Authors: Christine Merrill
“Send the message,” he repeated. Without another word, he turned his back on Asgaut.
Aisling warmed her feet near the glowing embers upon the hearth, biting back the pain. Think, she cautioned herself. This was not a game; this was survival.
Know thine enemy
, her father had always said. She shivered, remembering Tharand’s wide palm against her spine. The way he’d unwrapped the linen from her head, as gentle as a lover.
The single room contained the bed where she’d been bound, and a low table. Two chests made of oak were on the opposite side of the room.
Upon the back wall, she saw weapons. So that was the gleam of steel she’d noticed earlier. Battle-axes and swords, spears and knives hung in neat rows. One small ax head, slightly larger than her hand, was inlaid with silver wire. Twisting swirls resembled a dragon, while a single row of points outlined the center. Not a speck of rust marred the iron, nor any blood. Each blade was honed and polished.
The executioner’s hut, she thought dryly. But no, he was a warrior, so it made sense for him to have so many weapons.
What didn’t make sense was his lack of servants or people to tend the house. Where were the women? Her memory hearkened to the young boy’s terror at the sight of Tharand. Perhaps no one wanted to be near this warrior.
Aisling chose two blades, a small dagger and a knife the length of her hand. She contemplated tearing the hem of her gown, needing a scabbard for each blade. But then, why should she destroy her
? Tharand should pay the forfeit. After searching through one of the chests, she found a man’s linen tunic. Within moments, she cut a long strip of cloth and bound up the weapons, tying them to her thigh and calf.
She lowered her skirts, half expecting the warrior to stride in at any moment. When he didn’t, she explored the house more. Her skin prickled with unease, for she still didn’t trust him not to hurt her. But at least now she was armed.
It startled her to realize how clean his dwelling was. Nothing was out of place, not any clothing nor soiled dishes. Her own brothers, though she loved them dearly, were terrible when it came to keeping their home neat. Time and again, she’d found a tunic shoved behind a barrel or a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor. Kieran was the worst, leaving wood shavings all over the place from his carvings.
Her heart ached, the hollow feeling pushing away her sense of hope. Both of her brothers were gone. Kieran had saved her from one of the raiders before going after Egan. Afterwards, Tharand had stolen her.
She didn’t know what had become of them. Or whether she would see them again. The thought made her want to rip all of the weapons off the wall, shattering anything she could get her hands on. Damn the
for what they’d done.
Aisling choked back the tears and took a deep breath.
You must leave
. She couldn’t rely on anyone but herself. Her hand moved to the cool blade against her thigh, and it reassured her. Tharand would return soon, so she’d best get on with searching his belongings.
Footsteps resounded outside, and she fled toward the hearth before the door swung open. A man entered the longhouse, wearing a chain mail corselet and an iron helm. Like a god of the underworld, his gaze settled upon her as though he intended to claim her.
“I came to see Tharand,” he said. “But you’re his new captive, aren’t you?”
Aisling reached for one of the knives, but his armor would make an attack more challenging.
, she cautioned herself.
Your time will come
The Norse warrior moved forward so quickly, she didn’t have a chance to react. He gripped her waist, forcing her back
against the wall. He used his strength to trap her there. “I could buy you from him,” he whispered as his hand moved to cup her breast. “Or perhaps he’d share you.”
Aisling fought to reach the blade, her wrist aching with the effort.
A second later, another blast of cold air interrupted. Tharand closed the distance and hauled the attacker away from her. A sickening crunch resounded as he struck the man in the face. Fists met flesh, and a grim satisfaction filled Aisling as her captor pounded the soldier.
“No one touches her,” Tharand growled.
“She is a slave,” the man argued.
“She is mine.” With his arm across the man’s throat, Tharand dragged him toward the wall of weapons. “Look upon these blades. The next time you, or any man, comes near her, I’ll let you choose the weapon that will end your life.”
With that, he threw the door open and tossed the soldier into the snow. When he turned to her, his rage was not diminished. “Did he hurt you?”
“N-no,” she managed. Aisling could feel his stare sliding down her body, the way the chill crept into her bones. Her earlier relief at being rescued was replaced with uneasiness. Why had he attacked one of his own men?
“I have my own purpose for you,” he said, answering her unspoken question. “No man will harm you while you are under my protection.”
