A Norse hammer hurled end over end, splintering the lintel. The square metal head narrowly missed an eager warrior running past. Brandr rushed outside to the clash of iron on iron. Men poured around him into the yard to war cries and the crack of wooden shields.
A pair of behemoths brawled, ringed by the crowd holding pine pitch torches. He should leave, wanted to, but couldn’t. He’d served both men locked in battle and like everyone around him stood mesmerized.
Two great friends warred for supremacy, but this was no friendly test of skills. Hakan the Tall and Sven Henrikkson fought wild-eyed in a struggle to kill the other.
“Ahhhh!” Hakan yelled a warrior’s cry and lunged at his bear-sized friend.
Sven’s shield caught Hakan’s sword, the blade sticking. The bearish Viking clenched his teeth and raised his axe at Hakan.
The White Wolf, as some called Hakan for his white-blond hair, pivoted. Sword lost, his shield blocked Sven’s axe and sent it spinning across the ground.
Hakan rammed his shield boss into Sven’s shoulder. The giant howled in pain. Hakan’s boot caught Sven’s ankle from behind, and the Viking tumbled.
“Grab him!” Sven shouted, pushing himself off the ground.
Four men rushed forward. Black runes marked their yellow shields – Sig to win and Tyr to sacrifice. These were men of Aland, the island to the north. They’d come to take and kill.
Hakan knocked one fighter off his feet. His fists slammed two more warriors when Sven, breathing hard, collected his shield. “Hakan,” Sven bellowed, pointing to the outer circle where a warrior trudged from the shadows, holding a knife on a dark-haired woman. “Yield and she won’t be harmed.”
Hakan froze at the sight of Helena. Lady Mardred, Hakan’s sister, smothered a scream. Brandr jabbed his sword tip into the earth, staunching the burning urge to slice the knife-wielding warrior. Sven could be an impulsive fool, but the bearish Viking scanned his surroundings. He had to know he was outnumbered.
Skirts brushed his legs. Sestra. “Please. Do something. It’s Helena.”
“I told you to stay inside,” he said under his breath.
Of course Sestra had done as she pleased. The thrall nettled him at every turn. He wrapped a protective arm around her and spoke low in her ear. “Keep quiet. Sven won’t harm Helena. It’s for show. To stop Hakan.”
“I’d say it’s working,” she whispered.
The Aland warriors seized the moment, jerking the White Wolf’s arms behind his back. Another man quickly bound Hakan’s wrists.
“I needed your attention.” Sven’s breath billowed. “This was the only way.”
“Holding a knife to my wife’s neck? A new low for you.” Hakan nearly spat the words as men shoved him to the ground. “Lower than siding with Gorm.”
“Wife?” Sestra whispered.
Murmurs rippled around the battle circle. Brandr tried to read Sven’s flinch. At the news of Helena now Hakan’s wife? Or the slur at siding with the hated Dane?
“So the rumor’s true.” Sven bowed his head to Hakan, his arms spread wide. “May Freyja bless your home with many sons. You must agree my holding Helena gives you good reason to hear me.”
Hard-eyed stares glittered from the crowd. Orange flames speared black skies from torches held high to wisely read the faces of Sven and Hakan. Men had come to decide Uppsala’s fate tonight. In truth, these two lesser chieftains held more sway over who’d sit next on Uppsala’s throne, and every grim-faced man gathered here knew it.
Sven shifted from one foot to the other. “The same is true for all of you,” he said, his gaze roving the circle. “Tomorrow. Meet here and we’ll talk of what’s to come.”
A few sheathed their weapons. Others cast side-long glances at dark-haired Helena, a knife gleaming at her throat. Most of the men had gone a viking with Hakan and Sven in times past, but Hakan’s favored thrall, a woman liked by many, now held a wife’s elevated status.
Nor did the White Wolf look defeated.
“Untie me and you can talk with Solace as much as you like.”
Sven barked harsh laughter, hefting his shield with the stuck sword. “A hard thing, my friend, since I possess Solace.”
Sestra tugged Brandr’s sleeve. “Can’t you do something?”
