Read an Excerpt
Rags of mist drifted across the dark waters of the fjord and hung among the trees below the promontory, and the first rays of sunlight tinted the distant mountains pink and gold. At any other time Lara might have enjoyed the scene and the peace that attended the start of the new day, but just then her thoughts were turned inwards, her body moving automatically through the drill that Alrik had taught her. Her brother was absent but she had put their former lessons to good use, rising early to practise every day until the feel of the sword in her hand was as familiar as a distaff or a drop spindle.
No one in the hall would be stirring yet, and the promontory was far enough from the buildings to make discovery unlikely. If her father learned what she had been doing these past months his displeasure would be great. Lara grimaced. The tension between them was bad enough. They had barely spoken since their last argument a week ago
'You're eighteen years old already and like to be an old maid, yet you continue to frighten off every suitor who offers for your hand.'
'Frightened men have never held any appeal, you see.'
'Don't be flippant with me, girl,' replied Jarl Ottar. 'Indeed you would be well advised to mend your ways and cultivate some womanly charm.'
'Am I not charming, Father?'
'I've seen she-wolves with milder temperaments than yours. No man wants a sharp-tongued harridan for a wife.'
Then they are free to choose milksop brides if they wish.'
'It is a woman's place to be dutiful.' Lara's eyes flashed indignation. Asa was dutiful, wasn't she?'
Her father frowned. 'Your sister did what was required of her. She understood what was due to her family.'
'Don't try to hide behind the family. Asa was forced into that marriage to satisfy your political ambition.'
'It was a necessary alliance to prevent more years of feuding.'
'You might as well have thrown her into a pit of vipers, but you will not use me as you used her.'
Lara lunged, thrusting the blade deep into the imaginary form of her erstwhile brother-in-law. It would have given her great pleasure to have disembowelled the living version but, unfortunately, he was far out of reach. She was also realistic enough to know that, were they ever to come face-to-face in combat, he would likely slay her with ease. She would never have a warrior's strength or skill with a sword, but learning the rudiments of self-defence gave her a sense of accomplishment. It was also empowering, like watching her would-be suitors fleeing.
'I will keep faith, Asa,' she murmured. 'I swear it.'
Regretfully she sheathed the blade once more and then picked up her cloak. People would be stirring now and she needed to get back. Recalcitrance didn't extend as far as ignoring the round of daily chores that fell to her lot. Those were performed diligently leaving no room for criticism. She smiled to herself. Men who were well fed and comfortable generally complained less than those who weren't. Anyway, it was good to be occupied. Idleness had never suited her.
She was just about to leave when she saw the ship rounding the promontory below her. Although it had the sleek lines and carved prow of a warship it was smaller than most of the sea dragons she had seen, with a crew of twenty or so. The lack of wind meant that the craft was under oars, the blades dipping and rising in perfect rhythm, barely ruffling the surface of the water. Lara silently acknowledged the skill of a crew working as one. Her gaze went from the rowers to the figure at the steering oar, a warrior in a mail byrnie. Her brow creased and she looked more closely. All the men on board were wearing them. Curiosity sharpened. The effort of rowing was great enough under normal circumstances; wearing mail would make it ten times harder. If they were doing so it argued that they had been under attack, that they expected to be or that they were about to launch an attack of their own.
She scanned the fjord but could see no sign of any other vessel. If they were being pursued it wasn't evident. That didn't necessarily mean that they intended to attack the steading but, all the same, it didn't pay to be complacent. Forewarned was forearmed. For that reason the landing was always guarded. Her father never took chances like that.
Seconds later she heard the sound of the watchman's horn announcing the approach of the ship. Wanting to see for herself she followed the track from the promontory but instead of turning right at the fork she bore left and headed towards the shoreline. The path led down a gentle gradient through a stand of birch before reaching the water. From the edge of the trees there was a good view of the landing and cover enough to remain unnoticed.
By the time she arrived the ship was nearing the shore. Half-a-dozen armed men watched its arrival. She heard the watchman's challenge ring out. It was answered at once. Evidently the answer must have been satisfactory because the crew were invited to tie up and come ashore.
