Eons ago, seven ancient deities trapped the goddess of chaos under a ring of stones. But now, in the darkest days of the 13th century, Chaela threatens to escape, leaving the fate of all humanity in the hands of two young lovers...
After an accident at sea, Ran Sveinsdottir, the daughter of a wealthy Orkney trader, discovers powers she never knew she had. Those powers have drawn her into a battle between two warring factions: the Warriors of Destiny, who she knows in her heart to be noble, and a menacing army holding her father captive. Her hope for survival is in the hands of Soren—the man she once loved, the man who betrayed her, and the only man she can trust in a raging battle against evil.
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The six gathered inside the stone circle and around the seventh, awaiting her acceptance of their sentence. Her next actions would determine the fates of humanity and of this world. Taranis hoped Chaela would choose to step back from the abyss of evil. Her words tore his spirit apart.
“You are fools!” she screamed. “I can destroy you all.”
Knowing now that there was no other way, Taranis looked at each of the others. Only by combining their powers against her would they be able to save this human world and yet, the thought of taking this action against her made his blood freeze. His feelings changed as she unleashed her destruction on the humans who gathered there on the open fields around the henge.
Changing into the form she favored, Chaela rose into the sky on black-and-red wings. Flames spewed from her mouth, burning people, plants, and even the earth in their wake. The screams echoed in the air as the smoke evaporated, leaving ashes everywhere. With no other alternative, Taranis nodded to the five gods and they began the ritual of silencing one of their own.
She laughed at the destruction she’d wrought and inhaled a deep breath, one that foretold a killing strike. Drawing in their own breath, the chant began between them, swirling in the air and encircling them, her and the stones beneath them. Only a moment passed before the power began to control her.
As a weaver wraps the threads over and under, through and around, they wove the thoughts of the spell that would take away her power until they could imprison her. Building a cocoon around her, the ritual blocked her words and her powers and surrounded her so completely that even her thoughts were contained within it.
Taranis knew the moment she realized what they were doing. And, once more, they offered her a truce.
“Chaela,” Belenus, the god of life and order, called out to her. “Cease this and you will be allowed to live.”
“Fools!” she roared back when her voice would serve her mind. “I cannot be destroyed!” Struggling against the bonds that held her, she could not do more than scream out in frustration. An elemental power such as hers was created by the universe and could not be extinguished.
“You can be defeated, Chaela. You will be imprisoned in the endless pit and never return. Your name will be forbidden and forgotten,” Sucellus, the god of war, warned.
They could feel her disbelief and resistance. She would never give up this mad quest for complete domination of humanity and of them. Steeling himself, Taranis waited for Cernunnos to begin.
The earth buckled and rose at his brother’s command, exposing the endless pit within the circle as they chanted the sounds of power. Taranis guided the winds to wrap around her, securing her in his grasp even as their spell did. The current swept her over the yawning chasm and held her there. Now, the final step, a terrible one, would seal her out of this human world. The human male who carried Chaela’s blood and power stepped into the circle and joined them in the ritual, adding his voice to theirs. Her screams pierced the spell.
Taranis pushed her down into the blackness, forcing her deep into the chamber that existed within and outside this world. The words they sang created it and would seal it. And the sacrifice of Chaela’s only blooded son would keep her there forever.
The human walked to the pit and threw himself off the edge, soaring over the abyss. Sucellus created a spear of iron and threw it at the man, impaling him on it, piercing his heart and spilling his blood into the pit.
The other gods honored the sacrifice, freely made, with their words, completing the ritual that sealed Chaela away. After the destruction and horror of the day, a blessed silence and peace filled the area as the ground and chamber closed and disappeared. The stones returned to their usual size and positions and everything was right with the world.
Taranis’s brothers and sisters gathered around him, all weary from the struggle of exiling one of their own. They’d barely accomplished it against her formidable powers and only with the blood sacrifice had they triumphed. Now, the world and humanity were safe and would remain so.
They would leave here, knowing that humanity could continue without them, but they imbued their own human bloodlines with their powers to keep watch . . . always. A race of men and women who could use the powers to keep this evil at bay. Warriors of Destiny, not war.
