Pulling the first roll consisting of five pelts off the sledge, Anna cursed as her cold fingers slipped lost their grip of the narrow rope. She nearly dropped the pelts in the half-frozen mud, which would have been disastrous. She had reached Birka after a long journey from up north and she had to stow the pelts to keep them in good condition before she sold them.
Glancing at the special roll of the most beautiful, thick pelts, all of them from bears, Anna hoped she'd get a chance to show them to the lady of the fortress south of the large town. She had heard of the lady's exquisite taste and how she ruled most of Birka, despite what the men in the area said. Her name was Mirja and rumor had it she was stunningly beautiful with long, white hair. The myths around her were many and even the most seasoned of men spoke of her with respect, and sometimes, with fear.
Thinking of her small village up north, where they had very little to eat and where the harvest had been almost non-existent the last year, Anna was determined to locate Mirja and sell her pelts. She had been hunting all throughout the fall and now she was ready to enjoy the fruits of her arduous work. After all, she had risked her lives when encountering those black bears. Not to mention the other predators. Foxes and wolves could become vicious when they sensed their lives were in dangers. Anna had also hunted for rabbits and ferrets. Perhaps the lady could envision how nice those would look as trims around her sleeves, hem, or neckline?
"You have to move that flea ridden excuse for a horse before the inn keeper finds you blocking the yard." A short stocky man with ginger hair and beard hurried toward her. He stopped, gesturing wildly. "Didn't you hear me, boy? You've got to—" The man's jaw dropped. "You're a girl." He stared.
"Never said otherwise," Anna said. "I'm going to move my horse and sleigh once you tell me where I can stow my pelts. I don't want anyone to steal them."
Suddenly all smiles, the man's features showed a great deal more kindness. "I didn't know you were barely more than a child, girl. What's your name?"
"I'm Yxi. I know. Crazy name." Yxi snickered. "I have a place just inside the door where I keep the mead for my employer. If even one barrel is missing, I'm a dead man. We have to keep the reputation of this inn being the best in Birka, so I suppose it's only fair."
"Best inn?" Anna hesitated. What if this place was too expensive for her? The chief of her village had claimed this was the only place she could consider save in Birka. Anna had stayed at several different inns on her way to Birka and slept atop of her pelts next to her horse to keep her expenses at a minimum. "Any chance I can sleep in the stables next to my horse?" she asked slowly. Perhaps that was a mistake. Yxi might throw her out.
"In the stables?" Yxi's eyes grew wide, which made his bushy eyebrows do a dance of their own. "A young thing like you? That's not safe. Not at all." He tilted his head. "Am I to assume you're fearful of the price of a room, young Anna?"
Anna nodded, her cheeks feeling warmer. "I don't want to spend the profit for selling my pelts on my accommodations." She thought fast. "Perhaps I can be of service somehow?"
"Ah. I see where you're going." Yxi scratched his left whisker. "Our barmaid cut her hands on a broken jug the other day. If you can stomach the rowdier among out guests, young Anna, I can give you a room for free behind the kitchen. That, and safe storage for your pelts. Perhaps my employer will be interested in purchasing one of them, even."
Brightening, Anna wanted to throw her hands around the short man and hug him fiercely. "Oh, thank you, Yxi! I can't tell you how grateful I am. Thank you, thank you."
It was Yxi's time to blush. "Never mind the thanks. You'll be working hard in the evenings to earn your keep. You will get the room and three meals."
Anna couldn't believe her luck. She was going to save so much of her meager funds by doing it this way. Even if she had to serve a bunch of drunken men every evening, she would go home to her village with enough seeds and food to feed them all. That would turn everything around. "Agreed," she said and lifted the last of the rolls of pelt.
"Let me show you where you can keep your pelts." Yxi grabbed two of the rolls as if they weighed nothing. "I think you'll like it here. Our boss is very fair. I've worked for her for four summers back."
Her? "The innkeeper is a woman?" Anna hauled the last of the pelt rolls onto her back.
Chuckling, Yxi opened a sturdy door leading into a windowless room. "She sure is. Her name is Katja and this is not her only establishment. She owns two stores and to smaller inns as well. The biggest of the market places in Birka belongs to her too."
Yet another powerful and wealthy woman in Birka? How commonplace was this? Anna was intrigued and couldn't wait to meet them both. She had to make sure to be on their good side and thus ensure a good trade. Thinking of the folks back home, Anna knew that she just couldn't allow herself to fail.
Katja adjusted the fur trimmed leather hat and assessed her reflection in the silver plate on the wall. Her thick, auburn braids lay perfectly curled along her chest. The green tinted wool dress covered her compact, muscular form, and the wrapped leather strips kept her feet warm outside the wool socks her sister had knitted.
Today was an important day. They were celebrating the completion of her new inn at the center of Birka. Whereas Katja preferred to reside in her longhouse adjacent to her very first inn at the outskirts of town, she did think the many merchants, travelers, and, yes, mercenaries, that passed through Birka would help make her new establishment a great success.
"Madam Katja!" a young voice called out on the other side of her closed door. "Madam Katja!"
"By Odin's flame, what are you hollering about, child?" Katja muttered and flung the door open, nearly causing young Noma to land on her ass.
"Good morning, Madam Katja!" the young girl said, bouncing back up on her feet without effort. "Mother says it's going to be a great, sunny day. She said not to bother you, but I still had to offer my services." She beamed.
"Ah. You do, do you? What services might we be talking about, child?" Katja strode toward the door leading to the courtyard. The sunshine was blinding as it hit the new snow.
"I have decided that I'm your new helper. You need a reliable helper that would die for you, Madam Katja." The girl clutched her chest. "And I would. Die, I mean."
Chuckling now, Katja tugged at one of the narrow braids on Noma's head. "Better not. If any harm ever came to you, your mother would slice me up like a potato and have me for an evening meal. And rightfully so."
"What?" The corners of Noma's mouth sank. "But—but I heard Kotar say the very same thing only days ago."
Kotar was Katja's bodyguard and next in command when it came to her business and safety. Tall, burly, and with a savage look on otherwise handsome face, the man originating from as far north as it was possible to go, was also her friend. "Kotar is not a child."
"I'm eleven!" Noma jutted her stubborn little chin out. "Almost twelve, mother says. And she says she should know since she was there."
Laughing again, Katja knew she couldn't deny the daughter of the woman who ran the kitchen and her household with an iron fist. Samilla was more than just a housekeeper. The blond woman was Katja's friend and they went back to when they were little girls and lived further north. "All right. You can be my helper. One of the most important things, though, is that you don't get in the way if there is trouble. You know my patrons can be loud and ready to start a fight once they've had their share of mead. If that happens and you're with me, you get yourself to a safe place." Katja stopped and gave the girl her best glare. "That's not up for debate."
"I understand, Madam Katja. I will do just as you say." Noma nodded solemnly.
"Good. I will pay you one copper coin a day."
Noma gaped. "You'll pay me?" Her eyes shone.
"Nobody works for free here. I don't believe in slavery, Noma." Katja prepared to do her rounds before she headed to the new, larger in the center of Birka. "Come along. You can be my extra pair of eyes.
Noma happily skipped along next to Katja as she visited the main hall where patrons of her inn were having their oatmeal, eggs, and, of course, more mead. Katja preferred water from the well behind the inn, for the most part. The crisp, cold water was also used to make the mead, but nothing could beat the water during hot summer days. Right now, they had to keep the well ice free as they were nearing the time when the days once again were getting longer than the nights.
Continuing into the kitchen area, Katja inspected the pots simmering above the four fire places. She was proud of the state of this kitchen and was eager to start using the one even bigger at her new inn. Knowing full well how important it was to keep the kitchens clean, Katja was particular about whom she hired to cook for her patrons. No one with filthy habits and an unclean appearance ever set foot in any of her kitchens. She paid the ones in charge very well for them to enforce her vision. Nobody would ever get ill from eating at her inns.
She moved through the kitchen, snagged some bread from a basket, and gave a piece to Noma who walked next to her, looking very serious. "Good?" Katja asked, winking at the girl.
"Mm. Very good." Noma grinned.
"Excellent." Heading back toward the hall, Katja stopped as a door leading to the back of the inn opened. A dark-haired woman stepped out while tucking her long hair into a knitted hat.
"And who might you be?" Katja asked. "And what are you doing in there?"
The young woman flinched and froze in place. "Um. I'm Anna. I arrived yesterday and, um, Yxi said I could, eh…"
"I said she could stay in there with her pelts that are worth a small fortune, Miss Katja." Yxi showed up like a mushroom sprung from the earth. "Couldn't let the girl get robbed by any of the less reliable folks out there, could I?"
Katja regarded Anna. "I suppose you're here for the market."
"Yes. I'm going to try for an audience with Mirja— "
Katja snorted. This girl was naïve and then some. "Many have tried. I don't think you'll get across the moot around her fortress." The devastated look on young Anna's face was brief.
"I haven't travelled this far only to give up when I'm finally here." Anna squared her shoulder. "I'll find a way."
Mirja found herself unusually annoyed as she strode through the halls of her fortress. It was still dark outside, but the weather promised to be cold. Bitter cold, which she had hated ever since she came to this godforsaken part of the world. Having grown up with her British father who had toured the world much further down the continent, she had learned everything she knew from him, but also resented her father for settling in Birka.
"With our class and intellect, we'll rule these wildlings before you know it, my dear," her father used to say, and as always, he never bragged. He had built a large fortress and used old floorplans from the Roman Empire and improved upon them. The Romans had dominated the world, including Britain, not many centuries ago. It was obvious that the wildlings, which her father had referred to the people inhabiting this area, but never to their face, had not come across such things as heated pools, indoor lavatories that flushed with water, and so on.
Honestly, how could a person bathe in this constantly-frozen time of year without the amenities of her fortress?
When Mirja reached the room where she normally had her meal in the morning, she reluctantly opened one of the shutters toward the center of Birka. She loathed having to have them closed the whole time during the winter. The darkness inside was depressing and she made it a point to dress warmly and be outdoors, riding her favorite black stallion, while the light was good.
Looking outside, Mirja saw the moot was all but frozen over and made a mental not to increase the guards. She wasn't without enemies. She was aware what some thought of her, a foreigner even if she had lived in Birka for many years now. Her wealth and influence with the king, whenever he visited from one of his dwellings in Skara or Uppsala, did not sit well with some of the rich merchants. Then there was the fact that she was a Christian. She wasn't particularly devout, but she was baptized. Most of the people in Birka were still heathens and Tor and Oden reigned supreme.
"Moff." A deep voice next to her made her smile. She reached out and patted the large dog that had spent the night by the fireplace in the large hall. With her jet-black fur, broad forehead and pointy ears, combined with a majestic tail curled up on her back, Vigi was impressive and could instill the fear of whatever god they worshipped, in people.
"Good morning, Vigi," Mirja said and offered the dog a smile as she scratched behind the dog's ears. "Keeping warm, are you?"
The dog sat down and pressed her large head against Mirja's shin guards. Unlike most women, she rarely wore dresses, not that she minded it from an aesthetic point of view, but for her need to stay warm. "All right. Let's see what cook's prepared for us, shall we?"
She headed over to the table, and as on cue, the cook and two maids came in carrying trays of cold cuts, a large pot of oatmeal, a smaller bowl of nuts, and some winter apples. Mirja loathed the mead, which was so popular among her neighbors, and instead had her staff pick enough rosehip to make tea for the entire winter season. She only forced herself to drink mead when she needed to finalize business endeavors. The men she collaborated with did not take kindly to be served tea and would look down upon her if she refused the mead.
The sound of heavy boots made Mirja raise her head and Vigi, who was busy munching on some scrap meat from the kitchen, begin to wag her tail.
"There she is. What would our mornings be without our latest security report?"
Dressed in full armor and a fur-lined cloak, a tall, sinewy woman stepped into the dining hall. "Madam Mirja." She stood at attention, not even glancing at the food.
"Oh, for the love of any God, take a seat, Nika. You give me kinks in my neck if you insist on standing up. Have some oatmeal. Or nuts. Or meat. Even apples." Mirja motioned for the chair to her left.
"Very well, Madam." Nika, her next in command when it came to the legionaries and her security force, removed the cloak and sat down with an awkward rolling of her shoulders. "I'll have some fruit and nuts. I have already eaten."
"Oh?" Mirja put her spoon back into the bowl, which disappeared instantly before her as one of the maids took it out into the kitchen to be cleaned. "Problems?"
"I observed the ice getting thicker already last night and I felt it prudent to add a few extra guards. Since I was up, I figured I'd better make sure it was enough."
"Good thinking. Add a few more since I think the ice will be hard enough to cross without problems by tonight."
"Yes, Madam." Nika bit into an apple, chewing it efficiently. The woman had been in her service for seven years and Mirja trusted her implicitly. Nika never complained, rarely spoke about her past, and most importantly, never bothered Mirja with problems she couldn't handle on her own. Whenever Mirja was travelling, Nika was her personal bodyguard. Mirja knew her way around lighter swords, a bow and arrow, and even in hand-to-hand combat with a dagger, but she was no true match for a trained assassin. Nika, on the other hand, was undefeated in every discipline imaginable. During the summer months when games were arranged, it pleased Mirja to watch her champion put any man in their place that dared to underestimate her.
"I want you to accompany me later today. I'm going into the center of Birka on sort of a social call."
"Social call." It wasn't a question, but Nika's brows rose questioningly.
"Madam Katja's new establishment, the large new inn at the center of town, is opening. I understand there will be quite some festivities going on. I'm expected to attend and, yes, it is good for business. I think such an elaborate standard as this building promises to have, will bring us even more esteemed merchants, from even further away, once the rumor spreads."
"And you foresee trouble, since I have to go." Still not exactly a question, but Nika's voice suggested she'd rather not.
"Oh. Please, tell me you and Madam Katja still aren't at odds with each other? It had been two years!" Mirja ran her fingers through Vidi's fur.
"The woman is intolerable. She insists on everyone leaving their weapons at the door. That is insanity! How am I supposed to protect you—"
"Nika. You can break a man in two with your bare hands, if the need arises." Mirja snorted at the dismay in Nika's sky-blue eyes. "Just because Madam Katja is as tough as they come and won't let you bully her, doesn't mean you're out of options."
"Yes, yes. Still." Mirja sipped her rosehip tea. Grimacing at the now tepid beverage, she found a new, steaming hot mug placed before her. Her staff was well trained and well paid.
"When do we leave?" Nika didn't pout. At least not on the outside.
"I believe there will be quite the menu going on at midday. I'm going riding and when I get back, I'll let you know and we'll go there on horseback."
"Mats is accompanying on your morning ride. I have made sure he knows how to handle himself when it comes to your protection. He will bring two stable hands with him as well." Nika raised her chin in a clear challenge.
Mirja never meddled with Nika's training and plans for her subordinates. Nika knew who, how, and where, to assign her staff. Mats, a muscular young man who had trained with Nika for two years, were more than qualified. Nika would not have it any other way when it came to her employer's safety. This made it even more mysterious, and yes, quite entertaining, how Madam Katja could get under Nika's skin like she did.
Nika knew her ice-blue eyes were the reason people pressed themselves flat against the corridors as she moved through Mirja's fortress. She honestly liked her employer, but there was something so infuriation how she dared to tease Nika about Madam Katja's…insolence. To Nika, Mirja was the power in Birka, no matter what king was the current ruler in all of Sweden. Madam Katja was an innkeeper. Nothing more. And yet, a small voice insisted that Katja was a formidable woman who didn't let herself be intimidated by anyone. Not even Nika who indeed could take the life of an adversary with her bare hands—and had, many times.
She stomped out into the courtyard, glaring at the stable boy who scurried over. "I'm sorry, sir. Your horse dropped a shoe. It was right beside him when I brought him his hay, and—"
"And is the blacksmith working on him?"
"He is, sir." The stable boy relaxed marginally, probably relieved that he wasn't killed on the spot.
"Very well. Have the blacksmith go over all his shoes. She groaned inwardly. Perhaps now she could go over the duty roster with her second in command. "Is Tuve at the stables?"
"Yes, sir. Doing his morning rounds." The stable boy nodded eagerly.
"Good. I'll accompany you back there." Nika strode across the courtyard and the young boy, barely ten, ran to keep up with her long legs.
"What is your name, boy?" Nika asked, reluctantly impressed with the child's courage at addressing her even if she scared him.
"I'm Love, sir." The boy looked shocked. He was no doubt used to be called "hey, you there," or "boy," at the most.
"How long have you worked at the stables?"
"Three winters." Something looking like pain ghosted across Love's features.
"And your parents?"
"Dead, sir. Went through the ice three winters ago. Madame Mirja saw it happen." Love wiped at his reddening nose. "She sent her men to try and rescue my folks, but they were nowhere to be found. She took me in. I was a kitchen hand for the first months." Love stopped talking abruptly and looked dismayed at Nika. "Sorry, sir. Didn't mean to ramble on."
Nika shook her head. "I asked you about it." She shrugged. "You like horses?"
Love lit up. "I do. I especially like Blixt. He's gentle soul for the most part. Unless he has to be tough."
Nika realized this boy knew horses. It was true about Blixt. Her horse was indeed a gentle animal unless they were going into battle. He was not afraid of anything and she could trust him to charge when she required it. Her horse had saved her life, and thus Mirja's, many times. "I'm glad you take such good care of him," Nika offered matter-of-factly. "I'm going to tell the stable master that your priority every day is to look after Blixt and Madam Mirja's horse."
"Really, sir?" Love gaped. "I'm to be first groomer for the most important horses?" It was of course a tremendous promotion for such a young boy.
"I think you can handle it. Don't prove me wrong." Nika nodded curtly.
