Authors: Kerrigan Byrne
© 2014 Kerrigan Byrne
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Cover Art © 2014 Kelli Ann Morgan / Inspire Creative Services
Interior book design by Bob Houston eBook Formatting
Heroes of the Highlands
Unleashed – The First Highland Historical Trilogy
Reclaimed – The Second Highland Historical Trilogy
To Tiffinie Helmer.
Thanks for the late-night brainstorms, the tireless encouragement, the helpful critiques, and most of all, the friendship and laughter that I will always treasure.
“When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
“When the Hurlyburly’s done,
When the Battle’s lost and won.”
“That will be ere the set of the sun.”
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
of September, 1066
This bridge is where I die
, Bael thought, as five thousand Saxon warriors drove what Vikings they didn’t slaughter back across Stamford Bridge. The scents of blood and battle filtered through the thick copse of trees lining the River Dewent. Their full leaves blocked the view of the massacre being wrought on the West bank, and so Bael’s Berserker remained leashed for the moment.
“I warned you,” he muttered to Jarl Tostig, who pulled his horse to an abrupt stop next to him at the mouth of the bridge. “Those men were not safe on the west bank, and now our forces have been cut in half by Goodwin’s army.”
“How was I to know the fucking Saxon King’s army could march nineteen leagues like it was nothing? They weren’t supposed to be here. They act like they fell upon us by accident.” Tostig drew his sword, trying to hold his antsy stallion in check, and spat on the ground. “Now trap them on the bridge and kill them
Bael’s hand tightened on his double-bladed axe, his beast yearning to do exactly that. “I can kill a hundred on my own. Maybe more. But not five thousand.” He turned to the unwise Jarl beside him, feeling more antipathy than anything. “If you do not make peace with this King Harold, then many of your raiders are going to Valhalla today.”
“I do not pay you gold for talk of peace, Bael, I pay for your axe.” Behind the fire in Jarl Tostig’s blue eyes, Bael read a different emotion. Fear. “York fell to your rage. Northumbria cowered before it. And Scarborough burned to the ground. Now go. Prove your worth to the Gods, before they forsake the half of you that’s worth anything.”
Years ago, that barb would have angered him.
Bael yawned, scratched an itch on his back with the edge of his axe, and shrugged. He didn’t miss the widening of the Jarl’s eyes as he did this, knowing that the axe he wielded like a child’s toy would take most warriors two hands and a great heave to swing.
Wishing he’d at least had time for ale and breakfast before marching to his death, Bael ambled toward the bridge, rolling his shoulders and feeling the chilled wind feather over his bare chest. There was something different about this wind. Something mysterious that shimmered over his senses and pricked at the beast within him.
Power lurked in those trees.
, not power.
Perhaps a Valkyrie waited in preparation for so many Viking deaths.
“It has been an honor raiding alongside a blessed warrior of Freya such as you,” Tostig called after him.
“I wish I could say the same,” he yelled over his shoulder, twirling his axe a few times.
. Fighting for even more foolish kings who cared more for treasure than they did the survival of their own people. Perhaps it was good he died today. He didn’t like what this world was becoming. Families, clans, and villages joined into bigger towns and cities, swearing fealty to rich and greedy men who called themselves kings. Power no longer belonged to the strongest, the bravest, and the most just, but to the cunning and the silver-tongued. This should not be the way of things.
Bael had to shoulder through retreating Vikings once the bridge narrowed, and he ordered them to form a shield wall behind him. When the English broke through, his men might still stand a chance.
Inside he both mourned and rejoiced for those brothers already fallen. He would see them soon in the halls of Valhalla. Would drink with Freya and have a place in her long-house.
Blood stained the tunic of a wounded Viking warrior limping across the planks of the bridge supported by narrow stone walls. The Berserker beast rippled beneath his skin, rising to the surface. Vibrant greens and the colors of autumn faded from his sight until everything was grey and sharp as if he were a hawk.
The retreating Vikings ran, not to escape the advancing Saxons.
Bael embraced the rage building inside him with the strength of a storm surge. It rolled along his veins, pouring through his blood like liquid fire. It was as savage as hatred. As pleasurable as lust. The swell of his muscles tightened his skin until only the swing of his axe could appease the brutal urge to bathe in the blood of his enemies.