But, with their course of action this day, they would never be needed to do that.
Broch of Gurness
Northern Coast of the Orkney Mainland
Late winter, AD 1286
Einar Brandrson paced around the chamber at the base of the broch, chanting the prayers he knew better than he knew the names of his kin. His bones ached and the cold air sliced into his skin, but he would persevere because he must.
The words echoed around him as he called on the gods of old to grant him a few more months of life. And to grant him the knowledge he needed to aid his grandson.
Since it was in their service, his prayers became demands as he circled seven times around the chamber and then seven times in the other direction. He listened closely for signs of an answer. Or a word of wisdom or confirmation.
They never did.
The old gods could be capricious and silent when they wished to be. Though some said they’d left eons ago, Einar believed that not. They were still there—waiting in the earth and trees and wind and water for their followers to rise again.
He knew it in his heart and soul. As he knew he would not live long enough to see it. Or to help.
Sighing, he gave up praying and searched for the charcoal stick he’d brought in his sack. If he would not be here to guide his grandson, he must leave something for him. Mayhap Soren would remember the songs he’d taught him and understand the significance when the time came.
He scratched some of the most important symbols into the stones of the walls, each one in the correct position around the tower. A beast. The sun. A war hammer. A tree. A lightning bolt. Waves. Flames. Using the charcoal, he colored the scratches in until they almost looked alive.
Praying in the old language, he blessed each symbol with the name of the god it represented—Epona, Belenus, Sucellus, Cernunnos, Taranis and Nantosuelta. The last one, the flames, he did not bless for it was that of Chaela the Damned.
It would take many days to sanctify the markings, days that he probably did not have left to him. It mattered not. All that mattered was that he must continue until his last breath so that mankind had a chance against the vile destructor who now tried to push her way out of her prison.
Einar returned every morn to the broch to repeat the sacred words and blessings. And he watched from the top of the tower, searching the skies for portents of things to come. Yet every day his strength lessened and he felt his life coming to an end. And he damned his own stubbornness, too, for he had not passed on the knowledge to his kin as he was supposed to. There had been no signs for so long that he’d grown complacent. Now, his failure could doom humanity.
If only there was more time, for he could feel that Soren’s blood would rise soon and he would need guidance.
If only the gods would listen.
If only the gods would answer.
He learned over the next days and weeks that the gods had heard him—and ignored his pleas after all.
While those of the blood advance
and the lost lose their way,
Water and Storm protect the Hidden.
The Hidden reveals its secrets
only to those who struggle with their faith.
Broch of Gurness
Northern Coast of the Orkney Mainland
Early spring, AD 1286
Soren Thorson covered his eyes and searched the beach near the ancient broch for someone almost as old—his grandfather. He’d made certain his father’s father was not in the round stone tower itself before heading toward the sea’s shore. Glancing east and west along the sands, Soren could not find him.
In his eighth decade and longer-lived than all of his friends and family, Einar Brandrson would not relent and die. He clung to life with the tenacity and will that continued to surprise Soren and the rest of his kin. The old man watched the horizons, day after day, waiting for something. Soren guessed he would die once that thing for which he waited arrived.
A movement near the water caught his eye and Soren walked in that direction. There, kneeling at the sea’s edge, his grandfather rocked back and forth while dipping his hand in the water. It had to be frigid and yet Einar never took his hand out. Soren’s calls were ignored; no surprise for the man’s hearing had been deteriorating for years. He reached the waterline and touched his grandfather’s shoulder.
“Grandfather, you must come away now,” he said as he guided his grandfather back and up to his feet. Or tried to. The old man resisted Soren with a strength that also surprised him. “Come.”
The rocking to and fro continued and now Soren could hear that old Einar also chanted or sang some melody. Bending closer, he recognized the sounds, for he’d heard them from the time he was a boy and was taken in by his grandfather on the death of his parents. Though he did not understand them, he could repeat them and did so now, whispering them as he tried to lift his grandfather away from the water. Continuing to struggle against Soren’s efforts, old Einar did climb to his feet.
