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Lairig Dubh, Scotland
His sword sang its death song and the sound pulsed through his soul, giving him strength and resolve. Swinging it over his head and aiming its sharpened tip down, Rurik Erengislsson allowed the Viking buried deep within him to rise as he became one, in that instant, with the messenger of death in his grip. Only his control, exerted at the last moment, kept the deathblow from being delivered to the man lying at his feet in the dirt. Raising his face to the sun, he screamed out his battle cry like a berserker of old, loud and long, until it echoed out past the buildings of the yard and even over the walls surrounding the keep of Lairig Dubh.
His opponent judiciously allowed him the moment of triumph and did not move. The sharp tip of the sword held at Connor's neck was, no doubt, part of what held him motionless, waiting for Rurik to relent. When those watching erupted into cheering, he lifted the sword away and reached down to his vanquished foe, the man he called laird.
"I was beginning to think this was the end," Connor MacLerie, Laird MacLerie and the Earl of Douran, said under his breath. "There was an expression in your eyes I did not recognize, Rurik."
The laird brushed the dirt from him and held his hand out for his own weapon, which Rurik had tossed aside during their battle. A boy ran to pick it up and bring it back to Connor.
Rurik cleared his throat and spit in the dirt. "I do not kill those I serve."
Connor nodded at the gold armbands he now wore. The laird was an observant man. "The sword. The armbands. I suspect they are related to the visitors who stand in my hall and await your arrival there."
"Visitors?" he asked.
Nodding to another of the lads who stood watching, he leaned over and gave him instructions before handing his blade to the boy. Facing Connor once more, he knew that an attempt at feigning surprise would not be missed and would be considered an insult by the laird, who was also his friend.
"They come looking for Rurik Erengislsson. They carry word from the Orkneys from your father."
The news was nothing he did not already know.
Two previous visits by them had not gone unnoticed, but they returned north after being unsuccessful in their quest each time. In spite of his ability to avoid them, Rurik had not been able to cast the items they sent to him away as easily as he had their written missives.
"I know," he said. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Rurik shrugged. "I do not wish to speak to them."
Connor's not-even-furtive glances over his shoulder told Rurik that the men approached from behind. Although quite capable of knocking them to the ground, he understood that Connor had welcomed them and had thus protected them with his name and hospitality. Attacking them, even if to give himself time to escape, was not possible without making the MacLerie himself an enemy. And the urge to run was growing, disconcerting him even more.
"That sword held over me in your hand tells me otherwise, Rurik." Connor clapped him on the shoulder. "You cannot run from your past forever. 'Tis a lesson I learned and one that you should consider." Leaning closer, he lowered his voice. "You need not repeat my mistakes to learn from them."
That sword had been his failing. The armbands, although appealing to him, did not carry the importance of the sword. He damned his own weakness in not simply burying it when it was delivered to him. Rurik gazed over to watch the boy following his instructions on how to clean it. Giving in to the inevitable step he must take, he nodded at Connor and turned to face the two men who had dogged his every move for more than three months.
They need not remove their hoods for him to recognize two of his boyhood friends now grown. Rurik held out his hand to each in turn. Memories flashed through his thoughts reminding him of how much trouble three boys, who were all bark and no brawn, could get into when they had too much time and not enough guidance.
The hesitation lasted only a moment more, until Sven reached over and pulled him into the crushing clinch given by one friend to another. Reluctant to admit even to himself how good it felt, Rurik pulled away. Magnus's reaction should not have surprised him, but it did and he barely missed having his wits knocked out of him by the blow when it came. The silence in the yard grew as he climbed to his feet, brushed some dirt from his breeches and began to laugh.
"Connor, come and meet these two worthless "
They both jumped him when he turned back to the laird and he continued laughing as they all hit the ground. He held his own in the battle for a few minutes and then Rurik pushed them away, ending the fight and the uncomfortable beginning between them. Connor approached then and he introduced them in the Gaelic spoken by the clan here. When the laird invited them to seek the comforts of the hall, Rurik shook his head. He did not wish to hold the coming conversation in front of those here.
Leading the two out of the yard, through the gate and toward the village, Rurik felt the knot in his gut tighten. What kind of mistake was he making in wanting to hear their message?
He'd lied to Connor and knew the truth of it in his soulhe feared the words sent by his father. He dreaded the choices he would have to make once they were spoken. Swearing not to return to the northern islands was fine when there was no invitation, but now what would he do?
Sven and Magnus did not speak on the way to the cottage Rurik maintained here in Lairig Dubh for his use. A woman from the village watched over it when he was gone and kept it clean and stocked while he was here. Rurik smiled as he thought on the other things that the lovely Daracha provided to him during his stays. His body hardened and his mouth watered in anticipation of such things happening this night after the village quieted.
