Read an Excerpt
Mist rises from water made inky by moonless night, swirling over the shingle beach where waves curl gently, drifting up the cliff side fragrant with purple gorse, slipping through chinks in the palisade walls of the great fortress called Holyhood.
Nothing stirs save for a stray rat nosing at kernels dropped from a grain sack hours before. A cat crouches on the timber wall ... waits ... leaps....
At their posts, the guards nod, negligent in their duty. Within, the great hall rings to the snores of the garrison.
In a private chamber at the top of the innermost tower, a young woman murmurs in her sleep, turning her petal-soft cheek against a scented pillow, restless as her dreams.
...The cat sits, delicately disassembling her prey. A whisper of wind troubles her fur. She looks up, frozen by the swift, silent shape that cleaves the mist.
In the curved dragon prow of the war ship, a man watches the keep slip by. His eyes cold and deadly as the ice floes of the north whence he comes, he takes the measure of the fortress whose fate he has already decided.
The silent, deadly shape of the vessel vanishes back into the mist. The cat returns to her meal. The young woman, asleep in the high tower, cries out softly but does not wake.
The women were the first to see them. A group had gone down to the stream to wash clothes. They were chatting happily among themselves, talking of men and children, children and men, when one looked up, peered through the rising dust, and rose slowly to her feet. A fine shirt she had labored long to make for her husband to wear on holy days fell to the ground. She pressed a hand to her mouth to contain the scream that nonetheless emerged, half choked but all the more urgent for it.
The other women stopped. They looked at her first, then followed the direction of her eyes. One or two others let out little exclamations of shock and distress, but quickly enough they quieted. Not one made a sound, and they hushed the babes they had brought with them to the riverbank. The silence was broken only by the tread of horses and the soft clank and creak of men in saddles.
Sir Derward came slowly, his back iron straight, relishing every prancing stride, every moment, every gaze. Behind him, the patrol rode in two lines, single file. Between them, watched every moment by two dozen pairs of alternately astounded and wary eyes, came the prisoners.
They were six in number including the leader, few enough against four times that number, unarmed, their hands tied before them and roped together at the neck. They should have been — and surely were — helpless.
Not one was less than six feet in height, and the tallest, the leader, was at least four inches taller than that. Their shoulders and chests were massive, surely far too broad and heavily muscled for any normal men. They wore short tunics and were bare legged, their limbs like sinewy tree trunks.
Most were bearded although the leader was clean-shaven, his face hard and lean, his skin burnished, midnight-black hair hanging to his shoulders. His gaze was sharp and clear as it swept beyond the women to the open gates of the fortress. They were grim-faced, hard-eyed, wolf-souled men, and the leader was the most frightening of them all. Yet they were captive.
Incredibly, amazingly captive. The patrol was past before the women thought to raise a hesitant cheer. They grabbed up their babes and their wash, following swiftly behind, not wanting to miss a moment of this.
A guard lounging against the gate stared slack-jawed at what approached and called a ragged warning. Heads appeared on the palisade, a group formed near the gate, parting swiftly as the horses neared. Work stilled as word spread and the inhabitants of Holyhood dropped what they were doing to come see what none of them had ever thought to witness.
Captive Vikings. Men straight out of nightmares led roped and helpless into their own Holyhood. By their own Sir Derward, for whom none had spared an appreciative thought until this very instant. It was a spectacle to stun, to be savored around the winter fires into distant years, told and retold to children yet unborn.
Their cheers, no longer hesitant but full-throated and heartfelt, rose to heaven, passing on the way the high tower at the center of the keep, drifting by the open windows from which the scent of drying herbs floated, and causing the young woman within to look up curiously.
“What is that, Miriam?”
The old nurse paused in the midst of tying bundles of fragrant grasses together and cocked her head. “The people sound very excited, milady. Would you like me to find out what has happened?”
Slender, white hands laid a final rosebud inside a small press, screwed the lid on tightly, and set the press carefully aside. “If you would. I’d still like to get the oils done today.”
Miriam nodded, stood, and left the room. The Lady of Holyhood continued her work.
