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April 2011, Avon Books
ISBN-10: 0062019120
ISBN 978-0062019127
May 2004, Leisure Books
ISBN-10: 0843951583
ISBN-13: 978-0843951585

A TALE OF TWO VIKINGS

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PROLOGUE

Double the trouble, Viking style...

Toste and Vagn Ivarsson did everything together.

They came squalling into this world from the same womb together, bare minutes apart.

They suckled from the breasts of the same wetnurse when their mother died in the birthing.

They were weaned and privy trained at the same time.

A Tale of Two VikingsThey invented their own language...words and body expressions that only they could understand.

They rode their first horses at the age of seven, rode their first maids on Friggs Day of their thirteenth summer, and rode off on longships to go a-Viking as untried fourteen-year-old warriors.

They'd been inseparable till their ninth year when their father, Jarl Ivar Thorsson, who considered twins an unnatural happenstance, came up with the lackwit notion that they would mature best apart. He exiled them, kicking and screaming, to opposite reaches of the Norselands for fostering. That lasted a total of three intolerable months afore both had been sent home by exasperated Norse chieftains.

Because of their identical appearance, right down to the cleft in their chins, except for a clover-shaped birthmark on Toste's inner thigh, they constantly changed places, to the chagrin of comrades and maids aplenty.

Their father outlawed them ten years ago from his Vestfold realm on the same day, over the selfsame piddling incident... piddling to them, leastways. Vagn in a fit of meadhead madness had referred to their older brother Arne as "Mother's Baby, Father's Maybe," and Toste had piped in with a comment that Arne much resembled a trader who came into the area on occasion called Leif Lousebeard.

They never wed, some said, because they could not bear to be apart from each other. Bolthor the Skald once described them as: Fair of face and form. Fierce in the bed furs. Even fiercer in battle. Quick to wit. Loyal to a fault.

In essence, Toste and Vagn were as one.

But, alas and alak, Toste and Vagn, having seen only thirty and one winters, were about to die together.

*****

CHAPTER ONE
(TOSTE)

Land of the Saxons, A.D. 964

A marching they did go, a-marching they did go...uh-oh...

Toste Ivarsson slid in the soft earth and almost fell on his arse, to the amusement of the many warriors who surrounded him on their trek through Saxon hell.

"Remind me again why we are trudging about in scratchsome chain sherts over padded leather tunics, all that covered with wet fur pelts, carrying heavy shields and swords and battleaxes, during a hail storm, smack down the middle of enemy lands, like bloody game pigeons?" Ping, ping, ping, the icy pellets kept hitting the metal armor and weapons of the soldiers in the hird, creating an irksome din...just as irksome, Toste hoped, as the pellets of his grumbles directed in an endless tirade at his equally irksome brother, Vagn. "And the odor! Two hundred men who have not bathed in a fortnight...phew! 'Tis said that women of all nations favor us Viking men because we are so handsome, but mainly because we bathe more often than the average fellow. Well, they would change their tune quick as spit if they got a whiff of this aromatic bunch. I'm thinking of putting a pincher on the nose guard of my helmet to cut out the foul body aromas."

To his frustration, Vagn's response was to whistle. For the love of Thor! Whistling in the midst of this...this...sure-to-be wasted effort! The lackwit! No church pillage is worth this time and inconvenience. My toes feel like icicles. By the gods, I would love to be sitting afore a hot hearth, feet propped up, nursing a horn of mulled ale.

"I was bored," Vagn answered cheerily, even though he was equally laden with battle gear, and led an ancient war horse named Clod he had won the night before in a game of hnefatafl. The destrier, made skittish by the pelting ice, was one of the few horses on the field today, most of the soldiers preferring to walk the short distance to the monastery...which was turning out to be not so short a distance, after all.

It was a rare peaceable time in Britain. King Edgar, being only twenty and one years old and busy fornicating with every female who crossed his path, was heavily under the influence of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he'd brought back from exile. While Edgar sinned, Dunstan built more monasteries for his king's penance. A good bargain, in Toste's opinion.

Toste reacted to Vagn's remark. "Bored! Why could we not have wrestled a bear, like we did last time you got bored? Why could we not have dug for amber or hunted whales in the Baltics? Why could we not have gone horse buying in the Saracen lands? Why could we not have drunk a tun of mead and slept the ale-head away all winter long? Why could we not have spent a sennight and more in a talented harlot's bed furs?"

