Land of the Franks
Smoke and mist parted, luring gawkers and traders alike.
“Come, see the goods,” a voice beckoned from the crowd.
Canny merchants in billowing robes examined exotic
wares: fragrant spices, cloth spilling rivers of color, and
barrels of rich Frankish wine. Morning air filled with
foreign words and the clink of foreign coins. Bretons.
Castilians. Saxons. All mixed with the Danes, those giant
men who fingered giant hammers with relish. A gaggle of
freewomen gossiped while gutting slippery fish. Scores of
seagulls squawked, diving at fish heads the chattering women
tossed aside. Helena watched these curious sights, so
different from her humble village. All would be well except
she was a stolen woman, taken in a raid on her village.
Human chattel to the Danes.
She scanned the heavens and curled her fists.
I will return home.
A cool, mocking laugh intruded. “Praying again?”
Sestra, a buxom, flame-haired woman swigged water
from the drinking pouch they shared. Like Helena, her wrists
were tethered by long leather bindings to a stake in the ground.
“Good morning.” Helena reached for the proffered pouch.
“We’ll see soon enough,” Sestra groused. “Prayers
don’t work, you know. Find a good protector. Work will be
light then.” She finger combed her tangled hair for maximum
effect and purred, “Find the right protector and you won’t
have to lift a finger.”
Helena bristled at the suggestion. “I will have my
freedom again.” She winced at the sight of loud warriors
sharpening their axes around a smoky fire. “First, I need to
get away from here.”
“Give it up. Accept your lot in life. We are
captives. Slaves. Thralls. The language doesn’t matter, the
master you serve does.” Sestra scanned the horizon,
assessing a Flemish merchant fussing with his robes.
Both women were Frankish and of similar age but
worlds apart in experience. Helena wanted to argue her
point, but Sestra held up bound hands.
“Let me give you some advice…advice that’s saved my
hide. Forget about home, and don’t fight. Those who fight
don’t live long.” Sestra tapped her own smooth cheek and
gave Helena a knowing look. “Look at what happened to you.”
Helena tested her cheek, touching skin scabbed and
smooth. Outer wounds heal, but wounds to the soul cut deeper
and lingered long. Aye, some things were worth a fight. Her
hands slid to the leather pouch that hung from her neck.
‘Twas tucked between her breasts inside her dress, the
contents safe—for now.
“The wound stopped the Danes. What’s done is done. .
.” She squeezed her eyes shut, banishing images of that day.
“. . .but I will not accept this as my lot in life.”
A stench of fish assaulted Helena. When she opened
her eyes, the freewoman who brought their provisions
approached and her gap-toothed smile held no cheer.
“Won’t have that for long,” the hag sneered,
pointing at the lump under Helena’s bodice. “Should’ve let
him take yer puny purse.”
The old woman dropped bread to the ground and
planted work-rough hands at her hips as she loomed over
them. Chills swept Helena’s limbs, owing nothing to the
morning’s dampness. She folded her legs tight to her body.
Her bindings chafed tender flesh. The brutal Gudrud’s attack
broke like sharp-tipped fragments in her mind as the
grizzled woman cackled.
“He returns. Soon,” she crooned. “Dung for brains
has he. Felled by a Frankish maid in front of the other men.
Yer kick hurt more than his man parts. Ye damaged mannish
pride.” She waggled a finger at Helena and sang a gleeful
warning. “Get sold today or sleep with one eye open. Night’s
when he’ll get revenge.”
“Leave her be,” Sestra hissed. “Isn’t it enough you
torment us daily?”
“I can forget to bring food for the likes of ye,”
the old woman jeered.
“Be gone. We don’t need you.”
Two pairs of stunned eyes turned to Helena, who sat
tall with her chin tipped high.
“Want me gone, do ye? I can forget yer food. See how
those haughty words taste when yer belly aches from hunger.”
The fishwife’s rheumy eyes narrowed on the small bulge under
Helena’s bodice. “Hope whatevers ye got was worth it.”
The freewoman sauntered away, jibing about less
thralls to feed. Helena clenched the pouch; the stone within
was hard to her fingers. After she had been wounded, the
other Danes had belittled Gudrud for losing a tussle with a
mere woman. Magnuson, their leader, had let her keep the
well-worn pouch, deeming it worthless upon quick inspection.
