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Viking HeatViking in Love

Avon Books
February 2010
ISBN-10: 0061673498
ISBN-13: 978-0061673498

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(Northumbria, 965 A.D.)

Oh Lord, from the fury of the Norsemen...uh, Norsewomen, deliver us...

"Is he dead yet?"

Breanne asked the question before glancing around the earl's bedchamber at her four sisters, all of them daughters of King Thorvald of Stoneheim in the Norselands.  As usual, each had an opinion and did not mind speaking over each other.

"For the love of Thor!  How would I know?"

"We will ne'er find husbands if we keep killing men."

"This is the first one we have killed, you lackbrain."

"Well, how was I to know that?  The rest of you performed the task with ease."

"The rest of us?  Hah!  We are all responsible for this...
this happenstance."


"Oh, gods!  We will all hang."

"Or be drawn and quartered."

"Or have our heads lopped off."

"I for one do not feel guilty.  Not one bit.  He was a beast."

"What is that green substance coming out of his nose?"

"Snot, you halfwit."

"Oh.  Are you sure?  Methinks it might be his brain oozing out."


"Brains do not ooze.  Do they?"

"Something stinks.  Dost think he soiled his braies?"

"For a certainty.  Ooooh, look.  I have ne'er seen so much blood."

"Tsk, tsk!  Do you not know that head wounds always bleed profusely."

"Then mayhap he is still alive.  Someone should check to make sure."

"Uh-uh!  I get a rash around dead people."

"I am not going to touch him."

"Me neither!"

"The very thought makes me bilious."

"I would not know a dead body from a salted lutefisk."

Much nervous laughter erupted.

Momentarily silent, they all stared down at the body of Oswald, earl of Havenshire.  Except for one of her sisters who was huddled in a chair in the far corner, whimpering as she held a possibly broken arm against her chest.  Ofttimes referred to as Vana the White because of her Icelandic white-blonde hair, she had more than earned that title today with her fair, deadly white skin contrasted against a blackened eye and a cracked lip seeping blood.  The finger marks about her neck, old and new, resembled a black and blue and yellow torque.  Vana was the wife of the late Oswald...late as in five minutes ago.

Breanne's back went rigid with anger.  Truly, she would gladly kill the brute all over again for what he had done to her gentle sister.  She could only imagine what a nightmare Vana's one-year marriage had been.  If only they had left the Norselands earlier to visit her in her Saxon home!

There was a light knock on the door.

Everyone stiffened with alarm.

They must needs dispose of the body, but Breanne had no idea how they could manage the feat in a keep filled with housecarls and servants, all loyal to the beastly nobleman.  Now it was too late.

Breanne stood and motioned for Vana to step forth.  Despite her condition, Vana would have to answer.  Limping toward her, Vana stood bravely and faced the closed door.  "Who is it?"

"Rashid.  Let me in."

Five sets of shoulders sagged with relief.  Rashid was the assistant to Adam the Healer, a physician, her sister Tyra's husband.  With a snort of disgust, Tyra--who was extremely tall for a woman and very strong, having once been a warrior--jerked the door open, grabbed Rashid by the arm, and yanked him inside, shutting the door behind them.

Breanne had the good sense to lock it after them.

"What are you doing here?  Following me?" demanded Tyra, hands on hips.

"Allah be praised, it is good to see you, too, Tyra."
Rashid spoke in heavily accented English, though he still, after all these years, wore the traditional Arab garb of hooded robe with rope belt, over Saxon tunic and braies.  "Your husband asked me to follow and see what you were up to...I mean, to offer you protection in the event of..."  He slapped a hand over his heart as he noticed the nobly clad body lying in a pool of blood on the stone-flagged floor.  "For the love of a camel!  What have you done?"

"When we arrived for a visit, unannounced, we found the spineless lout beating our sister with his fists and a whip," Tyra explained.  "When I broke his whip, he came at me with a knife, which I turned on him."

They all glanced at the knife, which still protruded from
his belly.

Some of her sisters began to weep.

Oh, good gods!  Not the tears again!  Breanne stepped between Tyra and Rashid.  "It wasn't just Tyra.  We all played a part.  I for one hit him over the head with a poker when Tyra's knife thrust did not immediately fell him."

"And I kicked him when he was down," Ingrith said on a sniffle, her blue eyes sparkling with fury.  So hard was she shaking her head that strands of golden blonde hair were coming loose from her long braids.

