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"No one touches my woman. She bears my mark. I claim her."***
Dangerous warrior Ivar Gunnarson is a man of deeds, not words. With little time for the ideals of love, Ivar seizes what he wants--and Princess Thyre will not become the exception to his rule!
Mysterious and enchanting, Thyre rouses Ivar's desire the moment he lays eyes on her. With Viking factions engaged in a bloody feud, Thyre is yet another captive this hardened warrior conquers--but to be king of Thyre's heart will entail a battle he has never engaged in before...
When Viking warriors come calling, Thyre knows exactly what to do and how to treat them. Only has she made a fatal mistake this time?
'We greet the Viken with the respect any man should show his neighbour,' Ragnfast pronounced, using the words Thyre had agreed with him as the household stood on the shoreline waiting, watching the dragon boat draw slowly closer.
The shields still hung on the side of the Viken dragon boat, indicating that its occupants travelled in peace, for the moment. Peace was a fragile thing where Viken warriors were concerned. The tales the jaarl, Sigmund Sigmundson, had told about Viken treachery the last time he visited made her blood run cold.
'The rules of hospitality are very clear in the North and we shall keep them, just as we have always done.'
Thyre heaved a sigh of relief.
After the initial explosion of incredulity, Ragnfast had agreed to her plans. All the gold and silver, and furs were hidden; tapestries had been taken down and stored. The majority of the livestock remained on the summer pasture, so it was possible that the Viken would feel theirs was a poor farm, rather than a prosperous estate. Thyre remembered the ruse working once before, when she was a little girl and Dagmar was little more than a babe in arms. Then the Viken came and her mother had dealt with them, sending Dagmar and Thyre to the hiding place in the woods.
'But King Mysing decreed all Viken ships are fair plunder...or so the jaarl Sigmund proclaimed the last time he was here.' cried a voice at the back. 'What have the Viken ever done for us except burn our lands and take our wives?'
Thyre kept her back resolutely straight. She did not need to see Ragnfast's face to know how he'd react. He disliked the young jaarl and his ideas about how to solve the problem of the Viken plundering their coastline. He had even rejected her suggestion of lighting the bonfire to alert Sigmund to their potential danger.
'Sigmund and his cronies may have broken frithe with the Viken King Thorkell, but I haven't,' Ragnfast thundered. 'I remember the days, the days of our old king, King Mysing's father, when Ranrike prospered and the markets overflowed with goods. Ships sailed to Ranhiem rather than to Birka or Kaupang. Now it is all bloodshed and plunder. My taste for bloodshed vanished a lifetime ago.'
'Dagmar, are the horns of drink filled properly?' Thyre asked, seeking to draw Ragnfast back to the present difficulty. Dagmar held up her horn of ale. Thyre was pleased that Ragnfast listened to her suggestion of ale rather than mead. It was only one ship, not a fleet. The Viken would understand. He was not high enough status to warrant a better drink. 'The other women and I can follow Dagmar after the Viken captain has the first drink.'
'It is a good idea, Thyre, 'Ragnfast said. 'We do not have the men to provoke him. A soft word and a timely batter eye can do much as your mother used to say.'
'Thyre, that is your second-best apron-dress,' Dagmar whispered. 'And your face is far too solemn. What is there to worry about? Greeting warriors is supposed to be a happy occasion. We should honour them.'
'I have had more than enough swaggering boasts from Sigmund's warriors. I wonder if the Viken will be any different. All brawn and very little brain is my educated guess though.' Thyre pasted her smile firmly in place. She remembered her mother's stories of her time as a hostage in the Viken court and how the fights broke out at the least provocation.
What excuse would the Viken use to destroy this farm? And what they say if they knew who her natural father was? That her mother had disobeyed the time honoured custom and had not sent her to be killed by the Viken king and had instead prevailed on Ragnfast to accept her as a true Ranrike woman and member of his family.
'Thyre, I think I forgot to put the weaving frame away.' Dagmar's voice broke through her reverie. 'Do you think I should go back? That bit of cloth is nearly done and I was particularly proud of the raven pattern.'
'I already put it away.' Thyre struggled to keep the doors of her imagination closed. 'With so many warriors, it would have been in the way. You know how clumsy they are with their feet.'
'You are a love. You always know just what to do.' Dagmar patted Thyre's arm. 'Think positively. Who knows you may find a mate amongst the Viken. They are supposed to be wealthy.'
Mate, not husband. The words were unmistakable and ill-chosen. Thyre made her face into a bland mask. She was well aware of her options without Dagmar's thoughtless reminder. It was unlikely any warrior would make an offer for her. She had no family, no land, nothing to make a true warrior desire her for a wife.
She gave a wry smile. Ragnfast had held true to his promise and let her manage the estate, but she also knew he would not provide a dowry. She refused to be just anyone's concubine. Royal blood ran in her veins. She deserved better. Her mother would have approved of her decision to stay unwed rather than to marry beneath her. In her dreams, Thyre longed to find the one man who would cherish her in the way her mother had been cherished. Some day, she wanted to meet a man with whom she could exchange loving glances in the way Ragnfast and her mother had exchanged glances. In the end her mother had discovered love with a man who treated her as an equal, rather than as an accessory or a stepping stone to the throne of Ranrike. In order to marry her mother, Ragnfast had taken an oath of loyalty to King Mysing, vowing never to claim the throne in his wife's name nor to permit any of his children to make a claim.
