What happens when love and war don't mix?
Ivar Sorenson is not only his father's heir to their jarldom, he's his parents' last remaining son. There isn't much choice for the future jarl when his father demands an alliance with their feuding neighbor. That alliance can only come in the form of a marriage...to a woman Ivar doesn't want and doesn't like. Not when he already has the one great love of his life already by his side. Can Ivar convince his father that a marriage is needed to end the feud? Can he prove that the woman he loves is the woman his tribe needs to lead alongside him?
What happens when the heart wants what the heart wants? Will these friends to lovers get a second chance?
Lena Torbinsdóttir has known Ivar Sorenson her entire life, growing up and training alongside him. As children, they were inseparable playmates and best friends. As adults, Lena and Ivar are soulmates. But ongoing conflict between their tribe and their neighbor may force Lena to give up the only man she has ever loved in the name of duty and politics. Can Lena walk away when Ivar faces marriage to another woman? Can Lena survive when her competition wants Ivar's attention all for herself?
With help from their friends, Rangvald and Lorna, can Ivar and Lena find a way to create peace while protecting their future together?
Lena & Ivar is the prequel novel to the Viking Glory series. Meet the generation that laid the foundation for the unstoppable characters from this suspenseful and steamy series.
Viking Glory is a steamy historical series that will transport you back to the world of the ancient Norse with brave heroes and even stronger heroines. The series follows the lives and loves of five friends. Brother and sister, Leif and Freya, along with their cousin, Bjorn, and their friends Strian and Tyra sail the seas and conquer hearts. This is a five book series where each book can be read as a standalone but is best read as part of the series.
Release date: December 11, 2020
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 222
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Lena & Ivar
Ivar’s eyes swept across the battlefield as the hair on the back of his neck caused his sweat-covered skin to prickle. He took in the overcast skies—skies that did not match the scorching sun the Norse warriors had experienced during these last weeks in the Mediterranean. The darkened skies matched his current mood as he panted, trying to slow the adrenaline coursing through him after his last engagement with their Arab enemies. He had just slayed an enormous dark-skinned man whose guttural Arab language was still foreign to Ivar Sorenson’s Norse ears. As Ivar looked into the dead man’s vacant eyes, he watched a crow’s reflection fly overhead. Odin’s messengers Hunnin and Munnin brought a cheer from Ivar’s fellow Norse warriors, who celebrated their victory with praise to their gods. But Ivar could not be less interested in prayer as he once again scanned the fallen bodies and those still on their feet, looking for a particular blonde head with a face that possessed the deepest cobalt-blue eyes he had ever seen. Ivar’s stomach clenched as he searched for Lena Tormudsdóttir.
“Lena? Lena!” Ivar called out as his heart began to pound with fear unlike any he had experienced in the battle only moments earlier. “Lena!”
Ivar ran in the direction of the voice that he feared he would never hear again; it had never sounded sweeter. He wove through members of his tribe and leaped over the bodies of fallen Arabs and Norsemen, pushing past a group of women to where Lena stood. Disregarding those around him, Ivar pulled Lena into his arms. After a brief glance to reassure himself that she was uninjured, he stroked her cheek and dove in for a searing kiss that brought conversations around them to an abrupt end.
Lena’s toes curled within her boots. The feel of Ivar’s body pressed against hers reminded her of their time spent coupling the night before. Her hands roamed over his back and shoulders as the tension eased with each of her caresses. The intensity of his kiss deepened as he groaned within her mouth, his tongue swirling and mating with hers, mimicking what they both longed to do with their bodies.
When they broke apart at last, their foreheads pressed together, Ivar smattered kisses on the tip of her nose as he cupped her jaw.
“You scared me,” Ivar’s hushed voice brushed warm air across Lena’s face.
“You’re scared of nothing, or so you told me.” Lena brushed her lips against Ivar’s.
“There is a first for everything. I couldn’t find you.”
“But you did. You’re holding me now.” Lena pressed another soft kiss to Ivar’s mouth.
