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August 2011, Avon Books
ISBN-10: 0062019058
ISBN-13: 978-0062019059
April 1998, LoveSpell
Reissue December 1999/May 2004
ISBN-10: 0505522551

THE LAST VIKING

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Chapter One 

A distant land, 997 A.D.

Geirolf let out a wild Viking battle cry before burying his face in Ingrid's massive breasts. 

She was woodenly unimpressed.

He roared his outrage. Then, still clutching her voluptuous figure, he jumped from the rail of his splintering, already-sinking longship into the roiling seas...and certain death.

Ah, well, 'tis the fate of most Viking warriors, and better than most, Geirolf thought fatalistically as a whirlpool sucked him under, swirling his body uncontrollably, faster and faster, into the briny depths. 'Twill be over soon...even now the Valkyries should be coming to lead me into Asgard, the hall of the gods, where a grand feast surely awaits me in the afterlife. Leastways, I hope 'tis Asgard, and not Hel. After all I endured this day, I misdoubt I deserve the underworld. 

Still holding his breath, he hugged Ingrid closer--his companion in death--and chuckled silently. Mayhap this night I will get my very own bedmate with breasts as magnificent as yours, sweet Ingrid.

Of course, Ingrid didn't answer his ribald mind tease. The ingrate! 

But then some instinct moved inside Geirolf, perchance the warrior reflex. He'd been trained from boyhood to fight to the bitter end. What did he now, yielding like a wet-nosed pup?

Nay! Damn the gods! I am Geirolf Ericsson of the noble Yngling clan. The blood of kings runs in my veins. I am a master shipbuilder and a fierce soldier. I will not die yet. Honor demands I complete my pledge-mission for my father. Lives depend on me. I...refuse...to...surrender.

Kicking out with powerful thrusts of his legs, Geirolf escaped the whirlpool's briny grave and rose swiftly, like a dolphin, to the surface of a strangely calm sea.

With a toss of his head, he cast the wet swath of his long hair over his shoulder. And, to his great surprise, it was Ingrid and her glorious breasts that kept him afloat--bobbing gently on the ocean waves. Ingrid--the outlandishly carved figurehead of a buxom, blonde-haired goddess. 

More than three years past, his brother Jorund had gifted him, as a coarse jest, the wooden sculpture of a woman's upper torso to embellish the prow of his newest dragonship, Fierce Wolf. Fortunately, Geirolf had been able to grab onto the adornment when his vessel began to shatter apart moments ago.

Geirolf laughed joyously at the irony. Saved by a woman's tits. His mother, Lady Asgar, a Christian of Saxon birth, would say it was the One-God's just payment for her youngest son's wild life of licentiousness. His father, Jarl Eric Tryggvason, ever the Viking, would hoot with laughter at the lewd paradox. Geirolf's latest leman--sweet Alyce of Hedeby--would cluck with disapproval, then merely smile her pleasure at his being alive, no matter the means.

He gave Ingrid's left nipple--the size of a fat, sun-drenched grape--a quick lick of salty appreciation. And hoped belatedly that he didn't get a splinter in his tongue.

By the light of the Demon's Moon--the odd celestial apparition that had drawn him to this dangerous location, he gazed fondly at his stiff companion and relaxed. His fate was in the hands of the heavenly beings now. He could only believe that Odin had chosen to deliver him from that evil Storr Grimmsson, the villainous outlaw who'd killed or captured his entire crew of loyal sailors a sennight ago, sparing only Geirolf to a crippled vessel and stormy seas. 

Pondering all that had happened to him, Geirolf decided that the Norse All-God must have some other destiny in mind for him. Thus resigned, he gave himself up to the rhythmic current. 

He knew not where he was, long ago having lost his star bearings under the exotic aura of the Demon's Moon...surely farther west than any Viking adventurer had traveled afore. Even Eirik the Red. He would have much to tell the skalds at his father's court in Vestfold. Of a certainty, the skilled storytellers would weave sagas telling of his great bravery for aeons to come. If ever he returned, that is. 

