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Authors: Marissa Campbell

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BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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Goddess keep you safe.

“Why didn’t you give me this sooner?”

“He asked that we wait until you were safely away at sea.”

I balled the parchment, marched out of the tent, and tossed it overboard. Gripping the smooth wood rail, I watched the note unfurl and drift away. In time, Alrik came to stand beside me.

I turned to him. “I know I agreed to leave with you, but I have to go back.”

“We are not returning to England.”

“Bertram never abandoned me; he played me. And I was fool enough to believe it.”

“He did what was best.”

“Alrik, please. It was all a lie. My mother charged me to keep fighting. I can’t desert my people.”

“There was truth in his words, Avelynn. War changes people. They have lost everything. They will be looking for someone to blame. You are not safe there. Let it go.” He turned to walk to the steering board, but I grabbed him back, tugging on his sleeve.

“So now, you are to determine my fate?” My fists clenched at my side. “I am tired of people making decisions for me. If you won’t stay and support me, set me back on English soil and leave.”

The men on board couldn’t tell what we argued about because I resorted to English when I was emotional, but they cast Alrik looks of impatience. He grabbed my arm and hauled me back into the tent.

“Lower your voice.”

I wrenched free of his grasp. “Do not tell me what to do.” I glared at him. “I am not your servant to control as you see fit.”

“I am trying to protect you.” His jaw clenched.

“Was leaving me with Halfdan for ‘my protection’? Because the last time I took your counsel, you told me to stay and wait while you traipsed around England. If you recall, your brother tortured me.” My voice caught. “I can’t … I won’t be helpless again.”

Alrik’s voice held no trace of a quiver. “When we arrive in Wales, you can do as you please. While you are on board this ship, you will do as I say, or you will find yourself strapped to the mast.” He stormed from the tent, the fabric tearing at one of the seams as he pulled it aside.

I collapsed onto the bed. The vehemence I’d thrown at Alrik was unwarranted and unfair. Both he and Bertram were right; I just didn’t want to admit it. What could I hope to gain by staying in England? An entire army would be ready to strike me down. Asking Alrik to get further involved in my turmoil was selfish and foolhardy. I folded my legs into my chest and wrapped my arms around my shins. I’d never had time to grieve—the loss of my father, Muirgen, my home, my freedom. Even Edward, while alive, had been taken from me. The last thing I wanted to do was push away the person dearest to me. I moaned, squeezing my legs tighter. I couldn’t do anything right.

When I woke, it was dark in the tent and Alrik had his back to me, his body stiff. I turned to him. “Please forgive me.”

He didn’t move, but I knew he was awake. His breath was uneven.

“Alrik, I shouldn’t have said those things, please.” I placed a hand on his shoulder, and he rolled toward me.

I couldn’t make out his face, but his voice was strained when he spoke. “I will never forgive myself for what my brother did to you.” He reached out, finding a tendril of hair, and wrapped it slowly around his finger, his thumb brushing my cheek.

“We both did what we felt was right. I had to fight in that shield wall, and you had to honor your word.” I sighed. “Your brother deserves my ire, not you. And if I ever see him again, I plan to gut him through with my sword, your brother or not.”

“If we are to meet my brother again, he will not live long enough to give you the chance.”

“Not if I get to him first.”

Alrik chuckled softly. “Hjartað, you are a stubborn woman, and I will never tame your words or your spirit. The fire that burns in your belly makes me desire you even more. But, if you dishonor me in front of my men again,”—all amusement left his voice—”I will have no choice but to make an example of you.”

I’d never considered Alrik in this light, and for the first time I hesitated, uncertain about my place. I’d thought we were equals, but here on his ship, amidst his men, he was in charge. Had I misjudged him?

“I do not mean to scare you. A woman can get away with some leniencies. Your language, the English, has at least the benefit of ignorance amongst my men, but your tone does not.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I demanded his respect but didn’t hold myself to the same measure.

“I am glad you understand. Being tied to the mast is a light sentence.”