“Well, she did serve a purpose. I, for one, like to
eat,” Sestra said, eyeing the bread.
“I couldn’t abide her taunts anymore.” Helena’s
shoulders slumped as she dusted off the loaf and tore it in
two. She passed the larger portion to Sestra. “And now my
outburst cost us both. Who knows when she’ll bring food again.”
Sestra inspected the bread’s soft innards and
scooped a handful. “Forget it. Eating is the least of your
worries. The hag had one thing right. Gudrud will return and
you cannot be here.”
Helena tucked her bread portion into her lap. “I
could try running away.”
Sestra choked on her bread. “Remember the Basque woman?”
Helena hugged her legs still folded tightly to her
body as visions of that day spilled. A twilight trip to
answer nature’s call at the forest’s edge, and she saw the
black-haired Basque woman slipped from sight. The fishwife
screeched an alarm. Men yelled. Hooves thundered. Tree bark
had bitten into Helena’s skin as she sunk into it to avoid
the blur of men atop horses. Then, somewhere in the dense
forest, the Basque woman’s blood-curdling screams carried
through the air. None heard or saw her again.
Helena eyed that dark tree line. “A bad plan.”
Sestra snapped her fingers twice. “Look. Buyers
come. Heed the old woman,” she chided. “Hide your wound. And
smile. Men like a woman who smiles…a friendly woman.”
Aye, survival first.
Her breath quickened as she whispered a short
prayer, but heaven stayed silent. Gulls squawked and dove in
the salty sea air, like her, seeking survival. Helena tugged
at her braid, covering her wounded cheek with loose strands
and prepared for the loathsome ordeal—one human selling
another. Beside her, Sestra’s voice touched a seductive note.
“For these men I can smile very nicely.”
“You say that about every man.”
Sestra snorted and nodded at the horizon. “Judge for
Two long-limbed, thickly muscled warriors walked
through the morning mist. Hard Danes and wiry merchants
alike paused mid-conversation to dip their heads in greeting
to these two. One was dark and amiable, yet large as a bear.
The other, wary like a wolf, was fierce and blonde. He wore
his sword strapped across his back and listened quietly to
his friend, but his ice-blue eyes measured the camp. Sestra,
ever the fount of knowledge, tipped her head toward the
“See that? His leather belt,” she said with
calculating awe. “A sign of authority. Kings served. Battles
won. Many battles. A Norse chieftain by the look.”
Bronze and copper squares were stamped into his wide
belt. Each token bore a unique design that caught the eye.
But, he did not need the belt to command respect. The air
around him crackled with authority. He moved like one
belonging to an honored warrior class. Helena suddenly
realized that her home village of Aubergon, her whole life,
was sheltered and small.
Beside her, Sestra poked her arm. “You speak Norse.
What are they saying?”
“I understand some.” But, her gaze wandered to the
sinister horizon where the Basque woman had disappeared.
Her heart beat faster; a copper tinge filled her
mouth at the sight of the dense forest, dark even in the
morn. Aye, get sold this day—a far better fate than risking
escape or facing the cruel Gudrud when he returned.
Sestra prodded her again. “Helena. Aren’t you
listening? What is he—”
“Shhh,” Helena set a finger to her lips and canted
her head to listen.
“…a farmer?” The bear man spoke the word as if he
tasted brine. “I don’t see it. Hakan the Tall, a chieftain
of Svea becomes Hakan…the farmer.” His booming voice
“I tire of this life.”
“Do we not gain gold aplenty from fat foreign
kings?” The bear man jingled a bag at his waist and grinned.
“This isn’t about gold.”
Yet, the wolf-eyed chieftain loosed a bulging bag
from his belt. ‘Twas obvious he didn’t waste coin on fine
attire: his scuffed leather jerkin and faded blue trousers,
tucked into fur boots, had seen much wear. No sweeping capes
or brash torque hung about his neck such as usually graced
the necks of high ranking Norsemen. What manner of chieftain
would dress so simply?
“What are they saying?” Sestra whispered.
“That you need to be quiet so I can eavesdrop better.”
Sestra paused midst cleaning her teeth with her
sleeve. “Oh, very funny.”