"I kicked him, too.  In the head.  Just to make sure he was bloody well dead."  Drifa paused.  "Is he dead?"

Rashid went down on one knee and put his fingertips to a certain spot on the earl's neck.  "Dead as a fly on a cobra's tongue."

Rashid always had a way with words, especially proverbs, one of which he spouted now as he stood to his full height, wiping his hand on his robe with distaste.  "Death is a black camel that lies down at every door.  Sooner or later every man must ride the camel.  Like yon earl."

"We are in big trouble since we brought that camel.  Oswald is a member of the king's Witan.  He has friends in high places," Breanne disclosed.

"But you had just cause," Rashid said.  "They only have to look at Lady Vana's battered body to understand how this came about."

"That does not signify."  Vana surprised everyone by speaking up, and with such vehemence.  "Dost think they care?  His housecarls and servants, friends and foe, all knew good and well how Oswald's temper could be set off at the least thing.  He blamed me for not yet breeding him a son, but any excuse would do for his fist or whip.  A missing comb.  A broken bowl.  My monthly courses."

"Still," Rashid argued, "there are laws."

All the women shook their heads.  The wergild for a woman was ofttimes barely higher than a cow, and less than a horse.

"Well, then, we must make haste to hide the body," Rashid said, lifting his hands with resignation.

Finally, someone is using their head for thinking and not leaking tears.

"How are we going to hide the body?  And where?" Ingrith asked, wringing her hands.  And weeping.

"'Tis impossible," Drifa said.  "We are doomed."  More tears.

"The difficult is done at once, but the impossible merely takes a little longer."

"Are you saying we can cover up this...accident?"  Tyra looked imploringly at her husband's good friend.

"Do not stand in the midst of rain and ask Allah for a hat. Allah helps those who help themselves."

Her sisters looked toward Breanne.

Even though Tyra was the oldest, her sisters always expected Breanne to lead.  "'Tis agreed...we need a plan.  Rashid, pull off one of those bed drapes so we can wrap the body.  Ingrith, take some linens out of the chest and mob up the blood.  Drifa, get the pitcher and bowl of water and try to remove the stain on the floor."

In the meantime, Breanne opened the door carefully to check on any guards who might be passing in the hall.  There were none. It was late evening, long past dinner.  Sounds of laughter could be heard coming from the great hall where the men were no doubt downing cups of ale and tupping every maid they could get their slimy hands on, willing or not.  They probably thought Oswald was up here in his bedchamber doing the same.  For all they knew, Vana's sisters, come to visit, had been led to separate bedchambers on another level and would greet their sister for the first time in the morn.

"Mayhap we could put Oswald's body in the chest," Ingrith suggested.

"He's too big," Vana said, her upper lip curling with distaste, no doubt having suffered for his bigness way too many times.

Ingrith had a better idea.  "We can scrunch him in."

"Scrunch?  A body cannot be folded like a blanket.  Can it?" Drifa pursed her lips in puzzlement.  "Oh!  Mayhap it gets scrunchy when dead."

Breanne rolled her eyes.  "Assuming we could fit the body in the chest, where could we hide it that would never be found?"

"We could burn the chest," Ingrith suggested.

Breanne shook her head.  "The fire would attract too much attention.  And it would smell...I think."

"The river?" Drifa offered.

Again Breanne shook her head.  "Bodies tend to rise to the top eventually, no matter how weighted down."

"I have an idea," Vana said brightly.  You had to give the girl credit for being able to smile.  "Bottom of the privy."

They all chuckled.

"How appropriate!  Oswald always was a piece of...."  Ingrith, ever the earthy one, guffawed at her own jest.     

"No, you missay me, sisters," Vana said.  "There is a new garderobe just now being built on the back side of the castle.  The hole has been dug and loose stones are being laid down."

"Aaaah!  We throw Oswald's body in the hole, then toss loose stones on top."  Breanne had to admit the idea had merit.

"No one will go down in that cess pit, even in the, dry state," Vana elaborated.  "'Tis far too deep."

"So, the privy, it is."  Breanne looked to the others for agreement.  "What will we say when Oswald's men ask for him or his whereabouts?"

Rashid glanced toward Tyra, stroking his mustache thoughtfully.  "Tyra, you are much the size of Oswald.  Mayhap we could dress you in his clothing."

