Behind him, a woman’s voice called, “Hakan.”
He stopped. She called him, the dark-haired thrall. He already knew her voice above the din.
He set his hands at his hips. Noticing one woman was nothing more than inborn awareness, the kind that kept him alive. That same awareness told him ten paces ahead, a fat Flemish merchant and his round wife bickered. No threat there. Five paces to his right, a lone, feral-eyed Dane slid a whetstone down his sword. The seasoned warrior leaned over his weapon and nodded slowly at Hakan. A true threat.
Magnuson and a cohort of men welcomed a rider more than fifty paces from the camp. A threat in numbers, not skill…most were ale-soaked and unsteady on their feet from last night’s revelry. Hakan glanced at the shoreline. Three of his men lingered there. One battle cry and they’d be ready.
Straight ahead, his ship beckoned. Twenty paces behind, her voice, a desperate cry, reached him yet again.
He turned. The thrall rose high on her knees. Her long, mussed braid dangled like a dark brown rope. She strained against her tether, and even from this distance, he saw the leather bindings pinch her skin white. Hakan drew in a deep, rib-expanding breath.
The tides waited for no man.
Yet, his long strides stretched one in front of the other, returning him to her. The closer he came, the Frankish thrall inched back, her long legs folding underneath her until he towered over her.
“I’m here,” he said in Norse. Convince me.
The thrall rubbed color back into her wrists. She blinked rapidly. His presence could be like a wall, or so his sister always chided him. Thus, he crouched low to meet her eye to eye. She brushed away dark hair, and her deep blue stare penetrated him.
“Hakan…Svealander?” She said.
Her voice flowed nicely to his ears, the kind of voice a man could listen to in the dark on a cold winter’s night.
Another excerpt, “Why the tether?”
His eyes widened at her show of courage, or so she guessed from the way he tipped his head in acknowledgment.
“Aye, one woman.” His mouth made a grim line and bitterness threaded his voice. “I have seen the destruction one woman can do.” He knotted the leather. “The bindings stay.”
Helena licked her lips, choosing silence. The chieftain’s nostrils flared like some predatory beast scenting prey. Was this anger barely restrained? Or something else?
He touched the wet rope of hair that hung over her shoulder, letting his fingers slip between tangled strands. His thumb and forefinger found a single lock and stroked the hair down to the curling tip. Goose bumps skittered across her flesh from the intimate touch.
“What is your name, thrall?” He asked in the gentlest voice.
“Helena,” she whispered.
“Helena.” He repeated her name softly. The corner of his mouth twitched. He seemed pleased to know her name, but the pleasure was fleeting, replaced by fierceness. “I care not about trust, but I require obedience.”
Helena swallowed the hard lump in her throat.
“Serve me, as well as Agnar—” His teeth gleamed wolf-like in the darkness. “—and you’ll be rewarded.” Rising, he towered over her. “Fail in your purpose, and you will suffer the consequences.”