Brenna glared at Audun. Had looks the power to kill, he feared he would have been slaughtered on the spot. Audun had always appreciated a woman with a little fire in her bones, and Brenna’s outrage might have been comical, he mused, were the situation not quite so serious.
She had endangered herself, despite having been given clear instructions to remain in a place of safety. He and Finn had been most explicit on that. Worse, she had persuaded Eira to join her in her foolhardy and reckless endeavour. They might both have been killed. And as if all of this was not dire enough already, the entire plan to expose the evil being done by Professor Simon McRae had been jeopardised by their interference. And to top it all off quite nicely, Brenna had seemingly made use of a motorcycle when she was unfamiliar with the machine, rendering their entire escapade nothing short of deadly. He shuddered to contemplate what might have happened.
He itemised these issues in his head and could arrive at no other conclusion. She deserved a thrashing, and she would get one.
“Eira has accepted her spanking. You are even more culpable in this matter. I suggest you accept your punishment and we can get this unpleasantness over with.”
“Go to hell,” came the succinct reply. Brenna was already backing toward the outer door.
Audun sighed and gritted his teeth. “I will overlook your insolence, but that is the last time you will speak to me in such a manner.” He took the precaution of moving across the kitchen to place himself between her and the door. “I believe this to be a matter best conducted in private. Finn will be making use of the bedroom he shares with Eira, so I suggest we use the other one.” He gestured toward the stairs. “After you, Brenna.”
His temper spiked slightly. Audun drew a deep breath and willed himself to remain calm. If he became angry he would need to postpone this reckoning between them for fear of actually injuring the belligerent wench.
“Mind your tongue, Brenna,” he warned, his tone low and even. “I will not tolerate such from you.”
“You will not tolerate?” she mimicked back at him. “I don’t give a fuck what you want to tolerate or not. Who do you think you are?”
“You are my woman, and it is my responsibility to take care of you. This includes delivering the discipline you need as well as pleasuring your body.” The matter seemed glaringly simple to him.
“Now look…” She had adopted a more measured tone. Did she perhaps seek to placate him? “I appreciate you’re used to things being different. A thousand years ago, that sort of ‘Me Tarzan’ attitude would have been not out of place.”
“Tarzan?” He was at a loss.
“Oh, nothing. Just a figure of speech. What I mean is, this is the twenty-first century and we live by different rules now. Just because you and I slept together—once—doesn’t give you the right to think… that sort of thing.”
“We did not sleep together as I recall. We fucked, and it was very pleasurable. Then we slept separately. But you are mine, and—”
“I am not. You can get that nonsense out of your head. I don’t belong to you.”
“That was not my meaning, as I believe you understand perfectly well. But we are… involved and that gives me certain rights and obligations.” Why can she not see what is so obvious? “Now, I will ask you once more, will you join me upstairs and accept your punishment as a grown woman should?”
She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. “Very well, I will come with you. But to talk, that’s all. As you say, I am a grown woman, not a naughty child. You do not get to punish me.” She shot him another withering look and stalked past him to the foot of the stairs. “Well, come on then. I thought you were the one wanting to get this over with.”
She did not look back again but could hear his footsteps behind her. Audun followed her into the spare bedroom and closed the door behind him quietly. He leaned back against it and regarded her in silence.
Brenna glared back. Despite her combative stance, she actually hated arguments and definitely didn’t want to be at odds with Audun. She liked him. More than liked him. She would never have taken him that cup of coffee, joined him in the barn when she knew Finn and Eira were away and they would be alone, if she wasn’t drawn to him. She had not been disappointed. Audun had treated her to the best sex she had ever experienced, and she had entertained hopes he might do so again. But she had never bargained on this.
Her knees were shaking but she refused to sink onto the edge of the bed. She would face him down over this, or…
She swallowed. Hard. He looked so… so stern. And uncompromising. And so fucking sure of himself. She envied people who were so certain of their ground, especially at times like this, when she knew she was at least partly in the wrong.