"Together?" Vagn asked.

How like him to home in on the last and most irrelevant of my wise points! Toste snorted with disgust. "We have tried it together more than once, as you well know, but we were half-brained youthlings then. Now, I much prefer to do my own plowing, thank you very much." He regretted the words the minute they slipped from his mouth.

"Mayhap you are getting old," Vagn commented, as if he were not the same advanced age of thirty and one years. "Almost a graybeard you are. For a certainty, I saw a wild hair growing in your ear yestereve when you were retching your guts over the ship's rail into the stormy sea. Up and down, up and down, up and down, our boat followed the path of the roaring waves. Ne'er have I seen a man vomit so much."

Toste had not yet grown blunt of fang, as his teasing brother implied. 'Twas just his brother's teasing way. "In the midst of that sea-gale, you noticed a single hair in my ear?" Toste arched his frosty brows in disbelief. At the same time, he swiped a forearm across his forehead to wipe away the moisture from the melting hail.

"Yea, I did...and, come to think on it, there was one in your nose, too. Women do not like such misplaced hairs, you know. Dost want me to pluck it out for you?"

Toste made a coarse observation about "plucking" and jabbed Vagn in the upper arm with an elbow for his deviltry...Toste's hands being full of weapons.

His brother just grinned and danced away.

The hail began to die down and be replaced with sleet, which in turn created a mire of mud underfoot. What a miserable day! If they didn't soon find this monastery, he was going to turn on his heels and head back to the ship...blessed booty be damned!

Then, ignoring Vagn's flummery, he commenced afresh his earlier diatribe, "'Tis all your fault. 'Twas you who convinced me that we should join the Jomsvikings, and look where it has landed us." They were surrounded on all sides by Viking warriors intent on plunder or battle, or whatever they faced ahead...way too far from the four longships anchored near the shore. "A blood thirstier lot I have ne'er met than this mercenary band, including our chieftain. I swear, Sigvaldi would hew down his mother if she sneezed the wrong way. And, by the by, you failed to inform me that no women were permitted at the Jomsviking fortress at Trellenborg. 'Tis a year since we joined this troop of noble warriors. Nobility is one thing, celibacy is another. Not what I envisioned, I'll tell you that." This was not the first time Toste had voiced this particular complaint to his brother.

"Methinks you have lost the adventuresome spirit, brother. To go a-Viking is a way of life for us Norsemen. 'Tis what men do when the crops are harvested and high-winter has not yet icebound our longships." Vagn shrugged as if there was naught more to say on the subject. Norsemen would be Norsemen, was Vagn's simple philosophy. Toste thought Vagn had finished blathering, but then he added more of his non-wisdom, "A dollop of celibacy hones a man's appetite. Makes him a more self-disciplined fellow."

"Hah! More like a wallop--as in overabundance--of celibacy hones a man's randiness and makes him nigh beastly when he finally lands betwixt soft thighs. The monkish life is not for me."

"Me, neither," Vagn admitted. "Shall we go home?" A dozen hail stones lay in Vagn's as yet unhelmeted, dark blonde hair, held back off his face with beaded war braids. Water rivulets ran down his face in muddy streaks. He looked absolutely ridiculous, and absolutely endearing, at the same time. He was his brother, and Toste loved him more than himself.

Choking back the emotion which clogged his throat, he asked, "Home? What home? Oh, nay, you surely do not suggest we hang tail and return to our father's estates in the Norselands? He outlawed us...his own sons."

"He would take us back," Vagn said softly.

"Mayhap, if we would agree to his never-ending demands: Stop being so frivolous. Fight in his army, which is always at

grab-lands war with one minor Norse king or another, or one Saxon thegn or another. Bend knee to our two older, scurrilous brothers, who are heirs to the jarldom...not that I would want to take on that mantle. Wed a noble wench of Father's choice. Make public apology for past misdeeds. Need I remind you of the Helga the Homely incident? Or Ingrid Hairy Chin?"

