From the Back Cover

When ships were made of wood, and men were made of iron. When warriors held to nine noble virtues, of the Asatru religion: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, and perseverance. In a time when necessity dictated your path, a gentle noblewoman is forced to become something she had no desire to be; a Shield Maiden.

Bjarke and Bjarka are twins, as such, they have a close bond between them. One of their countrymen betrayed them both when he sold Bjarke into slavery, into the hands of their enemy. Ábiorn swore Bjarke is dead and seeks the Kings help in forcing Bjarka to marry him. Not because he loves her, he loves her wealth.

Bjarka knows her brother is not dead. In spite of everyone denying her claim, she swears to bring Bjarke home. As her journey begins, she meets some very unusual friends along the way, in doing so, she creates an army. An army that consists of mercenaries, mages, and dragons.

Bjarka will return home with or without her brother, and when she does, she will bring hell back with her.

Genre: Medieval Fiction

Excerpt

Below you can read the first 10 pages of BJARKA: Sheild Maiden, by S.J. Barthel

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The winds are picking up, rain is coming down in sheets, waves are breaking against the hull of her knerrir ship. She has a line knotted about her waist, secured to a mast supporting the sail. I offended Odin, she thought, because she has disregarded the odds, gone against the orders of her chieftain? Will they hunt me down for my flagrant disregard of his authority? Or go as far as being reported to the King? Even though she is a cousin to King Gustof Vasa, she is not important enough for him to commit forces to fetch her back.

I can hear them calling still, “come back here, Bjarka,” Ha, not likely. I will locate Bjarke and I will bring him home. Let the cowards stay protected in their homes, I will find my brother, despite what they say I should be doing. They’ve scheduled no one to go trading, pilfering or hunting, I am required to be at home, looking after the farms, finding a husband, and having babies. There are no enemies to invade us as if anyone has the fortitude. Our allies are many, alliances, at the moment anyway, are formidable.

But Ábiorn went to Gustav, to have him order me to wed him. Ah, Ábiorn. I would rather be dead than join with you, you toad! If they charge me to do it, as sure as sleep finds you, so will my blade. The ass has been following me around like a plague. Now because my brother is missing he thinks I need the likes of him to protect me, to support me. Again, I say HA! They left Bjarke in some foreign land. OH, for certain they gave all the correct answers, but I can feel it in my bones, Ábiorn ran away and left him behind. I’ll find him, bring him back and then deal with this worm.

Sure, I confiscated a ship, because the jokers took mine. Thinking if I’ve no means of transport, I’ll be sure to remain at home and join that wort. Now, killing the man that tried to keep me from this ship may produce some trouble for me. If he had not resisted, yielded as he should have, he would still breathe today. There is more to worry about than who may be chasing after me.

They describe the last place they saw Bjarke in the country of the English. So that is where I will begin my search. If the Gods have any leniency, I will find him soon and with little trouble. But I cannot depend on the God’s mercy. I hired mercenaries to man my ship; at first hesitant, working for a woman, until I bested their commander. Now he is my Quartermaster.

Perhaps Odin is not so charitable, the storm is increasing in strength. Or Aegir, the great God of the sea, is not happy with me. I have prayed to him as I do the other Gods. Surely he’s not opposed to a woman sailing his waters, I’ve been in his arms many times. I prayed endlessly to Freya, believing she will aid in my endeavor. Never the less, I will find my brother with or without cooperation from the Gods.

If Bjarke is dead, I’d feel it in my bones. He is as much a part of me as I am of him. They delivered him eight minutes after me; I have always known when he’s hurt or scared. He is still alive; I know it. He’s frightened and injured. I pray he can hold on until I get there. The last place they saw him is just off the coast of England, my men are familiar with the area, and two of them were there when he was deserted. Bring your worst Aegir, nothing will stop me, this time.

While the winds beat against her and the waves slammed against the ship, she thinks of the first time she tried to leave, to go find Bjarke. The struggle that ensued, worth recalling to be sure. Ábiorn was the first injured, a good whack to his head with the hilt of my blade and he went down like a tree. The next one tried to come from behind and seized me, he will reconsider before he tries that again, after they heal his arm where I cut into him. The third one had a glass jaw, one blow to his face sent him flying. It took four big men to overpower me. They locked me up for a week, took my family’s ship. The Gods only know where they anchored it. Damn them all!

My men are on the bow, yelling over the winds, recounting tales they themselves don’t believe, while the waves rise above the sides of the ship. I’ve crushed my first mate and then I ask him to accept the position as Quartermaster, still don’t know if that was a good move or not. I don’t altogether trust him. If the men want to get paid, they will move when I need them. I will remain vigilant and watch him. He gave me his word, according to rumor he is a man of honor and will hold fast to his word. Still, I find it hard to trust many, especially men.

