The Warrior’s Echo by Paula Quinn
Winter in the Year of Our Lord, 1017
Under the rule of King Cnut of Denmark.
Chief Ulf Kristiansen had his man down in the span of three breaths. With eyes the color of a Norse river in winter, he looked up to the heavens, lifted his sword, and brought it down into his enemy. Blood spurted onto his hide boots and seeped into the snow.
With no time to waste, he yanked the blade out and looked around for the next man to fight. He killed seven more before he lost his sword. After which, he had to use two short swords from two of his victims. He used them to take some heads and fought for another hour. In that time, he saved two of his men from death at the end of a Saxon blade. He wanted no accolades for it. Every chief should keep the men who fought for him or their king safe. And he did, often reaching his men just in time. They followed him loyally because they knew he would give his life to save theirs.
Fin, his second in command. followed him because he was Fin’s brother. Fin could save his own life. Still, the chief looked for his brother on the field often. He didn’t have to, for Fin was more savage than he. Ulf looked for him because whatever troubles they had between them, Ulf loved his younger brother, and it comforted him to see him among the living.
When there was no one else to fight and only he and his men survived, Ulf stopped and dropped his weapons.
Covered in blood, he picked up one of the heads by the hair and called out to his men in the native tongue of his people while snowflakes fell on the dead. They were victorious. They always were.
“King Cnut will be passing through here in a few hours with his men,” he called out. “He will know his warriors are unstoppable.”
His men cheered and then dispersed. They would return to camp on foot, a mile to the west.
Returning, he washed in icy cold water from a nearby brook. He was used to the cold. Every Dane was. They’d grown up in it. He fought without his fur cloak so that he would not overheat. When he was done, he retrieved his cloak and went to the fire.
He was the king’s most loyal, most skilled warrior, but he didn’t want to do it anymore. He was tired of fighting. He’d lost enough of his blood in the last decade. He wanted to go home to Denmark and continue building his longhouse, farming his land, taking a wife, and starting a family.
Nevertheless, what he wanted didn’t matter. While he was here in England, with its new Danish monarch, Cnut, he would continue to end uprisings that sprang up in different territories. This month, he was in Mercia. Last month, East Anglia. If that meant killing some Saxons who thought they could beat the Danes, he had no trouble with it. He would show them who was the mightier people.
“Lord!” a young Dane called out, running toward him. “Those Saxons’ village is a short distance away. There is food!”
Food. Ulf, or Wolf as he has been known to be called, rubbed his palm over his belly. He was hungry. “How many villagers?”
“About two dozen,” the young man reported. “Mostly women and old men.”
“To the horses,” Wolf called out to his men. They obeyed without question.
He quickly found a shield and a spear, then mounted his horse. Like the Saxons, they used horses to ride, not to fight. The beasts were built for travel, not speed. He commanded his men to follow and get the nets ready.
“Can I ride with your group?” the young Dane asked.
Wolf examined him with a gaze that could stop his enemies and send them running. The young man smiled and shifted under the chief’s scrutiny. “What are you called?”
“Akkar, Lord. I came to this land with my family to farm, but I want to fight.”
“Stay with your family,” Wolf told him and rode off.
Akkar followed him. “Then just let me come with you to the village, then I will return home to my father. Please, Lord. The Saxons killed my mother and my sisters.”
Many young men abandoned their farming to fight for reasons just like this. Wolf wouldn’t be moved by this one’s story.
He nodded though, following the young man’s direction to the outskirts of the Saxon village. He didn’t waste any further time thinking about Akkar or his father. His belly was grumbling. He was cold. He wanted to conquer and eat and make camp for the night. If there were any more uprisings between where they were and Wessex, his scouts would discover them and report to him. He and his men would defeat them all. For King Cnut. For the Danes…and for Akkar’s family.
When they reached the village, Wolf stayed out of sight while six of his men stole into their market and blended in…for about ten breaths. The rest of the soldiers took positions around the perimeter of the marketplace and drew their weapons. The villagers screamed and tried to run but there was no place to go. They were herded like sheep to the center, where nets were cast over them.
“Who is the leader here?” Fin demanded in the language of the Saxons.
