Lida was married to the love of her life for just two months when she became a widow. Pregnant and disowned by her late husband’s family for suspected infidelity, she was forced to return to her family in shame. Eight years later, uninterested in the prospect of finding another husband, she finds herself the unwilling object of a marriage contract with a powerful warlord. In a day, she is wed, bed, and put on a ship headed for Tronscar; an unknown icy stone and steel fortress.
Jarl Magnus is pleased to have taken a strong wife who, however stubborn she may be, will surely produce sons. However, he is less pleased with his wife’s additional baggage—a young daughter. But despite himself, Magnus falls for the daughter just as hard as the mother, and Lida’s heart is warmed to see the cold, serious Jarl move surprisingly fast into the role of stepfather.
When enemies attack Tronscar, Jarl Magnus’s nerves of steel waver, as the warrior fears his love for Lida will weaken him. But when his family is threatened, he’ll go to war to protect them, discovering along the way that they have the strength to protect themselves.
“With compelling characters and a clever plot, The Warlord’s Wife will appeal to readers obsessed with TV’s Vikings, and who miss the classic Viking romances of Catherine Coulter or Johanna Lindsey.”—Heroes and Heartbreakers
“Lake’s debut historical romance is sure to appeal to those who enjoy spirited heroines, grumpy alpha heroes, and a slow sweet journey to everlasting love.”—Smexy Books
“Man, this was a fun book! … I cut my teeth on Johanna Lindsey, and this book reminded me so much of those experiences.”—Dear Author
Sandra Lake lives with her husband and son in Quebec, Canada. The Warlord’s Wife is her debut novel.
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Northwest coast of Finland—1150 A.D.
Seabirds screeched overhead, drawing Lida’s gaze heavenward. She felt like she was trapped in a terrible dream, aware of her surroundings yet powerless to control what would befall her next. Lida was certain of only one simple truth: the price she would pay for love was endless sorrow.
“Make haste,” Helika, the mistress of Lylasku and Lida’s mother-in-law, ordered her slaves.
The two servants tightened their grip, dragging Lida toward her judgment at a blurring pace. Her secret had been destined to be exposed, but even so, she hadn’t prepared herself for this inevitable outcome.
A gust of damp autumn wind forced salt air deep into her lungs, whipping her long hair in her face. After all that Lida had lost, what an empty-headed fool she had been to believe God would protect her from more pain. Life is a collection of torturous moments with a sprinkling of joy mixed in. The sooner she adapted her head to this truth, the better prepared her heart would be.
As they passed under the stone arch entryway, moving from daylight into the cavernous hall, Lida strained to adjust her eyes. The mighty riveted iron doors of the fortress shut behind her with a foreboding, heavy clang.
“I demand she be flogged.” Helika elongated her bony neck, turning her face upward to the balcony. She dug her clawlike fingers into Lida’s collarbone, shoving her down. The musty mats made of rushes cut into the tender bones of her kneecaps, pain and fear knotting her muscles.
Lida bowed her head, avoiding eye contact with the servants who were preparing the long tables for the evening meal.
“I warned you.” Helika’s voice echoed into the rafters. She grabbed a fistful of Lida’s hair, forcing her to face the chieftain, who gazed down at them from the second floor.
Lida knew that with his failing eyesight, her father-in-law could not identify her. Her customary braids had been yanked apart. Blood trickled from her nose to her chin and down the collar of her favorite blue gown, which was now torn beyond repair.
“What now, wife?” Chief Rein sighed, slowly descending the stairs. As he drew near, he said, “Release the girl.”
“She is increasing!” Helika answered for all to hear. “I laid eyes on her bloated form in the bathhouse. Proof of what I warned you. She wedded your son for his wealth, your position. She is naught more than a portside harlot.” Helika drew her hand up high and swung, striking the side of Lida’s temple, sending her crashing to the floor.
Church bells tolled behind her eyes, her head absent of a clear thought, and her fingers dragged through the soiled rushes, revealing the unique rose-colored granite below. The great house was constructed with such a beautiful, rare stone, she thought. Her throbbing head held a gale of conflicting thoughts and memories. The red granite stronghold sat proudly on top of a majestic point of land overlooking the sea. A month ago, this house held all her dreams for a joyous future. But her husband’s death at the hands of Swedish crusaders had crushed her tranquility, leaving naught but mournful heartache in its wake.
Lida was disoriented by waves of nausea. Part of her just wanted to coil into a ball and die, while another part cried out to regain a measure of self-control.
In her sixteen years, her mother had trained her for the many trials a woman might face. This was not one of them.
“Your son has been dead for less than a full moon.,” Helika told the chief. Urho’s stepmother was the chief’s second, more adored wife. She never missed the opportunity to make that distintion clear to all. “They were wed only the moon before. She is five moons with child, mayhap more.” She clawed at Lida’s gown. “Behold with your own eyes.”
“Nay, nay—mercy, mistress.” Dizzy, Lida fought against the determined hands that descended upon her. “I beg—” But her arms were restrained, and her gown, bliaut, and under-tunic were pulled up and over her head.
Quivering, naked, and at her father-in-law’s mercy, she gazed down at her foreign shape. Her flat stomach had been replaced with a round bump. Each day her body was ripening more for the babe that would come this winter, much too close to the date of her wedding night.
“Cover yourself,” Chief Rein said. “Leave us, all of you.” The servants scurried out, murmuring with one another as they went.
