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The first dragon's prow appeared upon the horizon at the same time that the first stroke of lightning sizzled across the sky and the first mighty crack of thunder drummed throughout the heavens.
And then there was a sea of dragon prows, striking new terror into weary hearts. Tall and savage upon the water, like mythical beasts, they sailed in, raining devastation and slaughter.
The fury of the Norseman was well-known along the Saxon coastlines of England. The Danes had wreaked havoc upon the land for years, and all Christendom had learned to stand and tremble at the sight of the swift dragon ships, the scourge of land and sea.
The ships came from the east that day, but no man or woman viewing the host of Viking ships that caught a wind that threatened sails, dared pause to ponder that fact. They saw the endless shields that lined the ships, prow and aft, and they saw that the wind, not the oarsmen, advanced the ships like the wrath of God.
Lightning sizzled and snapped and lit up the gray, swirling sky. The wind whistled and roared, and then screamed, as if to portend the blood and violence to come. Red and white, the Viking sails slashed across the dark and deadly gunmetal sky, defying the vicious wind.
Rhiannon was in her chapel when the first alarm was shouted. She prayed for the men who would do battle against the Danes at Rochester. She prayed for Alfred, her cousin and king, and she prayed for Rowan, whom she loved.
She had not expected danger to darken her coast. Most of her men were gone to serve with the king as the Danes were amassing to the south. She was without help.
"My lady!" Egmund, her most loyal, aging warrior, long of service to her family, found her in the chapel upon her knees. "My lady! Dragon prows!"
For a moment she thought he had lost his mind. "Dragon prows?" she repeated.
"On the horizon. Coming for us!"
"From the east?"
"Aye, from the east!"
Rhiannon leapt to her feet and raced from the chapel, finding the stairs to the wooden walls that surrounded her manor house. She hurried along the parapets, staring out to sea.
They were coming. Just as Egmund had warned her.
She felt sick to her stomach. She almost screamed in fear and agony. All of her life she had been fighting. The Danes had descended upon England like a swarm of locusts, and they had brought with them bloodshed and terror. They had killed her father. She would never forget holding him and willing him to breathe again. Alfred fought the Danes and defeated them often.
Now they were descending upon her home, and she had no one left to defend it because her people had gone to Alfred. "My God," she breathed aloud.
"Lady, run!" Egmund said. "Take a mount and ride hard to the king. You can reach him by tomorrow if you ride hard. Take your arrows and an escort, and I will surrender this fortress."
She stared at him and then smiled slowly. "Egmund, I cannot run. You know that."
"You cannot stay!"
"We will not surrender. Surrender means nothing to them–they perform the same atrocities whether men give battle or not. I will stay and fight from here."
"I may kill or wound many of them, Egmund. You know that."
He did; she could see it in his eyes. She was an amazing markswoman. But she knew, too, as he looked at her, that he was still seeing her as the little girl he had protected for years.
Old Egmund wasn't seeing her as a child at all but as a woman, and he was afraid for her. Rhiannon was beautiful and striking, with a siren's silver-blue eyes and golden-sunset hair. She was Alfred's cousin as well as his godchild, and at his command she had been well educated. She could be softspoken and as gentle as a kitten, and she could trade quips and laugh with the men and manage the vast estates she had inherited with a charming ease. She would be a worthy prize for some Viking, and Egmund could not bear the thought that she might fall prey to such a man.
"Rhiannon, I beg of you! As I served your father–"
Two steps brought her to him, and she flashed him a warm, beautiful smile, taking both of his gnarled hands into her own. "Dearest Egmund! For the love of God, I cannot fathom this attack from the east. I cannot! But I will not surrender, and I will not leave you here to die for me! I will flee when there is nothing more than can be done. But now, you must know that as my father's daughter I cannot leave until we have sent some of those heathens straight to hell! Call Thomas and order out what guard we have left, Egmund. Warn the serfs and the tenants. Hurry!"
"Rhiannon, you must stay safe!"
"Have my bow and a quiver of arrows sent to me. I shall not leave the parapet, I swear it!" she promised him.
