Authors: Jo Grafford
Tags: #shifters, #historical romance, #mythology, #magic, #Vikings
Whispering a prayer for mercy, Branwyn clutched the silver cross at her neck and tensed for the mortal blow. Instead of feeling its burning strike, she heard the iron tip of the spear clatter to the rocky ground beside them. She stared, shocked by the miss, as Byron retrieved his weapon and sprinted to catch up with the constable who was closing in on her.
Branwyn followed their progress with a pounding heart as her rescuer turned sharply onto a pier. Unlike the others, this one was crawling with men. Two dozen or more scurried about in preparation for sailing. Several toiled to untie their ship from the pier while others raised a large, square sail. The remaining men took up oars. It was a longship and all Branwyn needed to prove her original theory. Eirik was a Viking as were his men. Indeed, she was surrounded by savage Vikings, the most feared marauders of the sea.
This was Eirik’s idea of providing safe passage from Exeter?
“Halt!” The Bishop of Exeter cried at the water’s edge. He had them cornered now. He stalked down the pier, brandishing his spear. His white robes billowed ominously behind him while the constable marched at his side, a deadly pistol trained on them. “In the king’s name, halt I say.”
With a groan of irritation, Eirik turned with her in his arms to face the duke. “Now what? Do you wish to procure passage for yourselves as well?”
The Viking’s men stepped between Byron and Branwyn, surrounding the two intruders. In a flash, ugly knives were pressed to the sides of their necks. The bishop and constable were summarily relieved of their weapons.
“Nay. I—” Byron’s eyes bulged as he struggled against his captors. His expression turned dazed as realization of his tenuous position sank home. “As the king’s man, I felt it prudent to follow you in order to warn you. The woman you carry—”
“Indeed, I heard you the first time. She is your sister.” Eirik’s chest shook with suppressed mirth.
“Aye. Once upon a time she was.” Regret infused Byron’s voice. “She ceased being my sister when she chose instead to become an abomination before the Lord. Alas, Branwyn is a witch.”
“Branwyn, eh?” The Viking’s voice was caressing as he set her down at last, allowing her to slide down his hard frame with devastating slowness. Her breath came in tortured gasps by the time her feet touched the pier. He immediately hooked an arm around her waist and yanked her against his side. She was rendered speechless beneath a new and overpowering burst of desire to loop her arms around him and bury her face in his tunic. The urge left her utterly shaken.
“And a thief,” the duke declared. “She must have stolen the coin she gave you for passage, for I cut off her allowance months ago in light of...her most unfortunate circumstances....” His voice dwindled beneath the glares of his captors.
“These are serious accusations indeed.” The chest Branwyn was pressed against swelled with the deep breath its owner took. “Produce your witnesses, and we shall proceed with the trial at once.”
“Now?” The duke’s voice rose to a squeak. “Perhaps with a bit more time, I can—”
“Aye. Now. Do I look like a man with endless amounts of time to spare?” Eirik snarled. “I’ve business to attend and must be on my way before dawn. Surely you travel with a warrant for the girl’s arrest? Nay?” His gaze drifted to the man’s companion. “Perhaps you are the one carrying it, constable? What?” He sounded incredulous. “You possess neither witnesses nor warrant yet demand I turn over an English citizen? Ah, this is rich.” He ran a hand over the face of his mask, making no attempt to conceal his annoyance. “Pray assure me, my lord bishop, you do not make a habit of traipsing about the countryside and terrorizing the populace with such frivolous accusations.”
“Nay, of course not. I—”
“Good day to you then, m’lord. Give my regards to the clergy in Exeter.” The Viking turned, lifted Branwyn into his ship, and stepped in after her without letting go of her waist. By her best estimate, the vessel was over fifty feet long and nearly twenty wide with dark overlapping planks. A symmetrical stern and bow swept up like the extended necks of twin dragons.
“I must insist you release the woman to me for a proper trial,” the bishop pleaded in a quavering voice. “Methinks the king will be most displeased to learn you harbor a fugitive.”
Eirik gave a bark of laughter and slung a second arm around Branwyn, drawing her shoulders back against his chest. “On the contrary, my brother takes little interest in my affairs. He is occupied with far weightier matters, like ruling nations and such.”
