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Authors: Julia Knight

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BOOK: The Viking’s Sacrifice
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Einar swivelled to follow him and caught a glimpse of the girl out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t know what kin the woman had been to her, but he and the girl were the same now, had watched the murder of someone they loved. Both killed by the same man, a man Einar knew as brother and realised he didn’t know at all.

He put out his scramasax to bar Bausi’s way. “No. There’s a special place in Niflheim for murderers, isn’t that so? No strength could repay that.” He turned so he could watch both Bausi and the girl. “Wilda, run. Run!” She stared at him, uncomprehending, and he gestured, a hint with his scramasax, though not so much he couldn’t bring it to bear.

“The Norns have woven our lives together, you and I. Shall we see whose thread is the shorter?” Bausi shrugged and the movement turned into a lunge as he came for Einar.

 

Wilda stared at her mother’s body where the heathen let it drop, watched the way the blood seeped into the earth, reddening it. Taking her heart and hope with it, draining her of warmth, of tears, of everything she was.
Dear Lord, take her swiftly to thy embrace.
She couldn’t make sense of anything. The heathens were come, were burning and pillaging her home, were murdering even each other, such was their bloodlust. It was everything the friars had told them. She had to run, had to hide, had to try to pretend she could escape.

The burning barn popped and crackled with a whoosh of air, and a pig screamed as it burned, trapped inside. If she didn’t run, and soon, she’d fare no better.

Harsh voices in a language she didn’t know grabbed her attention. The big man with the nasty twisting smile, the tangle of dark hair and menace of a bear stepped toward her. She cast about. There was nowhere left to run. All escape cut off by flames or heathens. At least the sword would be quick.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

The boy—he was called Einar, she’d heard them say it to him twice now—stuck out a heavy hunting knife and blocked Bear Man’s path. Einar’s head turned a touch, and he seemed to be looking at her.

“Wilda, renn. Renn!”

Her breath stopped, clogged in her throat with fear. What did he—he was saving her. A twitch of his hand. A shooing movement. He wanted her to run. She looked round wildly. Everywhere was burning, except in front of her, where two men stood facing each other down. One of them wanted her dead. There had to be a way. Had to. Part of the barn collapsed behind her, showering her with sparks, but a beam, still only smouldering as yet, had knocked a slim path through the flames. Maybe—

Bear Man leaped forward with a yell, his shield swinging round sideways to connect solidly with Einar’s face and drop him on his back while the sword came round in an arc. Einar managed to bring up the knife, grasping it with both hands to try to stay the blow. The sword scraped along it and stabbed into the earth. Bear Man wasted no heartbeats but kicked Einar’s wrist. The knife skittered over the dank straw of the yard. Another kick, to the head this time, and Bear Man had spun Einar onto his front.

She couldn’t leave him. Her father taught her that heathens were just ignorant of God, to be pitied not despised for that ignorance, as Saxons had once been ignorant. She should never leave someone who needed her help, no matter whether they were good Christians or not. The Good Samaritan, that was his favourite tale. And this heathen, this one had told her to run, had stopped the Bear Man with his sword coming for her, killing her without a glance as he had her mother. This heathen was sacrificing himself as the friars said Jesus had, had shown her mercy when he need not. She ran, but not for safety. For the knife.

Bear Man loomed over Einar and she ducked behind him, skirting the burning barn. She tried not to hear the scream as she scrabbled in the straw and dung. Here, she’d seen it here. Her fingers closed over the smooth leather of the grip. She was glad it wasn’t a sword—she could barely lift her father’s—but while this knife was heavier, bigger than she was used to, she’d gutted many a hare, jointed many a sheep or pig. Better than that, she’d used a knife to hunt small things, practiced throwing till she put her brother to shame, just so she could say she was better at one little thing. Her father had whipped her for her pride in the skill God gave her. It might be wrong, sinful, she might not be accurate with this, but it was all she had.

When she turned, the knife in her trembling, unbelieving hand, Bear Man was pulling his sword from Einar’s back. He swung it up for another blow, the final cut that would take Einar’s head. Wilda shut her eyes at the thought of throwing at a living, breathing man—
please God, forgive me what I am about to do
—and threw.

