Today Susan and I are revealing the cover for Heart’s Ease, the second installment of The Northwomen Sagas. The Goodreads page is updated, too, so you can add it to your TBR, if you’d like.
In the first installment, God’s Eye, we met the leads of Heart’s Ease: Olga and Leif. Their meeting and burgeoning relationship happens in the background of Brenna and Vali’s story, and they don’t end up in a good place. Leif makes some difficult choices that he can’t explain to his friends. Especially not to Olga.
They don’t start in a good place, either, frankly, seeing as Olga is enslaved by the Northmen who have ransacked her homeland, and Jarl Åke’s people aren’t known for treating their slaves well. But Leif is not like most of his clansmen.
Heart’s Ease opens at about the same time that the main action of God’s Eye starts, but only the first part overlays the same timeline. Here, Brenna and Vali’s story moves into the background, and you’ll see how Olga and Leif became close. You’ll also see why and how Leif made the choices he did, and what the consequences were for Olga.
The rest of the book moves forward beyond the time spanned in God’s Eye. Olga and Leif have a lot of healing to do and a lot of work to restore the relationship they’d started. And, of course, the hard times aren’t entirely behind them.
If you haven’t read God’s Eye, Heart’s Ease should work as a standalone, too.
Heart’s Ease will release on Saturday, 1 October 2016, and the preorder will be live a couple of weeks before that. Stay tuned for updates!
Here’s the synopsis:
When raiders from the North land in Olga’s world and take it over, she is captured and made a slave. She and her people suffer at the hands of creatures that seem more beasts than men, and not even her talent and skill as a healer can help them.
But one barbarian, big and golden, seems different from the others. He doesn’t revel or partake in the suffering of the new slaves, and, when he learns that Olga is a healer who knows some of their words, he releases her from her bonds.
The raiders stake claim to Olga’s world and mean to settle it, and she and the rest of her people who survived make a new community with the invaders. The barbarians who destroyed her world and made her a slave grow to be her friends and her equals.
The friendship she forms with the one who cut her bonds is the deepest of them all.
Leif is a valiant and esteemed warrior who’s raided for many summers. As a leader in this new world they mean to settle, he forges deep, close ties with those who’d been only allies, and sometimes enemies, and with the native people of this new land.
In particular, he’s drawn to the dark-haired healer, whose tiny body holds the will and spirit of a mighty raider.
Leif is deeply loyal to the jarl who’s treated him as a son. When the jarl arrives to view their success, Leif struggles to understand the ways his mentor has grown cruel and deceitful and to see the man he’s loved as a father, whose sons he loves as brothers. But he recognizes the brutal lies for what they are.
Torn between the man to whom he’d long ago sworn his unconditional fealty and the friends to whom he is devoted, Leif makes a devastating choice, trying as best he can to save those he loves, at any cost to himself. Even at the cost of their love for him.
The consequences of his choice are severe. Perhaps too severe to allow forgiveness.
But until there is forgiveness, there can never be ease.
And here’s the first chapter as a teaser:
The barbarians won the village and all its meager spoils.
Eight women had been spared from death during the scourge and claimed as slaves, Olga and Johanna among them. Johanna’s young friend, Helena, was also dragged away, bound by wrist and neck with hempen rope.
They were dragged farther inland, where the raiders made camp. A pen was made to hold the women, as if they were nothing but livestock. Olga understood enough of the talk around them to know that they were less than livestock to these strange men—and women, there were women among the raiders, bearing sword and shield and stained with blood as much as any man.
Four men—three fishermen and one soldier—had been held alive as well. The soldier was blindfolded and bound to a tree. The others were working to build the camp.
Some of the women were dragged away from the pen, and some were beset where they were, still tied to the post in the center by the rope around their necks.
Johanna was one who was dragged away. She screamed and clutched backward for Olga, her fingernails gouging deep into the flesh of Olga’s arm, until the barbarian hit her in the face and threw her over his shoulder.
For her part, Olga was taken in the pen, thrown face-down in the dirt, the rope tugging at her throat.
It was not the first time she had been taken in this way. She knew the pain of it, and she knew that men who could take this pleasure would take more pleasure in her suffering, so she bore the pain quietly.
She could hear the screams and wails of the other women and the girls, and she spoke clearly, as calmly as she could. “Be strong, sisters. Your pain and fear feeds them.”
Their anguish was too great, however, and they could not heed her.
Roaring fetid breath into the side of her face, the raider completed and left her. Before she could push herself from the ground, another was on her. She bore that, too.
And the next.