Racked with violent shudders, Lida struggled to push her arms through the sleeves of her gown.
Breathe. Calm your heart. Settle your mind, she told herself.
“Helika speaks the truth. You are more than two moons with child.”
Teeth chattering, Lida said, “I—I . . . th-th-the babe is Urho’s. I swear upon my life that he is the only man with whom I have lain.” Lida would not deny her sin to Urho’s father. Urho had loved his father, and was mourned by all his family, but especially by Chief Rein.
Lida struggled to find the courage to raise her head. She pressed the back of her hand to her swollen eyelid. Breathe. Look up, her mind whispered.
The sympathetic eyes the chief once held for her were gone. “Explain, Lida.”
“I beg forgiveness, mercy,” she said, unable to control the quiver in her voice. “When Urho came for me in Turku—he—we lay together the night my father gave consent to the contract.” She lowered her eyes. “We were to be wed when he returned from the north. He said we needn’t wait . . . I was promised to him. I loved him, so I . . .” Peering into her father-in-law’s eyes, she found rage, disgust, and rejection.
“You offered my son the pleasure of your body months before your union?”
Lida was unable to form words—she had no defense.
“How many others before my son had such a service from you?” His hand cracked across her cheek, only mildly stinging her skin, yet at the same time tearing through her soul.
“Never return. Go back to your father. He shall decide what is to become of you and your bastard.”
Lida’s eyes burned, pleading for moisture, but she was drained of tears. She was immune to the bruises to her face, the humiliation of her body—nothing could touch her. Nothing would ever hurt as much as the pain of losing Urho. Her one true love was rotting under the ground, gone from this world, and she longed to follow. Urho’s babe growing inside of her was the sole reason she continued to take in breath.
Suddenly, Urho’s half brother, Valto, charged into the hall, gulping for air. “Wait! What has happened? Where are they taking Lida?”
Helika pulled at her son’s shoulder. “Come away. Do not become plagued with her.”
Valto’s voice was shrill. “Nay! Mother, where are they taking Lida?”
Unlike his mother, Valto had been welcoming to Lida when she’d married Urho. Lida had mixed impressions of her brother-in-law, an awkward, stout boy of seventeen summers. She had a measure of sympathy and gratitude toward him, yet often felt ill at ease in his company, uncomfortable with the intensity of his gaze upon her.
“She is a whore. She was not pure the day she wed,” Helika declared.
“U-Urho raped her,” stuttered Valto. “In Turku, he lured her outside of her father’s house. If she is with child, Urho is the sire. He forced her.”
“Speak the truth to me.” The chief strode toward Lida, renewing her fear of his raging fists. “Speak!”
“Urho never raped me.” Holding her breath, Lida lifted her head higher. Her child had been conceived in love. With that remembrance, her courage reappeared. “I loved him—I love him.” Urho was the stars in the sky, the beat upon her heart, the air that she breathed. He may be gone from this world, but never from her.
Turning his back to her, the chieftain said, “Take her.”
“Nay!” Valto protested. “Is it not our custom for a brother to take the wife of his fallen brother? She carries Urho’s child. I will take her and claim the child.” Valto’s words instantly formed ice in Lida’s veins. Her inner voice screamed, Run! Her mother had trained her to never ignore this voice; “a woman’s instinct for survival,” she’d always said.
Helika clutched her chest as if she had been stabbed. “Never. Rein, tell him!”
“Son,” the chief said calmly, “heed the wisdom of your mother.”
At this, Helika’s maids began to shoved Lida out of the great hall. Her escorts set a brisk pace down the sloped lawn, headed for the waiting longships.
“Lida, your cloak.” Valto dashed toward her and placed Urho’s brown bear cloak over her shivering shoulders. Urho had wrapped her in this cloak as he kissed her farewell the day he departed to fight in the south. “’Tis unfair. You belong with me.” He secured the cloak pin, his fingers lingering under her chin.
Her spine tingled, not from cold but from a surge of growing distrust. Why had her brother-in-law lied in claiming that Urho raped her?
“You are kind, Valto. My thanks.” That was a lie. Valto was not known for his kindness. She had witnessed several disturbing displays of his temper, mostly directed at slaves and small animals. With Urho by her side, she had never had cause to fear her brother-in-law, but now . . .
“I will fix this and get you back!” Valto called out. “Where you belong.”
She accepted the outstretched hand of Otso, the ship’s navigator. Otso had fought next to her husband and brought his body home for burial. She felt indebted to him, and considered him her friend. Her heart was racing painfully fast, her wounds throbbing, and a sudden flood of gratitude came over her for the secure passage. She boarded without looking back.
She sat at the stern of the vessel, listening to the wind and the sea, searching for comfort and for answers. Her limbs were numb with cold. How would she face her family? How could she explain?
In her belly, she felt the fluttering dance of life deep within her. All other thoughts fell away. Her precious babe needed her, and the movement helped her to focus not on herself but on the tiny life that she had been blessed to protect and grow.
Lida rubbed her belly, answering her unborn child with a firm stroke. “Your mama is here. Never fear, my love, I will take care of you,” she whispered to the bump concealed under her cloak.
It was both a prayer and a promise.
Eight Years Later . . .
Turku, Southern Finland
Jarl Magnus Knutson sat in a place of honor at the elevated head table overlooking the congested hall, impatiently marinating in boredom. He could not decide what turned his stomach more this evening: the greasy stench coming from the poorly crafted hearth or the herd of females being corralled in front of his table for inspection. Reminding himself why he was there, he tapped the underside of his ring against the arm of his chair. Tic, tic, tic. He needed to pick a wife and get back to more important matters.
