The swelling sun lights the sky, betraying the granite of the castle. Its flaming beauty is scarred by the looming armies of the north as they descend toward my father’s palace. I watch the small specs of men on the horizon, seemingly so innocuous at this distance and yet I know that by nightfall they may have breached this fortress. A knot of anxiety twists inside of me and I lean my forehead against the cold stone for support. At nineteen, I am the only daughter of the King of Donrose, and younger sister to his two sons. Every inch a maiden, I have been raised a princess with virtue and grace, although my feisty nature ensured I was also taught to wield a sword when required. Nothing though, could have prepared me for the last months of war. My father led the charge before the first snow of last winter. A fierce advocate for battle, he rode with his best men, sent in a celebration of flags and fanfare. We expected the conflict to be done thereafter and his imminent safe return, but now, with the spring well ensconced, there is still no word from the king. My brothers followed him after some weeks, leaving me as ward of the kingdom. I open my eyes and assess our impending doom from the small window. Our previously impenetrable walls now seem certain to crumble against the might of these Nordic invaders. My attention is taken by sounds outside of the chamber and I turn from the window in time to see my brother entering my room. “Aurelie!” he cries, extending his arms to embrace me.
My heart jumps as I move toward him, wrapping my own arms around his large frame. “Bowen! You’re back from battle? What news have you of the invasion? How goes our army against the Viking foe?” A string of questions leaves my lips before I can stop them, but instead of answering me, he holds me close, as though facing these enquiries is too much to bear. The thought startles me. Bowen is my eldest brother and almost certainly Father’s favourite. He is tall and strong and will be a worthy king when the time comes. If there is hesitation in his heart, then our chances really may be fading fast. He moves away from me, holding my shoulders with his large palms as he regards me with a heavy expression. “Aurelie, it pains me to report there is no good news from battle. The savage Vikings from the north descend upon us like a plague from the gods.” I assess his face, dirty from weeks of fighting and worry.
“There is no hope then?” I say, my voice little more than a whisper. “The castle is bound to be breached?” He nods solemnly. “I fear so, sister.” I take a deep breath at the acknowledgment, resisting the urge to look again at the impending doom on the horizon. Instead I keep my eyes on Bowen, knowing that he will only have chosen to burden me with this news for a reason. “What can I do, brother?” I ask him. Bowen pauses, as though he cannot find the right words for me. “Aurelie, I know it was not our father’s way to ask our women to fight, but with myself and Eustace engaged in battle, I fear it will fall to you to lead those who remain. I have trained you in the use of a sword, but never did I expect this millstone to fall to you.” “Bowen, please…” I start, a bubble of emotion rising in my throat.
“Do not speak of our father in the past tense. He is our king and is certain to return to us any day!” He moves toward me and plants a chaste kiss on my forehead. “Sister, we must face the likely truth. There has been no word from the king for many months. His prowess in battle is legendary, and I feel certain he would have welcomed the opportunity to die for Donrose riding with his men and protecting his people!” I flinch at Bowen’s words, looking into his brown eyes as he continues. “Our armies are overstretched and vastly outnumbered. Tonight the walls of Castle Donrose will surely be breached. I have returned only to bring warning to you and must ride back to my men to fight.” My head spins at his news; the worst possible outcome appears to be unravelling in front of us. “What can I do to defend the castle?” I ask, resigned already to my fate.
“You know I will protect it with everything I have. I will never leave of my own accord.” He smiles at me. “That I know,” he says, chuckling. “You are one of the best swordsmen I have ever met—even better than Eustace in my opinion, but don’t tell him I told you so!” We exchange a laugh at our brother’s expense; a small relief in this very dark climate. “Take this and use it well, Aurelie,” he says, pulling his sword from its sheath over his body. “But, Bowen,” I argue, “this sword is yours and you will need its agility in the coming hours more than I?” He shakes his head. “I have many other swords which will serve their purpose in its place.” He thrusts the long, silver metal toward me, before gently placing it in my hands. “This is Aurora, for she brings light where there is only darkness.
She will serve you well, Aurelie.” I glance down at the weighty metal in my hands and marvel once again at how my brother chooses always to name his swords. “Thank you, Bowen,” I whisper. “I promise to take good care of her until your return.” “I know you will, sister,” he says, helping me to bring Aurora down by my side. “Though I cannot promise when, or even if, that return will be…” “Bowen,” I implore him, “please do not say such things.” “I speak only the truth, little sister. These are dark times and Donrose may not recover from them. At any rate, if we must perish then let us do so fighting for what is ours. We will not surrender to these savages from the north!” At this moment I see not my brother, but a king standing before me and I fall into a curtsey at his feet.
