Secrets in Amber, Book 1

Secrets in Amber, Book One of the Forgotten Sons Series

 

Chapter One

Holy Roman Empire, AD 930

A Saxon outpost north of Normandy’s border

 

  He lied to save his soul. For years he’d drowned in truth, a hired sword with his band of brothers. His men always came first. Not anymore. Smiling grimly at darkness, Rurik tucked a bone-handled blade in his boot. Norns had spun his life with stingy threads, but his days of hardship were over. Normandy’s overlord promised to make him a landsman, a plum prize for a low born Viking.

    If he got to Rouen by Solstice Day. 

    Door hinges whined in the quiet. A shrouded figure crept across the outbuilding’s earthen floor. Heat pricked his nape as his hand slid over his knife. Firelight limned the form slipping into his curtained bed-box, revealing enticing curves clothed in a thrall’s grey tunic.

    A woman to ease his loins. She should’ve come last night.

    “Didn’t expect a woman this morning,” he said, caressing her smooth-skinned arm. “I don’t have time to–”

    She slapped his hand. “Keep your hands to yourself, Viking. I’m not a comfort woman.” A lilting accent melted over her sharp Norse words. “I bring you urgent news.” 

    His eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

    “That doesn’t matter.” The slave scooted closer.

    He yanked his knife and wrestled the woman into the pelts. His forearm pressed high on her chest. “I’ll ask again. Who are you?”

    “Stop…you…”

    Shorn fingernails scratched his arm brace. The bed box shook from feminine feet kicking wildly. His hips jerked back narrowly missing a knee to his ballocks. Blood thrumming, he swung a leg over thrashing limbs and pinned her with his thigh.

    “Sothram’s your enemy,” she gasped. “Not me.”

    He held the blade high. “Did he send you to do his dirty work?”

    “Put the knife away…if you want to know how the Saxon cheats you.” 

    His arm pushed harder. “The blade stays, and you will tell me Sothram’s plans.”

    A man could never be too careful with the gentler sex. In his travels he’d witnessed fair-faced assassins ply their trade.

    “You won’t hurt an unarmed woman, Rurik of Birka,” she huffed. “Your reputation says otherwise.”

    A slow smile formed. The she-cat had spirit, he’d give her that. She wriggled hard against him, the cradle of her body stirring his loins. The outbuilding was quiet save the squeaking bed. One glance proved no one lurked beyond the loose-weave curtains.

    “How do I know you’re unarmed? I may have to search you.”

    “Overgrown brute.” Teeth clenched, her hands jammed his shoulders. “Get off me.”

    Low laughter rocked his chest. “You came to my bed, yet you still fight me.”

    Slender legs stilled between his. Seconds passed measured by her fast breaths brushing his chin. He savored these moments with a woman…a knee against his inner thigh…bed furs tussled and warm from her body.  To lay with a woman gave respite in his hard, wanderer’s life.

    “That’s better.” He sheathed his knife, liking the way her breasts pillowed his chest. “Now that we’re comfortable–”

    “My reward, Viking. For the information.”

    “A kiss and a coin. Worthy payment for a thrall.”

    “I think not.”

    Such haughtiness…delivered with an ear-teasing accent. His free hand pushed back the curtain. Fire flickered from a soapstone lamp, slanting light across ebon hair tangled over amber eyes. The woman from last night. She’d paced the end of Sothram’s feasting hall, her furtive stare tracing him from a gloomy corner.

    “This isn’t a negotiation, sweeting.”

    “It is if you want to save your life. And the lives of your men.”

    He wasn’t quaking in his boots, but a mere woman could bear helpful tidings.

    “Your courage is admirable,” he said, releasing the curtains. “But you should know when a man has the upper hand.”

    He rooted through the pelts, grinning at the feel of her hands pushing against his shoulders.

    “We don’t have time for this, Viking.”

     His palm flattened on her side. The thrall froze. Her heart banged hard under his arm. With her cloak open, only a thin layer of wool separated her skin from his hand. He took his time, trailing his fingers over her ribs to the sweet furrow of her waist.

    Gold eyes flared wide when he cupped her hip and squeezed. “What’s your price? For this valuable information.”

