Authors: Jo Grafford
Tags: #shifters, #historical romance, #mythology, #magic, #Vikings
“Sven!” Eirik’s voice was tense as he called his bo’sun to the bow. “Cease your efforts to charm my witch. I’ve need of your blokey noggin’.” Water streamed from his hair and ran in rivulets down his well-sculpted chest as he climbed aboard.
The caressing tone of his voice was as intimate as a kiss, though he did not return the sunny smile his words elicited from her. On the contrary, his blue gaze seared her with raw-edged concern. Something was wrong.
WO thralls rushed to Eirik’s side to cover their Jarl with dry blankets. Another thrall stood before the dragon’s neck of the bow and presented his master with a fresh change of clothing. In a couple of minutes, Eirik was dressed in tunic, vest, and trousers. He reclined bare of feet before a snapping fire built upon a box of sand in the middle of the deck. Sven and two other crewmen huddled next to him, deep in conversation. They cast anxious glances over their shoulders in the direction where Eirik had been swimming.
Without warning, Sven shouted for the men to take up their oars. Branwyn watched, puzzled, for the big sail was catching the wind nicely on its own and moving them along at a steady clip. Crewmen adjusted the sail and turned the steerboard to set the vessel on an easterly course. Due east, if she wasn’t mistaken. Then the rowers dug in their oars. There was a sense of quiet urgency about their movements.
Though uninvited, Branwyn crept closer to the fire, hoping to overhear whatever it was that had the Vikings in such a lather. The closer she inched to their circle, however, the harder it was to focus on anything but Eirik’s nearness. His hair was still damp from the swim, and his scent bore a heady combination of brine and smoke and come-hitherness. She wanted to tug him back to the tent and climb into his lap for a repeat session of the kissing they’d enjoyed her first night on the longship.
Mine. Mine. Mine.
The thought repeated itself like a relentless chant, making the heat rise to her cheeks.
Eirik swiveled his head and locked gazes with her. Lightning blue shot from his eyes, making her heart pound wildly in her chest. “Come, Branwyn.” He beckoned to her. “The topic of our conversation concerns you as much as the rest of us.”
She eyed his tanned arm longingly, hardly registering his words. She wanted nothing more than to lace her fingers through his and curl herself against his side. The hunger was so strong, she threw caution to the wind and ran to him, all other thoughts draining from her head.
“Nay, lass!” In a single motion, Sven rose and wedged himself between them. She slammed into his chest, biting her lip so hard it bled.
“Pray pardon,” she whispered. “I cannot seem to help making a spectacle of myself, can I?” Tears of frustration burnt behind her eyelids. In the past, she had prided herself on her impeccable poise, had been known for her ironclad control. Without it, she was weak and vulnerable, lessened somehow.
“”Tis no fault of your own,” he assured and patted her back awkwardly. “Do not be so hard on yourself.”
For a moment, Branwyn rested her forehead against Sven’s brown wool tunic, sucking her injured lip. Then she took a fortifying breath and stepped back. “I must, for I am a healer,” she said firmly. “Aye, that is the answer. Why did I not think of it before? Until the curse is removed, I must use my powers to shield myself and others from it.” Whatever he saw in her face made him step aside, though he kept a cautious hand curled around her elbow.
“I need my wand, Eirik. Now, please.” Her voice was low and soft yet commanding as she turned to face him.
He slowly untied the sack at his waist and removed the slender stick of red elder wood. “All I have is this small stirring rod,” he teased, twirling it between his fingers.
She clenched her teeth and shut her heart against his playful tone. “You know what I am and why I tried to hide it. Do not make me beg.” She held out a beseeching hand and closed her eyes. If she continued to drink in his perfect face and form with her eyes, she would be unable to keep from throwing herself at him.
The wand, still warm from his touch, tapped her outstretched palm. Before she could compose herself enough to open her eyes, Eirik’s breath stirred against her ear. “That is exactly what I intend to make you do, witch. Beg. For me. After the curse is vanquished. When there is nothing else standing between us.”
At Branwyn’s whimper, Sven’s grip on her arm tightened. “Jarl,” he warned.
Only when she perceived Eirik had moved away from her did she dare open her eyes. Not trusting herself to look at Eirik just yet, she clutched her beloved wand. It pulsed and warmed in her hand.