My softening disposition jerked to a halt. “You would not.”

He laughed. “I would.” He pulled me closer, and I struggled to push him away. “In fact, I am in minds to try it, just to ruffle your pretty little feathers.” He kissed my mouth, and a large hand fondled my breast.

“You arrogant ass.” I pushed against his pull, restraining my body, which quickly betrayed me. Desire flooded my veins in response to his swaggering posturing.

He set me away, chuckling. “Are you angry, little bird?”

“Yes.” I seethed.

“Mm-hmm.” His hand trailed down the curves of my rib, waist, and hip, blunted nails awakening the skin. I shivered. He followed the indent of thigh, the outline of knee and back up between my legs, cupping the heat radiating beneath his palm. He waited, seeking permission, teasing. I growled, furious that this man so adeptly disarmed me, aroused me, and made me forget why I had been angry in the first place. His hand rubbed slowly, the pressure exquisite, and I moaned in yearning despite myself. He slid a finger inside me.

“Gods,” I breathed.

“Yes, very angry, indeed,” he murmured as he nuzzled my ear.

“Bastard.” I pressed my hips into his hand, my back arching.

He laughed. “All heat and fire.” He rolled onto his back, pulling me on top of him.

The water sloshed at the sides of the boat, and the wood creaked as it danced with each wave.

I lifted my skirts and rocked my pelvis, rubbing myself against the length of his arousal. Warm, wet folds enveloped him. “Are you not afraid I will curse you and your men if you tie me to the mast?”

His hands held my waist. “No. I do not think you would. Angry or not, you know I would be right.”

I huffed.

“Come.” He tried to pull my hips forward, urging me to ride him, but I dug my thighs into his side and held my ground.

He groaned and dropped his hands to his sides, defeated. “I do not wish to fight with you.”

I couldn’t see the longing and tenderness in his eyes, though I knew they were there. He was right, of course—I would never do anything to hurt him. If I defied him again in front of his men, it would be my own fault. I rolled my eyes skyward. Goddess, he infuriated me. “Will you forgive me?”

He pulled me into an embrace, his lips seeking mine. “There is nothing to forgive.”

March 22

The next morning, Wales loomed—a dark, lumpy shadow along the dawn’s glowing horizon—and by late afternoon, we sailed into a wide bay. The land sloped up and away from the shore on either side. Beyond a narrow jut of coastline, the promise of civilization came into view. Compared to Wedmore, Milford Haven was small and cramped. The circular wattle and daub cottages resembled mere weaving sheds. Upon first glance, the village looked deserted, but as we approached the long, wide beach, it became clear our arrival had not escaped attention.

As Raven’s Blood stalked closer to shore, a band of men carrying bows, spears, and swords came out to line the bank. In an attempt to placate the natives, Alrik had ordered the dragon head removed, and men laid shields across laps instead of displaying them over rowlocks. Vikings were typically not welcome guests no matter the country. They had raped and pillaged far and wide, and while there were several peace-loving merchants amongst the lot, they traveled in smaller vessels. Longships brought with them the spectre of war.

A warning shot whizzed through the air, landing with a soft splash in the water.

Alrik ordered the boat to stop and stood on the prow. His words rang out in perfect Welsh. I had to ask him what he’d spoken. “I seek Gilfaethwy, friend of Alrik the Bloodaxe.”

The Vikings remained seated, gripping shields and sword hilts.

A tall, stalwart young man extricated himself from the crowd, returning the conversation in English. “Alrik, is that you my friend?”

“Aye, Gilfaethwy. How fare you?”

Gilfaethwy turned to the men around him and after some gesticulating, everyone departed, though many in the crowd continued to glance over their shoulders, swords freed from scabbards as they dispersed.

“Come ashore, man,” Gilfaethwy yelled, waving us in.

The boat skulked closer, stopping only a few feet from the beach. Alrik nodded to Tollak, leaving him in charge, and extended his hand to me.