"Oh, I won't. I won't let you down, sir." Love hurried ahead. "I'll make sure the blacksmith knows about the shoes."
Nika hid a smile. She remembered how she had resented not being allowed in the stable when she was Loves age. Growing up on the west coast of Sweden, she had worked on boats going on the rivers, cleaning and cooking. When she was twelve, she had secretly started practicing the fight techniques she observed when she studied the king's men train. She would pick a fight with anyone and when she grew stronger and more ruthless, she won all the fights she entered. One day, she saved a carriage that breathed of its owner's wealth, from robbers. They were hardly as well trained as she, but the formidable woman inside had offered her a position among her guards. It only too Nika two years to work herself up to being Mirja's next in command, all categories.
Tuve came out of the stables, his dark skin and black hair giving him an exotic appearance this far north. Nika had gone on many journeys with Mirja and seen people from faraway places. Tuve originated from far south of the continent on the other side of the sea. He was normally calm and collected, but Nika found him to be a good sparring partner. They kept each other guessing when they trained hand-to-hand combat, or used a sword.
"I went over the saddles and harnesses. Nothing has been tampered with," Tuve said, his voice mellow. "Apart from Blixt losing a shoe, all is well with Mirja's horses."
"Good to hear. By the way, I need you to make sure that the stable boy, Love, is now in charge of the day-to-day routine when it comes to Blixt and Mirja's horse. He has an eye for horses." Nika didn't wait to see what Tuve thought about it, but she could see his eyebrows rise briefly before she turned and walked toward the small room next to the stables where she kept her paperwork.
It had taken her a long time to decipher the runes and make use of them in her documentation. She ended up developing her own way of putting it together, which was good in the sense that it made it harder for any spy that wanted to read about Mirja's plans or finances. Not even Tuve knew how to decipher her way of writing.
Now, Nika sat down and dated the notes about her assignment for Love. She added his increased salary, making sure this part was spelled out in a way that nobody could misunderstand it. The kid deserved a break. She too had lost her parents very young and being all alone in the world was not easy.
Sighing, Nika found it hard to focus on her work. She realized she had to change into something a bit more stylish and less warrior-like, before attending Madam Katja's damn opening.
What a waste of a perfectly good afternoon.
Anna carried the clean plates and jugs in behind the kitchen. The door next to the one leading to her free room lead into a vast pantry. It held food as well as utensils and it smelled so good in there. Placing the plates on the shelf to the right, Anna stretched, grimacing at how her back smarted. She had travelled for so long, in increasingly old weather. If it hadn't been for her trustworthy horse, Vilde, the journey to Birka would have taken far too long. This was the perfect time to sell the pelts she had gathered along with some of the other hunters in her village.
"Anna! There you are." Yxi came in through the pantry door, gasping for air. "You are as sent from Valhalla. I told Madam Katja this, when I explained about your plans for the pelts. Now it seems you will be able to sell some of them already this afternoon."
"Really?" Ignoring her tired back, Anna grinned. "Who's the customer?"
"Actually, Madam Katja herself." Yxi beamed. "We're off to the opening of the new inn soon. Madam Katja has created quite the feast around it, but it is colder today than she counted on and some of the festivities take place outside. We are going to need some of the pelts to sit on to keep the honored guests warm."
Anna thought fast. "Madam Katja can buy as many as she likes, but on one condition."
"Condition?" Yxi looked stunned. "Are you out of your mind, girl? You have your first customer without lifting a finger and, yet you come with demands?"
"I'm grateful for everything, Yxi, don't get me wrong. That doesn't change the fact that I need to get the best possible price for my pelts. I have promised my village elders this. They count on me, and I'm not about to promise my pelts away on a whim." Anna hoped Yxi wouldn't be offended on his employer's account. "Look. I will of course sell to Madam Katja. If she promises to introduce me to Mirja at one point, that is."
"That's quite the demand for a young country girl." A throaty voice spoke quietly behind them, making Yxi flinch. Katja stood there, hands on her hips and regarded Anna with narrow eyes.
"I know, Madam. I know." Anna cleared her voice. "But facts remain, I need to keep my word to my village."
"I see." Tilting her head, Katja nodded slowly. "I'm actually impressed with your character, Anna, was it?"
Anna nodded, holding her breath.
"I come from humble beginnings and Yxi here can vouch for the hurdles I had to climb across to get where I am today. I did it by staying true to my word and never cheat someone in business. Right, Yxi?"
"Right you are, Madam Katja." Yxi straightened. "You've never been anything but straightforward to me and your other employees."
"I will need several pelts if your inventory proves to be high quality. Right now, today, I need six medium size pelts. Beaver, otter, even fox. We are going to be outdoors for some of the festivities and I want the people joining me from this inn to sit comfortably." Katja hesitated. "I suggest you come along, Anna. Bring samples of your pelts and display them inside the main entrance to the inn and that way you can show potential buyers what you're offering."
"Thank you." Anna smiled at the generous innkeeper. "And Mirja?"
"You're nothing if now persistent." Katja rolled her eyes. "Mirja will be there. It is a big event and everyone above a certain standard in this town will be present for the festivities. The Birkans do love any excuse for a party in the winter. In this case the prospect of getting free mead will no doubt play a part." Katja shook her head. "And I will introduce you to Mirja. I can't guarantee she either needs or wants more pelts, but I can at least make her aware of your stockpile."
Beaming now, Anna was almost bouncing where she stood next to Yxi. "Thank you, thank you. I'll go fetch the pelts you require, Madam Katja. I have just the right ones for you. I prepared them myself." She hurried into the room where she had spent the night. Opening the leather strip keeping one of the piles together, she browsed through the pelts, knowing exactly what Katja would like. She wasn't aware how she could be so certain, but pulled out two fox pelts and four from beavers. Running back to Katja and Yxi, she stopped, breathless, but smiling broadly. "Here."
Katja took the pelts and spread them on an empty table. She let her hands slide over them, humming under her breath as she felt along the silken fur. Anna knew there was no damages or knots in the well-brushed furs and looked expectantly at Katja.
"These are amazing. I don't think I've felt anything as luxurious and smooth when it comes to pelts." Katja nodded approvingly. "I don't think you're going to have any problems selling these, especially since out weather seer speaks of the coldest winter within living memory."
"Oh!" Anna did a twirl. "Thank you, Madam. Thank you!"
Katja smiled benevolently at Anna. "I want these and ten more like them."
"Absolutely." Anna pulled out a flat piece of wood from the pouch she carried under her shirt. Using a knife, she made indentations for the pelts she'd just sold."
"You can write?" Katja asked, looking surprised.
"Some." Anna hedged the question, knowing some things were better kept to herself. "I made this system to keep track of the pelts and how much I have left to sell. It's not exactly writing, more of an organizing system so I remember." She held out the piece of wood. There were small symbols for the different animals and markings indicating how many she brought of each. Her plan was to carve a line across each pelt she sold and thus knowing precisely how many she could offer a potential buyer on the spot.
"This is very clever. Did you come up with this?" Katja seemed impressed.
"At least this version of it. Our merchants up north have a system that spreads over large pieces of wood, but that wasn't convenient for traveling. I figured it could be simplified." Embarrassed at the avid attention of Katja and Yxi, Anna lowered her gaze go her hands.
"I think we should make better use of your now that you work for room and board." Katja grinned. "This girl, Yxi, is waisted as a barmaid. She can work as one tonight, but from tomorrow, I want her using her head going over our system when it comes to inventory."
"Yes, Madam." Yxi preened. "Didn't I tell you she is special?"
Katja laughed. "You did. You certainly did, dear friend." She patted Yxi's shoulder and nodded to Anna. "We leave to the center of Birka at day-measure. I need to know everything is in place before midday when the guests start arriving."
"Yes, Madam," Yxi and Anna echoed.
As Anna gathered the pelts on the table, Yxi nodded at her to bring them with her as they walked over to the stables. "We're going to take the large sledge since the snow's so deep. Madam Katja enjoys driving it and since there will be seven of us now that you and your pelts are tagging along, we need the bigger sledge."
Anna didn't mind pitching in and getting everything ready. While Yxi and some stable hands pulled the large sledge from one of the barns, Anna checked on her own horse and then started taking down the harnesses from the walls for the three horses meant to pull the sledge.
"And what do you think you're doing?" A dark voice interrupted Anna as she slipped the harness over a black mare.
Anna pivoted, startled since the voice sounded threatening. A tall man stood behind her, his arms folded over his massive chest. An elaborate tattoo adorned his forehead and temple and his black hair had a few grey strands. "I'm just helping out," Anna said breathlessly.
"I've never seen you around, so why are you suddenly in our stables, handling expensive horses and their equipment?" The man's eyes narrowed. "Tell me one reason why I shouldn't report your for trying to steal—"
"Stand down, Kotar," Katja said from behind the tall man. "This is Anna. She's a guest, but also working for me temporarily. She's coming with us to the new inn."
"Katja…" Kotar sighed. "Do we know anything about this girl?"
"I know enough. She's from your area, I believe. Anna is here to sell pelts and I've given her my word that I'll introduce her to Mirja and other high ranking Birkans."
"Where are you from?" Kotar turned to Anna, his eyes only marginally defrosted.
"Ragunda." Anna raised her chin.
Kotar kept her gaze, but then smiled. "Ragunda, huh? And you came down to Birka all by yourself. Got to admire that courage in a young girl." He slapped her shoulder, nearly sending her flying into the wall. "Welcome to Birka."
"Thank you." Anna refused to rub her sore shoulder, but merely smiled politely and continued putting the harness on the horse.
"I appreciate your protective nature, Kotar, but honestly," Katja said, placing two large crates of winter apples in the back of the sledge. "You can pick up the last few crates from the kitchen. Tell Samilla and Noma we're leaving soon."
"Yes, Katja." Kotar, clearly one of the few who could speak with such familiarity to Madam Katja, walked with long strides back to the inn.
"Remember when we opened this, your first inn in Birka?" Yxi asked as he came with the second of the horses, this time an auburn mare. The horse's fur had almost the same nuance as Katja's braids. "Seems not that long ago."
"I know." Katja helped Anna back the black mare in between the shafts. "There were several smaller inns in Birka then," she said, turning to Anna. "Most of them quite sordid and not a place for anyone to bring children, or wives. Granted, most of the people staying at inns in Birka are merchants and other travelers, but when I offered a clean, friendly place with heightened security, the rumor spread. I opened my second inn, slightly smaller than this one, in the southern part of Birka only a summer later. And now, this new inn. Bigger, hopefully better, and with quite a few new things for guests to explore and enjoy."
"Hopefully this will bring merchants and travelers from even further away, once the rumor spreads." Yxi came walking with the last horse, an enormous, white gelding.
"Ah, Balder." Katja stroked along the majestic horse's mane. "You look up for the task, my darling." Laughing, she motioned for Anna to harness the horse. "Just beware, he has been known to nibble on beautiful young women."
Anna kept a close eye on Balder's mouth, but the horse seemed content to take the lead and pull the sledge for his mistress. While the others place the rest of the food and drink they were bringing in the back of the sledge, Anna ran back to her room and collected the nicest of her pelts to represent her lot. Tying a narrow leather ribbon around the pelts, she thought how quickly she had become part of Madam Katja's inner circle of sorts. She hoped it would prove fortunate since she just couldn't fail.
"Come on, Anna," Yxi called out as she approached the sledge carrying her selected pelts. "Time to go."
"Oh, this'll fun," a little girl said while she bounced on the seat next to a blond woman that had to be her mother. "Just put me in charge of the children's games, Madam Katja, and everything will be a success!"
Katja took the reins and set the horses and sledge in motion. Anna sat at the far back, next to Yxi, and as they travelled along the road leading into the center of Birka, she gazed around her and had to concede that this truly was a beautiful place.
Snow covered every part of the ground, every house and tree. The air was crystal clear, and every time she exhaled, white mist surrounded her face. Tying her fur-lined leather hat tighter around her ears, Anna made sure her clothes represented her merchandize. Dressed in leather pants and jacket, both lined with rabbit fur, she wouldn't freeze. Her mittens were also made from rabbit pelts and she knew they kept a person warm even during winter blizzards. Underneath her leather outfit, she wore knitted wool undergarments, which kept the wearer insulated against the cold.
Anna hugged the parcel with her pelts to her chest. She was getting closer to her goal, and much faster than she had dared to dream, and if she didn't disappoint Katja, she had a place to stay until she had to go home. Once she was back in Ragunda, her life would change. The village would prosper using the seeds and other important things she brought back, including the much-needed coins. Anna was happy about helping her family and friends in Ragunda, but she dreaded what came next. The village elders had struck a deal with a neighboring village and the general idea was that Anna would marry the son of a blacksmith from the village on the other side of the forest. Dag was a nice boy. That wasn't the issue. Anna just didn't want to marry anyone. She wanted to keep her freedom, hunt, and treat her pelts like she always had. Once she was Dag's wife, she would lose her independence.
Anna shook her head, trying to rid herself of the gloomy future that awaited her back home. Instead, she found herself looking forward to participating in the festivities surrounding Katja's new inn—and to finally meet the illustrious Mirja.
Mirja strode across the large, stone covered, area in front of the longhouse. It had an unusual design, much like the fortress her father had built many years ago. Instead of the commonly used rectangular longhouse, Madam Katja's new inn was like something nobody had ever seen in this part of the world. Mira admitted she was curious how many guests that the inn could accommodate. It was built as a longhouse with two wings framing the courtyard in front of it. Snow covered most of the yard, but tables with food and beverages were set up along the walls of the inn and several bonfires would keep the guests warm.
"Quite impressive, don't you think, Nika?" Mirja turned to her bodyguard.
"It is elaborate, but perhaps too pretentious." Nika nodded solemnly. "I suppose if you have the funds to spend, it is the individual's prerogative to do so."
Mirja chuckled. Nika was as stubborn as they came. She had decided to not give Katja an inch, no matter what, and criticizing the inn that would attract even more business to Birka, something Mirja was all for. Her wealth grew with each passing summer and once she had enough, she would set her plans in motion.
"Madam Mirja. I'm so glad to see you." The unforgettable, throaty voice belonging to Katja broke Mirja out of her reverie. Katja stood before her, flanked by her bodyguard and the stocky man who ran her first inn.
"Madam Katja." Mirja bowed her head slightly. "I look forward to a house tour."
"I will give you a first view personally." Katja turned to greet Nika and only a person who knew of the women's less than cordial past, could see the twitching in Katja's fingertips. "Nika." She bowed.
Obviously realizing she was expected to respond in kind, Nika pressed her hand to her chest and bowed as well. "Madam Katja."
Mirja turned to walk toward the entrance to the main longhouse, but stopped when she found a dark haired young boy in her path. She was about to let Nika deal with the youngster who clearly didn't understand whom he was in the way of, when the young man turned to face her. Mirja stared. It was without a doubt not a boy, but a stunningly beautiful young woman dressed in men's clothing.
"Madam Mirja," the young woman said and bowed deeply. She carried something in a backpack and still moved with complete grace.
"You have me at an advantage, girl." Mirja lowered her voice and she knew her narrowing eyes intimidated people.
"I apologize. This is Anna from Ragunda, from way up north. She is filling in for one of my staff and she is also selling the most beautiful, well-treated pelts you ever saw." Katja patted Anna on the shoulder. "I promised her I would introduce her to you as she wants to sell to the most prominent person in Birka."
"Is that so?" Mirja raised her eyebrows. "I never do any of my own purchases on that level." She waved her hand dismissively and took two steps toward the longhouse.
"That's an obvious mistake to make, Madam Mirja," the girl, Anna, said.
How brazen was this girl? Mirja pivoted slowly. "Excuse me?" she said, her voice a muted hiss.
"When it comes to something like a pelt, quality and personal preference is everything. How can some underling choose for a woman like yourself, Madam? I'm sure you have excellent taste. Expensive taste. No employee can pretend to know exactly what you want—no matter the cost. Only you, with your refined, well-travelled taste, can do that." Anna stood very still, her hands laced together and her chin up. Yes, she looked nervous, but she was clearly proud of her goods and, which infuriated Mirja, she had a point.
"Girl. You need to step away," Nika said and was about to move in between Mirja and Anna, when Katja raised her hand.
"Don't. Anna is merely stating an opinion, and as is the rule in any of my inns, that is perfectly allowed, no matter your social status." She glared at Nika, but Mirja thought she saw something resembling sorrow flicker over Katja's face as well.
"Fine. As I seem to be part of a bargain between you and Madam Katja, even if I don't have anything to gain by it, I will look at your pelts later. Personally." Mirja wondered why she was accommodating Anna like this? Stroking Katja the right way was clever business, and Mirja quite admired the enterprising innkeeper, but the girl selling pelts? Unheard of. "Now I want to see this new place of yours, Madam Katja.
"I think it's time we called each other by name only," Katja said. "All this madam back and forth gives me a headache. I'm half expecting to see my mother, which would give me a heart attack since she died ten years ago."
"Then by all means. Call me Mirja." Marching toward the entrance, Mirja tried to focus on the structure, but all she could think of was how the stranger from up north had done what nobody else would dare when it came to her. In her younger years, when her temper was more volatile, she would have someone like Anna flogged, or at least thrown into the cellar for a few days. Yes, she had, of not mellowed, but made other priorities, since then. She could overlook some things these days, if it suited her goal, and she would reach that goal, or die trying.
Nika walked two steps behind Mirja, as always making sure nobody with ill intent came close to her. Mirja was by far helpless, but it was Nika's job to keep her employer safe. They walked to the main hall, where tables were set up with benches on both sides. Food consisting of nuts, winter apples, meat, herring, cod, and bread. Over by the main table where Madam Katja would sit with Mirja and the elders and other dignitaries, she saw the same food, but also horse meat, which was only used at very special occasions among the wealthy, and wine.
