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Her Celtic Masters by Ashe Barker (1)

Chapter One

 

 

Havrsfjord, Norseland

 

“You are to be wed.”

Kristin paused in her task. The remaining casks of wine stood unchecked on the harbour as she raised her eyes to peer at her father over the shipment just arrived from Genoa.

“I beg your pardon.” Kristin straightened. She must have misheard.

“Baldvin Ryggiason has offered for you. A fine bride-price too, ten palms of silver.” Lofn Stianson tilted his chin in a manner his daughter recognised. Rarely did her father feel the need to assert his authority, but when he did so, he would invariably adopt just such a stance. Her heart sank. He was serious about this.

“Ten palms…” she began. Kristin was at a loss. Where had this madness come from? “But Father, I have no desire to wed.”

“What has desire to do with it? Baldvin is a fine man, well respected, and wealthy.”

And old enough to be my sire, Kristin reflected, though of course she would not say as much. “Of course. I know that.” She had met the man once or twice and he had been affable enough. He was, indeed, prosperous. Baldvin Ryggiason owned a decent fleet of trading vessels, six if she remembered correctly and his wealth was not to be sneezed at. But a husband? She tried to point out the obvious flaw in her father’s plan.

“Baldvin is no longer young. Perhaps he—”

“He is keen for the match, and it is a good one. The matter is settled.”

“But why? I mean, Baldvin has sons, does he not? Why would he wish to wed again?”

Lofn Stianson cast an indulgent smile her way. “It would not be the first time a man decided he could find space in his longhouse for a pretty young bride, especially one who could aid him in his business in his advancing years.”

“But, his sons…? Surely, they would offer all the assistance needed.”

Lofn shrugged. “Who can say? He wants you, and I confess his offer is not unwelcome.”

“How so? It is not as though we need his money.” Kristin knew full well that her father’s coffers brimmed with coin. Had she not put much of it there herself, through her own prudent approach to commerce?

“No, we do not,” Lofn agreed, “but ten palms is a generous settlement.”

Kristin glanced at her own small hands and not for the first time lamented the Viking traditional manner of measuring payment. A palm of silver was the amount that could be grasped in one hand, so in her own case that was less impressive. She would always insist upon a fixed price herself.

“Whose palm, Father?”

Lofn laughed and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Mine, of course.” He held his own beefy hand before her face. “See, I shall do well enough for you. You shall not go short, daughter.”

“I do not go short now, Father. You are more than generous, and I have money of my own.”

“Aye, I know that. But I shall not always be here to look out for you. We have no other family, you and I, so when I am gone, you will be a woman alone in the world. I do not want that for you. This marriage will secure your future, make certain that you have kin about you.”

Kristin grasped his hand. “Are you ill, Father? You should have said…”

“Nay, I am well enough but getting no younger.”

Like Baldvin.

“You will be here for many years still, Father. I can help you, take on more of our work as you become older. I would love to do that, you know how much I enjoy trading.”

“I do, and you are good at it. You have a keen eye and a good head for a bargain. I appreciate your aid, as will Baldvin. Between you and me, he is a decent enough merchant, but his sons have much to learn. You might be able to assist him in that.”

“His sons are grown men, are they not? Surely, by now—”

“Leidolf, the oldest, has thus far preferred to amass his wealth by raiding. He had not shown much interest in commerce up to now.”

Kristin gnawed on her lower lip. The problems of Baldvin Ryggiason were his to grapple with. She utterly failed to see how they might concern her, or her farther.

“We do not need the silver he offers. I am content to remain with you. Please, can we not just—?”

“I have agreed to the match. You will be wed within the month. Best you start making arrangements for moving to Baldvin’s longhouse in Ravnsklif.”

“But, that is two days’ ride from here. I cannot leave you. Who will see to the longhouse here, look to your comfort, ensure you have the meals you enjoy? No, this is quite out of the question. Even if I were to wed Baldvin, eventually, one month is too soon.”

Lofn was not to be gainsaid. “I shall manage perfectly well. I have it in mind to purchase a new house thrall, perhaps two. Females, obviously, to cook and to tend my dwelling. There will be an auction in a few days’ time, I understand, in Holvik. We shall go there, you and I, and select suitable slaves to purchase. You will have ample time to instruct them in my ways before you must leave for your new home.”

Kristin sighed. She smelled defeat. The sigh turned into a shudder. She usually adored visiting any sort of marketplace, thrived on the banter between traders, the raucous laughter, the thrill of bartering for the best price. She had accompanied her father on countless such expeditions since almost before she could walk and had honed her love of commerce at his knee.

