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By Gina Conkle, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Gina Conkle
All rights reserved.
Land of the Franks AD 1022
Smoke and mist parted, luring gawkers and traders alike.
"Come, see the goods," a voice beckoned from the crowd.
Canny merchants in billowing robes examined exotic wares: fragrant spices, cloth spilling rivers of color, and barrels of rich Frankish wine. Morning air filled with foreign words and the clink of foreign coins. Bretons. Castilians. Saxons. All mixed with the Danes, those giant men who fingered giant hammers with relish. A gaggle of freewomen gossiped while gutting slippery fish. Scores of seagulls squawked, diving at fish heads the chattering women tossed aside. Helena watched these curious sights, so different from her humble village. All would be well, except she was a stolen woman, taken in a raid on her village. Human chattel to the Danes.
She scanned the heavens and curled her fists.
I will return home.
A cool, mocking laugh intruded. "Praying again?"
Sestra, a buxom, flame-haired woman, swigged water from the drinking pouch they shared. Like Helena, her wrists were tethered by long leather bindings to a stake in the ground.
"Good morning." Helena reached for the proffered pouch.
"We'll see soon enough," Sestra groused. "Prayers don't work, you know. Find a good protector. Work will be light then." She finger-combed her tangled hair for maximum effect and purred, "Find the right protector, and you won't have to lift a finger."
Helena bristled at the suggestion. "I will have my freedom again." She winced at the sight of loud warriors sharpening their axes around a smoky fire. "First, I need to get away from here."
"Give it up. Accept your lot in life. We are captives. Slaves. Thralls. The language doesn't matter, the master you serve does." Sestra scanned the horizon, assessing a Flemish merchant fussing with his robes.
Both women were Frankish and of similar age but worlds apart in experience. Helena wanted to argue her point, but Sestra held up bound hands.
"Let me give you some advice ... advice that's saved my hide. Forget about home, and don't fight. Those who fight don't live long." Sestra tapped her own smooth cheek and gave Helena a knowing look. "Look at what happened to you."
Helena tested her cheek, touching skin scabbed and smooth. Outer wounds heal, but wounds to the soul cut deeper and lingered long. Aye, some things were worth a fight. Her hands slid to the leather pouch that hung from her neck. 'Twas tucked between her breasts inside her dress, the contents safe — for now.
"The wound stopped the Danes. What's done is done ..." She squeezed her eyes shut, banishing images of that day, "... but I will not accept this as my lot in life."
A stench of fish assaulted Helena. When she opened her eyes, the freewoman who brought their provisions approached and her gap-toothed smile held no cheer.
"Won't have that for long," the hag sneered, pointing at the lump under Helena's bodice. "Should've let him take yer puny purse."
The old woman dropped bread to the ground and planted work-rough hands at her hips as she loomed over them. Chills swept Helena's limbs, owing nothing to morning's dampness. She folded her legs tight to her body. Her bindings chafed tender flesh. The brutal Gudrud's attack broke like sharp-tipped fragments in her mind as the grizzled woman cackled.
"He returns. Soon," she crooned. "Dung for brains has he. Felled by a Frankish maid in front of the other men. Yer kick hurt more than his man parts. Ye damaged mannish pride." She waggled a finger at Helena and sang a gleeful warning. "Get sold today or sleep with one eye open. Night's when he'll get revenge."
"Leave her be," Sestra hissed. "Isn't it enough you torment us daily?"
"I can forget to bring food for the likes of ye," the old woman jeered.
"Be gone. We don't need you."
Two pairs of stunned eyes turned to Helena, who sat tall with her chin tipped high.
"Want me gone, do ye? I can forget yer food. See how those haughty words taste when yer belly aches from hunger." The fishwife's rheumy eyes narrowed on the small bulge under Helena's bodice. "Hope whatevers ye got was worth it."