Madam Katja was her usual exuberant self. She was also a woman nobody in their right mind should ever underestimate. Nika had seen her train with wooden swords with her burly bodyguard, Kotar. He had not won the fight easily. Katja had used his size against him and skillfully averted his thrusts with the training sword. Such equipment was not fatal, but could still injure someone if shoved into their belly, or hit them over the head.
Katja had eventually lost the fight, more because of fatigue than anything else. Ever since she witnessed it, Nika had wanted to meet Kotar in a more even fight. She was the same height as him and nearly as strong. Having trained with the best all over the continent while travelling with Mirja, Nika knew more moves than that big oaf.
"Nika? You coming?" Mirja spoke curtly and brought Nika back to the present. Katja looked at her under raised eyebrows, which of course irked Nika even more.
"Of course," Nika replied laconically.
They walked over the hallway that lead into the staff's area, including the kitchen, laundry area, and storage of food, wine, and mead. These areas were under heavy watch, Nika knew, as some of the goods were imported or bought during long trade journeys down to the continent. Some were even robbed, not by Katja or any of her staff, but the Vikings that did this for a living.
"And here are the rooms where guests can feel safe getting some much-needed sleep after travelling out cold territory. I think they're even fit for our king. What do you think?" Katja smiled at Mirja who stepped into the room. Nika followed suit, reluctantly curious.
The room was nor large, but held a raised bed where the mattress was filled with fragrant new straw. Thick wool blankets and furs covered the bed and at the top, Nika spotted pillows, something that was rare in their part of the world.
A cabinet next to the bed had a lock and large key, which meant the guest could place valuables and have a decent chance that they would not be stolen. The room had a fireplace, which was lit, making the space warm and inviting. There was also a window, covered with hatches, thus keeping the cold out.
"I think you have outdone yourself, Katja," Mira said and nodded. "The rumor of these accommodations will spread, and you will fill it with prestigious patrons that will empty their pockets into the hands of every merchant in town." Mirja patted Katja's shoulder.
"Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you. I hope you refer your business partners to any of my inns, preferably this one as it, as you just stated, needs to be part of the rumor mill." Katja laughed. "And you, Nika, what do you think? Can you see yourself in a bed like this?"
Nika lost her breath. She had no idea how that happened, but suddenly, her lungs had stopped cooperating and she had to gasp inaudibly twice, before Katja or Mirja caught on to her reaction. How could Kata think to ask her such a thing? The mere idea of frolicking in this type of bed, so inviting to anyone who had ever been weary, was shocking. The fact that the image Nika's mind conjured up did not have Nika alone in said bed, but rather in an auburn haired, faceless woman's embrace.
Suddenly afraid that Katja or Mirja could guess where her mind had gone, Nika merely mumbled about the room being adequate and efficient and then left the room to wait outside.
"Oh, dear." Katja spoke quietly, but her voice still carried out to Nika. "I did it again, didn't I? Offended, or annoyed, that woman."
"You do seem to have an affinity to do this. Over and over. I wonder why you always offend, and Nika always storms off in a huff. You have any idea at all, Katja?" Mirja's voice was teasing and Nika could imagine how Katja now looked furious and quite flustered.
"Don't even start," Katja muttered. There was a slight pause, and then Katja said, "And you, young lady? Do you think you could sleep in this type of room?"
"Yes, Madam Katja. This is like a palace," a young voice that Nika determined had to belong to young Anna from up north.
"A palace indeed!" Katja's voice was back to normal. "Now that's worth celebrating. Let's go down to the courtyard and let's find the stand where they are frying chickens. All of a sudden my appetite is back."
"Sounds like a good idea. Nika?" Mirja looked around the hallway for Nika. "We're going down to get something to eat."
"Yes, Madam." Nika had to be formal, even to Mirja, or she would forget her place and giving Madam Katja a piece of her mind. "After you." She made certain the two wealthy women and the girl, Anna, walked ahead of her. Nika needed time to adjust her facial features into her typical mask of indifference. She was far from indifferent though. Truth be told, she wanted to drag Katja back to that bed and have her way with her. That had to remain her best guarded secret.
Anna couldn't take her eyes off Mirja. She had been invited to come along when Katja showed the powerful woman and her interesting, quite intimidating, bodyguard. Mirja looked the part of a wealthy woman. Dressed in a long, wide skirt, leather boots, and a sweeping wolf fur cape, and with an elaborate neckless of some sort of blue stone and silver, she didn't wear a hat of any sort. This made her white hair glitter in the sun, much like the snow did.
Had it been her well-known active imagination, or had Mirja scrutinized Anna just as closely as Anna had studied her? It had been impossible not to take the whole image of Mirja in. Rumor always had she was stunning and possessed a rather overwhelming beauty. It wasn't so much her physical attributes, Anna thought, but the way Mirja carried herself. She walked with such confidence and her eyes seemed to notice every single, minute detail.
What did Mirja think of her? Had she given Anna a single thought after going on the tour with the others? Or was it a mere curious glance in passing at an audacious girl who thought she could have goods to sell that were good enough for a woman in her position?
Now the tour was over and Katja and Mirja had withdrawn to talk in the area that was Katja's private rooms at the inn. Left to her own devices, Anna gazed around the area in front of the inn. The crowd was growing, which meant potential customers were showing up. She walked among the tables where food was being served and some peddlers sold their goods. After circling the courtyard twice, Anna found a table nobody used next to the woman selling apples dipped in molasses. They smelled so good and Anna felt her stomach growl. She nodded politely to the apple-woman and walked around the table and began untying the bundle of pelts she had gathered.
"Those are so beautiful," the apple-woman said and looked longingly at the furs. "And they're each from a different animal! Your husband must be a great hunter." She was a curvaceous woman in her twenties with blond hair kept in a multitude of blond braids adorned with sea shells. Her cheeks were pink from the cold and her blue eyes twinkled.
Anna's smile went from polite to genuine in seconds. "Thank you. I'm glad you like them. As for who hunted, I have no husband to do that, nor a father or a brother. I'm the hunter." Shrugging, Anna waited for the usual reaction she would get from other women. Distrust, concern, or, most likely, disdain for not having a husband. In her home village, she was, if not an outcast, exactly, but not well liked among some. The highest ranking elder, however, was a mentor and Anna loved him dearly. It was the closest she had ever come to having a father.
Now, the apple-woman merely beamed in surprise. "You're a hunter? That's amazing! I have a younger sister who is quite good with the bow and arrow, but she has yet to hit a moving target. For you to hunt down all these," she said and gestured to the table, "is really something."
"These are just samples for potential buyers," Anna said, encouraged by the woman's friendly nature. "I have a lot more at the inn." She moved closer to the woman. "I'm Anna, by the way. From Ragunda."
"I'm Freja." Freja took an apple and shoved it on a sharpened twig. "Here. Have an apple."
Anna looked longingly at the treat. "I'm sorry, Freja. It looks so good, but I can't spend any money on myself. Everything I earn here goes to my neighbors back home."
"I'll pay for Annas apple," a cool voice said from behind Anna.
Whipping her head around, Anna saw Mirja stand there with her bodyguard only a few feet away.
"Madam Mirja," Freja said, her cheeks growing even pinker. "I was going to offer the apple as a gift to this amazing girl. She's a hunter and I find that so interesting."
"She is? Well, I think you have use for every coin you get by selling your apples, Madam…?"
"Freja. Just Freja, Madam Mirja." Freja was blushing now.
"Then I want you to deliver a dozen of those apples to my home once the market is closing. The cook will pay you on delivery." Mirja didn't smile, but gave Freja a friend nod. "And in the meantime," she added and gave Freja a copper coin. "How many apples do I get for that?"
"Six, Madam Mirja." Freja literally bounce where she stood.
"Then give one to Anna and then the other five to any child you deem look hungry." Mirja returned her focus on Anna who flinched at being the target for the light-blue gaze. "Let's see your samples then, young Anna."
Anna nodded, feeling dazed, and adjusted the furs to make it easier for Mirja to browse through them. Mirja took her time, feeling the fur side, then flipping them over and examining them for mistakes or flaws. Confident that there were none, Anna still held her breath, knowing how much depended on this. She wasn't much for praying even if her village had converted to Christianity more than a century ago, but if it would help, she could see herself falling to her knees in supplication.
"You do have a consistent high quality here." Mirja put down the rabbit fur and turned to Anna. "Of course, if I decide to buy some, the person I send will go over the ones we potentially need as carefully as I just did. If they are not good enough, and I set a high standard for what comes inside my walls, we won't be buying."
"A good tactic, Madam Mirja," Anna said and hoped she didn't sound as breathless as she felt. "I would never offer a fur to a customer that I wasn't prepared to buy myself, if the roles were reversed. This is my livelihood and I'm good at what I do."
Mirja tilted her head. "How old are you?"
Mirja blinked, but that was the only sign that told Anna that the other woman was somehow surprised.
"And you're not married?" Mirja frowned.
Anna trembled. Was being married somehow mandatory for the sale to go through? Mirja wasn't married and had never been, as far as Anna knew. Same went for Katja, she knew from the idle gossip in the kitchen at the other inn.
"No. I'm sorry." Anna lowered her gaze, not sure what to say other than that.
"Why are you sorry? Do you have your eyes on someone who cannot appreciate your beauty just because you are a hunter and have to dress like a man to be practical?" Mirja's eyes narrowed.
What was this? Nobody had ever asked her such personal question—and certainly not over the sale of a fur—or several. "No. I don't pine for a man. I support myself, and if everything goes according to plan, I will return to Ragunda with enough coins and goods to see them through this winter and spring." Anna raised her chin and forced herself to meet Mirja's firm gaze with her own.
Mirja slapped the glove she had taken off to feel the furs against her bare hand. "Excellent."
Mirja could always relay on her composure to not allow anyone behind her mask. It was part of why she was successful, but she also was intensely private and refused to let anyone get the upper hand by showing them any sort of vulnerability. What was it about this young Anna that made it a little harder than usual to remain distanced?
Perhaps she saw some of herself in the way this woman forged ahead. Anna had a lot riding on selling her pelts, which meant the buyer had the upper hand. Still, Anna met the challenge head on and it was quite obvious that she had something to prove, perhaps both to herself and her villagers.
There was no denying her physical beauty. Anna's eyes were her greatest feature and Mirja had to concede that she had never been pulled in by a set of eyes like that before. Was it a bad idea of pursuing this young woman? The answer was simple. Yes, it was. Granted, it had been many moons, perhaps even years, since Mirja had taken someone to her bed, man or woman, but it wasn't just frustration of the flesh that made her stealthily appraise Anna.
If it had been just about fucking someone, she could have her pick among the women in Birka, but to be honest, she hadn't even felt it worth the hassle. Often, when Mirja lost interest—and she always did—the person she'd allowed herself to seduce became a problem. She had no qualms about pushing someone away, but lately, it had begun to bother her. Not because of such ridiculousness as feeling guilty, but because of the time it took and yes, perhaps, because she was getting older, it bothered her.
So, here she stood at the table in the courtyard of the most elaborate of inns and couldn't take her eyes of a much-younger woman who, rosy-cheeked and eager, was proving herself to be a little more different and interesting than Mirja had ever expected.
"I've changed my mind," Mirja heard herself say. Only when Anna's face fell, did she realize how it could have been interpreted.
"You're not interested anymore?" Anna said, her voice trembling, and for a moment, Mirja thought she might have been asking about more than the pelts.
"I'm known for a lot of things, being indecisive is not one of them." Mirja raised her chin and regarded Anna coolly. "No, what I mean is, I think you should bring your pelts to the fortress and I want to examine them personally."
An intake of breath just behind her suggested that Nika was as stunned at this revelation as Mirja herself was. She hadn't thought this through and she never spoke without quickly considering all the angles, normally, nor did she second guess herself.
"You want me to come to your home?" Anna gaped. "I—of course I will—I just didn't expect, I mean—"
"Good." Thinking quickly, Mirja made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "I will expect you after breakfast. Just give your name and business to the guards."
Anna looked like she was about to object or ask more questions, something that Mirja wasn't having any of as she had made up her mind. "All right," Anna said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Yes." Turning to Nika fast enough to catch the surprise and slight amusement in her bodyguard's eyes, Mirja scowled. "Let's go."
"Yes, Mirja." Nika nodded and adjusted her features into her usual indifferent look.
As they walked toward their sledge, Mirja could feel Anna's eyes directed at her and to her amazement, it gave her goosebumps from head to toe. Annoyed, Mirja lengthened her stride as if putting more distance between her and Anna would deal with that.
Nika followed her employer back to the sledge, not about to say a thing. The thunderous expression on Mirja's face was enough to shut the mouth on any employee, and Nika knew her place and to let Mirja work moods like these out.
"Before I forget, can you arrange for the inn to host my guests for the hunting party?" Mirja spoke curtly. "That is, if you can be within a foot of Katja without throttling her?
Nika winced. "Of course, but what if we send one of the—"
"No. You. I want this to go without a hitch and I trust you to know what I want for my guests—a mere servant or stable boy will get it wrong." The increasing chill in Mirja's voice showed how annoyed she was getting—and how important this was from a business point of view.
"Then I am at your service, Madam." Nika would just have to endure talking to Katja and refrain from letting her temper rule. She had stayed away from Katja as much as it was humanly possible. She found the auburn-haired innkeeper intolerable and had always had the notion that Katja could see right through her. Nika wasn't comfortable with anyone looking at her with that infuriating knowing look in their eyes—as she had been weight and found too light, too insignificant. Nika sighed. She was fully aware of the fact she was probably reading far too much into any looks Katja gave her.
Making sure the driver of Mirja's sledge knew he was in charge of his employer's safety together with the two stable hands until she returned, Nika turned to walk back to the inn. Her heart was beating faster and the idea of having to approach Katja on her own, without the filter of being Mirja's bodyguard between them was making her angry even before they exchanged one word.
She was just not comfortable in Katja's presence, that was all there was to it.
Katja was making sure the food at the tables in the main hall wasn't running low, when a prickling sensation at the nape of her neck made her go still. Knowing who was behind her without looking, she pivoted slowly.
"Nika." Katja kept her demeanor calm and her voice cool. "Did Mirja forget something?"
"No. Yes." Pressing her full lips together, Nika looked furious. "She wants to book a large part of your inn to accommodate her yearly hunting party." Clearly speaking through clenched teeth, Nika stood rigidly, her hands behind her back.
"Ah yes, it's that time of year." Katja smiled, feeling just a little smug at Nika acting undecisive in this manner. Who knew the tall blond could stutter? "I have it in mind already since I hoped Mirja would choose this inn as base for her festivities. Last year she required accommodations for eighteen. Same this year?"
"Yes." Nika spoke curtly. "Madam Mirja wants the same arrangements as last year, with the following additions." She listed the specifications for the hunting party. Katja didn't even blink, but merely nodded.
"That's it?" Katja said, her voice deceptively soft.
"No. This year, the clan leaders are bringing their spouses and children. That is why Madam Mirja wants this inn as your previous establishments won't hold as many occupants." Trying to keep the glee from showing at this last part of Mirja's requirements, Nika merely nodded while she furtively noted the slight widening of Katja's eyes.
"Eighteen parties with families?" Katja tapped her chin. "It won't be a problem. Same time as last year?"
"Yes. Fourteen moons from now." Nika was beginning to think nothing under the sun would ever phase this woman.
"Tell Mirja I will have everything ready for her guests." Jutting her chin out, Katja's gaze never wavered. "This will be yet another excellent way of spreading the word about Birka and its great way to accommodate travelers."
Trust the ever-enterprising woman to see it that way. Not as something to worry about, but as something entirely positive. "There cannot be any problems. Madam Mirja's guest are dignitaries. We cannot afford anything but complete success. If Madam Mirja's goals aren't met because of failures on your part—"
"Nika! Stop. Stop before you insult me and make me really angry." Her eyes going from soft blue to a stormy grey, Katja took a step forward, well within Nika's personal space. "Just remember who you're talking to. Mirja might have most of Birka at her back and call, but not me. I do what's good for business, but I don't take insults from hired hands. Remember that."
Furious that she had let her calm mask slip, Nika merely nodded. "Point taken," she said, feeling her pride somewhat restored at how indifferent she managed to sound.
"Anything else? As you can imagine, even if I am half prepared for Mirja's annual hunting party, as always, there are still things to plan." Tilting her head, Katja looked up at Nika.
"One more thing. There will be a major feast during the fourth evening. Madam Mirja wants you to attend and bring those, um, closest to you." Nika cringed at her hesitation. Why did the idea of anyone being close to Katja irk her so? That didn't make sense since she didn't care for this woman at all. In fact, she had very few reasons to even be cordial to her.
"Tell Mirja I accept. I imagine I will bring Yxi, Kotar, Samilla, young Noma, and, oh yes, why not Anna from Ragunda since she's about to do business with Mirja?"
"Very well." Nika nodded stiffly. She turned to walk away when Katja placed a hand on her upper arm. "What?" Pivoting, Nika grabbed the small hand, barely managing to stop herself from crushing the bones in Katja's hand.
"Nika!" Clearly appalled, Katja looked down at their hands.
"I apologize." Nika let go of Katja, knowing full well she had overstepped in a manner that might prove to be irreparable. "You caught me off guard and my training kicked in before I allowed myself to think." Wanting to thud her head against the wall behind them, Nika could only hope Katja would not report her conduct to Mirja.
"No worries. You merely startled me." Katja narrowed her eyes. "Unless you truly meant to hurt me?"
"Never!" Shocked at how true this was, the moment she spoke the word, Nika groaned inwardly. "You're hardly the enemy, Madam Katja."
