From Istanbul to Ireland, Rorik of Vargfjell is legendary for the battles he has fought, the wealth he has amassed, and the women he has loved. So when a Northumbrian Earl refuses to pay tribute, and even burns one of Rorik’s ships, the Viking seizes the earl’s daughter—and will hold her for ransom. Or so was his plan.
At home in Northumbria, Elfwynn had experienced agonizing losses—including the peaceful world she was born into. Now she stands face to face with a towering, chiseled Viking in his wondrous kingdom. With her gift of music, her unworldly beauty and strange courage, Elfwynn will prove to be very different than any woman Rorik has known. And for a man who lords over sea and land, what she demands will be the greatest challenge of all . . .
“Lord of the Mountains will mesmerize you from the first page . . . Jarema’s in-depth knowledge of Norwegian customs makes this story believable.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
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Redbank, The keep of Earl Edward Along the Humber River, Kingdom of Northumbria
The dragon's head snapped off. It hit the water and sank as the men pulled it further out into the river. Little by little, the remains of the burned ship were dismantled to lie in the depths of the Humber where they belonged. The ribs of the vessel still rose above the water like the skeleton of the beast, but soon they, too, would be gone.
Elfwynn, daughter of Earl Edward, shuddered. It had lain on their shoreline for several weeks, like some ugly, dead monster from the north. And yet, wasn't it true? The Northmen were monsters, coming here to rape and pillage. Her father had driven them off, proving his strength to the foreigners who infested Northumbria each summer. He would keep them safe.
"Father wanted me to see if the men are nearly finished."
Elfwynn looked up at her half brother. He'd come from the keep so quietly, she hadn't heard him. "They're working hard, Wulf, but that thing won't be gone too quickly for my taste. I'd like to forget I ever saw it."
"We may see more of them. The Northman who stopped here with his ships, Rorik, wasn't alone. A larger fleet continued up the river, no doubt to attack other holdings near York. Father wants to make certain there's no evidence of what happened when they return, on their way out to sea. We don't want to give them a reason to stop here." He rubbed the back of his neck under his long hair. "We're still trying to figure out who gave the order to burn the ships. No one knows. Father wanted to pay the Northmen and let them leave. With so many of them in this area now, we can't afford to antagonize them."
"What does it matter who gave the order? It worked. We defeated them. They won't try that again."
"Wessex defeated the Northmen in a large naval battle last year near London. It didn't stop them from wintering on the isle of Thaley near the Thames. Now they threaten the south." With a slight smile, he ruffled her hair. "It's nothing to concern yourself about anyhow. Father and I have agreed if the Northmen attack, my first duty is to get you and your mother to safety. Even if you were so foolish as to leave the keep to look at them when they were here. As beautiful as you are, it would serve you right if one of them fell in love with you and carried you off."
"Rowena wanted to see them. She heard their leader, the one with the long black hair, was nice to look at. At times, she and I are friendly. I try, at least. Except when your mother is poisoning her against me, like she does so many here."
"My sister has no sense. If she did, she'd see what our mother is. Even Father avoids her as much as he can. You can't give in to Rowena in the hopes she'll like you. Not if it puts you in danger from the Northmen or anyone. If that ever happened, I'd give my life to go after you."
"And I'd sell my soul to stop you. In that, we're much alike."
"Except I'm better with a sword than you are."
"That wouldn't be difficult since I know nothing of warfare. Only weaving. And music."
"Let's hope it stays that way. Besides, you're too fine to waste your soul on battles."
"To save you, Father, my mother, and the people here, it would be a small price to pay."
"Even those who turn their backs on you for your birth?"
"They only seek to ingratiate themselves to your mother. Not everyone holds it against me that I'm baseborn. They conveniently forget about that detail when they want to buy the cloth I weave." She looked at the ship as the men rowed another piece of it out to the middle of the river. "Wulf, do you think they'll come back? For revenge?"
"If they do, we'll be ready. I'm leaving soon to gather more of our forces in case we have to fight."
Her muscles knotted as she met his gaze. "I already lost my older brother to war. We both lost a cousin on Father's side. I couldn't stand to lose you, as well."
"I felt their loss, too, Elfwynn. Randal was my half brother. He, our cousin, and I were more like full brothers. I'll never forget the sight of him falling before me in battle with the Picts."
"Ever since then, whenever you or Father have gone to fight, such fear comes over me, I can't breathe right the entire time you're gone. My heart races and I shake so hard I can barely weave, even though it's the only thing that calms me. Nothing seems real until you return safe."
"It just means you love us." He squeezed her shoulder. "God will protect us against the pagans."
That was true. So far.
"Let me walk you back to your house. There's nothing more to see here and I'll feel better knowing you're closer to the keep. Both Father and I would be more at ease if you and your mother would consent to live within the keep itself."
"We're so close, we're well protected. Father makes certain of that. If we moved in with you, your mother would start a war to rival even that of our people and the Picts. I don't understand why she's so resentful that Father loves us when she hates him anyway."