Okay, mostly in the wrong. She should not have gone up to Craigmuir House, though in fairness, there was no way she could have appreciated the extent of the danger at the time. But Finn and Audun had given clear instructions, and it wasn’t just a macho male thing. There were good reasons for them to take the line they had, not least the need to maintain their cover and not let that mad professor know that anyone was on to him. It could all so easily have gone horribly wrong. She was appalled when she realised that Simon McRae might have taken pot shots at all of them if he’d known why they were there. Eira could have been hurt, or one of the men. She could not have forgiven herself if that had happened.
As for the bike, well, she had a licence and at least in theory knew how to ride it. And what was that saying about riding a bike? You never forget, right?
She might privately accept that the old adage was better suited to a humble pushbike rather than a 250cc Suzuki beast of a machine that she was reliably informed could hit sixty miles per hour within three nanoseconds. Perhaps it was a bit risky, on reflection…
“Okay. You have a point,” she conceded. “I can see that. I’m sorry.”
Audun quirked his lip and inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I am pleased to hear that. We are making progress. And now, since our relationship is already on an intimate footing, I suggest you remove your clothing and lean forward over the bed.” He began to unbuckle his belt.
“No! No way.” She darted for the door and grabbed at the handle. He simply leaned back and try as she might, she couldn’t shift it an inch. “Let me out.”
“Brenna, this is futile.”
“I said, let me out, you Viking bastard.” She was shrieking now, frantically wrestling with the door handle, trying to somehow shoulder him out of her way. Neither the solid oak door nor the equally solid Viking was moving. The first stirrings of real panic began to curl within her stomach. Brenna wondered if she was about to throw up. A sharp, high-pitched scream from the next room penetrated her mounting hysteria.
She relinquished her useless fight with the door and instead staggered backwards, away from him. “Please, let me out.” Her voice quivered. She hoped he did not notice. “We need to help Eira. He’s hurting her.”
“I will let you out soon.” He took a step forward. “Eira has no need of our help or interference. And as for you, Brenna, there is no need to be afraid. I will not harm you.”
So much for not noticing. She tipped up her chin in the best show of defiance she could muster. “You don’t scare me, Viking.”
“I am relieved.” He slipped his belt from the loops on his jeans. The soft whooshing sound was an ominous whisper in an otherwise silent room. “You may remove your clothes now.”
She shook her head as her throat went dry.
“Do not make it necessary for me to force the issue with you. Your punishment will the same either way, but you might prefer to meet it with the dignity and courage I know you possess.”
“You mean to hit me with your belt.”
“Yes. I do.”
“Are you mad?”
He shook his head. “I am perhaps mildly irritated, but that is all.”
“No. I meant mad. Deluded. Crazy.”
“Ah. I think no more so than might be expected, given recent events. And it does seem to me that this conversation has gone on long enough. Will you submit, or do I have to make you?”
“This is ridiculous. I’ve apologised, I accept that you were right. If you want to talk about what happened, we will. But—”
“There is no more to be said.” He cast his azure gaze about the room, settling upon a soft woollen scarf slung over the back of a chair. “This is yours, yes?”
She nodded, wary.
“Come here, Brenna.” He beckoned her with one finger.
Again, she shook her head and took a step back, away from him.
“Here,” he repeated, his tone hardening. He pointed to a spot about a foot from the toe of his boots.
Despite her apprehension, something in his manner, the timbre of his voice, the implacable resolve in his cold gaze, overrode her determination to maintain a distance. She took one step forward, then another. When she at last stood in the exact spot he indicated, she lifted her gaze to meet his.
“So, Viking. What now?”
He swivelled his index finger in front of her face. “Turn around.”
She frowned, but did as he instructed, only to have him grasp both her wrists and pull them behind her. She put up a struggle, but it was over in moments. He used her own scarf to firmly bind her hands in the small of her back.
