June, 912 AD
Achnaryrie Village, Gaillaibh, the land of the Picts, Scotland
Sweat stung Rhiannon’s eyes and dripped down her shoulder blades, plastering her tunic to her body. Strands of hair fluttering in her sight line, she batted her opponent’s strike away with her round shield and side-stepped to deliver her own blow, aiming for the legs. Rinda swiftly moved out of her reach, sparring back and forth, trading blows. She shot a glare over the rim at Rinda, who appeared perfectly composed. Envy stabbed at her. Rinda had been trained with a sword from a young age; Rhiannon had begun her training late. Too late some had said, but she had proven her naysayers wrong. Her shield was smaller, her reach shorter than the powerful woman before her. Rhiannon’s eyes narrowed, her face a mask of determination, but she was faster and not afraid to engage a physically stronger opponent.
“Watch your flank!” Graeme, Rinda’s husband, shouted helpfully from the sidelines.
The blonde woman in front of her gritted her teeth, mouth pursing tightly.
“She moves like a blasted cat,” Rinda called out when Rhiannon once again dodged her blow, her frustration leaking into her rough, uneven movements.
“Your flank, I said! And for pity’s sake, don’t stop circling!”
“Stop helping!” Rinda snarled, turning her head in the direction of their spectators, breaking in her concentration for a precious moment.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rhiannon saw Graeme throw his hands up in defeat. Her senses alert and ready, she rotated the shield to the left and right sides of her body, deflecting Rinda’s blows, the tip of her sword hovering just over the rim. Breathing through her nose, Rhiannon charged forward in a sudden spurt of speed and braced her body for impact. Eyes wide, Rinda realised Rhiannon’s intention too late to change course. The crack of wood on wood rang in Rhiannon’s ears, the breath left her lungs, and the jarring force numbed her shield arm. Rinda staggered back, and Rhiannon pressed her advantage, throwing her weight behind her shield. Rinda fought for balance, her arms waving wildly, giving Rhiannon ample time to spin around her back and deliver a neat chop to Rinda’s knee with the dulled edge of her blade.
Rinda grunted, falling to one knee as it buckled under the blow. Rhiannon disengaged and drove her blade into the ground. Sweat dotting her brow, she waited for Rinda to recover.
“Enough?” she suggested, panting to catch her breath and wiping her forearm across her brow. Rinda nodded in agreement. Thank God for that. Biting back a groan, Rhiannon lowered her shield and, extending her free hand, aided Rinda to her feet. That Rinda didn’t slap her hand away always surprised her. After butting heads in the beginning, they had reached a truce of sorts that was fast turning into friendship, though neither would admit it. Their weapons sheathed, they made their way back towards Graeme and the tall, powerfully built warrior standing beside him.
“Bjorn.” Rhiannon nodded in greeting. His presence unnerved her. Since he’d been able to rise from his sickbed, he was often near her, just prickling on the edge of her awareness, leaving her feeling off balance. After all, what did you say to a man you had stabbed? Pushing the fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach aside, she allowed herself to become distracted by the conversation taking place between her sparring partner and her husband.
“I told you to stop underestimating her,” Graeme growled at Rinda.
The blonde woman blew hair out of her eyes and scowled unabashedly at Graeme. “If she would just stay still a moment, I would have had her.”
Rhiannon snorted under her breath and allowed the words of the squabbling couple to roll over her. She would never stand still long enough for Rinda to catch her. If Rhiannon did, she wouldn’t have a chance. Careful to keep her gaze fixed ahead as Alarik and Bjorn engaged in an animated conversation, she dipped the ladle into the pail and took a drink.
Alarik was her shadow. He had been assigned to guard her while Bjorn’s life had hung in the balance. A quiet man with a wry sense of humour, he appeared less intense than some of his fellow Vikings. Now, just short of fully recovered, Bjorn had released her from those cursed fetters, but for appearances, Alarik had still been assigned to watch her. It was laughable. If she wanted to run, they would never catch her.
Homing in on the Nordic words traded back and forth between the two friends, it took her a moment to follow the conversation. She had spent days confined to the same house as Bjorn’s sickbed, and at his suggestion they had started to learn each other’s languages. Used to being active, it had only been this particular challenge that had stopped Rhiannon going mad, and her dedication had paid off. She narrowed her eyes. They thought her sword was too heavy.
“It belonged to my brother and my father, and his father before him. The only way I will part from it is when it is pried from my cold, dead hands,” Rhiannon interrupted with a proud shake of her head.
Silence. As one, the group of Norsemen turned to stare. It was only a little jab of pain underneath her ribcage that stopped her from laughing at the collective shock on their faces. Her father had recently succumbed to his illness, and it was still painful to think of him. Bjorn caught her eye and merely smiled like they were sharing a secret jest. Curses, her belly fluttered again.
Bjorn uncrossed his arms and stretched, the actions reminding her of a relaxed predator, but you would be a fool to trust that easygoing mask. All that lazy, coiled power lay beneath the surface ready to burst out when crossed. “You fought well, Rhiannon, though you should be careful when charging your opponent. It might not work with a stronger man.”
