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Authors: A Tale of Two Vikings

Sandra Hill (9 page)

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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“One of those loose ends being Helga?”

Gorm nodded.

I wonder how Helga would feel about being called a loose end. Hah! I already know the answer to that. About as much as she liked being called Helga the Homely. Or Helga the Magnificent
.

“I indulge Helga overmuch. Always have. But methinks she likes you, and that gives me hope.”

“I am not so sure about that.” He told Gorm the coarse expression Helga had used with him that afternoon.

Gorm chuckled, not at all disturbed by his daughter’s less-than-maidenly language. “That is my Helga,” he boasted.

“I do not love her, Gorm.” For some reason, it saddened Vagn to say that, but it was the truth.

Gorm waved a hand in front of him and said, “Pfff! Respect her. Treat her properly. That is enough for me.
If love comes later, that is good and well, but it is not a necessary ingredient for a noble match.”

“Would you force her into marriage?”
Why am I indulging in this ridiculous conversation? It has naught to do with me. Really
.

“Never! I want to secure her future, but not by forcing her into wedlock. But if a good man were to convince her…” Gorm deliberately let his words trail off.

“I need time to think on this. I will not be rushed.” What he really thought, though, was that he’d better be careful with his seduction tactics. He might go too far and find himself leg-locked in a trap of his own making—or, to be more precise, cock-locked. But then, he had escaped such locks afore.

A maid named Greta walked up and refilled their horns of ale from a pottery pitcher. Then she handed Vagn a linen packet. “Here are the megrim powders you asked me to get from the village healer.”

“Still having the head pains, eh?” Gorm asked.

Vagn nodded. “They come and they go, but betimes they are so bad I can barely see.”

The maid dawdled about, wiping the table with a damp cloth.

“Thank you, Greta,” he said, handing her a silver piece for her efforts.

Still she did not leave.

Greta was about eighteen years old with blond braids, large breasts and nicely rounded hips. She kept slanting her eyes at him through half-lowered eyelids. She was a tempting morsel, and Vagn knew she would join him in the bed furs if he wished. He liked looking at her, but, for some reason, as randy as he had been earlier, he did not wish to bed her.

Just then, Vagn noticed Helga a short distance away, speaking to one of the Briarstead embroiderers. Helga glanced at him, then at Greta, then back at him. He could tell what she thought by her heightened color and the sneer on her luscious lips. When next she looked his way, he winked at her. Their gazes held for a long second, and he knew that she was remembering their meeting in the stable. Then Helga huffed out of the great hall.

When Vagn turned back to the game board, he realized that Gorm had taken in the short interchange between him and Helga. He knew because Gorm was laughing heartily. Only when Gorm had stopped laughing and wiped tears of mirth from his eyes did a beaming Gorm tell him, “Take all the time you want, son.”

Give me a peck, baby. Eew, is that worm I smell on your breath?…

That night, Vagn dreamed about his brother Toste. Or mayhap it would best be described as a nightmare.

Wherever Toste was, he was surrounded by black crows—the biggest black crows Vagn had ever seen. Some of the crows were singing, of all things. Bells rang. He saw a human shin bone split in half and fly through the air. The smell of honey and beeswax permeated his senses. And the back of his head throbbed as if it might explode.

Then Vagn saw the most extraordinary thing. Toste kissed one of the crows, and it felt good. Damn good.

Vagn slept restlessly all night and awakened in a sad mood. If the ravens of death surrounded his brother, then he must truly have passed over to the other world.

But what did the crow-kiss mean?

Like sands through the hourglass…

Time was of utmost importance to Esme, but, unfortunately, her time ran out the next afternoon.

Without any advance warning, her father and two of her brothers arrived at the abbey, armed to the teeth. Obviously, they hadn’t come to discuss her health or well-being.

