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Van Gorp Books
The Warlord's path to find a more peaceful life continues and leads him to a new land.
The warrior woman's quest to be as good as any man becomes an obsession. Will she be able to lower the barrier she hides behind to allow someone to love her?
Rafn Vakrson, Warlord of Skiringssal, is dissatisfied with the life he has always led. Finding his wife has settled his heart and quieted the storm that lives inside him, but his search for peace continues. He is tired of the fighting and wants to find a path that leads away from the constant battles that have plagued him since he was a boy. He chooses to follow the Seer's vision of a new home in Iceland. But even in this northern land trouble finds him and he is forced to release the storm to keep those he loves safe.
Joka is determined to prove she is a warrior as good as any man, though she has never trusted any of them. Having been raised in a cruel village where women are treated no better than cattle, she learned at an early age to hate all men. But as she strives to be just like the warriors she distrusts, has she forgotten what it is to be a woman?
Peder, Lord of Dun'O'Tir, has met his match in the striking warrior woman. Will he give up his birthright and ignore his duty to King and land to win the heart of this woman who looks at him with nothing but contempt? What would such a challenge cost him?
And what has the Seer seen that will affect all their lives? Can Systa change Joka's fate from the fatal end she fears?
In the night Systa crept off to sit in her small cave. She sat silently as she shook the runes between her hands. The runes were made of animal bones on which she had carefully sketched symbols used by her people. She breathed her life into the runes so they might help her find the answers she sought.
Haunted had been her dreams lately and she needed to find some answers. She stopped the movement of her hands and brought them, while still closed over the runes, to her mouth and pressed them against her lips.
With a soft prayer she tossed them across the cave floor in front of her. She closed her eyes and willed calmness to travel through her before she dared to open them to see what the runes would tell her. She leaned over the scattered bones to study them.
She read them carefully… and knew what the next step must be.
It was time for Joka to know the path that must be taken.
Joka had fought, and fought well. Her hand clenched in memory of the sword she’d held. It had not tasted flesh as she had hoped, but a life had been taken by her hand.
Her gaze moved around her small cottage as she reached for the hilt of the dagger on her belt. She rubbed it with reverence. Its short blade had been the one she’d used to kill the warrior.
Joka sat down on the pallet of her bed and held her hand in front of her. She could still see the blood that had poured over her fingers before the rain had washed them clean. Her hand fell to her side.
Her sword would be wetted, this she vowed. She had fought well with it. Her dance had been everything she’d dreamed it would be. None could doubt she had the right to claim the title of warrior.
It had only been a few days since she’d gone to find Rafn Vakrson, Warlord of Skiringssal. He was husband to Seera, the woman she’d rescued from a blizzard, after she’d escaped the clutches of the one-eyed man who’d raped and flogged her.
With the help of Joka’s sister, Seera healed and birthed her son in the high mountain meadow they called home.
Then one night, after the Raven had searched many months for his wife, Systa had sent Joka to lead Rafn to his wife and son.
Hwal, the giant man with the missing eye, lay dead in a valley that had taken her two days on foot to reach. Rafn had left him for the scavengers.
Smoothing the wrinkles from her woolen trousers, she stood to face the door. On the other side she could hear the voices of the two men. Rafn’s voice was deep and clear, but it was the other’s that caused Joka to hide within her dwelling.
She began to pace across the wooden floor, her irritation growing. The sunlight outside the window beckoned and Joka was itching to escape.
Outside the door, at the front of the cottage, she heard Peder, Lord of Dun’O’Tir, laugh. Her heart quickened at its easy sound.
She stepped to the window in the side wall. She could make it through, she thought. She was determined.
She peeked out the window and was satisfied the men wouldn’t see her. She lifted first one leg, then the other, and slid through the opening. Her feet touched down with no sound to alert Peder and Rafn as they sat around the corner.
Joka wandered out into the forest behind the cottage she shared with her sister and as of late with the Lady Seera and her son. A soft breeze rustled the leaves and carried a sweet scent of flowers. Quiet as any hunter, she stepped with care along the dirt path. A squirrel that sat munching on a fallen nut beside the trail did not look up to watch her passage. She slowed as she heard the trickling of the stream.
She breathed in a sigh of relief at her successful escape. As she bent at the water’s edge her thoughts turned to her sister’s words of the night before.
Systa wanted them to leave. To journey with Seera and her husband back to Skiringssal, the large trading village set on the waters of the Vik. It was a place where many lived, and the best warriors trained. But Joka didn’t believe they would allow a woman to train with them, even if she’d already proven herself a warrior.
She had not believed they would leave their secluded mountain hideaway so soon. She had grown to love the independence it had offered her and her sister, but Systa had argued that it was never intended to be a permanent home. The goddess, Freyja of the Vanir, had only led them there to help Seera when she was in need.
Joka had known this and had understood it, but it was still hard to walk away to return to a world where men dominated. Memories filtered through her mind to catch her in its claws. She would not forget the images of her father beating her mother until she could do nothing more than weep at his feet.
When Systa became a woman, he turned his fist on her and Joka had known that it was only time before she too would receive his wrath. When she had turned sixteen he came for her. He beat her only once, for she would not allow him to touch her again.
That night as the bruises started appearing on her skin, she’d quickly and cleanly taken his knife from the table by his bed and killed him while he slept, plunging it through his heart. As he lay in death she had stared down into his scarred face and smiled. He would not hurt any of them again.
A movement in the bushes brought her back to the present and she drew her knife from her belt. She searched out the danger. She was alert and cautious even as the bushes parted to reveal that it was Seera’s brother, Peder.
The man made her uneasy and she wasn’t happy at his intrusion. She had failed to leave him behind. Somehow he’d seen her and followed. She frowned as he headed toward her. She glanced to the side to see if she could hide before he reached her, but she dismissed the idea as cowardly and she had no intention of being thought of as such.
She held her ground, but she kept the knife raised in front of her and he eyed it with caution.
“I am no threat Joka.” He tried to put her at ease, even as he wondered at her hostility.
“I have but to believe your word?”
“I have yet to earn your trust. I understand it will not come easy, but I wish you no harm.”
“We will see, lord,” she said. With reluctance she slipped the dagger back into the sheath she had attached to her belt.
“We are ready to leave.” He motioned back towards the meadow where the others waited.
Joka nodded. When Peder realized that she would not go before him, he led the way back to the cottage. Rafn was helping to secure the baby onto Seera’s back, while Systa was going over all the packs they were to bring. Joka walked over to her.
“Go we must, to the home of the Raven,” Systa said quietly so that only her sister could hear. “Our destiny is with the one whose son into this world we helped bring.”
“I have always trusted in your visions. I will follow your wisdom as I have always done.”
Systa smiled in acceptance of the pledge her sister made and began to put on her pack. Joka sighed in defeat. It was time to leave this place. Perhaps it was as it should be. What warrior hid from the world because they were too afraid to be a part of it?
She would not.
They only had two horses and Seera was helping Rafn to secure what packs they could to their backs. The five of them would walk, not ride out of the mountains. Seera was both happy and sad to be leaving this place. It was here she had given birth to her son. It was also where she had come to learn a lot about who she was.
It pleased her that the sisters were coming with them. She hadn’t wanted to say goodbye to them, they had taught her so much and become as close as family to her. She sensed Joka had reservations about leaving, that she went because her sister believed it was the path they must take.
Seera did not know what the Seer’s visions had shown her, but she was happy that it meant they would be together.
“Are you ready my love?” Rafn looked down at her and the love reflected in his eyes was enough to give her the courage to leave. Hwal was dead, the threat gone. She could walk out of this hidden paradise and know that she was safe.
She could also feel confident in the fact that the one-eyed giant would no longer harm her. She would take with her the things Joka had begun to teach her about being strong enough to defend herself.
“I am ready to go home.” She responded to his tender look, with a smile that spoke her happiness.
Seera had been too afraid to ask Rafn about the time they were separated, of the things he did to find her. Systa, through the magic of her inner sight, had seen that he had torn the world apart in search of her. The Seer had spoken of the death he’d left in his wake. Joka had scolded her when she had turned from Systa’s word. Joka demanded that Seera understand that the world was one of violence and death was a part of that.
She had come to believe the warrior woman was right. She would accept what had to be and not dwell on it.
They had spent the previous night outside under the stars and she had slept in Rafn’s arms with their son curled beside them, the warm summer breeze soothing them with its sweet scent. Now her son slept soundly on her back in a carrier that Systa had helped her make.
One of the horses nickered and Seera looked up to see that Peder was loading the stallion. Seera went to him. He smiled when he saw her approaching and she was so very grateful that he was there. They had always been close, but had become even closer after their mother’s death. They had leaned on each other for comfort and support. It was something that was not so easy to stop once started.
“You came all the way from Pictland to help my husband search for me.”
“Though you are now wed, you are still my sister. Where else did you expect me to be?” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Besides, your husband was in bad shape, and I could not leave him.”
Seera’s eyes widened. She had known it would be so, but to hear Peder say it made it real. That he had given Rafn his support was a generous thing. “Thank you brother.”
“We have become friends,” Peder said. He glanced over to where Rafn was speaking with Joka. “I also have learned to respect him.”
“I am glad.” She hugged him and with his gentle touch wrapped her into his arms, so not to wake his nephew whose tiny face was pressed against her shoulder.
“He will be a strong boy,” Peder said. She stepped back to see Systa approaching.
“Go we must or late it will be.” Systa placed her hands on her hips as if she were scolding them. Her face held a smile and her eyes shimmered with a knowledge that was for her alone.
“It is time,” Rafn agreed and began to lead his family from the meadow. Joka had shown him a path that was far easier than the one they had taken to get there. It would take them on a more direct route to Skiringssal.
Rafn led with instructions from Joka, while she preferred to take up the position at the rear. Peder led his horse ahead of Joka and he kept glancing over his shoulder at her. She was a woman he couldn’t figure out. She was fiercely independent, but that did not disturb him. It was that she chose to place herself alone that left him baffled.
He didn’t know her history, but something must have caused her to become the woman she was. She had marked herself as a warrior. She wore a blue tunic, with dark brown trousers and a lighter brown cloak. She had braided her hair into two braids, one down each side of her face, rather than a single one preferred by his sister.
She was not a soft woman. Her muscles were as solid as any of the men he’d fought with, and she walked with the stealth of a hunter. So quiet were her footsteps it was easy to forget that she was behind him…and yet he could not.
She had a savage beauty he had never seen before. She was so different from the ladies of the court he’d known. There was no coyness to Joka’s actions, only truth.
And the truth was that she did not like him, and for some reason this knowledge irked Peder. He would have liked them to be friends, to learn the mystery that was Joka. He was impressed by her strength.
Peder remembered with awe her display of skill when she’d fought against Hwal’s man on that rainy night when Rafn had killed the one-eyed giant. She had been fearless and determined. Her technique needed practice, but he had no doubt she would achieve excellence.
He looked back again to where, not far behind, she walked. Her eyes shifted around their surroundings, trying to detect any signs of danger. She carried a spear in her right hand, her fist gripping it tightly and was ready to spring into action at the slightest movement.
Her face showed no emotion. She had kept her distance from him since arriving at the meadow, as if it displeased her to be too close.
Peder had decided early on that she didn’t care much for men, but she had not been as hostile with Rafn as she seemed to be with him. She had been formal with the warlord, but it was somehow different with Peder. Something about him made her angry.
They traveled for most of the day, only stopping for brief breaks to allow Seera to nurse the baby and clean up any mess he’d made. They ate quick meals at each rest and then continued until night began to creep through the trees to steal their light. The first night Rafn located a sheltered overhang up against a cliff wall which offered them some protection.
“We will spend the night here,” Rafn said. “Peder would you build a fire, while I try and catch something fresh to eat.”
“I will come.” Joka joined Rafn and was prepared to argue. He simply nodded his head in acknowledgement before they slipped down a small animal trail.
Peder watched them go before turning to his own task. Systa had already managed to collect some wood and dumped it at his feet. It startled him, which caused her to laugh. A tinkling sound that set his nerves on edge.
“Thank you,” he said. She turned to help Seera with the baby. Peder’s unease, about this woman who was said to predict the future, grew. If Joka was a mystery to him, her sister was even more so. She had this gleam in her silver eyes that made him feel that she was not all there, that a part of her was somewhere else.
Peder turned to the task of building a fire that would burn hot and long. By the time Rafn and Joka returned with two hares each, the fire was ready to cook the meat. Joka and Systa suspended the rabbits over the fire without skinning them first.
“When they have burned to a crisp, then the skin is pulled back and the meat inside will be cooked and tender.” Joka spoke to him as if he was a child and he wasn’t sure he liked that. He was a soldier in service to King David. Who was she to speak to him as if he knew nothing?
He grunted in acknowledgement, but he offered no reply. He went instead to see how Seera was doing. The baby had finished feeding and lay asleep in the crook of her arm.
“May I,” he asked as he sat next to her. Seera handed him the baby and he held him in his arms like he was the most delicate thing in the world. Peder traced a finger lightly over his small perfect features.
Peder took one of Orn’s hands in his and marveled at how tiny the hand was against his own. The baby shifted in his arms and managed to release one of his legs from his blanket to kick at the air.
