Feared warrior Brand Bjornson has finally got what he's striven forlands of his own, granted to him by his king. But his new estate, Breckon, holds more than a few surprisesnot least the intriguingly beautiful Edith, former Lady of Breckon.
Proud Edith refuses to abandon her lands to the mercy of Viking invaders, and impressed by her courage, Brand agrees she can stay. He has one conditionthat she should become his concubine!
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Early March 876North Yorkshire
His land. His and no one else's, won by his sword arm and given by the grace of his king.
Brand Bjornson knelt down in the dark soil and gathered a handful of sun-warmed dirt. He squeezed it, feeling the richness of the earth between his fingers. After more than a decade of war and fighting, this, this was all he dreamt aboutland to put down roots and to create his own piece of paradise on earth.
Finally. Instead of a landless mercenary whose only future was a quick death, he was now a jaarl with a large estate to prove it. Halfdan, once the leader of the felag to conquer Northumbria and now his king, had kept his word and given him worthwhile land, one of the finest estates in all of Northumbria.
Brand gave a wry smile as the rich loam coated his hand. Honouring a long-ago promise was a rare thing in Viking politics where allegiance and alliance shifted on the point of a sword or the jangle of a money bag.
He stood and surveyed the gently rolling hills where the new spring grass had started to push through the dry hassocks of winter. A river meandered. And it was all his as far as the eye could see. He'd fought hard enough for it, from Byzantium to the wilds of Northumbria. He'd earned it and he would be a good overlord. He'd encountered enough poor ones to last a lifetime.
'Do we burn the empty barns and teach them a lesson?' Hrearek, his comrade-in-arms and sworn sokman asked, nodding towards where the various ramshackle buildings stood. 'There are rich pickings here which they are trying to hide from us with their lack of cattle, sheep and horses. Always the same, these Northumbrians. Same tricks and attempts at deception. They think we're stupid because we don't worship the same god as they do or have the same customs but I can sniff out stores and gold from ten paces. And this place has them, despite what they claimed.'
'We've come to settle, not to raid. My sword time is over.' Brand stood and wiped his filthy hand against his trousers. There was more than a faint hint of spring in the chilly March breeze. His face was towards the future, rather than his blood-soaked past. Reborn and renewed, he would remake this land to suit his needs. 'It is time to plant and grow crops. They will learn it is wise to be on the right side of their overlord. Once they know me, they will be glad to have me as their jaarl.'
'And you think they will give in like that?' Hrearek snapped his fingers. 'This was the heartland of the rebellion. They need to be taught a lesson which they will not soon forget.'
'They have no choice. The rebels lost. My sword dispatched their leader and saved your life.' Brand shrugged. War, when it came down to it, was merely a game. Afterwards, the winner had everything. It was the way of the world and the Northumbrians knew it. It was why they'd rebelled rather than accepting that they had lost all of their power when the Norsemen defeated their fathers and brothers in Jorvik ten years ago. 'Halfdan is their king. Any rebel will be punished and their land taken.'
'And will you marry? Send back home for the lovely Lady Sigfrieda? You have spoken so much about her.'
Brand looked up in the clear blue sky. Once the thought of winning Sigfrieda's hand had driven his every move, now he had not thought about her in months. He'd been too busy helping to put down the rebellion and finally winning his land. He struggled to remember her face, beyond the dazzle her golden hair had given in the candlelight, and how regular her features were. She would be the perfect demure wife for him. Together they would breed strong sons.
'That is the plan.' He fingered the scar on his neck, remembering how he'd been turned away, bloody and beaten from his father's house as his father lay dying. Then he'd been known as the bastard son of a cast-off mistress who dared speak his mind. 'Once I'm settled, I will send word to her father. If fortune favours me, the lovely lady will be here before the autumn makes the passage difficult. I need sons to make sure what I have done is not written on the wind.'
His sokman nodded, accepting the statement at face value. Hrearek was not a friend, but rather a companion-in-arms and didn't need to know the full history. 'I'm impressed. You never falter or waver in your schemes. You are an inspiration, Brand Bjornson. I can only hope that fortune will favour me in the same way. By Frieda's bower, I too would like a woman to open her thighs and bear me sons.'
'My dream kept me alive on the blackest of days. Now it is time to live it.' Brand gestured towards where the Anglo-Saxon hall stood, proud and defiant. The occupants were to learn a powerful lesson about who controlled this land.
