— Prologue —
Hark! Hear this tale, the legend of Aidan the Fierce and Reginleit the Radiant One, a pair of lovers both bound and cursed by fate.
It begins, as many legends do, with a destined meeting—this one between an immortal girl who would never know death and a jaded mortal man who lived only to kill.
Theirs is a story of woe and of warning. Take heed and listen well….
− i −
“So this is debauchery,” Reginleit murmured as two guards led her into the mead hall of the notorious warlord Aidan the Fierce.
At twelve years of age, and newly quit of the paradise of Valhalla, Regin was certainly getting an eyeful.
As she and the guards wound through the crowd of hundreds of berserkers, she gaped at drunken warriors sparring in naught but loincloths while half-clad whores served ale, trenchers of meat, and . . . other needs.
Luckily Regin’s disguise would conceal her expression—and her glow. She rechecked her cloak with gloved hands. The hood was deep, falling far over her face.
By the light of the fire pits smoking up to the thatched roof, she glimpsed kissing, fondling, and some acts her young mind couldn’t yet attach names to.
Yet none within this battlefront encampment laughed; no jaunty music could be heard.
Though they’d seized a bloody victory today—from the cliffs above the field, she’d observed their clash against an army of vampires—all the many warriors here seemed to be simmering, snarling even. Much like the bears these mortals revered.
Mounted bear heads with ominous fangs lined the walls. Viking glyphs of ravening bears decorated the rafters and doors.
Everything she’d ever heard about the uncivilized berserkers was apparently true. Her favorite half sister, Lucia, had once told her, “Berserkers are grim, covetous, and possessive, savage when faced with the loss of something that belongs to them. They are obsessed with war and intercourse—they think of nothing else. Even our older sisters avoid them.”
Regin had known the risk in coming here, but she wasn’t fearful. As Lucia had also told her, “Sometimes I don’t think you have the sense to be afraid when you should.” Regin had interpreted that to mean, “You have no sense of fear, oh, great Reginleit.”
Besides, she had no choice. She needed the aid of these mortals. She was horseless and had barely escaped a vampire ambush just days ago. Her belly was empty—the trenchers of stew and haunches of venison atop laden tables made her mouth water.
And Lucia was in danger.
Reminded of her purpose, she straightened her shoulders. Since the berserkers were her father’s guard, surely they’d be duty-bound to serve her as well. But if she met with trouble here, she wouldn’t hesitate to use the long sword holstered across her back or even her claws. They extended through slits in the fingers of her gloves, concealed by her draping sleeves—
Two nearly naked warriors locked in combat lurched past her. Fights continued all around, brawls over women, wine, and weapons. These men fell into their berserkrage, with their eyes glowing and muscles burgeoning, at the smallest slight.
Fitting that this encampment had been built at the edge of a war zone. For decades, these berserkers had defended this strategic pass against an immortal menace, protecting the villages in the valley below; she began to see that anything keeping these men here on the battlefront—and out of civilization—was a boon.
As she and the guards wended deeper within, Regin stopped abruptly. A short distance away, seated atop a throne on the hall’s dais, was a male she’d seen in frenzied combat earlier. One she’d watched raptly.
Considering his unmatched speed and power as he’d wielded his war ax, she’d suspected he was their leader Aidan.
A buxom brunette sat on the arm of his throne, serving him a tankard of drink and murmuring in his ear.
The wench’s eyes were excited, her breath shallow. She thinks the warlord handsome? Regin’s gaze flicked over him. Then the wench and I are in accord.
He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, his build as massive as a bear’s. His blond hair was thick, some hanks plaited in ravels to keep them from his field of vision. He possessed all his teeth, and they were even and white. His sun-darkened skin made his wintry gray eyes stand out.
Today, when he’d been in his berserkrage, those eyes had glowed like storm clouds ablaze with lightning.
Now he pulled the woman onto his lap, no doubt to join in the debauchery. And lo, there he goes. . . . He began to unlace her straining bodice.
“My liege, a moment,” one of the guards hastened to say. To catch the warlord before ’twas too late?
“What is it?” Aidan didn’t look up from his task of freeing the female’s ponderous breasts. Once he’d loosened her bodice, his big hand dipped down to grasp one.
“This boy demanded to see you.”
Boy. Males always assumed she was of their sex, simply because she wore trews and carried a sword.
Aidan turned, his gaze falling on Regin. “Who are you?” he asked, his deep voice booming. Throughout the hall, the enthusiastic skirmishes and fornicating slowed.
She answered honestly, “I am a weary traveler in need of assistance.”
At her words, his brows drew together. “You sound . . . familiar.” He removed his hand from the woman’s bodice and sat up straighter, his demeanor now tense. As if her very voice had set him on edge. “Though your accent is strange.”
“Yours is not my first tongue.” She spoke the ancient language of the immortals first, his Norse mortal language second.
Though it nettled to take orders from a mere human, Regin stepped forth.
His gaze grew alert, assessing. She knew he was scrutinizing everything about her—her walk, the uncommonly fine material of her cloak, the gold brooch that clasped the hood in place.
The wench tried to reclaim his attention by cupping his face, but Aidan brushed her hand away. When she wriggled suggestively in his lap, he scowled at her and said something in her ear that sent her flouncing away with a huff.
But the woman couldn’t prevent a longing glance over her shoulder.
For some reason, his dismissal of the buxom brunette gladdened Regin. She supposed she was merely relieved to have his full attention. “I saw you on the battlefield today, warlord. You fought well.” As ever, her thoughts left her lips without any mediation. Lucia’s words repeated in her mind: You have to learn to hold your tongue. You could try even a glacier’s patience.
He leaned forward. “Boy, we are berserkers—we all fight well.”
‘Twas not true. She jerked her thumb at a young black-haired man to Aidan’s right. “Not him. His guard’s too low.” Hold your tongue, Regin!
After a stunned silence, a few awkward chuckles sounded. Even Aidan grinned, then seemed startled by his reaction.
The man she’d insulted shot to his feet and stalked closer, his green eyes narrowed. “I’ll show you a low guard.”
At once, Regin dragged her long sword from its sheath, raising it between them.
He gave her a look of disgust. “That sword’s bigger than you are, cur.”
“The better to teach you to raise your guard, mongrel.”
As more chuckles sounded, the man’s fists clenched, his muscles tensing, growing. . . . Already on the verge of berserkrage.
“Stay your hand, Brandr,” Aidan ordered.
Perhaps coming here was a mistake. These men were too violent and quick-tempered to aid her. And that was something for a Valkyrie to suppose!
Even Aidan, who had appeared to possess more control of himself than the others, now seemed to seethe with . . . something.
And though the berserkers were Wóden’s guards, perhaps they would hurt her if they found out she was female. What would Lucia do? She’d leave this place anon without revealing herself as a woman.
“Boy, you are either very brave or very stupid to goad one of my strongest warriors,” Aidan remarked. “Now, tell me why you’ve come to my hall.” He tilted his head at her. “And why you’ve covered your skin like an aged druid.”
Brandr grated, “The whelp probably had the pox.”
Pox? She’d just stifled a hiss at him when Aidan said, “Enough.” He rubbed the blond stubble on his chin. “Were you ill, then? Mayhap you haven’t the strength needed to wield that long blade—or to taunt men bigger than you.”
Regin’s eyes went wide. “Haven’t the strength?” She might only be twelve, and still vulnerable to harm, and ’twas true her blasted sword was far too big for her, but she could massacre all these mortals with tooth and claw if need be—
Brandr struck without warning, lunging for her. Before she could defend herself, he’d delivered two punishing blows to her wrist, knocking the sword from her grip.
When he straightened with a smirk, she gladly dismissed the weapon as her instincts took over. She leapt atop a table to her right, then bounded back to the left in front of him, raking her claws across his chest.
Gods, the feel of rending flesh . . . what need have I for a sword?
Landing softly, she hunched low, ready to spring again as the towering warrior bellowed, “He carries hidden daggers?” He gaped at the deep furrows in his skin, slashes that had severed even his leather scabbard. “Aidan, his death is mine! Any taller, and he’d have slit my throat.”
Regin said, “I chose not to slit your throat. Thank me with ale.”
Suddenly a huge palm closed over her nape. Another hand captured her wrists behind her. Hissing with fury, she twisted around and sank her small fangs into a brawny forearm.
‘Twas the warlord! Aidan had her. How had he moved so quickly?
Lightning struck outside, thunderclaps rattling the hall. If only the bolt would hit me!
