The Last Viking Queen, страница 1
Table of Contents
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BY LOVE ENCHANTED
“I had to come,” Eirik murmured softly, his voice sounding like water moving tranquilly through a brook.
“Why?” Alysa inquired just above a whisper.
As if dazed, he confessed. “You have bewitched me, my beautiful enchantress. I know it is perilous to tempt fate, but I cannot help myself. I need you, Alysa, more than air or food or victory.”
Alysa engulfed him with her loving gaze. It had been many weeks since she had lain with Gavin Crisdean, and it seemed to be her husband—her lost love—whom she was seeing tonight, hearing this very moment, reaching out to her…
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The Last Diring Queen
Dedicated to: My close and dear friend, Dawn Wren
And, my friend and talented author, Patricia Maxwell (Jennifer Blake), who has inspired me over the years with her superb writing.
And, Carin Cohen Ritter, my Zebra Books editor, with affection and appreciation.
“Dark days are ahead, my beloved princess,” warned Trosdan, powerful wizard and a High Priest of the Druid sect, which had been outlawed and dispersed by the conquering Romans many years ago. “Days of treachery, peril, and evil lie before us. All must be conquered before peace can rule your land once more. You are the key to turn back the forces of Darkness. Only you can reopen the Door to Light and Good which is being rapidly closed and locked. Only you can halt this madness which threatens us.”
Trosdan’s voice lowered as he warned, “But the price you must pay is great and the perils you must face are terrible.”
A smile warmed the old man’s clear blue eyes and deepened the countless wrinkles on his face; he did not want to panic or discourage this girl whom he loved and respected. The sacred Runes had told him what he, what they, must do to obtain victory and survival. No matter his personal thoughts, feelings, and desires, he must obey the Runes messages and be true to his calling of High Priest, Guardian of the Ancient Laws and Master of the Great Mysteries. “You can bring your people back from the edge of destruction, but you must endure many torments to save all you love and rule. I will guide you and protect you during those dark moments, but you must follow my advice no matter your doubts, fears, and pains. You must use all of your wits, and your courage to battle these savage invaders. And, you also must depend on your special powers to aid your cause.”
In an age when people believed in superstition, sorcery, and the supernatural, she understood Trosdan’s meaning. It was alleged that her grandmother Giselde possessed potent skills of magic and the gifts of insight and healing, as Alysa’s mother Catriona had before her death ten years ago. Princess Alysa Malvern Crisdean had witnessed many inexplicable things, but doubted her inherited ability in such mysteries of life. The ruler of the principality of Damnonia, which belonged to the kingdom of Cambria, refuted gently, “But I have no special powers, Wise One.”
“Yea, but you do, my beloved princess. You will summon them and use them well when the time comes to battle Evil. There is a magical glow about you which Evil cannot extinguish, though it will try for a second time to do so. You must not fail in your awesome task, for victory and survival are controlled by your grasp alone. Even I can do little against such powerful forces.”
Alysa moved a few steps away from Trosdan in the large cave where he lived and practiced his wizardry. As the Celts still believed in and practiced the “Old Ways,” especially since the Roman withdrawal, his words were both frightening and stimulating to Alysa. Her heart beat faster as she recalled the first time “Evil” had tried to destroy her. Victory had been won six weeks past with the deaths of her evil stepmother and half brother and with the defeat of their wicked brigands. Isobail and Moran had tried to steal her land and enslave her people. But a handsome warrior from another kingdom had arrived to claim her heart and to help gain victory. Six weeks past, they had wed, and now ruled Damnonia side by side. Prince Alric, her father and son of King Bardwyn of Cambria, had been slain during those previous dark days; now, she listened to Trosdan warn of more dark days ahead. The Vikings were greedy and vicious invaders; each day they were becoming stronger and attacking closer. She wondered if her land would ever know true and lasting peace again. She wanted to think of nothing except ruling her people, loving her husband, and bearing his children. Grief over her father’s death had been soothed by the fact he had suffered greatly and had welcomed release from his pain and anguish. He was united with his parents in the happy afterworld, so she must not mourn his loss. Since birth, she had been schooled to become this land’s ruler, a task she was carrying out with skill. Her people loved and admired her and obeyed her commands. Why did more trouble—
Trosdan interrupted her thoughts. “I have prepared for this wicked time, but I cannot reveal such plans to you today. Soon you will learn and do all expected of you, as did your ancestors Connal, Rurik, and Astrid. Their bloods run within you and make you stronger and wiser than other rulers. Your destiny is at hand, Alysa; you must accept it and follow it. To refuse it brings disaster.”