“I will not let you down, Bowen, I swear it!” He crouches and pulls us both back to our feet, before embracing me again. “Be brave, sweet Aurelie,” he tells me. “These invaders are vile defilers and I am pained to have to leave you. I should be here, defending you and your virtue from their brutality.” I shake my head at him, tears filling my eyes as he plants another firm kiss on my forehead. “Now I must away.” His words sound very much like goodbye and the knot of tension in my body tightens as he turns to leave my chambers. I am resolved to do my duty and yet feel crippled with the loss of my kin and the weight of his expectation. I never really imagined I would need to concern myself with the defence of my father’s castle and my belly lurches at the prospect of what is to come. How can I—little Aurelie of Donrose —step up and fight? And yet fight I know I must… Dressing in one of Bowen’s old doublets, I discard my lace in favour of the plain, masculine attire of the knights of Donrose.
I catch my reflection in the looking glass and barely recognise the person blinking back at me. Could this be the Princess Aurelie, renowned for her beauty over several lands? I smile as I consider the question. Yes, I am Aurelie, daughter of King Harold and as well known for my fiery nature as my raven allure. It is this Aurelie who will be ready to meet the Viking invaders. I glance north out of the nearest window. The darkness is coming and with it the hordes that mean to bring destruction to my father’s kingdom. I clutch at the encrusted handle of Aurora, thinking of Bowen, Eustace, and my father. Whatever the night may bring, I must remain strong for them, and for Donrose. Chapter Two: Invasion The torches of the invaders draw ever closer, and the castle braces in anticipation of the impending battle. Their descent brings an unearthly silence to the walls of Donrose; each of us ready and yet not prepared for all hell to break loose.
I scan the line of men on either side of the battlement lines. My father’s old advisor, Bromley nods in my direction and then our collective glance returns to the approaching flames, growing larger as the invading army readies its onslaught. Into this state of suspended animation comes the noise of hundreds of men. My stomach twists with unease at the sound of impending war. And then—seemingly even before there is time to draw breath—they are upon us. Rocks and burning weapons hurtle toward us as I give the order to our remaining archers. The arrows bring the first line of assailants to their knees and yet hundreds more roar on from behind them. I see them beginning to penetrate the sides of the castle, like ants looking for new routes into their desired hole. I turn and run toward one who has scaled the west wall, waving Aurora high above my head as I charge. It has been a while since I fought with a sword.
Father was never particularly keen to see his only daughter wielding a weapon of any sort. Yet Bowen had always given me private and patient tuition and used to allow me to practise with him and Eustace, until the day finally came when I even beat Bowen’s own blade. The memory of those times emboldens me somehow as I charge the intruder. I see his blade shining in the blackness and I do not hesitate. I take a swing at his vulnerable, exposed side and strike him even before his weapon is raised. He falls, letting out a guttural sound that makes my stomach turn over. Before I can dwell on his fate, another invader completes his climb. This one is a tougher foe, using his far greater body weight to topple me with one swing of his axe. My helmet falls from my head, but I keep hold of Aurora, swinging her to good use before losing my footing. Rolling across the hard floor, I prove to be more agile than the bearded intruder and end up on my back, able to catch my breath whilst he gathers himself.
The scene around me is like something from a nightmare. The sounds of battle cry and invasion are everywhere, piercing my ears with their unrelenting, cruel noise. The Nordic army seems stronger in numbers than even Bowen had feared and in this moment I realise he was right; our fight is futile. Having recovered his composure, the latest invader stands, axe in hand, and stamps toward me before suddenly recoiling. He motions to another of his kin and shouts something in a tongue that I cannot understand. The men laugh, a deep, malevolent sound from their gut. I realise they have seen my face and know now that I am really a woman and not the knight they had assumed. Another approaches me from the rear and I swing backward, bringing Aurora hard against his legs. He cries out in pain and I dart right, missing the axe by just a few seconds. I am away before the bearded one can catch me, and I make my way back inside the castle.
