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There was nothing worse than being in love with your best friend's wife.
Ragnar Olafsson tightened his fists over the oars, pulling hard against the waves of the sea. He shouldn't have gone with them to eire. But when Styr had asked him to come, he'd agreed in a weak moment. Though he'd buried all traces of his obsession with Elena, the idea of never seeing her again was worse than the torment of seeing her with her husband.
Never once had he let either of them know of his fascination. No one knew of the raw frustration gnawing within him when he watched Styr take the woman he loved into his hut. It was a dark torture, seeing them together.
And yet, he couldn't bring himself to let her go.
As he rowed, Ragnar kept his gaze fixed upon Elena. Her fair hair held glints of red, like touches of fire upon gold. She was like a beautiful goddess-he worshipped her from afar.
She considered him a friend, but nothing more than that. It wasn't surprising. A woman like Elena deserved a strong marriage to a high-born warrior. Her match with Styr had been arranged years ago and Ragnar wasn't the sort of man to steal a woman away from a friend. Especially not his best friend.
She'd made her choice and Styr had done everything to make her happy. For that reason, Ragnar had stepped aside.
He'd tried to find another woman over the years. Although he was a strong fighter and several maidens had cast their eyes on him, none of them compared to Elena. Perhaps no one ever would.
He studied her as she stared off at the grey waters. Something had changed in the past few months. She and Styr were hardly speaking to one another any more. Her barrenness was eating away at her spirit, drowning her in misery. When she stared out at the sea, her face was unnaturally pale. There were no words to mend the broken pieces, nothing Ragnar could say to her.
As the boat neared the shore, the waters were shallower than they'd guessed.
'We'll stop here,' Styr ordered. Glancing at the others, he moved to stand beside Ragnar. For a moment, his friend stared out at the shoreline. 'Will you stay behind with Elena?' he asked. 'I don't want her near the front, if there's danger.'
'I'll keep her safe.' He would bathe his sword in the blood of any enemy who dared to threaten Elena. Though she didn't belong to him, she was his to guard. He wouldn't hesitate to offer his life, if it meant saving her.
Styr rested a hand upon Ragnar's shoulder. With a dark sigh, he admitted, 'I am glad you came with us. A journey like this could only be endured with friends.'
'None of the men has slept in three days,' Ragnar agreed. 'We all need a good meal and rest.' Their vessel had been tossed upon the waves as if the gods had wanted to claim them as a sacrifice. They'd fought the hard winds, trying to battle the storm. And they'd won, at the cost of sleep. His body and mind were so strung out, he could hardly piece together any thoughts other than the desire to collapse upon the sand.
'A pity you haven't a woman to warm your bed,' Styr added with a shrug.
Ragnar sent him a wry look. 'The last I heard, there are women in éire. I might find one yet.'
He'd had a few women over the years, but none of them compared to her. Though he'd tried, time and again, to purge Elena from his mind, there were many nights when he awakened, covered with sweat. .his shaft hard with visions of the woman he loved.
By the blood of Thor, he had to stop thinking of it. Elena belonged to Styr and there was never any hope that it would change. Once she quickened with her husband's seed, she would find her happiness. Ragnar tightened his hand upon his sword and reached for a shield to distract his mind.
Styr took his own shield, adding, 'I'm glad you're here. I need strong fighters among my men.' To emphasise his point, he lightly punched Ragnar's upper arm.
Ragnar responded by seizing Styr's wrist and holding it fast. 'I've bested you a time or two.'
'Because I allowed it.' But his friend sent him a dark smile. Styr was like a brother to him. He had taught him how to fight, after Ragnar's father had neglected to do so. They had trained together in secret, until Ragnar could wield a sword as well as him. In truth, Ragnar was the better fighter, but Styr would never admit it.
Ragnar said quietly, 'I'll always guard your back.' And so he would. Despite his traitorous feelings, he would never betray his greatest friend.
After dropping their anchor, they waded through the waist-high water. Elena remained on board the ship, as if uncertain whether or not to approach.
'You can stay on the ship if you want,' Ragnar told her. 'We'll see if it's safe.'
She appeared troubled but shook her head. 'No, I want to go with the others. Perhaps if they see me, they won't think you're attacking.'
Her reasoning made sense, for invaders rarely had a woman among them. But still, he intended to keep her behind the others.
Ragnar helped her down, trying not to let his hands linger upon her slender form. She wore a cream-coloured gown with a softer rose apron, pinned at the shoulders with golden brooches. Her hair was in tight braids, pinned to her head, and she winced as she made her way through the frigid water.
'We'll build a fire for you, soon enough,' he promised.
Ahead, Styr had his battleaxe firmly in his grasp and all of them studied the settlement. It was unnaturally silent, which set Ragnar on edge. The scent of outdoor fires lingered and he saw evidence of a tribe that had fled. A pot of liquid boiled, the steam rising in the cold air but there was no one to tend it. A length of cloth lay discarded on the ground, as if its owner had fled too quickly to take it.
'Stay back,' Ragnar warned Elena. As he trudged through the water, his vision seemed to blur, his footing growing less stable. The lack of sleep from the violent storms was starting to affect him. He pushed back against the spinning sensation, ignoring his body's demands for rest.
Something was wrong within the settlement. There were no people and no animals. With each step forwards, his mind dulled. He couldn't seem to grasp a clear thought and, when he blinked, the world seemed to tip on edge. Ragnar took a moment to steady himself, claiming a deep breath. He would not allow exhaustion to overcome his strength.