"Groveling would be required, for a certainty. And much kissing of arse," Vagn pointed out with a wince. Neither of them were ever much good at groveling. "But we are older now, Toste. Being landless knights no longer holds appeal. Perchance settling down with a wife and family would not be the worst thing in the world. Our friend Rurik seems happy enough in that role. And, of a certainty, there is not much attraction anymore in raiding greedy clerics of their gold crucifixes and ruby-encrusted chalices. We have wealth enough, both of us."

His brother's words surprised Toste, mainly because they mirrored his own thinking of late. But that had been the pattern their entire lives. Thinking alike, having the same tastes and dislikes, even feeling each other's pain, and joy, on occasion.

Toste shifted the halberd--a long handled spear/battleaxe--in his right hand to its leather shoulder strap and used his free arm to wrap around his brother's shoulder and squeeze tightly. In a voice choked with deep sentiment, he said, "This will be our last battle then. We will go home to make peace with our father and establish our own families and estates."

"Can our estates border each other's?" Vagn asked.

"I would have it no other way."

They smiled warmly at each other, glad to have made a long-overdue decision.

"That reminds me of a saga I have been writing," Bolthor the Skald...also known as Bolthor the World's Worst Skald...said as he huffed up behind them. Bolthor was a giant of a man...still well-muscled for fighting, even at forty and more years, but he had lost one eye at the Battle of Brunanburh more than twenty years ago. Not a good credential for a soldier. Still, he'd insisted on coming with them to join the Jomsvikings. Or more likely, his former leaders, Tykir in the Norse lands, and Rurik in the land of the Scots, had sicced him on them, having endured more than enough sorry sagas relating the intimacies and foibles of their lives. Either way, they were stuck with the good-hearted, behemoth poet like barnacles on a sea-going longboat. "The saga could be called, `The Lost Vikings.'"

"Uh, mayhap later," Toste said quickly, noticing the dream mood passing over Bolthor's face which usually portended a vile poem about to spew forth.

"We are not lost, Bolthor," Vagn pointed out. The fool! Did he not know that it was unwise to encourage the skald in any way? Vagn waved a hand to indicate the vast number of Jomsviking warriors traveling with them. "Surely, we cannot all be lost."

"I did not mean the entire hird of soldiers was lost. Just you two."

"Oh," Vagn said, still clearly confused.

But then, Toste made a mistake, as equally foolish as his brother's. He remarked to Bolthor, "I thought you always started your sagas with `good' in the introductions. Like, `This is the saga of Tykir the Good.' Or this is the saga of `Rurik the Greater.'"

"Hmmm. You are right, Toste," Bolthor said, biting his bottom lip with worry. Well, leastways, they had time to escape his presence whilst he pondered the dilemma.

Toste and Vagn began to walk faster, but Bolthor yelled to their backs, "Wait! I have the solution." With a groan, he and Vagn were forced, by politeness, to stand and listen. "This is the saga of Toste and Vagn, the best Viking twin warriors in all the Norse lands."

"That limits our area of greatness, does it not?" Vagn whispered in an aside for Toste's ears only. "How many Viking twin warriors do you think there are?"

"I pray thee, Bragi, god of eloquence, to bless me this day," Bolthor continued, his one good eye raised skyward. Then, to Toste and Vagn, he said, "Methinks a good title would be: `Twin Vikings Who Lost Their Way'."

"Huh?" he and Vagn said at the same time.

"Once were two twins from the Norse lands,
Who thought they were best at all things.
Running, racing, fighting, swordplay...
Flirting, swiving, flirting, swiving...
Laughing all the time, changing places,
Till was unclear who was who...
And whether there be any point to their lives.
But, by the by, age came upon them finally...
A turning in the road men face in middle years.
They began to question the meaning of life,
Which destiny-path to follow,
Whether to replicate themselves by breeding,
Why they were born.
A crossroads in their lives, for a certainty...
The question is: Will they choose the safer path,
Or will they jump head-first into wedlock,
And forevermore question how they landed there?

Toste and Vagn glanced at each other, stunned speechless. Where did Bolthor come up with this stuff? And how did he manage to hit so close to the truth? More important, they needed to find some other Viking needful of his own personal skald.

"Very good, Bolthor," Vagn said, not wishing to insult the skald.

"Yea, very good," Toste agreed. Now, go plague someone else with your sagas.