    Her black lashes dipped in the way of a submissive woman, but he wasn’t fooled. She barely tolerated his wandering hand.

    “I want you to take me with you. You are bound south, no?” 

   “To Rouen.” 

    “Give me safe passage to Paris and your debt to me will be paid.”

    “How good of you,” he mocked.

    Her chin tipped high, but she held silent. This close he scented peppery warmth on her skin, the aroma as inviting as it was foreign. Her manner befitted a spoiled princess of an exotic court, not a raggedly dressed slave.

    Years of living by the sword warned him: Listen.

    “You require steep payment for a thrall, but go on. How does Sothram plan to cheat us?”

    “Your word, Viking.”

    He smiled and brushed back her hair, the strands as luxuriant as silk threads. More went on here than met the eye. The gods created this woman for pleasure. Her skin was too smooth to have born hardships. When she spoke, he glimpsed even white teeth. She’d been coddled from birth, bred on a life of luxury. A woman of high value. Blunt refusal crossed his mind, but his traitorous mouth opened.

    “I’ll give you safe passage.” 

    He grimaced as soon as they passed his lips. A woman meant delays. He needed to be in Rouen in seven days, and there was his oath — No women. But, her body relaxed beneath him. The woman’s reaction at being in his care reached inside him, a tender root seeking fertile soil.

    “Yesterday you traded for ermine, but while you slept, Sothram’s men switched the furs.” Her voice rose with triumph. “Your bundles will be a single layer of ermine on top but worthless rags underneath.”

    He pushed off her and helped her upright. Rumors abounded where Sothram was concerned.

    The thrall sat on her heels, rubbing her neck. “He thinks you’ll not inspect the furs,” she continued. “Sothram’s men wrapped them in wool cloth. He’ll say he does that as a gesture of goodwill to protect the furs–”

    “And down the road, I discover his treachery, return for revenge, and take what’s mine.”

    “No.” She shook her head fast and black hair spilled over her shoulders. “He knows you travel the southern road. His men will ambush you from the trees. Four archers left before sunrise.” She sighed, “He has done this before, Viking.”

He sheathed Fenrir, his sword named for the monstrous wolf of lore. Sothram marked him a witless warrior. Smiling coldly, he’d let it work in his favor. The valuable ermine was to be sold at Rouen’s Solstice Fair, the coin split evenly with his men. His portion would pay the first tribute to Will Longsword, Normandy’s overlord.

    “Why are you telling me this? Who are you to Sothram?”

    She sat tall. “I’m his seeress. Your taking me will be a great slight to him.”

    “I prefer the ermine. Travels easy. Doesn’t talk.”

    Her lush lips flattened. So the maid was used to men choosing her. Aside from her daring, something else bothered him. A thrall might beg, coax, or negotiate, but never demand.

    “You’re no seeress.”

    “Just look at the bundles,” she hissed and checked the door. “What I say is true. Then, I’ll tell you where he hides your furs and you will take me with you.” She rose to her knees, reaching for the curtain.

    “Not so fast,” he said, grabbing her wrist. “Tell me the truth. Who are you?”

    Her hand fisted tightly. “You already gave your word, Viking.”

    “And I’ll break it if it suits me.”

    Gold eyes flashed in the darkness. The slender arm shook in his grip, but he held her in place, a reminder the balance of power was his. She hated that he had power over her. He recognized her mix of desperation and rage, tremors of a caged termagant ready to spring. Moments stretched until the thrall’s shoulders slumped within her ragged cloak.

    “It is as you say. I’m no seeress. I’ve been in Sothram’s service a fortnight and he’s guessed as much.” 

    “Why the deception?” He let go and the maid rubbed her arm, her lashes fluttering low.

    “It’s not important.”

    Her fine accent teased him like a feather grazing his skin. Light filtered through the bed’s loose-weave curtains, and truth dawned with a story as old as time. Men had their wants and women their weapons. He’d traveled the hot sands of the Abbasid Caliphate, a witness to the dangerous ploys of veiled women. Lies were a favorite of the fair sex.

    Wasn’t he lying for his own end? She admitted she was no seeress, while he withheld the truth from his own men. Light slivered over fresh bruises dotting one side of her neck. Marks of a cruel master. Men could be brutal. 