“He will be a strong one,” Peder said.
“He is bound to be with a father and uncles such as he has.” Seera laughed and it made him feel good to see her so happy after months of fearing that she was dead.
“I will find great joy in watching him grow.” He looked up then to see that Joka was scrutinizing him across the fire where she was tending to their supper. She had an odd expression on her face, but she turned from him as soon as their eyes met.
“I hope that you will visit often.” He returned his attention to Seera.
“As you will come to Dun’O’Tir, and soon I hope, for father will want to met his grandson and see for himself that you are safe.”
“I will come soon.”
They left with the first light and Seera was as impatient as Rafn to get home. She had been gone too long from those she loved and she wanted to see them all again. She had worried most about Kata. The last time she had seen her she had just been stabbed and left for dead. She had not known if she lived or died until Rafn had found her and set her mind at ease.
Finally, after days of travel, Skiringssal came into view and Seera was more than willing to quicken her pace, for that night she would sleep in her own bed.
They stopped at mid day to rest the horses and feed Orn. It was then that Seera realized that Joka was not pleased to be reaching their destination.
“Are you alright?” Seera went to sit with her away from the others.
“I am fine.” Joka leaned against a large boulder, picking at a piece of bread in her hand.
“You are very quiet and I thought perhaps you were not as happy as I to be reaching the village.”
“It is not my home,” Joka said. “I have never been to this place. It holds no special feeling in my heart.”
“Why did you come with us?”
“Systa said that we must follow your husband.” Joka scowled as she looked at Rafn. It had never been a secret that Joka didn’t trust men.
“I for one am glad. You are my friend and I would have missed you had you stayed.”
Joka glanced at Seera and something softened in her eyes. “I too value you as a friend and parting would have saddened me.”
A smile streaked Seera’s face in a mischievous grin. “Besides, who would teach me to fight?”
“I would not want you to stop your training.” Joka gave her one of her rare smiles before sighing in resignation that they would go to Skiringssal, where destiny awaited them both.
“Let us go and we can sup in the Great Hall tonight.” Rafn’s thick voice urged them onward. Even Joka’s steps became lighter.
Systa watched them all very carefully. She saw each of them clearly in a way no other was capable of. Each of them was special.
Rafn had a fiery soul. He’d been touched by the thunder god, Thor. Systa had seen that at once and would have known even if she had not heard the stories. She felt the energy in the very air around him change as he passed. He left behind a hidden spark that reacted with the life pulse of the earth.
Systa kept a close eye on him. Her future was tied strongly to the choices he would make…that she would see that he made.
There was something deep in her dreams that she had sensed, but was yet unclear. He would lead her to it, of this she was sure.
Her gaze moved to Seera. A smile came to her. Seera had become like a second sister. Her heart was gentle. Even the pain and humiliation she’d been forced to endure had not taken her spirit from her. She was strong, but in a different way from Joka. Her sister had chosen to fight back at the world’s cruelty, against everything that had hurt her. Seera did not allow it to haunt her dreams, to shape her into the hard woman Joka had become.
Systa spotted Orn squirming on Seera’s back and went to relieve her of the burden. The child fascinated her. His future held great things and he would be important. She cooed to the baby in a soothing tone that quieted him.
She chuckled when she noticed Peder glance yet again at Joka, and her sister pretending not to notice. Joka kept her face hard and focused on the path ahead of them.
The Seer had not seen Peder’s future. She sensed it was tied somehow to the same one waiting for all of them, but she was not sure. He was a strong man, with a good soul. He didn’t fight against the world as Rafn did. He strived instead to claim a fluid union with it, embracing life rather than battling it.
Yet there was still a restlessness that was undefined. He followed a different god. Perhaps that was why he was harder to read.
Systa’s eyes narrowed when she finally thought of Joka. The sister who had saved them from the clutches of their father, from a village that would have ground them into the mud without a second thought.
It was something that Systa hadn’t had the strength to do, but she had known that Joka would. That she would stand up and break free from the grasp of the place that held nothing good.
Joka’s future held something that scared Systa. There would be a moment that she would tumble towards a violent end. There would be a death, she was certain of it, but she was not yet sure whose. Only that it would come.
The answers lay in thick shadows that she had been unable to peel back and see through. Perhaps because of her love for Joka she couldn’t see it clearly. Maybe she was too afraid of what she would see.
She shook such negative thoughts aside and focused on the first step of their journey.
It would start for them all once they reached Skiringssal. Fate would be set into motion and Systa was most anxious to see it unfold.