Aisling forced herself to look at him. He unpinned the serpent brooch, removing his cloak. He didn’t toss it aside the way her brothers would have. Instead, he folded it neatly and hung it upon a wooden peg. His attention moved toward the wall of weapons, and instantly his eyes narrowed at the blank spaces where the daggers had once been.
He knew the weapons were gone.
But she refused to feel guilty. Everything this man possessed had been stolen from others. She would do what was necessary to survive.
Aisling’s hand palmed the hilt of the dagger strapped to her thigh. Though he claimed no man would harm her, perhaps that did not include himself. Alone with him, she didn’t at all like the look in his eyes.
’s presence seemed to fill up the space, cornering her. The fire glowed upon the hearth, offering the only light inside the darkening space. Outside, she heard the faint spattering of ice crystals upon the thatch.
, her mind insisted, even though she knew it was futile. Tharand would allow her to go nowhere.
“Why did you come back?” she managed, her hand resting upon the dagger beneath her skirts. She didn’t delude herself into believing she was safe. Whether she was meant to be a gift or not, this man would not hesitate to use her to his advantage.
His hand covered hers, pinning the dagger against her flesh. “I came to prepare you for what lies ahead.”
harand had known the weapons were missing from the moment he’d returned. The assortment of axes and swords was not decorative, unlike in other houses. He knew every blade as though it were a member of his own family. Every edge was honed until it would slice open a finger at the slightest touch.
He prided himself in caring for the tools, for his weapons protected those he loved.
Aisling had taken two daggers from the wall. He didn’t know what she intended, but she did not seem like the hysterical sort. For now, he would let her keep them. Let her feel safe and in control. When she lowered her guard, he would take the daggers back.
“Let go of me,” she gritted.
His hand palmed her thigh, letting her know that he was quite aware of her stolen weapon. He kept his grasp upon her skin a moment longer, just to intimidate her.
Her womanly scent caught his interest. Like a soft summer wind, it wound around him, enticing him with a sudden desire. He quelled it, for it would come to nothing. Women ran from
him; he was well accustomed to it. Most avoided him whenever possible, as if afraid he’d notice them.
But there was no fear in Aisling’s eyes. Anger blazed in her expression. “If you do not let go of me, you’ll regret it.”
He intended to. But he held her a moment longer, sliding his hand up to her waist in silent dominance. He could feel the bones of her spine beneath his palm. Terribly thin, nigh to the point of starvation.
The skin upon her forearms tightened with goose bumps. She averted her gaze, which bared her nape, the soft skin enticing. She fascinated him, though she was like all the others who hated the sight of him. With reluctance, he let his hand fall away.
“King Magnus has his eye upon your tribal lands,” he said. Which was the truth. Magnus had every intention of conquering as much of Erin as he could gain.
Tharand moved closer to the hearth, holding his hands outstretched as though he needed the warmth. “If you win his favor, I imagine he would leave your family alone.”
Her dark brown eyes narrowed. “I will not be a king’s whore. Or any man’s.”
The bluntness of her words made it clear that she would accept none of his suggestions.
Tharand picked up a chunk of peat and tossed it onto the fire. Sparks glittered against the darkness before flames took hold. “We leave at first light, so long as the snows are not too deep.”
“Then I’ll pray for snow.” She sat on the earthen floor beside the hearth, curling her knees up beneath her gown. Long black hair spilled over her shoulders, a river of ebony against her
and overdress. The gown revealed the curve of her breast, but her slender waist reminded him of the winter her tribe had endured.
Some of his kinsmen were to blame for Aisling’s hardship. Although he had never interfered with those who went on raids, it needled him to see a woman who had known suffering.
Why hadn’t she eaten the fish, for one so hungry? Did she truly find it so distasteful?
Though he shouldn’t concede to her preferences, no woman under his protection would go hungry, whether it was her will or not.
He filled an iron pot with water and set it to hang above the hearth. From the storage cairn below the longhouse, he brought out a frozen piece of meat.
“Does the taste of beef offend you also?” he asked quietly. “Or only fish?”
She raised her head up to look at him, taken aback by his offer. “I will eat meat.”
“Good.” He used one of his sharper knives to cut the meat into small chunks. The mindless task eased him, and he tossed them into the pot of water.
“Where are your other slaves?” Aisling asked.
“I sent them away.” He preferred being alone, whenever he returned from serving the king. The
who tended his longhouse were under strict orders to remain at his father’s house while he was in residence. It irritated him, having men and women underfoot. Especially when he had a prisoner.
