"Kirsten, what are you doing?" a female voice demanded. She turned and saw Kolga, Alarr's aunt. "Since your brother is not here, you must be cautious about getting too close to strangers." The older woman scowled with a sour expression, and Kirsten fully understood the unspoken message—Do not sit alone with a warrior.
Kirsten resented the older woman's meddling. The matron's insinuation, that it was wrong to sit with Jorund, seemed overbearing. She had a hard time believing Jorund could cause any harm. If anything, she felt safer around him. His quiet demeanor brought her ease, and she liked the man. But neither did she want to cause a scene to make him uncomfortable.
"I should go," she told him, rising from her place. "I will see you in the morning." His expression warmed, and she looked forward to the training.
The older woman prattled on about proper behavior, leading her toward her son. The man was thin and sickly, but he tried to muster a smile. "Eithr has been wanting to spend time with you. He is in need of a wife, you know."
No. Kirsten could not even consider Eithr as a possible suitor. Not only was he physically unwell, but she could not imagine having Kolga constantly interfering in their lives.
She was about to make her departure when the king's wife, Hilda, arrived. "The contests will begin soon," she announced. "Alarr will join in, as will my other sons."
"Eithr will not compete," Kolga said, "but he will remain here and judge the winners. Kirsten will keep him company."
Kirsten was beginning to feel the trap closing in. "I'm sorry, but I'm feeling rather tired right now." To Eithr, she apologized, "I hope you enjoy the contests."
Without another word, she fled the women and hurried back to her brother's house. Outside, the harvest night was growing cooler, the darkness illuminated by the flare of torches. She lingered a moment in front of the door, and then saw Jorund standing a short distance away. He'd followed her.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "You seemed upset."
She ought to tell him she was fine, that it was nothing at all. Being alone right now was what she wanted.
And yet, she blurted out, "I am upset. And frustrated."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not really. There are days when I feel as if everyone is making decisions for me. Kolga wants me to consider a match with her son, Eithr. But we could not be less suited." She shook her head. "I would rather make my own choices."
The sound of swords ringing caught her attention, and the contests had begun. Alarr was fighting against his brother Rurik, and the two men circled one another while the bystanders cheered.
"You want a man like Alarr," Jorund predicted. "A fighter."
"Yes," she admitted. "But he wants an alliance with Gilla." With a shrug, she said, "I suppose that makes me pitiful, wanting a man I cannot have."
"I don't think you're pitiful at all," he answered. And something in his voice unnerved her. There was a warmth there, like a man who was interested.
She felt the need to push him back, to keep him at arm's length. "I want a strong fighter, someone I can rely on to always keep me safe."
He met her gaze in the dim firelight. "Not someone like me."
Though she had not said anything against him, she could feel her shame rising. He had lost his family during a raid, and she didn't know what to say. Her silence only made the invisible blow worse.
"Good night, Kirsten," he said.
And when he'd gone, she leaned against the door, wishing she could take back the words.
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