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A rim of fire rises at the edge of the world, searing away gentle night, setting the sky aflame. The Dragon watches it come, welcomes it. He moves silently over the soft earth. A stag flees before him, crashing through the brush, ignored.
The fierce Viking warrior Dragon Hakonson has not come to the forests of Essex to hunt today. Today, he seeks the quiet of the pines at the edge of the sea for a different purpose. On the verge of taking a step he can no longer avoid, he has sent his attendants on ahead and given himself this small chance for reflection.
But his solitude is about to be interrupted. Golden eyes watch him from the protection of the trees. A slim, lithe body holds very still, hardly breathing. Slowly, oh, so slowly, the intruder tries to creep away. A twig snaps. His senses honed by a lifetime of struggle and danger, Dragon reacts at once. Swifter than the saying of it, he pounces, dragging the struggling, squawking creature out to study at his leisure.
So quickly! The speed with which the stranger moved stunned Rycca. One moment she was kneeling in the cool moss where she had slept a few fitful hours, watching with wary care the man who had appeared without warning, and the next was only a blur. She was clasped so tightly she could scarcely breathe. Pain radiated up her arms and along her ribs. A little more pressure, only a little, and they would snap as readily as the treacherous twig.
She had no idea who the man was, nor did she care. Nothing mattered save wresting free of him. Growing up a victim of her brothers’ casual cruelties, she had honed her skills. She grabbed hold of the powerful arm within easiest reach and bit down hard. In her experience, the surprise of such a counterattack caused the miscreant to loosen his grip quickly.
Yet now a different surprise awaited her, darkly circled with shock. The man did not so much as grunt. He merely tightened his hold on her enough to prevent her from breathing altogether.
She held on as long as she could, until colored lights whirled before her eyes and unconsciousness was scant moments away. Only then, fearing what total incapacity would mean, did she let go. For an instant he did not, and she felt herself plummeting into nothingness. Absurdly, she clung to the same arm as though it might anchor her in the world. Even as her lungs screamed for air, it was granted. She inhaled long and deeply, gasping.
“Fool,” the man said. His voice was a deep rumble out of his chest, felt against her back, oddly pleasant for the circumstances. He shifted his hold to her shoulders and turned her to face him. “What were you thinking, boy? All I want is a look at you. A man likes to know who’s lurking behind his back.”
Rycca stared up through the thick fringe of her lashes, up ... and up yet more. Her legs refused to stay straight, thus she was not at her full height, but all the same he was very tall. She had known that even as he crouched beside the river, yet the full realization of his size almost made her stop breathing again. His shoulders and chest were massive, shaped of solid mucle and bone clearly visible beneath the sleeveless leather tunic he wore. His face was square, blunt-featured, lit by eyes that looked like shards of half-buried gold. Dark brows arched above them, the same hue as the golden brown hair pulled back at his nape. His skin was burnished by the wind and sun. Gold of hair, eye, and skin, he was easily the most handsome man she had ever seen. Indeed, he might have been a pagan idol cast in the fiery furnace of a master smith but for the purely human touches that clung to him. He had gone long enough without shaving to have the beginnings of a beard. He smelled of woodsmoke, sea air, and pine, a not unpleasant combination. Human, all right, all too human, too real, and much too close.
He thought her a boy, thank heaven. In her frantic haste to escape, she had seized clothes Thurlow left behind when he departed for Normandy. They were too small for the twin who had grown inches beyond her in recent years, but they fit Rycca with room to spare. Her form was well concealed, as was her hair, tucked out of sight beneath a felt cap. She had even smeared dirt on her face in an effort to conceal the softness of her skin. Still, she was not so foolish as to trust her disguise overmuch. It would not hold up to more than the merest scrutiny.
The boy’s silence and seeming docility surprised Dragon. At his age — he judged the lad to be about thirteen — he’d been a hell hound spitting fire and willing to take on all comers even if it meant being pounded into the ground. It was part of growing up in a wild and violent world. Where then had the boy acquired wisdom enough not to offer further challenge? The little cuss could bite, that was certain, but now he seemed too stunned to do anything but stare.
“I ask again,” Dragon said in Saxon, presuming that was what the lad would understand. Norse was the Dragon’s native tongue, and with that he was understood by Danes and Swedes as well. On his travels he had picked up other ways of speech so that he could converse with Franks, Germans, and even Moors. Languages came to him easily, perhaps because he loved the music of words.
“Why did you lurk in the underbrush and spy on me?” He looked more closely at the lad, observing the good quality of his garb made of finely spun wool and sewn too big for him, but that was not surprising. Children’s garments were usually made with growing room. This was no peasant boy but a young lordling likely to be in fosterage at a local manor. Why then was he here in the forest without companions and on foot?
Essex was at peace on this sunny spring morning, a happy circumstance still fresh enough not to be taken for granted. Such tranquility had been wrested from decades of war by the wisdom of the great King Alfred and the iron will of the noble Lord Hawk of Essex. That same Hawk was brother to the Lady Cymbra, who was wife to Dragon’s own brother, the Norse Wolf. The ties of family were further strengthened by genuine friendship, a fact of which Dragon had to remind himself every time he dwelled on the reason for his presence in Essex. For all its blessing, peace could not be counted on and even a young boy had to explain himself.
“Why are you here?” Dragon demanded, and because the lad had been tardy in answering, he gave him a good shake.
Rycca’s teeth rattled. Inwardly, she cursed the poor judgment that had put her at such risk. If only she had remained still, not tried to escape, she might have gone unnoticed. Too late for such thoughts and too late for much of anything save a last, desperate effort to break free. There was something to be said for having two brutal louts for older brothers and another, her beloved twin, who had taught her to defend herself.