Sven and Magnus would have to sleep in the keep.
He pushed the door open and let them walk in first. Leaving the door open to allow the breezes to flow through, he pulled the few stools and chair near the small table and pointed for them to sit. Going to a storage cupboard, he took out a skin of ale and three cups. Filling them, he sat and nodded at Sven, the one who would most likely deliver the message.
"We have sought you for nigh onto three months now, Rurik. Why have you avoided us?"
"I had no interest in your words or the one who sent you," he offered, not certain he believed the excuse, but it sounded like a good one.
"And now?" Magnus asked. "Why did you want to hear it now?"
Rurik looked around the cottage and wondered himself about the reasons that drove him to avoid them for months, as they'd said, and now approach. "It was time."
Sven and Magnus snorted, almost in unison, exchanged looks and then shrugged before drinking more of their ale. The tension around them dissipated, as though now that they knew he would hear them out, they did not have to worry about his trying to leave them behind.
"He wants you to come back. He is willing to recognize you as son and heir," Sven said, not bothering with niceties.
The word slipped out before Rurik could stop it. The longing tore through him and his gut tightened. Years and years of fighting it and, with one word, it won.
"He needs someone to oversee his lands in Sweden. And there's a marriage offer to be considered."
Rurik tried to fight the smile and was as successful in that battle as he had been with trying to hold back the hunger for exactly what had just been offered to him. "Marriage?"
"Come now, Rurik, you know his connections. Many would like to be linked to the son of Erengisl Sunesson. Bastard-born or not, you are an advantage to have as husband to some nobleman's daughter."
The reference to his illegitimacy stung, but he knew the truth of Sven's words. Many alliances were made through marriage and his birth would not really be an impediment to many who craved a connection to those with political or social power, or wealth. His father had all of those.
"Will you come?" Magnus asked.
Rurik held back that part of him that wished to jump at the offer. Many here depended on him and he did not wish to disappoint them. The laird was one such person, as was their uncle, who had taken him in without question and without rancor for his beginnings. Although hesitant to reveal so much about himself, Rurik knew that he must in order to make such a decision wisely.
"I will think on it, Magnus. I need time."
Sven and Magnus exchanged another look and then both of them peered around the interior of the cottage. Their plan was obvious; their distrust or suspicion palpable. They turned back to face him.
"The laird's hospitality will be extended for you both in the hall. You will have no complaints about the amount or quality of his food or the cleanliness of his keep."
He stood and waited while Sven and Magnus finished their ale. They began the walk back with him to the keep. It did not take long before women gathered along the path near his cottage. Smiling, he nodded at them as they passed. Sven and Magnus noticed them as well.
"Stay away from the virgins. The laird will take offense if you tangle with them and leave. There are enough others," Rurik said, nodding his head in the direction of several of the women with whom he'd spent time since Nara's departure, "who are willing."
Sven and Magnus now smiled at the women as they passed, nodding to one or another. Men had needs; women filled them. And when the women were willing, pleasure followed.
"One thing you should know," Rurik said in a low voice. "They believe that all men from the north are like me, if you get my meaning."
His reputation as a lover of women, and a great one at that, had been built over the years here with the MacLeries. He had shared enough nights of wine and women with Sven and Magnus to know that they would not disgrace him or their ancient heritage when it came to their treatment of women here.
Rurik and his old friends made their way to the keep, where the laird and lady provided for their comfort, and then back to the village, where the women provided them another kind of comfort.
Five days had passed since Rurik heard his father's offer and still he had made no decision. His uncle said nothing, although Rurik was certain he'd known the topic of the message. Dougal had never once spoken of what had happened to his sister, Rurik's mother, and Rurik had never asked how much he'd known. The one thing that was certain was that Dougal had taken in and provided for the son of his sister and had been his staunchest supporter in every step he took in becoming part of the Clan MacLerie.
Now, Rurik found himself hesitant to raise the issue and he turned for counsel to his friend. After the evening meal, Rurik sought out Connor's favorite place in the keepother than his wife's bedand found the laird there, high on the walls, observing the comings and goings in the yard.
"So, when do you leave?" Connor asked as Rurik approached.
"I have not yet decided to answer his call."
"Rurik," Connor said, slapping him on the shoulder,
"you decided as soon as the words were said. Even before," he said, nodding his head at Rurik's sword.
"The moment you took that sword out of hiding and used it, the deciding was done."
"I " Rurik began but could not continue denying it.
Connor shook his head. "There is no need to deny the truth to me. And Dougal understands as well, but does not wish to talk about it with you."
Rurik did not have words to express his surprise or his gratitude for the understanding of the two people closest to him in life. Before he could embarrass himself, Connor held out his hand. "May I see the sword?"