Magnus had had his fill of Finland. The Bishop of Turku’s newly constructed residence had been built like a fortified castle, and it was artless, underwhelming, and woefully crafted. The same could describe the maidens being rounded up a few feet away.
“’Twere all you found?” he asked Tero under his breath. He began to think his steward was picking out a new ox to pull a wagon, not a wife to breed his sons. When Magnus had said sturdy, he’d meant not frail. If he had wanted unwashed and shapeless, he would have specified. The sole comely maids in the pack were fathoms too young to suit him.
“Master, these females meet your requirements,” his steward answered, practically licking his lips at the abundant feminine flesh on display.
Magnus mumbled behind his raised cup. “Have they all their teeth?” He arched his brow, reminding his steward of his oversight last month in Riga.
“I would not make that mistake again, master,” Tero answered, clearing his throat to begin the introductions. “I present Miia of house Kivi, Reta of house Rusko, Sohvi of house Joki . . .”
Having passed his thirty-fifth winter, Magnus was well aware of how females perceived him, as evidenced by their blushes and fluttering eyelashes. The fathers of these women desired an alliance with him because of his political power and wealth. For the maidens, the appeal was more primal. All female creatures, human and animal, sought the strongest and most dominant male to mate with. He nodded his respects to the group of women, then returned his attention to his tankard of ale.
Without moving his lips, Tero leaned in and asked, “Not one?”
Magnus ignored his loyal steward.
“But the one on the end,” Tero murmured. “Sohvi, with the dark hair. You always select an ample bosom such as hers at Mak’s.”
“And this one is not a whore, she—”
“She is robust. I assure you. Have her sit with you—”
“Enough. Sit and drink. We weigh anchor for Gamla Stan with the tide. I only suggested a Finnish wife to please the bishop.”
Magnus would forever carry the guilt of his first wife’s death. Helena had been groomed to be a southern princess, and was easily broken in the harsh northern realm. His remorse acted as a continual reminder not to make the same mistake in allowing Tero to select his wife—though the chore was proving more taxing than he expected.
“Aye, Magnus,” Bishop Henry beckoned. “Have you at last selected a maiden?” The bloated clergyman claimed a seat to the right of him. “I can vouch for the virtue of all whom your steward has selected.”
“Be assured, I doubt not their honor, Excellency. What I seek is a serviceable and submissive wife. Land I have. ’Tis sons that I am in need of.” Ten noblemen at the head table bobbed their heads in agreement. No one would dare to disagree with him here. They all needed Magnus’s trade alliances far more than he needed theirs.
The bishop smiled hungrily at the collection of women. “A virile young jarl needs a wife to suit. Turku boasts the comeliest maids of all the Baltic trading ports.”
Magnus suppressed his desire to roll his eyes. Of course the crusading bishop would prefer him to select a Finnish wife. It would guarantee Magnus’s wide-reaching arm of protection for the vulnerable port.
“Let a younger man seek a wife for beauty. I am a practical man, Bishop Henry. A sturdy wife to breed my sons is what I seek—sons to take over the mines, smelt production, trading routes.”
“Very practical indeed.” Bishop Henry stroked his long white beard. “God rewards practical men. I am confident we will find a Finnish female to your taste.”
“My gratitude, Excellency. Regrettably, we sail for Sweden on the morning tide.”
Deep in his cups and enjoying his own tasteless humor, the bishop laughed until ale came out of his nose. “Rankard, why not summon your daughter?” The bishop leaned over and exhaled his sour breath into Magnus’s ear. “When you said serviceable, I had thought of no better than sweet Brigitta.” Stuffed in an ill-fitting velvet gown, a plump young maiden sauntered toward the head table.
By the bishop’s design, the fleshy, full-figured Brigitta “accidentally” fell onto Magnus’s lap, her bosom spilling out the top of her gown. He clenched his jaw with disdain as she squirmed her rump against his groin.
The bishop ogled her breasts. “Glad to see you enjoying the fine hospitality, Magnus.” He raised his cup, toasting the air. “You may thank me later.”
Magnus turned his head away and rolled his eyes.
By the gods, when will this night end?
Dewdrops collected, growing heavily into a fat single droplet, running off the celery leaf and down the lace of Lida’s shoe. Working at the end of the lane in the root garden, she tugged another stalk free and shook away the rich soil.
Lida wiped the sweat from her brow and twisted to stretch her aching back. As she turned, she caught a glimpse of a large convoy of wagons as it crested the east hillside, coming from the direction of the church that was under construction. No doubt the bishop’s men bound for the port to fetch more materials. Thinking nothing more of it, she returned to laboring on her hands and knees.
Lida was working less than five paces from the roadside, and the rattling wagons and heavy horses vibrated the earth under her. A moment later, a group of sailors hollered at her, jeering lewdly as they passed. She snapped upright, sending a sinister glare at the crude men, her disdain her only available weapon.
Concealing herself from the lane by hiding behind the bean stalks, she returned to digging out the turnips.
“Why her?” she heard her sister-in-law, Tina, ask in a pitchy voice. “Tell your brother she will not wed.”
Oh dear, should she announce her presence, or wait for the two gossiping hens to move past?
“She needs to find herself a husband before her youth fades. Surely her mourning has passed and ’tis time she wed again.” Ulla, their neighbor, sounded sincere.
