Viking Vengeance III
Can a Viking forgive the woman who cheated him of his vengeance?
Desperate to protect her family, Xára willingly weds the Viking. She must win Dráddor to her side before he discovers the secret that will destroy all. But the Saracen warrior, Niketas, has other plans. He needs the blood of two virgin half-immortals to win eternal life and the powers of the gods. Until the god Heimdallr, Xára's true sire, makes it clear he has other plans for his beloved daughter…
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Fate had cheated him. Dráddør fingered the runes carved into his weapon, the enormous steel mallet he’d named Hefnd Hamarr, Vengeance Hammer, in anticipation of the day he would fulfill the oath made to his dying father. Disgust, crippling and oppressive, banded his chest as he surveyed the smoke-infused, empty great hall.
“’Twas an easy victory.” His friend and ally, Tighe, Earl of Dalriada, heaved a long sigh. “Not a fitting one, mayhap…”
“Arnfinn died by his wife’s hand. Not by mine.” Dráddør snorted. “I cannot fulfill my vow of vengeance.”
“Nay, I beg to differ. You have in your hand the ultimate revenge. Once you wed and bed his daughter, the title is yours, all that he ever owned is yours, and his line is erased. Think you, Arnfinn, Earl of Caithness, will rest easy knowing that your blood prevails? That his daughter will sire your son?”
Tighe rested a booted foot on the fireplace’s lintel and prodded the half-charred mound of logs with a metal rod. Bright orange sparks sprayed in a wide arc and the fitful flames blossomed into long plumes.
“The notion of swiving Arnfinn’s spawn holds no appeal.” Dráddør scowled.
Tighe shrugged. “One prick and you are Earl of Caithness. Shite man, you have gained a region as vast as Dalriada with no effort. The castle is intact and the keep secured. Take your nose out of your arse and do what must be done.”
Since his third and tenth summer, Dráddør had dreamed of killing the man who’d murdered his father and pictured the sweet vengeance of watching the life drain from Arnfinn’s eyes. But he knew better than to hold on to regret and self-directed rage. Too many of his friends had died because they’d lost focus on the ultimate goal—victory. He shook his head and shot Tighe a rueful grin. “Enough. I am done brooding. ’Tis time to take what is due me. Though ’tis not the pristine treasure the king boasted of.”
“I but hope the state of this hall does not extend to the rest of the castle. E’en the women of the barbarians see fit to pass a mop on occasion. I vow I have seen cleaner pig styes.” Tighe jabbed the poker into a half-full slop bucket. Steam hissed tight gray spirals. The putrid aroma of stale vomit penetrated that of burning pine.
Dráddør scanned the great hall and grimaced. “I have ne’er set eyes on a chamber in such a state. The floors are ankle-deep in discarded meat bones, dung, and rat droppings. Every table and bench is broken or scarred. The destruction we see here was wanton and deliberate.”
“Aye. You have an enemy, mayhap more than one at Lathairn Castle. The stench is powerful.” Tighe pinched his nose. “’Twill take much work to make this hall fit for living in, my friend. I, for one, will not sleep within these walls this eve.”
“Agreed. We will camp in the bailey. Mayhap the ocean breezes will mitigate the hall’s stink.”
“What of those who reside within the keep?” Tighe used a linen square hanging from his belt to wipe a smudge from the gleaming blade of his sword.
“I ordered Egron to gather all of Lathairn’s people at the bailey. Before the sun sets, each and every man, woman, and child swears fealty to me or they take their leave. But, first I will meet with the woman who cheated me of my revenge.” Dráddør glanced at the stone stairs carved into the left corner of the hall.
“Hear Lady Jennie’s tale first. Do not condemn her out of hand.” Tighe re-sheathed his sword.
“Lady Jennie poisoned her own husband, the father of her daughter.”
“The woman may have had good reason for what she did. Forget not that she also drank the brew and lies dying above stairs.” Tighe squeezed Dráddør’s shoulder.
“What would cause a woman to forfeit her own life in order to kill her husband?”
“Lady Jennie must have been desperate, Dráddør. Methinks she must have committed the deed because her daughter was threatened. Think on Skatha and how protective she is of her bairn. She would die for her son in an instant. Mayhap ’twas the only choice Lady Jennie had to save her daughter. Remember Lady Jennie was forced to wed the man who’d killed her family to gain her lands and the title.”