Alysa could not forget that Connal, her great-grandfather from Albany, had been captured and carried away by Vikings. He had escaped and brought Astrid—his Viking love—to his homeland. Enraged, the Norsemen had attacked again and as they again searched for the treacherous couple whom their attiba—wizard—had vowed would be the cause of all future defeats on this mighty island. During one of those raids, a royal Viking warrior had fallen in love with her grandmother, causing Rurik to take sides with the Albanians. He and Giselde, daughter of Connal and Astrid, had given birth to Catriona, Alysa’s mother. How strange, Alysa mused, that my family’s blood is always mingling with that of our fiercest enemies. Stranger still, and an alarming threat, was the fact Alysa was alleged to be the Last Viking Queen of royal birth, a prize for any Viking to capture.
Alysa did not like that thought, so she dismissed it from her m
“Soon,” he responded mysteriously. Trosdan’s watchful gaze eyed the lovely young woman before him. Her medium-brown hair tumbled down her back and halted near her waist. Her sea-blue eyes were bright with intrigue, and her beauty could be denied by no one. At nineteen, she was one of the youngest rulers of this mighty island of Britain. The old man knew what loomed before her, for his hand controlled her fate. “You must return home. As we speak, your first challenge approaches. Throughout the ages, each time Evil strikes at Good, the Great Beings provide us with a champion to battle their dark forces. Remember,” he cautioned, “you are the ruler here, the one chosen by the gods to save all. Let nothing and no one mislead, halt, or discourage you. No one,” he stressed, his expression grim.
“What is your meaning, Wise One?” she questioned the man with white hair and soft and snowy beard which fell below his heart. Never had she met anyone who was kinder or gentler or wiser, or more trustworthy. There was a reverent air and magnetic mystery about Trosdan, and all heeded his words. His skills were said to be matchless, and many feared disobeying or angering him. His insight and magic had guided them through their last battle with Evil, and he was offering his help once more. No one knew the enemy better than Trosdan, as he was a Viking by birth and a Briton by choice. He had loved and served her grandmother Giselde for years, but a wizard never wed if he wished to keep his powers. To save and to help those he loved, it was imperative for Trosdan to retain his strengths and talents, to remain unblemished by surrender to worldly desires.
“You must be strong, Alysa. You must put your destiny and victory above your own desires and dreams. Soon you will travel a narrow path, a dangerous one. Do not let anguish halt your journey, or all is lost—for you, for your land, for your people, and for Good. Many have suffered and died already. If you battle your fate, many more will do so. Others will draw from your abundant courage and prowess; they will follow your lead, even into death’s jaws.”
The High Priest’s words revealed an awesome responsibility. She asked, “What if courage deserts me or the knights refuse to follow a woman into fierce battle against our invaders? It is easier for a female to rule a peaceful kingdom than to persuade men to allow her to lead a battle charge. Will the gods prepare their hearts and minds to accept me as this chosen one?”
Trosdan caressed her cheek and smiled again. His eyes twinkled with the knowledge he possessed. “Before the new moon shines on this land, you will have proven yourself to all.” Trosdan lifted her left hand and touched her wedding ring with a gnarled finger. “You shall become a legendary warrior queen who even this powerful ring of desire cannot restrain or defeat. Go, for a great adventure with many sacrifices and challenges awaits you. When the time is right, I will come to you and set your feet upon the path you must travel.”
Alysa wondered where her husband fit into the events confronting her, as Trosdan had not mentioned Gavin. The elderly man had made it sound as if she were going to face those perils alone. She recalled how Trosdan and Giselde had foretold the truth about Isobail and how those two special people had used their skills to aid Alysa’s side. Somehow, she could not resist believing in such powers.
Fear furrowed Alysa’s brow. “How can I become a queen without my grandfather dying? Is that your meaning, Wise One? Do you say King Bardwyn will soon pass into another world?” she inquired, worried and sad as she anticipated his answer.
“That was not my meaning, Princess, but I can tell you no more today. Hearts do not accept difficult words until they have been prepared to receive them. You are not ready to begin your journey.”
Although he clearly had ended their conversation, Alysa persisted. “When will I be ready, Trosdan? What will prepare me?”
Trosdan smiled. “Your mind runs in many directions like a wild horse. Tether it until you understand the secrets in my words today. Then, I will come to you. There will be no need to summon me, for I will know when the time is here.”
Trosdan gave Alysa a final warning, a tormenting one. Her face paled and she trembled. As she stared at him in disbelief, she began to shake her head. “Nay, Trosdan, you have misread the Runes.”
His sea-blue eyes exposed honesty and sympathy. “The will of the gods cannot be denied, my beloved princess. But there is hope,” he added, and explained his meaning. “Go now. I will come to you soon.”
Knowing the Druid leader would tell her nothing more, Alysa embraced him and departed. Mounting Calliope, she rode for home with mixed emotions. Perhaps, she sadly decided, Trosdan had gotten old and his mind and eyes were playing tricks on him. Surely he could not be right about… She reached Malvern Castle only minutes before her “first challenge” arrived, just as Trosdan had predicted.