Aisling reached up to a braid of dried onions he’d hung from the ceiling. She touched one of the vegetables and asked, “May I?”
He shrugged, and she reached up for the onion. After checking it for signs of rot, she peeled it with her fingers. “If I may borrow your knife, I’ll cut this up for the stew.”
“You already have a blade,” he reminded her.
Her eyes narrowed. “That one is for later. It will be used to cut out the heart of any man who dares to touch me.”
Self-assured, wasn’t she? He moved into her space, keeping the knife gripped in his palm. With his other hand, he reached out to her waist. “I’ll dare to touch you.”
He wasn’t about to let this outspoken slip of a girl defy him. The knife rested between them, a reminder that she could not win this battle. “Will you cut out my heart?” He drew so close his thigh moved between her legs, daring her.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “You don’t have one.”
The journey to Lutus’s home was far more uncomfortable than he’d expected. With the slave seated in front of him on the horse, Tharand was forced to hold her while riding. His arm held steady against the curve of her breast, while her slim body rested within his legs. He had wrapped her in his cloak for warmth, and yet she leaned into him for protection against the cold.
High above them, storm clouds bided their time. He urged his horse Ymir to move faster. The stallion sensed the impending need to reach their destination, and Tharand held her tighter.
He still didn’t know why he’d let her keep the knife. Somehow he sensed there would be no danger from her. At least, not yet.
The lush scent of her body invited him, tantalizing him with the motion of her hips rocking against his manhood. He grew hard, his length aching to sheathe itself inside her.
Odin’s bones. He’d intended to deliver her to Magnus, an exchange for his sister’s life. A beautiful slave, bound to pleasure her master. Instead, he found himself wanting to discover her secrets. He wanted to slide his hands beneath the soft linen underdress. Feel the round breasts, her nipples pebbling beneath his thumbs.
Her shoulders lowered, and he sensed a change. She knew of his arousal, tensing against him. A groan caught in his throat when she turned toward him. Her dark eyes hardened into ice. “I am not yours to take,
The words challenged him, as surely as one sword striking against another. “I’ve already taken you,
.” And with that, he reached forward, lifting the edge of her skirts until his palm touched her bare thigh. He let the woolen cloth fall back into place, though he kept his hand upon the softness of her skin.
She hissed, jerking her attention back to him. Though she tried to pull his hand away, he kept it in place. Lowering his mouth to her ear, he whispered, “When I bring you to Magnus, he will not be wanting a shy virgin.” He slid his hand up to the slit of her womanhood. Cupping her, he let the rhythm of the horse move his hand. She fought him, trying to reach the dagger. But a moment later, he felt her begin to bloom.
Warm wetness coated his thumb, her honeyed arousal. Encouraged by it, he stroked her intimately until he was rewarded by the arch of her back. A low moan sounded in her throat.
“Have you ever sheathed a man?” he murmured, sliding his fingers into her silken entrance. “Did he give you pleasure?”
Her breathing quickened as he teased her folds, feeling for the hard center that would send her over the edge.
“I don’t…want you,” she managed, struggling not to let herself go. His fingers were bathed in her wetness, her body denying the words she spoke.
He slowed the horse, deliberately letting it trot so that she bounced against his hand. His own breathing had grown harsh, his length hard and hot against her buttocks. If he lifted the back of her gown, he could lift her up and impale her on his shaft.
He rubbed her faster, and her skin grew fevered with desire.
No, she didn’t want him. And Odin’s throne, he was a bastard for arousing her in this way. He’d never been able to resist a challenge. Especially not one as sweet as this.
He entered her with two long fingers, pressing hard against her sweet flesh until she cried out. He kept his strokes in a deliberate imitation of lovemaking, drawing out her frustration until at last she crumpled, shaking with the fierce aftershocks of pleasure.
And still he didn’t stop. He rubbed her until she wept, her hands gripping his thighs as though begging him to join with her. When her muscles grew boneless, he stopped, withdrawing his fingers and pressing a soft kiss against her nape.
“We’ll be stopping for the night soon.”
She leaned forward, her shoulders slumped forward. “I hate you.”
As the sun started to slip lower in the sky, he told himself he would not regret arousing her. She had to be ready for Magnus, to become his concubine.
And though he craved joining his body with hers, he would leave her untouched. Even if it killed him.
Aisling awoke in the middle of the night, her spirits bruised and battered. It wasn’t far now, and within another day Tharand would hand her over to the Norse king.