Ivar pulled back and swept Lena into his arms. He did not look back to see who snickered or tossed randy comments at his back, nor did he care that his father’s commander, Magnus, was calling to him. Ivar carried Lena across the low grassy field to a copse of olive trees, cursing that their spindly branches would not give him the privacy that the fir trees in the Trondelag would offer. When they were a safe distance from the others, he placed Lena on her feet again and pulled her against him.
“Now I am holding you,” Ivar’s voice rumbled within his broad chest. “And I intend to hold you all through the night as I make love to you over and over until I am convinced you are safe and within my reach.”
Lena’s brow furrowed as she looked into Ivar’s hazel eyes. She saw a tempest brewing unlike any she had seen before. She and Ivar had known each other their entire lives, having grown up together and trained together; they had started sharing their furs four years earlier. There was something different about the tension between them, something that was no longer merely physical.
“Ivar, what’s wrong?”
Ivar’s brows shot up before he once again stroked Lena’s cheek, tucking hair behind her ears. “Nothing is wrong. I was afraid when I couldn’t find you, and now I’m not because you are here with me.”
“We have fought plenty of battles over the years, and many since we began sleeping together, but you have never reacted like this. What happened?”
Ivar straightened and looked over Lena’s head. While she was tall even by Norse standards, she still fit tucked beneath his chin when he held her as he had only moments ago. He pictured the fight he had narrowly won. The Arab had nearly severed Ivar’s head from his shoulders with more than one swing of his sword, and it had taken every ounce of Ivar’s remaining strength to fend off the giant. Ivar stood well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a well-muscled back that came from years of swinging a sword and an axee. He pushed himself to be the best among all of his father’s warriors and was stronger than many of the tribesman by far.
As the jarl’s heir, Ivar bore the responsibility of being his tribe’s future leader. But even at Ivar’s towering size, the Arab warrior had stood half a head taller and was significantly heavier, making his blows rattle Ivar’s teeth. Ivar had been certain he would die during that battle until a whiff of Lena’s scent, a combination of Norse lavender from the Trondelag and incense found in the land they now explored, filled his nostrils and created a fierce need. A need for her and a need to survive. That momentary reminder drove Ivar to fight until he was the victor and able to search for the woman he realized he could not live without.
“I nearly died.”
Lena offered him the placating smile one might offer a child who said something inane. “We’ve all nearly died. I nearly died more than once today. How is that any different from any other battle?”
“Don’t say that.” The hoarseness in Ivar’s voice gave Lena pause. “Don’t ever say that. You can’t die.”
Ivar pulled her against him and tucked her head under his chin as he stroked her hair. Lena paused before stroking her hand over his chest and curling her arm around his waist.
“Ivar, what’s wrong? You’re scaring me.”
“I thought I would never see you again. First that I would die; then when I couldn’t see you, I thought you might have—” He finished on a muffled sob.
It was Lena’s turn to cup his face within her hands and run her thumbs over the bristled cheeks. “I’m here with you now. And besides some cuts and scratches, we are both just as hale as we were before the battle. You’re still scaring me.”
“Lena, I love you.”
Lena’s eyes flared open as her heart thumped behind her ribs. She never thought to hear Ivar confess what she had felt in her heart for years. They had begun their physical relationship after a drunken feast, but it had quickly developed into companionship and fidelity, neither seeking the company of another. They spent most nights together, and they enjoyed their time spent with each other during the day. But Lena was not the daughter of a jarl, and that made her an unsuitable long-term match for Ivar. Though it was painful, she had assumed Ivar did not share her feelings, knowing their relationship had no chance of progressing beyond what it was now.
“Lena, I’ve always loved you. My heart has known it since we were children, even if my head wouldn’t allow me to admit it. Something clicked into place today, and I refuse to ignore what’s obvious. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she murmured. “I always have, but I never believed you loved me.”
“Why wouldn’t I? You are the most special woman I have ever met. You are all the things a man hopes for. You are the most loveable woman I’ve ever met. I fear other men know that too, and one will catch your eye.”
“What men?” Lena stretched onto her toes to swipe her tongue across the seam of Ivar’s lips, demanding entrance that he was only too happy to offer.
