Bent over a fence rail with her skirts lifted, Danewyn squeezed her eyes shut and prayed the soldier would be quick about it. She always demanded payment up front—made them pay it to Coenred, the tavern keeper directly, to prevent men from taking advantage. Something about this one seemed like trouble. She should have told him no, except that she’d already given it up to his three friends, and not taking a poke from him too would surely start a fuss. And Coenred might protect her from trouble, but not if she went asking for it.
The soldier drove into her with rough, drunken strokes, meanwhile boasting the entire time about his service to the king. It was never a good sign when a man talked while he did the deed. She rolled her eyes since he couldn’t see her face. He finished at last and plopped down on the fence rail to continue his monologue. She ignored the move and started to go inside, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back, never stopping his endless stream of blathering.
“So as I was sayin’, King Benton’s going to knight me after the next battle.”
Fat chance. She had a moment of prescience—not a vision, but a knowing. She usually kept her mouth shut about such things, but because she was in bad temper, she spoke it. “Your king has more battles ahead of him than he guesses—the Red Fox rises to take back his throne,” she said authoritatively.
“Wha—?” the drunken soldier said, but she was already marching away. As she came to the back door of the inn and tavern, the hairs stood up on her arms, and she had a strong feeling it was related to the words she had just uttered. A man came out of the shadows, just finishing with Vivien, another whore who worked the tavern. He was a huge man, and his face was scarred badly on one side with mottled ripples running from eye to chin. He wore not the clothing of King Benton’s soldiers, but he looked like a warrior just the same. His face was perfectly blank, but his eyes were upon her in a way that wasn’t sexual—there was a calculating intelligence there that she found disturbing. She hurried inside, sparing him one more glance over her shoulder.
She and Coenred haggled over his cut of the night’s proceeds, and then she slipped out the front door for the room she let nearby, closing her nose to the smell of excrement from man and beast that filled the roads of London. She had walked only a dozen paces before someone grabbed her from behind, a huge hand slapped over her mouth, preventing her from screaming. Fear shot through her like lightning, and she thrashed against her captor, but the man holding her with a vice-like grip seemed almost twice her size.
The scarred man. It had to be.
Two other men were with him, helping to hustle her away to horses. By Our Lady—he had heard what she’d said about the Red Fox! If he was the Red Fox’s knight, she might be tortured to discover what she knew of them.
For a moment, the thumb of the huge hand over her mouth blocked her nostrils, and she panicked completely, her fingernails digging into the hand, her feet kicking. “Sorry,” he muttered, moving the thumb. “I didn’t mean to cut off your air. Listen to me—we need to ask you some questions. I’m going to take you with me for a ride. If you answer truthfully, no harm will come to you—I promise. Nod your head if you understand.”
His hand was clamped so tightly around her mouth that nodding seemed an impossibility, but when she made an unsuccessful attempt, he said, “Good girl. Now, I’m going to take my hand off your mouth. If you scream, I will knock you out cold, but I’d rather not harm you, understand? Will you keep your mouth shut?”
She made another attempt at moving her head in assent.
“Good girl,” he said and very slowly removed his hand from her mouth, then caught her two wrists, efficiently twisting them behind her and binding them with a rope. She looked around at him wildly, scanning the road for anyone, but there was no one save the three men who’d grabbed her. Her captor confiscated her eating knife from the little scabbard she kept around her waist.
She took several deep, cleansing breaths, trying to calm her wildly racing heart. If she thought anyone would come to help her, she would scream and risk being knocked out. But they were too far from the tavern for Coenred to hear, and she doubted he’d get involved if it involved risking his own neck. She had no one else to defend her or even care.
Until this moment, she hadn’t truly believed the Red Fox existed. Known as the Lost Prince of Briton, he was the son of King Unser, who had taken the throne after King Arthur died at the hand of his son Mordred. His parents were cut down in a coup by the present king, Benton. That a red-headed babe had lived and had been borne away by his nursemaid to safety had been rumored over the past 20 years but was widely believed to be no more than a folktale.
If his men believed she knew their secrets, there was no telling what they would do to her. The prospect turned her cold. They would never believe she knew nothing about the Red Fox after what she’d said at the tavern. They would want to know every detail of what she knew and where she’d heard it, and she had no answers to questions like that. She would probably be killed.
