A Sneak Peek at Kept by the Viking (Forgotten Sons series, book 1)
A Saxon outpost on the northern border of Nor’man land.
Smiling grimly at the 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. Rouen’s overlord, Will Longsword, promised to make him a landsman, a plum prize for a low-born Viking.
If he got to Rouen by the midsummer feast.
Door hinges whined in the quiet, and a shrouded figure crept through the outbuilding. Skin prickling with alertness, Rurik’s hand hovered over the knife. Firelight limned the form slipping past loose-weave curtains into his bed box. A bent knee sank into fur. The bed creaked, and a black cloak parted, revealing enticing curves pressed against a thrall’s grey wool tunic.
A woman to ease his loins. She should’ve come last night.
“Didn’t expect a companion this morning.” He caressed her smooth-skinned arm. “I don’t have time—”
She slapped his hand. “Keep your hands to yourself, Viking. I am not here to be your, your…how do you say, comfort woman?”
A lilting accent melted over sharp Norse. It teased his ear, intriguing him the same as her knocking away his hand. Slaves, thralls, the lowest of laborers knew better than to strike a warrior.
He sat back, amused. “Frilla. That is a Viking comfort woman.”
Her chin tipped proudly. “I am not a frilla. I bring you urgent news.”
The folds of her cloak rippled. Did she hide a weapon?
Familiar, battle-ready tension heated his veins. His eyes narrowed on shadows hiding her face. “Who are you?”
She scooted closer. “That doesn’t matter. I—”
He yanked the knife from his boot and sprang at her. It was quick work, wrestling the woman into the pelts. Whatever she’d meant to say was lost in shocked yelps. Her hood fell back. The bed box squeaked in the scuffle, and heavy furs jumbled around his morning visitor. Jamming his forearm high on her chest, he squinted at the woman, but he couldn’t make out her features in scant light.
“I’ll ask again. Who are you?”
Shorn fingernails scratched his arm brace. “Stop!”
The thrall scrabbled beneath him like a doused cat. He jerked his hips back, narrowly missing a knee to his ballocks. Blood thrumming, he swung his leg over thrashing limbs and pinned her with his thigh.
“I am Sothram’s slave. He is your enemy,” she gasped. “Not me.”
He held the blade high. “Did he send you to attack me?”
“No! I detest the man. Put the knife away…if you want to know how the Saxon cheats you.”
“The blade stays,” he said, nose to nose with her. “And you will tell me Sothram’s plans.”
Eyes glimmered through tangled black hair. Anger stiffened her limbs. He would feed off it and stay vigilant. A man could never be too careful with the gentler sex. In his travels, he’d heard of fair-faced women plying a deathly trade by luring the hapless traveler into a private place. The end of that tale was always cruel. Thieves robbed the man and beat him unconscious or worse—killed him.
It had happened to Leif, one of the Forgotten Sons. His loss was a wound that wouldn’t heal.
Glowering up at him, she jammed the heels of her hands against his shoulders. “I know you won’t hurt an unarmed woman, Rurik of Birka. Your reputation says otherwise.”
A slow smile formed. The she-cat had spirit, he’d give her that. She wriggled hard, the cradle of her body bumping him. The outbuilding was quiet save the squeaking bed and her feet battering the pelts. One glance proved no one lurked beyond the coarse curtains.
Why not have a little fun before his long day’s ride?
“Why do you keep fighting? You’re not going to unseat me.”
“Get off me,” she huffed. “I have no weapons.”
“How do I know that? I’ll have to search you.”
“Overgrown brute.” Teeth clenched, she dug her nails into his leather-covered shoulders.
Low laughter rocked his chest. “You came to my bed. If you want me to listen, it will be as I say or not at all.”
She stilled. “You will not…touch me?”
“I want information. Not sex.”
A rooster crowed in the distance. Time passed thick and quiet, marked by the tension melting from her slender legs resting between his. He couldn’t fully see the woman’s eyes, but he could feel them, searching him, wondering. Yielding. He savored moments like these: the dip of a woman’s loins beneath him, a naked knee touching his inner thigh, bed furs tussled and warm from her body, hair spread out for his touch… Sensual tenderness was a Freyja-blessed gift in his harsh life. He was quick to steal softness when he could.
The thrall gave the slightest nod.
“That’s better.” He sheathed his knife. “Now that we’re comfortable.”
“We need to discuss 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. Who is this woman? He pushed back the curtain with his free hand. Fire flickered from a hanging soapstone lamp, slanting light across a cloud of ebon hair and amber eyes. The thrall from last night. She’d stood at the end of Sothram’s feast 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 noteworthy, but you should know when a man has the upper hand.” He let go of the curtain and began to root through the pelts. He was taking no chances.
She swatted his shoulders. “We don’t have time for this, Viking.”
