The daughter of a Northern warlord, Katia is known as the Iron Princess for her mettle in battle. Headstrong and defiant, she instigates sword duels on a whim with little regard for her own safety. Katia would rather die on her feet as a warrior than live as a token wife and child bearer for a husband who keeps her castled as if she were a prisoner.
Lothair is the illegitimate son of the Duke of Saxony, who was granted the title of baron, a castle and lands. Raised in an atmosphere of mistrust and deceit, he rejects the concept of husbandry and wants a life of purpose and sacrifice in the pursuit of security for the Baltic Sea.
And when fate brings the Iron Princess and reluctant baron together, Katia and Lothair discover they are kindred spirits with fiery temperaments—and insatiable desires—to match…
INCLUDES A PREVIEW OF THE WARLORD’S WIFE
Praise for The Warlord's Wife
“With compelling characters and a clever plot, The Warlord’s Wife will appeal to readers obsessed with TV’s Vikings, and who miss the classic Viking romances of Catherine Coulter or Johanna Lindsey.”—Heroes and Heartbreakers
“Lake’s debut historical romance is sure to appeal to those who enjoy spirited heroines, grumpy alpha heroes, and a slow sweet journey to everlasting love.”—Smexy Books
“Man, this was a fun book! … I cut my teeth on Johanna Lindsey, and this book reminded me so much of those experiences.”—Dear Author
Sandra Lake is the author of The Warlord’s Wife. She was raised in rural Canada and married her childhood sweetheart (who, like the heroes of her novels, is blond and on occasion shirtless). They are currently living happily-ever-after along with their musical sons and unruly husky.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Norrland, Sweden—Summer 1165
“Cynisca of Sparta didn’t win the Olympic Games by sitting around watching her arse grow,” Katia said. “She had to have gotten her hands dirty at one point.”
Katia looked down and, much to her vexation, realized her bosom had grown yet again. “Pull it tighter, Tosh, or I’ll never fit.”
With nimble fingers, her handmaiden yanked the ends of the binding, flattening Katia’s chest.
“Useless, bothersome appendages,” Katia muttered.
“It’s because you don’t know how to use them correctly.” Demonstrating, Tosha leaned forward and squeezed her shoulders together, creating a valley of cleavage that a small child could fall into. “My appendages got me three offers for my hand last night alone,” she said, giggling with pride. Tosha had fluffy, dark brown curls that framed her pretty face perfectly, with full cheeks that were in a near perpetual state of blushing. She was eager to be swept away to become the wife to some flea-bitten brute, and was entering womanhood enthusiastically, as were all of Katia’s sixteen-year-old friends.
“Did you lose all your good sense when your chest swelled up? We swore to never become like those blockheaded cows moaning for a husband.” Katia wiggled into her final piece of body armor.
Tosha yanked the leather strap at the back of Katia’s breastplate. “Nay, it was you who swore that oath. I still think being a wife and mother is purpose well enough for me. Whoever filled your head with useless drivel about the pitfalls of wifehood did you no favors.”
Lately, Katia was beginning to think that her dearest friend was lost to her and would never understand. “Argh! Tosh, my—”
Cutting the disagreement short, her friend placed her hand lightly on Katia’s shoulder and locked eyes with her in the looking glass, her face sober, her big brown eyes suddenly filling with fear. “A cloud hangs heavy over you, Kat. I feel it in my bones,” Tosha said, begrudgingly fastening the final engraved silver buckle to Katia’s armored girdle. “I beg you to reconsider this match.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Katia found calm within the scent of the freshly oiled leather and steel that surrounded her. Searching for the right words to convince her friend, Katia’s eyes roamed around her bedchamber. By her own design, her chamber could be mistaken for that of a son in battle training instead of a princess. Next to her bed, which was engraved and painted with fire-breathing dragons, was her cypress trunk filled with weaponry and armor. She treasured the contents of the trunk far more than the cedar chest that sat next to it, which was filled with rare fabrics and exotic gowns.
Tosha continued to shake her head disapprovingly. “Your father will lock you in your chamber until after summer solstice. You’ll miss the entire festival—’tis not worth the risk.”
“My far will never know, Tosh.” Katia tucked the last of her hair under her helmet. She hadn’t a clue why people insisted on referring to her hair as a crown of glory. Crown of nuisance was more like it. “He is overwrought negotiating with the duke. King Karl has really made a mess of things apparently. All his commanders are attending the meeting. This is the perfect opportunity for me to slip into the ring for a few rounds and test my skill for once.”
“Kat!” Tosha scrunched up her face, clearly frustrated with the repetitive debate.
“If we were boys, we would have been sent to sea for training long ago,” Katia interjected. “If sitting around embroidering and ordering about servants is to be my destiny, well, I wholly reject it.” Katia’s anger was rising—perfect motivation with which to enter the sparring ring. Perhaps arguing with her friend before every match had its benefits.