“Come, Grandfather,” he said, sliding his arm under the old man’s and stepping back from the edge. “Aunt Ingeborg will think you lost once more.”
His aunt had claimed just that when asking Soren to find him. Old Einar roamed the coast, day after day, starting at dawn and ending only when someone dragged him back across the miles to Ingeborg’s cottage. The broch was a favorite destination and Soren found him here more times than not, usually at the top of the tower, staring out across the rolling lands of the island or across the strait to Eynhallow or Rousay. Always watching.
“You are a good boy, Soren,” Einar said, turning to face him. “You have listened to my words and never mocked me.” His grandfather’s voice was sure and clear and his gaze now focused on him, something it had not done in years. “It is time. It is coming.”
“Aye, Grandfather, the night is coming and ’tis time to get you home,” Soren replied. “I brought the cart. It is just over the hill,” he said, nodding in the direction of the dirt path.
“Some say that the Old Ones left our lands eons ago but they are never forgotten. I have remained faithful, but I am the last of my line and too old to fight as I should.”
“Nay, Grandfather, we have no battles to fight. The earl’s claim to Orkney is clear and he is high in the king’s esteem.”
He’d seen the man get overwrought before, but this felt and sounded different from those times. His grandfather was coherent and clear-eyed. Soren continued to urge him away from the water.
“Do not ignore my words, Soren. You have the blood of the gods in your veins. You have a place destined in the coming war,” his grandfather whispered. “There is so much you need to know. We must speak on these matters.”
“And we will speak,” Soren agreed. “But we can do it before the fire in the comforts of your daughter’s cottage. Come, Grandfather.”
The man’s mouth opened and then he shook his head as the strength leeched from his body. Soren caught him up, wrapping his arm around the frail figure and helping him along the sand to the path and the waiting cart. The sun descended in the west and the winds began to whip around them in the growing cold as they traveled along the road.
Blood of the gods? Soren chuckled at that. Which gods would that be? Many had been worshipped here in Orkney, from the Picts to the Norse, and now the One True God of the Christians held sway. Not a particularly religious man, Soren had done whatever duties were expected but never truly thought on matters of faith.
His family was of Norse descent as were most who claimed lands on Orkney. Though the Christian god had supplanted the old Norse gods centuries ago, there were many signs and places all over this and the other islands marked with the Norse symbols and runes for them. Even his father had borne the name of one of the most known—Thor, Odin’s son, the god of thunder who bore the mighty battle hammer Mjölnir. A god who was linked to both farmers and sailors—the two main ways men made a living here in Orkney.
Soren had no time to contemplate those spiritual matters, for his concerns were more about the timing of preparing the land for planting. And about when the soil would thaw and warm. And whether there would be enough sun to cultivate their fields before the winter’s winds and cold blew once more across the islands.
His grandfather now huddled on the bench next to him, shivering as the coming night’s chill grew. Soren glanced west to gauge if they would get to Ingeborg’s and its promised warmth before darkness fell. He’d not brought a blanket with him, so he tugged the old man closer to share his body’s heat for the rest of the journey.
If only he could control the winds or the weather!
His grandfather’s mumbling began anew—he was whispering those words again. The ones he’d sung at the water’s edge. Soren could not help himself; he fell into the pattern of sounds and cadence and sang the words under his breath.
If he could do that, he would turn the winds warm, like midsummer’s winds that blew across his fields and helped his crops. If he could, Soren would make them gentle and soothing rather than bitter and stinging.
If only . . .
Old Einar lifted his head and smiled. “Blessed by the gods, Grandson. I told you.”
Soren was about to argue when he noticed that the icy, strong winds had ceased. Glancing about, he thought they might have passed into the protection of a thick copse of trees or some other shelter that blocked the winds, but they had not. They rode along the open path, away from the sea. Then the winds turned warm, warm as he’d wished them to be, and his grandfather laughed.
“Make them cease, Soren,” he urged. It was daft to think he could make a difference. Mad even. Old Einar nudged him, pushing against his arm. “You made them warm. Now stop them.”
