“I will help you.”
The woman whirled, her blonde plait swinging wildly as it loosened itself from its binding. She swept the stray locks, streaked with the beginnings of grey, away from her face and glared at the unknown youth who had emerged in silence from the shadows of the surrounding trees and now stood before her. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Spying on me? My warriors are close, I shall have you flogged—”
“You need help. I am offering my aid, lady.” The intruder bowed his head in affected subservience then stepped forward to assist.
She stood her ground and glowered at the young Celt as he lifted his chin and met her gaze. He schooled his expression to ensure his features remained steady, unmoved, despite the gory presence of the body of a man, dead for just a few moments, who lay sprawled at this Viking noblewoman’s elegant feet.
Her hands on her hips, she panted from her recent exertions. Even in the inky blackness of the night he could discern her flushed features, the residual rage etched there, now mingling with fear of discovery. Her initial fury spent, the consequences of her actions now beckoned. She was frightened, shocked perhaps, but still she tilted her head back, eyes narrowing as she regarded him. Her expression was haughty despite her predicament. “Why? Why are you here? Where did you come from?” she demanded. “Have you dared to follow me?”
He shrugged. “I can leave you, if you prefer.” He made no move to do so however. She had no choice. He knew it, she knew it. He waited in silence.
“Very well,” she capitulated. “Can you lift him?”
“Aye, I can. Where—?”
“Anywhere. He must not be found. Ever.”
The youth nodded. He understood perfectly well. The cliffs then. He would toss the body into the churning waves below. If the dear Lord looked kindly upon his endeavours this night, the remains would be dashed to pieces on the rocks, then sink, never to surface again. Good riddance, and if he could extract some advantage for himself from the situation so much the better.
The woman watched him come forward, her agitation evident in the rapid tapping of her booted foot on the ground and in the stiffness of her spine.
He dropped to his haunches then bent to roll the dead man over onto his back and noted with grim satisfaction the blood still oozing from the single stab wound to his chest. The body was still warm, pliant, alive but moments ago. He had witnessed the altercation, heard the vicious accusations, seen with his own eyes the cold, hard fury of a vengeful woman. He had seen the flash of the blade as she struck, heard the death gurgle as the man crumpled, his final breath churning in his throat as he fought frantically to hang on to a life soon to be extinguished. It had been quick, he would grant her that. He glanced up at her, nodded his approval. This woman killed with ruthless efficiency.
“Get on with it. I need him gone.”
“Of course, though I will require something from you in return.”
She appeared unsurprised. “What?”
“Food. Two days’ supply. Warm clothing, in the Viking style. A weapon. And your silence. No one should know I passed this way.” On that last point he had no doubt that he and his unlikely accomplice were in perfect accord. Neither would wish to revisit this night’s work.
She considered his request for barely moments, then nodded. “So be it. You will dispose of… of… that,” she gestured with distaste to the bloodstained corpse in the flattened grass, “then meet me by yonder stand of trees in two hours’ time. I shall meet your price.”
He had no real cause to trust her, but did so anyway. The bargain was struck, and they both had much to lose. He quashed any lingering doubts and bent to his task. It was a simple enough matter to heft the dead weight onto his shoulder, legs to the front. The torso, arms, and head dangled down his back. He shifted a little to adjust the balance, then turned to stride away.
He turned at the imperious command. “Yes?”
“Do you know why?”
He did. He had seen and heard enough of the fierce and vicious quarrel that had preceded the flash of the woman’s knife to know exactly why this vile piece of shit was dead. There were some who might regret the disappearance of this man whose corpse he now bore to a watery grave, one or two who might mourn his loss and wonder, but he suspected not many. The world was no less a place without such as this one. Still, it was not for him to say what the rights and wrongs were.
“How would I know? I am not from here, I am no one…”
She nodded, not disputing his assessment. “You will say nothing, ever. No one must know of this.”
