A warrior princess and a Viking are destined to meet and destined to mate, but what happens when destiny is denied?
Neilina is wolf shifter and conriocht. Haakon shifts into a sabretooth tiger, asmundr – the ultimate guardian of feline shifters. Both are Chrechte, both will spend centuries guarding their people. They can barely look at one another without needing to touch. It should be the perfect mating.
But when Neilina was still training for her role as conriocht, Haakon’s father brutally murdered her entire pack. She has spent nearly two centuries alone, living with the pain of that asmundr’s betrayal and her own failure. She knows Haakon is her mate, but she’ll never accept a Viking cat shifter, much less the son of the man who has caused her such grief.
Haakon never knew his father as destroyer, all he does know is that he and his cat crave their mate. He will do whatever it takes to protect ad claim the woman destined to fight by his side, even if it means crossing an ocean and leaving everything and everyone he knows behind.
This is a critical time in Chrechte history, when the Paindeal, Faol and Ean must come together to fight a common foe, or be completely destroyed. Neilina and Haakon must learn to deal with the past as passion burns like a wildfire between them, and they must come together to protect all Chrechte.
Mist swirled around Haakon’s lower legs, the pre-dawn light casting the forest of this other place in shadow.
The soft moss upon which he walked was hidden from his sight, but he knew from past visits it was a brilliant green, the trees so tall their tops could not be seen even in the full light of day and the flowers so vibrant with color, they had none of their like in Groenland.
Would she come? His sacred mate, the one woman destined to be his above all others, the woman who had spent nearly a decade refusing to give him her name or a clue to where she lived. When they were together, they both spoke the ancient tongue of their people, so he could not tell if she was of the Norse or another land entirely.
He did not even know what animal she shifted into as she had never allowed him the privilege to see.
Her dress was as if she were as ancient as the language, her body covered in leathers and furs, her feet clad in boots that reached her knees, burned with old runes and symbols only their kind would recognize. His mystery woman wore her dark hair long, but with the braids of a warrior, and she carried a walking stick topped with the sharpened antlers of a powerful buck.
His reminisces of her were interrupted as the woman herself, flesh and blood though he did not understand how it was possible in this other place, walked out of the mist, her beautiful face set in stern lines.
“You call to me in my dreams when I have other things to concern myself with.”
“Are we dreaming then?” he asked, knowing the answer was both yes and no.
They both slept, but this was no dream. This was Chrechte magic, a spirit realm which was as real as his sword, but which he understood less than his ability to shift into a giant cat of prey.
“If you would tell me where you are, I would come to you in person and then we would not have to meet here,” he told her, not for the first time.
Fear flashed in her green gaze, gone so fast if he had not been watching her so closely, he would not have seen it. It was always thus when he mentioned anything about them meeting in person.
She frowned, her green eyes now dark with annoyance. “I will never reveal my home to you.”
“You are mine.” Not that he believed that mattered to her. Haakon did not doubt that his mate spoke the absolute truth when she said she would never tell him how to find her.
Her grip on the staff tightened. “I belong to no man.”
“You belong to me, just as I belong to you.” It was not about ownership as if either were a slave, but the trust and companionship that only a true mate could bring. “You are my sacred mate.”
“I will have no Norseman for a mate.” The revulsion twisting her lovely features had long since stopped surprising him, but it still nicked his soul, drawing fresh blood.
“And yet that is exactly what you do have.” He was tired of the old refrain, had long since lost hope he would change her mind, but felt compelled to point out what she had to know as surely as he did.
For her, there was no other, just as he could never give in to his uncle’s urgings and take a mate from among their people.
“Whatever fate has decreed, I will not be your mate in truth. No matter how many times your soul calls to mine in this place.”
“Have you ever considered it is your soul calling to mine?” he provoked her, knowing she would not like that explanation.
“And yet, as often as I am the first to arrive, I come, drawn by an unseen force. And you are already here. Our souls have been linked these past nine years.” Interest in other women as bed partners had disappeared after his first time here, not long after his eighteenth summer and his first shift into the asmundr.
Haakon had forced himself to try, he’d been a young man after all, his body rife with unfulfilled sexual desire, and he’d been angry. Angry and hurt, though he would not admit the last aloud to another living being.
After the third time his green eyed warrior-woman had rejected him, Haakon had been seething with rage and the unfamiliar emotional pain, when a lovely young widow had invited him to share her furs. He’d accepted, hoping to erase the craving that tormented his sleep as well as his waking hours for a woman who wanted nothing to do with him.
But he’d been unable to perform sexually with the widow, despite her well-versed efforts and attractiveness.
Just as the Chrechte wisdom claimed would be the case. But it was supposed to happen that way after mates had claimed each other for the first time, not when they’d only met in the Chrechte spirit world.