 

Einar lay pinned to the ground by his blood, by the terrible weight that burned between his ribs. By fear. He turned his head, ready to see his end. Bausi stood over him, sword raised, about to finish what he’d started.

Einar’s scramasax landed hilt-first between Bausi’s eyes. He staggered and his blade went astray. Instead of Einar’s neck, it sliced straight into the back of his knee. Einar had no breath to scream—blood clogged his lungs, filled his mouth. He could only lie there, under the weight of his misery. A glimpse of sky-blue in the flickering, flame-ridden dark. The girl, Wilda, she hadn’t run.

Bausi recovered and swung toward her, his face full of menace. She stood transfixed, like a statue, except that her hands fluttered against her thighs, as though they didn’t believe what she’d done.

Darkness loomed large in Einar’s thoughts as his blood leaked into the earth. He had to do one thing. Just one, and it might be enough for Odin, for Thor. He might then be welcomed by them. He’d stood against a murderer and saved one person, even if she was a Christian, a Saxon. He’d have died in battle, even if it was a battle with his own brother. It was all he had.

He did the only thing left to him. “Wilda, run.”

His whispered voice, maybe her name, startled her out of her trance. She met his gaze for a heartbeat, tears mingling with the blood that dripped from the cut under her eye. Bausi took another step.

A cry of “Bausi!” made them both start. More raiders came, huge vague shapes in the smoke. With a last, petrified look at Einar, with two words he couldn’t understand, Wilda ran. Across a beam that had fallen through the barn and then she was lost in the bright flames and the smoky darkness beyond.

It was enough. He’d done one thing, one good thing of courage.
Odin, take me now.
He shut his eyes and gave in to the blackness.

He drifted there, brought only to sudden, screaming wakefulness when they cauterised his wounds. Iron hands held him down as he thrashed, and cruel words dripped in his ear but he didn’t hear them over his own noise. When they were done and a hard hand slapped the poultice on, he gladly sank again.

 

The movement of water, the gentle slap of it on wood and the creak of oars brought him back.
Odin didn’t want me then.

He tried to lick his lips, to swallow, but his mouth was dry as ashes. Breath was hard to come by, and it felt as if his knee had been replaced with a red-hot coal. Opening his eyes seemed a monumental effort, one beyond him, so he lay in his own darkness and drifted with the soothing sounds of water, the familiar feel of it under him. He stirred when they left the sea, into the calmer waters of the fjord, again when the water stilled further and the current changed at the sound of waterfalls either side. He knew then where they were. The falls to the left were the Daughters, to the right, the Lovers. Above all would be the rock of Odin’s Helm that watched over Hrafheimfjord, Ravens’ Home Fjord. He was home.

Bausi’s voice roused him. “I tell you, Agnar, that’s what happened. Shamed though I am to say it, my own brother a coward, taken in the back while running away. Makes me wonder if his mother didn’t have him on the wrong side of the furs, because he’s no son of Olav Hammerheart. Father was right, he wasn’t old enough.”

Agnar said something in reply, though Einar didn’t catch the words.

“True, years don’t make a man, but heart and courage. How to tell my father that one son is dead and the other a coward, when it was I who persuaded him to let Einar come? All right,” Bausi said. “Let me sit with him a little.”

Einar managed to open his eyes a crack. He lay amidships, ropes creaking, the sail billowing over him, the raven’s eyes accusing him. Bausi sat down on a coil of walrus-hide rope next to him. Einar tried to speak, tried to call Agnar back and tell him the truth, but his lips were dry as dust, his throat constricted with thirst.

“Now, now,” Bausi said with his twisted grin. “No good trying to tell anyone. You were lucky there, that little Saxon bitch saved you. For now. But there’s ways and ways. Little accidents that can happen. And not only to you. I’ll just have to bide my time.”

Einar tried to get up but failed even to get his arms to move. Bausi was going to kill him, that was sure. Not now maybe, not in front of everyone, and Einar thanked Odin for Wilda and the knife that had stopped the blow just long enough for Agnar to come. Even Bausi wouldn’t do murder in front of him, in front of their father’s truest feal-sworn.

Bausi’s grin stretched as he watched Einar struggle and finally give up. It was beyond him. He couldn’t breathe for the rock in his chest, couldn’t move for the grinding pain, or the fear of what would happen, how bad it would be if the rot got into it and he festered to death. Fear of what Bausi was about to say.