Two men vaulted over the gunwale on to the wooden jetty and proceeded to make fast the lines while their comrades prepared to disembark. Although Lara was some fifty yards away she could see that her previous assessment had been correct: this was a warship and her crew armed to the teeth. Their leader appeared to be the individual she had seen before at the steering oar. He had his back to her at present but when he rattled off a series of instructions they were obeyed without question. Even among a group of big men he stood out. He was several inches taller than the rest and, like them, had the powerful athletic frame of the warrior. Moreover, he carried himself with the confidence of one accustomed to command and to being obeyed: a nobleman probably.
Lara was quietly amused. Most men of that class thought they had a right to instant obedience. It was ingrained in the species, like arrogance. As she surveyed the scene, the tall warrior turned around. She had an impression of a clean-shaven face with strong clean lines, framed by a mane of fair hair. He was distinctive, she conceded. Probably he was well aware of it too.
As though sensing that he was being observed he looked up, his attention moving beyond the landing towards the trees. The questing gaze spotted her and then locked fast. Seconds later the intent expression was replaced by amusement. Lara glanced down and realised that as she was carrying her cloak the sword at her side was plainly visible against the skirt of her gown. The realisation gave her a mental jolt. It was a careless slip and she was annoyed with herself for letting it happen. Mingled with that was indignation that it should be a source of amusement to the stranger. Nevertheless, if he thought she would be disconcerted by it he was mistaken. Lifting her chin she returned his stare and held it for a moment or two. Then, unhurriedly, she turned and walked away.
Finn remained where he was, his gaze following the girl until she was lost to view among the trees. Her presence there had been both unexpected and arresting as though a curious woodland fey had suddenly appeared to investigate their arrival. The impression was enhanced by flowing brown hair and a gown of forest-green. The fey was fair to look upon but somewhat aloof in her manner. Her expression just now had been a distinct challenge, like the sword she wore at her side. He was amused and intrigued, his curiosity thoroughly roused. Had circumstances been different he'd have investigated further.
'My lord, will it please you to come with us?'
The watchman's voice brought Finn back to practicalities. 'Er, yes, of course.'
Leaving half-a-dozen men with the ship, he and the others followed their escort. It was but a short distance to Jarl Ottar's hall, an impressive timber dwelling that spoke of the status of its owner. Around it were other buildings: stables, barn, byres, pig sties, workshops and forge. Finn and his men surveyed the steading with appraising eyes.
'It's a fine place,' observed Unnr. 'Looks like Jarl Ottar's a wealthy man.'
'Let's hope he places a high value on old allegiances,' said Sturla.
'We'll soon find out, won't we?'
Any doubts they might have entertained were swiftly banished. As soon as they were announced Jarl Ottar came forward at once. He was in his forties and his red hair was faded and streaked with grey. However, his burly form suggested strength and vigour and his blue eyes were keen and shrewd. He smiled at the newcomers and then embraced their leader heartily.
'Welcome, Finn Egilsson, and welcome to your companions too.'
'I thank you, my lord.'
'Your father was a great warrior and a staunch ally. I was proud to call him friend.'
'He spoke of you too,' said Finn, 'and always with the greatest affection and respect.'
'You have the look of him.'
'My brother, Leif, also.'
'When I heard of your father's death it was with deep sorrow.' Ottar shook his head. 'There weren't many like him. Nevertheless, it's good to see one of his sons in my hall.' He shouted for the servants to fetch ale and food. 'When you have refreshed yourselves you can tell me what brings you here.'
When Lara returned the first person she saw was Alrik. He was two years her senior and he was considerably taller. Like her he had the deep red hair that was a family trait. His blue eyes held a gleam of amusement and were looking pointedly at the cloak she was holding closed over her gown.
'Been practising again, eh?' He gave her a conspiratorial wink. 'Don't worry, I won't tell.'
'I know.' She glanced round to make sure they were out of earshot. 'I need to go and put the sword away. In the meantime we have visitors.'
'I thought I heard the horn sound.'
'A vessel has just arrived at the landing.'
He frowned. 'How many men?' 'I counted twenty.' 'Interesting.'
'Don't you want to find out why they're here?'
He grinned. 'You mean you want to find out why they're here.'
'All right, I admit I'm curious. Are you going to pretend you aren't?'
'No, I won't pretend that.' He squeezed her arm. 'Go and hide your guilty secret. I'll go to the hall.'
With that he hurried off. Lara made her way back to the bower. The place was empty now so she removed her cloak and unbuckled the sword belt before laying the weapon carefully back in the bottom of her chest and replacing the clothing on top. No one would suspect its presence there. Having done that, she straightened her rumpled gown and brushed a few tendrils of hair off her face. Then she went to find out what was toward.