"With the fur-lined, cowled cape he favored," Vana added.  "And using the back stairway through the scullery."

"Somehow you must be able to saddle a horse and ride away from the castle, with the guardsmen seeing you but not being able to identify you as any other than their lord," Rashid said.

"Agreed," Tyra said, "but someone needs to distract the stable hand on duty."

"I can do that," Drifa offered.  Half Arab/half Viking, Drifa was a petite, beautiful, well-formed woman with raven hair and slanted eyes who attracted men easily.

"The sentries will not be suspicious at Oswald leaving the castle so late.  He has a mistress in Whitby.  Ofttimes he goes to visit her and stays overnight.  Or longer when he is especially lustsome."  Vana did not appear the least disgusted imparting that news since his mistress had spared her some of his vile attentions.

"But the day after tomorrow, his riderless horse will make its way back to Havenshire, and the first clue will be planted that he is gone.  Perchance killed by villains out to rob peaceful wayfarers."  Breanne thought for a moment.  "It just might work, as long as we all stay here to support Vana and act suitably horrified and grieving.  We must not panic when someone asks, `Where is the earl?'.  Nothing to garner suspicion."

"How will we get the chest to the cesspit?" Drifa wanted to know.
"The two guardsmen Father sent with us are down in the great hall exchanging glares with Oswald's men.  They are up to the task, if they have not imbibed too much ale," Ingrith pointed out.  "If one more Havenshire clodpole refers to Norsemen as lacking in battle skills, we will have a war on our hands."

Hmmm.  That would provide a distraction.  "Nay!  Our men cannot be involved," Breanne asserted.  "The less people who know about this deed the better."

"No matter!" Rashid said.  "Ingrith, you stand guard in the scullery.  Drifa, up to the ramparts where you will distract the sentries.  I, along with Tyra and Breanne will carry the chest down the back stairs, through the scullery, to the outside privy."  Rashid raised his eyebrows at each of them in turn.

He made it sound so easy.  Breanne knew it would not be.

Still, they all nodded.

Silence permeated the room then as they contemplated the formidable, almost impossible, task ahead of them.

Why do my sisters and I always manage to land in the most ungodly trouble?

"Mayhap we should pray?" Vana suggested in a small voice.

"To which god?" Ingrith snorted.

It was a good question.  Many Vikings practiced both the Christian and Norse religions, and then there was Rashid's Moslem heritage.  They all bowed their heads for a moment.

"Prayer is well and good," Rashid said then.  "Even so, trust in Allah, but ride a fast camel."

Camels again!

All Breanne could do was give a mental shout, which was more like a squeak, HELP!

And then they all said, as one, "Goodbye Earl."



Home, home on the range...uh, motte...

He was almost home.

After nine long months in the king's bloody service, which was supposed to have been only six sennights, Caedmon could almost see Larkspur in the distance through the morning mist.  His hauberk creaked as he rose in the saddle, but they were still too far away to get a clear view over the rise.

Two of his fellow knights, landless nobles who had chosen to remain in his troop, rode beside him.  Behind him followed four dozen hirdsmen and various others that served a warrior's needs...armorers, blacksmiths, cooks, and stable hands leading ten war horses.  The great destriers, worth their weight in gold, including his own Fury, were a fighting man's best friend in battle but too high strung for regular riding.  There were even several women who had attached themselves to some of his men.

"By the rood!  You reek, Caedmon," Geoffrey, his best friend and chief hirdsman, said, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Well I know it.  I had to nigh hold my nose when I slept yestereve."  He glanced over to his right at the blond-haired, lean-limbed knight who was too pretty by half.  Women were known to swoon over his handsome looks, a bounty he took full advantage of, without apology.

"You are a bit aromatic yourself."  This from Wulfgar on his left who craned his neck to see around Caedmon.  As fair as Geoff was, Wulf was the opposite.  A giant with black hair, dark eyes and a gruesome scar running from forehead to mustache and bearded chin, causing his upper lip to lift slightly.  Still, women favored him, too.

And, truth be told, Caedmon attracted his fair share of women.  He had no complaints.

"All of our garments will no doubt fall off our bodies in rot once we remove our armor," Caedmon remarked.