The big man deftly passed her into the hands of another while he mounted his horse, then reached down to catch under her armpits and swing her up in front of him. The other two men mounted and the three rode away from London, veering from the roads to ride through bramble and into the thick of trees.
The large man behind her kept one arm wrapped around her waist so her trussed wrists pressed against his hard-muscled belly. She knew he could feel her shaking helplessly, hear her breath rasping too quickly in her chest. His second hand crossed her chest to stroke up and down her arm in a gesture of comfort as it loosely held the reins.
“Shh,” he said in a deep, low voice spoken near her ear. “I meant what I said. No harm will come to you if you answer well.”
She twisted in her seat to look back at him. She couldn’t tell whether he spoke the truth or not. He wore the blank expression she had seen at the tavern, with the same sharp eyes. His face was clean-shaven; she guessed it must be because no hair would grow on the side with the scars. She wondered briefly what had caused such scars on his face. They looked like burns.
They rode for more than an hour, and she had a feeling they were taking the precaution of riding in circles to be sure she couldn’t track where they rode, though they needn’t have worried—in the dark and the trees, she’d lost all sense of direction. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so her belly was growling with hunger and her arms ached from being tied behind her. At last they arrived at what appeared to be a soldier’s camp. She saw orderly rows of tents—mayhap thirty or forty—and scores of men sitting about, sharpening swords or talking in low voices. Every man stared at her with unmasked curiosity. She doubted they saw many women in camp. Or mayhap it was the most ordinary thing to drag a whore from London here to service the men. Her hands went clammy at the thought of a forced servitude to the troop.
Her captor handed her down to one of his cohorts and then dismounted. He untied her wrists and rubbed the chafed skin. She looked up at him, surprised at the kindness, and felt an electric jolt when their eyes met. His were a warm brown, with lashes that curled on his good eye. The eye on the side of his face that was ruined was smaller—scars narrowing the opening and preventing any lashes from growing. But it was not so much the eyes, as the man behind them that made her stare. A warm shiver ran through her.
“Come. You’re hungry,” he said, holding the nape of her neck and leading her toward a fire. “Any food left?” he asked a page tending the fire.
“Aye, Sir Ferrum. How many bowls?”
The boy dished out four bowls of meat stew, and her captor handed her one. She drank down the broth quickly, then fished the meat and roots out with her fingers, since her captor—Sir Ferrum, as the page had called him—hadn’t returned her eating knife.
“You were hungry,” he commented. “Do you require more?”
She shook her head. “No, but—” she hesitated. There was no dancing around it. “I have to pee,” she confessed. She was grateful he seemed completely unfazed by that. He led her to the wood’s edge and leaned against a tree, watching her.
“I suppose it’s too much to ask you to turn your back?”
A flush of anger and embarrassment coursed through her, and she turned her back instead, before lifting her skirts to squat. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore the humiliation of it. She turned to face him when she finished, feeling her cheeks hot. His expression was unfathomable, but she thought she saw the smallest quirk of his lips. Straightening her skirts with an angry flounce, she marched forward to his side. He dropped a large hand on her shoulder and guided her to what appeared to be the main tent—it was bigger and centrally located. In it, a wiry knight with red-brown hair stood at a makeshift table, examining maps on parchment. He dropped them to study her when she entered. The way his eyes took her in gave her the lurching feeling he saw straight into her soul.
The Red Fox. Even if logic hadn’t told her it was him, the way her hairs pricked on her arms confirmed it.
“Sit,” he said, indicating a stool with the lift of his chin.
She sat on it, her heart pounding, her mouth dry.
“What’s your name?”
She licked her lips. “Danewyn, sir.”
“My lord,” Sir Ferrum corrected her.
“My lord,” she murmured.
“Danewyn,” he said musingly, still studying her. Sir Ferrum stood in the background, his arms folded across his enormous chest.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No, sir,” she answered immediately. “I mean, no, my lord.” Better to lie—they would never release her if they believed she knew his identity.
“That’s a lie,” the Red Fox said evenly.
Her already racing heart picked up more speed.
“What do you know about the Red Fox, Danewyn?” he asked.
Her eyes darted to Sir Ferrum. He had overheard her behind the tavern, as she’d feared. She licked her lips again. “Nothing,” she said, her voice cracking.
The Red Fox raised his eyebrows in a look that had a distinct warning to it.
“I mean—I know nothing more than what I said at the tavern. I should not have said such a thing. I am sorry.”