Knowing further words would be useless, Egmund hurried down the wooden steps, shouting out orders. The huge gates were ordered shut, the few remaining warriors mounted their horses, and the simple farmers rushed about to find pitchforks and staffs. All looked terrified.
The brutality of the Vikings was well known.
A boy brought Rhiannon her quiver and arrows. She stared across the sea. The sky had grown gray and the wind was whipping fiercely, as if the elements were forecasting the horror soon to come. She saw the ships and trembled. Closing her eyes, she tried very hard not to remember the Viking raids of the past. She had lost so much to the Danes, as had England. She, too, was terrified, and yet she had to fight. To be taken or slain without fighting was not conceivable to her.
The attack made no sense at all. Alfred should have known something of the Danish movements. She should have been warned.
The ships moved closer and closer. The sky and sea seemed not to have the power to stop them.
Rhiannon nearly sank to her knees in fear. The ships were almost at the shore. The prows alone, with their hideously carved dragon faces, were enough to strike terror into most hearts. And still the sailors had not taken aim. Rhiannon prayed that her soldiers would let fly the first volley of arrows. Perhaps they could kill some of the invaders before the Vikings reached them. She closed her eyes in a brief prayer. Dear God, I am scared, please be with me.
She opened her eyes. She could see a man riding the lead ship. He was tall and blond and rode the tempest of the waves without losing his balance, his arms crossed over his chest. Certainly he was one of the commanders, towering in height, broad in the shoulders, lean in the hips, a strongly muscled warrior of Valhalla. She shivered anew and pulled out an arrow. Resolutely she stretched out her bow.
Her fingers trembled. She had never tried to kill a man before. Now she had to. She knew what Vikings did to men and women when they raided.
Her fingers slipped and a new trembling assailed her. Her mouth went dry and a frightening warmth overcame her. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, and when she opened them again, she didn't understand what had seized her. The wind seemed to be whispering to her that the golden-blond Viking was going to be part of her fate.
Impatiently she shook off the feeling and swore she would not tremble again. If it was difficult to aim at a man in order to kill him, she need only remember her father's death.
She tested her bow again, and her fingers were remarkably steady. Kill the leader, her father and Alfred had said often enough, and the men beneath him will scatter. This blond giant was one of their leaders. She had to kill him. And that was what the whisper of fate had been. She had to kill him, even if he seemed to defy the wind, the sea, and the gods, both Norse and Christian.
Eric of Dubhlain had no idea at that moment that his life might be in danger from anyone. He had not come to make war but at the invitation of Alfred of Wessex.
The sea was fierce, but he knew the sea and did not fear it.
The sky went black, and then the lightning came again, a startling streak of gold, as if God Himself had cast down a bolt of fire to light up the doom that approached. God or Odin, the Lord of the Viking horde, of his father's people, was at work. Odin was casting lightning bolts as he raced his black stallion Sephyr, and his chariot across the heavens. Odin, god of the pagans, was creating the storm, turning the sky to pitch, lighting it up again with blazes of sheer fire.
Eric stood tall and towering and powerful, like a golden god against the wind, a booted foot braced hard against the prow. The wind played against his hair, and it was as golden as the lightning, his eyes a blazing cobalt blue. His features were strongly chiseled, ruggedly, implacably handsome. His cheekbones were high and wide, his eyebrows set well upon his brow and cleanly arched, his jaw firm. His mouth, wide and sensual, was set in a straight line as he watched the shore. His beard and mustache were clipped and clean, redder than the hair upon his head, and his flesh was handsomely bronzed. He wore a crimson mantle, drawn closed with a sapphire brooch. He needed no fine garments to display his nobility, for his stature and the confidence of his stance made men tremble. The very air about him seemed charged, revealing his vitality. To maids of any race or creed he created a startling, arresting appearance. He was graced with extraordinary power in his muscles, in the breadth of his shoulders, in the width of his chest, and in the strength of his thighs. His belly was whipcord lean. His legs, hugging the tempest-tossed ship with ease, were as strong as steel from years upon the sea and years riding, running, fighting, and coming a-Viking.