“Of course.” He inclined his head, his obeisance a given.
“You will never return. Ever.”
He bowed his agreement and turned away once more. This time she did not call him back.
Ten minutes later he stood at the top of the cliff, his weight tipping forward infinitesimally, just enough to be able to glimpse the rocks below and the boiling waves that lashed them. He could hear the roar of the sea from here, greedy as it sucked in the meal he offered. The pale shadow of the cadaver bobbed for a few moments on the waves, then disappeared below the frothing, foaming surface.
It was done. He turned and walked back the way he had come, his mind mercifully blank as he sought a safe haven in which to wait out the agreed two hours.
The North Sea
“Heave, one, two. Heave, one, two.” The rhythmic roar paused for a second, then, “You! Yes, you. Pull. Pull!” The final word was accompanied by the shrill hiss of a whip slicing the air, then a shriek as the lash found its mark.
“Bastards,” muttered Taranc under his breath as he leaned in to drag on the huge oar again. “Just shut up and row,” he rasped to the men on either side of him in the crammed hull of the Viking dragon ship. “Our chance will come, but for now they have the whips.”
Murmurings of resentful and fearful discontent surrounded him and the occasional scream rose up as yet another of his Celtic countrymen attracted the vicious displeasure of their Nordic captors. Taranc allowed none of it to distract him as he bent his body back and forth, each powerful stroke of the huge oar ploughing the unrelenting waves. He fought to retain his temper, to not react to the bullying and swagger, the belligerent crowing of the victorious Vikings as they pressed their newest slaves into the hard labour required to carry them back across the North Sea to their home in the cold and frozen North.
Many of Taranc’s friends and neighbours had perished in the swift and violent Viking raid on their villages. Taranc recalled with vivid accuracy the sight of Dughall, Lord of Pennglas weeping over the body of his slain son. Adair was ever a foolish and headstrong lad, but he had died seeking to defend his home and Taranc could not help but admire the young man’s courage. It was a waste, though. A bloody stupid waste.
The Norsemen had swooped on them without warning, killing all who resisted and herding the rest into a circle to be taken as slaves. Taranc had been among those rounded up and had surrendered without much in the way of apparent protest. He was but one man, and their Viking attackers were many, and heavily armed. Taranc might privately admire Adair’s determination to put up a fight, but did not share his suicidal tendencies. As chief of the village of Aikrig, Taranc saw his duty in seeking the survival of his people rather than a glorious death. Under his leadership they would await their moment, retaliate if and when an opportunity arose. Dead Celts were of no use to anyone.
“Heads down. Just row and keep quiet,” he commanded. He glanced from one side to the other, his stern glare calculated to quell any lingering dissent. Taranc expected to be obeyed, and his people did not disappoint him now. They bent their backs in unison, succumbing to the roared commands of their cruel captors who seemed to believe they controlled the situation.
Taranc knew better. At a word from him, the oars slaves would rise up and attack the Vikings, but to what avail? Better to choose their moment, when the odds were more in their favour.
As he rowed in silence he relived those awful moments when he had realised what was happening, and with that understanding had come recognition of the utter futility of resistance. Taranc had been at Pennglas when their attackers struck, having gone there to seek out Fiona, his betrothed. She was daughter to Dughall, sister to the hapless Adair, and herself now also a prisoner of the Vikings.
Fiona was every bit as courageous and foolhardy as her brother and had sought to repel the invaders with her slingshot. An excellent markswoman, she had felled two or three Norse warriors before being apprehended by no less than the Viking chief himself. She was now his captive and Taranc feared for her. As men, the fate of those who shared the dragon ship with him was clear enough. They would be expected to work, and the labour would be hard. For women, the future might be much more uncertain. All knew the vile reputation of these vicious Norsemen, their cruelty to female captives.
