. “Like most redheads, you’re a bad flirt.”
“I’m not a flirt. I’m friendly.”
“And for a thrall, you’re pretty lazy.”
Her jaw dropped. “I am not. I’m…I’m leisured. There’s no need to rush through my daily tasks.”
“Leisured.” He drew the word out as if he tested a new idea. “That’s what you call it?” One corner of his mouth curled up. “Tell me again how you know about the hoard.”
He already knew the tale; she’d made her explanations at the fire pit last eve. Lady Henrikkson had sent her on an errand the day after the mid-summer festival. Much of Uppsala slept, and those who didn’t moved on slothful feet, the cost of late-night revelry. Her task had taken her to the other side of Uppsala. Drowsy on her walk home, a shady spot along the shore beckoned her to take a nap.
Only she hadn’t rested long before spying one of Gorm’s ships.
He’d stopped at the island facing her. She watched a man jump out of the boat and sling two leather bags over his shoulders, one large and the other of middling size, both clinking with what had to be wealth and coin.
From the boat, two more men hauled a flat, white stone with runes painted in red.
The Dane made her neck hairs stand on end. Whatever he did on the island couldn’t be for good. She’d lain in the tall grass and followed their movements through the trees. With Gorm’s distinctive orange-red hair, it was easy to trace the men’s movements. When they disappeared, she grabbed her basket and ran.
Brandr’s low laughter pulled her back from the memory.
“I know how to keep you quiet.” His smile gleamed white within black whiskers. “I’ll remind you how leisured and friendly you are.”
“Don’t forget, my stop that day is why we’re here.” She leaned forward to press her point. “Many lives will be—”
Their boat lurched hard, flinging her against a basket. She grabbed the side rail. Brandr jumped into knee-high water and dragged the vessel. She spun around.
Big hands braced her ribs, and Brandr whisked her from the boat. She yelped from the shock, grappling his shoulders. Water skimmed the bottom of her boots. Then her feet were on solid ground.
Brandr waded back to the boat. He stood in water up to his knees and strapped Jormungand across his back. Next, he pulled an axe from beneath the baskets and tied the weapon to his thigh. The wicked iron shined against his black trousers. The curved edge had been oiled and newly sharpened.
She pointed at the axe. “Do you really need that?”
“I do. And this, too.” He showed her a long bone-handled blade before he sheathed it. “And this,” he said, hefting a round shield from the boat. Brandr slid his arm through straps on the back of the disc painted with wavy red and white lines, the colors of Lord Hakan.
Brandr was a walking arsenal.
He pushed baskets aside and grabbed a shovel. “But you’ll need this.”
“To dig up the hoard.”
He sloshed his way onto dry land, a breeze ruffling his dark hair. Boyish mischief played on his face, and she squirmed, sand crunching underfoot. These flares of attraction needed to stop.
She eyed the shovel. “You expect me to do the digging?”
“You don’t want to?” He tipped it across his shoulder, a smile playing with the corners of his mouth. “Not even to prove how hardworking you are?”
Lips firm, she looked heavenward. He’d baited her, jabbing at one small stain on her character, and she walked into his trap.
His smile widened. “If you and I were keeping score, I’d say I’m way ahead.”
Because he was all about games.
Brandr pointed at a break in the grass near fledgling pine trees. “Would that be the way they went?”
“That is the path,” she said coolly.
“Please take us as far as you remember.” He bowed low at the waist. “And you can tell me all about your friendly, leisured ways.”
She gathered her skirts, her footfalls digging into sand in her forward march. She taunted his gambling ways—the man had never won—before she saved her breath for the hike. Brandr stayed a pace or two behind her with the shovel slanted across his shoulder. He was alert to their surroundings, checking the area around them as she walked until they reached a split in the trail.
The island, dense with ferns and trees, was cozy. Some farmsteads with flax and barley fields were larger.
She stopped and considered the path on the right and to the left, Brandr’s reassuring presence at her back. On the left, wind blew harder …the other side of the small island. A pair of squirrels raced across a tree branch. A rabbit munched on greens by a hollowed log. Nothing perilous prowled here, save the goading Viking at her back.
“This is as far as I saw,” she said, the fire in her belly gone. “What do we do now?”
Brandr crouched low, his hand splayed on the soil. He studied one path and then the other, reading the earth the way old scholars studied scrolls. Men told tales of Lord Hakan sending Brandr as an outrider into remote lands in years past. They spoke with awe at his uncanny ability to read the land as if it spoke to him.
Some said he could converse in strange, foreign tongues.
How did a lowly house Karl come by such unique skills?
Brandr stood up, facing the left path. “This way.”
He eyed the dirt, same as he did navigating the waterways to get them here. She fell in step behind him. The view invited shameless gawking. Black wool and leather stretched across wide shoulders. The oft mended black trousers hugged his firm, muscled bottom.
No wonder highborn ladies liked him. What woman could find fault with him? They probably ran their fingers through his black-brown hair, the only soft part on the hard man.
A pang settled in her stomach at the image of their hands exploring him. Brandr led the way aware she trailed a few paces back. The warrior didn’t get impatient that her stride failed to match his. He slowed his gait on purpose.
The warrior was quick with a jibe, but he stayed quietly attentive to her needs. It was the better part of him hidden beneath his curt nature. Brandr showed startling consideration for a thrall of no importance.
Following him, she plucked a broad leaf and twirled it between her fingers. The surprising plans awaiting him on Gotland would yield great success. It was much deserved.
He was a good man.
Walking behind him in the peaceful island forest, a startling truth hit her. In the boat and on the beach, the rough Viking had teased and provoked her on purpose. Brandr challenged her to seek freedom and took her mind off encroaching fears.
She breathed easy…utterly safe and content with him.
And that was most dangerous of all.
Did you miss chapter two? Click here to read that post.
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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