Selia heard the rustle of footsteps behind her and turned to scowl at Eithne. “I’m going as fast as I can—”
She stopped in mid sentence. It was the Finngall from the hill, not Eithne, who was coming toward her. The sheer size of the man was startling in and of itself, and the way the morning sun glinted off his pale hair and the breeze stirred his deep red cloak around his body made him appear not quite human. Almost like one of the heathen gods the Finngalls worshipped. She stared, unable to move or speak. It was all she could do to force herself to breathe.
The Finngall met her gaze and smiled. He had a beautiful smile—a flash of white teeth and a boyish dimple on his left cheek—but like yesterday, something about it struck her as unusual. What was it?
His smile didn’t reach his eyes. His eyes looked hard.
Selia shook herself back into reality. The Finngall was between her and the house, so there was no way she could get around him and home quickly enough to bolt the door. And outrunning him was unlikely in any case. She could scream for help and bring Eithne to her aid. But what could Eithne do against a man such as this? If the Finngall was bent on violence, Selia could not bring herself to put Eithne in harm’s way. She made her decision and dropped the firewood save for one stout stick, which she held at the ready.
Selia glared at him with a fierceness she didn’t feel. “What you want?” She demanded in Norse.
The Finngall’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “So you do speak Norse.” He took another step toward her and Selia raised the stick threateningly.
He looked amused at this, but stood still, at least. “What’s your name, little one?”
How had this stranger found out where she lived? Had he been watching the house in order to approach her when she was alone? And what could he possibly want with her? No man of honorable intentions would approach a woman in this manner. Surely even a Finngall would know that. But if he were bent on rape, would he be standing here asking her name?
Frustrated with her own limited grasp of the Norse language, she repeated her original question. “What you want?”
The Finngall hesitated. “My ship sails in the morning. I wanted to see you again.”
He moved toward her and grabbed her arm as Selia tried to side-step to avoid him. She whacked him with the stick, hard, but instead of letting go of her he just looked annoyed. He pried the stick from her fingers and threw it aside.
The man gripped both of her shoulders and leaned over, close to her face, and Selia found herself again mesmerized as he locked eyes with her. She could smell the scent of him, wood smoke and fresh male sweat…and something else, flowers perhaps? His hair fell around his face and shoulders, clean and shiny, and a silvery lock of it was inches from her nose. So her father had been right about the Finngalls’ peculiar grooming habits, after all. The realization would have been amusing if the situation were different.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you…I want to take you with me.”
Selia absorbed the Norse words, translating what she knew and inferring the rest. What kind of a woman did he think she was? Did this Finngall think so highly of himself he expected her to leave her home and family in order to be his whore?
Anger superseded her fear for the moment, and her words spilled out in Irish. “I will be no man’s concubine, you Finngall bastard—let go of me!”
He held her as she fought to get away, and by the look on his face he either understood enough Irish to comprehend the gist of her tirade or had simply made the intuitive leap based on her dramatic reaction. His eyes narrowed to slits and his fingers dug into her flesh.
“I could take you, little one. As my thrall.” One large hand moved up to grip the base of her skull as his thumb stroked her jaw and across her lips. His fingers felt like roughened wood against her skin, and as he leaned closer Selia realized he was about to kiss her.
Selia had never been kissed before. In her imagination a kiss from a suitor would be soft, a gentle pressure of warm lips on hers in a brief moment of tenderness. This kiss was neither gentle nor brief; his mouth was hard, bruising, and when she felt his tongue she tried to turn her head away. But he held her still.
Selia’s knees began to buckle, and the Finngall braced his arm under her hips and lifted her so that her body was crushed against his chest and her feet dangled above the ground. She had the irrational thought that she was being kissed by a barely-restrained animal, as though at any moment he could break his tether and kill her with tooth and claw.
Selia’s senses were overwhelmed by the man and everything else seemed to fade away. She was acutely aware of the scent of him, the taste of his mouth, and the hard pressure of his large body against hers as their heartbeats hammered in unison. Her body responded to him in a way she had never felt before: there was an unfamiliar ache deep in her belly, and a sense of urgency that was almost painful.
The Finngall groaned. He took a step forward and pressed Selia against a tree, pinning her body between him and the rough bark. With one knee he parted her legs, and when Selia felt the sudden coolness of the breeze on her bare limbs she realized he was lifting her skirts.
She gave a strangled scream and shoved at his chest, and he finally pulled back. Selia again sensed the beast that raged within him as he attempted to regain control. He lowered her to the ground and his hands clenched convulsively on her arms. It was several moments before he spoke.
“Tell me your name.”
She didn’t take her eyes from his. “Selia.”