I waited as Alrik slipped over the side of the boat, his legs sinking into the shallow water. He motioned for me to follow. I maneuvered my dress and legs as demurely as possible before slipping and sprawling into Alrik’s outstretched arms. He strode to shore and set me down on solid footing once we reached the bank.

“I had no idea you spoke Welsh,” I said.

“Only enough to placate the rabid dogs and their arrows.”

Gilfaethwy closed the distance and shook Alrik’s hand. The two men set to back pounding and slapping in a familiar greeting. Only when they’d finished did Alrik introduce me.

“I present Avelynn of England.”

Gilfaethwy took my hands in his. “A Saxon beauty.” His brown eyes sparkled with the depth and richness of moist loam, and a leather thong tied back his long chestnut hair. He was comely, and I found myself blushing as he bowed low, his gaze never leaving mine. “I am Gilfaethwy, nephew to Hyfaidd ap Bleddri, king of Dyfed, but my friends call me Gil.”

“Quite the welcoming party, Gil,” Alrik said, watching the armed men hover near one of the larger circular buildings.

Gil waved them away as insignificant. “There was another Viking raid farther up the coast. They do not trust your brother, Ivar. Course they do not know you’re related, else you would not have made it to shore.”

Alrik grunted, probably from his assessment of whether these men would have been able to stop him. Alrik traveled with sixty warriors; I couldn’t imagine a few Welshmen were much of a deterrent.

Gil laughed and placed an arm behind each of our necks, clasping our shoulders. “Come. My home is just there; let us talk business.”

He steered us to a long, timber-framed home. Clearly, Gil’s risk associating himself with Vikings had been a successful gamble.

A young woman with two long dark braids and sensuous curves greeted Alrik with a brilliant smile.

“My sister, Marared,” Gil explained for my benefit, for it was clear Alrik and Marared knew each other.

She smiled, nodded in my direction, and took Alrik by the arm, leading him to a chair piled with cushions.

“She’s a sweet spot for Alrik,” Gil whispered in my ear, and I found myself watching her closely. A discordant sensation swept over me, as if a hundred flea bites prickled and burned beneath my skin. Gil steered me to the other side of the central hearth, and I sat down on a wide chair, equally weighted with soft pillows in brilliant silks. My gaze left Alrik and his ornament for a moment to survey the room. Crates and boxes cluttered every corner, and a wattle screen sectioned off the sleeping area at the back. Near the door, a well-used, thick plank table commanded focus. A long counter with sagging shelves above, lined with clay vessels and small barrels, sat opposite. A window cut into the far wall was opened wide to let in the weak Welsh light. Several beeswax candles flickered around the room.

Gil left my side and reappeared with two silver goblets. A servant filled the cups with a rich amber liquid. “Some of my finest wine.” He waited until I’d taken a sip and nodded my approval before indulging himself. He flicked his wrist in dismissal, and the servant fluttered about the room, offering refreshment. Gil’s attention settled on Alrik, who smiled broadly, Marared perched on his lap. “So, what have you brought me, my friend?”

“Two fine horses, some pigs, chickens, wine, and iron,” Alrik said.

“What is it you are wanting in return?”

“A sail.”

Gil leaned back in his chair. “I would have to ask my uncle. He controls the fleets.”

Alrik frowned. “Are there no other traders?”

“Not with sails large enough to fit your need. Most merchants do not traipse about in long ships.”

I tried to keep my focus on the curiosities in the room, like a small figurine, similar to the mother goddess sculpture my grandmother had once shown me, but the laughter opposite kept drawing my attention back. Why would Alrik allow her to sit on his lap? I tried not to brood, but I remembered Leofric sitting in the tavern in Wedmore, a different widow or eager young lady snuggled in his lap on each visit. I narrowed my eyes at Marared and took a healthy swallow of the wine to hide the rising heat in my cheeks.

“All right,” Alrik said to Gil, “but I will not leave my ship with yon braggarts skulking about. The meeting must take place here, in your home.”

“I will send word to my uncle.”

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
10.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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