He hated getting between the two. Yet, Hakan sat hands trussed, surrounded by four men. Brandr stared at the leather ties. His own hands fisted against bindings not there. A hazy, long ago memory washed across his vision, a single thread binding him to Hakan deeper than any vow of service.
Sweat nicked his forehead. He stood on dry earth, but sensations of water creeping up his neck choked him. Mouth wide open, his chin tipped high, a reflex he couldn’t stop.
The chieftain had saved him once in ways no man can count. He didn’t have to do this. He’d fulfilled his oath ten-fold to Hakan, the friend who’d once cut the death bindings and rescued him years ago…the friend who now sat defenseless on the ground.
For those reasons he tipped his sword, Jormungand across his shoulder and stepped into the circle. “You have his attention, Sven. Hands tied behind his back, he’s ready to listen. But with a knife at his wife’s throat—” he nodded at Helena and all heads turned to her “—what man will hear what you have to say?”
Sven’s dark eyes narrowed, likely assessing Brandr’s loyalty and finding the virtue lacking. Half the crowd unsheathed their knives. Restless hands grappled axes. The whole yard teetered on becoming an all-out battle with Sven and his Aland warriors sorely outnumbered if he counted right. In these changing times, one could never be too sure.
“Why not take this inside? You and Hakan with a trusted few.” Brandr glared at the warrior wrenching Helena’s neck so hard she whimpered on tip toe. “And tell your man to put away his knife.”
Sven scanned the yard full of twitchy men, his massive chest still heaving from the fight. “Yes. We’ll take this inside.” He eyed Hakan. “If you give me your word you’ll listen.”
Hakan’s face pinched in the way of a man badly wounded, yet not a single cut was on him. His whole body strained toward Helena as if by force of will he’d save her. Brandr gritted his teeth. Was this what love did to a fierce warrior? Made him cool his anger in the dirt because he couldn’t save the woman he loved? No man should be hamstrung over the fair sex.
“You have it. Let her go.”
“Your bindings stay.” Sven slid his axe into his belt, and he waved off the Aland warrior.
Helena slumped free, caught by Lady Mardred. Sparse words rippled through the crowd.
Much of Uppsala’s turmoil could be solved by these two. None would gainsay what Sven and Hakan decided tonight. Once they were in the longhouse, Brandr would breathe easier, his obligation done. Jormungand stayed on his shoulder, a surety Sven would honor his word as the crowd thinned. He kept a careful eye on the Aland men hauling Hakan upright. A few more steps inside and he’d leave.
“Brandr,” Hakan’s voice rang out. “I need you.”
A knot coiled in his chest. Beyond the crowd, three dragon ships anchored in the Fyris River, their tall masts touching the moonless sky. Come sunrise he’d be on one of those vessels and make his way to Gotland.
Two of Sven’s men flanked Hakan, pushing him forward, but he broke free and took four long strides toward Brandr before the men grabbed him.
“Let him go,” Sven ordered. “He gave his word.”
The Aland Vikings stepped back. Torchlight glowed on the iron torque around Hakan’s neck, a sign of his authority, the thing as solid as his word. Behind his proud back, leather bindings dangled to the ground.
Leather ties. A man bound without hope.
“Brandr.” Hakan’s ice-blue stare slid to his wife as a man dragged her into the longhouse.
Keep her safe.
Brandr rubbed the heel of his hand on his breastbone. He’d be gone come morning. Why not go inside, a last nod to their friendship?
Hakan led the way, the crowd of lingering men parting for him. Warriors and fishermen alike tipped their heads in respect before disappearing. Some left on hushed feet into the dark forest. Others ranged in packs down the road, torches lighting the way. Brandr turned to follow when someone touched his arm. The freckled hand was pale against his black tunic.
She was another twist in these final hours. The thrall could be the sweetest tangle if he yielded to the urge. He nearly did. Her kneeling earlier, wrestling with her bodice messed with him made him want to steal her away and test the desires raging inside him. He liked baiting her. Sestra’s quick tongue, red hair, and full curves teased his senses, always had, though he’d never let her know.
I leave come sunrise.
“Let me go with you.” Her brown eyes shined softly in starlight.
His whole body went stiff. “What?” She wanted to go with him to Gotland?
“Helena’s scared,” she continued. “I want to help her.”