Katia placed her gloved hands on her friend’s shoulders. “Fate will just have to think up a new destiny for me. I shall not be my father’s pampered pony any longer.” She released a deep breath, cooling her temper back down. “How will I ever truly test my skill if all my sparring partners are afraid to take an honest swing at me? Tero said that the duke has brought with him his top warriors to spar with Tronscar’s. They are renowned for their speed and accuracy.”
Katia was bored with her role as a shiny ornament in her father’s great hall and determined to prove that she had genuine skill in battle tactics, as well as a desire to learn more. After her shield maiden lessons, her second favorite pursuit was to hold her ear to the door of her father’s war council chamber. Perhaps if she distinguished herself in the ring, he would invite her inside for once.
“What if you get hurt?” Tosha whined. “Your father will be furious, and think of your mother’s condition. She is so near her time—”
“She is always with child.” Katia rolled her eyes to the heavens. “Really, if I used that as my line of reasoning, I would never step foot outside of the bloody fortress gate.”
Perhaps Tosha didn’t understand because she hadn’t been present for Katia’s long interrogation of her father’s top military advisor. Tero was of Far Eastern descent and had studied ancient history from all the known empires, past and present. Tosha found him dull, while Katia found his vast knowledgeable endlessly interesting.
Boiling over with excitement, Katia continued, “I cannot pass up the opportunity to learn from the best trainers in the Baltic shores. Do you not understand? I must seize the day.” She winked, lowered her visor, and promptly headed for the secret escape staircase that led from her chamber into the hidden tunnels to the stables.
Sunshine blanketed the ring in a hazy white glow. The breeze carried the scent of sweaty men and warm ale. With good sport and good drink readily on hand, it was a glorious day to be in Tronscar. All eyes were engrossed in watching the pair of young recruits parading their skills in the sparring ring.
A lean, sandy-haired Saxony boy who was not wearing a helmet—overconfident, Katia thought—was wiping the ring with Søren, her usual sparring partner. Circling the high rails, she studied them, waiting her turn. Søren’s feet tended to tire quickly, causing him to stumble and flop about. Sure enough, Søren tripped and landed facedown in the soft gravel while dodging a swing. Dissatisfied cries from the Tronscar supporters rose up from the crowd. The round had ended before it had even really begun.
Swinging his blade with grace and agility, the young Saxon clearly had a well-practiced arm. Søren’s blade, which was much thicker and heavier, had slowed him down, giving the Saxon swordsman little challenge.
Katia’s blade had been forged specially for her, made with the strongest Norrland steel and counterbalanced to accommodate her smaller grip. In many ways, she thought of her sword as a fifth limb.
The Saxon offered a hand to Søren, pulling him up from the soft gravel and slapping his opponent’s back.
This was Katia’s chance. Her heart raced as wild as a young colt, and she barely felt the weight of her armor. She was ready. She knew the odds of winning were not in her favor. He was easily a full head taller than her. She just hoped to exceed Søren’s round and make the Saxon work a little for his victory. She would be no match for his strength, speed, or reach, but perhaps she could tire him out enough to land an honest blow or two.
She glanced over to Rikard and nodded. He shook his head no. She ignored her sword master and ducked under the rail to take her position in the ring.
The crowd of Saxon onlookers burst out laughing, yelling to their young champion that he was being warmed up with children.
Tosha had positioned herself next to the crowd of foreigners. She said loudly, “I wager my little brother can go three rounds against your thin-wristed swordsman.” Tosha smacked Katia’s coin on the rail with a loud clang. It worked. The crowd shut their mouths and focused on the shiny coin balancing on top of the fence. Every Saxon present began shouting for their warrior to teach the lad a lesson.
From ten paces away, the swordsman stared her down. “Boy, your sister does you no favors.”
It was the first time Katia got a good look at the man. He had a long, straight nose that drew the eye down to a set of full lips. His features were bold and almost tauntingly refined, as if begging to be marred and scratched. He was younger than she thought, only a few winters older than her—ten and seven, ten and eight perhaps. Although his manner was prickly toward her, his bright green eyes were kind and she could sense the concern he felt for his much smaller challenger. Concealed behind her visor, she smiled all the more. Holding out for the three rounds and besting the arrogant, handsome smile off his face would be good fun.
Katia raised her sword, challenging her opponent, and took her position. She nodded at Søren to hammer the bell and took the first step and swing. Their swords met over her head with a glorious clang. Steel on steel was the greatest sound in the world.
Her feet skidded on the dirt from the fast-paced movements of returning blows, blocking and slashing. In minutes, sweat from her brow began to sting her eyes. To her annoyance, her opponent didn’t appear to have broken a sweat at all. Like all the rest, he was going soft on her. As the last few moments of the first round were slipping away, Katia dropped down and swung at his shine plate, coming up fast with another slash to his shoulder guard—two clean hits.
Near-feral cheers from the people of Tronscar inundated the training yards. They knew the sight of Katia in her practice armor. Witnessing her get even one decent hit on this peacock was a reason to celebrate. Katia strutted over to the corner, bowing and waving to entertain her audience.
Rikard grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. “You mangy little goat. The jarl shall be incensed when he hears of this.” Rikard jerked her to the corner to drag her from the ring. “Be gone with you.”