“You bastard. Let me go. I—”
Her words were cut off when he propelled her forward and she flopped face down across the foot of the bed. Brenna tried to get up, to roll from his grasp but he was much too quick and far, far stronger than she. He wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her slightly, just enough for him to slip his spare hand under her and unfasten the button on her jeans. Even as she screeched and wriggled and called him every name that came to mind in those moments, he unzipped her jeans and pulled them, along with her underwear, to her knees.
Brenna was outraged. Incandescent fury consumed her. How dare he? How the fuck dare he manhandle her like this, assault her, strip her near enough, then—?
“Aaagh! Jesus, that hurts. Get off me.”
She clenched her buttocks, gasping as the first stroke of his belt sent pain searing across her exposed backside.
“You cannot prevent what is to happen. There is no point in fighting me as that will only make matters worse. For you.” He sounded so calm. So. Fucking. Reasonable.
She tried to get up but was pinned securely to the mattress. His knee was firmly planted in the small of her back, holding her in place. He wrapped the fingers of one hand around hers as though such a gesture might calm her. In his other hand hung his belt, folded in two, the buckle secure in his palm. She turned her head to deliver another withering tirade. His image was blurred by her tears.
“You have no right. This is… this is…”
“This is the discipline you need, Brenna. It is what you deserve, is it not?”
“No, I… Aaagh!” The belt landed again. She jerked and her lungs emptied. She gasped for her breath and was relieved that he did at least allow her the few seconds she needed to draw in precious oxygen before the third stroke fell.
Then the fourth. And the fifth. She was sobbing in earnest by the time he paused. She thought it had been eight or nine strokes by then but couldn’t be certain. All she did know for sure was that her bottom was on fire. And that she hated this Viking savage with a vengeance. She hated what he was doing to her, she hated that he could hurt her like this, and she could do nothing to prevent it. Most of all, she hated the sense of vulnerability he invoked in her, the sheer, pathetic helplessness.
“If you wish to apologise again, I should be delighted to hear your contrition, Brenna. Then we can finish up with a few hard strokes to the backs of your thighs, just to ensure you learn a lesson you will remember.”
She shook her head. No, no, no… this isn’t happening. It can’t be.
“Very well. It is your choice.”
She hadn’t meant to voice her words out loud and had no chance to take them back before the next onslaught began. He delivered six more agonising strokes, three across her scorched buttocks and three across the backs of her thighs. The Viking beast did it on purpose, she knew, to make sure she would hurt every time she sat down.
He was right, she would never erase the memory of this… this humiliation from her mind.
Again, he stopped. Brenna lay still, the only sound that of her own pitiful whimpering.
“Brenna?” He waited, and she knew what for. This time she would give him what he wanted, anything to make this awful experience stop.
“I’m sorry. I apologise. Please… stop. No more.”
There was a slight thud as he dropped the belt onto the carpet. “Do you need my assistance in rearranging your clothing?”
She shook her head, not quite trusting her voice.
The bed dipped as he sat down beside her and laid one large palm on her left buttock. Brenna let out a hiss and tried to squirm away but was too feeble to manage even that.
“That was the first time you have been spanked. Am I right?”
“Of course. Who would ever…?” Her voice cracked, as she had feared it would.
Audun seemed unperturbed by her distress. He continued to palm her smarting bottom, then casually eased the cheeks of her backside apart and leaned over to inspect her exposed pussy. Brenna’s legs were clamped firmly together, but still he could see. She knew it but had better things to care about. Like the fact that a lump of something seemed to be laying heavy in her stomach and she could not muster the strength or inclination to move. Even when Audun tugged the scarf and her wrists were suddenly freed, she remained where she was.
He slipped his fingers deeper into the crevice between her buttocks, then lower. He circled her anus with his fingertip, and she managed no more than a mewl of protest. It was only when he traced the outline of her pussy that she succeeded in gathering her wits enough to react.
