Read Viking For Hire (Vikings Saga Volume 1) Online

Authors: Jo Grafford

Tags: #shifters, #historical romance, #mythology, #magic, #Vikings

Viking For Hire (Vikings Saga Volume 1) (5 page)

BOOK: Viking For Hire (Vikings Saga Volume 1)
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Moments later, the dark-haired mer creature resurfaced from the water with such force that it propelled her entirely across the deck of the ship. She dove into the sea on the other side and immediately leaped once more from the waves with a bloodcurdling scream. This time, she flew towards the lookout high in the crow’s nest. The sailor hastily unsheathed his knife and stabbed as she launched herself upon him. She sailed across the tip of his blade, screaming in agony as it scored her belly, but it did not stop her from sinking her teeth into his shoulder. She plunged into the surf, leaving the lookout sailor wheezing in pain and gripping a bloody shirt.

The Vikings were the fiercest warriors on the sea, but they could never hope to win such a battle. Their ship was too small, and they were pitifully outnumbered. Dread swelled and thickened in Branwyn’s throat as her worst fears unfolded. The men were going to perish, and she with them, unless.... She shook the tentacles of horror from her mind, pressed a hand to the silver cross at her throat, and raised the wand in her other hand. “Forgive me, mother,” she mouthed. For the first time in her life, she was about to break one of the cardinal rules of a healer. She was going to employ her magic to wage war.

She closed her eyes and imagined the dome as she first formed it in her head. It started with a warm circle of pale blue light and built until it burned brightly in her mind’s eye. It was the sort of magic her mother had strictly forbidden her. She had no idea if she was even strong enough to pull it off, but she had to try. “Power of fire and wind and sea. I call upon your mighty three. Bring down a shield upon this brig. Keep evil out; let these men live. May all harm fade from them to me. So mote it be. So mote it be.”

When Branwyn opened her eyes, the dark-eyed nymph was leaping again from the foam and sailing straight towards the mast, straight for her. With a roar of rage, Eirik dashed to the center of the ship, a sword in each hand. He took a flying leap to throw himself in front of Branwyn, but only a swirl of warm air crossed the rail to envelop them.

The mermaid halted her advance in midair as if slamming into an invisible wall. Her arms flew out from her sides, and her head jerked viciously back as if pulled by a marionette. She slid moaning back into the sea.

Several more mermaids attempted to leap into the boat and met with the same results. In moments, a half dozen mer bodies littered the surf, limp and battered. Slowly, the unconscious ones sank below the waves. The unharmed mer creatures paused in their assault of the ship and began to retreat, horror twisting their lovely features. Some drug wounded comrades by an arm or tail. The Viking crew gazed after them in amazement as the last one disappeared from view with a moaning sob of defeat.

Branwyn continued to hold the shield over the longship. “Power of fire and wind and sea,” she chanted breathlessly as her strength waned. Her voice grew hoarse, and her head lolled to one side as she watched Eirik and Sven tend to the most severely injured crewmen.

Those who could still row took up their oars once more. The jagged shores of an uninhabited sliver of their homeland drifted into view. Branwyn blinked once, twice, as the horizon blurred. If only she could hold on to the blessed circle of light until they reached the shelter of the nearest rocky inlet. If only...

Blackness descended.

THE CHOICE

“B
RANWYN, come back to me!” A hoarse baritone uttered a string of oaths. “There was no need to spend yourself down to the last drop for us, lass. Sven, I swear if she does not wake up soon, I shall go mad.”

Eirik’s voice drifted over her with an urgency she’d never heard from him before. Hands stroked her face and arms, eliciting a sparkling shower of lights behind her eyelids and a trail of want and need that ached from her fingertips to her toes.

Branwyn sucked in a lungful of air and tried to sit up. “Eirik,” she gasped. “Are you hurt?”

Hands pressed her shoulder blades down onto a bed of soft, thick furs. Anxious blue eyes and a clenched square jaw swam into view.

“Eirik,” she said again, wonderingly this time. “You are here, and you are well.” Her chest fell on a breathy sigh. What a welcome sight his shredded tunic and half-bared chest was. “I feared—” Her voice broke, and she raised a trembling hand to cup the bruised yet beautiful face that bent over hers. Never had anyone or anything been so dear to her.

“You are awake,” he choked and covered her hand on his cheek with his scraped and callused one.