When he glimpsed movement, he turned back to Elena. 'You should return to the boat,' he commanded. 'Stay there until we know what's happening.' He didn't want her caught in a battle if the Irish misunderstood their reasons for coming here.
She shook her head. 'If I stay there alone, I'm unprotected.' Ragnar started to argue, but she insisted, 'I'm not going back. I'll stay here, at the water's edge, but I need to be on land.'
'Behind me, then,' he acceded. Before they could venture another step, he stopped to look at her. Her sea-green eyes held him captive, her skin as pale as milk. So many nights he'd dreamed of sinking his hands into her fiery hair, claiming her soft lips in a kiss.
'Is something wrong?' she asked, her face flushed at his stare. It was as if she could read his forbidden thoughts.
Ragnar focused on the sand ahead. 'No. Nothing at all.' He scanned the ringfort for movement. In the distance, he spied shadows moving behind one of the huts. The silence was unnerving, as if they were the prey of some unknown attacker. They continued walking through the water until they stood upon dry land.
Ragnar moved several steps towards the shadows, gripping his shield in his left hand, a short sword in the other. More than ever, he was starting to believe that Elena should have stayed on the ship. She remained behind him, on the edge of the sand. Waves washed around her ankles, while she waited with her hands gripped together.
'Stay back,' he warned. 'Call out if you see anything.' She nodded and Ragnar hesitated. Instinct warned him not to leave her.and yet he wasn't about to risk endangering her from an unseen attacker. 'Will you be all right?'
'Yes.' But her voice held no confidence at all. She reached to her belt and gripped the hilt of a dagger.
Ragnar moved cautiously towards the shadows, while the others followed Styr. Their gait was heavy, as if the weight of the past few days remained upon their shoulders. All could fight, if necessary, but fatigue had set in.
He kept walking, his mind focused upon any threat, when suddenly, he heard Elena's scream cut through the stillness. He spun, raising his sword and found her surrounded by four men.
By the gods, where had they come from? Like ghosts, they'd emerged from the mist that surrounded her.
A dark violence awakened within him. The blood rage pushed away the exhaustion and he raced back to Elena, his sword in hand. He lunged at one of the young men, only to have his sword blocked by a shield. Renewed energy coursed through his veins as he fought with all of his strength. Two men attacked him and he used his shield to deflect a blow, slashing his sword down with his right hand.
He let the battle madness sweep over him, releasing the rage inside. When metal clashed against wood, he slid into the familiar fighting. Everything else faded away except the primal need to protect her.
Another enemy crept up behind him and he saw the wild look in Elena's eyes. He didn't care that he was outnumbered. He would not let anyone harm her-not while he had breath in his body. With a crushing blow, he used his shield to knock down the third man, slashing a savage blow to the other.
One of the men grabbed Elena from behind, twisting her wrist until her dagger fell to the sand. He dragged her backwards and Ragnar fought with all his strength to break free of the Irishmen.
But he didn't know if he'd reach her in time.
Blood thundered in his veins as Ragnar released a battle cry. He cut through the men surrounding him, his blade slashing towards his enemy. Dimly, he was aware of Styr charging forwards as well.
Two men tried to cut them off, but he and Styr divided their enemies. When his attacker struck out, Ragnar threw himself to the sand, rolling free while a sword sliced the place where his head had been.
More of the Irish charged forwards and while he continued to fight, Ragnar saw a young man seize Elena, holding a blade to her throat. There was desperation in the young man's eyes, of a captor who had never killed before. That made him even more dangerous.
With a renewed surge of aggression, Ragnar pushed his way free, just as Styr raced towards his wife. Before Styr could tear Elena's captor apart, everything changed.
Another woman emerged, shouting at both of them. In her hands, she held a thick staff as her weapon.
Ragnar ignored her, all of his attention focused on Elena. The young man was distracted, giving him an opening to free her. He inched his way closer, waiting for the right moment.
For an instant, the young man faltered, as if considering whether to let Elena go. He seemed to recognise that if he did, Styr would split his head open with the axe.
But Ragnar could attack from behind, catching the young man unawares. If he struck true, he could free Elena before anyone knew what had happened.
He lifted his sword, prepared to strike. Before he could move, the woman brought her wooden staff across Styr's head, catching him on the ear. His friend dropped to the ground.
Thor's blood. Ragnar didn't think, but lunged, just as another man raised his blade for the kill.
'Styr!' Elena cried out in anguish, just as Ragnar blocked the blow. She was reaching towards her fallen husband, while the other woman was speaking foreign words that sounded like an apology.
The young man dragged Elena back, stepping towards the water. Deeper he moved, until she was submerged to her waist. He could drown her if he tried.
Ragnar shouted to the others, knowing that all of them were needed to protect Elena and Styr. His friends kept their weapons drawn, their shields at the ready as they approached. Upon the sand, he saw the dark-haired woman binding Styr's wrists and ankles with long strips of leather. An older man helped her drag him away.
'Ragnar,' Elena pleaded. 'Save him.' Her voice was barely above a whisper, her sea-green eyes holding her fear of death.
He was torn between saving his best friend and saving Elena. Gods help him, this was a decision he'd never wanted to make.
'What should we do?' his friend Onund asked.
In the end, there was only one choice. He had to save the woman he loved, even at the cost of the man who was like a brother.
'If anything happens to her, Styr will hold us all to blame.' Ragnar raised his sword and shield and started towards the water.