Stolen by the Viking – Eliza Carter

IN WHİCH TİLDA discovers laughter is not always the best medicine… Papa held no pity for Tilda. Indeed, he thought her behavior warranted a ride to the abbey school on the fastest horse he could find. Mama always agreed with Papa. And her brother…well, he was probably too busy wenching. He’d learned how to do it the summer before, around the same time he’d turned six and ten, and he’d developed a rare talent for it in short order. He would tug her braid and smile his charming smile, and say, “We’ll talk of this later, Sister. I have important business to tend.” The business always had enormous breasts and only a tiny shred of morality. She hated to do it, but she would have to go cry on Kennyth’s shoulder. Luckily, he and his father were visiting at the moment, and he was the perfect victim. Shoulder to cry on, she corrected herself. She found Kennyth sitting near some of her father’s seasoned warriors on the mead benches closest to the hearth. She sniveled a little, but the noise did not garner his attention. He was too enthralled by their battle tales. She would have to try harder.

She poked herself in the eye to elicit some redness and hiccuped mightily. He finally looked over and immediately looked alarmed. “Lady Tilda, whatever is the matter?” Kennyth asked. She motioned to him to follow her out of the hall, where there would not be so many prying ears. “I am to be sent to the Abbey of Saint Everilda to perform my studies with the nuns,” she cried. “I shall not allow it,” Kennyth said stoutly. “You will never be parted from me.” This proclamation did not exactly assuage Tilda’s worries. While she hated the thought of traveling to the nunnery, she was not too keen on spending all her time with Kennyth, either. His company was a bit like her favorite sweet—sliced apples and honey baked in a pastry shell.

If she had too much of it, she became nauseous. He was the son of her father’s friend. One day, he would be ealdorman of the estate of Addelmore, and Tilda rather suspected their parents would try to make a match of them. It could be worse. He’d seen thirteen summers—only four more than herself. And he was not ugly, though she was not a sound judge of such matters. Nor was he stupid. But he had one, unforgivable flaw. He did not like to laugh. And Tilda, Lord help her, did love a good joke.

Just that morn, as they greedily broke their fasts around the hearth, Glynna—her nursemaid—had bustled over to mop jam off Kennyth’s cheeks. To add insult to injury, she’d wetted her thumb with spittle to remove the offending gooseberry stains. “You’re a right mess, and make no mistake, young master,” she’d scolded before bustling off to her next task. Glynna always bustled. Tilda had laughed. She couldn’t help it. Glynna still thought of them as toddling babes. She knew Kennyth was annoyed. She’d have been annoyed, in his shoes, and she was only nine. But she had not anticipated the look of murderous rage that burned in his eyes.

Whether it was Glynna or herself at whom he was so angry, she did not know. She did understand one thing, however. That look frightened her. So not only did he find a good joke distasteful—his dignity was also easily offended. A distressing combination. Maybe it was not the wisest course of action to try to enlist Kennyth’s sympathy, after all. She did not want to encourage any more of his attention. Her father strode past with a troop of carls, not even noticing them. She would give it one more try. Maybe he would listen to her this time.

She followed the men into the hall and waited patiently until her father was not surrounded by others. It took some time, but Tilda was good at being patient…when she needed to be. In the meantime, she poked at her eyes again until she saw stars. They would look redder—and bluer, for that matter. Glynna always told her she looked just like an angel. That her white-blonde hair and huge, almost-purple eyes proved God had a sense of humor, for she was anything but angelic. This helped her feel closer to God more than any trip to church. They had something in common. They both liked a laugh. Her brother always said all she had to do was pout, and everyone would give her just what she wished.

She was hoping it would prove so today. Anyway, who was he to talk? It seemed all the young women living on the manor were giving him what he wanted these days. Tilda walked over to her father and pinned him with her most pitiful expression of remorse. She remembered to clasp her hands at the last moment, thinking it was a nice touch. “Papa, I promise I’ll be good. Please don’t send me away to school!” Tilda’s father was not unkind, but nor was he exactly brimming with affection. He was the most feared warlord in Wessex and its most powerful ealdorman. He did not have much time left over for his children. “Will you miss your playmate over there?” He gestured to where Kennyth of Addelmore sat by the fire, still sulking about her news. Should she say yes? Would it help her cause? For that was not entirely truthful.