“Say you’re mine. That you will always be by my side,” Ivar demanded with a gruffness Lena had never heard before. She pulled away and shook her head as she swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Always? You realize there can’t be an always between us. Are you asking me to one day go from being your companion to your concubine?”
“What?” Ivar shook his head, unable to follow her train of thought.
“You will marry one day, and it won’t be to me. You would take me as your concubine, making any children I bore you bastards? Forcing me to give up a chance for a husband and a home of my own? Ivar, I love you, but you would sentence me to a life of longing for what I can’t have. A life where you may warm my bed some nights, but another woman claims your home and her rights as your wife. I—I can’t do that. Gods, that would kill me.”
Lena pushed him away and looked around wildly her before running toward the others, leaving Ivar staring after her confused by her logic. He had intended on proposing, and instead, he stood wondering why Lena assumed he meant to make her a concubine.
“You’re an arse.” Ivar spun around to see his best friend, Eindride, approaching him. “You’re an arse. I bet you probably intended to ask her to marry you, but that’s because I probably would have bungled things just as badly. You will be a jarl one day. Your father is going to arrange your marriage, and it won’t be to a girl from our homestead. Lena knows that all too well. She’s been dreading the day Jarl Soren announces your betrothal. She can only hope to find a man to marry once you leave her. To be your concubine would make her the most hated woman in our village. There are plenty of women already spiteful that she is the only one who warms your bed.”
“You make no sense. Why would anyone hate her if she has a position in my heart and my home?”
Eindride looked at his best friend and shook his mane of sun-bleached hair. He wondered how a man who was a brilliant strategist did not see how his current strategy would fail.
“What woman will want to arrive to marry a man already bedding the most beautiful woman in our village? What woman will want to be frú while having to accept that her husband is making love to a woman of common birth? Do you think any of our tribeswomen will side with Lena once you’re married? They would be fools to choose her over their future frú.”
“I will convince my father that Lena is the best, the only, choice for me. She is more than a pretty face. She has the will and determination along with the sense to be a powerful helpmate to me and a leader for our village. She is already a natural leader among the shieldmaidens.”
“But she brings no alliance. She brings little dowry. In your father’s eyes, she brings nothing.”
“But my happiness.”
“And since when did that matter? You will rule this tribe one day. Your happiness is nothing compared to the safety and prosperity of the entire homestead.”
Ivar bit his tongue, as disagreeing with Eindride was pointless. His friend and the second-in-command of Ivar’s division of warriors was correct. No one, especially his father, would consider his happiness as a factor when arranging a marriage. However, Ivar knew that a happy jarl made for a successful jarl. His grandfather had been devoted to his grandmother. They had an arranged marriage, but they had fallen in love, and their partnership made his tribe prosperous after decades of struggle against neighbors. His father and mother also had an arranged marriage and barely tolerated being in the same longhouse, let alone the same room. Their discord affected the entire tribe. The men sided with his father, and the women took his mother’s side. It caused arguments within many families, and the unwillingness to forgive one another for causing the friction festered between his parents.
The discord was well known among their allies and enemies, and their enemies often used it against them during raids. His parents had played him against one another throughout his childhood, and the moment Ivar was old enough, he escaped to raid foreign lands. He captained their fleet each year and fled the moment the fjord thawed enough for the hulls of their longboats to cut through the ice.
“We both know that a happy home sets the tone for the entire tribe. We already have alliances with the neighbors who matter.” Ivar observed.
“And a few of them are excited to fight on our side.” Eindride agreed.
“My mother and father have worked hard to keep those alliances despite how they bicker with each other.”
“And it will be your doing that undoes that.”
Ivar grumbled as he looked to where Lena now stood, talking to other shieldmaidens, her back to him.
“Ivar, you must realize your father will try to arrange a marriage with Inga Thorsdóttir. Her brother Rangvald will make a powerful ally when you and he inherit your jarldoms.”
Ivar’s stomach dropped. He knew Eindride was right, but he dreaded the notion of being married to Inga. She had an even more sour disposition than his own mother, and there was something that always put him on edge. He did not trust the woman.
“Gods help me and us if that’s true. That woman has an evil within her. I can’t tell what it is, but I have a strong feeling that she will be our downfall or will be a catalyst to whoever tries to destroy us. I will not marry her.”
