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The Viking’s Yuletide Woman by Cynthia Breeding (1)

Chapter One

 

York

November, 866 A.D.

 

Princess Aethelthryth stared out the window of her bedchamber that overlooked the fort. “My father says the Great Heathen Army will not attack until spring.”

Ella glanced up from sorting gowns to study her mistress’s face. The princess’s expression was serene, but her voice was not. Hardly a surprise, given that the Vikings had invaded East Anglia the year before. Edmund had given them shelter at Thelford to keep his kingdom from being attacked and plundered. They had been increasing their numbers ever since.

“I am sure King Aelle has spies watching those demons from hell.”

“But there are conflicting stories.” Aethelthryth turned away from the window. “The Vikings are a blood-thirsty lot to begin with, and I heard Ragnar Lothbrok’s son Ivar seeks unholy revenge on my father for killing his.”

Ella had heard the rumors—servants’ gossip often travelled faster than a spy’s—that Ivar was particularly ruthless. So were his brothers, although she wouldn’t mention that to the princess. The whispers were that they intended to slowly torture Aethelthryth’s father for having cast the Danish king into a pit of vipers. Which, as far as she was concerned, he justly deserved.

“Well, your father is out even now scouting the countryside.” She didn’t add that who the king was really looking for was the deposed, former King Osberht, who still had followers among the people.

Crayke, where King Aelle had ridden, was a hard day’s ride away and to the north, the opposite direction from where the Great Heathen Army was quartered. There was no need to alarm the princess of more possible raids along the coast either. “He will keep us safe.”

“That’s true.” Aethelthryth’s face brightened. “And we do have Yule to prepare for. I want the Boar’s Feast to be extra special this year to keep our people’s minds off the worries.”

Ella nodded. The feast would keep the servants busy preparing for weeks. Cutting pine boughs and holly branches for decorating, finding the right log to burn, preparing mulled cider in kegs, and the skinning, soaking, salting and preserving of the boar itself. Already, the men were talking of organizing hunt parties to compete over bringing in the biggest one, although the biggest prize would be capturing a Viking lurking about the wood.

She refocused her thoughts. “Which of the gowns do you want to wear for the feast?”

Aethelthryth glanced down at the assortment of gowns spread across the bed. “It’s hard to choose.”

Ella held up a bright blue one. “Your father had this silk imported just last year. You have not had an occasion to wear it yet.”

“I don’t know.” She fingered a pale yellow. “This is my favorite.”

“And one you’ve worn several times.”

“Hmmm.” The princess eyed the blue gown. “Why don’t you try it on and I’ll see how it looks.”

“Me?” Ella stared at her.

“Yes. You and I are the about the same size and we have the same shade of red hair. It’s easier to decide if I like it if I can see it on you rather than my looking in an old tin.”

“Are you sure?” Ella fingered the fine material. She’d never worn silk in her life.

“Of course I am.” Aethelthryth smiled at her. “You may be my maid, but that’s only because you were orphaned when your father’s holdings were taken in Ragnar’s raid.”

That memory still hurt. Not only had her parents been killed two years ago, but the entire village had been burned to the ground. The younger girls had been taken as slaves. The only reason she had escaped from the same fate was because she’d gone berry picking in the nearby forest. She’d returned to smoke and rubble.

King Aelle’s army had found her the next day among the ashes and taken her back to the fort. Aethelthryth and she were of a like age and, since there were few younger women at the fort, had become friends.

“Go ahead. Try it on.”

Ella slipped off her plain muslin dress and lifted the soft material over her head, smoothing the front as the gown settled over her. She turned to allow Aethelthryth to lace up the back. Then she turned around. “How do I look—”

“Lady! Lady!” A sharp rapping at the door barely preceded it being flung open. One of the princess’s personal guards stood there. “You must come quickly, my lady!”

“What is it?” Aethelthryth asked.

“The Heathen Army advances!”

The princess frowned. “The Vikings are marching?”

“Yes. There is no time to talk. They are but a mile from here.” He gestured for her to come. “I must get you away.”

“But where? Is the fort not safe?”

“Perhaps, but the king left orders to get you hidden in case…” He let the sentence trail off.

“You must go,” Ella said.

“You will come with me.”

“No.” The guard looked embarrassed as he held out a man’s cloak. “We cannot attract attention by having your maid accompany you.”

“But—”

“Go,” Ella said. “We have soldiers here to defend us. I will be fine.”

“But—”

“I am sorry, my lady.” The guard stooped to pick up Aethelthryth and toss her over his shoulder. “We have no time for more talk.”

Ella watched as the man marched off with an angry princess punching his back with her fists. From experience, she knew it was much better that Aethelthryth not be at the site of the upcoming battle.