Helena smiled and turned her attention to the men,
but their voices were too low, all the better to sate her
curiosity for the one called Hakan. He crossed his arms and
stood like a warrior-king, but of course that was
harebrained. What did she know of kings? Whatever his rank,
he lured her. She couldn’t help but follow the knit of the
Norseman’s muscles under burnished skin. What would it feel
like to touch him there?
Amidst her fascination, Magnuson, leader of the
Danes approached. At the sight of him, an ugly shiver
traced her back.
“Hakan.” The Dane clapped a heavy hand on the
chieftain’s shoulder. “I hear you seek a woman to teach you
“An old Frankish woman. To keep my farm, help with
my wine trade.”
“Old? Young? What does it matter?” Magnuson grunted
and splayed his fingers her way. “Frankish women here. Three
of them. The rest…Sarmatians, Flemish, many from Eyre.”
“And not one of them long in years.”
Hakan rubbed his jaw as his gaze swept the row of
women. Wide silver bands etched with intricate swirls
wrapped around his strong arms. Helena frowned as Sestra
brazenly thrust her curves at the men. Is that what it took
to escape this place?
The bear man laughed and pointed at the blatant
display. “This one could teach you much.”
The chieftain scowled. “And cause trouble.”
Sestra’s come-hither smile melted to a sulk under
his harsh glower. Her disappointment didn’t last long, more
men ambled on the horizon. The Frankish maid’s face lit up
when she spied a lavishly dressed merchant drawing near.
Magnuson rubbed his hairy cheeks. “Old women give
fewer years of service.”
Helena wrapped her skirt close about her legs.
Listening to their rapid Norse took all her concentration.
“What happened to that one?” The one called Hakan
asked about her.
A flush of warmth poured through Helena, alert to
his attention. She stiffened and couldn’t look higher than
the chieftain’s silver armbands where a blood-eyed beast
carved in silver winked at her, a trick of daylight’s
“An unfortunate mishap.” Magnuson shrugged a massive
shoulder under his bearskin pelt. “One of my men…she fought
him, his knife slipped, caught her jaw … The Dane slid his
finger from jaw to ear, mimicking her wound. “…but, if its
old you want, come this way.”
The chieftain turned his back on her.
Helena dropped her forehead to her knees. If she
met him as a freewoman, would he have lingered? Or asked her
name? The unbidden questions faded as the overbearing
Magnuson spoke, and the men moved away. She scolded herself
for her lack of courage in failing to meet the Norseman’s
stare. Was her cheek truly awful? Her fingers gingerly
tested the scab.
“Stop,” she whispered and lowered her hands.
Beside her, Sestra greeted a be-ringed Castilian
merchant whose rich robes boasted silken tassels. Near the
Dane’s camp, rough warriors emerged from a tavern; their
crude jests abraded her ears.
Greater is the need to flee this place than feel
sorry for myself.
Her stomach growled and Helena checked the bread
nestled in her lap; best she ration the fare. Her fingers
pulled a bite-sized morsel from the loaf, as Magnuson’s
rumbling voice played in the background.
“Older, quiet…women who know their place…” He
extolled the virtues of the poor woman whose name he did not
know. “…give you a good day’s work.”
Half-listening to his merchant’s pitch, she rolled
her eyes. So disgusted was she, Helena almost missed a
rarity. But she didn’t. Her hand stopped mid-way to her mouth.
The chieftain, the one called Hakan, spoke gently to
the older captive woman.
The slave, huddled and silent on the ground, failed
to respond. He knelt in the dirt and touched the woman’s
shoulder with care—an odd thing for a warrior. The captive
had been too far away for Helena to render aid when the
Danes first brought her to camp. Yet, she was close enough
to see that she stayed curled in a tight ball, quiet and
unmoving, sometimes rocking and moaning.
Drawn to the scene before her, Helena’s gaze
followed the Norseman’s large hands as he cradled the silent
woman’s head. She leaned forward, straining against her
tether for a better look. He could have been holding a
newborn babe, so tender was he. Then, his thumb cautiously
brushed open the corner of the thrall’s mouth.
“No tongue?” His hard stare shot accusation at
Magnuson. “You’re trying to sell a woman who cannot talk.”