The cold floor had made it nearly impossible to sleep. Tharand had offered her the chance to sleep beside him upon a humble pallet. The thought of feeling his warm body against her own made her shudder. Not from fear, but from her own forbidden desires.
He’d touched her in a way no man ever had. She’d despised the feeling of being so trapped, so helpless to his strength. Like a lover, arousing her until her body opened to his. It tor
mented her, the way he’d brought her to the edge of ecstasy and sent her drowning into an abyss of wild need.
She sat up, pulling her gown around her, as if to shut him out from her mind. Only a few feet away, she heard the steady rhythm of his breath. Beyond them, the other inhabitants slept, Ludin and his family. The presence of people should have made her feel better, but she knew that these were his allies, his friends.
The earthen floor was so very cold, the air so frigid her breath formed clouds within the longhouse. Tears began to fall once again. Not so he could hear; she wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. But the burden of what had happened swept over her until she could no longer hold it in. She lowered her head and gave in to a good cry.
“I know you’re awake.” His deep voice slid into the silence. “And my offer still stands if you wish to sleep beside me.”
“I would sooner sleep with a viper,” Aisling retorted. Her teeth chattered, and she bit her lip, trying to keep warm. She had enough willpower to resist the temptation of his body heat. It was simply difficult convincing her freezing feet that they were better off without warmth.
Aisling glanced around, hoping that someone would awaken. But no one paid any heed to their conversation, their slumber unbroken.
“You enjoyed my hands upon you,” he murmured. “You’re afraid of what else you might feel.” He sat up, his large frame silhouetted in the shadows. Though she could not see his face, her heart raced in fear.
And undeniable anticipation.
He could have forced himself upon her, time and again, but he had not. Her body broke out in a sweat, just thinking of his touch earlier. The rough wool of her
abraded her skin, her body completely at war with her mind.
“I’m not afraid of you.” The lie did nothing to allay her fear, and she hugged her knees, keeping her body covered.
“You’re terrified I’ll force myself upon you.” His deep voice brushed over her like a wicked caress. “And worse, that you’ll enjoy it.”
Her pulse pounded so fast, she couldn’t answer. But he sensed it, and in the dark, he closed the distance. His fingers threaded through her hair, loosening the strands. Though he did nothing more, she was shaking so hard, she couldn’t face him.
“Don’t touch me.” The words were ripped from her mouth with a confidence she didn’t feel.
He bent in so near, she could smell the spiciness of his skin. Like winter’s breath, mingled with the exotic tang of foreign lands. A raider’s scent.
When his mouth tasted the skin of her neck, a dark heat raced through her blood. She couldn’t move, her body rising to his forbidden call.
“You’ve never been touched by a man, have you?” He drew back, and let her go.
A denial tangled in her mouth, for she had shared in the
rituals, taking a lover as most women did. “I haven’t been touched by a murderer,” she corrected. “Or a thief.”
“I’ve been called both.” His hands moved to the sides of her breasts. Lazily, his thumbs traced circles over the fabric, so close to her nipples, the tips grew erect. “I’m not a good man,
Another brush of his lips grazed her mouth. A heated flame kindled between her legs, a rising fire to experience more of what he’d taught her that afternoon.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said, tossing her his own coverlet. “Stay where you are, Aisling Ó Brannon. For if you join me here, you’ll find yourself on your back and I’ll be inside you.”
The nightmare strangled him, tearing out any hope of peaceful sleep. Tharand’s hand clenched in a fist, as though it held a dagger. Stifling air clogged his lungs, while memories of his sister’s screams tormented him.
His heartbeat pulsed within his chest, a slight dampening of sweat upon his skin despite the frigid air. He rolled over, but the space beside him remained empty. Aisling insisted on sleeping upon the floor beside the fire, huddled beneath the woolen coverlet.
The instinctive desire to take her into his bed had not dimmed. Though her skin would be freezing cold, he wanted to warm her. Hours ago, he’d succumbed to his curiosity, tasting the softness of her skin. It was everything he’d imagined it would be, with her hair falling over his hands. The way a breath caught in her throat, and the soft sigh when he’d kissed the tender space. She might loathe him, but she had been caught up in the moment as well. The very thought made him shift uncomfortably.
As the hours crept toward dawn, Tharand could feel the temperature dropping. He stared up at the ceiling for a long moment. The easiest way was simply to drag her to his bed. Why should he allow a captive to choose?