Excerpt: Lord of Fire and Ice
Written with Connie Mason
“So that’s the great and mighty Brandr,” a grumbling voice said from somewhere above him. The speaker snorted and loosed a bark of a laugh. “Doesn’t look so great now, does he?”
Brandr tried to pry his eyes open, but they were crusted shut. His tongue was too thick for his mouth. Rough hands lifted and then dropped him into the back of a cart. The wood bit into his bare backside as they jostled over a plank road. He was vaguely aware that he was bound, hand and foot.
Odin’s Lost Eye, what did they put in that mead?
His lids scraped across his eyeballs like wind-driven sand. Familiar northern stars wheeled overhead, brittle and cold. The stars of the south were hazy and soft, but he’d learned to track them across the sky in the faraway city where he’d served the Byzantine emperor. After a five-year sojourn, he’d been grateful to be nearly home. Brandr and his companions were only two day’s sail from his father’s jarlhof when they tied up on one of the islands dotting the mouth of Hardanger Fjord. His chest had constricted in aching joy to see the Great Bear lumbering across the sky and the fixed Lodestar as high in the black heavens as it should be.
But Brandr had forgotten that while stars don’t change, people do. Obviously, the folk of this island were no longer his father’s allies.
A heavy weight pressed against his throat each time he swallowed. A thrall’s collar burned shame into his neck. He was a warrior, the son of a respected jarl and a fire mage of no little power. The iron at his throat wiped all that away.
Brandr tried to focus his gift and call up enough fire to sizzle off the rope knotted at his wrists, but all he managed to do was singe the hair off the back of his own hand. Whatever he’d been drugged with left his mind too disordered to attempt a fire mage’s solution.
How could he have been so thick-witted? True, that serving girl was fetching, but he should have been more wary. Women were his weakness and he’d known his share in the south. As a Northman, he towered over the populace of the Byzantine capital. With his fair hair and big-boned frame, Brandr was a novelty. The women of the great city were curious to learn if he was similarly proportioned beneath his scarlet uniform of the Varangian Guard.
None expressed disappointment.
But while the women of the south were inventive in the use of their tongues, none of them could speak his. He’d let his delight in hearing good Norse again lower his caution. When his friends returned to their longship, Brandr had stayed on at the mead house, drinking and dallying with the all-too-willing serving girl.
By the time he realized the euphoria and dizziness he felt wasn’t the result of high spirits and mead, he was stumbling and slurring nonsensical words. The drink had been tainted with an opiate, but the realization came too late.
Now he was bare-arsed and gagged with a leather strap. His beard and hair had been shorn off like a yearling lamb. If this were a skald’s tale, he’d have laughed at his predicament, judging it fair recompense for stupidity.
But this was no tale.
The cart stopped and his captors lifted him out. They carried him into a longhouse, through the common room where most of the inhabitants snored on broad benches lining the walls. Some had divided the space by hanging skins in order to enjoy a bit of privacy for their family. Most of the residents simply sprawled in the open, safe in their communal slumber.
The smoky central meal fire had subsided to glowing embers but as Brandr passed by, the flame flared to life. He mentally ordered it down, but the blaze flickered a cheerful greeting. If he couldn’t control his gift well enough to free himself, he couldn’t chance letting his captors know he possessed it.
The aroma of a nourishing stew lingered in one of the pots. The smell of even wholesome food made Brandr swallow back rising bile. A burning acidic taste clung to the leather strap in his mouth.
Part of the longhouse had been walled off into a separate chamber with a stout wooden door. One of the men carrying Brandr rapped on it softly.
When there was no response, his captors loosed a collective sigh. The one bearing Brandr’s feet dropped them and banged on the door with his fist.
The door flew open.
“What’s the matter with you bunch of trolls?” a woman demanded in a hissing whisper. “It’s the middle of the night. Some of us plan on working tomorrow. Why aren’t you lackwits abed?”
Brandr strained to lift his head enough to snatch a look at the speaker. Backlit by the light of an oil lamp, her dark hair was as sleek as a selkie. She wore it unbound, shimmering over her shoulders and past her hips. She was younger than he expected, given her surly tone, and far more comely. Her cheekbones were high with soft hollows beneath, a mark of bone-deep loveliness that never fades.
But a pair of frown lines marred her brow. Judging from her scowl, her temper was as black as her hair.
“We’ve brought you something, Katla.” The speaker signaled for the other two to haul Brandr over the threshold and into the lamplit chamber.
One of them was a spotty-faced boy, Brandr realized with annoyance. He’d let himself be taken by a lad with no more than thirteen or fourteen winters to his credit. Once they cleared the doorway, the men dropped him without warning.