The change in her was instant. She felt stronger, more capable — a hundred times better to have it back in her possession. ’Twas the primary tool of her trade. Without it, she was like a seamstress without her needle, a farmer without his plow, a warrior without his sword.
Now all she had to do was decide on the perfect shield to place between him and her. ‘Twould require an enormous amount of energy to hold onto it for several hours or even days. However, ‘twould be well worth the sense of normalcy it should return to their lives. Her confidence restored by the decision, Branwyn sought out Eirik. He was seated once more before the fire. His eyes darkened with intensity and held hers as she settled herself across from him. Sven remained glued to her side.
“What is it that concerns you, m’lord?” Her voice shook with the agony of being so near to him without being able to touch him.
“We are heading inland for an unscheduled stop in Wales.”
“Marvelous.” She clapped her hands in sheer excitement. “No doubt a bit of mistletoe flourishes in Wales.”
“We are not precisely stopping to harvest mistletoe. A new danger drives us to the mainland.”
Her green eyes widened.
“Whilst our jarl swam, something with scales brushed his leg,” Sven explained. “Then he heard music. Bells and harps and singing. We are fortunate he made it back to the ship at all.”
“Mermaids,” Branwyn repeated carefully. “I’ve read about them in folklore but never seen them with my own eyes. They are female but only part human. Perhaps the part that is not human will provide an immunity of sorts from the effects of the curse.”
Eirik shrugged. “With or without the curse, they pose a serious danger to my men.”
“And to you,” she said fiercely.
“Aye. There is that.”
“Three to the south,” the watch bellowed. The small group around the fire dispersed to the rails. Sven drug Branwyn alongside him.
“There,” he announced, pointing beyond the stern. “Mermaids. They approach with boldness, knowing well we are still a mile from the coastline. They swim quicker than our men can row.”
Branwyn shaded her eyes with her arm and squinted out to sea. Then she rubbed her eyes and looked again. Either she was imagining things or three mermaids splashed and dove their way towards the longship. One water nymph in particular, a black-haired beauty with a silver tail seemed to be swimming harder than the rest. Even more troubling, she swam in a straight line to the longship.
“Nay,” Branwyn breathed and whirled to seek Eirik’s whereabouts. He stood in the steer, gripping the steerboard. “She cannot have you, or any of your men. I will not allow it.” She lunged for him, raising her wand, but Sven grabbed her wrists to hold her still. “No sudden moves, lass. We must do nothing to further incite the creatures. This ship is hardly equipped to withstand a mer attack.” Over her head, he shouted, “Every man! Stuff your ears with wool and lash yourselves to the ship.”
“Commence the chant of the rowers, Sven,” Eirik ordered. “Perchance it will muffle their siren song long enough for the men to make themselves battle ready.”
Branwyn struggled to remove Sven’s hands from her arms to no avail.
“Eirik,” she begged. “Command him to set me free, so I might weave a shield of protection around us.”
Concern ravaged his features. “We’ve no time, lass. The mer creatures have already begun to sing.” He produced a coil of rope and tossed it to the bo’sun. “Sven, you must do what I cannot without touching her. Lash her to the ship.”
“Nay!” Branwyn cried as Sven backed her up against the mast and began to wind the rope around her waist. “This is madness. I am no use to you trussed up like a wild animal in a trap.”
“’Tis for your own good, lass. Every man is lashing himself to the ship, so none will leap or slip overboard during the attack.”
Mercifully, he left her arms free.
Once she was securely fastened to the beam, Sven dashed to the steerboard to relieve his jarl. Eirik strode towards Branwyn and positioned himself between her and rail. He continued to communicate with his deafened men via hand signals.
He turned suddenly and crushed his mouth to hers. For a moment, she forgot the approaching mermaids. “Eirik,” she breathed, gripping his upper arms. She writhed against the ropes, wanting and needing to be nearer to him. She sobbed in relief when he took the final step to close the distance between them. “I love you,” she murmured in his mouth when he paused to let her catch her breath. She looped her arms around his neck and molded herself to his glorious body, convinced she would expire on the spot if he ever stopped kissing her.
He shuddered as her words sank home “Ah, Branwyn, if only this blasted curse did not stand between us,” he groaned against her lips. “It torments me mercilessly to hear you declare emotions for me you do not genuinely feel.”
