When a step sounded on the stair, Katrin turned swiftly. Apprehension snatched her breath.
The sword-theyn filled her doorway, eyes sweeping the colorful spill of faded tapestries draping her walls, the clutter of scrolls and parchments among racks of burning candles, the great curtained bed. Harsh and forbidding, he could have been a Viking invading her home, tawny hair blazing with firelight.
When his gaze lit on her, she braced for an explosion of wrath.
“You have a facile tongue, Lady Katrin,” he said, low and dangerous.
In the gathering dusk that pressed against her window, his presence strung her nerves tight. Yet his expression was inscrutable. Impossible to tell if her lies had angered him. Still, her knowledge of men told her to step quietly.
Trying to pacify, she strove to flatter him. “I dare swear you were not long taken in.”
“By the time we reached this hunting lodge, I had my doubts,” he said grimly. “You revealed yourself by your ease of command.”
Perhaps she need not endure a thundering tirade, or summon her housecarls to restrain him. Still, she didn’t make the mistake of thinking this formidable warrior would easily forgive her deception.
Well, reduced in fortune and desperate she might be, but let him recall her rank. She was no serving wench to cower before him, no matter how shabby her estate.
“I pray you’ll pardon my small deceit.” Gracefully she sank into a chair, the table standing safely between them. “You and I were alone in the ruins, far from any assistance, and I couldn’t be certain of you. Do be seated.”
Frowning, he lowered himself into the opposite chair. Despite her gnawing worry, she was forced to concede he drew the eye: broad-shouldered and larger than life, even without his armor. Tonight he wore a tunic of ocher cloth bordered with knotwork, a dragon gripping the bronze buckle of his belt. He was certainly not handsome, his features too harsh for it: his nose too prominent, cheekbones slanting too sharply, skin chafed by sun and wind—a man who spent too much time frowning into the weather. His eyes seemed to penetrate the flimsy veil of her deceptions, to seek out her hidden truths.
He would be perilous to oppose. But oppose him she would.
When Gwyneth bustled in with the winecups, relief surged through her.
Perhaps this long-traveled nuisance will drink himself insensate. They await my word outside. We can leave him somewhere, lost in the wood, and bar the door against him. In any event, she would find some way to be rid of him.
She smiled. “Will you take wine?”
After a token swallow, he lowered his cup to the table. Dismayed, she realized he intended to spill out his business. Thus far, drink had not forestalled him.
She said the first thing that came into her head.
“Pray tell, how fares my uncle?”
He checked himself on the edge of speaking. Impatience drew his brows together. “That tale’s long in the telling.”
Praise God for that. She slid the flagon toward him.
Glancing around with a courtier’s caution, he propped his elbows on the table and hunkered forward. Firelight glowed on the bronze-hammered torques that banded his forearms, sinuous with a warrior’s strength.
“The king mourns the loss of another son. Edward died of a hunting accident on Lammas Day. All of England grieves for him.”
“God’s mercy! It’s the second son he’s lost, in as many years.”
“Aye, and he needed Edward badly for alliance. That marriage will never be made now. Five sons, four daughters, and all spoken for, with the king himself wedded to Normandy’s sister.” He leaned forward. “The Danes are overrunning these shores. Every summer the Forkbeard and his dragon-ships bring more of them. Ethelred’s spread thin as oil over famine bread—he needs more allies.”
Need them he may, but he can find them elsewhere. I’ve done my duty.
“Aren’t you eager to hear his bidding, lady?”
Nay, he would have sensed by now she was anything but. Dread constricted her chest.
“To the contrary, sword-theyn. I’d prefer to hear nothing at all and be forgotten utterly. But I see ’tis too much to hope for.”
“The man’s your king, and you his sworn vassal.”
“The man is the Devil, and my husband was his sworn vassal! I swore nothing, nor was asked to.”
“He’s your kinsman.” Eomond frowned. “I thought your relations must be cordial.”
“When last I saw him, I was a pawn to be placed where it suited him, no matter my wishes or my grieving mother, my father barely cold in his grave.” Simmering, she thrust to her feet. “And here you find me. I assure you cordial is the last word to describe our relations.”
Restless, she strode to the casement and struggled to regain her composure. “I suppose you’ll relate what he sent you to say, whether I wish to hear it or nay.”
“So I’ve sworn.” He studied her through narrowed gaze, as though she spoke a foreign language.
Mercy, she could burn in those eyes of his—dark embers, no Viking blue at all. And he stared at her as though he saw nothing else.
She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. “I would hear it straight out, without softening.”
“My charge is to bring you to court,” Eomond said flatly. “You’re summoned to appear by Midwinter.”
Whatever she’d expected, it was never this. Her stomach sank with dismay. Her gaze flew to Gwyneth, who clearly shared her alarm.
Blindly, Katrin gripped the casement behind her, and anchored herself against the sweeping tide of fear. Still she felt small and helpless—a condition she despised—before this redoubtable warrior whose presence in her chamber was an unmistakable threat.
“So he’d end my exile at last,” she whispered. “To what purpose?”
“Ethelred seeks another great alliance, and all his kin are spoken for, save the babes in arms. He’ll seal it with your marriage.”
She felt as though she were falling from a vast height. Her blood hammered painfully in her chest. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Try though she might to think, her thoughts swirled like a rising river.
“Another marriage?” she breathed. “To whom?”
She’d murdered her husband when she prayed for his death. In secret, Lady Katrin of Courtenay had known God would call her to account for it.
