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Authors: Marissa Campbell

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BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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“You will have time to do both.” He stepped back. The air cooled the empty space between us. “Go enjoy your treat. I will see to your plans.”

I made my way through the manor grounds, looking for the cottage Hyffaid had presented to me upon our arrival. As I was Alrik’s guest, he had graciously given me the use of a private dwelling with several maids to see to my needs.

Everyone remained in the hall, enjoying the feast, so the grounds were empty. Only the occasional slave scurrying about with jugs of mead or platters of delicacies between the hall and kitchens betrayed a gathering of hundreds of people. Fire pits, strewn about the property, sizzled with roasting meat. The succulent aroma filled the air and made my mouth water. Birds called from their perches on thatched roofs. The occasional sluggish insect, eager to get an early start on spring, buzzed near my ear before dipping and swooping out of sight. It was blissfully peaceful. Once I marched to Seisyllwg in the company of hundreds of men, the imminent conflict threatening, the stillness would end.

I remembered holding the shield wall as the Vikings advanced. Everyone had pushed and shoved. Men yelled, taunted, and jeered. The screams of iron striking iron, lances pinging off shields, and spears goring bodies ricocheted through me. The cries and wails of the wounded enveloped me. The thud of bodies falling and the sucking pull of mud as the dead lay trampled underfoot replayed endlessly in my mind. I shuddered and prepared myself for the days ahead.

I passed the stables and byres and arrived at a scattering of circular, lime-washed dwellings with reed-thatched roofs. They all looked similar, but I made my way to the one with the small window framed by blue painted shutters. I rounded the corner and peered inside. A large wooden tub near the central hearth drew my attention. Several maids carried buckets of water into the room.

The cottage held meager furnishings. A table stood nearest the door. Several shelves hung from the walls. Chests and crates lined the worn surfaces. Two ledges along the side wall, typically used for sleeping, were instead piled high with jugs, buckets, and baskets. Along the back wall, a slat-framed bed with feather mattress filled the space, with lush furs sprawled over the top. Several stones cooked in the flames of a raised hearth.

I tested the water in the tub with a cautious forefinger. It was cool. A bench, tucked within reach, served as a table. A bowl of tallow soap, a sponge, a stoppered terracotta urn, and an antler comb lay at the ready.

A stocky woman, dark hair streaked with gray, motioned to the bath.

I nodded my understanding. She would attend me.

She barely reached the height of my nose but was nonetheless in charge. She shooed the remaining women out of the cottage and bolted the lock home. With a pair of heavy iron tongs, she removed the hot rocks from the hearth and dropped them one at a time, hissing, into the bath water. She tested the temperature. After the fifth stone, she removed them from the tub and placed them back in the fire. She looked at me expectantly and then tugged at her tunic.

I stood facing her, my arms outstretched.

She made quick work of my leather belt and bid me to sit to remove my shoes and socks. She had me stand once more and grabbed hold of the hem of my dress. Given her stature, I wondered how she would manage to get it over my head. I lifted my arms and matters were remedied as I leaned down just enough for her to help me shimmy out of my clothing.

She set my garments in a small basket, clearly intending to launder them after she saw to my bath. I protested, gesticulating madly, since I had no change of clothes, but she pointed to several crates in the far corner of the room. At first glance, I’d not paid attention to them. The lids displayed a familiar serpentine design and marked them as the boxes Ealhswith had fetched from my cottage in Wedmore. Ealhswith had taken great pains to ensure they were loaded on board Raven’s Blood before she and Alrik sailed out to rescue me from Demas. Since Alrik had commanded Tollak to row the boat upriver, he must have had all my possessions brought to the cottage.

“Thank you,” I said.

She rewarded me with a tentative smile. She set a stool beside the tub and helped me up and over the edge. I slid into the luxuriously hot water. This time I did moan. I closed my eyes, feeling the silk of the water lave over my legs, belly, and breasts, and sank deeper, until the water lapped at my shoulders. I leaned back and rested my head against the rim of the tub. How long had it been since I’d had a bath? I tried to think back. I’d had a wash basin for the wedding ceremony with Demas, and before that, scented wash water came as part of Halfdan’s gift when I was his prisoner. As for a full bath, that would have been in Wedmore. A world ago.

I could have lain in that tub forever, melting into the water, letting the world flow around me, but a slight touch on my arm had me sitting forward. Tilting my chin up, she leaned my head back. Water sluiced through my hair. Deft fingers applied the soap, kneading my scalp. The delicate scent of lavender and rosemary enveloped me. Strong, consistent pressure ran along my hairline. Her fingertips circled to my temples, above my ears, and up the back of my head, rubbing and pressing. Blunt nails grazed, shooting gooseflesh down my spine. After rinsing the soap from my hair, she plucked the stopper from the urn. Subtle notes of myrrh and frankincense lifted into the air. She worked the oil through the tangled tresses, the wide-toothed comb teasing out the knots. My body melted into the rhythm of her hands. My eyes grew heavy, my breathing deep, my mind still.

A loud bang on the door jerked me upright, and water sloshed over the edge. I blinked, confused, uncertain of my surroundings. I must have fallen asleep.

“Avelynn?” Alrik called from outside.

The woman stood behind me, her hand gripping the comb. I nodded, and she bustled to the door, releasing the lock.

Alrik ducked under the lintel, his frame filling the doorway. He stepped aside, encouraging the woman to collect her things and go. She assessed me, her face an image of shock and disapproval at my imprudence that a man should enter my chambers whilst I reclined, naked, in the bath. Decorum be damned. I smiled my thanks, expectant. She shook her head, huffed, and grabbed my washing before scuttling out the door. Alrik replaced the lock.

“I brought food.” He set a platter filled with breads, cheeses, and roasted meat on the table and stalked closer.

“Have you found a suitable place for the ritual?” I asked.

“I have. I am in the process of acquiring horses and supplies to see us through till morning.” He stood beside the tub and gazed inside. A smile spread across his face. A blush stole across mine. “Has she washed you?”

The deep thrum of his voice stirred more than the surface of the water. I was suddenly famished, though it had little to do with sustenance. “No.”

He lifted the sponge. “May I?”

I nodded, my mouth parched of an answer.

He ladled out the soap, squeezing and working the paste into the myriad of holes before dipping the sponge into the water. Sudsy bubbles trickled to the surface as he lifted it back out. “Stand for me.”

Gripping the sides, I rose out of the water, conscious of his heated gaze. He stood behind me and brushed the hair from my shoulder. Fingertips trailed down my neck, and the sponge lighted against my skin. It had an odd texture. The fibers, slightly coarse, invigorated my skin, while the soap glided over my body, slippery and smooth. His fastidious attention laved my arms and back until his focus shifted. It lingered on my backside, and his free hand cupped and squeezed. The sponge dipped lower, poised to slide between my thighs. His advance halted. I inhaled sharply as yearning pooled just beyond his reach.

“Face me.”

Not what I had in mind, but I submitted, and the sponge swept across hip, and waist, working its way down to my belly. For a breath, it hovered below my navel then swept lower, riding the edge of pleasure promised. My legs quivered, and longing ignited my body. I needed that sponge to dip a fraction more. He was so close. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch.

“Hold still or the washing will take longer.”

“Alrik, please.”

His mouth tightened into a firm line, and his eyes brooked no exceptions. He was a warrior, a leader, and he commanded respect. With the flick of his wrist, he’d killed a man to protect me. He was dangerous and feral. An ardent force coursed through him, and I was drawn to that power. Nothing stops a Viking from getting what he wants.

Alrik was thorough with the sponge, his persistence in avoiding the areas I longed to be touched unyielding. His dogged pursuit of evasion followed a tortuous path under my breasts, up between them, out along my collar bones, and down my ribs at the side. Never once did he brush a nipple, both of which were achingly hard.

“Foot,” he said, ignoring my whimpering completely.

I frowned at him.

He pointed to the side of the tub.

Resigned, I lifted my leg, resting my foot at waist height. He scrubbed my heel and toes, sliding the sponge up my leg then back down. Each arch came torturously close to my center.

“Other foot.”

I acquiesced, and he repeated the process, sweeping and rubbing until my skin buzzed, reacting to the merest breath of pressure.

I shivered. The hearth crackled softly, but the heat only reached within a small radius. Had I been fully clothed, the fire would have been sufficient. As I stood there naked, water dripping from my body, the chill crept over my skin.

“You are cold; sit.”

I slid back into the warm water, bubbles tickling, teasing as they purled around me. Desire made me feverish. The cool air had done little to douse the flame. He set the sponge aside and poured some of the oil into his hands. His attentiveness moved to my neck, his knuckles stroking the tight muscles. Gripping the tops of my shoulders, he squeezed, alternating between pressure and release as he worked his way down my arms. A moan escaped my lips. I could have lain there forever, gladly giving myself over to those capable hands.

“Do you like this?”

“Yes,” I replied breathlessly.

His palms pressed, his thumbs kneading around my shoulder blades. Hands slid down my back, rubbing and massaging their way to the tops of my hips. My body churned to butter.

“I missed a few spots.” He reclaimed the sponge and lathered more soap on my skin. He smoothed the bubbles over my breasts, and his fingers brushed the tightened buds. I sucked in a breath.

“And this? Do you like this too?”

“Yes.” I bit my lower lip, arching into him. After so long a wait, sensation flooded through me.

His focus remained meticulous until nary a grain of dust or smudge of dirt tarnished either nipple. My stomach coiled in tension. Each touch found its echo throbbing lower.

“Open your legs for me.”

I didn’t think I could take much more of his teasing. I parted my knees, and he dipped the sponge into the water, swirling lower until it rested against me. He held painfully still. My heart pounded in my ears. My body pleaded. I placed my hand on his, urging him to press a little harder and groaned in frustration as he resisted. I might explode just imagining him moving it.

“What do you want, Avelynn?”

I thought that perfectly obvious. I glared at him.

“Do you want me to stop?”

“Gods, no.”

“Then tell me. What do you want?”

“Alrik, I beg you,” I pushed out through gritted teeth.

“Beg me to what?”

I growled. “Move. Your. Hand.”

“Like this?” He set a tortuous pace, slow and light.

Most certainly not. “Harder.”

He scrubbed every nook and cranny and then slid a finger inside me. I cried out, my center clenching hard around the penetration. That’s what I needed.

His free hand sought my breast. His efforts kept a delirious rhythm, each tug, each brush, each thrust in time with the other. I gripped the sides of the tub, my hips rising and kneading to meet him.

Cool air nipped exposed skin, alternating with the warmth of the water as it lapped my body. Sensation swelled, crested. He held me at the precipice.

“Alrik.” My voice cracked, strangled with urgency.

“Let go, hjartað,” he whispered.

I shattered before him. Wave after wave of pleasure rippled through me, until I collapsed in the tub, panting.

He held up a blanket. “Enjoy yourself, did you?”

I mumbled something incoherent and noncommittal.

He laughed. “The feast will be finishing. We should leave within the hour.”

I didn’t want to go traipsing about the countryside. I wanted a nap. He offered me his hand and I took it, letting him wrap me in the soft wool. He rubbed and patted, leaving no valley or mound damp, save one. His hand lingered over the damp curls between my legs, and passion, so quick to light around this man, smoldered, the embers of desire, hot and white, sparking to life at the merest hint of his touch.

“You are all fire, Seiðkana.” His eyes held a look of awe and wonder. His gaze darkened and razed my body. He suckled my neck and earned an unabashed moan in recompense. He whispered in my ear, his lips teasing. “Later.” It was as much threat as promise.

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
9.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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