“It is not I that draws us both to this place, but you,” his mate claimed, her expression saying she believed her own words, regardless of evidence to the contrary. “You, Viking, with your stubborn will and refusal to accept that I will not be your mate. You do this.”
“What are the other things that worry you so much you find your time here especially onerous?” he asked, rather than engage in an old argument with his mate.
She never gave ground, never admitted her need was as great as his. Never acknowledged his claim on her, or the claim she had made on him simply by existing.
“Other Chrechte are in danger, not that a Viking like you would care about that.”
“I am not a Viking.” But he’d said as much many time before.
His countrymen had stopped pillaging the lands they visited decades before he’d even been born. Not that she seemed to accept that fact. To her, all Norsemen were Vikings and all Vikings were evil. Though he had no idea why. In nearly a decade, she had not told him the source of her antipathy for his people.
Just as all the times before when he’d reminded her he was not the thing she seemed to loathe most, she ignored him now.
Glaring into the distance, as if she could see what he did not, she shook her head. “They seek to save our race, but if they are not cautious, they will destroy their own packs.”
“Packs? So, they are uffe?”
Her head snapped back around so her gaze, as brilliant and hard as emeralds fell on him. “I know you would not stir yourself to save a wolf.”
“You are wrong. I want no Chrechte to perish.”
“You would have me believe you are so different from your brethren?”
If he could trust the evidence of his ears, she wanted to believe that, but he was past making up fairytales about them. This woman would never trust him to be the honorable asmundr that he was.
Still he told her the truth because not to would be to deny it. “My pride values all life, but the Chrechte most of all.” He sighed at the expression of doubt on her beautiful features. “We find it difficult enough to bring children into the world.”
Their numbers had been dwindling for generations, or so his father had always claimed. All Haakon knew was that the old stories told of a thriving and well-peopled race, but his pride was small, numbering less than a dozen in Groenland and only about five times that number in all lands where Danes might dwell.
The old legends spoke of paindeal who had left for the Land of the Sun, seeking a more hospitable place to dwell, searching for a connection to ancient history even the oldest stories could shed little light on.
His father said the wolves had much higher numbers as had the Éan at one time, but they could not know how the flying shifters fared as he had not come across any in his travels as the Viking warrior she had accused Haakon of being. The wolves Bjorn had seen, many of whom the older asmundr had killed before realizing the error of his ways.
Her expression said she did not believe Haakon’s claim of valuing all life, but then when had she ever believed a single word he had spoken? Though he was fairly sure they could not lie here in this place of other, that their souls spoke to one another as surely as their mouths.
Which was how he knew she meant it when she said she would never be his mate.
For nine years, he had tried to change her mind, tried to get her to see him as a man, a warrior who protected all Chrechte, though he’d never told her he was asmundr. How could he share his most deeply held secret if she would not even tell him her name? Besides, she had not shifted her view of him. Not even a little.
“Will you help them?” he asked her, having gleaned from their time together over the years that she kept from all society, human and Chrechte alike.
“I have no choice. My dreams tell me I must live up to my nature.”
“Your nature as a Chrechte?” he asked, not sure what one woman could do, no matter if she dressed like a man and was trained in combat as this one so clearly had been.
She turned away rather than answer and he knew it was because she could not lie, but there was something she did not want him to know.
“I have been dreaming of other Chrechte as well,” he said to hide pain-inspired anger at yet more proof his mate would never trust in, or rely on him.
“You dream of your murdering brethren?”
His people, the Norse, were known for their brutality in battle, for their lack of reverence for those most would never think to attack, even after their leaders had accepted the new religion brought by Rome in the centuries past. But that did not make them murderers.
And he said so. Again.
Eyes the color of emeralds scorched him with heated antipathy. “Tell that to the pack of my birth, destroyed by your asmundr.”
Her claim did not shock him. He’d long since surmised that his mate had a strong and personal reason for hating Norsemen. But the fact she made it, exposing her own Chrechte nature in the same sentence, left him speechless with disbelief.
Finally, after so many years, she revealed something important about herself. Something he found difficult to believe. Not that she was a wolf shifter, of the uffe, but that her pack had been destroyed by the asmundr. His father. For he knew she could not be talking about him.
She’d used the word for their protector in his language. And that gave him pause. She knew Norse. Was she a Dane then, even if she was a wolf? He had never quite convinced himself of that possibility and thought it more likely she had been exposed to his brethren in an outreach settlement. Groenland was one of many places the Danes had established themselves since the beginning of the Viking’s travels nearly three centuries before.
“I am asmundr to my people and I have destroyed no uffe.” Haakon had never even met a wolf shifter before her, much less battled with an entire pack.