“Cease this!” He roughly jostled her until she had to release her bite. Before she could blink, he had her cloak clutched in his fist.
“Nay! Do not!”
He ripped it back. Sucked in a breath. Promptly dropped her.
All around her, wide-eyed men closed in. She hissed again, pivoting to keep the threats in sight, baring her claws and her fangs.
One of them asked, “What is she?”
Aidan frowned down at her. “She is merely a little . . . girl.”
Brandr said, “By Wóden’s beard, she glows!”
Regin spat, “He does not wear a beard!”
At her words, recognition flashed in Aidan’s expression. His gaze lit on her pointed ears, then her eyes. By the way he stared, she knew they were wavering from amber to silver. “You are a Valkyrie. The one whose skin lights up the night. We’ve heard tales of you.”
“You know nothing of me!”
Raising his brows in challenge, he quoted a recent edda: “ ‘Eyes like amber cast in sun, skin and hair of firelit gold. Formed to war, courage as none, beauty to behold.’ You are Reginleit the Radiant.”
Now several of the men murmured, “Reginleit,” in awed tones.
But not Aidan. He shook his head. “Brightling, you are a very long way from home.”
Of course that ass Brandr said, “She is one of Wóden’s treasured daughters?”
Shoulders back, Regin said, “Most treasured. Above all my sisters.” Except for Lucia. And Nïx. Likely Kaderin. No need for these mortals to know that perhaps she was not a favorite of his. At present.
“Then why are you in the middle of a war, instead of the safety of Valhalla?” Aidan seemed angry about this. “You’re so small.” He’d begun to look at her with a peculiar intensity, different from the other men’s, more . . . protective.
“What concern is it of yours where I might be?” She shoved her braids from her forehead, lifting her chin. “And I’m not that small.”
“You are”—he ran a hand over his face—”young.”
Beside him, Brandr asked, “What is it, friend? Your eyes grow fierce.”
Aidan opened his mouth, closed it. Then he gazed around the scene as if seeing it anew. “Gods.” He reached for her with a hand raised, as if to shield her vision. “Come with me, little one. ‘Tis no place for you.”
She backed up a step.
He cast her a disapproving frown. “I have pledged my life to serve your father; you were born of his lightning. I could no more harm you than I could myself.” When she relaxed not one whit, he said, “Come. You must be hungry. You can dine in my quarters.” He gathered her sword, offering it to her hilt first. “There will be plenty to eat.”
They would have plenty of food. His army had scavenged this countryside like locusts. All the game that she could have hunted had been slain.
She peered up, regarding his face. The mortal did seem to have an honest visage. And mayhap he’d do as she bade, or at least give her a horse and enough food for her journey.
Regin accepted her sword, sheathing it. But when he wrapped his arm around her shoulders protectively, she stiffened. “I can walk on my own, berserker.”
Under his breath, he said, “‘Tis a display of favor I offer you before all.”
“A display of favor,” she said in a dry tone. “From a mortal. Then how can I possibly continue without it?” She allowed him to usher her through the crowds of staring warriors and wenches.
A few berserkers sought to touch her “fair locks” or “alight skin,” but Aidan’s hand tightened over her shoulder, his eyes blazing even brighter. He cast the men a baleful look and they all retreated without another word, their faces paling.
Once she and Aidan had navigated the hall’s gauntlet and exited into the summer night, he visibly relaxed, though he still seemed preoccupied. She took the opportunity to study him up close.
His towering frame was even more imposing, his height at least six and a half feet. His white tunic was of a fine weave, fitted over those wide shoulders. Black trews of soft leather outlined his powerful legs. When a breeze blew up from the valley below, carrying the scent of summer wheat and stirring the blond hair around his face, she had the urge to sigh.
The midnight sun had finally set, and as they walked, he gazed up at the stars, as if for some kind of guidance. For the last week, as she’d searched for Lucia in this strange world of mortals, she’d often done the same. “Whatever is your question, warlord, the stars will not answer you.”
He peered down at her with those intense gray eyes, rekindling her ridiculous urge to sigh. “Mayhap they already have.”
Before she could question his words, he stopped before the largest longhouse in the camp, opening the door for her. The interior was rich, with woven rugs on the packed dirt floor. A gleaming table with two chairs sat at one end and a thick pallet of furs covered the opposite end. A fire burned in a center pit.
He took a pair of candles from a generous supply of them and lit the wicks in the fire, then placed them in holders flanking a polished bear skull.
“Are you wealthy?” she asked. “For a mortal?”
“I’ve won spoils enough. But what do you know of coin? You are the daughter of gods.”
“I know I have none, and I need it for food.”
He strode to the doorway, ordering some servant outside to bring their dinner, then sat at the table. He waved her to the other chair.
When she removed her gloves and cloak, her boy’s clothes beneath—trews and a tunic—earned another disapproving frown. She shrugged and joined him, feeling like an adult to be sharing a lord’s table. Even if he was only a warlord.
“This world is a dangerous place for a girl, Reginleit. And you are not invulnerable to harm.”
She shook her head. No, she’d not reached her immortality yet. She could still be injured, grow sickened, even die. Though she wouldn’t need food as an adult Valkyrie, now she required it to grow.
“Then what possessed you to leave the safety of your home, child?”
“I am no child! And I’ve been safe enough.” Except for the bloodthirsty foes I had to face to reach this side of the conflict. “I’ve slain vampires.” But it’d been close. I lost my sword early in that skirmish, too.
He waved away her words as if they were mere fables. “Reginleit, answer me.”
Though she suspected she should be secretive and cautious with a stranger like this, she’d never learned to be either. And she needed his help. Out spilled the truth: “I followed my favorite sister when she followed a man. He promised to wed Lucia, yet I am uneasy. She is everything to me, and I believe she is in danger.” Regin couldn’t explain how she knew, but she felt as if time was running out for her sister.
“You left heaven for her? Though you can never go back?”
“‘Tis forbidden for a Valkyrie to return.”
“Then I applaud your loyalty.”
“She would do the same for me.” As exasperated as Regin made her—indeed, all her sisters—she knew Lucia loved her.
“You sought me this night,” he said. “What would you have me do?”
“I need assistance to find Lucia.”
“Done,” he said with a shrug. “I will do everything possible to reunite her with you.”
Regin blinked up at him. “Because you serve Wóden?”
“Nay.” He rose to pace, running his hand over his mouth. “I do this because we will serve each other.”
“I do not take your meaning.”
“There is no easy way to say this. Reginleit, when you are grown, you will become my wife.”
“Are you mad, mortal?” she cried, her skin glowing brighter. “Like my sister Nïx?”
“Nïx the Ever-Knowing, the soothsayer?”
“She’s touched with visions. What is your explanation?”
He looked to stifle a grin. “You are direct, a good trait. But I’m not mad. I’m a berserker. Do you understand what the men of my people are?”
“I’ve heard tales of your kind. You’re stronger than other mortals, faster. And you’re all possessed by the spirit of a beast. The snarling, the fighting, the possessiveness—all the traits of a lean bear in winter.”
“‘Tis true. And the beast in me sensed its mate, rousing inside me from your very first words. I thought you would be older when we met, but I feel fortunate just to have found you.”
He said this as if it was an understatement. She was speechless. A rarity.
“In the morn, I will take you to my family’s holdings in the north,” he continued. “My parents will complete your upbringing and keep you safe until I return for you. I will bring your sister there to join you.”
An actual madman stood before her! This situation grew interesting. Regin found she might like to play with mad mortals. Feigning an earnest tone, she asked, “And how long would it be until you returned for me?”
“Mayhap in five or six years. When you are grown, and I have warred enough to earn my own immortality. Then we would wed.”
Ah, she remembered now. Berserkers could earn ohalla, deathlessness, from Wóden once they’d won two hundred battles in his name. They tattooed his mark—dual ravens in flight—upon their chests.
She wondered if the battles had come before the rule, or if the rule had spurred the battles. “I’m to sit there and wait for you? What if another mortal decides I’m to be his chattel instead?”
His hands clenched. “You are meant for me alone,” he said in a strange tone. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
“I’m not ignorant of such things.” She was almost completely ignorant of such things—of men, of coupling. She couldn’t comprehend why her sister would ever voluntarily leave the paradise of Valhalla to follow a man.
One I do not trust.
“Reginleit, you will not know another male.” His gaze held hers. “I consider us wed from this moment on.”
What a crazed mortal; how touched in the head. Her father would turn this berserker to ash if he dared kidnap her and force her to wed him. Perhaps she oughtn’t toy with Aidan anymore? “Reconsider. You’re far too old for me. One foot in the grave and the other doddering at the edge.”