“You more than likely will. Who are you to stand up to your father? Unless he dies before you wed, you have no say.”
Ivar had no chance to respond, as a clap of thunder roared through the air and the clouds opened, dropping sheets of rain on the battlefield. The storm matched Ivar’s mood, as though Thor read his mind.
Lena watched Ivar’s approach as she pushed her sopping hair away from her eyes. She ran from Ivar because the pain of thinking of him with another woman, a wife, always stole her breath away. They avoided discussing the future with a tacit understanding that there was not one between them. Their relationship would run its course, and one day a bride would arrive for Ivar. As the former companion of the future jarl, Lena stood a strong chance of finding a husband when she was ready. No man would approach her now, but once Ivar moved on, she would be a desirable mate because of her looks and her former status. It did not mean the future was not a constant thought. She recognized that they were both of an age to marry, and she had heard the rumors that Jarl Soren had already been making inquiries with neighboring tribes to find his son a bride.
Their conversation that day made Lena run from Ivar in part because it felt impossible to look at him as the pain ripped through her and in part because she was certain she would be ill. She had run to avoid heaving across his boots. The bile still rose in her throat each time his declaration of love echoed in her ears. She wanted to shake her head until the sound fell out, but she knew that was impossible. Instead, it left her with the memory of how her heart had soared only to crash seconds later, and the relief—then the crushing regret—of confessing her own feelings.
She knew Ivar, and she knew their conversation was not over. He would try to convince her that he controlled their fate, but she knew he had no more say in the gods’ plans than she did. Odin and Freyja would decide who he should wed to maintain the power that their tribe had built through bloodshed and hard work. She might be lucky if Freyja remembered to look down upon her and offer her a future with another man. A man she was unable to picture and did not want.
“Lena.” Ivar slowed his pace as though he were creeping toward an injured animal, and in that moment, Lena felt wild and trapped. “Lena, wait. Don’t run from me again. We don’t need to speak of what we already said. I would enjoy your company simply because I’m relieved we both survived.”
Lena looked around as other warriors searched for the dead members of their tribe. A funeral pyre was already being constructed, and in the distance, Lena saw where they would camp for the night. The day was not even halfway over, and there was plenty of work to do despite everyone’s battle exhaustion.
“Help me then. I need to look for our women who traveled without family. I must make sure they died with their swords in their hands, and if not, you can help me find them and return them.”
Ivar nodded, thinking Lena already demonstrated the duties of a frú. No one gave her those responsibilities. She assumed them, not because she presumed an elevated status as his companion, but because she was a natural leader to the other women. If only his father would acknowledge what others understood, and if only he would recognize that no one would be a greater helpmate than Lena.
Inga certainly would not. She had never trained as a shieldmaiden and had no interest in doing so. Her parents pampered and spoiled her. He failed to see her journeying with him, nor could he imagine her leading a defense if their homestead was raided while he was away. He saw her cowering in fear and defeat. She would probably open the gates to the enemy to avoid being attacked. The only thing he pictured her defending was herself if any man tried to violate her. Granted, the moment she opened her mouth and her nasal tones seeped into a man’s ears, he would gladly forgo rutting with her.
“Which direction do we start?” Ivar would follow Lena’s instructions and do what he could. He trusted her decisions implicitly, and he would complete any task if it kept him in Lena’s company.
They spent the next several hours working with the other members of their tribe as they sifted through the fallen bodies to find their fellow Norse warriors and searched for the lost weapons. Men and women carried the bodies to the funeral pyre, laying weapons against chests with arms crossed over them. They piled the bodies of the enemy as far from the camp as possible. They would leave them to the animals or any of their enemy who returned once they left in the morning.
Ivar and Lena stood together as the pyre burned and the Norse bid farewell to the fallen. Some would venture to Valhalla and others to Fólkvangr. Those that the Valkyries selected would feast with Odin in the Great Hall, and some would find peace with Freyja in her realm. The keening sounds of women’s voices as they sang the songs of the dead filled the air as the rain continued as a drizzle.