But the Viking tradition of trading in slaves unnerved her. Despite Lofn Stianson’s wealth, and his lofty position in the jarl, the highest status in Viking society, he owned but three thralls. These were all males, and men who had served him for many years. They were kindly treated, their lives in many respects no different from the karls who lived all about them. Lofn did not trade in slaves himself and it was one area of business which Kristin managed to avoid.

“Father, I really do not think we need—”

“The matter is settled. We go to Holvik the day after tomorrow.” He tipped up his chin again, and Kristin knew further argument would be futile.

It seemed she was to be wed, to a man who she would wager would not see sixty again, and as if that was not bad enough she would be made to assist her father in the purchase of female slaves to replace her in her father’s household.

Kristin ground her teeth in frustration. Not for the first time she wished she had been born a male. Then there would have been no question of being sent away to decorate the household of some elderly man, to be his companion and helpmate in his declining years, expected to assist in the tuition of the sons who would one day inherit the fruits of her labours.

Her father never said so, but she was convinced he shared her discontent with the lot cast their way by the gods. He treated her as the son he never had. Not once, as far as she could recall, had Lofn ever complained, but it was always there between them.

And now, the stark truth of her reality stared her in the face. She was a woman, in a world ruled by men. She may be noble. The blood of the jarl may run in her veins, but it made no difference. Since she was a small girl running about her father’s warehouses, Kristin ached to forge her own destiny in the world, own her own ships, buy and sell her own cargoes. She had even allowed herself to dream that it might one day be so.

She had been wrong.

 

* * *

 

Cynwrig, Northumbria, England

 

“Aye, she’s a bonny one all right. Are you sure she has no sister? A cousin, perhaps…?” Bowdyn straightened to wipe the perspiration from his brow and squinted into the fading sunlight.

Deva, the young woman who was the object of his scrutiny and the betrothed of his twin brother, Nyle, leaned on the low fence at the bottom of their meadow and waved.

Beside Bowdyn, Nyle raised his arm to wave back, a grin splitting his features. “That she is, and no, last time I looked there were no more like that at home. Deva is mine, so you can keep your lecherous eyes to yourself.”

Bowdyn shrugged. “I only want to—”

“Mind your manners, you randy young pup.” Connell of Cynwrig aimed a not especially playful punch at Bowdyn’s shoulder. Bowdyn was the younger of his two sons by a mere fifteen minutes. “Deva is to be your brother’s bride, not some plaything for you lackwits to squabble over. She will be treated with respect in our household or I shall be knowing the reason why—not to mention your mother.” He muttered his final point under his breath.

Bowdyn was unabashed. “I respect the lass well enough. I merely meant that I consider it my duty, both as a brother and as a dutiful son, to see to the welfare of my new sister. Maybe I could…” He paused in his jibing and all three turned in the direction of the scream that suddenly rent the air. “Mother…?”

The slight figure of Ronat, wife to Connell and mother to Nyle and Bowdyn burst from the shelter of the forest. She was yelling at the top of her lungs, her woollen skirts flying about her legs as she raced toward their low-roofed cottage over half a mile distant. They could not make out her words at this distance. They had no need to. There was but one disaster that might befall them and that would give rise to such terror.

Vikings!

Connell slung his shovel down, then paused and bent to grasp it again. Bowdyn understood well enough—the tool would serve as a weapon, such as it was. They were about to face swords, axes, vicious clubs, and iron maces, but anything they could grab would aid their defence. With an almighty bellow their father set off at a sprint, Nyle and Bowdyn at his heels.

“Deva, run!” Nyle yelled at the top of his voice, but the distance between them was too great. Deva had heard the commotion, seen Ronat burst from the trees, and she was already moving in the direction of their cottage. It was the wrong way, Nyle realised, and the first place the savage Vikings would ransack.

Bowdyn lent his voice to his brother’s efforts. The girl had to run, to get out of sight before the marauding Norsemen caught sight of her.

“Vikings! Vikings are coming! Run, hide!”

Deva glanced across the fields in their direction, confused, then picked up her skirts and ran toward their house.

Ronat reached the door of their farmhouse just as Bowdyn’s younger sister, alarmed by the din outside, exited. Bowdyn could not hear what was said but was gratified to see Merewyn turn and flee around the side of the cottage. She had the sense to run inland, away from the coast where the danger would come from. No sooner had the trees closest to the farm swallowed the slender form of their sister than the first of the savage invaders emerged from the path leading up from the beach. They roared their aggression, brandishing their weapons. Their murderous intent was unmistakable.

