She nodded, and lowered her gaze to examine her leather-shod feet.
“Look at me, Mairead, and tell me why you deserve to feel my belt across your buttocks.”
Her features reddened at his explicit description, but she met his gaze. “Because I tried to escape. I left Gunnarsholm without permission.”
“Not good enough. Try again.” He deliberately hardened his tone.
Her lovely eyes widened. “Because I put myself in danger.”
“Yes, that is better. But there is more.”
“I endangered my children too. I did not trust you, I allowed myself to believe that you would hurt my son.”
Gunnar moved in close, so close that she had to bend her head back to maintain the eye contact he insisted upon. “What should you have done instead?”
“I am not certain, Jarl.”
“No? Then what might you suggest? I will tell you if you are wrong.”
She gnawed on her lower lip, and Gunnar noted that not once had she asked for leniency for herself. She was ready to plead with him on her son’s behalf, but not her own.
“I should have waited. I should have trusted you to be fair, and to understand why Donald stole those items.”
“Oh? And do you understand why he did that?”
“No,” she murmured.
“Nor do I, but I will, by the time this is done. Your answer is satisfactory. So, tell me now, Mairead, have you been spanked before? Your husband, perhaps?”
She gave a sharp little nod. “He was often angry, his temper was easily roused.”
“Do you believe me to be in a temper now, Mairead?”
“No, Jarl, but you are angry.”
“Yes, I am, but my temper is quite under control. I am not about to raise my hand to you in anger.” He paused. “Is that what your husband did?”
“He would slap me, across my face usually, and call me cruel names. He… he would shout, a lot. At me and at Donald.”
“Were you afraid of him?”
Her lip trembled. “A wife should fear her husband. Is that not so?”
He gave a wry laugh. “I can think of many Viking women who do not fear their husbands in the slightest. Respect is not the same as fear. A wife should respect her husband and accept his authority. A slave, also, must submit to her master.”
“I know that. I never intended—”
“Will you submit to me, Mairead? Now? Will you remove your clothing, lean against yonder tree, and lift your bottom for my belt? Will you thank me for the lashes I shall give you and swear to me that you will never endanger yourself like this again?”
“Yes. Yes, Jarl, I will do that.”
Her voice was little more than a whisper, but he heard and it was sufficient. “Very well. Follow me.”
He strode off into the shadow of the large pines that edged the meadow where they stood. His men would be close enough to hear him if he summoned them, but he would afford Mairead the privacy he believed she deserved. After all, it would not be proper for half the men of Gunnarsholm to be treated to the sight of his future wife’s naked bottom.
Later, as he considered this intimate exchange between them, he would seek to identify the precise moment he determined that she was to be his wife. The best he could arrive at was that instant when she consented to allow him to take her baby from her. She had placed her trust in him, handed over the most precious and fragile thing she had in the world in the knowledge that he would keep Tyra safe. Donald too. She had accepted his promise, and he was lost. Now he merely had to convince her that she might marry a Viking, but that would come in due course. First, there was the matter of her proper punishment.
“You will undress, Mairead.”
“I could just raise my skirt. It would be—”
“Your clothes, all of them. I want you naked. Now.”
She flinched at his harsh tone, then nodded and started to unfasten the loose smock that she wore. She removed it quickly and folded it, then reached behind her to undo the tapes that held her woollen skirt in place. She bent to untie her boots, kicked them off, then stood before him clad in just the linen undershirt or sark that she wore next to her skin.
“That too,” he affirmed, though more gently now. He wanted obedience from her, not fear.
She pulled the remaining garment over her head and stood before him, nude, shivering slightly, her face downcast. Her hair was loose and fell in thick waves across her shoulders and breasts, a red mane that he itched to sweep aside in order to properly assess her lush curves. As she began to lift her hands as though to cover her body as best she might he shook his head.
“Do not. I wish to see you.”
“I am embarrassed.”
