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Early autumn, AD 793-Sand, Raumerike, south-eastern Norway
Seven years and Ash Hringson refused to think about how many thousands of miles it had been since he last set foot in Sand, the capital of Raumerike. He would have preferred to go straight home to Jaarlshiem, but he had a duty to inform the king of his travels and his plans for the future.
Ash rubbed a hand over his chin, fingering the small half-moon scar there. He had seen over thirty battles and minor skirmishes since he'd left. His face might be clear of all but the most minor scars, but he walked with a distinct limp, the legacy of a battle three years ago, which aggravated the injury he had received in a Frankish dungeon. He knew that he was not the same carefree youth who had left Raumerike's shores, with a thirst for adventure and the certainty of a glorious future. In his mind, Raumerike and all he'd left behind remained the same.
A great unexpected feeling of long-awaited belonging rose up in his throat. He was in his home country. On his native soil. A foreigner no longer.
Ash gave a wry smile. He must have done enough to regain some measure of his father's respect. Hanging his head in shame or walking in the shadows of life was no longer his destiny. He'd become a leader of men rather than a coward who left others to die in a fiery inferno.
The town had seen a few changes over the seven years he'd been gone, expanded with an air of bustling prosperity, but the streets were laid out the same. The blacksmith where he'd purchased his first sword looked to be under different management and the king's hall appeared to have been rebuilt. The market by the quayside was larger with a broader range of fabric and fur, but the fishmonger still traded in the right-hand corner, calling about fresh herring and salted cod.
Several market dwellers gave him sideways glances, paled slightly and turned away the closer he came, hurriedly pulling the shutters down. Ash's hand tightened instinctively on his sword's hilt. He forced it to relax.
Did they remember the shame he had brought to his father and the country? The brothers, friends and cousins who had died because of his recklessness on that fateful night? Was that why they looked at him as if he were one of the walking dead? Or was it the typical Raumerike distrust of an outsider?
He might be dressed in Viken clothes, but his heart beat with a love for Raumerike. He'd always remembered where he came from. It was why he'd returned-to make peace with his father if he could and to offer young Raumerike warriors true opportunity for advancement, rather than facing likely death on an unfriendly sea.
A temptation filled him to shout to the curious, doubters and naysayers that shame and coward were no longer carved on his chest. The youth who had run his ship aground in a storm because he was far too eager for wealth had learnt his lesson. A man's life was more precious than objects or gold. He kept his mouth shut, his hand firmly at his side and strode silently on.
Ash set his jaw and turned his feet towards the king's hall. First the king, then his father and finally his wife. He knew the proper order of things. Now.
Kara would understand. He remembered that about her, even if he could not conjure up the exact tenor of her quiet voice or the precise colour of her golden hair. She'd always been his most loyal supporter since they had first met when they were children and she'd bound his falcon's broken wing. His last memory of her was her head held proudly aloft and a single tear trickling down her cheek as she begged him to return a hero.
Ash pushed the thoughts about Kara away, just as he had done for the last seven years. Soon, soon he'd be able to remember. First he had to do his duty to king and country.
'Why are you walking amongst the living, Ghost?' an elderly voice called out from a stall hung with cooking pots. 'Today of all days?'
Ash winced as he mistimed his step, and put all of his weight on his bad leg. Of all the people to greet him first, it would have to be this woman. He forced himself to recall each of her sons' deaths before answering. The elder two had died in the storm, but the youngest had endured captivity with him, keeping him alive with his tales of long-ago bravery. He had wept when his last friend died. For a day and a night, he had lived in that hell hole with the body. Eventually, he'd been able to overpower the Frankish guard who had been sent to check on them and escaped through the narrow stinking drain. Even now, after more than six years, he found it impossible to sleep inside or to go underground.
For the first time in that cursed journey, the gods had been with him. After he'd pulled himself from the drain, he had found a Viken ship in the harbour, signed on and had begun life as a sell-sword.
'No ghost walking. I am real, Hildi, the mother of warriors and a pearl amongst women.' Ash named her three sons who had sailed with him and all of whom had perished. 'I have come to give you the tribute for the lives of your valiant sons. All three sup with Odin. Feel my hand. I am real.'