Nay, he would not think doomful thoughts. I must return, he vowed, rubbing one palm over his wide leather belt, grasping the heavy clasp which hid the sacred talisman, otherwise, there was no point to the endless journeying. No point to the bloody battle with Storr. No point to all the lost lives. Yea, I must return the relic to its rightful place, as directed by my father.

With a long sigh, he fought his fluttering eyelids and a soul-deep exhaustion. He was so-o-o weary and battle sore. If only he could rest for a moment. But, nay, he had to be alert for omens...any sign from the gods that would steer him toward his future.

*****

At dawn, Geirolf opened his bleary eyes--he must have dozed, after all--and saw his sign. Thanks be to Odin! It was a half-completed longboat sitting on a grassy knoll atop a craggy cliff. Just waiting for him.

"Come, Ingrid," he shouted jubilantly to his figurehead companion, tucked now under his left arm. With renewed vigor, he swam for shore. "There is the ship which will take us home. Destiny. Yea, I will call it Fierce Destiny."

 *****

Maine, 1997 A.D.

"No way! You are not putting breasts on the figurehead of my ship," Meredith Foster declared, shaking her head indignantly.

Her grad assistant, Mike Johnson, slanted her an impatient scowl as he rolled up the sketches he'd prepared for her approval. "Now, now, Dr. Foster. I've researched the figureheads of tenth century Viking ships, and it wasn't unusual to have a favorite goddess adorn the prow."

Meredith tapped a pencil on her desk and peered at him over the top of her reading glasses, trying to determine if he was serious or not. The ex-marine, who still clipped his blonde hair in a short GI cut and wore old U.S. Army tee shirts with his jeans, had a dry sense of humor. And he often ribbed her, thinking her much too serious and overly engrossed in her work. "It was just as usual to have animal heads, Mister Johnson. Give me a dragon, or a serpent. No buxom bimbos."

He grinned.

"And don't think I missed the fact that this particular woman looks a lot like Sharon Stone," she added. In the few months she'd come to know her handsome grad assistant, a doctoral candidate in Dark Age Norse culture, he'd made no bones about the fact that Sharon Stone was the one woman he'd most like to be stranded with, just about anywhere. Sometimes, she suspected that he talked so much about the movie sex symbol to cover his pain over his young wife who'd died two years before in a freak skiing accident. "Remember, we're going for historical accuracy here. And Sharon Stone is pure anachronism."

Mike rolled his shoulders in a "Hey, it was worth a shot" shrug, then tried another tactic. "I could always put a bra on the babe."

Meredith quirked a brow. "My friend, a Wonder Bra and a forklift wouldn't hold up the pair you've drawn on those blueprints."

Mike's eyes widened with surprise at her unaccustomed playfulness, but he came back real quick. "How about if it's a male figurehead and another kind of...endowment? Then, would it be okay?"

"Not even if it was Mel Gibson in a kilt."

They exchanged warm smiles, and Meredith was glad she'd relaxed her standard formality with Mike. It felt good, for a change, to act...well, normal.

"Besides, we have more important concerns right now," she noted. "Spring break is about over, and we still haven't found a competent carpenter to head the project. Now that the temperate weather is here, I'd like to resume building."

With a nod of agreement, the young man slid into a chair in front of her desk, bracing one ankle on a knee. "I worked with your grandfather for over a year on the 'Trondheim Longboat Venture,' but he was the master builder. When he died last fall, everything just came to a screeching halt."

A screeching halt? Yes, Meredith knew that better than anyone. Gramps had been the light of her life, her lodestone in a world that had become increasingly lonely and alien after her bitter divorce three years ago. What would she do without his sage advice and unconditional love?

"I'd be perfectly willing to take over," Mike continued, "but I just don't have the talent to oversee all these students. I can sand wood and do grunt work like the best of them, but that's about it."

