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A story of one man's fight for honor and the woman he cannot live without.
Mara, the daughter of an Irish clansman, was raised to believe the men of the North are heathens - murderous pagans without a moral bone in their bodies. Despite warnings of the Northmen's raids, and the growing threat of another incursion, Mara is continually drawn to her favorite place - the River Shannon.
Dægan Ræliksen, a wealthy chieftain from Norway's frozen fjords, secretly discovers Mara at the water's edge. He is charmed by her beauty and sensuous grace. As the days pass, his contentment with simply watching her grows thin. He can no longer deny his unabated desire for the young maiden. His search for a wife has ended.
However, Mara and Dægan come face-to-face in a time when Ireland is in turmoil - when every Irishman is being called up to fight against the Nordic foreigners. In these times of upheaval, how can Dægan make peace with Mara's father and acquire the woman he treasures? Furthermore, can Mara move past her fears and find the noble man within the savage?
Connacht, Ireland 916 AD
I shall marry this woman, Dægan Ræliksen decided. It had been over a fortnight since he first followed her through the green meadows to the waters of the River Shannon, watching her intently. Observing her seemed to give him great pleasure, and every day he would anticipate her arrival, secretly longing to hold her in his arms. Only lately did he grow impatient with his desire for her that this day, he settled on, would finally be the day he’d put his suffering to an end and make her his wife.
She stood amid the knee-high grasses and flowers in a long white flowing tunic, hemmed with an embroidery of vibrant gold at the ankles and wrists. The sleeves were long and tapered. The bodice mildly followed the curves of her dainty torso, blooming into a tasteful neckline that allowed just a slight hint of cleavage to show before a single jeweled brooch, under her chin, fastened a matching cloak at her shoulders.
In days passed, her tunics included colors of deep crimson, indigo, and sometimes an earthy beige, but today’s choice, he noted, was his favorite. She embodied the very likeness of a beautiful Valkyrie, save for her lack of weapons and fair hair. Her color was distinctly dark with shades of auburn glistening like radiant sunlight upon long russet curls. Her skin was smooth like fresh buttermilk and her smile, like a cool drink of water. She stood no taller than his shoulders, but she easily filled the empty space in his heart, if not the entire expanse of his mind for the past weeks.
By her attire, Dægan could only guess her to be an Irish maiden of wealthy descent. This, too, excited him, for in contrast to her befitting nature, she was rugged and spirited, riding her stallion as well as any of his mounted hirdmen to this specific place every day, yet still looking elegant upon it.
In the long hours that she had spent alone, no man had ever summoned or demanded her presence. He found this quite odd, for she was old enough for bedding and young enough for bearing solid, healthy sons. She came and went as she pleased, heedless to the fact that she was the object of another’s longing. Instead, she would often sing, tickling his heart with her exuberant voice, an Irish ballad that danced in his soul.
He was unexpectedly mesmerized by her, chained to the very thought that she could be all his if he only dared to make his presence known. That, in itself, would prove to be the most difficult, for he dreaded that his countrymen’s reputation as savage foreigners would precede any valiant attempt at meeting civilly. He was a handsome man with a persuasive charm, or at least he was told so by other women who had fancied him. Yet he knew an effective come hither approach would not be enough to swoon the innocent soul before him.
He had pondered his options last night over a scanty dinner of roasted rabbit, and had come up with the idea of “saving her” from the rampant run of a conveniently spooked steed. It could be done easily enough, assuredly changing her views of a savage foreigner to that of a hero, and quite possibly obtaining the affable encounter for which he so wished. But now, by midmorning, the idea seemed utterly ridiculous. There were too many possibilities for things to go wrong. The horse could rear and topple her from its back. He could have difficulties even catching up with her horse once it fled. Or worse, the horse may not even spook at all.
Discouraged, Dægan continued to gaze through the trees and brush at his enchanting maiden, wanting so desperately to step out and make himself known. But how? How could he show his face without frightening her?