The Saxons wore helmets and shields. Their armor gleamed, reflecting the sun like waves on the sea as they perused the fleeing Vikings. They’d been too long away from the north. Too long away from the stories and legends of the Berserkers. So when they saw the lone giant on the bridge they didn’t tremble. They didn’t flee. They advanced, running at Bael as though competing for who would be the first to claim his life.
The first slice of his axe took two heads at once and yet another on the backswing. Bael let out a roar that warned the Saxons he could not possibly be human. His weapon was part of him, part of his beast. His eyes, now black voids of abysmal rage, saw only prey. His nose only smelled blood and death, and reveled in the potent perfume. When the bodies began to pile, he climbed over the corpses to get at his enemies. He killed so many, their blood and limbs littered the river with gore.
Their weapons caused no pain, though his only armor was a fearsome helm made of bone and iron. The Saxons broke upon him like waves on the black cliffs, spraying blood and falling away, only to press forward again. His world dissolved into nothing but blood-lust.
This bridge was going to be where Baelsar Bloodborn was fated to die.
He couldn’t fucking wait.
Morgana de Moray struggled to take a breath. Tugging at the thick bonds that imprisoned her wrists behind her back and her ankles together, she tried to find a position that would alleviate the pressure on her ribs. Draped like she was over the saddle of a tall Saxon warhorse, the feat proved impossible.
Lifting her head from the horse’s flank, she peered out over the autumn field strewn with dead Northmen. The Saxons marched away from her toward a narrow break in the tree line that ran along the river. For once, she felt blessed that her captors hadn’t fed her much, because she would have added any food in her stomach to the battle gore littering the fields. The smell, alone, was enough to sicken her, but the sight of so much slaughter. So much blood. It was overwhelming.
If she didn’t make her escape now, she might never again have the chance. Morgana knew where this ended when the Saxon King Goodwinson was done with her. On a pyre, burning for witchcraft. Her options were to flee or die, and she planned to live. Had too much to live for. Her Druid brother needed her alive. Her people needed her powers.
needed her help to save it. Even these bloody Saxon oafs and the blood-thirsty Viking pillagers they’d chanced upon. If any of them survived this battle, it would be for naught if she and her cousin, Kenna, didn’t make it home to the Highlands in time for Samhain.
Morgana renewed her struggles, focusing on freeing her feet from her boots, which were bound together. Her thick stockings allowed for some movement. If she could just peel her slender feet out of them, she might have a chance.
As she shimmied and worked, she cursed the entire masculine breed.
Why was it always kill-first-think-second with them? They’d abandoned their horses on the east bank because, from what she’d gleaned from their calls, Stamford Bridge was too narrow to support more than a horse or two, and the Viking’s long-spears would rid them of too much good horseflesh.
So they’d sacrifice men—soldiers—but not their horses. It was truly a wonder that men ruled the world. They held some particularly unbalanced priorities.
Morgana grunted, feeling one of her boots give, taking her stockings with it. Rejoicing, she kicked it off, much to the irritation of her very alive, very powerful equine conveyance.
“Steady,” she crooned. “Steady on.” Wincing as the stallion pranced, jarring her middle, Morgana murmured a sleep spell she’d memorized as a child, praying that it worked on animals as well as it had her nurse.
Thankfully, it did, and the beast stilled, allowing her to kick off her other boot and stocking, taking her bindings with them. Wriggling her body and reaching with her toes, she went limp, sliding down the side of the horse and landed in the cold mud with bare feet.
Heart racing, Morgana used the horse’s body as a shield and surveyed the rapidly emptying battlefield, considering her options. Something caused much excitement at the bridge, which remained hidden from her view by the thicket of trees. Too many Saxons lingered in the freshly harvested fields for her to make her way west, and the preponderance of the army made a bolt north impossible. The Saxons pressed toward the old Roman road, eager to claim victory from those across the river.
lie north and west. The river threaded directly to her east, and she had to make it to the cover of trees without being seen. She needed to reach the water, and fast. There had to be a jagged branch upon which she could free her wrists from their thick leather bonds, and use the cover to develop a plan of escape. Even if she had to flee to the south and make a large circle back west and north, that would be a better choice than remaining here.