Brandr groaned. Instead of packed earth, this woman’s chamber had hard slate flooring with no give to it at all.
Like the woman herself, he suspected.
She lifted her lamp and glared down at him. Her eyes slanted up at the corners, catlike. The light was too dim to determine their color as they swept over him in a quick, unflinching assessment.
“What do I want with this, Finn?”
“Consider him a peace offering, sister,” Finn said. “It was wrong of us to try to force you into a match. But if you won’t accept a husband, you need a strong thrall to do the heavy work for you.”
“I keep an ox for the heavy work.” Katla flicked a glance at Brandr.
“Want us to geld him for you?” Finn offered as he pulled out his belt knife. “Should make him more biddable.”
Brandr swallowed hard against the gag. Trussed up as he was, he’d be hard pressed to fight off a gelding blade. He glared at the woman, sending her a silent threat. The flame of the oil lamp flared higher. Better she should have them kill him outright than unman him.
“No, don’t,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “It would only make him eat more.” Then she waved a dismissive hand. “No, no, he’s not staying and neither are the rest of you. Take him away.”
“All right, you heard her, brothers,” Finn told the others, who started to heft Brandr up again. “We’ll sell him to the next bunch of traders who come by from Birka then. Katla doesn’t want the son of Ulf, after all.”
“What?” She stopped Finn with a hand to his forearm.
“You heard me aright,” Finn said with a satisfied grin. “This is Brandr Ulfson, back home from the south.”
“Stay,” she ordered. “I will have him.”
A warning bell jangled in Brandr’s brain. Most people never had a thrall offered to them freely. If they did, they’d never turn one down, especially one as obviously strong and healthy as he. But this woman hadn’t wanted him until she heard his name. Her expression showed a mix of curiosity, grim satisfaction and . . . fierce joy.
“If I give him to you,” Finn said, clearly enjoying the upper hand with his sister, a situation Brandr suspected was rare as a mild winter, “you must promise to take a husband. There wasn’t a thing wrong with any of your last five suitors and you know it.”
“None of them was my choice.”
“They would have brought wealth and cattle and lands to our family,” Finn said. “You’re too young not to marry again. You owe it to us, Katla and you know it. You’ve got a tidy holding here, more than most widows receive from their husbands.”
Brander realized Katla was responsible for this farmstead and all the souls sheltering in her longhouse. No wonder she was so surly. She was a woman alone with the weight of a man’s responsibilities on her shoulders. She’d have to be tougher than a man, too, in order to earn the same respect. And it didn’t appear her brothers were helping her overmuch, except in schemes to line their own pockets. A comely widow like Katla with a prosperous farmstead could mean a windfall to the men in her family.
“But what about us?” Finn went on. “Would you deny your brothers the right to your bride-price? Say you’ll accept the man of my choosing and I’ll give you the son of Ulf.”
She frowned and worried her lower lip, weighing her options. “I suppose you’ll never leave my hearth and make your own way if I don’t marry again.” She sighed. “Very well. Choose three men and I’ll pick one as a husband. But I won’t tolerate a fool.”
“Done!” Finn signaled for his brothers to drop Brandr.
He went down hard on the slate again with no way to protect himself. Fortunately, the opiate they’d given him also seemed to dull pain.
“I’ll send the first man to you on the morrow,” Finn promised.
“There’s no rush,” she said acerbically. “You only get three chances. Make them count.”
Katla’s brothers filed out and she barred the door behind them. Then she walked around Brandr a couple times, giving him a more thorough examination. He followed her with his eyes, noticing that when she passed between him and the lamp, her nightshift was thin enough for him to see the shadowy shape of her legs.
When she glanced at him again, he couldn’t help his body’s reaction, swelling to his full state.
It was not the reaction he was accustomed to.
Then she picked up a skinning knife from the top of a trunk in the corner. Had the blood-thirsty wench turned down her brother’s offer to geld him so she could do it herself?
“Get your eyes back in your head,” she ordered. “You look like a demented owl.”
She bent down and cut the leather strap that gagged him near the knot behind his ear. “I’m not going to maim you. Not unless you do something to irritate me.”
He spat out the gag, grateful to be rid of its foul taste. “I’m glad to hear it. If you unbind my hands, I can take care of my feet myself.”
“I am aware of that,” she said dryly. “We have things to discuss first.”
He failed to stifle a yawn. “Say what you have to say quickly. Whatever your brothers drugged me with is making me sleepy again.”