Gripped by the vise of terror, her heart thudded against her ribcage. Her belly roiled and her hands were ice. No doubt she would die as she deserved: devoured by wolves, condemned by her own choices. Yet, divine judgment or no, she couldn’t resign herself.
Who would tend to their welfare without her—these precious folk who looked to her for safety?
She should never have returned alone to this keep she’d abandoned for the best of reasons. She should never have ventured so far beyond the uncertain shelter of her temporary walls, burrowed deep in the protective wood, and the swords that warded them. An act of sheer madness, when her lands crouched quivering beneath the twin menace of encroaching Scots and savage raiders from Denmark.
And if venture to these tragic ruins she must, why hadn’t she taken heed from the fire-blackened gates swinging inward into shadow, the silence that mocked her hesitant hail, the uneasy nicker of the goat in its pen? Instead, reckless, she’d dismounted—a man’s impulse rather than a woman’s—to seek the kindly steward who guarded the shell of her burned-out home. She’d barely lit a torch when her palfrey shied and bolted.
Now too late Katrin spied the wolf, lean and dangerous, slinking around the charred stable into the failing light of day. When his brethren slid from hiding, her heart sank to her boots. Six of them, for God’s love!
Her entire body ignited with the charge of flight. Well, that was a woman’s impulse, but come too late.
She thought desperately of her hunting bow, but it was strapped to her saddle, and the mare had fled. She had her belt-knife, but scarcely wished to allow the circling beasts close enough to use it. The wolves grinned at her as though they knew it, barely held at bay by the smoking torch.
Clenching her lip between her teeth, she thrust her flaming brand toward the nearest wolf. The monster bared yellow fangs, but inched back. Better.
Seizing her advantage, she edged sideways until her back bumped the stable. Now they couldn’t creep up behind her, perhaps she could sidle to the door and let herself in. It wasn’t as solid as she preferred, with her on one side of it and six wolves on the other. But she prayed it would be enough to hold them.
Aren’t these God’s creatures, driven by the spur of hunger? Who isn’t hungry, in this accursed land?
But hunger made them cunning, just as it had for her. When she dared to creep toward shelter, the lead wolf crouched, its snarls deepening. She thought the wolves sensed what she was about, and were clever enough to thwart her.
A gust of wind caught her rope of hair and flung it forward. The cord loosened, and a skein of red-gold curls unraveled across her face, blinding her. Swiftly she stripped it back, and tasted the bitter knowledge of her fate.
She would die here, in the bailey of this gutted ruin where she’d come as a reluctant bride. The castle was destroyed, her few retainers left cowering in the forest lodge where she, too, should have remained. God knew what dire fate had befallen the faithful steward and his wife. Her life, with its grim daily struggles for food and the strength to hold her meager lands, would be over. She’d spent her brief years uselessly, like a candle burning in an empty room. Now that struggling flame would be blown out.
Sudden fury surged through her, crowding her terror aside. A current of energy coursed down her spine. By God, they would not have her—not without the mother of all battles.
She bared her teeth at the wolves and shouted. “Come on then, you bloody great beasts! Come and try for a piece of me.”
She’d thrust her torch down the throat of the first to leap, and bury her knife to the hilt in its fierce beating heart. Beyond that, she didn’t think. Fiery hair streamed around her as she swept the torch before her.
The leader bunched its shaggy body and sprang, closing on her in a snarling rush. Savagely she swung her torch. It crunched into the monster’s head, the shock of impact slamming through her. Yelping, the beast tumbled sideways in a tangle of flailing limbs.
Already another wolf was leaping, eyes red and teeth snapping. Katrin swept her torch in a wide arc and screamed defiance. Two strides away, the beast lost its footing and collapsed, its nose against her boot—an arrow like a miracle sprouting between its ribs.
She scrambled back, floundering in her woolen kirtle, and wielded her torch with fear-driven strength. Through the veil of flying hair, the thunder of hoofbeats rolled over her, pierced by the metallic shing of steel. All around her, wolves were growling and snapping. As she shook back her hair, another high-pitched yelp rang out.
When her vision cleared, she found an impossible sight: a mounted warrior the size of a siege tower, encumbered in battle armor, head concealed in a cavernous helm as he commanded the yard. Gaping at this new menace, she pressed against the wall as he roared past, broadsword sweeping in a perilous arc. The blade sheared into another leaping wolf and grated against bone.
With brutal efficiency, the stranger unsheathed his sword from the dying wolf. His stallion screamed a challenge and reared, heavy hooves crushing the remains. Overwhelmed by this superior force, the other wolves took to their heels, gray bodies flying low to the ground as they streamed through the gates.
Katrin’s brain functioned with painful slowness. She couldn’t seem to grasp that she’d survived. Not divine judgment after all, since God spared me. Yet she couldn’t turn her thinking so swiftly to counter this new threat.
She stood trembling, clutching the torch, and dragged in great gulps of air. Tremors of aftershock rippled through her. This stranger may have saved her from the wolves. Still, the instrument of destruction filling her courtyard with his dangerous presence was no guardian angel dispatched by God to rescue one reckless woman from folly.
Four years of exile astride the shifting Scottish borders had taught her to view armed strangers with the utmost suspicion.
As if sensing her fear, he turned slowly in his saddle to study her, ring-mail chiming in soft menace. Behind him, the red sun hovered low and burning.
Katrin braced herself and seized the offensive. “Declare yourself, stranger.”
He swung down from his saddle with the chink of steel on steel. Her chest tightened with alarm as the intruder cleaned his blade on the slain wolf’s pelt. When he sheathed his sword, she released her breath.
Whatever his intent, at least he wouldn’t hew her down where she stood. