I dinna recall much about the day I was taken.
There was my mam, belly like a full moon, yelling at Willie to take me and Janet and run.
There were the streets of the village in chaos, the entire world alight with the fires of hell.
There was the sound of the axe as it cleaved my brother’s head, and my sister’s screams as her hand was wrenched from mine.
Then naught but oblivion.
But the day we took her... that day I recall with perfect clarity.
I was a man of twenty then, not a lad of eight. And I was holding an axe this time.
She was huddled against the wall with the other women and the weans, all of whom were weeping hysterically and begging for mercy. And maybe that’s what caught my eye in that first moment: the fact that she wasn’t crying, but glaring defiantly at the men circling them like sharks scenting blood in the water. I could tell she was scairt, but not cowed – she wouldn’t go down without a fight, and looked as if she had a mind to do just that.
I wasn’t the only man to have noticed her – her beauty drew the eye like a ray of sunlight parting the clouds.
Hvitserk, the Jarl’s youngest son, took a step toward her, one arm outstretched to grab her by the hair, the other hefting an axe which dripped with gore. I kent what would happen next; the same thing that always happened when the bloodlust took him. He would drag her to the middle of the crowded square, have his way with her, and then slit her throat – pausing just long enough to cut a lock of her hair as a keepsake before moving on to find another conquest.
I’d seen it happen a dozen times, and as much as it curdled my wame to stand by, I had never dared to interfere before. I may have earned my way out of slavery by the strength of my arm and the skill of my hands, but I was still an expendable outlander as far as some of the men were concerned – Hvitserk and his brothers chief among them.
Even now, I couldn’t say for certain what courage – or stupidity – moved me that day. I like to believe it was the hand of Odin on my shoulder, guiding me towards my fate. Considering all that came after, I can’t think it so far fetched.
When I stepped in front of the Jarl’s son, I dinna ken who was the most shocked: him, me, or the woman I now held firmly by the back of the neck. I jerked her to get her into motion, expecting an attack at every step, but the men stood frozen in shock. I had never before laid claim to any of the women taken on raids, and this sudden change of heart seemed to confuse them more than anything.
Even Hvitserk did nothing but give me a wry smile and a shouted “enjoy the ride” as I dragged the woman around a corner and out of sight.
I could feel her pulse hammering under my thumb where it still gripped her neck. She was trying valiantly to hide her fear, but was powerless to control the tremors that had begun to shake her body.
When we were a few streets away, I spotted an abandoned stable and pulled her inside, hoping for a brief respite from the screams and the roar of the flames – needing to calm my own pounding heart after that reckless stunt – and decide what was to be done with the life for which I now felt responsible.
No sooner were we through the doorway than she spun in my grip – slippery as an asp ready to strike – and aimed a knee for the place it would hurt most. I barely got my arm down in time to block her attack but, even as I wrestled her down into the straw, she never stopped hissing and lashing out. She was a fierce wee thing, only stilling once it was clear she was hopelessly pinned by my sheer size and weight on top of her.
Mere inches separated our faces as we shared the same panting breath. She quickly turned her head away, but not before I could see her eyes glaze over, the warm caramel of them fading away to a dull brown. ‘Twas as if she were withdrawing in on herself, sending her mind to a place out of my reach, so as to survive what she anticipated was to come.
Slowly – so as not to startle her any further – I withdrew my weight and sat back on my haunches, raising my hands palms outward to show that I held no weapons. And when I spoke, it was in a whisper, the feel of the English words strange in my throat after years of disuse.
“Ye need not be scairt of me.”
The surprise was writ on her face clear as day, but she didn’t speak in return. Instead she merely sat up and scuttled away until her back hit the far wall, putting several feet between us. The spark was back in her eyes as they darted this way and that, assessing me as well as searching for some kind of escape. I picked up my axe from where it had fallen during our struggle and she stiffened immediately.
“My axe is clean, lass. I dinna kill but in defense of my own life,” I explained, tilting my axe to and fro so she could see the truth of my words, before tossing it aside into a deep pile of straw by the doorway. “I’m nae raider nor raper.”
Oh, really? She did not voice the question but it was plain in the narrowing of her eyes and the skeptical tilt of her head.
“Aye. I build an’ repair ships.” The wariness in her face softened ever so slightly. “I’ve a knack for it. Lookin’ at a tree and knowing which will make the best masts, which offer the best planks for bending. Using my hands to shape the lines and curves of ‘em. Turnin’ raw wood into a sea creature whose speed rivals the very beasts o’ the deep.”
I heaved a sigh, the exhaustion of the past few hours hitting me all at once. “I dinna care for senseless slaughter, lass. Believe me, I’d rather build than burn.”
She continued to stare at me, unspeaking. The tension in her body had lessened, but she remained alert and guarded – a cornered animal, ready to make a bolt for freedom at the first chance.
I didn’t have the slightest notion of what to do with her. I could walk away and leave her here, but the rest of the lads were still searching and looting the town. Like as not, she’d be found and suffer the same fate so narrowly avoided. My actions would afford her a mere reprieve, not a deliverance.
Or I could take her with me. Claim her as spoils and make her chattel, as I had been once. There was something about the lass; I was drawn to her in a way that defied logical explanation. Now that I had her, I felt my soul screaming not to let her go; that it was a divine hand which brought us together, though for what possible purpose I couldn’t begin to guess.
But no. The thought of doing such was abhorrent to me. Too well did I recall the life of a slave, and would not wish it on any – least of all this woman before me who brimmed with a fire such as I’d never felt before.
So, despite Odin’s urging and my own base desires, I heaved myself to my feet with a bone weary sigh. “On yer feet, lass. I’ll take ye to the edge of town. When I say so, run for the woods and dinna look back.”
We made it through the town’s back gate without incident – the rest of the raiding party clearly still busy in the main square – neither of us speaking a word as we started across the field separating us from the protection of the woods.
Halfway across, I halted and she turned to me with questioning eyes. “This is as far as I go,” I told her, reaching out a hand to pass her a wee knife from my belt. “Stay hid in the trees ‘til the ships are gone.”
Our fingers brushed as she took the knife from my hand, and I felt her hesitate for a heartbeat before pulling away. Her face held a strange expression, as if she were weighing up some decision that she couldn’t quite reach – her amber eyes seemed to stare both at and through me, and I felt strangely naked before that gaze.
Finally she inclined her head towards the woods and gave a meaningful nod in my direction.
Come with me.
I felt the implications of that small motion in every fibre of my being. This moment was a crossroads and, whichever way I went, it would define the course of my destiny.
“I….I canna go wi’ ye.” The words rose like bile in my throat, and I nearly choked on them. “I’m too important to the Jarl. He and his men will never let me leave. They’ll hunt me down and find you along wi’ me.”
She stood still as a statue; her pale skin could have been carved from marble. Not questioning the impulse, I reached out and gently grasped a single wild curl where it fell across her face, slowly pulling it taut before releasing it to spring back. Not unfeeling stone, but a flesh and blood woman, and I’d never wanted anything so badly in my life.
“I wish ye well, lass. But it’ll be safer on yer own.” I turned my back on her then, instead facing the town which still sent ominous black clouds into the sky.
I heard her take the first tentative footsteps away from me, and then finally the sound of her running – swift as a hind – towards the safety of the trees.
And then the whistling of the arrow right before it pierced my shoulder.
The thud of impact crushed the air from my lungs, sending me to my knees in the tall grass.
Another arrow whizzed over my head, one which surely would have killed me had I not already fallen.
Then the blackness took me, and I heard no more.