Read an Excerpt
Wytch Heath, near Wareham, the South Coast of England, AD 876
This time the dream of him was different. The dark warrior that had invaded her dreams was closer. Aurinia caught the sense of danger from him and her breath sharpened, even in the bands of a sleep that was at once real and unreal.
She saw his face first, only that, the strong lines and the night-black hair, the eyes dark as ripe sloe berries, and her heart tightened on the familiar dizzying ache.
Light and shadow from her empty hall flickered over her closed eyelids and the dream pulled her down, overmastering her senses, making them catch fire. He called to her, her dark warrior with the costly armour and the eight strands of gold at his neck. His presence and the potent sense of his vitality overwhelmed her. But this time the shadowy bond was fierce, intensified by the danger. Pain.
She smelled the blood. It was all around him, terrifying and death-filled, like the shouting.
He saw her, had sensed her, five miles away on the battlefield.
The brilliant eyes locked for one burning instant with hers and the unspoken bond snapped tight, frightening and deep. Then the contact broke. She saw him swing round, the swift sudden movement of the leaf-bladed spear in his hand, its flight like lightning through the dark, a bright curving arc of terror.
Aurinia's fist clenched, hard against the patched linen of her dress. The shouts all around him were in Danish, Viking words. He was not Danish, with his dark eyes, fine high-bridged nose and his bronzed skin that spoke of southern climes.
Then even as she watched, caught in the dreaming, the sharp arrow points ripped through the air, a death rain hissing toward him, and the slighter, unarmoured figure next to him fell. The screaming voices, the fast feet of the Vikings, rushed forward like a wave.
He had kept his feet, but he would have to turn, run. Run. Her heart spoke to him across distance and time that had no meaning, as though they were one, she and the dark warrior who fought so bitterly against odds that were desperate. As though he could feel the desperation in her own heart, as though his unmatched strength had the power to penetrate the frozen isolation that held her trapped in this empty hall, to shatter it with his heat. As though they could touch.
Run.... She watched him unsheathe the glittering line of a broad-bladed sword. She could smell death, death and wounds.
He did not turn back. He stepped in front of the fallen man. The wave broke over him.
And she—The desperation flooded her heart, terrible, matched by a raw will.
The sharp sound of Huda's voice shocked through her, real, close. The grip of her steward's hand on her shoulder shook her awake in the quiet hall at Wytch Heath. His breath rasped with his fear.
She was shivering. The dream dissipated, lost like the hot vital grace of the dark-haired man.
"Lady Aurinia..." Huda's voice, anxious, demanding, cut through, breaking the sleep that had come over her as she'd sat beside the window. The only retainer who had remained faithful to her had come to tell her what she already knew. That the invading Vikings and the troops of King Alfred of Wessex were fighting at Wareham, not five miles from here.
"...there is a battle. Men fleeing from the army may force their way through here."
"They cannot." Aurinia sat up, forcing movement through her stiffened body, every muscle wound tight with tension. One thing in this world was certain. No stranger had ever reached the hall at Wytch Heath. The pure isolation of her home stood unbroken.
It had the strength of a curse—"No Viking will get through."
"No," answered Huda, the heaviness deliberate. "Nor Saxon." He paused and then said, "Not even a king's man."
A king's man. Aurinia had glimpsed the stranger of her dream, in a hall greater than this, cloaked in shadow and rich light, the weight of the golden dragon pouring down his shoulder like fire. The Saxon king's sign.
"Are we not on the same side as the king's men?" Huda's hand tightened for an instant on her shoulder.
"No one is on our side."
She looked away. Huda was the nearest thing she had to a father. She had to protect him as she did herself. The isolation at Wytch Heath existed for a reason. Her fists were still clenched, as though the terrible life-and-death struggle of the stranger touched her even now.
No one ever found the path through treacherous ground to her hall. It was wolf-ridden.
Unless—She stood. The white cloth and the rune staves at her feet scattered. She had already read those angular shapes carved on wood, at once an ancient alphabet and signs filled with hidden meaning. She did not look at how they fell. She had seen the portents.
They had spoken of death.
The red glow of sunset filled the chamber, stinging her eyes, staining the pale cloth like the blood she had smelled, tasted. She could feel pain, heat, despair. How could she turn away from that? From him.
Sudden sound made her gasp, and Muninn's winged shape sliced through the sunlit air in a flurry of disturbed plumage. The raven perched on her windowsill. Muninn, bird of memory, sacred in the old days to Woden, chief of the sky gods. A raven was a messenger.
Huda crossed himself, even though every living creature who visited her was familiar to him. Ravens were double messengers; they might bring bliss, or they might come to feed on the battle-dead. The sun struck the bird's blue-shadowed wing as it settled. It was the same colour as the night-dark hair of the king's man.