  “You fed Sothram a tale about your abilities disappearing if a man sates his baser needs on you. A convenient falsehood. You’re not the first to use it,” he said, buckling his sword to his back. “What else should I know?”

    “You waste time, Viking.”

    “And you speak like a highborn woman. Who are you? A runaway wife?”

    “I can’t explain now. Sothram rouses as we speak. He’ll know something’s afoot if his men see me here.” Her fingers grazed his knee. “Trust me.”

    Her simple touch kindled a spark he ought to ignore. The burden one woman made, especially a pretty deceiver, would slow him down. Yet, a wealth of decisions flashed in the split-second her hand was on his knee. To be in possession of a prized woman could prove…useful.

    “Stay out of sight. When my men assemble, go quietly to the trees.”

    “I will,” she said, exiting the bed-box.

    He watched her through a tear in the curtains. She raised her hood before cracking open the door and vanishing as quickly as she came. His mystery woman didn’t look back.

    She believed he’d take care of her.

  Tugging sharply on leather ties, he finished cross-gartering his boot. Nothing was getting in his way. Not a cheating merchant or a wily woman. He waited a few seconds before pushing past the door. Strolling leisurely into the yard, morning mist dampened his skin. A lone guard slouched against the weathered barn. The man marked him with a nod before slipping from sight.

    Inside the barn, Rurik crouched near his second-in-command. “Bjorn. Trouble.” 

    The son of Vellefold reclined on a mountain of hay, a Norse hammer as long as his thigh next to him. One eye opened. “There’d better be to wake me this early.” The giant sat up and scrubbed his face. “What is it?”

    Rurik repeated the thrall’s story while Bjorn rose on nimble feet. Beyond the barn door, boys led the Son’s saddled war horses with bags and shields from another barn. A smaller boy followed, bringing two pack horses burdened with mounds–the wool-wrapped furs.

    Bjorn squinted at Sothram’s men milling around the well. “And you trust this woman?” 

    He counted the Saxon’s fighters. Five of them. “I distrust Sothram.” 

     “I’ll get the men.”

    Bjorn disappeared through a back door, and Rurik leaned against a wood beam, hooking both thumbs in his belt. One of Sothram’s men mumbled behind his hand, and several pairs of eyes shifted to the barn. Good. He wanted the men focused on him, all the better to miss Bjorn.

    Chickens flocked around a young girl tossing feed in the yard. Florid-faced Sothram exited his feasting hall, speaking to a wiry man armed with bow and arrows. The air smelled of wet earth and pitch torches doused for the new day. Rosy-cheeked milkmaids shuffled into the barn, tittering when they saw him.

    He nodded greetings, “Morning,” when his side vision caught movement. A cloaked figure charged into the yard, colliding with Sothram. 

  “Here now.” The merchant seized the figure and gave a hard shake. “What are ye about?”

    The hood slipped off and a woman’s head whipped back and forth like a rag doll. The amber-eyed thrall. She pummeled Sothram’s bulk, her fists as ineffective as a moth striking stone.

    Frowning, Rurik stepped outside the barn. “Sothram.”

    The Saxon glanced his way. “Rurik.”

    She yelped in pain as sausage-thick fingers squeezed her arms. “Let go of me you, you–”

    “Are you going to dally with your thrall? Or finish our business?” 

    “This one’s been sneakin’ around. Can’t trust the likes of her. Man’s got to keep order in his home.”

    “Your woman troubles are no concern of mine.” Behind Sothram, he spied five warriors dressed in black striding through mist. “My men and I are ready to leave.”

    The Saxon released the woman. Shoulders squared, she wrapped her frayed cloak about her. Rurik willed her to the trees, but her shabby boot swung back, and with the poor aim of an angry woman, kicked dirt at Sothram.

    “Odious swine,” she cried.

    The spray of earth on Sothram’s shin was puny, the insult grave. The large man roared and lunged for her. The thrall dashed wide-eyed across the yard into Rurik’s arms. Sothram’s mangy men-at-arms slunk around the corner of the barn. Eight of them now in the yard.

