"THERE IS NO ONE. I TRAVEL ALONE. I LIVE ALONE. ALWAYS."
Battle-scarred Thrand the Destroyer has only one thing on his mind: settling old scores. But with the beautiful Lady of Lingfold as his prisoner, the unyielding warrior starts to dream of a loving wife and a home to call his own.
Cwen is also seeking justice, but she knows the fragile alliance she's built with Thrand will only last as long as they share a common enemy. Unless they can find a way to leave revenge to the gods to forge a new life together.
"Maintains the myth while adding sexual tension, nonstop action and spice." RT Book Reviews on The Viking's Captive Princess
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Spring 876near the border between Viking-controlled Northumbria and Anglo Saxon-controlled Bernicia
'We've stopped again. How many times can the wheels get clogged with mud? Perhaps we should have waited until the spring rains stopped.' Lady Cwenneth of Lingwold peered through the covered cart's one small window. 'This journey to Acumwick has taken twice as long as it should have with all the stops Hagal the Red's men insist on making. Delay after delay. I want to prevent hostilities rather than be the excuse for them.'
Her new tire woman, Agatha, glanced up. 'Are you that eager for marriage to Hagal the Red? You went on about his unsavoury reputation only a few nights ago. About how your brother threatened you into the marriage.'
Cwenneth pressed her lips together as the cloying scent from the herbs Agatha had spread to help with the stuffiness of the cart tickled her nostrils.
In her loneliness, she had confided too much the other night.
'I spoke out of turn, Agatha. It doesn't do to remind me.'
'I was just saying,' the maid muttered, stirring the herbs and releasing more of their overpowering scent. 'Some people '
Cwenneth concentrated on smoothing the fur collar of her cloak rather than giving a sharp answer back. Squabbling created enemies. She needed friends and allies more than ever now that she was about to live in a foreign land amongst people with a reputation for barbarity and cruelty.
Her marriage to the new Norseman jaarl of Acum-wick would ensure her brother and the inhabitants of Lingwold would finally achieve peace after years of war. As part of the marriage contract, Hagal the Red agreed to provide protection particularly against Thrand the Destroyer, the berserker who enjoyed killing for the sake of it and exacted more than his fair share of gold from Lingwold.
Hagal's sworn oath to bring Thrand's head to Lingwold had ensured her brother had put his signature on the marriage contract's parchment.
'You look solemn, my lady. Are you that unhappy?'
Cwenneth hastily composed her face into a more cheerful countenance. 'I'm eager to begin my new life. A fresh start away from the unhappiness of the past few years.'
Cwenneth gave the only positive reason she could think of sharing with Agatha. Her brother had given her a stark choice when she had protested at the matcheither marriage to Hagal the Red or a convent of his choosing with no dowry, nothing to look forward to except a barren cell and hard physical work for the remainder of her existence.
'It will happen if you please your new lord and master, my lady. It's easy if you know how.' Agatha gave a superior smile and arched her back slightly so her ample breasts jutted out. 'Men are such simple creatures. Easy to please, if you take my meaning.'
Cwenneth glanced down at her own slender curves. Positively boyish and flat in comparison. She had to hope Hagal the Red liked thin women.
'The journey was supposed to last a week. Thanks to the incessant rain, it has been twice as long.' Cwenneth frowned. Once the rain stopped and the mud dried, the raiding season would begin in earnest. If the marriage wasn't formalised, would Hagal the Red actually provide the promised protection? Would he end the threat of Thrand the Destroyer? 'What if Hagal takes the delay as an insult?'
'I am sure it rained in Viken where they came from. He will understand.' Agatha gave a throaty laugh and stirred the herbs another time. 'They appreciate a woman up north, and Hagal the Red will be all the more impatient for the wait. They say he is very vigorous in bed.'
The dusty dry scent of the herbs invaded Cwen-neth's mouth, making her throat feel parched and her head ache.
'I hate travelling in a cart. It makes me feel ill with its swaying and bumps.' Cwenneth firmly changed the subject away from bed sport. She knew the rumours about Agatha's prowess in that area and how her sister-in-law had caught her cavorting with Cwen-neth's brother.
She craned her neck, trying to see more, but there was nothing except for bare trees, raising their branches to the sky. 'My brother would have allowed me to walk for a little, but Hagal's man refuses even to discuss it. When I am officially his lady, things will have to change.'