“That’s right, you lie there and listen to me. Listen well, little brother, for your life and others depend upon it. I can’t kill you now, not here. No, I can’t do that. Once we’re home, even that might prove difficult. Agnar’s no fool. Two brothers dying, so near? In a raid, yes, and what I planned for. Anything else looks suspicious. Especially coming on top of our father’s death.”

Einar finally managed some croaked words. “Father’s not—”

“Isn’t he?” Bausi’s low chuckle made Einar’s back itch. “He’s been failing for months, worse every day. Such a shame. He should be more careful what he drinks. If he’s not dead, he soon will be, so you can’t throw yourself under his protection. I’ve already taken pains to tell everyone how you ran instead of saving Arni from the Saxon spear, like the disgusting coward you are. How you raved and ranted like a madman, undone by your fear. Strange, how quickly they believed it. It’ll do you no good to tell now, you see. Any words of yours would be the words of a madman. Worse, it will do you and yours great harm. Gudrun and Sigdir will be under my protection. And I may choose not to protect them.”

Einar stared at Bausi in horror. Gudrun, his little sister, only two. Sigdir, his younger brother, who idolised Arni almost as much as Einar had. Under the protection of Bausi, who might take it away at any moment. Who had shown that he could murder his own kin without remorse.

How easy would it be to arrange an accident for a two-year-old? Too easy. A stumble—or push—into the smaller, stronger falls by their father’s feasting hall. A rope failing when they were at the summer pasture high up the mountains where all the young children were tied to the house for fear of the suicide drop. A host of things. A boy Sigdir’s age, always climbing the mountain looking for gull’s eggs, sparring with practice swords and spears—accidents were common, it would be easy to make one fatal.

Bausi watched him as these thoughts ran through Einar’s head in panic. The twist of a grin was half-hidden behind Bausi’s beard, but it was there. He was enjoying himself as he always did, at someone else’s expense. Loki’s child. His hand dipped into his tunic and brought out a leather pouch which held a slice of wood. Runes had been cut into it with savage slashes, and blood soaked it, stained the grain and runes red.

“Do you know what this is, little brother? Do you see what the runes say? Ah, no, there are few who ken these runes. A curse on you and yours if you speak of it, this says, sealed in your blood. If you should speak of it, if anyone should find out, whether through you or not, if you should try to run, you’ll die along with young Sigdir and sweet little Gudrun.”

Einar’s soul shrivelled in him, seemed to drain his courage away through his blood to soak the poultices. Bausi’s mother had been seidr, a seer, among other, darker rumours. The runes were cut with a jagged edge, a threat of death and destruction to any who crossed the blood-wrought curse. If he crossed it, if he spoke of Arni’s death, Bausi need do nothing and Gudrun and Sigdir would suffer, would die, sudden or slow to Bausi’s whim. Einar’s hand crept into his own tunic, gripped the amulet there in the vain hope it could save him from seidr-magic. He was caught in Bausi’s net.

“Odin said repay treachery with lies, and that I shall. But you, do not leave the fjord. Keep to yourself. Say nothing of that night’s work, if you value your family,” Bausi said.
“Nothing.”

 

No words passed Einar’s lips. Not when they carried him off the ship and dumped him on his bench. Not when Sigdir told him of their father’s lingering death while he’d been away. Not when the rest of the village laid both Arni and Olav Hammerheart under their howes. Not when Ragnhilda turned from Einar in disgust or when Bausi, to save the bride price, took her as his first wife to keep the seal between this fjord and the next.

His only words were when, as he’d feared, the chest wound festered and Sigdir called for the spae-wife. Then he’d spoken, opened his mouth to cravenly beg. “No, please, no.” Because the spae-wife would see with her magic and her charms, she’d
know,
and he and Sigdir and Gudrun would be lost. Dead as Arni, cold in his howe, no matter that Bausi would be held to account. It wouldn’t matter, because all Olav’s children would die. So he’d cravenly begged and had seen the look in Sigdir’s eye, had seen himself for what he now was. He was no man of Thor, no child of Odin. He was shamed before them, the coward Bausi said him, his mind so turned with it to beg that the best woman with herbs not be given the chance to heal him.

After that, he said nothing.

BOOK: The Viking’s Sacrifice
2.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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