To her relief, Toste was off somewhere practicing his swordsmanship, and Bolthor had gone to a neighboring village to purchase horses for them. Her father hated Norsemen with a vengeance and would kill the two Vikings for no other reason than the color of their hair, if the whim overcame him, which it ofttimes did. So it was best that they stay out of sight. She’d already sent Sister Mary Rose to warn them.

Esme waited with Mother Wilfreda in her solar for her
father to come to them. As soon as she’d heard of her father’s arrival, Esme had gone to her room and donned a clean brown robe and matching veil over a white wimple. Large wooden prayer beads hung from her rope belt. She looked as much like a devoted novice as she could manage on such short notice. And how pathetic it was that, at four and twenty years of age, she still behaved like a girl trying to meet her sire’s expectations.

Her strategy the past ten years had been a good one—as far as it went. Avoid and delay. Oh, it might sound cowardly and meek, but women must needs fight with the only tools they had. Mother Wilfreda had taught her every aspect of running an abbey, which was not so different from running an estate. If she only survived long enough to take over her mother’s estate.

Well, her father’s unannounced visit might very well place a cog in the wheels of that plan. Leastways, he would try his best to do so.

Father Alaric had volunteered to greet the visitors out in the courtyard. Now, the sound of Lord Blackthorne’s booming voice grew closer and closer, mean and menacing.

“Where is she? Hiding, no doubt. And well she should. I have had more than enough of her willfulness. I thought by now you would have beaten some sense into the misbegotten maid,” her father said.

“Nay, Lord Blackthorne, she is not hiding. She awaits you in the solar with our good abbess. And be-be-beating? You expected us to whip Esme?”


Good
, abbess? Hah! The only good thing about that dried-up crone is she’s so old she’s bound to die soon.”

Esme gasped and looked at her aunt, who just shook her head at her father’s coarse tongue and blatant lack of
affection for his dead wife’s sister. It didn’t even bear mentioning that her father and Wilfreda were about the same age, neither yet ailing.

“Relax, child. Do not show your fear,” Mother Wilfreda advised as she sat on a high stool before a table, grinding medicinal herbs with a mortar and pestle. A sweet aroma wafted through the air—cloves and something else, possibly chamomile. “Pick up your mending. Do something with your hands so he won’t notice their trembling.”

No sooner did Esme take a torn surplice in hand than the wooden door swung open and banged against the timber wall, almost breaking off the leather hinges. For a certainty, there would be dent marks in the wood.

“There you are, girl,” her father said, giving her a once-over which could be summed up in the sneer on his thin lips. Her father tended to call her “girl” overmuch, probably to put her in her place. There were no happy greetings after an absence of a year, no hugs of welcome. All to be expected. At forty and eight years, with only a sprinkling of gray in his black hair, her father could still be considered a handsome man, if not for the lines of cruelty that bracketed his eyes and mouth. He was a big man, and today he wore fine leather, calf-high boots, a chain
shert
with an attached coif over a wool tunic and
braies
, with sword and long knife scabbarded at his belt, all covered by a sweeping fur-lined wool cloak with a gilded brooch fastener. Similarly attired were her two brothers. Dressed for a fight, they were.

With me?

“Lady Esme.” Her brother Cedric greeted her with eyes as cold as her father’s.
At least he did not call me “girl.”
His quick scrutiny took in her drab attire and dismissed her as beneath his contempt.

“Sister,” her other brother Edward said, with an emphasis on the word that said loud and clear he felt no bond with her, despite their shared blood.

Esme nodded her acknowledgment of their salutations, such as they were.
The hostility is so thick in this chamber I could cut it with a knife. And so serious they all are. I feel like sticking my tongue out at the three of them. Well, that is mature, Esme. No wonder my father calls me “girl.”

“I hear you are betrothed, Edward.” She tried to make conversation—a futile effort when faced with the three brooding men, who would rather be anywhere in wintertime but a remote nunnery.

“Yea, and what is it to you, sister?”

Well, that was certainly pleasant
.

Mother Wilfreda made a tsk-ing sound of disgust. “Have you taught your sons such ill decorum, John?” the nun inquired of Esme’s father.