Wolf Hakonson took a look around the cell into which he and his men had been thrust, nodded slowly, and sank down on the damp stone floor, stretching his long legs out before him. His men, ever vigilant to his mood, grinned. They sprawled out and relaxed.
“Damn,” one-eyed Olaf muttered. He glanced at Wolf and sighed. “It’s ten pelts I owe you.”
“It is,” Wolf agreed. His good humor was increasing steadily and he was hard-pressed to conceal it. But conceal it he must, for they were all clearly visible through the crossed iron-lattice windows on the double wooden doors that secured the cell. The room was large for a dungeon and he suspected it was more commonly used for storage, as it no doubt would be again when the harvest was brought in. In the meantime, it served as a prison for the Vikings.
Vikings caught unaware beside their apparently trapped vessel, run aground on a sandbar. Vikings too far from their weapons to offer resistance. Vikings who had surrendered with scarcely a murmur.
The mere thought almost made him burst out laughing. Truly Odin had blessed him with the rooster-brained Saxon in charge of the patrol. Scarcely had he seen so pride-blinded a man.
It would have been the work of minutes to disarm and kill the lax Saxons. He and his men had done the same and more enough times to be confident of the outcome. But that would have left Holyhood yet to be taken. Its garrison was large, if poorly led. Its walls were high. The Wolf valued the lives of those who followed him too much to risk them unnecessarily.
Besides, his chosen method brought not merely defeat and loss but profound insult, perfect to his purpose. He was mulling that over, his thoughts grimly occupied, when a clatter outside interrupted him. His eyes narrowed as he beheld Rooster Brain, accompanied by an audience of several knights, approaching the cell.
“Bold Vikings!” Sir Derward sneered. “The terror of the north!” He threw back his head and laughed, an oddly shrill sound more suited to a nervous girl. The men with him laughed too, perforce.
“Never have I seen such cowards,” Derward exclaimed, his cheeks flushed, warming to his subject. “They yielded like women. Indeed, I think perhaps they are women! Viking women would be great hulking things, wouldn’t they?”
More laughter greeted this witticism. Derward put his hands on his hips and paced back and forth before the bars gloating at his captives. “God’s blood, you are pathetic specimens of men, to muster no resistance at all. Was not one of you eager to sup in Valhalla this night? Or did you have the sense to know not even your craven gods would welcome the likes of you?”
The man beside Wolf stirred. “No,” Wolf murmured, his lips scarcely moving. The man stilled.
“You’ll rot in here,” Derward continued. “You’ll weep and beg for food. You’ll fight over a rat’s carcass. You’ll watch each other sicken and die, and you’ll pray for death. But it won’t come quickly — oh no! The enemies of Lord Hawk die slowly. You’ll curse the mothers who gave you birth before your ends come.”
When this, too, failed to raise any reaction, Derward’s flush darkened dangerously. He clamped his hands on the iron bars, his mouth twisting. Little flecks of saliva showed at the corners of his lips.
“Mayhap I’ll put you to fight each other for the amusement of my men. Whoever survives will have a little food, live a little longer. Which one of you will be the last to die?” His eyes swept over the men in the cell, coming to rest at last on Wolf.
“You,” he said, not a question. He stared at the man who, even seated on the floor of a cell, his hands still bound, exuded deadly strength and calm. For just an instant, Derward’s eyes flickered. “Why didn’t you — ?”
Whatever thought he’d been about to pursue went unspoken. The door opened again at the top of the stairs leading to the cell. A shaft of golden sunlight penetrated the torch-lit gloom. And there, in that light, stood a woman.
Wolf rose in a single, lithe motion. He moved toward the bars, the better to see her. The sun revealed little, only a dark silhouette, but he could make out that she was tall for a woman, willow slim, and graceful.
Her voice came floating through the doorway, low, soft, melodious, a voice to entice a man or soothe a child. It reverberated through him like a deep, inner caress. He was shocked to realize that he actually shivered.
“What is this, Sir Derward? Why are these men being held?”