She did not resist; she lay as still and malleable as she could be, and she let it happen, because it would happen no matter her struggle, no matter her pain. It was the way of things.
Then she was left alone, as were the others in the pen. And then those who had been taken were returned. None of the women were unscathed; they showed ill use, and several had only scraps left of their clothing.
The raiders seemed to have burned off their savage need and were grouping now near a large fire, from which the smell of roasting meat wafted. They had a new appetite, and the women had a reprieve.
Johanna had been dropped near the pole and tied again to it. She made a weak cry and curled her body into a tight coil. Olga stood and went to her, ignoring the pains of her own body. Helena, bruised and battered herself, left wearing only a torn blouse, her bottom nearly bare, knelt over Johanna, sobbing; Olga nudged the girl to the side.
“Let me see, kullake. Let me see.” At Olga’s gentle urging, Johanna relaxed her body enough for Olga to examine her.
Blood had soaked through Johanna’s skirt, turning the red wool black and shiny. Olga turned to use her hands behind her and pushed the skirt up, over skinny, bare legs, pale but for the vicious bruises blossoming red and purple over the young flesh. And the blood coming from her woman’s place. Running freely. She had only twelve years. Only twelve, and the first blood to come from her womb should not have been this blood.
The sun still shone through pale clouds, and a light, cool breeze made leaves dance and sing on their branches. It seemed too light and gentle a day to hold such darkness.
The quantity and rush of blood foretold that Johanna would die on this day, in this awful place, so close to her home, and yet a world away. She would die in agony, when all around them were herbs for healing and comfort. Barely more than an arm’s reach away was bed of mouse-ear, which could slow the blood and ease her pain. And there were mushrooms that could take her away from this place. That could take them all away.
A certain kind of mushroom, and Johanna need never know pain again.
All of it, almost close enough to reach. But she was tied to a post, and her hands were bound against her back. In powerless frustration, Olga cast her eyes about the camp, as if there might be some help for them among the monsters making this nightmare.
Walking near their pen was the golden giant who had stopped the raider in Johanna’s hut. He had washed the blood from his face and hands. Olga had no cause to think him less terrible than any other of these barbarous creatures, except that he had met her eyes in the hut, and she had seen in his something other than the rapacious hunger of his blood-smeared fellow. And he had not come for the women. Not in the village, and not here in the camp.
She stood and walked the length of her rope.
“Palun!” she called, and then remembered herself and sought the word in the raiders’ tongue. “Please!”
He stopped and cocked his head but didn’t speak.
Olga swallowed, and the rope rubbed against her throat. “Please.” She searched her mind for the words her brother had taught her. “Girl is bad hurt.” A nod toward Johanna on the ground would, she hoped, suffice to fill in any gaps in her words.
“You speak our tongue.” He stepped to the rope fence that bounded their prison.
“Little, yes. A plant at woods. Golden flowers?” She didn’t know how to say ‘mouse-ear’ in any other way. “It help her. Please.”
“You are a”—he said a word she did not know, and she shrugged and shook her head.
“I not know this.”
He paused as if he were thinking and then said, “You make people well?”
“Yes. I try.”
The raider pulled a knife from a sheath on his thigh and came into the pen. Olga ran backward, away from him and what she was sure was her bloody death. She tripped over her feet and had no way to correct or catch herself, with her hands bound behind her. She would have fallen, except that the raider caught her, his massive arm sweeping around her waist.
He was even more enormous up close. Olga felt sure he could have snapped her in two, and she was sure he was about to do just that. Instead, he set her on her feet and used that knife to cut her rope free from the pole. They had the complete attention of the other women, all but Johanna, who was curled again and moaning.
“Please. She suffers. More than we others. She is girl only.” Her mind raced, seeking all the words she knew of this strange tongue, which did not fit in her mouth very well.
He turned and looked down at Johanna, and, again, Olga saw something softer in his eyes. “How old is she?” When she couldn’t quite make sense of the question and didn’t respond, he asked, “How many years?” With that, she understood the first question, too.
His eyes closed. When he opened them, he turned them on her. They were deep blue, like twilight sky. “You can be of use. If you will work and do no harm, I will unbind you.” He shook the rope. “Understand?”
She understood most of his words, but she struggled to make sense of the change in her circumstances. Even if only temporary, it seemed an unthinkable boon. “I help girl?”
“If our healer can use your help, then yes. You will have run of the camp, and may see to the other slaves if you like. But if you make trouble, I will slit your throat.” Brandishing his knife, he asked again, “Understand?”
