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Authors: Marissa Campbell

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BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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The two men pushed and shoved themselves back into the hall and set about wrestling on the rush-covered floor. Cushions and reeds flew from swinging feet and arms.

What was Alrik thinking? We couldn’t stay that long. Soon all of Wales would know the truth of our troubles. I wasn’t naïve enough to think I could hide my trail forever. In time, Osric would pick up my scent, but I wanted to be long gone before that happened.

When the boys finished their roughhousing, I drew Alrik aside. I didn’t want to walk in the direction of Sigy’s cottage, so instead we followed a path away from the village. We skirted rows of earth left fallow. Dry dusty clods edged troughs left barren and empty. “Why must you enter into their war? We have no place in this conflict. I thought we were to head overseas, to see your uncle.”

“This is a worthy pursuit, a chance to gain honor. My men will celebrate.”

“You convinced me that we needed to get as far away from England as possible. You know I’m not safe here.”

“You are safe by my side.”

I waved away his sentiment. “I’m not the only one in danger of discovery. Your brothers have cast you out—”

“A matter I am trying to remedy.”

“How? By getting yourself killed in a foreign land for a foreign king?”

“My brothers left me in Gotland and sailed to England to avenge my father. I vowed to win renown. I fought. Gained treasure and fame. I built a name to be feared. I earned the favor of the gods. Yet what have my brothers done but attempt to render me invisible once again? They have stripped me of my honor and tarnished my name. I mean to regain the valor I have lost.”

“And what of my honor? What of my desire to regain what I have lost? Why is it you have agreed to fight for some distant king but would not stand by my side in England and help me reclaim my land and title?”

“A whole country stands against you. My brothers stand against me. How were we to execute this cause of yours? Could you raise an army? Draw men to your aid? I understand your conflict, but that was a battle we could not win.”

I gritted my teeth. The man infuriated me. I may have been able to accept his words, but I didn’t have to like them. “If it’s valor you seek, why here? Your men already respect you. They left Reading to follow you.”

“With each passing day, they grow restless. They joined with me in Gotland because they knew I would find them fortune and renown. Out of loyalty, they have followed me into exile, but they have not lost their thirst for the fight. I have a chance to rebuild their respect. I will start that journey here.”

“You will not be swayed?”

He took my hands in his. “It is a matter of honor.” He let my hands drop. “I understand your misgivings. I can arrange transport for you if you wish to leave.”

“Leave?”

“You mentioned a queen. A friend of your mother’s in Francia. Would she take you in?”

“I suppose she might, provided word of my treachery hasn’t reached her ears.”

His face was a mask of cool, detached emotion. “I do not wish to see you go, but I will not force you to stay. The conflict is weeks away; you have time to think matters over.”

I glared at him. “You stubborn ass. I’m not going anywhere without you. In fact,”—I stood, arms akimbo—“I’m in minds to fight
with
you.”

He opened his mouth as if to say something and then closed it.

“If you will risk your stubborn neck for these people, then I will stand by your side.”

“You are talking nonsense.”

“I know my way around a sword and have fought in a shield wall. I can hold my own and at the same time protect your foolish hide.”

“You are the most frustrating person I have ever met.”

“I might say the same of you.”

He shook his head and looked down his long Viking nose at me. “We will speak of this later.”

“We can speak of this until the cows come to pasture, but if you stay, I will fight by your side.”

“Not if I tie you to the mast. How will you enter the conflict then?” His smug expression rankled. He was bigger and stronger and had the support of a boatload of ruthless Northmen, but I had one thing he had come to expect and rely upon.

“Tie me down and it will be the last time I give myself freely to you.”

We stood staring at one another, arms locked across chests.

He let out a long exhale and ran his hand through his hair. “You are insufferable.”

I smiled and batted my eyelashes at him. “Perhaps, but I’m all yours.”

Later that afternoon, I accompanied Alrik to the ship. I waited in the tent as he informed the men of their participation in the coming conflict. I wanted to make sure my personal belongings were not in the lot going ashore to Gil for trade. A loud thud startled me, and I stopped admiring the silver broach I’d found, to listen.

“You promised us a journey home.” A hissing voice crackled through the thin wool walls. Whispers of dissent followed.

Alrik cut through the chatter. “Aye, and I will get you there once this business is done. I have laid before you battle and gold. You saw far less from my brother when we aided his cause in Ireland.”

Another voice flared. “That was different.”

A third still. “There is no honor in fighting for Christians.”

Alrik fired back. “Hyffaid has offered ten stone in gold and silver. We will share the spoils equally. You will return home wealthy men. Odin and Thor will honor us and toast our victory as our blades strike down the Welsh King Rhodri and his Christian army.”

A few cheers rang out. “We will use their own gold and kill the Christian wretches!”

It wasn’t the reception Alrik had anticipated, but a general acquiescence followed. With grumbling consensus reached, Alrik divided his men into two groups. Tollak would head the larger group and take Raven’s Blood up the River Tywi to Gwgon’s stronghold of Dinefwr, in Seisyllwg. An emissary from Hyffaid’s personal household guard would travel onboard to ensure a safe journey. In the meantime, everyone else would travel on foot with Hyfaidd to Mathri. We would meet Tollak at Gwgon’s court in three days.

“All is well?” I asked as we headed back toward Gil’s hall.