“Captain, the waters are getting more angry, think we should head further out to sea, afore we rush into the reefs and damage the ship?” The Quartermaster hesitantly asked. He is still not too sure of her and her temper. Sure, a woman beat him. She had the expertise, he respected her. He also knows she does not trust him absolutely. She can be on guard all she likes, I am a man of my word. Been alive too long to allow pride and arrogance to get me slain. However, he is not fond of the epithet she’s affixed to him.

“I can read these waters as well as any man, Chief. I say we stay the course for a little while longer, see if the winds will lay down a bit. If we go further out we postpone that much longer. I value your opinion, I would be a fool not too. Can you return that respect?”

As she searched his eyes, searching for the answer, there it was as he bowed his head. “Yes, Captain. We will stay the course until you bid otherwise.”

“Chief, please continue to grant me your judgment, I welcome it.”

Bjarka watch as the man stumbled on, battling the wind, rain, and seawater. My, he is a crusty old soul. Something about the man reminded her of her long-dead father. Giving herself a mental shake, she studies the water, watched the swells, and the constantly changing wind. Praying they will not need to adjust their course. I have wasted enough time trying to reach Bjarke. They have brought just enough stores to last until they reach land. Moving further away will stretch supplies; food and water.

Half an hour has passed, the winds are still strong, perhaps getting stronger. She decides she will not put her crew in danger. Releasing her line from the mast, she advances towards her quartermaster. Perhaps she should have listened to him in the beginning. “Chief it is time to move further out to sea. The winds are getting stronger and forcing us further towards the rocks. I was but hoping there would not be a need. Please make it happen. If this lasts very long we will need to ration our stores. As you know we brought just enough.”

“Aye, Captain. We will move out, in small increments, Maybe we’ll not have to move very far out. We’ll keep watch and let you know of our progress.” It did his heart good to know she isn’t so steadfast that she endangered her men. He had known some that would have done just that.

“Do you think we will see the draugr, the undead creature, on this trip?” She heard one of the seaman yelling at his mate. Bjarka had to shake her head in amazement. The men sailing these water were as superstitious as any could be, they have a superstition for most anything. She did not put much stock in most of it. She realized there is enough truth in most beginnings, but over time it gets embellished, exaggerated, depends on who is doing the telling, until is so far fetched the originator would be hard-pressed to recognize it.

Deciding not to travel around the coast of Sweden and Denmark, but to cut straight across the North Sea, a direct line to England. She knew they’d be going against the westerly winds, but she has twenty good men capable of rowing if needs be. Extra pay had the men agreeing to the route, but now, just three days into the run, some of the crew were tired of fighting the winds and let it be known loud and clear. With two more days to go, providing another storm didn’t appear out of anywhere. Bjarka is happy they had weathered that awful storm without loss of life and did not need to detour the trip too much out of the way. Still, she had rationed the food and water, they have just enough to reach the coast. Looking out over the sea, her memories took her back to her father, he loved the sea. Lost in thought she had not noticed another ship getting closer on the starboard side of her ship.

“Captain, I think you should take a look at what is following us. I know that ship and they are looking to board us.”

“Are all the men armed, as I instructed?”

St his nod “Turn her broadside, Chief, let them face her cannons, see if her bite is as good as purported. Get men down there to man those big guns.” Her tone of voice left no room for arguing. There was small doubt as to what she would cower from, this is not one of those incidents. His respect for her growing stronger. This woman should have been a man.

Bjarka had been on raids with her family before. She is no stranger to this situation. As a matter of fact, this may be what the men need to break the melancholy that seems to have gripped them yesterday and today. A good battle, quick resolve, perhaps extra booty. She did not feel guilty as the other ship appears to be the aggressor. With a huge smile, she turned towards the men, shouting orders. To a man, no one hesitated. “Let’s do this. Win the day and we will split whatever we find onboard.” Bjarka shouted, still grinning, pulling her sword from her hip and waving it in the air. She knew she had a few moments before the other ship is close enough, went to her cabin and donned her war gear.

Coming back on deck when she heard the first cannon spit out a round, the smell of gun powder strong in the air. The men shouting “Direct hit!”