"Now, go plague someone else with your sagas," Vagn said, not nearly as sensitive as Toste. He apparently had no compunction about hurting Bolthor's feelings. But there was no need for worry in that regard because the insult passed right by Bolthor who brightened and said, "Yea, methinks Sigvaldi is in need of a good comeuppance...I mean, saga. Hey, that can be a new name for a certain type of poem...a comeuppance-saga." Bolthor rushed forward to tell the chieftain his good news.

He and Vagn smiled at each other, but not for long.

Up ahead, someone shouted a warning, "Ambush! Ambush! We are surrounded by Saxons!"

Immediately, the two hundred-man horde of Viking warriors scurried for cover, of which there was almost none in the shallow valley in which they'd been traveling. Meanwhile, hundreds and hundreds of Saxon soldiers emerged on the rim of the small hills surrounding them, much like a bowl with an opening on two opposite sides. Despite their surprise and being vastly out-numbered, the Viking brothers-in-arms soon prepared themselves skillfully for battle with weapons drawn.

Usually, Norsemen preferred the Svinfylkja, better known as the "Swine Wedge," a triangular assault formation with the point facing the enemy, or a "shield wall," with a tight mass of warriors surrounding the chieftain. There was no time for those tactics now; Saxons hemmed them in on three sides, including the exitway out of the valley. A blizzard of arrows showered forth from the bowmen, even as the Saxon foot army advanced toward them.

All around him, Toste heard war cries raised by his enraged comrades. Sometimes, just wild whoops, or savage roars of fury. Other times, specific exhortations were called out: "To the Death!" "Luck in Battle!" "Mark Them With Your Spears!"

Toste did not love to fight as some men did, but he would rather be the crow than the carrion, and he had no intention of breaking the raven's fast this day. He raised his broadsword in an arc as a burly Saxon soldier approached him, spear raised with menace. Toste aimed for the "fat line," that section of the body from neck to groin where most vital organs were located. He sliced the man cross-ways from shoulder to waist before the spear ever left his hand. Wide-eyed with horror, the man, already spewing forth blood from his mouth, fell in a heap at Toste's feet. "Good aim, brother!" Vagn yelled out to him, while Toste sparred, sword to sword, with another foeman. Next, Toste crouched low and lunged his short sword into a fat Saxon belly. With a grunt of surrender, the Saxon fell to his back, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he died.

For the next half hour or so, thick fighting ensued, and there was no time to look around. Having the advantage of surprise, the Saxons cleft through the Norse ranks like sheaves of wheat. Oh, the Viking soldiers displayed great skill and stamina...lords of swordplay, to be sure...but they could not withstand such a larger force. No matter how many of the enemy he slew, no matter how weapon-skillful he was, another always stepped in his place. It was hopeless, Toste began to realize. The ringing of swords, the screams of the wounded in their death throes, the neighing of frightened horses including Clod, the inhuman growls of the berserkers...all of these combined to turn Toste dizzy with terror. The battle was not yet over; even so, the carnage was horrific on both sides.

In his peripheral vision, in the middle of the fray, he noticed Bolthor, rendered weaponless, lower his head and charge at a menacing Saxon with a crossbow aimed his way. Knocking the bowman to his back like a head-butting goat, he then proceeded to strangle him with his bare hands. After that, he saw Bolthor pick up a Saxon broadsword and lop off a man's head, as neatly as slicing a sausage. Without skipping a beat, Bolthor then took a young Saxon's face between his massive hands and crushed his skull like a walnut. About them, the stench of sword dew was overpowering.

Shaking his head to clear it of the fuzziness that assailed him momentarily, Toste became instantly unsettled. An odd prickling tingled at the back of his neck. Vagn. Where is Vagn? Scanning the field, he located Vagn a considerable distance away. They must have become separated some time ago in the melee.

As if in slowed motion, Toste watched helplessly as a Saxon long sword pierced his brother's chain shert, into his chest, then all the way through his back, directly through his heart. There was blood everywhere...on his face, his body, at his feet...a pool of blood.