    “What’s this?” The Saxon glowered. “Hand her over. She’s mine by rights.”

    Rurik needed her to be obedient; his instructions had been simple. Go quietly to the trees. He checked the area, one arm holding the huddled woman close. Three of his men fanned out behind Sothram’s men. Faint morning light gleamed off Bjorn’s iron helmet. His second set a hand on the pack horse, nodding grimly. 

    “Of course she is.” Rurik’s voice rang loud. “You can keep her.”

    The thrall’s mouth gaped. It was laughable how quickly her fine lips turned shrewish.

    “You, you…” she sputtered and squirmed, her Norse switching to rapid words he couldn’t understand. 

    He didn’t know the tongue but guessed the she-cat called him something worse than odious swine. Stifling a grin, he jammed her body flush to his. This was one way to tame her.

    “First, we have the matter of my furs.”

    “What?” Sothram’s lips curled against his teeth. “My man Hans wrapped the furs last eve. Protects ‘em from dampness, and this is the thanks I get?”

    “Just as I told you, Viking.” The muffled words came from his ribs. 

    “Yer listenin’ to the likes of her?” Sothram barked rude laughter. “I should let ye have her. Not worth the silver I paid. Has a viper’s tongue, she has.”

    “I don’t need a woman. I need my furs. They are what I traded for.”

    “Ye got ‘em packed all nice and pretty.” Sothram spat at the ground and grappled for his knife. “Time ye leave.”

Sothram’s men advanced, but the Sons were faster. Blood pulsing, Rurik pushed the thrall behind him. He rushed the Saxon, his sword ringing as he unsheathed iron. The merchant’s blade never cleared leather.

    Rurik jerked the man’s tunic, sticking Fenrir’s tip between fat folds on Sothram’s neck. “I leave when I have my furs,” he said, low and lethal. 

    Alertness shot through him, heightening his senses. Metal clashed to his left. Men grunted in pain, landing in dirt. Wood splintered. Bjorn snapped arrows over his thigh and the broken shafts scattered like twigs. The Sons brandished axes and hammers over Sothram’s fallen men. Of the eight, five were out cold and three were on their knees.

    To his right, a woman screamed. Sothram’s wife. She ran shrieking into the yard, her hands fluttering wildly. Two gaunt thralls followed her, their arms brimming with wool-wrapped mounds.

    He smiled grimly. Plush white ermine, the fur of kings, dangled from the open ends. He didn’t need the amber-eyed woman after all. His furs came to him.

    Sothram’s chest heaved with labored, fetid breath. The merchant’s eyes slanted at his wife. “Tell ‘em to load the furs, Hilda, and quit yer screams.”

    The gaunt, hollow-eyes men rushed to cut the bundles. Rags poured underfoot as they scrambled to strap on the ermine. The yard stayed silent except for the defeated men panting on their knees.

    Rurik tightened his grip on the merchant’s tunic. “Do you know what I do to men like you?”

    The Saxon’s beady eyes rounded. “Wh…What?”

    “I make the world a better place,” he ground out. “A world free of one less cheat.”

    He angled his sword high for the killing thrust, but footfalls pattered in the dirt. A small body launched at him.

    “No!” A girl’s fists beat his thigh. “Leave Father alone.” 

    Sothram’s wife screamed, rocking back and forth on bare feet, her apron clutched to her mouth. The young, round-faced maid strained to get between Rurik and Sothram. She couldn’t be more than five or six.

    On his left, slender fingers touched his shoulder. “Please, Viking. I loathe the man, but let him live.”

    Rurik, his arm upraised for the death strike, peered at the girl’s red-faced fury before taking measure of the slave. “I would’ve thought you the most blood thirsty.”

     She paled under apricot skin. “Sheath your sword. You have what belongs to you, and your men, they are unharmed.”

    The thrall’s quiet voice touched a hidden place inside him. He released Sothram, his gaze locked on the amber-eyed woman. The Saxon tottered back, wheezing and gulping air. His wife grabbed the little girl and scurried to the feasting hall, the door rattling when she slammed the door behind her.