“Don’t touch me,” she muttered, her words muffled by the mattress and duvet beneath her.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Brenna?” His voice was soft now, seductive.
“Yes. I hate you.”
“I do not believe that.” He slid his fingers further down and found her clit.
He continued to stroke her plump bud. The sensation was soothing, weirdly intimate. Pleasure merged with pain to create a heady, erotic cocktail. Confused, Brenna tried again.
“Leave me alone. I hate you.”
He ignored her. Brenna opened her mouth to protest but the words died in her throat as the first clenching of orgasm gripped her. She cried out, but not in pain now. Neither was it ecstasy, not exactly. It was… need.
Greedy, grasping, demanding need.
Audun knew what she craved, and he provided it. His fingers were gentle but knowing. He coaxed a second climax from her, then a third. Only when she lay spent and utterly exhausted did he lie down beside her and draw her into his arms.
Her bottom was still bared, her body aching, trembling, still basking in the aftermath. Brenna closed her eyes, and she slept.
Iona, Inner Hebrides, 1062
“I had hoped not to have this conversation with you again, Sister Clare. But there have been complaints…” The abbess allowed her voice to trail off, resulting in an awkward silence that Eawynn knew better than to attempt to fill. Mother Luke would come to the point in her own time, and meanwhile the young novice before her was expected to wait. Eawynn did so, head bowed. “More complaints,” the abbess clarified, “concerning your unseemly demeanour and lamentable attitude toward the discipline required in this house.”
Eawynn could not be sure what the most recent problem might be. It seemed to her that however hard she tried to fit in, there was always something for her fellow Sisters of Mercy to find fault with. She tended to sing as she worked in the fields, a failing seized upon regularly by the abbess but to no avail. Worse, she had been known to laugh at the antics of the sea otters playing at the foot of the cliffs, for which crime she had spent several hours repeating Hail Marys in the chapel. She was inclined to run, or at least walk quickly through the cloisters on a chilly November morning, rather than reduce her pace to the mincing gait adopted by the other nuns, a trait that never failed to draw glances of disapproval if not outright tutting.
At least they could not fault her diligence in her studies, nor her fortitude in the face of the strenuous labour invariably handed to her as a means, in the view of the abbess, of curbing her high spirits through service to God. Eawynn never complained. She enjoyed studying, could read and write in both Latin and Greek in a hand that even the abbess had to agree could not be faulted for neatness and precision, and she possessed a gift for learning languages. Fluent in her native Gaelic and in the English favoured by the aristocracy, she had picked up a passable command of French from one of the other nuns who had been born in Normandy, and could manage a few words of Norse acquired from the occasional traders who passed their way. She possessed a more than passing knowledge of herbs, so made herself useful in the infirmary attached to the nunnery and sought to relieve the suffering of others by her own pleasant disposition. She had no quarrel with hard work and enjoyed being outdoors. No, it surely could not be that…
“Sister Immaculata reports that you have been seen skipping…” the abbess paused as though unable to quite comprehend the enormity of the sin on this occasion, “actually skipping in the kitchen gardens. Is this true, Sister Clare?”
Eawynn detested the name selected for her by the abbess soon after her arrival in the convent some eleven years ago. Strictly speaking, she would not truly become ‘Sister Clare’ until after she took her final vows, and that seemed a long way off still. However hard she tried, she had thus far utterly failed to satisfy the abbess that she could come close to demonstrating the required level of piety, decorum, humility, and devotion to the Almighty that would entitle her to take her place among the holy sisters who inhabited the isolated nunnery on the remote isle of Iona.
“Sister Clare, is Sister Immaculata’s account correct?” prompted the abbess when Eawynn did not at once reply.