She sat down on the end of her bed and studied him as if he were a type of fish in her net she couldn’t identify. She seemed undecided on whether to keep him or throw back. “You’re taking that iron collar more calmly than one would expect.”
“I’m alive . . . and whole.” His head was starting to pound, but his thoughts were flowing clearer now. “A live man’s luck can change. A dead one’s never.”
“My husband is dead.” Her eyes narrowed to glittering slits. “Your father killed him.”
So that’s why she wanted him. Ulf the Ruthless was responsible for his predicament.
“Didn’t he offer a wergild?” Brandr’s father had a wicked temper, but once the battle-lust cleared, he was practical about his debts. He usually paid off those he’d offended in the required amounts to keep matters from escalating into a full-blown feud.
“I wouldn’t dishonor my husband’s memory by accepting blood money,” she said.
“My father generally has a reason when he kills someone. Most of the time. It seems to me, your dispute is with him, not me. He’ll not ransom me, if that’s your plan. He won’t believe I was stupid enough to let myself be enthralled. And if I did, he’ll figure I deserve it.”
“No, he won’t.”
“Then you don’t know my father. The old bastard was winter-hard when I left five years ago. I expect he hasn’t thawed a bit.”
“Probably not, since he now occupies a place of honor in the ninth circle of Hel’s cold hall.”
Dead. All the air fled from Brandr’s body in a whoosh. Ulf the Ruthless was a bull sea lion of a man. All Brandr’s life, his father had ridden him mercilessly, never satisfied, never recognizing that Brandr would have given his left hand to please him just once. Never understood Brandr’s strange affinity for the flames. Never trusted the gift of fire and refused to try to understand.
Now he was no more.
Just when Brandr had learned to control his unusual gift and was bringing his father the most potent weapon the decadent south possessed, the secret of Greek Fire.
“Ulf Skallagrimson’s ship was lost with all hands in a storm off the Orkney Islands last season.” She cocked her head and eyed him as a robin eyes the worm she intends for breakfast. “So, you really didn’t know your father is dead?”
He set his face into a grim mask. She certainly didn’t deserve a peek into the maelstrom of his emotions about his father’s death, especially since he didn’t know how to name them yet himself.
“You won’t have any better luck ransoming me with my brother. Our father taught us not to be burdened overmuch with family feelings.”
She shrugged. “I hadn’t thought of trying to get Arn the Leper to pay a ransom for you, but when I tire of you, it’s a consideration.”
“Ja, strange world, is it not? You sojourn all the way to Miklagaard and come back. . .” her gaze traveled over his length again “. . . perfectly healthy and sound. And your older brother stays home and is struck by a wasting sickness.”
Brandr let this new horrific truth settle into his brain. The great city of south sent its lepers away to eke out a living on scraps and thievery. In the North, while no one wanted to share a trencher with a leper, if a man had high enough rank to begin with, he’d not be outlawed for being unlucky. Brandr’s brother Arn would still be jarl in Jondal as long as he was able to wield a sword.
Brandr would be expected to step in when Arn could no longer lead.
But not if he was a slave. Which meant without a clear transfer of leadership, there’d be a scramble for power and a fight amongst the chieftains who answered to Arn to determine who would succeed him. Brandr frowned, wondering how to avoid that disaster. When headmen fought, fields went unplanted and the people of Jondal would suffer the next winter.
“Feeling for your brother, are you? Don’t. A thrall is poor enough not to be able to afford pity for anyone.” Katla leaned toward him. “I assume my brothers already took whatever wealth you brought back from the south.”
“Ja, your thieving brothers took everything of value,” Brandr said. They couldn’t take the wealth he carried in his head. If they had an inkling that he bore the secret to Greek Fire, they’d be trying to torture it out of him still. “You only get me in this bad bargain. What are your intentions?”
Katla wished he wouldn’t keep turning those deep amber eyes on her. They made it hard for her to think.
“I’m not sure what you’re fit for,” she said willing herself not betray how the sight of his hard body affected her. The son of Ulf had the frame of a warrior, honed to lean fitness. His muscles stood out beneath smooth skin marred by only a few battle scars.
Katla didn’t mind not having a husband countermand her decisions, but she sorely missed the feel of a man between her legs. Brandr Ulfson made her remember that longing in exquisite detail.
She set her mouth in a tight line. It was a man’s world. A woman had to be strong when dealing with one, even one wearing an iron collar, lest he run roughshod over her.
“Have you any skills besides wenching and drinking?”
“I’m a fighter by trade.” His mouth turned up in a lazy sensual smile. “Obviously drinking isn’t one of my strengths. At least, not when someone taints the mead. But don’t discount wenching. I know how to please a woman. My bed skills are yours for the asking.”