She poked him with a bony finger. 'Bah. Your tongue still runs with silver, Ash Hringson. Let's hope there is some truth in your words this time. Alive and not drowned. This is indeed something new.'
'I survived, but know I will atone for their deaths. I give my promise, Hildi, as I once promised all those who followed me.' He looked into Hildi's eyes. 'Your sons now reside in Valhalla, instead of sharing the deep with Ran. What more could you ask for?'
'That I never doubted.' The woman barked an order and came out from behind the market stall.
Slightly more bent and a few more wrinkles, but essentially the same woman who had wept when she waved her boys goodbye. Her three sons had gone on the journey so that their mother would not have to work at the market, selling fish. Ash bowed his head.
The familiar tang of regret filled his throat. He'd lost count of how many times he'd wished that it had been he who had died rather than worthier men like Hildi's sons. Silently he added more to the amount he owed her. It wouldn't bring her sons back, but it would make her life easier.
'The king remains the same?' he asked when he trusted his voice.
'Aye, King Eystienn clings to the throne. His eyesight fails and his sword arm is not as strong as it once was, but his mind is as sharp as ever. It remains to be seen if he dies in his bed or with a sword in his hand.'
'He should be the first to hear the tale before I pay the tribute. I want no one to question. Does he sit or hunt today?'
She gave him a curious glance and cackled. 'Neither. Today he attends the wedding.'
The elderly woman looked over her shoulder and tightened the shawl about her shoulders. 'Your wife's. She is marrying again with the entire court in attendance.'
'Kara Olofdottar remains my wife.' Ash squared his jaw. 'There has been no divorce. There will be no divorce. She is mine. What is mine stays mine. My father's motto and therefore mine.'
'Then you had best claim her, Ash Hringson.' The old lady paused and gave a toothless smile. 'Before someone else does. Next time, return sooner if you wish to keep the things which are rightfully yours.'
A prickle of unease coursed down Kara Olofdottar's back. She wished she hadn't given in to Valdar's plea to marry at Sand with everyone watching their solemn oaths before Var's high priest. Life would have been much simpler if they had married at Jaarlshiem beneath the spreading branches of the tuntreet as she'd suggested. She'd grown to love that old tree, the gnarled guardian of the estate who kept everything safe and prosperous.
Following the example of her late father-in-law, Kara told the tree all the news. Always. And thereby ensured that her undertakings benefited the estate. Her late husband had failed to tell the tree he was leaving on his ill-fated expedition and he'd also failed to return. She liked to think it made a difference.
She understood why Valdar wanted this very public declaration, but she hated crowds, always had done.
'Are you all right, Kara?' Auda, one of her closest friends, asked, giving her a searching look. They had met when Auda had first come to court, shortly after Ash had left on his ill-fated journey. Auda's eldest was about the same age as Kara's son. And her husband had died of a fever last spring shortly after Kara's father-in-law's funeral. 'You appear lost in your own world. Still thinking about the horse my uncle forced you to examine when you arrived? It will recover. Horses always seem to after you have examined them. You have the knack.'
'I'm merely about to get married in front of what feels like the entire kingdom.' Kara smoothed her blonde hair back from her shoulder. It had been so long since she'd worn it loose that she'd forgotten what a nuisance it could be, constantly tangling and blowing in her mouth.
'Everyone is interested in the beautiful widow from Jaarlshiem and what happens to her. It gives me hope that some day I'll find another man.' Auda clicked her fingers. 'You and your bridal finery will keep the tongues wagging until it is Jul-time. No one will speak against this marriage or say that it was not done properly, if that is what you are worried about.'
Kara wet her lips. 'Why would any speak against the marriage? We are both free to marry. Or do you know something about Valdar?'
'My brother-in-law remained single until you came into his life.' Auda laughed. 'It is your uncle by marriage, Harald Haraldson, who concerns me. He plays more tricks than Loki, as my late husband used to say. He never forgave Harald for the diseased sheep he traded.'
'Harald Haraldson is powerless to halt this marriage!' Kara forced her hand to stay in her lap and not tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. She was determined her hair would be beautiful and not hanging like a witch's for this marriage. 'The king approves of the marriage. I'm hopeful the king will finally confirm my son as the rightful jaarl of Jaarlshiem once he sees that Valdar will protect Rurik's interests.'