She blanched, the cold light of pre-dawn making her skin take on a ghostly cast. “You are asmundr?” she demanded, the revulsion so strong in her voice, it washed over him like acid, burning his skin with her revilement.
“I am.” And despite her reaction to that truth, it was a great honor he would never be ashamed of.
He had been chosen by fate to protect all Chrechte with strength greater than even that of kotrondmenskr like his cousin who shifted into the large white tigers known more commonly to the Ruske peoples.
“And the other asmundr? The one who did murder my family and friends. What became of him?”
“The only other guardian of the Paindeal that I know of was my father.” There could be others in the land of the Danes, but his father had claimed those who remained on the continent had no asmundr. “He died five years ago, after only a few years training me to be asmundr with him.”
His uncle had succeeded his father as jarl and his cousin would come after. Though Bjorn had been war chief more than a century, Chrechte wisdom dictated that the asmundr should not be pride alpha. Pride alpha was always jarl of his area. It was the way of things.
His father had broken with Chrechte teachings on that and many other things, but come back to appreciate the ancient ways in the twilight of his many hundred year life.
Finding his sacred mate in his seventh century of life, had humbled him. Or so he had always said. Haakon had never noticed Bjorn, the Firebrand, to be anything near humble. However, there was no denying that he had espoused the ancient ways and denounced his own actions over the centuries that did not abide by them.
“No, it cannot be possible. How could fate be so cruel?” she demanded, sounding more vulnerable than any time in the past nine years, her voice husky with broken pain that was too real for him to mistake it for anything else, her eyes haunted with memories only she could see. “Your father murdered my pack? My family and friends and all I held dear?”
“Impossible.” Haakon knew Bjorn had done things like that in centuries past, but not since she had been born. Haakon would not believe it. “My father had not gone on a raid since decades before my birth. He stopped when he found my mother.”
Haakon’s mother had demanded his father stay in Groenland and make a life with her, one not marred by violence and bloodshed. Because she was his true mate, Bjorn listened. And yet, despite being sacred mates, they had not been able to conceive a child until Haakon, who was only twenty-seven.
“You believe I am young, like you?” Haakon’s mate demanded with a harsh laugh. “I am older than the settlement in which you live.”
She knew he lived in Groenland because he’d told her, when he’d still been free with information about himself, before he realized she was never going to reveal anything about herself. Not even her name.
But she had just told him something even more important. If she had been alive for centuries, she was a guardian as well, capable of shifting in a half-wolf, half-human form. If his father’s stories were true, she would also increase in size until she was taller than any Norseman.
“Your father was a betrayer of his own kind,” she said with pure loathing. “No doubt you are just like him, willing to murder innocent Chrechte to further your own ambitions. You are not my mate.”
“You do not mean those words. You know I am not that Chrechte.”
Hatred imbued every line of her being. “You are everything I despise.”
Pain sliced through him. And that pain sparked a rage unlike anything he’d allowed himself to feel since the hotheaded days of his youth. It welled up in Haakon, nearly choking him.
How dare she make those accusations against him? Part of him understood that her hatred for his father was well-deserved. She carried a burden of grief too heavy for most, but Haakon had not placed it there.
The other half of his soul believed that soul was black. After nine years meeting, talking, arguing…in this place, she must know by now how important honor was to Haakon. How much he revered their people and the ancient ways, even if he had never before revealed his asmundr nature to her.
Haakon drew himself to his full six and a half feet, his big muscles bulging with the effort of holding his anger in check, his jaw so taut it hurt. “I have never murdered. I have killed in battle and to protect my people, but I have never taken the life of an innocent. I have never taken any life for my own gain,” he gritted out from between clenched teeth, space between each word.
His words came out tense and strained with his effort to hold back the shout he wanted to give. He wanted to swing his fist at one of the giant trees of this place, but even that outlet, he would not give himself. An asmundr had to control his temper at all times. The Berzerkers of legend had not been asmundr, but most had been kotrondmenskr. Norsemen who shared their nature with the largest cats of prey.
“I don’t believe you.” She said it so starkly, so certainly.
Suddenly Haakon was tired. Tired of the strife, the hatred, of fighting against an absolute certainty that he was not worthy of her time, not even her name. They had been mates for nine years and for every one of those years, she had refused every claim he had on her.
Now she denigrated the very core of his being. His honesty and integrity as asmundr. He did not care if she realized the impact of her words. How they flayed him like a whip tipped in iron. She meant them and that was what mattered.
Fury born of the knowledge he would never know his mate as such, burned through Haakon, leaving nothing but the ashes of cold certainty behind.
