The Viking’s Forbidden Love-Slave

The Viking's Forbidden Love-Slave

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Ireland, 1102

Darkness enveloped her, thick and suffocating. Her jaw ached, and her lips were cracked from thirst. Aisling Ó Brannon shifted her wrists, but they were bound tightly with ropes.
Rising panic swelled in her veins, along with the memory of the Norse raider who had stolen her away. She vaguely recalled a wooden longboat and hours spent at sea.
Where had he taken her? And . . . what would become of her? She struggled against her bonds, and realized she was lying upon a bed.
No. Not that.
The taste of fear rose up in her throat, quickly replaced by determination. She wasn’t going to lie here like a helpless babe. With her fingertips, she struggled to loosen the ropes.
“You’re awake.” A male voice filled the interior, deep and resonant. Heavily accented by the Norse language, she sensed that his grasp of the Irish tongue was not a strong one. She blinked, trying to see him, and then realized her vision was blocked by a length of cloth.
The loss of her sight made the unknown all the more frightening. Aisling rolled her body to the side, straw crackling beneath the mattress. A hand reached beneath her shoulders and eased her to sit up.
She struggled to move away, but then he pressed a cup to her lips. The instinctive need to quench her thirst overcame all else. She tasted the sweetness of mead, and unable to help herself, she drank deeply.
“Where am I?” she demanded.
“Just outside Vedrarfjord.”
She recognized the Lochlannach name for the lands so close to her own. Thank the Blessed Virgin. She remembered little about her kidnapping, and time had blurred.
She moved her face away from the cup, trying once again to see who was holding her captive. “Why am I blindfolded?”
“It wasn’t meant to be one.”
She felt him touch her head, and she winced at the tender pain upon her scalp. Her jaw felt swollen, as though someone had smashed a fist against her cheek. The Norseman unwrapped a length of cloth until at last, light speared her eyes. Aisling blinked, struggling to see her captor.
He was tall enough that she had to lean back to look at him. Dark golden hair fell upon broad shoulders, while a bronze torque gleamed around his neck. The thick corded muscles of his forearms had black runes deeply tattooed into his skin. Aisling resisted the urge to cross herself against the sight of the mystical lines.
He wore a gray tunic that hung below his waist and dark trews, colorless clothes that might have been suited to a peasant, were they not so well made. The fine weave of the material suggested he had chosen these shades and paid good coin for them. Only a long cloak, dyed a rich shade of burgundy, revealed any color. A gold brooch shaped like a serpent fastened the garment to his shoulders.
This man was no commoner. She could see it in the way he held his head up, in the way he stared at her, as though she were his possession. Not by half. Not if she could help it.
The way he was watching her made her skin tighten. The air inside the room suddenly grew stifling, and she reminded herself of all the lessons her brothers had taught her about defense.
If he dared to touch her, he would regret it. As soon as she could get a weapon, she would be free of him.
Her hands curled into the rough covering over the mattress. Don’t let him see your fear. “Who are you?”
“I am Tharand Hardrata.” At his penetrating stare, she offered her own name in exchange.
“Are you a jarl?”
“No. I am a member of the hird. A freeman.”
It startled her to hear it. As a Norse warrior, why would he dress so plainly? And what did he want with her? She tried not to think about why she was bound upon his bed. Swallowing hard, she asked, “Why did you take me as your captive?”
Tharand made no reply. Instead, he reached for a dagger at his waist, and the blade flashed in the firelight. Aisling held herself perfectly still. Don’t breathe. Don’t move.
But he only reached behind her and grasped the ropes that bound her. His hands curled around her wrists as though he could snap the bones without any effort at all. The heat of his palms penetrated her skin, chaining her in his grasp.
“I’m going to cut these.” He grasped a single rope, tightening it against her skin. “Don’t move.”
With him so close, she could feel the muscles of his upper arm pressing against her. The contact was accidental, but the heat of his body warmed her cool skin. Aisling took a deep breath to push back the rising panic.
The greater danger was being alone with this man. Fierce and forbidding, his strength could easily overpower her.
His thumb edged her palm, and the touch sent a rush of apprehension through her. A faint spiciness rose from his skin, a scent reminiscent of faraway lands to the East. In the firelight, his silhouette dominated her own.
“What do you want from me?” she asked. “Am I now your slave?”
His knife sliced the ropes in a swift, lethal move. Tharand sheathed the blade, never taking his eyes from her. His gaze was discerning, as though he were trying to measure her worth.
“You will be a gift to King Magnus,” he said at last. “He has returned to Erin.”
A gift? Her lips tightened at the thought. “And what makes you think he would want another slave?”
He reached out and took a length of her dark hair, running his fingers through it. Gooseflesh raised upon her neck, her heart hammering.
“You would not be another ambatt,” he said. “A woman such as yourself has more value than that. If you are fortunate, you might warm his bed.”
Words of outrage tempted her lips. I am not that sort of woman, she wanted to shout. But that was what she’d become, wasn’t it? Her freedom was gone, stolen away.
She rubbed her raw wrists, trying to will sensation back into the numbness. The warrior stood before her, and she longed to cut him down for what he’d done. And for what he was about to do.
“What will you receive in exchange?” she demanded. “Gold? Thirty pieces of silver?”