As if an apology was going to set her free.
“Tell me what exactly you said.”
She drew in a deep breath. “I believe I said the Red Fox will rise again.”
The Red Fox’s eyes bored into her. “Why would you say such a thing?”
She blew out her held breath. “I didn’t like the way Benton’s soldier handled me, that’s all. I made it up,” she lied.
The Red Fox shook his head slightly. “Another lie. You’ll be punished for those. Lies irritate me, Danewyn.”
“My lord,” Sir Ferrum corrected her again.
“Yes, my lord,” she whispered, realizing with dismay that the use of the title acknowledged her understanding that he was, indeed, the Lost Prince.
“Try again—the truth, this time.”
She hesitated. She had learned at an early age not to reveal her gift of Sight. The priests condemned the Sight as devilry, and those who still practiced the old ways, did so in secret. The times when she had revealed her gift, she’d been beaten for lying or shunned as strange. Yet the Red Fox—Prince Philip—seemed to think he could tell the truth from a lie.
“It was a premonition that came to me in the moment.”
The prince walked closer to her and stared. “What was the premonition?”
She shrugged. “Just what I said.” She cast her mind back to the knowing sense she’d had. Her eyes went unfocused and she felt a prickling of it. When her voice spoke it sounded with the deeper resonance it took on when she used the Sight. “The soldier I was with will be in two battles against you. Battles that will both be lost.” She focused her eyes on the prince again.
He took a step closer and ran his finger along the hairs that were standing up on her arms. “Does this always happen when you use your gift?” he asked softly.
The surge of emotion that choked her came as a surprise. He had believed her. Or it seemed he had. The rightful prince of Briton believed in her Sight when no one else had. She had to take a few deep breaths before she could answer.
“Yes, my lord. At least, I think so.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Sometimes it’s the hairs back here.”
The prince smiled before turning to her captor. “Ferrum, send Edwin to fetch me a pair of dice.”
Ferrum. The name suited him. She felt inexplicably drawn to the knight. Something about the way he’d been so careful with her—even as he’d taken her by force—had left her wanting more. Her eyes rested on the place where he’d been standing for a moment, and when they returned to the prince, he was looking at her curiously.
“Do you have family in London?”
“Yes, my lord,” she lied, watching Sir Ferrum cross the tent to hand the prince the dice.
He accepted the dice without taking his eyes off her, and put a finger under her chin to lift her face to his. “Mayhap you didn’t understand me when I asked you not to lie.” His voice held a dangerous sort of quiet that made her swallow convulsively.
“No family. No friends?”
She glared at him, flushing. “I have friends,” she snapped, then felt her stomach clench wondering if that, too, were a lie. She paid rent to live in the back of a woman’s house, but calling her a friend was a stretch. And there was Coenred, the tavern-keeper. But he wasn’t really a friend, either. In fact, she didn’t like him at all. She brought her eyes reluctantly back to the prince’s. He had cocked his head to one side, considering her.
He rolled the dice on the makeshift table, shielding them from her view with his body. “What did I roll, Danewyn?”
“What are the numbers on the dice?”
She bit her lip and let her eyes drift to a soft focus. “Three and a five. So eight. Is that what you wanted?”
He didn’t turn back to her. She heard the dice roll again. “Now what?”
“One and one.”
“Snake eyes,” he muttered. “Again.” She heard the dice roll again.
“Seven. A four and a three.”
“And now?” he said, but she didn’t detect the sound of dice rolling.
“Seven again. Two and a five.” He rolled the dice after she spoke and then glanced down at them. When he turned around, his mouth curved into a satisfied smile. He looked at her musingly. She had a flash of doubt, suddenly, that what she’d Seen was real.
“Look, I don’t know—I don’t play dice,” she said pleadingly. “But I promise you that what I spoke at the tavern was premonition, not anything I heard anywhere. I didn’t know your men were there, and I didn’t mean to reveal your secret. I just didn’t like the soldier I was with and wanted to throw something in his face, that’s all.”
The prince said nothing. Mayhap he’d never believed her. He might be planning her torture in hopes of learning who had informed. She rubbed her feet together nervously, the tension in her growing. “Do you believe me?” she asked, her voice cracking.
The prince’s face softened suddenly. “Relax, Danewyn. I know truth from lies. You’ve told three lies to me. Four, if I count the fib that you have friends in London. The rest is truth.”