Her eyes flared with irritation that he’d divined the direction of her thoughts. Men took bed slaves all the time.
Why shouldn’t a widow enjoy one so long as she kept herself from bearing?
It wouldn’t be a problem in her case. Katla suspected she was barren. Her husband Osvald’s bastards littered several hearths, but she never showed signs of quickening during their year together.
She gave herself a slight shake. This new thrall was nothing but the son of her husband’s murderer. She had to keep thinking of him as such. She’d sworn to avenge Osvald and this was her first chance to make good on her vow.
“Keep your lewd suggestions to yourself.”
Brandr Ulfson eyed her with boldness so she felt obliged to return the favor. By shearing Brandr’s locks, her brothers had accentuated his strong, even features. A man had to be breathtakingly handsome to still be so appealing after he’d endured the shame of being shorn.
She knelt beside him and ran her palm over his head, down his neck and around his firm jawline.
“Since Ulf is already dead, I can’t deliver justice to your father. Hiring someone to kill a leper might be considered an act of kindness, not retribution, so I’ve made no move against your brother,” she said, jerking her hand away from his smooth cheek. She needed to keep her distance. “That leaves only you.”
She wouldn’t kill him. It wasn’t as if he’d had a choice in who his father was, but short of visiting physical harm on the son of Ulf, she could still have justice of a sort. She’d humble him so abjectly his name would become a byword throughout the North, a warning to all men who fell into the hands of a vengeful woman.
But Brandr Ulfson wasn’t an easy man to feel hard toward. There was a feral quality to his maleness that made her insides go soft, vulnerable. When he turned his penetrating gaze on her, she felt weak as water.
She straightened her spine.
“Letting you demonstrate your bed skills doesn’t sound like revenge,” she said. “It sounds like you’re trying to trick me into pleasuring a thrall.”
“If we shared a bed, it would be about your pleasure.” His amber eyes darkened to sable. “Not mine.”
“So bedding me wouldn’t please you?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m sure it would please me. Very much. But my aim would be your delight.”
Her breath caught and she couldn’t move. He gave her a thorough look, starting with her mouth, lingering at her breasts, which tingled under his direct gaze, and traveling down her loins and limbs.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Katla. And you’ve missed a man’s touch.”
“I haven’t missed yours.” Her eyes flared with indignation. “And you will address me as ‘mistress’ or ‘my lady.’ You may not use my name, thrall.”
She turned and rummaged through her clothes trunk for the oldest, most coarse tunic she could find. She hoped it would be big enough to fit him, but for now, she’d be satisfied with draping the undyed fabric across his groin.
“Varangians are supposed to value honor above all,” she said. “Before I loose your bonds, will you swear upon your honor to obey me and not to run away?”
“I won’t run. Your brothers took me by guile and womanish potions, but they took me. As long as your commands do not conflict with my honor, I so swear to obey you,” he said. “May Thor strike me blind, if I do not.”
“If the god doesn’t, I will,” she promised as she cut the bindings on his wrists.
He worked the knot at his ankles as soon as his hands were free. Then he stood to pull the rough tunic over his head.
Upright, Brandr was even bigger than he appeared when lying on the floor. She took a step back from him. The tunic was snug across his broad chest and struck him mid-thigh, leaving his well-muscled legs exposed. At least his disturbing maleness was covered.
“Now what, princess?” He managed to make the title he gifted her with sound like a curse.
She had to show this man his place and quickly. “I saved you from the gelding knife this night. You will show your appreciation by kissing my foot.”
She lifted her nightshift to ankle height and presented one to him, toes pointed.
That should wipe the smug expression from his face.
He shrugged, bent over and grabbed her ankle. Then he yanked her upside down. Her bottom took a glancing blow on the floor before she found herself hanging precariously, her foot level with his mouth when he stood back upright.
It happened so quickly, surprise forced all the air from Katla’s lungs. Her nightshift billowed down to bunch at her armpits, exposing her to him. When she tried to kick free, he grasped her other ankle as well. Her fingertips splayed on the slate floor to steady herself.
She clamped her lips shut to keep from crying out. There were a dozen strong men snoring on the other side of the door. They’d all rush to her aid, but she’d die before she let anyone catch her in this undignified position.
He planted a wet kiss on her instep, then lowered her to the floor. She managed not to land on her head, but her right shoulder took most of her weight before she rolled to lie flat on her back on the cold slate.
He glared down at her and bared his teeth in a wolf’s smile. “Want me to kiss anything else, princess?”