Authors: Christine Merrill
It was enough. Aisling released the edges of the cloak she was wearing. The cloth pooled to the ground in the moment that he took her mouth.
Like the invader he was, he commanded the kiss until she surrendered. She held fast to him for balance as each new layer of clothing joined the cloak upon the ground. When she stood naked before him, he knelt. With his mouth, he worshipped her, kneading her bare bottom as he kissed a path up her thighs. He disarmed her, tossing both daggers to the ground.
When he probed at the juncture of her legs, Aisling froze.
“What are you—”
“Open for me.” His mouth teased her, soft bites that made her legs tremble.
He would not allow a refusal, and used his hands to ease her apart. At once, she felt like a true captive, unable to free herself from his touch. He spread her apart and caught her gaze for a moment.
“You’re a gift to me, Aisling Ó Brannon. One I intend to savor.” With that, his hot mouth kissed her wetness, his tongue invading where she wanted him most.
His arms supported her against the wall while his tongue moved against her, driving her into such desperation she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, as the fist of pleasure broke through her, spiraling until she sank against him.
“We have hours yet,” he promised, removing his own clothing until he stood naked before her. Lean and muscled, his body resembled a god’s. The dark tattoos entranced her as he lifted her hips.
And then, she felt the tip of him at her entrance. Thick and hard, he eased himself into her tight well. While he filled her, she wrapped her legs around his waist. It took a moment for her body to adjust to his size.
In his eyes, his own awakening dawned. Deliberately, he moved against her, raising her up before letting her slide down his manhood.
“I dreamed of holding a woman like you in my arms,” he said.
He didn’t ravage her, nor treat her like the slave she was. Instead, he made love to her as though she were cherished. Like a woman he wanted to keep at his side.
The swelling need intensified with each stroke. She gripped his hair, fighting not to cry out as he withdrew and entered her body.
“Don’t leave me here alone,” she responded, pressing herself against him until he increased his rhythm. “Stay.”
Be with me.
He groaned, taking her down to the floor. Though she winced at the freezing earth, the thought vanished when he thrust inside her once more. Aisling lifted her knees, and he drove himself within, marking her as his own.
This was not about conquering her body, but instead a gift of himself. With each joining, she pressed herself closer, wanting to merge her body with his.
He never ceased the rhythm, pushing her higher while his shaft hardened even more. Unexpectedly, she crossed over the edge, her body gripping him in a rush of fierce satisfaction.
When at last he released his own desire, covering her with his weight, she held fast to him while he broke apart. Power filled her, knowing that she had made him feel this way.
He whispered against her skin, and no longer was he her master. Lying in her arms, he caressed her. As an equal.
. The thought reverberated in her head, gathering intensity. A foreigner, he might be. A
, and a man who knew nothing of her people.
But he’d sworn not to abandon her. And she held fast to her faith, hoping he would keep the vow.
Tharand didn’t move, resting his weight atop her. He still couldn’t understand why Aisling had offered herself, and though he wanted to believe she desired him, his common sense denied it.
She was an Irish noblewoman, a chieftain’s daughter. He hadn’t expected her to be any different from the other female slaves. But like a warrior, she had fought to survive. And she possessed the skills to kill anyone who stood in her path.
He rolled to his side, withdrawing from her warmth. “If a man tries to touch you, use the blade. Do not hesitate to kill.”
She traced a pattern over his chest. “You will be there to protect me.”
“Not always.” He could not be within the king’s private chambers. As time crept forward, he had no idea what he would do to save both Aisling and Jóra.
Her mouth covered his in a light kiss. “I trust you.”
Tharand closed his eyes at the words, knowing he was unworthy of her trust. And as he took her for the second time, it tormented him to imagine giving her up.
isling stood beside Tharand, her wrists lightly bound. She didn’t like it, but had not questioned him. He knew the king’s men better than she. Afterwards, he’d run his fingers beneath the ropes to ensure that they weren’t too tight.