When no one answered, he pulled a sword from its sheath on his belt and raised it high.
Wolf raised his hand for his second in command to wait. Fin obeyed and lowered his weapon.
“By decree of England’s King Cnut,” Wolf told them from his saddle, “I give you a chance to live if you obey. We can cut each and every one of you—”
“Help!” a woman screamed from the trapped crowd. “What happened? Where am I?”
He followed her shrill voice and found her clawing at the netting. She was…rather beautiful. He hadn’t seen anyone like her in all his years. She wore her long, golden hair loose and flowing just over her dainty shoulders. Her large eyes were wide with terror and panic. They were painted in dark shades of blue and gray, like a storm filling the sunlit sky. Their shape, like his cat’s eyes at home. The top half of her was covered in a puffy red coat, cut to her hips. The bottom half of her was most intriguing in black hose and furry boots. Wolf had never seen garments like hers before. What was it she was screaming?
“Let me go! Is this some kind of sick joke?”
Was it the language of the Saxons? He spoke it almost fluently. This sounded somewhat different.
“I demand to speak to the person in charge!” she screamed out.
He rode to her, stopping before he trampled through the crowd. They scattered, but she did not. The net sank around her. She held it up in her fingers and glared at him.
“I am the leader,” he told her, staring into her defiant gaze.
“I’m going to have you fired for this.”
He couldn’t help the crook of his mouth rising with amusement at the venom of her threat. “Fired in what?”
“What?” She went a little paler than she naturally was.
“You will stop speaking now,” he commanded after his head cleared. “I will not be seduced by your witchery.”
“Witchery?” She managed to sound indignant instead of afraid. “What is this? Who are you? You don’t get to tell me what to do. Do you know who I am? Let me go!” By now, she was screeching and paining Wolf’s ears. “The joke is over, and it wasn’t funny!”
Fin came forward on his horse and rode the snorting beast so close to her that she had to step back lest she be trampled underfoot. “Do you disobey our chief?”
Though the blood drained from her delicately cut face and her eyes appeared glassy and deeper blue, less gray, the haughty tilt of her chin and the pert lift of her nose proved her foolish courage. Who was she? Wolf wondered. Where had she come from around here, where women were so bold? Or garbed themselves the way she did, with her beguiling curves almost bared before all?
She was terrified, yet—
“Are you all supposed to be Vikings?” she managed to ask.
Fin lifted his sword to her face. There was blood, still wet from his many victims, on it. She looked at it, covered her mouth, then her eyes, and then fell backward into a dead faint.
“Bring her to me,” Wolf commanded, then looked out among the crowd. They were mostly women and children, some men too old to fight a war but too young to be called old men. “If any of you are the wives of the fighting men, you are now widows. I am remorseful for your sakes—for how you will now live.” He stopped and waited while wailing filled the air and brought with it dark, dreary clouds. “I want food and lodging for me and my men. You will serve us from now on and will be provided for.”
Silence, save for some weeping, but no one defied him.
He turned his horse and was about to ride toward one of the huts for some shelter, when someone rose up to defy him yet again.
“I’m not serving anybody! Um, I’m Camelee Pendrey!” She gripped her head. “I think I need a doctor.”
He turned to look at her. He knew it was a mistake. The men were lifting the net while she awoke from her faint and sat up. The netting pulled and tugged at her hair. Her color had returned. Pale pink with darker contours masterfully applied with some kind of magical paint. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“You are now my servant,” he corrected her. “Bring her to me.”
He was patient while Fin and Akkar dragged her from the center of the market to him.
She resisted every step, even after he found a smile within him and let it shine on her.
“Seriously,” she pleaded when she reached him. “What’s going on here? Please. What’s going on?”
He understood enough of the Saxon’s language to know what she was asking. He understood that she was pleading for something. That was a little more like it. She was finally understanding that being subservient would get her more—
“Where. Am. I?” she asked carefully. “Who brought me here?”
“You are in Mercia. In England,” he added when she still looked lost. “Were you hit in the head?”
She shook it and tried to fight when Fin and Akkar tried to tie her to his horse.