    Eyes wide open, uncanny silence poured over him. Why the slave woman’s unexpected softness? Most would cry blood-lust revenge — not beg mercy for another, especially one as mean-spirited as Sothram. Fenrir glinted in his hand, the hungry metal denied. The blade arced in a wide, unhurried circle until the tip touched the earth.

    “Please, Viking. Let’s leave this place.”

    Her gentle plea nudged him, clearing the fog from his head.

    “Yes. We ride. You there.” He pointed at one of the male thralls. “Saddle another horse for the maid. Her mount and her release to me will be gifts from Sothram.”

    The young man sprinted to the barn while the other dropped to his knees to gather the fallen rags. Sunshine seeped through morning vapor, and once again, the ebon-haired woman faced him, her chin tipped high.

    “My thanks, Viking. For a moment, I thought you were going to leave me.”

    “And I thought you’d go quietly to the trees. For a thrall, you don’t take orders well.”

    Lips pursing, she fixed her cloak, the picture of well-mannered calm. “Then, I shall go there now.”

    Head cocked, he followed the woman brushing past him, her amber gaze snared with his.

    Was the idea of obeying him that vexing to her?

    She threaded her way across the yard, her shredded hem brushing smooth-skinned calves. The way she walked, her steps rhythmic and graceful, he could almost hear shoes tapping fine stone floors.

    Images of past high-born women floated before him, their silk-covered heads turning his way. Some scorned him, a beast of burden to them a hired sword ripe for their disdain. Others whispered perfumed invitations, craving roughness in their beds. How little they knew him. It didn’t matter. He quenched their bodies to the last pleasured cry and left.

    But this slave woman…

    Who was she? A runaway wife? A favored concubine sold by a rival in the dark of night?

    His grip on Fenrir tightened. He’d unlock her riddles. Piece by piece, touch by touch, and take what he wanted.  

 

 

Chapter Two

 

     The problem with women, they stole a man’s focus. He shouldn’t let the black-haired maid get in his head, but she did. A split-second given to the wrong person could change a man.

     What happened next came fast as a single breath of air…each twist and turn burned on his mind.

     A bearish yell erupted in the yard.

     “Rurik. Behind—” Bjorn’s warning was cut off.

     “Arhhh!” Sothram sprang at him, waving a knife. 

     Battle’s coppery taste spurted in his mouth. Another scream rent the air. The thrall. From the corner of his eye, a wicked blade gleamed and slashed. His heels pivoted too late. A sickening chunk behind him…leather and flesh stabbed. Searing pain shot deep in his shoulder.

     Teeth gnashing, he swung Fenrir high. The flat of the sword smashed Sothram’s temple. Blood and sweat sprayed. The merchant dropped his knife, red gushing down his cheek. Sothram wobbled a step and crumpled to the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head.

     Lungs billowing, Rurik stood over the Saxon. His sword tip hovered a hair’s breadth over the man’s life vein. He craved the kill. Sothram didn’t deserve another day, but his daughter deserved a father even if he was a cheat.

     Teeth bared, he growled low and wiped Fenrir clean across the merchant’s tunic. Sheathing his sword, sharpness burned high on his back. He slapped a hand over his shoulder, and warm slickness seeped between his fingers.

     Not keeping his eye on Sothram was an error worthy of a stripling youth.

     “First lesson of battle. Good warriors react. The best act first.” His father’s words of wisdom right before his fist slammed him to the ground. He was seven when that happened, stayed flat on his back all morning. Vlad knew how to make a lesson stick.

     Scowling at his blood-stained hand in the Saxon’s yard, he’d not make the same mistake again.

     Footsteps scampered his way. The thrall reached for him. “Let me look at your shoulder.”

     “Do as you’re told,” he snapped. “Go to the trees.”

     Her hand jerked back, and cheeks flushing, she whirled around and ran to the horses. Eyeing his men standing over the cowed Saxons, he swiped his palm across his chest.

     Erik, a gruff-voiced warrior, put his axe blade to a man’s throat. “Well?”

     “Every man lives to see another day.” 

     Erik’s dark eyes widened, but no one questioned the command. Bjorn stepped forward, the iron rings of his mail neck-cover clinking.