“My dear fellow.” With her back to the Saxon crowd, Katia raised her visor. “You are worried for naught. My far will understand that I am simply endeavoring to improve my skill. He will not mind in the least.” She bent down to the bucket, picked up the ladle, and took a small sip of water to rinse her parched throat. She felt slightly bad lying to her old friend, yet not bad enough to heed his council and cut her fun short.
“Have you thought what will happen to the lad if he injures you?” Rikard grabbed her by the edge of her breastplate, jerking her up and forward. “If this goes too far and he takes a cheap shot, half of the men in this courtyard will slit his throat where he stands.”
“Truly, Rikard, the men think this is hilarious. If I win, it will provide the greatest of taunts, the poor Saxon being bested by a woman.”
“You are no woman. You’re a weaseling squirrel full of trouble. When your far—”
The bell hammered. Katia winked and smiled at Rikard. “Wish me luck.”
Katia found the second round much more fun. The tempo was faster and most definitely more challenging, though she still sensed the Saxon holding back.
Their blades met over her head and she twisted her wrist and spun on her heels, dislodging her sword from her opponent’s lock and thwarting his attack. It did not register as a point, but the defense maneuver had been executed perfectly. Rikard would have to be proud of her for that at least.
Her lungs burned from exertion, but still she felt weightless. She hummed her favorite tune in her head, timing out the length of the round. In the final few moments, he raised his arm high. Her reaction was too slow, and his blade came down hard on the thick steel plate of her shoulder.
Hammered like a nail into the ground, Katia crumbled to one knee. Granting her no quarter, the Saxon came in fast for a second swing. She rolled, hearing the whoosh of his blade cut through the air above her ear. Rising to her feet, she stayed low, preparing to roll again. The bell for the second break hammered.
Marching back to her friends with her head high, she squared her shoulders as best she could. She told herself simply to ignore the fire that burned below her dented armor. Showing pain would surely get her yanked out of the match.
Tosha rushed to her side. “Kat, are you all right?”
“Of course. That will teach me for being slow in my counter.”
“Don’t be daft!” Tosh shrieked. “This is enough. Thank the man for his time and be done with this.” Her friend sounded more winded than her.
“It was one clean hit. I hardly felt it.” Katia drank more water than she should have, praying in vain that the cool drink would soothe the burning pain of her shoulder. “I need to keep out of his reach. One more round and we win. I can do this.”
Long shadows began to grow all around her. Tronscar’s highest-ranked guards and officers crowded around, blocking out the sun.
“You are finished now, Lady Katia.” Arne, a baby-faced guard, growled down at her. His beard was soft yellow, almost white, and reminded her of a spring lamb.
“Aye, Arne, practically done, just five more minutes. Is that a new leather brigandine? The riveting is splendid.” She would simply distract them by flattery and changing the subject.
“The jarl will have our heads, my lady,” Samson said with a measure of sympathy in his tone.
“Gratitude, friends,” Katia said, deciding she would need to pour on the charm. “I am learning so very much. I thank you all for your support and patience.” They stood with arms crossed, mouths gaping open a little, lost as to how to convince her. At times, Katia thought, getting what she wanted out of men was so easy. A few soft, complimentary words and a smile were a readily available currency.
The bell sounded, and with one last wink to reassure the concerned faces, she lowered her visor and returned to the center of the ring for her moment of glory.
Her handsome opponent greeted her with a smirk. His teeth were straight and white, blinding her for a moment. “Who are you, the village pet? I haven’t seen this much coddling since I left my mother’s breast.”
Suddenly he appeared less attractive. Katia shrugged and used the sting from her shoulder to fuel her inner fire to win. She answered his taunt by raising her blade. Slash. Spin. Duck. Block. Duck. Spin. Slash. The clash and scrap of steel on steel was her favorite tune.
Within a minute, however, his speed began to overwhelm Katia, causing her to step back as she blocked blow after blow. She was using only defense and retreat maneuvers at this point. The cheers had fallen silent, soon followed by her father’s guards calling to have the match stopped. Katia knew that time was running out. She needed to do something. Quick.
Using her small stature to her advantage, she charged in low and smashed down hard on her opponent’s boot. Unlike herself, the Saxon wore no shield plating below the thigh.
“Little cur!” He groaned loudly and made his first error by dropping his chin and peering at his crunched foot.
Taking advantage, she head butted him with her helmet. A bloody nose should teach him to wear more armor, a helmet at the very least. He stumbled a few steps back with bewilderment, murderous rage rising quickly in his pretty eyes.
Not smiling now, are you, Saxon?
His long arm darted out, reached around, and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, raising her a clear foot off the ground. She wiggled madly, kicking and flailing her legs. He tossed his sword down and punched her in the side of her head.
With church bells clanging in her ears, she tried to find her footing, but the world tilted on its axle. As her vision came back into focus, she witnessed a raging mob of spectators charging into the ring.
Heaven help her. She had ignited war between Tronscar and North Saxony.
