When Briana O’Toole heard the sound, she was still partly asleep. What is it? she wondered. The noise seemed near and yet far away. What had wakened her in the darkness before dawn?
Through an open door in the barn where she slept, Bree heard fishermen load bait and tackle. Next came a scrape across the shore as they slid their boats into the Norwegian fjord. A moment later, oars creaked as men from the village of Aurland rowed away for their daily catch.
By now, on that early summer morning late in the tenth century, the sounds were familiar to Bree. Why do such everyday noises make me afraid?
Then Bree knew. Only last night her brother Devin had told her that he might leave for Ireland soon. Like a warning deep inside, Bree felt sure that on this day she would learn more. No doubt it would be something she must face, like it or not.
High in the hayloft where she slept, Bree pushed back her blanket. On her first night of serving Mikkel’s family, she had made her own soft beda nest of fragrant hay gathered from a mountainside. By now nine months had passed since the Viking raid that brought Bree and other Irish captives to this village.
In spite of all that had happened, Bree smiled, for she knew something that only the Irish knew. No one else. Not Mikkel, the fifteen-year-old leader of the raid that took Bree away. Not his father, Sigurd, chieftain of the Aurland Fjord. Not his mother Rika. Nor his brother Cort. Nor his grandparents.
My daddy is an Irish chieftain, Bree thought. A wise and powerful chieftain who cares about his people. Though she appeared to be a slave, Bree held the secret knowledge of being deeply loved. She felt freedom in her heart.
Reaching out in the darkness, Bree picked up her clothing and quickly dressed. As she pulled on her shoes, she heard a sea chest being dropped heavily into a ship, then footsteps coming up the path from the fjord.
With swift movements, Bree grabbed a rung and scrambled down the ladder. Through the dark barn she hurried, so familiar now with its turns that she needed no light. When she opened the door that connected the barn and the house, she heard Mikkel’s angry voice.
“I can’t!” he exclaimed. “I won’t!”
Without making a sound, Bree entered the hallway that led to the large room where the family ate, slept, and talked. Then the door creaked shut and the room grew instantly silent.
It made Bree uncomfortable. What were they saying about me? The question pounded at her heart.
Acting as if she hadn’t noticed anything unusual, Bree hurried to the long open hearth. As she stirred the embers, the fire flared, and she added more wood. Taking a large wooden spoon, she stirred the porridge. By the time a knock came on the outer door, she was ready.
When Mikkel swung the door wide, Ingmar stood outside. Taller than Mikkel and with darker blond hair, Ingmar was at least four years older. He was also master of the ship that had given safe passage to Bree’s brother Devin when he sailed from Ireland to the Norwegian fjord.
Seeing Ingmar, Mikkel stepped back, as though not wanting to talk with him. Only recently the ting, the assembly of freemen, had settled Devin’s future and the argument between Ingmar and Mikkel.
Now Ingmar’s quick glance went to Bree, then back to Mikkel. Suddenly Ingmar stretched out his hand. “Our freemen have spoken,” he said. “By their vote, they freed Bree’s brother, Devin.”
Looking down at Ingmar’s hand, Mikkel stiffened, but Ingmar went on. “You and I are blood cousins, Mikkel. Let’s be friends.”
For an instant Mikkel glanced toward his father Sigurd. The chieftain sat on a bench along the wall as though waiting to see what would happen. Turning back, Mikkel faced Ingmar again.
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