Eawynn nodded. “I fear so, Reverend Mother. I apologise, I was only—”
“Please spare me your excuses, Sister Clare. You are aware of our rules. I have personally reminded you of them on more occasions than I care to remember, yet still you flout our simple requirements. I fear I must write, again, to your poor father and report your continued failings.”
Eawynn had expected no less. Her father, Cuthbert of Laggan, was a wealthy man and would pay handsomely to appease the abbess and persuade her to permit his wayward daughter to persevere in her endeavours to join their holy order. The abbess knew as much and was determined to milk him dry before she was done. Eawynn did not anticipate being invited to take her final vows any time soon, not as long as Cuthbert was prepared to drain his coffers purchasing pardons for her.
“I see. I am sorry, I had not intended—”
“You never do, do you, Sister? Yet still, trouble pursues you. I despair, I really do.” The abbess picked up her quill and dipped the tip into a small pot of ink on her desk. She dragged a sheet of parchment across and started to write.
Eawynn dared to assume she might be excused and started to back toward the door.
“You will perform a penance,” declared the abbess, never looking up. “Take yourself off to the chapel and pray for guidance and forgiveness. I expect you will require several hours at least in communion with our Blessed Saviour in order to satisfactorily atone for your shortcomings.”
“But Reverend Mother, it is already almost time for matins,” protested Eawynn. The night-time prayers normally signalled the end of the working day, following which the nuns were permitted a few hours of rest in their cells before the lauds or early morning devotions commenced.
“Then I expect you will not see your bed this night,” the abbess replied, unsympathetic to the plight of one recalcitrant novice. “Now be gone. I have much to complete before I may seek my own rest.”
Disconsolate, Eawynn made her way to the chapel where the rest of the convent community had already gathered for their nightly ritual. Melodic chanting soon wafted heavenward, and although she did not relish the prospect of her forthcoming penance Eawynn found some solace in the gentle lilt of voices raised in unison. Despite the constant criticism of her conduct, Eawynn was a devout and deeply religious soul. She simply struggled to believe that the God she loved was as joyless and stern as the holy sisters claimed.
Their prayers completed, the sisters filed out of the chapel on silent feet, each with her hands clasped at her bosom and her head bowed. Only Eawynn remained, on her knees before the altar, her lips moving in quiet supplication in the hope that her Maker would intervene. It was surely not beyond the omnipotence of the Almighty to exert his influence and convince the abbess that Eawynn might, after all, be considered a suitable candidate to become a bride of Christ. All it would take would be the refusal by her father to hand over any more precious coin and the abbess would have no further motivation to delay matters. Was it wicked to pray for her father’s financial impoverishment?
Eawynn determined it was at the very least questionable and abandoned that line of reasoning. Instead she beseeched the merciful Lord to bestow upon her the necessary fortitude and decorum that might enable her to find favour with the holy sisters, and with Mother Abbess in particular. Or if, in His divine wisdom, the good Lord considered her unsuitable for such a calling, might He make that known to Mother Abbess and Eawynn’s father and permit her to pursue another path. Eawynn was resigned to a lifetime of prayer and humility as that had been her destiny since childhood, but would not have turned up her nose at the opportunity to travel, to explore the wonderful world created by the Heavenly Father, to witness for herself the marvels that lay beyond her own earthly horizons.
Silence settled about her. The November night was chilly, and Eawynn shivered on the cold stone floor of the chapel. Her drab habit offered little by way of warmth, designed for practicality and plainness rather than comfort. Her half veil, the head covering required to be worn by novices, provided some protection, but the bitter nip of the coming winter soon enveloped her.
Eawynn was no shirker of her duty. She remained on her knees, praying for divine guidance, until the inky night thickened into the softer hue that announced the coming dawn. Stiffly, her penance completed, Eawynn rose to her feet, meaning to return to her cell for a precious hour of rest before the bell rang for lauds. She made her way from the chapel and drew in a long breath when she stepped outside. The air was crisp, clean, the faint tang of the sea tickling her nostrils. Despite the hardships of life on Iona and her yearning to see more of God’s wondrous creation, she truly loved this spot.