Good for you, Mother. Stick out your tongue, too. That would show them. Bloody boors! Oops, I guess I will have to go to confession again for saying “bloody.” Oh, well, it was worth it, even if I didn’t say it aloud
.

“Behave thyself,” her father said to Edward, clouting him on the side of the head with one of his calfhide gauntlets.

Ouch! Note to myself: Stay out of clouting distance from Father
.

Edward winced and backed away, scowling at Esme, as if it were her fault he had such poor manners.

Well, that was certainly pleasant, too
.

“How is Elsbeth?” she asked Cedric.
As if I care!
Cedric was the oldest of her brothers at thirty. Elsbeth was his
wife of at least ten years. Most times, Elsbeth had her nose so high in the air she could scarce see in front of herself.

“Big with child,” he replied grudgingly, casting a surreptitious glance at their father. No doubt he feared a slap with the same gauntlet if he spoke to her with disrespect. “She should be dropping the babe any day now.”

Blessed Mary, those two breed like rabbits
. “Your seventh, as I recall.”

“Yea, and all girls,” he spat out as if girls were on a par with slugs.
How like our father he is!

“Go, holy man, get us some of that mead this abbey is famous for,” her father ordered the priest, as if he were a menial servant. Then he sank down into an armchair far too close to Esme. Her brothers stood on either side of the open doorway since there were no other chairs in the room.

Oh, good Lord, he’s sitting down. That must mean he plans to stay for a while. Should I discuss the weather? Or ask about his health? Nay, best to shut my teeth and wait till he tells me the purpose of this visit
.

The priest scurried off, no doubt thankful to be out of the nobleman’s presence. Esme would scurry off, too, if given the chance. She doubted Father Alaric would return. He would probably go to the chapel and pray. A good idea. St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes—that’s who would get her pleas if she had the chance.

Just then, through the open doorway could be heard a cacophony of animal and human sounds. “Oink-oink. Ruff-ruff. Come here, you thievin’ animals.” Almost immediately, they saw the five-legged pig shoot down the corridor, past the open doorway, with a string of sausages dangling from its mouth, followed closely by a dog the
size of a pony, drool hanging from its mouth, and those two followed by Sister George. Who knew the piglet could trot so fast? The oinks and barks and shrieks could be heard for a long time after the trio passed. Eventually, the noise faded to silence.

Her father’s and brothers’ jaws dropped practically to their chests. In the end, her father muttered, “I always knew this abbey was strange. I did not realize how strange.”

If you only knew! Pray Sister Stefana doesn’t have a nude dancing epiphany about now
.

“Not so strange. Have you no animals at Blackthorne?” Mother Wilfreda asked with a chuckle.

“Not a freakish five-legged pig!” he said, giving his head a shake of disbelief at what he’d just witnessed. “Who keeps a pig indoors?”

“There’s probably pig shit all over this place,” Edward added with a sniff of disgust.

Well, sometimes. And dog, and goat, and horse, and cat, and duck, and whatever animals Sister George has rescued this week
.

“Someone ought to give them all a good sharp kick in the arse, including the nun.” That was Cedric’s contribution.

Nice fellow, Cedric. Kicking a nun
.

Her father turned his attention back to Mother Wilfreda and said, “Take your seeds and stinksome powders elsewhere, Freda. I wish to speak with my daughter in private.”

Uh-oh
.

“Anything you wish to say to Esme can be said in my presence,” her aunt insisted.

Bless you, Mother. Bless you
.

“You always were a bothersome bitch,” her father said lazily, his eyes piercing the nun with hatred. “No wonder you could never find a man to spread your legs.”

“That’s enough!” Esme said, standing suddenly and letting the surplice float out of her hands down to the floor. Esme had defied her father’s wishes over the years, but she’d never taken a stand openly. It was well past time that she did so, even if it meant suffering the consequences. She could not allow her father to take out his frustration with her by attacking those who protected her. “You will not speak to my aunt in that manner. You will treat her with the respect which her holy office inspires.”
Are you there, St. Jude? I might be needing you in a moment or two
.