She wore a new gown that he’d purchased, a saffron silk overdress and
. Though slaves did not wear such expensive colors, she supposed it would help raise her status.
Tharand had also returned the two daggers. One knife was strapped to her thigh, the other near her ankle. Neither was easy to grasp beneath the weight of the skirts, and she prayed she would not need them.
“Don’t let anyone see your weapons,” he’d warned. “Slaves are not permitted to carry them.”
As they moved through the crowd, Tharand’s hand tightened upon her wrist. Aisling kept her gaze forward, but her skin prickled as the eyes of the Norse warriors watched her.
Among the men she also spied a few Irish chiefs, which startled her. Whether they were allies or enemies of the king, she couldn’t be sure. She doubted if any of them would help her escape.
“Why have you come to the north, Tharand? Have there been problems in Vedrarfjord?” The king sat upon a dais, a man of strength and power. Perhaps eight and twenty years of age, he held a determined air.
“No, my king.” Tharand knelt in deference, then stood when the king commanded it. “I have come for my sister, Jóra.”
The king’s expression turned displeased. “Jóra has received many marriage offers, thus far.” He signaled to one of his men and added, “She will make a suitable bride to one of my loyal warriors. I have seen to it.”
Aisling didn’t miss the way Tharand’s hand moved toward the handle of his battle-ax. Grim lines settled upon his mouth. “I am honored by your care for her, sire. But I have come to bring her home.” He drew Aisling forward and added, “And in return for your generosity, I have brought you a gift. This Irish slave, who was once daughter to a chieftain.”
Fear bolted in her stomach as Tharand released her into the king’s custody. His eyes remained locked upon Magnus, as though she didn’t exist, nor matter to anyone.
Her discomfort multiplied, for fear that he’d broken his promise. Perhaps he had lied, accepting her embrace without caring anything about her.
The memory of last night resonated within her. Dear God, what had she done?
A slight smile played upon the king’s mouth. Aisling found it hard to look at him, but worst of all was Tharand. His stony expression was that of a mercenary.
Moments later, a young girl with fair, braided hair appeared within the hall. She wore a blue silk gown, with golden brooches clipping the overdress to her shoulders. It had to be Jóra, from the way Tharand’s tension dissipated.
Aisling had no time to think upon it, for two soldiers
dragged her forward. One gripped her by the hair, while the other held fast to her arm.
Tharand didn’t react, and his denial hurt worse than any physical pain.
You were wrong about him. He said only what you wanted to hear.
Aisling bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. As the soldiers dragged her forward, she stumbled upon the dais.
King Magnus studied her. He reached out to touch her arm, then cupped her face. Heat rose up in her cheeks, but she didn’t move. The taste of betrayal soured her mouth.
The king shrugged. “I’ve seen more interesting slaves.” With a nod of his head, he ordered his men to take her. Tharand didn’t even glance in her direction.
Her lungs tightened, her eyes stinging with tears she could not cry. He’d used her. Taken her body without any intention of helping her. And now she would become the Norse king’s prisoner.
“Jóra will remain here until I have seen to her marriage,” the king added. Though Tharand bowed in reticence, the gesture was stiff.
Before she could respond, the men took her outside the hall, toward one of the longhouses. Lust gleamed in their expressions.
And still, Tharand did not come.
She closed her eyes, preparing herself for the fight to come. No man would violate her. She would die before letting it happen.
Inside the longhouse, the first man tore at her gown, his hand groping her breast. Aisling wrenched her hands free of the ropes and reached for her knife. With a sudden slash, she drew blood across the man’s arm.
“Don’t,” she warned in the Norse language. “I am not yours.”
A blur of motion caught her eye, and she threw the knife from sheer instinct. Without thinking, she unsheathed the second blade beside her ankle and poised to fight. The first soldier stared in disbelief at his dead companion.
“If you move, you’ll join him,” Aisling warned. She stepped backwards into the light, keeping the blade ready. Her heartbeat raced, while she searched the settlement for a way out.