She could feel the power of the man's will across the distance that separated them. It reached inside her. Her heart seemed to stop, suspended between one beat and the next.
He would bring the outside world and the scent of blood if he fought his way here. If she let him. If he lived.
Her life would change.
She did not meet Huda's eyes. Her decisions were her own. They always had been. She watched the raven.
He would come.
Wareham—The Vikings' Fortress
MACSEN STEADIED THE THIN, unconscious figure draped
across the front of his saddle. He was careful not to touch the protruding arrow shafts. He was trapped. The river blocked the way to the king's encampment. It might have been possible for him to cross alone, even with the pursuit behind him, but not with the wounded man.
The shouts behind closed in, so near he could make out the Danish words. They wanted the helpless burden he carried. They wanted death.
He would not let them take it. The hot rage at what had been done to the injured boy's body burst inside his head, its power fed by fury at the threat to someone helpless and by something darker that belonged to the past, his own unatoned blood guilt.
He wheeled the horse left, the movement abrupt and complete. The rest of the Saxon force had withdrawn and his pursuers were close. But they hesitated, even Earl Guthrum's guardsmen with their red shields and their burnished chain mail, because they understood which path he chose, toward the barren heath and the dark woods where no one lived. No one except the reputed sorceress, the Saxon hell-rune.
The Lady of Wytch Heath.
In his head, he could see her, standing alone in her hall, her beauty as strong as the sun breaking the clouds. The light streamed in through the open window, dazzling her eyes.
Five miles. The knowledge of the distance that separated them formed out of the air. As though the thought were hers. The awareness of her burned him, mind and flesh and harshly tightened skin.
Five miles. He moved and Du Moro, named for that other black stallion of legend, responded. He did not know whether luck would last long enough. Whether the wounded boy he held would survive. If the arcane reputation of Wytch Heath was enough to stop pursuit...
Two of the group of five pursuers followed him.
The luck gave out with the light. The empty heath vanished, and with it the eerie brilliance reflected off the autumn bracken, crimson-bright against the deep purple of ling and heather. The black woods closed out the dying sun. The thick undergrowth hid ground that was treacherous.
There was no other way. Macsen set spurs to the exhausted horse. The others, fresher, unencumbered, closed in. If he could not lose them, he would have to fight. It was unlikely he would win.
Even as the thought took shape in his head, the first sound came of a pursuit that was not human.
Du Moro, trained to battle, trained even to the smell of death, reared, hoofs sliding on the narrow moss-slick track, nearly unseating him. Macsen kicked his feet free of the stirrups. If the stallion fell back, it would kill him.
He sought for balance, to hold the helpless burden of the unconscious man. The bolt of fear that surged through the bunched sweating muscle beneath him was primeval. The same nameless fear was in his own blood, transmitted through the unearthly sound, through the touch of panicked flesh beneath him, into the dark place that existed in everyone far below the reach of reason. It was enough to blind him.
He fought it. The power in that moment dominated by primitive instinct came not from high courage but from the savage force of his anger. He controlled the war-stallion, fear-mad, nearly five times his weight, by the depth of that appalling power. This time, there would not be the death of someone hunted. He would stop it.
Anger gave him the power to force Du Moro forward. Anger let him keep the stallion moving so that it could not rear again. Tree branches whipped at his head. Behind him, he heard one of the pursuing horses go down. There was a raw scream that encapsulated all the primitive fear in the black air. He could not tell whether the sound was human or animal. Across it was the unearthly noise, the nightmare of every civilized creature, the howling of wolves.
The lone Viking bolted right, followed by the lithe flash of a grey shape, the movement of its muscles liquid in the dark. The blackness swallowed them.
The rest of the pack stayed with him.
The wolves would scent the injured boy's blood, the traces of his own. The stallion, weakened by exertion before they'd begun this journey, burdened by the double weight and haunted by instinctive terror, was vulnerable. They could bring it down.
The pack had driven one horse to stumble, working as one, injuring the rider in the process. Easy meat. But they did not stop to feed their hunger. They hunted him.
Their shapes moved in and out of the shadows, light and swift as wraiths, keeping pace with the laboured movements of the heavy horse hemmed in by trees. They could have outstripped it, circled ahead, closed in. But the howling stopped.
The grey shapes still shadowed through the darkness like smoke, their yellowed eyes points of light where none could exist. Only Du Moro's nervous reaction told him they were real. The tang of fear still choked his own throat, the destructive edge of pain and exhaustion. His grip on the motionless body slipped. The skin was cold. He could smell death, feel its greed.
He settled his hold on the unconscious man, pushing on through the undergrowth, seeking the higher ground by instinct. The valley feet are adder-ridden, boggy, treacherous— The knowledge came to him out of the dark air, out of the skin-tingling awareness of the woman who waited beyond the reach of the trees, unmoving in the silent hall. The closeness of the wolves pushed him.