Authors: Violetta Rand
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Table of Contents
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Books by Violetta Rand
THE BLIND SERIES
Cover Design by Fiona Jayde
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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To my husband, Jeff—
I love your warrior’s heart…
Much love to my husband, Jeff.
Thanks again to Soul Mate Publishing (Debby) and my wonderful editor, Cynthia Brannam, for believing in Vikings.
My deepest appreciation to Victoria Vane for cracking the whip, Kelly Graham, Meredith Mix, Carol Cork, Collette Cameron, Jessica Jefferson, Rudy Nino, J.J., Daniel Skrzynski, and Shaun Tebo. Listening is the greatest gift you can give a writer.
The Standing Stones north of the Trondelag, Norway
AD 1066 (after the Battle of Stamford Bridge)
Aaron McNally stood at the center of the weathered stones representing the nine worlds of the gods of Norsemen. Legends held that Norwegian kings prostrated themselves before Odin on this consecrated ground before going into battle. The ancient place reeked of wet earth and death. Inches of snow covered the ground and a bitter wind howled across the clearing. Ravens circled overhead, two landing on the closest stones. The nearest one cried out. Aaron swore he heard the creature utter,
Perhaps he was.
He wore nothing but leather breeches and boots. His skin stung from prolonged exposure. He gritted his teeth. This hardship must be endured to purge the White Christ from his body.
burned heretics, while
relied on fire and ice for ritualistic purification—not death.
A true Christian wouldn’t beg for Odin’s mercy and protection
But Aaron’s heart had never been fully invested in the Church.
Asgard, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Midgard, Jotunheim, Nidavellir, Svartalfheim, Hel, and Niflheim
.” He spoke each name reverently, pledging fealty.
A hermit priest resided in a hovel built between the sixth and seventh stones—a great prophet to some, an executioner to others. His long white beard and hunched back revealed his age and wisdom. “Kneel,” he commanded, while he anointed Aaron’s head with fragment oil poured out from a ram’s horn.
Aaron obeyed. Two days after he’d been exiled from his cousin’s lands for betrayal, he realized salvation could only be attained through conversion. The sacraments had failed to keep him undefiled. His soul had grown blacker every day, his heart cold as stone. Envy and strife had dominated his life for far too long.
riest continued, “Renounce the day of your birth and reject the water of baptism. Embrace fire and ice, the foundations of Allfather’s universe. Believe only in those things that draw you to his breast: strength, ferocity, magnitude, bravery, loyalty, victory, honesty, passion, and love.”
Aaron’s heart thundered as he focused on the horizon. He blocked out the sound of the priest’s voice and anything else that interfered with his thoughts. He found comfort in the silence. Then, an indescribable sensation shot through him. Not pain, but it left him numb and speechless. The holy man whispered something in a language he didn’t understand. His gaze followed the priest’s movements. He’d been counseled that Odin would make himself known to a true repentant. Something warmed his blood. Perhaps Allfather’s acceptance of a new servant.
Once the priest completed his incantations, he retrieved two gold coins from his tunic, then handed them to Aaron. He closed his fist tightly around them.
“Remember Odin’s generosity. You no longer belong to the White Christ. You are a son of Norway now. Someday, when you least expect it, that gold will buy your freedom. This is Odin’s message—Allfather protects his own.”
This was the moment he’d waited for? Days in the cold? Hours of isolation and mental fatigue? Aaron cursed under his breath. Numb from head to toe, he stood up, then scanned the ground. Bundles of hay ringed the stones. He watched the priest limp to a small fire pit, then light the torch he held. Next, he walked to the closest bail and touched the flame to it. He repeated this action eight more times. As the flames leaped up, Aaron deposited his coins into a small compartment in his weapon belt, then unsheathed his knife. He awaited further instruction.
en fødsel. Et liv for et liv. Borte er de dagene av feighet din. I dag ser du en ny verden. Odins verden. Der menn er født og dø for å forherlige hans navn. Leve godt, dø ærefullt,”
the priest called.
One death—a birth. A life for a life. Gone are the days of your cowardice. Today you see a new world. Odin's world. Where men are born and die to glorify his name. Live well, die honorably.
Live well, die honorably,”
Words no Christian priest had ever spoken to him. Could a man really shed his old life and be reborn? Whatever god he kneeled to, Aaron needed to believe in something,
And perhaps for the first time in his life, he did. At the holy man’s signal, Aaron slit his wrist. The final step to absolution was shedding his own blood on sacred ground. He kneeled again.