“I have to make sure you’re unarmed.”
Dainty feminine grunts beguiled him. Her fight waned more from exhaustion than will. Palm flat on her ribs, he grazed his thumb across the side of her breast. The thrall froze. Her heart banged against his forearm bracing her chest. With her cloak open, only a thin layer of wool separated her skin from his hand. Her body heat seeped into him. Women were meant to be savored, their gentleness absorbed.
He took his time, trailing his fingers over each rib before finding the sweet furrow of her waist. Gold eyes flared wide when his hand slid lower, cupping her hip.
“What’s your price for this valuable information?”
Sooty lashes dipped in the manner of a submissive maid, but he wasn’t fooled. Her body was rigid beneath him. She barely tolerated his touch.
“I want you to take me with you. You are bound south, no?”
“Give me safe passage to Paris and your debt to me will be paid.”
“How good of you,” he mocked. “But Paris is inconveniently out of my way.”
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 eastern court, not a slave woman clothed in rags.
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 brushed back her hair, the strands as rich as silk threads. The gods had created this woman for a man’s pleasure. More went on here than met the eye. She was too exquisite for Sothram’s outpost, her skin too smooth and hair too lavish to have borne hardships. Most female thralls wore their hair shorn at the shoulders, a sign of their status. When this woman spoke, he glimpsed even, white teeth. His morning visitor had been coddled from birth, bred on a life of luxury. A woman of high value. That alone could make the troublesome thrall worthwhile.
Blunt refusal crossed his mind, but his traitorous mouth opened. “I’ll give you safe passage.” He grimaced as soon as the words passed his lips.
A woman meant delays. He needed to be in Rouen in five days, and there was his oath to his men—no women. They never traveled with a woman in tow. But the ebon-haired maid relaxed beneath him, her regal face softening.
“My thanks, Viking. Truly, I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Her reaction at being in his care reached inside him, a gentle seed seeking fertile soil. Gold-hued eyes, open and beautiful as polished amber, stared back bold and curious. This was a woman to linger over and cosset in a bed of the finest furs, and he wanted to be the one to do it, an urge that did not sit well.
“Your information,” he said gruffly.
Lush lips opened inches from his mouth. “Yesterday you traded for two bundles of 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 rolled off the thrall and helped her upright. Pushing back the curtain, he checked the small outbuilding the Saxon used for storage. His belongings sat on the floor untouched beside broken barrels and buckets in need of repair. Rumors abounded where Sothram was concerned. Sometimes honest, sometimes not. Yet, this was the last southern outpost in the Holy Roman Empire to trade for the highly valued ermine, and it was on the road to Rouen.
The thrall sat on her heels, rubbing her neck. “He thinks you will not inspect the bundles. Sothram’s men wrapped them in wool cloth. He will say he does that as a gesture of goodwill to protect the ermine.”
“And down the road, I discover his treachery, return for revenge, and take what is mine.” He sheathed Fenrir, his sword named for the monstrous wolf of lore. “Now tell me something useful.”
“Listen to me. Four archers left before sunrise. Sothram knows you travel the southern road. His men will ambush you from the trees.” She sighed. “He has done this before, Viking.”
Sothram marked him a witless warrior. He smiled coldly; he’d let that work in his favor. The prized ermine was to be sold at Rouen’s Midsumarblot Fair, the coin split evenly with his men. His portion would pay the first tribute to Will Longsword. But this woman nettled him.
“Why are you telling me this? Who are you to Sothram?”
She sat tall. “I am his seeress. Your taking me will be a great slight to him.”
“I prefer the ermine. Travels easy. Doesn’t talk.”
Plush lips flattened. 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. Not with him.
“You are no seeress.”
“Just look at the bundles,” she hissed. “What I say is true. Then I will tell you where he hides your furs and you will take me with you.”
She reached for the curtains to leave, and he grabbed her wrist.
“Not so fast. Tell me the truth. Who are you?”
Her hand fisted in his grip. “You already gave your word, Viking.”
“And I’ll break it if it suits me.”
He kept her in place, a reminder the balance of power was his. Her body quaked with a mix of desperation and rage, tremors of a caged termagant ready to spring. She protected something.
Or was it his touch she reviled?
Black lashes fanned smooth cheeks, shielding her eyes. “It is as you say. I am no seeress. I was wrongly sold to Sothram at the last full moon. I don’t belong here.”
“Why the deception? You must have known he would find out.” He let go and the maid rubbed her arm.
“It’s not important.”
Her fine accent was feather-soft and intriguing. Light filtered through rips in the bed curtain, 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 treacherous ploys of certain women. Lies were a favorite of the fair sex.
Wasn’t he lying for his own end?
This woman had admitted she was no seeress, while he withheld the truth from men he’d known since childhood in Birka. Such trust she placed in him. Life had not been kind to her of late. Fresh bruises dotted her neck, the marks of a cruel master. Men could be brutal. He’d seen it often enough.