Katia shook her head. “Stop! Stop, wait no!” she screeched, part out of panic for the trouble she had created, part out of the lack of ability to control her pitch. She tore off her helmet as Hansel and Kaj, two of the best swordsmen in Tronscar, fixed aim upon her Saxon opponent.
From behind her, a Saxon shouted, “It’s a girl!” freezing the crowd of Saxon men in place.
Katia shook her head a few more times to ease the bell tolling in her ears. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders and back. “I hate to lose a wager, but since we have been interrupted, I regretfully concede the match to you, sir.” Katia smiled, extending her gloved hand to her scowling opponent. He did not accept it. “My gratitude for the rounds. That was splendid fun.”
Observing that no harm had been done, the crowd began to disburse. Problem solved, she thought.
“Who the hell do you think you are? I could have killed you!” her opponent bellowed.
“I doubt that,” she said, blinking, trying to bring his piercing emerald green eyes into focus over the double vision she was currently experiencing. “May I inquire as to your name, my good man?” Regardless of the pain and humiliation, Katia continued to grin, waiting for her smile to do its magic and smooth over the small embarrassment.
“Who are you?” the Saxon said with a snarl. He turned to Rikard and pointed. “Is she yours?”
“No, I am not his,” Katia said, straining to keep a smile on her face. “I am my own person, thank you very much. My name is Katia. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And you are?”
Hell’s bells! Why was her smile not working?
Lothair dragged in a slow, deep breath and instructed the raging beast inside him to calm. The girl that stood before him, dressed from throat to boot in leather and steel-plated armor, did not look like much of a girl. Other than the long mess of gold silk that fell down around her shoulders, and her distracting pouty mouth. Or her flawless skin, with youthfully plump cheeks bright red from exercise and the long, thick, fluttering eyelashes. Other than that, she was nothing but a scrap of a lad.
“Lothair,” he said to answer her question. He realized he was staring and snapped his head away.
He grabbed the coin out of Fisk’s hand and threw it at her feet. “I don’t make bets with liars and cheats.”
She gasped and jerked her head back. “I am not a cheat! I only wanted my turn. Are you saying that if I had introduced myself, you would have agreed to step into the ring with me?”
Lothair took two steps closer but was cut short by a wall of Norrland henchmen who stepped forward, blocking his path.
The pushy little imp pried her way in between them, turned to face the guards, smiled, and patted their arms as if they were errand dogs. “My thanks, Arne, Nero, Samson. But I would prefer to speak to our guest myself.”
“Who are you?” As soon as Lothair asked, the answer came to him. Jarl Magnus Knutson had four sons and one daughter. He had assumed the daughter was a child like the others, not the age of a grown maiden.
“Again, my name is Katia.” She smiled brightly, revealing a row of radiant white teeth. She was annoyingly more feminine by the second. Curse it! For the hundredth time he asked himself why had he agreed to come on this tiresome journey north.
“And I thought I was the one that took the blow to the head,” she said, laughing off the seriousness of the situation. Undoubtedly she was a spoiled harpy who used her comely features as a weapon on every male crossing her path.
Lothair closed his eyes, no longer able to look at the crater-size dent to her armor that he had delivered.
From the other side of the training yard came a sound reminiscent of an angry bear. “Katia!” The sea of spectators silently retreated.
Flinching, the pretty little warrior shut her eyes. Her smile was pained as she turned to face the wrath of the mighty Jarl of Tronscar.
Jarl Magnus Knutson had an imposing stature in any man’s opinion. Though he was said to be a man of forty-five winters, he appeared to be in prime health and form. His thunderous voice originated from his bearlike chest. Trimmed with gold, the jarl’s black tunic held enough fabric to make two regular-size garments. As he plowed toward the sparring ring, his gold family crest was displayed proudly, signifying him as a member of the royal House of Eric. At his right side, his regal wife was adorned in equal finery.
Friherrinna Lida of Tronscar was a renowned beauty throughout the Baltics, and Lothair could see why, regardless of the fact that her stomach stuck out like a shelf—clear evidence of the jarl’s continued virility. Her hair was in gold braids entwined with jewel combs that captured the sunlight, causing her head to appear to glow.
“Far, you missed all the sport. It was such fun.” The girl skipped over to the irate jarl, and an equally angry friherrinna. “Oh, Mama, you should have seen how well I did. Søren did not even make it a round. I went two rounds and I would—”
“Go to your chamber,” the jarl said in a low snarl, hardly moving his lips. “Hand your sword to Rikard. You will have no further use for it.”
“Oh, Far, it was simply a little exercise—” Katia began to make her excuses.
“Katia.” The friherrinna interrupted in a soft but serious voice. “Your father has given you instruction. I suggest you take your leave before you get yourself in more trouble.”
“But, Mother,” Katia started.
“Now!” Jarl Magnus’s growl echoed across the sparring ring. The girl sullenly handed the sword off, turned with her chin high in the air, and stomped her ironclad feet in the direction of the fortress. If Lothair had not just been within seconds of losing his life to a bloodthirsty mob at her expense, he may have felt a measure of pity for the spirited girl.