The attackers were already closer to the cottage than Bowdyn, Nyle, and Connell, and within moments had overrun the farmstead. Ronat barely had the time and presence of mind to grab a pitchfork that had been left leaning against the outer wall and bravely attempt to hold off the howling, vicious horde. It was to no avail, and she fell beneath their onslaught.

“No!” Connell roared as his wife was dragged behind the cottage by three of the Viking savages.

Nyle shifted direction and tried to reach Deva before the Vikings did. He was almost in time. Almost, but not quite. The dark-haired, gentle young woman was grabbed around the waist and slammed against the wall of their barn, then slid to the ground as Nyle thundered toward her and her attackers.

God be with you, brother. Bowdyn mouthed the words silently as he and his father continued their charge down the hillside, intent upon saving Ronat, protecting their home, or dying in the attempt.

 

* * *

 

They succeeded in one part of their valiant endeavour. Connell died in the attempt.

Now the terrible sound of battle had fallen silent. No longer did men scream in agony or bellow in triumph. No longer did the sound of steel striking flesh resonate in the still air. The only sounds to be heard were the low moans of the injured and the distraught keening of those females left alive.

Bowdyn groaned, spitting sand from his mouth. His throat was parched, and every muscle and sinew pained him. His hands were secured behind his back, the bonds biting cruelly into his wrists. On either side of him men and boys from their village and the neighbouring hamlets writhed in similar distress, all of them bound and waiting to be slung onto the dragon ships that bobbed on the shallow waves. A few women were among them also. Bowdyn struggled to a sitting position and cast his glance left and right. He recognised Brea, a lass from the next village who he had kissed a time or two, when her fierce elder brothers were not watching. Brea’s trio of protectors would not help her now. Bowdyn had watched, helpless, as all three were slain by the merciless attackers.

And to Brea’s left Tarrah wept, her grief and despair evident in her ravaged, bruised features. Not long wed and already pregnant, Tarrah was now a widow and facing a brutal, uncertain future.

Mariel, older than the other women, knelt in resigned silence. Her husband, Teyrnon, was among the captives, though Bowdyn wondered how long he would survive as he cursed and called down the fires of Hades upon the murdering Norsemen. Bowdyn did not disagree with the sentiment, but he could not imagine their captors’ patience to be endless. Teyrnon would do well to hold his tongue and concentrate on staying alive.

Bowdyn loathed the savages as much as any, but he loved his life more. He would survive this ordeal, and he would do all he could to ensure those close to him did, too.

He wept, tears streaming unchecked as he was haunted by the image of his father’s brutal, senseless death. Connell of Cynwrig had gone down fighting. It had taken four of the Nordic raiders, but he had gone down all the same, hacked to death under their pitiless blades. Bowdyn had been scant feet from his father when the older man met his end. He had fought, screamed, battled to get to his father’s side—but to no avail. The Celts were outnumbered, facing cold steel and hardened warriors intent upon murder. It was an unequal struggle, the end inevitable.

So here they were, the survivors and the wounded, or at least those of the wounded who the Vikings had seen fit to take as slaves. The rest—the old, the sick, the young—had been left for dead in their homes, their fields, their villages. The Vikings sought workers, strong backs to plough their fields and cut the timber to build their vile dragon ships. Or females, who faced an even worse fate. Bowdyn glanced again at the women of his acquaintance and silently wished them luck.

At least Merewyn was not among them, as far as he could see. He had not sighted her at all during the skirmish and had to hope she had indeed escaped. Neither could he see his brother, or Deva. Bowdyn craned his neck, scanning the ranks of defeated Celts on either side of him, searching for a glimpse of Nyle’s tawny locks or Deva’s ebony dark curls.

“What will they do to us?” Brea whispered across to him, her pretty features bruised from her encounter with their attackers.

“Hush, sweetheart, it will be all right.” Bowdyn wished he felt even a fraction of the confidence he expressed. “They will take us, make us work for them. You must do as they say.”

“I know, but…” Her face crumpled, and she wept, unable to wipe away her tears as her hands were bound as his were.

Bowdyn cursed, helpless in his rage, consumed by impotent hatred for their captors.

