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Midsummer festival fever had caught them all in her heathen coils. The higher born boys fought with practice swords in the yard, their bouts descending into pitched battle with no guard or master at arms to break it up. Rudolf found himself stunned in the dust, unnoticed by the others as they pursued longer held grudges against boys they knew, and he scrambled to his feet. Retreating from the yard seemed the most chivalrous thing to do, for he had more training than most of them, though not enough to stop the fight like his cousin Reidar might have.
Outside the walls, pine had been piled up for the bonfires, huge as haystacks, that would be set alight after dark to feed some ancient, beastly god. Now, the fresh, life-giving scent of the pine lay sharp over the bed of long-dead peat from the bogs, reminding him of the inevitability of death, even in the bright summer sun.
His thick furs itched in the unaccustomed heat that was so little like home, but he did not dare take them off. They marked him for what he was, a Viken prince among these Islanders, who wore linen and leather that was surely more suitable for summer.
Peat smoke spiralled in a dark prayer to heaven as it roasted pork to what he hoped would be perfection. The rich smell took him back home, to his farewell feast and the roasted beast that had been Reidar's first kill. Oh, now that had been a feast. Could these foreigners match it?
The crack of what sounded like a spitting cat forced his eyes open. No, it was just the beast's flesh spitting at the coals that roasted it, like its last act of courage before the old gods took it to Valhalla. Did pigs go to heaven, though, he wondered. The men of the new faith said no, but he didn't know enough about the old to be sure.
Hogs probably went up to the great feasting table in the sky, much like their bodies had here. Such was their fate, as this exile was his. At least he was not a pig, however much he roasted in his northern clothes.
He headed away from the clamour, toward the cliffs.
"Boy, boy!" an imperious, elderly voice called.
Rudolf turned. He'd learned the hard way not to ignore an old woman's commands. If he hadn't sat on that throne for a moment and Queen Regina hadn't caught him, then he wouldn't be here, exiled at the other end of the world. Better alive than dead, though, and alive, he could train more so that one day, he could better serve his king. The man whose backside belonged on that cursed throne.
If the approaching woman was Queen Regina, Rudolf would have run. As it was, he forced himself to hold his ground.
The woman everyone called Nurse limped up to him. "Have you seen them? Wee devils, they are. Their father insists they must attend the feast dressed in their best, and I cannot find them anywhere!"
The Lord Angus's daughters were missing? Rudolf's heart turned to ice, as he remembered the day he'd lost his little sister to the ice on the fjords.
But there was no ice here, and little water, either, for the burns that had flowed only yesterday were little more than mud now after days without rain. It truly was a different world to Viken.
If he had a choice, today he would be in the swimming hole the other boys had spoken of. A pool they said never dried up.
A place deep enough for a little girl to drown.
Panic gave his feet wings as he crested the rise, following the dried up burn. If he could get there in time, perhaps he could save them. Perhaps…
A shrill scream stopped his heart, but not his feet. Still he ran. If a girl could scream, she could breathe, and he could still save her. By all the saints in heaven, please let him save her.
Low hanging branches sliced at his face, but still Rudolf ran on until he almost fell over the lip of the pool, or what had been the pool. Perhaps even this morning, it had still held water, but now…now it held three wriggling, shrieking girls as they played in liquid mud. Alive. Safe. All three. Portia, Lina and Arlie, so covered in mud he couldn't tell them apart – not that it was an easy matter anyway, given the girls looked identical.
Rudolf's heart dared to beat again and he took a deep breath. "Nurse!" he shouted. "I have found your three little pigs!"
* * *
Portia reacted to the king's demands the way she always did when something vexed her: she went shooting.
Her bow was a comforting weight in her hand as she marched to the practice field. The smooth wood was exactly the right size for someone of her stature – as Rudolf must have known, for he'd given it to her on her last name day. Much easier to shoot with than his own monster bow, easily taller than he was. It had taken her years before she'd had the strength to fire anything from his bow, but when a lucky shot clipped the target, Rudolf had made good on his promise – a bow of her own, and archery lessons to keep her from shooting him instead of the target.