As much as Soren wanted to laugh off his grandfather’s words, something deep inside of him loosened and a desire to attempt it urged him on to . . . try it. Even knowing he did not, indeed could not, control something as powerful and uncontrollable as the winds, he pulled the reins and brought the horse and cart to a stop.
“Grandfather,” he began. “You must know . . .”
“I know more than you imagine,” Einar whispered. Then he nodded and began the chanting again, low and even.
Now Soren’s blood stirred, in a way he’d never felt before. Some force raced through him and, for a moment, he believed he could stop the winds. And, for another scant moment, they did. Soren lifted his face and felt nothing. He tilted his head in a different direction . . . still nothing.
“Summon them now, Soren. Bring them forth,” the old man said. His voice, more forceful and steady than Soren ever remembered, echoed around them. Soren thought he heard another speaking, too, but only his grandfather was there.
Foolishly, he began to follow his grandfather’s order and imagined the winds rising and encircling them. He closed his eyes and asked them to warm again.
And they did.
The winds swirled around them in a cocoon of warmth, gently at first and then faster when he but thought the command.
Wider, he thought.
The winds loosened their hold on him and his grandfather and swirled in a larger circle, enclosing the cart and the horse. The animal tugged against the bit, whinnying its dismay and fear.
“Away,” Soren said.
Within seconds, the winds blew wider and wider, softer and softer, until they were gone and only silence filled the area. Shocked, Soren turned slowly and found his grandfather’s knowing gaze on him.
“How?” he asked him. “How is such a thing done?”
Before his grandfather could say a word, Soren’s arm stung. Ignoring a possible injury in the face of understanding this weird and strange occurrence, he waited on the old man’s words. A wave of fire shot through his forearm then, forcing Soren to gasp. Pulling the edge of his tunic’s sleeve up, he saw a strange mark on his arm. Something rose under the skin and moved about before disappearing.
“You carry the blood of Taranis within you, Soren. Worshipped long before the Norse gods arrived here. The god of winds and storm and lightning and thunder. You command it all to do your bidding,” his grandfather said, smiling and nodding. “The power is awakening now. The bloodlines are rising. The battle is coming. It is now your destiny. Do not fail in this as I have, Grandson, for the fate of all humanity is at stake.”
Soren took in a breath, preparing to argue but his grandfather collapsed against him then. When he could not rouse him, Soren shook the reins and urged the horse to move. By the time they arrived at his aunt’s cottage, the old man seemed even more fragile than before. Soren carried him inside and put him in his bed. Even deeply asleep or unconscious, Einar mumbled those familiar words.
He sat with his grandfather, listening until no more sounds came. And all the time, Soren’s blood heated and raced and the skin on his arm stung. Questions filled his mind and the only person who could answer them lay asleep. Soren accepted a bowl of stew from his aunt and remained at Einar’s bedside through the night, waiting for him to awaken.
The next morning, the sun pierced through the small chamber and found Soren still there. He’d fallen asleep in a chair at some time during the dark of night. He rubbed his eyes, pushed his hair out of his face and peered at Einar. His grandfather had not moved since Soren had placed him here, not even when Soren tried to speak to him.
“Grandfather,” he said softly, reaching out to touch his hand. “Are you well?”
His hand was icy and had lost any suppleness. Soren’s heart clutched as he leaned closer and listened for the sounds of breathing. Placing his hand gently on Einar’s chest, he felt no rise or fall. No movement at all.
His grandfather was dead.
Scuffling feet behind him grew closer now and Soren turned to face his aunt. The only other one of Einar’s kin alive, she’d seen to his care even after the death of his son, her husband.
“He is gone?” Ingeborg asked.
“Aye,” Soren said, standing and moving aside so she could sit by the man she treated as her own father. “I did not think he would go so quickly. He seemed . . .”
She leaned closer and touched Einar’s cheek, whispering something under her breath. Then she moved her thumb across his forehead and touched his closed eyes and mouth before bowing her head three times. The mumbled words were similar to what he’d heard from Einar and those he’d repeated. A child’s rhyme? Had Einar passed it down through his children?
“No man can live forever,” she said, as she faced him. Tears tracked down her cheeks and Soren drew her into his arms. After a few moments, she leaned back and wiped the tears away. “And he lived a good and faithful life, Soren.”