Taranc’s feelings regarding his betrothed were somewhat complex. Informally promised to one another since childhood, they had grown up together. The pair had played in the meadows that lay between their villages, climbed trees, and roamed the surrounding moors in search of autumn berries. He had taught her to swim; she shared with him her skill with the slingshot. They were friends, playmates, comrades, but as they approached maturity they had both come to the realisation that they were not destined to be lovers. Taranc adored Fiona, and he knew she shared his affection, but neither considered the other in a remotely lover-like way. If pushed he would describe their relationship as more akin to that between sister and brother. They loved each other but were not in love and never would be.
And now, Fiona was in grave danger and he cursed his own helplessness to assist and protect her. He did not even know for sure where she had been taken, only that she was no longer in the company of the Viking warlord who had seized her.
He knew that because that man was in this very dragon ship, arrogant and tall at the prow of the vessel, gazing ahead across the frothing waves. Ulfric, Taranc recalled. The Viking chief spoke their Gaelic tongue and he had told them his name when he announced that they were to be taken as slaves, or thralls as the Vikings preferred to term such lowly beings. Taranc rowed with his back to the direction of travel so he could not see the Viking leader, but he was acutely aware of his presence. The tall, blond warrior exuded power and authority, but he exercised uncommon restraint too. Back at Pennglas, Taranc had fully expected Fiona to be slain on the spot for her resistance to the Viking assault, but Ulfric had prevented that, instead taking her as a slave. He had no need to spare her, and Taranc could not help but be grateful. And puzzled.
There was another, also. The chief was supported by a second warrior, one clad entirely in black, as dark as the leader was blond. They were friends, it had seemed to Taranc as he watched them, and though the dark one spoke only the guttural Nordic tongue, Taranc recognised that he displayed a less respectful attitude to the leader than did any of the other raiders. If anything, this one had seemed amused by the exchange between Ulfric and Fiona. It was he who had supervised the loading of the slaves, the selection of the females who were to be taken, and the dark Viking now commanded his own dragon ship that sliced through the waves not a hundred feet from their stern. Taranc could discern his tall, powerful figure marching back and forth, the long wolf skin cloak flapping in the brisk offshore wind.
Murdering, thieving bastards. They would pay for this, Taranc promised himself. They would pay dearly.
A muffled sob from his left caught his attention. Taranc leaned forward and peered along the row. A small boy huddled at the very end of the bench, pressed against the outer hull of the ship. His thin fingers gripped the oar and he tugged ineffectually at the unrelenting beam. As the Viking oars master passed by, his lash dangling from his hand, the boy shrank back as though he sought to crawl into the very planks that made up the sleek vessel.
Taranc recognised the boy, or at least he knew him by sight. The lad had moved to Aikrig perhaps a year ago, with his mother who had married a fisherman from his village. The man was dead, drowned at sea some months ago, and now the boy had been enslaved by the Vikings. The dear Lord alone knew the fate of the mother.
“Pass the boy along here. He shall sit beside me,” Taranc instructed the man to his side. “Have a care, do not let the Vikings see him move.”
The Celts obeyed, surreptitiously shifting the boy along the bench until he was pressed between Taranc and another burly Celt called Iain. Taranc never broke his rhythm as he leaned down to speak to the boy. “Place your hands beside mine and move with the oar. I shall row, you just hold on.”
The boy nodded and did as he was told. Taranc saw that tears still glistened in his eyes. He would have liked to offer words of comfort but such would be hollow in the circumstances. Instead he settled for what he knew to be true. “Remain close to me. I shall do all I can to aid you.”
The lad nodded, chewing on his lip. “Thank you, sir,” he whispered.
“What is your name, boy?”
“I am Donald, sir.”
“It is nice to meet you, Donald. I am Taranc.”
“I… I know, sir.”
Of course he knew. Such was the reality of rank and privilege. Taranc spared the lad a final reassuring grin and bent to his task.