The Duke of Saxony approached his side. “What were you thinking, Lothair?” his father mumbled into his ear. “Sparring with a Tronscar maiden—the jarl’s daughter no less!”
“Some fox placed a wager that her little brother could go three rounds. I—”
His father waved him off. “Our position here is tenuous.” The duke took him by the shoulder. “We need this trade agreement with Knutson. You will apologize and take responsibility. Do you understand me?”
The jarl approached before Lothair could answer. “I beg your pardon, your grace, in neglecting to make a proper introduction of my daughter, but, alas, I believe I shall be locking her in her chamber for the next hundred years.”
The duke laughed politely. “Spirited young maidens, Magnus—what is to be done?” He slapped the jarl’s shoulder as if the two men were old friends instead of newly forged allies. His father was a gifted talker when he needed to be. And given the recent conflict with his rival, the power-hungry Frederick Barbarossa, his father needed to shore up as much weaponry and as many ships as he could get his hands on.
His father cupped the back of Lothair’s neck, pulling him into the conversation. “May I introduce my nephew, Baron Lothair of Hanseatz. He desires to make his apologies, Magnus. He deeply regrets putting the maiden at risk.”
Lothair had to work hard not to slap his father’s hand off. For the hundredth time he wondered how it was possible to respect someone so greatly and at the same time despise him. As the duke’s illegitimate son, he told himself that it was an unusual kindness for a nobleman to pay any notice to his bastards, especially those born to a chambermaid. He could understand his father’s reasons to hide the truth of his parentage and claim Lothair as a nephew rather than his own offspring, yet he still resented him for it. Beneath all his deceit, his father took such risks out of love for his mother and for his siblings, which was why he struggled to go along with the falsehood, even though he could feel it rotting his insides a little more with each passing year.
Lothair smiled stiffly and uttered a begrudging apology, bowing at the waist before the friherrinna.
“No apologies,” Jarl Magnus said. “Our daughter has her ways of getting what she wants. Her mother believes I am to blame for this thorny trait.” The jarl shook his head, but his eyes brightened and the corner of his mouth turned up in a small smile that poorly masked his pride in his daughter. “She sets her mind to something and there is no stopping her. Hence, the need to lock her indefinitely in her chamber.” The jarl chuckled from low in his belly. With such a proud father, Lothair expected the fetching girl would be locked away no longer than the time it took her to climb the high south tower of the jarl’s private residence, which Tero, the steward, had warned him was strictly prohibited.
Lothair’s father laughed at the jarl’s joke and, shoulder to shoulder, the men strolled back toward the principal keep, heads bent in conversation. Lothair would never understand the contrary nature of fathers, indulging their children only to find fault with the qualities they had fostered. This was yet another glaring example of why he would never put himself at risk of becoming a father.
He rubbed the swollen bump on his nose. He would use it as his most recent reminder of why his chosen life path was the correct one.
Every day the constant compulsion to run, to break free of his fraudulent life, grew stronger. The need for truth used to haunt him only in the quiet, sleepless hours of night. Now this need haunted his days as well. Searching for his life’s purpose had begun to feel like an incurable disease of his heart.
Lothair took his place with his countrymen, watching one of his fellow soldiers and a lanky Norrlander have their turn in the center of the ring.
When he was younger, residing in the southern German territory of Nordgau, Lothair had thought that becoming a warrior would be the answer to all his problems. The duke’s sister and her husband, who was conveniently barren, agreed to pass Lothair off as their son and heir, though they had no true affection to spare for him. They did, however, provide the best tutors they could find. He had acquired a measure of skill as a swordsman and he had dreamed of one day being able to support his true family and cast off the protection of the duke’s web of lies.
Though his mother had borne the duke five children, three still living, she continued to work as a housekeeper, while Lothair was treated as the young master. He was celebrated while his mother was viewed as a fallen woman and shunned by most in the community. His mother and sisters’ adoring devotion to the duke curdled in Lothair’s gut.
Becoming his father’s pawn was the only path he knew for certain he wouldn’t be taking. With his uncle succumbing to the plague last year, Lothair was now the master of several prosperous holdings, none that he had earned, nor was deserving of. Daily, his conscience gnawed away at his self-worth.
Perhaps he could dedicate his life to the pursuit of justice, but then question would be, which side of justice? Every peasant, every maid and smith, every king and pirate shouted for their particular injustices.
Peace then? He could attach himself to whoever worked to bring peace to the Baltic shores, yet that would mean choosing one of a dozen rival kings who all claimed the right to rule overlapping kingdoms. In his lifetime, he’d not witnessed one highborn house that did not act with corruption and hypocrisy.
Lothair needed to find his life’s purpose soon and get started. He wanted to make his mark, fight without fear and with truth and purpose, and finally die young, before the winds of time eroded his moral center as it seemed to do to all men.
Never would he live a life of lies like his father. Never. He would be true to himself or die trying.