“Selia.” His Norse accent made her name sound strange. Foreign. “My little Selia, will you come with me?”
She was shivering, either with fear, desire, or anticipation of the decision she was about to make. For, may the saints help her, Selia wanted this man. She wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.
“As wife,” she whispered. Buadhach be damned.
He released her so suddenly that Selia stumbled and had to put her hand against the tree to keep from falling.
“You do know who I am, then.” It was more a statement than a question, and the Finngall’s face hardened.
What was he talking about? “No,” she said, rubbing her arms to bring the feeling back where he had gripped her so tightly. She was sure she would have bruises.
He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at her. “Don’t trifle with me, child.”
Selia didn’t understand the Norse word ‘trifle’, but from his tone and facial expression the meaning was clear: he thought she was lying. And he didn’t want to marry her—he was only looking for a concubine. Not a wife. Arrogant Finngall bastard.
What had she been thinking? This man only wanted to bed her and she had been on the brink of giving him exactly what he wanted. After just a few minutes with him she had nearly been willing to shame herself as well as bring embarrassment to her entire family. “Stay away from me,” Selia spat at him in Irish, and turned on her heel and ran.
Alrik’s mood remained foul that night. He kept his distance from the men, clenching his hands and muttering to himself. Selia sat with her knees drawn up and her cloak wrapped tightly around her body in an attempt to fade into the background. She kept her eyes on Alrik as he paced like caged animal. Someone was going to get hurt tonight and she could only pray it wouldn’t be her.
The men were restless as well; they too could sense that Alrik’s naturally volatile temperament had reached a dangerous level. They gave him a wide berth and kept their eyes lowered. The normally raucous laughter and bawdy jokes of the evenings were subdued this night. No one wanted to be the man who pushed Alrik beyond the point of no return.
Only Ulfrik dared approach him. He did so with an air of indifference, sipping his ale, as if he were accustomed to the task of having to talk Alrik back from the brink.
“What’s the problem, brother?” he asked quietly, looking at the fire instead of directly at Alrik.
“That’s none of your concern.”
Alrik’s voice had an edge to it that made Selia fear for Ulfrik’s safety. He wouldn’t hurt his own brother, would he? Ulfrik took a few steps away from the fire and motioned for Alrik to follow. He pulled out his sword and raised his eyebrows questioningly at Alrik.
Selia stared, openmouthed. Surely Ulfrik didn’t mean to fight him? No one in their right mind would even consider doing such a thing with Alrik in the state he was in. Alrik grunted and turned away, but then Ulfrik held out his broadsword and pressed the tip of it into Alrik’s shoulder.
Alrik turned back and pulled out his sword in one quick, angry motion. Selia clapped a hand over her own mouth to keep from screaming; she had no desire to watch Ulfrik die tonight. Apparently, Ulfrik had the same thought.
“Left hand, Alrik,” Ulfrik said. “Unless you do want me dead.”
Alrik’s eyes were blazing like the devil incarnate. He ripped off his cloak and slung it aside, and tossed the sword over to his left hand. “Ulfrik Child Lover,” he snarled as he picked up his shield.
“So this is about me, then?” Ulfrik eyed his brother warily.
Alrik lunged toward Ulfrik without answering, and Ulfrik parried the blow with his shield and pushed him back. And again. And again. They did this over and over, like a perilous dance, until they were both sweating and grunting with exertion. Was this Ulfrik’s plan, then—to exhaust Alrik until his anger had dissipated? The brothers circled each other, eyes locked, and then Alrik abruptly spun around and slammed his sword into Ulfrik’s shield with such force that the clearing rang with the impact.
There was a splintering sound as the wooden shield cracked and a large chunk of it fell away from the metal band that encircled it. The edge of Alrik’s sword met Ulfrik’s shoulder and drew a dark line of blood against his blue shirt.
Selia could take no more. She ran to them and grabbed Alrik’s arm in an attempt to restrain him, but he shook her free and Selia fell on her backside. Alrik stood over her with his sword in his hand. His eyes were so wild she feared he didn’t even know it was her.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him because you’re angry at me,” she cried out in Irish, too distressed to remember to speak in Norse.
A mummer went through the men, as several quietly inquired what she had said, and someone translated, just as quietly. A man snorted with laughter and his rough whisper could just be heard above the others. “I think she’s bedding them both.”
A stunned silence spread over the group. The joke, meant to be heard by only one or two men, had indeed been heard by all. Alrik turned to face them and his eyes locked onto Skagi Ketilson, the man who had spoken. The color drained from Skagi’s face, causing the red scratch marks left by Selia’s fingernails on the day of her abduction to stand out in stark contrast against his white skin.