The somber and gray weather matched the crowd’s mood. Sparks flew from the fire, and some parts blazed blue where the metal from the weapons melted. Ivar’s fingers entwined with Lena’s as he squeezed her hand. She had lost three cousins in that day’s battle, and he offered his silent support as she said her goodbyes to family she had fought beside for a decade. Ivar had already lost both of his brothers the year before, and Lena drew strength from Ivar’s shared understanding of her grief. Ivar was now his parents’ only surviving child, and the future of their homestead rested on his shoulders, a duty which his father never failed to remind him.
Lena’s trembles turned into shivers as the temperature dropped and the moon rose. Ivar was not sure if Lena would acquiesce, but she allowed him to draw her into the circle of his arms.
“Come,” he murmured near her ear.
Ivar led Lena to where he had laid their bedrolls earlier. He eased her to the ground and sought hot food for their supper. They ate in silence as Lena stared into the fire, her thoughts a jumble of grief, both for her family and for the future she would not have. Once they finished eating, Ivar took Lena’s hand again and led her into the copse of trees.
“Let me ease your mind, if only for a little while,” Ivar whispered.
Lena looked into the hazel eyes she knew so well and nodded. She longed for the escape only Ivar offered. They came of age together and were the other’s first, and thus far, only lover. Once they moved past the initial awe and wonderment of joining, their coupling had the fierce need as it did from the very beginning, but they were slower, savoring each time together. Ivar had proven to be a giving and considerate lover, and Lena had proven adventurous and caring.
As Ivar brought Lena into the shelter of his arms, he realized she was still shaken from the funeral, and worse, their conversation from the last time they stepped among the trees. He wanted to distract her from her troublesome thoughts and bring her what relief he could offer. He pressed his arousal against Lena’s mound, scared that he would rush her but unable, and unwilling, to hide his need for her. His hands slid down to her bottom and cupped the soft globes.
Lena tilted her hips forwards as she tried to get closer, her need matching his. Ivar maneuvered them until Lena’s back pressed against a tree trunk. He slid his hand to cup her breast as he kneaded the supple flesh. Her mewls grew more needy as her fists clung to the front of his tunic. Ivar slid the tips of his fingers beneath the neckline of her vest until he cupped her warm skin. His own groans matching hers.
“I can’t wait, Ivar. I need you too much.” Lena’s breathy whispers sounded desperate to her own ears.
“Neither can I.” His own need filled Ivar’s voice. “I’m going to make love to you over and over tonight, Lena. I can never get my fill.”
A shiver coursed along Lena’s spine hearing Ivar’s mention of making love and her anticipation for their coupling. Her moans began as soft mewls but intensified as her body reacted to Ivar’s hands cupping her backside. The sensation of his hands kneading her flesh had her rocking her hips in a way that only instinct guided. She shifted in frustration as her body yearned for more, her sheath begging for their bodies to join. Ivar’s responding groan as her mons brushed against his rod only increased her desire.
When Lena’s cool fingers ran along his neck up to his cheek before cradling his jaw, Ivar was sure he would spend himself if he did not position them where it was possible for him to undress and sink into her. He pulled away and looked around the trees until he found a spot where leaves had gathered to soften the ground, but the overhead coverage kept the moisture from them. He took Lena’s hand and led her to the spot where they stood facing one another. He pressed her palm against his cock as his eyes drifted closed.
Lena’s impatience grew knowing that despite Ivar’s pledge, they would not have the entire night together. She pulled at the belt that held his sword and laid it on the ground as Ivar did the same to her. She tugged at the laces of his leather pants, frustrated that they would not give with her first yank. When his rod sprung free, she gasped then licked her lips, still taken by surprise at the length and girth of his rod. Ivar’s groan was one of agony as he watched a seductress emerge from his trusted shieldmaiden. Ivar lifted Lena off her feet and guided her legs to wrap around him. Her moan of unspent need as his cock pressed against her entrance had Ivar sinking to the ground.