"I know, and I appreciate all the help you've given me so far." Brushing a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear, she unconsciously tucked it into the loose knot at the nape of her neck, thinking over their mutual problem. "It's too bad we got so few responses to the ads we placed in the Bangor newspapers, and none of them qualified. Maybe one of the archeological periodicals my brother recommended will drum some interested soul out of the woodwork."

"Hey, expert carpenters want a hell of a lot more money than we can afford with non-profit funding."

"Someone will show up," she asserted. Even if I have to pay top dollar out of my own trust fund. Anything to make Gramps' dream come true. "In the meantime, we can start the students on menial tasks."

"Like hand-sanding, right? With sand, the way the primitive shipbuilders did it, right?" Mike grumbled. Sanding was an endless, tedious task everyone hated.

"Right." She smiled and pushed her glasses up her nose. "And see what the woodworking shop can do in terms of an animal prow. I don't care if it's an elephant. Just no obscene body parts."

"If you insist," Mike muttered as he walked out of her office. "An elephant? Geez, who ever heard of a Republican longship? Talk about anachronisms!" 

*****

Darkness blanketed the countryside by the time Meredith finished working for the day and was driving up the long lane to the cottage recently bequeathed to her. The one-bedroom A-frame, built with her grandfather's own hands on a desolate cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, held so many childhood memories for Meredith. As children, she and her older brother Jared and her younger sister Jillian had been shipped off to Maine each summer while their parents, engrossed in significant work as noted professors of medieval studies at Princeton University, went off to lecture, or on one research expedition or another to museums and archaeological digs. 

Gram had been alive then, too, and the smells of Gramps' woodcarving and Gram's fresh-baked bread and home-cooked meals filled the house. Meredith wasn't even sure her own mother knew how to cook, so preoccupied had she always been with her career. Not that culinary arts were an essential motherly skill. A live-in housekeeper had taken care of those domestic tasks.

Contemplating the house now as she got closer, Meredith realized how small it was, and simple. Funny, she'd never noticed before. But then, now that she thought about it, while Gramps and Gram had slept in the upstairs loft, she and her brother and sister had bedded down in sleeping bags on the living room floor, or outdoors in warm weather next to the pool. They'd never minded. 

So much love! That's what she remembered most...the love Gram and Gramps had clearly shown for each other, and toward their beloved grandchildren.

Now, all that was gone.

Fighting the tightness in her throat, Meredith gave a cursory glance to the half-completed longship, highlighted momentarily in her headlights. Gramps had decided to build the project on the vacant lot next to his house, rather than on the Middlebury College campus, which was too far inland. Besides, Gramps had told her in his letters that his students loved to come up to the remote spot, often combining their work with picnics, or climbing down the treacherous cliffside for a quick dip in the ocean.

She retrieved her briefcase and a small bag of groceries from the back seat and approached the dark house. There was something so sad about an empty house at the end of a day. That was the only thing she missed from her marriage to Jeffrey. 

Usually, he'd gotten home early from Columbia where they'd both been professors. In the early years--the happier days--he'd already started dinner. Violin sonatas by Vivaldi had been playing on the stereo. And a glass of chilled Chenin Blanc and a warm smile had greeted her as she opened the door. Sometimes, he'd even welcomed her in other ways.

Well, those days were gone forever. And good riddance!

As she opened the door to the cottage, she did get a greeting, though. And a big surprise.

No sooner did she step into the entryway than a rough arm wrapped around her waist from behind, lifting her off the floor, and a knife pressed against the side of her neck. The grocery bag fell with a thud, ripping, and her briefcase snapped open, spilling its contents.

"Let me go!" she shrieked, kicking out with her sensible loafers--which she desperately wished were hiking boots--against a bare shin bone. Her flailing arms hit a thigh, and it was nude, too. And hairy. Oh, no, the guy must be naked. Please, God, not rape! Frightened and outraged, she screamed as loud and long as she could, clawing at the brute's arms.