Toste's eyes connected with Vagn's in that unusual way they had of sensing each other's presence. Vagn screamed out to him, mentally, "TOOOSSSTTTEEE!" Several quick hand gestures in the silent language he and Vagn had developed from a young age spelled out, "Farewell, brother. I have loved thee well." Then Vagn sank to his knees, both hands clutching at the sword which his attacker--a huge man with bright red hair and a livid scar running from crown to chin, thus splitting his nose--was attempting to pull out with one booted foot braced on Vagn's shoulder. Once the Saxon removed the sword from Vagn's chest, he stood over him, grinning. With hysterical irrelevance, Toste noticed the bright silver eagle embossed on the villain's shield. Vagn was still alive, but barely. His attacker laughed and left Vagn for dead...obviously wanting him to die a slow death.

A black mist came over Toste and he literally went berserk for the first time in his life. Baring his teeth with savage fury, he howled with rage, then fought his way toward his brother. But, alas, while he battled valiantly, hewing down foemen right and left in his path, he had no protection at his back. He knew he was in trouble by the expression of alarm on Vagn's face...alarm for him, not himself. When Toste felt the violent impact of a weapon against his skull, he fell to his knees, just as his brother had. But, nay, Vagn was lying on his back now, eyes closed.

Dead! His brother was dead. How would he be able to bear the loss? Toste thought all this as unconsciousness overcame him. He laughed inwardly as another thought came to him. He would not have to grieve over his brother's death because he was probably dying himself. In truth, the prospect of life without Vagn held no appeal.

Ah, well, he had never wished for a straw death. No Viking wanted to die in his sleep upon the rushes. Still, he would have liked to discuss this happenstance with his brother afore they entered the afterlife.

Will we meet this day in Valhalla? Or even in that Christian heaven? he wondered. I hope so.

'Tis said that the Einberiar, the brave warriors killed in battle, just before their death, see the flashing swords of the Valkyries. The helmeted maidens ride white horses and escort the dead heroes to Valhalla, Odin's great mead hall in Asgard.

I cannot wait.

He died with a smile on his face then, envisioning the lovely virgin Valkyries who would soon carry him off. Imagine Vagn's delight when we meet up in Valhalla with all those untried wenches.

Yea, death might not be so very bad.

*****

Sometimes girls (even nuns) just wanna have fun...

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," the young woman kneeling on the hard wooden bench confessed. She shivered as she spoke with a foggy breath; it was damp and chilly in the stone chapel of St. Anne's Abbey at the best of times, but in the middle of November in Northumbria it was enough to turn one's blood to ice.

A groan emerged from the other side of the confessional screen. "Again?" Father Alaric asked with a deep sigh. "You made your penance just this morn with all the other novices. What sin could you possibly have committed in such a short time...in a nunnery, of all things?"

"I blasphemed when I stepped in some droppings from Sister George's goat in the sacristy."

"The sacristy?" Father Alaric sputtered. "Really, those rescued animals of Sister George's are getting beyond bothersome. It's nigh sacrilegious where they show up."

"Wait till you see the five-legged piglet she brought in today. Methinks it sleeps now in the baptismal font."

"What?" Father Alaric shrieked, then seemed to recall his setting. "Back to your confession, child. Which bad word did you use?"

"Christ's toenails!" she answered matter of factly.

"Christ's toenails!" Father Alaric murmured under his breath, whether to repeat her words or utter his own expletive was unclear. "Tsk, tsk, tsk! Using the Lord's name in vain is unacceptable for a novice with a true vocation."

"'Tis difficult being good all the time," Esme complained. "Thou shalt not swear." 'Tis hard not to swear when one is living in the midst of a gaggle of fifty lackwit nuns and novices who produce beer to subsist. "Thou shalt not be greedy." The person who thought that one up must never have experienced the sparse purse of a convent. "Thou shalt not be slothful." Up before dawn, to bed soon after dark, and not a second for dawdling that I've ever seen. "Thou shalt not harbor unclean thoughts or deeds." As if I would know an unclean thought if I stepped in it! I haven't seen a man worth salivating over in ten long years. "Thou shalt not be noisesome. Well, all right, mayhap I do whistle on occasion, or sing unmelodiously, or voice an unsolicited opinion or two. "Thou shalt not be prideful." Yea, I take great pride in my sackcloth gown. "Hah! There are so many shalt not's 'tis tedious keeping track of them all," she concluded to the old priest, who continued to make the tsk-ing noises.