“I know. And a little cold perhaps since your nipples are hard and swollen, like the berries of the holly.” He allowed himself a sensual curling of his lips as he admired the vision she presented.
“Please, do not—”
“You are beautiful, Mairead. I knew that you would be.”
“I am not young,” she protested, “and I have borne two children.”
“How old are you?
“Twenty-five summers, Jarl.”
He did the calculation. She must have been young when she was first wed. Despite her words, and even knowing she had a son of seven years, he would have guessed her to be not yet twenty, though such details were immaterial to him.
“I repeat, you are beautiful. And you are mine. Do you accept both these truths?”
Her brow furrowed in confusion. “I do not understand. What do you want of me?”
“I want nothing of you, just you, yourself.”
“It is true then, I am to be your bed-slave.”
“You will share my bed, yes.”
She lowered her gaze again. “I do not fear this, if that is what you are expecting. I have been wed twice, and widowed. I am no stranger to what transpires between men and women. I can submit to you in this way, if that is what you require.”
Something in her resigned acceptance struck him amiss. She seemed unusually acquiescent, and whilst he desired her submission he found he did not much care for this subdued compliance. The flame in her fiery hair was not echoed in her deferential demeanour and he would not have it.
“Look at me.” He cupped her chin and held her face still so she could not break his gaze. “I desire you, and I shall have you. We both know that. But not by force. You will be safe with me, and I will take care of you.” He searched her deep green eyes for some clue, something he might say to awaken the spark he knew must be there, lurking hidden beneath the maternal cares and female vulnerability. “Despite your marriages and the advancing years you claim, I believe you know very little of what can transpire between a man and a woman. I believe you still have much to learn, and it starts here, now.” He released her chin. “Go stand by that tree, rest your hands on the trunk, and lean forward.”
Now her lovely eyes widened, darkened. She was afraid. Would she do as he asked?
Slowly, with obvious reluctance, Mairead moved toward the tree he had selected. It was a pine, tall, the trunk straight, smooth and free of branches to a height well above both their heads. She reached for it and placed her palms on the grey bark, then turned to regard him over her shoulder.
“I am not sure what you wish me to do.”
“Lean forward, bend at your waist, and arch your back. I want your bottom high and your shoulders low.”
She blushed crimson as she turned to face the front again, but his instructions were clear enough and Gunnar was gratified when she shuffled her feet away from the tree and bent as low as she could. The woman was trying. She wanted to appease him but this was hard for her. He could only guess at the violence she had experienced at the hands of men in the past, and he did not wish to draw this out.
“Six strokes. They will be hard but you can take this, and you will learn from it.”
“Yes, Jarl. Please, be quick…”
The timing of her punishment was for him to determine, but he would not take issue with her on this right now. Instead, he unfastened the pin that secured his great wolf skin cloak and dropped the garment to the ground, then he unbuckled his sword belt. Mairead flinched again at the sound of the leather coming free, but she held her position. Her shoulders were stiff, her legs straight. Her pretty, pink quim was just barely visible, the delicate lips of her cunny quivering between her upper thighs. He wondered if he should instruct her to spread her legs and allow him a decent view of what was his.
Perhaps, on another occasion…
Gunnar positioned himself behind her and slightly to her left. His belt, doubled with the buckle contained within his fist, dangled from his right hand. With his left hand he caressed her smooth, creamy buttocks.
“Such a sweet, round bottom, Mairead. You will bear well the marks I shall give you today, and you will remember what it is to trust.”
She did not reply. He had not expected her to. Without further preamble he lifted his right arm and swung the belt.
Pain exploded across both her buttocks. Mairead let out a shrill cry and made to stand.
“Do not move.” The stern command pinned her in place as surely as if he had bound her to the tree. Mairead dragged in a harsh breath and braced for the next stroke.
Gunnar did not keep her waiting. There was a whooshing sound as the belt swung again, and a streak of fire snaked across her upper thighs. Mairead screamed and her knees almost buckled beneath her.