"I'm glad. And relieved." Katja suddenly smiled, a full, warm smile. "You'd easily break me like a twig, I'm sure."
Nika found herself relaxing marginally, if not exactly returning the smile. "Not a twig, Madam Katja. A small branch, perhaps."
"Why thank you. A compliment coming from you." Chuckling, Katja adjusted her fur trimmed cape. "And while we're on a good note, do let Mirja know I have two young pigs ready for her, should she require more for the feast."
Nika barely registered the last part. Pigs. Sure. "Very well. I will let her know." This time, Katja didn't stop her when Nika turned to walk back to the sledge, but Nika swore she could still feel the imprint of Katja's small hand through the sleeve of her jacket.
The day after the opening of the new inn, Anna stood with her horse and a small sleigh that Katja lent her, at the gate leading into the fortress. After having crossed the wide bridge over the moat, she was awestruck. The structure was made from stone, which spoke of its owner's wealth. Katja had told her that Mirja's father once built the fortress when he came to Birka with his young daughter. Mirja's father travelled the world and not only became very rich from all the trading, but also an expert on all the cultures he encountered. Anna was curious to see the inside of the vast structure.
A man dressed in black leather harness approached her. "What are you doing here, boy?" he growled, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "We don't receive peddlers at the door."
"My name's Anna. I have an appointment with one Madam Mirja's staff regarding my pelts." Anna refused to let herself be intimidated. "She, or Nika, left a message at the gate." She hoped neither of them had forgotten, or this bulky man could easily toss her down on the ice, pelts and all. She gazed behind her to make sure everything was all right. If anything happened to the pelts, she would lose everything and not even have enough to make it back to Ragunda.
"Wait here." Scowling, the man returned to the small booth by the gate. He murmured something inaudible to the other two guards and then shrugged. Returning, he walked around the sledge twice, as if he had to show off his limited power over who came inside the gate, then barked, "You really this Anna person? You look like a scrap of a boy." He nudged her shoulder hard, but she had been subjected to worse in her life and stood her ground
Taking off her hat, Anna let her hair tumble down her shoulder. "I'm Anna. I'm a girl. Now, stop being such an idiot and let me in. I don't think Madam Mirja would like for me to be kept waiting." She smiled angelically, knowing she was right, and her was wrong.
The man blinked at the sight of her. "Damn." He hollered over his shoulder. "Open the gate!"
Inside, Anna almost fell over when her feet came to a sudden stop. Holding on to the harness of her horse, she stared at the courtyard. Bonfires burned in each corner and a larger one in the center. People went about their chores and children played—it was like a town in itself. She wondered how many were employed by the wealthy woman who owned all of this? She counted eight guards on duty within the courtyard and she had seen twice that patrolling the ice on the moat.
"You must be Anna," a voice said, making Anna jump. A shorty, stocky woman had showed up out of nowhere and was smiling brightly at her. "I'm Erika. I was supposed to take care of you, but Madam Mirja had a moment after her previous meeting and decided she would like to have a look at your pelts herself."
Nerves shot through her body at the idea of seeing the intimidating, beautiful woman again, but she kept her easy smile going and followed Erika to the part of the courtyard where one of the fires rendered it warm and nice.
"Here, help yourself to some mead or wine." Erika pointed at a sideboard next to the stone wall where winter apples, wine and mead was readily available. "Madam Mirja will be with you shortly."
"Thank you." Gratefully, Anna grabbed an apple and bit into it. The taste of the fruit exploded in her mouth and she moaned blissfully.
"That good?" A laconic voice said, nearly making Anna choke on the piece of fruit. "Careful. I can't have my pelt supplier choke to death in my own court yard. Bad for business." Mirja stepped closer. "Is that the lot?" She eyed the sledge.
"Um. Yes. It is." Coughing discreetly, Anna motioned toward the pelts. "I have sorted them into type and size to make it easier to get an overview. Madam Katja bought ten in different sizes and this is the rest."
"I see." Mirja circled the sledge and thus gave Anna ample time to study her. Like the previous day, Mirja was dressed in mainly black, but today she wore leather trousers, a wool tunic, and a charcoal grey cape. Her white-blond hair shimmered as it lay in intricate braids held back with ivory combs. "Pull out the rabbit furs first," Mirja said and stopped after rounding the sledge and horse.
Anna hurried to do as Mirja asked, her fingers trembling as she struggled with the knot she'd made from leather strips. "Damn." Her fingertips went numb as the knot refused to budge. Angry at herself for tying it too tight, Anna pulled a knife from her belt.
"She's got a dagger!" A male voice shouted and then Anna felt herself go flying. Her head hit something, and everything went dark.
"Let her go this instant! Are you absolutely mad?" Mirja snarled at the man who had lunged at Anna and sent the young woman flying. Thankfully, Anna had ended up on top of her pelts, but her head had hit the edge of the sleigh and blood now trickled down her temple.
The man looked dumbfounded at his employer. "Madam…but…she had a knife and…"
"And nothing. Get off her. Now. I will deal with you later." Her tone as lethal as it had ever been, Mirja shoved her overzealous guard out of the way. "Anna? Can you hear me?" She bent over Anna who lay very still, and very pale.
Looking up, Mirja saw people gathering, but apart from Erika who joined her at the sleigh, nobody dared to interfere.
"That damn, big oaf," Erika muttered. "I think he needs to go on duty at the stables rather than in your courtyard, Madam."
"I agree," Mirja muttered. She carefully pulled Anna over on her back. "No. No, no, no." More blood oozed, this time from the inside of Anna's arm. "Where the hell—" Mirja's eyes fell upon the knife that lay beneath Anna, having gotten caught underneath her when the guard threw her down.
"That's dark blood, at least," Erika said and quickly tore a ribbon from her hair and wrapped it above the cut on Anna's arm. "If it was bright red, she'd be in a lot of trouble."
And the guard would be dead at her own hand, Mirja thought as she helped Erica pull one of the furs over Anna. Looking over at the gaping crowd, Mirja snarled quietly. "Get a stretcher. Now."
A young boy reacted fast and ran toward the guard's sleeping quarters. It made sense. Normally the guards were the first to get injured when defending the fortress. The boy returned with a stretcher made from two poles and leather strips. He helped Erica move Anna onto the stretcher and then waved three of his peers over to help carry the unconscious girl.
"Take her into my private hall and place her on the bench by the fire." Mirja strode in front of them, making sure the bench was covered with furs and blankets. The boys placed the gurney on the floor and lifted Anna over to the soft blanket. Erika had fetched her medical supplies and now was cleaning the wound on Anna's arm.
Feeling utterly useless and agitated, Mirja watched how Erika expertly tended to the young woman who only moments ago had looked so flushed and eager to sell her furs to Mirja.
"I think she's coming to, Madam." Erika spoke softly. "Hello there. You took a nasty fall, Anna."
Mirja pivoted and strode over to the bench, crouching next to it. "Anna?"
"M-ma-madam?" Anna blinked. "What's going…on?"
"My idiot guard saw you pull a knife and thought you were going to use it on me." Mirja stroked the long, chestnut hair from Anna's injured temple.
"Really? He must be good at her job." Anna grimaced and tried to sit up. Mirja placed her palms against her shoulders and held her back. "Not so fast. Let Erika tend to your wounds first."
"But my pelts…" Anna winced, no doubt she was starting to feel the pain.
"Are safe. Nobody here would even dare look at them without my consent. Or yours." Mirja had to smile at the stubborn girl. "Just lay down."
"All right," Anna said, frowning. "Damn, he got me good, didn't he? Do you have to train them this well? I mean, I'm pretty sure he must be bigger than me."
"He is." Mirja scowled. "And if he ever pulls this again, he's not just out of a job, he'll be out missing his head as well."
Her eyes wide, Anna stared at Mirja. "Let's not overdo that part either. He was, after all, doing his duty. What if I had been an assassin?"
"You?" Mirja relaxed marginally. "Hardly."
"Don't underestimate me or anyone smaller in stature. At one point, there was a band of little kids in the mountains north of Ragunda who robbed travelers. They were lethal, just because everyone took pity on them and underestimated how callous they could be."
Mirja shook her head. "I know. I have heard of bands like that, though never around Birka."
Erika worked rapidly and soon she had bandaged Anna's temple and stitched the cut on her lower arm. To Mirja's astonishment, Anna hadn't even whimpered when the needle went through her skin. She hadn't expected Anna to be so resilient, but the girl seemed to take everything in stride.
When Erika was ready, she helped Anna sit up. "There we go. Feeling better?"
"Sore, yes, but better." Anna smiled wearily. "Thank you, Erika."
"Erica," Mirja said. "Have the boys bring in all the pelts here. I think Anna better remain sitting while I go over them."
Anna gaped and so did Erika.
"Of course, Madam." Erika hurried out the door.
Mirja rose and stirred the fired. Putting on two more logs, she returned to Anna and sat down next to her on the wide bench. "Why are you staring at me like that?" she asked after looking into Anna's big, brown eyes. "It is merely practical."
"It is? I would have thought you'd find it more practical if you had sent me back to the inn and told me to return another day." Anna was slurring faintly. Clearly the girl was talking in such an irreverent way due to hitting her head. "I mean, I'm taking up valuable time. That can't be good."
A tiny sensation of tenderness erupted in the pit of Mirja's stomach and she forced back a stunned gasp. What the hell was that about? She never allowed her softer side to show, let alone take her by surprise.
Anna sighed and suddenly leaned over, her head ending up on Mirja's shoulder. Without considering if it was advisable, Mirja held on to Anna with an arm around the shoulder, fearing the girl might fall over and hit her head again.
Anna looked up at her. "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Ever."
Katja looked up as someone blocked the setting sun and she could no longer see the oil lamps she was refiling. She was not above pitching in with all kinds of chores, especially at the oldest inn that were also her home. Frowning, she tried to make out the imposing outline of a person standing in the doorway.
"Madam Katja." The cool voice belonged to Nika—Katja would know et anywhere.
"Nika." Katja rose and put down the cannister holding the oil. "What can I do for you?"
"Nothing," Nika said dismissively. "I have a message from Madam Mirja."
Walking over to Nika and placing herself so she could see her facial expression, Katja wiped her hands on a cloth. As for Nika's expression, her face might as well have been completely hidden; it didn't suggest one single emotion. Or perhaps it did. Exasperation. "Yes? Katja placed her hands on her hips.
"The girl, Anna, will be spending the night at the fortress," Nika said, her voice matter-of-fact.
"Anna?" Katja tried to figure out the rea
son, but couldn't think of any, except the unexpected purpose that Mirja had taken a shine to the girl. That didn't make much sense either. Mirja kept her private life to herself, something that the inhabitants of Birka found a bit suspect. Normally, bedding a lot of individuals was a bragging point. When it came to Katja, she was more like Mirja regarding this matter. "Why?"
"She was attacked." Now Nika's expression changed into one of discomfort.
Katja moved without thinking, grabbing Nika's upper arms. "Attacked by whom? Where?"
Nika glanced at Katja's hands, then shifted her gaze to meet her eyes. "It was a misunderstanding. One of my guards thought Anna was going to assassin Madam Mirja. In his defense, she did pull a knife. Anna was going to use it on cutting the string around the pelts, but…" Nika shrugged.
"And so he tore into her? She's just a young girl!"
"For all he knew, and anyone else since she is new in Birka, she could have hidden plans."
"I see. So you're blaming Anna now, for you guard overreacting?" Getting angrier with each moment, Katja stepped closer still, not about to be intimidated by Nika's stature. "Is she all right?"
"She seems fine."
"Seems? If she was truly fine, then why can't she return to the inn?" Flinging her hands in the air, Katja took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "That doesn't make sense."
"She did get some cuts and bruises and Madam Mirja thought it better for her to rest up and be under the watchful eye of Erika. If she would deteriorate, Madam Mirja will send for her personal healer."
"Sounds like she was badly injured. Cuts where?"
Nika blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You said 'cuts and bruises'. Where?"
"Her temple and on the inside of her lower arm." Nika's voice took on a gentler tone. "Erika stitched her up and is keeping an eye on her."
"All right." Not sure how to react, Katja murmured the short words and self-consciously let go of Nika's arms. The tall blond was muscular in a sinewy kind of way and touching her had not been very clever. "I will bring some of her friends that she's close to and visit later tonight." It was not a question and Katja saw that Nika noticed this.
"I'm sure it is acceptable. I will let the guards by the moat know." Nika nodded and turned to leave.
"Wait." Katja spoke without thinking. "It is midday. Have you eaten?" Expecting Nika to scoff and stomp out of her inn, Katja regarded her with trepidation.
Nika pivoted and tilted her head as if she was trying to figure Katja out, or perhaps figure out where the catch was. Who could blame her? Normally they were barely more than cordial. Most often, they treated each other with sarcasm and disdain.
"To quote you," Nika said slowly. "Why?"
Katja shrugged. "Because you took the time to let me know about my temporary barmaid's condition. We would have worried."
Nika nodded. "Then I accept." She studied her own boots for a moment. "Thank you."
And those two words, not a jab at her, nor tinged with scorn, but spoken with something a little warmer than politeness, made Katja's heart flutter.
Nika sat down on the bench while one of Katja's barmaids brought her some food and offered her wine. Nika shook her head at the cup and asked for spring water instead.
Katja had taken a seat on the bench across from Nika and accepted some of the wine. Now she leaned her chin in her hand as she stabbed a piece of pork with her knife. "Now, I have a hard time believing you were simply in the neighborhood and dropped in at a whim to set my mind at ease regarding my barmaid and expert hunter."
Nika put her own knife down, staring at Katja. "Are you calling me a liar, Madam—"
"Just Katja. We're sharing a meal as equals here, so just call me Katja. It's ridiculous with all this madam business." Katja smirked.
"Very well. I am no liar, Katja. I was passing by, in a manner of speaking, and Madam Mirja is still quite busy tending to Anna. She suggested I'd let you know before you formed a search party."
"And why did Mirja think I would worry that much about someone I only know a few moons?" Sipping her wine, Katja then smiled over the rim.
"Mirja is under the impression that you're a caring person in general." Nika knew she made her statement sound like something of a character flaw. Katja's amused expression showed that she had picked up on that.
"Well, truth be told, Mirja isn't as hardnosed as her reputation suggests. Unless when she is, of course." Katja tilted her head. "You, Nika, have very few soft spots, I believe. You're hard edges and sharp angles. It enhances your beauty and I believe it is a well-practiced tactic."
Furious now, and feeling utterly exposed, which didn't sit well with her on any given day, Nika put the utensils down. "I believe I have overstayed my welcome." She pulled her gloves closer, meaning to don them, when Katja placed her much-smaller hand on hers.
"Please. I apologize for speaking out of turn. I should learn to mind my own business, but being an innkeeper, no matter how successful, means being subjected to gossip whether I like to or not." Katja squeezed Nika's weathered hand, not letting go even when Nika's hand began to twitch.
Nika studied Katja, wanting to understand where her words came from as she had never seen this woman look humble before. Honestly, Nika knew that being humble was not something she would recognize in very many people as it was a trait she didn't treasure. Humble people got used—and even killed, according to her way to view the world they lived in. But here she sat, allowing Katja to touch her hand. Her hand that had killed too many to count for her employer's sake. Katja was holding that hand as if it was like the dainty hand of a chief's spoiled daughter.
"Apology accepted," Nika managed to say before she pulled her hand back. "I confess that gossip can be useful even in my line of duty. It pays to keep your ear to the ground as you can pick up on the type of chatter that forestalls an attack or an assassination."
Katja blinked. "Really? I never thought of that way." She wagged her index-finger admonishingly. "Now, now. That doesn't mean I'm going to spy on my guests and report it to you." She hesitated. "Unless your life was in danger. Or Mirja's."
This was unexpected. Nika realized that Katja had mentioned her first in her potential scenario. Not Mirja or the elders. Her. "This is good to know." Nika ate some of her meal and when she finally looked up again- She saw Katja had finished her smaller meal and was again studying Nika.
"What?" Nika frowned.
"Can you fathom that this is the first time we've spoken like civilized individuals?" Katja chuckled. "After all this time, we can manage a civil conversation without bloodshed."
Nika had to smile. When Katja spoke facetiously, her eyes sparkled a bright blue, and her throaty voice pulled Nika in despite any attempts to keep her distance.
"Oh, my…" Katja stared wide eyed at Nika. "Another thing I never would have surmised."
"What?" Nika tried to adjust her face back to scowling, but it was difficult.
Katja blushed faintly. "How stunningly beautiful that you really are."
Anna sat up, looking around her in brief confusion. The room was large, the bed sat on a platform and she was quite comfortable despite her aching head and bruised ribs. Stretching carefully, she grimaced as pain shot through her right shoulder, but after rolling it gently, it was reduced to a dull ache.
"Ah. You're up." Mirja's voice startled Anna who looked around, trying to locate it.
"Yes. Thank you." Anna squinted toward the fireplace where the mistress of the fortress sat with a large dog at her feet. She was caressing the huge head and scratching behind the animal who looked adoring up at its owner. "How long did I sleep?" Anna tried to remember what her last memory was, but failed. Everything was hazy, and she surmised it was because of her head injury. Damn, that guard sure hit her full force.
"Not that long. It is time for our evening meal and I believe Madam Katja and her friends will join us. No doubt they want to check on you. I think my reputation have them believe I have tossed you in the dungeons." Mirja got up and approached the bed.
"Dungeons?" Anna felt her eyes grow wider. "You have dungeons?"
Mirja chuckled and sat down on the edge of the bed, which made Anna's heart pick up speed. "In a way. We have a vast cellar under the fortress with secret passages and hidden doors. I suppose that can be counted as a dungeon." She pushed Anna's hair out of her face. "Oh, my. That's quite the bruise."