The journey was mercifully swift, aided by a buffeting wind that filled the sails and carried the dragon ship lightly across the sea. After just two days afloat and one bitterly cold night they sighted land to the north. The dragon ship drew closer, then skirted the rocky coast as they continued on. They passed towering cliffs where the sea churned and boiled at the foot, and narrow inlets where the water was forced between two sheer rock faces. There were tree-lined coves and sloping beaches. Here and there Taranc could make out settlements, the occasional isolated farm, and fishing vessels bobbing closer to the shore whose occupants waved a welcoming greeting to their Viking captors as they sped past.
At last the man at the helm turned the dragon ship to the right and they made straight for the squat harbour that protected a settlement rather larger than any they had passed thus far. As they drew alongside the rough wooden jetty, willing hands flung out ropes, which the Viking sailors grabbed and used to haul the ship in. The hull bounced against the planks with a horrendous bump and a deafening grating sound.
Donald slithered from his seat with the impact, only to be grabbed and pulled back by Taranc. “Grab a hold of me, lad. Stay close.”
The boy nodded and grasped Taranc’s tunic.
The ship remained motionless when the ropes were secured tightly, and the Vikings swarmed ashore, led by their blond chief. The Celts stayed where they were, panting from the exertion of the last several hours and the sudden, shuddering halt. There was another resounding clatter as the dragon ship carrying the dark Viking slid into the space alongside them at the jetty, and that, too was tied off.
The blond and the dark one greeted each other on the quay, exchanging congratulatory slaps to the back before turning to regard the captives in both ships. Brief words were exchanged, then Ulfric strode away. The other Viking called to several others, issued commands in rapid Norse, then gestured to the Celts in Taranc’s ship to clamber up onto the jetty.
They were a sorry crew, reflected Taranc as he surveyed his miserable countrymen. They had been offered no shelter on the voyage, and little enough in the way of food or water so they were cold, hungry, dirty, and exhausted. Donald would be asleep on his feet were he not so frightened. Taranc shoved the lad behind him and signalled others to cluster about them. It would do no good to attract unwelcome attention to one who was clearly unable to work. The longer they could conceal Donald, the better the lad might fare.
Using the points of their drawn swords, the Vikings herded the Celts together on the jetty, then ushered them along the planking and onto the quayside. They were led to a small enclosure where they were permitted to sit down on the ground and given a few hunks of not quite stale bread. A pail of water was deposited in the middle of the exhausted throng, a metal cup dangling from a chain attached to the handle. Clearly this was all they were to have in the way of a drink, but Taranc was pleased to discover the water was fresh, clean, and deliciously cool. He took a drink himself, then handed the cup to Donald. One by one the men relieved their thirst then lay back to rest and to wait.
Hours passed and dusk started to fall. More bread was offered, and some cheese. The water bucket was replenished. The dark Viking made occasional appearances, no doubt to check that all was quiet and under control, then he made himself scarce again. When darkness descended it became clear there was to be no shelter again, though it was still the summer and the night was less chilly now that they were ashore.
Taranc thought they might manage well enough, but was relieved when the dark, leather-clad Viking returned again, this time accompanied by three other men each bearing a pile of blankets. These were dumped in the compound for the thralls to help themselves. Taranc made sure Donald had one and they all settled in for the night.
As dawn broke, the busy harbour sprang rapidly back to life. Fishermen launched their small craft; traders set up stalls offering wares such as fruit, vegetables, oils, and other goods. A forge close to the thralls’ compound was opened up and soon a strong blaze crackled in the fire pit there. A huge man wearing just leggings and a charred leather apron rattled a ferocious array of metal implements as he prepared for his day’s labours.
The dark Viking returned, and this time Ulfric was with him. They strode among the thralls who remained seated, huddled in their rough blankets. Taranc made sure Donald did not show himself, no easy feat when Ulfric paused to gaze down at him.
“I trust your voyage was not too rough, Celt. The crossing was speedy and the seas kind to us.”