He glowered. “I am not that old! I’ve only thirty winters.”
She began to fear that he wouldn’t be dissuaded, so she said, “I might look upon your suit, but only if you help me save Lucia first.”
He shook his head firmly. “You will tell me where to find her. And I will do so only once I’ve conveyed you safely to my people.”
“You can never locate her without me.” As a sister Valkyrie, Regin could sense her if she got close enough. “And we haven’t time to dally.”
“You came to me for guidance, and this is my decision—”
“Guidance! You are mad. And arrogant. I am the daughter of gods. I came to you for a horse, food, and mayhap a pair of outriders. So I could be on my way!”
“‘Tis a done thing, brightling. In this realm, my word is final.”
They were interrupted by the brunette from the hall, now carrying in a tray of food and drink. As she served two trenchers of some kind of savory stew, she made sure her ample bosom was displayed for Aidan.
Regin thought of her own barely budding chest. For the first time in her life, she felt lacking.
And mayhap jealous. Ah, but ’twas Regin who sat at the warlord’s table like a woman grown. ‘Twas Regin the stubborn, mad mortal wanted to wed. She cast the wench a smirk.
“No ale for the girl, Birgit,” Aidan said to the woman. “Do we not have milk?”
Regin’s face heated. And all the worse, because she would dearly love some milk.
When Birgit returned with some, Aidan dismissed her so absently that the worst of Regin’s pique was soothed.
The rich scent of game stew called to her hunger, and she eagerly dug in. The meat melted in her mouth. Gods, mortals did know how to cook.
“Tell me of your home,” he said, breaking a piece of flatbread for her trencher.
“‘Tis a beautiful land of mists,” she said around bites. “Slow and peaceful.” Usually. Unless Loki descended upon them, or someone released Fenris, the giant wolf.
“What was your life like?”
Regin swallowed a mouthful of bread. “You truly wish me to . . . talk?” Most of the time, her sisters bade her be quiet, serious.
“I am curious about you.”
She shrugged, deciding that she might as well enjoy this short time with this stubborn, immovable warlord—because unless he could be made to change his mind, she planned to slip away in the night and continue her search.
At least now she’d have food in her belly and likely a stolen horse.
So she regaled him with stories of Valhalla and the silliness of the demigods. He laughed at all of the tales, seeming genuinely amused.
At one point, his expression seemed even . . . proud, earning another frown from her. “You do not mind my humor?”
“Not at all. I’ve not laughed like this . . .” His brows drew together. “I think I’ve never laughed like this.”
“Usually I exasperate people. And I jest at inappropriate times. Such as during executions. Freya says ’tis my gift and my bane to frustrate others.”
“I like your manner, Reginleit. Life is long without humor.”
She felt like preening in the face of this steely-eyed warrior’s praise—until he added, “We will suit well, brightling.”
She sighed. “Still you believe we will be together.” Though she sensed that Aidan was an honorable male, he was misled in this. Wóden would never allow Regin to wed a mortal berserker.
And the ohalla Aidan sought? She’d only ever heard of one berserker in all of history who’d earned it. The rest died in battles long before their two hundredth one.
A fact that the cunning Wóden well knew.
“I am certain we will, little wife.” Finished with his meal, Aidan rose and crossed to his bed, dividing the furs into two pallets on opposite walls. He waved her to one, then took the other. Easing to his side, he propped his head in his hand. “When you are older you’ll come to see that every woman needs a man, even a Valkyrie.”
“Why?” She plopped down across from him.
“You’ll understand when you go through the change.”
“You mean when I become immortal?” When she would change from a growing, vulnerable girl to a nigh invincible woman. Her sisters spoke of this time in whispers, but Regin didn’t know why. Mayhap this male would tell her.
“Those months will be sweet.” He lay on his back, his hands behind his head. In a knowing tone, he said, “You’ll definitely want me around then.”
“Why? What happens?”
“You’ll become a woman. And you’ll need me as much as I will surely be needing you.”
“Would you try to kiss me?” she asked slyly.
“Depend on it.”
“And now you should go to sleep. We’ve a long journey ahead of us.”
“Warlord, tell me!” She crossed her arms over her chest and lightning struck outside.
“Why should I choose you to kiss, then?”
He turned on his side again, his gaze holding hers. “Why not me?”
“All you do is war.”
“True, and I’m damned skilled at my trade. Which means I’ll always be able to protect you. And by the time you’re grown, I’ll have accumulated enough loot to spoil you.”
“You’re not noble or refined.”
He nodded easily. “I possess no refinement. But that also means I’ve no guile—you will always know what I’m thinking.”
“And you believe you are entitled to a Valkyrie for your bride?”
“I am the most powerful berserker ever to live,” he said, not with conceit but as if he merely stated an indisputable fact. “So if not me, then who?”
She shrugged. “I remain unconvinced of your charms, Aidan.” Also an indisputable fact.
“There is another reason. . . .”
His voice gone gruff, he added, “You should choose me because . . . I will love you, Reginleit.”
Her heart seemed to skip a beat. “How can you say that? You cannot know the future!”
“I know because, at twelve years of age, you’ve won me with your wit and bravery. Your staunch loyalty, too.” He leaned back once more, grinning up at the roof of the longhouse. “When you have your wiles about you, I’ll be no match. I concede defeat well in advance.”
“When I’m grown, others will vie for my hand.”
“Undoubtedly. But you belong only to me.”
Lightning struck again from her frustration. He truly believed he had the right to take away her freedom, to keep her as his untouched prize while he continued his debauched lifestyle. Perhaps that was the way of things with mortals. But such is not good enough for the likes of me.
“Berserker, hear my words,” she said. “I vow to you that I will stay as true to you as you do to me.” That would shut his mouth. He couldn’t go a week without a Birgit. “Every wench upon your lap means I sit upon a warrior’s. Every woman’s mouth you kiss is a man’s lips upon my own.”
His fierce gaze met hers, his eyes ablaze once more—as if the mere thought of her with another sent his ire spiraling. Seeming to struggle for control, he grated, “Then I give you my oath that I’ll not touch another. Now are you satisfied, little wife? Any more demands?”
“I have to go with you to find Lucia.”
“In this I will not bend, Reginleit. You are vulnerable. You can be harmed. And that I could not abide.”
Before he doused the candles, he leaned over to press a quick kiss against her hair, then chucked her under the chin. “Brightling, the time till you’re grown will pass slowly for me. Every night, I will dream of the woman you’ll become.”
He returned to his pallet, and in the dark she saw his eyes closed and his lips curled, as if with anticipation.
She inwardly sighed. You will never see me grown, warlord. But from time to time, I might think of the stubborn mortal who was kind to me.
− ii −
Nine years later
“What are you doing, sister?” Lucia the Archer demanded as she barged into Regin’s room.
Though Regin had hoped to slip away this night from the manor house she shared with Lucia, her sister’s huntress senses were too acute.
I should probably lie. Yet out spilled the truth: “I am deciding which garments will best please a warlord.”
Lucia gasped, her hands falling to the bow she always wore strapped over her body. As her fingers nervously plucked the string, she said, “You are seeking out that berserker?”
She nodded. Regin would become a full immortal soon and, as she’d finally been warned, her desires were growing overwhelming.
When she imagined fulfilling them, only one man’s face arose in her mind. Just as Aidan had predicted, she needed him now. “He’s near. His army is camped within the dark woods.”
Over the years, as she and Lucia had sought out other Valkyrie on this plane and others, Regin had often heard tales of her berserker. He was little closer to his gift of immortality, having spent more time searching for her than for battles to win. And already he had forty winters.
He was said to be changed—his beastlike nature even more dominant. He was quick to conflict, letting his berserkrage free at the earliest provocation.
And yet she couldn’t stop thinking of him.
“Now, shall I wear the nigh-transparent skirt”—Regin tapped her chin—”or the trews that encase me like a second skin?”
“Yes, well said, Lucia. Males do ogle me more when I wear the trews.” She pulled them on over her generous backside—with effort—then lay on the bed to tie the tight laces. Next she donned a sleeveless leather vest with a plunging neckline. Though it covered her breasts, the vest bared her midriff.
Lucia had begun to pace. “We’ve talked of this.”
“You talked of this,” Regin said as she braided her hair into a dozen haphazard plaits around her face. The rest she left flowing. “I averred nothing.”
Lucia wanted her to join the Skathians—the celibate archeress order she herself had entered—but Regin was too curious about coupling, too eager to discover what the warlord’s secretive smile that night had promised.