Not that she'd meant to do that. The arrow had accidentally gone through his boot, and she'd told him so. She wasn't sure he believed her, though. She sighed and took aim.
She emptied her quiver in record speed, wishing the plain wood target had a picture of the king's face painted on it. She did not even know what the bastard looked like. She imagined King Donald as old and fat with thinning hair, a petulant fool who demanded things that were not his like the spoiled child he'd once been.
She fitted an arrow to the bowstring.
How dare he try to claim her lands. Her father's lands, truly, but hers, too, for she was his firstborn.
She drew the arrow back.
How dare he insist they pay him tribute. A man who had no right to their lands, or the fruit from it.
She sighted along the arrow, blowing out her breath in a rush.
How dare he call their people foreigners. How dare he!
She released, and the arrow flew toward the target. It lodged in the side, so close to the edge that it only hung there for a moment before it fell to earth.
Earth that sorry excuse for a king had no claim on!
Portia stomped her foot for emphasis.
"Looking at the target, I wondered if Arlie had picked up a bow for her annual archery practice. But Arlie doesn't stamp her foot like that." Rudolf gestured at the target across the field. "Are you feeling sorry for the target, Portia? Trying not to hit it because hitting it would be cruel?"
Portia's face turned as red as her hair. Trust Rudolf to bring that up. No one else remembered something that happened ten years ago, except him. "I still think butchering pigs is cruel, but nothing I can say or do will stop it, for the rest of your will still eat it. So will I, and be properly thankful to the animal that gave its life so that we may eat its flesh." She sounded like the priest at last Sunday's mass, and she knew it. Before Rudolf could tease her for that, too, she continued, "It won't matter if I miss my target, anyway. Men all bunch up in an army, so if I miss one man, I'm bound to hit the one beside him."
He laughed. "Since when are you riding to war? Your father is not so short of men he'll need you to fight." His gaze travelled from her feet up to her face. "Unless you plan on wearing a man's garb. There's many a man on the island who's dreamed of seeing you without your gown, but I'm sure none of them imagined you'd be wearing armour."
Just as her blush faded, it flamed into life once more. Only Rudolf could say these things with such brutal honesty, without apology. Not for the first time, she wondered if he'd been one of those dreaming men. Men who would soon be off to war, with no time to dream of anyone, she told herself sternly. "I have no need to ride to war. Raiders come in boats when they see fit, and if the menfolk are not at home, then it falls to us women to defend our homes."
Rudolf inclined his head. "So it does. Here in the south, right up to Viken in the north. But your father will never leave you here unprotected, and you will always have me." He drew a dagger from his belt and sent it flying toward the target. He hit the centre. "I will defend you with my life, Portia."
That serious look in his eyes heated her all over again, but not just her face this time. There was something about Rudolf that lit a fire inside her. The kind of fire she liked, but could never stoke. "I'm sure my father will be very grateful for your service," she said sweetly.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Then he shook his head, as if to rid it of ideas that had no place there, a feeling Portia understood well. Finally, he said, "But it would be lax of me to stop you from practising, when you so sorely need it."
"Why you – " Portia began, then stopped as Rudolf grinned. When he smiled, the man was charming enough to coax a honeycomb from an angry bear. Not even she was immune to him. Perhaps that's why she felt so hot inside. "Help me retrieve my arrows, then."
Rudolf pulled the lucky few from the target while she hunted through the grass for the rest. When the quiver was more than half full once more, she marched back to where she'd left her bow. Rudolf with his longer strides got there first, lifting the weapon in readiness, though he didn't hand it to her.
"First, I must check your stance, Portia," he said. "Show me how you stand."
Never one to like being ordered about, Portia set her hand on her hip and waved an arrow. "You'd better hope I don't decide to make you my target instead."
"You wouldn't do that," he said easily. "You like me."
No matter how much he irritated her and make her feel other unwelcome feelings she had to ruthlessly suppress, Portia had to admit she did. Not aloud, though. "I might also like to see you hopping around with an arrow in your foot again."
"You have your dreams and I have mine. I like mine better. Now, do you wish to practise, or no?"