Several hours later, not long after the midday meal, Katia burst through the door of her parents’ bedchamber. “Mama! I swear this time I will drown them both.” She held her prisoners in place by their back collars. Her twin brothers of seven summers twisted and wiggled like eels to break free.
Lida was sitting at the window bench, using the light from the open shutters for her sewing. “What have they done now?” she asked, glancing up with little surprise.
Katia stood with her wet hair dripping all over the fur rug. “Tosh and I were in the sauna and these two sent the swine loose on us. Tosh is terrified of swine. She ran screaming out of the bathhouse without a stitch of clothing. Half of the kitchen servants saw her backside. If these two demons keep this up, she will go stay with her sister in Birja and I will have no one.”
Lida sighed and lowered her embroidery to her lap. “Boys, I will be speaking to your father about this.”
“No Mama, please,” groaned Hök, completely unrepentant.
“I beg your pardon, Mama,” Stål said. The boys exchanged sly smirks that told Katia everything. Neither one was sorry, and they would probably do it again for a fleeting glimpse of Tosha’s backside.
“Katia, leave them to me,” Lida said. “Go dry your hair and ready yourself for the feast. You are in need of a little redemption of your own this evening.”
The late afternoon sun bathed the chamber in a bright warm light, and the scent of pine was carried in on the breeze coming down from Folkebyte Mountain. Although she was often annoyed with her mother’s unshakable, serene manner, Katia loved seeing her like this—warm, happy, and humming as she stroked her growing belly. It was a direct contrast to her memory of her mother when she was a child. In Finland, her mother had worked from dawn to dusk in the fields. Before Lida married the jarl, Katia rarely remembered her mother ever laughing or humming.
Mollified, Katia kissed her mother’s cheek, sank down on the window bench next to her, and rubbed her taut belly. Her brothers slunk to the far corner of the room and began rummaging through the jarl’s assortment of ornamental weaponry. Her fifth brother or first sister would be born in two more moons. Every night she asked God for just one sister. She did not think she could survive another brother. To be sure, they were always adorable as babes, but once they started to have the run of the keep, there was no rest for anyone.
Her mother swept Katia’s wet hair to the side. “Why not wear a few braids tonight? You know how your father loves to see your hair arranged.”
“Just for tonight.” Katia continued to rub her mother’s stomach. The unborn babe kicked back. What must it feel like to have a creature moving around under your skin? The entire mystery of conception and carrying around a miniature person inside puzzled her, but her mother seemed always excited by the prospect of more annoying hellions to fill the fortress.
“Do you think it is true, that the duke is secretly an agent for the House of Eric and trying to shore up Father’s support?” she quietly asked her mother. Katia had come to understand long ago that most husbands, especially rulers, did not openly seek the counsel of their wives in political matters. But her stepfather, Jarl Magnus, was not an ordinary man. Nearly every night she could find her parents having long discussions before the hearth in their bedchamber, and the jarl always seemed open and eager to hear his wife’s opinions.
“We cannot be certain, even if he were to denounce the House of Eric before the entire hall,” Lida said while continuing her delicate, perfect stitches. “I’m sure the duke would say whatever he thought most advantageous at the time. He does appear overly desperate for weaponry and your father’s good opinion.”
Sweden was again on the brink of civil war. Jarl Magnus was a direct descendant of Eric the Victorious, one of the first kings of Sweden. Ten years ago, the jarl’s cousin, King Eric the Saint, had seized the throne from Sverker I the Elder, and house Eric and house Sverker had been battling over who had the right to rule ever since.
Politics fascinated Katia and, at times, desperately confused her. If only her father would invite her into his council chamber, instead of forcing her to eavesdrop outside the door, she suspected she would not be half as confused. From what she did understand, Jarl Magnus had declared himself openly in support of the current King Karl of house Sverker, even though that would go against supporting his own relations. The jarl had said that the unity of Sweden was more important than one family’s claim to the throne.
“Tero said the duke is desperate for Father’s alliance. The German kingdoms are more divided than ever, and if the duke continues to grow in power, he will have a fight on his hands with his cousin, Frederick Barbarossa.” Last week, while listening outside her father’s door, she had heard a lengthy discussion of the similar rival kings’ troubles in the German lands. Duke Henry and his second cousin, both of house Welf, claimed the right to rule over the divided German kingdoms, although Pope Adrian IV had declared Frederick the Holy Roman Emperor more than ten years ago, and the majority of kingdoms recognized him as the King of Germany.
“Tis a hornet’s nest, my love. With Pope Alexander’s return to Rome, Frederick’s support in the church is dwindling. It is no secret that it was Frederick who opposed Pope Alexander’s papal appointment after Pope Adrian died,” her mother replied. “Tero also has heard talk of Frederick organizing a new Italian campaign. The duke and your father would be wise to have no ill-will toward Frederick, but to stay will out of his warpath. Garnering the wrath of Frederick could put Sweden next on his list of countries to invade.”
“Surely the archbishop would never let that happen—the church would never stand for it!” Katia said.
“Rome’s good opinion has never stopped Frederick’s ambition in the past.”