As he pressed his length against her entrance, Lena rocked her hips in a timeless invitation. Her knees cradled his hips until she let them fall wide, and her hands sought the chiseled flesh of his backside. She marveled at how different Ivar’s body was from her own. Despite their countless times together, his impressive physique still made her heart race. She wanted to remind herself of every inch of him, but her mind stalled when Ivar’s finger slid along the swollen skin of her nether lips. A moan escaped before she stifled it, but Ivar’s responding growl reminded her that he enjoyed knowing he aroused her. As he dipped a finger into her dewy sheath, she rocked her hips again.
Ivar pressed his finger into her, and her shudder of longing and her nails biting into his back told him she was ready for more. He slid a second finger into her and began to work her heated flesh. He stretched her as he stroked her inner walls, and his thumb found the hidden pearl that would push her over the edge. She grasped his face and lifted hers to bring their mouths together. She pressed her tongue against his lips, inviting his tongue to duel with hers. They went back and forth, each giving and taking.
Lena experienced a tightening low in her belly as a wave of sensation built. When it cascaded throughout her, and she moaned her first release, Ivar withdrew his fingers and surged forward, impaling her with his length. Their bodies moved together with a familiarity born from sharing their love and bodies for four years. There was no future to think about, only the present, as they both crested and crashed over the edge. Ivar groaned as the jets of his seed filled Lena and thanked the goddess Freyja once more that Lena used pennyroyal to prevent pregnancy and to allow him to climaxe while they were still one.
They held one another, still joined, until Ivar’s body no longer cooperated with his mind or his heart. He rolled to Lena’s side and pulled her body flush to his. She wiggled until she pressed as close to him as they had been only minutes ago, but this time for comfort rather than for release. Ivar stroked Lena’s hair, trying to relieve some of her tension, but her body was coiled tight despite the boneless sensation of only moments ago.
“I dread telling my aunt and uncle that all three of their children are but spirits now. It will devastate them.”
“You don’t have to do it alone, or I’ll go to them instead.”
Lena’s fingers ran over the warm skin of Ivar’s chest as he held her. She felt protected from the outside world, but it was not enough to ease her mind.
“I must be the one. I promised to watch over them, just as they had promised to watch over me. I failed them.”
“Lena, you and I both know that’s not true. And your aunt and uncle understand what a battle is like. Your uncle has fought in them, and your aunt has seen the outcome. There is no way to watch over anyone other than the person who fights alongside you.” Ivar drew a ragged breath as he thought of searching for Lena earlier. “Even I lost track of you, and we began the battle together.” A tremor raced through Ivar as his body confessed his fear.
Lena came up on her elbow as she cupped Ivar’s jaw. “Ivar, you know that wasn’t your fault, don’t you?” It had terrified her when she could not spot Ivar as the fighting drew them further apart. They had fought alongside one another for years. Eindride fought at Ivar’s back while Lena and at least one other shieldmaiden fought along their flanks.
The Arabs were skilled in drawing them apart and forcing each Norse warrior to fight a singular opponent, their strength in numbers evaporating. Her terror was not in fighting alone and dying; the terror came from not knowing where Ivar was and not protecting him. They had fought in that pattern since their first voyage together. They began sailing to foreign lands, along with Eindride and their other close friend Vigo Arneson, when they were sixteen. That was only four years earlier, but they had trained and fought close to home since they were children. Raids had necessitated it.
But once they began sailing further afield to explore and invade, Lena, Ivar, Vigo, and Eindride were a force few could approach. Einar, Eindride’s younger brother, joined them for the first time on this voyage. Eindride had been keeping an eye on Einar, and that was part of the reason he became separated from Ivar. Lena was pulled into a fight when she defended a fellow shieldmaiden who was being overpowered. There had been no way for Lena and Ivar to remain near each other if they both wanted to stay alive and do their duty to their fellow warriors.
“Ivar, you know that wasn’t your fault, don’t you. I was just as worried when I couldn’t find you as you were. I hate that feeling.”
Ivar drew Lena across his chest as she shuddered at her final thought. He drew a line along her collarbone with his kisses before he traveled the distance to just behind her ear. Lena’s hand searched along Ivar’s long body until she found his semi-aroused cock. She wrapped her hand around him and stroked as their mouths found one another, their kiss deep and sensual. Ivar lifted her, so Lena took his sword into her sheath. She pulled at his shoulders until he lifted his body to press against hers.