"It doesn't feel too bad. I can get up and continue show you the pelts and—"
"No. You're staying right where you are. My healer says we should never take a blow to the head too lightly. He has seen head injuries take a turn for the worse long after the patient sustained them." Sternly, Mirja pointed to the pillows filled with fresh straw. "You're staying."
Blushing now, she could feel the heat in her cheeks, Anna slowly shook her head. "But I can't just lie around like this. My pelts, I need to make sure I sell every last one, or the people in Ragunda will suffer all through the winter and into next year…" A muted sob broke free and Anna clasped a hand over her mouth. "Besides, I'm clearly occupying someone else's bed."
"That's all right. The bed is mine. And about the pelts? Erika and I went through them together and I want all except two."
Anna stared in disbelief. "All but two?" That couldn't be true. Surely, she had misheard?
"That's right. There were two that were just as fine as the others, but their color suggested they'd make a beautiful cape for you—and perhaps a hat."
"That'd be like taking food out of the mouths of the children of Ragunda." Anna shook her head. "I could never do that."
Mirja tilted her head. "Somehow it dawned on me that you'd say that. So, I've ordered Erika to pay you for those as well, once we agree on a price." She ran her finger along Anna's jawline.
Anna shivered and couldn't believe her ears. "Are you certain? Why would you buy my pelts only to turn around and give me back two of them?"
"Because you would never indulge in anything for yourself. You seem to be made from a different cloth than most people. Ever since you came to Birka, you have showed utter selflessness. Do you realize how rare that is?" Mirja slid closer. "It is. Very rare."
Anna's thoughts raced. What was happening to her? The closer Mirja sat on the side of the bed, the more her body responded and in a way she had never felt before. She was no fool—Anna knew about the tension that could stir between two people. When it came to the clumsy advances made by farmer boys, or even hardened warriors, from her home village, she had never felt anything but indifference. Having Mirja sitting this close, touching her gently, made her thighs clench of their own volition and her mouth to go dry. "Mirja," she whispered, forgetting about the 'madam' part. "What are you doing? And whose bed is it?"
Mirja cupped her chin and ran her thumb across Anna's lower lip. "The room, and the bed, are mine. I had one of my men carry you here and then Erika and I tucked you in."
Only now realizing she was completely naked under the cover, Anna moaned. "Oh."
Mirja smiled lopsidedly and leaned in closer.
Mirja knew she found it too much fun and titillating to tease Anna. The girl clung to the covers, trying to cover her beautiful breasts. Thinking back, Mirja remembered when she used to indulge her every desire without giving it a second though. Men, women, it didn't matter. If she fancied them, she took them to her bed. After she was done, she discarded them, and if they had performed well, she even gave them a few coins and some food.
Here, in her own bed, sat the doe eyed creature that wouldn't leave her thoughts for long at a time, looking up at her with confused desire. That combination was seductive as hell and she wasn't quite sure how to handle it. The idea of using Anna like she had those former bedmates years ago, did not appeal to Mirja at all. For some reason, touching Anna's cheek with her fingertips gave her far more than an orgasm in the hands of a skilled, experienced lover.
"Mirja?" Anna whispered again and Mirja knew she ought to reprimand the young woman for speaking her name without the polite 'madam' first, but she liked the way the sound of Anna's voice made her tremble inside.
"Yes?" Mirja tilted her head.
"You're looking at me like…I mean…like nobody has done. Ever." Squinting, Anna's gaze travelled from Mirja's hair to her hands. "Why is that? Do you know?"
Damn. Of course, the girl had to be an innocent. This complicated things. Pulling back, Mirja jumped when Anna took her hand and placed its palm against her cheek that was damp with tears.
"Are you upset?" Mirja asked, aiming for sounding indifferent.
"No. Yes, I mean, a little." Anna squirmed. "I just don't understand what's going on."
"Would it help if I said I'm trying to figure it out as well?" Mirja was unprepared for her own, unfamiliar feelings, but couldn't bear to reveal too much.
"You are? That doesn't seem possible. You are so worldly, so sure of yourself. It doesn't make sense that someone like me, a simple country girl would have any kind of effect on you."
Mirja had to smile. "You're being too modest. You're hardly a simple country girl. You're an expert hunter with great skills when it comes to preparing furs."
"But is it those qualities in me that makes you have problems figuring things out?" Anna's brow knitted.
"Not only that." Mirja took Anna's hand in hers. "But imagining you on a hunt, focused, accomplished, combined with that innocent, trusting part of you, certainly is part of it."
Clinging to Mirja's hand, Anna looked into her eyes. She then did something completely unexpected and managed to shock the seasoned Mirja to no end. Raising Mirja's hand to her lips, Anna kissed the back of her hand tenderly, not taking her eyes off her.
Katja walked across the bridge leading up to the gate on the other side of the moat, which was now completely frozen over. Guards were placed five yards apart for as long as Katja could see, so security was clearly important.
A tall woman stood just inside the gate, one hand on the hilt of her sword, the other shading her eyes from the glaring sun. Nika. Katja's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the formidable warrior woman. How this imposing figure could hold such an allure was mindboggling.
"Hello, Nika," Katja greeted, raising our hand. Behind her walked Kotar, Yxi, Samilla, and young Noma.
"Madam Mirja bids you all welcome." Nika bent her head regally. "Anna is doing much better already and she and Madam Mirja is waiting for you in her private hall. Follow me."
Amused at how easily Nika gave orders to the four of them while motioning for Katja and her party to follow her.
Mirja's private hallway was vast by any measure, but Katja who had been to the fortress several times before, knew there was another, enormous hall that could easily accommodate two hundred people. Rumor had it that Mirja kept it to feed and house her own private army, but Katja didn't put too much stock in that gossip.
Anna and Mirja sat by the fire in two rustic chairs lined with fur. Looking pale, even in the golden light cast by the flickering fire, Anna still smiled brightly. "Madam Katja," she said and rose to her feet. This was apparently not very wise, as Anna began to wobble. Mirja stood hastily and grabbed Anna by the shoulder. "Easy there, now." Her voice was low and if Katja hadn't known better, she would've thought there was a tender tone to Mirja's words.
"Don't get up," Katja said and walked over to the two women. "You look better than I feared you would."
"I'm really all right. Just a bit sore." Anna held onto Mirja's arm. "Mirja and her healer have taken great care of me. Give me one more day and I'll be back serving mead." Anna nodded with emphasis, but looked like she regretted it immediately.
Servants brought more chairs like the ones Mira and Anna used. Without thinking, Katja sat down next to the chair where she surmised Nika could sit, wanting to know more about what had happened to Anna. Nika remained standing, however, and only when Mirja rolled her eyes, did the tall blond take her seat while looking uncomfortable.
Anna and Mirja retold the story of how the man had thought Anna to be an assassin and launched at her. "You could have been killed!" young Noma exclaimed. "Was he really that huge?"
"He was," Mirja responded. "And for the time being, he's guarding the north side of the moat."
"Really?" Katja shot Nika a look. "Is that his only reprimand? He could have killed Anna."
"If it had been up to me, I would have taken his life." Nika spoke with aplomb. "The way I see it, he forfeited his life when he assaulted a woman."
"I see." It was all Katja could muster. She had no problem envisioning Nika executing the man with her sword, not even pausing to think about it. Not for the first time did she wonder where Nika come from exactly and what her past had been like to forge a warrior as relentless as her as she was beautiful.
Servants came with spiced, warm wine, which gave even Anna some color in the cheeks.
"Madam Mirja," Noma said shyly. "May I go and explore some? I promise not to touch anything."
Mirja tilted her head, and something looking like intense longing flickered over her features. "Yes, if it is all right with your mother. Nika will guide you as it is quite easy to get lost in the fortress."
"I'll join you too, Noma." Katja stood next to Nika, ready to go with them. She gave Kotar a sign for him to remain behind. The way Kotar looked at Samilla showed it suited him just fine. Nika gave her a suspicious look, but then merely nodded as she motioned for Noma to walk ahead of them.
"Why did you want to peruse the fortress? You've been here before." Nika murmured as they strolled behind the child.
"To get a chance to spend some more time with you," Katja said and it amused her to observe how flustered Nika became.
Surely Katja was being factious? Nika could tell she was blushing as heat crept up from her neck to her cheeks. "I can't imagine why," Nika said, hoping she sounded aloof. The truth was, this woman unsettled her like no other person ever had, man or woman. Having led the life as a warrior ever since she was twelve, Nika had found the only way to survive was to keep her distance when it came to personal relationships.
"She's so curious," Katja said and smiled when she looked at Noma who was skipping along the corridor. "She's carved out a job for herself as my helper. Apparently, being my helper included dying for me, if required."
"The child knows what it takes to be a helper, I hear." Nika wanted to return Katja's smile, but couldn't. She found it to weaken her position as Mirja's next in command. She could befriend no one, or she may end up with multiple loyalties if Mirja's orders would contradict her own emotions.
Katja snapped her head sideways to face Nika. "Please, tell me you don't approve of the child thinking she'd have to throw herself between me and a raised sword."
"She wouldn't be a good helper if she thinks that way." Nika shrugged.
"Noma's child!" Katja sounded shocked.
"No more than I was when I began my training." Eager to convince Katja of her standpoint, Nika only realized after her words how much she had let slip.
"You started training at the age of eleven?" Katja looked astonished.
"No. I was nine. Approximately." In fact, Nika had no idea when she was born, or who her parents were. So many times during the years she had told herself she didn't even care—which made it almost true by now.
"Nine." Katja began walking to not lose sight of Noma. "That's very young."
"I've made it work." Nika set her jaw as Katja's soft voice didn't sit well with her. Her stomach clenched at the offer of sympathy. She couldn't have any of it. It would soften her and in the end, destroy her. She had witnessed this among the men and women under her command. As soon as they let someone into their heart, they lost the edge—and ultimately their life.
"I know you have. You've done very well and being Mirja's next in command proves that. You have nothing to prove to anyone else."
Startled that Katja showed such understanding and didn't push for details, Nika tried to change the topic.
"And what about you? When did you realize you wanted to become a highly successful innkeeper?" Nika hoped Katja would stay on the new track of their conversation. If she kept going, interrogating Nika, force her to open door to places in her mind that better stay closed, Nika knew she could end up with a broken heart.
"I had no idea where my life would take me, Nika." Looking over at Noma who was chatting with two children, Katja smiled wistfully. "I just knew I had to create a future for myself or I would end up like my mother, with eight children in ten years. I carved out a plan for myself and then took it one thing at a time." Katja sighed. "I'm not saying it was easy, or even to be recommended. I've sacrificed a lot, just like you must have, but when I see a girl like Noma, I still have hope that women can have the same opportunity as any man." Katja motioned with her hand in Noma's direction.
Nika felt something slowly unlock within her. She had faced men twice her size in battle, even if she was tall among most people. Stealing herself against the blood she'd spilled over the years had become second nature. Watching Katja talk about young Noma and take Anna in and give her a safe place to stay—merely out of the goodness of her heart, could easily break her. Random kindness was not something her old master had shown her. When she wasn't training, she was cooking, cleaning, and taking care of his horses and livestock. He fed her enough to have the strength to train and work, but nothing like the tasty food that was served at Katja's inns, or, for that matter, at Mirja's table.
"Nika?" Noma said, yanking her sleeve.
Jerking, her hand gripping the hilt of the sword, Nika looked wide eyed at the girl. "Yes?"
"Why are you sad?" Noma asked, her brow furrowing.
"I'm not sad." Nika took a step back. "Why do you think I'm sad?"
Katja's arm came around Nika's waist. Fearless, but with a world of compassion, she squeezed Nika gently. She leaned in and whispered, "Because you're crying."
Anna watched the tall man she found so hard to like, Kotar, excuse himself, probably not too happy to be left behind when Katja and Nika went on their tour with little Noma. He offered to show Samilla around and after a nod from Mirja, he ushered Noma's mother out the door.
Yxi had struck up a conversation with Erika who showed up to inform Mirja of the next meal and ask if their guests would stay. Once Mirja confirmed that they were, Yxi seized the moment and offered his assistance. Erika in turn blushed and motioned for her to accompany her to the kitchen area. This left Anna and Mirja alone again.
Sighing deeply, Anna slumped back in the chair. "I apologize. I'm still very tired." She blinked to get rid of the dry feeling in her eyes.
"Let me help you back to the bedroom." Mirja stood and assisted Anna as she wobbled to her feet. "I think you should have your dinner there."
"But—but I thought you…I mean, that I was going home to the inn with Madam Katja and the others?" Anna didn't know what to think.
"I think it's too soon. You've been sitting here a couple of hours and you're already exhausted." Mirja wrapped her arm around Anna's waist. "You need someone to sleep next to you and keep an eye on you. I understand that you're staying in a small room inside the inn's kitchen. What if you get worse? It would take everyone till the next day to find our and then even more time to fetch my or Katja's healer."
Anna nodded against Mirja's shoulder. "I just don't get why you take an interest at all. You're Mirja, the Viking queen, after all."
Mirja chuckled. "I'm no Viking. I trade during my travels and make business whenever the opportunity arises, but I don't steal, rape, or pillage. I'm sure you know the difference."
"I do. Of course, I do. I don't think that's why you have the reputation of being called the Viking queen. I think you've intimidated men and women while doing your business, which made them come up with that."
"I see." Mirja looked indifferent as she began to walk slowly, while still supporting Anna. "And now that you're getting to know me. How does the moniker compare?"
Feeling flustered—again—Anna cleared her throat. "I think half of it is true. The other half stems from envy."
"And which part, prey tell, is true?" Jutting her chin out, Mirja seemed ready to be disappointed.
"You being a queen." Anna took a firmer grip of Mirja's lower arm that curled around her from the front.
Halting for a moment, Mirja drew a deep breath. "Really?"
"Yes." Anna's head slumped sideways, ending up on Mirja's shoulder. As they reached the staircase, she reached for something to hold on to as she meant to pull herself up the steps.
"Wait." Mirja snapped her fingers and a male guard came running up to them. "Carry Miss Anna up to my room."
"Aye, Madam." The guard lifted Anna effortlessly and walked up the stairs in long strides. As they reached Mirja's room, he gently put her down and then bowed. "Can you manage now, Miss?"
"Yes. Thank you…?" Anna tilted her head as she looked at the blond, young man.
"Thank you, Ragnar." Anna smiled wanly at him before Mirja guided her into the room.
The bed was such a bliss, Anna was half asleep before she got settled. She looked up at Mirja who unfolded a blanket and wrapped it around Anna.
"You need some sleep now," Mirja said and smoothed the blanket down. "I will make sure you get your food here, as I mentioned. She rose as if to leave, but Anna, not thinking clearly from the fatigue, panicked and wrapped her arms around Mirja, holding on tight.
"D-don't go. Not yet." Anna's lips trembled. "Please?"
"Why?" Mirja asked, her voice sounding softer than before, or perhaps that was all in Anna's head.
Not sure how to explain her audacious words, Anna swallowed and told the truth. "Because it hurts so much when you leave."
Mirja stared at the pale young woman in the bed. Not entirely pale, though. Two red spots burned on the skin above Anna's cheekbones.
"Then, by all means, I will stay until you fall asleep. If I'm not back when you wake up, you can just ring that bell over there," Mirja said, pointing at a brass bell.
Anna's arms were still around Mirja's neck as she shivered. Thinking Anna was cold, as well as tired, Mirja pulled her into a mutual embrace. This was insane, but her own heart was thundering so loudly, she was certain Anna had to hear it.
"I know I'm being too forward," anna whispered against Mirja's neck. Her breath was warm, and it sent tremors through Mirja's body.
"You're hurt and tired. I think you're just being yourself as your normal politeness is peeled off." Mirja held Anna gently as she eased her down on the mattress. "Why don't I just sit here and hold your hand. If that is what you want?"
"The very least of what I want," Anna murmured, her eyes half closed. "Holding hands is nice, but I can imagine so much more. You're so beautiful."
Mirja lost her breath completely. What was Anna talking about? Yes, the girl hit her head, but there was no reason for Mirja to believe it had rendered her delusional. "You are the beautiful one, Anna, surely you must realize that." Anna's warmth and the kindness she showed people around her, added to her physical beauty.
"But…but you're more." Anna sighed. "You move like you have never been afraid in your life and the way you look at me, makes me think I might have the smallest chance to attract your interest one day. I know it's not probable, but miracles do happen."
Mirja wasn't sure what Anna meant. "In what respect to you wish for me to take an interest in you, Anna?"
"Oh," Anna said dreamily in a soft tone. "I want you to kiss me. I wish you could find it in your heart to—to…" Her head lolled to the side as Anna closed her eyes.
Mirja figured she would have to wait for Anna's explanation until the girl woke up again. Right now, Anna's full lips were half-open, and her breathing became slower and deeper with each passing moment. The chestnut colored hair flowed all over the mattress, tangled into the fresh straw the maids put into it every week.
Running her finger along Anna's generous jawline, Mirja mapped out the delicate features that created the stunning face before her. "I wish you could have told me what you really wanted."
Anna stirred. "Hm? Easy." She took a firmer grip of Mirja's hand. "I want you to be my first."
Mirja gasped and freed her hand. "What?" she murmured.
Anna's eyes opened into two slits. "Yes. I've stayed away from the village boys who only care to get their way with any girl that is willing. I never was and I knew how to defend myself." Anna sighed again. "It made me even less popular and I was considered stuck up. I convinced the elders that if I were to provide the villagers with meat…they needed to take care of those young men." Slurring again now, Anna curled up against Mirja's hip. She wrapped an arm around Mirja's hips and buried her face against her thigh. "Mm. You smell so good. Winter apples and spices."