Lida froze in place, her ears burning.
“’Tis naught to do with mourning,” Tina said. “Her daughter is a bastard.”
“I thought she was wed to the Lyyski lad?”
“Aye, but only after he’d tossed up her skirt. His family won’t recognize Katia.”
“I don’t see that’s fair in the least,” Ulla said. “I remember the fellow, all smiles and songs, that one. Could charm the skirt up a nun. I shan’t blame her . . .” The voices began to fade.
Lida lumbered toward the house carrying her basket of greens and fruits, using her thigh to help support the heavy weight. She had stopped caring what was whispered about her, yet she never failed to feel the stinging pain that came from the labels people placed on her daughter.
“Pardon me!” A male voice called out from over her shoulder. “Good woman, come here.” Sitting high upon a loaded wagon, a richly garbed man waved her to the roadside.
Lida regarded him with suspicion. Still, she endeavored to speak with politeness. “I shall stay where I am. What do you seek, sir? I shall fetch my brother to assist.”
“Brother?” The black-haired foreigner’s expression brightened. “Not husband?”
She raised her chin and did not reply.
“I care to purchase your produce. Fear me not.” His smile implied differently. “Our ship sails this hour. I would enjoy a fresh apple for my crossing. I have a heavy purse and will allow you to overcharge me.”
Lida surveyed the foreigner. He had a smooth, dark honey complexion, yet he spoke Finnish crisply, a few words holding a distinct Swedish undertone. His dark brown eyes were not shaped as those of a Swede, but as those of a person from the east, the Far East. Her mother had taught her about the Mongolic people, known for their shrewdness and vast knowledge of the stars and mathematics.
Behind the foreigner’s overloaded wagon followed many more more wagons, transporting an army of fierce warrior-like men, many twice the size of the mysterious Eastern foreigner. Surrounding the wagons, fearsome men rode powerful horses clearly trained for battle rather than for pulling a plow. Most had thick beards, long, yellow hair, and the signature broad shoulders of the Norseman. More arrogant conquerors come to harass her.
How charming. Could this day worsen?
As Lida swept her eyes over the convoy, one man caught her attention. He was hard to overlook—unlike the others, the clean-shaven warrior was obviously highborn. His light auburn hair blew untamed in the wind. Bunched behind his brawny shoulders, a white fur cloak was secured with a substantial gold cloak pin, and he wore matching armbands, heavy belts, and buckles. Every piece of his horse’s tack was made of thick leather and polished steel. Without a doubt, he was a warlord of great importance.
But Lida cared not who they were nor where they were from.
She tossed an apple to the foreigner who had spoken to her. “With compliments of Finland.” She spoke in Swedish rather than Finnish.
“Where did you learn the Swedish tongue?”
“I will fetch my brother. He will be glad to give you a detailed account of our family lineage.” Turning away from the stranger, she continued up the lane.
“I would rather you tell me.”
She did not bother to reply or even look back.
As Magnus rode up alongside the wagon, Tero pointed at the woman, who was now headed toward the farmhouse.
“What about that one?” his steward asked as they watched the spirited female walk away.
Since it was Magnus’s first shrug, rather than his typcial dismissive flick of a finger, Tero commanded the wagon to pursue the long, gold braid that swayed to and fro ahead of them. With her retreat, the farm girl’s well-proportioned hips and backside offered them an alluring view. Magnus could not help but wonder what secret enticements might be hidden under the offensive brown coarse wool.
Several men emerged from a nearby outbuilding, distracting him from his thoughts. Tero addressed them formally in Finnish. Svin Starkka introduced himself as the eldest son of the family and invited them into the principal house to be introduced to his father, the head of the family.
Apple blossoms were carved into the high beamed entry of the farmhouse, which, to to his surprise, Magnus hadn’t needed to duck under to enter. Heikki Starkka, the patriarch, was nearly the height and girth of a Norrland warrior. The high ceiling and wide doorways were no doubt crafted for the comfort of the owner. The silver-haired man sat with his arms crossed, staring at Magnus unimpressed.
Magnus ignored the offered seat, opting instead to examine the principal hall. He found the clean, well-maintained family home to be constructed with skill and logically organized. It boasted a pleasing scent of fresh-baked bread and thyme. It wasn’t luxurious in any regard, but sound in quality and a reasonable size for a prosperous farmer. The plank wood floor had been recently swept and several soft reed mats were placed at points of entry and under the tables. He approved of the balanced placement of the long table in the center of the hall, directly under the hanging stag horn candleholder. The artistry carved into several of the beech wood chairs and benches impressed him. Resting on each were cushions embroidered with elaborate and colorful designs.
This was not a farm of idle hands.
The eager young Starkka spoke with Tero. Magnus understood little of the Finnish conversation. “They have not finished their harvest. Though they do have cheese and ale to trade.” Tero translated rapidly to Magnus, then turned back to Svin and shook his head. “We depart this very hour for Norrland. May I inquire after your sister, Master Svin? She was kind enough to offer me an apple and—”
“Aye, apples. We have cider, plenty of cider. Is that to your liking, sir?”
Tero smirked. “I was inquiring after the maiden. Is she contracted into wedlock?”
“My sister! Oh, she is a widow.” Young Starkka’s voice trailed off.
Staring at Magnus with disdain, the elderly family head said, “She needs no husband.”
