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Wareham, the South Coast of Wessex, England A.D. 876
ROSAMUND SAW the iron chain first. Fire-hardened links snaked across the frost-whitened ground into the dark. The chain was attached to a man's hand.
They were surrounded by a Viking army preparing to withdraw from a fortressbetter described as fleeing through the night before the West Saxon troops could fall on them.
He must be dead. Surely?
A thick metal band encircled his heavy wrist. Her gaze followed the shadowy length of an arm. It was solid, encased in a deep blue tunic sleeve that had once been fine. She could see his skin through the ripped material. The torchlight turned it to molten gold. Like fire.
Who was he? All the Saxon prisoners had been given backa requirement of the truce now about to be broken in a mad dash to reach Exeter. Exeter held Rosamund's only chance to escape. She could not do anything that might jeopardise that chance. Not just her life, but Merriwen's depended on it, Merriwen with her helplessness.
Her foot brushed the chain. The cold iron, hard, roughly fashioned, completely confining, made a small deadly sound. Her heart tightened.
She withdrew her narrow, gilt-decorated shoe. The chain clinked. The fine hand on the ground did not move.
Rosamund's mind filled with what it must be like to be trapped and held down in such a way. She had been a prisoner of the Danish Viking army for three years, but never like this, never bound so that all but the most trivial movement was impossible. The chain between the fetters around the man's wrists was perhaps three feet long. It was stapled to the ground.
She stared at the metal hoop driven into the uneven frost-hardened earth to pin down the chain. Gooseflesh rose on her arms. Such a measure could not be necessary. It was barbaric.
Torchlight flickered over the unmoving flesh. The prisoner's palm was broad, the heavy fingers curled inwards, solid and well-shaped, gold skin and shadows. The smoky light showed the richly curved rise at the base of his thumb. Such a hand should have been as passively beautiful as a sculptureit was a fist.
Someone shoved past her, cursing in Danish and trying to stuff a silver necklace and a looted piece of cheese into a bulging leather saddlebag. The way things stood for the fleeing army, the cheese was the more valuable.
Rosamund had her own store of hidden provisions. She had planned for her escape with the meticulous care of the desperate. She had no protection now and she had to defend Merriwen. The world crushed people who were defenceless. It had the power to crush Rosamund herself if she made one wrong move.
She stepped over the chain in the wake of the departing army.
Her embroidered skirts, bead-sewn and scented with Frankish lavender, trailed across forged iron, then a veined wrist and she looked back, caught between shadow and smoking flame, her gaze drawn by that unmoving gilded flesh, held fast. The prisoner had hit someone so hard he had skinned his knuckles. The motionless hand radiated trapped fire, the kind of fire she had once felt the untameable kind that got fools like her into too much trouble.
No. She could not involve herself. Merriwen would die without her. Besides, the fire in her was extinguished.
She took one last look. The veined wrist had small bloodied marks where the iron fetter had broken through the skin.
"St. Chad's spotless coffin." The words did not come out in Danish, but in English, Mercian.
The prisoner had hit someone while still chained.
Something inside her, the long-lost dangerous fire, stirred. She leaned over the fist; she would not call it a mere hand, and looked more closely. There was no more blood now. Probably because he was too cold to bleed. Dead.
No one got in the way of the Viking Jarl Guthrum's will. She glanced round the moving army. Earl Guthrum had killed half a score of innocent people to secure this escape. He was breaking not just the truce with the king of Wessex, but his word of honour, and honour was the only thing that kept the world human. She could still scarcely believe he had done it. The flames inside rose. The Viking earl had hanged the West Saxon hostages given into his hands. All those deaths, and now one more.
She knelt on the frozen ground. The cold struck through her decorated skirts. Jarl Guthrum's men streamed past. Of course, there was nothing she could do to stop an army. And there was Merriwen to think of .
She saw the chained man's face.
Her gaze fastened on a perfect profile made out of fire and shadow. Dreams. Such creatures as him did not exist on middle earth. He had fallen out of the heavens and come to grief in the firelit dark.