“He seemed stronger on the ride back here last night,” he said. “I found him at the broch, near the water, swaying and mumbling. But, he spoke clearly on our way here.”
Clearly, but certainly not sanely. Now, in the bright sun of morning, believing he could influence the winds seemed like a farce. Had he simply given in to soothe his grandfather’s agitation and mad claims? When Old Einar grew anxious and wandered, Soren would do or say whatever he must to ease the man home and back to calm. As had other kith and kin. When the man ranted and raved without making sense, but was concerned over some matter or another, they tried to smooth his way through it.
“The dizzy spells and confusion lasted longer and longer these past few months,” Ingeborg answered. Patting him on his shoulder, she smiled. “You were a good grandson to help me see to him. You treated him with respect and kindness. Your father would’ve been proud.”
“And now?” Soren asked. “What will you do?”
“My sister’s kin said there is a place for me there, with one of her nieces. After we see to Einar’s burial, I will make preparations to go there.”
“Do you need help?”
“Nay. The women from the village will help me prepare him. He wished to be buried next to his wife, so that is where he will lie.”
“A Mass?” he asked, somehow knowing the answer would be no.
“I did not agree with his beliefs,” his aunt said quietly. “But I think there is no call to summon a priest.”
Those who lived closer to the main city on Orkney worshipped more often and lived and worked under the scrutiny of the Church. But those who lived on the edges of the isle or on the smaller ones did not suffer such a close watch unless attention was brought to their heretical beliefs. Soren shuddered then and turned back to his aunt.
“Call on me if you have need of anything. I will help with the burial,” Soren said. His aunt nodded.
He leaned over and took Einar’s hand, rubbing the weather – and age-roughened skin and trying to accept the man’s death. More father than grandfather to him, this was the man who’d taught him so much. How to run a farm. How to fish and sail. How to be loyal to kith and kin, though clearly Soren had not learned that lesson well enough.
His last link to his father now severed, Soren’s heart filled with grief as the reality struck him. No more stories. No more songs. No more tales of the history of the islands. And the worst was that Soren would never again hear his grandfather teach his lessons of life.
His death was not unexpected—Einar had lived many more years than most did. Soren should have been ready for this, but losing kin was never easy, no matter their age or infirmity.
“He knew.” Soren had forgotten his aunt remained with them until she spoke. “He knew his end was near. He left something for you for when”—she paused, her voice thick with emotion—“for when he passed.”
Soren followed her into the other chamber in the cottage and waited as she searched through a trunk for whatever his grandfather had left him. She lifted a small packet of parchment from within and held it out to him. A spark surprised him as he took it from his aunt. Her expression told him nothing. Did she know what was inside? Did she know what Einar left for him? As though he’d asked aloud, she smiled and shook her head.
“That is between you and Einar. He made me promise.” Even with tears filling her eyes, her mouth still carried the hint of a smile. “Men’s work, I suspect.”
“I will return later,” he said. “I will see to my farm and come back to do whatever you need of me.”
“Soren?” His aunt met his gaze and Soren knew what was coming. “Will you send word to Ran? She held him in high esteem.”
As Einar had held the young woman high in his regard.
“I know not where she is, Ingeborg.” Thinking that would end the painful subject of Ran Sveinsdottir, he turned to the door once more. But his aunt did not know how to let that dog lie quietly and poked him again.
“As though I would believe that, Soren. Well, the matter is yours, but I think she should hear it from you.” Ingeborg wiped her hands down the front of her apron, telling him clearly what she thought.
His heart heavy with sorrow, he made his way to the door and pulled it open. Clouds raced across the sky over his head and swirled, covering the bright sun and changing from day to near-dark. The smell of rain filled the air and bolts of lightning lit the sky ablaze. The thunder that followed each flash made the ground beneath him shake. ’Twas as though the elements saluted the passing of the old man.
He tucked the precious parchment inside his tunic and readied his horse to return to his home some miles away. The skittish animal pulled from him and tugged with every bolt of lightning. Soren would never make it home in this storm. He’d find himself facedown in the dirt or worse if the horse fought him. Glancing up as another bolt flashed, he thought on Einar’s word last night.