     “You heard him, men.” The giant of Vellefold issued rapid orders. “Gunnar. Thorvald. Bind these fools in the barn and burn their bows and arrows. Toss the other weapons down the well.” Bjorn turned to the other two. “Erik. Thorfinn. Take our host to his bed and see if his lady has spare provisions.” 

     The men bolted to action. Erik and Thorfinn stood over the sprawled Saxon.

     “Pay fair coin for the provisions.” He paused, cleaning the last of the blood from his fingers. “And Erik, let Thorfinn do the asking. Sothram’s lady has had enough of a fright. She isn’t to blame having a fool for a husband.”

     Erik’s dark-whiskered jaw worked a semblance of a grin. The mountainous Thorfinn, earnest about every task, nodded as he and Erik hefted Sothram by his arms and legs.

     Bjorn walked across the yard, tipping his war hammer over his shoulder. “Odd morning.”

     “We’ve been attacked before.”

     “True. But, you’ve never turned your back on an enemy. Not ‘til they were dead or tied up. Nor have you given mercy to one such as Sothram.” Bjorn nudged his head in the thrall’s direction. “Were you…thinking of someone else?”

     Feet planted wide, Rurik crossed his arms. His cut stung and he itched not to relive his mistake. “The men are well. I got our furs. What’s the problem?”

     “No problem.” Bjorn matched his wide-legged stance. “Never have you let a woman ride with us. Goes against our laws. The men won’t like it.”

     “I know our laws. The men will bear it.” 

     A small fire sprang to life by the barn, the work of Thorvald nursing a blaze with broken bows and arrows.

     “The thrall cursed the Saxon in a foreign tongue,” Bjorn said, keeping his voice low. “Is she from the east lands?”

     Rurik checked the trees where the maid stroked a horse’s muzzle. Her gold stare followed Gunnar dragging an unconscious man to the barn. Shiny, straight black hair fell to her waist. She was fair of face with beguiling lips and silken skin, though not a beauty with her strong nose.

     Did a cruel husband tire of her defiance and sell her? He could think of better ways to curb the woman’s haughtiness.

     “I only know she’s prideful and didn’t heed me when I bid her wait by the trees.” And my help means much to her. He’d keep that to himself.

     “Where do we take her?”

     “She asked to go to Paris.”

     “Long time since we’ve been there.”

     “I promised her safe passage for her warning.” He faced his second, his voice steely. “Make sure the men know this.”

     Bjorn’s brows shot up, lost in his helmet’s iron eye-rings. The unspoken claim was clear — the woman belonged to Rurik. No one would touch her.

     “They will when I tell them we go to Rouen by way of Paris first.”

     Rurik smiled thinly. “We go to Rouen as planned. I promised her safe passage. Never said where to.”

     Bjorn scratched his chin, his keen eyes narrowing. Chickens pecked their way back into the yard. Flames hissed from Thorvald pouring oil on the inferno. Except for the blood splattered dirt and burning bows and arrows, a casual visitor would think this a sleepy outpost.

     “You’re keeping the woman,” Bjorn said quietly. “Are you planning to ransom her?”

     He stepped on a small stone, grinding the hard knot in soft soil. “It crossed my mind, but she claims she’s a thrall.”

     “If she’s a thrall,” Bjorn snorted. “I’m the king of Paris.”

     “Thrall or not, there’s no surety she belongs to a wealthy man.”

     “Then uncovering the truth falls on you.” Bjorn’s smile split wide. “And should you sample the goods before returning her…none would gainsay you.”

     Uncovering the truth

     He squinted at the distance, his vision hazing. Deception ate at him, a worm to his insides. He’d been juggling truth and lies since his private meeting with Will Longsword’s half-brother in Hedeby. Years he’d fought with these men, watching each other’s backs from childhood in Birka. They’d saved each other’s lives, sharing every reward, every trade. He was the leader, yet he never took a leader’s portion. Not once.

     Taking the land and swearing an oath to Normandy’s jarl would likely tear the Sons apart.

     But, he wouldn’t share. The land or the woman. Not ‘til he was done with her.