Her attacker didn't release his hold on her one iota, just muttered an incoherent breathy expletive against her exposed neck, followed by a single guttural command that sounded something like, "Kyrr!"

The only light in the pitch black house came from the reflection of a roaring blaze in the fireplace in the living room up ahead, and a full moon partially visible through the French doors leading to an oceanview patio. 

A fire? Her assailant had taken the time to build a cozy fire? She groaned, concluding that he must, indeed, be a rapist and that he planned a lengthy assault. She also recalled in a flash of terror that this was Friday night. A whole weekend stretched ahead of her in which no one would notice her absence, or come searching for her.

Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Where's my Mace? To her chagrin, Meredith saw the can rolling toward the kitchen, along with three oranges, her favorite Parker pen and a handful of change from her wallet. Be calm. Remember your self-defense classes. Take time. Think before acting. 

Think? Hah! She was a clueless amoeba on the brain chain right now. A screaming clueless amoeba.

The man carried her into the living room with her legs still dangling a foot off the hardwood floors. She assumed it was a man because of his height and strength and the size of the hairy forearm crammed against her abdomen, way too close to the undersides of her breasts. Calloused fingers snagged her silk blouse. He smelled of salt water, wet leather, and apples.

Apples? A quick glance showed a half dozen McIntosh apples missing from the bowl she'd placed in the center of her coffee table this morning. Their cores were thrown carelessly to the floor. The pig!

Meredith tried to peer back at him, but the blade at her throat prevented movement. So, still kicking and screeching, she back-jabbed him with her elbows. It was like hitting a brick wall, even though she about knocked her arms out of the shoulder sockets with the force of her efforts.

With a curse of "Bld hel!" the wretch threw her to the sofa onto her back. Coming down on top of her with a suffocating whoosh, he leaned over her, practically nose to nose, brandishing the weapon, which she recognized now as Gramps' favorite carving knife. He spat out his earlier order, more clearly this time, though in a foreign accent, "Kyrr!" 

Her befuddled mind registered the guttural word. Ancient sounding, like Old English. Having a doctorate in medieval studies, she was well-versed in Dark and Middle Age languages.

Meredith frowned in confusion, panting for air, bucking upward, to no avail. The gorilla must weigh well over two hundred pounds. And there were intimate parts of his anatomy that were becoming familiar with intimate parts of her anatomy. The possibility of rape loomed its ugly head once again. 

But then, the hairs stood out on the back of her neck in warning, and a strange niggling tugged at her memory. The word and the dialect were similar to Old English, but different. 

Oh, my goodness! "Kyrr!" was the Old Norse word for, "Be Still!" She ought to know, having spent her honeymoon with Jeffrey a lifetime ago in Iceland where a version of the archaic language was still spoken. Jeffrey had convinced her that combining a honeymoon and research was a sensible idea. All she remembered was the cold.

He let loose with a long string of foreign words.

Heart hammering at the disconcerting pressure of his body, not to mention the danger, she puzzled over each of the separate words, deducing finally that he was asking in some convoluted combination of Old Norse and Old English, "Who are you, woman?" Her interpretation was reinforced when he added, "Hva heitir ?" which definitely meant, "What's your name?"

"Dr. Meredith Foster," she squeaked out. A burglar fluent in medieval languages? Must be one of Mike's friends. A joke.

"Merry-Death," he repeated slowly, his breath feathering against her lips. Apple breath. You'd think Mike could do better than a bloomin' Johnny Appleseed. "Merry-Death," he said again, slowly, testing her name on his tongue.

She wasn't about to correct his mis-pronunciation, just in case he wasn't a prankster. And, yes, she'd like to kill him and Mike, too, merrily, for scaring her to death.

"Geirolf," he said, pointing at himself, "g heiti Geirolf."

"Great. Now that we've got the introductions out of the way, Rolf, baby, how about getting off of me. So far, there's no real harm done, but you must weigh a ton, and you're wrinkling my best Yves St. Laurent blouse, and..."