This woman would never claim him, never allow herself to be claimed by him. She would never give him her name, much less the most important and longed for benefits of finding the other half of a kotrondmenskr’s soul. He would never know the joy of fatherhood. He would never know the pleasure of sex again, had not known the release of even his own right hand in nine long years.
And she did not care. Nay, she probably reveled in the fact she denied him these things. She refused to believe his words, even in this place where nothing but truth could be spoken between Chrechte, mates even more so.
His soul would always be hungry, but he would be damned to the hell the priests claimed was such an inferno of pain and suffering if it remained that way in the presence of one who he now saw as enemy, as certainly as she had always seen him.
He took the ancient sword he always carried, even to this place of other and planted it in the ground between them with one powerful thrust. “So be it. I will not call you to this place again. Can you say the same?”
Then he turned and walked away, leaving his sword an uncrossable barrier between them.
Haakon woke from sleep, his face inexplicably wet, eyes burning in a way they had not since his childhood and his father had trained emotion out of him.
The knowledge he would never have a mate was an icy reality that would chill the edges of his every waking hour. The loneliness he’d learned to live with from the first day after the first dream-walk to the Chrechte place of spirits would always be with him. Children would never be his, no matter how many hundreds of years he lived as asmundr.
That could not be changed.
But he would stop pining for that which would never be. Haakon would stop craving a woman who could not see beyond her own hatred to the gift that could have been theirs.
He looked to where he stored his sword at night and the dawn light glinted off the well-polished, oiled metal.
So, he had not left it in the other place despite walking away from it. Yet, somehow, he sensed that the barrier between him and the intransigent warrior-woman was still there. That she could not go beyond it and he never would.
Never again would he seek her company in his dreams or the other place.
He would live without his mate; he would not live without his pride.
Neilina woke with a start, her body jerking into alertness and away from the Chrechte land of the spirit.
Haakon, her mate and despised asmundr of the Norse kotrondmenskr had thrown his sword down between them, saying better than the words he spoke that he wanted her no more.
That knowledge should delight her. After nine long years of her denying him, he had finally given up the idea of them being mates. Why did she feel a terrible, hollow regret rather than relief?
It made no sense. No Norsemen could be trusted, particularly the Chrechte among them. They did not value life as he claimed. They were murderers and marauders, destroyers of the innocent.
She had seen firsthand how they treated the people who inhabited the lands they wanted to make new homes in, to plunder for their resources.
She’d spent centuries despising the Norse, particularly kotrondmenskr, for what they had done to her pack, to her Pict village. Newly turned conriocht, she had tried her best to protect her people and the humans that dwelt with them in the small island settlement.
It had not been enough.
Her skills as a warrior were neophyte and the Norse war chief came with an asmundr who had the power of a god and the fighting skills of Thor himself.
Knowing Bjorn was finally dead should give her some peace. How could it though? When she knew his son was her true mate, the one person fate had decreed the other half of Neilina’s soul?
What fresh cruelty was this? After all she had lost, to lose any hope of happiness in the future because of who fate had decreed her sacred bonded?
At least they had never claimed one another. She had at least a tiny seed of hope for companionship over the centuries she would live as conriocht.
Something in her spirit cried out in pain at even the thought of sharing her body with another, but they had never claimed each other physically. She could overcome her own inclinations and find some sort of contentment with another.
She wanted that to be true, but a feeling deep in her soul said it was not.
“Are you well?” Freya, her adopted daughter, asked from the other pile of furs in their bedchamber, deep in the forest cave. “You whimpered in your sleep and it was a sound so unlike any you would make, it woke me.”
“I did not whimper.” Offense she made no effort to hide laced Neilina’s tone.
She did not make helpless noises, or those of fear, or sadness. Not for centuries. Not since losing all she held dear in one bloody, defeated day.
Freya struck a flint to rock and lit the tallow candle beside her, the soft yellow light illuminating her face, lovely despite its scar, as her expression filled with disbelief. Freya pointed at Neilina. “There are tears on your cheeks.”
“Impossible. I do not cry.” Not since waking in that boat the asmundr had left her in, no doubt expecting her to perish at sea.
Neilina had known in that moment that her honor, her pride, her very place in the world, as well as her people, were lost forever to her.
Only now, hundreds of years later, her dreams demanded she act as conriocht again. Who was she to protect the Faol? But the dreams would not leave her alone.
Freya shifted in her furs, sitting up against the wall of the cave. “If you say so.”
“When do we leave for the island?” Freya asked, rather than pursuing the conversation.
Something Neilina appreciated, if she didn’t quite trust it. Freya would revisit Neilina’s supposed tears and whimper later, digging for answers. Answers Neilina could not give, not even to the protegee she had taken under her wing the very same year Neilina had begun to meet Haakon in the Chrechte land of spirits.
