Authors: Phoebe Conn
“Ce1iese!” Olgrethe’s thick, honey-colored curls flew wildly about her shoulders as she turned to summon her servant. “Where are my new gold bracelets? I know I wore them only last night but they are nowhere to be found!” The high-strung beauty stamped her tiny foot in angry frustration as she demanded assistance.
Celiese lifted her cool green gaze from the hem of the silk gown she was mending, her steady glance sweeping the bedchamber with amused detachment before she nodded toward the young woman’s clothes-strewn bed. “I believe they are still lying in the corner where you tossed them, Olgrethe. Do you see them on the far side of the bed?” Celiese bent her head to hide her impish smile as she returned to her sewing, using stitches so intricate they were invisible upon the sheer blue garment.
“You are supposed to gather my jewelry and return it to my case each evening, Celiese, not leave my things lying about in such a careless fashion!” Yet Olgrethe stepped over the heaps of clothing she’d thrown about the room to retrieve the bracelets herself. She slid them up her slender arms, but was no happier once she had them in place. Returning to an inspection of her clothes, she picked up first one shimmering garment then another, only to cast each aside in rapid succession. “I need a new wardrobe, Celiese, not one thing I have is worth wearing.”
“All your gowns are new, none worn more than once or twice. Your father is most generous with you, but you should not expect a new gown to arrive each day with the certainty of the rising sun.” Celiese tied a knot in her thread, snipped it off, then folded the blue dress neatly as she rose. She was the taller of the two, and even more fair, for her hair was a blonde so pale it sparkled like the finest silver in the bright sunlight that filled the large chamber. After putting away her sewing basket she moved gracefully about the room, gathering the discarded apparel with the fluid rhythm that marked all her motions. Except for the slight difference in their statures and the shades of their blonde hair, the two young women were remarkably similar, exquisite beauties both, with the regal bearing of their class, the delicacy of unmistakable nobility gracing their sweet features. Yet one was mistress and the other slave, a distinction that seldom crossed the mind of one but gave the other no peace.
“Take whatever you want for yourself, Celiese, it matters not to me what you choose. My gowns are all prettier on you anyway.” Olgrethe flopped across her bed and made no effort to hide the sounds of her racking sobs as she wept on and on, her desperation too great to bear in silence.
Celiese ignored the weeping young woman until she had returned the room to its usual tidiness, then she sat down beside her and gently massaged her back with a slow, gentle touch. “It is not the quality of your wardrobe that has upset you so, for your gowns could not be more lovely. Has your father proposed another suitor to whom you object as violently as you have to all the others?”
Olgrethe nodded and dried her eyes on the back of her hand as she sat up. “He has no end of men to whom he’d like to see me wed, and the sooner the better, it seems. Whatever shall I do?”
Celiese’s pretty smile was sympathetic, “Has none been to your liking, Olgrethe? Has not one met with your approval? You know a Viking maiden is never forced into a marriage when she may divorce her husband whenever she chooses. Won’t your father expect your consent to any marriage he proposes?”
Olgrethe chewed her lower lip petulantly before she responded. “I’ll not consent to marry any man, no matter who he might be! What difference would it make, are not all men the same?”
Celiese’s green eyes deepened in hue as she considered that question thoughtfully. “No, Olgrethe, all men are not the same. Some are fine and good, gentle, loving husbands and caring fathers, while others are unspeakably cruel in all they do, a disgrace to all that is human.”
Olgrethe frowned, not readily comprehending her beautiful maid’s words. “We have grown up together these last five years, Celiese, how can it be you know so much of the world while I still know so little?”
“I have had far more opportunity to consider life and all its many situations than you have, but if you would but hold your temper and think before you speak, you would see the obvious also, Olgrethe.”
“What should I see that I do not?” the pretty young woman asked skeptically.
Choosing her words carefully, Celiese attempted to make her point. “Your father will be certain your marriage enhances his own position, but you would be wise to see that the choice is yours rather than his. Now let us consider for a moment whom you might select. Who among the men your father might wish you to marry would you accept for a husband?”
Olgrethe shuddered with revulsion, “None! They are all the same—loud, boastful tyrants or arrogant buffoons. I would have none as my mate!” She pounded her clenched fist angrily upon the bed to emphasize her disapproval.
“Perhaps they wish only to impress you with their bravery, Olgrethe, for a Viking takes great pride in being a valiant warrior, does he not?”
“Of course!” Olgrethe thought that a characteristic too obvious to merit discussion. “But I do not enjoy hearing an endless recitation of their raids, of how many men they have slaughtered in the glory of battle to gather their fortunes and bring home slaves to staff their farms!” Seeing her servant stiffen with sudden anguish Olgreihe reached out to embrace her closely. “Forgive me, Celiese, I never think of you as a slave, you are as dear to me as a sister would be, and no matter whom I marry I will take you with me when I go to his home.”
Celiese returned Olgrethe’s warm clasp and brushed aside the hurt the young woman had inflicted so thoughtlessly. “I do not ever forget I am a slave, nor how I came to be one—but let us not neglect our original purpose. You are of an age to marry, and we must choose your husband before your father does. If no one you have met is appealing then we will have to arrange for more young men to be invited here for you to meet.”
Olgrethe’s lilting laugh was spontaneous, “Do you really think we can find a man for me, Celiese, one who is brave and strong but does not continually boast of his prowess?”
“If such a man exists in this land then you shall have him, Olgrethe!” Celiese promised confidently, for truly she was as fond of her mistress as the young woman was of her.