"I cannot remember the last time I bathed.  Mayhap it was last month in Wessex.  Or was it the month before in Norsemandy?" Geoff grinned at him, his white teeth stark against his stained leather helmet with nose piece and eye guard.  "Methinks my brynja will leave half circle marks all over my body.  The women will love it.  Like the tattoos those Scots warriors favor."

"You are a lackwit," Wulf proclaimed.

"There are three things I will order once we arrive at Larkspur," Caedmon informed them on a long sigh.  "A tun of cool mead.  A warm bath.  And a hot..."

"...wench," Geoff finished for him.

"Amen," he and Wulf agreed with a laugh.

Those men riding close behind them, who overheard, laughed, too.

Caedmon shook his head with mock dismay.  "Actually, I was going to say hot fire to warm my weary bones.  Then, I would like to sleep for a sennight in a bed with clean linens and a soft pillow."

"KAD-mon!"  Geoff exaggerated the pronunciation of his name, as he was wont to do when making jest of him.  "Forget sleep.  Me, I prefer mead, bath, and a good tup.  A pillow is not where I intend to rest my head tonight."

Caedmon had already sent riders ahead with just such orders. Well, not about the women.  He would never order women to open their thighs to a man, not even a thrall, especially having been in the company of their King Edgar and his sordid proclivities these many months.

It had been bad enough when Edgar and his closest guard had stormed a convent at Wilton Abbey, and Edgar had taken captive one of the nuns, Wulfhryth, her screams heard throughout the camp that night and many nights thereafter.  No matter that Wulfhryth was of noble birth or that she later gave birth to a daughter Eadygth.  No matter that Edgar was married to Eneda, "the white duck."  Edgar just went on his merry wicked way.  And Edgar had allowed those of his men so inclined to make sport with the other nuns.

The last straw had come when Edgar put a javelin through his half-brother Aethelwold's back for want of his beauteous wife.  That was when Caedmon and his hirdsmen had decided to part with the royal company and head for home.  If Edgar did not like it, then so be it!  Thus far there had been no repercussions, but then Edgar was probably having to deal with the rage of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sure to levy a huge penance on the king's overzealous cock.  Then again, mayhap not.  The only penance he had levied for Edgar's rape and impregnation of the nun was that he could not wear his crown for seven years.  It was probably too heavy for his little head, anyway.

"Well, my castle is still standing," Caedmon said as the mist began to part and they could see Larkspur in the distance.  A pretty name for an austere fortress.  Calling it a castle was an overstatement, but that is what his childless Uncle Richard had named Larkspur before passing it on to Caedmon on his death ten years ago.

It was a stone and timber garrison built in a motte and bailey fashion.  Sitting atop a high, natural, flat-topped mound or motte of great size and height, the castle itself was surrounded by double walls of palisades and ramparts, as was the vast bailey on the ground level with one wide gate in front, opening onto a drawbridge.  A majestic wooden tower atop the keep stood watch over the land in four directions.  At the bottom of the motte and still within the bailey were the exercise fields set off by a neat hedgerows, castle gardens, and outbuildings...
stables, blacksmith's forge, weaving, leatherwork and milk sheds, bakehouse, brewery, cow byre, pig pens, chicken coops, and sleeping quarters for his guardsmen who chose not to reside within the castle.  The outer palisades were surrounded by a moat.

Beyond that were the cotters' huts and fields of oats and barley.  Inside, the bailey had enough room for all the villagers to gather in the event of an attack, not uncommon here in the wilds of Northumbria where brigands abounded, or Scotsmen came raiding from the North.  Just past the village was a peat-infused river, only twenty paces wide, fed from the Cheviot hills run-off, wending its way toward the North Sea, a mere trickle of a burn, or creek, in dry, high summer but a torrent after a storm.

Northumbria, so called lands north of the Humber, was a land unto itself.  To the southern Brits, the mixed breeds of British, Anglian and Norse, with a bit of Scot thrown in, appeared wild, uncouth, hard-drinking, and annoyingly independant of spirit.  This high country was just too bleak...and dangerous, wedged in as it was by the English kingdoms in the south, and the Scots, Cumbrians and Strathclyde Welsh to the north and northwest.  They saw only endless moors, like a wilderness of sorts, and the occasional hills and fertile dales.  And remains of the ancient Roman walls.

Caedmon, on the other hand, saw beauty in its clean air and icy streams.  The sweetness of wild flowers and new grass being crushed by their horses was like the finest perfume from the eastern lands.  To him, leastways.  In a few short months, vast distances would be covered with purple heather.

