Songs of the North, Book 2
A shriek rent the air.
Brenna dropped the bucket of mussels and ran toward the sound. She shouldn’t have let Moira wan\0xADder away. If anything happened to her younger sis\0xADter, their father would never forgive her.
She’d never forgive herself.
Fear made her wing-footed. When she rounded the outcropping of dark basalt, she found Moira cau\0xADtiously circling a body on the sand. A man was curled on his side, one long arm draped over a wooden cask.
Brenna breathed out a sigh. God be praised, Moira was unhurt.
“Is he dead, do ye think?” her sister asked.
“Seems to be.” Brenna used the butt of her walking stick to push the man’s shoulder and roll him onto his back. He flopped over as lifelessly as a beached porpoise. Dark blood crusted at his hairline where he’d obviously taken a blow.
“Oh, he’s a fine, strong lad. Look at the arms on him, Brenna.”
The stranger was even more heavily muscled than the local smith, and though he wasn’t stretched out to full length, Brenna could see that if he were stand\0xADing upright, he would be far taller than any man in her father’s keep. His pale hair was a tangled mess, but even dusted with brine and sand, the man’s face reminded Brenna of the fierce warlike angels painted on the scriptorium walls at Clonmacnoise Abbey– stern and forbidding, but heart-stoppingly beautiful.Erinsong
Brenna’s gaze fell on the runic symbols carved into the hilt of the knife at the man’s waist. Her lip curled with loathing. “One of the Normanni.”
“A Northman?” Moira leaned closer to him. “Mother used to frighten us with stories of North\0xADmen when we were little, but even though they’ve raided near us, I’ve never seen one in all me living life.” She cocked a questioning brow at Brenna. “Do ye mean to tell me ye have?”
“Aye, though I wish I had not.” Brenna’s voice was flat and she raised the pointed end of her staff toward the still figure.
“Are all Northmen so fair, then?”
“No, not all,” Brenna said through a clenched jaw.
“This one surely is. He’s so pretty. ‘Tis a pity he’s dead.” Moira bent to smooth a damp lock of hair from the man’s cheek.
Suddenly his eyelids flew open, and he grabbed Moira’s wrist. She screamed and tried to pull away, but the stranger’s grip was firm.
No, not this time.
White-hot rage surged through Brenna and a low growl erupted from the back of her throat. The Ostman heathen dared put his filthy hand on her sister. Almost in reflex, she jabbed his thigh with her staff, burying the sharp point into his flesh. Her stomach lurched at the way the shaft stuck, embedded in the man’s heavy muscle. Brenna jerked backward on it, but couldn’t pull it free for another stab.Erinsong
The good nuns at Clonmacnoise had admonished her that anger, or any other strong passion for that matter, was a sin. But Brenna knew if she were able, she’d pound the man into raw meat before the fury inside her was quelled.
Eyes wide with surprise, the stranger howled and released Moira.
“Run!” Brenna ordered. Her younger sister fled, dis\0xADappearing around the rocks, fleet-footed as a hind.
The man wrapped his long fingers around Brenna’s makeshift spear and yanked it from his leg with a grunt and a spurt of blood. Then he jerked the other end of the staff from her grasp.
Despite his injury, the man rose to his feet, blood spreading on his dun-colored leggings and streaking toward his knee. He tossed her stick into the gorse bushes. Then he turned to face her, his handsome features marred by a black frown.
For one paralyzing moment, Brenna couldn’t breathe. The lapping of the waves played over in her head like a half-remembered song. A gull screamed and she was sharply aware of the fishy reek of the sea. She couldn’t move. Just like before when a Northman blocked her way.
She feinted to throw him off balance, then turned and raced down the beach in the opposite direction Moira had fled. She heard the man’s footfalls pound\0xADing behind her and lengthened her stride. He shouted something to her in an evil-sounding language, and though his tone wasn’t threatening, she wouldn’t be tricked by the likes of him.
Surely she could outrun a half-drowned man with a hole in his leg. Surely she could–
The man lunged, wrapping his arms around her waist. Brenna pitched headlong into the gritty sand. They rolled to\0xADgether, over and over, Brenna scrambling to get away, the man grasping at her to keep her with him. When they finally came to a stop, Brenna was pinned beneath the big man’s body.