"Oh, for the love of Oden." Mirja raised her gaze to the ceiling. "This isn't happening." How could Anna wish that of her? Did the girl truly mean she wanted Mirja to be her first lover? That had, as far as Mirja knew, never happened to her before. She had bedded many, but a virgin? Never.
"I never sch-said it was happening—only that it is what I want. You can't tell Mirja, though. She's the queen and I'm just a hunter and a peddler. I have to convince myself that it can never be and not allow myself to feel…you know…more…" Anna finally dozed off and Mirja sat there for a while to make sure Anna didn't wake up.
Never in her life had she been so startled. Very few people, men or women, dared to approach her in her current position in society. She was, and had been for years, untouchable.
Trust this openhearted woman to pierce through that and then promptly go to sleep. Mirja covered her forehead with an unsteady hand. What would happen when Anna woke up? Would she remember what she'd said to Mirja—or would it be gone in the haze after her head injury?
Katja walked back toward the hall where they had left Mirja and Anna, and the others. Nika was ignoring her now, striding in front of Katja with long, sure steps as if she was certain Katja wouldn't find the way back unless she showed her.
Noma walked next to Katja, looking worried. "Did I make Nika mad?" she whispered. "I didn't mean to."
"No, this has nothing to do with you. I think Nika is embarrassed for her tears and that she doesn't quite know how to handle that. I think it's best if we don't mention it right now. You understand, Noma?" Katja squeezed Noma's thin shoulder.
"Yes. It's kind of when I fall in front of any of your guards. I don't want them to think I'm a coward and that I cry every time I scrape my knee." Noma nodded.
"That's similar, at least." Katja smiled down to the little girl. "You're a wise little soul, aren't you?"
"Mother thinks I talk to much and dream to vividly." Noma wrinkled her nose. "I think you have to dream about big things—or you won't get even halfway there."
Katja laughed. "I think you're going to take over Birka when your mother, Kotar, Yxi, and I are old and grey."
"You really think so?" Noma beamed. "That's fantastic!"
Nika stopped at the door leading into Mirja's private hall. Turning to them, she said, "The hall is empty. Let me find out where the others are. Remain here." She didn't wait for a response, but strode off toward the door to the courtyard.
"Wonder if Anna is all right?" Noma's smile disappeared. "I mean, if she left and Madam Mirja is with her, that's not good, is it?"
"I'm sure she's just resting," Katja said. "Perhaps you can find out, Nika?" she asked, turning to the stern woman before her.
"I have other duties that need tending to. I am not about to—"
"Please? I can go with you." Katja wouldn't be discouraged. She turned to her staff and Noma. "You go back to the inn and keep things going. It's soon time to start preparing the evening meal. I'll return with news later."
"I hope she's all right." Noma blinked with damp eyelashes. "I want her to come home."
Katja refrained from pointing out that Anna wasn't going to stay at the inn forever as her home was in Ragunda, up north. "I'll be back soon," she repeated.
Nika stood rigid next to her as she gave Samilla a few last-minute instructions. When she was done, Katja turned to Nika, squaring her shoulders. "Fina. Take me to Mirja's quarters."
Without a word, Nika started up the broad stairwell. She used her longer legs to intimidate Katja, which the latter found exasperating. And yet there was another part of her that realized that Nika's attitude could have something to do with the brief moment of emotional connection between them earlier. As the entered the corridor on the second floor, Katja gripped Nika's upper arm gently. She understood this bold move could render her a decapitation, but all Nika did was stop and stare at her with shocked eyes.
"What do you want now?" Nika asked.
"I just want you to know that your statement earlier goes no further. I never gossip."
Nika blinked. "I…I appreciate that. I don't care for such confessions, especially not when delivered in a vulnerable frame of mind."
Katja smiled softly. "Sometimes we can all use a shoulder when we feel especially vulnerable."
"What? A shoulder?" Clearly Nika had no idea of the concept.
"Someone to lean on. You know, in private where no prying eyes will ever know. That's something I crave sometimes, but have yet to discover." Katja peered up at Nika, hoping she would get the message.
"Am I to understand that you have a desire to lean against my shoulder and unburden yourself?" Nika colored faintly.
Katja's heart picked up speed. Was this the moment she had been hoping for lately? Was it? She had to find out. "I suppose I do." It was her turn to come down with a case of hot cheeks. "To be honest, Nika, there are so many things I desire when it comes to you."
Nika could hardly breathe. This…this woman! She wanted to shove Katja aside, treat her as roughly as she would any man standing in her way. Normally, Nika wouldn't bother with what anyone thought of her, but the idea of extinguishing the soft light in Katja's eyes seemed impossible.
"Like what?" Nika asked, not sure she truly wanted to know what Katja referred to when she said, "so many things I desire when it comes to you."
"I would tell you if I didn't feel so sure it would be entirely one-sided." Katja looked sadder with each word. "It's not a matter of pride, not at all. More like self-preservation."
This gave Nika pause. To her, Katja was the type of person who seemed indestructible. Not physically, of course, but her inner power seemed fortified with the type of armor that very few people possess. It had to be one of the reasons Katja had remained her own person, independent in a world where the superior physical force of men ruled supreme. "Don't," Nika managed before her voice betrayed her and she had to clear her throat.
"Don't what?" Katja raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Don't feel it's one-sided, because it's not." Nika couldn't believe her own voice creating such words. This made her vulnerable again and she hated it. Tensing, she feared her rigid body might shatter if Katja now said the wrong thing. If she triumphed or laughed, if it had all been a trick, she would kill the woman before her instantly.
Instead, Katja's eyes became impossibly softer, her eyelids heavier as she leaned in closer. "Nika." She raised a tentative hand and ran her fingertips along Nika's jawline. "That makes me so relieved. It has been quite a lonely feeling to harbor this…this fondness for you and think it could never be reciprocated. I'm not pushing you, don't think that, but I can't deny what hope you have given me by letting me just a little bit closer."
Nika relaxed marginally. So, it wasn't a trap. This didn't mean it was something Nika wanted, or that it was right for her, but to know Katja, well, cared, was miraculous. There was simply no other word for it. "I'm not certain…I mean, you won't feel the same once you know everything about me." Nika took a step back, pressing her back against the wall. The rocks chilled through her armor, sending shivers down her spine.
"Nika. You've lived a hard life to survive." Katja moved in closer and now Nika had nowhere to go. "I know you have no reason to trust me since we really don't know each other, but I don't think you see me as a liar or a manipulator. And I happen to think that beneath your austere and brusque persona hides a very honorable person. I guess Mirja knows the same, since she wouldn't keep you as her next in command if she thought differently."
Nika hated, hated, how treacherous tears threatened to spill over. She blinked furiously to keep them from falling and they clung to her lashes. "You can't talk to me like this." Katja's touch scorched her.
"How do you mean?" Looking up at Nika, Katja slid her hand down to cup her left shoulder.
"Like you care enough to see some strange future in a—a friendship." Nika clenched her fists hard, dead set not to grab Katja and shove her up against the wall. It was almost impossible.
"But I do. Not sure about it being only about friendship though." Katja's cheeks reddened. "If it was about friendship alone, we wouldn't feel this torn up, agreed?"
"Katja," Nika rumbled in caution. "Careful…"
"Answer me," Katja demanded softly. She didn't take her eyes off Nika, but held her gaze as she stepped so close, their bodies touched.
"I warned you." Nike moved fast and pressed Katja against the stone wall.
Katja gasped. Clinging to Nika's upper arms for support, she tipped her head back. Sliding her hands further up, she wrapped her arms around Nika's neck. "Now you've gone and done it, Nika," she said, her voice shaking.
Nika winced and was about to back off when Katja held on harder.
Pulling Nika firmly against her, Katja smiled with what seemed like every star in the sky glimmering in her eyes. "That's right, Nika. Now you have to kiss me."
Anna sat up in bed and to her relief she felt so much better. Her head was not pounding she felt something warm and soft against her back. Turning her head, she gaped at the sight of Mirja sleeping with an arm around Anna's waist.
"Finally. I thought I would need to bring the gong-gong master in here to hit the brass plate." Mirja smiled crookedly. "Actually it pleases me to see your color having returned to your face. You had me worried."
Anna cleared her throat. "I did? I mean, I didn't mean to." Nor had she ever, despite her avid imagination, thought Mirja, the unofficial queen of Birka, would worry about her.
"Silly girl." Mirja pushed Anna's hair from her face. "You must know I hardly take care of just any random hunter like I have with you. That should tell you something." Mirja got up on her elbow and leaned in over Anna.
"I wouldn't presume to know what your motives can be," Anna whispered nervously. "I can only judge what I feel myself."
Her eyes darkening, Mirja pushed her fingers into Anna's hair and held on to a fistful of strands. It didn't hurt, but it was enough to make Anna's stomach lurch. "And what do you feel, young Anna?" Mirja asked, her lips tense.
"I already told you," Anna said. "I care for you and I want to be yours. I don't know very much about how you feel about that, or me. You have all the power, here in Birka, and when it comes to me. It's quite scary, actually."
Mirja's lips seemed lusher and softer. "That's where you're wrong. You may find this hard to believe, but you are the one with the power here. I can command you to be my mistress, that is a given, but as I would hate for you to feel pressured and coerced, the decision is solely in your hands. And such strong hands." She kissed the knuckles of Anna's right hand. "This is the truth."
"Mira." Anna's voice hardly carried. "Are you telling me that you're comfortable with letting me define our…er…relationship?"
"I am. It must be done this way. Surely you can understand that? If I'm to trust in how you feel, you have to come to me willingly and without regrets. And if you do, I will send a messenger to Ragunda with the goods and coins you were going to bring them. If you decide to be mine, you're not leaving Birka. Not without me by your side. That is non-negotiable."
Anna shuddered. Mirja sounded so final and stern, but she could also read something resembling uncertainty. "If the courier can be trusted, then I'll be happy to stay with you. I do have to go back to the inn and work off my debt to Madam Katja though. She's been very generous to me. I owe her for putting me up."
"I will pay her for you." Mirja spoke carelessly and Anna frowned.
"That's a terrible idea," Anna said. "We cannot start any type of relationship with you paying for me as if I'm a whore you can buy and sell. I will go back and settle my own debt to Madam Katja. Once I'm done, I will return here and remain by your side for as long as you'll have me."
Mirja drew a trembling breath. "Very well. How may days will this take?"
Anna caressed Mirja's cheek, amazed that she was allowed to do so. "Only two days, Mirja. Two days before I can come back and be yours. In the meantime, you can arrange for the courier and have the profits of my sale delivered to the elders of Ragunda."
"Agreed." Mirja leaned in closer and pressed her lips to Anna's. Not hesitating, she parted Anna's lips and slipped her tongue inside.
Anna had never been kissed this way. It was as if her blood rushed to hear head and then fell through her body and gathered between her legs. She pressed closer to Mirja and wrapped her arms around her neck, holding her tight. "Mm. Again," she murmured against Mirja's lips. "You taste so good…"
"And you are intoxicating," Mirja groaned and shoved her hand in under Anna's undergarment. Slightly cold, they drew patterns across her stomach and then shot up and cupped her aching breasts.
The sudden noise from the courtyard outside, men calling out and the sound of several horns blaring made Mirja sit up abruptly. Rushing over to the door, she yanked it open and called out into the corridor. "Report!"
"Madame Mirja," Anna heard Nika call out. "The fort is under attack!" She came running into the room, Madam Katja right behind her. "We need to keep you safe in here while we fight them attackers off."
"Do we know who they are?" Mirja asked and clearly disregarded Nika's attempts to keep her safe and out of reach for the ones trying to breech the security measures around the fortress.
"I think it is that southern band trying their usual attempt, but I'm not sure yet." Nika tried to keep Mirja from leaving, but she pushed Nika aside and opened the chest by the foot of the bed. Pulling out metal armor and chainmail, she motioned for Nika to assist her.
"I'm not hiding inside while some brutes try to steal what's mine." As if the last words gave her pause, Mirja looked over at Anna. "You stay here. You're still not entirely well."
"Not a chance." Anna stood and looked around for her clothes. Finding them folded on the bench beneath the shutters to the window, she pulled them on, not caring that she was disobeying a direct command by the woman who ran Birka. "You need all hands to pitch in. Don't forget that I'm an expert archer." Anna pulled on her boots, and stared challengingly at Mirja. "Show me where to set up and send someone with my bow and arrows."
Mirja smile wanly. "Very well. You're obviously not about to change your mind, but you and I must talk this through later. That's something you have to promise."
"I promise." Anna walked up to Mirja and pressed her lips to her cheek, mindful of the surprised looks Nika and Katja gave each other.
The horns blared again, this time in a pattern that proved the enemy was at the gates and they were close to getting invaded. Mirja turned to Nika. "Get Anna set up. Keep Katja near you and don't let her get hurt. This town needs her too much."
"Same goes for you," Katja said darkly. "You know I can fight," she said to Nika. "Give me a sword."
Nika had paled briefly, but now nodded and nudged at Katja and Anna. "We need to go by the armory. There you can pick out your weapons. What will you do, Madam Mirja?"
"I'll go find out more from the head of the guards in the courtyard. Also, we need someone to get word to the elders of Birka about what's going on." Mirja hurried out the door and Anna thought she would shatter when she couldn't see her anymore.
As they ran toward the armory, Anna hoped she wouldn't let anyone down when going into battle. She wasn't kidding herself. It would be something entirely different to aim at a human being, rather than at an animal. Still, she knew she wouldn't hesitate if any of her new friends were in danger.
For Mirja, Anna realized she would take on an army if it meant there was a chance to keep the woman she loved alive. No harm could ever come to the amazing woman that held Anna's heart.
Katja ran behind Nika, while keeping an eye on Anna. She looked all right, but it wasn't that long ago that she had been forcefully slammed into by Mirja's over zealous guard. Now the young woman seemed tense and eager to do her part in keeping the attackers at bay.
"Here. Go pick out your weapons. I'll take you to the area where you will be able to overlook the entire courtyard." Nika pointed into a vast storage area where everything from swords and axes, to spears, lined the walls. Katja spotted other, less common weapons, like sticks linked to chains and then ending up in a spiky looking metal balls. Grabbing a sword that would fit a woman of her size and strength, she saw Nika take an impressive axe as she was already carrying a sword.
Anna found a bow that was three-quarters her height and slung it over her shoulder together with a double quiver. She also grabbed a crossbow, examining it rapidly, a smile spreading on her face. Katja hardly recognized the soft-spoken girl as she readied herself for battle next to the other women.
They all put on thick leather armor, heavy enough to make Katja's knees buckle, but she remained at her feet, grateful for the protection it provided. Helmets, albeit a bit too big, would keep their heads as safe as possible.
Running toward the courtyard, Nika stopped Anna as they reached the large door. "You need to climb the stairs to the east turret. That's where most of them will attack from, but don't let them catch you from behind. Some will try raising ladders and since the ice has settled on the moat, we can't be sure nobody has circled the fortress.
"Got it." Anna turned and headed for the stairs, not looking back. Katja's heart clenched the thought what Mirja would do if any harm came to the young woman. Then Nika opened the door, and the sound of hollering men and women, together with the all-to-familiar one of swords clashing behind the drawbridge, made Katja forget everything but the battle they were facing.
"With me," Nika barked and ran toward the drawbridge. A repetitive thundering sound told Katja that the enemy was using a battering ram. Like thunder, it hammered in slowly, but persistently at the thick wooden structure. It looked impenetrable, but if the log they used outside was big enough, and the men strong enough, it was only a matter of time. Katja had once been staying at a Germanic castle while on one of her journeys, which had been under siege by Danes, and it took them half a day to break through. They never let up and kept switching the men working the battering ram to keep them from tiring. Eventually, Katja had escaped through tunnels along with her host and his family. The family never returned to the castle, which was no inhabited with said Danes who worked the land and harvested the grapes from its vineyards.
"Flank me, but remain back." Nika glanced quickly over her shoulder, her thin braids on the right side of her face whipping through the air. "We're going outside."
"Outside?" Katja steeled herself at the idea of jointing the enemy where they would be outnumbered.
"Yes. We cannot afford for them to take the fight into the fortress. We must bring as many men as we can and use the secret exits."
So, they weren't going alone. Thank Odin. "All right. Lead the way."
Nika placed her thumb and index finger into her mouth and gave a piercing series of whistles. It penetrated the commotion and twelve men joined them, only casting passing glances at Katja. "Sir." The leader among the men, a dark-skinned man with curly, black hair, stood ramrod straight before them.
"Toke." Nika nodded and explained her plan to take them outside. "We need to take out the men behind the battering ram and then engage their replacements while Katja sets the ram on fire."
Katja blinked. The planned depended on her? It would take a while to get a fire going, let alone, set the ram ablaze.
"Yes, sir." The man clearly took Nika's words at face value. He turned and walked over to the women who had pots boiling by the inner wall. Digging in under the large pots with his sword, he scraped out some smoldering coal. Taking a metal bowl from the closest woman's table, he pushed the coal inside and added some oil to it. "There you go, Madam Katja. Guard it well until you run it along the battering ram." He also gave her one of the torches that burned on either side of the door to the hallway. "And this. Use it to stoke the fire once you've used the coal."
"Understood." Katja gripped the handle for the bowl, glad she was wearing gloves as it was getting hot.
Nika motioned for them all to join her. They passed Mirja with some of her lieutenants in the middle of the courtyard. She looked up briefly, but returned her focus on the man closest to her. No doubt, Katja thought, Mirja knew what Nika's plan was. She glanced up and thought she saw a small figure run along the wall toward the turret on the east side.