There was no time. The first soldier sounded an alarm, and while she fled toward the gates, a row of warriors moved to block her exit. Aisling halted, the knife locked in her palm.
As they advanced upon her, she prepared to meet her death.
Tharand’s fury had reached its limit. He hadn’t expected King Magnus to refuse Aisling. It nearly snapped his control, watching the men take her, while he was helpless to do anything.
If he showed any sign that she held value to him, Magnus would exploit it. And Aisling, like Jóra, would be lost.
She can protect herself. She has weapons,
he told himself. But his hand curved over his battle-ax while he waited for the chance to defend her.
The surge of possession drowned out all reasoning. He needed to keep her safe, needed to keep her at his side. He didn’t even realize he’d taken a few steps backwards until the king addressed him again.
“You seem restless,” Magnus commented. Jóra paled, and Tharand forced his attention back to the dais. It was as if the king had torn him in half, forcing him to choose between Jóra and Aisling.
And though his loyalty should have belonged to his sister, he couldn’t let Aisling go. Not anymore.
Tharand’s knuckles whitened, and he chose his words carefully. “The slave was meant for you alone. She was not
intended to be treated thusly.”
And if any man does, I will sever his head from his body.
“Such is the fate of a captive.” Magnus underscored his words by resting his hand upon Jóra. His sister’s innocent eyes grew worried. He wanted to reassure her, but he no longer knew what he could do to save her.
A din of noise interrupted them, and Tharand spun around. Aisling tore into the hall, her eyes wild. In her hand, she held one of the blades he’d given her.
Behind her, he saw the soldiers. Somehow she’d broken free of her captors, and the ensuing chaos gave rise to fighting.
One of the
strode forward, the warrior lifting his battle-ax to strike her down. Tharand blocked the blow before it could threaten Aisling. The crash of metal sent a reverberation through his arm, and he forced her behind him.
“Take my knife,” he ordered, and she unsheathed the weapon from his belt. Back to back, he defended her.
“You left me with them.” In her voice, he heard the anger and hurt.
“I was trying to negotiate for your release.” His ax swung wide, and she moved with him.
“You said you would try to save both of us. Instead, you let them take me.”
“What would you have me do? Betray my king and risk your death?” His ax cut into the flesh of an enemy. He defended another blow. “Already have I shed the blood of my own people. For you.”
She fell silent, the warmth of her back pressing against him. “What will happen to us?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t tell her that their lives depended upon his ax now. Even if he emerged victorious, he doubted if Magnus would spare them.
Abruptly, Aisling left him. The distraction caused him to turn his attention away from the soldiers. Only instinct protected him from the sword slicing toward his gut.
The Irish chiefs had joined together against the
, the hall becoming a battlefield. Tharand searched for Aisling and found her moving toward the dais.
In horror, he watched her pull back and aim the knife toward the king. He was too far away to stop her. The blade spun from her fingers, while a roar resounded from his own throat.
Aisling’s blade lay embedded in the throat of an Irish chief. The dead man held a spear in his palm, his body sprawled upon the dais.
King Magnus’s face was black with rage. He jerked the spear from the chief’s hand. “Cease your fighting!” He punctuated the order by hurling the spear into the crowd.
The men halted, swords and battle-axes poised in mid-air. Tharand lowered his weapon, and moved to Aisling’s side, pulling her to him.
No doubt Magnus would sentence her to death. She’d thrown a knife toward him; all had seen it. The thought of watching her die was like a blade tearing into his own throat. He couldn’t let it happen.
“My king.” He dropped to his knees, knowing that Magnus would never grant her mercy. “Let whatever judgment you pass upon her fall upon my shoulders instead.”
Aisling paled, and knelt beside him. She buried her face in his tunic, and he threaded his hands through her dark hair.
“Why?” the king asked sharply. “She has committed treason, attempting to take my life. And she killed one of the
, as well.”
“I saved your life,” Aisling asserted, lifting her face in defiance.
Tharand knew it, but the king had no knowledge of her skill. Magnus would believe only that she’d attempted to murder him.