The freewoman sauntered away, jibing about less thralls to feed. Helena clenched the pouch, the stone within hard to her fingers. After she had been wounded, the other Danes belittled Gudrud for losing a tussle with a mere woman. Magnuson, their leader, let her keep the well-worn pouch, deeming it worthless upon quick inspection.
"Well, she did serve a purpose. I, for one, like to eat," Sestra said, eyeing the bread.
"I couldn't abide her taunts anymore." Helena's shoulders slumped as she dusted off the loaf and tore it in two. She passed the larger portion to Sestra. "And now my outburst cost us both. Who knows when she'll bring food again."
Sestra inspected the bread's soft innards and scooped a handful. "Forget it. Eating is the least of your worries. The hag had one thing right. Gudrud will return and you cannot be here."
Helena tucked her bread portion into her lap.
"I could try running away."
Sestra choked on her bread. "Remember the Basque woman?"
Helena hugged her legs still folded tightly to her body as visions of that day returned: A twilight trip to answer nature's call in the forest, and she had seen the black-haired Basque woman slip from sight. The fishwife screeched an alarm. Men yelled. Hooves thundered. Tree bark had bitten into Helena's skin as she sunk into it to avoid the blur of men atop horses. Then, somewhere in the dense forest, the Basque woman's blood-curdling screams carried through the air. None had heard or seen her again.
Helena eyed that dark tree line. "A bad plan."
Sestra snapped her fingers twice. "Look. Buyers come. Heed the old woman," she chided. "Hide your wound. And smile. Men like a woman who smiles ... a friendly woman."
Aye, survival first.
Her breath quickened as she whispered a short prayer, but heaven stayed silent. Gulls squawked and dove in the salty sea air, like her, seeking survival. Helena tugged at her braid, covering her wounded cheek with loose strands, and prepared for the loathsome ordeal — one human selling another. Beside her, Sestra's voice touched a seductive note.
"For these men, I can smile very nicely."
"You say that about every man."
Sestra snorted and nodded at the horizon. "Judge for yourself."
Two long-limbed, thickly muscled warriors walked through the morning mist. Hard Danes and wiry merchants alike paused mid-conversation to dip their heads in greeting to these two. One was dark and amiable, yet large as a bear. The other, wary like a wolf, was fierce and blonde. He wore his sword strapped across his back and listened quietly to his friend, but his ice-blue eyes measured the camp. Sestra, ever the fount of knowledge, tipped her head toward the blonde man.
"See that? His leather belt," she said with calculating awe. "A sign of authority. Kings served. Battles won. Many battles. A Norse chieftain, by the look."
Bronze and copper squares were stamped into his wide belt. Each token bore a unique design that caught the eye. But, he did not need the belt to command respect. The air around him crackled with authority. He moved like one belonging to an honored warrior class. Helena suddenly realized that her home village of Aubergon, her whole life, had been sheltered and small.
Beside her, Sestra poked her arm. "You speak Norse. What are they saying?"
"I understand some." But, her gaze wandered to the sinister horizon where the Basque woman had disappeared.
Her heart beat faster. A copper tinge filled her mouth at the sight of the dense forest, dark even in the morn. Aye, get sold this day — a far better fate than risking escape or facing the cruel Gudrud when he returned.
Sestra prodded her again. "Helena. Aren't you listening? What is he —"
"Shhh," Helena set a finger to her lips and canted her head to listen.
"... a farmer?" The bear man spoke the word as if he tasted brine. "I don't see it. Hakan the Tall, a chieftain of Svea becomes Hakan ... the farmer." His booming voice flattened. "Why?"
"I tire of this life."
"Do we not gain gold aplenty from fat foreign kings?" The bear man jingled a bag at his waist and grinned.
"This isn't about gold."
Yet, the wolf-eyed chieftain loosed a bulging bag from his belt. 'Twas obvious he didn't waste coin on fine attire: his scuffed leather jerkin and faded blue trousers, tucked into fur boots, had seen much wear. No sweeping capes or brash torque hung about his neck, such as usually graced the necks of high-ranking Norsemen. What manner of chieftain would dress so simply?