Her gaze traveled across the water to the other ship. The cannons had caused considerable damage to the bow, but not enough to cripple them. “Fire at will!” Shouting over the noise the men were making, she wanted them dead in the water. Teach them not to mess with her. She had men changing the name on her ship the first day, now she thought it appropriate, Drake, or dragon, as it were. Feel my fire. The other ship didn’t stand a chance against her. Her men are well trained and well-armed. The next shot stopped the invaders in their tracks. He wasn’t going anywhere. “Approach the other ship with caution.” Shouting to the men she moved toward the port side, preparing to board them. Observing the other ship as they made their way slowly toward it, she is not so naive to think because the ship is crippled the crew would give up without a fight. She knew better. Most likely they want to ambush her crew and take her ship. Ha, not likely.

The closer she got to the invader’s ship she registered no one could be seen on the deck and she didn’t recognize the flag they flew. Yep, an ambush is waiting for us. Will they be surprised. In the background, she heard her men stating under their breath that it must be a Draugen ship. She’d heard such rumors but paid no mind. There is no such thing as a Draugen anyway. Then she heard her Quartermaster yelling at her men.

“Stop your grumbling. You know as well as I there is no Draugen, it only exist to scare the children. Now if you proper ladies want to hide in the bowels, go on then. Otherwise, let’s show our Captain what we are made of. Man the oars and get closer. I feel they are trying to ambush us, as you well know.” Surprised at her Quartermaster’s thoughts, it was as if he was reading her mind. “Slowly now, slowly….. Drop oars, throw those grappling hooks over, that’s right, nice and slowly… Be on your guard. We want no casualties on our side. Throw the lines, men, that’s right, pull us over. Let’s give em hell!

Bjarka the first one to cross over, as her feet hit the planks a man jumped out from behind a large pile of rigging, with her sword in hand, he never stood a chance. Pivoting on the balls of her feet she swiped her sword across the man’s hand, he lost his sword, as he bent to retrieve it she made a backward swing she nearly cut him in half. Sparing the dead man no sympathy she turned and witnessed total chaos on the deck. Men were hacking and slicing at each other. As one of her men was fighting, she saw an enemy coming up behind, drawing his sword to stab her man in the back, he was close and fast, but she is faster. She put her sword through the small of his back and moved on to the next. Suddenly she backed into something solid. Turning she saw a young boy trying to pick himself up from the deck, he was unarmed. He had been trying to hide behind pole she had backed into. “You! What are you doing here?” Not waiting for a response she continued. Stay with me, I will keep you safe. The young one nodded his head and moved towards her.

“Bjørn, take him to our ship and make sure he stays there, keep him safe. If anything happens to him I will hold you responsible. Understand?” As she spoke she picked the child up, tucked him under her arm and walked to Bjørn. She can feel the little boy tremble beneath her grasp. Damn, he can’t be more than eight winters old. Passing off her charge, she searched the deck. Her men had ruled the day. All of the attackers were on their knees, hands held on the top of their heads.

“Who is your captain?” She paused for a moment then spoke again. “I’ll not ask again, who is your captain?” Again she waited for a moment. With a deep sigh, she grabbed the first one she could reach and yanked him from the floor, holding her sword across his neck. “Now will someone answer me or do I send this dreng in for shark bait?” She pulled her sword across his neck and blood trickled down his chest. She knew she had not cut him bad, just enough to scare him. He definitely is not a seasoned sailor, he is shaking from stem to stern. Perhaps this is his first battle. She didn’t want to kill this young man, but will if necessary. As she began walking him to the side, ready to finish her cut and dump him over, when a man at the far end of the line stood. “I am the captain of this ship.”

Bjarka pushed the man down to sit on the decking all the while staring at the man at the end, the captain. “And you thought to run us down and do what?”

“We were not trying to run you down. A mere coincident that we were heading this way. You are the one that jumped to conclusions.”

“I think not, Sir. One of my men know the flag you fly and know this ship. You were thinking to board us. Chief, do you recognize this man?” All the while she spoke she could not take her eyes of the other Captain. He had to be the most handsome of men. Not tall, but not short either. With white blonde hair, deep blue eyes and very well put together.

“No, Ma’am. I do not recognize this man. He resembles the one I worked for a long time ago. But it is not him. My remarks on the flag and the ship remain the same.” Her quartermaster spoke and stepped back two paces.

“How did you come to own this ship?”

“I bought it before we set sail, one week ago. I do not have a flag of my own, as yet and thought to use the one on board. I can see now the error of my ways.”

“Think you can continue on with the damage to your ship?”

“We could have made repairs but my men, or what’s left of them are good at what they do, they do not have that knowledge. You have slain the ones that could have made the repairs. I got a good price for this ship because it needed a lot of repairs, it has been hit before.”

“Next time you need to give word rather than hiding when you realize someone has you targeted. We will leave you to continue on.”

“Pardon, I don’t think I have enough men left to sail her, never mind the oars. Will you leave us here stranded?”