Olga nodded. “Understand.” She understood enough—he wanted her to work, and he would let her help Johanna. Perhaps the others as well. And he would unbind her.
He cut the rope from her hands and her neck, then sheathed his knife. With a huge hand wrapped completely around her arm, he led her from the pen and into the camp. Over her shoulder, she called to the other women in their own words, “Be strong! I will bring help!”
She hoped that was a truth.
The barbarian healer was another large man—they were all so big—though smaller than the blond, with bushy red hair and beard. He gave the blond one a long look and then nodded.
“You speak our language?” he asked of her.
She kept her eyes downcast; she knew well the role of the subjected. “Yes.”
“You know how to care for wounds—battle wounds?”
Running that sentence through her head as quickly as she could, translating the words, she nodded. “I am healer.” She used the word the blond one had used and thought she now understood its meaning.
There was only one wounded man in the tent. His face was covered in bloody bandages.
“I have no need of her now, Leif, but she can be useful,” the healer said to the blond one. Leif. His name. She looked up at his face and found his eyes on her.
“I will have her tend to the thralls, then. Some of the women are already ill used and will not be of much more use if they aren’t tended to.”
Olga’s head ached from trying to understand the raiders’ words, but sense was already coming more easily to her. “Please,” she said. “I help girl.” Too much time had passed already.
The blond one—Leif—nodded and took hold of her arm again.
But then a horn blew somewhere, and instead of leading her out of the tent, he pushed her back toward the redheaded raider. “You stay with Sven.” To the red one, he said. “Keep her here.”
And he was gone.
“Usch,” the redheaded healer—Sven—muttered under his breath again, while battle screamed and clanged outside the tent. “Usch.”
He went to the tent opening and stood looking. Olga could not see around him, but she didn’t need to; she had seen enough of battle in her lifetime. She had seen enough horror in this one day to last more than one lifetime.
She knew that she would be no help to Johanna now.
Sven turned back to her, a fierce scowl warping his features. “What are you called?”
“I…” She had not expected him to address her. “I…”
“Your name, girl! I am Sven.” He slapped his chest.
“Olga. Fine. I have use of you after all.” He waved a hand at the corner of the tent. “Lay out the mats and furs. I will prepare. We will have wounded. There are always wounded. Understand?”
She nodded and went to the place he’d shown her. His voice called her attention back, and she turned to him again.
“If we are beset, get behind me. Understand?”
Again, she nodded. Though the soldiers, if it was they who had attacked the camp, were ostensibly on her side, she had no trust that she would be rescued by anyone attacking the healing tent.
His eyes traveled the length of her body, one eyebrow cocked in appraisal. “You are the size of a child. There had better be more strength in those skinny arms than a child’s.”
Olga said nothing. She was small among her people, and slim, but not child-size. These giant beast-men seemed hardly human to her.
He turned and crouched before a chest and dug into it, then threw something at her. Of instinct, she caught it. Cloth.
He had tossed her a tunic made of rough-spun wool. Olga looked down at herself and saw, for the first time, that her own blouse was rent down the middle. Her breasts were all but exposed.
She pulled the tunic over her head and rolled the too-long sleeves until her hands were clear.
“Let us prepare for our work.” Sven said, and then proceeded to ignore her.
Olga got to work.
Four men and two women—Olga marveled again at the idea of women warriors, with leather breeches and blood-spattered faces, wielding swords that seemed as long as she was tall—were brought into the tent. One of the men and one of the women were soon carried out, after Sven looked them over and then shook his head.
The other four, and the unconscious man from before, made up their charges. A raider who had carried in some of the wounded stayed and began to help the healing, lifting heavy bodies and stripping armor from bloodied limbs.
Surrounded by work to do, work she knew, Olga focused on her tasks. After a short time, Sven seemed to understand her skill and to trust that she would do no harm, and he left her alone to work. When she said she needed a certain herb, using pantomime to bolster her faulty language and make herself known, he even sent the raider out to gather it.
Beyond the tent, the sounds of battle became the sounds of aftermath. Olga did not need to see outdoors to know that, again, the raiders had won.
Then there was a new commotion outside the door, and a crowd of raiders—four of them—barged in, nearly tearing down the tent in their hurry to be in it. They bore a blood-washed monster in their arms, a man bigger than any Olga had ever seen. A man so big he dwarfed Sven and the others.
They carried him face down, and Olga saw instantly why. He appeared to have been nearly sliced in half. A long, wide gash split his back from shoulder to waist, and as the men carried him and laid him on a pallet far shorter than he, the gash widened, and Olga saw the ladder of his ribs.