I round a corner and spot Bromley on his knees with a different intruder. Without thinking I charge his oppressor, bringing Bowen’s sword down against his shoulders just in time. The stranger falls awkwardly between us, and I grab Bromley’s arm. “Come!” I command, dragging him to his feet and down one of the dark, candlelit corridors. “Thank you, my lady!” he gasps behind me, “but please, I implore you to leave me, for I shall only slow your safe passage?” There is little time to debate this notion as three more intruders charge us from ahead. We scatter; him to the left and me to the right. I am pursued by one of the men, who gains on me with ease. I spin around to face him, realising there is little point in running any further. As he sees my face, a disturbing grin spreads across his own visage. “Well, well, what have we here?” he asks darkly, as he steps toward me.
I raise Aurora and bring her crashing down against his own ready blade. He pushes her away with force, sending her flying out of my hands and me against the granite wall. As I spin to face him again, he approaches me in an unhurried pace. “Praise Valhalla! I did not expect to claim anything as lovely as you in this mire!” I scan the floor for Aurora, desperately seeking her protection against this Viking. She is too far away to aid me from my position on the ground, and I would have to manoeuvre past the intruder just to reach her. I regard him with caution. He is massive—well over six feet—and must be five times my strength. I know I have no chance against him and still I cannot rein in my quick tongue. “I am not yours to claim,” I spit at him in disgust. “I will never belong to any of your northern filth!” His face changes in an instant and a blank hatred fills it.
He raises his sword and dread washes over me. He has me cornered and I can never out-battle him. “Cease, Magnus!” The voice comes booming from behind my assailant and by his face I’d say he recognises it. Slowly he lowers his weapon and twists to see its owner approach. They exchange a string of words I do not comprehend and I use the opportunity to gather myself and climb back to my feet, wincing at the sudden hurt reverberating down my left side. “My Lofðungr,” the first man says, eventually giving way to the second. “I found this woman in the castle. She was more than happy to attack me, so I was just about to put her down.” The newcomer steps forward, eyeing me intently as he speaks. “You will not slaughter women under my watch.
We will take her with us—unharmed—do you understand?” He speaks with the authority of a ruler and I appraise him quickly as he regains control of his man, Magnus. Seeing them together I realise that this one is even taller than the first, and from the look of his body he is just as strong, although not quite as broad. He has long, dark blond hair, pulled into a braid beneath his helmet. It’s a colour rarely seen in my lands and is rather startling to behold. “Yes, My Lofðungr,” sighs Magnus, clearly disappointed by the order not to harm me. The taller man assesses me again, this time with such intensity that I squirm under his watch. It’s as though his blue eyes are removing the attire from my body and de-robing me altogether. For some unknown reason I find myself responding to his gaze, my breath quickening again, but this time not from fear alone. “I am not yours to take!” I announce, addressing him directly. He watches me with those brooding eyes, considering my outburst.
“Hold your tongue, woman!” cries Magnus. “You do not address our prince without permission!” “He is no prince to me!” I splutter, my voice dripping with disdain. Magnus moves forward, his hand raised and instinctively I flinch, squeezing my eyes shut. At any moment I expect his hand to strike me and I brace for the pain, but all I hear are scuffling sounds from the men in front of me. When after a moment there is no impact, I open one eye to see the second man physically restraining Magnus. “I said unharmed!” The ferocity in his voice makes me cringe even though his words are not directed at me. “Yes, My Lofðungr,” says Magnus, finally understanding that his prince had meant what he had said. “See to it that she is bound and held safely until the battle is done. I want her delivered to me personally, is that clear?” “Yes,” comes the contrite reply. The prince scans the floor behind Magnus and, seeing Aurora, addresses me directly.
“Is that your weapon over there?” His accent is softer than Magnus’ and has a deeper tone. I take a deep breath, thinking of Aurora, and then Bowen and my kin. “Yes,” I say, my voice defiant. He strides to where Aurora waits and scoops her up in his large hands, holding up her blade. “It seems you have already taken the blood of my men, this evening?” I swallow fearfully and yet refuse to allow the emotion to dominate me. “I have done what is necessary to defend Donrose.” He looks over at me and there’s almost a smile on his lips. “You must fight well then? You women of Donrose?” I raise my head to him, straining in the candlelit corridor to get a better view of this man—my enemy—who has undoubtedly just saved my life. “I cannot speak for all women, but I was taught to fight by my brother.”