“How unfortunate.” Tero wisely redirected the conversation to the son. “Regardless, we are simply interested in an introduction. We would be happy to purchase barrels of your fine ale if that could be arranged?”
“Aye, well then . . .” Svin turned to the old man. “That does seem reasonable.”
“My daughter will not wed.” The old man did not bother to answer either his son or Tero, speaking in Swedish and directing his words to Magnus. “She stays here.”
“What is her age?” Magnus asked, taking charge of the negotiations.
“Twenty-four, and she will not wed again.”
“What is wrong with her?”
The old man squinted his eyes. “Go back to Sweden, Norrlander.” He abruptly stood and limped toward the doorway.
The farm girl stood under the arch, her wary eyes shifting between the various men in the hall.
Magnus examined her from the top of her fair head, hair held in tightly arranged braids, to her soiled, thin-leather footwear. Her small shoulders appeared solid. Dirt covered her forearms and hands. Normally that would have been a deterrent, yet the labor had left her complexion bright, a pristine image of health. He followed the lines of her delicate neck—it was acutely feminine, as were her facial features. Sculpted, high cheekbones framed a slender, well-balanced nose. Full, rose-hued lips pinched tightly together, displaying her displeasure at the forced introduction. Though she remained silent, she said a great deal with her expressive sapphire eyes. They held an unspoken courage. He liked that. This is good, he thought. He was at last making headway with this wife problem.
“Lida.” Young Starkka stepped forward. The girl inclined her head, acknowledging her brother while never turning her eyes away from Magnus’s stare, impressing him all the more. “This is Jarl Magnus Knutson, from Norrland—”
Magnus grew impatient. “You do not appear to be the age your father claims.”
“Are you accusing my father of dishonesty?” the farm girl asked, in faultless Swedish. No timidity—rare to find in a lowborn female.
Lida concentrated on her mother’s training, reminding herself that she was worthy of respect only if she gave it.
“I am inquiring as to your years,” the towering Jarl demanded.
No manners at all. Typical arrogant crusader.
“Whatever years my father has given, that is my age.” Lida answered the giant as bravely as she could as he continued to scrutinize her. He was easily the tallest man she had ever met. His broad shoulders could no doubt pull a plow through their rockiest field.
“Do you not approve of Swedes?” he asked in a voice as cold as the Baltic Sea.
“Not many, since they killed my husband.” She raised her chin higher. “Though my mother is Swedish. I must approve of some.”
“When was he killed?” he asked, his voice devoid of feeling.
“Eight harvests past.” Staring into his eyes was as hypnotizing as searching the deepest ocean at twilight. He was beginning to have a strange effect on her swirling stomach. She did not enjoy the feeling; at least that is what she told herself. “’Twas during the first Swedish crusade. A Norrland sword took him from me.”
“All superior blades are from Norrland.” His words were blunt and arrogant. He was Swedish, after all, she thought.
The hall filled with a thorny silence. Magnus stalked toward her. The scents of pine and leather invaded her lungs, along with a male musk that Lida told herself she must not inhale. For some unexplainable reason, holding his scent in her lungs felt entirely too intimate.
“Why are you not another man’s wife?”
Her heart pounded in her ears. “Because I do not wish to be,” she answered, praying that her unsettled nerves were not apparent to all.
He cocked his head to one side and regarded her for a moment that felt like it stretched on into eternity. “You do not wish to be a wife?”
The fascinating creature before Magnus spoke in a submissive tone, yet her eyes were anything but soft or submissive—they were closer to hard and defiant. Either she was lying to herself or to him. Maybe it was both. A craving to bring her to heel swept over him.
“You do not pray to the one true god for sons?” He continued to be impressed by her ability to hold his gaze without backing down, her actions a contradiction to her tone.
Lida clasped her hands in front of her. “I am a mother and content with the blessing I have,” she said mildly. But her delivery was every bit of a challenge to him.
Her chin rose higher. Magnus liked that. It wasn’t outright rebellion, but she had an opinion. He found this intriguing, and oddly stirring. He began to circle her, ignoring every person in the hall except for the proud, strong female before him. She turned her shoulders with him, following his eyes, guarding her back.
Good instincts. That pleased him further.
Examining her braided rope belt, he began to doubt her claim of a child. Her hips were pleasingly curved, yet she was acutely narrow at the waist. “At what age did you birth your child?”
Her brows hitched upward. “Ten and six.”
“How many days did you labor?”
Her nostrils flared as she breathed in sharply. “The length expected.”
“And is the child in good health? Is it of solid form?” Magnus addressed the family head, since the woman was apparently annoyed with his questioning.
“She is in perfect health and excellent form,” Lida answered, vexation ripe in her tone.
Ignoring her obstinate display, Magnus turned to Tero. “I will take this one.” He glanced over at the farmer’s daughter, then strode out of the stone and timber farmhouse.
He’d leave his steward to finalize the details while he rode ahead to his ships and informed his men they had the evening off duty.
Tonight he would wed the farm girl from Turku and tomorrow he’d sail for Tronscar at dawn.
Lida shook her head at Magnus’s preposterous statement. “Who put him up to this jest?” she asked, searching the faces of her family members. “Was it you, Svin? ’Twas poor humor. Father could have chest pains if you are not careful.” She turned and began clearing the horns of ale and plates of uneaten cheese that had been offered as a sampling but not consumed.
These Swedes are wasteful as well as rude.
“Lida.” Svin stilled her hand. Her sour-faced sister-in-law, Tina, slid under her brother’s arm. “The jarl made you an offer.”