Her words trailed off as he lifted himself off her and stood in one smooth motion--remarkable for a man his size. Her mouth dropped open in shock at her first good glimpse of her attacker.

A very tall male--at least six-foot-four--stood arms' length away, wearing a thigh-high, sleeveless, one-piece tunic of supple leather. The Dark Age garment was tucked in at the waist by a wide belt with an enormous circular gold-like metal clasp engraved with a writhing animal design. Etched silver armlets circled heavily corded upper arms. Jillian, who designed her own line of medieval-style jewelry, would go nuts if she saw these masterpieces. Heck, her brother Jared, an archaeologist, would be impressed, too. Even if reproductions, they were the finest examples Meredith had ever seen outside a museum.

His light brown hair hung down to his shoulders, damp, as if he'd just emerged from a leisurely swim. Flat-soled, leather bootlets covered his feet, cross-gartered up to the knee.

A Viking. Her captor resembled an ancient Viking god. An extremely handsome Viking god.

Meredith had never paid much attention to the physical attributes of men. Raised in a scholarly home, she'd been much more attracted by brains than brawn. But, for the first time in her life, she comprehended why her coed students squealed over Brad Pitt or rolled their eyes in appreciation when a particularly appealing college boy in tight jeans walked by.

Oh, my God! My hormones are regressing. She bit her bottom lip to prevent herself from saying something really stupid, like "Can I touch you?" But inside she was squealing like any lust-crazed teenager. 

Amazing! Wherever he'd found this guy, Mike had really outdone himself. Maybe he was a male stripper at one of those female nightclubs. Oh, yeah! Vikings 'R Us.

But, no, he looked too...authentic. Meredith peered closer. Old scars and new wounds, oozing blood--probably ketchup--covered most of the exposed skin of the guy's well-muscled physique, from his massive shoulders to his perfectly formed face to his tendon-delineated calves. Despite the glower on his face and his menacing, widespread stance, the big lug was devastatingly gorgeous. In fact, he looked a lot like a Viking Age version of that actor, Kevin Sorbo, from the Hercules program on television. Not that she watched much television, she reminded herself with hysterical irrelevance.

He raised his chin haughtily and drawled out with pure insolence a string of Old Norse words, too low for her to catch them all. Meredith didn't need an inner translator to know that he was asking, "Do you like what you see?" She cringed at the reminder she'd been scrutinizing him much too long, in a personal manner. "Not much," she lied. 

He sat down on her low coffee table, knees casually widespread, and Meredith wondered--even as she chastised herself with disgust--if he wore underwear beneath the short tunic. He rubbed the fingertips of one hand over his bristly jaw as he studied her, appearing distressed, as if unable to understand her. Then he distractedly stroked the fingertips of his other hand over his belt buckle, which she could swear was solid gold.

To her bewilderment, she no longer feared the guy. In fact, she felt a deep pull of unwarranted compassion for him, even though he still held her grandfather's knife. He appeared lost, like a little boy.

He had to be an actor, hired by Mike. Hadn't her grad assistant told her over and over that she needed to lighten up. In fact, he'd given her a novel one time called Love With a Warm Cowboy about a female college professor who goes out cruising for nothing more than a quick relationship with a cowboy after her long-time lover leaves her.

But enough! Fun and games time was over. Maybe if she threatened criminal prosecution, the jerk would end this joke and go home. Forcing a threatening tone to her voice and a deep scowl to her face, she gritted out, "Get out of my house, you...you rapist, or I'm going to call the police." 

He blinked at her with surprise, then glanced down to his belt with a peculiar expression. Anger quickly replaced confusion as he turned back to her. "Rapist? You call me a rapist? Hah! I am Geirolf Ericsson. My father is a high jarl in Vestfold and brother to Olaf, the king of all Norway--"

"Yeah, and I'm the queen of England," she scoffed.