Eawynn paused to gaze down upon the rippling waters below. Despite the onset of winter, the weather remained calm and settled, and visibility was good in the waning moonlight. She could make out the outlines of the rocks that lined the tiny cove, and the glimmer of waves beyond.
Suddenly, she stiffened. Leaning forward, Eawynn peered into the darkness. Could she be mistaken? She sent up a prayer, more heartfelt than any that had preceded it this night, but it would seem her beloved God was no longer listening. There, before her eyes, and fast swooping down upon their tiny beach, were two Viking dragon ships.
Eawynn took just a few moments to assess the danger. But that was enough. The longships were heading for the shore. Her shore. Vicious, brutal, greedy, these Nordic raiders struck terror into the hearts of the religious communities up and down the coast. Intent upon plunder and destruction, they would slaughter all who stood in their way.
She had to raise the alarm. Even as the longships rose up onto the beach, Eawynn swirled around and ran as hard as she could back into the chapel where the convent bell was located. All thoughts of setting a sedate and decorous pace deserted her but she was sure the good Lord would understand. Panting, her rough wool skirts flapping about her calves, Eawynn sprinted up the narrow spiral staircase to reach the bell pull, then swung on it with all her strength. The deep, clanging tones of the heavy bell near enough deafened her, but she continued to haul on the rope, causing the clapper to swing wildly.
Surely her sisters would hear. The monks, too, who inhabited the monastery close by. They would be able to snatch a few precious minutes in which to flee. It was the best she could do, all she could hope for.
The squat silhouette of the abbey rose from the dawn mists, mounted high upon the rocky isle. The stone built monument glowered across the churning waters of the Firth of Lorn, erected some five hundred years previously to honour a god Audun knew little of apart from that this particular deity set great store by the accumulation of wealth. This was a characteristic that attracted much attention from Audun and his fellow Vikings who had raided the hapless abbey countless times over the years. The pickings were invariably good, and Audun had seen no pressing reason to miss this opportunity as he journeyed north on his return to his home on Uist in the Outer Hebrides. His bride awaited him there, the lovely Eira to whom he had been betrothed since childhood. A few glittering trinkets from Iona would sweeten their forthcoming marriage even further.
“We will put in at that small cove, then make our way swiftly up that steep slope to the abbey. We may even arrive before the monks are awake.”
“I doubt that,” replied Steinn, his cousin. “These Christian friars are invariably up before the sun, only to spend most of their waking hours on their knees.”
Audun grinned. The religious community on Iona would be no match for seasoned Viking warriors. If they had any sense the pious bunch would scramble up off their knees and flee, though he had observed that they did tend to have an unfortunate habit of seeking to defend their treasures. It invariably ended badly for them, but that was not Audun’s concern.
“Quickly, then, and quietly. They may not have seen us, so we will have the advantage of taking them unawares.” Audun raised an arm to signal to his men in his longship and the other close behind that they were to follow his lead. The bottom of his dragon ship scraped onto the sand, the shallow draught of the vessel enabling the Norse seamen to drive the ship right up onto the beach, all the better for a hasty arrival and exit.
Audun was first over the side. He splashed through the shallow waters to reach dry land, then continued up the rough track leading from the beach to the handful of buildings above. He had barely set foot upon the path than the sound of bells filled the air.
“Fuck,” Audun muttered, and broke into a sprint. His men followed close behind, all attempts to approach in silence now abandoned. Every warrior appreciated the urgency of getting to the abbey before the inhabitants had any real opportunity to gather their wits, even less, move their valuables to safety.
The first structure they reached was the nunnery, and it was from here that the infernal clanging emanated.
“Halfdan, find whoever is making that din and put a stop to it.” Audun issued the command as he and the majority of the warriors charged past, the abbey now in sight.
