Authors: Phoebe Conn
By Love Enslaved
is dedicated to my two handsome sons, Jeff and Drew, whose Swedish blood allows them to proudly claim a Viking heritage.
Denmark, Early Summer, A.D. 882
Dana brushed the tears from her lashes, but the harder she tried to suppress her laughter, the more impossible it became. Her aunt’s flustered irritation at her mirth only served to amuse the flame-haired beauty all the more. Finally she raised her hand in a graceful appeal for mercy.
“Please, Aunt, no more.”
“But every word is the truth,” Grena insisted indignantly. “None of our women can resist the man.” Turning to her sixteen-year-old daughter, she urged her to speak. “You tell them, Berit. Perhaps they will believe you even if they think I am merely spinning fanciful tales to keep them entertained.”
Barely able to contain her own amusement, the vivacious blonde spoke in a breathless rush. “Jørn bought the Celt thrall only three days before he left on the summer voyage with Uncle Haakon. He had no time to observe the problems the man from Erin would create or I’m certain he would never have left us with such a troublesome burden.”
With marked skepticism, Dana glanced at her mother. Jørn was her Aunt Grena’s eldest son. At nineteen he had a well-deserved reputation for being not only irresponsible but reckless as well. He was also so self-centered that Dana doubted he would have cared even if he had known how difficult the new slave would make things for his widowed mother.
Berit correctly interpreted the silent exchange passing between Dana and Berit’s Aunt Freya, but she knew her brother’s faults too well to take offense and hurriedly continued. “The Celt has caused no end of turmoil, and truly there’s not one of our female servants who isn’t enamored of him. They are either shirking their work to sneak out to the stables to see him, or fighting among themselves over which of them is his favorite. While it is amusing to see them making fools of themselves over him, when their work goes undone we’re the ones who suffer.”
“Is he handsome?” Dana inquired with playful curiosity. “Or merely possessed of such remarkable stamina he can satisfy all your girls?”
When Berit blushed deeply at the indelicacy of the question, her mother responded for her. “He’s a surly brute, but I suppose some might find him handsome. As for his ability to satisfy a woman, that’s part of the problem. He’ll have nothing to do with any of them, but his disinterest only serves to make the girls all the more bold.”
“How can that be true?” Freya leaned forward to look directly at her younger sister. The day was warm, and the four women were seated beneath a massive oak whose leafy branches shielded their lovely fair complexions from the brightness of the sun’s rays. “With so many eager women, how can you be certain he wants none of them?”
“I have ears as well as eyes, Freya.” Annoyed that her sister would question her judgment, Grena paused only long enough to adjust the half-dozen heavy gold bracelets encircling her right wrist before she resumed her attempt at gaining sympathy. “None of the girls is happy. Brendan seems to hold all of them, as well as our family, in contempt. I’d sell him tomorrow, but Jørn said he was an extraordinary horseman, and all the men who would be willing to pay the price I would have to ask are away, just as our men are.”
While she was as greatly amused by the amorous antics of Grena’s servants as Dana, Freya knew her sister had come to her expecting help with her problems rather than merely unbridled laughter. Since the thrall couldn’t be sold, there appeared to be only one other option. A gracious woman, Freya was not reluctant to offer it, but she thoughtfully consulted her daughter first.
“Dana, can you imagine any of our servants chasing this poor man so shamelessly?”
Instantly comprehending the import of her mother’s question, as well as her reason for asking it, Dana’s smile vanished. Freya had been ill with a recurrent fever the past winter, and since she had yet to fully regain her strength and vitality, she relied heavily upon her eldest daughter to manage the duties she had formerly handled with ease. While Dana was happy to spare her mother every bit of work she could, she didn’t want to see her take on the responsibility for an obnoxious slave just because Grena was unable to control her household properly. Pampered and spoiled, first by her parents and then by a generous older husband, her aunt solved all her problems simply by thrusting them onto others. Dana would not insult her aunt by saying so to her face, however, so she offered an objection she knew would be readily understood.
“Father hasn’t kept thralls in years. Don’t you think he would be very displeased if we began taking in Aunt Grena’s?” she asked pointedly.
Freya’s delicately arched brows rose slightly at the mention of angering Haakon since she knew the possibility was an extremely good one. Despite that threat, she could not turn her back on the sister she held so dear. “You know your father expects us to make our own decisions when he’s away. Just let me worry about his reaction when he comes home in the fall. For the time being, we need only concern ourselves with Grena’s dilemma.”
Not pleased to have what she knew was sound advice cast aside so casually, Dana turned away to watch her younger brother and sister, who were playing nearby with Grena’s twelve-year-old twins, Olaf and Hrolf. The children’s happy laughter rang out over the blossom-filled meadow as they chased the lambs through the tall grass that extended clear down to the sandy shoreline.
The island of Fyn was not only beautiful, but it was also blessed with fertile soil and a mild climate. Though she had never traveled more than a few miles from her family’s farm, Dana knew it had to occupy one of the most perfect spots on earth. She took a great deal of pride in her home, as did her mother. Yet, while her mother’s health was still delicate, Dana didn’t want a troublesome thrall any more than Grena did. Why couldn’t her aunt see that she was thoughtlessly taking advantage of her sister’s love? Was she simply as selfish as Jørn?
When she reluctantly forced her attention back to the conversation at hand, she was embarrassed to find Grena waiting impatiently for her response to a question she had not heard. “I’m sorry, did you ask me something?”