"Lady Esme, I am more and more inclined to believe you are not destined to become a nun."

"I am not Lady Esme anymore...just Sister Esme."

"Not 'til you take your final vows, and it appears more and more likely that might never happen," the priest said sternly, then immediately softened his voice and added, "Be reasonable, Lady Esme. You have been here eleven winters...since your thirteenth birthday...and you have not yet become a bride of Christ. Go home. Be a biddable daughter. Marry. Have children."

"Never!"

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Your pride will always be a boulder in your path to holiness."

"Nay, the only boulder in my path is my father. He wants me dead, or buried in a convent."

"Lady Esme! Honor your father and mother; 'tis the first commandment of our Blessed Lord."

"He couldn't have known my father when he made that rule. Satan in chain mail, that's what my father is."

She couldn't see clearly through the screen, but Esme would bet her beads that the priest was praying and rolling his eyes heavenward.

"Enough!" Father Alaric said finally. "Go and sin no more, my child. For your penance..."

Esme could guess what that would be. Another rosary said on her knees on the stone floor of the second chapel. But, nay, this time Father Alaric had something different in mind for her.

"Go with Mother Wilfreda and several of the good sisters to nearby Stone Valley."

Stone Valley? Why would he send me there? Didn't I hear of a battle taking place there this morn?

"A mission of mercy. If it be God's will, you must perform a rescue...an act of supreme compassion."

"Rescue? Who needs rescuing?" She thought he might mention some injured monk or a Saxon soldier in need of care. Mother Wilfreda was a noted healer, and injured wayfarers often traveled to the abbey for her care. But, nay, Father Alaric had something entirely different, and totally unexpected, in mind.

"A Viking."

*****

Birds of a most unusual feather...

Toste lay on the cold ground of a Saxon battlefield waiting for the Valkyries to come take him to Valhalla. He hoped it would be soon because his head felt as if a drum were beating inside his brain, about to explode.

With great effort, he lifted his heavy eye lids and gazed upward. What he saw scared him spitless, and he was not a man easily scared. He said something quite embarrassing then...for a Viking, that is: "Eek!"

Five black crows stood in a circle about him...very large black crows. In fact, they were the height of humans and they cackled in the Saxon tongue. They must be the ravens of death. In the past, he had seen vultures hovering over battle fields waiting to feast on the mortal carrion, but he'd never seen them up close; nor had he ever imagined them being so big.

"He's awfully big," one of the crows said. "How will we carry him?"

And what is wrong with big?

"Mayhap we could drag him over to our cart."

Birds have carts?

"Are you barmy? The man is half-dead. He would ne'er survive a dragging."

Good thinking. No dragging.

"Each of us could take a limb and lift him. Yea, that's the way."

Take a limb? Oh, bloody hell! They're going to dismember me and gnaw on my bones.

"That would no doubt kill him."

For a certainty.

"He will probably die anyhow."

A little optimism wouldn't hurt, you know.

"He has nice hair. Not quite silver. Not quite gold."

What does the color of my hair matter? Dead is dead.

"Tsk-tsk-tsk! Who cares what color his hair is! Look at the muscles in his shoulders and arms. He could probably pull a plow for us...if he survives."

What? What have the ravens of death to do with plows?

"He's a heathen," still another of the crows whined. "Why should we save a heathen Viking?"

Well, actually, I've been baptized You could call me a heathen Christian.

Another crow, obviously the head crow, swatted the whining crow about the head. "For shame! God shows his mercy to all men."

God? Uh-oh. Mayhap I'm not going to Valhalla after all.

That thought was reinforced when the crows lifted him unceremoniously off the ground by his arms and legs. Pain shot through his body from his splitting skull through his injured body--some Saxon bastard must have run a lance through my side, even after I fell from the head blow--all the way down to his frozen toes, and he surrendered to blissful unconsciousness. Hopefully, he would not wake up when the crows began to feast on his flesh.

*****

Is well-dangled the same as well-hung?...

"Well!" Esme remarked, as she gazed down at the fallen Viking, now reclining on a hard pallet in a guest cell at the abbey. A roaring fire at her back provided welcome warmth on this cold day. "Well, well, well!"