Does he seriously expect a response? Taranc glared back at his captor as Ulfric dropped to his haunches to better meet his eyes. “I see the fury blazing in your face, Celt, and I understand the reasons for it. However, do not let your anger get you killed. Heroes do not last long in my slave quarters.”
Taranc had little doubt of that, but did not choose to dignify the Viking’s remark with an answer. Instead, he had a question. “Where is Fiona? What have you done to her?”
“You mean your lovely little betrothed? She is safe enough, for now.”
“If you hurt her, I shall kill you myself, I swear it.” Taranc ground out the words, meaning every syllable of the threat.
Ulfric grinned, unrepentant and not apparently unduly alarmed. “Then let us hope that it does not come to that, Celt, for I am loath to needlessly squander good thralls in pursuit of discipline. She is mine now. Accept it.” He straightened, offered Taranc a brief nod, and moved on.
“He frightens me,” whispered Donald, the words muffled beneath the blanket that concealed him from the Viking chief’s notice.
Taranc regarded the Viking’s retreating back. His own feelings toward the Nordic warlord were more complex, but did not, surprisingly, include fear. Were he pressed, Taranc might better describe his attitude toward Ulfric as one of grudging respect.
“Do as you are told, cause no trouble, lad, and you will be all right.” Taranc hoped this was true as he handed the boy the last of the bread he had hoarded from the previous night. He did not suppose he was alone in wondering what this day would bring.
During the course of the morning the thralls were ordered from the main group ten or so at a time and escorted across the flagged courtyard to the forge. There, each was fitted with a heavy metal shackle around their right ankle. When it was their turn to make the short trip, Taranc could no longer hide Donald. The smith raised his bushy blond eyebrows in surprise when he caught sight of the diminutive figure quivering in his forge. He had no shackle small enough so the boy had to wait while the man fashioned a miniature version just for him. Taranc remained beside Donald and no one seemed to object. He was proud of the lad’s fortitude when the iron band was at last secured about his ankle and they both made their way awkwardly back to the main group.
Hours passed, with nothing else to break the monotony of the wait. More stale loaves arrived, more water, and a large pot containing a broth of some description. Taranc did not believe it contained much meat, but it was palatable all the same and they were happy enough to dip their hunks of bread in it.
At last, darkness fell again. Once more Donald bundled himself inside a blanket as he huddled beside his new protector and they settled in for their second night on these foreign shores.
“Get up. All, up.” A small, squat individual marched between the sleeping Celts, using his foot to nudge those who still slept. He was not gentle and most rose grumpily to their feet. For the benefit of those not quick enough, the pugnacious little man held a switch that he cast about him with enthusiasm. “Get in line, everyone. Three, then three, then three. Like this…”
He grabbed two men and shoved them into the formation he desired, and pushed a third alongside. He arranged three more behind them. “Face front,” he commanded, stabbing his finger in the air. “That way.”
The smith moved between the men now assembled in rows of three, looping a length of chain through the shackles to secure them together. It was no longer possible to conceal Donald, and the Viking slave master eyed the lad with undisguised distaste. “Too small, no use,” he announced, but still had Donald chained along with the rest, two rows back from Taranc.
It was no longer possible to sit comfortably on the ground so the men shuffled in disconsolate confusion as they awaited the Vikings’ next move. They did not have long to ponder this. A group of women were bundled along the quay, clearly having just disembarked from a ship. Taranc recognised several familiar faces, including Donald’s mother who was heavily pregnant and appeared ready to drop.
Do these Viking bastards have no compassion at all?
The women were ushered into the forge to be shackled like the men. He could not see Fiona anywhere among them but as soon as Donald’s mother came within earshot he called out to her.
“Is Fiona with you? Did they harm her? Are you well?”
A woman standing beside the pregnant one responded. “We are fine, considering. Fiona too, though she required aid to get off the boat.”