“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 picked up his sheathed sword from the furs and slipped it over his back. “What else should I know?”
“You waste time, Viking.”
“And you have the manner of a highborn woman. Who are you? A runaway wife?”
“I cannot explain now.” She pushed aside the curtains to check the door. “Sothram rouses as we speak. He will know something’s afoot if his men see me here.” Her fingertips skimmed his knee. “Please. You must trust me.”
The 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,” he said, buckling his sword. “When my men assemble, go quietly to the oak trees lining Sothram’s yard.”
“I will.” Cloak and skirts clutched to her knees, she climbed out of the bed.
He stuck a finger through a tear in the curtains and watched her go. The thrall padded across the earthen floor, her shredded hems skimming slender calves. She cracked open the weathered door. Peering outside, his mystery woman raised her hood and vanished as quickly as she came.
She believed he’d take care of her.
He grabbed his boot and jammed it on. Tugging sharply on leather ties, he gartered the straps. Nothing was getting in his way. Not a cheating merchant or a wily woman.
He strolled out of his lodgings, morning fog dampening his skin. A lone guard slouched against the root cellar. The man marked him with a nod before slipping from sight.
Off to warn the rest of Sothram’s men?
Rurik kept his easy amble to the barn where his second-in-command slept. A glance at two weathered outbuildings told him no one was around. Sothram was careless with the hamlet. Thatched roofs grey with mold. A leaning palisade fence. No warrior standing at the gate. The thieving Saxon didn’t spend his coin here.
Inside the barn, the son of Vellefold reclined on a mountain of hay, a Norse hammer as long as his thigh tethered to his wrist.
Rurik toed the sole of Bjorn’s boot. “Bjorn. Trouble.”
One eye opened. “There’d better be, to wake me this early.” The giant sat up and scrubbed both hands over his face. “What is it?”
Rurik repeated the thrall’s story while Bjorn rose on nimble feet. Beyond the barn door, chattering boys led the Son’s saddled warhorses from another barn, taking them to a sprawling oak tree. A smaller boy followed, bringing two packhorses burdened with mounds—the wool-wrapped furs.
Bjorn squinted at Sothram’s men milling in the yard. “You trust this woman?”
Rurik stood beside him, counting the Saxon’s fighters. Five of them. “I distrust Sothram.”
“I’ll get the men.”
Bjorn disappeared through a back door. 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’s open door. Good. He wanted the men focused on him, all the better to miss Bjorn.
Chickens flocked to a young girl tossing grain in the yard. Florid-faced Sothram exited his feast hall, speaking to a wiry man armed with bow and arrows. The air smelled of wet earth and smoke from torches freshly doused. Rosy-cheeked milkmaids shuffled into the barn, their buckets clanking.
“Morning,” he drawled.
The tittering maids passed him to attend braying goats. His side vision caught movement outside. A black-cloaked figure charged toward the barn.
“Here now.” The merchant reached for the interloper and gave his captive a bone-jarring shake. “What are ye about this morning?”
The hood slipped and a woman’s head whipped back and forth like a rag doll. The thrall. She pummeled Sothram’s bulk, her fists as ineffective as moths striking stone.
“Let go of me, you—you—”
Frowning, Rurik stepped outside the barn. “Sothram.”
The Saxon glanced at him. “Rurik.”
The thrall twisted to break free, her face set toward Rurik. Her eyes rounded with silent plea until sausage-thick fingers dug into her arms.
She yelped in pain. “Stop it!”
“Are you going to dally with your thrall?” Rurik called out. “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, five warriors dressed in black strode through the 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 go quietly to the trees, but she swung her shabby, boot-covered foot back, and with the poor aim of an angry woman, kicked dirt at Sothram.
“Odious swine,” she said, to the hoots of Sothram’s men.
The spray of earth on the Saxon’s shin was puny, but the insult grave. The large man roared and lunged for her. Chickens and ducks scurried in all directions. The thrall dashed wide-eyed across the yard and flung herself into Rurik’s arms. A few of 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 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 packhorse, nodding grimly.
“Of course she is.” Rurik’s voice rang loud. “You can keep her.”
The thrall gaped at him. It was laughable how fast her fair mouth turned shrewish.
“You, you…” she sputtered, and her Norse switched 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. He wasn’t going to leave the woman, but he’d not explain himself. Stifling a grin, he hugged 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 ermine 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. A haughty 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 by his tunic and stuck Fenrir’s tip between the fat folds on Sothram’s neck. “I leave when I have my furs.”
Metal clashed to Rurik’s left. Men landed in the dirt, grunting in pain. Wood splintered from Bjorn snapping arrows over his thigh, the broken shafts scattering like twigs. The Sons brandished axes over Sothram’s fallen men. Of the eight, five were out cold. The other three were on their knees.