“Not always a bad thing.” The Dane shrugged at his
“Not when I need her to speak Frankish.”
“She is the oldest here.” Magnuson waved his hands
over the array of women.
The chieftain stood up and silenced Magnuson with a
thunderous glare. He did not draw his sword as other
affronted warriors might have done. Instead, he opened his
coin pouch and counted a few gold pieces.
“For the goats and sheep already on my ship.”
Magnuson closed thick fingers around the coins
dropped in his hand and joined the Bear Man and the
Castilian, both charmed with Sestra. The whole camp, a blend
of voices and laughter, played background noise to the
interest threading from Helena to the chieftain. All faded
to a hum. Her bread slid to the ground, forgotten. She sat
up taller, staring at the Norseman as his long fingers
retied his coin pouch.
Embers of attraction flared for the unusual warrior.
He moved with fluid ease for one so large. Or was it simply
his care with the older woman that made him appealing? One
could even call him kind. Hope of finding strength and
kindness in one man poured a balm on her soul, and left her
curious for more.
Her guarded survey inched upward to his broad
shoulders, the sort that promised safety and protection.
‘Twas an odd notion about a man who came solely to purchase
a woman for labor. Helena’s lips twitched at such
foolishness, and her gaze drifted higher to a square jaw and
firm lips, then higher still.
Ice-blue eyes stared back.
A strange enchantment mesmerized her. She had once
crossed paths with a lone wolf in the forest near home. Such
a beast would devour the weak. To her relief, that wolf had
turned and disappeared. Though dangerous, she willed this
two-legged wolf closer. The price was tension coiling inside
Like a predator measuring prey, the Norseman’s
unyielding stare traced her frame, lingering at the curve of
her hips. Peculiar warmth poured through her as she stared
back. He did not leer as other men had, but Helena
recognized male interest.
Sunlight broke through mist, bouncing off the sword
strapped across his back. A large, red stone glimmered from
the hilt. Something of a smile crossed her face. This
chieftain’s clothes were faded and well-used, but his arm
bands and sword were finely crafted with matching designs
and matching red stones.
The chieftain scowled and crossed his arms.
Her smile wilted. Was she over-bold? Her manner was
nothing like Sestra’s. Helena swallowed hard and licked her
lips, working to put her smattering of Norse words to work.
“Smiles…you do not like,” she said in soft,
“A woman’s false smiles, no.” His voice was deep and
smooth to her ears. “You speak Norse.”
“Aye, some. I smile…friendliness only.” She cleared
her throat and dared to say, “I seek freedom…nothing more.”
The chieftain’s head tipped with interest. “Strange
words for a thrall.”
“I wasn’t born to this.” She held her head high,
ignoring that she sat in dirt at his feet.
A light flashed behind the Norseman’s eyes. He
loosened his stance, and Helena knew she had penetrated some
unseen shield, drawing him closer.
“Status of birth matters little. How you live each
day…that’s your true measure.”
A breeze blew thick blonde hair that fell past his
shoulders. The stoic chieftain stood like a rock, staring at
her with unnerving intensity. A kernel of interest sprouted
betwixt them, but she needed to nurse this cagey
conversation. Her hair blew across her face, a momentary mask.
“A warrior who speaks like a…” She paused, searching
for the right word. “…a wise man…’tis rare.”
“Fools don’t live long.”
Helena motioned to his belt. “Marks of a warrior?”
“I have…been places.”
“I have not.” Her bound hands tapped her chest.
“But, you need one who speaks—”
Suddenly, wild bellows cut her short. The chieftain
pivoted, alert and ready, facing the clamor. Danes emerged
from red-striped tents, cheering and pointing at a dark
rider who came from the forest. Iron battle rings clanked
across the horse’s chest, a nerve-chilling noise to raise
the dead. The rider’s bulky frame and bald head were
familiar; Helena’s heart pounded hard and fast long before
Magnuson raised his fist and roared her worst fear.
Cold flushes gripped her as the freewoman’s singsong
words played in her head.
Night’s when he’ll get revenge.
Staring at the menacing horse and rider, Helena’s
hands squeezed together as a worried supplicant. She would
beg this Norseman, this one called Hakan, to take her. He
was her only hope.
When she turned around, the chieftain was gone.