Sir Teague and his wife Thisbe dismounted hurriedly and joined the alert princess, who had halted on the castle steps to speak with a servant. Their faces shone with perspiration, and Alysa knew from their expressions that something was terribly wrong. Trosdan’s words flooded her mind, and her heart pounded in dread. She ordered water to wet their throats, which most certainly were parched. “Rest a moment and drink, Sir Teague, then reveal your bad news.”
Thisbe, who had been Alysa’s handmaiden until her marriage, collapsed on the steps in exhaustion. Alysa commanded her servants to carry the young woman to a visitor’s chamber to recover. Alysa was anxious to hear the news, but did not press the fatigued man, a past squire at this castle and a longtime friend. She wondered why her husband, Prince Gavin Crisdean, had not joined them. Surely he was aware of the commotion in the inner courtyard. Before she could send for him, the prince galloped through the castle gates with several of his knights.
Alysa’s sea-blue eyes washed over Gavin’s handsome face and virile body. From their attire and gear, it was obvious her husband had been hunting with a few of the knights. She watched his eyes take in his curious surroundings as he dismounted and came forward. In spite of the dark episode in progress, she could not help but seal her loving gaze to his probing green one. “We have trouble, my husband, but Sir Teague must catch his wind before he reveals it.”
The Prince of Cumbria and Damnonia observed the red-haired knight who was still laboring to breathe normally after his swift and lengthy ride. League’s sorry state of appearance alerted the ruler to trouble. “Let us go into the Great Hall where we can sit and drink while we talk,” Gavin invited. He extended his hand to Alysa to escort her inside. He felt her tremblings and knew she was gravely concerned over this apparently grim situation. He, too, was worried. Under the guise of a hunting trip, he and several knights had been scouting the countryside for any signs of peril and foe, but had found none. Yet Gavin realized it was only a matter of time before the persistent invaders reached Damnonia and created the same havoc here they were causing in the neighboring kingdom of Logris.
After a short rest and a cup of inspiriting ale, Sir Teague revealed his grisly news. “The Vikings crossed our border, Your Highness, and raided our castle. They slew, burned, and pillaged. Lady Gweneth and her two daughters were captured with other slaves and carried off after the attack. There was nothing we could do to halt them; they were many and strong. They raided with a blood-lust which I have never witnessed before.” The weary knight’s voice was hoarse from his dusty journey. He drank more ale before continuing. “At my guard’s insistence, Thisbe and I were concealed in a secret room just before the Norsemen broke down the inner gates. We were forced to remain hidden while they plundered my home and lands. After they left, we escaped to a nearby village to procure two horses and rode here with much haste. I have dishonored myself, my country, my rulers, and my rank with such cowardice.”
Alysa watched the red-haired knight lower his head in shame. The scars from his capture and beatings by Isobail and Moran were still visible on his face and arms. Only four weeks past he had been knighted, wed, and placed in control of Lord Daron’s estate near the Logris border. Alysa grasped his
Prince Gavin added, “If you had not concealed yourself, you would not have survived to bring us this news or to battle our enemies on another day. You are not responsible for your defeat. Lift your head and shoulders, for your honor is still intact.”
Teague did as he was commanded, but his gaze exposed the anguish within him. He felt it was his duty to protect the property and people his rulers had entrusted to him. Shame would plague him until revenge was obtained. “We were taken by surprise and had no time to prepare a defense. If you will provide me with warriors, I will ride after the raiders and rescue Lord Daron’s family and the others.”
The tawny haired ruler said, “First, we must gather our forces and plan wisely. I will send for our lords and knights. We cannot strike at our foes until we set up defenses for our land. It will require many days to track them and attack. We cannot leave our homes and families unprotected during our absence. To do so would invite the raiders to swoop down on them. We must be patient and cunning.”
“Prince Gavin is right,” Princess Alysa remarked. “To venture into Logris will be a long and difficult journey. We must be well prepared. How many raiders attacked you and who was their leader?”
“It was a giant of a man called Rolf with hair the color of the sun. From the parapet I saw him battle several men at once. He has great prowess. His followers numbered more than fifty—fierce men who clearly enjoy killing and destroying. Our victory will be a hard and bloody one.”
While the men talked, Alysa called to mind Trosdan’s warnings and wondered how she could lead a defeat of this would-be conqueror. What, she fretted, were the “price” and “perils” which the old man had mentioned? How could she alone lead her people to victory over such awesome forces? Gavin loved her. He had proven so by remaining here in Damnonia to live and rule at her side, even though he seemed bored and restless with his quiet existence. When the time came for him to become King of Cumbria and she Queen of both Cambria and Damnonia, they would decide together how to carry out their duties in three different lands. Trosdan had to be mistaken about them taking separate paths. Nay, Gavin would never betray or desert her!