     Erik and Thorfinn emerged from the hall with two leather bags. The provisions. Thorvald and Gunner, flush with easy victory, chuckled over a jest. Arms full, Gunnar dumped weapons down the well in the middle of the yard. The water wouldn’t be harmed and once Sothram’s shifty-eyed men were free, they’d spend much time fishing for axes and knives instead of chasing down the Sons.

     “This thrall,” Bjorn said. “Does she have a name?”

     Rurik’s gaze wandered to the ebon-haired woman. She sat on a rock, spine straight despite her hard perch.

     “I didn’t ask.”

     The giant of Vellefold laughed loud enough to turn heads. “You have a way with women.” He headed to the barn, chickens squawking as he bellowed, “Men. Change of plans.”

 

* * *

 

     Rurik slung bags over his shoulder, his long legs ranging her way. The other men assembled near a fire. All were shades of blond save their leader and the black-haired one named Erik. His face bore the stamp of Rome. The Forgotten Sons defied a single name. Fighters? Adventurers? Traders? They wore similar garb — black from head to toe. Iron studs shimmered on their leather vests, all with the same vicious wolf carved on the front.

     But, it’d be hare-brained to say clothes made the men.

     These warriors were hewn from a rugged world. Powerful muscles molded long-limbed frames. Feral-eyed and bold, they’d take first, ask later.

     “Northmen,” she said under her breath. Why were they all so…enormous?

     Her hand slipped inside her cloak to rub her hip. The feel of Rurik’s hand lingered like a brand, his single touch a command. It had worked. She’d yielded. Now his big hands tied the bags on a pack horse.

     She stood up, and the Viking’s gaze struck hers a split-second, sending a tiny quiver across her bottom. They stood mere paces from each other, but he said nothing. Was this a game of will? Who’d speak first?

     She cleared her throat, but the dratted man walked around the pack horse, ignoring her. Long, dark auburn hair hung thick as a fox tail over the sword strapped to his back. He refastened a cinch and sinews stretched on naked shoulders. High on his back, blood wet sliced leather.

     “You should have someone look at that.”

     “At what?” He ducked around the horse, but not before she caught his fleeting smile.

     Eyes rolling at being the first to talk, she walked around his black destrier and peeked over the saddle. “The cut on your back, Viking.”

     “We don’t have time.”

     The smooth timbre of his voice lacked the booming quality of the others, yet was deep and pleasant. He gave orders. Bjorn saw them done. It was an orderly arrangement for the tight-knit warriors.

     She’d heard they fought and roamed, never staying put. Rurik must see her as goods to be hauled to Paris as he and his men journeyed on. Wasn’t that for the best?

     Fingers drumming the saddle, she blurted, “You know, what Sothram said about me isn’t true.”

     “Such as?”

     Eyes the color of storm-tossed lakes met hers. Hard, forceful, lacking all charity. Her flesh tingled strangely against her wool tunic. This was a first, seeing him this close in daylight. Rurik, a coarse warrior from the land of ice, seared her. He came from the lowest stock yet elevated himself by strength of will.

     “Out with it sweeting. We don’t have all day.”

     Was there no softness, no patience in him? “I meant what Sothram said about my having a viper’s tongue.”

     He leaned forward and solid flesh flexed in sun-bronzed arms. “We’ll see.”

     “There’s nothing to see. I share my thoughts where they are…helpful.”

     Rurik chuckled. “My short time knowing you and haughty comes to mind. Or proud. Not helpful.”

     His arrogance put a fire in her belly. “You assume much.” She pushed up on tip-toe. “Believe me. If I’m not well-versed on a subject, I keep quiet.”

     “There’s a first,” he said, stepping around the horse. “A woman who holds her tongue. You’ll have the whole journey to prove it.”

     He faced her, his brows shooting up with unspoken challenge. A breeze played with his hair and she noticed a small piece of his left ear was missing.

     “You don’t want to converse.”

     “I prefer quiet women.”

     “Like the ermine,” she said flatly. “Travels easy. Doesn’t talk.”

     One corner of his mouth twitched. “We understand each other.”

     Hemmed in by horses and man, she had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The Viking consumed all the air standing this close. Rurik’s blue-eyed scrutiny drove her gaze to his chest…where dried blood smeared the snarling wolf carved in his leather vest. The ferocious round-eyed creature stole her attention the way snake charmers wooed an adder from its basket.