“Bastards,” muttered Taranc, just as Fiona came into view. She walked beside the dark Viking, her eyes blazing with a familiar anger. Taranc hoped she would manage to curtail it for he had no doubt that retribution would be swift should she fail.
The women were shackled like the men, and added to the formation at the rear of the group. The slave master strutted up and down the line yelling his orders in a near incomprehensible broken Gaelic. He used his switch freely as though convinced that a sharp blow to the shoulders or hip would aid his victims in deciphering his garbled words.
“All. Go now. Walk fast, no slow.”
Muttering and exchanging bewildered glances, the group shuffled forward, uncertain what they were meant to do. Suddenly a shrill cry rang out. Donald’s mother had caught sight of her son.
“Donald! Donald, it is me. Donald…”
Taranc turned, and saw that Donald had, too. The boy saw his mother and his little face lit up. She called a reassuring greeting to him before the slave master brandished his switch at her and she shrank back into the line of women.
Slowly, with much clanking and stumbling and chafing of already bruised ankles, the sorry convoy got under way. The slave master urged them on, his switch swinging freely as he barked orders at the prisoners. “You walk now, two days. No slow down, no stop. All must work, all will walk, yes.”
Time would tell, mused Taranc. Were he pressed, he would not wager much on all of them completing the journey. A two-day forced march, on minimal rations, and in chains—impossible. He feared for those not strong enough to meet the vicious Viking slave master’s demands.
The first couple of hours were hard but not gruelling. The slave master insisted on setting a brisk pace, but most could manage it, more or less. Taranc looked back frequently to check Donald’s progress and was relieved that the lad was being aided by his new companions. Neither man was known to Taranc, presumably they had been seized elsewhere on the Vikings’ murderous voyage. He would be sure to thank them when he had the chance.
By the time the sun neared its height, Taranc was feeling the strain of the march and he could only guess at the struggle for those weaker than he was. The shackle left his ankle bruised and battered, and the shambling, uneven gait of the men hobbled together ensured that every step jarred and jolted. Several times he stumbled but managed to right himself.
The Vikings allowed them to stop for a few minutes every hour or so and they were given water to drink, but that was the only refreshment offered. The day was warm and shade nonexistent, and by the time the miserable convoy halted for the midday meal all were exhausted. Despite the discomfort of their chains, all the slaves sank to the ground to take what rest they might as the Vikings handed out yet more stale bread and dry cheese. Taranc was coming to loathe the stuff but he ate it anyway. There was no other reasonable course if he was to retain the strength he needed to see this ordeal though.
Fiona was too far away from him to allow for any conversation, though he succeeded in catching her eye. She offered him a reassuring nod as she, too, chewed on the unappetising fare.
Too soon they were ordered back onto their feet and the march was under way again. Taranc lost track of time as they trudged on, and he even succeeded in disregarding the shrill ranting of the ugly little slave master who strutted up and down the line. The man was a bully and Taranc found him ridiculous, though dangerous too. It did not do to underestimate the destructive potential of conceit and an overblown sense of power and importance.
At some point in the midafternoon the clatter of hooves disturbed their monotonous progress. The line of slaves edged to the side of the track to make way for the horses that caught up and passed them. Taranc recognised Ulfric and the dark Viking among the riders cantering alongside. The horsemen overtook the slaves on foot and as Taranc watched, the dark one leaned across as though he intended to speak to the blond. Any conversation was forestalled by the piercing shriek from the rear of the slave line.
Taranc did not need to turn. He recognised that voice. It was Fiona.
The horsemen turned their mounts and cantered back at the same time as the slave master charged along the line brandishing his ever-present switch. “What happens? Why stop? Why all this din?” He yelled at the slaves and cast about him with the crop as though they all bore equal responsibility for this reprehensible state of affairs.
Taranc could hear the cries of pain and alarm emanating from the rear of their column, but could see nothing of the cause. He only knew that his betrothed was at the centre of it, and that she was hurt.