She moved to the window, swallowing hard when she saw the first layer of dust appear on the horizon. The Vikings were coming.

She just hoped the old Roman walls would hold.

Bronwolf reined his horse in and surveyed his men, marching toward York. In the distance, he could see the old Roman walls of the town. Inside, the fort lay sprawled out, encompassing a number of buildings. Although there was no way an army the size of theirs could have gone unnoticed from the towers, the fact that Ivar planned his attack for this unconventional time of year—and at a time when King Aelle was away—should give them some element of surprise.

He commanded an aett, a close-knit group of some fifty men who were family-related, who’d trained together and sailed across the sea in the same long ship. While they wintered in East Anglia, they’d honed their land combat skills. Their trust and interdependence on each other—as in the other aetts—made them the coordinated, fighting machine that brought fear to the Saxons. He knew not one of his brethren would lay down his sword and retreat. To do so would leave his comrades vulnerable.

Besides, Valhalla didn’t wait for cowards.

He turned as a horse approached him, although he knew who it would be.

“The fools are probably at their Christian Mass,” Ivar said, squinting into the distance. “I do not see many archers on the walls.”

Bronwolf nodded. “The Saxon we captured said it was their All Saints Day.”

“Fools,” Ivar said again. “Everyone knows last night was Asgardsreien. Odin rode across the sky with his ghostly warriors seeking Saxon souls.”

“Perhaps they mourn their dead, then.”

Ivar laughed. “They’ll soon have more to mourn.”

Bronwolf suppressed a grimace. During their winter sequester, he’d seen the peace a truce could bring. There had been no plunder or pillage since King Edmund seemed to value his people’s lives—and livelihood—more than he did his pride. It had taken Bronwolf a while to realize that was a strength and not a weakness. Still. Ivar and his brothers were here to avenge their father and he was sworn to support their cause.

“It should not take long to breach their defense,” Ivar said, “since the Saxon volunteered which gate was the weakest.”

Bronwolf stifled another grimace. The Saxon—a soldier who’d wandered a bit too close to their camp after a night of heavy drinking—had hardly volunteered the information. He’d actually admired the man’s stoicism right up to the end when he’d finally succumbed.

“The entrance at Monk Bar.”

Ivar snorted. “History already tells what we have done with monks.”

Ja. The raid on Lindisfarne is sung by our skalds, as are many others,” Bronwolf replied. “But that gate is considered a safe entry—since it’s so close to the fort itself, it’s not as stoutly built.”

“The men under my direct command will break through it,” Ivar said. “Your aett knows what to do?”

He brushed off the irritation he felt at the slight that his men were not prepared. “They are to rouse the Saxons with berserker action just out of arrow range to give your brothers’ aetts time to surround the fort.”

“And once I give the signal, all will attack at once.”

Bronwolf looked toward a nearby small hill where several boulders jutted out from the underbrush. It was high enough that each waiting commander could see a torch swing in an arc from that point. No men were visible just now, but two riders had ridden ahead of the army and were ready for the signal to light the torch.

“With any luck, it should be a quick surrender.”

Ivar snorted again. “Luck has nothing to do with it. Odin is on our side. My father will be avenged. By nightfall, the fort will be ours.”

“But Aelle will still need to be captured.” Bronwolf paused. “Even though he is off fighting Osberht at the moment, he will probably join forces with him to attack us.”

Ivar shrugged. “We will be ready.” He glanced toward Bronwolf. “You remember the second part of your assignment?”

Again, he suppressed his irritation. “I do.” The Saxon had reluctantly sketched a layout of the fort, including the building next to the Great Hall where Aelle’s private quarters were…as well as his red-haired daughter’s. “I am to abduct the Princess Aethelthryth so you can hold her hostage.”

Ella watched from the window as the cloud of dust loomed larger and the first of the Viking soldiers appeared on the road leading toward the fort. Word had already been sent to the villagers to come inside the town’s walls and she could see many of them milling about below. Small children cried and clung to their mothers’ skirts, the older ones herding in livestock, while their fathers prepared makeshift weapons.

She turned away, looking at the four women she’d gathered into Aethelthryth’s room since it was much larger than her own and had a stout door as well as a strong bolt. Cwen, the gray-haired castellan, had a stony expression on her face while Rowena, the fort’s ancient healer, was already tearing sheets apart for bandages. Lynet and Deira were near her age and worked as maids. Both of them were whimpering and clinging to each other. Thank goodness Moire, the third maid, was off visiting an ailing relative. She was given to theatrics, as well as always critical of Ella.

Rowena cast the two whimpering girls a sharp look. “You might try to be useful and help me.”

“Aye, a good idea,” Ella said. “Who knows how many men will be wounded.”

“Or die,” Cwen muttered.