For many years, Caedmon had been a landless knight, like his two close comrades, and he knew too well how blessed he had been to inherit his uncle's estate.  He would do everything in his power to keep it for himself and his heirs.  Even if it meant service to his depraved king.

A tangled mess awaited him at Larkspur after his lengthy absence, but Caedmon felt peaceful here in his homeland.  And lonely.  But it was a good loneliness.  One he cherished.  He smiled to himself at that ill-logic.  A cherished loneliness!  He must be going barmy.

"Leaving Henry as castellan was apparently a good decision, despite his advancing age," Geoff observed, interrupting his reverie.

Caedmon nodded.  "Yea, reports are that the keep itself is in turmoil, but the troops are in good order, having suffered only a few minor attacks within the estate boundaries."

"Turmoil?"  Wulf arched his brows...he had removed his helmet and his hair stood out in unruly spikes.

"It appears the children are running wild.  Amicia is refusing to serve food in the great hall where the dogs have made a mire of the rushes.  A chamber maid was caught in bed with two men.  Some of the housecarls have taken to sword play in the solar.  Father Luke has locked himself in the chapel and refuses to come out, not even to say Mass.  A loose goat ate all the herbs in the kitchen garden.  Other than that, everything is normal."

There was a momentary silence before one of the men behind him yelled out, "What was the name of that chamber wench?"

Both Wulf and Geoff grinned at him, and Caedmon could hear more chuckling behind him.

"Is Father Luke that halfbrained fanatic who is always mumbling about fornication and the fires of hell?" Geoff asked.

"He said I was a dreadful sinner.  Can you imagine?"  Caedmon made a moue of innocence.

"And is he not older than Adam's rib?" Wulf added.

Caedmon had to laugh.  "Yea, Father Luke has passed more than eighty winters, I would guess, and he was halfbrained afore he came to us.  Think on it, what priest worth his salt would want to preside over the souls of such a small keep in the northern wilds, inhabited by "sinful soldiers," as he ofttimes called us?"

"All your bratlings did not help any," Geoff noted.

"You have heard about the wagers, have you not?" Wulf inquired.

By his teasing tone, Caedmon decided he did not want to know.

But that did not stop Wulf.

"We are wagering on how many children you will have by now."

"Pfff!  There were ten last time I counted, but God only knows how many are really mine.  And, yea, I am certain there will be more by now."  Caedmon had wed and buried two wives, leaving behind three legitimate children, the nine-year-old Beth and six-year-old twins Alfred and Aidan, but he had also had his fair share of unfortunately fertile mistresses and bedmates over the years.  He was, after all, thirty and four.  He grinned then. "Can I help it if I am a virile man?"  And dumb as dirt when it comes to keeping my cock in my breeches.

"Methinks your virility is going to come back and bite you in the arse one of these days," Geoff said.

It already has, and that is why I gird myself with resolve. I will ne'er marry again, I vow, and I will exercise caution in the bed furs.  God willing.

He could swear he heard laughter in his head.  It was probably God.

"When I was in Baghdad, I heard about a method for preventing a man's seed from taking root in a woman's womb," Geoff said of a sudden.

All ears perked up at that announcement.

When he just grinned at them, Caedmon prodded, "Well, do not stop now, lackwit."

"You take a small, thick-skinned apple.  Cut it in half, and pare out most of the pulp.  Then you insert it into a woman's channel, far up, like a tiny cup.  And that prevents a man's seed from entering her womb."  Geoff preened as if he had just gifted them the secret to turning grass to gold.  "It is supposed to be done with lemons, but since we have none here I am sure apples would suffice."
There was a lengthy silence as the men digested what he had said, turning it over in their minds.  One never knew when Geoff was jesting or not, although he did know a lot about the bed arts, or so he often told them.

"I would like to meet the woman who would allow you to do that," Caedmon finally scoffed.  Really, I would.

Geoff smirked, as if he knew a few.

"And how in bloody hell would you get it out?" Wulf wanted to know.

Geoff fluttered his fingertips at Wulf as if that were an insignificant matter.

"The woman would be pissing apple juice for a sennight," Wulf remarked.  "And dropping apple seeds hither and yon."

"We have all been in the saddle too long.  Our brains are melting," Caedmon concluded.  But I wager there will be apples aplenty missing from the larder this night.

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