“Fiona? Fiona, what has happened? Where is she? Let me go! Let me go!” The restraint and fortitude of the last couple of days was abandoned now as he fought to escape the chains that held him fast. He had to reach her; she needed him.
There was some sort of commotion, a rattling and clanking of chains, then a slight figure was dragged from the mass of thralls by two of the Viking guards and dropped unceremoniously on the verge at the edge of the track. Taranc could see Fiona clearly now as she lay writhing in the grass, the odious slave master bending over her. She cried out as he reached for her, and even at this distance Taranc could make out her ashen features.
She seemed unable to stand, though he could not discern why. Whatever the cause, the slave master was utterly averse to this turn of events and it would not be tolerated. His appalling solution was at once cruelly apparent when he drew his dagger and grasped the front of Fiona’s tattered tunic.
“No!” Taranc cried out, hurling his weight against the chains that held him back. Other Celts, too, saw the horror that was unfolding and rushed forward with him. A riot was erupting in the slave ranks and the Vikings were quick in their determined efforts to quell it. Their swords and war-axes drawn, the Norse warriors surged to surround the men who now squirmed and fought against their chains. A rock was hurled, then another. The confrontation grew angrier, uglier, more deadly by the moment.
Ulfric and the dark Viking arrived in the middle of the melée and slithered from their horses. Words were exchanged and the slave master relinquished the disposal of the stricken Celt female to his chief and rushed to lend his aid to the rest of his men.
Taranc found new breath and raised his voice above the growing babble that surrounded him. He screamed at the Viking warlord. “Let her be, you animals. I shall carry her. I will—” His words were but briefly interrupted by a vicious swipe from the slave master. The switch caught him full across the face and shoulders but he was not to be deterred. The men around him, too, found renewed anger and outrage at the assault on their leader and the din rose to a roar.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the Viking guards stepped back. Taranc found himself facing just the leader, Ulfric, who had abandoned Fiona to stride across to where the rebellious slaves mounted their incensed protest. Fearlessly he stepped among the angry thralls to plant himself before Taranc. The thrall boiled with rage but the Viking was unmoved.
“You, listen to me and heed me well. What is your name, Celt?”
“I am Taranc.” It was all he could do not to fly at the Nordic warrior, chains and whips forgotten. Every sinew bristled, Taranc was ready to do murder, and to die for it. The slave master made as though to step in and restore order and authority. Let him fucking try, thought Taranc and he glowered at the vile little thug. Ulfric seemed to share his view and dismissed the Viking karl with one upraised hand. The man fell back obediently.
Ulfric stepped closer to the unruly slaves showing not the slightest trepidation. He stopped less than a foot’s length from Taranc. “She is mine now. I told you this. My property.”
“You will not harm her! I—”
“No, I will not. I take care of what is mine. She will be safe.” Ulfric paused as though considering, then continued in a lower tone, “You have my word on this.”
“Your word? What is that worth? The word of a murdering, robbing savage impresses no one.” Taranc spat his response at their captor, who straightened and narrowed his eyes. Still the Viking did not raise his voice though all about heard his words clearly enough. He stood his ground, his steady gaze unwavering.
“I have offered you the word of Ulfric Freysson, Jarl of Skarthveit. You may rely upon it.”
Taranc returned his glare as waves of frustrated fury rolled from him. Despite their dire situation, his instinct told him he could trust this man. If Ulfric Freysson gave his word, he meant it. Fiona would not be harmed. The pair stood almost nose to nose as Taranc considered what he had heard. At last he allowed his shoulders to relax and he offered the Viking a wary nod. He had a warning of his own to deliver though, before he was done. “If you harm her I shall kill you. You may rely upon that. This is my promise to you, Viking.”
Now it was Ulfric’s turn to consider. He did so, and seemed to find their peculiar bargain satisfactory. He nodded, his lip quirked in what might have passed for a smile in less fraught circumstances and he turned away. He paused to say something to the slave master, and strode away to where Fiona still lay on the grass.
