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A split-second given to a woman could change a man. That was the problem with the fair sex. They were thieves, stealing a man’s focus. He shouldn’t let the black-haired maid get in his head, but she did. What happened next in the Saxon’s yard came fast as a single breath of air.
A bearish yell erupted.
“Rurik! Behind—” Bjorn’s warning was cut off.
“Arhhh!” Sothram leaped at Rurik, waving a knife.
Battle’s coppery taste spurted in Rurik’s mouth. Another scream rent the air. The thrall. She pointed at him. Ina wicked blade gleamed. He pivoted—too late.
A sickening chunk sounded, and searing pain shot deep in his shoulder.
Sothram pulled out the knife and raised it to strike again.
Teeth gnashing, Rurik swung Fenrir high. The flat of the sword smashed the Saxon’s temple. Blood and sweat sprayed the dirt. The merchant dropped his knife, a red rivulet gushing from his hair to his cheek. Sothram wobbled a step and, eyes rolling back into his head, his bulky frame crumpled to the ground.
Rurik stood over the Saxon, blood beading Fenrir’s tip. The end of his sword touched the man’s life vein on his neck. Lungs billowing, he craved the kill, the need for it pulsing as natural as his heartbeat.
How easy. One push…
Even a man such as you must know there are times when the force of your hand is not the answer.
The thrall’s words haunted him. The little Saxon girl’s teary eyes needled him too, because the world was not kind to fatherless girls.
Teeth bared, he growled low and wiped his sword clean across the merchant’s tunic. Sothram didn’t deserve another day, but his daughter deserved a father even if he was a cheat. Sheathing his sword, sharpness burned high on Rurik’s back. He slapped a hand over his shoulder. Warm slickness seeped between his fingers. Not keeping his eye on Sothram was an error worthy of a stripling youth.
He scowled at his blood-stained hand.
“Learn this if you want to live. Good warriors react. The best warriors act first.” His father’s words of wisdom before his fist had slammed Rurik to the ground. He was eight then. Stayed flat on his back all morning.
Vlad knew how to make a lesson stick.
Footsteps scampered in the yard. The thrall reached for him. “Your shoulder.”
“Do as you’re told,” he snapped. “Go to the trees.”
Her hands jerked back. Cheeks flushing, she whirled around and ran to the horses. With an eye to his men standing over Sothram’s cowed fighters, Rurik swiped his palm across his chest.
Gruff-voiced Erik yanked a Saxon’s head up by his hair and set an axe to the 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 hefted the sprawled Saxon by his arms and legs. The feast hall’s door opened a sliver. Sothram’s wife and daughter peeked through the opening, tears streaming down their cheeks.
“Pay fair coin for the provisions,” Rurik announced, rubbing the last of the blood on his fingers across his chest. “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 hauled Sothram to the hall.
Bjorn walked across the yard, his war hammer tipped 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. Were you—” Bjorn nudged his head in the thrall’s direction “—distracted by 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 fledgling fire burst to life by the barn, the work of Thorvald nursing the blaze with broken bows and arrows. One of Sothram’s young male thralls came from the outbuilding where Rurik had slept. He carried Rurik’s red and black shield in one hand, a rolled-up sleeping fur and leather saddle bags in the other—all of Rurik’s earthly goods.
“The thrall spoke in a foreign tongue,” Bjorn said. “Is she from a desert kingdom?”
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 full lips and silken skin, though not a beauty with her strong nose.
Did a cruel, foreign 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 high inside his helmet’s iron eye-rings. The unspoken claim was clear—the woman belonged to Rurik. No one could touch her.
“I will let the men know when I tell them we go to Rouen by way of Paris first.”
“No.” Rurik’s smile thinned. “We go to Rouen as planned. I promised her safe passage. Never said where to. Tell the men if she speaks of journeying to Paris, they are to go along with it.”
Chickens pecked their way into the yard again. Flames hissed as Thorvald poured oil on the inferno. Except for the blood-splattered earth and burning bows and arrows, a casual visitor would think this a sleepy outpost.
“You are…keeping the woman?” Bjorn scanned the yard, his voice quiet.
“For a time. As it suits me.” Rurik stepped on a small stone and ground it into soft soil. “She could bring a nice ransom from whoever lost her, though she claims to be a thrall.”
Bjorn snorted. “If she’s a thrall, I’m the king of Paris.”
“Thrall or not, there is no surety she belongs to a wealthy man, or that he would buy her back.”
“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…
Rurik squinted into the distance. Deception ate at him, a worm to his insides. He’d been juggling truth and lies since his private meeting in Hedeby with Will Longsword’s half-brother, Ademar. A powerful jarl seeking Rurik’s allegiance did not surprise him. The jarl’s offer did—a rich holding large enough it’d take two days’ ride to span.
Land came by blood and force…never a gift to men of his ilk.
Ademar had made no mention of holdings for the Forgotten Sons, the name Rurik and his men had called themselves since childhood in Birka. Years Rurik had fought with these men, watching each other’s backs, sharing every reward and every trade. He was their leader, yet he never took a leader’s portion. Not once. He could argue the rightness of becoming a landsman. But the men wouldn’t stay. The Sons sought fame like most Vikings, raiding and wandering from one kingdom to the next. It’s what Vlad had done. He’d left and never came back…worthless excuse for a father that he was.
Vlad preferred the company of warriors to his own children.
Rurik had grown to see life differently.
Fame was found in land. So was family. Viking seed planted in Viking soil. He would be a father who stayed. Taking the holding and swearing an oath to the Jarl of Rouen would 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. Gunnar dumped an armful of 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 valuable axes, knives, and swords instead of chasing down the Sons.
Rurik scrubbed a hand over his smile. Sothram and the amber-eyed woman were half right. He was a brute living by the might of his hand, but he’d learned a thing or two about using his head.
“This thrall,” Bjorn said. “Does she have a name?”
Rurik studied the ebon-haired woman sitting spine straight on a rock. “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.”
Look for the next installment tomorrow.