Something passed right next to Katja, nearly setting her hair on fire. An arrow, dipped in oil and set on fire, burrowed into the shoulder of the man behind her, sending him to the ground, screaming in agony.
"Faster," Nika yelled and glanced upward. "More fire-arrows are coming."
Katja ducked and ran faster. The sword, which was now strapped to her back, swung hard against the back of her legs as she followed Nika. Her assignment weight heavily on her, but she was determined to do her part. She would help stop the enemy from entering the fortress—or die trying.
Nika couldn't afford to stop and check on Katja and her heart ached for it. Shoving these personal, and highly distracting, feelings aside, she made her way to the hidden doorway leading outside. She glanced up at the wall surrounding the courtyard and caught glimpsed young Anna run toward the turret Nika had assigned her to.
More fire arrows rained over them and Katja yelped behind Nika. She saw sparkles rain on the magnificent auburn hair and Nika patted it down without stopping. "We'll be at the door soon. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be. This is not my first party," Katja said, her lips thin. "Just be careful."
The clear concern Katja's voice relayed warmed Nika in an unfamiliar, disturbing way. "Caution can be wise, but also get your killed," she hissed. "Keep behind me. Most of all, keep the fire and oil ready."
"I will keep the fire safe, but I won't remain behind you." Katja moved up along Nika's side as they reached some vine covered area in the wall. As it was an evergreen, it covered the secret door, and Nika opened it easily as it was well maintained. Glancing outdoor, Nika tugged at Katja.
"Get your sword ready." Nika held her sword in her right hand and an impressive dagger in her left. "They'll be coming at as with everything they have once they spot us."
The two women snuck out the door and Nika kicked it shut after them. She could tell that Katja examined the wall quickly. It was not possible to identify the secret door's location, let alone open it from the outside without knowing exactly how. So, this was the point of no return as they were not going back into the fortress where they went out.
Nika crouched and ran bent over along the wall, just inside the moat. She didn't have to turn her head to know Katja was right behind her. She was going to ponder the significance of this new sense later. Right now, she had to perform her duty to Madam Mirja and keep the people living and working in the fortress, and, ultimately, in Birka, safe.
She spotted the main gate where a band of thugs, there were no other words for this particular band of Danes. They had attempted to take the fortress once before and were now attempting again, this time with a vast battering ramp. Nika's heart sank. It was indeed huge. She didn't think Katja's fire and oil would do the trick.
"Damn." Katja echoed her thoughts. "I think we need more oil. Once it catches fire, it'll spread."
"Any suggestions?" Nika asked, her own mind coming up with one scenario after another, but discarded them just as quickly.
"Let me think." Glancing around them, Katja bit into her lower lip. Then her eyes lit up and a devilish gleam made them go bright blue. "Can you keep an eye on them and stop anyone that looks like they're about to follow me? And yes, hold the fire going?"
"Yes, but what—"
"No time to explain, Nika." Katja put down the oil and fire by the wall. "Just give me a moment and I'll be back with what we need." She turned to leave, but then pivoted back, flinging herself into Nika's arms. "I'm sorry. Just in case we don't—we don't see each other again, I have to do this." She pressed her lips onto Nika's, pressing her tongue inside Nika's mouth.
Shocked, but feeling as if this onslaught coincided in a strange way with the feeling she got before going into battle, Nika held Katja hard against her for a few, fleeting moments. Then Katja broke free, smiled blindingly at her and then she was gone.
Mirja strode along the wall, pushing women and children toward the entrance to her fortress. Normally they lived in the small dwelling housed inside the wall facing west. Her father had designed the courtyard that way, keeping his staff as safe as possible. The dwellings were built in two stories with ladders reaching the top ones. This made the wall twelve ells wide in some places.
Now children scurried up and hid in the top dwellings, pulling the ladders up and into the fur-covered holes just as they had practiced, this to avoid the enemy to climb up and slay them.
"Madam Mirja," Erika gasped and pulled at her arm, something nobody did and went unpunished. "You need to get inside. Please, Madam. It sounds like they're going to break through the drawbridge gate at any time."
"Calm down, Erika. Get the women from the kitchen into the inner rooms and barricade it from the inside. I want you to be safe when we take these bastards down."
"But—" Erika stopped when Mirja only shook her head.
"Yes, Madam." Erika ushered the nervous women inside.
When Mirja saw the least of the fortress' most vulnerable inhabitants be taken indoors, she pulled her sword and was just about to cross the courtyard to get her horse, when a fire arrow singed the fur on her left shoulder. Glancing up, Mirja squinted at the pale sky, trying to judge where the next might hit. She was once again relieved that her fortress was built from less combustible material. Any wooden structure would have been irreparable set on fire during a fire arrow onslaught.
A fluttering shock of chestnut hair made Mirja draw a deep breath as she gripped her sword harder. Anna was up on the wall, busy shooting off arrows against the enemy. She switched between her bow and a crossbow at such a speed that Mirja guessed she had a young man up there bringing her fresh arrows. Mirja knew Anna was a skilled hunter, but it was something entirely different to fire at human beings and yet the girl showed no hesitation.
An inner voice suggested that Anna was this fiery since she was protecting Mirja and her property, but she couldn't be sure.
"Madam! They're through the outer layer of wood!" A vaguely familiar voice that sounded like Yxi, Katja's subordinate.
"Why are you still here?" Mirja asked, her voice cropped.
"Samilla, Noma, and I ran back to the fortress when we spotted the men heading this way. Kotar headed for the village to warn the elders. He will gather the ones who can fight to hold the line between the fortress and Birka. Most houses are made of wood, as you know, and they can't withstand the fire arrows like this place." His freckled face was pale and tense. "I sent Samilla and Noma inside before I joined the guards by the gate."
"Very well." Mirja told Yxi the abridged version of Nika and Katja going off to try and outsmart the Danes. "My archers are up on the walls, and so is Anna." She pointed at the relentless young woman that tirelessly used her bow against the enemy."
"By the power of Tor, that's…and she was just injured?"
"I know." Mirja ignored the searing pain in her midsection as the image of the unconscious Anna flickered through her mind. "We just have to hold them off until Nika's plan proves successful."
Yxi looked like he was going to ask, "What if it doesn't?" but seemed to think better of it. He nodded briskly. "What can I do?"
"Get my horse ready. If all else fails, I'm going to take my men outside and run the bastards down." Her jaw hurt as she couldn't seem to relax it enough.
"Pray to Valhalla that you don't have to risk your life that way, Madam Mirja," Yxi said with emphasis. "If something would happen to you, Birka will just be any average town without you here."
Giving Yxi a wry smile, Mirja nodded. "Quite the compliment. But for now, my horse. It's the black—"
"The enormous black stallion we've seen you ride almost every day, Madam. Yes." Yxi scurried off toward the stables, his stocky form moving much faster than she would have ever thought possible.
Mirja looked up at the young woman that had stolen her heart in just one day. This was like being eaten by fire, watching Anna fight for her by risking her life up in the turret. If Anna was further injured, or worse, lost her life, Mirja wouldn't rest until she had hunted down every single one of the ones attacking her fortress. Not to mention the person who sent them here in the first place.
As Yxi came running alongside Dragon and another, smaller, horse, Mirja pressed a hand to her chest, emphasizing the vow of vengeance she had just made. Mounting Dragon, she pulled the reins tight and felt him become one with her. Next to her, Yxi jumped up on grey horse he had obviously brought for himself.
"I'm loyal to Madam Katja," he said gruffly, "but in her absence, you have my promise of temporary service if you accept it."
"I do." Mirja directed Dragon to cross the courtyard. Her horse didn't even blink when the fire arrows landed around them. Having donned her helmet, Mirja rode along the wall, looking for weaknesses in their defense.
She wanted nothing more than to look up to find Anna, but refused to lose focus that way. It was enough that her heart was as filled with ice as the moat around the fortress. She couldn't afford to let everyone down as she knew full well that she was all that stood between the enemy and Birka.
Running bent over to not attract attention from the Danes, Katja hurried toward Birka. At the outskirts of town, smaller longhouses belonging to farmers were located, but her goal was not one of them, but, Vidar, the baker residing further in toward town.
She had all her bread that she served at her inns baked in the respective kitchens, but she knew this baker along the road was popular for his innovative style. One of the ingredients he used was oil. She had visited him when she was having guests from the south of the continent, needing more bread than her own cooks could provide. Vidar had showed her around and one thing she remembered was his vast storage filled with barrels of oil.
"What's happening, Madam Katja?" a young, male voice asked and Katja glanced to her side where she ran. Mikel, one of the young farmers, were running next to her, his expression concerned.
"Danes are attacking the fortress. If they succeed, all of Birka will be extremely vulnerable. Can you gather some of your farmhands and assist me?"
"Hell, yes, Madam." Mikel nodded briskly. "I can round up eight from my farm and twice that from my neighbors, perhaps more."
"Get them to meet me at Vidar, the baker. I'll explain everything. But hurry, there isn't much time." Katja watched the young farmer scurry off to of the humble longhouses. She had run so far now she could see the baker's house. Katja's legs were burning and she knew they were going to ache and tremble when she stopped running. Hating feeling so weak, she told herself she was doing this for the people of Birka and the fortress that protected them, but she knew she was also doing it for Nika. Katja was no fool. If she couldn't provide help, all that stood between the onslaught of Danes were Nika and her men. And Nika would lead the attack and be the one pierce by a spear of a sword before anyone else. That simply couldn't happen.
Vidar stood on the doorstep to his bakery, squinting toward the fortress. Faint noise of the battering ram could be heard. "Madam Katja? You look like you've running from a wraith. Please, take a seat and calm yourself."
"No time. Your neighbors are on their way here and we're going to have to take as much as we can carry of your oil. The future of Birka and the fortress is at stake."
"My oil?" Looking surprised rather than worried, Vidar frowned. "Something's up at the fortress, I can tell, but how can my oil make a difference?"
Katja explained her controversial plan to him. "You will be reimbursed by me, and by Madam Mirja, for your oil." Katja placed a hand on his shoulder. "Please, Vidar."
"You can have as much as you want. If Birka falls, or the fortress, I will have no use for the oil anyway since I'll be dead." Shrugging, Vidar headed into the storage and began rolling out the barrels. They were not bigger than for a man or strong woman to carry them. Katja hurried into the storage shed as well to help him. She had been right before, her legs did ache and tremble, but she clenched her teeth and kept going.
Soon, men and women from the neighboring houses were there and they loaded a low cart with the oil barrels. Katja would have given everything to be able to ride over to the fortress, but she couldn't take the time to have someone fetch a horse, and besides, they wouldn't be as inconspicuous when crossing the fields if anyone among them had bee propped up on a horse.
The cart rolled easily over the uneven fields when pulled and pushed by strong farmhands and farmers. Katja counted to thirty-two men and twelve women, not counting herself, and was glad that the people of Birka were ready to protect not only their town but also the fortress that stood between them and the enemy.
When they neared the fortress, Katja, who was at the front, leading the way, stopped them by raising her fist. She scanned the wall of the fortress, looking for Nika while her heart raced so fast, she felt dizzy for a moment. Then she spotted long, blond hair under a helmet and knew Nika had trusted her enough to remain out of sight for the Danes. A quick glance in the enemy's direction showed they were still hammering away with the battering ram, but she couldn't tell how much they had managed to destroy from this distance.
"We're going to circle over to Nika, Madam Mirja's next in command. It's important that everyone keeps low enough for the shrubbery to hide us. If the Danes see us, we lose the element of surprise."
"You're in charge, Madam Katja," Mikel said, and the other men nodded. Most of them were not about to let a woman be in charge, normally, but Birka was different in the sense that two strong women were among the wealthiest and most influential. Katja usually didn't ponder the fact, but now she was grateful for their support as it would've taken way too long it they were going to fight for domination as well.
They circled over to the fortress, aiming for the spot guarded by Nika. The cart got stuck twice, but fifty pairs of hands pushed it free and eventually they reached the wall. Katja couldn't wait, but hurried over to Nika who had just turned around, her sword ready to plunge into the belly of a Dane, or decapitate him.
"It's me, Nika!" Katja stopped in front of Nika, gasping for air after struggling to brave the field twice. "I brought enough oil to keep the Danes at bay until Mirja's soldiers are prepared to engage them."
"How much oil?" Nika peered over Katja's shoulder.
"Twenty barrels. I figured it could be used to keep the Danes away rather than to actually destroy the battering ram. If we keep it oiled and on fire, they won't be able to hold on to its handles—not without sustaining terrible burns to their hands. If we can drive them back, that will give Mirja enough time to open the gates and let her soldiers out to fight. As it is now, the risk of the Danes pushing inside the fortress is far too great."
Nika nodded slowly. "You're right. It's a good plan. We have a lot of oil in the fortress, but we can't get word to them—at least not for an entire plan to work out." She squeezed Katja's shoulders gently. "You're amazing. So brave."
Katja turned her head and leaned her cheek to Nika's glove. "Let's make the most of out attack. I could get fond of all this tactical reasoning."
Snorting softly, Nika motioned for the famers to come closer. Katja looked at her mixed band of makeshift soldiers. They had brought their own weapons, which mean everything from swords and daggers, to hay-forks, axes, and slings. She had seen some of the younger men, barely more than boys, collect the right size stones on the fields they crossed, to fit their slings.
"All right," Katja said quietly. "Listen up. This is Nika. She's going to explain our plan. We'll only have one chance, so pay attention." She felt Nika's hand in the small of her hand. Katja vowed to make sure this wasn't the last time Nika touched her.
Anna – photo
Anna's arm ached, but she kept firing one arrow after another that some nameless young boy handed her, trying to make everyone count. She forced herself to disregard that she was aiming for human beings, but at the same time, she kept in mind that this was the enemy. An enemy she'd heard of many times. The Danes would rape, maim, and kill and basically destroy everyone in the fortress, and then, no doubt, move on to Birka.
Trying not to fret about Mirja and where she might be at any given moment, Anna fired an arrow at the neck of a tall, burly man. He staggered back, tearing the arrow from his neck, where blood gushed from his body with each heartbeat. Before he even hit the ground, Anna had the next arrow ready to be fired.
"We're running low, Madam," the boy behind her called out over the noise of the battle. "I have to go down and—" His voice was cut short and Anna turned her head to ask him to repeat his words. The fire arrow had burrowed deep into his unshielded body and the boy, probably ten or eleven years old, lay far too still. Swallowing the threatening bile, Anna saw the archer next to her was also dead. His quiver was half full and she yanked it toward her. Refusing the emotions that billowed just beneath where tears are born to gain momentum, Anna aimed and fire, aimed and fired.
She wasn't sure how long she had been up there at the turret, when she noticed a different type of commotion beneath her. Carefully glancing over the edge, she could see Nika and Katja lead a large group of men and women that seemed to consist of townspeople and farmers. Soon, barrels of oil gushed over the Danes and the battering ram. A flame erupted in Katja's hands and soon the vast log and the closest Danes were on fire. Piercing screams tore through the smoke and then Anna heard the draw bridge going down. Gaping, she saw Mirja emerge, flanked by Yxi and another man and followed by the soldiers that lived at the fortress.
Anna put the bow down, knowing she couldn't risk firing any of her remaining arrows in the smoke as she might hit one of her friends, or Mirja's soldiers.
Men and women cried out, in pain or from bloodlust, and it seemed to be over faster than Anna could imagine. When the ones of the Danes still alive retreated to their boats, followed by the soldiers, Anna's knees gave in. She slowly sank down along the wall and pulled the boy who had served her arrows so diligently, into her arms. She held him like a mother would and hummed a song that someone in her childhood had sung. Tears streamed down her face and she wondered who would tell this child's mother that her son was dead. If he even had a mother. So many children, like Anna herself, was orphaned very early in life. His potential loneliness tied into her own and suddenly she was transported back to the days when she had been along and hungry enough to desperately learn how to hunt. This child would never find his own way, never find himself a new family, or learn of his future.
"Anna?" Mirja's voice reached her. "Anna. Are you injured?"
"No. Not a scratch." Anna looked up at the woman who had come to mean so much to her. "Not even a bruise. But, this boy, this little boy…" She wept again, holding on so tightly to the child, they had to pry her hands off him.
"Let us take care of him now. He's one of the orphans that stay here at the fortress," Mirja said softly. "We'll let their matron know what happened. Come on. We'll meet up with Katja and Nika down on the courtyard and see what we can do for the wounded. What do you say?" Cupping Anna's cheek, Mirja bent and pressed her lips to her forehead.
"Wounded?" Anna frowned. "Yes, of course there must be wounded. I'll come and help. I—I need to. I must."
"Thank you, Anna." Mirja pulled her up. "You helped keep them off long enough for Katja to bring the oil from the village baker. I don't think I've ever seen anyone, man or woman, fire a bow like you do." Mirja spoke in a light voice as they made their way down the narrow stairs. "It was like you were in trance and I have never been prouder. You helped save women from unbearable violations and the men and children from certain death."
"Except him. The kid handing me arrows."
"He was unlucky. I'm sorry about that." Mirja placed her arm around Anna's shoulders. "It's a hard life for orphans, but at least the ones that live here have some semblance of childhood and play when there are no enemy at the gate."
"That's good," Anna whispered.
They reached the courtyard. To Anna's surprise, she was soon surrounded by her new friends at Katja's inns and even Nika. The latter placed a strong hand on Anna's shoulder and squeezed. "You are an amazing archer, Anna."
Anna merely nodded. Then she was hugged by Katja, Samilla, and Noma, all at the same time. Yxi came up to them, still on horseback.
"Madame Mirja. We followed them and made sure they got on their boats. I think we reduced their numbers to a dozen. Nika and I decided to post guards at a larger perimeter as well as the ones by the moat."