She tried a different tactic. “Am I to marry Kennyth? If I am, I should stay home and continue to learn how to manage a hall from Mama.” “Dear God, no!” Tilda’s father exclaimed. “You’ll not be wasted on the likes of Addelmore.” Wasted? “But Papa, I thought you and Kennyth’s father were such friends.” “We are,” he agreed. “But Addelmore is not a prosperous manor. You’re too much a prize to go to Kennyth.” Tilda felt relieved, but only momentarily. “If I am to make a great marriage, then all the more reason to stay home and learn from Mama,” she pressed.

Her father shook his head. “The nuns will teach you the wifely arts, but also something far more important. Think you an ealdorman listens to his thegns for council? Nay. He is almost a law unto himself. What need has he of advice? But he will always discuss his troubles with his wife, and she must be able to offer sound counsel. Mark me, a kingdom’s most important decisions are made by just two people—a man and his wife.” Tilda had no idea what her father meant. She was only nine, after all. But soon enough, she would understand. “T 1 he traveler must train his wits…”—The Hávamál WESSEX Autumn of 897 IN WHİCH TİLDA learns she actually can lose her temper… Under no circumstances was a royal visit an event to be desired.

The expense of housing and entertaining Alfred and his retinue was considerable, and he never visited without wanting money or another equally unpalatable favor. But he was coming to Skarsmore, and there was nothing Lady Tilda could do to prevent it. She may have scowled eloquently for a moment, making certain no one was nearby to witness her perfect brow furrow, but she quickly recovered and began the manor’s preparations. She was a renowned hostess, and she had a reputation to maintain. She hired temporary labor from the tenant farms to help in the hall to prepare the requisite feast, and set the household women to changing out the rushes…not that they were dirty. She would never allow that. But nonetheless, it seemed fitting to exchange the slightly worn for completely fresh. She alerted all her people to give obeisance to the royal party when it passed their abodes. Alfred knew she was a loyal subject, but still, smiling peasants helped to reinforce the point. On the afternoon of the king’s anticipated arrival, though, it was his daughter who came to Tilda’s doorstep.

The Lady Aethelflaed was so beautiful, it seemed impossible that she was the sallow-faced Alfred’s daughter. Her mother was no prize, either, making the radiance of her visage even more perplexing. But if parentage could be traced by temperament alone, then there was no mistaking the cold, calculating Aethelflaed for Alfred’s daughter. And yet, despite her iciness, Tilda liked her. They had attended school together at the abbey of Saint Everilda and were of an age. Aethelflaed had not always been so reserved. She had possessed a pert sense of humor and a flare for mischief when they were children. Come to think of it, so had Tilda, which was why they had become friends. They had not the time for the other girls, who dithered over their lessons, instead of actually learning anything, and talked of nothing but marriage and knights handsome and brave. What had happened to those cheerful, spirited children? One had become the Lady of Mercia and the other, the Lady of Skarsmore.

There was not much room for mischief in the midst of their daily responsibilities. Aethelflaed hid her emotions beneath a layer of distant reserve. Tilda knew how she concealed them…with a facade of perfection. The perfect hostess, the perfect lady, the perfect landlord, the perfect subject. So many roles, all played with exacting faultlessness. “Aethelflaed!” she called with unfeigned pleasure as the royal retinue dismounted. They embraced and kissed each other’s cheeks warmly. For a moment, they were girls again, and their grins were genuine. “Dare I hope you come only on a visit of pleasure?” “Dare not, dear one. My father has sent me in his stead, hoping his news would be easier to bear coming from a friend.

” “Then I do not want to hear of your news yet. Let us sit to table and enjoy each other’s company for a while. How is your daughter?” Aethelflaed’s composed features immediately softened. “She is well, thank you. Healthy and far too spoiled by her father.” Tilda’s heart constricted. Oh, to have a child to light her days. At the very least, her late husband could have given her that one blessing. For the first time ever, she felt envious of her friend, for it was a blessing she would never know. The hall’s womenfolk had produced a feast worthy of a royal visit, and Tilda found herself wishing they had not.

She did not like the thought that she was serving up her own doom. Autumn was the perfect season to host royalty. The fields yielded bountiful harvest, and pigs for slaughter were plentiful. The cows produced their finest milk because they’d fed on lush, green grass all summer. Soon enough, all they’d have would be sparse winter fodder. The meats, cheeses and breads on the board were some of the finest Skarsmore had ever produced. “Your lands yield more than they ever did under your late husband’s governance,” Aethelflaed stated baldly as she surveyed the feast. Tilda, though less forthright, was never one to pretend false modesty. “I have had three years to rebuild and do away with some of my husband’s more unprofitable practices.” “You have thrived, which is why what my father is doing is insupportable, but alas, I have no say in the matter.