Someday, he promised himself. Some fucking day

Bowdyn had no knowledge of the Norse tongue. None of the Celts did, so they struggled to comprehend the curt instructions issued by the Vikings. Their captors must have known this, yet still they kicked and punched the prisoners when the captives failed to obey their orders with sufficient alacrity. Bowdyn and his companions were herded across the sandy beach and made to wade through the waves to reach the longships that bobbed on the tide. The water came to Bowdyn’s waist, but he was taller than most. The more petite Brea struggled to retain her footing when the water reached her chest, and she might not have made it at all had one of the Vikings not seized the back of her woollen smock and heaved her unceremoniously over the side of the nearest ship.

There were four ships in all, each decorated with the fearsome dragons so beloved of the Norsemen. Bowdyn and several other men were made to wait in the teeming waves as the first three were loaded. It was then, as he scanned the despairing faces of those around him, that he spotted Nyle.

His brother appeared to be semi-conscious as he was dragged through the water by two Norsemen, but still he fought them. A yell bubbled in Bowdyn’s throat, whether of warning or entreaty he was not sure. This was not the time to fight. That time would come, but for now their goal had to be survival.

The Vikings ignored his brother’s struggles as they hauled Nyle past him and rammed him against the planks of the remaining longship. Hands reached down from above and his brother was hauled aboard. Moments later, Bowdyn followed, along with the rest of the men. They all huddled together in the bottom of the boat, wet, shivering, still bound, as the Viking crew broke the moorings and the dragon ships turned toward the open sea.

Bowdyn made his way to his brother’s side. Nyle’s face was swollen, his left eye fully closed and the right barely any better. His breathing was shallow, laboured. Bowdyn suspected broken ribs.

“Brother, I am here,” he whispered, preferring not to alert their captors to their conversation.

Nyle turned his head. Blood still trickled from his nose and Bowdyn wondered if that, too, was broken. It was impossible to tell beneath all that ferocious bruising.

“Bowdyn?” Nyle croaked. “Is it…? Did…?”

“Our father is dead. I am sorry.”

Nyle let out a pained growl. “The bastards! I shall—”

“No, brother. Not now. Not yet.” Bowdyn leaned in closer. “They will kill us too, without a moment’s thought. If we are to be avenged, we must live. Yes?”

Nyle muttered more profanities under his breath, but he managed a small nod. In this, at least, they were of one accord.

“Have you seen Merewyn?” murmured Bowdyn. “What of Deva?”

“Deva was taken. I saw her…” His brother’s words ended on a painful gurgle. Nyle coughed blood onto the planks below him, then continued. “I never saw Merewyn. You?”

“No. Pray God she escaped.”

At a guttural snarl from a passing Viking they fell silent. Neither spoke again during the many, many hours the dragon ship soared across the water, cresting the waves as the strong westerly breeze billowed the single sail above their heads. Their journey would not be unduly long, mused Bowdyn. There was at least that to give thanks for.

Darkness fell. Bowdyn was parched, and he knew the rest of the captive Celts must be equally uncomfortable. Hunger gnawed at his belly but he could ignore that. His arms and shoulders were numb from being bound for so long, but he knew the Vikings would not release them until they reached their destination. The Celts outnumbered the Vikings on board and the Norsemen would not risk their new slaves mounting a desperate rebellion at sea.

There would be losses among the Celts. Not all the slaves would arrive at their destination alive, but that was the risk the Nordic raiders took. Twice Bowdyn watched as the Vikings hauled the corpse of one of his weaker companions to the side of the ship and tossed the lifeless body into the cold depths.

That would not happen to him, or to Nyle. Bowdyn swore that much to himself.

Daylight again washed their faces. The weather was cool for August, but not uncomfortable. Bowdyn steeled himself for another day at sea.

Beside him, Nyle’s breathing sounded easier, though his features had transformed to take on every shade of blue and purple. At least this rendered them unrecognisable as brothers, let alone twins and Bowdyn believed this to be an advantage. If the Vikings knew they were related they would surely separate them.

The hours dragged by, and at last night fell again. Bowdyn drifted between sleeping and waking and fought to ignore his raging thirst. Nyle’s lips had cracked, probably exacerbated by the swelling. Bowdyn knew his brother’s discomfort far exceeded his own.

“Soon,” he murmured. “Soon we will be ashore again and then they will allow us to eat, to drink…”

Nyle’s response was a string of muttered profanities. Bowdyn leaned against the damp planks at his back. He knew exactly how his brother felt.