"What are they saying?" Sestra whispered.
"That you need to be quiet so I can eavesdrop better."
Sestra paused midst cleaning her teeth with her sleeve. "Oh, very funny."
Helena smiled and faced the men, but their voices were too low, all the better to sate her curiosity for the one called Hakan. He crossed his arms and stood like a warrior-king, but of course that was harebrained. What did she know of kings? Whatever his rank, he lured her. She couldn't help but follow the knit of the Norseman's muscles under burnished skin. What would it feel like to touch him there?
Amidst her fascination, Magnuson, leader of the Danes, approached. At the sight of him, an ugly shiver traced her back.
"Hakan." The Dane clapped a heavy hand on the chieftain's shoulder. "I hear you seek a woman to teach you Frankish words."
"An old Frankish woman. To keep my farm, help with my wine trade."
"Old? Young? What does it matter?" Magnuson grunted and splayed his fingers her way. "Frankish women here. Three of them. The rest ... Sarmatians, Flemish, many from Eyre."
"And not one of them long in years."
Hakan rubbed his jaw as his gaze swept the row of women. Wide silver bands etched with intricate swirls wrapped around his strong arms. Helena frowned as Sestra brazenly thrust her curves at the men. Is that what it took to escape this place?
The bear man laughed and pointed at the blatant display. "This one could teach you much."
The chieftain scowled. "And cause trouble."
Sestra's come-hither smile melted to a sulk under his harsh glower. Her disappointment didn't last long as more men ambled on the horizon. The maid's face lit up when she spied a lavishly dressed merchant drawing near.
Magnuson rubbed his hairy cheeks. "Old women give fewer years of service."
Helena wrapped her skirt close about her legs. Listening to their rapid Norse took all her concentration.
"What happened to that one?" Hakan asked about her.
A flush of warmth poured through Helena, alert to his attention. She stiffened and couldn't look higher than the chieftain's silver armbands, where a blood-eyed beast carved in silver winked at her, a trick of the morning light's reflection.
"An unfortunate mishap." Magnuson shrugged a massive shoulder under his bearskin pelt. "One of my men ... she fought him, his knife slipped, caught her jaw ..." The Dane slid his finger from jaw to ear, mimicking her wound. "... but, if 'tis old you want, come this way."
The chieftain turned his back on her.
Helena dropped her forehead to her knees. If she met him as a freewoman, would he have lingered? Or asked her name? The unbidden questions faded as the overbearing Magnuson spoke, and the men moved away. She scolded herself for her lack of courage in failing to meet the Norseman's stare. Was her cheek truly awful? Her fingers gingerly tested the scab.
"Stop," she whispered and lowered her hands.
Beside her, Sestra greeted a be-ringed Castilian merchant, whose rich robes boasted silken tassels. Near the Dane's camp, rough warriors emerged from a tavern. Their crude jests abraded her ears.
Greater is the need to flee this place than feel sorry for myself.
Her stomach growled and Helena checked the bread nestled in her lap; best she ration the fare. Her fingers pulled a bite-sized morsel from the loaf, as Magnuson's rumbling voice played in the background.
"Older, quiet ... women who know their place ..." He extolled the virtues of the poor woman whose name he didn't know. "... give you a good day's work."
Half listening to his merchant's pitch, she rolled her eyes. So disgusted was she, Helena almost missed a rarity. But she didn't. Her hand stopped mid-way to her mouth.
The chieftain, the one called Hakan, spoke gently to the older captive woman.
The slave, huddled and silent on the ground, failed to respond.
He knelt in the dirt and touched the woman's shoulder with care — an odd thing for a warrior. The captive had been too far away for Helena to render aid when the Danes first brought her to camp. Yet, she was close enough to see that she stayed curled in a tight ball, sometimes rocking and moaning.
