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The Viking's Defiant Bride

By:Joanna Fulford

The Viking's Defiant Bride, - Joanna Fulford
Prologue




Denmark—865A.D.

The only sound in the great hall was the crackle of flames in the hearth. Flickering light from the torches cast a ruddy hue over the assembled warriors who sat stony faced before the implications of the news they had just received. In every heart was burgeoning sorrow and disbelief. All eyes turned to the three brothers at the high table. The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok surveyed the messenger quietly enough, but their eyes spoke of incredulity, of grief and rage.

‘Ragnar dead?’ Halfdan’s voice was grim, his fist clenched on the arm of his chair. ‘You are certain of this?’

‘Quite certain, my lord.’

Beside Halfdan, at his right hand, Earl Wulfrum was very still, his face expressionless save for the blue eyes, now two chips of ice. Involuntarily, his own hand tightened round the hilt of a wicked-looking dagger in a gesture that mirrored his sword brother’s, even as his mind struggled against the knowledge of Ragnar’s death. Ragnar the warrior, the war leader, fearless, powerful, respected, a prince among his people; Ragnar the Terrible, whose ships, once sighted, struck terror into the hearts of his enemies; Ragnar, who had been as a father to him, who had found him that day when, a ten-year-old boy, he had stood alone in the smouldering ashes of his home, the bodies of his slain kin all around; Ragnar, whose rough and careless kindness had taken in the son of his oldest friend and raised him as his own, who had given him his first sword, taught him all he knew, and raised him to the warrior caste in turn. And now he was gone, his fire quenched for all time.

Wulfrum revealed nothing of these thoughts, hiding his pain as he had all those years ago. What ill fate was it that he was always spared when those he loved were slain? Too much care and love made a man vulnerable. It was a lesson he had learned early in life, a lesson harshly reinforced now. If you did not love, there could be no hurt. Was it thus, then, that a man must protect himself? His jaw tightened. There would be a reckoning here. The blood feud that killed his kin had had a far bloodier resolution when the boy grew to manhood. How much more then the slaying of Ragnar?

He was drawn from his thoughts by Halfdan, voicing the question that was in his own mind.

‘How?’

‘As we neared the Northumbrian coast, a fearful storm arose and many of our ships were wrecked. Those of us who reached the shore were attacked by King Ella’s soldiers. We were heavily outnumbered and many were slain. Lord Ragnar was taken prisoner. The king ordered his immediate death.’ He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. ‘He had him thrown alive into a pit of poisonous snakes.’

A collective gasp followed his words as the magnitude and horror of it sank in.

‘And how did you come to survive, Sven?’ Invarr’s voice was cold and his eyes raked the messenger from head to toe, but the man met his gaze and held it.

‘We fought our way back to the ship and put to sea. After nightfall we turned back and at first light Bjorn went ashore. He speaks the Saxon tongue and he learned the truth from some in the market place. ’Twas said that before he died Ragnar sang a death song in which he prophesied that his furious sons would avenge him, and then he laughed. They said he died laughing.’

As they listened it seemed to each man there that he could hear the echo of that laughter, and their hearts swelled. Ragnar’s courage was legendary. He would make a brave death. That it should not be in battle was a dire misfortune indeed, for he would not win his place in Valhalla and feast in Odin’s hall.

‘You did not seek to avenge Ragnar?’ demanded Hubba.

‘To what end? We were a handful against hundreds.’

Hubba’s hand went to the axe by his side, but Halfdan shook his head.

‘Sven is right. To try to attack Ella under such circumstances would have been madness. Worse, it would have been stupid. Now he will fight another day.’

Hubba glared at him. ‘Are you saying that Ragnar died for nothing?’

Wulfrum, silent and intent, waited for the reply, feeling all around him the same curbed rage.

‘No. Ragnar shall be avenged and by an army greater than any yet seen.’ All eyes were upon Halfdan as he rose to face the assembled throng. ‘We shall send a fleet of ships four hundred strong.’

Wulfrum regarded his sword brother with admiration. What he was proposing would be the greatest Viking raid ever known. Almost instantly he corrected himself: not a raid, an invasion.

‘Let every man who can wield an axe or sword prepare,’ Halfdan continued. ‘We shall sweep through Northumbria like flame through tinder. We shall beard Ella in his castle and he shall know the taste of fear. His death shall not be swift, but he will long for it before the end. This I swear by my own blood and by the sacred blood of Odin.’