"Nay, you are not. Aelfgifu is queen of all Britain, and a more timid wren there never was. Rather like you. I misdoubt she'll live another year with all the times she's gone through the childbed fever and produced but one heir for King Aethelred."

She gaped at him.

He waved a hand in the air imperiously, annoyed that she'd interrupted him. "Know this, my lady...I, Geirolf Ericsson, have no need to force my attentions on any wench. Women have been begging for my favors since I was an untried boy." 

Favors? She rolled her eyes at his arrogance. "Listen, buster, I don't care if you're Kevin Sorbo. Get the hell out of my house."

"Your language...'tis odd. What is this Calf in Shore Bow?" As he spoke, a frown creased the man's brow and he continually looked down at his belt buckle which he clasped tightly now. Then he muttered to himself, "How curious! I can understand and speak her foreign tongue when I touch the talisman."

"Give me a break," she sneered, but she realized, at the same time, that she could understand him now, too. And the bizarre thing was that she knew they both spoke different languages which somehow translated spontaneously. Was it a newly invented computer device? She didn't think so. A shiver of alarm swept her skin. "I don't know if this is someone's idea of a silly gag, or if you're a burglar, or a rapist, but..." 

Meredith stopped speaking as she noticed a strong odor, like charred meat. Sniffing, she scanned the room, and couldn't believe her eyes. Some kind of skinned animal was impaled with a peeled stick, roasting in her fireplace. "Wh-what is that?" she asked shrilly. "Oh, God, is that the stray that's been hanging around my back door lately? Did you...did you kill Garfield?" 

"Guard field?"

"Yes, Garfield, the cat."

His eyes shot up. "A cat? You think I killed a cat? And plan to eat its flesh? Bld hel!" Then he grinned. "'Tis a rabbit."

"Rabbit?" Inwardly, she sighed with relief. Not a cat.

"Yea." 

Yea? What's this 'yea' business? He was still grinning, as if killing a rabbit was normal. He was probably one of those NRA redneck fanatics. "Why...are...you...cooking...a...rabbit?" she asked very slowly, barely reining in her anger.

"Because...I...am...hungry," he replied, mimicking her snide pacing. "And because I'm sick of eating raw fish. Why else?"

Of course. Why else? "Hungry? Raw fish? But...but where did you get a rabbit?"

He exhaled loudly with exasperation, as if her questions were foolish. "I snared it outside your keep."

"Keep?"

"Your manor house. Why do you keep repeating words?   Are you a lackbrain?"

"No, I'm not a lackbrain, you...you lackbrain." Suddenly, she thought of something else. "Where did you put the...other parts?" Lord, she hoped she didn't have rabbit fur and guts in her kitchen sink, especially since her garbage disposal was broken.

"I offered them to the gods, of course, in thanks for my safekeeping." He gazed pointedly at the blazing fire, a mischievous glimmer in his whiskey-colored eyes.

"I beg your pardon. Did you say that you used my fireplace as an altar to some heathen god?"

He shrugged. "I worship both gods, Norse and Christian."

"How dare you practice some pagan rite in my fireplace!"

He sucked in a deep breath. "Blessed Freya! You have a voice that could peel rust off armor. Best you shut your teeth, wench, or I may decide to sacrifice a virgin as well." 

That mischievous gleam was still there in his sparkling eyes, which she decided were more the color of aged bourbon. Yes, booze eyes. And that twitch at the edge of his full lips...was it a nervous tic, or suppressed amusement?

"Well, good thing I'm not a virgin then," she snapped.

He broke into a full-fledged smile, rewarding Meredith with a dazzling display of his white teeth. Her mind said, So what? But another part of her body said, O-o-h, boy! To her chagrin, she felt long-dead hormones chugging to life again...at a mere smile. Chug, chug, chug... 

The creep soon jolted her back to reality, though.

"I should have known a woman as long in the tooth as you are would have spread her thighs for the pleasuring. Where is your man now?"