They sat, joined, for a long moment just enjoying the connection. Ivar lifted and lowered Lena as her inner muscles clung to his cock. His body cried out for him to stop talking and make love to her. Fire fueled their kiss, and the time for talking had ended. Their motionless joining had been a fusion of their souls as much as their movements now were a fusion of their hearts. They moved together until they both found their release, tumbling into bliss together.
Once again, Ivar positioned Lena against him, and she was content to burrow into his warmth. He drew their cloaks over them as their sweat-dampened skin began to cool. The air was pleasant, but he would also shield Lena’s body from anyone’s eyes who might approach. As they had on their previous journeys, Ivar held Lena while he took the first watch. In a few hours, he would wake her to make love again before she took over the watch, and he slept. Before the sun rose, they would rejoin their camp, acting as though they and several other couples had not crept away for privacy. No one dared to travel further than the safety of the camp, but many preferred to make their bed where others were unable to watch.
“We have been gone long enough,” Ivar declared as his warriors crowded around him. “We sail for home!”
The crowd cheered as many breathed a silent breath of relief. Their voyage was a success. While traveling, they had swept through villages where they were greeted by people unlike any they had seen before. Used to finding men and women who looked similar to them when they raided England and Francia, they were unprepared for the olive-skinned, almond-eyed people of North Africa. More than one man found a woman to claim and return with, ensuring they had a bed slave to keep them company once they arrived in their perpetually frozen homeland. Once they tired of these thralls, most likely by the following summer, they would sell them to a slave trader. If the women were lucky, they might return to their homeland.
“Gather what we took yesterday, and we make our way to our ships. The gods are with us, and so are the tides.” Eindride called out as Ivar and Lena faced the shore, ready to lead their people back to the longboats moored a few miles away.
The crews were quick to store their bounty beneath the boards of the deck in the shallow hulls of the longboats. Ivar, Eindride, and Vigo captained their own boats along with the six others. They were a fleet of nine ships with dragons carved on their prows and large billowing sails on their masts. The fleet was impressive, and Ivar had insisted that they travel with nine as fortune smiled upon that number. He had predicted accurately; their pillaged goods were the greatest value ever collected.
The journey was long and arduous for all the Norse warriors, with the blazing sun shining overhead day after day. They had to go ashore along the way to collect fresh water and forage or hunt for food. There was only so much pickled herring that any of them wanted to eat. The coast of Spain proved a treasure trove, with a round orange fruit that was juicy and sweet, a treat none of the Norse sailors had ever enjoyed before. They found more of the round, deep red ovals that were salty and tangy, but they had already enjoyed those during their various stops along the North African coast. Oranges and olives became food staples along with dried beef and pickled herring.
Ivar and Lena took turns at the oars, but Ivar spent most of his time at the tiller. When she was not rowing, Lena ensured each crew member had their daily ration of food and warm clothing. They caught strong winds as they made their way along the coast of Francia, and then the British Isles. The crossing of the North Sea to their homeland was choppy despite a lack of wind and strong sunlight.
Relief surged through Ivar, as it always did whenever he arrived at his homestead. He helped Lena down from the boat, and they walked arm-in-arm along the dock until they reached Ivar’s parents. Soren’s scowl at Lena made Ivar protective. His heart seemed to skip and race at the same time, as intuition told him he would not like the news from while he was away.
Ivar’s mother, Disa, stepped forward to embrace her son while casting a warm smile toward Lena. Disa may have despised being married to Soren, but she loved her son. She wished she were able to allow Ivar and Lena to marry. She would have her son find the joy in marriage that was lacking in her own.
“I see the voyage exceeded my expectations. The men are already carrying chests of riches ashore. Wherever shall we keep it all?” Soren chuckled, but the sound lacked any trace of mirth.
Ivar ground his teeth at his father’s patronizing tone. If the man had not been his father and his jarl, he would have grunted and pushed past him. He wanted nothing more than to take Lena to his chamber for a hot bath, where he would scrub away the grime and salt encrusted to him and then make love to her after weeks of forced celibacy. His father had other plans.
