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The Strongbow Saga, Book Three: The Road to Vengeance
What Is His Plan?
An arrow whispered out of the dark and thudded into something solid. The sound startled me awake, and I reached out, frantically searching for my weapons. My hand hit something—I could not tell what—that fell over with a loud clatter.
"Hush!" a voice nearby said. "They cannot see us, but they are shooting at sounds."
The voice—it was Tore's—pulled me the rest of the way from my sleep, and I remembered where I was.
The Gull, the longship of Hastein, my captain, and the Bear, Ivar the Boneless's ship, were anchored, lashed side by side, in the middle of the Seine River. We were deep in the heart of Frankia. Dusk had been falling when they'd plucked me from the riverbank, where Frankish warriors had surrounded me. Deciding it was too dangerous to try to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the Seine in the dark, Hastein and Ivar had decided to wait the night out in the middle of the river, as far as possible from Frankish archers lurking along the shore.
Tore and Odd were crouched nearby, their bows strung with arrows nocked and ready, peering between the shields lashed along the side of the Gull.
"Do you see anything?" Tore whispered.
Odd shook his head. "No," he answered. "The shoreline is too far, and the shadows from the trees along it hide too much. He is somewhere over there, though," he added, pointing slightly upstream with his free hand, "judging from the angle of the last arrow that hit the side."
I was lucky to be alive; lucky to have returnedunharmed from the dangerous scouting mission our army's leaders had sent me on. I could still feel the fear of knowing that the time of my death was upon me. Yet once more, against all odds, I had survived. Once more, for reasons known only to them, the Norns had chosen not to cut the threads of my life, but instead had kept me alive and a part of the great pattern of fate they were weaving; the fate of all men and of the world itself. I had survived, but my death had felt so near and so certain that I could not shake its grasp from my heart.
Late the following afternoon, we reached Ruda, the Frankish town along the river that our army had captured and made its base. I did not want to return to the home of Wulf, the gruff Frankish sea captain, where I had been billeted before being sent out on the scouting mission. If I'd been alone, I would have gone to the palace, where the rest of the Gull's crew had made their quarters. But I was not alone. I had a prisoner.
When I pushed the door of his house open and stepped inside, Wulf, who was seated at the table in the main room, scrambled to his feet. For a moment he was speechless with surprise. Perhaps he'd thought—or even hoped—that I was dead. Quickly enough, though, he recovered both his wits and his voice, and began protesting loudly.
"I was not expecting you to return here. The town is calm now, and at peace. We no longer need your protection."
What he said was true. Most of our army was encamped on an island in the river just upstream from Ruda, rather than in the town itself, and Ragnar, the army's war-king, had forbidden our men from harassing the town's citizens. Soon enough we might be facing the main Frankish army. Ragnar did not want a hostile populace at our backs to deal with, in addition to a besieging force, if we had to defend ourselves from behind Ruda's walls.
"Why have you come back here?" Wulf continued. "Why do you not stay with the rest of your captain's men in the count's palace?"
Bertrada, Wulf's wife, was standing behind him, wringing her hands, an anxious expression on her face. I knew she could not understand what he was saying—Wulf was speaking to me in my own tongue, rather than the version of Latin spoken by the Franks. But his anger was obvious from the tone of his voice. No doubt she feared I might take offense. In truth, I was beginning to.
I pointed behind me. "I have come back to your home because of her. She is my prisoner. I need quarters where she will be safe." Surely Wulf could understand that. A woman—particularly one as young and comely as my captive—could not be housed in a hall filled with hardened warriors.
"You are concerned for her safety?" he exclaimed, and rolled his eyes—an insolent gesture which angered me. "Is this not a woman you stole? If her well-being worries you so, why did you take her? Surely she would have been safe if you'd left her with her own folk!
"I am running low on food," Wulf continued. "So long as your fleet is on the river, and our land is under attack by your army, I am unable to take my ship out—I am unable to trade. I can earn nothing with which to buy food for my own family. I cannot afford to feed two extra mouths. She is your problem. She is not my concern."
Genevieve, my prisoner, was standing just inside the doorway, slumped back against the wall, staring at us dully. She had stumbled from fatigue several times during the short walk from the river to Wulf's home, and looked as though she might fall asleep on her feet at any moment.
I felt almost as weary as Genevieve looked. I had been close to exhaustion before Hastein and Ivar had rescued me, and had slept little since. The Franks had been angry at losing Genevieve when they'd believed her rescue was assured. The archers they'd sent creeping to the river's edge had kept up a steady, if ineffectual, fire at us during the night. No one on board either ship had been hit, but after having been hunted for several days by the Franks, the occasional whistle of an arrow passing overhead, unseen in the dark, or the thud of a low shot striking the side of the ship had been enough to keep my nerves on edge, and had made sound sleep impossible. The Strongbow Saga, Book Three: The Road to Vengeance. Copyright © by Judson Roberts. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.