Portia relented and stepped up to the bow, angling herself so that she faced Rudolf and not the target. She fitted her arrow to the string. "There. Good enough for you?"
Rudolf inspected her, even going as far as to march right the way around her, before he nudged her foot with his. "Your stance needs to be a little wider, pointed to where you wish the arrow to go." His arms came around her, lifting the bow so that the arrow no longer pointed at the ground.
Portia wanted to relax into his embrace, and surrender to the promise of protection he offered. It would be so easy, and yet it was something she could never do. Rudolf was a foreigner, a ward sent from Viken to learn to fight in her father's house. One day, he would be summoned home to fight for whatever Viken lord his family owed fealty to. Portia was her father's eldest daughter, and heir to Isla. The man she married would follow her father as Lord of Isla, the largest and most powerful of the Southern Isles. She could never marry a mere household knight. It would take a lord at least, or a lord's son, to hold Father's place in council. Rudolf knew this as well as she did, which was why he never took liberties, though he made it very clear he would like to. But that was an invitation she could never offer.
She straightened, paying more attention to the bow and arrow than the boy whose breath tickled the back of her neck. "Which foot do you like best, Dolf?" she asked.
"Your left one, because that's pointed at the target," he said, cupping her elbow in his hand. "Now draw, sight along the arrow…" His hand slammed into her gut, just below her breasts, forcing her to exhale. "Now I've made you breathless, you may shoot."
The arrow whistled across the field and thwacked into the target. Not in the centre, marked by the divot from Rudolf's knife, but nearer than any of her earlier attempts.
Rudolf inclined his head. "Not bad. If you were aiming for a man's heart, you might have hit him in the throat. But we can improve on that."
With infinite patience Portia knew she would never possess, Rudolf helped her empty her quiver – all into the target this time. Then he headed across the field with her to retrieve the arrows again.
When the quiver was full, he held it out and asked, "Are you still angry, or have you done enough shooting for one day?"
Until she hit the centre of the target every time, it would not be enough. She sighed. A landless knight like Rudolf would not understand. "One more time," she said, reaching for the quiver.
Rudolf caught her hand in his. "You're bleeding. I say you have done enough. We should get you inside, so one of your sisters can bandage these fingers. You can practise more on the morrow, but first, I must get you some pigs' ears."
"Pigs' ears are no use to anyone, except the pig itself," Portia said, snatching her hand back. Her fingers tingled where he'd touched them, a hint of magic that called for more. She refused to yield. Isla would not yield.
Rudolf chuckled. "Get you to your sisters. I'll return your things to the armoury, and find you inside." He shouldered both her quiver and her bow and headed across the yard.
Portia sucked on her bleeding fingers as she headed inside. Arlie would exclaim over the blood, fanning herself in case she fainted. Lina would be the one to clean and bandage her, like Nurse had taught her to before age and infirmity had called the old woman from this life.
As it would one day call them all.
But not yet, if Portia had any say in it.
* * *
The moment Arlie spotted Rudolf, she cried, "Dolf will go to war to save us! Won't you, Dolf?"
Portia hushed her. She might only be a few minutes older than her sisters, but sometimes the difference felt like years.
"If you ladies need saving, I would be honoured to be of service," Rudolf said as he approached. He met Portia's eyes without a hint of laughter and bowed low. "From what must I save you? Is there another spider?"
Lina laughed. "No, only Portia screams at spiders. This time, it's some pompous king, demanding tribute from all the island lords, which they will not pay."
"That's no way to talk about your liege," Rudolf said mildly. "I've never heard anyone call King Harald pompous before."
"That's because it's not him!" Arlie giggled. "It's some silly foreigner called Donald. He calls for tithes and men, to combat what he calls our foreign invaders, so that he might help us make the Southern Isles great again."
"Nay, he wants to make Alba great again, but he insists we are an important part of it," Lina corrected.
Portia frowned. "Important enough to attract his interest, because he thinks we might offer him men or money. No king has every offered us anything we didn't have to pay for. Not King Harald or this Donald. The lords of the isles know this, and they will refuse him, which will mean war."