“Nay, he did not.” She shook her head at her dim elder brother. “This man and his cart of rude sailors want to laugh at us before they shove off back to where they are from.” With her arms loaded, she turned to retreat to the kitchen.
The steward blocked her path. “A dowry is not required,” he said. “Merely a consensually signed contract. A generous bride price and a favorable trade agreement will be offered to your father. They will become the wealthiest family in Turku for it. My jarl honors you, my lady.”
“Regrettably, I must decline,” Lida said with more sarcasm than her mother would find acceptable. “I pray you have a safe voyage, sir. If you will excuse me, you are blocking my path.” She skirted around the foreigner, dropped the platters in the kitchen, and fled for the privacy of her chamber.
With her head spinning and her heart racing, Lida pressed her back into the closed door. Why is it that the most strikingly attractive men are always the most ill-mannered? The cantankerous jarl had pierced straight through her with his possessing stare, rendering her breathless.
This pulsing fire that stirred in her belly had trapped her once before. The last time she had such a reaction from simply looking at a man, her heart had ended up shattered into a thousand sharp pieces.
Never again. She had learned that lesson the hard way.
She sat on her box bed. The shutters had been left open, spilling in the late-morning sun, warming the normally chilly room. She took comfort in the familiar surroundings. This chamber was real. It grounded her and helped her clear her mind of the unreal events that had taken place in her family’s hall.
Without warning, her chamber door burst open. She bit her tongue, holding back her scream.
“Mama.” Her daughter, Katia, stood beaming in the doorway. “See what I made.” Thank heavens ’twas not the fearsome warlord come to toss her over his shoulder and claim her as his—what a ridiculous notion. Her stomach clenched with a shameful desire that image stirred.
“Grandpa said to come show you and tell you to come see him after.” Her daughter swished her little skirt, twisting back and forth with excitement she could not contain.
“You did this all by yourself?” Lida asked, examining the charcoal drawing. Katia bobbed her head. “This is very good.” She pushed her daughter’s silk hair behind her ear and looked into the sparkling green sea eyes. Her daughter’s sweetness never failed to calm and focus Lida’s heart on what truly mattered, wiping away all selfish and foolish yearnings.
“Grandma said she would like me to come draw in her chamber. I must be quick. She will teach me more shapes.” Katia spun on her heel and scampered up the back stairs.
Feeling as if the weight of a mountain were on her shoulders, Lida walked reluctantly back into the hall.
Tero sat in the best chair with a horn of cider in hand. Lida’s brothers and their wives sat close at the steward’s side.
Tero stood. “Aye, my dear lady. Please take my seat; it is most comfortable.”
Glaring at her family, Lida ignored the offer and sat on the bench.
“Lida.” Her brother Peter’s clipped tone held a warning. “We have discussed Jarl Magnus’s proposals with Tero and discovered many interesting facts.” Her brother sent her a meaningful look. His stiff jaw and beady eyes told her he was prepared to twist her arm raw, as cruelly as he had when they were children, to get her to marry the Swede. She froze her face into the neutral expression of polite indifference that her mother had taught her.
“He will release you to return to Finland once his sons have grown . . .” Peter’s words trailed off. “Perhaps as little as five winters. He is very practical and will purchase you a farm here,” he added with growing excitement. No doubt Peter was already mentally harvesting the crops of that imagined farm. “When he releases you, you would return to your family as a wealthy woman.”
“He commands a hundred trade ships, Lida,” Svin said, next in line to twist her arm. “His men have labeled his lands the Iron Kingdom. ’Tis no jest. I’ve heard of it from the men down at the docks.”
“Good for you, Svin. Why don’t you go birth his bastards for him then? Better yet, why not send Tina? She looked well enough impressed with him,” Lida said, holding no apology in her tone. Thank heavens her mother was not above stairs to overhear.
“Why, you ungrateful shrew!” Tina erupted. “How dare you speak of me—”
“Enough!” Her father, who never raised his voice, roared. “You have your answer,” he told Tero. “My daughter stays. Now go.” Red in the face, he pointed to the door.
“My apologies for creating unrest in your home, sir.” The steward nodded to her father and started toward the doorway. “I only wish to correct the lady on one point. Jarl Magnus does not seek bastards, but trueborn heirs to lead his vast empire. He is seeking a wife, not a slave. That is the offer he presents.”
“I beg your pardon,” Lida said. “Allow me to correct you, sir. Jarl Magnus presents me with nothing—‘tis you who does his presenting.” She spoke in a soft tone that had an undercurrent of Norrland steel—or at least she hoped it did.
From his blank expression, it was clear Tero had expected her to swoon or even be grateful for this unsolicited offer to be a warlord’s breeding mare. She could not be further from grateful. In fact, this entire mess left her insides twitching with irritation.
Bishop Henry had been overjoyed to loan Magnus the use of his private council chamber, since the jarl had delayed his departure from Finland. Filled with ornaments gilded in gold and furnishings draped in velvet, the overfilled chamber was clearly intended to impress its guests with the grandeur of the Holy Roman order more than actually serve a practical purpose. The bishop, who claimed God blesses practical men, often fell short of his own words.
Magnus glanced up from his correspondence, his foul mood rapidly returning. “What do you mean she said no?”
Tero nervously shifted his weight from one foot to another. “Her family, with the exception of her father, seemed receptive. Regrettably, the lady was not.”