Somewhere in the blackness someone was speaking. She could not make out the words. She did not bother. Her attention was fixed on the sight of the shadowy creature before her, all of her mind, like someone possessed. Thick wavy hair spread out from his head across the frozen ground. The loose strands trailing the crushed earth showed deep copper in the torchlight. Rich. So fascinatingly bright and luxuriant she wanted to bury her achingly cold hands in its light and its deep black shadows. Now. Because it was full of fire. She touched it.
" will pay for such madness " said the voice above her head.
The hair felt like the threads of silk that traders brought from Byzantium, so smooth, almost heavy with that impossible smoothness against her naked skin. It was cold. Small shivers passed through her. Her gaze travelled over a light-gilded cheekbone, a straight nose, the solid thickness of a square jaw the skin was dusted with a dark stubble already dense enough to blur the strongly carved perfection of that outline. Living flesh, male. If he belonged to the realm of dreams, it was the world of night dreams that were heated, erotic.
She snatched her hand back. "Of course, you know where he comes from," said the voice at the edge of her perception.
She was mad to touch him. There was a quality of toughness about him that was stunning, at violent odds with the deeply compelling attractiveness. Or perhaps part of it.
She moved back. She was proof against the flaunted charms of any man on earth. She had been taught only too well that commerce between the sexes was no more than that, a matter of bargaining in which women generally had the weaker position. Women needed their wits.
Rosamund watched the brilliant motionless
She touched him. Just to see whether the man was truly still alive. Nothing more. Her hand settled. He did not react.
The brilliant flesh was so cold, even to her chilled fingerscold as death. Her heart slammed against her ribs. The sharpness of the reaction stunned her senses, choking her breath. Then the rush of dizziness cleared on the realisation that the man she touched still lived, despite the coldness of his flesh, the coldness in the air around them that cut the lungs like ice shards.
"Alive." Her artistically reddened lips stumbled over a word that was totally inadequate to describe the strength that poured from the stranger, forcing its way through the thin skin of her fingers with the steady movement of his breath. So powerful. But it was human strength. The cold would kill him. She had already moved, when the voice out of the dark began again. She heard a snort that expressed pure contempt and then a word.
Her head turned. Mercia. That was where the chained man came from, the wide rolling country north of Wessex which now belonged to the Vikings. It was where she had been born.
It meant nothing. It was not a bond.
She had every reason to hate her fellow Mercians. They had sold her to the Viking army which had conquered them and then turned its attention to invading Wessex.
The voice said, "He should not have interfered with an execution."
The hostages. The prisoner must have done something that concerned the hostages.
It could mean nothing to her.
She found she was touching the fist with its skinned knuckles. Her fingers closed over the bent fingers and the strength flowed through her. It seemed to penetrate her heart.
What have you done? She almost said it aloud, as though the man she touched could answer. But she already guessed. She held on to the stranger's clenched hand, with the iron chains dripping off his bruised and lacerated wrist, and in the deepest part of her she knew. You tried to help someone, somehow, even though such things are not possible, not in a place like this.
"I should kill him."
She recognised the voice. Its owner was fully capable of doing what he said, without a moment's remorse.
She let go of the hand. "That would teach him to try and escape down by the river. Mercian scum."
The harsh voice, so well known to her, should not have said that. The flames inside her ignited. She hardly knew where the fire came from, because of the name of the lost land north of Wessex where she had been born. Or from the man she had touched.
She stood up and with a swish of her bead-sewn skirts she planted one painted shoe squarely into the patch of torchlight that held the speaker.
It drew three pairs of eyes directly to her. Her mantle still swung with the force of her movement, her decorated skirts showed through the opening of the bright blue fur-lined cloak. She adjusted the fall until it was perfect. She had been brought up alongside a member of the royal kindred. The first rule was simplealways appear impressive.
Thorkill, the speaker, Earl Guthrum's most loyal hersir and captain, returned the favour. It was like watching a wolf unveil its fangs. His gaze locked at the level of her delicate rose-coloured skirt. She realised he was in a good way towards being drunk.
"The lady Rosamund, the princess." The sarcastic emphasis had no effect on her. She was used to it from the Vikings. Besides, it was not her title. Thorkill merely believed, like everyone else in this place, that she was King Ceolfrith of Mercia's niece. She had begun the lie because of Merriwen and she had stuck to it.
It was possible that the Mercian at her feet might be someone who knew the royal kindred by sight, that if he regained consciousness he might betray her.
The risk was lethal.