'I'm sure it will,' Agatha said in that overly familiar way she'd recently adopted. Cwenneth gritted her teeth. She needed to assert her authority over the maid. 'Change is in the air. For everyone. You never know, you might not be cursed any longer.'
Cursedthe word pierced her heart. What else could you call a woman who had failed to save her husband and child from a fever? Who had lost her home to a stepson who hated her and blamed her for the death of the woman he had considered his mother?
'Repeating gossip is wrong,' she said far too quickly.
'Your husband died and then your child after that old crone died on your doorstep. What is that if not cursed?'
'It is unlucky and has nothing to do with my forthcoming marriage. We will speak no more of it.'
Cwenneth hated the lingering sense of guilt that swamped her. Her stepson's former nurse had been caught stealing gold from the local church. She had had to request her departure. The priest had threatened to withhold communion from the entire household if she continued to shelter her. The woman had gone muttering curses and predicting vile things including that Cwenneth should lose all she held dear and that her womb would remain barren for ever.
Although she had laughed off the words at the time, dismissing them as the ravings of a confused woman, less than three weeks later, the bad luck started. Aefirth had returned home wounded and died.
Six weeks after that, she had lost her young son and any hope she might be carrying another. She had returned to her childhood home unable to bear her stepson's accusations any longer. The whispers about her being cursed began in earnest. Even now the memory caused cold sweat to run down her back. What else did she have to lose before the curse lost its power?
Agatha kept silent, so Cwenneth adopted an innocent face and added, 'A wonder you want to serve under such a woman as me, then.'
Agatha fiddled with the dry herbs. 'There was no prospect for advancement at Lingwold. That much was made very clear to me. I've no wish to be a beggar woman. I have plans.'
Cwenneth leant forward. No prizes for guessing who had made her that offerthe same person who had delivered the ultimatum about her marriage when she had tried to stall: her brother. 'I expect my servants to be loyal, Agatha, and not to repeat old gossip. I expect them to speak with a civil tongue as well. Remember that or you will not remain my maid for long.'
Agatha's cheeks flushed at the reprimand. 'I beg your pardon. And I do hope for a bright future for you. Maybe you will find happiness.'
Happiness? Cwenneth hadn't expected to fall in love with the much older Aefirth either, but she had. Their marriage had initially been one of duty and the joining of estates. She clearly remembered the instant she'd knownAefirth had put his hand on her belly when she had said that she felt their baby stir. The delight in his eyes had taken her breath away, and she had known that she'd love him for ever. He said that she made him young again. All that had gone in the space of a few days. All because of the curse.
The interior of the cart with its overpowering stench of herbs seemed small and more confining than ever once she started to think about all she had lost and would never have again.
'I'm going out to breathe fresh air. You may remain here. I'll be back before you miss me.'
'Surely, you should stay here. The last time you tried to leave the cart, things went badly.'
Cwenneth firmed her mouth. She knew precisely what had happened the last time. Narfi, Hagal's steward with the shifty eyes, had shouted at her, calling her all sorts of filthy names. She had retreated rather than argue like a fishwife. But what was a name compared to a few final breaths of freedom now that the marriage truly loomed? What if they never allowed her out of the hall again? If she never saw the spring flowers in the woods?
'Lend me your cloak. From a distance and if the hood covers my hair, we look about the same,' Cwenneth said. 'No one will see that I lack your curves.'
'Hagal's man forbade me, but not you. I will take full responsibility if anyone questions me. You won't be beaten. I won't allow it.' Cwenneth touched her maid's cold hand. 'When we reach Acumwick, I'll speak with Hagal and quietly explain that I dislike rough treatment and being shouted at. If that man, Narfi, can't learn to keep a civil tongue in his head, he'll have to go. Hagal the Red wants this marriage. He will have to respect my wishes.'
Agatha tapped her finger against her mouth, but did not meet Cwenneth's eyes. 'No one has shouted at me. Tell me what you want and I can fetch it.'
Cwenneth frowned. Agatha's bold manner grew the nearer they got to Acumwick.
'I need to go out and stretch my legs,' Cwenneth said, adopting a superior attitude and pinning the maid with her gaze. Agatha was the first to look away.
'It is on your head then.' Agatha fumbled with her cloak. 'Don't go blaming me. I did try to warn you. Do what you have to do quickly.'