Alrik huffed. “It will be. They are none too happy about the decision, but they will be molified once they get their hands on the coin. I know my men.” He fingered the new silver broach on my shoulder, clasping my cloak. “Looks good on you.”

“You don’t mind? I thought to just borrow it.”

He chuckled. “Once this conflict with Rhodri is finished, I will place a chest of gold and silver at your feet.”

“I don’t need riches.” Demas had once tried to impress me with finery.

“Between the two of us, we have nothing. This will grant us security. It is necessary.”

I still doubted the virtue of that statement, but I accepted his decision and fortified myself to the conflict ahead.

With only three days before we would meet Tollak at Dinefwr, we set out just before cock crow, collecting freemen and slaves alike from the communities around Milford Haven, who marched to Hyfaidd’s summons.

Much of Wales operated on a lord and tenant arrangement. Some of the tenants were free bondsmen, renting land and owing food gifts to the king; others earned their keep as slaves. All were required to provide military service to the king, and it was clear Hyfaidd meant to keep Rhodri from his lands. With his noble household guard and call of muster to peasants, some armed with little more than rough clubs, his army would number in the hundreds. While respectable, it wouldn’t be enough.

Rhodri ruled a vast territory. He was ruthless in battle and renowned throughout Wales and England for defeating Vikings and snuffing out resistance from the Welsh and Mercians alike.

Hyffaid oversaw a relatively small territory, but Seisyllwg, Gwgon’s country, was twice the size. Combined, the two could offer considerable opposition.

Hyfaidd received us lavishly. While men continued to pool in from the surrounding countryside, he held a burgeoning feast. Our party sat near the north wall of the hall.

With Tollak gone, Cormac now acted as Alrik’s second. Still at least twelve hands tall, Cormac was nonetheless shorter than Alrik, though his upper arms were as thick as my waist. Without Cormac, I would never have found Alrik the night I escaped from Demas. He’d sunk to bended knee, offered up his sword and knife, given me his cloak, and granted me his protection. He’d earned my deepest gratitude and utmost respect.

Cormac’s smile was infectious as he interacted with the crew—a direct contrast to Hyfaidd, who hunched at the head table. Hyffaid’s two sons, lads barely out of the cradle, fussed beside him. An exhausted looking wet nurse fawned over their every whim. Hyfaidd’s wife, Elen, a dour woman with a considerable droop to her pinched mouth, sat stoically on his left. Husband and wife were the “epitome of cheerfulness.” They seemed to perk up once servants began streaming in from the kitchens with platters of food.

The land around Mathri was rich and versatile. There was much plenty to be had, even this late in the year. Forests abounded. Hunters armed with hawks, hounds, horses, and horns would bring to the table a roebuck, wild pig, stag, fox, or speckled grouse. Fishermen gathered in nets and lanced with spear, filling baskets with salmon, trout, grayling, perch, pike, and eels. Herdsmen supplied milk for cheeses and butter, their axes bringing shanks of mutton and beef. Royal gardeners prized dried herbs and spices, coveting the treasures from last fall’s harvest of carrots, cabbage, and leeks. Beekeepers furnished the cooks with golden casks of honey and the butlers with a steady supply of mead. Added to these was a liberal quantity of ale, wine, and cider to whet the appetite for more.

A reed of a priest blessed the meal. His robe dragged down his lanky frame. It looked at any moment that the man could succumb to the burden of the wool. He reprimanded the assembled mass, reminding them that Lent was a time of restraint and discipline. I wondered if this was the young cleric who would replace Eadfrith. Eadfrith had a carriage of being that commanded respect, but Christians and heathens alike ignored this lad’s sermon. They continued to raise and drain their glasses.

I had never paid heed to the constraints of Lent, but his sermon caught my attention. I added the days since my wedding night with Demas. It was the Vernal Equinox! So consumed in my plight, I’d forgotten the Goddess. I searched the room for Alrik, who conferred with some of Hyffaid’s warriors near the door to the hall.

I tapped Alrik on the shoulder, interrupting his conversation. “I need your help.”

He studied my face and nodded, leading me outside.

I pulled him farther away from the manor. When I was certain no one was near, I stopped. “It’s the Vernal Equinox.”

He smiled. “Yes, when we met.”

“And what was I doing when you happened upon me on the beach?”

He drew two blond eyebrows together, and then his face lit. “Your ceremony.” He looked out to the sea. “You will need to speak with your gods.”

He alone in this crazy Christian world could understand. “Yes. But I don’t know how. There are so many people here.”

“What do you need?”

I considered that. Last year, Bertram demanded I perform the ritual on my own; he insisted I was ready. But his presence and the steady beat of his drum had bolstered my confidence and kept me grounded. While he took no part in the ceremony, I had relied on him for that steady support. This time, I felt completely lost. “I don’t know.”

“You will need a safe location.”

“Yes, somewhere far from Christian eyes.”

“I will find it.”

I stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

“Your Goddess brought us together, and I would just as soon stay in Her good graces.”

I smiled and leaned into him, his body a shield from uncertainty. He wrapped his arms around me.

“You smell good.” I breathed deeply, catching the scents of musk, grass, and a hint of lavender.

He laughed and held me tighter. “Gil had a fine soap I relieved him of. I wanted to surprise you. I have had a bath drawn for you.”

I may have moaned in delight. The thought of a hot bath made me weak in the knees, but I needed to reach the coast. “I have to leave today.”

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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