“Your b-brother?” the bishop stuttered. “Nay, ’tis not possible. William the Conquerer has only two brothers. Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, and Count Robert of Mortain. To make such a claim borders on treason. You, sirrah, are an imposter, and I will personally see to it that—”
“Throw them in.” Eirik’s voice was icy with finality as he addressed his men. “I’ve a sudden hankering to watch the bishop cool his righteous arse in the sea.”
Without hesitation, the sailors hauled their two captives at a dead run to the end of the pier and launched them howling with rage into the deep.
“All aboard!” Eirik bellowed. There was a raw edge of excitement to his voice. “Each man to the ready. Bo’sun?”
“Aye, sir.” A hulking man in a leather helmet straightened to his full height and offered a two-fingered salute to his master. His dark eyes drifted over Branwyn in consternation.
“Set sail this brig whilst I interrogate the witch.”
The hope Branwyn had tasted after Eirik so casually brushed aside her brother’s warnings turned bitter in her mouth.
“Aye, sir. Your cabin is ready, sir.”
Eirik whirled viciously. “If you address me as sir one more time, Sven, I shall be tempted to break that pretty nose of yours.”
Sven grinned in response and offered another salute. With one last worried glance at Branwyn, he took charge. The ship shoved away from the pier, and the rowers picked up speed.
Branwyn searched the lengthy deck in the moonlight but could see no cabin, only a single makeshift tent tied between the mast and the side of the ship.
Eirik hauled her to the tiny tent, pulled aside the opening flap, and yanked her inside. A single lantern lit the snug interior as he secured the canvas. Thick furs lined the floor. With the singsong chanting of the men’s voices rising around them, ‘twas a truly private meeting. For the first time since leaving the tavern, Eirik let go of her. Branwyn quickly scooted away from him and wrapped her arms around her middle to tamp down on the ever-surging desire for physical contact with him.
He tossed her sack of herbs down between them. “There. As promised, I have provided you safe passage from Exeter. Now I have need of some assistance in return — assistance of a magical sort. Do you know a spell to break a spell?”
She recoiled at the question, knowing what he asked but having no intention of incriminating herself by openly practicing her magic. “I know not of what you speak,” she protested with vehemence.
“Your brother called you a witch, and I witnessed you mixing a potion that rendered his knights useless in their pursuit of you. Then, I found this in your sack.” He drew out her wand, a stick of red elder wood. It bore a curved handle carved with symbols of peace and power.
“Byron is a superstitious oaf,” she cried, “I am not a witch but a healer. Any number of my patients will vouch for me...not that they are near enough to question at the moment.” At the cold blue anger pooling in Eirik’s eyes, she stammered. “About th-the potion you saw me drink, I-I mix tonics all the time to ward off sickness. That piece of wood is my, er, stirring rod.”
“Call yourself whatever you will, Branwyn. Your powers do not scare me. In truth, I sought you out a-purpose in the hopes you would heal me from the effects of a spell. ‘Twas cast on me by a most wretched sorceress.”
Fearing another trap, Branwyn stared at the ground. “Methinks you mistake me for another. I am naught but a lowly healer, cast off by an overzealous brother in a fit of religious fervor. Wh-why do you ask me such things, m’lord?”
“Very well,” Eirik snapped and dropped her wand back into the sack. “If you wish to indulge in games, at least choose one that gives me equal pleasure. By Thor, I’ve been long without a woman.” He closed the distance between them and hauled her into his lap.
RANWYN keened at the electricity of his touch. The pads of Eirik’s fingers caressed her nape and traced their way down her spine. With his other hand, he pulled off his leather helmet. She gasped at the sight of his entire face. ‘Twas perfectly formed. Why, the man was as handsome as a Greek god! And his hair was not so dark as she originally thought it to be. ‘Twas a sun-burnished brown with streaks of blonde that swept from his brow and tumbled past the neckline of his tunic. His sideburns were well groomed and ran along a squared jaw line. His mouth was framed with a well-clipped beard that tapered to a point blow his chin. Best of all, sheer male interest filled his gaze which was entirely focused on her. She’d never before felt so female, so utterly desirable, so wanton.
With a cry of wonder, Branwyn cupped his face. She was a maid whom most men feared for practicing her art. Thus, she was unaccustomed to being the recipient of such unadulterated admiration and was fast falling drunk with the pleasure of it. Her fingers traveled over perfect cheekbones and plunged into Eirik’s hair. Fisting the silken threads, she tugged on his head and sighed as he bent and settled his lips on hers, hot and ready. She whimpered at the fury of the storm he released in her with his questing mouth.