She had more important things to consider than the man who claimed to be a mate to her.
There were packs of Faol fighting the order of the Fearghall. That terrible secret band of
other wolf shifters who believed the purity of the Chrechte must be maintained by destroying all whom they considered weaker. They despised those whose parents might shift, but had been born with what they considered a fully human nature. Anyone who they thought would dilute the bloodlines of the Chrechte with some perceived weakness, or another.
The Fearghall considered the bird shifters inferior and were responsible for the decimation of that race.
They murdered without conscience, destroying and practicing the reprehensible act of murdering human true mates. Ostensibly, so the Chrechte could still have children with others of their kind, but just as likely to prevent the birth of children with diluted bloodlines from such a mating.
These evil among the Faol were far more treacherous than the clans set on fighting them realized. The Fearghall were more than willing to kill entire packs to preserve their way of life.
Neilina’s dreams told her she must go to these clans to warn them. She must fight beside them as conriocht, something Neilina had not done in over two centuries.
A terrifying prospect, far more worthy of her attention and worry than the fact Haakon had thrown his sword down between them. Nelina would not concern herself that her supposed mate had left with every evidence he had no intention of returning.
Haakon’s father had murdered her pack and the humans who relied on the Chrechte who lived among them. Just like the Fearghall, Bjorn the asmundr had been a shifter without honor, using the strength meant to protect others to destroy them instead.
She wanted no part of the son.
No matter if her heart, that dried and shriveled organ in Neilina’s chest, tried to dictate otherwise.
She climbed from her furs and began to dress. “We leave for Balmoral Island tomorrow. It is urgent we reach the pack as soon as possible.” She strapped on the weapons she wore under her leather tunic. “The Fearghall have planned something terrible.”
“Your dreams will not tell you what?”
“No. I am conriocht, not celi di.”
“They have a celi di, don’t they?” Freya asked, knowing more about the Chrechte packs than any human not mated to a Chrechte was supposed to.
Considering the twenty-year-old woman who had lived with Neilina for nearly a decade was as close to a daughter as she was ever likely to have, Neilina felt no guilt for breaking Chrechte law in that regard.
“I believe they do, yes.”
“So, why hasn’t she been warned in her dreams?”
“I believe their celi di is a man and I do not know.” Neilina put on the leather straps that held her sword in place and slid the weapon given to her by her great grandmother into position.
Why Bjorn had left all her weapons with her, when he sent her adrift, Neilina did not know. But they were all she had left of her heritage.
“Who knows why God sends a message to one and not another? Why fate decrees the things it does?”
Like that Freya herself should have been born to parents who died before her sixth birthday and then taken in by an aunt and uncle who did nothing to protect her from the sexual interest of a married clansman three times her age. Or that Neilina should be mated to a Norseman and an asumundr at that!
Fate had much to answer for, in Neilina’s opinion.
“Are you nervous about the sailing?” Freya asked, her brows furrowed, bunching the scar over her left eye that she’d carried since the fateful day Neilina had taken her under her wing.
“More to the point, are you?” Neilina asked with what gentleness was left in her warrior’s nature.
“You don’t get scared about stuff like this,” Freya observed rather than answer.
“I don’t allow anything to frighten me anymore.” She had nothing left to lose.
Though looking at Freya, Neilina realized for the first time in centuries, that was not quite true. The young woman before her was too important to be dismissed as nothing. Only for the past nine years, Neilina had entertained no doubts that she could protect her charge. Now, with their quest before them, that might not be true.
If she could deny the quest, she would, but Neilina knew that when fate called one of her nature, she had no choice but to follow.
Freya bit her lip. “I’ve never been on such a long voyage. Are you sure our boat is secure?”
“It is a Viking boat, of course it is seaworthy.” Neilina had stolen it decades ago and maintained it as she’d seen the Vikings do on her spying expeditions, taking supplies when necessary from their settlements.
Freya strapped on her own weapons, a woman’s sword and knives Neilina had ventured far from the safety of their forest retreat to obtain. “But don’t they usually have a bigger crew than two?”
Neilina shrugged. “It’s a small boat, meant for a small crew.”
“Yes, two will sail her just fine. You must trust me, Freya. I cannot leave you here.” Part of Neilina wished she could, but how could she be assured of her adopted daughter’s safety if she was not here to protect her?
A human woman, even one trained to battle, was far too easy a target if she was discovered by a hunting party. And the hunters moved deeper into the woods every year. “Besides Dìonach accompanies us.”
“Your pet bear is a lot more likely to set the boat tipping than help us.” Freya began putting out food with which to break their fast.
Neilina noted to herself that they would need to make bundles of their sleeping furs to take on the journey with them. “Her weight will give us necessary ballast.”