” So much for friendly conversation before they got down to business. “What exactly is he doing, Aethelflaed?” Her friend drew in a deep breath and took a fortifying sip of wine. “You have heard of the Dane, Soren Guthredson?” Tilda nodded. All of Wessex, and Mercia besides, had heard of Guthredson. During the summer, Alfred’s army, along with help from Aethelflaed’s husband, Aethelred, had made great inroads against the heathens, driving them out of Wessex and forcing them to take refuge in East Anglia. The Vikings’ goal had been nothing short of taking Lundene, and they would have succeeded, if not for the alliance of Wessex and Mercia. Only one Dane would not go quietly. Soren Guthredson was the eldest son of Guthred the Grey, a powerful jarl—nearly a king, really—who held vast territories in northern Denmark. Guthredson had three hundred men at his disposal, and their shield wall at the Battle of Lundene was impenetrable. Though the Saxons would have triumphed eventually, as their numbers were far greater, Alfred was not willing to incur more casualties.

He had promised Guthredson a fortune in gold and fertile lands in Wessex if his warriors lay down their shields. Oh, no. Her lands! In a blinding flash, she understood the purpose of Aethelflaed’s visit. Tilda felt her facade of perfection cracking and slipping away. In its place, her temper surged. Everything she had worked for and sacrificed for, gone in an instant, at the whim of a king who thought only of his dream to unite all England under Saxon rule. “Alfred thinks to take my lands because I am a woman, is that it? I have defended the Mercian and West Saxon borders against the Danes, without fail, for three years. I have built a new church, and my people are some of the most prosperous in Wessex. What right has he to take my lands?” “He has every right, for they are not yours,” Aethelflaed replied with icy quietness. “They are your husband’s, and he is dead.

Without a male heir, his properties revert to my father.” “And Alfred is just remembering this now?” Aethelflaed’s tone softened. “It suited him to have you running the manor these last three years, but it suits him no longer. Believe me, he knows how effective your leadership has been. And he has struggled with how to reward your stewardship of the land and your service to the crown.” “Has he really? I cannot imagine how.” “I offer you a place in my court as recompense, and you will maintain your patents of nobility. My lord husband will arrange to ally you to one of the noblest houses in Mercia in marriage, and my father will provide the dowry, and believe me when I tell you it is most generous.” For what may have been the first time in her life, Tilda wanted to scream. IN WHİCH TİLDA contemplates the age-old solution for a lady in desperate circumstances… marriage… “You need not travel to Mercia, Tilda.

You will stay here and marry me. You know it has been my dearest wish since we were children. You have made me wait far too long, already.” Kennyth meant to sound teasing, Tilda knew, but he couldn’t manage to keep the irritation out of his voice. Which was why he would continue to wait. “I am no longer a good prospect, Kennyth. You must not ally yourself to a landless, penniless title.” He brushed a strand of hair from her face, letting his fingers linger against her cheek. “You do have other charms, you know, besides your lands.” A lady never told the gentleman in question she objected to him.

She made it seem as though she was the problem. If only Kennyth were tolerable, she would marry him in a heartbeat. The union would be the answer to all her worries. She would have immediate security, and with both their houses allied, it would be possible to take back Skarsmore from this filthy Dane. Kennyth was the type of ealdorman the foolish girls in Tilda’s abbey school had swooned over. Skilled in battle, suave with ladies and pleasing to the eye. He even kept himself clean. His flaxen hair always shone its true color. But Tilda knew in her bones she could never bear his touch. She remembered his behavior from their youth.

He no longer sulked like a child, but he was still easily offended. Tilda remembered one of Skarsmore’s thegns, who had died in battle against the Danes, along with her husband. His hair had been the same flaxen yellow, like so many of her countrymen. But no one could tell, because he never washed it. It appeared to be the color of swamp water, with layers of accumulated muck. This Dane would probably be filthy. She would most certainly not be able to discern the color of his hair. IN WHİCH THE Saxon makes the Viking fall off his horse… Soren Guthredson emerged from the River Thames, the coolness of the water having done nothing to alleviate his anger at his servants for leaving his soap behind at his townhouse in Lundene. He had acquired those soaps on a trading expedition with some wild Swedes in Constantinople, and they were as precious to him as a sultan’s treasure. Though he had taken plenty of that, as well, on his trip.