Drawn to the scene before her, Helena's gaze followed the Norseman's large hands as he cradled the silent woman's head. She leaned forward, straining against her tether for a better look. He could have been holding a newborn babe, so tender was he. Then, his thumb cautiously brushed open the corner of the thrall's mouth.
"No tongue?" His hard look shot accusation at Magnuson. "You're trying to sell a woman who cannot talk."
"Not always a bad thing." The Dane shrugged at his weak jest.
"Not when I need her to speak Frankish."
"She is the oldest here." Magnuson waved his hands over the array of women.
The chieftain stood up and silenced Magnuson with a thunderous glare. He did not draw his sword as other affronted warriors might have done. Instead, he opened his coin pouch and counted a few gold pieces.
"For the goats and sheep already on my ship."
The Dane closed thick fingers around the coins dropped in his hand and joined the Bear Man and the Castilian, both charmed by Sestra. The whole camp, a blend of voices and laughter, played background noise to the interest threading from Helena to the chieftain. All faded to a hum. Her bread slid to the ground, forgotten. She sat up taller, studying the Norseman as his long fingers retied his coin pouch.
Embers of attraction flared for the unusual warrior. He moved with fluid ease for one so large. Or was it simply his care with the older woman that made him appealing? One could even call him kind. Hope of finding strength and kindness in one man poured a balm on her soul, and left her curious for more.
Her guarded survey inched upward to his broad shoulders, the sort that promised safety and protection. 'Twas an odd notion about a man who came solely to purchase a woman for labor. Helena's lips twitched at such foolishness, and her gaze drifted higher to a square jaw and firm lips, then higher still.
Ice-blue eyes stared back.
A strange enchantment mesmerized her. She had once crossed paths with a lone wolf in the forest near home. Such a beast would devour the weak. To her relief, that wolf had turned and disappeared. Though dangerous, she willed this two-legged wolf closer. The price was tension coiling inside her.
Like a predator measuring prey, the Norseman's hard stare traced her frame, lingering at the curve of her hips. Peculiar warmth poured through her as she stared back. He did not leer as other men had, but Helena recognized male interest.
Sunlight broke through mist, bouncing off the sword strapped across his back. A large, red stone glimmered from the hilt. Something of a smile crossed her face. This chieftain's clothes were faded and well-used, but his armbands and sword were finely crafted with matching designs and matching red stones.
The chieftain scowled and crossed his arms.
Her smile wilted. Was she over-bold? Her manner was nothing like Sestra's. Helena swallowed hard and licked her lips, working to put her smattering of Norse words to work.
"Smiles ... you do not like," she said in soft, faltering Norse.
"A woman's false smiles, no." His voice was deep and smooth to her ears. "You speak Norse."
"Some, but I smile ... friendliness only." She cleared her throat and dared to say, "I seek freedom ... nothing more."
The chieftain's head tipped with interest. "Strange words for a thrall."
"I wasn't born to this." She held her head high, ignoring that she sat in dirt at his feet.
A light flashed behind the Norseman's eyes. He loosened his stance, and Helena knew she had penetrated some unseen shield, drawing him closer.
"Status of birth matters little. How you live each day ... that's your true measure."
A breeze blew thick blonde hair that fell past his shoulders. The stoic chieftain stood like a rock, staring at her with unnerving intensity. A kernel of interest sprouted betwixt them, but she needed to nurse this cagey conversation. Her hair blew across her face, a momentary mask.
"A warrior who speaks like a ..." She paused, searching for the right word. "... a wise man ... 'tis rare."
"Fools don't live long."
Helena motioned to his belt. "Marks of a warrior?"
"I have ... been places."
"I have not." Her bound hands tapped her chest. "But, you need one who speaks —"
Excerpted from Norse Jewel by Gina Conkle, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Gina Conkle. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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