Relief swept over her.
He looked at Sir Ferrum. “Take her. Punish her for the lies,” he said with a dismissing nod. Sir Ferrum stepped toward her, and she stood to meet him, relieved to move away from the intense scrutiny of the Red Fox.
“Gently,” the prince called to their retreating backs, modifying his order.
Punish her gently? What on earth did that mean?
* * *
It had been incredible the way Danewyn knew the numbers on the dice Phillip had thrown, even predicting correctly before he threw. Even more incredible to Ferrum was that someone with that ability whored at a tavern in London, apparently with no family or friends to speak of. In the times of King Arthur, before Avalon disappeared into the mists, a woman like her would have been highly revered. Fortunately, Phillip was like that great king—unafraid to use magic if it served him. He understood how valuable a woman like her might be for his campaign for the throne. He would keep her—Ferrum saw his foster brother’s strategy clearly.
He brought her to his tent. Sir Godfrey and his squire Henley were there, and he told them to take all their things and find somewhere else to sleep. Phillip hadn’t said, but he assumed he was responsible for keeping her through the night. He led her back to the fire to confiscate a stool from the soldier who was perched on it and then escorted her back toward the tent, never taking his hand off her, but keeping it gentle.
She was smart. She didn’t struggle with him—surely knowing she couldn’t win any battle of strength—but he saw her eyes dart around as if she were measuring her escape routes. She took in the location of the horses and the men. He could practically sense her making her plans to get away.
He took off his sword belt and slipped the scabbards from it as he sat down on the stool with an arm around her slim waist. She was exquisitely beautiful. Her coloring was very light—clearly she was of Saxon or Angle blood. It was said the Angles had been so named because they looked like angels. If that were true, she was surely Angle born—he’d never seen anyone who looked so lovely. Her hair was a pale blond and her skin light. She had wide-set blue eyes that were angled down at the outer corners, giving her a childish, innocent look, with lashes that were so pale they were almost invisible.
He’d seen no smile from her since they arrived, although he’d seen a fake-looking one when she was trolling for men back at the tavern in London. The pinched, serious look to her face appeared to be a habitual expression for her. He had a strong desire to discover just what would ease that worry for her—to protect her from the life that had obviously given her hardship.
“Let’s get your punishment over with, shall we?” he asked.
She eyed his belt as if she’d just realized what sort of chastisement he had in mind. “What are you going to do with me?” she asked warily, her chest rising and falling quickly.
“I’m going to give you a thrashing.”
She swallowed and stared down at him with her beautiful eyes widened. She looked so innocent, so childlike, that it pained him to have to punish her. Her eyes traveled from his face to the belt and back.
“Must you?” she asked, but her defeated look said she’d already accepted the inevitable.
“’Fraid so—you heard the prince.” He took her wrist and guided her gently across his lap. Her skirts were thick—offering far too much protection. He pulled them up over her legs to bare a pert little bottom. She squeezed her cheeks together when the air hit them. He rested his hand on the soft orbs.
He tried to remember whether he’d ever whipped a woman before. The way his cock had gone rock hard made him doubt it. He would surely have remembered such an experience. He doubled the sword belt and touched it once to her bottom to perfect his aim. Then he cracked it down with about a quarter of his strength. She jerked in response, but made no sound. He continued, giving her a few seconds between each stroke to recover before delivering the next one, watching the way the her skin turned from cream, to a light rosy blush, to a deeper crimson as the lines of the belt started to stand up in puffed striation. She still hadn’t made a sound, but she wriggled plenty, which did not help alleviate his intense arousal for her. He ended the whipping with five much harder strokes—their foster father had always done it that way—to show how much worse it might have been. They got a sound out of her—she cried out with each one, her voice starting to take on the sounds of sobbing by the last one. He lifted her to stand in front of him and rubbed her hot cheeks. Her skirts were still up, so he was caressing her bare bottom, which was completely improper. He jerked his hands away and allowed the skirts to fall down to her ankles. The moment his hands left her skin, they itched to touch it again—her tantalizing curves igniting a hunger deep within him.
She had tears glinting on her lashes, and her chin quivered, but surprisingly, she didn’t look angry with him, confirming his impression that life had been hard for her—as if she’d come to expect pain and humiliation. She lowered slowly to kneel between his knees and stunned him by reaching to free his erection from his leggings. “You don’t have to do that,” he choked, but her mouth was already opening, and the part of him that desperately wanted her mouth on his cock disabled the part of him that knew it was wrong.