His expression chilled. “You should be grateful for your life.”
“Why me? Why not some other woman?” Inside, she wanted to scream. Nervous energy roiled within her skin, trying to claw its way free.
Tharand shrugged. “You are of noble Irish blood, and that will make you suitable to serve his needs.”
Serve his needs? Aisling gritted her teeth. Not very likely. She wasn’t about to stand meekly aside and let herself suffer such a fate.
But the winter season made an escape even more complicated. She would need shelter, as well as a horse and supplies. She couldn’t simply run, not without careful planning.
Aisling rubbed her wrists again, trying to relieve the pain. Her jaw ached, the skin swelling up. But the discomfort was not only physical. Her imagination had run wild with thoughts of what this raider would do to her. Though he had not forced himself upon her yet, perhaps he was biding his time.
She needed a weapon. The gleam of steel against the back wall of the dwelling caught her eye.
“Eat,” Tharand interrupted, handing her a wooden bowl. His large frame blocked her line of sight, making her scramble backwards upon the bed.
At the sight of the salted fish, her stomach rebelled. “No, thank you.”
“I won’t have you starving yourself.” The command was lined with steel. He dropped the bowl in front of her and folded his arms across his chest. Against her will, she found herself staring at the tattooed runes that seemed to writhe against his skin.
“It isn’t that.” She held her breath against the offensive odor. “It’s that I don’t care for fish. Or anything from the sea.”
And right now, the idea of eating made her stomach twist. She was long past hunger, hardly remembering the last time she had eaten.
“Prisoners should be grateful for any food at all.”
She drew her knees up, holding them against her chest. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather go hungry.” The soft wool of her overdress had absorbed the heat of the fire, and she tried to keep as much of her body covered as possible.
Tharand’s expression still held disbelief. He took the bowl away, frowning as though he didn’t know what to make of her refusal.
She buried her face in her knees, breathing deeply to calm her racing heart. Where were his servants and slaves? His family? She was accustomed to the busy noises of people working, of animals penned outside, and the conversation of family.
But here, there was no one. It made her uneasy.
At last, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand up. For the first time, she realized Tharand had taken her shoes. The cold ground chilled the soles of her bare feet before her knees buckled. He crossed the room to steady her. The touch permeated her skin, burning embarrassment into her face.
“I won’t stay here.” She shoved away from him and strode toward the door, wondering if Tharand would try to stop her. This was her life. Her freedom. She wouldn’t cast that away without a fight.
He sat down upon the bed, seemingly unconcerned. “There is nowhere for you to run.”
The room swayed, and she held onto the door to regain her footing. Defiantly, she opened the door, unprepared for the freezing air. The lack of outer clothing imprisoned her as surely as ropes. Her hands and body shook, even as she tried to rub her arms for warmth.
“You’re letting in the cold.” Tharand’s warning sounded irritated.
Her response was to walk outside, letting the door slam in his face. Outside, the winter air lashed against her léine, soft flurries of snow drifting. She gritted her teeth against the icy frost beneath her bare feet.
Although her brain railed at her for venturing out in such weather, this was, perhaps, her only chance to see the Lochlannach settlement.
Rectangular-shaped thatched houses were set within quadrants. Four homes framed a small, shared courtyard. The two-storey buildings were larger than the circular stone huts she was used to. Each of these dwellings could house two families with no lack of space.
A stone wall surrounded a ditch that was perhaps eight meters wide. It made her angry to see their defenses.
Thieving raiders. How dare they live in such luxury, when she and her family had to fight for their own survival? She’d watched them burn her home, the fire searing her possessions into ashes. The desire for vengeance took root within her, gathering strength.
Outside one of the homes, a young boy picked up a handful of wet snow and aimed the ball at one of his friends. His face was rounded and healthy, a child who had never known hunger like their tribe had endured. Unlike her younger brother.
Egan. Her heart bled at the memory of the Lochlannach slavers dragging him away. She clenched her fist, remembering his thin face and her eldest brother Kieran who had gone to try and save him. Were they even alive?
The anger returned, suffocating her with its intensity. She flexed her fingers, wishing she had a blade to wield. Somehow, she had to leave this place. Gazing around the stone palisade, the longphort seemed impenetrable. She whirled around, half-expecting her captor to drag her back inside. Instead, Tharand drew his cloak around himself, sending her a glance as if daring her to leave.
She couldn’t. Not without warm clothing, a horse, and supplies. None of which she was likely to gain without help.
The warmth of the house beckoned to her as the winter’s ice froze her feet. With reluctance, Aisling took a step toward her captor’s longhouse. He knew full well that she could go nowhere.
Tharand strode past the young boy playing in the snow. Terror transformed the child’s face, and he dropped the snowball, skittering inside his home.
The warrior continued walking, as though he hadn’t noticed the child’s fear. Beneath her false courage, Aisling wondered if she had reason to be afraid.

From the story “The Viking’s Forbidden Love-Slave”
Copyright © 2008 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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