'Time to claim my land and see precisely how impoverished this Lord Egbert truly was.'
'The Norsemen! The Norsemen are here!'
The cry went up and echoed around the hall. Lady Edith stilled, her spindle falling into her lap.
She had expected this for weeks, ever since she'd heard the news of her husband's death in the rebellion against the so-called King of Jorvik and leader of the Norsemen. Her counsel against the rebellion had fallen on deaf ears.
Now Egbert was slain in battle and she had to contend with the consequences of his actions. Silently she thanked God that most of the stores were stowed safely and the land showed its usual before-the-spring barrenness, nothing to alert the Norsemen to its true worth and productivity.
'What will we do, cousin? The Norsemen are here! There is no one left to defend us. We're doomed,' Hilda asked, jumping up and spilling wool and spinning whorls all over the stone floor. 'Doomed, I say!'
'We must hope the Norsemen go as quickly as they came with the minimal amount of fuss.' Edith carefully placed her spindle down on the wooden trunk. She gathered up the wool and the three spinning whorls that she could find. One, she noticed with a sigh, now had a crack running through it. Hilda didn't bother to help, but instead stood wringing her hands and repeating her words. There was little point in panicking when her distant cousin did it well enough for the both of them.
'Will they go?' Hilda asked when Edith had picked up the final whorl.
'Always.' Edith tightened her fingers about the whorl. 'The Norsemen never settle. They take what they can grab and go.'
The one thing she was certain of despite their conquest of Eoferwic, which the Norsemen now called Jorvik, ten years agothe Norsemen did not settle inland. Instead they used the land for raiding, their own private larder of cattle, sheep and women, one of the main reasons why Egbert found so many recruits for his rebellion.
Edith wrinkled her nose in distaste. The Norsemen were barbarians with no thought for the lives they destroyed.
Against her husband's direct order, she had made sure all the essential stores were carefully hidden, including moving all the silver and her mother's jewels into the hidden cavity in the lord's bedchamber. Unlike Egbert, she had been in Eoferwic the day the Norsemen first took that city and had seen how well they could fight. Despite Egbert's words and posturing, she'd doubted that he could retake it with his ragtag army when so many others had failed. When they were first married, Egbert had won a few bouts with his sword, but he'd long since run to fat.
Her people would make it through until the late spring when food became plentiful again. She refused to allow any Norseman to starve them simply to increase his own bloated belly.
'What will you do? They are bound to know about Eg Lord Egbert and his part in the struggle. We will all be punished for it, just like you warned him!'
'It gives me no pleasure to be right, cousin. You must believe that.'
'But you know what they will do. They'll burn, rape and pillage.' Hilda's eyes bulged with fear and her body shook.
Edith pressed her lips together. If she didn't do something, her cousin would collapse in a heap on the floor, insensible to reason, one more problem to be sorted before the Norsemen arrived. Edith concentrated and searched for a soothing phrase, rather than screaming at Hilda to pull herself together.
She could never stoop so low as to scream at Hilda. She knew whose bed her husband had shared the last time he was here. Everyone knew it. The whispers had flown around the hall until she thought everyone had looked at her with pity. Edith despised pity. It did not mean she approved of her cousin's affair with her husband. Far from it, but she knew what Egbert was like underneath the good humour he showed to visitors and people who might have been able to assist him. If Hilda had objected to his advances, he'd have raped her. Sending her away hadn't been an option while Egbert was alive. And now there were the Norsemen at the door.
'I will mouth the words of fealty if it comes down to it,' Edith said in her firmest voice. 'You will see, Hilda. All will be well once I do.'
'You?' Hilda put her hand to her throat and the hysterics instantly stopped. 'But will this Norseman jaarl accept your word?'
Edith clenched her fists. Hilda should trust her. Hadn't she looked after the estate, making certain it prospered while Egbert indulged his passion for hunting and whoring? 'He will have to. This land has belonged to our family since time began. And I will not be the one to lose it.'
'You mean you expect him to marry you.' Hilda tapped her nose. 'Clever. I wish I'd a dowry like that instead of my looks. You'll be dressed in silks and ribbons and forget about us.'
'I've no expectations,' Edith said carefully. Marriage to a Norseman was the logical solution, even if she hated the thought of being married again. An unmarried widow with a large estate was too great of a prize. 'But you're wrong if you think I could ever forget this estate and its inhabitants. They are my people. Every single one of them.'