“You want it,” she murmured, and he gasped at the feeling of cold air on his moistened cock.
He let his head fall back and forced himself to breathe. “Aye,” he grunted, knowing full well she was playing him, and not caring in the slightest. She tightened her lips and rubbed up and down just over the head of his penis several times, then opened her mouth wider and took as much of his length as she was able. The head of his cock bumped the back of her throat, but she didn’t gag or choke. She sucked hard on the out-strokes, using her fingers to massage his ball sac and the fleshy area behind it. His cock jerked in happy response to her attentions, and he groaned. Though he’d just had a whore several hours ago in London, he felt like a young man who’d never been touched by a woman before. It took her no time at all to bring him to the brink of ecstasy, and he warned her before he spilled his seed, but she kept him in her mouth, swallowed, then sat back on her haunches and studied him, still without a smile.
He stroked her head, then buried his fingers in her hair. It was starting to come free of its braid, and he worked to unwind it, the silky waves spreading over her shoulders like a mantle. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said hoarsely.
She shrugged. “I chose to. And you wanted it.”
He shook his head. “Aye, but not like that.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?” she said, standing from her crouch.
“I mean, I would want it to be freely offered, not given by a woman I’ve captured and beaten, who has no other options than to suck my cock.”
He’d always had a habit of saying the exact wrong thing to a woman. This was no exception. A look of pure fury darkened her face, and she swung her fist in an arc, hitting him in the mouth. He allowed the blow to fall, partly because he figured he must deserve it, and partly because he thought it was amusing that she would try to hit him.
She packed more force than he would have guessed was possible for such a little thing. His lip split and blood ran down his chin. Her eyes widened when she saw the blood and panic flitted across her face. He snatched her up quickly when she started to bolt. She thrashed around as he held her by the waist and he considered whether he ought to spank her again. He didn’t want to. He sat back down on the stool and pulled her onto his lap, holding her tightly until she stopped struggling.
“I’m hopeless with women,” he admitted, hoping to soften her with his own humility. “I always say the wrong thing.”
He felt all the fight go out of her. She twisted to look at him.
“How did that offend you?”
She frowned, looking as though she wanted to hit him again, but seemed to reconsider. She pressed her lips together and looked away.
“No. You can’t hit me and then give me the silent treatment.” He took her little jaw in his hand and turned her face back to him with his eyebrows raised in a warning.
She flushed, her shoulders sagging. She looked at him sullenly for another long moment before she said, “I meant that not as a bargaining tool—I gave it freely.” She shrugged. “To repay you for your gentleness with me.”
His heart lurched at that. Gentleness? He couldn’t recall any woman had ever found him gentle. He had always been Ferrum the Giant—the rough, ugly ogre who terrified women with his scars, his size, and his lack of finesse. He swallowed and stroked the hair back from her face. “I apologize. I meant you no offense. I just don’t want you to—never mind. I’ll shut it before I offend again.”
At that, she smiled, reluctantly. It was the first genuine smile he’d seen on her, and it confirmed she was truly an angel from heaven. There was a dimple on one cheek, her teeth were white and straight, and the warmth that came into her face transformed it. She wiped the blood from his chin with her thumb, rubbing it on his tunic and then licking her thumb to wipe off the blood that had dried. Apparently dissatisfied, she leaned forward, her little pink tongue starting to extend. God’s teeth. His breath hitched as she met his face with her warm, wet tongue, actually licking his split lip clean. He groaned and his hands tightened on her, the need he had just spent returning anew.
“You’re not going to set me free, are you, Sir Ferrum?”
He shook his head to clear it and blinked at her. “It’s not for me to decide,” he answered honestly, though he knew the answer was no. She studied him with keen intelligence behind her eyes. Though she said nothing, he was almost certain she was making her plans for escape.
He bound one of his own wrists to hers, so if she tried to work them off in the night, he would notice. Then he led her to his bedroll and lay down, pulling her down as he lowered himself. They lay facing one another, their bound hands between them. He watched her eye the bonds.
“Forget about escaping, little flower. You won’t get away, and if you try it, the whipping I give you will be so much worse than the one you I gave you tonight.”
Her jaw set at that, confirming his suspicions. He was going to have to keep a very close eye on her.