Tighe argued well in Lady Jennie’s favor. Skatha, his brother’s wife, would not hesitate to kill any who tried to harm her child. As would he when he had his own sons and daughters. In truth, he could not comprehend how a woman could live with the man who’d murdered her father. But poison? And to drink the brew? Who then would protect the daughter?
“I will listen and then make my judgment. ’Twill not take long. See you to the unloading of the langskips?”
“Aye. I will await you in the bailey.” Tighe spun around, cursing when a scrawny rat jumped down from a bench to the floor. He kicked the rodent out of his way, and stalked to the castle’s open doors.
Dráddør took a deep breath, marched to the stairs, and climbed them two at a time. He wanted this meeting over and done with and had already decided to banish Arnfinn’s wife, the Lady Jennie, to a distant abbey, if she lived. By King Kenneth’s and King Harald’s command, he must wed Arnfinn’s daughter to claim Lathairn Castle, its vast lands, and half-dozen villages, but that did not mean he had to suffer her mother’s presence.
Could Tighe have the right of it? Did Lady Jennie kill Arnfinn to protect her daughter? No matter. His path was clear and he would not hesitate. Before the sun set, the vows would be said, the consummation done, and the stained sheets hung as proof. But he would have answers first.
All the doors to the chambers of the castle stood open on his orders. Dark shadows filled the wide hallway on the fourth level, though the sun shone in a cloudless sky outside the keep’s walls. A stiff wind whistled through an open window at the far end of the passageway. He skirted a heap of broken porcelain and paused when a female speaking burr-accented Gaelic rushed out of a doorway to his left.
The little sprite could not have seen more than nine summers. She froze as if turned to stone at the sight of him, her mouth hanging open, eyes wider than saucers, thin arms stiff at her sides.
“Where is the lady of Lathairn Castle?”
The girl’s pinched features paled. Her throat worked. Raising her hand, her fingers trembling, she pointed to the room she had just vacated.
Dráddør nodded, then, sorry for the obvious death-fear he engendered, said, his voice low, his tone gentle, “I intend no injury to you or your mistress. Go to the bailey.”
She bunched up her grubby skirts, edged to the opposite side of the hallway, gave him one last glance over her shoulder, and raced past him. For a moment she reminded Dráddør of his sister, Hjørdis.
He waited until the girl disappeared around the bend leading to the stairs, hardened his resolve, and strode into the chamber. Bright sunlight streamed through two open windows on the far wall. He blinked the room into focus and frowned for ’twas the chamber of a servant and not that of the lady of the castle.
Wooden shutters clung to windowsills. Smoke rose in weak curls from a hearth in the north corner of the narrow, but long room. To the right of the struggling flames lay a straw-stuffed pallet.
The room smelled of pending death, a foul aroma that spoke of internal organs rotting, a scent all too familiar to a warrior. He stifled a grimace and shallowed his breathing. Sporadic gusts rattled the shutters, but did naught to alleviate the finality of death’s heralding stench.
A woman so thin as to be skeletal lay on a coarse, moth-holed blanket of indeterminate color. Another female, shoulders hunched, face propped in ash-stained hands, sat on a three-legged stool at the head of the makeshift bed.
Dráddør cleared his throat.
The seated female cocked her head and looked in his direction. The rays streaming through the room reflected off the whitewashed wall behind her and he could not make out the girl’s features. He took three long strides and halted when his booted feet met the pallet’s jagged corner.
He studied the woman on the bed. Eyes closed, sparse hair plastered to gaunt, sallow cheeks, she groaned when a shiver racked her emaciated body. He winced when she coughed, the rasping, dry hack painful to hear. He would not have to banish the lady of the castle, for her hours were numbered.
All at once, her lids flickered, and her eyes opened. He expected them to be glazed with pain and suffering, instead they shone with intent and lucidity. She met his gaze directly, and the corners of her mouth lifted.
“You have come. My time is short.” Her hoarse voice cracked and she broke into a coughing fit.
The girl attending the lady dabbed a ragged piece of linen to the blood spittle produced by the coughs. She kissed the woman’s cheek, shot him a fierce scowl over her shoulder, and reached for a jug on a low table behind the stool.
“Lady Jennie, I presume?” Dráddør stifled a curse at his stupidity. The woman clung to life by not even a spider’s web, and the last thing she needed was to have to answer questions. He held up a hand. “Nay. Do not attempt to speak. Mayhap your maid can answer my queries.”
