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Authors: A Tale of Two Vikings

Sandra Hill (10 page)

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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“Go pack your bags, girl. You are coming home today.”

“I am not!”
St. Jude made me say it. Or was it the devil? Either way, my father is not going to like my obstinacy
.

Her father stood and advanced toward her. Once he towered over her, he said, “You will…even if I have to carry you out over my shoulder. Your charade of being a novice is over. You will obey me.”

“Why would you take me home…as if I have any home, other than this nunnery? Will you murder me on the way, or after we arrive at Blackthorne?”

“Murder will not be necessary, wench,” he drawled. “Your wedding will take place as soon as the banns can be read. Two sennights at most.”

The fine hairs stood out on the back of Esme’s neck. “Oh? And who is the lucky bridegroom?”
I can just imagine
.

“Oswald of Lincolnshire.”

I cannot imagine what you are thinking. Oswald?
Esme tilted her head in confusion. “He is already wed, with several children.”

“Not that Oswald,” her father said, lifting his chin defiantly.

“I don’t under…oh, nay, you cannot mean the grandsire. Oswald the Elder?”
Finally my father has pushed the limits of cruelty
.

“The very same. You are fortunate, girl. He is a lord in his own right.”

“He is older than you,” she said, disbelief ringing in her voice. “And last I heard, he had a disease in his manparts.” Inside, Esme felt like weeping. If she had ever hoped her father might entertain affection for her, that hope was gone now. “You are a beast.”

Her father shrugged.

“How could you, John?” Mother Wilfreda said. “Tsk tsk tsk! Even for you, that is low.”

“Mind your own business, hag,” he told the nun without even glancing her way.

“Either pack a bag or come as you are,” her father said to Esme, grabbing her forearm in a pinching grip.

She shrugged out of his grasp and yelled, “Unhand me, you demon! I would rather be dead than wed to that sick old man.”

Her father swung his hand and slapped her hard across the face, clutching on to her forearm again. “’Tis time you learned to obey your betters.”

The blow was so hard, Esme saw stars. She staggered backward and almost fell to the floor. Her father’s grasp on her arm held her up.

“You wretch!” Mother Wilfreda said and rose abruptly to her feet, knocking over her stool and scattering seeds and powders all over the table.

Cedric stepped in front of the nun and blocked her passage so that she could not come to Esme’s assistance.

Edward, meanwhile, came toward her and grabbed her other forearm. Together, her father and Edward began to drag her across the room and out the doorway. As they headed down the corridor, she noticed a confused Father Alaric walking across the great hall carrying a tray with three wooden goblets of mead. Along the wide corridor that led to the massive double front doors, two dozen
nuns and novices peered out of doorways, all of them wide-eyed with fear, some of them weeping. The overly tall Sister Mary Rose held a small skull in her shaking hands, probably St. John the Baptist; she had several of those. She must have been working on her supply of relics when the “visitors” arrived. But wait. Sister Mary Rose had been sent to warn Toste and Bolthor to stay away. Had she returned already, or never gone out?

“Bloody hell! Who are they?” her father asked, coming to an abrupt halt.

Edward and Cedric said foul words under their breaths.

At first, Esme thought it must be the nuns that had prompted their expletives. But when she raised her head, she saw a wondrous sight.

“The Vikings are coming! The Vikings are coming!” Sister Hildegard shrieked suddenly.

“Thank God!” Esme murmured.

Standing in the open doorway that led out to the courtyard were Toste and Bolthor. Each leaned casually against an opposite door jamb, ankles crossed.

Toste’s right hand held a broadsword. He was testing its sharp edge with the thumb of his left hand. Back and forth his thumb flicked as if strumming an instrument…a lethal instrument. His posture bespoke nonchalance; his gesture bespoke just the opposite, especially when his eyes lit on Esme’s cheek, which probably showed the imprint of her father’s hand.

In Bolthor’s right hand was a mighty battle-ax as tall as he was, and Bolthor was a giant. Its spear point touched the floor, its double-edged ax blade caressed his cheek. His expression was relaxed, but his one good eye displayed outrage as well.

“You heard me, wench. Who are they?” her father
asked again and increased the pressure on her forearm till she thought he might break the bone.