Besides, the bear she had raised from a cub was fiercely protective of Neilina, hence her name. She had fought by Neilina’s side on more than one occasion and the bear’s protective manner had extended towards Freya as soon as Neilina had brought the girl to their cave.
Dìonach would stand with Neilina, between any harm and the girl she loved as daughter.
Freya shook her head. “You should think about leaving her behind.”
“I cannot. Our souls are connected as surely as my wolf is within me.” She had bonded with Dìonach through the Faolchú Chridhe, extending the bear’s life to match hers.
It was a mystical ceremony she understood no better than the moment she became conriocht, taught to Neilina by the celi di who died the same day as the rest of her pack.
The woman had foretold the destruction of their people, if only Neilina had realized it. No one had.
No one could conceive of a guardian using his power to murder and destroy.
Dionach had been with Neilina these past fifty years and had not aged at all.
Freya poured water into cups Neilina had carved years ago. “She’s a bear, not your mate.”
“I have no mate.”
“Are you sure about that?” Freya’s expression challenged Neilina to speak the truth. “We share a bed chamber.”
“We live in a cave.”
“That is not the point. The point is that I am there when you wake from your dreams of this man you claim is not your mate.”
“They are not dreams. He drags me to the Chrechte spirit world.”
“So, he’s some kind of draoidh?” Disbelief and a hint of mockery laced Freya’s tone.
Despite what she’d been through, the young woman was strong and confident. Neilina was ridiculously proud of Freya’s attitude and inner strength. Not that she’d tell the girl and give her a swelled head.
“He is not a wizard. He’s Paindeal and that is bad enough.”
“You know what his people did to mine.”
“I know what human men tried to do to me. I know I’ll wear this scar for the rest of my life because of the darkness inside those men.” She indicated the thin scar that bisected her eyebrow and marred the top of her left cheek. “But I also know that I do not hold all men responsible. You taught me that.”
Neilina had tried, but had never been sure of her success. “Do you not?”
“Yet you’ve told me you have no desire to marry, to have children.”
“My parents’ deaths left me to the not-so-tender mercies of my village. Why would I risk doing the same to my own child?”
But Neilina knew it was more than that. She’d rescued Freya when the girl was maybe eleven summers and they’d been together almost a decade. Freya had long since reached the age at which she could marry, but she’d denied any interest in returning to the human settlements.
She did not have a choice.
Neilina had no idea how long this journey would take, how many days or months she would have to live among the other Chrechte wolves if she hoped to save their clans from annihilation.
The one certainty she did have was that she would not allow to happen to them what had happened to her birth pack.
“Our ancient teachings exhort Chrechte to value all life and to respect the other races. The kotrondmenskr do not do that. To set an asmundr against other Chrechte for the purpose of overtaking land or possessions is anathema to our kind.”
“Surely not all Paindeal are responsible for the actions of one man, no matter how evil he might be,” Freya continued. “You have always claimed there are good as well as bad men. That humanity is not reflected in only the evil, but in the good. Do you not believe that any longer?”
“Of course I believe it, but this is different.”
“How? One asmundr broke his vow to protect the Chrechte and turned his strength toward conquest and power. That does not mean his entire race is corrupt. By that reasoning, all Faol would be as evil as the Fearghall we travel to fight against.”
The reminder was not welcome, but Neilina could not dismiss Freya’s reasoning. It was sound.
Even if Neilina did not want to admit it, so she said nothing.
Freya nodded, as if Neilina’s silence was agreement. “The terrible actions of that asmundr were more than two hundred years ago. Even if his…pack?” Freya paused as if unsure of her terminology.
“Pride,” Neilina supplied.
“Even if his pride believed that was acceptable then, couldn’t they have learned their lesson and changed by now? The rest of the Vikings have. They no longer plunder our coastlines, or even trade in slaves as they once did.”
Neilina wanted to say, “No.” To deny any hope of goodness among the Paindeal, but if she did, it would perhaps undo all her efforts convincing Freya that not all men were slavering monsters bent on sexual conquest.
“We need to eat and then finish preparing for the journey.” Neilina sat down before their repast, taking an oatcake into her hand.
She was no more ready to face the possibility that the murderers of her family might come from a race that was not all evil than she was prepared to verbalize her true cynicism to her adopted daughter.
The pain of their loss had not dulled with time, nor had her guilt for not being the conriocht they needed. Neilina had lost her battle with the asmundr and the consequences for her people had been devastating.
Haakon woke before dawn, reaching for his sword even before he was fully conscious. He had his blade to the throat of the intruder into his family’s longhouse a second later. His eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly and he recognized their pride’s Seer, the old man’s face etched with impatience rather than fear.