"Pride. She's bitter that you stand to inherit along with Rowena and me. That Father should love a village woman more than he does his highborn wife enrages her."
"And my mother wastes away, pining for a man she can never marry. Sometimes I wish ..." She didn't finish the sentence. It would not be Christian to want Mildburg's death or divorce so her parents could marry.
"I know." He took her hand as they walked. "Sometimes I wish, as well. She's been no mother to me, except to bear me into this world. Father can't divorce her without cause. It would bring her family down on us. She would have to commit adultery or treason, then none could gainsay him. She's too careful to get caught."
That was why she and her mother couldn't stay there, waiting for Edward to be free. Elfwynn wasn't certain how much longer her mother could live for a day that would never happen.
As they walked up to the house, her mother was tending herbs in the front.
Wulf strode ahead of Elfwynn. "Rohesia, it's good to see you out on this fine day." He gave her a quick embrace.
"And it's always good to see you, Wulf. You come here far too seldom. How much like your father you look with your curling brown hair and blue eyes." She smiled at Elfwynn, but it held a sadness, as always. "Both of you. So similar to each other. Will you stay for a time and have some ale? I brewed it fresh."
"Thank you, Rohesia, but I'm going on patrol with my men. With the burning of the longship, we must be vigilant. I'll send some of Father's men to watch over you in the days ahead. I wanted to make certain Elfwynn came back safely. She shouldn't have been down by the river to begin with." He gave her a quick frown.
"I've been walking to the farms to get wool for years, Wulf. The Northmen being in this area is nothing new. I've always been fine. But I promise, if I go any place, I'll take some of the men with me."
"I'd feel better knowing that. I'm leaving soon to find our forces who are patrolling against Mercia and bring them here." He took Elfwynn by the shoulders. "Be careful. We've lived in an uneasy peace with the Danes since they arrived here, but that could change. We burned the ship of the most powerful of the Northmen. They won't care that we don't know how it happened. They only understand revenge. If anything happens, promise me you'll go to the keep as fast as you can. I don't care what my mother thinks. Father will be there. You'll have a place."
"I promise, Wulf. We'll be fine."
He gave her a dubious look before letting her go. "Keep her out of trouble, Rohesia. I'll be gone a couple of weeks at most."
"She'll be too busy weaving with all the orders she has. I doubt she'll leave her loom, even to eat."
He shook his head. "Why you insist on making your own money, Elfwynn, is something neither Father nor I understand. He gives you everything you need."
"People value what they pay for," she said. "My weavings are the finest in the region. Should I not get recompense for my hours?"
"Of course." He kissed the top of her head. "Just remember to sleep once in a while. I'll see you when I return."
She watched him walk in the direction of the keep until he was lost in the trees. Father gave them all they needed, yes. For their lives here. But he would never fund a journey to Rohesia's people in Strathclyde. Elfwynn had to work to save for that. It might be the only thing that would spare her mother's life. If they remained here, the memories of her dead son and the unrequited love she bore for Edward would cause her to fade away until she died. If she were among her own relations, she could start anew. She was not so old that her life needed to be over.
She was still beautiful. Elfwynn looked at her as she tended to her herbs. Over time, her beauty had become more translucent, like a fine glass. Each day it thinned, as though she were being worn out from within. One day, she would fade away.
Only a few more pieces of cloth, a little more silver, and Elfwynn would have enough. She wanted to leave as soon as possible, even before the fall.
Elfwynn breathed in the air scented with the herbs and flowers growing nearby. The aromas of home. This place was all she'd ever known. Still, many of the people she'd grown up with had never truly accepted her. It wasn't because of her baseborn status. That wouldn't matter so much in their land, as long as she was freeborn. Because Rohesia was free, Elfwynn was as well.
No, it was because of Mildburg. Many of her father's people didn't want to make an enemy of the lady of the keep, so they shunned both her and her mother. While there were some who remained friendly, it still made for a lonely life. They needed to go where they would be accepted and welcomed. Among her mother's people, they would be.
She had a single regret — leaving Wulf and their father. Edward loved her. It was the one unaltered fact of her existence. It gave her strength, even in the face of the losses she'd endured. Her brother. Her cousin. So many others who had died in the never-ending wars. Her father was always there for her and there were many times his arms were her sole support. If only he could see her mother's pain the same way. His mind was always elsewhere, protecting his people who were foremost in his life. And yet, he was blind to so much of what lay before him at home.
Elfwynn picked up a shawl lying on a bench against the house and spread it over her mother's thin shoulders. Rohesia smiled her thanks, then continued weeding.
She walked to the house, but before entering, she glanced back at her mother's bent frame. If the earl had made a clean break with them years ago, it would have been better for all of them, especially her mother. But he hadn't.
Now, it was up to her.
"Daughter, stop frowning when you embroider. You'll get wrinkles and be so ugly no man will want you."