Yet he was not the customary Viking, for he was the son of two races, the Irish and the Norse. His father, the great Lord of the Wolves, ruled as king in the Irish city of Dubhlain. Olaf, King of Dubhlain, had gone a-Viking in his time too. But he had fallen in love with the land and with his Irish wife, and he had brought about a curious peace with Eric's grandfather, the great Ard-Ri, or High King, of all Ireland. Eric's maternal grandfather, Aed Finnlaith, still ruled over all the Irish kings at Tara, and far away in the Norwegian icelands, Eric's father's father ruled as a great jarl of the Norse. His education had been well rounded. He had studied in great monasteries of learning with Irish monks, and he had learned about the Christian God and Christ, about writing, and about literature. At his father's court he had met many foreign men, masters and teachers. He had been taught to listen to the trees and the forest and the wind by Mergwin, the Druid. He had learned to reap, to harvest.
But he was a second son. He had gone to battle with his father and his elder brother, and he loved his Irish kin, but he had equally honored his Norse brethren. His Norse uncles, too, had taken him on many journeys for another kind of education.
He had been bred to civilization, for men already proclaimed this time a "golden" age for Ireland.
He had also been bred to the raids that had made the savage quests of the Vikings famous throughout Europe and Asia and even the Russias. There were no finer navigators living than the Norsemen. There were no more furious fighters. And there were no men more brutal.
But he did not sail today to do battle. Though he had gone a-Viking with the best fighters in his younger days, he had also learned about a better quest, the one for land.
Eric had been sent to sea for the first time when he was just a lad, in the company of his uncle for whom he had been named. With his paternal grandfather's finest men, he had crossed endless seas and rivers and vast lands. He had sailed the Dnieper, entered into the gates of Constantinople, and learned the ways of the Moslem princes. He had come to know different cultures and peoples, and countless women, by conquest and by barter. A-Viking had been a way of life. It was what he did and what he was.
As the lightning lit up the heavens and the sea churned beneath him, as England's shore loomed ever closer, he wondered vaguely what had changed him. Not that the change had come quickly or easily. It had been like the slow melting of snows in the spring, entering into his heart and his being.
It had begun far, far from the northern icelands that were home to the Viking spirit. It had happened on the coast of Africa, when they had battled the caliph of Alexandria, and the people had come forward to pay with gold for their lives and their freedom.
She had been a gift to him.
Her name had been Emenia, and she knew nothing of rancor and hatred. She had taught him everything about peace. He had known only violence and she taught him tenderness. She had been taught the most exotic arts of lovemaking in the finest harem in the land, but it had been the sweet beauty in her heart, in her unquestioning devotion to him, that had lured him into love. She had enormous almond-shaped eyes, and hair as black as night, all the way down her back. Her skin was the color of honey, and she had tasted of it, and other sweet spices, and had smelled of jasmine.
She had died for him.
The caliph had been determined on treachery. Emenia had heard of it and had tried to come to warn him. He had heard later that the caliph's men had caught her by her glorious dark hair as she ran along the halls of the palace.
They had slain her to keep her silent, slitting her throat.
He had never been what the Vikings called a berserker–a fighter to lose all thought and reason and battle with nothing more than savage intent. Eric believed in a cool head in battle and had never relished needless death.
But that night he had become a berserker.
He had gone after her murderers, alone, enraged, and he had slain half of the caliph's guard before the ruler had thrown himself upon his knees, swearing that he had not ordered Emenia's death, only his own. Somehow, remembering her love of life and peace, he had stayed his sword from slitting the caliph's throat. He had plundered his palace anew and had sat vigil over his beloved's body; then he had turned his back on the hot, harsh land.
It had been so long ago. Many cold winters and many new summers had since passed, and through the seasons, violence had guided him again. But through it all he discovered that Emenia had given him something of a lasting thirst for peace, and she had also taught him something of women.
He was Irish as well as Viking. And just as his father had carved his place from the land. Eric had determined to do the same. His brother, Leith, ruled Dubhlain. Eric was ever Leith's right-hand man, as he was his father's. Land could be given to him, he knew.