He glanced to the girl who had poured water into a goblet and was attempting to ease Lady Jennie’s parched throat. “This is no fit chamber for the lady of the castle. Where is your healer?”
Mayhap a healer could dose Lady Jennie with some sleeping potion and ease her last hours.
The girl shot him a look that would haunt him to his grave. Sorrow dulled the brilliance of her startling turquoise eyes. Her lips trembled but she bent again to her task and held the cup to Lady Jennie’s mouth.
“Nay.” Lady Jennie struggled to lift onto her elbows.
Immediately the girl set the cup on the table and tried to press Lady Jennie gently back onto the pallet.
“Nay. Xára…daughter. Cannot speak.” The effort to whisper the words exhausted Lady Jennie and she collapsed onto the straw, but held his gaze with hers. Again the clarity of her brown eyes when death was nigh upon her disconcerted him.
He frowned. “My lady, I understand you are unable to speak—”
“Nay.” She crooked a shaking finger.
Bracing himself, he held his breath, dropped to one knee, and leaned in close to Lady Jennie.
“Xára. Daughter.” She nodded her head toward the young female. “Cannot speak.”
It took a moment for the meaning of her words to penetrate. Dráddør met the dying woman’s anxious stare. “This girl is your daughter. She is called Xára and she cannot speak. Is this what you want me to know? A simple nod or shake of your head is all that is necessary.”
Relief shone in Lady Jennie’s chestnut eyes, she dipped her chin. “Waited…for you.”
What could she mean? The plan had been for a surprise, swift attack. No word had been sent of Arnfinn’s condemnation of treason or his death sentence.
“Hefnd Hamarr…” Beads of perspiration clung to her faded gray brows.
He drew back to stare at her. “You know of me?”
She nodded and twisted one arm from under the sheet covering her from neck to toes. Her hand trembled, but she latched onto his wrist. “Xára…wed her.”
For a woman who could weigh no more than a small child, she had a surprisingly strong grip. He understood now. Lady Jennie wanted her daughter settled before she succumbed to the grim reaper. “Aye, my lady. The king himself has commanded our vow saying. I am ordered to wed your daughter and take charge of Lathairn Castle. Be at ease.”
Her overlong nails bit into his skin. “Before the…sun sets.”
The saliva in his mouth bittered. He had hoped to prolong the vow saying until he knew why the Lady Jennie had poisoned her husband. But ’twas clear there would be no questioning of Lady Jennie, and he could gain no knowledge from a female incapable of speech. So be it. He would wed the girl before night fell.
He stole a glance at the girl, Xára. She looked to be as pleased about the prospect of a wedding as he. Did she even comprehend the situation?
As if she read his thoughts, Lady Jennie tugged on his wrist, and rasped, “Xára is no imbecile. She understands all. She hears.”
The coughing took hold of her again. Deep, wracking hacks that drew up scarlet-tinged foamy spittle.
Xára elbowed him aside, swiped at the bloody droplets, and plied her mother’s chest with damp cloths pungent with the aroma of angelica.
Dráddør lurched to his feet. He moved to the window, leaned his head over the sill, and inhaled. The sweet tang of brine filled his lungs, the sun warmed his cheeks, and the raw fury he had held in check since learning of Arnfinn’s death dissipated. The hypnotic undulation of the waves pounding the rocky coast vanquished the lingering remnants of his angry frustration.
A sudden silence captured his attention. He set his back to the window.
Lady Jennie had either swooned or fallen asleep exhausted. Xára tidied her mother, swept the matted locks of hair away from the papery, yellowed forehead, tucked the linen sheet under her shoulders, and kissed the hollowed cheeks.
Xára pushed off the bed, stood, and turned to him, her manner aggressive, her chin lifted. She waved at the entrance to the room.
Dráddør quirked a brow and then realized the futility of the gesture.
She pointed to the hallway.
What harm could it do to follow her silent command? He nodded, rose, and slipped out of the chamber. She followed him into the passageway. For a long moment, they gazed at each other, Xára searching his face for what he knew not. Then she touched his bare forearm, pointed in the direction of the stairs, spun around, and halted, waiting.
He scratched the bearded stubble on his chin. Xára obviously wanted to take him somewhere. The female appeared to have her wits about her. For cert, she did not appear to be touched by madness or disease. But was her inability to speak one that was inherited? Would she bear children with no voice?
If ’twas the case, he could refuse the marriage. Neither King Kenneth nor Harald Bluetooth could fault him for that.
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