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Authors: Marissa Campbell

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BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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“I need an opportunity to prove my innocence. When the people of Wedmore come, I will talk with them—make them see I was wronged. Bertram will help me. He will support my claim. I’ve known these people all my life. I have to believe they will see reason.”

“And if they do not?”

I refused to think otherwise. “There will be plenty of women for your men to take as wives, and Avalon has game and fish in abundance to sustain us. The forest is ample in wood for housing. We could carve out a settlement here, just long enough for me to find some way to prove Osric’s deceptions. I ask only for sufficient time.”

“My men are warriors. They joined me for gold and fame. My banishment has been hardship enough. They will not be content to sit about and play house.”

“Alrik!” A voice boomed from outside the tent.

“Aye,” Alrik answered.

Tollak, Alrik’s second in command, entered. Almost as tall as Alrik, his bearded face a shade of gold darker than his captain’s, he was fetching in a tunic of azure blue. A dark wool cloak hung off his shoulder, clasped with a silver broach. “The druid is here—the one who was with Avelynn when we first arrived in England.”

“Bertram?” My heart raced. “Where?”

“We caught him at the gravesite.”

I grabbed my kirtle, dressing hastily, and affixed my sword to my belt before Alrik had managed to put on his trousers.

“Avelynn, wait,” Alrik called, but I was already clambering over the side of the boat and splashing to shore.

I hiked my dress to my knees and waded through the cold water. My bare feet sank into the river’s frigid silt as I trudged across and pushed through the last few feet of trembling reeds. A mild morning for the waning days of March—the forest danced with brilliant sunlight, the trees beginning to bud.

I ran along the freshly trampled path. Six years ago, at the end of this trail, my father had men erect a towering boulder to mark my mother’s grave. Two days past, in that same clearing, I had experienced my first visitation from the dead. I had known it was possible, that our ancestors lived amongst us and guided us from beyond the veil of time, but until I’d been ordained a high priestess the experience had seemed unattainable.

I stopped at the edge of the clearing to catch my breath. My chest froze as I beheld Bertram sitting with his back against my mother’s stone. Gone was the long, white hair—in its place was a trimmed tonsure. His staff, the mark of his office as druid with its Ogham symbols, lay beside him, resting against the course spun wool of a monk’s habit. When I remembered to exhale, his name came out as a strangled cry. “Bertram?”

He looked at me, and my heart ached. Dark circles sagged under mournful eyes, and his sunken face was gaunt and narrow.

He looked at the two Vikings lounging in the shadow of a beech tree.

“Please, leave us,” I said in Norse to the hulking sentries.

They didn’t budge.

“Go back to the ship.” Alrik stepped into the clearing.

As the two sentries disappeared into the trees, I ran into Bertram’s arms. “What have you done? What’s happened?”

He pulled away. Loathing etched his face as he appraised Alrik.

“Alrik is not the enemy, Bertram. If he hadn’t arrived when he did, Demas would have raped me, or worse.” I thought of Edward. “Bertram, Edward’s alive! At the battle of Reading, after Demas killed Father, he kidnapped Edward. He kept him alive to make me biddable. I had to rewrite my will, granting Demas control of Wedmore. Osric and Demas will stop at nothing until they control Somerset and Dorset.”

“Edward is alive?” His eyes lightened.

“Yes!” I reached out and clasped his hands in mine. “We escaped. Alrik and his men, they took us both on board—they saved us. Edward is with Ealhswith. She has promised to send him away to Mercia. He will be safe there.”

A mask of hardness replaced the warmth, and he tugged his hands free. “All that has befallen you and your family.” He shook his head. “I blame myself. I should have let the priests guide you. I have done you a great disservice, and for that I am truly sorry.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong. I’m telling you—”

“But I have. By letting you continue to pray to the pagan gods, I have led you to the Devil himself. Dearest Jesu, your mother would never forgive me. This is not what she wanted for you. Your father, rest his soul, will never find peace in his grave.”

“Bertram, you’re speaking nonsense.” I studied his face, searching for any sign of a jest. A druid turned Christian was not out of the realm of possibility. All of England had been heathen until a few centuries ago, but Bertram, my teacher and grandfather, turning his back on the Goddess?

“No, Avelynn. I have finally seen the light. I have cast the heathen gods into the fire of hell where they belong. All that has happened—the ruin of your name, the loss of your family—has come about by your refusal to acknowledge the one true God. I have come to offer you salvation before you leave.” He reached behind him and set my locked chest on the ground between us.

I stared at him in disbelief. “I’ll not follow the Christian God, nor renounce my faith. The ancient Goddess, the mother of all, is not some demon.” I picked up the box and held it tight to my chest.

“Wyrt-gaelstre!” He pulled a wooden cross from beneath his robe and held it in front of my face, his thin, wrinkled hand shaking.

I stumbled back, and Alrik stepped to my side. “I’m no witch. You know this,” I said.

“I call upon the one glorious God to cast the devil from Avelynn, daughter of Eanwulf, the late lord of Wedmore, most humble earl of Somerset. I ask you, lord Jesu, to bring her to your light, rid her of her sickness, cleanse her of all evil—”

“Put your Christian magic away, Priest.” Alrik unsheathed his sword.

I laid a hand on Alrik’s arm to stay him. “His cross can’t hurt me. Though his words sting.”