He turned his head slightly. “She lives!” he announced. “Our Branwyn is awake at last.” A male cheer rose. Men surged forward and crouched around her. Several wore slings, and bandages dotted their hands and faces. Alf sported an eye patch.

Branwyn wondered if all the crewmen had survived, but it would take a few minutes to work up the strength to ask. Her heart was still beating too weakly in her chest over the memory of the lookout sailor sagging over the railing in the crow’s nest. Her breath hitched anew as she fought to block the image of Alf struggling with the same dark mermaid. The leader of the mer creatures had to be a spawn of the devil himself to take so much pleasure in causing such pointless destruction.

Sven hunkered down on his knees beside her. “I’ve some soup for you, lass, as soon as you feel up to eating.” His wide face was drawn with worry.

A rare chuckle escaped as she admitted, “I am famished, my friend.” And suddenly she was. A hunger like she’d never known before clawed at the walls of her belly. “Help me, up,” she whispered to Eirik.

Despite Sven’s protests, Eirik gently grasped her shoulders. Raising her, he drew her against his chest. Warm desire flooded her, but she only had the strength to rest her cheek against his shoulder. For a moment, all she could do was breath, glorying in his scent and strength and nearness.

A sudden thought had her tensing. She anxiously patted the pocket of her pinafore and was relieved to feel the poke of the elder wood wand tucked inside. Nay, ’twas more than tucked. ’Twas tied by a length of string to her wrist. A new layer of warmth washed over her at the knowledge that these men understood how precious and vital the wand was to her.

Smoke wafted over her. Lifting her head, Branwyn smiled at the sight of the fire in the center of their gathering. There was hard packed earth beneath her and a protective circle of trees curling like a canopy over the small clearing. Mild gusts of wind sent a cloud of red and gold leaves swirling down upon them. The sun filtered through the branches directly overhead marking high noon, providing just the right amount of warmth to take the bite out of the air.

Branwyn tipped her face up to soak in the sun’s rays. “Where are we exactly?”

“Just north of Wales, on the outskirts of Machynlleth. We’ve men scouting and taking turns pulling guard. We are safe here.” Sven offered a steaming mug. Eirik intercepted it and lifted it to her lips. ’Twas a vegetable broth, a bit on the salty side with tiny shreds of meat floating at the top.
Rabbit, perhaps? Or squirrel?
“As always, your soup is delicious, Sven.” She placed her hands over Eirik’s to guide the broth back to her mouth.

He bent his head to gaze intently into her eyes as she drank. She shivered at the mix of emotions she saw there. Wild concern and sheer possessiveness.

He bent closer and her breath caught at the brush of his lips against her hairline. The burst of pleasure was there, but her normal frenzied response was strangely absent. Branwyn lips curved up in a mystified smile. Her mind raced to explain the phenomenon. Perhaps the excessive amounts magic flowing through her during the past few hours had eliminated the effects of the curse on her. Regardless of the reason, she was very much back in control of her actions where Eirik was concerned.

To test her theory, she pressed a hand to his chest. Though Eirik’s eyes flared with heat at the gesture, the unnatural effects of the curse were clearly gone. Branwyn possessed a great deal of knowledge about magic and sorcery, so her knees grew weak as she was forced to acknowledge that the wild attraction she still felt for Eirik was very real. Very real indeed. Her heartbeat raced. Should she disclose to him the change in her?

While Branwyn debated this new dilemma, she caught Sven’s eye. Initially, he had grinned his appreciation at her compliment about the soup, but the grin was fast fading as his gaze darted between her and Eirik. She wondered what was amiss.

“Tell me what I can do to repay you for such a well-timed display of magic,” Eirik demanded, tipping her chin in his direction. “I never imagined one person could be capable of wielding such power. Name your price, lass. Anything I own, all of my wealth is at your command, for I owe the lives of my men to you this day.”

Branwyn fluttered her eyelashes in consternation. She already possessed more than enough of his wealth in the form of jewels and other trinkets. What she wanted was...him. “What I want,” she said truthfully, “is to remain with you and your men.”

Exultation leaped across his features at her words. He raised her hand to his lips in the English manner. “Nothing in the world would make me happier, lass. You may stay with us so long as you wish.”

“I do not ever wish to leave,” she said with a sad smile. “I have no home to return to, no family besides my brother who wishes me dead, no place else to go. ‘Twould be my honor to serve as your healer — here and now and when we reach New Dorset.”

