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A Moment's Madness
By Helen Kirkman
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEssex, England 917 A.D.
Sigrid fled through the flames of Ragnarok, the end of creation, when gods and mortals died.
The world, her world, burned. Death pursued her. Saxon curses rang in her ears. Dane, they yelled, Viking whore. We will have revenge on you.
The cry of vengeance chilled her to the bone.
Her breath sobbed and her feet slid on the dark shingle path between the buildings. The heavy footfalls kept gaining on her. Was there nowhere to hide in the sacked town?
She allowed one desperate glance over her shoulder and then winced as she ran full tilt into a stone wall.
At least that was what it felt like, but it moved. A skin of flexible metal, tough as the scales of the World Serpent pulled through her hand, almost tearing it.
It was a man clad in a corselet of chain mail, bloodied sword upraised. She screamed. But the sword did not strike. It vibrated between them in the firelit air, like something living. But he held it back.
If she was going to die at the hands of a Saxon warrior, let it be quick.
Her gaze sought his face, hard and stern under the war helm. She saw his eyes, blue English eyes.
They were made of magic.
At least, that was the only way to explain it. Because the insane thing she did next she could only have done if she had been spellbound.
Her pursuers crashed round the corner and slithered to a stop and her body moved of its own accord in a split instant of speed. Her spine straightened and her hands closed round an arm made of solid muscle encased in rings of iron. The words came out of her mouth, without thought, not in her own Danish but in Saxon, so there could be no mistake.
"Go away," she said. "I am his."
The three, in their ripped and filthy tunics, their chests heaving, wavered. Their eyes, still wild with the lust of the chase and heated with ale, looked not at her, but at the mountain of chain mail she was clinging to.
There was silence. Nothing moved.
Sigrid's heart beat as though it would stifle her and her lungs heaved. What had she done?
How could she have gambled her whole life's worth on one instant? How could she have trusted her fate on a momentary impression?
Because that was all she had had: one glimpse of his face in the gathering dark, and there was nothing tangible to tell her that this man was better than any other. He was as Saxon as her pursuers. He was part of an army which had fought all day and had won, and which now had a grudge to settle on the Danish-held town.
She was mad. The chain mail she was clutching at had blood on it. Its wearer was a man and a soldier and trained in the use of brute force; and yet she had seen his face.
But then it happened: something her dead warrior-husband, for all his terrifying power, would never have done for her.
She felt the solid muscle under her hand move and before she knew what had happened, the mail-clad stranger had swung her round behind him, blocking her from the others with his body, and turned the bloodied sword on her pursuers.
The man's voice, deep, English and entirely reasonable, said, "If any man takes a step forward, I shall kill him."
Three sets of eyes narrowed in that age-old assessment of will and strength that every man has for every other. Even Sigrid's own eyes turned to the man who now protected her.
He was tall and well-made. He had body armor, which her pursuers did not, and the crossguard of his reddened blade flashed gold. There was no chink of weakness in the man beneath the armor, not the remotest consciousness that he might not win. He meant what he said, with a chill finality that brought the sickening realization of just how rash she had been.
If any of the ale-sodden brutes took up the challenge, she would run. He would have to let her go. No one could fight three people, one-handed, with a captive dangling from their left arm.
But her pursuers had seen the terrifying chill that she saw. They vanished, melting like evil spirits into the shadows. There would doubtless be easier pickings elsewhere.
She would have less than an instant. She twisted, trying to break the grip of the ice warrior's left hand before he realized, before he had time to spare a thought for her. But she did not even have that. The grasp on her wrist tightened.
"Wait," he said, just one word, but it was a command.
There was no one else in sight and she could not break his hold. She was dragged round in front of him.
She took another look at his face and wondered what on earth she had seen there.
It was handsome enough, as far as you could tell under the helmet and the dust, but the eyes - the eyes were frozen to the depths.
Dane. Viking whore. We will have our revenge on you.
"Let me go," she said as steadily as she could.
She blinked. But it was not really a question, because he did not stop for an answer and the clipped, reasonable voice continued. "This army is completely out of control. It is commanded, if that is what you can call it, by the biggest ... fool in the entire kingdom of Wessex. He is not going to do anything to stop what is happening and even if he tried it is far too late."
At least, that was what she thought he said. Her English was good, but he had an accent that was almost incomprehensible. And it was the last thing she expected a Saxon to say.
He shifted his grip, bringing her arm closer under his so that she could feel the quality of his strength.
"Do you not have any kin to protect you?" he demanded.
There was nothing in his eyes but the chill. She made herself look straight into them. "I did," she said. "I had a husband. He is dead."
Her hand went instinctively to her neck where the silver amulet ring hung suspended on a thin leather strap, no longer round the thick, invincible bull neck of her husband.
Her hand shook. The amulet was hidden under the threadbare linen of her chemise, but she could feel every sharp metal outline attached to the ring. There were weapons: two swords, three staffs and Odin's spear. She knew them by heart. They had never left her husband's skin while he lived. Never would, because they were part of him.
Excerpted from A Moment's Madness by Helen Kirkman Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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