 

* * *

 

It was a ragged, half-starved group of Celts who staggered along the jetty. Overhead the weak sun bestowed little enough in the way of warmth and Bowdyn cursed the godforsaken, inhospitable Norseland. He raised his gaze to take in the distant hills and was surprised to see that, in terms of the scenery at least, this place resembled his homeland. The Northumbrian landscape was equally harsh, and every bit as beautiful, though the climate was somewhat more clement.

Around them, the people of this land swarmed and rushed about their daily business, sparing barely a glance for the bedraggled prisoners. Wares were traded, bargains struck. Women scolded unruly children, men called to their friends. The arrival of half-dead captives was, Bowdyn concluded, a familiar enough sight on this vile shore.

Bowdyn struggled to remain upright. His legs were jelly after days at sea, his head ached and his empty belly growled. Beside him, Nyle hobbled painfully over the planking, but at least his brother was not bound. The Vikings had apparently considered him sufficiently incapacitated to not bother tying his wrists behind him.

The Celts were herded into a group in the centre of the bustling little port. A pail of not especially clean water was dumped close by, with a metal cup attached on a piece of twine. Those prisoners who, like Nyle, had their hands free drank greedily, then assisted their bound comrades as best they could. Bowdyn almost gagged on the brackish water when Nyle held the cup to his lips, but his need was acute, so he suppressed his distaste and drank.

“Nyle? Is that you?”

Both men turned. Deva stood behind them. She was not bound either and wrung her hands before her. She stepped forward, reaching for her betrothed’s ravaged face. “What have they done to you, my love?”

“I shall survive,” replied Nyle. “My brother insists upon it.”

A rough shout from a tall Norseman close by caught their attention. He was yelling at the bemused Celts and brandishing a vicious-looking whip. Without warning he flicked the lash over the backs of those prisoners closest to him and pointed to a spot over to his left. The captives started to move in that direction, though seemingly not quickly enough for their tormentor’s liking. The whip cracked again, eliciting a sharp yelp from the hapless soul who caught the brunt of it.

Bowdyn moved to position Deva between them, but not quickly enough. The next indiscriminate swoop of the lash caught Deva across the shoulders and she dropped to her knees. Nyle reached for her, to assist her back onto her feet, but the irate Norseman was advancing upon them. His bearded face was contorted in contempt for the captives, his blackened teeth bared as he snarled at them and lifted his arm to rain yet more blows down upon them.

Deva screamed and cowered away. The next few seconds felt like hours to Bowdyn as time slowed to a crawl. Nyle leapt at the Viking, wrestling the whip out of his hand before the irate barbarian could collect his wits. Nyle struck him with the long leather tail, leaving a dark red line across the man’s face. The Viking howled in pain, then lunged at Nyle. The Norseman was soon joined by a half dozen more and Nyle disappeared beneath their booted feet.

“Let him be. Stop!” Bowdyn tried to shoulder his way to where the mêlée continued unabated, but was once more helpless to intervene when one he loved was threatened.

At last, the Vikings stepped away. Nyle lay motionless on the ground. One of his attackers prodded him with his foot, then turned to make some jovial remark to the man beside him. They both laughed, then bent to haul Nyle away. His brother’s feet scraped across the wooden planks as the Norsemen dragged him from view.

“Wait! Where are you taking him? Is he alive?”

Bowdyn’s desperate pleas were ignored. The Viking who had first laid into them with the whip regained his weapon and glared at Bowdyn and Deva, his intent obvious. Bowdyn bent to speak to the girl who was still on her knees.

“Get up, Deva. Get up now and stay close to me.”

“But, Nyle… they…”

“I know. I saw.” His tone was grim, uncompromising. “Our time will come, I swear it, but unless we are both to meet the same fate you must do as I say.”

She was obedient in her stunned horror. Deva struggled to her feet and cowered behind him as they shuffled past the vicious bully. Another Viking warrior moved among the prisoners releasing those still bound from their restraints and shoving them along the rough walkway. All the Celts had now gathered that they were to move to a pen that looked to have been hastily erected right there on the harbour. A wooden box stood to one side, beside a narrow gate. A plump man stationed himself beside the box, eying each of the Celts as they milled about in the pen. He pointed to the prisoner closest to him and one of the guards shoved the man out through the gate in the direction of the box.

“Stand. On there!” The harsh command was in Gaelic, the language of the Celts. At least the instruction was clear. The man who had been dragged forward clambered awkwardly onto the box. He looked out across the sea of eager, appraising faces, and waited for his fate.

A slave auction. Bowdyn’s anger seethed anew. At least they are wasting no time.