'Your husband will be turning in his grave, cousin, to think that you of all people should swear allegiance to the Norse king.'
'My father swore fealty to Halfdan in Eoferwic, ten years ago. Egbert broke that promise, not me.'
Hilda shook her carefully coiffured head and her bee-stung lips gave a little pout. 'I expected more somehow. You were his wife for seven years. Are you sure the king won't worry about that? You must have shared some of the same views.'
Edith raised her chin. How dare Hilda question her as if she was a common servant? Her entire being trembled with anger and she longed to tell a few home truths to Hilda. Instead Edith gulped air and concentrated on controlling her temper.
'When did Egbert and I ever agree on anything?' she said as steadily as she dared. 'Lord Egbert is no longer the master here. He ceased to be when he breathed his last. The hall and its land were never fully his. We shared responsibility. I know the marriage terms my father negotiated. The hall and its lands were to be returned to me should anything happen to Egbert. And I intend to keep them safe.'
'Cousin, this is no time for jesting.' Hilda widened her pale blue eyes. 'You know little of the art of war. Egbert always used to say'
'It's the people of this land I must consider.' Edith glared at Hilda. The last thing she wanted to hear was her late husband's opinion on her many failings. 'The Norsemen should accept my assurance and my gift. They should move on to the next estate, hopefully without burning our hall or forcing a marriage. We survive whatever happens. Survival is important.'
Edith wasn't sure who she wanted to convince moreher cousin or herself.
'They will take everything that is not nailed down, even if you don't have to marry.' Hilda turned pale. 'You know what the Norsemen are like! Two years ago in the south before I journeyed to you, all the farms were ablaze and the women Promise me that you won't allow that to happen to me. I saw unspeakable things. You must protect me. Lord Egbert would expect it.'
'I have taken precautions. My parents taught me well. The Norsemen have been a danger for years.' Edith gave Hilda a hard look. 'We survived before. My parents even entertained Halfdan in the early years.'
'What should I do?' Hilda wrung her hands. 'Lord Egbert always made sure I had a special task in times of emergency. On second thought, I should be the one to speak first. Soften their hearts with a gentle word. You can be abrupt, cousin. Allow me to win their regard with a smile.'
Edith stared at Hilda in disbelief. Was she serious in her offer? Her entire being recoiled at the thought of Hilda greeting the Norsemen in her stead. And she'd been the one to think of employing Hilda in some task to save her from Egbert's ire. Egbert could only be bothered with Hilda and her demands when it suited him.
Even now, Hilda had started to prance about the hall, practising the gestures she'd make as if she was the one in charge.
'You see, cousin, how much better I'd do it?'
'Hilda, I need you to go to the stew pond and make sure the various dams are closed. I've no wish to lose fish because the men are slack,' Edith said, retaking control of the situation.
'I will greet the Norsemen, dressed simply, and explain about our meagre circumstances. We have avoided being burnt out before. We may do so again. Trust me.'
'You mean I might avoid the Norsemen? Altogether?' Hilda stopped.
'There is that possibility.' Edith held out her hand. 'You would be doing me this small favour, cousin. It would put my mind at ease to know this task was properly done.'
'As you wish, cousin, you are the lord here now.' Hilda made a curtsy which bordered on discourteous and left the main hall with her skirts swishing.
Edith sighed. There had to be some decent farmer that Edith could marry her off to. She'd provide a reasonable dowry so the man would take her. The question was who, given the common knowledge about her relationship with Egbert. Edith tapped her finger against her mouth. All that could wait until the current crisis was solved. She had to concentrate on the matter at hand and ensure that everything had been done. No mistakes made.
She adjusted her wimple so that her black hair was completely covered as she cast an eye about the hall, searching for things left undone.
The majority of the silver and gold were safe in the cavity. There was no need to check that. She was the only one who knew about it.
The pagan Norsemen were no respecters of churches or monasteries. If anything their wealth attracted the raiders. When her father showed her the hiding place, he recounted the story about the Lindisfarne raid and the countless other raids. However, he boasted about his alliance with Halfdan and confidently predicted she'd never need it.
She had kept a few trinkets to appease the Norsemen, but they had to believe that they were poor and the farm was not well managed so that they would not demand an enormous payment. Her father had drilled that notion into her head since she had first toddled about the yard.
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