"Well, indeed!" concurred a flush-cheeked Sister Margaret, who swayed slightly on her feet, tipsy from sampling her own latest batch of mead after their grueling trip back from the battlefield. Margaret was the daughter of a famed Saxon ale maker, and she'd brought her inherited talents with her to the convent. In truth, if it weren't for the profits earned from the mead enterprise--aptly labeled Margaret's Mead--the abbey would have been forced to close long ago. Esme's knack for growing vegetables in the abbey gardens also helped them subsist.

But that was neither here nor there. More important for the moment was the blonde-haired Norseman who lay blessedly unconscious before them...naked as a newborn babe. Nay, that was not an accurate description. This man was no child. If he was, they wouldn't be ogling him so. He had no apparent injuries other than a cracked skull, but they'd had to check to make sure. Mother Wilfreda had performed her healing ablutions on the man and left momentarily to get her chest of herbs.

"Well!" added Sister Mary Rose, a worldly nun who prided herself on being sharp as a sword. She used to sell fake relics on the church steps of the Pope's own monastery in Rome and still traded in the toenails of baby Jesus or Virgin Mary eyelashes on occasion when the nunnery floundered in dire straits...which was often. "I have seen many a man in my time, and I daresay this one is surely the fairest of them all. And well-endowed, for a certainty."

Esme had no means of comparison, other than her five brothers, who were naught to brag about, but she agreed wholeheartedly. That dangly manpart appeared large as far as those things went.

All six of the nuns gathered in the small chamber kept staring at the dangly manpart, except Sister Hildegard who harbored an ungodly fear of Vikings. She was saying her beads and muttering something about heathen rapers and pillagers.

"I think it moved." The honey-scented Sister Ursula made that observation. Sister Ursula was the resident beekeeper, which supplied the honey for mead and the wax for church candles. Sister Ursula was slightly dim-sighted and she squinted at the man's staff. The rest of them could see perfectly well, but they all leaned forward to get a better view anyway. Esme detected no movement, despite a careful scrutiny.

"Whatever you do, don't touch it," Sister Stefana advised.

As if any of them had been contemplating such a loathsome idea!

"I have heard that it bursts forth into huge proportions upon being touched," Sister Hildegard remarked. "On Vikings, it is a call to rape and pillage."

They all looked at Sister Hildegard, wondering if she knew what she spoke of. Her hatred of all things Viking colored everything she said. But 'twas best to take no chances...not that any of them contemplated touching such an ugly, wormlike appendage.

It was a wonder the Norseman hadn't died on the battle field, so severe was his head wound. It was an even greater wonder that he'd survived their clumsy efforts in carting him and another of his comrades back to the abbey on rutted roads. The greatest wonder of all would be if he managed to outlive the fever which racked his body. A fine, fine body, by the by, from beautifully sculpted facial features, including a cleft chin and a full, sensual mouth, to wide shoulders and narrow waist and hips down to narrow, high-arched feet...except for the repulsive manpart, of course, which was in no way fine, to her way of thinking. There was an intriguing clover-shaped birthmark on his inner thigh which drew their attention, too.

Mother Wilfreda clapped her hands sharply as she re-entered the chamber and immediately threw a linen sheet over the naked body. Then she forced some herb-laden posset through the man's parched lips. When she finished, she turned on the lot of them. "Sisters! Have you naught better to do than stand about gaping at the man? Sister Margaret and Sister Ursula, go down the hall and help Father Alaric with the other Viking we rescued. The one-eyed giant had to be tied to his pallet to keep him from tossing off the hot poultices, and what a job that was. Mary be blessed, the man must weigh as much as a warhorse. Lady Esme, you stay here and watch over the soldier. If he should awaken, or worsen, call for me at once. The rest of you, come with me to the chapel. We will pray for the souls of these two men. The Good Lord placed them in our midst for a reason."

After that, Esme sat vigil over the handsome Viking for an hour and more, wondering why the Good Lord would send a heathen Viking to a ragtag, mostly halfbrained congregation of nuns.

*****

What's a Viking to do when a medieval lady says, "Eat me"?...

Toste fought desperately to emerge from the ocean of unconsciousness which weighed him down. He felt as if he was drowning in pain...mostly in his head, but also in his side as well. How could the cool ocean waters turn his skin so blisteringly hot?