“Get that blade away from my throat, boy. I’ve had a vision and you must act.”
Haakon let the sword drop, but he kept his grip firm on the handle, his body still tense and ready for battle. “Can this not wait for morning?”
“No.” Osmend made no effort to speak quietly and allow the others in the long house to sleep as Haakon had done. “It is a matter of life and death for a Chrechte.”
Haakon understood the Seer’s visit, regardless of the hour. They could not afford to lose even a single of their numbers if the loss could be prevented.
“Do not take that tone with me, boy. You may be asmundr, but I was seeing for this pride before you were a twinkle in your father’s eyes, may God rest his soul.”
Considering the fact Bjorn, the Firebrand, had never accepted the religion from Rome, Haakon was not sure how much rest their God would give his soul. “Forgive my impatience, but you did say the matter was urgent.”
“Life or death and it could not wait.” Didn’t the old man even remember his own claims?
“I suppose that could be considered urgent.”
What else? Haakon wondered, but did not make the mistake of asking aloud, uninterested in another rebuke from the old man.
Osmend clasped his hands against his belly and took a deep breath, let it out and then breathed again. “There is a boat. It is filled with Chrechte.”
“Somewhere on the sea.”
“And I’m supposed to do what? Use a divining rod to figure out where?”
“Do not be impertinent. These wolf shifters are on their way to Groenland.”
“Wolf shifters?” Like his mate? Could they be from her pack?
No, she said her pack was gone. That his father had killed them all.
As quick tempered as Bjorn could be, Haakon could not imagine his father doing these heinous acts. He knew the man had been a Viking, that he had battled and killed Chrechte, but a murderer of entire packs?
It did not fit with the kotrondmenskr he knew, the asmundr that had taught him so sternly to live by the ancient ways of their people.
Haakon forced the disturbing thoughts from his mind. His mate was not his mate and had made it clear she never would be. What his father had or had not done to her pack was not what he needed to concern himself with right now.
Haakon had Chrechte to save.
“Ja,” the old Seer affirmed. “They are uffe, but that makes no difference to your responsibility to them.”
“I never said it did.” His father had admitted to living by a different code centuries before, but he’d taught Haakon that his role was guardian to all Chrechte.
Osmend nodded his grizzled head, his once red beard, now grey touching his chest when he did so. “That is as it should be. You are asmundr. Chosen by fate to protect all our people.”
“So you said the day you touched my hand to the Paindeal Neart.” The day he’d first shifted into the giant cat of prey with fangs longer than his human hand and sharper than any sword he’d ever owned.
“You need to get traveling if you are going to save the uffe.”
“Traveling where?” Haakon demanded, doing nothing to stifle his irritation at the Seer’s roundabout way of making a point.
“They are headed to the wrong side of our land.”
“The township where no Chrechte live?” They were Norseman, just like Haakon’s people, but none of the Chrechte had settled on the opposite coastline.
“They won’t harm the uffe just for coming.” The townspeople in both settlements answered to a priest and a bishop now. The way of the Viking was no longer their way.
Or so the humans claimed. They lived much as any man or woman on the mainland, or so his father always claimed.
“They are not Norsemen, but Scots, and strangers. I do not know the why of it, but my visions do not lie. You must meet that boat and stop the uffe from going to the other township.”
“Then that is what I will do.” Because unlike what his kamerat believed, powerful warrior might he might be, Haakon valued all life, Chrechte most of all.
Neilina settled Dìonach into the center of the boat, nodding to herself as the animal’s weight gave the craft necessary ballast for stability. She and Freya could make this journey. They had no choice.
Her dreams said that the safety of the Balmoral clan and its allies depended on her doing so.
Freya stepped gingerly into the boat. “I still think this is mad.”
“Your opinion has been noted. Would you have me ignore the plight of the Chrechte who need my protection because reaching them will be dangerous?”
“Nay. You did not ignore my plight despite the numbers being overwhelmingly against you in the fight.”
“And still I won.”
“Well, you are conriocht.”
“And they were treacherous human males, blinded by their terrible lusts.”
“There is that.”
“I fought and won that battle, taking you away from the village which had not taken your protection seriously since your parents’ death. I will fight the battle against the sea if need be.”
Freya smiled, her face young and carefree for that moment. “If anyone can fight against the sea and win, it is you.”
Haakon rode his large black stallion, bred for the colder climes of his homeland.
Though he was not sure Groenland could boast the warmer summers it once had. The land of the Danes would have to be cold indeed to be considered more frigid. He would not know, never having been anywhere but the place of his birth.
But he knew the land he and his stallion traversed as well as the four corners of the longhouse in which he lived. He would reach the nearest beach landing spot to the other Norse township tomorrow before the sun was high in the sky. According to the Seer, that would get him there in time to intercept the Scottish uffe.