Yet that wasn’t the only reason she would seek him out. Though he’d been so stubborn and arrogant, he’d also laughed with her and enjoyed her humor. Over these years, men had gazed at her with lust, reverence, and even, on occasion, respect—but Aidan had looked at her as no man had since.
With appreciation. He’d appreciated her exactly as she was.
“To seek him out is madness, Regin. He believes that he alone will possess you. Like some . . . some thing, some object. He will never let you go!”
“Then he will not have me to begin with. We will make a bargain for three months, or for nothing.” She would explore her attraction to him, slake these drives, and loosen the hold he had over her.
Regin dug into her copious chest of jewels—containing no glittering stones, of course. She decided on adornments of polished gold. Males grew fascinated with how she made it glow. She donned serpentine bands of it around her upper arms and a circlet crown with strands to dip over her forehead.
“If you must do this, choose another male, any but a berserker! They’re animals, and I do not use that word lightly,” Lucia said, her eyes still haunted by her own encounter with a male nine years ago.
The man she’d thought she loved had been a monster in disguise, one who’d turned on her, harming her in unspeakable ways.
Regin had been right to worry—and to leave Aidan behind. If I’d been but a single day later . . .
“I cannot choose another male. Else break an oath.” It seemed her brash words from all those years ago had come back to haunt her. “I vowed to Aidan that I would be as faithful to him as he was to me. Lucia, rumors hold that he’s forsaken all others. If ’tis true . . .”
Yet this only alarmed Lucia. “An insatiable beast lurks within him, one that wants only to rut and conquer and possess. I hope to the gods, for your sake, he’s not tried to leash it for nearly a decade.”
“I am going to him,” Regin said simply as she turned toward the stairs. Her mind was made up. She wasn’t one to debate things with herself. She rarely pondered, never mulled. She acted.
Lucia sighed, following her down to the front entrance. “Then for once, be circumspect.” At the door, she handed Regin her hooded cloak. “Survey the situation before you stride into his army’s camp as if you own it. Promise me.”
“Very well.” Regin shrugged into the cloak, then stepped outside, glancing at the darkening sky. A spring storm neared. “Wish me luck,” she said cheerily, leaving Lucia to pluck her bowstring with disapproval.
Regin set off across the countryside, hurrying through melting ice fields into the forest. She was so eager that she easily outpaced the oncoming storm.
As she neared Aidan’s encampment, she heard women’s voices among the men’s. Camp wenches, as usual. What bawdy scenes would she come across this time?
Perhaps Aidan had a bedmate this very night.
The thought made her claws straighten with aggression. He vowed to me. Yet though she would feel betrayed, her desires were growing so intense that she might just toss the woman away and take her place.
Nay. If he’d broken his oath, she would not gift him with her innocence.
I have to know. . . . At the edge of a central clearing, she leapt into a tree, adjusting her cloak to keep her glow concealed. Around a great fire sat berserkers of every stripe, all with women or jugs of mead or both clasped in their meaty fists.
Except for one.
He sat off to one side on a long bench, his blond head in his hands. He looked to be squeezing his temples.
Brandr, that cur, sat beside him with a wench in his lap and one hand up her skirt, fondling her backside. With his other hand, he clapped Aidan on the shoulder. “There will be other leads, friend.”
“I felt so certain.” He raised his head, revealing a miserable expression. “Last night, I dreamed I’d found her.”
Regin stifled a gasp at his appearance. Aidan’s striking face was weary, his mien defeated. Yet underneath the signs of the ongoing years, he was still the most beautiful male she’d ever seen.
Brandr handed him a jug. “Here. Drink this.”
Aidan pushed it away. “I need a clear head. We ride north tomorrow.”
“Forget for one night,” Brandr said with an exaggerated slap of the whore’s bottom.
Aidan scowled at that, then all around at the men groping and the women writhing. He took the jug, turned it up. When he’d emptied it, he swiped his tunic sleeve over his mouth. “Gods, what was that? It burns my throat.”
“That was the choice spirits! Now follow them with a choice woman.”
Nay, do not!
“For once, Aidan.”
For once? He truly had kept his vow?
When Aidan cast him another scowl, Brandr sighed. He lifted the woman to her feet, telling her, “Go pleasure others for this hour. I’ll find you for the next.”
Once the two men were alone, Brandr said, “This cannot go on, Aidan. I am your friend, and I cannot see you like this any longer.”
“What would you have me do?”
“Return to being the leader you used to be. For all the gods’ sakes, Aidan, I am closer to ohalla than you are, and you’ve half a dozen years of age on me. Forget this obsession. You think of nothing but her.”
“And can you blame me? Imagine the woman she would be.” He gazed up at the cloudy sky as if picturing her at that moment, and Regin’s heart clenched again. Then Aidan faced Brandr. “Nay, do not imagine her.”
Brandr exhaled. “There are women aplenty in this camp. Women who burn to bed you. Surely you can replace her.”
“The idea is laughable. As well you know.”
“I’d take a warm woman in my hands over a cold Valkyrie in my mind.”
I am not cold!
“By the way,” Brandr added, “that was enough drink to put down a horse. You’ll be on your face soon. Mayhap you’ll actually sleep a night through.”
With a snarl, Aidan shot to his feet, then lurched toward a nearby tent.
“Go to your lonely bed, old man!” Brandr called.
Brandr and I are going to cross swords one day, Regin decided. Then she leapt from one limb to another, settling in a tree outside Aidan’s tent. From there, she could spy the dimly lit interior through the outer flap.
Inside, he angrily ripped off his tunic, displaying broad shoulders and a brawny back that tapered down to narrow hips. As he moved, his muscles flexed beneath smooth tanned skin.
Magnificent male. She hissed out a shaky breath at the sight.
He kicked a shield on the ground, then knocked a tankard from a table. He was like the approaching storm, his ire building as he began to smash his belongings—weapons clanging, wood splintering.
Regin tilted her head in wonder, frowning at the mortal’s rampage.
When the storm gave up its first bolt above, he froze. She thought she heard him mutter, “Lightning. Lightning?” Out of the tent he staggered, clearly the worse for the liquor, and headed away from the camp.
Regin dropped down and silently followed as he made his way out of the forest into a nearby field. He stopped before an ancient rune stone—an upright slab of rock more than ten feet tall, carved with glyphs. They were numerous in these Northlands, each created to be a direct path to Wóden’s ear.
He faced the stone. “You give me lightning this eve?” With every word, his voice grew louder, until he was shouting: “To remind me of what I have lost?” He launched his mighty fist against the rock.
Regin’s jaw dropped at the blasphemy.
Aidan punched it again, bloodying his hand. “To remind me of what I cannot find?”
With his every word, she felt his pain. It washed over her like a flood, temporarily numbing her desires. She’d never known hurt like this—a torment not of the body but of the mind.
Of the heart?
She’d never known he would come to this.
As if pulled to him by an invisible force, she eased closer. When he drew back his bloodied fist again, she stayed his arm with a touch.
He went still, but his whole body seemed to be thrumming. Regin’s was as well; her own lightning lit the sky from her turbulent emotions.
Slowly, he turned to her. With a shaking hand, he reached for her cloak. She didn’t think he even realized he spoke aloud: “Be her, be her, gods, let it be her.”
He unfastened the garment, let it drop to her feet, then sucked in a breath at her uncovered face. His bloodshot eyes now glowed gray as they flickered over her features. Brows drawn together as if he were pained, he held up a lock of her hair, threading his fingers through it. “So fair.”
A light rain began to fall, misting their skin, but he seemed not to notice as his gaze dipped to her body. Rocking on his feet, he rasped, “Gods, ängel. I dreamed of you like this. Every night.” Then he frowned, muttering to himself, “Still in reverie. That was the choicest spirits.”
“‘Tis no dream, warlord—”
One strapping arm shot out to circle her shoulders; the other was a band around her arms and torso, dragging her against him. She felt him groan from deep in his chest as their bodies met.
The closest she’d ever been to a man.
“You’ve returned to me. No longer must I worry for you, out in the world alone,” he said, his voice breaking lower with emotion. “You were just a little girl. Without my protection.” He nuzzled her hair, inhaling with another groan. “But you’re a woman now.” His erection pressed against her belly as he growled. “My woman.”
The bare skin of his chest was smooth against her cheek and felt so hot in the rain. His scent surrounded her, enticing her as much as his muscles rippling all around her. When he rubbed his chin over the sensitive tip of her pointed ear, her claws curled, readying to sink into his body and pull him ever closer.