He brushed aside the vehement denial that sprang from her lips and framed her face with his hands. “By Thor, I never meant to place you in such danger as this. Whatever happens this day, my precious girl, be assured I will protect you with my life. None will get to you but through me.” Then, despite her piteous cries of protest, he stepped back and unwound her arms from his neck.
Tears streamed down her face as she watched him walk away. He could die today –
Sweet Mary! They might both die.
It shattered her that she might lose him forever, while he yet believed she harbored not one whit of genuine attraction for him. Her eyes greedily followed his movements as he ripped a narrow strip of cloth from the hem of his tunic and tore it in two. Rolling them into cylinders, he plugged his ears.
care!” she screamed after him in despair, but he could no longer hear her. He sprinted to the oars and wrestled with a young sailor who thrashed against his bonds and tried to break loose from the ship. Tearing another strip from his tunic, Eirik rolled two bits of fabric and stuffed them in the lad’s ears. Then he cradled the lad with his giant frame and placed his arms atop the youth’s to help him resume the motion of rowing. Within moments, the glaze evaporated from the sailor’s eyes, and he began to paddle of his own accord. Satisfied, Eirik backed away and hurried to assist another.
The song of the mermaids grew stronger and eclipsed the chanting of the sailors. ’Twas a beautiful chorus, harmonic and full, as if dozens of voices joined together. It rose and peaked on a heartrendingly high note, ebbed to a quieter strain, and then surged again. Squinting out to sea, Branwyn sagged against her bonds.
The ship was surrounded with a veritable army of mer creatures. They arched and dove like dolphins, splashed each other, intertwined their arms and floated backwards together, and sang all the while like angels.
The first three mermaids arched in and out of the waves in a playful dance right against the side of the ship. Drops of water from their silvery blue-green tails sprayed the deck. One was a white blonde with hauntingly transparent skin and features, and her companion was a brunette with lush red lips. Naught but a narrow weave of seaweed and shells splayed across their ample breasts, hiding little of their nakedness.
The one with flowing black hair leaped up, grasped the side of the ship, and hauled herself eye level with the oarsmen. She balanced herself there, elbows extending across the ledge and offered a sultry smile to the nearest crew member, Alf. Her skin was a dark, burnished copper as if kissed repeatedly by the sun, and her eyes turned exotically up at the corners.
At three and thirty, Alf was one of the oldest sailors aboard ship. According to Sven, he was the proud mate of a highly skilled weaver and the father of six stair-step bairns. He continued to row with all of his strength until the cords of his neck stood out from the effort. He kept his face averted to avoid eye contact with the lovely mer creature.
With a gesture so rapid that her movements appeared blurred to Branwyn, the dark-eyed beauty reached over and yanked one of the coils of cloth from Alf’s ear. She leaned closer and began to sing less than an arm’s length from his face. In seconds, his eyes glazed, and the oar in his hands stilled.
“Nay!” Branwyn shrieked as he ripped at the bonds that held him to the ship. “Alf, nay!” She swung her head wildly in search of Eirik. He stood over a pair of sailors at the front of the line. They writhed and thrashed against their bonds whilst the transparent blonde hung over the rail and sang them into oblivion.
Eirik whipped the sword from his waist and pressed the tip to her collarbone. She tipped her head back and bestowed a lazy, wicked smile upon him. Branwyn trembled to see the sun glinting from a mouthful of razor sharp teeth.
Merciful heavens! The creatures not only could sing a man to his watery death, they could also bite like sharks.
Eirik increased the forward pressure of the blade until a droplet of blood formed above the mermaid’s breasts. With an unholy scream of rage, she performed a backwards flip and returned to the water. The music suddenly ceased and was replaced by a cacophony of angry cries. The mermaids no longer leaped and dove playfully. They began to launch themselves from the water and slap at the sailors with their powerful tails. Some dove head first at the rowers and gnashed at their arms and shoulders with their teeth. Soon, red splattered and stained the men’s tunics.
Every sailor not manning an oar drew his sword. Sven ran shouting towards Alf and made a slash for the neck of the mermaid who tormented him. If she had not jackknifed her slender body away from the ship at the exact moment she did, her head would have been severed from her shoulders. Sven quickly jammed a roll of cloth into Alf’s empty ear.