Laughing at the sheer folly of it, Soren whispered in his thoughts to the winds.
Take the rains away, he thought. Go south and do not bother us now.
Stop the lightning and thunder.
A second later the rain and lightning ceased. The clouds still circled above him and Soren could almost feel them waiting on him for his next command. Realizing what he was thinking, Soren shook his head and chuckled. He knew how strange and changing the storms could be on Orkney. Pushed by the sea winds, rain could come and go in an instant. As these surely had. How could he think otherwise?
He mounted then and the horse obeyed his commands, heading for his farm in the interior of the island. Within the shelter of the hills, his lands prospered and never more than when his grandfather had guided him.
Now, Einar was gone.
Mayhap the parchment he carried would tell him more? Until he examined it, he would not know and, by the time he arrived back at his cottage, he had no answers to the questions that had already plagued him and many more questions to add to his growing list.
After the burial, he would see to matters and questions brought up by Einar’s behavior and his passing.
At least, he did not have to try to find Ran to tell her about his grandfather. She’d left the island two years before and had not returned since their parting. The only thing he could do was to send word through her father—and that was something he simply could not do.
Northwest coast of Scotland
It seemed as if the fates and now the weather conspired against them.
Marcus stood outside his tent, his face lifted to the sky, offering another prayer that the gods would side with them and allow their passage. The prayer had not changed, nor had the weather, over the last five days. He turned, watching as Aislinn approached in the rain.
The young woman, like a daughter to him, had shown her mettle during their recent test against the evil goddess’s followers. Now, she seemed more at ease with the role she would play in the coming confrontations.
“Could I have misinterpreted the prophecy, Marcus?”
Marcus nearly laughed at her words, but he held his amusement in check, for they exposed her vulnerability.
The words of the old gods directed them north, away from the Scottish lands to those of the Norse. He’d recognized the truth in them as she spoke them to those who now gathered to fight for humanity.
“Nay, Aislinn,” he said, drawing her into the shelter of the edge of the tent. “I heard the gods’ words in what you said. And we know that Lord Hugh heads north, too.”
Her gaze darkened and he reached out to her, trying to offer what comfort he could, for terrible, dark days awaited all of them ahead. Embracing her and wishing he could save her from the pain and loss to come, he nodded at the group of warriors who trained in spite of the torrential rains and lashing winds.
“See, our new allies prepare themselves to meet the challenges ahead. With the warblood and the fireblood at our side, we will defeat the evil one . . . again.”
The first battle had been theirs, but not without the steep price of lives lost. But they’d found the truest of allies, two who had inherited their powers directly from the gods. And William Warblood’s sworn men to fight at their sides.
“And the two we seek now in Orkney? Will they join us?” Aislinn asked as a shiver shook through her.
“The powers that rise in their blood make them Warriors of Destiny,” he said. “That cannot change. But only they can decide on which side they fight.” Marcus released her and stepped back. “It is our responsibility to find and teach and guide these new ones, just as we did with William and Brienne.”
The two whose names he had just spoken touched his mind then with their thoughts, curious about the reason. Once they had successfully sealed the first circle, the gods had gifted them with a bond that connected their thoughts with those of Marcus and Aislinn. A bond that had also cost them dearly but one that would be a huge advantage in the coming battles. Marcus and Aislinn faced those two and Marcus waved them off.
“Our prayers seem unaccepted,” Aislinn whispered, as she pulled her cloak tighter around her slim form. “It has been days.”
“Ah, but if we are trapped here, so is Lord Hugh,” he said. “And it gives us more time to train the men.”
Aislinn nodded and watched that training in silence at his side. She left when Brienne summoned her, leaving Marcus to contemplate their next voyage and their next confrontation.
Though they were victorious the first time, he did not underestimate their enemies or their determination to free the goddess from her otherworldly prison.
The sun burst through the thick clouds then, illuminating the area around them. The warriors training and fighting let out a cheer at the sight and warmth of it, but it did not warm Marcus’s blood or raise his spirits.