“Get off me, ye Finn-Gall demon!” Brenna pummeled his chest with her fists. The man caught up her hands and pressed them into the sand above her head. She flailed her feet trying to kick him, but he wrapped his long legs around hers, binding her fast.Erinsong
All she had left were words, and she spewed out the most hateful curses she’d ever heard. She in\0xADvoked every plague imaginable to rain down on the stranger’s golden head and offered his immortal soul to Beelzebub with all the venom she could muster.
The man didn’t blink an eyelash, his impossibly blue eyes going darker by the moment. His face hov\0xADered over hers, his expression unreadable. He let her rant until she was utterly spent and gasping.
“That’s the best string of insults I’ve ever heard,” he said calmly. The corners of his mouth turned up in a wry smile despite the furrow between his dark brows.
Brenna felt the blood rush from her face.
“Ye understand me?”
“Let me see. You seem to think I’m something called an incubus from the Netherworld and you in\0xADvited the Prince of Darkness, whoever he is, to feast on my liver. Ja, girl, I think I understand you.”
Brenna felt his belly quiver as if he suppressed a laugh. In spite of the way his brows knit together, he seemed genuinely amused, Devil take him.
“How is it ye speak our tongue?”
The smile faded and the man’s frown deepened. “I… don’t know.”
He continued to study her face as if the answer might be found there. Though his body felt heavy on hers, he lay perfectly still, making no threatening movements.
That won’t last long.
If she could keep the man talking, distract him a bit, maybe she’d be able to get away. Surely Moira had arrived back at the keep by now. Da and the men would be grabbing their bows and sprinting toward the beach to her rescue. She drew a shaky breath, tak\0xADing heart at the Erinsongthought that the fighting men of Erin might pop over the hillock at any moment. “Where will ye be coming from?”
A grimace creased the Northman’s face, and his eyes flitted back and forth in their reddened sockets. He’d spent quite some time in the sea, Brenna realized.
“I don’t know.” His voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Don’t know? Many’s the man who’s lost his way and doesn’t know where he is, but sure and ye are the first I’ve seen who couldn’t say where he’d been.”
The warm stickiness of the man’s blood seeped through the fabric of her tunic. Maybe blood loss ac\0xADcounted for the panic flickering across the man’s fea\0xADtures. She must have jabbed him deeper than she thought.
“How did ye find yourself in the sea?” she asked.
His eyes rolled again, as though searching for the answer. His grip loosened, but she still couldn’t es\0xADcape. At least he hadn’t tried to slobber on her or ruck up her skirt. Though his body pressed hers into the sand, he showed little interest in her. He seemed to be more confused than anything else.
“Ye don’t know much, do ye?” She arched a brow at him. “Maybe ye’ll be telling me your name, then?”
“My name,” he repeated woodenly.
“Aye, ’tis not a hard thing, surely.” She managed to slide her hands out of his grasp, but he didn’t seem to notice. “All God’s creatures have names. Even North\0xADmen, I’d wager.”
The man pressed his hands against her cheeks, holding her head immobile, and stared into Brenna’s eyes. His chest heaved and she silently cursed herself for baiting him.Erinsong
Then to her surprise, he rolled off her and sat up. She crabbed backward, scuttling away from him, and scrambled to her feet.
Brenna had every intention of dashing over the small rise of sand and into the hills, but the North\0xADman was behaving so strangely, taking no notice of her at all. And besides, if she stayed to keep an eye on him, Da would be proud she hadn’t let him get away. It wasn’t much, but if she showed a bit of courage now, maybe Da would begin to forgive her for her cowardice at Clonmacnoise.
It was worth the risk.
Brenna watched in morbid fascination as the North\0xADman sat holding his head, rocking forth and back, making small groans in time with the movement. His moans grew louder until finally he threw his head back in frustration and roared wordlessly to the sky.
The bone-chilling sound sent Brenna’s heart to her toes.
Saints above, a madman! She froze like a hare in the thicket who knows a fox is sniffing Erinsong nearby.