He drew the blade of his knife across his palm, his gaze meeting those of his brothers. Immediately they followed suit and mingled their blood with his. Then his gaze moved past them and rested on Wulfrum. In it was an invitation, an acknowledgement of friendship and brotherhood. Wulfrum’s eyes never left Halfdan’s as he unsheathed his dagger and drew the bright blood forth before mingling it with theirs. Bound by the blood oath, their honour was now his honour, their purpose his purpose. Halfdan nodded in approbation, then turned back to the silent watching crowd.

‘Who will sail with us to avenge Ragnar Lodbrok?’

A roar of approval shook the rafters and every hand was raised. He looked round the hall, gratified to see resolution in each face. Then he raised his hand for quiet.

‘Make ready. Three moons from now the sea dragons sail for England.’

Another roar greeted this.

‘A fitting revenge for Ragnar,’ Wulfrum observed.

‘We shall have more than revenge, brother,’ replied Halfdan. ‘There will be rich rewards too for those who serve well—land and slaves to work it. And women.’

Wulfrum grinned, knowing whither the conversation tended. ‘And the Saxon women are reputed fair, are they not?’

‘Aye, they are, and it’s high time you took a wife. A man must get sons.’

‘True. And when I find a woman who pleases me enough, I shall wed and breed sons aplenty.’

‘Your standards are high, but even you might lose your heart to a Saxon beauty.’

‘I have never lost my heart to a woman yet. They satisfy a need like food and drink, but they have no power to hold us long.’

‘You say so for you have never been in love.’

‘No. Nor am I like to be. It is not necessary to fall in love to get sons.’ Wulfrum laughed. ‘My heart is my own, brother, and I guard it well.’





Chapter One




Northumbria—867A.D.

Elgiva sat on the goatskin rug before the fire, her arms clasped about her knees and her gaze on the flames. It was said that some had the skill to read the future there. Just then she would have given much for such a glimpse to help resolve the chaos of her thoughts. The present dilemma was desperate, but what to do for the best?

She glanced once at her companion, grateful for that comforting presence. To Elgiva, Osgifu had been both mother and confidante. The older woman had entered the service of Lord Egbert as a nursemaid when her husband died. At forty she was comely still, a tall elegant figure, for all that there were lines on her face and white strands in her dark hair. Her grey eyes saw more than other people, for she was known to have the second sight, to see those things hidden from ordinary mortal view. Her skill lay with the runes, not the fire, but the accuracy of her words was sufficient for people to regard her with awe, even fear. Elgiva had never been afraid, only curious. Osgifu’s mother had been a Dane, a trader’s daughter, who married a Saxon husband. From her she had inherited the gift of the sight and a wealth of stories besides.

When Elgiva was a child, Osgifu had entertained her with tales of the Norse gods: of Thor, who wielded the thunderbolts; of Loki the trickster of Odin; and Fenrir the wolf. Elgiva had listened, enthralled by stories of Jotenheim, the realm of the frost giants, and of the dragon, Nidhoggr, who constantly gnawed at the roots of Yggdrasil, the mighty ash tree connecting earth and heaven. Osgifu had taught her the Danish tongue too, albeit in secret, for she knew Lord Egbert would not have approved. When they were alone, the two of them spoke their secret language and knew their words would be safe from other ears. She alone knew the secrets of Elgiva’s heart and it was to her Elgiva turned in times of trouble.

The younger woman sighed and, turning her gaze from the glowing flames in the hearth, looked full at her mentor.

‘I don’t know what to do, Gifu. Ever since my father’s death Ravenswood has slid further and further into chaos. My brother did nothing.’ She paused. ‘Now he is dead too, and his sons are but babes. The place needs a capable hand.’

She did not add, a man’s hand, but Osgifu heard the thought. She also acknowledged the truth of it. Lord Osric, concerned only with skill at arms and with hawking and hunting, had taken little interest in the running of his late father’s estate, preferring to leave it to his steward, Wilfred. A good man at heart, Wilfred had performed his duties well enough under Lord Egbert’s exacting rule, but after, with no master’s eye on him, he began to neglect small things, putting off until the morrow what should have been done today. The serfs under his control took their example from him, and Elgiva, on her daily rides, had begun to notice the results. Ravenswood, which had hitherto always looked prosperous, began to take on an air of neglect. Fences were not mended, repairs botched. Weeds grew among the crops and the livestock were not properly tended. The roofs of the barns and storehouses leaked, and she felt sure that the stored grain and fodder within were not as strictly accounted for as they had been. When she had mentioned these things to Osric, he had brushed her aside. The problem grew worse. She had spoken to him again and received short shrift.

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