Yet then he drew his head back, suspicion in his expression. “Have you lain with another?”
She frowned, genuinely curious when she asked, “Would you not want me if I had?”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. He ignored her question. “Has there been another, Valkyrie?” His wild eyes were seething gray. “Tell me! The beast in me stirs. It can’t share its mate. I can’t share my mate.”
Regin swallowed at the intensity of his gaze. He would never give her up, would never accept the mere months she’d intended to give him. “Th-this was a mistake.”
“There has been.” He threw back his head and roared like an animal in pain, crushing her against him with one arm as he pounded his fist into the wet stone over and over. “You were meant for me, meant only for me!”
“Aidan, wait,” she cried, grappling to free herself, but he’d pinned her arms to her sides. “Listen to me!”
He didn’t. “I was true to you, Valkyrie!” The rune stone began to crack under his assault. “I will slaughter any who’ve touched you. . . .”
Seeing no other recourse, she sank her fangs into one of the thick muscles of his chest.
He seemed not to feel it. She bit harder until she’d drawn blood.
Finally he slowed. “You’re biting me?” he slurred.
With a roll of her eyes, she released him.
“If you mean to pain me, you will have to do better than that. I’ve had nine years of perfect misery.”
“I had to do something to make you listen. Aidan, I’ve never been touched. Not that it should matter—since you are certainly no innocent.”
He sagged against her in relief.
She added sarcastically, “My virgin’s blood is still yours to spill.”
He took her words seriously. “‘Tis mine by right. You belong to me! If there’d been another, I would make him eat his own entrails.”
She blinked up at him. “And these are your words of sentiment?”
“There’s no poetry in me, Reginleit. No fine words.” He stared down at her, his gaze seeming to consume her. “I come to you as a man unfinished.”
Raw, grim male.
He took her hands in his bloodied, callused ones. “Accept me?” His eyes glowed, his lashes spiked from rain.
Lightning struck then and her breath caught—he had a face made even more beautiful in the blaze of lightning. “Warlord, you once told me I’d always know what you’re thinking. What are your thoughts now?”
“Partly, I’m thinking that I might shame myself in my trews, just from the feel of you next to me.” One of his hands snaked around to cover her backside, gripping her there.
“And partly, I’m fearing I will frighten you away again.”
“You did not frighten me away before. Nothing frightens me.”
“Then why did you leave me?”
“Because you would not listen to me. You sought to take away my freedom.”
“And give you mine in turn, woman! Then why’ve you come to me now?”
“Mostly because of . . . the change. When beset by these needs, I came to you to have them eased.”
Again, he went still. “You came to me,” he repeated hoarsely. “To your man. Reginleit, you make my chest bow with pride.” His lips curled. “And my shaft swell. I’m greedy to sample these generous new curves you’ve brought me.”
“My looks please you?” She straightened her shoulders self-consciously. “I fear I did not grow tall.”
“Please me?” He laughed from deep in his chest. “You stun me. Ah, little wife, if you did not grow up, you certainly grew out.” One of his hands dropped to cover a breast, giving it a tender squeeze. When he shuddered with delight, she felt a thrill down to her toes.
“And you came to me to ease you here?” His other hand trailed down between them to gently cup her sex.
She gasped. “Y-yes.”
His eyes burned with excitement, with possession, with pride. “I’m going to make your lightning rain down.” He pressed the heel of his palm harder, and her head fell back.
“Ah, yes! Make love to me, warlord.”
“Words from fantasy. But I cannot. I need more time.”
She lifted her head. “I do not understand.”
“I want more of you. I want eternity.”
“What are you speaking of?”
“If I deflower a Valkyrie before wedding her, I will never earn ohalla. Wóden would never gift me with it.”
“Wed?” She yanked his hand from her. “Immortals cannot wed mortals! It’s unnatural.” To watch him die a little each day, until he withered with age . . .
“Precisely. So I must be of your kind. And even were it not forbidden, I still would not wed you without ohalla. I know of no warrior older than sixty winters. I’ve forty. Two decades should be but a taste of life with you.”
In a crestfallen tone, she said, “You want me to . . . wait?” Her plan was foiled, utterly. Not only would she not get what she came for, she’d be punished for trying.
“Only to be claimed. Rest assured, I’ll sate you in other ways till then.”
But she wanted to know everything, to experience it all. “How many battles do you have left?”
He lifted his chin. “A mere six dozen or so.”
“Are there even that many wars?” she cried.
“Between the vampires and the unallied demonarchies, a lifetime of war awaits.”
“Seventy battles could take years! I came here because I wanted you to be my first lover.”
“By all the gods, I will be, woman. But not yet. You wait for me, Reginleit. I will seize ohalla for you, for us.”
“And what would you expect me to do while you are out fighting? My Valkyrie nature hungers for war as much as yours does. And I hold no love for vampires.” Her mother’s people, the Radiant Ones, had been exterminated by them.
“You will remain behind—”
Eyes widening, she opened her mouth to give him a blistering reply.
“—to train, as all my men do before they go to battle,” he finished.
“Train?” she scoffed. “I’ve readied for war all my life.”
“Using the wrong weapon. You still wield your long sword?”
“With your small height and Valkyrie speed, you should be fighting with two short swords. I could teach you how.”
She pursed her lips, reluctantly intrigued by that idea. “And once I am trained . . .” she prompted.
As if the words were pulled from him, he said, “You can join me at the front. But only after I deem you ready.”
She dug one fang into her bottom lip, actually considering his offer.
He must have taken her silence as acceptance, because he leaned down to kiss her neck, his mouth so hot in the rain. Against her skin, he rasped, “And, brightling, know this . . .” His tongue flicked out to lick drops from her. “I vow to you now, I will be your last lover.”
She couldn’t think when he was doing that! “I-I haven’t agreed to this. Am I to have no say? Again?”
He inhaled as if for control, then raised his head. “Give me a chance, and I will claim your heart. All I need is time.”
She didn’t believe that could happen. An immortal like her could never fully love a mortal. Her instincts would rebel against tender feelings like that.
After all, she could never give her heart to a man who would take it to the grave with him, leaving her broken and yearning for eternity.
Still, there was something captivating about Aidan’s utter confidence. As if he knew something about her that she didn’t even know herself. And her out-of-control desires were making it difficult to deny him. “I will give you three months, warlord. You have three months to win me.”
“Ah, Valkyrie”—he curled his finger under her chin—”your heart will be mine in two.”
* * *
Seven months later
Where is he? I’m going mad without him here.
Regin paced their longhouse as a blizzard raged outside. Aidan was a week overdue from a campaign. She’d ridden the countryside searching for him for days, but found no sign.
There was rumor of a capture.
Did he even live?
Aidan. The bear of a warrior she could never allow herself to love, but the one she wanted above all others.
Even though she was a full immortal now—her appetite for food had disappeared, her need for war burgeoning—she lingered with him here at his camp.
I am better for being here, for being with him. She was a better swordswoman—though he hadn’t deemed her ready for war yet, and she secretly feared he never would.
She was a better lover. Though he hadn’t coupled with her.
Seven months ago, she had tried repeatedly to seduce him, coaxing him to take her completely. Yet in time she’d come to want more of him, too. No, he couldn’t win her heart, but he’d won her desires. He’d pleasured her relentlessly, teaching her to slake him as well.
Each time he set off to battle, she demanded, “Take me with you, warrior.” His ploy to keep her in camp? He left her sexually sated and sprawled on the furs, exhausted but glowing with bliss. Already pining for him to return.
As he’d done so long ago, Regin had begun to ask herself, why not him?
Because once she’d learned how to handle her stormy berserker—knowing when to tease him, when to claw him, when to draw him into her arms and murmur, “Shh, be at ease, warlord”—life with him had been surprisingly gratifying.
He treated her like a goddess, spoiling her with gifts and surprises. And they laughed constantly. She savored the sound of his laughter coming from his big barrel chest—as well as his gruff words of affection: “Remember those years ago when I vowed I would love you one day? I told you true.”
Could any male make her feel as he had the night he’d lightly rasped his blond stubble over her stomach and murmured, “I want babes with you—berserker sons and Valkyrie daughters.” He’d raised his head, gazing at her with clear gray eyes. “Give them to me one day?”
Having a Valkyrie for his mate had done nothing to curb his arrogance. He behaved like an immortal already—even more arrogant and lordly—thrilling her. “Wóden will look upon me with favor,” he’d told her. “No male could treasure his daughter more than I do you.”
