Authors: Jo Grafford
Tags: #shifters, #historical romance, #mythology, #magic, #Vikings
“I like your methods of fixing the bishop’s knights. Blasted cone heads.” Eirik’s answering grin shot straight to her soul. He sheathed his knife and took a knee before her. “As Jarl of New Dorset, I’ve another transaction to propose between us now that you freely admit what you, er...are. In exchange for reversing my curse, I will pay you enough coin to transform you into an independent woman. No more living in Cheapside.”
She made a scoffing sound. “As we both will benefit from the reversal of your curse, I see no need to charge you.”
Blue eyes raked her person. “No wonder you look so close to starving, wench,” he muttered. “Ye’ve no head for business whatsoever.”
“I’ve a good head for my craft, and that is all that matters,” she said tartly. “’Tis your lucky day, Jarl. All I’ll be needing from you is an iron cauldron filled with water, a few sticks of oak, a bowl full of salt, and a bit of mistletoe.”
“Mistletoe?” He frowned. “You cannot be serious. We’ve plenty of herbs and spices aboard ship, but mistletoe is not even edible. Will nothing else do?”
“Nay. The spell to reverse your curse clearly calls for mistletoe.”
“Pity for you, lass, as we are a week or more from our next port call. I’ll speak to Sven about procuring it. In the meantime, you must resign yourself to a few more days of camping out with my men.” Shaking his head, he exited the tent.
Branwyn stared after him, a bemused smile curving her lips.
What a strange man!
For the first time in a very long time, however, she felt safe. Utterly and completely safe. That knowledge combined with the gentle rocking of the ship and the chanting of the seamen penetrated her tired limbs with a magic of their own. ’Twas the dead of night, and she was exhausted. One more glance at the thick furs beneath her, and she was powerless to resist. On a sigh, she sank into their warmth and curled into a ball.
* * * *
ranwyn awakened to a blast of sunlight. She stretched within the layers of fur blankets and stared up at the ceiling, puzzled by the narrow confines of her sleeping chamber. At sight of the rippling canvas overhead, she groaned aloud and remembered Eirik the Viking and his bloody curse. Where in the blazes was the dratted man? Surely he’d procured most of the supplies she’d requested by now. She would seek him out and demand an update on his progress.
She sat up and attempted to smooth the wrinkles from her green linen dress and white pinafore. Her hair was so snarled within the beaded snood, it took several not-so-gentle yanks to pull it free. That was when she noticed the ivory comb glittering with emeralds lying near the door of the tent. Next to it — glory of glories — rested a porcelain chamber pot. ’Twas painted in a complex swirl of gold and black dragons in flight against the backdrop of a rain swollen sky. Branwyn knew without asking these items were precious in value. She’d venture to guess they’d been procured somewhere in the Orient.
With no further ado, she made use of the chamber pot and straightened her hair. Neatly folding the furs, she laid the comb atop them and pulled aside the tent flap. Over a dozen pairs of eyes swiveled to greet her as she stepped onto the belly of the ship. Men ate and groomed, repaired fishing nets, and adjusted the sail. Several paused in their tasks to assess her.
No stranger to strangers, Branwyn raised her hand and smiled. She knew a bit of their Norse tongue. “Godan morgin,” she announced briskly and scanned their ranks for their leader. Unless a man was crouched behind the many crates and barrels strapped to the deck, there was little place to hide on this long and slender vessel. When she did not immediately spot Eirik, her shoulders slumped. “Where is he?” she whispered to herself.
“Morgin,” several of the men rumbled back and dipped their heads.
“Velkomin,” one teenaged lad called by way of welcome.
Branwyn rolled her shoulders and forced another smile. “Pakka.” It was their word for
. “You are most kind, my good men. May the winds fill your sail today, granting Godspeed to your travels.”
Wherever we are heading.
She still had no idea of their destination.
“A good morning to you too, lass.” Sven hurried forward to press a mug of ale into her hands and bade her sit on the deck with him. The long, smooth planks were damp and cool beneath her.
“Pakka, m’lord,” she murmured and drank her fill.