“She speaks the truth, sire.” Tharand lowered his head once more. “But regardless of your decision, I ask that you grant me her punishment.”
“And if I sentence her to death?” Magnus asked.
Tharand expelled a hard breath. “So be it.”
A knot closed up in Aisling’s throat. No. She couldn’t let him die. His hand gripped hers, as though he couldn’t let go. She embraced him, holding fast. “You cannot do this.”
His only answer was to rest his palm upon her cheek. The roughened skin was callused from years of holding a sword. His blue eyes held no regrets.
The knowledge shattered every barrier, filling her up with the need to be with him. Whether in life or in death no longer mattered.
“If he dies, let it fall upon me as well.”
Tharand tried to speak, but she touched her fingertips to his mouth. “You will not make such a journey alone.”
When the king spoke at last, she barely heard his command to come forward, so intent was she upon remaining with Tharand.
“Rise, Aisling.” Her warrior took her hand and led her up the dais.
King Magnus offered no leniency. To Tharand he demanded, “Give me your sword.”
Icy fear filled her up inside, and she knew there was no escape. Tharand gripped her hand so tightly, he nearly crushed the bones.
“I am not afraid,” she whispered.
Tharand offered the king his sword, hilt-first. As the blade left his hands, Aisling saw the smear of blood upon his palms. Then he knelt beside her once more.
“She means much to you, this slave.” The king lifted the sword, testing its balance.
Tharand inclined his head. “She does.”
The words held intensity, and when he looked upon her face, Aisling saw the feelings he did not name. And though she had spent naught but a few days at his side, she would willingly surrender her life to be with him.
King Magnus lowered the sword. “I accept this sword as payment for the soldier she killed.” He regarded Aisling next, his expression softening. “In return for my own life, I grant you your freedom.”
Nothing could have stunned her more. The relief upon Tharand’s face mirrored her own, but behind the king, she spied Jóra. The young girl would remain the king’s hostage, a failure that would haunt Tharand.
But there was something she could do.
“Sire, I would ask that you release Jóra Hardrata instead.” Aisling bowed her head in deference. “Grant her the freedom to return home.”
Hope filled up the young girl’s face, and Aisling knew she had made the right decision. The king deliberated for a long moment, not at all willing to let her go.
“What of the marriage offers?” King Magnus asked, his reluctance clear.
“Please, my king,” Jóra begged. “If you would but let me see my family again, I give you my vow to return.”
Tharand did not look happy about such an offer. It seemed to appease the king, however. “One moon, then. You may visit your homeland and then return.”
Though it was not what Tharand had wanted, it was a single step forward, Aisling knew. It would be enough for now.
The king gestured for Jóra to join them, and the girl flew into her brother’s arms. “I will expect your loyalty, as commander of my troops at Vedrarfjord. And your sword, whenever there is need.”
Tharand acknowledged the king’s command. “You have it.”
Aisling waited alone in Tharand’s bed, inside his longhouse. She lay naked beneath the coverlet, although she kept two daggers nearby, in case anyone arrived before he did.
The door swung open, and she gripped the hilt.
“Don’t throw it. Please.” Tharand’s mouth curved in a slight smile. “I know your skill and there is no need to demonstrate.”
She set the weapons aside. “I wanted to be sure it was you.”
He hung up his cloak. The garment slipped from his fingers when she sat up, revealing her bare skin. The hunger in his eyes raised her confidence.
“Were your parents glad to see Jóra?” she asked.
He nodded, removing his tunic. His muscled chest gleamed in the firelight, making her long to touch him. He prowled toward her, shedding clothes as he walked. “You could have come to meet them.”
“I am only a slave.”
He tore back the coverlet, revealing the rest of her body. “My slave.” The mattress sank beneath his weight as he drew her body to his. Skin to skin, she welcomed the length of his shaft and parted her legs to cradle him.
The hot satin of him nestled against her secret place, and already she was slick with moisture. “I waited for you,” she murmured.