"The lords are in the right of it. The isles are under Harald's protection, and they do not belong to some man called Donald. If he wants them, he will have to fight for them, and pay dearly," Rudolf declared.
Now Portia thought of it, he did sound like one of the lords. Somehow, over the years, Rudolf the boy had turned into a man, or at least something like one. A pity he would never be one of them. Because if he was…
"Perhaps this Donald should just ask to marry Portia. We all know no man on the islands is good enough for her, for she turns her nose up at all of them. Would a king suit you, Portia?" Arlie teased.
Rudolf's eyes were upon her, and Portia found she could not meet them. "Father knows as well as I do that I can only wed a man who can hold the islands. Hold them, and defend them, like he has. All this Donald has done is blow wind at us, and the isles have withstood greater gales than anything he's thrown at us thus far. I will wed when a strong enough man presents himself, and not before."
"See? Portia will never marry for love. Or she'd have picked Rudolf, long ago," Lina declared with a smile.
Arlie dissolved in a fit of giggles, falling back to kick her legs in the air.
Once again, Portia felt far too hot. She rose and marched out of the room, the sound of her sisters' laughter following her. And booted footsteps. Rudolf, of course.
"Portia," he began cautiously, as if wishing to warn her of his presence.
She turned and held up her hand to halt him before he said any more. "My sisters like to joke at my expense. And yours. I'm sorry if their levity sounds insulting to your ears. You are a strong and skilled warrior. Both my father and I know that. So do my sisters, I think. But when we hear whispered news of war…well, you see how we react. Lina will pick herbs to dry for every wound and ailment imaginable, and fill the cellars with all the food she can possibly preserve. Arlie…she will make light of everything, as she always does, for laughter is her way."
"And you shall shoot things, because even if every man on this island dies in battle, you will still defend it while you have breath left in your body," Rudolf finished for her. "Isla is your home, and the Southern Isles are your kingdom as much as Harald holds Viken, or Donald does Alba."
Now it was Portia's turn to laugh. "No one understands me the way you do, Dolf. I swear it is as though you have some magical power to see into my head. I'm glad I didn't shoot you."
Rudolf laughed with her. "I'm glad you didn't shoot me, either. If it comes to war, I hope I am never on the opposing side to you and your father. I meant it when I said I would protect you." He held out his hand. "Here."
Portia glanced down and recoiled. "What in heaven's name do you intend to do with those?"
"Give me your hand."
Reluctantly, she did as he asked. He wrapped the pig's ear around her middle finger, the leather surprisingly warm and soft from being in his pocket. Next, he threaded a thin leather thong through the holes edging the ear, until he'd laced it like one of her gowns. He pulled the whole thing taut, then tied it at the bottom. "Now the others." Soon he'd shrouded all three of her middle fingers in pigs' ears. The leather was paler than boot leather, as though the pigs' ears were tanned differently. In fact, the pigskin was so close to the shade of her own skin that it looked like she wasn't wearing the finger guards at all. "Next time, wear these when you need to shoot out your frustration. Your arms will tire long before you make your fingers bleed. Pigs' ears are tough."
"Thank you, Dolf!" Portia threw her arms around his neck. Too late, she realised as her body moulded to his that she shouldn't do such things any more. Though he cared for her as much as any brother, Rudolf was most certainly not one of her siblings. Awkwardly, she peeled herself away from him, only now realising that he held his arms stiffly at his sides. Stopping himself from returning her embrace, or pushing her away? Oh, she was so stupid.
"It's my pleasure, Portia," he said. With a slight bow, he left her.
Portia sighed, only now realising she held her well-wrapped fingers over her heart. If only she was as free as her sisters. But the world didn't work the way she wanted to, for life was nothing like a fairytale.
Would you like to read more?
Three sisters. An absent prince who promised to protect them. And the wolf is at the door…
Once upon a time…
When war breaks out, Rudolf promises Portia and her sisters he will protect them. But his father falls in battle, and Rudolf is forced to return home to command his father’s armies.
Shifting alliances turn Portia and her family from friends to sworn enemies. To win the war, Rudolf must conquer her home, and risk losing her forever.
When the wolf is at the door, who will win – love or war?
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