Sending up a prayer to the Goddess for strength, safety, and concealment, Morgana took two bracing breaths and broke from the dozing horse, dashing toward the trees. It amazed her how incredibly difficult running with her hands bound behind her could be. Balance without the use of her arms proved surprisingly problematic. Dry stalks of whatever had grown in this field poked at her bare feet through the mud, and scratched at her shoulder when she stumbled and fell.
Scrambling back to her feet, she didn’t dare to look behind her, in case death in the form of a Saxon arrow whistled toward her. Better that than a pyre and her flesh melting from her bones, she thought, and forged ahead, doing her best to ignore her bleeding heels. Once she found water, she could heal them.
Plunging into the tree line, she willed the tears blurring her vision to cease. She’d never forget the violence and horror of this day. Never rid her memory of the cruelty of men toward their enemies. And for what? She couldn’t fathom. She only knew that men—good men, family men—became monsters when ordered to be. And they killed without remorse. They were given permission by their kings and their Gods to spill blood upon the earth. The most precious and potent combination of water and life.
The forest ground was damp and mossy, strewn with freshly-fallen leaves. She slowed to look for jagged rocks, but couldn’t see any in her immediate vicinity. The trees still blushed with youth and their branches were thick with foliage and smooth with health. Her tender feet relished the soft earth beneath her, but she needed to find something—anything—to cut her bonds with.
The thin line of trees suddenly gave way to a very slim riverbank. Morgana’s first impulse to fling herself into the water and let the current carry her to safety disappeared with horrific alacrity.
Blood stained the river and filtered into pools of mud. Disembodied limbs bobbed in little gruesome fleets, swept downstream by the lazy autumn pull of the current. Morgana stifled the scream tearing up her throat. Though water was her element, Morgana couldn’t bear to be engulfed by all that death and gore.
She swallowed bile as a man’s head floated by, his sightless eyes frozen in a stare of terror that fixed upon her until disappearing around a gentle bend.
A fierce roar clawed at her bones with an icy chill and drew her frantic eyes to a stone bridge upriver. Though it was far enough away that she had to squint, what Morgana saw stopped her breath.
Vikings. Hundreds upon hundreds of them crouched behind a shield wall on the east bank. But the blood-lust palpably emanating from the army wasn’t what froze her feet to the mud. It was the carnage wrought by the lone giant slaughtering countless Saxons on the Stamford Bridge.
Blood wept from the wooden slats. The water climbed the riverbanks, displaced by the weight of the dozen men dispatched with just a few strokes of his colossal axe.
The survival instinct to bolt warred with a different impulse. An unnatural one. This giant, the one who’d emitted that terrifying roar was like her. Different. Powerful.
Mesmerized when she should be repelled, Morgana leaned her shoulder against a tree, and crouched low, willing her breath to slow.
The stone wall of the bridge mostly hid his legs, but the giant’s torso was bare except for the strap across his chest that would secure that impossible axe to his back. That and the blood of the fallen drenching his skin. His features were hidden by distance and a fearsome helm of iron decorated by skull bones.
Arrows seemed to glance off his flesh. The swords of his enemies found no purchase even if the blows rang true. The bridge could only support men about four shoulders wide, and four men could never hope to fell a warrior such as this.
He killed like other men danced, with light feet for bones encumbered by so much muscle, and swift, unpredictable movements for such a large weapon. He was a bard of blood. A legion of one. A painter whose brush only knew the color red.
The Viking not only held the bridge, he took it. Grinding forward through bone and flesh with a hoard at his back and a throng in front of him.
Morgana ached to run, but something locked her feet in place, her toes sinking into the soft earth of the riverbank. She was witnessing something epic. A feat of man that would be recorded in the ages until the end of times.
And yet… Morgana stretched her Druid senses. The ones that told her he was a man, and more than a man. He roared like a beast. He moved with the speed of a Fae. Swung his axe with the strength of a God. He had to have killed fifty, nay, a hundred men, and he didn’t show the first signs of tiring.
Movement beneath the bridge caught Morgana’s notice. A barrel bobbed in the river’s slow current. She squinted harder, trying to make out the long protuberance from the barrel’s edge from where she stood. She recognized it too late. The Saxon concealed within sprang from where the blood and entrails of his brothers-in-arms dripped on him from the bridge, braced one hand on the stones, and drove a long-spear between the slats, impaling the Viking warrior in the thigh.