Esme was tearful, but no longer fearful, when she answered honestly, “They are my champions, my friends.”

Never make a Viking mad…

A blazing fury ripped through Toste.

He saw the livid finger welts on Esme’s pale cheek. No small slap had that been. Nay, a man of considerable size had put his full weight behind that blow. Her father, no doubt. And the viselike grip the same culprit had on her arm now would leave bruises, for sure. The one brother let loose his grip on her other arm and stepped to the side, still flanking his father’s right side while the other brother flanked the left. It was a strategic move designed to shield their father and cage in their sister at the same time.

Oh, you fellows are in such trouble
.

Many people, prodded on by biased clerics, liked to think Vikings were ruthless rapers and pillagers…that greed and bloodthirst ruled their kinder impulses. ’Twas not so. In fact, afore many a battle, Norse chieftains ofttimes called out, “Spare the women and children.”

So Lord Blackthorne’s abuse of his daughter sat ill with Toste and Bolthor, who had been informed a short time ago of his arrival by a huffing and puffing Sister Mary Rose.

But a good warrior knew to control his temper. Rage diminished a man’s skills. Timing was all.
Becalm thyself, Toste. Becalm thyself
.

Once the three men and Esme got closer, Toste yelled out toward the courtyard, “Bjorn and Sveinn, have you
posted guards about the abbey borders? You have? Good. And close at hand?” He nodded as if someone had answered him.

“The archers are poised on the roof, as well,” Bolthor told him, his voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

It was a ruse, of course. But Lord Blackthorne did not know that. Leastways, not yet. Or leastways, Toste hoped not.

“Sister Esme,” he said with a nod, putting emphasis on her nunly title, even though he knew it did not fit her actual state. He did not want her father to think there was anything between them. Not that there
was
anything between them. Yet.

Her eyes met his. She blinked several times then, as if to convey some hidden message. He’d played this game many times with his brother over the years, and he “read” her well. She told him she was unharmed and cautioned him to be careful.

“Who are these…people?” her father asked her, still maintaining his iron grip on her arm.

“Father, let me intro—”

But Toste put up a halting hand and spoke in her stead. “Mayhap I am a wayfarer just passing by. Mayhap I am a friend to Mother Wilfreda. Mayhap I am here contemplating the religious life for myself or one of my kin.” Toste paused, then added, “Or mayhap I am your worst enemy.”

Bet on the latter, villain
.

Lord Blackthorne’s lips curled back, and he actually growled. His two sons put hands to the hilts of their swords.

“I repeat, who are you?” Blackthorne asked through gritted teeth.

Toste looked pointedly at the hand which still held his daughter. “I am Toste Ivarsson, and this is Bolthor the Skald, and if you do not release that nun this instant, I will cut off your hand.”

Esme’s eyes went wide at his words.

What? You thought I was a pacifist Viking?

The fool did not release his hold on his daughter, who tried to intercede, “Toste is just teasing. Ha ha ha. What a jester he is!”

Do not be naive, m’lady. I would slice your father through in a trice and think naught of it
.

Her father looked askance at her. “Toste? You call the heathen by name? By the rood, girl, if you have given your virginity to a bloody Viking, I will take a birch rod to your back till there is no skin left.”

Keep it up, Blackthorne. You are tempting my sword
. “Oh, well, I think I would have something to say about that,” Toste said, stepping forth and forcibly pulling Esme out of her father’s grip and to his side, where he tucked her under his left arm. The sword in his right hand remained poised at the ready. Bolthor had moved closer to the men as well, and he held his halberd in the battle position. “For your information, Lord Blackthorne, though I question your paternal rights at this point, I have not lain with your daughter.”

I will, though. You can be sure of that. She will owe me much at the end of this day, and I do not mean coin
.

“How dare you intervene between a father and his daughter?”

“I dare.”
And I want to
.

“King Edgar will have something to say about this matter, I daresay.”

Blah, blah, blah. Let’s end the talking and start fighting.
My stomach is growling with hunger and my tongue thirsts for a big horn of Margaret’s Mead
. Toste shrugged. “Edgar is not my king.”