“Sweden is much too important and much too powerful for a German king to invade. But if the duke is our ally and supports the House of Eric, and Father is kinsman to the House of Eric, would it not be better for Father, and for Sweden?” Katia asked. “With the duke’s support from the south, if the House of Eric could be restored to its rightful throne, Father could claim to be kin to the next king and Sweden will be better protected for it.”
“And who would that be better for, your father or Tronscar?” Lida said.
Her mother pushed a chunk of Katia’s wet hair behind her ears and looked her squarely in the eyes. “If your father supported his ambitious cousin’s claim for the House of Eric, that would resign his men—our friends and neighbors—to certain civil war. Would that be better for Tronscar?
“Your father’s ambition begins and ends at our gates. He desires peace for his people and his countrymen. If King Karl can rule with a united kingdom behind him, think of how much more protected we will all be. Duke Henry would be wise to follow your father’s lead and focus his attention solely on the ruling his own realm, not picking fights he can’t win with his cousin.”
Katia lowered her head to her mother’s shoulder and sighed. Across the room, her brothers played cautiously with jewel-incrusted swords, perhaps imagining themselves as rival kings in battle for the throne. Katia sighed, giving up on trying to figure out her own political views for the moment. “I did well today, Mama. I did not come close to winning, but I did not—”
“Katia.” Her mother made a tsking sound. “What you did was foolish. You could have been hurt, and if you had been, that nice young man would have paid a high price for it. You owe your father and that young man an apology.”
“Taking away all my practice armor is apology enough. Truly, I—”
Lida stroked her cheek consolingly. “My love, you must learn your limits. A maiden’s role is to protect herself and her family. Not engage in open warfare. Be sensible. You possess a lovely, delicate frame. I need you to take care of it and respect the role God appointed you.”
Katia groaned in frustration. Curse her womanly frame. Why did she have to be so small? Her half brothers would most likely be taller than her before they turned ten. The jarl was a mountain of a man, and if he had been her true sire, she imagined she would have turned out much taller. Her body was nothing more than chains that would always hold her back from becoming what she was truly born to be.
“You are dripping all over my stomach, my love. You best go dry your hair.”
Back in her chamber, Katia found Tosha sitting by a small fire in the hearth. They spent the next few hours chatting and arranging each other’s hair while arguing the merits of Katia’s assortment of gowns. Katia had learned to pick her battles with Tosha and in the end let her choose which gown she would wear.
“That’s a monstrous bruise on your shoulder,” her friend said while helping Katia lace her gown. “You should show your mother. She will have a salve to soothe it.”
“So I can reek of rancid sheep grease? I think not.”
“Why, Kat,” Tosha said in a teasing tone, “are you trying to impress a certain someone this eve?”
“I have no wish to impress anyone. Only, well, he was . . .” Even though no one else was in the chamber, Katia lowered her voice and leaned a little closer to her friend. “He had distractingly handsome eyes, did he not? And really lovely wavy hair.”
Tosha swatted her arm. “I knew you liked him. You were all hot under the collar because your charms had no effect on him.”
“Not true!” Katia felt jittery inside thinking of Lothair. She had scarcely been able to think of anything else. “’Tis simply that he is not from Tronscar, so . . . I find him interesting, is all.”
Tosha rolled her eyes, making Katia laugh.
“Do you realize that we might meet our future husbands tonight?” Tosha bounced up and down and clapped excitedly. “The hall is full with the strapping Saxon envoy. My mother forbade me from going into the lower bailey and said the barracks are off limits.” Her friend wiggled her eyebrows up and down.
Tosha’s mother, Ragna, was in charge of both the primary and the secondary kitchens and would have her spies everywhere. This would have proven problematic, had Katia and Tosha not worked out a way around the planted scouts years ago.
Katia held the door open, waiting for Tosha to come to her senses. “I don’t understand this obsession you have with husbands. Why would you shed the chains of one taskmaster only for the untested shackles of another?”
“Fraudster! You are just as excited to flirt with those Saxon lads as me.” Tosha was right. Katia was a terrible fibber.
“Very well,” Katia said, “I will admit I would not wish to pass up the opportunity of hearing all about Lubeck and the German kingdoms. They are ever changing and vastly interesting.”
“Pff, whatever you want to tell yourself,” Tosha said as they drifted down the long corridor toward the stairs. “I doubt very much the jarl will approve of you spending much time chewing the ear off a Saxony lad. You can look all you want, Kat, but that lad is dangerous territory.”
“Tosh, must I have the herald announce it for all to hear? I am not looking for a husband!” Katia swept her hand out in a grand gesture. “I swore a long time ago that I was never going to wed. My father and mother will never force me.”
“Both our mothers had babes by our age, Kat. You say that you don’t want a husband, but wait till the right lad looks at you that certain way. My sister told me all about it. You’ll change your mind.”
Katia looked down at her gown and strongly regretted allowing Tosha to have her way. This was her least favorite, a rose-colored silk gown with white fur trim. She looked like a bleeding princess in the stuffy thing, with her bosom pushed high up on display. Her father had given her the fabric with great pride upon returning from the Far East. Hopefully the gown would at least please him, perhaps soften his anger enough to have her sword returned.