Rhiannon rolled her eyes, bristling at his criticism. “I know that.” If she’d been fighting against him, she would never have charged. He would have swatted her away like an annoying fly and taken her straight off her feet. “Are you here to practice?”
“I have been inactive for far too long.” A hint of amusement glimmered in his eyes, and the rest went unsaid—since she had stabbed him.
Rhiannon had the decency to blush, and her gaze trailed over the great expanse of his chest. She stared at the muscles at play as he lifted the strange weapon up to cradle the shaft between his hands, his very large and masculine hands. Why was her mouth suddenly dry?
“It’s called a Dane axe.”
His words snapped her back to the present, and Rhiannon gave her head a little shake. “What?”
“The weapon that has taken your interest is called a Dane axe,” he repeated, perfectly straight-faced. “Made in the lands across the sea to the southeast.”
It took a moment for Rhiannon to understand his meaning. Oh, he thought she was admiring his ‘weapon’. The beginnings of a giggle bubbled at the back of her throat, and she clenched her body tight, refusing to let it escape. What was wrong with her? She didn’t giggle—ever.
“You’re getting old and slow, brother,” Rinda poked fun at him, saving Rhiannon and allowing her to recover.
Rhiannon forced herself back to his words and examined the weapon closer. The handle was longer than the length of her arm, the head oddly shaped with a slight curve. How did Bjorn fight with it, or more importantly, how did she defend against it? She grasped her sword and shield again, determined to shake off the strange tingling Bjorn made her feel.
“Show me,” Rhiannon said, bringing her weapon up in readiness.
Bjorn’s lips curled, and he shook his head, the sun bouncing off his ash-blond locks and turning them into spun gold. “No, little warrior, not against my axe.”
She bristled at his insult. He had started calling her little warrior since he had lain in his sickbed, and it galled her each time. “What’s wrong?” she jeered, purposely challenging the man. “Afraid? I promise not to injure you.” Rhiannon smirked above the rim of her shield. “This time.”
Lightning fired in his blue eyes, and Bjorn’s good humour disappeared. Rinda sucked in a breath behind her, but still he didn’t take the bait immediately. Bjorn’s brows rose, disappearing into his hair, his gaze trained on Rhiannon, and she held it. He was taking her measure, and she found herself holding her breath, not wanting to be found unworthy. He nodded curtly, appearing to reach a decision and, adjusting his grip on the weapon’s shaft, straightened from his relaxed position. He towered over Rhiannon, despite her being the tallest of the Achnaryrie women, his deceptively large frame light on his feet.
“Very well.” He shucked out of his tunic.
Her mouth dried with her watching the taut muscles move under golden, tanned skin and broad, powerful shoulders. The only thing marring the perfection was the raised puckered scar on his side, pink and newly healed.
A spark of shame flared deep in her chest at the glaring evidence of her actions. Focus, Rhiannon, she told herself sternly.
“No shield?” she asked, drawing her head back, perplexed.
“Don’t need one.”
What? Was he touched in the head?
“Ready?” Bjorn asked.
She frowned, the first stirrings of unease preying upon her in the face of his confidence.
Rhiannon flexed her grip on the hilt of her sword. She couldn’t back down now. “Yes.”
She came at him head-on, intending to start with a basic thrust. Bjorn swung the monster axe and immediately forced her to retreat out of its formidable reach. But not fast enough. The curved edge hooked the lip of her shield and yanked it down, leaving her flank open. Rhiannon grimaced at the point having been made and jerked the shield back up. Her gaze flickering over Bjorn’s intimidating form, Rhiannon circled him, searching for an opening, a blind spot…something. There were none. She gnashed her teeth with frustration. She couldn’t get close enough to use her sword. Every time she surged forward, he swung that axe with surprising speed and shoved her back, the axe head butting against her shield. Every. Single. Time!
It was quickly apparent that Rhiannon was simply outclassed.
Seeming bored of having her dance around him, Bjorn swung and twisted the handle in his hands at the last minute and reversed to the blunt side of the axe head. It hit like a battering ram, the impact vibrating down her arm and sound ringing in her ears. Rhiannon staggered back, fighting to keep upright. What was even worse, she knew he was pulling back his strength. Bjorn could have hit her shield hard enough to shatter it. Tripping over her feet, Rhiannon had barely recovered her balance when Bjorn lunged forward, extended his arms, and somehow, he hooked her ankle. For one heart-stopping moment, his eyes met hers. Awareness sizzled between them, time froze and Rhiannon forgot that they were sparring, right up until he yanked back.
Rhiannon’s body went back, her legs went up and over her head, and she hit the ground hard. The breath burst from her lungs in a painful gasp, and it felt like a lump of gristle was wedged in her throat. Eyes watering, Rhiannon lay on the ground, still clutching her now useless weapons, making an odd rattling sound as she tried to breathe. A hand waved in front of her, and she gratefully grasped Bjorn’s thick wrist, letting him pull her upright.