She watched and waited for Sven to shake his head and the men to carry the giant out again. But this man must have been special somehow. Perhaps he was truly a giant. Sven knelt at his hip and dug his fingers deep into the wound. Then he brought his hand to his own mouth and sucked the blood.
“Clean. Thank the gods. Get out and let me work.” The men who’d borne the giant into the tent all nodded and took their leave, and Sven began to clean the blood from that massive back.
“I help?” she asked, quietly.
Turning intent green eyes on her, Sven answered, “You help by seeing to the others and leaving me to this work. Dan”—he nodded to the other raider, who had stayed to help—“will help you. Understand?”
“Understand.” Olga ventured to ask more. “This one is important?”
Sven stopped and looked at her directly. This time, she did not look away. “Yes. He is important. A good man and a legend.”
“Sorry. I not know…le-gend.”
The other raider, Dan, now standing at her side, answered. “Our people tell stories about him. Do you know stories?”
“Yes, I know. We have stories. Of great men. Strong.”
“Vali Storm-Wolf is such a man,” Dan said. “The best of us.”
Olga thought even the best of men like these could not be so great a man, but she was moved nonetheless.
The rain that Olga had seen in the sky in the morning, long hours and a lifetime ago, crashed over them in the dusk, not long after the raiders’ legendary giant had been carried into the tent. Olga turned and studied the opaque sheet of water beating down into the mud outside the tent, she listened to the deafening roar of rain pelting the tent roof, and she thought of the women tied to the post.
Without ever meaning to, she had abandoned them. She knew that by now Johanna was dead, and perhaps others as well. Hours since Leif had taken her away, and Olga had been so wrapped up in the work here that she had barely spared them—her friends, her own people—a thought. And now she was dry and protected, and they were alone, exposed to the elements and countless horrors.
The giant was conscious, but barely. Sven had begun to stitch the terrible wound closed, and a hoarse groan erupted from his patient every now and then, when the bone needle went into the tattered flesh.
In Olga’s opinion, Sven was causing more pain for no sound reason. No mortal being, not even a legendary giant, unless he was made of something more than flesh, could survive such a wounding.
The tent shook as someone came in, and Olga turned quickly, her heart racing. She did not like these raiders coming up behind her; she expected each time to be grabbed or stabbed.
It was a woman, a warrior, drenched from the storm but still covered head to toe in blood. She was tall, more than a head above Olga.
She took note of the people in the tent. When her eyes turned her way, Olga saw how strangely lovely they were. Two different eyes in the same head. The left eye was a shade of blue, light and deep like a cloudless sky. Pretty, but not unusual. The other, though, was a marvel. Olga had never seen its like. Without thinking, she narrowed her focus, trying to see all there was to see in that right eye. The candles in the tent burned brightly, and Olga saw green and blue and amber swirled together in the woman’s eye. More fascinating than that were the streaks of brown, almost like something drawn over all that color.
The warrior woman cocked her head, and Olga realized she was staring and dropped her eyes. She was sorry to do so.
“How is he?” the woman asked Sven.
Sven seemed shocked that she had spoken. He didn’t look up at her. “There is no offal in his blood. He might yet live if the bleeding stops.”
“See, Brenna God’s-Eye?” the giant gritted the words out. “We are fated to save each other.”
Vali Storm-Wolf and Brenna God’s-Eye. Olga almost smiled. There was something strong between these two. A true bonding. Olga could sense the way their life forces mingled and became something new, something singular and unified, and she thought she understood the raiders’ word.
Vali Storm-Wolf’s wound might have been clean of offal, but it had not been clean of filth. The next day brought fever and swelling, and Sven and she had worked long to draw the corruption from him.
The warrior woman with the strange and beautiful eye came to sit with him again. Brenna God’s-Eye. These people must have thought her eye more than strange. They seemed all to fear it, and her. All but the giant, Vali.
Olga’s people had no gods. They believed that what lay on the earth, and in it, and above it, and beyond it, was all of a piece, that life rolled like a wheel through it all, and that balance in all things was the only true reverence. They celebrated the solstices, the longest and shortest of days, and the sowing and reaping, because those days were days when balance was most clear.
They treated beasts and trees and plants, and earth and sea and sky, with the respect due equals, holding no thing above another.
The nobles, perhaps, saw balance in another way, but neither Olga nor any of her people saw nobles as part of them. They were merely raiders of another sort. The sort that never sailed away and left them alone.