The exchange of cloaks was quickly accomplished. Agatha stroked the rabbit fur collar of Cwenneth's cloak with an envious hand.
'I appreciate it. I'll return before anyone notices.'
'Just so you are.' The woman gave a great sigh and ceased stroking the cloak.
Cwenneth raised the coarse woollen hood over her golden blonde hair and quickly exited before Agatha found another reason to delay her.
The bright spring sun nearly blinded her after the dark shadows of the cart. Cwenneth stood, lifting her face to the warm sunlight while her eyes adjusted. All the worry and anxiety seemed to roll off her back as she stood breathing in the fresh, sweet-smelling air. The stuffy woollen-headed feeling from the herbs vanished and she could think clearly again.
Without pausing to see where anyone else might be, she walked briskly to a small hollow where the bluebells nodded. The rich perfume filled her nostrils, reminding her of the little wood behind the hall she'd shared with her late husband. Aefirth had loved bluebells because her eyes matched their colour. He'd even had her stitch bluebells on his undergarments, proclaiming that they brought him luck.
Always when she thought of Aefirth, her heart constricted. She had desperately wanted to save him when he returned home with his wounded leg, but the infection had taken hold and he'd died. Old warriors died all the time from wounds. No matter how many times she tried to remember that, her mind kept returning to the woman's curse. Aefirth had recovered from worse before. Why had the infection taken hold that time?
Impulsively, Cwenneth picked a bluebell and held it in her hand. The scent made her feel stronger and more in controlwhat she needed in the cart rather than evil-smelling herbs which made her feel tired and stupid.
She picked a large handful of bluebells, stopped and breathed in their perfume one final time before returning to her duty.
'I'll be brave. I'll be kind to Agatha and make her my ally instead of my enemy, but I will remember my position,' she whispered. 'I will make this marriage to Hagal the Red work because it is for the good of everyone. A new start for me and a chance to leave past mistakes far behind. I'm certain that is the advice Aefirth would have given me.'
A great inhuman scream rent the air before the dull clang of sword against sword resounded.
Cwenneth froze. A raid! And she was too far from the cart's safety. Her men would rally around the cart, thinking they were protecting her. No one would be looking for her out here.
She should have stayed where she was supposed to be. Her brother's men would defend the cart to their last breath. She wished Edward had allowed her a few more men, but he'd bowed to Hagal's wishes and had sent only a token force of six. Agatha would be fine as long as she stayed put in the cart and did not come looking for her.
'Stay put, Agatha,' she whispered. 'Think about yourself. I can look after myself. Honest.'
What to do now? She could hardly stand like some frozen rabbit in the middle of the bluebells, waiting to be run through or worse.
Hide! Keep still until you know all is safe. Aefirth's advice about what to do if the Norsemen came calling resounded in her mind. Find a safe spot and stay put until the fighting has ended. She was far too fine to wield a sword or a knife. She tightened her grip on the flowers. The same had to hold true for bandits and outlaws.
Cwenneth pressed her back against a tree and slid into the shadows. Hugging the rapidly wilting bluebells to her chest, she tried to concentrate on her happy memories of her husband and their son. Before she had been cursed. She whispered a prayer for the attack to be short and easily repulsed.
An agonised female scream tore the air. Agatha!
Cold sweat trickled down Cwenneth's back. The bandits had breached the cart's defences.
How? Hagal's men were supposed to be hardened warriors. He'd given her brother his solemn oath on that.
The pleas became agonised screams and then silence. Cwenneth bit the back of her knuckle and prayed harder. Agatha had to be alive. Surely they wouldn't kill a defenceless woman. The outlaws couldn't be that depraved.
The silence became allencompassing. Before the attack, there had been little sounds in the woods and now there was nothing. Cwenneth twisted off her rings and hid them in the hem of her gown before gathering her skirts about her, sinking farther into the hollow beneath the tree and hoping.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Did not finish, no depth of emotion
Loved this book!! I had hoped to find an enjoyable "vacation" book and I did! I am so delighted to have discovered the Historical Series! As I read my FIRST Harlequin book, I became Lady Cwenneth ... I believed that I was Lady Cwenneth! I could feel her every emotion. The author, Michelle Styles, has given me the desire to add many more of the Historical Series to my library.