“Why should that matter?” Magnus threw down his quill. “You offered the farm—are they holding out for a higher price? I shall not put up with another spoiled female, Tero. We shall sail for Stadsholmen as we planned.” His steward furrowed his brow, appearing confused.
“Agnafit,” Magnus grunted, remembering the new name of the city. His cousin, the king of Sweden, needed to stop renaming everything. It was very tiresome—which returned his mind to what presently irritated him. He slammed his fist to the table. “Senseless wench.”
How dare she refuse me? She would rather waste her remaining fertile years on a mud hill than rise above her station? He would not have it.
Magnus stood, and his chair crashed to the floor behind him.
Leaning against the far wall, his chief officer, Aleksi, spoke up. “In our fathers’ day, you could have tossed her in your ship and been halfway back to Tronscar by now.”
“Our forefathers had all the fun.” Magnus chugged the rest of his wine and slammed his chalice to the table. “They answered to no one, while we’re cursed with blockheaded kings enforcing their petty laws and clergy with their endless writ and holy orders.”
“A handful of soft-footed men and we could sort this out quickly, Jarl.” Aleksi commanded the jarl’s men as a general, but he still strategized like a pirate.
“’Tis why I like you, Aleksi, and have you for my war council—”
“Nay, nay,” his steward interrupted. “The bishop wrote a new law forbidding us to kidnap Finnish maidens and drag them north, remember?” Tero hesitated while Magnus and Aleksi scowled at him. “Master, may I offer an alternative?” Magnus gripped the chalice in his hand, waiting for Tero’s advice. “Might you think to ask her yourself? Perhaps speak to her father, meet her daughter? She may feel rushed to decide on the spot.”
“Rushed to decide? ’Tis no time for jesting, my friend.” Magnus scoffed. That could not possibly be the answer. “I have wasted enough time speaking with the father.”
“Aye, indeed,” Tero said, and continued more quietly, “yet you departed without explaining your intent—”
“’Tis obvious what my intent is. I am a jarl. I do not beg for wives. Fathers bring their daughters to me. Women come to me.”
“Perhaps you may invite her to feast with you this eve?” his steward suggested. “Here, of course. Impress her with the nobility that she would be exposed to as the friherrinna of Tronscar.”
“You may invite her to feast, but regardless of if she consents, we sail on the morning tide. I begin to think I’d prefer a sensible Swedish woman.” With that, he dismissed Tero and endeavored to return his concentration to a trade agreement with a southern jarl about a shipment of steel, but it was to no avail. His mind kept wandering back to the blond braid.
No simpleminded farm girl was going to say no to him. If he wanted her, then he would have her. That was the end of it.
Constructed on the highest level of land, the unfinished stone church cast long shadows across the lower bailey. Warm orange rays from the setting sun wrapped around her shoulders, yet Lida continued to shiver. Riding on horseback and holding tight to her father’s sides, she entered the open gates of the jarl of Turku’s fortress. It had been rebuilt and shared yards with the bishop’s recently completed residence.
Lida ignored her instinct to dig in her heels as she was escorted inside on her father’s arm. New braziers and hanging candleholders filled the great hall with an unearthly glow. Lida and her family were ushered forward to sit at a long table, closest to where the bishop and the noblemen from Sweden sat. To her relief, the intimidating jarl of Norrland was not present.
She had been expecting a boorish feast filled with Norrland men. Lida was shocked to find the tables teeming with merry villagers. Delicate, fragrant arrangements of the last of the summer’s wildflowers were spread throughout the hall. Opulent chalices were filled with wine, and baskets of nut bread and platters of fruits and cheeses were being served—things which were reserved for the finest of occasions. Lida should have been impressed and enjoyed this rare occasion, but she could not.
As a cow being led to slaughter, she felt anxious, scanning the hall, waiting for the axe to fall. She wished she had been allowed to stay home with her mother and daughter. Her mother’s foot ailment had flared up again, no doubt worsening due to the tension within the family.
After the jarl’s steward had taken his leave, her brothers and their wives had argued, yelling and stomping as Lida sat silently, staring across at her father, who as usual said nothing. She could not help but feel a measure of anger toward him for leaving this all on her shoulders.
Fathers and husbands never allowed their females to make their own decisions. Every woman in her village was treated in such fashion. But her father was different. He would never force her to accept a man simply because it benefitted him. At one time this freedom of choice had felt like a rich blessing. Tonight, she felt alone and conflicted.
Her sisters-in-law had muttered insults, while her brothers, with some genuine concern, worked on convincing her to accept the proposal. They claimed their reasons were in her and Katia’s best interest, but she saw them to be nothing more than self-serving. That was when Ingerid, her mother, had stepped in.
“I will speak alone with my daughter,” Ingerid said in a velvety tone.
Obediently nodding, one after another, everyone but Lida quit the hall.
“My dove, how are you fairing?” she said, opening her arms to Lida. “If ’tis not a simple aye or nay, may I ask why this offer pains you?”
Her mother was the wisest person Lida knew, and at times, also the most annoying. The village women teased Lida that her mother was the most ill-equipped farmwife, but would make the fairest of queens. She was perfectly tempered, never lashing out, making living up to her standards nothing short of exhausting. She sat waiting for Lida to admit what she already knew but had not the courage to voice.
“I—I did not care for the way he looked at me.” That was not at all true, and her mother tilted her head, seeing easily through Lida’s falsehood. The truth was so far from what she had said that Lida struggled to breathe. Ingerid simply continued to smile. Curse, her parents were vexing. “Why does father not simply bully me into deciding what he prefers? ’Twould make this much simpler.”