“Whatever did we do to earn such favor from the gods?” Eirik shook his head ruefully. When he kissed her hand again, his lips lingered on her fingers, his head bowed in a worshipful manner. With great reluctance, he released her hand at last. “Pray pardon the mauling. Sometimes when I am with you, I forget the curse altogether.” In his voice was a world of self-recrimination. “No doubt ’tis discomfiting to sit so near to me when ye’ve barely the strength to sip at your soup.”

Branwyn wanted to trail her fingers down his cheek and reassure him that his presence was far from a burden to her, that she was fairly certain she would never stop craving his touch till the end of her days. However, he had not once declared his feelings for her — not even when she’d blurted out her love for him back on the ship. On the contrary, he had denied the possibility she could entertain such emotions and assured her none of it was real. Best not to create an awkward situation for either of them by her continued fawning over him.

Instead she asked, “Speaking of the curse, have you located any mistletoe yet?” She was immediately rewarded with the brightening of Sven’s expression.

“Nay,” Eirik answered in clipped tones. “There is no need as I am releasing you from that particular bargain.”

“But the curse!” Sven rocked back on his heels, brows raised. “We need the mistletoe to break it. You cannot possibly be thinking... Nay, my liege.” He spread his large hands, angst lining his forehead. “Whilst you remain bound by the blackness of such sorcery, ’tis unsafe to return with you thus to New Dorset.”

“You speak the truth,” Erik said grimly. “And ’tis far past time for you to return home with our men, far past time to reunite them with their families.”

A low cheer rose up from all thirty-six of the other Viking crewmen at his words.

“Today, you will set the sail for New Dorset,” he declared. “There is no time to waste as winter fast approaches.”

Immediately, the crewmen began to disburse. Some ran to share the good news with comrades out of earshot. Others fell into a flurry of preparations.

“You will take charge in my absence, Sven.” Emotion roughened Eirik’s voice as he continued. “I entrust Branwyn to your care. See to it she has whatever she needs to set herself up as our healer. Board her in my longhouse, and purchase anything she desires with my coin.”

“And where might you be in the meantime, jarl?” Sven sounded angry.

“I shall seek out another way to reverse the spell.”

“Not without me you won’t.” Sven slammed his fist into his hand. “I’ve no family waiting for me back home. I swore my loyalty to thee years ago and will not be sailing off to paradise whilst you grapple alone with the fires of hell.”

“Nor will I.” Branwyn straightened indignantly. “You cannot send me hither and thither at your whim as if I am no more than a crate of ale. For whatever reason, the gods brought us together. Like Sven, my place is with you. Besides, who else will protect you from the mermaids next time they come a-calling?”

He glared. “How can you jest of such things? By Thor, I had no idea what I was asking of you when I brought you aboard my ship, no understanding of your full capabilities, and no thought as to how much the magic would drain from you. I cannot and will not put you in such danger again.”

“Bah! I was running for my life when we first met,” Branwyn reminded him. “Such are the dangers that plague my kind.” Her voice softened. “Be assured I will be fully recovered by nightfall, Eirik. Just allow me a few hours to eat and rest. ’Tis not normally so draining as what you witnessed out on the water today. I’ve never had to create a shield so large or hold it for so long is all.”

His jaw clenched. “You were still as death for more than an hour, Branwyn. Barely breathing.”

“The body does what it must to restore its humours. Look at me now.” She stood, spread her arms wide, and spun in a circle. “Already the strength flows back into my limbs.”

“Nevertheless, I would prefer to seek another way to break the curse,” Eirik insisted, folding his arms. “Tell me, witch, what other methods exist?” The caressing note in his voice transformed the title into an endearment.

“None that I know of.” She smoothed her skirts. “If you ever wish to return to New Dorset as jarl, you must allow me to reverse the spell, and that is that.”

“Hear hear,” Sven chimed in.

Before Eirik could protest again, Branwyn ordered briskly. “Ye’ve the start of a good fire there, Sven. Pray seek out the limbs of a dead oak and pile on a few pieces of it.”

“At your service, madam.” He stood and bowed. “I’ve a group of scouts already searching for the mistletoe,” he muttered low so that only she could hear. Then he strode away to assign the task to a pair of the youngest sailors.

BOOK: Viking For Hire (Vikings Saga Volume 1)
11.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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