“Steady yourself, and tell me when you are ready to continue.” His voice was low and compelling and utterly in control. It was that air of iron-willed mastery that gave Mairead the courage to continue without pleading for him to stop. He would hurt her, he was hurting her, but he had sworn he would not harm her and she believed him.
Alred had never inspired such confidence, quite the reverse. Even Niall, her first husband who was altogether a much gentler soul, could be testy on occasion. Neither of these men had ever stripped her and taken a belt to her bare arse but even so she did not fear injury at this dark Viking’s hands.
Mairead recovered her composure, such as it was. “I… I am ready, Jarl.”
The next stroke set her right buttock alight but she managed not to scream. Gunnar wasted no time in delivering another, this time landing across her left cheek. How many was that? Mairead attempted to count but had already lost any sense of the number. All she knew was that she hurt, everywhere.
“Arch your back again for these final two.” Gunnar paused to allow her time to obey his instruction.
Just two more. She could weather that. She must. Then this Viking would take her home and she would see her children again. Mairead lifted her bottom again in obliging obedience, and gritted her teeth in readiness for the last two strokes.
Whoosh. Her entire bottom took the force of the leather across the fullest part. Her flesh seared under the onslaught and Mairead whimpered in pain, gasping now.
Just one more. Thank the blessed Virgin and all the saints that it was only one or she feared she might lose her resolve and beg him to stop. Instead she dug her fingernails into the bark of the tree and held her breath.
“Aagh! Oh sweet Jesu, please…” The final stroke fell on her upper thighs again, right under the curve of her bottom. Mairead lurched forward to hug the tree and willed her knees not to give out. She would not collapse at his feet, she absolutely refused to do that.
She remained where she was, shaking under the shock of what had just happened to her. Mairead was dimly aware of the sound of leather on leather as he rebuckled his belt, then the clink of iron as he restored his sword to the loop he always hung it from. She turned her face in order to watch out of the corner of her eye as he bent to retrieve his cloak. As he stepped toward her she closed her eyes, uncertain what he might do to her next.
The rough warmth of the pelt covering her shoulders was not what she had anticipated. Neither were the strong arms that encircled her torso and drew her gently up until she stood upright. He turned her in his arms and pulled her to him then held her close against his chest. For want of a better option she clung to him as she had to the pine. He was warmer, somehow more solid than the tree and she wished she might never let him go. It was as it had been the day Tyra was born. This fearsome Viking offered strength, certainty, and safety in a perilous world that seemed to shake under her bare feet.
Could she confide in him about Ferris? Should she?
No. Ferris was odious, but the more she had considered his delusional threats in the days since, the more she had realised the thrall was both powerless and harmless. He could not hurt her, or Gunnar. If she told the Viking what Ferris had said, what he had done, and assuming Gunnar believed her though she knew of no reason to suppose he would not, then another whipping was assured. She could not bear that on her conscience.
The matter was best left as it was, the inane ramblings of a bitter, humiliated slave who found comfort in railing against his master.
“You did well, my flame-haired Celt. I am proud of you.” Gunnar murmured the words against her hair, his breath feathering across her cheek as she snuggled closer and dismissed Ferris from her thoughts.
Proud? No one had ever said that to her before. People had occasionally expressed gratitude when her herbal concoctions provided them with ease, and when she was much younger her mother had often praised her diligence and her helpfulness, qualities that had seen her wed at eighteen years of age. But no one had ever before told her she made them proud. She found she rather liked it, and more astonishing still, she actually believed Gunnar.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“My pleasure,” came the low reply as he pulled the wolf skin around her and tucked the edges together at the front. With no further words he lifted her in his arms and strode deeper into the wood.
“Where are you taking me? You said we could go home after… after…”
“Soon, I promise. First, there is something I wish to show you. A place I believe you will like.”
“Is it far? Tyra…”
“Not far. Your baby is being well cared for.”
That was true, she supposed. She stilled in his arms and allowed her eyelids to droop.
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