Darkness was spreading. Chaos threatened all that they held dear. Destruction of the world in which they lived was the goddess’s promise. And no amount of sunshine could remove those fears from his heart.
He only hoped his prayers would be heard and that the Warriors of Destiny would finally prevail against the evil one who could destroy all of humanity.
North Sea, off Mainland of Orkney
Spring, AD 1286
Ran closed her eyes and lifted her face into the sea winds. The boat sailed across the dark surface of the firth between Scotland and the islands that made up Orkney to the north. She did not hold on to the ropes or the side of the boat for she could keep her balance no matter how rough the waves became.
Though winter was losing its grip and days would soon grow warmer and longer, Ran Sveinsdottir knew better than to underestimate the calm-surfaced seas. Since the time she could walk, she had sailed at her father’s side. In good weather and bad. In all seasons and seas. The ominous weather seemed to stay to their south and the dark, threatening clouds hugged the northern edge of Scotland and did not move.
She leaned against the side of the boat, not their largest, and peered out at the lands just rising from the sea ahead of them. Ran squinted into the distance and allowed herself to savor the view of . . . home. Two years. Two long and lonely years had passed since she last walked on the island of her birth.
Ran moved a couple of paces forward and shielded her eyes from the unusually bright sun. The boat lifted and dropped as it crossed the waves, bringing her ever closer. Her breath caught then, as memories of her departure flooded her mind. She pushed them away, refusing to allow them to intrude on this return. She had a new life now. She had plans for a future. Her father’s influence and wealth had created opportunities she would not have had if she’d remained on Orkney with . . .
Ran shook off the maudlin feelings and turned when someone said her name. Finding no one close or even watching her now, she shrugged it off and peered at the islands that grew larger and larger with every mile crossed.
She’d heard it quite clearly then and turned once more to seek out the source of the voice.
This time it seemed to come from the sea itself. Was someone in the water below her? She leaned over the railing of the boat and searched the water there. Nothing. No one.
This time she was paying attention and her name whispered forth from beneath the surface of the sea there before her. Shaking her head in disbelief, she was caught unaware when a swell hit the boat, sending it tilting to one side and tossing her over the railing. Grabbing for something, anything, to stop her descent into the water, she grasped at air. Preparing herself to hit the icy water, she instead found herself in a pocket of warm water.
Holding her breath, she prayed that someone had seen her fall for there’d been no time to call out in alarm. With the many layers of heavy woolen skirts and cloak she wore, she would have little time before sinking into the depths below. Ran could swim, but the weight of her garments would pull her under and deep. And quickly. Tugging on the ties of her cloak, trying not to panic . . .
I can swim, she told herself over and over, as the water covered her, pulling her down. Then it began.
All around her, voices whispered her name. The sound of it floated and surrounded her in the sea. The water moved, too, shifting and encircling her, almost caressing her. Its warmth eased her fears and she stopped fighting the downward pull, staring at the sparkling, shimmering flashes that enclosed her in a silent embrace. The murmuring sounds began then, as though voices spoke there in the sea.
Daughter of the sea.
Each word resonated with joy and welcome and want. And with each sound came a touch, a caress of hands that could not be possible, for the sea had not hands. Had she lost consciousness? Was she dreaming or dying and imagining this in her last moments of life? Turning and glancing up to the sunlight above her, she knew she must get to the surface.
Up, she thought. Up now.
At only the thought, the touches turned to pushes, swirling and moving her through the water toward the brightness above her. An instant later, she shot out of the sea as though thrown up into the air. Ran prepared for the gasping she knew would follow, as her body fought to reclaim its breath.
As one of the sailors caught sight of her and called her name aloud, she realized something unbelievable had just happened to her—she had never stopped breathing. Ran had not even tried to hold her breath under the water. She was practiced at it and could remain under it for a few minutes, but this time, the instinct had never begun.
Then another shocking occurrence—when she had fallen back into the water, she did not swim but did not sink. Instead of the water sucking her down, it seemed to hold her up there, waiting for rescue. Warm, impossibly warm, though it felt almost solid beneath her body. She grabbed the rope and tugged the large loop over her head and down under her arms.