The priest approached. “Rise now, son of Odin.”
Although the world didn’t look different, Aaron’s heart
different. A trick his mind played? Fatigue? Or genuine transformation? Then he remembered something. A silver cross hung around his neck. A gift from his deceased father, it meant nothing now. He ripped the chain off. Not permitted to offer animal sacrifices until the new moon, he’d give this instead. He stalked to the nearest fire and tossed it in.
A life for a life.
Aaron stared at the flames.
Oslo, Norway AD 1070
Aaron’s gaze followed every agitated step King Olaf took. Receiving an invitation to his solar in the middle of the night didn’t bode well. Tonight, the monarch was deeply troubled—preoccupied with the future of Norway. Only five months into Olaf’s rule, rumors of rebellion abounded.
He faced Aaron, his expression unreadable. “I wish to expand the powers of the Church in Norway, granting the bishops full control of ecclesiastical affairs in the north. My brother’s tolerance for the old religion can no longer be sustained.” Olaf sat at his desk, rubbing the back of his neck. “Magnus’s death is considered a punishment to the pagans and a blessing by the priests who think it a direct sign from God. How long can a ruler who refuses to take up the cross be allowed to live?”
Aaron disliked being questioned on such matters. In this age, men lost their heads for providing wrong answers. So he shook his head. “I’m not the man to advise you, milord.”
“I desire peace and an age of enlightenment that rivals Europe,” the king continued. “Scholarship and construction of new churches and a great cathedral in Nidaros will slowly draw the people in. I refuse to use violence to convert the pagans. I simply won’t acknowledge the existence of the old gods. Constantine succeeded in this way when he adopted Christianity. Abandon the old gods and they’ll fade away—remnants of the past like a crumbling building. I’ll not renew my father’s peace contracts with the jarls once it expires. Nor shall I accept higher taxes as penance for their sins. I’ll wait. Starving men shall beg at the master’s table once they cannot ease the hunger pangs in their stomachs. And when they do, I’ll be merciful.”
Counseling a king wasn’t part of his duties, only protection.
And he surely didn’t like the implications of whatever choice he made now. A man didn’t need a rope to hang himself. Although he’d pledged fealty to the deceased king, Magnus, his goal had always been to eventually separate from the royal family once his military contract expired. Calmly, he sat down across from Olaf.
The king walked to a table and poured two cups of wine. “Three private churches in the northlands have been burned to the ground in the last two months. Furthermore, the foundation for the cathedral in Nidaros has been vandalized twice. Every time my architects make a little progress, someone destroys it. As you already know, I have few men to spare. I have great need of an experienced captain. Someone with a keen sense of justice and a slow hand for violence. If you accept this appointment, I expect you to train a regiment of young men willing to serve in the royal guard. Mold them into God-fearing warriors. And if they demonstrate obedience and prowess on the field, I promise one day to appoint them as Berserkers.”
He handed Aaron a cup and raised his in salute. “Protect my interests in the north.”
Although half the country claimed devotion to Christ, the dream of joining Odin’s army remained an obsession in adolescent boys. According to the king and Church, Odin didn’t exist. Yet his name was etched on every young man’s heart. Aaron sipped his wine. By any rational estimation, the king’s efforts in the north would continue to be sabotaged. The Trondelag was no closer to conversion than Jerusalem. “How many captains will you give me?”
Three men, no matter how seasoned in battle, couldn’t possibly train two thousand recruits within the short time Olaf expected. The king’s dreams were commendable, but his masons couldn’t construct a cathedral without proper tools any more than three captains could build an army. Damn, Olaf’s blind ambition. Turning water into wine seemed less of a miracle. How was he going to find suitable recruits for a Christian king amongst the pagans?
He’d try—even if it cost him his life.
“When do I leave, milord?”
Olaf stared, as if he expected Aaron to know already. “Tomorrow.”
Early in the morning, Aaron headed to Agni Rohm’s chamber first. He pounded on the door, then smiled when he heard the man stumble out of bed.
Agni reeked of spirits. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot. “I can only recall two other occasions when you darkened my doorway at this ungodly hour.”
“I’ve come to recruit you for the field, old friend.”
Agni stared at him. “If it doesn’t involve slaying Saxons or fucking women, I’m inclined to say
.” A known ravisher without a family of his own, Agni lived for battle.