Secrets in Amber, Book 1

Secrets in Amber, Book One of the Forgotten Sons Series

 

Chapter One

Holy Roman Empire, AD 975

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.  

 

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