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William gritted his teethhe would not lose consciousness. Dark waves threatened to block his vision, his head was pounding from the beating they had given him, but he was not going to lose consciousness.
The children were huddled at his feet. Thus far, neither Daphne nor Paula had been put up for sale. Nor had he. Not that anyone was likely to buy him in his current battered state. William was not generally a praying man, but he was praying now. God grant that we are not separated. If he and the girls were kept together, he could protect them for a little longer. Lord. Two tiny girls, and they only had him, an enslaved knight, to watch over them. William knew first-hand what it was like to feel abandoned at an early age. And these mites were even younger than he had been when no matter, what had happened to him was nothing compared with what these children were suffering. They were too young to fend for themselves.
William could not bring their mother back to life but, if humanly possible, he would help them.
Something thudded into William's back. The butt of a spear. As he stumbled on to the auction block, more darkness swept over him. His chains rattled, hobbling him at the ankles, weighing heavy at his wrists. The darkness was all but impenetrable, he could hardly see. It looked as though twilight was gathering, but surely evening could not have come so soon? He would have sworn it was not yet noon
William fought to stay on his feet as he fought to keep his wits about him. This was combat, a combat that was as challenging as any he had faced and he must not fail. The children need me.
There was buzzing in his ears. A number of black splotches were flying about the auction hall, like crows in a cornfield. William knew what that meantany moment he could topple like a felled poplar. His limbs were heavy as lead and his movements, as he mounted the dais, were slow. His head throbbed. His vision cleared a little to reveal Paula and Daphne in front of him on the platform, clutching each other. Paula's eyes were huge, her face white. Both girls were half-starved, that went without saying, but William had learned that in the diminished world of the slave, lack of food was one of the lesser evils. His lip curled. The miscreant who was trying to sell them considered that half-starving a slave was merely one way of controlling him. Or her. He concentrated on the children, praying to be sold alongside them. Paula must be whatabout two years of age? And Daphne was only a babe. He blinked to rid himself of the black splotches, bile was bitter at the back of his throat. And to think he had thought his early life harsh. Lord.
A lock of blond hair fell into his eyes. When he shook it aside, pain shot to his temples, there was rushing in his ears. Meanwhile, fury sat like acid in his stomach, burning, burning. I should not be here. This is the slave market at Constantinople and I am up for sale. A knight on an auction block. Jesu, what has the world come to?
Grimly, William forced himself to take stock of his surroundings.
The auction block was a raised dais in the centre of a covered market that was packed with people. Stone pillars held up the roof. With something of a lurch, William realised why the torches had not been lit. It wasn't twilight, far from it. Sunlight was streaming through Romanesque arches, bright shafts jabbed like hot knives into his brain. The darkness had been conjured by his exhausted mind, by his beaten body. The citizens of Constantinople were jostling each other, talking and laughing as they pressed up to the dais. They were narrowing their eyes as they stared at the children. At him. As William understood it, slavery was common here at the heart of the Empire.
This was the second time William had been put up on a slave block. He didn't recall anything about the first timethen they had drugged him into oblivion, rather than beating him. Drugging had been most effective. William had known nothing until he had woken in chains to find that he, Sir William Bradfer, had been enslaved.
Fury at his fate, at the sheer injustice, had his guts writhing. I am a knight, I should not be here!
Resolutely, he set fury behind him, there would be time for fury tomorrow. Today, the girls needed him.
The black patches, the crowsWilliam's mind was fumbling over the distinction between reality and imaginingswere swooping towards a slash of sunlight as though they were attacking it. He blinked and the auction space swam back into focus. Columns. Two small girls. Strangers staring. Assessing eyes.
He must stay conscious, he must ensure the children were not bought by a cruel wretch like the last one, the darkness could not take him until he knew they were safe.
The auction house wavered, the crows swooped and soared, light knifed the back of his eyes. Biting down on his tongue, William tasted blood. Scraps of black flickered at the edge of his sight, but he did not faint.
A movement at the front of the crowd drew William's gaze. Two young women were gazing intently at the children. William shook his hair out of his eyes again and felt himself freeze.
He prayed he wasn't imagining it, but both women's eyes were full of what looked like compassion. And shock. Emotions that were surely alien to a cruel soul, emotions that William had not thought to encounter in the Constantinople slave market.
'You must buy those two, you must!' The taller of the two women caught her companion's arm as she looked at the children. She had smoky grey eyes that were luminous with tears.
William held his breath as her gaze turned in his direction. A single teardrop caught the light as it fell from her lashes and everything seemed to slow. Despite the shufflings and mutterings of the crowd, despite the pain throbbing in his head and shoulder, William caught the hiss of her indrawn breath. He saw the whitening of her fingers on her friend's arm.
'Buy him! You must buy him!' Her voice was clear. Urgent.
If William had strength he would frownthe woman wanted to buy him, bruised and battered as he was? She must be mad. But those smoky grey eyes were kind.
The auction hall rippled, his sight was definitely going, it was like peering through a heat haze.
Stay conscious. If these women buy the children, they will be safe.
How he knew this, William had no idea, but he knew it, no question. If these women bought the children, he need have no more worries on their behalf. It wouldn't matter then who bought him, he was no slave, he had no intention of remaining in the City, not once the girls were safe. He had planshe had only delayed putting them into action because of little Daphne and Paula.