What had brought the other Chrechte to Groenland? Why were they in danger if they made it to the village?
Not for the first time, Haakon contemplated the separation of the Chrechte races and what had caused it to happen so many centuries before. Even his father hadn’t been entirely clear on the why, just that there were other Chrechte and ancient wisdom said they should not seek them out. But why?
Fate was sending Haakon to the aid of uffe now. Eventually, the wolves would realize they were dealing with another Chrechte. If they were any good at putting the pieces together. Haakon could hide his nature, but it was not a skill all the kotrondmenskr were taught. Not for centuries, as no Chrechte enemies lived near enough to make the skill desirable for any but the most elite warriors. For them, it was a rite of passage.
Had Haakon not been able to hide his nature, he would not have been given his second chance at the Paindeal Neart and become asmundr.
Under the strict taskmaster of his father, Haakon had worked hard to master that skill and all that made a warrior strong and capable of protecting his people.
Being asmundr had been written by fate into Haakon’s destiny since before his birth. His father had said so many times.
Haakon had felt the truth of Bjorn’s words from an early age though. So strongly that he never balked at the rigorous training.
He camped that night, rolled in his furs, beside his horse on the ground, the stallion sleeping more peacefully than the beast within Haakon. It was not the cold that kept him restless, though the near freezing summer night temperatures would have kept him awake if he were human.
He was not, and his sabeltann nature kept him warm. He had always been less affected by weather than even his brethren. Only his cousin, Einarr, who shared his soul with the giant tigers of the Rus, could withstand the cold as well as Haakon.
No, it was thoughts of who he was going to meet that kept him awake as the moon climbed in the sky.
Uffe. Men who shared their spirits with the wolf. Chrechte that the asmundr had never thought he would meet, much less be called on to protect.
Finally, he slept, but his dreams tried to take him to that other place. He could sense his mate pulling at him, her soul calling to his, but even in sleep his will was too strong, his denial too great. He’d had almost a decade to hone it. His beast might gnash at the restraint, but Haakon’s mind refused that journey. And so then did his body.
And his beast? The sabeltann settled into sleep, even his Chrechte nature recognizing the repeated and final rejection he had been dealt by his kamerat.
Her heart filled with a trepidation she would never allow Freya to see, Neilina looked over the supplies she and her adopted daughter had loaded onto the boat in the hour before dawn.
The tide was right for sailing, but in a couple of hours, the water of her inlet would be too shallow for an easy launch.
They had packed enough food for the journey and a few days beyond. Their sleeping furs were stowed neatly, their weapons as well, including plenty of arrows for each woman with their unique fletching. Everything they needed to care for the weapons resided in a small cask in the boat near where her bear lay, sleeping.
They had brought their most important possessions because there could be no guarantee they would make it back to their cave home. Though they had not brought everything, just the things both women would grieve if they did not return.
“It feels like we are saying goodbye to our home,” Freya said, her voice hushed in the early morning quiet.
“We will be back,” Neilina said more in hope than in certainty.
The pile of things in the boat gave lie to her words. She had a terrible feeling they would not be returning to her island, that she would never again know either the peace or the loneliness of her self-imposed exile.
The Faol needed all their conriocht to fight the coming battles and not succumb to the will of the Fearghall to destroy them.
Freya gave her a look. “If you believed that, I wouldn’t be going with you. You wouldn’t risk it.”
“It’s a bigger risk to leave you here and chance a hunting party coming upon you.”
“The hunters don’t venture that deep into our forest. Our cave is unknown to them.”
“But they come deeper into the woods every year.”
“Did your mate bring you into the Chrechte spirit world last night?” Freya asked, clearly uninterested in debating the habits of the village men.
“He did not.” Neilina had come to the magical place to have her eyes fall first upon the sword he’d planted in the ground and then onto the mist beyond. Mist so thick she could not see through or beyond it.
Something cold had settled in her chest at that sight, something that had not dissipated with her warm porridge for breakfast. A cold that even now made Neilina draw her cloak more tightly around her.
“So, you are not denying he is your mate?”
Neilina shrugged. “What would be the point? You do not seem willing to believe me.”
“You taught me to discern a lie from the truth.”
Neilina sighed. “Perhaps I should have taken my own advice.”
“What do you mean?”
Neilina just shook her head and indicated that Freya should step into the boat before Neilina used her conriocht strength to push it from its mooring.
She wasn’t going to tell the girl about the sword, or the now impenetrable mist. Revealing that Haakon had finally given up on their mating would not change anything.
Not that she wanted anything changed. She was content as things were.
If her wolf howled in protest, Neilina pretended not to hear.