“I will insist he provide a fine husband for you, too. We are the same age and if I must marry then you cannot be left alone.”
Appalled by that suggestion Celiese rose from the soft bed and moved away swiftly. “There is no need for such generosity, I have no desire to marry some other unfortunate captive and provide our master with children who will live and die in bondage. No, I am content to serve you as I always have.”
“Celiese?” Olgrethe went to her friend’s side, encircling her slender waist tenderly with her arms. “I will set you free to marry a Viking. Your children will be free, and so will you.”
“No!” Celiese responded with fierce pride. “I have no longing for a Viking’s, affections, no matter what the reward!”
“Do you hate us all, Celiese for taking you captive and bringing you to our land? Do you hate us still?” Olgrethe inquired anxiously.
Celiese turned toward the narrow window cut in the thick stone wall and scanned the rocky countryside with an intense gaze. “It is pointless to hate your family, for they are no worse than any of their countrymen who make war on my homeland each summer with ceaseless vengeance—and I have never hated you, for you are not to blame for their horrible deeds.” Wishing to push the terror of her memories aside, Celiese forced herself to smile. ‘Now, let us devote ourselves to finding a husband for you, Olgrethe, and allow me to meet my fate alone.” As I always have, she thought sadly.
Olgrethe shook her head. “I’ll give no such promise. Now brush my hair for me and we’ll go riding, the day is too lovely to waste in worrying over the future.”
When her mistress sat down Celiese took her hairbrush to groom her glowing tresses, pinning them atop her head in a profusion of curls, while she left her own hair hanging freely in loose curls that reached past her waist. “If we do not worry now, I fear you will have far more to worry about once you find yourself wed to a man you scarcely know and may soon grow to despise. Let us consider those who live closest first, the men you see frequently, before we discuss those who must travel a greater distance to visit you.”
After a weary sigh Olgrethe complied, and she named each family with marriageable sons, dismissing them one by one as no better than loudmouthed boys she could not abide. “There are grown men too, Celiese, more than I can count, but this is simply pointless, for none has touched my heart, nor even caught my eye.” After a moment’s silence Olgrethe continued in a hesitant voice, “Aldred Vandahl has sons, handsome ones, I’ve heard, but my father would never suggest one of those men for my husband.”
“Vandahl? I’ve not heard you mention that name. Who might they be?”
“It is a sad story. My Aunt Helga told me about them only once, but I have remembered her tale. It happened in my grandfather’s time. When he was a young man, his best friend was a Vandahl. They were inseparable, closer than brothers, until they both fell in love with the same young woman and their rivalry over her led to the fiercest of fighting. They fought repeatedly and my grandfather finally won, but at the price of slaying his oldest and best friend. Our families have been the bitterest of enemies ever since. The Vandahls neither forget nor forgive that death.”
Celiese stood back to survey her handiwork, fluffing Olgrethe’s tawny curls as she spoke. “What of the young woman? Was she not heartbroken at the tragic death of one of her suitors?”
“She was my grandmother, Celiese, but she died before I was born. We will have to ask Helga to tell us more of her mother, for I knew her not.”
“Would Helga not be a woman to whom we could turn for advice now? A marriage is too important a decision to be left to your father’s whim.”
“Of course! My father’s sister is very clever. When next she visits, I will ask her. Now, please, let us forget this tiresome matter until then, please, Celiese, please.” Olgrethe turned to look up, her blue eyes pleading for agreement.
Celiese laughed as she laid the hairbrush aside. “As you wish. Let us go riding and hope Helga arrives before your father presents another suitor, perhaps one he will not allow you the privilege of refusing.” Although the spring day was warm she reached for her cloak, pulling the hood low to shade her face. She would accompany Olgrethe, as she always did, like a shadow whose face was never seen, a being who attracted no notice, which was exactly what she wanted.
The two lovely young women teased each other playfully as they went skipping down the steps and out to the stables, as they did nearly every morning when the weather was pleasant. Their mounts were spirited, the day drenched in brilliant sunshine, their lives were placid, easy, for Olgrethe was the pampered daughter of Raktor Torgvald, a Viking whose fierce reputation was as well deserved as it was richly rewarded. He was not a man of unlimited patience, however, and, while his daughter spent the early spring days being fitted for new gowns or riding through the expanse of rocky coastline that bordered his vast farmlands, he spent many an hour contemplating her future, and he had decided he would not allow her to continue to flaunt his will.
Olgrethe found her father and brothers unusually boisterous at the evening meal. She longed to return to her chamber to retire and covered her yawn with no real haste. When first her father began to speak she scarcely listened, until she realized the import of his words.
“It is a well-known fact I have a daughter of astonishing beauty, a young woman who unfortunately finds all men unworthy of her attention. I have been lenient in the past, Olgrethe, not overly concerned with your willfulness, but I have received a most intriguing offer for you, my dear, from an enemy I respect too greatly to ignore.”
Olgrethe held her breath, frightened by her father’s stern tone, then asked, “Who might this enemy be that you would consider sending your only daughter to him?”
“Aldred Vandahl, and he suggests a marriage to rejoin our families in the bond of friendship my father severed with his uncle’s death. You will become the bride of one of his sons, to put an end to the feud that has existed between us for half a century.”
Olgrethe clenched her fists defiantly at her sides as she leapt to her feet. “How dare he offer such a bargain! We are strong, we need no such truce with the Vandahls as to require my marriage to one of them!”