Eawynn did not stop ringing the bell, even though she could not miss the sound of boots in the chapel below.
The Vikings were here. She was about to die. It was that simple.
The only unknown was how many of her sisters and the brothers she rarely saw but knew would be asleep in the nearby monastery might survive because of the warning she gave. She prayed for her community, the women with whom she had spent the last eleven years. Over half her life had been lived here on Iona, a life that was about to end, with just twenty-one summers passed.
The boots thundered closer. The invaders were coming up the stairs. Wildly, she kicked out when the first came into view, a giant hulk of a man brandishing a vicious-looking dagger. Mercifully, he was unable to draw his sword or swing an axe in the confined space of the bell tower, and he evidently did not anticipate aggression from the slip of a wench who was making all the noise.
Her boot connected with his chest and he fell back with a grunt, landing on the man behind him. The pair tumbled back down the stairs and Eawynn continued to swing on the bell rope. It would be just a few more seconds now before she was overwhelmed, but she meant to make every single one of them count.
The men came back, more cautious this time. Again, Eawynn tried to land a decent kick but the first Viking was ready for her. He grabbed her flailing foot and hauled her from the bell. The rope burned her hands as she was dragged away to land on her backside on the hard step. A vicious, jolting pain shuddered up her spine, but Eawynn managed to ignore it. As the Viking grabbed for her, she clawed at him and succeeded in jabbing a finger in his eye. He let out an animalistic roar and punched her hard across the jaw, sending her head flying back to crack against the stone steps. Eawynn’s vison clouded, her limbs went weak. She could no longer fight as she was picked up and thrown over the man’s shoulder and carried down into the chapel.
Her head was clearing somewhat by the time she was dumped unceremoniously on the cold flagged floor. Her vision returned. She opened her eyes to see two Norsemen, both clad in dark trousers, one wearing a fur cloak, the other bare chested. The cloaked man with the dagger, the one she had encountered first, dropped to his knees beside her, his mouth curled in an ugly leer. He muttered words she could not understand, though his meaning was clear enough. Despite her years in the cloister, Eawynn possessed sufficient grasp of the world beyond the nunnery walls to know what he intended to do to her, an opinion confirmed when he grabbed the front of her habit and tugged at it.
For once she was glad of the coarse, sturdy fabric that did not give. Undeterred, the brute brought his dagger into play. He slid the point of it inside the neck of her clothing and started to slice her bodice open. Seizing her opportunity as his hand came within reach of her mouth, Eawynn sank her teeth into it, just at the base of his little finger.
The Viking let out another savage roar and the dagger dropped from his hand. He raised his beefy fist to land another punch, but this time was not quite quick enough. Eawynn grabbed the dagger from where it had landed beside her head and plunged it with all her strength into her assailant’s neck.
His eyes widened in disbelief. He clasped his hand around the hilt of the weapon still embedded in his throat. Blood bubbled from the wound and trickled onto Eawynn’s face. The Viking snarled, but the sound was lost in the awful gurgling as his life poured from the hole in his neck. He dragged the dagger out, only to release a fountain of blood that spurted across the chapel to spatter against the marble feet of the Blessed Virgin who stood several paces away. Moments later, he collapsed on top of Eawynn.
Numb from the horror of what she had just witnessed, what she had done, Eawynn closed her eyes again and allowed her world to go dark.
At least she was in God’s hands now, rather than the paws of a filthy Viking.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Audun took in the blood-soaked scene before him, one of his warriors lying in a pool of dark crimson and another brandishing his axe, about to decapitate an unconscious nun.
“She killed him. Murdering whore. She sank a blade in his neck.” Skarde, half-brother to the slain Halfdan, sized up his target. “She will spill no more Viking blood. I shall see to that.”
“Hold,” Audun commanded. “I asked what is going on here. How did this… this… female manage to slay one of my finest warriors?” He strolled around, peering more closely at the woman on the stone floor as well as at his own downed man.