Bjarka thought for a moment. “Where are you heading to?”

“The coast of England. They have something of mine and I intend to get it back.”

“Give me a moment. Chief, a moment please.” She spoke to her Quartermaster and walked out of hearing range, expecting him to follow.

“What do you think?” Should we join forces with this crew? We would have more manpower, more swords when we hit the coast.”

“Do ye think ye can trust em? The extra men would be a benefit, only if you think you can trust them.”

Walking back towards the Captain, thinking as she went. There are more of my men than his. If they are disarmed until we land there cannot be many surprises. We could use the extra men and supplies. “Captain, the only solution is that you join forces with me. I have business with England as well. We can take care of yours and mine, at the same time. The only other option is to leave you here crippled, to be prey for any others than happen bye.”

Kol thought for a moment. He knew he didn’t stand a chance if she left them here. He also knew that his best carpenter is dead, at her hands. And that his men will go along with whatever he decides. All the time he’s thinking he is looking into wide eyes, eyes the color of moss he had seen once when he visited the south sea islands. Her head is covered, but going by her brows, it is red. He has always had a thing for red-haired women. High cheekbones and skin that looked porcelain. “Kol Bjalkisson at your service. I would ask that if I join you, we sink my ship. I would not leave her here for someone else. Besides, you have my little brother on your ship as we speak.” Kol grinned.

Oh, so that is the young boy that I have. Perhaps this will work in our favor. If his brother is my hostage, he will not be tempted to mutiny. “Do you think she could be repaired soon if my men helped? We can still join forces as our destination is the same.”

“I do not have enough men to even limp her along. You have killed most of my men. You do not have a full complement of men yourself. So, no, that would not work. After we have taken care of our business, I will find other means of transport. That is if you will still have us.”

“You and your men agree to take orders from me and me alone?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us strip your ship of anything we think we will need. And welcome aboard the Draker, Kol.”

“May I have your name or do I just call you Captain?”

“Bjarka.” With that she turned from him and started shouting orders, keeping one eye on her men and one on Kol.

Kol’s men are still huddled on the deck, hands still over their heads. He needs to speak with them and let them know what’s going to happen. After explaining they will be joining forces with the victors, he listened to complaints. Some men saw reason, others stated they’d rather go down with the ship. The one thing that kept them together is their common goal. They all have a grudge against England, in one form or another. Kol will get his mother and sister back. If he can count on Bjarka, that will better ensure his success. He didn’t know why she is headed there, but he did not fail to see the muscle in her jaw flex as she spoke of her goals. He had seen women that were good with a blade, but none compared to this one. He had watched her when she was fighting his men. She is not squeamish when it comes to killing, damned good with her sword, and he saw compassion in her with his little brother, he heard what she told him and swore to keep him safe.

“Kol, please inform your men while on my ship they will be disarmed. They will get their weapons back when we reach the coast. I will not leave them unprotected, nor will I leave my crew unprotected. Agree?”

She had startled him when she spoke, he hadn’t heard her approach, so lost in thought. “I will make it known. I am sure there is no reason for this, but we have little choice.” He turned to his men and explained the situation. All the while her men were gutting his ship. Taking anything and everything. The only thing he has of value is his coin and blade. For some reason he felt he could trust this woman, he did not trust many people. If not, she will feel my revenge.

“Bjarka, please explain to your crew they may not take my men’s personal effects.”

“Consider it done, Kol.”

Chapter 2

How does it feel to die? I often wonder. Is it painful? Well, I suppose it would depend on how you come to meet that end, whether it is painful. I imagine, if they hack you to death with a blade, it would be painful until you drew your last breath. I am fairly certain if you were caught in Mage Fire it would be painful throughout all eternity. Or die in your sleep, would you suffer pain then? Is it better to die alone? Well, we all die alone, can’t take anyone with us. Better put, is it better to be alone when one expires. Alone, where a man still possesses some dignity. Or is it better when you die surrounded by loved ones? When the last thing one observes is the sorrow in their eyes? I have often wondered about this for that past few months. Wishing for death, no matter the circumstance, who is or is not surrounding me.

They have beaten me to within an inch of my life. I have been on the peripheries of mage fire and felt my skin threaten to melt. I have been half-starved and dehydrated. I have worked until my fingers bled, and could not put one more foot to the ground. Have I thought of death? Yes! However, I know that my twin sister will come for me if she is able, and she will bring hell with her. Of this I am certain! But, will she come for me before it is too late? I have almost lost any humanity that ever existed within me, I feel nothing. Just today, I watched a woman being ravished by numerous soldiers, and could not pull up enough emotion to care. My mind and my heart are empty. Or, perhaps my mind is striving to defend me. I know not which, my mind protecting me or I have lost the last thread of my soul.