Ella gave her a quick glance, the memory of her parents killed by these Vikings searing through her. But it would do no good to alarm the already shaky maids.

“These walls have been in place since the Romans. They’ll hold.” They had to.

“’Tis not the walls that concern me,” Cwen replied. “The king took a whole cohort of men with him and left only a century.”

Leaving one hundred men to man the fort and taking five hundred with him only proved to Ella that the king was intent on finding Osberht and putting an end to the threat of his claim to the throne. Obviously, he had not thought Ragnar’s sons would march north in the winter. Both Saxon and Scotti observed a sort-of truce and ceased fighting until spring, but the Vikings were barbarians.

She wondered if perhaps a spy had let them know the fort’s numbers were low. She swallowed hard to quell the panic that threatened to bubble to the surface as she recalled the complete destruction of her village. “The king probably left the strongest soldiers behind since the princess is here.”

Cwen gave her a mulish glance. “Was here. Her guards had standing orders to hie her to the abbey at Manchester in case of any attack.”

Given the Vikings had no qualms about sacking monasteries, Ella wasn’t sure an abbey would be any safer place, but at least Manchester lay to the west, and the barbarians hadn’t ventured there yet. “Princess Aethelthryth would be too valuable a hostage for the king to take that chance.”

“Aye,” Rowena said. “She must—”

“What was that?” Deira shrieked as a loud boom rent the air.

Ella rushed back to the window and then gasped for air at what was taking place below. The Vikings had used a battering ram to break down Monk Bar and the Great Heathen Army poured through the breach, round wooden shields protecting their heads from a hail of arrows that rained down. She looked past the wall and her breath stopped. As far as she could see, men kept coming. There must be thousands. Running, their long, light hair streaming behind them, they looked like an undulating field of ripe grain…except for the glints of silver that flashed from their spears and swords.

A hundred Saxon soldiers were no match, and soon the bailey swarmed with the barbarians. The screams of women and cries of children filled her ears along with the angry shouts of men and clash of swords.

Ella didn’t know how long she and the four women remained huddled together in the room listening to the sounds of battle, but eventually the sounds muted allowing an eerie silence to linger. She wanted to go to the window, but couldn’t take the chance of anyone seeing movement from the third floor.

Rowena looked at the stack of bandages she’d torn. “I should go down to tend the wounded.”

“Don’t be daft,” Cwen snapped.

The other woman frowned. “’Tis my duty.”

“Do you have a wish to be raped?”

Ella put up her hand to silence the two. “I doubt the barbarians would let you attend to our men, Rowena.”

“Aye, they’ll make you tend theirs first and then,” Cwen added, “they’ll take their turns of you.”

Lynet and Deira let out small cries. “What if they find us?”

“Don’t worry.” Ella hoped her voice sounded calmer than she felt. “They have no need to search the house right now. With any luck, the barbarians will break open the kegs of ale and take to celebrating in the Great Hall. Once nighttime falls and they’re drunk, we can take the servants’ stairs out the back, well away from the hall, and escape through Walmgate Bar.” She took a deep breath. “We just have to stay calm and wait.”

The maids whimpered, but nodded. Cwen exchanged a look with Rowena, who shook her head. “I cannot leave. The wounded will need me.”

“Don’t be daft!” Cwen said again.

She sighed. “I will wait until you are well gone before I descend the stairs.”

“I don’t think…” Ella suddenly stopped speaking at what sounded like a floor board creaking. “Shhh!”

She listened with growing apprehension at the sound of booted footsteps gradually getting louder.

“Get under the bed,” she whispered to the maids, and they scurried to comply as the boots stopped outside the door. Ella pointed to the large wardrobe. “Cwen. Rowena. Get in there.”

“What about you?” Rowena whispered back.

“I’ll hide behind the curtain.” Ella gave her a little push as whoever was out there tried the door. The iron bolt rattled and she prayed it would hold. She hurried across the room toward the window, but she was too late.

Behind her, the solid door splintered, pieces flying as the blade of a sharp axe protruded through the wood. In another second, the bolt tore loose and then the hinges shattered. The heavy plank landed on the floor with a thud that resounded through Ella’s body as she looked up at the Viking framed in the empty doorway.

His height and massive shoulders took up most of the space. His face was grimy and all hard angles. With the deadly axe in one hand, his wild mane of hair more bronze than blond, and eyes that glittered silver-blue, he looked every inch the fierce berserker she’d heard about.

He dropped the axe and stepped through the doorway. She inched back as he advanced, his gaze as intent as his movement. “Who…who are you? What…what do you want?” Even to her ears, the questions came out nearly as a squeak.

“My name is Bronwolf.” An incongruous dimple flashed in his left cheek as he grinned, showing very white teeth. “And I want you, Princess Aethelthryth.”

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