Sucking in cool night air, his gaze shot skyward. “You mean go with me inside the longhouse?”
“Of course, to help my friend.”
The twinge in chest tightened. The mouthy thrall cast a tender net around his cold heart. She thought only of helping Helena. He thought only of escape. Someone should warn Sestra about what was coming—about the men inside, about men like him with blood on their hands and savagery in their veins.
“And who helps you?” he asked quietly.
Sestra’s lips parted. A breeze blew a fat, copper curl across her face. With her beautiful hair, she embodied Sif, the fertility goddess. It didn’t matter that Sif was the shade of wheat. Sestra’s red hair was made for sensual pleasure, and her body made for a man. He yearned to bury his hands in the silken waves…to bury himself in her.
Her gentle silence was more honest than any barbs they’d ever traded. She weakened him in ways he didn’t like. He had no business asking who helped her. What waited for him on Gotland was his concern. Tonight was his farewell.
The red-bearded Aland warrior banged his hammer on the lintel. “Are you coming?”
The thick-set Viking had watched Sestra all night, lust and possession slanting his eyes. Brandr stepped in front of Sestra. The warrior smiled, a cold twist of his mouth, before slipping inside.
Brandr turned and grabbed her elbow. “Whatever happens,” he ground out, “stay out of the way and keep silent.”
* * *
Inside the longhouse, Helena shivered on a bench an arm’s length from her furious husband. Tables were overturned. A bench snapped in two. The men of Aland kicked horns strewn across the floor. The acrid stench of charred meat mixed with spilled ale. There’d be much to clean later. For now, Sestra slid across the bench facing the center fire pit and put her arm around her friend.
Sold together at the same Frankish port in early spring, both had journeyed to Svea on Lord Hakan’s ship. Helena now lived as honored wife of the man who once bought her. This was not the time to find out what happened. The sooner the men had their say, the sooner both women could find a quiet place and shut away this chaos.
The Aland warriors circled them. She huddled close to Helena, wanting to be small and unseen. Red Beard hugged his beast of a war hammer, his leer roving over her and Helena. Brandr stood near Hakan, his back against the beam.
Blood dripped down Sven’s arm, likely a kiss from the axe lodged in the longhouse door. He held up a linen strip, appealing to Lady Mardred for help.
“As if I’d help the likes of you,” she said, standing beside her husband, Lord Halsten.
It was bold of Sven to think the lady would render aid after he’d attacked her brother and his new wife.
Sven settled on a bench facing Lord Hakan and wrapped the cloth around his arm. “Never thought I’d see the day my friend would wed again.”
“Don’t count yourself a friend,” Hakan said. “Gorm ruling Uppsala—”
“Gorm will not be king. He barely has control now.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“You heard wrong.”
“And you put him on the throne,” Lord Hakan went on.
“That’s what I needed everyone to believe.” Sven paused, using his teeth to tie off the cloth. “The Aland chieftains and I swore an oath to Anund Jakob last spring.”
Lord Hakan’s feet planted on stones ringing the fire pit between them. “Then why does Gorm think you support him?”
“We needed someone close to Gorm. It’s why my men and I falsely serve the Dane.”
“Why exile King Olof? Was Svea’s peace and prosperity not enough for you?”
Lady Mardred rolled a new log onto the fire, yet a chill touched Sestra. How could she have served Lady Henrikkson all summer and not known about her son’s intrigue?
Orange flames shot higher. Sven stared at the blaze, his eyes black and hollow. “We’ve softened. Fewer raids as in days of old. Outsiders poison our ways. And Olof declaring an end to the ninth year sacrifice?” He spat into the fire. “The sign of a frail man.”
“You’d exile your king over a blood tradition? Trondheim has already outlawed the blot.”
“And they grow weak,” Sven jeered. “But here in Svea, blood sacrificed to Odin gave us success. You especially.”
“No wooden statue helped me. We fought side by side, always watching each other’s back. Loyalty, strength, wits. That’s what gave us success.” The sturdy bench shook at Hakan’s impassioned words.
Sestra gripped Helena tighter. He didn’t act like a man outnumbered with both hands tied behind his back. Sven stared into the crackling flames, his bulky frame bent under an unseen burden.