Rowena glanced at her mother and pasted on a pleasant expression. As though that was all she was — a face. It was all men saw. That and her dowry. Sometimes, she wished she could live as Elfwynn did, in a little house away from the keep and all its intrigue. Away from her mother. Her brother, at least, could escape by fighting battles. Wulf was gone, even now, and would have blessed peace for a couple of weeks. And Father had gone also. It had been a last-minute decision, so they could find as many of their forces as possible.
"Go see if the midday meal is ready. Not that you need to eat. You can't afford to lose your waistline. Those lazy cooks will probably be late with it while the earl is gone. As though we don't matter. I suppose in his eyes, we don't. His indifference spreads to the staff. Go on now. Let me know when it's ready."
Rowena set aside her embroidery and stood. "Yes, Mother."
"And change your gown. You look dowdy, like a village woman."
"Yes, Mother." She'd worn the older dress because it was comfortable. It wasn't as though they were expecting anyone at the keep with her father gone. None of that mattered to her mother. As lady of the keep, she dressed well with the fine gowns and jewels befitting her rank. Rowena preferred less formality, but her mother would have none of it. Rather than cross her, Rowena gave in. Always. It was safer that way.
She slipped out of the room before her mother could think of another cut and breathed a sigh of relief. As she hurried along the hallway, Wigberht ran into her. The nasty man her mother had brought along as part of her dowry years ago didn't even acknowledge her. He continued toward the sewing room and entered without knocking.
"Lady Mildburg, I have grave news."
The tone of his voice caught Rowena's attention. She stepped back to the door. He hadn't closed it all the way, so she leaned in to listen.
"I was riding along the river road to the east when I heard foreign voices in the woods. With all the Northmen in the area, I thought I should see who they were. Five of their longships are beached on the shore. There must be over two hundred warriors there."
"The ships of the Northmen come and go all the time, Wigberht. They infest this part of Northumbria like fleas."
"Yes, my lady. But three of the ships bore signs of burn marks. The Northman Rorik has returned. I saw him there among the men."
"Do they plan to attack?"
"I got as close to them as was safe. Their language and ours are similar enough that I understood much of what they said. He spoke of seeing the earl's daughters when they were here before. He described both Elfwynn and Rowena to his men. They plan to take one and hold her for ransom. Rorik wants the value of his ship and of the men we killed."
A piece of furniture scraped and crashed against the floor. "He will not have Rowena. You know what happens to women they take."
"Then I fear they'll attack. I'll alert the keep, call the men."
"Wait. You said one of the earl's daughters. They know he has two of them. What if we were to give them Elfwynn?"
"They want a ransom, not the girl. The earl is gone and we don't have access to the treasury. What will happen when we don't pay them?"
"They'll take Edward's bastard daughter with them to sell as a slave to get their money. Or they'll rape and kill her. Either way, it gets rid of her. Wulfric and Rowena won't have to share their inheritance with her. Her whore of a mother is ailing, I hear. Pining away from the death of her son and the love she has for my husband. The loss of her precious daughter will surely send her to her grave." She sighed. "Such a pity."
"How will we get Elfwynn to the Northmen, my lady?"
Rowena trembled with — fear? Anger? Shock? Her mother had been bitter since she'd learned of Elfwynn's existence years ago, but not even she could be so heartless. She peeked through the partly open door. The chair her mother had been sitting in was overturned on the floor. She was pacing, her head down, then spun and faced Wigberht.
"I need the pure white wool from Hunfrith's farm. Immediately. Elfwynn is the only one who can make certain of its quality. If you tell her I want her to get it for me, she'll suspect you. There are men among Edward's warriors who are loyal to me. I have shown them my appreciation for all they've done over the years with a great deal of gold. She'll trust them. They'll accompany her, of course, to guard her. She'll have to travel right past where you said the ships were beached. The Northmen will be spreading out by that time and her guards will happen to lose sight of her. They might even make noise and lead those barbarians to her. If this Rorik saw her earlier, he'll know who she is.
"Follow behind to make certain this happens. When they send the ransom demand, intercept it. Wait a suitable amount of time, as though you've brought it to the earl. He left so suddenly, I doubt Elfwynn knows of it. Then, go back and tell them he says a bastard isn't worth the price. They may keep her as their payment. The last thing she'll know is that the father she thought doted on her doesn't love her after all. She'll die with that thought.
"We can't risk the two guards talking, so you'll take care of them for me before they return here." The corners of her mouth turned down in an exaggerated frown. "How tragic they'll die trying to save Elfwynn from the evil barbarians."
"Yes, my lady."
"Afterward, report back to me. I'll be waiting, to reward you quite handsomely, as I have all through the years."
Wigburht dropped to his knees in front of her, gazing up at her as though he worshipped her. "I'll do this for you, my lady. I was your man before you came here to marry the earl, and I always will be."
Excerpted from "Lord of the Seas"
Copyright © 2017 Sabrina Jarema.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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