Grena dared not criticize her niece for being inattentive when she needed her help so urgently, but her tone was cool and her diction crisp as she repeated her request. “Will you come for Brendan tomorrow? When not pestered by overeager females, he has shown himself to be a good worker, and I’m sure he won’t cause you any trouble. Then when Jørn comes home, he can decide what to do with the man. After all, Brendan is his property, so the problem is rightfully his.”
Knowing that was merely another convenient excuse for Grena to avoid taking responsibility for what went on under her own roof, Dana had to force down a bitter response before giving a polite one. “If the matter is decided, then yes, I’ll come for the man in the morning.”
“Don’t come alone,” Berit warned immediately, her blue eyes bright with the imagined peril of so foolhardy an action.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Grena scolded her daughter crossly. “No thrall is so stupid as to attack his mistress, and whatever Brendan is, he does not lack intelligence.”
“But he is irresistible to women,” Freya reminded her sister in a teasing jest. “That is reason enough not to send Dana alone.”
Grena laughed. She knew her niece to be an extremely independent young woman who had stubbornly resisted the charms of the fine men who had courted her, so surely she would have no interest in a common slave. “Will you accept Jarald’s proposal this fall, Dana? You must know there are many young women who would not only be honored but thrilled to wed so handsome and successful a man.”
Dana suddenly felt as uncomfortable as her aunt had when they had made light of her domestic problems. She knew mentioning Jarald had been Grena’s way of putting her in her place, but while crude, the tactic had worked. She had used the slowness of her mother’s recovery from her lengthy illness as an excuse to avoid Jarald’s attentions all spring, and she knew he was nearly at the end of his patience with her. He was as forceful and determined a man as her father, and he was used to getting his own way. On several occasions he had made it plain that he intended to make her his wife, but she had felt only suffocated by his commanding presence and not in the least bit flattered or pleased that he had chosen her. That he would be away trading until autumn, as her father, older brother, Svien, and Jørn were, had provided a much needed respite from his overbearing personality, and she was far more delighted by his prolonged absence than she had ever been by his frequent visits.
Rising to her feet, Dana tactfully avoided replying to her aunt’s question. “The fall is months away. Right now I need to see what’s keeping Moira with our refreshments.”
“Weren’t Moira’s parents also Celts from Erin?” Berit asked with a sudden burst of the enthusiasm which marked all her actions. “Maybe that’s what Brendan wants, a woman of his own kind.”
That suggestion was so intriguing, Dana hesitated before turning away. Moira was so totally, devoted to Freya that they had not once stopped to consider that the quiet girl might want a husband. Seeing the same realization dawning in her mother’s eyes, Dana decided to wait until they were alone to discuss Moira’s future. That Brendan was a slave was a problem, of course, but an ambitious man could earn enough to buy his freedom in a year’s time, and Grena had said he was a good worker.
Hiding her smile, Dana lifted the skirt of her flowing silk chemise to the level of the loose-fitting sleeveless tunic worn over it and hurried toward the house with a spritely step. She would have to thank Berit later for proposing such a charming way to turn Brendan’s stay with them into an advantageous one.
After her cousin had left them, Berit swiftly grew restless. She toyed with the end of her long blonde braid as her mother and aunt began discussing their younger children. Uninterested in their conversation, she rose and leaned back against the stately oak. Hoping the true reason for her curiosity would not be suspected, she scanned the farm’s well-kept grounds and numerous buildings, seeking a glimpse of her cousin Erik.
Of course Erik was not a full cousin, but it wasn’t the peculiar manner in which they were related that intrigued her. When she and Dana had been children, they had often tagged along behind Erik, Svien and Jørn. Now her brother and Svien had gone trading with Haakon while Erik, who was two years Svien’s senior, had been left behind. She knew how badly the slight must have hurt him, for it made it plain as never before that, while Svien was Haakon’s heir, Erik was a bastard who would inherit nothing.
Born to a slave before Haakon’s marriage to Freya, Erik had been raised with his father’s legitimate children. His mother had died shortly after his birth, and Freya had cared for him as though he were her own. This was not an uncommon practice among wealthy men like Haakon, and some men even acknowledged their bastard offspring, giving them an equal inheritance. But not Haakon. For as long as Berit could remember, her uncle had regarded his firstborn son with a cold aloofness that bordered on a cruel disdain. Since the man had ceased keeping slaves and had been faithful to his beloved wife, there were no other illegitimate children who shared the taint of Erik’s birth.
Despite his lowly status, Berit believed Erik still loved his father, or perhaps it was Freya he loved, and his affection for her kept him on Haakon’s farm. Whatever the reason, at twenty-two he seemed to be content to work as his father’s falconer. That demanding task kept him busy, and he no longer had the time to entertain the younger children.
Berit hoped Erik would bring them their horses later, for she would consider their visit wasted if she did not even catch sight of the young man. Just the hope of seeing him had filled the day with a sense of excitement she had not expected. Since she had known Erik for as long as she could remember, she did not understand why his friendship would be more valuable now than it had been when she was younger.
Seeing Dana returning with Moira bearing a heavily laden tray, Berit resumed her place at her mother’s side, but she was hungry for something she couldn’t name, something far sweeter than the honey cakes Freya always served. Sighing wistfully, she made herself comfortable, grateful that her companions could never guess the improper nature of her thoughts.
Unlike Freya’s children, Erik was dark rather than fair, but he had his father’s violet eyes. He not only trained Haakon’s regal birds of prey, but in his father’s absence he also attended to the farm’s needs. He had noted Grena’s arrival, but since she had never displayed Freya’s warmth toward him he had not gone out of his way to greet her. He was soon sorry for that show of pride when he realized too late that Berit was with her mother and the twins.