Long in the tooth? Spread my thighs? The nerve of the chauvinistic beast! "I'm only thirty-five years old. I'll bet you're about the same, you long-in-the-tooth oaf. And I have no husband, if that's what you're asking..." Meredith immediately regretted her hasty words, and backtracked, "I mean, my husband will be home soon."

He arched his brows, unconvinced. "So, you are a wanton woman...an aged wanton woman...who lives alone. Do you entertain your lovers here?" He swept her with a swift physical assessment that clearly challenged her ability to attract a lover.

She didn't care if the ape did wield a knife, Meredith had had enough. Coming to her feet, she put her hands on her hips, demanding, "Who are you and what are you doing in my home?"

"Eg er tndur." Geirolf watched the quarrelsome woman who dared to defy his commands as she assimilated his statement, word by word, silently mouthing, "I am lost." His ears still rang from her high-pitched screams. Claw marks seeped blood on his forearms. And Merry-Death--the oddly named wench--dared accuse him of being a rapist. As if he would even want a woman such as her. Too tall. Too thin. Too sharp-tongued. And old. He liked his women young and soft-fleshed and biddable. Like Alyce. He was sore tempted to toss the foolish wench into the raging sea, but he needed answers first. And, more important, he feared she might be a sorceress. On first entering her keep, he'd explored all the chambers--none of which had the customary rushes on the floor. And not a candle or soapstone lamp in evidence anywhere. Of particular interest was the room with a magic box which threw off light when the door opened. He'd found some cheese inside, but it was nigh inedible, covered as it was by an unchewable, invisible film. 

If she was a witch--and those pale green eyes of hers, flashing angrily at him now, were surely witch's eyes--he would have to tread carefully. Even with the talisman, a sorceress's charm would be hard to withstand.

But Merry-Death would suffer for her insults, no doubt about that. Later, he would show her the fate of a defiant woman.

"My lady, hvar er g?" he growled peevishly. "Where am I?"

That question seemed to disarm her, and her wide eyes quickly took in his many bruises, softening with sympathy. Hmpfh! 'Twas past time the lady thought of offering hospitality to a wayfarer in her land. And an injured one, at that. Mayhap she wasn't quite so witchly as he'd thought. 

"Were you hit on the head?" she inquired.

He curled his lips with disgust. She obviously considered him a halfwit. And he was back to considering her witchly in nature. "Answer, wench. Where am I?"

"Maine."

"Maine. I have ne'er heard of such place. Is it in Greenland--that new world discovered by Eirik the Red?"

"Are you for real? Maine is in the northeast portion of the United States. Greenland is about 1,500 miles north of here."

"Hmmm. My ship went farther off course than I realized."

"Off course? More like off the globe."

"'Tis my brother Jorund's fault. He's the mapmaker in our family."

"Jared? My brother Jared sent you here?" The frown on her face--the one he would have wagered was permanently implanted there-- melted away, and before he could correct her false impression that he referred to his brother Jorund, not her brother Jared, she homed in on his other words. "Your ship?"

"Thor's Toenails! You sound like a parrot Jorund brought back once from the eastern lands. Squawk, squawk, squawk. And always repeating words." He took great delight in the snarl that barb drew from the testy wench. "And, yea, my dragonship, Fierce Wolf, drifted for days, since the battle with Storr Grimmsson a sennight ago. Yestereve, it sunk. I will miss Fierce Wolf mightily. 'Twas one of the finest ships I ever built." 

Merry-Death's face brightened. "You're a shipbuilder? So that's why Jared sent you. Or was it Mike?"

He ignored her puzzling words about her brother. "Yea, I am the finest shipbuilder in the world," he boasted, "and Grimmsson will pay with his life for the capture and deaths of my crew, as well as my ship. When I think of all the hard work that went into building just that one Viking vessel. Ah, well, I can easily build others." Like that one outside this keep, which will carry me back to my homeland. But best I not disclose my plans to you yet. "Unlike men's lives, a boat can be replaced."

"But...but...how did you get here?"