“Stop resisting,” Wolf warned her. “Or you will discover what happens when my patience wears thin.”
She stopped resisting. Clever woman. He would have hated to go after her.
She walked at his side while he trotted slowly to one of the huts.
“I can’t be in Mercia, England, wherever that is. This is New York! This is some kind of sick reenactment thing and you’ve kidnapped me!”
“Call it whatever you wish,” he replied. He looked down at her and lifted his brow. “You will do what I ask or suffer the consequences.”
He almost heard her tight growl. Storms brewed in the ominous depths of her eyes. But she followed him. When he dismounted, she stepped aside just in time to avoid colliding into his body.
“I’m hungry,” he said, untying her from the horse.
“Okay?” she asked, as if she had no idea why he was telling her such a thing.
“Make me—us,” he corrected, looking behind them at the men “—something to eat.”
She laughed, tossing back her head with a dramatic flair. An instant later, she settled her darkening gaze on him. “I don’t know how to cook, and this isn’t my house.”
He tried to ignore the lock of her hair falling over her right eye. “What do you mean you don’t know how to cook? You are well past marriageable age.”
A flash of crimson brushed her cheeks. “Well past?”
He snapped his mouth shut, realizing the insult he’d given her. He looked over her shoulder at the other women following. “Do any of you know how to cook?”
They all nodded their heads and stared at him with fear and hatred in their eyes.
He’d have to keep his eyes on them. Men or women, none of them could be trusted. “Feed us,” he ordered.
“What’s to stop us from poisoning you?” Camelee Pendrey threw at him.
“Well, I will be stopping you by keeping you with me.” He flashed a stiff grin at her, and then found Akkar in the sea of faces entering the hut.
“The men need barracks.”
The farmer’s son nodded and ran off.
He took a step into the nearest hut and waited for her to follow. When she finally did, he stared into her eyes. He saw the hint of terror there, the battle she fought with herself to not fall at his feet and weep.
Wolf kept his gaze locked with hers. Or was it she who held the power of his gaze?
“Why are you not wed?” he asked while women went to work around her.
“How can this feel so real?” She fell into a chair and closed her eyes.
“It is real,” he assured her. “Are you possessed by a demon?”
She opened her eyes and gave him an impatient look. “No. I’m confused because a little while ago I was in some guy’s office in the city holding a brooch I inherited and then I was here, being captured by you! One second my whole world, my life changed.” She snapped her fingers, which Wolf noticed were each tipped with red paint or dye on her fingernails. “My bag is gone. My phone was in it, and my vape, credit cards. I don’t have any money, so you’re not going to get anything from me. Is that what this is? Are you holding me for ransom?”
“No,” he scoffed. “Is there someone of means who might give up their valuables for you?”
She was lying. “Where is your husband? On the field?” he demanded to know.
“I’m not married.”
“Expected, since you cannot cook,” he murmured, and without waiting for her reply, he went to speak to Fin, who was waiting at the door.
“We need a bigger hut,” his brother suggested. “Everyone will not fit in here.”
Wolf nodded in agreement. “Find out if there is a town hall or a great hall nearby. Keep me apprised.”
A short while later, the men all piled into a large town hall at the north end of the market, near the town church.
Wolf decided to remain in the hut, without all the noise, and in the company of Camelee Pendrey—and two of the women who were cooking for him. Normally, servants did not sit at his table, but Camelee had already been sitting there from when she fell into her seat earlier.
So, he sat opposite her. He wanted to see her, though he did not stare, and when he looked, he was quick to look away before being caught.
“Are you from this village?” he put to her, accepting one cup of whatever they drank here and taking a sip. She stared at the cup and cleared her throat. He observed her glancing around the table for her cup. And then at the other two women, who’d served him. When she realized she wasn’t getting anything to drink, her heated gaze found his.
He handed her his cup. She stared at it as if were a dead herring.
She turned away toward the women. “May I have some water?”
“Camelee,” he said keeping his voice low. He still held the cup out to her.
“You are tempting them to defy me. Is that truly your desire?”
She went pale, but only for a moment, and then she fumed at him. “What is this? Who are these people? End this now and I won’t have my lawyers destroy you!”