A shadow passed across his features at her words. “Nay. I am but a Karl and bear no titles. Just call me Sven.” He reached over to exchange the mug for a bowl of steaming porridge. His eyes were a kind silver-gray set in a wide round face. Long hair — brown with less blonde in it than his jarl’s — swept his shoulders. A full beard did not quite hide the scars marring both cheeks. They were too symmetrical to be anything short of deliberate.
Branwyn choked on a mouthful of porridge. When Sven pounded between her shoulder blades, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the scene taking shape in her mind. Someone in a black hood had tortured this man with a branding iron and marked him for life. Gray walls of weathered stone rose around him and muffled his groans of agony.
Some sort of fortress?
She cleared her throat and shifted further away from Sven to sever the connection. “Pakka,” she murmured and took another bite, but the disturbing images had stolen her appetite.
If Sven was a karl, that meant he was a free peasant. It also explained his friendly subservience to Eirik, his Jarl. The jarls comprised a class of people equivalent to nobility within the Viking social structure, whereas their lowest class of people were referred to as thralls, or slaves. Branwyn wondered uneasily where she fit into their system as both a fugitive and accused witch.
“Your eyes are bursting with questions,” Sven noted.
“Indeed,” she sighed.
Where to even begin?
“Where do we travel?”
“We make stops in Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland. Then we head to New Dorset.”
“I’ve heard Eirik speak of it. Where exactly is this New Dorset?”
“Just outside the gates of Valhalla,” he replied with a flirtatious wink.
Her eyes widened. Valhalla was a mystical place to the Vikings, a heaven of sorts to the fierce warriors who died in battle. Sven could not be serious. It must mean he did not wish to divulge their final destination. Worry tugged at her gut.
* * * *
ver the next week, Branwyn was careful to keep a safe distance from Eirik, though she could easily sense his location wherever he stood on the longship. The closer he was in proximity to her, the stronger his magnetic pull on her emotions. It did not help that he constantly worshipped her with his eyes and lavished gifts upon her. Brooches and chains, rings and bracelets.
To what purpose? She would never have occasion to wear such finery.
When she protested the stash of growing pirate treasure in her tent, he reminded her of his promise to secure her financial independence in exchange for ridding him of the curse. “Besides,” he assured with a grin, “it gives me untold amounts of pleasure to watch you squirm and blush.” For a woman unaccustomed to courting, ’twas a most discomfiting state of affairs to find herself the object of so much male attention from someone as handsome and teasing as Eirik.
She knew it was nothing more than sorcery, but she could not suppress a sigh each time her gaze met his. The blue in his eyes seemed to deepen into something more that reached all the way to her soul. If only she could find some fault with him, ‘twould be easier to fight the blasted curse. She scrutinized his every move as he directed his men. They respected him, and followed his orders without question. She studied his sailing, and he seemed at one with the capricious sea. Sighing in defeat, she turned her attentions to his men.
She fell into the routine of shadowing each of the Vikings at their various tasks in the attempt to distract herself from her constant ogling and pining after Eirik. They allowed her to help sew and mend nets and taught her the ins and outs of sailing — how to handle the wheel and control the rudder, how to help raise and lower and tack the sail. The oars, however, proved too heavy for her to maneuver with much success.
They were a jolly bunch, quick to swap jests and break into song and even quicker to tip up the bottle to lighten the tedious hours at sea. ’Twas hard to imagine them as the vicious, pillaging mob they were reputed to be — except, perhaps, on occasion when they sharpened their knives and axes. They handled their weapons with the same ease that she breathed air.
“Why so glum this fine morning?” Sven asked as he handed her a steaming mug of tea.
Trying not to wince at the constant scrape of sharpening stone on steel, Branwyn swallowed a mouthful of tea and her forebodings in a single gulp. Forcing a smile, she cupped the mug in both hands to soak up its warmth. “Tell me more of this magical realm of New Dorset.”
He stared over the rail at the gently rolling waves. The rosy glow of dawn was delving into the deeper whites and golds of the full born day. Branwyn took a seat on the freshly swabbed deck and ran her finger over a swirl in the dark wood while she waited for Sven to spin his tale.
“For one thing,” he mused quietly, “’tis where our friends and loved ones have awaited us for more than a year.”
How shortsighted of her to think them naught but marauding princes of the sea.
Branwyn’s lashes fluttered in alarm. “Forgive me for not inquiring about your family sooner, my friend. You are married?”