I addressed the stranger in front of me. “I don’t know what has happened to you, but you must believe me. I’ve done nothing wrong. I had hoped to count on you. You of all people should have supported me.” My chest burned. “But with or without you, I am not leaving. Osric and Demas have betrayed my people, and I mean to be here when they arrive. I will protect the families of Wedmore any way I can.”

Bertram stood taller. His face contorted, and a purple vein bulged along his forehead. “Demas is fighting for his life; he is as good as dead. Because of your unconscionable actions, you’re wanted on charges of murder, treason, and witchcraft. You cannot protect your people. It is because of you they are homeless. There is nothing in their hearts but hatred toward you.” He shot Alrik a vicious look and then turned his attention back to me. “The men who survived the shield wall against the Vikings, the men who fought loyally under your banner, were hunted down and executed as traitors. Their widows and fatherless children blame you and your treachery for their plight. They do not want you here. They want you dead.”

A strangled cry escaped my lips, and I looked at him in horror. “Bertram, please.”

“You are not welcome here, Avelynn. You have lain with the devil and only God can save you now.” He tossed his staff, the wood rolling to a stop at my feet. “I suggest you leave before the people get here. They will arrive on the morrow.” He walked away and did not look back.

I should have cried, but shock kept me from reacting. Empty hollowness set my legs shaking and took away any solid ground beneath my feet. Back on Raven’s Blood, the tide swelled around us, and the boat bucked as she pulled against the anchor tethering her to England.

“We need to leave.” Alrik stood beside me, hands on the smooth wood railing.

“I can’t.” I was so sure of my path. Why had my mother appeared to me? What was the point if I couldn’t stay in England?

Several hours had passed since my altercation with Bertram. Men ran back and forth from shore, amassing the supplies we needed to see us provisioned at sea.

“One day, perhaps you can return, but right now, you do not have a choice.” The tenderness in his voice did nothing to lessen the sting of his statement. Bertram’s words had cleaved my heart as brutally as any sword.

Alrik drew me into an embrace. “I have friends in Wales. They will provide us with safe harbor while we wait out the storm caused by your escape and my exile. Our enemies will expect us to flee to the continent. This will give us time. We are vulnerable and recognizable. We need a new sail, which we can get while in Wales.”

The ship with its blood-red sail—emblazoned with the image of a raven—was too conspicuous. Alrik had ordered it furled.

He gestured to the contraband lying strewn about the deck. “This will see us rewarded with gold once we barter and trade. Wales is a good fit. After a time, we can head to the land of the Rus. My uncle is jarl of Novgorod. Rurik will give us welcome in his hall.”

The Rus—a people so different from my own, so far away.

“From there, my men can return to their homes in Sweden and Gotland. I have nothing to offer them now.”

The pain in his voice made me pause. I’d been so wrapped up in my own plight that I’d lost sight of his. “I’m sorry. If you hadn’t met me, none of this would have happened. I’ve lost everything, and I’ve dragged you down with me.”

He threaded his fingers through mine and brought my hand to his lips. “To a Northman, adversity is merely an invitation to battle. We welcome it.” He winked.

I managed a smile.

He kissed the top of my head. “We will triumph. I will see to it.”

Incapable of an answer, I nodded and he left my side. None of this made sense—Bertram’s transformation, my mother’s warning. Visions were not finite manifestations. There wasn’t a timeline laid out before me. Perhaps Alrik was right—maybe I would return to England one day and put an end to Osric’s tyranny. But how would I accomplish such a feat? Other than a boatload of Vikings, I had no means of protection or force. How was I to gain the backing of an entire country that loathed me and wanted me dead? How would I do it without Bertram’s support? My stomach dropped along with my hope, and I searched the taciturn water for answers. No matter how long I stood there, trying to grasp at the threads of fate that had led me to that point, a solution never materialized from those murky depths.

Alrik’s booming voice startled me from my thoughts. “Hands to oars.”

Thirty oars lifted, poised at the ready in their rowlocks. Alrik stepped from bench to bench, marching to the stern of the ship. He grabbed hold of the steering board. “Cast off!”

Men raised the anchor, and oars dropped as one into the water. We shot forward, skidding across the surface like a sleek pond skater. I watched the shore recede as the strokes, rhythmic and smooth, drew the boat powerfully down river to the sea, away from the only home I’d ever known.

I turned my back on England and slipped inside the tent to study the locked chest. My divining bones and my grandmother’s book waited inside. There would also be several packets of her mystical herbs to stop conception. I sent a silent thanks to Muirgen for her thoughtfulness. I didn’t know where this ordeal would lead me, and to bring a child into this madness … I shivered.

I remembered standing in Muirgen’s garden, learning for the first time that she was my grandmother and that Bertram, the man I’d always thought of as my teacher and guide, was in fact my grandfather. Muirgen had taught me only a fraction of what I needed to know. Our time together had been too short. Demas had murdered Muirgen, and now I’d lost Bertram too.

A short time later, Alrik sat beside me on the bed.

I didn’t look at him, just continued to stare at the rippling wool of the tent wall.

“I don’t understand. How could Bertram be so cruel?” I wondered what the Goddess thought of his venomous words. Would she forgive him? Did it matter?

“Perhaps this will explain.” He placed a small square of parchment on the furs in front of me. “From the druid.”

I took the note with shaking hands.

Dearest, Avelynn,

I am sorry for the pain I must have caused you today. The Goddess alone knows that you are forever in my heart, but you cannot remain here. England is no longer safe. The Goddess has a great plan for you. Muirgen foresaw it. But to fulfill your destiny you must leave. I only did what was in your best interest. I hope one day you will forgive me.

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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