But his pride was as savage as his heart, and so was his determination. He would make his own way, as the Wolf had done. They were all fighters. Even his gentle, beautiful Irish mother had an unquenchable pride. She had dared to take steel against the Wolf. She laughed at it now, but Mergwin never tired of telling the story. Or the tale of the Danes who had challenged the Norse Wolf and his Irish bride.
Olaf of Norway had sailed to Ireland seeking conquest. He had been an unusual invader to the Irish–and to their Ard-Ri, seizing land but minimizing loss of life, rebuilding anew as soon as he had secured the land he had taken. There came a stalemate between the Norse invader and the high Irish King–and Erin–and Dubhlain–had been his father's price for peace. Eric's mother, who once had tried to capture Olaf when he had been wounded, had been horrified. She had escaped the Wolf when the tables had turned on her, but she had not been able to escape her father's will.
Eric smiled, thinking of his father.
Olaf had given far more to Ireland than he had taken. He had served Aed Finnlaith, battling with him against the fierce Danish invader, Friggid. And in the fighting he had become Irish himself. In the joint quest to preserve their home and family Olaf and his Irish bride had discovered a love that burned as deeply as their passion. Mergwin had witnessed it all and, for reasons of which Eric was not entirely sure himself, prided himself that everything should have turned out so very well.
Eric's smile turned grim as the wind rushed to meet him and the salt spray of the sea dampened his face. The Danes who continued to harry the Irish coastline already called him the Spawn of the Wolf, or sometimes the Lord of Thunder, for where he battled, steel clashed and the ground trembled.
This ground would tremble! he silently swore. His hatred for the Danes was innate, he was certain. And he had been asked here to battle them.
Asked by Alfred, the Saxon King of the English. Alfred, who had managed to draw his nobles together at long last against the devasting surge of Danes to hold tenaciously to the kingdoms of Wessex and Sussex and the south of Britain.
Rollo, Eric's companion and right-hand man, spoke suddenly from behind him. "Eric, this is a strange welcoming." As massive as an ancient oak, Rollo pointed past Eric's shoulder to the land. Eric frowned. If a welcome awaited them, it was a most curious one. The great wooden gates were being drawn about the harbor town. Atop the palisade, armed men were taking position.
A coldness seized Eric, and his eyes glittered with pale blue depths of fury. "'Tis a trap!" he muttered softly.
And indeed, so it appeared to be, for as his ships came into the harbor he could smell the oil being heated that would be poured down upon them from the walls of the village.
"Odin's blood!" he roared at the treachery, and his fury nearly blinded him. Alfred had sent messengers to his father's house. The English king had begged him to come, and now this. "He has betrayed me. The King of Wessex has betrayed me."
Archers ran upon the parapets. Aim was being taken upon the seafarers. Eric swore again, and then he paused, narrowing his eyes.
Something was catching the light from the lightning. A sheath of it, long and radiant. He realized that a woman stood upon the parapet and that the sheath of gold was her hair, neither blond nor red nor chestnut but some shade of fire that was a combination of the three.
She stood among the archers and called out orders.
"By Odin! And by Christ and all the saints!" Eric swore.
A volley of arrows was set loose. Eric barely dodged the woman's shaft as it sped toward him. He ducked. The arrow landed harmlessly against the prow. Screams went up from the wounded men. Eric tightened his jaw in fury, sick at the treachery.
"We're coming fast upon the shore," Rollo warned him.
"Then so be it!"
Eric turned to his men, the ice-blue mist of Artic rage in his eyes and in his stance. He had learned to fight with control and thus to win, and he never gave away emotion, except through the terror-evoking chill in his eyes and the clenching of his teeth.
"We were asked here to do battle! Begged to assist a rightful king!" he shouted to his men. He didn't know if his words would carry to the other ships, but his wrath would. "We are betrayed!" He stood still, then raised his sword. "By Odin's teeth, by Christ's blood! By my father's house, we will not be betrayed!"
The word went up on the air and screamed upon the wind.
The ships came to shore. Rollo brought out his double-headed ax, the Viking's most heinous weapon. Eric preferred his sword. He called it Vengeance, and that was what he offered.