The knight stiffened, hands dropping to his sides. His color paled, then returned in a rush. “They are Vikings, milady,” he said in a voice that was almost steady. “Their vessel ran aground and they were caught scarcely a mile from here.”
“Did they offer you resistance?”
“No, milady. They surrendered at once, afraid to fight us.”
“I see. Then you don’t actually know that they intended any harm?”
Derward took a deep, shuddering breath, fighting for calm. Wolf heard it and felt an instant’s wry sympathy for him. “They are Vikings, milady,” the knight repeated.
“We welcome merchants from the northlands. Is there reason to believe these men are not like them?”
“These are no merchants,” Derward protested. “You’ve only to look at them.” Again, that flicker in his eyes as though a thought stirred weakly.
Wolf moved quickly, closer yet to the bars, distracting him. He needn’t have bothered, for just then the Lady Cymbra came fully into the light and for the space of several heartbeats no man thought of anything at all.
Distantly, Wolf heard the collective intake of breath from the others in the cell, but he was too riven by his own surprise. The world abounded with stories, few of them even remotely true. One held that the renowned Hawk of Essex had a sister, Cymbra by name, who was likely the most beautiful woman in all of Christendom, a woman of such loveliness that her own brother hid her away lest men fight to possess her.
Wolf had long since dismissed that tale, assuming it most probably meant she was no more than middling pretty. Now confronted by the reality and the slow, stumbling recovery of his own reason, poor thing that it had become, he stared at her.
Chestnut hair shot through with gold tumbled in thick waves almost to her knees. Her eyes, blue as the sea beneath summer sun and thickly fringed, were set in an oval face of damask perfection. Her nose was slender and tapering above full, rose-hued lips that were moist and slightly parted. Her body, full-breasted with a wand-slim waist and hips perfectly fashioned to a man’s hands — to his hands — moved closer, as though drawn by his will alone.
She was perfect — exquisitely, absolutely perfect. She looked like a statue come to life, scarcely a real woman. A real woman would have some imperfection, however slight, something to indicate her humanness. Had a speck of dirt ever touched this ethereal creature? Had a hair ever fallen out of place, a spot appeared on that perfect skin? Did she ever sweat, curse, strive, yield? Was she as much a stranger to passion as she appeared?
She needed messing. The thought sprung full-blown in his mind. He could think of a great many things he wanted to do to the Lady Cymbra, and he supposed some of them were rather messy, but he might have framed it differently.
Not that it mattered. Grimly, he reminded himself, his course was set — as was hers. She had chosen it the moment she rejected the offer of marriage that would have sealed a pact that could bring peace to thousands. That she had done so in terms chosen to sting any Viking’s pride merely confirmed her fate.
He would possess her utterly — this proud, unfeeling woman who put selfishness and vanity above all else. He would strip away that pride, crush that will, and enslave her to the passion that was suddenly a raging torrent within him. And he would enjoy every vengeful moment of it.
Cymbra felt the touch of the slate-gray eyes that studied her so boldly and could not repress a quiver of shock. She felt moved in some strange, predatory way she could scarcely credit. Worse, pleasure flicked at the edges of her mind. Astounding. She had never experienced anything like that. Under other circumstances, she might have explored the sensations and the man who evoked them, but he awakened an anxiety within her that made rational study impossible.
Instinctively, she took refuge in the habit of a lifetime, repressing all emotion and concentrating only on the task at hand. Such serenity was her only defense against the pain of a violent, turbulent world, and she depended on it utterly.
Softly, but with iron determination, she returned her attention to the hapless Derward. “I understand that you are responsible for the safety of this keep, but I am responsible for the welfare of the people within it. All the people. These men must have food, water, blankets, and medicine, if needed.”
“Milady! No one will give them such things. They are savages, brutal animals. It isn’t safe for anyone to get close to them.”
Silence reigned for several minutes. Wolf scowled, wondering if he had misunderstood her words, as he surely must have. Why would she have any concern for their welfare, this unfeeling woman willing to perpetuate war rather than sacrifice her precious self? Why would she care if they rotted and starved? Indeed, why wouldn’t she rejoice like all the others?