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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.
Look for the next installment tomorrow.