‘Twas simple enough. Regin desired him above all males and knew she always would, which meant two decades was far too short—
He stumbled through the door.
She gave a cry, leaping to her feet. “Thank gods, you’ve returned! Where have you . . .” She trailed off at the wild look on his face. “Aidan?”
His eyes ablaze, he dropped his bloody ax, then ripped off his sword belt and crimson-stained tunic. His tattooed chest heaved as he stalked toward her, his expression warning her to take a step back. Then another.
“Aidan, say something.”
“They tried to keep me from you.” He backed her into the table, cornering her, predatory.
“Who? The vampires?”
“No one keeps me from you. Not immortals, not men, not a god. Nothing can keep me from you.”
“Aidan, wh-what are you doing? You’re on the very edge. You must calm yourself.”
“My life passed before me, Reginleit. I’d rushed to battle because I want you forever—only to fall without a single night inside you? The idea sent me into a frenzy!”
She’d never seen him this far gone when not fighting. They both worked to keep him from reaching his berserkrage, knowing he’d lose control to the beast within.
The beast that roared inside him to claim its mate.
“I left a wake of death to return to you”—his hand shot out to cup her nape, yanking her close—”to make you mine in all ways.” He dipped his head to nip her breast, making her gasp. “Tonight I’ll ride your little body till you scream with pleasure.”
“Have you fever? Are you maddened?” She shoved him away, but again, he stalked closer. “You know why we can’t!”
“We can! You are mine to claim. Ohalla is mine to take! I demand it all—mine by right.”
“This is the berserkrage speaking . . . speaking nonsense. Think about what you are saying! We’ve set our course, and we will be steadfast.”
Regin knew that the hotter his rage, the faster and stronger he’d be. If she didn’t make it out of here with a burst of speed, all would be lost. She feinted left, then ducked to the right, sprinting past him—
He caught her dress, snatching her back.
He seized her in the cage of his arms, carrying her to their bed, dragging her down with him. “‘Tis unnatural to deny this fated need. You know this—you feel it too!” Before she could escape, his hands fisted in the front of her dress. With a roar, he rent the material clean from her body, his smoldering gaze raking over her breasts and lower to her sex.
He was going into that mindless state, his muscles bulging even more. “You wanted me to claim you before. Is that no longer true?”
“Of course I want you to, but not yet!”
He tore off his boots and breeches, rising up above her. His mighty shaft swelled with lust, moisture beading the proud crown.
Raw male. Against her will, the flesh between her legs dampened, her breasts growing heavy.
Whenever the spirit of the bear quickened inside him, she responded—as if he’d imparted some of his beast, imprinted it upon her.
Because once it rose, she grew desperate to answer its call.
Now she fought the growing need. “Nay! Do not do this!” She pummeled his chest, but when he was like this, she was no match for his strength. He caught her wrists, easily pinning them over her head.
“Aidan, I-I am pleading, just wait—” The words caught in her throat when he dipped his head to one of her breasts, his lips closing over her nipple.
As he sucked, his finger slid into her core. “Wet for me,” he growled around the peak. A second finger delved as he moved his hot mouth to her other breast, suckling with greedy lips, his tongue swirling.
Her nipples were damp and throbbing, her sex quivering to his touch. “Aidan!”
“You’re ready, nigh coming.” But he slipped his fingers from her. She whimpered, undulating for them.
With her arms still captured over her head, he covered her body with his own. “You are mine, Reginleit!” He rocked his hips between her thighs.
She felt his thick manhood, pulsing, seeking . . .
And gods help her, she tilted her hips so it could surge home.
“Mine!” he roared.
“‘Tis done now, brightling,” Aidan said, his voice hoarse from his bellows of pleasure, his body warm and relaxed over her. “No going back.” He put his forehead to hers.
She could hardly stem her tears. Over the last few hours, she’d experienced more ecstasy than she’d ever imagined. But now sand in the hourglass had begun to flow. Only so much remained. “Do you have regrets, warlord?”
“That I was not doing this every hour for the last several months.”
Somehow she forced herself to smile. “You had better make this the best twenty years of my life.”
“You think I’ve given up on eternity with you?” He stood, rising before her, naked, big and bold. So beautiful she wanted to weep. “If you knew my feats, the clashes I won to escape those vampires. Don’t you understand? Nothing can keep me from you! Nothing could touch me. With you as my woman, I feel immortal already.”
And gods, he looked it.
“Wóden should be honored to have me as a son.”
“Will he deny me when I win a thousand battles bearing his mark?” He pounded his tattooed chest. “I will win the entire world in his name if I have to!”
The power of this warlord’s body. The strength of his will. The might of his sword . . .
He was so confident that even she began to believe it. If they were together, why couldn’t they do anything?
He rejoined her, covering her once more. “And you will wait for me. I do not ask this of you. I demand it.” His lips descended on hers, his rough kiss brooking no refusal.
As she arched up to him, she knew she would wait forever. Something about this male had always drawn her, captivated her. She couldn’t explain it, but she was through fighting it. Love or not—this was her man and always would be. . . .
More hours of blissful coupling followed, more unimaginable pleasure.
And afterward, as she began drifting to sleep with their bodies still joined, he cradled her face with his callused palms, brushing kisses over her forehead, her cheeks. “I promise you eternity, Reginleit. And each day I will love you more than the one before—”
Suddenly pain stabbed in her torso like fire. “Aidan!” A blade had sunk into her? How? In a panic, she pushed up against him. Blood poured as she disentangled them.
“Reginleit?” he bit out in confusion. A sword tip jutted from his chest.
“Aidan!” she shrieked. “Ah, gods, no!”
A vampire loomed behind him; the assassin had traced into their home and stabbed Aidan from behind.
The vampire wrenched the sword free, raising it to finish Regin as well. “For the lives you took yesterday, berserker! For your wars . . . now you and your woman die!” He swung; Aidan shielded her with his body, taking the blow across his back.
Just as the vampire readied to strike once more, Brandr burst inside, cleaving through its neck with his ax. The vampire collapsed.
Brandr cast one look at Aidan and fell to his knees. “Nay, Aidan,” he rasped. “The fiend must have followed you back.”
Still struggling to protect her, Aidan rolled onto his lacerated back, reaching for his sword.
Brandr hastened to hand it to him, but said, “There are no more, my friend. R-rest easy.”
When Aidan turned his head to her, shock threatened to engulf her. Even as she numbly curled up beside him, in her mind she was still shrieking, still hungering to slaughter the thing that had done this.
Aidan’s mighty chest labored for breath. “Brandr will earn ohalla and watch over you.” He faced his friend. “Vow it.”
His voice ragged, Brandr said, “I vow it.”
Seeming relieved, Aidan turned back to her. “I love you, Reginleit.”
She swallowed back a sob. This cannot be happening. “I-I love you, too.”
“Nay. Your heart is . . . still your own.” He raised a bloody hand to her face, and she knew he’d lost sight in his eyes. “I but needed more time.”
She seized his hand in both of hers, squeezing hard. “Then take it, warlord. Take more time—you fight for us! You heal so quickly, you can recover from this!”
But his lids slid shut, his breaths rattling. Brandr roared with grief.
“Aidan, come back to me.” She wept over him, tears spilling onto his skin. “Come back to me, come back to me!”
Just before his breaths ceased, he vowed, “Somehow, love . . . I will find you.”
And Aidan did.
Yearning for Regin endlessly, he was reborn again and again for the next thousand years, re-embodied in different guises and lives, with no memory of his past. Yet each borrowed lifetime ended more tragically than the last.
A pair of lovers—bound and cursed by fate.
Some say ’tis Wóden who punishes Aidan for his hubris, dooming him to perish just when he’s found Reginleit and remembers his love for her.
Some say Aidan’s indomitable will proves so strong that, at times, he can escape the Reaper’s gaol; but no man can elude that dark scythe forever.
Others say that the Valkyrie’s kiss was so sweet that it enchanted the mortal, who finds her through eternity by following a mad longing within his heart.
Whatever may be the case, to this day, Reginleit awaits.
To this day, Aidan returns. . . .
Outside of New Orleans
Declan Chase eased his Humvee down a winding bayou drive leading to Val Hall, the estate where a notorious coven of Valkyrie lived.
My target will be within.
Regin the Radiant.
Though his head was splitting from lack of sleep and his usual tension plagued him, he felt a measure of excitement about his mission. Ever since he’d received her dossier two weeks ago, Declan had been impatient to seize this female.
Perhaps because no other magister had ever captured a Valkyrie?