"Good thinking." Mirja motioned for the area where the wounded moaned and cried. "I think we have a duty to fulfil. After everyone has been seen to, I'll have Erika deliver food to everyone."
"Sounds even better," Yxi said and demounted the horse. "I'll go volunteer carrying stretchers. Fortunately, we did a lot more damage to them than they did to us."
Anna followed Mirja and the others. Everywhere she saw blood and broken or severed limbs. She threw herself into the chores, guided by the woman who oversaw taking care of the sick and wounded at the fortress. Choosing to focus on this task, much like she had done with the bow earlier, Anna pushed back her fear and emotional pain. There would be time to let it all sink in and cry later.
Mirja's body ached more than she cared to admit. Having hauled injured people on and off gurneys or horses the entire afternoon and late into the evening took its toll on all of them, but since she was the oldest, she supposed it was the reason.
Now, everything looked like it was taken care of. Erika and the healer were still working on some of the worst cases, but the rest of them were heading into the large hall of the fortress.
Mirja pointed at Erika's closest subordinate, a young woman who looked as exhausted as everybody else. "Lida," she motioned toward Katja and Nika. "We need the rooms readied for these guests…"
"Excuse me, Madam Mirja," Lida said, her voice hollow. "While the battle was going on, I and the other maids readied all the vacant rooms for potential guests or wounded. I thought it would please you. There are fires and baths ready in all the rooms, including your own, of course. We have also prepared meals for those who are hungry. My father told me once that some are famished after a battle, and some cannot eat a thing."
Impressed, Mirja smiled at the nervous young woman. "I will promote you tomorrow, Lida. This shows you can think on your feet and independently. As you have already done what I intended to ask, I suggest you retire and nobody will need you until tomorrow morning. If there is an emergency, delegate it to someone you trust, all right?"
Lida smiled tremulously. "Yes, Madam Mirja. Thank you." She curtsied and left the hall, her shoulders slumping from fatigue."
"You instill such loyalty in the people living under your roof." Katja looked pleased.
"As do you," Nika said, placing her arm around Katja's waist. "Katja will stay in my room. This frees up guest quarters for one of your, or for someone wounded enough to warrant particular care."
Katja blinked and then looked up at Nika with a luscious smile. "Good point, Nika."
"And Anna stays in my quarters." Mirja could barely take her eyes off the young woman who stood slumped against the nearest wall.
"Sounds good," Anna murmured and walked over to Mirja, her steps not entirely steady.
Soon everybody had quarters that needed them. Kotar joined them now when the battle was over and his presence wasn't needed in Birka. He stood close to Samilla, which seemed to please Katja tremendously. Samilla and Noma stood on either side of him and despite their fatigue, they beamed at him.
"Come on, Anna. Time to go to bed." Mirja ushered Anna up the stairs.
"I heard something about a bath?" Anna looked hopefully at Mirja.
"Yes. I think we'd both benefit from that. I don't know about you, but I'm sore as hell."
Anna squared her shoulders. "Then, by all means, lead the way, Mirja."
Chuckling, Mirja did just that. As they reached Mirja's quarters, the did indeed spot a low and wide barrel readied for them with hot water. Next to the barrel, a soap and towels sat on a low stool.
Mirja began unbuckling her harness and then her armor. She saw Anna remove her clothes and only when she stood in her undergarment did she start to hesitate. Looking cautiously at Mirja, Anna wrapped her arms around herself, digging her teeth into her full lower lip.
"Get in before the water gets cold." Mirja pointed at the barrel.
Shivering now, Anna pulled off the shirt and moved as fast as a ferret when she climbed into the barrel. She moaned blissfully as she water surrounded her. The sound created goose bumps all over Mirja's skin and she pulled off her own shirt and climbed into the bath behind Anna. She extended her legs on either side of the young woman and pulled Anna close to her chest. Her nipples hardened even more as her breast flattered against Anna's back.
"Oh." Anna trembled visibly. "Mirja…"
"You did want me to make you mine. Have you changed your mind?" Mirja slowly took stock of how Anna first tensed and then relaxed fully against her.
"Not at all. I can't think of anything I want more." Anna tipped her head back and then pressed her face against Mirja's neck. Pressing her lips just behind Mirja's ear, she moaned again, this time from an entirely different sort of bliss.
"Anna." Mirja lowered her head and kissed Anna. "You realize if you allow me to have you, I cannot let you go. Ever."
Anna's breath caught in her throat and she took Mirja's arms and wrapped them around her. "That's exactly what I want. For you to hold me, to keep me with you. I know I'm not worthy, but I don't care. Being with you is all I want."
Mirja maneuvered Anna to face her in the tub. She pulled her closer, making sure Anna's legs were on either side of Mirja's hips. She used her own strong legs to pull Anna even closer and then she pushed a hand in between them. Her other hand found Anna's right breast, molding it, caressing it, and forming her already knife sharp nipple into something even harder.
"Touch me, Anna, please…" Mirja could hardly believe she was begging the young woman she would never let go of to touch her. She would normally have just taken what she wanted from a seasoned lover, but this was something entirely different.
"Show me. I know nothing about this." Anna murmured the words against Mirja's lips. "I tremble at the thought of holding you like this and now, when it is real, and I should honestly be too tired, I can barely breathe." Anna did sound out of breath. "What is this magic, Mirja?"
"I hardly dare to guess." Mirja took Anna's hands and placed them on her breasts. "Like this."
"Ohh…" Anna reciprocated the caresses Mirja had just bestowed upon her. "That feels so good." She squirmed against Mirja, which sent a flood of wetness between her legs.
Pulling Anna closer to her with one arm around her waist and the other cupping the soft curls between Anna's legs, Mirja kissed her slowly, deeply, reveling with every one of Anna's whimpers that she caught with her mouth.
"I want to go inside. That is what is meant by "making you mine," sweet Anna." Mirja tipped her head back and looked at Anna through her eyelashes.
"Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes," Anna said feverishly. "Do that. Now."
"So demanding," Mirja said, and tenderness erupted in her chest. She cautiously pushed a finger into Anna's slick folds, feeling the delicate tremors. The heat surrounding her finger when she finally buried it as deeply as it was possible, made Mirja ache. "Anna. Do to me what I do to you."
Anna's shy hand worked its way in between Mirja's legs and she spread them more to accommodate her young lover. By doing so, she separated Anna's legs more, which gave Mirja greater access. She pressed her lips against Anna's neck, moaning. "More…more fingers."
Anna obliged and must have pushed at least three fingers inside Mirja since the burning sensation sent her toward the immense pleasure at record speed. Carefully, Mirja let a second finger enter Anna and she could tell from the hissing breaths how this burned.
"Let it come," Mirja tried to explain through the haze. She pressed up against the small, rough patch inside Anna, rubbing it firmly with her fingertips. "Let the pleasure surround you. Flood through you."
"I—I don't know what you mean. I—I can't. I don't know…oh! Ohh! Mirja, oh, Mirja." Anna suddenly arched and that made her shove her fingers harder and deeper into Mirja. "Yes, like that. Like that. Like…ah! Convulsing, she clung to Mirja and the look on her face showed the pleasure was equal parts blissful and frightening.
That look on Anna's face was all it took. Mirja grunted and pushed herself down harder on Anna's fingers. She came twice, hard and fast, and she could have wept since it was over too soon. "Damn it, Anna, you're…you're amazing. So beautiful. And I…I love you. By Tor's hammer, I do."
Anna curled up against her in the cooling water. "I love you, Mirja. I don't think I'll ever know how someone like you can care for someone like me—but now you've made me yours, and that in turn must mean that you're mine as well. I demand it, actually."
Mirja smiled against Anna's temple. "As I said. So demanding." She shivered and realized that the bathwater was far too cold now. "Let's get up, my Anna." Standing up, she pulled Anna with her. "Do you want something to eat?"
Yawning, Anna shook her head. "No. I want to sleep." She pointed at the raised bed. "There. With you."
"All right. I'll just check on the fire. I think it's going to be even colder tonight."
Anna crawled into bed as Mirja put more logs on the fire. Joining the sleepy, damp young woman, Mirja sighed in pure bliss as she moved to pull Anna's back against her chest again. This was what she wanted—now and forever.
As sleep began to claim Mirja, a worrisome thought pricked her consciousness and her eyes snapped open. Anna was so loyal to the people of Ragunda, up north. What if she, despite declaring her love for Mirja, insisted on leaving to bring her people what she had promised them? Anything could happen to Anna during such a journey and she might never return to Birka.
As Anna slept soundly in her arms, Mirja lay wide awake and thought of ways to persuade Anna not to leave Birka, but it was difficult. Short of locking Anna up, which was impossible, of course, what the hell was she supposed to do?
Katja stood in the center of Nika's quarters, wondering how she ended up here. Watching Nika grew increasingly exhausted after the intense fighting, she had insisted on accompanying the woman that enthralled her. Mirja had thought it was a clever idea since several of the vacant rooms were not prepared for overnight guests.
Katja watched how Nika removed her armor, unable to take her eyes of her. Only when Nika grimaced when she reached for the fastening on her left shoulder, did Katja wake up from her stupor. "Here. Let me help you. Did you pull a muscle or something?"
"No. One of the Danes, the tall one with a braided moustache, slammed me with the broadside of his sword." Nika shrugged, which made her pull another face and probably regretting it.
"Could have been worse, I suppose," Katja said as she cautiously opened the clasp. "If he had used the edge…"
"Yes. That had severed my arm, and perhaps decapitated me." Nika snorted wryly.
"That would have been unfortunate. Such a beautiful head it is, after all." Katja knew instinctively to keep it light. There was something dark lurking at the bottom of Nika's gaze and it needed to calm down before they broached the topic of the fight.
Nika frowned at her. "You are being facetious."
"I am. Still the truth though." Pulling off the breast and back plates of Nika's armor, she was stunned to see a sinewy and slender torso, rather than the bulky and muscular she had expected. Sure, Nika still was very muscular for being a woman, but without her armor, she looked entirely feminine. She wouldn't find anything soft about Nika, though, at least not physically. She would perhaps be able to reach Nika on a personal level if she tried—and if Nika didn't decapitate her in the process.
"I find it very curious, Katja, that you can see me as beautiful. I have learned from Madam Mirja that beauty is quite individual—that it can be a matter of taste. Despite this, I can't fathom what beauty, or any redeeming qualities, you see in me. I have lived a hard life, Katja. Only when I met Madam Mirja did it change for the better, but I'm still a mercenary of sorts. I just have one employer, rather than being a hired hand for the highest bidder." Pulling off her clothes, Nika stood there, dressed in only her shirt.
"I see." Katja didn't want to pressure Nika, but merely nodded at the barrel. "Why don't you bathe first? I'll go find some hot wine. I think we've deserve it."
"All right." Nodding, Nika pulled off the shirt and stepped into the barrel. Sitting down, she moaned. "Thank you."
"What for?" Katja stopped just as she was about to open the door.
"For letting me go first. For being kind when you don't have to." Nika pressed her lips together. She wrapped her arms around her legs after pulling them up.
Katja's heart ached. Nika probably had no idea how vulnerable and lonely she looked where she sat curled up on the barrel. "I'll just be a very short moment and then we can share some white, all right?"
"Yes. Sure." The desolate tone nearly made Katja change her mind about getting the wine, but she was certain that they needed it. She left the room and was relieved when she ran into a one of the maids at the end of the corridor. After requesting some wine and food. The girl nodded reverently before scurrying away.
Katja hurried back to Nika's room. "It's just me," she said as she entered. To her horror, she found Nika sitting much in the same position as when Katja left, hugging her knees to her chest and shivering despite the warm water. "Oh, no. No, no, no." Grabbing a blanket, Katja wrapped it around Nika's shoulders and pulled at her. "Let's get you into bed. You're not well."
"I'm fine." Nika's voice was stark and challenging, but the rasp of it contradicted her words.
"Of course, you are," Katja said, trying to regain the lightness in her voice. "I think you're just cold."
"Yes. Cold." Climbing into bed, Nika curled up again, looking like a wraith where she trembled under the bedding.
The maid delivered a tray with wine and cold meat, apples and bread. Katja thanked her and carried the tray to a small table that she dragged closer to the bed. "Here. Drink some. And eat."
Sipping the wine and eating some of the food, Nika kept the blanket around her. Little by little, color returned to her white cheeks. "This is a first," Nika said after sipping her wine again.
"What is?" Katja did the same and then picked out a bright red apple. She inhaled the scent of it.
"I can't remember anyone tending to me like this…taking care of me. It feels very odd."
"Odd in a bad way?" Katja cast a careful glance at Nika, but the other woman simply looked pensive.
"No. Just unusual. And that it would be you—I mean, that I would let you, of all people, treat me like sick child."
Of all people? Katja lowered her wine cup. "If you'd rather have someone else—"
"No!" Her blue eyes darkening to an almost violet hue. "That's not what I meant at all." Tugging at her braided hair, Nika grunted in a frustrated way. "I'm completely inept at explaining myself and especially around you."
Now this was interesting. "We didn't hit it off when we first met. How long has it been now? Eight years?"
"Yes. And we kept to ourselves. I didn't want to have to deal with you and I'm certain you felt the same way," Nika said and sighed. "I can't even remember why, to be honest."
Katja smiled and dared to push an errant lock from Nika's forehead. "Me either. Probably something really small and foolish as is a very common and silly way."
"Yes." Nika turned her face into Katja's touch. "I regret that now. I'm known for pushing other people away, but it never mattered until the one I shoved away was you."
"Nika." Unable to resist now, no matter how tired she was, Katja pulled Nika into her arms. "Please, don't ever push me away again. I couldn't stand it. I..." Pressing her lips against Nika's forehead, Katja felt the woman she held grow tense. Desperate to show how much she cared, no loved, this volatile creature, Katja she dipped her head and pressed her lips to Nika's mouth.
Katja's world spun as strong arm pulled her close and rolled her over on her back on the bed. "You can't do this and think I can let go of you later," Nika muttered. "Just so you know."
"What?" Katja whispered and buried her hands along the multitude of thin braids. "Why would I ever want to let go of you? That'd be crazy." She kissed Nika again, this time licking along her lower lip.
Nika opened her mouth and willingly let Katja deepen the kisses. Wrapping them both in the covers, Katja enjoyed just how well Nika explored her mouth, and later, her body. Sliding her own hands over Nika's naked body, Katja moaned and then couldn't stop the words that bubbled to the surface.
"I don't want to be away from you, ever, Nika. I can't see myself returning to a life without you in it. Please, Nika, don't pull away from me. I don't think I could take it."
Nika looked at Katja, her eyes narrow slits. "I—I don't want to be away from you either." Her expression turned to something resembling half-angry. "I don't know what spell you have cast upon me, but I seem to be defenseless against it."
Katja had to smile again. "It's not about spells, Nika. I think we have felt this way about each other for a long time and interpreted as something else, when it really was about…this. Us." She held her breath as the younger woman gaped.
"Us?" Nika placed a hand against the center of Katja's chest and at first, Katja thought Nika was going to push her away. Instead, the warrior just sat there, head tilted sideways as if counting Katja's heartbeats. Looking up, she gave the first true smile Katja had ever seen on her face. "Yes," Nika murmured, "Us."
The fireplace warmed them as they settled in close to each other. Katja's body ached for Nika, but she knew she had to stand on much firmer ground, with a much more stable Nika, before she dared to unleash this gorgeous creature against her own naked body. She had no idea how experience Nika was, or if at all. Katja was used to listening to hear intuition and now it told her to go slow, or she might lose Nika…or even her own life.
Kotar extended a hand and helped Samilla up on the sledge. It was one of the biggest Anna had ever seen and in the back, Noma, Yxi, and Erika sat, accompanied by two of Mirja's mercenaries.
Anna leaned against Mirja and wrapped her arm around her waist. "But can we manage without them. They all hold such important positions here at Katja's and over at the fortress."
"They assure me they have trained their next in command very well. This will prove if they're wrong or right about that." Mirja waved as the sledge with the travelers took off towards Ragunda in the north. Eight more mercenaries accompanied the sledge on horseback. "As for my decision to ask them to deliver the coins and goods to your village—it was an easy choice. If I could keep you here with me, yet also help you feel that you did your duty to you neighbors, well, it was a very good idea as I couldn't bare to watch you leave."
"It's amazing that you made this trip with no guards and only one horse, Anna." Katja said and motioned for them to step into the warm hall of the newest inn. "I'm glad you did. And if I'm this happy about it, Mirja has to be ecstatic." She smirked teasingly at Mirja.
"I am. Very ecstatic," Mirja said, chuckling. "Especially happy about the fact that Anna will stay in Birka. It was a brilliant idea to talk to Kotar and Samilla about taking a trip north."
"Wasn't it now?" Katja looked pleased. "I remembered that also Samilla is from the area and she in turn wants who might be left of her family to meet Noma."
"And introduce Kotar as her new spouse." Anna warmed her hands by the fire. "It will be an adventure for them."
"And will you miss going on that particular adventure, Anna?" Mirja asked softly. Anna knew her lover already knew the answer, but gave it anyway. "I'm already on the most amazing of adventures here with you." She winked.
Mirja laughed, tossing her head back. Nobody else laughed, but rather stared wide-eyed at her.
"What?" Mirja looked at the other three women.
"Excuse me for speaking bluntly, Mirja," Nika said, "but I don't think anyone has ever seen or heard you laugh like that.
Anna curled her toes in anticipation of Mirja's reply.
"Yet another thing you can thank Anna for. I didn't have anyone to truly laugh with before." Mirja ran her thumb along Anna's eyebrow. "But now I do."
Anna turned her head and kissed Mirja's palm. "And now we do."