“Nay,” he said dryly, “but a good number of my comrades are.” He made a circular motion to indicate the sailing crew.
“And your jarl?” She dared not meet his gaze as she asked.
“Nay, I am sad to say. He almost married once, but the girl up and vanished one night. He searched for her nigh on more than a year but found no trace of her. Soon afterwards, he suffered that dreadful encounter with the sorceress. Now, to find himself plagued by false affection till the end of his days...” Sven shook his head with regret. “These things would have broken a lesser man. It helps, methinks, that his men refuse to leave his side. We’ve sailed the world for months as exiles from our homeland, seeking one who can break the curse on our Jarl.” He tapped a finger atop her hand. “When we heard of your gift, we knew we’d finally found favor with the gods.”
Branwyn snatched her hand up in frustration. “Well, what are we waiting for then? Why not alter your precious port schedule, dock at the nearest harbor, and gather the supplies I need to reverse the spell?” It had been a full week already, and still Eirik refused to approach land. Branwyn lifted a hand to her forehead. The start of a megrim nagged at her temples.
“We headed inland last night while you slept, lass, but our watch spied a platoon of soldiers standing guard at port. Thinking their presence odd, Eirik determined it best to sail you a bit further up the coast and, well...further from the reaches of your brother’s bishopric before we anchor at port again.”
He was postponing the entire spell reversal to protect her from risk of arrest? An arrest that would most assuredly end in her execution by burning... Branwyn tightened her cloak around her shoulders and took another sip of the bracing tea. Surely Eirik could have found a less populated strip of coast to anchor. He could have sent out a group of armed men in search of the mistletoe and secured his freedom from the curse by dawn. Instead, he had chosen to wait.
Branwyn caught her lower lip between her teeth, moved by such consideration for her safety from these savage men of the sea. “I must thank Eirik for this. Where is he?”
Her companion grinned. “Out for a swim, lass.”
She rose to her knees to peer over the side of the longship. “Has he lost his senses? Why he’ll catch his death of a cold.”
“Pshaw!” Sven’s grin widened at the concern in her voice. “’Tis unseasonably warm for September, and do not forget he possesses a thick northern hide. Aye, a quick swim is just what he needs to cool his ardor for a certain bonny redhead.”
Branwyn blushed as she caught sight of Eirik at last. He was swimming about twenty yards from the ship. Droplets glistened from his shoulders as he shot through the seawaters. He somersaulted beneath the waves in a perfect turn and headed in their direction.
Sweet Mother of God. The man was swimming laps in absolutely nothing but his skin.
She fought the sudden urge to strip down and dive in after him.
She gripped the mug so hard, ’twas a miracle it did not shatter in her hands. It took all of her concentration to close her eyes and tear herself away from the sight. Her voice shook when she spoke again. “’Tis only the curse at work between us and nothing more.”
“Balderdash,” Sven snorted.
Branwyn’s eyelids flew open. “I beg your pardon?”
“The curse forces
emotions to stir at his touch.
attraction to you, however, is genuine.”
“Pray do not jest of such things,” she said faintly and set down her tea to rub furiously at both temples. Her head was pounding now.
“I speak the truth,” he insisted. “Ever since the curse began, Eirik has been careful to avoid all women, but you he picked up and carried onto the ship. I suspect he is quite smitten with you.”
“Nonsense. He was merely performing his duty. I hired him to help me escape my brother.” She gave him a hard look that dared him to defy her a second time. “I am a confirmed spinster, feared both far and near for my powers. If I’ve learned anything in all my nineteen years, ’tis that no man will ever willingly give his heart to such an oddity of nature as myself, and that is that.”
“Is that a fact?” Fury tightened Sven’s voice. “We’ll I’ve another fact for you to chew on. Every man on this ship took note of your loveliness the moment you boarded. Already there is talk. Perhaps hope is a better choice of words.” His voice softened. “Hope that you will stay and choose one of us as mate after you free our Jarl from his curse. In case you haven’t reached the conclusion on your own, we are in desperate need of a healer at New Dorset.”
The men wanted her to choose a mate from among them?
Branwyn blushed furiously as she took in the warmth of his gray gaze.
Did Sven entertain hopes in that direction as well?