“She was the one in the bell tower,” Skarde offered by way of explanation. “Halfdan brought her down here, and she sank his own dagger into him. See, she slit his throat.”
“How did she come to be in possession of Halfdan’s dagger?” Audun enquired mildly. “And why is her clothing sliced open down the front?”
“She deserved a lesson. Halfdan was about to teach it to her.”
“He would have raped her?” Audun eyed his warrior with apparent curiosity. “A nun?”
“Aye, well, they’re all the same under those ugly robes,” came the defensive response. “She murdered my brother. I demand her life in return. It is right. It is our law.”
Audun could not fault the logic, or the reasoning. But neither could he bring himself to countenance the raping of nuns, even less the cold-blooded killing of one who lay defenceless before him. He had succeeded in relieving the abbey of several chests of gold and silver ornaments, coin, other trinkets, and with no loss of life. The monks had put up no more than token resistance, and the nuns had all fled by the time the Viking horde returned from pillaging the monastery. He had helped himself to several more decent pieces from the convent before entering the chapel to seize any valuables left on the altar.
And he found himself greeted by this carnage…
“You shall have your retribution, Skarde, in the form of additional spoils from this night’s raid. Now, take your brother back to the longship. Steinn, help him. Halfdan was a fine warrior, brave, loyal, a fearsome fighter. We shall see to it that he has a decent funeral.”
“What about her? I demand that she must pay with her life for what she has done.” Skarde raised his axe again.
“I shall deal with her,” Audun promised. “You may leave the wench to me and see to your kinsman.”
Skarde muttered as he lowered his weapon, then crouched to drape one of Halfdan’s arms about his shoulders. Steinn took the other arm and between them they hauled the dead man upright, then started to drag him across the stone flags in the direction of the door.
Audun waited until they left, then bent to examine the unconscious wench more closely. He was relieved to note that her breathing was even, though she sported a ferocious bruise that had already darkened much of her jaw and swelled her mouth. She was covered in blood, but Audun was reasonably certain it was not hers. He wiped her face with his cloak in order to check.
The girl groaned. Her eyelids flickered. She was coming round. Moments later she opened her eyes to reveal a glimpse of deep blue. Her gaze widened in alarm. She took one look into the stern visage of the Viking chief now leaning over her, and promptly fainted again.
Audun swore under his breath. He faced a dilemma. Skarde was entitled to the life of this girl, Viking law decreed that it was so, but as jarl he was not inclined to hand her over to the grisly fate that awaited her. He could not bring himself to fault a wench who struck out in her own defence, but neither could he allow her to go free. His authority as jarl required that he take action, or he would face the dissatisfaction of his men who expected him to uphold their laws and traditions and dispense justice accordingly.
He rose to his full height of over six feet and beckoned another of his men over to him.
“Svend, you will take the wench to my longship and secure her there. Make sure to stay out of Skarde’s way and if need be you will guard her from him.” He turned his attention to the rest of his warriors, who had by now piled into the chapel to find out what the commotion was about. “The rest of you, make all haste to take our spoils back to the ships. We leave this shore within minutes.”
All the warriors rushed to do the jarl’s bidding. Their task here was over and there was not a man among them who wished to linger.
The startling success enjoyed by Viking raiders rested on their ability to move swiftly. Their fast longships enabled them to swoop in from the sea with no warning. Their skill, strength, and dizzying array of weapons meant that they could deliver their attack with devastating effect and be gone as quickly as they arrived before their victims had any opportunity to regroup and organise a defence. It was a tactic that had served them well for centuries, honed to a fine art.
Auden seized a chest of silver and gold plate and hefted it onto his shoulder. “Come,” was the terse command as he led his men back down the rocky path to where their vessels awaited. Less than half an hour after they had descended upon the tiny, isolated cove, the fearsome dragon ships were back afloat and sailing away from Iona.