His heavy eyelids fluttered to half-mast, and he saw a small, sparsely decorated chamber...not the battlefield. A cozy fire burned in the hearth, and the smell of beeswax candles wafted in the air, but he saw no items of luxury. Hmmm. Did he die and this meager dwelling was the much-lauded golden hall of Asgard? Nay, he must have survived his injury and been moved to some other site. With great difficulty, he turned his head to the side and noticed a woman sitting on a low stool to the right of his pallet, eyes downcast as she studied some kind of beads in her lap. She was beautiful...nay, beyond beautiful...with ebony silk hair held off her face with a black veil. Her facial features were perfect...a straight nose, not too big, not too small, with a hint of an upward tilt. Her skin was clear and creamy, like porcelain he'd seen once in the eastern market towns. Her lips were rosebud pink...full and kiss-some.

What a thought to be having when I'm half-dead! A randy corpse. Ha, ha, ha! Holy Thor, my brain is splintering apart here, and I make jokes with myself.

He must have made a grunting sound for she glanced up, her grayish-blue eyes wide with concern. "You're awake," she stated.

Well, hardly.

"I should go get Mother Superior."

He put up a halting hand. "Wait," he squeaked.

All things came together in Toste's mind then, as he noticed her form, indiscernible in a black robe which matched her black veil. She must be a nun, and those black crows he'd thought he dreamed back on the battlefield...they must have been nuns, too. Oddly, he felt a stab of regret that the beautiful woman had chosen the religious life...and that he was not dead.

He tried several times to speak again--he had so many questions--but he could not get the words to form in his confused brain. Finally, he gasped out, "Your name?"

"Esme," she whispered.

"Eat me?" he repeated. 'Twas not the first time a woman had asked that of him, but this woman was a nun, for the love of Frigg! Ah, well, he supposed even nuns had carnal appetites. Mayhap especially so, if his experience with the celibate life was any indication. "Mayhap later," he offered graciously. At the moment, he doubted whether he could lift his head, let alone his tongue.

"Huh?" She gawked at him for several long moments before understanding dawned. "Oh, you foul man! Why did we even bother to rescue you?" She looked as if she might punch him, if he weren't already incapacitated.

Rescue? They rescued me? Hmmm. I wonder...could it be possible...oh, please, Odin or God, I care not which it is...please let it be possible... "Sister?" he inquired cautiously of the nun who was now wringing her hands with distress, alternately staring at him and the open doorway, probably contemplating a run for her life from a vile Viking man. Him.

"You may call me Lady...Lady Esme," she rebuked him haughtily.

Aaah, so that was the reason for her ill-temper. He had misheard her name. He tried to smile, but it was beyond the muscles of his face which were attached to the scalp which felt as if it were torn in half, which it probably was. Vagn would get a good laugh over his thinking "Eat me" when she'd said "Esme."

And that thought called him up short.

"M'lady, did the good nuns of this convent rescue more than one Viking this day?"

She nodded slowly.

And gave him hope. Oh, please, Lord and Odin and every blessed god that might exist, let Vagn be alive. Give me this boon and I will be good the rest of my life.

"One other," she elaborated.

I will do good deeds only. I will never swear...or only occasionally when overly provoked. I will seduce no virgins...unless they beg me. I will rob no more churches. "His name?"

"I know not. He is unconscious, as you have been. He is in another chamber, down the corridor."

Just then, he heard a bellow of outrage. He would recognize that voice anywhere. 'Twas Bolthor...not his brother Vagn, as he had hoped. His spirits sunk...not that Bolthor survived, but that his brother probably had not.

"Were there other Vikings rescued on the battlefield?"

"I think not. You and the giant were the only living men we saw, and Mother Wilfreda made us look, believe you me. Ne'er have I seen so much blood and gore." She must have noticed the horror on his face then, for she paused, then asked, "Was there someone in particular you were concerned about?"

He gulped several times before nodding. "My brother," he whispered. Then he did something entirely unexpected. He screamed, pouring out all the grief in his pain-ridden body into one single word, "VAAAAAAAAGN!"

With that pathetic wail against the fates, he either succumbed to unconsciousness again, or else he died. He hoped it was the latter because he honestly and truly yearned for death.

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