As the Viking lowered himself to his haunches beside the injured woman, Taranc should have been overwhelmed by jealous impotence. He wondered why such finer emotions eluded him as he returned to his position in the line and the convoy of slaves lurched into motion again. Fiona was no longer his. He had lost her. He knew that, and at some level he regretted it though he did not begrudge the Viking his gain, provided the man understood the value of his prize. Taranc believed he did. Now, he just had to hope that Ulfric would prove worthy of Fiona, and that she might find it in her to accept him. If not… he preferred not to dwell on that.
Another furious shout went up from the slave master and again he dived in among the female captives. This time he emerged dragging Donald’s heavily pregnant mother behind him. Once free of the line the woman hugged her distended abdomen with her one free arm and sank to the ground. The column of slaves watched in disbelief as the slave master again drew his dagger. Red-faced, he was babbling in broken Gaelic, something to the effect that the woman now cowering at his feet was too slow, too clumsy, too useless.
Taranc again opened his mouth to roar his protest. Was this what Viking mercy amounted to? The callous murder of defenceless women and unborn infants? His intervention was not required. The dark Viking beat him to it.
“Neinn!” The sharp command from the leather-clad Norseman halted the slave master’s descent into butchery, though not before a sharp swipe of the switch landed across the woman’s shoulders. The karl shrank back, open-mouthed as the tall chieftain towered above him, dark eyes flashing with pure menace. The slave master made no protest at all when the switch was snatched from his grip. Taranc believed for one glorious moment that the dark Viking intended to acquaint the little bully with the fiery bite of his own weapon, but instead he settled for a rapid exchange in their harsh Norse tongue. Taranc could not understand the conversation, but it was clear that the slave master had come off the loser and he retreated back to the waiting column of slaves, his features puce with rage. Impassive now, the dark Viking watched him go, then extended his hand and assisted the woman to her feet.
“Get moving. We have wasted enough time here. Onward. Now!” The angry thrall master brandished a whip he had commandeered from one of the guards as he passed and he cracked it at the heels of the slaves closest to him. They danced back into line and the column started forward again.
But even now the drama was not concluded. The pregnant woman struggled to escape her rescuer, screaming at him as she sought to wriggle free and pursue the slave convoy.
“My son! My boy! He needs me. He is but a baby. Please, let me go! I have to remain with him. I can manage…” Her efforts were completely ineffective. The dark Viking restrained her with ease, though he appeared bemused at her determination to leave his protection. The column halted again and Taranc made a rapid recalculation. Whatever the final outcome, surely the boy was better off with his mother. He could not be worse off, certainly…
“Show him. Show them the lad. He should stay with her.” The men on either side of Donald understood and obeyed. They pushed the diminutive figure to the front, in full view of the slave master who peered at him with undisguised loathing.
Ulfric and the dark Viking exchanged a few words, and, incredibly, the dark one untied a purse of coins from his belt and tossed it to Ulfric. The Viking chief laughed and issued an instruction to the slave master. Seconds later, Donald was free of the chained slaves and staggering away from the convoy. He appeared confused, disoriented, utterly terrified.
His mother shrieked again and this time succeeded in escaping the grip of the man who held her. No, she did not escape, concluded Taranc. The dark, enigmatic Norseman had released her, permitted her to rush across the rough ground that separated the captive Celt from her son and take the boy in her arms. She sank to her knees, sobbing.
They made an unlikely tableau, reflected Taranc as the remaining thralls were once more ordered to form up and move out. As they shuffled away along the rough track he glanced back over his shoulder at the tall, leather-clad warrior who now stood over his latest acquisitions. Taranc found the expression of the Norseman’s harsh visage difficult to define as the Viking studied the small boy he had paid such a generous price to purchase. The closest he could come to a description would perhaps be ‘resigned.’