“Rangvald and Thor are here.”
Ivar did not dare cringe before his father, but he suspected why their neighbors were there. He felt Lena go rigid, as he still had an arm wrapped around her. She stepped to his side and bowed to Ivar’s parents before darting away. Ivar returned his father’s scowl as he made to follow Lena, but Soren grasped his arm.
“Leave your concubine alone while our guests are here. They will not want to leave Inga here if it’s obvious your cock is plowing another field,” Soren’s voice hissed in Ivar’s ear.
“She is not my concubine, and you know it. She is my companion and a free woman. You should feed them, then show them the gate. That would keep them from seeing what we can’t and won’t hide.” Ivar bit out as he watched Lena reunite with her aunt and uncle. He had promised to be by her side when she informed them of their children’s death. Instead, Lena was facing it alone. He ripped his arm away and looked down at his father, having grown several inches taller than the older man by the time he was fourteen. “I have a promise I must keep.”
Ivar jogged away, wishing his father had been more circumspect, but knowing it was his intention to hurt both him and Lena. He arrived at her side just as her aunt began to wail, and her uncle pointed an accusing finger. Ivar stepped in front of Lena, and his thunderous look was enough for the older couple to turn away.
“Are you all right?” Ivar whispered.
Lena nodded her head, but Ivar was far from convinced. He took her hand and followed the path to the bathhouse, his chamber no longer an option after his reunion with his father. He realized they would not be alone, and he accepted he would have to wait his turn since the women would go first, but he could at least accompany her and be there when she finished. He would postpone his bath if it meant Lena was well cared for.
Lena stepped into the warmth of the steamy bathhouse and began to strip her clothes from her dirty and exhausted body. She was in no mood to talk to anyone. She had already spent months with the other shieldmaidens, and she was not in the mood to regale anyone who remained at the homestead with stories of sailing the high seas and battling foreign enemies. Lena just wanted to soak in the hot water and forget about everyone else.
“I see my husband and his whore have returned.” A nasal and rasping voice grated against Lena’s patience. Lena was not surprised by who she found on one bench that surrounded tubs already filled with other women. All conversations ceased as the women awaited Lena’s response. She had no intention of giving one.
Lena stepped into a tub that a thrall had already filled and slid under the water, letting it wash over her and cover her tangled hair. She opened her eyes when she sensed someone had stepped near her tub. The form of a woman stood askew beside the lip of the tub, and as Lena pushed along the bottom to sit up, a hand reached down. The hand grasped Lena’s hair and pushed with more force than Lena expected. Rather than panic, Lena was still until the pressure eased, then she made her move. She was out of the water and onto the floor before anyone predicted she would flip her attacker over her shoulder and into the tub.
As the woman emerged spluttering and swearing, Lena stepped into another tub and wasted no time scrubbing her body. Inga stood in the tub with clothes stuck to her and dripping onto the floor.
“You shall pay for that, whore.”
“Inga, sit down. There is nothing to pay from me, but you attacked a free woman. I am no thrall. You have no right to touch me unless you intend to fight me. We both know who the victor will be.” Lena’s tones were even and low as she scrubbed her hair. She finished with hushed tones, “I’m no one’s whore, and you have no husband.”
Inga was not finished lashing out at Lena.
“I do have a husband, as my father and Jarl Ivar have already signed the papers. We are wed but for the blessing.”
Lena’s heart lurched, but she forced her face to remain passive. She poured fresh water over her head from the urn next to the tub. When she stood, she allowed Inga to finally gaze upon her figure. She was lithe where Inga was stocky. She was tall where Inga was short. She was agile where Inga was sluggish. Lena intended to show Inga what Ivar had already proved he preferred. Inga gasped, her face going from scarlet to ashen in a matter of heartbeats. Lena walked toward Inga and leaned sideways to whisper in Inga’s ear.
“I would eat a few less sweets, so Ivar can find your sheath; otherwise, his sword will continue to find mine.”
Lena wrapped a drying linen around her and pulled the bathhouse door open, caring little that she was about to walk across the homestead virtually naked.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...