Alrik lunged toward Skagi with his sword still drawn. Ulfrik tackled him to keep him from running the man through, and at Ulfrik’s urging several men were able to disarm Alrik while he was down. But Alrik somehow managed to pull Skagi to the ground by the legs. The men unsuccessfully tried to restrain their leader as he climbed on top of Skagi and began pummeling him with his fists, to the sickening sound of cracking bone.
Selia scrambled to her feet and cowered against a tree. The men were in an uproar trying to pull Alrik away, as Skagi screamed and Skagi’s father, Ketill, implored Alrik to stop. But Alrik was a man possessed. He continued to hammer away at Skagi and at anyone else within distance; several of the men, including Ulfrik, had a bloody nose or a rapidly-swelling eye.
Selia caught a glimpse of Alrik’s face and she gasped. The whites of his eyes were visible all around the irises, like a mad dog. He looked wild, feral… inhuman. Berserker, a voice whispered in Selia’s head.
Berserkers were what the Finngalls called the shape-shifters. These warriors would be struck with fits of uncontrollable rage that caused them to kill anything in their path, including their own kinsmen, until their lust for blood had been slaked. Although some stories asserted that these men could actually turn into wolves at will, other tales claimed that they channeled the spirit of the animals—retaining the form of a man but possessing the strength and soulless ferocity of the wolf.
Every Irish child knew at least one Norse word: berserker. Irish parents used it frequently to ensure their children’s compliance. ‘Stay on the path in case there is a berserker in the woods,’ was a common warning in Irish households. Niall had never stooped to such tactics but Eithne had been known to on occasion, and Selia and Ainnileas had also heard the stories from other children. As Selia had grown older she had begun to suspect that these tales were exaggerated. A berserker was a fabricated creature meant to scare children. A bogyman and nothing more.
But now she could see it with her own eyes—there was such a thing as a berserker. And she was married to it.
Selia studied her husband thoughtfully. “Alrik…when you came to me the next day in the woods, you were surprised I spoke any Norse.”
“Then how did you think you could ask me to go with you?”
He paused for a moment. “I wasn’t going to ask you—I was going to take you. I wanted to take you the day I saw you in the market.” Alrik’s eyes burned into hers, and Selia couldn’t look away. “You set up such a…such a craving inside me. I had to have you.”
“But you didn’t take me,” Selia whispered.
“No.” He swallowed. “I didn’t want you to fear me. You do something to me, Selia. I look at you and I lose all reason. You drive me mad with desire and yet at the same time I want to protect you. To protect you from me.”
Alrik’s face went dark, as though he immediately regretted what he had said. It was the most he had ever opened up to her and the closest he had come to admitting he loved her. Alrik scowled as he pushed her aside to unlace his boots.
He grunted and cursed as he tried to pull them off, getting angrier by the minute, and Selia watched him. He was embarrassed; not at the fact that he couldn’t get his boots off, but because he had nearly told her he loved her. She knelt down to help him. “Do you need help with your breeches, too?” she teased in an attempt to lighten his mood, but his scowl only deepened.
“Selia,” he said suddenly, “I don’t want you to spend so much time with Ulfrik. No more tafl.”
“What?” Her smile faded. “Why?”
“It doesn’t matter why. Because I said so.”
Selia’s lip quivered as she stood up. “Have I…done something wrong?”
Alrik looked at her for several moments before responding. “If it had been Ulfrik you met in Dubhlinn—instead of me—would you have gone with him?”
Selia stared at him. Where was this coming from? Did he actually believe she was interested in his brother, or was this simply his way of picking a fight with her after his near-admission of love? A way to deflect the conversation away from what he perceived as a weakness?
“No,” she said. “I told you—you are the only one I have ever wanted.”
“But you do care for Ulfrik,” he pushed. “I see the way you look at him. I see the way you laugh with him.”
“He is my friend, Alrik.” Selia felt her face flush with anger. “He is kind to me.”
“He is kind to you,” Alrik mocked. “Yes, he is so kind, and he wants nothing in return. I tell you Selia, you don’t know anything about Ulfrik. If I gave the word, he would be all over you just like he was Muirin—”
Selia cried out and covered her ears. “Stop! Why are you saying such things?”
“Because they’re true!” His anger was escalating to a dangerous level. “No man can look at you and think of friendship, and Ulfrik is no better than anyone else—”
“Alrik, stop.” She put her hands on his face and looked directly into his wild eyes. Selia could feel the tension in his body as it shook with rage; could sense the beast inside him, pacing to get out. She stroked his face gently as one would to calm a nervous animal.
“I only want you,” Selia reassured him. “Only you.”