"My ship sunk," he repeated with deliberate patience, "and I swam ashore this morn after drifting through the night."

Merry-Death gasped. "You've been in a shipwreck?"

It took her a long time to grasp the meaning of his words, even though the talisman was doing a fair job of translating. Mayhap she was slow-witted, as he'd originally thought. 

"No wonder you look like you've been beaten. Why didn't you say so earlier? My God, did you climb up that cliffside?"

Finally, he would get a little blessed compassion for all his ordeals. "Yea, and I assure you, 'twas no easy task, carrying Ingrid."

"Ingrid?" she squeaked out. "You have a woman with you?"

"A woman?" he laughed. "You could call her that."

A flush of rage suffused Merry-Death's pale cheeks. Obviously, the wench had no sense of humor. But she had other attributes he was beginning to notice. Her dark hair had sprung free from the unbecoming knot at the back of her neck and spilled out over her silky, pale brown shert, like burnished walnut. With hands on hips, she called attention to the loose, brown men's braies she wore over her thin frame, and tapped her brown leather slippers. 

So much brown, he mused idly. Does she try to hide her womanliness, like a drab tree? Nay, not a tree, with that abundance of reddish brown hair, and those witchly green eyes. Oh, she was certainly not to his high tastes. But she was not as barley faced as he'd originally thought, either.

And the foolhardiness of the woman! Demanding answers of him, a high-born karl of Norway!

Hah! I'll soon put her in her proper place. "Yea, Ingrid is outside near your moat....drying out from our long swim."

"Moat?" 

Her eyes didn't look quite so beauteous now that they crossed with frustration. He was convinced, the woman was feckless. "Yea, that stone ditch with the blue water."

"The swimming pool? Did you take the cover off of Gramps' pool? Oh, I've had enough of this nonsense. I can't believe you left a woman outside...probably injured...while you broke into my home to mumble incantations over a poor animal, and assault me."

Ignoring his snort of incredulity at her accusations, Merry-Death turned toward the strange glass doors and inhaled sharply at her first glimpse of Ingrid, lying breasts skyward, huge red nipples highlighted by the rays of the full moon.

"Mike Johnson, I'm going to kill you. I warned you about a bimbo figurehead," the wench mumbled, then turned angrily, striding back toward him, about to spout more of her sharp words, no doubt. But she stopped mid-stride. "Wh-what are you doing?"

He was unbuckling the clasp at his mid-section, about to remove his belt and tunic. Tilting his head in bafflement at her panic, he tried to reassure her, "You have no reason to be fearful. I intend you no harm. Lest you gainsay me."

"Gainsay?"

"By acting hastily."

"Hastily?"

He shrugged. "Yea, my shrewish parrot. Do not try to attack me. Or escape. Then I might be forced to lop off your head, or thrust you over the cliff."

The woman clicked her gaping mouth shut and made a gurgling sound, but apparently not at his words. Her eyes were riveted on his body as he raised his tunic over his head. Wearing only a breechcloat and his ankle boots, he watched the wench back away from him in fright. Holy Thor! Surely, she had seen a naked man afore. Especially since she claimed to have no maidenhead.

"What do you think you're doing?" she stammered out.

"I'm going to bathe all this salt from my skin in your moat. Then I'm going to eat my rabbit. After that, I intend to sleep for a long time. Where are your bed furs, by the by? I couldn't find them when I explored your keep earlier."

"Put your clothes on," she directed, averting her face like a shy maiden.

Lord, he was tired of the wench's caterwauling, and her false modesty.

"Nay, I will not. And mayhap you should remove your own garments, as well." He was discovering he had another appetite as well. In the delayed rush of exhilaration at his miraculous escape from death's talons, he felt the need to celebrate life...in the way of battle weary warriors throughout time.

The wench's green eyes widened with astonishment. 

"Despite your bony body and sharp tongue," he informed her, adding a smile to show the great honor he bestowed, "I've decided to take you as my bedmate whilst I am visiting in your lands."

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