“What’s your plan?” Hakan goaded. “Put a boy on the throne to keep a few worthless wooden statues in place?”
The Aland warriors grumbled, their knuckles turning white on axes and knives. One man shifted on the balls of his feet, his eyes shooting daggers. Were they going to attack because of Lord Hakan’s insult?
Sven fingered the iron amulet hanging from his neck. “Anund Jakob’s not a boy anymore. He’s nearly your size and bearded.” “You think his size makes him fit to be king?”
“Jakob will see to it our gods stay. That makes him worthy.”
Over Helena’s head, Sestra looked at Brandr. The small line above his nose pressed deep. His iron-grey eyes flashed a warning. Keep silent.
Hadn’t obedient silence always been her lot in life?
Heart racing, she flexed her trembling hand. Hemmed in on all sides, she wished for a weapon to wield at these men who took their might for granted. The vegetable knife rested beside the leeks. She’d never learned how to fight or defend herself the way some Viking women did. The want to grab the knife was foolish. Sven held the power here, yet haggard lines etched the skin under his eyes. Could it be a sign he paid a hefty price for betraying his friend?
“Jakob decreed his father can live. The old king will spend the rest of his days at your Gotland ringed fort.” Sven’s black stare met Lord Hakan’s. “I pledge the same to you and your family if you help.”
“The boy can’t make that decree. He doesn’t have control. Gorm does. And false oath or not, you dance to Gorm’s tune.”
“We were ready to make Jakob king.” Sven slammed a fist on his thigh. “A peaceful transition. And it was for a time. That’s why we waited until you journeyed to Frankia.”
“Because you know King Olof is the true king.”
“And you’d kill for him,” Sven said, slowly. “Because of that, Olof accepted exile. He wants no more violence.”
Helena inhaled soft and quick, the trifling sound enough to draw her husband’s attention. His ice-blue eyes flickered when he looked at her, and she nodded, a secret passing between them. A bond tethered them implicit in what remained unsaid.
Sven cleared his throat. “As you know, the Dane returned with a few berserkers and laid claim to the throne. Men got nervous.”
Helena shuddered under Sestra’s arm at the mention of the fierce breed of warriors. One had attacked her late spring. Her quick thinking saved others that day, a show of courage the people of Uppsala wouldn’t forget.
“Now you want Gorm gone,” Lord Hakan said.
“If I cooperate with you, my family and I live peacefully on Gotland. Is that it?”
A grin split Sven’s bushy beard. “You always were quick to see the lay of things. Of the two problems on my hands, Gorm is one you can solve.”
“If it means killing him, I’m ready.”
The words slipped easily off the White Wolf’s tongue. Sestra had heard whispers of a long-standing hostility between Gorm and Lord Hakan, the kind that dug in deep and wouldn’t let go.
“I thought you’d be interested,” Sven chuckled. “Word’s already spreading that you’re back.”
“Where is he now?”
“Far north of Uppsala. He’s moving south, farm by farm. Anyone who doesn’t bow to him sees their farm burned.”
“Still setting fires.” Bitterness threaded Lord Hakan’s voice. “What do you need me to do?”
“Keep him from burning more farms.”
“And not kill him?”
Sven folded his arms comfortably over his girth. “When the time is right, you will. He has too many men. We need reinforcements from Aland first.”
“You want me to lead him on a chase to buy you some time?”
“Yes. He’s so blinded by his hate for you that he’ll chase you through every forest and take half his men to do it.”
“Leaving fewer warriors in Uppsala,” Lord Hakan’s voice rumbled deep and amused. “You want to divide his forces, easy targets for the kill.”
“‘Never walk away from home ahead of your axe and sword.’” Brandr. His rough voice quoted Viking wisdom.
Every male in the longhouse nodded. The words straight from Odin were bred in them with mother’s milk.
“No,” Helena wailed. “You can’t do this.”
“Shhh. It’s the only way.” Hakan soothed her, scooting closer to her on the bench. “We’ll never live in peace until Gorm’s dead.”