Yet he reminded himself that tonight’s target would be merely another capture, yet another prisoner he delivered to the Order—the mortal army to which he’d pledged his life.
When he spied lightning in the distance, he pulled off into the thick brush, deep enough to conceal his truck. After turning off the ignition, he readied for the night with a swift efficiency born of years of combat.
He strapped his sword to his side, then checked the pistols in his dual holster and the extra cartridges in his dark flak jacket. More cartridges filled the pockets of his camo pants. He was well aware that a gun couldn’t kill an immortal, but an armor-piercing round between the eyes at close range could bring one to the ground.
He opened a briefcase filled with sensitive electronics, retrieving a minuscule GPS beacon/listening device. After carefully stowing the bug in another pocket, he tested his radio earpiece.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the bayou heat was intense, assailing the truck’s cab. With the jacket, his customary gloves and high-necked shirt, he began to sweat. Drops of perspiration trickled down his chest, over the countless scars covering his torso.
His never-ending reminders of a time spent in hell. . . .
Tamping down those memories, he focused on the mission. Tonight’s was one of only two remaining. Then he could return to his island, to his sanctum.
To my medicine.
With that thought in mind, he stepped out into the humid air, then began jogging along the dirt driveway.
Under a canopy of oaks, he ran through muddy ruts until he reached the estate’s opened entranceway: a pair of battered stone columns, each with a rusted gate clinging by a hinge.
He turned a corner and slowed, taken aback by the sight before him. The Valkyrie’s antebellum mansion was draped in a dense fog that didn’t stir, not even with the breeze. Lightning struck all around the building; the grounds bristled with metal lightning rods. Spectral wraiths flew around the manor, defending it against intruders.
An incongruous row of luxury cars lined the drive. Inside, loud music boomed and raucous women’s laughter sounded. Intermittent Valkyrie shrieks pierced the night.
So this was where Regin the Radiant lived.
Though the Order possessed much information about other species of immortals—such as the vampires and demons—they had acquired only basic facts about her kind.
Valkyrie had little need for sleep and didn’t eat or drink, instead taking nourishment from some unknown mystical source. Though they varied in looks and abilities, they all possessed superhuman strength, speed, and regenerative powers.
Declan knew of only one way to destroy her kind: beheading.
The Order had garnered a few specific details about Regin. History: Thought to be over one millennium in age. Description: Five foot three, slight build with small claws and fangs. Pointed ears. Waist-length blond hair and amber eyes.
But her most notable feature was her skin. She’d been named the Radiant One because she purportedly had skin that glowed.
The file had contained no clear photos of her. The exposure would show only a bright light where she was supposed to be.
Glowing skin. Another freak of nature. Yet she went out freely among civilians.
She customarily wore two short swords crisscrossed over her back—even in public—and was rumored to be an exceptional swordswoman.
That skill wouldn’t save her tonight.
If Declan had been put in charge of this immortal’s capture, then she was a priority to the Order. He’d never failed to bring in a target. He had backup troops awaiting in the city, ready to mobilize in an instant.
Initially, he’d considered storming this place, inflicting as much damage and destruction as possible. But there were other Valkyrie inside, and though their species was uniformly female, they were among the strongest and most vicious in the Lore.
Regin might be slight, but she could likely lift a car by herself.
To bring in a team would risk his soldiers’ lives unnecessarily, and he’d already lost men at a recent capture. A powerful, older vampire had put up a fight as few others ever had.
Plus, Declan had no idea how to battle those wraiths guarding the house. No, he’d wait until Regin the Radiant was separated from her kindred. Then he’d strike.
He approached the row of cars, pulling the bug from his jacket. Determining which one was hers proved simple enough. The RegRad license plate on a red Aston Martin was a dead giveaway.
The field notes in his dossier had described her as ostentatious, prone to flaunting her uniqueness in public. No wonder she’d been targeted. One of the Order’s objectives was to prevent civilians from ever discovering the deathless beings living in their midst.
He eased open the door and affixed the bug under the driver’s side headrest. After testing the sound with his earpiece, he gingerly shut the door and turned to leave—
Out of the corner of his eye, he spied a light, turned to it.
Through one of the mansion’s front windows, he spotted her, or at least the radiance she emanated.
She does truly glow. . . .
He silently moved in, camouflaged behind a tree about two hundred feet from the front porch. He couldn’t see her face, but from the back, her figure was curvaceous. She wore a pair of indecently low-cut hip-hugger jeans and a cropped red T-shirt that revealed her midriff.
Indeed, two swords in black leather sheaths crisscrossed her back.
Her blond hair cascaded all the way to her waist, except where it was braided into haphazard plaits that jutted out all over the top and sides of her head.
Declan suspected she would be as attractive from the front; Lorean females often were. He detested all immortals but especially the females. They used their seductive looks as a weapon, a tool to rob mortal men of their senses.
They will separate you from your purpose, lure you to your doom. How many times had his superior told him that?
A row of bushes between him and the house rustled. Another enemy lying in wait? The Valkyrie had plenty of adversaries. And they had no idea danger lurked so close—
The front doors burst open; a woman stormed outside.
He released a sharp breath.
Those wild braids held her hair back from her face, revealing all her delicate features. Her cheekbones were high and defined, her nose pert. Blond brows drew together over her vivid amber eyes, and her full lips were parted.
She radiated a pure golden light.
A feeling of recognition swept over him. At once, the near crippling tension he’d endured for decades began to ebb. Why? How?
She wasn’t the first unearthly beauty they’d tracked—the Order’s island compound was filled with them—so he would’ve thought himself prepared for her comeliness. But he feared she might be the most beautiful.
At least to me.
“Make a hole, bitches!” she yelled to the wraiths, tossing one of them . . . a braid of hair? When the red-robed beings parted, she strode down the steps, her thick-heeled boots clicking.
Out on the lawn, she stopped and cocked her head, drawing those swords with a lethal grace.
One of her pointed ears was visible and clearly twitching as she scanned the night. She would see Declan . . . would sense him.
He was about to slip back when the bushes nearby rustled once more.
Without a second’s thought she dove into them, pouncing on whatever skulked there. A moment later, a ghoul’s severed head came flying out. When she bounded from the shrubs, her swords were already sheathed and twigs protruded from those haphazard braids. She reached up, felt them, then left them there with a shrug.
When a trio of other women staggered out onto the front porch, Regin held up the head and made an exaggerated curtsy. They cheered drunkenly. Witches, no doubt. They were the Valkyrie’s allies and notorious drunks.
One laughed, tripped over her own feet into a pratfall, then laughed again.
Regin turned back to face his direction. With her skin glowing brighter and her expression animated, she punted the ghoul’s head like a football, then shaded her eyes melodramatically. As it sailed far above him toward a nearby swamp, she cried, “It. Might. Go. All. The. . . . Way!”
She cannot be one thousand years old.
The witches cheered again.
That task completed, she plucked a sat-phone from a holster on her belt. She texted something, her fingers so fast they were a blur, then strolled over to her car and hopped inside. The engine purred when she started it. She pulled up in front of the house, honking the horn and rolling down the windows.
“Nïx!” she called. “Get your ass out here!” She said something to the witches in a lower voice, and they howled with laughter. But when Regin turned from them, her easy grin faltered, her demeanor preoccupied.
Another Valkyrie sauntered from that madhouse, a black-haired one with vacant eyes, cradling what looked like a paralyzed bat in one arm like a babe.
She had to be Nïx the Ever-Knowing, a powerful soothsayer. Though she looked to be in her mid-twenties, she was one of the oldest—and most crazed— immortals on record.
She wore a long, flowing skirt, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt that read VALKYRIE in big block letters with an arrow pointing up at her face.
Flaunting themselves. The arrogance. Christ, how he hated them.
She too proffered a braid to the wraiths—a toll of some sort?—then joined Regin in the car, blowing a kiss to the witches. The two Valkyrie pulled out, some asinine song blaring from the car stereo—the only lyrics were “Da-da-da.” They bobbed their heads in unison to the music.
As they passed, he drew back into the brush, his heart thundering. But the dark-haired one turned, looking directly at him with eerie golden eyes.
Just as the hair on the back of his neck stood up, the soothsayer mouthed, You’re late.
Regin sensed some enemy was hot on her ass as she sped down dark country roads.
But she simply didn’t have time for a fight to the death just now. Regin had to reach Lucia before it was too late.
She adjusted the rearview mirror. “Are we being followed?”