To his right, a rotund woman screamed. Sothram’s wife. She ran shrieking into the yard, belly shaking and hands fluttering wildly. Two gaunt thralls followed her, their arms brimming with wool-wrapped mounds. Rurik smiled coldly. Plush white ermine, the fur of kings, dangled from the open ends. He didn’t need the prideful thrall’s help after all. His furs came to him.
Sothram’s chest heaved with labored, fetid breaths. The merchant’s eyes slanted at his wife. “Tell `em to load the furs, Hilda, and quit yer screams.”
The hollow-eyed men rushed to cut the bundles. Rags poured underfoot as they scrambled to strap the ermine onto docile packhorses. The yard stayed silent except for 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.” His voice was low and lethal. “A world free of one less cheat.”
He angled his sword high for the killing thrust, but footfalls pattered 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 round-faced child strained to get between Rurik and Sothram. She couldn’t be more than five or six.
On his left, slender fingers touched his shoulder. The amber-eyed thrall. “Please, Viking. I loathe the man, but let him live.”
Rurik, his arm raised for the death strike, took measure of the slave. “I would’ve thought you the most bloodthirsty of all.”
She paled under apricot skin, and the same hand that had touched his knee in bed touched his sword hand to stay the kill.
“Sheathe your weapon. You have what belongs to you, and your men are unharmed.” A moment passed and her voice gentled for his ears alone. “Even a warrior such as you must know there are times when the force of your hand is not the answer.”
The woman’s refined accent found a hidden place inside him, a whisper, a stirring akin to leaves rustling in a forest. Force and bloodshed was his life, a language he understood. Kill or be killed. Life was simple as that. But there was no denying the odd seed the woman planted. Perhaps she did have an otherworldly gift, because her presence rattled him.
Rurik released Sothram, his gaze locked on the slave. Her face set to his, the woman didn’t flinch. The Saxon tottered back, gulping air. His wife grabbed the little girl, raced back to the feasting hall, and banged the door behind her. Uncanny silence poured over Rurik, bringing with it the slave woman’s unusual peppery scent. Why did she show weakness? Most would cry bloodlust 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 half circle until the tip touched the earth.
“Please,” she murmured. “Let us leave this place.”
Fog cleared from his head. “Yes. We ride.” He pointed at one of the male thralls and spoke louder. “You there. Saddle another horse for the maid. Her mount and her release to me will be gifts from Sothram for his slight against me and my men.” He pointed to the other young thrall. “Clean up those rags. When you’re done, get my belongings and put them by my horse.”
The first young man sprinted to the barn while the other dropped to his knees to gather the fallen rags. Sunshine trickled through morning’s vapor. Ducks waddled into the yard, a pair of them flapping their wings, quacking over a morsel in the dirt.
The ebon-haired woman still faced him. “My thanks, Viking. For a moment, I thought you were going to leave me.”
“And I thought you would go quietly to the trees. For a thrall, you don’t take orders well.”
One brow arched. “I was walking to the barn because you were there.”
“Because you didn’t trust me to keep our bargain?”
“Because being with you was the safest place to be.”
Smart woman. Trust was a thin thread here, and she wasn’t taking any chances. He couldn’t blame her. He was a wandering Viking who sold his unique talents to the highest bidder. The Sons followed the exchange, grins splitting Bjorn’s and Erik’s faces. They knew he was no savior of women.
“I didn’t set out to stir up trouble, but I won’t cower from it. You saw how he grabbed me.” Haughtiness limned her accented Norse. “The Saxon got exactly what he deserved.”
His smile was reluctant. She had spirit. In the right measure, her presence could be entertaining. No one could begrudge her attacking Sothram’s shin. He’d been ready to do worse. But his word was law. She needed to understand this.
He jabbed Fenrir’s tip deeper in the soil. “If you ride with me, you’ll do exactly as I say.”
The thrall fixed her cloak, a picture of well-mannered calm. “Then, I shall go to the trees now.”
She treaded an uneven path through the yard, watching him over her shoulder. Frayed hems skimmed smooth-skinned calves. The way she walked, her steps rhythmic and graceful, he could almost hear fine-soled slippers tapping polished stone floors.
Images of foreign, high-born women floated before him, their silk-covered heads turning to peruse the length of him. Some scorned him, a beast of burden, 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’d slaked his lust on them, quenching their bodies to their last pleasured cry before leaving them exhausted in their fur-strewn beds.
But this amber-eyed woman…
Who was she? A runaway wife? A favored concubine ambushed by a rival and sold in the dark of night?
His grip on Fenrir tightened. He would unlock her riddles, piece by piece, touch by touch, and take what he wanted.
KEPT BY THE VIKING
Forgotten Sons series, book 1