“Why do you speak like a madwoman? Are you?”
“I wasn’t mad this morning. But now I don’t know.”
He pushed the cup closer. She finally accepted it and brought it to her nose. “You don’t understand—at home, I’m an actress. I’m famous. I am treated very well. I—”
“Where is your home?” he asked her, not knowing, or caring what an actress was or why she was famous. If she was treated very well, that was going to change.
“New York. Manhattan.”
“New York,” she corrected. “New York,” she said again when he gave her a curious look. “The city that never sleeps. Home of the Yankees.”
She laughed a little. “Oh, come on, you don’t know who the Yankees are? Every guy knows—” She stopped and looked at her surroundings, at the two women cooking, the large stone oven, the bed a few feet away. The fear, so carefully concealed throughout most of her capture, became suddenly clear. The truth of her demise was difficult to ignore. Her tears welled up along the brims of her eyes—but they did not fall. She drew in a deep breath and patted her cheeks.
When she set her glassy gaze on him again, she wore a well-practiced smile. “Where did you say we are?”
He didn’t answer. He should have sent the two cooks away. Word moved swiftly around kitchen fires. A chief who had taken an interest in a captive? A servant? And a mouthy one at that? Who cared if she was mad in the head? All the more reason for her to not be sitting here.
He glanced at the two women cooking. “Stop asking questions. If you must speak, show gratitude to me for letting you sit at my table.”
She smiled, but her beguiling lips were pulled tight against her teeth. “Well then,” She gave him a pitiful look through her flaxen locks as she stood up. “I think I’ll be leaving now.” She tilted her chin and tucked her hair behind her ears. “And there’s no reason to answer my question. I already know I’m in hell.”
She turned to leave. He called her name to stop her. “You will remain here and wash the dishes. If you cannot cook, you will wash. That is it. It is done. Do you understand?” He believed she did.
She stopped and swung around to look at him. Still smiling, as if he were the mad one. “No, I don’t understand.”
His smirk widened. “Let me be more clear then. If you are not here to do these dishes, I will give you to Fin.”
Her eyes widened with pure terror. “I am not your property to give away!”
He nodded to disagree. “You are the spoils of war. My side won, yours did not.”
“But,” she said, returning to the table. “I don’t have a side.
“How can you not have a side?” he asked, genuinely curious. “Are you a traitor to your countrymen?”
“No!” she answered without haste. There was at least that. “Don’t try to put words into my mouth. Now tell me, what are the sides?”
“Danes against the Saxons.”
“A re-enactment,” she said in a low voice, almost a whisper.
“What is a re-enactment?” he asked. “You have strange speech.”
“But this can’t be real. It’s impossible!”
The two women, whom Wolf learned were called Brigid and Alison served him turnip and mushroom soup with carrots, and onions, and butternut squash. He tasted it and smiled. “It is real.” He invited the cooks to eat the rest before his men came looking for him. Camelee refused but he warned her that he didn’t know when her next meal would be. So, she ate.
“Now tell me,” he said after he asked Brigid and Alison to leave, “why do you keep saying this cannot be real?”
“Because I…I was in New York City this morning. I inherited some brooch and—I don’t know, I rubbed it. I felt compelled to rub it. A name appeared. Pendragon. I said it just like that—” She stopped and looked around as if expecting something to happen. “I said it and then I was here, under your net somewhere in England—”
“Mercia,” he reminded her, enjoying her tale and how she sounded telling it.
“Mercia.” She scrunched up her face. “How old is—” Her gaze roved over the room. “It may seem odd that I don’t know, but what year is it?”
It was odd. What was her ailment, he wondered? “It is one thousand and seventeen.”
Her mouth fell open a little. He was admiring it when she fell over once again into a dead faint.
With a sigh, Wolf rose from his chair, walked around the table, and scooped her up in his arms. She had opened her coat and he looked at the shape of her as it fell open. She was slight, thin, but curvy. He felt a bit out of breath. He didn’t know why.
He stretched her out on the table near his food and sat down to finish his meal.
He would decide what to do with her later. For now, though, he wanted to keep her.