“Very well, my love. You know your heart best. If you do not wish for more children, then that is the right decision for you.”
“Ugh, Mother!” Lida scratched her fingers into her tight braids. “What of the farm? What of Svin and Peter and their needs? Father cannot afford to take on more laborers. Our crops are spread too thin on such a small amount of land. What will become of us?”
“You need not cloud your decision with such matters,” Ingerid said with naive confidence.
The last few years had been hard on her parents as they aged rapidly. Lida had not the heart to challenge her mother. Her parents had no knowledge of her brothers’ poor management of the estate, the failed seed that cost them so dearly or the wasteful spending and irregular saving. But Lida knew. Her brothers’ families would continue to grow, their wives would demand a greater share of the family income, and the once well-sized manor home would become very small, very fast. What would happen to Katia then?
“That silver-tongued steward did a fine job wooing your brothers, did he not?” Her mother nudged her shoulder, trying to lighten her spirits.
“All of Turku is talking of this supposed great jarl of Norrland,” Lida said. “They say he rules his northern kingdom of icy steel with justice and honor.” Lida looked to her mother and they both burst into giggles.
“Since when could you trust a Swedish sailor not to brag with bloated tales of his homeland?” Ingerid’s laugh sounded as light as a song.
“He sounds like a warlord to me,” Lida said, and her throat closed up. “He may be wealthy and powerful, but it is only because he has the biggest and sharpest sticks. Rarely are such distinctions earned from justice and mercy.”
Lida slumped her shoulders as she felt a weight pressing in on her. “They say he is the king of Sweden’s favored cousin, that his children would hold titles and power throughout the Baltic Sea. Why would he make an offer for me?”
Ingerid tenderly stroked Lida’s cheek. “Impeccable taste. The man does have eyes.” She sighed. “From my window, his strapping shoulders did strike me as terribly judicious,” her mother said with another small giggle. “Tell me you were not a smidge flattered.”
Lida did not giggle. Instead she closed her eyes to the remembrance of pain, the rejection, the black pit of loss that had taken her years to climb out of. “How can I accept a man I do not love, a man who does not love me, and is most likely incapable of love? I would be nothing more than his high-titled whore.”
“Thus is the plight of all women. You have your answer then.”
Lida exhaled, feeling defeated. “Katia needs a name.”
“Her name is lovely.”
“You know of what I speak. Why should my sin, my mistake, cost her so dearly?”
“Do you consider her a mistake?”
“Never.” Her daughter was not a bastard, but a child conceived in love; a blessing, not a curse.
Lida’s thoughts were reluctantly catching up with her mother’s as she began to understand her line of reasoning.
“Destiny has two ways of crushing us; by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them,” Ingerid said. “That is what the Greeks say anyway.”
Lida dropped her confused head onto her mother’s shoulder. She didn’t want to admit to the twinge of flattery she’d felt at Magnus’s offer. It felt wrong and sinful. “He would be more a slave owner than a husband. Nothing as you and father are.”
Her mother rubbed her back. “The Greeks say there is no such thing as chance and choice. We fail to see that we can control our own destiny; make ourselves do whatever is possible; make ourselves become whatever we long to be.”
“I hate the Greeks,” Lida mumbled. Why could she not have a regular mother as her friends in the village? Reading and writing in four different tongues was not a fruitful skill for a farmer’s wife. Studying herbs and seeds would have been far more useful than shallow proverbs. “I don’t care what the Greeks say. I want to know what you think! Tell me what I should do.”
A serving girl tripped, sending her silver tray of smoked fish crashing to the floor. Lida blankly stared at the mess, still lost in her thoughts.
Logic and reason warred with instinct, her need to protect Katia fighting with her desire to spare her own heart and stay with what she knew: her family and the security of Turku. Her stomach twisted, the back of her head throbbed, and her leg jitter persisted. Was it greedy to desire a better life for Katia, a secure future for her aging parents, and—aye, the buried desire for more children? And what of her secret yearning to feel wanted by a man, to give and take pleasure from him? So many nights she had wished that she had never tasted the pleasures of the marriage bed. How could one long for a food they had never tasted? ’Twas the longing for that taste that burdened her.
The deluge of feelings was followed by the memory of the heartless, icy stare of the jarl. She thought of the forbidden, intoxicating musk that she’d resisted indulging in and the obvious waves of power that had fairly rolled off his shoulders. He held the power to consume her and leave her decimated beyond repair. To never be loved, but more likely be degraded as chattel. Could she bear such treatment?
Lida tried to take comfort from her mother’s wisdom, but the entire day had truly been one troubling moment after another, leaving her mind swimming with unanswered questions.
Mute and feeling numb all over, she watched people move around her as if in a dream, a very nerve-racking, unpleasant sort of dream. The kind of dream where she was standing on the edge of a cliff, suddenly falling, falling to the ground—
“Jarl Magnus requests the honor of speaking with you, my lady,” Tero said, snapping Lida out of her internal conflict.
Tina elbowed her in the ribs. This was why they had been invited to the fortress. The price she must pay for their meal.
Tero led her down a series of long, torch-lit corridors. Lida’s nerves frayed a little more with each step.
At last, they came to a large, well-lit chamber. Before she could catch her breath to settle her racing heart, the door clanged shut behind her, leaving her alone with the fiercely handsome, very problematic jarl.