“Don’t hesitate,” Thurlow had advised when he ignored her scarlet face and remorselessly continued his instruction in the finer points of self-defense. “Give no warning and act quickly. Then, for God’s sake, run like the wind. The pain, though intense, does not last forever.”
She had never made use of his teaching, for Thurlow had promptly informed the elder siblings who were the bane of both their existences that she was armed with knowledge they wished no woman to have. He had endured the beating they administered in retaliation, merely the latest of uncounted punishments, and laid plans for escaping to a better life.
“I will send for you when I am established in Normandy,” he had promised Rycca. “We have kin on our mother’s side there and I hear opportunity abounds. It will not be long.”
Not long yet too long as the floodtide of events overtook Rycca far sooner than either of them could have expected and threatened to sweep away all hope. Terror filled her. She would never get away. She would be trapped within the fate her family intended for her. Anything was better than that, absolutely anything.
She still had not answered; her captor was scowling. He looked unaccustomed to defiance. Mayhap this would be a salutary lesson for him.
She took a breath, closed her eyes, and rammed her knee up between his legs with all the considerable force she could muster.
The stranger stiffened. She looked up to confront him as he stared at her in blank shock. He did not, as Thurlow had assured he would, howl in agony. But he did groan very deeply even as his hands fell from her. His legs gave way and he went down slowly onto his knees, reminding her of a mighty oak felled by an ax.
She was free yet she hesitated, battling the sudden, overwhelming need to help him. Truly, she would never live to see Normandy if she entertained such mad notions. The impulse passed, survival ruled. Like the wind, Thurlow had said, and like the wind she ran. Her legs were slim but well muscled. She had the grace of a seasoned colt and used it to leap over every obstacle. Her breath was strong and steady. Having faced fear and escaped danger, she felt charged with confidence. After a while, convinced the stranger could not possibly catch her, she ran for the sheer pleasure of it. Ran and ran through shadowed glens and across sun-drenched fields, through copses of pine and oak and along shell-strewn shores. Rycca ran until finally, more at peace than she had been in longer than she could recall, she slowed and stopped.
She was at the edge of a wood hard by the glittering sea. Wind rippled over the blue-gray water turned silver beneath the sunlight. Gulls circled overhead, their wings scarcely moving. Rycca shaded her eyes, staring out to the distant horizon where sea and sky merged. Until coming to Essex scant days ago, she had never before seen more water than could be contained in a river or lake. The sea enthralled her. She was at once afraid of it, for she could not swim, and enchanted by the prospect of escape it offered. Somewhere beyond that distant horizon was Normandy and the chance for a new life. All she had to do was reach it.
All she had to do was unfold her wings like the gulls above and soar into the sky. Such was scarcely less mighty a task than that she had set herself. Yet it made no matter, for the alternative was unthinkable.
Rycca shook the thought away and gave herself up to the enjoyment of sun and sea. She had slept little and her stomach was empty; she was alone and without help in a land where she could expect nothing save to be hunted down and brutally punished. Yet for all that, she was swept by a shining sense of well-being as bright as the sunlight shimmering on water. She was free.
When in her life had she ever been free or even dared to think that such a blessed state might someday be hers? When had she ever hoped to do other than hide her true self behind a mask of endurance? Only with Thurlow had she ever lowered her guard and even with him she had pretended her misery was less than it truly was, as she suspected he had done for her.
Free. She flung her arms wide and laughed suddenly. To be still was beyond her, she had to move, turning around and around, laughing into the sky. Gloriously, stunningly free. However difficult the future might prove, anything was worth this single, exhilarating moment. Absolutely anything.
Absolutely nothing would stop him from wreaking vengeance on the menace who had brought him to his knees. Grimly, Dragon set his mind apart from the waves of pain still resonating within him and turned to the far more pleasant contemplation of the punishment he would inflict. No one, not even a green boy, could be pardoned for such an assault. He would have to pay and pay dearly. The only question was how.
First he had to be caught, but that was no matter. Had the imp of hell deliberately set out to mark his trail, he could not have left it clearer. Granted, Dragon was a hunter of rare skill, but it required no special talent to see where the boy had gone. His way was littered with broken branches, trampled grass, even bits of wool caught on prickler bushes. By the length of his stride, he had run as fast as a bat out of hell, which suggested he at least had a brain, much good that it would do him.
Dragon did not run for he had no need. His legs were longer than the boy’s and he did not tire. Long after the shortened stride showed that the lad was flagging, Dragon continued easily. He stopped only once to drink from the clear-running brook where, he saw, the boy had rested. Then he went on as the trail veered east toward the sea and he came at last within sight of the shore.
Having lived almost all his life by the sea and spent a fair measure of those years actually on it, Dragon did not pause in admiration. He continued walking, noting where the water-slick stones were turned and the wild roses disturbed. He even happened upon a stretch of sand dotted with slender footprints. Near there the beach narrowed as cliffs began to rise above it. He found the bushes the boy had seized hold of to pull himself up, saw where he had almost lost his grip and tumbled down, and after a moment’s hesitation he followed that path. The sun was almost at its zenith when Dragon hoisted himself onto the top of the cliff and, with his back to the sea, looked around. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of movement near the edge of the forest. Cautiously, staying out of sight behind trees and rocks, he took the trail into the woods.
The boy was tiring more quickly now, he could see that by the closeness of his footprints and the increasing frequency with which he stumbled. But the lad seemed disinclined to stop. Perhaps he was making for somewhere in particular. Where?
From the Paperback edition.