'How can I help you to finish your preparations? It wouldn't do to keep your new husband waiting. These Nerisons can become impatient when they want something.'
Right now, she wanted to run back to the security of Jaarlshiem; she wanted the nausea to retreat back down her throat and the panic to recede. She wasn't a naive bride of sixteen any more. She was a widow of twenty-three. She couldn't afford the luxury of being unwed any longer. The very public marriage would show the entire kingdom, indeed the entire North lands, that she'd chosen a strong warrior to guard the estate until her son came of age.
While her father-in-law had lived, there had been no need to remarry as he had still commanded all of Raumerike's respect. But now that he was dead, she knew she could not hold the lands without help. She had no choice-she had to remarry or risk losing everything she had worked so hard to keep these last few years. She had promised herself on her father-in-law's deathbed that it wouldn't be as he predicted with his final gasp of breath-that as a lone woman, everything would slip from her grasp and Rurik would inherit nothing when he came of age. She would succeed and prove him wrong.
'Unpack my mother's bridal crown. I should have done it before now, I know, but I had to look at that horse and then there were the final preparations for the feast and '
'Old crowns are the best. I had to make do with a simple wreath of flowers when I married.' Auda clapped her hands together. 'In a few days' time you will wonder why you ever hesitated, Kara. Valdar confessed how many times he asked you. Was it fifteen or twenty?'
'Seventeen-not that I kept track.'
The marriage made sense. Valdar was kind, steady and dependable. He never had any inclination to go Viking or even on long, distant voyages for trading purposes. Her father-in-law had proclaimed Valdar to have been born under a steady star, unlike Ash's wandering one. He would be the right sort of father for Rurik-patient and caring, present instead of risking it all many leagues away. A man to lean on.
'A pity Rurik isn't here.' Auda fastened the white cloak about Kara's shoulders. 'He would have loved seeing his mother looking like a goddess. And his first opportunity to see the capital.'
'Jaarlshiem is safer. Fewer opportunities for mischief. My nerves are in shreds enough as is.' Kara firmed her mouth and ignored Auda's remark about looking like a goddess.
If she'd been more of a woman, Ash would not have gone. Ash would have stayed and made sure that he had a healthy heir. Her father-in-law's bitter words just after he found out about Ash's tragic death still had the power to hurt. Kara shook her head. Her late husband was the last person she wanted to think about today of all days. It was her wedding day.
A new start. A new chapter to ensure that Rurik grew up without fear. Jaarlshiem had been without a strong warrior at its helm for far too long. Ash Hringson belonged to the unremembered past and the girl she had once been. If she had been the one to die instead, her ashes would have barely been scattered on the tuntreet's roots before Ash found another to warm his bed.
'What has Rurik been up to?' Auda gave an indulgent smile. 'Surely he learnt his lesson after being caught out in that thunderstorm with a horse he could barely control.'
'Trust me, you don't want to know.' Kara held up her hand. 'But he worships Valdar. I hope he will be a calming influence.'
She refused to think about the narrow escapes her six-year-old son specialised in recently. The incident with the horse had been enough, but he had taken to defying her at every opportunity. Leaving him with Gudrun, Ash's old nurse, had seemed like the best option. Gudrun was used to such behaviour. She often proclaimed how like his father Rurik was, particularly around his ears and nose.
Ash's many scrapes were the stuff of legend. They first met because he had fallen while trying to recapture his falcon. The falcon suffered a hurt wing and Ash had brought the falcon to her mother rather than wringing its neck as his father had advised.
Her mother's skill as a healer had been second to none and it had been the first time Kara had been allowed to bind up a bird's wing while her mother had attended to Ash's twisted ankle. Five months later her mother had died in an accident. Ash had spoken to Kara during the funeral, taking the time to discover her hiding place behind the iron trunk and bring her a sweetmeat. Instant adoration had followed and when he'd asked her to marry him, all of her girlish dreams had come true.
Until it was too late, she had never considered that he might not feel the same way about her. Foolishly she'd failed to realise her hero was a selfish man, not a god.