“We must have control before the other berserkers arrive,” Sven explained. “The Black Wolf of Hedeby and his men are coming. Gorm has promised them much wealth if they fight for him.“
An uneasy current spread, each man looking to the other. Brutal to the bone, the cold-hearted Black Wolf was known far and wide. Born of outlaw parents, he roamed Viking realms and beyond, his lethal talents offered to the highest bidder.
“I must burn this longhouse to appease Gorm.” Sven’s voice boomed. “Then I’ll tell him I’ve killed your sister, Halsten, and their daughters. It was Gorm’s express wish.”
Lady Mardred cried out from the shadows, but her husband stepped coolly forward. “And in gratitude we leave with our lives. Is that what you’re offering?”
“You must disappear.” Sven waved a hand at chests lining a far wall. “Leaving most of your wealth behind. Otherwise the Dane will question why I’m empty-handed when I see him again.”
Lord Halsten’s one fist curled tightly. “What better way to show your false loyalty than to give away my wealth.”
Lady Mardred slumped on a bench. Sestra glared at Sven, her pulse quickening. His decree was the price paid when kingdoms crumbled, a fact she’d seen too often.
The bearish Viking looked to Brandr. “Cut Hakan free.”
A home would be destroyed tonight, and the people who lived here sent away. Forever. To Sven and the Aland men, it didn’t matter. Even Lord Hakan accepted this fate, his voice joining the battle plans. His zeal to destroy a long time enemy lit a fire in his ice-blue eyes.
Helena grabbed Sestra’s hand, her grip shaky. Wetness splashed their fingers. Tears. The men, set on intrigue and enemies, missed the silent weeping.
Tremors shook her body as she comforted Helena, but these were not from fright. Thralls, along with the young and old, would live underfoot while warriors trampled the earth. The best of men couldn’t save all the innocent from the horror.
Her lips twisted. The life of a Frankish slave woman mattered not at all.
If only she had a weapon and knew how to use it…
“You spoke of two problems,” Brandr said, his knife sawing Lord Hakan’s bindings. “If a forest chase to divide Gorm’s men solves one, what’s the other?”
“Find Gorm’s treasure. The hoard is somewhere in Uppsala, marked by a white stone with runes painted red…”
Her head snapped up.
A white rune stone marked with red.
“…if Gorm doesn’t have the treasure, the Black Wolf and his men won’t fight for him,” Sven finished.
“Do you know where he hides it?” Brandr asked.
“One of the islands.”
Hakan rubbed his wrists. “Which one?”
She shut her eyes, fresh pain gripping her chest. The darkness couldn’t stop disturbing visions from passing through her head. Farmsteads burning. Young and old put to the sword. Malevolent warriors raiding farms, snatching women and…the screams. Shaking, she couldn’t block out the awful sound.
Berserkers were coming.
A white rune stone marked with red.
“The berserkers will demand to see payment before they fight,” Sven explained. “If someone could find the hoard, steal it—”
“No one knows where he buried this treasure?” Hakan broke in. “Not even Astrid?”
The highborn woman known to them all shared Gorm’s bed.
“Astrid told me about the stone. She fears Gorm, wants to be free of him, but she doesn’t know which island.”
A white rune stone marked with red.
No, the highborn woman wouldn’t know where the stone rested. Sestra opened her eyes to the orange-gold blaze. Quivering chills scored her skin. This must be what happens when courage demanded action. She wanted to help, but she had no power, no weapons. She was a thrall, the lowest of the low. This was too much to ask of a woman in her position.
To speak up…to act…
Free or slave, there was no hiding. She pulled away from Helena.
“Sestra?” Helena’s watery blue eyes blinked.
Lord Hakan faced her as did the Aland warriors. Sven scowled and stretched his arm to the door as if to banish her. Breathing deeply, she met his glower with one of her own.
Vikings understood one thing: boldness.
She stood tall under the weight of male stares. Brandr reached for her, but she braced a hand on his chest. Was he going to tell her to keep silent and stay out of the way?
She’d lived all her life doing that. Not anymore.
“I know the island you seek.” Her voice rang clear in the longhouse. “I’ll lead you there.”
Brandr grabbed her, the slanted line deep between his eyebrows. “How did you gain this knowledge?”
~ ~ ~
I’ll post chapter three tomorrow. Did you miss chapter one? Click here for 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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