When her lips parted, Eirik arched her over his arm and thrust his tongue against hers in a wild mating. Branwyn had never experienced anything like it. She wanted to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time. Her skin heated to an almost unbearable level everywhere he touched. Her emotions leaped and swirled in a tangled array, clouding her ability to think. She could only feel, and even that was not enough. She wanted, nay needed, more of him.
Tugging the laces of his tunic open at his throat, she dipped a hand inside to trace the hard planes of his chest and cried out in alarm when Eirik abruptly shoved her away. His breath sounded as a ragged as hers. “Such is my curse, Branwyn O’Tyre. Every woman I touch is forced to lavish her affections upon me. What I would not give for one genuine response from thee.”
She blinked in shock, only to discover the dampness of tears on her face. She dashed the back of a hand down one cheek. “What sort of game is this?” she whispered. “I do not feel like myself. ’Tis as...as if...” Her eyes widened in horror. “I am bewitched.”
“Exactly,” he snarled. “This is the curse I am trying to explain. A year ago on my twenty-third birthday, I rebuffed the advances of a beautiful young woman whom I did not love. Alas, she turned out to be a sorceress. She repaid me by casting a spell that forces every female I touch to fall into a frenzy of lust.” His mouth twisted bitterly. “Thus she robbed me of one of mankind’s greatest gifts — the ability to seek and find true love.”
“Does the curse wear off?” Branwyn asked, rubbing her arms to combat the sudden chill in the tent.
“Nay. It only grows stronger. An afflicted barmaid recently followed my ship on foot into the sea and drowned in her efforts to reach me.”
“Sven accompanied me to dinner at the inn where she worked. I did not so much as speak to the lass, but she made the unfortunate mistake of patting my shoulder when she delivered my ale.”
Branwyn’s thoughts raced. “When you grabbed my hand at the tavern,” she accused. “You knew what would happen when you touched me. Why ever did you—”
“Because you were in danger,” he retorted. “I could not just stand there and watch the bishop and his guard haul you away in chains.”
“Nay, not when you had such desperate need of my services yourself,” she answered sharply. “Better to enslave me to your bloody worship than allow me to return to my peaceful existence.” Branwyn bit her lip to keep from wailing in despair. She had experienced sheer ecstasy in Eirik’s arms, more powerful than any magic she’d ever known. For a few brief moments, she had felt the emotion that bards and minstrels sing of. To hear him now call what they had shared a curse was almost more than she could bear.
“Peaceful?” Eirik’s lip curled. “You call your life peaceful? By Thor, wench, I did my research before I hunted you down. According to my sources, you were living in the streets and running from men with pitchforks on a regular basis. Nay, I’ll not be apologizing for rescuing you from such a life. Not now. Not ever.”
When he leaned towards her to emphasize his point, Branwyn shrank away. “Stay back,” she warned. “If you want my help, you must promise never to touch me again. I cannot form a single, blessed thought when you do.”
His eyes glinted with humor and something more. “Never is a long time, Branwyn. Did you find my kisses so abhorrent then?” The man actually sounded wounded.
Her eyes flew to his, thinking he mocked her, but his expression was difficult to read. “You know I did not,” she said dryly. “Such is your curse and mine for the moment. And I’ll be having that promise before I assist you. ’Tis my only assurance that you and your men will allow me to go my own way unharmed when this ship lands.”
“Unharmed? Blast you, Branwyn. I may steal a few kisses now and then, but I am no animal,” he snarled. “I would rather fall on my sword right now than to stand by and watch my curse claim the lives of any more innocent women.” For emphasis, he drew his hunting knife from its scabbard at his waist.
“Very well. I believe you.” She shuddered at the cold intent in his gaze. “Put away your blade, Viking. You should know better than to tempt the Fates so foolishly.”
Eirik tapped the flat of the blade against his palm. “Perhaps if some misfortune befell me, ‘twould free you all the sooner from my curse.”
“Is that so?” Branwyn’s hands tightened into fists. She pressed them to the flare of her hips. “I hate to disappoint you, but the first oath my mother made me take before teaching me the ways of a healer is ‘
Do no harm
.’ I am in the business of repairing people — not disassembling them — so please put away your weapons. They are making me twitchy.”