Since Tosha was so keen on the topic of husbands, Katia had insisted her friend wear Katia’s treasured sky blue gown with white embroidered trim. Tosha looked splendid.
Although her reason for excitement was different than Tosh’s, Katia did feel feverishly filled with anticipation for the feast. Her parents would be distracted entertaining their guests, so Katia was sure to have a grand time enjoying the music and dancing with her friends. Giggling, with arms linked, Tosha and Katia glided down the final steps, arriving at the far corner of the great hall.
The smell of sage-roasted boar sent her stomach to rumble. A festive, upbeat tune from the lute and harp musicians echoed all around them, aided by the vaulted ceiling. Only the most hardened hearts wouldn’t be uplifted tonight.
Skipping the last few steps, Katia could not contain her merriment. “No babes or husbands for me. I have been holding babes and hearing my mother curse them out of her for far too long. I will have a life of adventure and meaning. I am going to do something grand with my life, Tosh, something big! My destiny has just not revealed itself to me yet.”
“Pff, something big? An adventure? And you plan on doing this how, exactly, with your father glaring over your shoulder?” Tosha had a good point.
“I did not say that I had all of my plan worked out,” Katia said.
“Well, I still wager that if Lothair smiled your way, you would drop your big plans for adventure and swim on down to Lubeck after him.” When her friend erupted into a new fit of giggles, Katia was soon to follow suit.
Katia’s mother had gone all out for their guests tonight. Tronscar had never looked so inviting. White royal furs lined the throne chairs at the head table, and colorful, plush cushions covered long lines of benches for the lower tables, which would serve over two hundred this evening. Every silver brazier was polished to a reflective shine. Norrland banners and her mother’s best tapestries were on proud display on every wall. Honey-scented candles and spiced oil burned in the lamps. Every available surface was crammed with bouquets of white wildflowers. Over the dais, the chandelier that illuminating the head tables dripped with vines and fragrant blossoms.
With her arm still linked with Tosha’s, Katia made her way over to the lower tables, hoping to find a place as far away from her parents as possible.
“Katia!” Her father’s voice boomed like thunder from behind her.
She spun around with a fake smile plastered to her face. “Yes, Far.”
The jarl stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes sparking with unspoken lectures that were still to come. “You will take your regular place to the right of your mother. Tosha, my sons have something they would like to say.” He glared down at the angel-faced twins, who mumbled out a quick apology.
“They will be seeing to all of your chores in the kitchen for a fortnight, Tosha, starting tonight,” her father added. Her brothers groaned, kicking at the freshly laid rushes. “Come, Katia, you will be hosting our guests this evening.” Her father proudly declared her punishment.
Katia’s facial expression slipped to resemble her brothers. Her father offered his arm and led her directly to the duke and the other high officials collected at the foot of the dais. Enjoying the feast now seemed impossible.
“I present my daughter, Katia.” Her father offered up her hand to the richly attired Duke of Saxony. A handsome man regardless of his years, the duke wore a black fox fur collar and a thick gold chain, signifying his prominence as a prince of Saxony, Bulgarian, and German lands. The man to his left was balding, fat, and red in the face. He was a count of somewhere important. Katia could not be bothered to remember because now she was too busy trying not to blush at the man to the duke’s right: Lothair.
Even his name sounded powerful and commanding. She was certain that with his sword skills and the advantage of being born male, he would have a fine life of adventure. He would be able to accomplish great things with a name and an arm like that, increasing the besotted feelings that welled up in her. Besotted? That couldn’t possibly be what she was experiencing. She had never been besotted over anyone before. She was certain that it must be some other feeling—she just did not have a name for it.
She had apparently swallowed her tongue on the first sight of Lothair’s distracting, deep green eyes. She was never shy or uncomfortable in the presence of her father’s endless stream of visiting nobles. What was wrong with her? Perhaps it was the onset of a stomach ailment. She curtsied and smiled, all the while berating herself. Stop behaving like a stupid, moonstruck cow.
“Daughter, this is our honored guest Duke Henry of Saxony and his counsel, Count Krister of Northum. And you have met his nephew, Baron Lothair of Hanseatz.” Before her father finished the introduction, her stomach was swarming with buzzing bees. Could a person actually expire from embarrassment? Being forced to look at Lothair in the presence of her father and these other men made her sweat. Could they all tell that she was having such an odd reaction to the young baron?
The duke seized her hand and bowed over it. “Your humble servant, fair maiden. And may I say what an exquisite shade of rose you are wearing for us this evening.” Katia could feel herself growing redder with every passing second.
“You are most kind, your grace,” Katia replied in Saxon.
“She speaks our tongue? Magnus, you never made mention to me.” The duke slapped her father’s shoulder and laughed. “Dresses like a boy in the day, pretty as a blooming rose in the eve, and speaks the tongue of the highborn. You raised a champion to be sure, my friend.”