- The Grave of Valkyries – Part 1
- The Grave of Valkyries – Part 2
- The Evidence
- A Stopping Place
- The Storm
- Ragnar’s Hall
- Not Like Indiana Jones
- A Homecoming, A Gift
- Dragon Heads
- Dust and Misogyny
- Stone Walls
- The Vikings
- Circumstantial Truths
- Dance With Me
- Find a Question
- A New Home
- The King
- Three Springs
- Goodbye, Hello
- Unexpected Arrivals
- Bishop vs Rook
- Cause of Death
- Midnight Visitor
- Dark Nights
- Good Morning
Tom led Ingrid through the halls. Elsewhere on the compound, shouts and crashes broke through the night, leading priests away from their stealthy route. Ingrid kept her hand on the knife in her belt. The leather grip stuck to her sweaty palm and one fraying end tickled her finger. She flicked it away and waited for Tom to finish checking around the corner for enemies.
“How much further?” She was getting impatient.
“Not much,” Tom whispered. “The abbot’s office is in the center of the building. Gunnar should be holed up in there.” He waved her forward, and they set off down another hallway.
They passed a plain glass window, lit from the outside with the beginnings of a fire. Small dark-robed figures were rushing around, trying to stop the more irregular forms of their prisoners as the disgruntled townspeople began trashing the church, throwing, burning, and breaking everything they got their hands on.
The chaos was enough to keep most of the church’s occupants busy. The only noticeable absences were Gunnar and Rionan.
“Did he say why he wanted my Red?” she asked. Tom shook his head.
“Just that she could come with him, or she could die right there.” He paused and pointed toward the office. “It’s just down this corridor,” he said. “Some of those novices mentioned he liked to hole up there when he wasn’t looking for new victims.”
Ingrid patted his arm and smiled grimly.
“Thank you,” she said. “Go help the others. If this goes well, we’ll both see you before dawn rises.”
Tom nodded and trotted into the darkness, leaving her alone. Her footsteps accompanied her, echoing off the stone walls. Now that she was so close, caution seemed unnecessary, so she abandoned it in favor of haste.
The door loomed large at the end of the path. The heavy oak had no decoration except for metal plating that framed the corners and curled around the chunky lock. Ingrid leaned forward to listen. If Rionan was inside, she’d have to enter as quietly as possible to avoid catching Gunnar’s attention.
The other side of the door was silent. Her stomach sank at the implication and she pushed the door open. Its hinge groaned as the interior of the room revealed itself. A large desk took up most of the space, along with two chairs. Behind the desk, an enormous fireplace, big enough to roast a pig, sat cold and barren. Streaks of white ash on the interior told her it had been swept out recently. Likely, no one had been in to light it at all today.
She entered the room and stared into the gloomy depths, hoping to glimpse Rionan. It wasn’t until the heavy pommel of a sword contacted her temple that she realized her mistake. A deep chuckle accompanied her fading consciousness as she crumpled to the floor. Waking up was a trying experience. The skin on her forehead pulled and stung as she blinked rapidly. Little flecks of dried blood fluttered in front of her face on their way down to her lap. Gunnar had not been gentle when knocking her out. When she tried to move, rough twine kept her ankles and wrists locked together. She was bound but not gagged.
Ingrid tried to raise her head. Opening her eyes made her hiss. Her vision swam, her stomach rolled, and she couldn’t keep her thoughts straight. She squeezed her eyes shut and fought through the pounding headache. The only thing that helped her focus was a series of whimpers and grunts from the corner of the room. She could have sworn some of those squeals were her name.
“Finally,” Gunnar said cheerfully. “She awakens.” Ingrid breathed and looked. She tried to force her vision to settle as her eyes drifted toward him. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and tasted faintly of blood.
“What do you want?” she grit out. The noises got louder. Gunnar smirked.
“I think you know,” he said.
“I don’t have the seal,” she huffed. It was the truth. She’d sent it off with Bjørn. If anyone deserved it, it was her loyal first mate. She owed the man more than just a seal. She owed him a few life debts. If she could help him afford a slightly comfortable life, that would be a start to making them even. Not even Gunnar could make her regret giving it away.
The Viking shook his head.
“That’s not it.” He crouched down until they were eye to eye. “I’ve found that trade is of less interest to me these days.” He waved a hand. “I never understood why my father forbade priests from his territory. They can be quite useful, so long as they think you’re on their side.”
“Did Ragnar put you up to this?” It would make sense, she supposed. The man was a pragmatist. Gunnar shook his head.
“My father disowned me after you rejected me.” His expression shifted, the cunning smile turned into a sneer, and the fine lines around his eyes deepened. “You’ve always been a favorite of his. I figured becoming an heir was only a matter of obtaining him a favored daughter-in-law–” he gripped her chin– “but you ignored me every time I approached, too enamored with your little thrall there.” He jutted his chin at a dim corner where a pale figure sat. Ingrid blinked and stared. As she studied the figure, the jumbled mass of her thoughts narrowed on the familiar clothes and the face covered by a gag.
“Red,” she breathed. Her fingers trembled in their bonds, and rage chased away the last of her brain fog. “Let her go,” she snapped. Gunnar laughed.
