War, conquest, treachery, betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the Viking age.
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Mary Ann Bernal
The Briton and the Dane novels bring to life the tumultuous ninth century when the formidable Vikings terrorized the civilized world. The epic adventure runs the gamut of deception, treachery, intrigue and betrayal during a time of war and conquest in Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Gwyneth walked towards the formidable Keep, nodding to the guards patrolling the wall-walk once she reached the top of the tower. She breathed in the sea air, admiring the beauty of the land as the sun disappeared below the horizon, mesmerized by the rich and colorful hues of the darkening sky. She was comforted by the melodious sound of breaking waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, which was a calming respite from the throes of a violent world.
As the blackness of night shrouded the earth, Gwyneth pondered the fate of her ancestors whose belief in Christ Jesus had cost them their lives, and she thanked God for having been born into a time when Christians were no longer persecuted for their beliefs. Yet, she did wonder about the people who still worshipped pagan gods, gods that demanded blood sacrifices to appease alleged offenses. She had been taught to love oneself, and one’s neighbor, seeking peace, and not war. However, war was inevitable since the formidable Norsemen continued to raid the rich, fertile island of Britannia.
Once Gwyneth became accustomed to the darkness, she was able to distinguish recognizable forms and shapes as she glanced upon the gentle waves caressing the sandy shore. She did not see the figure on the beach in full view, but from the corner of her eye, a shadow of a man walking towards the fortress walls, or was he heading towards the sea?
“That person could be lost,” Gwyneth thought.
Gwyneth could not contain her excitement as she succumbed to her curiosity and adventurous spirit. She left the protection the fortress walls afforded and followed the old Roman tunnel to the base of the cliff. The starless night and intermittent moonlight did not impede her progress as she crossed the rocky terrain since she had explored every inch of the surrounding countryside when she had first arrived at the citadel.
As Gwyneth ran towards the shoreline, she was well aware that she was alone, in the darkness, without any hope of rescue. If, indeed, there was a person walking the beach, would the encounter be safe? But then, a single person would not pose a threat, not really. She could defend herself if need be, but what if she was overpowered? She did not have a knife or sword, and the heathen threat was real, but not likely, yet, it was not prudent to venture out alone at night. She had acted on impulse, once again, and she admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that her brother, David, would not be pleased.
However, Gwyneth’s inquisitiveness and daring nature prevailed as she quickened her pace. She smiled when she remembered David telling her, on more than one occasion, that she had more courage and nerve than some of the aspiring warriors being trained. She noticed the crystalline grains of sand sparkling in the moonlight as a gentle wind scattered the feathery clouds, and she heard his labored breathing echoing in the stillness as he walked towards her.
“He is wounded and favoring his left side,” Gwyneth thought.
He was close enough to touch when he stumbled and fell to his knees. Gwyneth noticed the arrow in his shoulder as she rushed to his aid, and surmised that the shaft had split when he had tried to remove the tip. She was overcome with compassion as she attempted to help the injured stranger, and gave little thought to his nationality.
“Are you awake?” Gwyneth whispered. “The fortress is not far, and there are healers.”
Gwyneth sensed the tension and heard the urgency in his voice when he replied.
“No! It is not safe! My life is at risk! No one must know my whereabouts!”
“I can hide you,” Gwyneth told him as she tried not to speculate about what his words meant. However, she could not control her thoughts.“What if he is outlawed? Could he be the enemy?”
Surely there was a simple explanation of his plight. What if he had been caught in a tryst with a married woman, or what if he had been banished by his father and sought forgiveness after he had returned home? There were many innocent situations to consider, why must her thoughts always focus on the most treacherous?
With a degree of effort, Gwyneth was able to help him to his feet. She put his arm over her shoulder and headed towards the base of the cliff, but found it difficult to maintain a steady pace once they reached the rocky terrain.
“The cave entrance is not far,” Gwyneth said as he stumbled upon the loose stones.
Wall sconces placed throughout the hidden corridors securely held the blazing torches so that shadows obscured by the darkness became flesh and blood figures in the soft light. Gwyneth did not feel threatened as she gazed upon a man who was not much older than her brother.
“This passageway ends near the tower and chapel,” Gwyneth told him. “The hidden room is straight ahead.”
Gwyneth thought she was physically fit, but the stranger’s weight pushed her endurance over the edge. She took deep breaths as she attempted to conceal her fatigue, her hair and clothes becoming damp from the exertion. She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally opened the door, struggling to keep him upright, but he lunged forward and fell, once again. She was grateful he was able to lift himself off the floor as she helped him reach the bed.
Fortunately, Father Felix had taught her the healer’s craft so Gwyneth was well equipped to minister to his needs. She found her sewing box, grabbed old clothing that had been tossed in the corner with which to bind the wound, and hurriedly searched for her dagger.
The tenderness Gwyneth felt as she removed his shirt surprised her. There was dried blood on his shoulder, but the wound did not appear red or inflamed. The sight of his bulging muscles caused her heart to beat faster and her body tingled as she pressed against him. She tried to put aside this unsettling emotion when she softly told him.
“I have nothing to ease your suffering.”
“Do what you must, I can withstand the pain.”
Gwyneth hoped her soft and soothing words gave him comfort as she inspected the jagged flesh. The arrow tip was unbarbed, without any shards of wood, and was not deeply settled in the tissue, giving her hope that it could be pulled out intact.
“Dear God, guide my hand, and spare his life, if that is your will,” Gwyneth silently prayed.
Gwyneth washed the tip of the blade before cutting his skin, and she was not surprised when he did not cry out, knowing he would not want to appear weak and vulnerable. She gripped the shortened shaft between her fingers as she easily removed the implanted point, and since there was not much blood, she was hopeful. She reached for her dagger, keeping the blade in the flame until the metal changed color. She did not warn him when she thrust the searing tip into the gaping hole, but the smell of burning flesh was sickening as she suppressed the urge to gag. She sensed his apprehension and heard his stifled cries just before he lost consciousness.
“David will be impressed when my skills are made known,” Gwyneth thought, noticing his muscular build while she gently wrapped the wound.
Gwyneth knew the hour was late as she gazed upon the handsome warrior. She needed to be in the great hall for the night meal before her father noticed her absence. She sighed as she covered the mysterious stranger with a fur-lined blanket, reminding herself to collect some yarrow and plantain leaves in Father Felix’s garden before returning.
Gwyneth hurried through the old Roman tunnel and thanked God that she was not seen as she entered her chambers. She was relieved when she did not find any blood on her clothing as she hurriedly put on a dress, but was startled when the door was suddenly thrust open as she frantically searched for her cloak.
“Sanctus Deus! Why did you not knock?” Gwyneth yelled at her brother.
“Do not Holy God me!” David yelled back. “Why were you not at the table…where were you anyway?”
Gwyneth was well aware that her brother had been quite anxious as to her whereabouts, and she saw the relief his eyes depicted when he had found her safe and protected within the confines of her room.
“I was atop the Keep,” Gwyneth lied.
“I was at the tower. You were not seen!”
Gwyneth knew that he did not believe her, but she was grateful that he did not press her to speak the truth.
“Come, David,” Gwyneth told him as she put her arm through his. “We must leave before Stephen is sent to find us, and then our words would be suspect.”
“Not we, little sister, just you,” David grinned, “and I cannot wait to hear your explanation.”
As they made their way towards the great hall, Gwyneth knew that David sensed her excitement just as she sensed his anxiety. She did wish to confide in her brother, but not this night.