“I thought we’d lost you, Ran,” Bjorn said, as he pulled her over the side and helped her to her feet. “I’ve never seen a boat pitch that far without capsizing completely. It seemed to pause for a moment, neither leaning nor righting itself. Strange that.”
“Nor I,” she said, tugging the laces and freeing her sodden cloak. “A sudden wind?” Ran glanced at the man who’d sailed for more years than she’d lived. The winds could be unpredictable any time on the sea, but during this transition from winter to spring, even more so.
“Nay, calm.” Bjorn waved to one of the other men. “Get blankets.”
She should be shivering. She should be shuddering from the temperature of the seas at this time of year and yet, the water that her clothing and hair held remained warm. Just as it had beneath the surface. Ran allowed Askell to wrap a thick woolen shawl around her shoulders.
“You should go and change out of those garments. I do not wish to explain your sickening or worse to your father, Ran,” Bjorn ordered in a soft voice. From the expression in his gaze, this had scared him.
It scared her.
More though, it confused her. She rarely lost her balance when sailing. And Ran did not suffer when moving onto land after being on a boat or ship—each step was sure and steady. So, falling into the water as she had puzzled her.
No matter what or how, she did not wish her father to be concerned and question her suitability for the tasks that lay ahead of her. Their bargain had been bitterly fought and she would not give it up now.
“A rogue swell,” she whispered before facing Bjorn. “A rogue swell caught the boat. I am well,” she said. “There is nothing to tell my father.” Bjorn’s weathered face told her nothing. “All of us have ended up in the water. ’Tis the way of it amongst those who spend their lives on the sea.”
Ran met his gray gaze and waited for his decision. Her father sought an excuse to forbid her from sailing on his ships, and this would be enough. He wanted her married and settled, whether in Orkney or one of the many ports where his business interests lay. She wanted the freedom of the sea.
“You look no worse for it, lass,” he finally said, glancing away. “But if anything else . . .”
She reached out and hugged Bjorn, kissing his leathery cheek before he could say more. “We are nearly home. All will be well, I swear it,” she said.
“Go now,” he stepped back and nodded. “You are soaked through to the skin. Change your garments.”
Knowing how much it took the man to agree not to reveal this to her father, she nodded and left him there without another word. As she went below deck, Ran glanced back to find Bjorn staring at her. Had he heard the voices? Had he seen the way she’d been thrown back into the air? Or had he noticed the warmth in her wet clothing?
She would not ask him for it was pure folly to think that there could be voices in the water. Or to think that she breathed under its surface. Or think the water somehow saved her. Ran was not prone to visions or hearing things that were not there, so she could not explain it all. Better to let it lie rather than bring up matters she could not answer.
As she undressed and dried off, Ran noticed the new mark on her arm. Had she hit it as she’d fallen over the railing? Or mayhap as Bjorn and the others pulled her up? It was red like a bruise but, as she examined it, it changed. It moved. It almost looked as though there was something moving under her skin. And then the burning began, sending little bursts of pain through her skin.
Tearing off a strip from her still-wet shift, Ran wrapped it around her forearm, covering this injury. The coolness of the bandage soothed it as she’d hoped it would. One little bruise or scrape was nothing compared to what could have happened to her, so she continued dressing and returned to the deck above to watch the rest of the journey.
Though Bjorn and the others never took their watchful gazes off her, the final part of the journey was uneventful. Within hours they turned northward and made their way into the center of the islands and her father’s home in Orphir. His fleet of ships moored in nearby Kirkwall harbor during the high sailing season but he kept only a few this far north over the winters. The rest would be moved soon, since Orkney was the center of the world in which Svein Ragnarson ruled with his widespread shipping business.
A shipping empire that she would be part of. That she would inherit. One that she would control.
For that, she could bear returning home and chance seeing the man who had driven her away two years ago. The possibility of seeing Soren Thorson again and the pain she would suffer were costs she would willingly pay for the rewards she would gain.
Excerpted from "Raging Sea"
Copyright © 2015 Terri Brisbin.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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