His wide strides ate up the floor as he reached for Rionan. She yelled around the gag as she was hauled up and held aloft like a kitten. Ingrid’s heart pounded when she saw Rionan’s feet kicking. Gunnar shook her once and threw her toward the desk. She landed with a loud thud and tumbled to the floor. The altar cross on the desk clattered to the floor beside her.
“Rionan!” Ingrid screamed. “Are you alright?” Rionan let out a whine and nodded. Ingrid glared at Gunnar.
“As I was saying,” he continued. “After your little stunt in Reykjavik, I went home to report.” His frown deepened. “He could tolerate my losing your hand, but not a trade partner. Ragnar insisted you were too much a Viking to settle, and as long as you sailed, he’d have your business.”
Gunnar gripped the base of Ingrid’s braid and yanked her head back with a snarl. “He said I lacked vision, that I was too impatient. I’m not worthy of being his heir.”
“That’s not my fault,” Ingrid hissed. The sting of her scalp hurt, but not nearly as bad as seeing Rionan lying on the ground in a quivering mass.
“Oh, but it is,” Gunnar insisted. “I took to sea to prove myself. Then that damned storm led me right to the woman who ruined everything for me.” He shook her once and released her braid. “But it doesn’t matter; I’ve found more here than expected. The power my father has is nothing compared to the power I can obtain through the church. Not to mention the riches that hide in these walls.” He held a fist aloft and glared down at her. “The only thing that could make this sweeter is killing you, then making that little thrall suffer. I’ll return her to Dubh Linn and sell her to the highest bidder. She’s a tastier mouthful now anyway, and I can only imagine what some sailors will pay for her.”
Ingrid roared and tried to lunge at him, only succeeding in toppling over. She hissed and screamed at him.
“I’ll kill you, you bastard,” she yelled. “You whoreson, dog-fucker!”
Gunnar laughed and drew a dagger from his belt. “Sleep well, shield maiden.” When he crouched and raised his sword, Ingrid heard a muffled snap. Before she could wonder what it was, the blurry form of Rionan flew at Gunnar and rammed something into his eye.
Gunnar bellowed and collapsed. Rionan followed. Her muted screams accompanied her movements as she snatched the knife out of his hand and brought it down on his neck and chest. The smell of blood and offal filled the room, and Gunnar’s twitching limbs slowed until they lay slack on the floor. Rionan’s bloody hands, ringed with the sawed-through remnants of the cord, shook as she removed her gag and stumbled over to Ingrid.
Gunnar’s blood was seeping onto the ground, and the cross was still wobbling in the ruined eye socket. Ingrid drew in a shuddering breath and looked away. The smell alone made her want to gag. Rionan sank to the ground in front of her.
Her braid was askew, and her dress was rumpled and torn. She ignored the blood stains that turned the previously blue fabric red. Silent tears slid down her darling’s face, framing her trembling mouth. Ingrid wanted to wipe them away. They had no business being there.
“Are you alright, love?” She knew the answer, but Rionan was too silent. Wordlessly, she began untying Ingrid’s hands. Once her fingers were free, she removed the tears and hugged Rionan.
She folded into Ingrid’s arms easily and stayed limp as she was carried out of the room into the hall. Her hands shook and were sticky with dried blood, and each time they drifted toward Ingrid, she’d snatch them back, clutching them softly into her stomach.
“Talk to me,” Ingrid whispered as she settled them onto the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Rionan whimpered. “I didn’t–I didn’t want to–He was going to hurt you!” Gasps interrupted her sobbing, and Ingrid ran a soothing hand up and down her back. Rionan curled further into herself, and trembled on Ingrid’s lap like a small animal. “I’m sorry, Ingrid.”
“You did nothing wrong,” she insisted. A thought occurred to her, and she set Rionan on the floor.
She opened the door and marched toward the corpse. Gunnar’s pretty face was ruined, and a cruel part of her was glad. The cross in his eye was gold, slender, and about the height of her hand, and it left Gunnar’s eye with a grotesque squelch. Rionan had stabbed the bottom, which would normally be mounted on a plaque, into his face, penetrating deep into the skull. Ingrid hoped hell welcomed him with open arms.
She gave the cross a cursory wipe and carried it into the hall, dropping it into Rionan’s lap. The girl flinched and shoved it away.
“Don’t,” Ingrid ordered. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She grabbed Rionan’s chin. “I once told you your god is obsessed with gold.” She pointed at the cross. “This is my proof.” Rionan snorted. Her wet eyes flicked from Ingrid’s face to the cross.
“You don’t believe in God,” she said.
“No, but you do,” Ingrid insisted. “And you always said he punished sinners. Why else would the perfect, golden weapon fall right into your hands?”
Rionan frowned and picked up the bloody cross. She stared at it for a few moments before looking at Ingrid.
“I want to go home,” she whispered. “Our home, the one we talked about.”
“We can do that,” Ingrid agreed. She scooped Rionan up and guided her down the hall. The cross clattered to the ground.
“Wait.” Rionan kneeled and grabbed the ornament. Ingrid watched her tear a piece of cloth off her dress to wrap around it before she slid it into her pocket. “It’s tainted.”
They walked through the chaos, nodded to Tom as he helped the prisoners. The fire faded the farther they went. In the distance, over the treetops, dawn broke.