Lemon, with hints of basil. Soren loved those two scents the way some men loved skilled whores. Now all he had to clean his skin was river mud. And since no one north of Byzantium knew how to grow basil or, Freya forbid, lemons, he would be stuck with mud for a while. Oh, well. He would fit in better with the filthy Saxons. Soren had expected to arrive at the Saxon manor of Skarsmore, soon to be his own, before day’s end, and he was not disappointed. He spied the palisade in the distance, its coppiced timbers warning enemies they would not have a friendly welcome. His party, however, had no trouble at the gate, as they were expected. “Still thinking of taking up the nailed god?” his friend Tarne asked as they passed a small church just inside the palisade.

It was made of stone and had an elegant spire, Soren noted. This was a wealthy manor. His wealthy manor. There was not a Viking alive who would not rejoice at the prospect. “King Alfred did not make it a condition in our agreement, but let us just say he strongly recommended it.” “Many a Viking has made the promise and continued with the old ways in private.” “Aye, probably what I will do. But I do not like sneaking around.” “Might not be such a bad thing,” Tarne said. “Those saints are dead useful.

I met this one whore in Winchester, when you were meeting with Alfred, who told me the most amazing story.” “All she did was tell you a story? Lousy night, I would say.” This insult came, not from Soren, but from Dagmar, the youngest—and cheekiest—of his men. “Since you do not even grow a beard yet, little Dagmar, I doubt you can get a whore to do as much as tell you a story,” Tarne reproved in a mild voice. He returned to his tale. “So, anyway, this whore told me she was having a rough night with a customer, a filthy Saxon, of course, and she was praying to Saint Hegga he would just decide to leave her alone.” “Hegga?” Soren interrupted. “Aye, patron saint of whores, most like,” Tarne said knowingly. “All of a sudden, this rotten bloke gets a terrible leg cramp, and he has to stop in the middle of things. So, see, the praying worked.

” Dagmar rolled his eyes to the sky. “Right, it was the saint who gave him the cramp. Next time I get one, who can I blame?” “Me, most likely, if the pair of you do not shut up,” Soren said. Unfazed, Tarne said, to no one in particular, “I wonder what I would pray to the saints for?” “Tits,” Dagmar answered immediately. “Who would want tits?” Soren exclaimed. He looked to Tarne, who was also suitably horrified. “No, Lord, I would wish to be holding tits all the time,” Dagmar said. Soren and Tarne sucked in their breaths. Dagmar, knowing he still had not reassured them, tried again. “Not my own tits.

I would pray for as many lasses as my hall could hold, all with tits they are just dying to have me squeeze.” Soren and Tarne exhaled, reassured. They reigned in their horses in front of the hall. It was one of the grandest that Soren had ever seen. Two stories high, constructed of coppiced timbers, it even had a shingled roof. It was large enough to hold several dozen warriors. Ornate carvings decorated the entrance. As he examined their shapes, a figure emerged. Not just any figure. A delectably curvaceous one, draped in a pale blue, woolen gunna belted at a slender waist.

Dangling at the figure’s waist was a tumble of flaxen waves. The woman—who was decidedly not the potbellied ealdorman he’d been expecting— approached. She was not smiling—quite the opposite, really—but nonetheless, her lips appeared full and seductive. “Lord Soren, we did not expect you so early in the day,” greeted a high, clear voice. He looked into her eyes, ready to formulate an apology. He did, after all, want this transition to go smoothly. But those eyes, large, luminous, and so blue they appeared lavender, pinned him to his saddle and left him mute. He could not be certain how long he stared, but Tarne emitted a false cough, and Soren’s mind cleared a little. He began to dismount, rather too eagerly, and he felt his foot catch in the stirrup. The last time that had happened to him, he still sat a pony.

He might have been able to extract his foot and save face, if it had not been for the swarm of monks who came running from the church. His horse shied at the sight of so many tonsured idiots swinging their arms and looking for all the world like bats pumping their wings in their oversized habits. Unable to catch himself, Soren’s rather sizable body crashed to the ground, but his foot did not. Unfortunately, his head landed before the rest of him. The last thing he heard before losing consciousness was Tarne asking Dagmar in a puzzled voice, “Is there a saint who saves you from making an arse of yourself?”

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