He did know a little bit of Irish, given that he had made his home off the west coast of Ireland for the past two years. Being a merchant, he also needed to know enough of the language to make certain he was getting a good trade for the spices he had imported from the southern lands. He could even boast smooth-tonguing a few endearments in the beautiful lilting Gaeilge, but he knew this woman only had to look at him to know he was not Irish.
Every idea, no matter how promising it seemed, had its pitfall. He could only close his eyes and pretend to exist in a different world. And how grand a world he could envision behind closed lids; a place where they could meet without apprehension, smile without pause, and converse without falsehoods. What he wouldn’t give to make that world a reality…
But as Dægan opened his eyes in weary disappointment, he caught his breath to find her walking closer to him. His body became rigid, his heart raced, and only then did he notice just how fiery his blood could run through his veins. The distance between them was diminishing slowly with each of her steps and he had not a plan for with to remedy this turn of events.
Fleeting ideas swarmed his brain like dancing bees. ‘Tis too soon in the day for pilfering and much too foolish to be thinking it. The only halfway respectable idea that came to mind was to lie down and fake an injury. Perhaps he could say he’d fallen from his own horse, appearing helpless and pitiful, conceivably someone in dire need of care and kindness. But for some reason, he did not drop to his back and put that plan into motion. He sat frozen, only staring as she stopped a few feet from him to peer blindly into the thicket.
Her voice was like springtime; genuinely sweet with a pleasant, melodic tone that could very well warm a chilled soul after a long daily Erin rain. It was with this thought that he drew in a slow breath, catching her airy spiced scent that sifted between the summer green leaves of the hedge plant separating them. And he wondered if Valkyries smelled as good as she did.
Suddenly, from behind her, Dægan could see several dark figures emerging on the shores of the River Shannon. Although their distance was too far, he managed to make out that they were not alone. Coming closer were three more longboats flaunting red and white sails. He did not recognize the men, but he knew from the shape and adornments on the prow that they were like him, Norse.
By this time, four men had pulled the vessel out of the water and others were descending from each side. Their numbers were large and men who came in sizeable fleets were not usually merchants, but hirdmen who were following their chieftain into a devastating raid for booty—or worse yet—war!
Dægan reacted with lightening speed and pulled the Irish maiden to the ground before she could say another word.
* * * *
Her captor was a brawny brute in his prime, just as weighty as he was tall, and without much effort he stifled her screams of terror with a simple hardened hand to her mouth, while his other hand matched her frantic squirming. His legs pushed hers to the ground and held them there like they were nothing but the meager limbs of a child.
He was strong. Oh, God, how he was strong! But she refused to give in, and threw wide her mouth, biting the bulge of skin on his palm that lay across her lips.
Dægan retracted his hand from her vengeful jaws, and in an instant, she catapulted her forehead into his nose, a maneuver he had not expected a woman to know. The pain in his face was severe, and he dropped his head, giving way to the blood that started to flow from both nostrils and down around his mouth.
She tried again to wiggle free, but he seemed to almost collapse upon her, limiting her chances of profiting from her clever defense. His body was heavy and hot against hers, his hair stringing in her face as he drooped limply at her neck.
Dægan felt as if everything around him was going black, and whatever remained in his tunnel-view, was in complete vertigo. Despite the slip of consciousness that was rushing through him, he could still feel her relentless thrashing beneath him. He tightened his hold on her, grasping for strength as if his very will to stay coherent were cinched around her fragile little wrists. The only thing that kept him from dozing into a helpless sleep was the acute awareness of his own blinding agony, for it had now become his only incessant thought. He forgot the woman, her sweet alluring voice, her carefree mornings, and her lighthearted dances amidst the tall flowers of the Erin meadow. All he knew now was the pain in his face and the indignant wrath that followed right behind it.
A deep moan escaped him, and it was in that moment, when she had turned her head to avoid his bloody face, that she, too, saw the accumulation of more men coming ashore. I shall die this day, she thought.