A horn blew again, and Brenna left Vali’s side. Shortly thereafter, a large party of the raiders left the camp on horseback. Sven stood at the tent opening, muttering under his breath.
Olga waited until he sighed and turned back to his patients before she asked if she might finally go to the women.
Johanna had died. The other women had tended her body as well as they could, but she yet lay tied to the post.
The storm and the night, and the raiders, had been hard on them all. They were all of them nearly or entirely naked, and they huddled together in the chill, trying to keep warm.
Olga, fully dressed and recently fed, knew deep guilt, and saw the condemnation on the faces of her friends.
But she had brought round loaves of flat bread and two skins of water, and a bundle of herbs gathered from the camp edges, and she did what she could to ease their way. They tore the bread and water from her hands.
With no way to prepare properly the healing herbs she had found, she made the best adjustments she could. After she treated the women’s open wounds with a quickly-prepared healing paste and gave them herbs to eat to thicken their blood, she handed small bunches of wild mushrooms to each of them. “These will make it easier when the men come. I will ask to take Johanna away, and I will try to bring you cover. I am sorry I can do no more.”
“It is the way of things,” Lagle said and took a bunch of small, long-stemmed mushrooms. She stared at her hand. “If we eat these all at once?”
Olga understood what Lagle was asking, and she shook her head. “That will make you only ill and hurt more. I cannot go far enough into the woods for the right growth to do more than that. Forgive me.”
There was commotion at the camp head; the raiders were riding back. “I must go. I will come back as quickly as I can.” With a last, lingering glance at Johanna’s small, broken body, Olga hurried away from the pen, back toward the healer’s tent.
Olga left the tent later, needing to relieve herself. Though many of the men frightened her, they did not accost her and had not since Leif had removed the rope. It was as if word had been passed to leave her alone.
Only Vali was left to heal, and he had fought off the fever and corruption. Olga thought the giant would live. He must indeed have been something more than mere man.
Brenna, the warrior woman—Olga had heard a word several times, shieldmaiden, and she believed that she had parsed out its meaning—was sleeping in the healer’s tent, stretched out at Vali’s side. Indeed those two were bonded, though Brenna did not seem to know it. A strong aura of peace rose up around them when they touched. There was so little of peace in this place that Olga could not help but notice, and she could not help but take from it some small ease in her heart as well.
Coming back from the tree behind which she’d crouched, Olga heard something and stopped to make it out. A beast in the woods?
No, a man. Either in distress or in pleasure. The sounds some men made were similar in any extremity.
Distress. It was distress—the long, deep, wrenching groan of true pain. She had earlier heard the screams of a soldier being tested, but this could not be a captive, beyond the edge of the camp. It must have been a raider making such a dreadful noise, and Olga considered ignoring it and returning to the healer’s tent. Now that Vali was recovering and alone in the tent, perhaps Sven would consider helping the women.
Or he could decide that he no longer needed her and send her back to the pen. Either way, she wondered how much the private pain of one of the monsters merited her attention.
Except that she was coming to see them as more man than monster. She was coming to like Sven, and Dan. And Vali and Brenna. Hidden away in the healer’s tent, doing the work she knew and being treated as one who had skill, she had seen more of these people as humans than the women in the pen, tied to a stake, could see.
And she could not ignore pain when it was so close and so obvious. She headed in that direction.
Leif was sitting on a large rock, his back to her. She recognized his leather and fur, and the long, loose mane of golden hair lying over it. He was folded over, his face buried in his hands, and he roared into his palms, again and again, a sound of pure misery.
This was, indeed, private pain. Deep and harrowing. He wanted to be alone. Meaning to turn and leave him before he knew she was there, Olga’s feet instead went forward, until she stood nearly at his side. He took no notice of her until her arm stretched out and her hand touched his head, stroking the length of his hair. Soft and straight, like spun gold.
He jerked from her touch and stood, his big hand gripping the pommel of the sword at his hip. His body was tensed to fight, but his face showed every shard of the anguish his voice had conveyed.
“You,” he said, but there was no accusation or malice in the sound. Only surprise.
“You have pain.”
His shoulders relaxed. “None that any healer can ease.”
Not knowing why she did so, Olga took the steps between them and laid her hand on his chest. “Pain of heart, then. Sadness.”
Leif stared down at her hand for a moment, and she felt the rise and fall of his breaths. Then he brought his own hand up and wrapped it around her wrist. He pulled her touch away and released her.
Again he said, “None that any can ease,” and he turned and walked back toward the heart of camp, leaving her in alone in the growing dark.
©2016 Susan Fanetti