“Are you well, little warrior?” His warm voice rumbled, and he breathed hard through his nose, his free hand running over her shoulders and down her sides, checking for injury.
Bent double with her hands braced on her knees, Rhiannon bobbed her head. “Yes,” she wheezed. “Just knocked the breath out of me.” When the tightness in her chest had passed, Rhiannon straightened and, meeting his questioning gaze, noticed his cheeks were flushed with exertion. If that didn’t gall her the most, Bjorn had yet to recover his full strength, and he had thoroughly beaten her. “Thank you for being gentle,” Rhiannon grudgingly acknowledged, her pride dented and bruised. Her lips curled ruefully. She had asked for it, had challenged the man, and he had delivered. Rhiannon was well aware that she had been outclassed and Bjorn had decided to teach her a lesson by giving her a taste of what he was capable of. She respected him for allowing her to discover her error, leashing his strength to prove a point when he could have seriously hurt her.
Unexpectedly, Bjorn reached out and offered the weapon to her. “Take it.”
Rhiannon backed up a step, shifting uneasily away from the foreign weapon. “Why?”
“Because now I’m going to show you how to use it.”
She widened her eyes. That had been the last thing she had expected. “But…I won’t be strong enough to wield it,” she protested.
“Yes, you will.” He placed it in front of Rhiannon and let go, forcing her to catch it or let the perfectly sharpened blade fall to the ground.
She blinked, weighing it between her hands. “It’s light!” she called out in surprise, though more weighted at the top when compared to her sword.
“Yes, it is lighter than expected,” he agreed, something that looked suspiciously like a smile tugging at the corner of his beard. Bjorn stepped behind her, placing his body at her back. His strong arms guarding her sides and his hands resting lightly over Rhiannon’s, he corrected her grip. “The weight is all in the head of the axe, and you need to use this to build momentum,” he instructed in her ear.
Rhiannon tried to pay attention to what he was telling her. But it was hard, so hard. Her mind kept drifting to the heat coming from his body and the low timbre of his voice, the spell-binding quality curling around her and teasing her senses.
“You can use it to push someone back.” His arms drove Rhiannon’s forward in a decisive shove, deflecting the imaginary shield.
Rhiannon inhaled sharply—the flat planes of his chest brushed against her back.
“You see how the head is curved to one side? That allows you to hook your opponent’s legs or shield and throw them off balance, following the motion around into an overhead strike.” Whirling the axe over their heads, his arms grazed across her breasts. Little darts of pleasure shot through Rhiannon at the friction, and her stomach clenched tight. Shocked and puzzled by her reaction, she grasped the only thing she could, his voice telling her how to wield the axe, disappointed when Bjorn dropped his arms away from her and took a step back, bereft of his searing warmth.
“Now you try,” he encouraged.
Releasing a slow breath, Rhiannon brought herself back to focus. It went well until she started the overhead swing, the momentum forcing her into an out-of-control turn. Bjorn’s hands grasped her hips, instantly there to steady her before she injured someone.
“Careful, little warrior, we don’t want any more accidents now. Take it slow and get used to controlling the movement before you add power.”
Rhiannon swallowed, nodded to indicate she had heard him and tried again, the motions slower, harder, but more precise. She had to think of it like a weighted staff, but it was proving tricky, one part always canting to the side to pull her off balance. More than a couple of times, Bjorn had to step in to steady her, and she trusted him to guide her through. When she at last managed to execute the less complex movements, she handed it back.
“Thank you.” It was still far from her favourite weapon. In her hands it was cumbersome and unwieldy, and she admired Bjorn’s skill with it even more.
He grinned, shouldering the weapon. “We’ll make an axewoman of you yet.”
Against her will, the corners of Rhiannon’s mouth curled, and she snorted. “I think I am better suited to the sword.”
“It takes practice, but in this instance, I think you are right.”
He stood very close, his gaze warm, and she had the insane urge to smooth her hand over his taut, flat stomach. Startled by the direction of her thoughts, Rhiannon jerked back, putting physical distance between them. Never had she thought of a man in that way. He made her feel…strange…different. Alarik shifted from his post, a knowing gleam in his eyes, though Rhiannon could not even imagine what was so amusing.
“If you are done handling Bjorn’s weapon,” he drawled lazily, “I have other duties to attend to.”
Behind her, a spluttering cough erupted, and Rhiannon twisted her head. Graeme thumped Bjorn hard on the back, and he sucked in a breath. Rhiannon caught the tip of her tongue between her teeth. There was something she was missing. Her gaze darted between Bjorn’s red face, his blue eyes fixed on Alarik and promising retribution, and Alarik’s amused one. Her neck prickled at the underlying currents shifting between the men, and Rhiannon retreated behind her usual defensive wall of defiance.
She gave him a stiff nod. “I am finished.”
Alarik shot Bjorn a knowing smirk, his eyes dipping to his waist, and moved to escort his charge.
©2019 by Jane Burrelli