Mother Wilfreda darted a look of surprise her way. No wonder. Esme had suddenly developed a spine. About time!

Both of her brothers took a step forward menacingly, low growls coming through their gritted teeth, but their father raised a halting hand.

“Have you gone mad, girl?”

Undoubtedly
. “Nay. In fact, I’ve never been more sane. I am sick to here of your ranting and raving,” she said, slicing a hand across her throat.
Oh, God, some strange being has taken over my tongue
. “It is always about what you want. You. You. You. Well, listen good, Father. You cannot bend me to your will. Not in the past. Not now. Not ever.”
Well, I must say I am impressed with myself. Very good, Esme. And I’m still alive
.

Her father clapped sarcastically to show his disdain for her “performance.”

She held on to the back of the chair, white-knuckled, then inhaled and exhaled to catch her breath. Being brave
took more energy than she would have thought. She hoped her legs didn’t collapse.

“This is your fault, Freda,” her father said, addressing her aunt. “You have been nurturing this hostility in my daughter, just as you did with my wife all those years ago.”

“Anything my sister Anne did was of her own doing, John,” her aunt said with a calmness that would do a saint proud.

“I doubt that. Where did Anne get the idea to pass her dower lands on to a daughter, if not from you?”

“Mayhap from you, John,” Mother Wilfreda answered, again without rancor. She continued to grind her herbs as she spoke, as if a visit by three armed men, a sudden display of independence by a novice nun, and the growing anger of a Saxon nobleman were everyday occurrences at the abbey.

“M-m-me?” her father sputtered.

“Yea. If you and your sons had not treated Esme so cruelly, Anne never would have insisted on passing Evergreen to her daughter. You forced her to take every precaution the law allows.”

“Esme never lacked for anything.”

How about love?
Esme thought.

“How about love?” her aunt asked, as if reading her mind.

“Love? Pffff! She could have been wed to any one of a dozen
thegns
over these ten years, and she scoffed at every one of them.”

“Men of your choosing,” Esme interjected. She was tired of everyone speaking over her as if she were a child, as if her opinion were of no importance. “Puppets who would do your will. Decrepit old men on their deathbeds,
who would pass my mother’s lands on to you. Weak young milksops who tripped over themselves to do the great Lord Blackthorne’s bidding. All men who would ensure, in the end, that my lands would become your lands.”
By the saints, I must have a death wish
.

“That is neither here nor there. Since when do daughters get to choose their mates? ’Tis a father’s role, and always has been.”

“Well, this daughter says nay.”
Did I say that? Really? I am beginning to be really impressed with myself. Of course, I may be dead soon, but impressive
.

“What would you do with Evergreen, even if I were barmy enough to allow you to receive it? You are a woman. What know you of handling a landed estate, small as that one is?”

“I know more than you could ever imagine,” Esme said. “What do you think I have been doing these past ten years? I have learned the ways of handling an estate, everything from planning meals to ordering supplies, directing weavers, planting farmlands, working with the village cotters.” She threw her hands out in an all-encompassing manner. “Everything.”

Her father snorted his opinion. “What a wooly-witted half-brain! How will you protect those lands? Where is your
bird
of soldiers to patrol the borders and keep enemies from invading? Ah, let me guess. You will hire a troop of nun-warriors to shield you from invasion. Ha ha ha.” He looked to one son, then the other, so they could join in the jest. Soon the three were laughing uproariously at her and the image of nun-warriors.

Esme felt heat infuse her face. Her father was right. This was her one weakness, one which she would have to address after she inherited. There were still some of
her maternal grandparents retainers at Evergreen, but they were few and mostly old. She needed hard fighting men, but she could only hire troops after she gained money, and she could only gain money after she regained her mother’s lands. Her father certainly hadn’t been saving all the revenues for her these ten years.

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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