'I am not looking for anyone. I love it here. It is safe and secure. And if I did, he would have to be more intelligent than those Viken warriors. Can you see the biceps rippling on the leader? Definitely more brawn than brain.'
Dagmar put her hand on Thyre's sleeve and whispered in her ear. 'Love can just happen, like it did between Sven and me. One day, I glanced up and there he was all silhouetted in gold, his cloak slightly drawn back and I knew that he was the right man for me.'
'I am not you, Dagmar – in love one day and the next out of it.'
'You mean the warrior from Gotaland last summer who wanted to buy Far's lumber and thought to get a better price by seducing his daughter? That was nothing. A pure girlish fantasy. I have quite forgotten why I shed all those tears.' Dagmar sighed dramatically. 'I have sworn to be true to Sven. I want him to know that should I bear a child, it will be his.'
A warning twinge went through Thyre. Child? That was fantasy. Dagmar's monthly flow had come since Sven left. Dagmar was given to dramatic statements, but there was something in her eyes. Exactly what Dagmar had sworn to Sven? Dagmar should know that she had no right to swear anything with her father's consent. It could only lead to heartache. Silently Thyre cursed Sven for being so selfish, and for Dagmar's fear in telling her father.
Once the Viken had departed, she would make discover more about this oath. Unless it was made with Ragnfast's consent, it was empty words.
'The dragon boat has landed! The Viken have arrived!' The cry echoed up and down the beach.
Thyre pressed her lips together. Dagmar appeared normal enough, smoothing her skirt and biting her lips to make them appear cherry ripe red. All the actions she normally took. Thyre hoped her concerns about Dagmar were just wisps of doubt. And perhaps another warrior would capture her fancy, and her oath to Sven would become a distant unwelcome memory.
Up close, the Viken dragon boat showed signs of battering from the storm – a broken oar, a battered prow and loose ropes, but nothing major. Not like the poor Ranrike ship whose remains were still scattered over the shore. Had it been hunting this Viken one? And if so, what had this Viken ship done? Which other farms had they attacked? Thyre shifted uneasily, weighing the possibility but knowing they had no choice but to offer hospitality.
The Viken warriors splashed ashore. The leader disembarked first, without a helmet or a shield. A gesture of peace but also of arrogance, Thyre thought. He could have no idea of Ragnfast's strength, or defences of the farm.
The Viken's golden brown hair shone in the sunlight and despite the jagged scar running down the right side of his face, his face held a certain grace combined with raw power, a man unafraid to face the future.
His vivid blue gaze lingered on her for a heartbeat, tracing her form. She looked directly at his face, rather than blushing and looking away as custom demanded. He gave a nod, and turned towards where Ragnfast stood and it was as if that instant had never been.
'We are grateful for the warm welcome after the rough seas of last night.' The warrior made an elaborate bow. Ragnfast's face reddened slightly and his chest puffed out at the courtesy. 'We are returning to Kaupang after a successful voyage to the markets of Birka. Last night's storm caused some damage to my trading vessel. It must be repaired before I continue on.' His steady gaze met Ragnfast, and words were a thinly disguised command rather than a polite request He held out a stick covered in thick runes. 'We come in peace.'
'We have no quarrel with the Viken, nor do I seek reassurance from your king.' Ragnfast barely glanced at it before he handed it back. Thyre bit her lip and wished she dared grab it. She highly doubted the truth of his words. If they were peaceful, why had the Ranrike ship been wrecked? Sigmund had promised that Ranrike ships only defended. They never attacked the more skilful Viken ships.
'What is your name, Viken?' Thyre asked, making sure her voice was firm and clear.
'Ivar Gunnarson, jaarl of Viken, my lady.'
Thyre froze as the murmur rose behind her. Ivar Gunnarson. Ivar the scarred. Even here in the back waters of Ranrike, they had heard of him and his fellow Viken jaarls who had braved sea serpents to cross the Atlantic and had returned with a vast treasure from Lindisfarne. They were said to be some of the luckiest men alive, basking in Odin and Thor's favour, Ivar particularly. It was his prowess with the sail and ships that enabled the Viken to cross the sea. And he had fought the Ranrike before, killing Sigmund's brother. Now he was here, formidable and capable of wrecking the same destruction on her home as he and his companions had on Lindisfarne.
She stifled a gasp as Dagmar began to trip forward, holding out her horn of ale. Her earlier plan had been shoddy and wrong. She should have thought about the pitfalls and how easily a jaarl could take offence.
Sour ale was unlikely to cement anything but war. It would give them the pretext for burning the farm to the ground. She had to act before the jaarl tasted it, realised the intended insult and destroyed them all.
Thyre raised her hand, signalling the danger to Dagmar, but Dagmar seemed oblivious to the potential disaster. Her smile became more flirtatious as she held out the horn to the Viken jaarl. Thyre forgot to breathe. Dagmar hadn't seen her warning.
Ivar Gunnarson took the horn from Dagmar's grasp and slowly lifted it to his lips.