William fixed his gaze on those luminous grey eyes and the rest of the market faded from his awareness. Dimly, he heard her friend make some objection. 'He looks like a troublemaker.' She was talking about him.
The grey eyes never left his face, the young woman's veil trembled. Like her gown, the veil was brown and plain. 'Buy him as well as the children,' she said. 'Please, my lady, I I don't have money of my own, but I will pay you somehow. You can have my gold bangle and the rest of my jewellery. You can sell the lot and buy more slaves.'
The buzzing in William's ears was louder, the crows had flocked back, their ragged wings fluttering between him and the two young women. The floor rocked.
'My lady,' said the girl in brown. 'I will give you Zephyr, you can sell her, too '
William must have blacked out for a few moments, because when he came back to himself, the bidding was underway. His stomach cramped. The young women did not look wealthy enough to be buying slaves, indeed, the one who was bidding had a gown that one might expect to see on a maidservant. They were being outbid by a man with the air of a prosperous merchant and a woman in a cherry-coloured gown whose face was wearing so much paint it looked enamelled. The words 'whore of Babylon' leaped into William's mind.
He grimacedhe must be fevered. His right arm throbbed like the devil. Chains clinking, he struggled to ease it by cradling it in his other arm and fought down a wave of nausea. He wasn't going to contemplate the thought that nausea was often sign of a break.
At the foot of the dais, the young women were muttering. Comparing them to the other bidders, William's heart sank. The fabric of their gowns was far too plain, the weave too simple. Brown homespun. Their clothing was simply no match for the merchant's luxurious green brocade or the painted lady's cherry-coloured silk. It was a dream to imagine those women would have enough money for both William and the girls.
Buy the children. Forget about me, but for God's sake, buy the girls.
He was peering past a swirling, sickening grey mist, trying to decide whether the women had any chance of winning the bidding contest when there was a disturbance in the crowd.
A man was pushing his way to the fronthis hair was dark as night, his face intense and angry. When he reached the side of the smaller of the young women, the one who was placing the bids, he attempted to take her arm. Something about the way the man held himself told William that he was a soldier.
Despite William's efforts to stay on his feet, the grey mist drifted inexorably nearer. First it swallowed the pillars of the auction house, then the young women started to fade.
No! Stay awake!
The platform shifted.
Lady Anna of Heraklea dug her nails into her palms. Her pulse was shaky and uneven. It was only her second day back at the capital and the last place she wanted to be was the slave market. Who would be here, if they could avoid it? At best it was a brutish place where the most squalid of deals were made. Here, they traded in human flesh.
She did not like to think about it, particularly when she ought to be thinking about what she was going to say to her father when she met him tomorrow. Two yearsI have not seen Father since I went to Rascia two years ago. Will he still insist that I marry Lord Romanos?
The thought made her ill. Anna had to work out the best way of convincing her father that marriage with Lord Romanos was impossible, but instead, here she was at the slave market.
Katerina had been determined to come, and Anna had realised that if she did not accompany her, Katerina would have come on her own.
Which would not have been safe. It is bad enough that we left the Palace with only a Varangian sergeant and a handful of off-duty Guards, but for Katerina to even have considered coming here on her ownsuch foolishness! Katerina should be keeping up appearances, she is meant to be playing the part of Princess Theodora.
Katerina should be queening about in the Princess's apartments with a vast entourage, she should be con- vincing everyone in the Great Palace that she is the Princess. Katerina should not be in the slave market, she should not be buying slaves!
Thank God Commander Ashfirth has found us. He believes her to be the Princess and he has the sense to be discreet
Anna listened with half an ear while the Commander tried to dissuade Katerina from buying the slaves.
'Those children are far too young to be freed,' Commander Ashfirth was saying. 'You will have to look after them until they are grown. And if you have a mind to train them as servants, it will be years before they are of use.'
Anna's throat tightened as she looked at the children huddled on the auction block. Poor souls. Poor little souls. Their clothes are in tatters, their faces are filthy and, what is worse, they look as though they haven't eaten in a week. If Katerina does buy them, she will have done a good deed. It will have been worth coming to this terrible place.
And then there was him. The young man with hair like a Viking. The moment Anna had seen him the most ridiculous idea had jumped into her heada most ridiculous, yet dangerously compelling idea.
That man is desperate. A man like that would surely do anything to regain his freedom. Marry him.
Marry a slave?
Yes! Marriage with a man such as this, a desperate man, will be your means of escaping marriage with Lord Romanos. Once it is done, you can give the slave his freedom. You will never have to see him again and Lord Romanos will not touch you when he learns you have married a slave.
I cannot marry a complete stranger!
Better that than marry Lord Romanos
Holy Virgin, I cannot do this! And yet
The idea would not leave her.
Commander Ashfirth was frowning at the young man. 'And as for that male slave,' he said, 'he looks to be in a very bad way. I doubt that he will take instruction.'
Tipping back her head, pulse racing, Anna studied the young man who, despite his chains, stood so protectively over the children. The resemblance to Erling was uncanny. The slave was unusually large, with long, strong thighs and wide shoulders. So would Erling have been, had he lived. Locks of tangled blond hair were falling into his eyes, he had vivid green eyes that had, for one unsettling moment, tugged at her heartstrings. Those green eyes had reminded Anna of Erling. They had taken her back to another time and another place.