Her father’s brows narrowed with suspicion. “Has she hired you and a troop of Vikings to man the parapets at Evergreen? If so, you should know that the girl has no coin. A pauper nun, she is, and not even that.”

Why does he keep calling her “girl”? Ah, I see, probably to belittle her and make her feel subservient. Voltar the Vicious used to do that with his young wife, Olga Quiet-Tongue
. “Oh? Really? Tsk tsk,
Lady
Esme, you did not inform me of that fact.” Esme was looking at him as if he’d gone mad. He had. Mad with rage. Mad with the injustice of his twin’s death. Mad with the injustice of Esme’s ill-treatment. Mad with the blood-lust rising in him, along with another kind of lust. Mad, mad, mad! He turned his attention back to Lord Blackthorne. “Mayhap your good king would be interested in knowing what happened to Evergreen’s revenues these past ten years.” He blinked his eyes innocently at the thieving nobleman.

“You…you…” Blackthorne sputtered.

“Well, it has been pleasant chatting with you, Lord Blackthorne, and you two knaves, too, but Bolthor and I were about to have a cup of mulled mead. It is damned cold out there. Do not slam the doors on your way out.” With that, Toste took Esme by the hand and began to walk toward the great hall. He did not mind putting his back to the three blackguards, because he knew Bolthor was watching out for him.

“Thank you,” she whispered, now that they were out of her father’s hearing.

“Do not thank me yet, m’lady.” He stared straight
ahead as he spoke, still leading her by the hand. “Your bill will be paid in good time.”

“My father already told you I have no coin, but I will be able to pay you eventually…if you are willing to forgo immediate payment. I am more than aware that you put your life on the line for me today.”

“I have no interest in coin. Wealth aplenty do I already have. But you will pay. You will pay.”

She frowned. “How?” She gasped then as understanding hit her. “You would not demand such. Surely you would not.”

“I would, and I will.”

“You have not seen the last of me,” Lord Blackthorne yelled.

Toste had not realized that Lord Blackthorne still lingered inside the abbey. “Yea, yea, yea,” he called back over his shoulder. Cowards always threw out threats when they thought they were outside the range of sword or arrow.

“And the banns for your wedding will be called, whether you like it or not, girl.” This threat was addressed to Esme, of course. Neither of them turned to look at her father, but pretended they did not hear.

“You are getting married?” Toste asked Esme.

“Over my dead body.”

“Good. I never lie with married women.”
Or dead ones, for that matter
.

She gasped again. “Your constant jests are…disarming.”

Hah! I will show you disarming when you are flat on your back, legs spread, with a smile on your face that only a Viking could put there
.

“I’ll be back afore you can blink, Viking,” her father shouted.

“Holy Thor, is he still here? The man never gives up.”

“Nay, he does not. I know that better than any,” Esme said with a sigh.

“And with me will be a large troop of soldiers.” Toste turned his head slightly so he could look back. Yea, her bullheaded father still stood at the open doorway with his two sons, all of them red-faced with frustration and anger.

“He means it,” Esme said.

“I do not doubt that, but we will be long gone.”


We?

“You, me and Bolthor.”

He could see hope war with distrust on her too-open face. “Where are we going?”

“Methinks ’tis time for a cart delivery of mead barrels to the trading vessels in Jorvik.” He and Bolthor had already discussed a preliminary plan, but the details were yet to be worked out.

“My father and brothers will recognize us.”

Women! They must know all the details. They must argue every point. Why can they not just let men, with their greater intellect, handle things?
“Not if we are in disguise.”

“Disguise? What kind of disguise?”

Be quiet, m’lady, or I am going to abandon you here to your father
. He decided to give her one last explanation, and that would be that. “Well, there is no disguising you. You will have to hide in one of the barrels, but Bolthor and I…hmmm…our best disguise would probably be as…”

“What?”

“Nuns.”

Big butts are timeless…

“My bottom is too big.” Esme’s voice was muffled, coming as it was from the inside of a barrel. Besides that, her brain was starting to feel fuzzy from the mead fumes still lingering in the oak staves.

“Try to lie straighter so that your buttocks go flat,” Mother Wilfreda advised.

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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