     Rurik spoke but she didn’t hear a word he said until, “…you could lay with me or any one of my men.”

     Her head snapped up. “What did you say?”

     She blinked fast, absorbing his words. He said something about sharing his bed. Or one of his men. Like the comfort woman he’d assumed she was this morning. Rurik made it sound like a practical matter, yet his eyes narrowed, intense, unwavering…a predator’s eyes before he pounces.

     A chill pebbled her skin. There was no mistaking his prey.

     Laughter came from the barn. The warriors headed their way, and an awful churning tore through her stomach. Slaves made fair game for Viking lust.

     He hooked a finger under her chin. “You can have my protection or one of the others.”

     She glared at him. “And if I want to sleep alone?”

     “Stay here. I’m sure Sothram would gladly keep you.”

     Her chin jerked free of his touch. Around her, men checked their saddles. The Sons would leave her and not look back. This was what happened to a woman who trusted a Northman. She’d not get tender care; she’d get survival.

     “We’ll call it thrall’s choice.” The Viking’s teeth gleamed hard and white in dark auburn whiskers. His blue eyes flashed a warning — Don’t play me for a fool.

     He’d already called out her seeress claim. His manner told her he didn’t believe she was a thrall, yet he let the falsehood go. Why? Her mouth went dry and she’d swear the sun beat hotter, though she stood in the shade. The one called Thorvald mounted his horse and scowled at her. More beast than man, his craggy face had seen its share of fights. Horse hooves stomped the ground. Restless men put on their basinet helmets, their sharp stares tracing her from the iron eye rings. Wolves…all of them.

     She reached for Rurik. “You promised to keep me safe. I choose you.” Her palm rested on sturdy male chest. A chest she was sure puffed out once her choice was made.

     “Good.” He grabbed her by the waist and his strong hands lifted her off the ground.

     “What are you doing?” she cried.

     “Putting you in the saddle. Unless you want to walk.”

     Astride the horse, her torn hem rode up to her knees. Her hood fell back in the scramble to cover bare legs with the cloak, but the thin barrier couldn’t stop warm, calloused fingers encircling her ankle. Or keep those fingers from disappearing under her cloak.

     Take first. Ask later.

     “Have you a name?” he asked.

     She stared at his hand moving underneath the wool. “Safira.”

     Rurik rubbed her naked calf, and threads of carnal heat climbed up her leg. “Safira,” he repeated, his eyes softening at the corners. “You’ll be safe with me.”

     Her lips parted as much from the Viking’s feather-soft caresses as his quelling promise. The hard man vowed to shield her from harm. The corner of his mouth curled as if he knew he flummoxed her – and liked it.

     In one lithe move, he mounted his war horse. Rurik put on his helmet, the iron nose guard nicked.

     “Men, we’ll avoid Sothram’s archers and go east to the Cailly River. We ride long and hard today.”

     A warrior lobbed a crude jest about riding long and hard. Cheeks burning, she raised her hood. Her limits would be tested on this journey. It didn’t matter. She was going home to Paris.

     Rurik galloped past Sothram’s gate, dirt clods flying under his horse’s bowl-sized hooves. His men trailed in a thunderous wake, the pack horses chasing them on long tethers. All went save Bjorn. The flaxen-haired giant circled the grounds atop his massive white steed.

    She twisted her finger where an opulent ring once rested. It’s lost hurt most of all. “I’m sorry Savta,” she whispered.

     “Thrall,” Bjorn yelled across the yard. “Do you ride with us?”

     The door of Sothram’s feasting hall cracked open. Hilda. The woman’s flat-lipped stare seethed, daring her to cast her lot with Vikings.

     A surge rushed from head to toe, the will to live. She grabbed the reins and kneed her horse to a racing gallop. Wind blew through her hair, giving a loose-limbed sense of freedom, the first since she’d been stolen. Leaving the Saxon’s outpost was easy.

     Keeping the Viking from touching her come nightfall? A welcome test of wit and will.

 

COPYRIGHT  This story is for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be sold, shared, or given away.  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the writer’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2017 by Gina Conkle         ALL RIGHTS RESERVE