There has been talk of transferring all the captives to a different work location, soon. Quite a few of the slaves will not survive a journey of any length. They will die from sheer exhaustion, I pray I am not one of those. If the Gods deem it so, I will not be too weak when Bjarka comes for me. Daily, I am forced to acknowledge how defenseless I have become. When I was taken, the soldiers removed my hauberk and boots as well as my sword, the only thing remaining of my father. The solder parades around in my things, flashing my father’s sword. When I leave this place I will take my belongings, and kill the ones that claimed them. If only I can remain strong enough to fight my way out of here.

At times I can feel Bjarka coming closer to me. She is my twin, for better or worse, she feels my pain as I feel hers. Unfortunately, we were both born of a power not known to man. She is much stronger than I, but, I do not think she realizes this yet. I can feel it in her and have since we were very young, I’ve watched as she has become stronger. Her power has made itself obvious in subtle ways, again, I do not think she has taken notice. I pray when she unleashes all that power she can control it then. I do think our power is stronger when we are closer together. When at home I have often searched for the reason behind our power, what it is, where it came from, or who else possesses this strange power. I can find nothing. Not knowing gnaws at me, even in my sleep. I have dreams, or nightmares, as it were. I see a world on fire and millions of people are dead. The stench is almost more than I can stand and when I wake, I can still smell the sulfuric odor in the air. In my nightmares, I stand beside my sister and together we wield a power far greater than anything imaginable. Is this a nightmare or is it a portent of things to come? Again, I know not, and this is almost unbearable.

There is a restlessness in the air tonight. As hard as everyone worked today, as exhausted as I am I cannot settle down. It feels as of someone or something is coming for me. But, the others are restless as well, even the guards talk excitedly, but make no sense. The Sulimage in our quadrant is just as restless. Time will tell how the sun rises on the morrow. For now, I must try to rest as best I can.

Chapter 3

Two days until they reach England. Now that they were all aboard the Draker, here comes a hard task, getting settled and fitting in. So far there had not been too much animosity among the different crews. Bjarka watched the men closely, studying them as a group and individually. Is she looking for trouble among the sailors? When the crew had words she allowed them to work out their differences. So far they were doing great. There had been no bloodshed and she is thankful for that. They were fortunate, Kol’s ship had enough supplies to handle any shortcomings she had, with the extra mouths to feed, water and so forth. The Gods have found favor with her at last, a good wind is at their back for a change. The men could relax a little, they will not need to man the oars, as long as the wind holds and doesn’t shift. She had paired her men with Kol’s. Hoping this will relieve some tension that has plagued them so far. If they have to rub shoulders, perhaps they will strike up a conversation and find common ground.

“Captain, Bjarka? Can we talk in private? I would tell you about my business in England.” Kol watched her eyes for any sign of subterfuge. He saw none. She appears to be deep in thought all the time. She never smiles, I’ll bet that if she did it would look as if the clouds parted by her smile.

“Chief, take the helm, I’m going to be in conference.” That thought struck her funny, the deck is so packed with men, even though supplies had been taken below deck, still, a person can hardly walk down the center, much less have privacy. The crew had taken wood and made a makeshift shelter in the nose of the ship, for her privacy. She tacked on canvas to act as a windbreak and mock door, she’ll take Kol there to talk. Also, that is where his brother is being held and will allow them to see each other, for a moment.

“Come Kol, follow me. We won’t have a lot of privacy, but some. Him sharing with me is a new twist. I would not have guessed. But then again, I think he is relatively new at this line of work. Whatever his reason, I may find out, if his words are true.

Just as she pulled the canvas back, Kol saw his brother. He was laying down, with furs wrapped around him, water nearby, and it looked like he had just finished eating. “Thank you for your care of my brother. I did not want him to come with me but had little choice. Hey squirt, are you back here flirting with the lady?”

The little boy jumped up, at seeing his brother his face lit up as if the sun’s rays were falling on his face. Kol, I was scared for you. But then Bjarka assured me that you are alright. And I believed her. I don’t think she will lie. And she is sharing her bed with me.” Kol found himself wishing he were sharing her bed. Damn, to be nine again.

“Will you mind going out and getting some fresh air, hum? I need to talk to your brother. Don’t worry you will be able to see him again soon. Watching the little boy wander over the ship, she couldn’t help but think what would prompt someone to take a child this young on the sea? She saw that he had gone straight to Bjørn. He was smiling. Turning ever so slowly she faced Kol. “So, tell me about this business that takes you to England, as I know you are not English yourself, it must be important.”

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