Gustaf watched the alluring sway of her bottom as she disappeared behind a bush along the water’s edge. And what a lovely backside it was. He drew in a deep breath and tried to tamp down his own needs and desires that she so effortlessly stirred in him. She’d barely bat an eye, and he’d fall under her spell. He was a weak man for it and couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. With Æsa in possible danger, he needed to be more alert than ever.

“My lord,” Jørgen announced as he approached at a safe distance. “The men are on the langskip and await your command. No sign of the others.” He handed Gustaf a long woolen cloak.

“What is this?” Gustaf asked.

“Didrik said Æsa might need it for the journey. ’Twas his wife’s.”

Gustaf inspected the garment, and the large, cavernous hood caught his eye. It would be perfect for hiding Æsa’s fiery hair. If the vagrants were keeping a close watch on a redheaded female, then perhaps he could slip her past their attention if the one thing they’d be looking for was hidden.

The fact that they held such a keen interest in Æsa ate at his heart. What if Jørgen hadn’t convinced him to turn the longship around and bring her along? What kind of trouble would she have been in? His stomach dropped at the thought.

“Is everything all right?” Jørgen asked as though sensing his discontentment.

Gustaf dismissed his concerns, as they were nothing worth fretting over. He was there, and Æsa was safe. No harm had been done. “Everything is fine. In fact,” he admitted optimistically, “nothing could be better. I’ve asked Æsa to be my wife, and she accepted. Isn’t that right, love?”

“’Tis a good match, m’lord,” Jørgen replied.

“Æsa?” Gustaf called. “Æsa, are you all right?” When she didn’t respond, the cold hand of dread wrapped around his throat. He bolted toward the stream with Jørgen on his heels, and when they rounded the shrubbery, they found Æsa staring into the water.

“Æsa,” Gustaf said in exasperation, pulling her to her feet by her elbow. “Why did you not answer me?” Her face was white and her eyes wide with fear, staring into nothingness. While his heartbeat settled, he took great pains to quiet his voice. “What happened? What has frightened you?” He shook her hard when she did not answer. “Æsa, speak!”

Finally, her frozen stare fell on him. “Are you certain you killed Ragnar?”

Her question took Gustaf by complete surprise. He looked to Jørgen first, seeing that his befuddlement matched his own, and back toward Æsa. He squeezed her arms in a soothing manner before he testified to the harrowing truth. “Ragnar is dead.” Images of the man gutted and dangling from his insides flashed in his mind. He cringed at the memory of the man’s scream but immediately blocked out the sound as soon as it echoed in his ears. He swallowed hard, keeping the gruesome details to himself. “No man could’ve survived. He is dead. I assure you.”

She extended a shaky finger toward the water’s edge, her bottom lip quivering as she spoke. “Then why is his ring here? There…’tis his.”

Gustaf squinted along the bank, and a glint of something shiny caught his attention. Tucked amid the soft mud and rocks was a silver ring. He squatted and picked it up, swishing it in the water until it was clean. There was pagan motif of intertwining beasts encrusted over one large ruby. Though he wished he hadn’t remembered, he recalled this very ring on Ragnar’s finger as he hung stock-still in death. If that were so, how did it travel from Ragnar’s hand to the Faroes? And how was it possible that Æsa should find it?

Unless it was planted with that exact purpose in mind.

Gustaf hid Æsa behind his back and searched the surrounding landscape. He unsheathed his sword and Jørgen did the same.

“If Ragnar is dead, how did his ring wind up here?” Æsa asked, her voice strained. “Did you take it from him?”

Gustaf spun to face her, abhorring her accusation. “I took naught from him but his life.”

“Then how—”

“I know not,” Gustaf interrupted harshly. He pitched the ring over the hillside and threw Didrik’s cloak over Æsa’s head, making sure every strand of hair was tucked inside. He then took her by the hand and tugged her down the hill to his longship. He would not play games with these vagrants. Whoever toyed with him and tormented Æsa would surely pay.