By the time she reached the hall the place was bustling with servants carrying platters of food and jugs of ale. Her brother and father were deep in conversation with the guests. The servants had matters well in hand so she was able to stay in the background and listen.
Finn and his men took the edge off their hunger with bread and cold meat washed down by several cups of ale. Ottar made no attempt to discuss business until they had eaten. Then he made a gesture for the servants to replenish the cups and looked at his guests.
'Now, will you not tell me why we have the honour of your company?'
'It is not pleasure only that brings us here,' said Finn then, 'but rather the political turmoil in Vingul-mark. The royal house did not look kindly on their defeat at Eid.'
Ottar regarded him intently. 'You were there?'
'Leif and I fought for Halfdan Svarti. So too did our cousin Erik and all the men you see before you. The fighting was fierce but at the end of it King Gandalf's army was routed. Heysing and Helsing were slain. Only Prince Hakke survived.'
'Better if it had been the other way around,' said Ottar. 'I always thought him the most dangerous of Gandalf's sons.'
'There's many would agree. Hakke is nothing if not vengeful. His next act was to carry off Halfdan's intended bride, Lady Ragnhild, thinking to wed her by force. Fortunately we prevented it and rescued the lady, but, in the confusion, Hakke managed to escape us.'
'That was ill luck.'
'Ill luck indeed. He bided his time until he could have his revenge. It was to take the form of a hall burning. My brother's hall to be precise.'
'That is treachery of a high order.'
'The hall was on an estate in Vingulmark, a part of the land ceded to Halfdan. It was a gift to my brother from the kinga generous gift too, but its location made it vulnerable.'
'I can see how it might.'
'Hakke intended to surround the place and trap us within before he set fire to it. But for a timely warning the plan might have succeeded,' said Finn. 'As it was we were heavily outnumbered. We decided to split up so that the enemy would have to divide his force in order to give chase.'
'Which, knowing Hakke and his adherents, they did.'
'My men and I were pursued by a big warship under the command of Steingrim. They would have overtaken us for sure but, mercifully, the fog came down and we managed to lose them.'
'As well for you that you did.'
'Steingrim won't give up easily. If we're to have any chance of defeating him we must have reinforcements.'
'I was hoping you might be able to help us, my lord.'
Ottar nodded. 'Whatever can be done will be done.' 'I appreciate it.'
'You are the son of a friend and an ally. Your enemies are mine.'
'I shall not forget this,' said Finn. 'Nor do I expect such a favour for nothing. You will tell me what I may do for you in return.'
Ottar was silent for a moment, his expression thoughtful. Then his gaze met Finn's and he smiled. 'I will think on it. In the meantime I invite you and your men to remain here for a few days as my guests. Tonight you must take pot luck. On the morrow we shall feast you properly.' He looked round, his gaze scanning the room. Then it lighted on the person he sought. 'Ah, there you are. Come here, girl.'
Finn glanced round casually, assuming that his host was addressing one of the servants, but as the girl in question crossed the room towards them he stared, recognising her at once. Seen at closer quarters she reinforced his earlier impression of a fey; the face with its high cheekbones and small pointed chin was dominated by beautiful blue-green eyes. Her hair, which he'd originally believed to be brown, was actually deep red and naturally curly, spilling in a glorious mass over her shoulders and down her back to a waist he could have spanned with his hands. Despite its slenderness her figure had the alluring curves of womanhood. The green gown he had noted before was made of fine wool and belted by an embroidered girdle. The only thing missing was the sword.
'Jarl Finn and his men will be staying with us for a while,' said Ottar. 'You will make whatever arrangements are necessary.'
Ottar went on, 'This is my youngest daughter, Lara.'
Finn made a courteous bow. 'I am honoured, lady.'
The blue-green eyes surveyed him coolly for a moment and then she inclined her head in acknowledgement.
'The honour is mine, my lord.'
The tone was polite but also aloof. The words were not accompanied by a smile, or a blush or the lowered gaze that he might have expected. It was as though she were merely observing the outward forms of courtesy but was inwardly unconcerned about whether she pleased or not. It was far removed from his usual experience with women. Then again, the women with whom he'd associated in recent times had a vested interest in pleasing a man. This was the daughter of his host so it behoved him to make an effort.