Nïx nodded happily. “Usually.” She tapped her chin with her free hand. “You know, you think you don’t like it, but actually you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”
Regin scowled at her sister, doing her damnedest to ignore Bertil—the bat Nïx carried. It’d been a gift from a secret admirer. “Seeing as we’re on our way to the Loreport, you probably should tell me where I’m flying out to tonight.” Nïx’s last report on Lucia had her in the Amazon, of all places.
“Hmm. Should I remember?”
“Me. Meeting up with Lucia. Who’s gearing up to slay Cruach, her worst nightmare.” Crom Cruach was the ancient horned god of human sacrifices and cannibalism—and the monster who’d tricked Lucia into leaving Valhalla. Every five hundred years, he tried to escape his prison. For the last two times, Lucia—with Regin as her trusty wingman—had forcibly denied his parole. “Any of this ringing a bell, Nïx?”
“Gods, I don’t have time for this!” Lucia was out there alone; Cruach was rising nowish. And Nïx was spacing?
“Don’t shriek,” Nïx chided. “You’ll hurt Bertil’s ears, and he needs them for echolocation.” As she stroked her new pet in a love-him-and-pet-him-and-call-him-George kind of way, her eyes were even more vacant than usual. Her visions of the future had been hitting her rapid-fire lately, and they were taking a toll.
Assholes were laying odds in the Lore betting book that Nucking Futs Nïx wouldn’t make it through this Accession with any remaining sanity intact. And there wasn’t a whole lot remaining.
“Don’t fret, love,” Nïx said reassuringly.
“How can I not fret . . .” Regin trailed off. “You’re talking to the freaking bat!”
She tickled its belly with a claw. “Coochy-coo.” Regin swore the bat smacked its lips with contentment, snuggling into her arm.
Had Nïx been feeding that little winged rat her blood? “Don’t you know that those things spread Cujos? Damn, Nïxie, you’re getting worse. Even more cray-cray than usual.”
She briefly glanced up. “That’s fair.”
“Uh-huh.” Regin downshifted, tires squealing as she swerved to dodge a roadkill-bound possum.
“But what about your own cray-crayness, Regin? You’ve been behaving very badly of late. Getting high on intoxispells and picking fights. You are acting out, and it simply must stop unless you invite me to join in.”
Also fair. But what else was Regin supposed to do? A year ago, she and Lucia had undertaken a badass mission to discover a way to defeat the unkillable Cruach forever. Instead of merely imprisoning him. They’d traveled all over the world together, risking their lives.
In other words, good times. But then Prince Garreth MacRieve, Lucia’s werewolf admirer, had started following her everywhere, sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Regin’s solution? Euthanasia.
Lucia’s solution to Regin’s solution? Leave her behind when she was nursing a hangover.
Abandoned me like last year’s wardrobe. Regin’s claws dug into the steering wheel. After a millennium of never leaving each other’s side. But last year’s wardrobe is determined to make a comeback.
“Nïx, you promised you’d tell me where Luce is if I did everything you asked me. I cleaned your room. I took your Bentley to the shop after you went off-roading again. And I put in hours at the Lore foundling house with those little punks.” Regin had begun to call it the Lorphanage and predicted it’d stick. “I need to keep moving anyway. You know he’s returning soon.”
Aidan. With his heart-stopping smile and big, possessive hands. Though she longed to see her Viking in any reincarnation, she’d decided that he might actually live a full life if he never found her.
Nïx sighed. “Have you truly given up all hope of finding a way to be with him?”
Regin glanced over at her, trying not to feel even a sliver of hope. “Any reason not to give up?”
“I believe my advice to you was ‘Go find and bang your berserker.'”
“Huh. Well, see, I tried that, and it didn’t quite work out for me.” The last four times! “I just can’t . . . I’m not doing it again.” The guilt got worse with each reincarnation. She was his doom, might as well deal the deathblow herself.
Aidan had been sword-struck in his first life, poisoned in his second, crushed during a shipwreck in his third. In his fourth, he’d been shot. All directly after she and his reincarnation had made love for the first time.
“Unless you can tell me things might be different this time?” Regin added. Damn, could she sound more desperate? But Nïx helped other immortals with things like this. Why not me?
“What would you do to be with him, hmm? What would you sacrifice?”
“To break this curse, I would do just about anything.”
“Just about?” After long, tense moments, Nïx said, “I have no resolution to tell you.” She couldn’t foresee everything, wasn’t all-knowing. Instead, she’d been dubbed the Ever-Knowing, because her visions had appeared without fail for three millennia.
“No resolution?” She hadn’t expected Nïx to pony up the answer to a thousand-year-old curse before Regin ran her next red light, but a crumb of hope would’ve been nice.
“No matter,” Nïx said. “You must find something to occupy yourself. There’s more to life than destroying vampires.”
“Right. Like destroying evil cannibal gods with Lucia,” Regin said, proud of her segue.
“Always back to Lucia. You’re exceedingly loyal to all your friends—even to your own detriment.”
“Whatever. Loyalty’s not a bad thing.”
“It is when you leave heaven for it. It is when you have nothing to show for it. For instance, your some-some meter is reading empty. What about that nice leopard-shifter pack that wanted to date you? The benefits of a variety pack of males cannot be overstated.”
If the rest of her sisters—or, gods forbid, her witch buddies—found out Regin hadn’t been laid in nearly two hundred years, she’d never live it down. But like some stupid, sappy tool, she stayed faithful to Aidan and his reincarnates.
“Are you happy, Regin?”
She gave Nïx the look her question deserved. “I’m the prankster, remember? The happy-go-lucky one. Ask anyone—they’ll tell you I’m the cheeriest Valkyrie.” She studied Nïx’s expression, this time noticing the shadows under her sister’s eyes. “Why? Are you happy? You seem tired all the time.” She didn’t mention Nïx’s shrieking fits or disappearances, the bizarre eccentricities that only grew worse.
“I’m actively involved in steering the lives of thousands of beings. Which directly affects hundreds of thousands, which indirectly affects millions, with a ripple effect reaching billions. If someone said, ‘It ain’t easy being Nïxie,’ I wouldn’t call him a liar.”
Regin never really thought about the pressure Nïx might be under. If the bat made her happy and calmed her, then . . . Welcome to the family, Bertil.
In a prickly tone, Nïx said, “And yet all anyone talks about is how the Enemy of Old is making power plays in the Lore. His power plays are child’s play compared to mine.”
Like Nïx, Lothaire the Enemy of Old was one of the oldest and most powerful beings in the Lore. But the vampire was pure evil.
Nïx sniffed, “Lothaire’s no saner than I am.”
As Regin opened her mouth to correct her, Nïx amended, “Not much saner.”
“There, now.” Regin reached over to pat Nïx’s shoulder, but that bat hissed at her. “Why don’t you hook up with someone, cozy away with a male for a few weeks? Weren’t you seeing Mike Rowe?”
“I do miss that baritone-voiced rapscallion.” Nïx sighed. “But above all else, I’m a career woman. I’ve no time to dally.”
“You could take just a short vacay, you know? See some sights.” This might be one of the most lucid conversations I’ve ever had with Nïx.
“I’m three thousand and three years old.” Nïx turned her vacant gaze out the window. “I’ve seen everything—” She sat up, eyes wild. “Squirrel!”
Strike lucid. “Hey, I know, you could come with me to find Lucia!”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to be found just yet. You know she’ll call you before the final showcase showdown with Cruach. For now, I’ve told you she’s with MacRieve.”
“With with? ‘Cause I refuse to believe that yet another Valkyrie is making time with a werewolf.” Much less the prim and proper Lucia.
The earthy Lykae revered sex and matehood; Lucia’s magical skill with a bow was celibacy-based. If she got horizontal with a guy, she’d get kicked out of the Skathians, losing her archery forever. Which she needed to fight Cruach.
Hence the fleeing from MacRieve and all.
“Refuse or accept, I call ’em like I see ’em,” Nïx said. “Now, I have just one final task for you in the Quarter. I need you to go take out some adversaries. Make it an example killing.”
“Example killing? Must be Tuesday. And you’re not going to get in on the action?”
Nïx blinked at her, aghast. “Who will sit Bertil?”
“Besides, I’m going to visit Loa’s voodoo shop. She’s having an Accession sale. Everything must go.” She snickered.
“If I do this, will you finally tell me how to find Lucia?”
Another pet of the bat. “Don’t worry, dearling. You’ll fly out tonight. I promise.”
“Are you talking to me or Bertil? Oh, me? Then, fine.” She gunned the car even faster, speeding toward the Quarter. Lucia, I’m on my way . . . just hold tight. “Tell me where my victims are.”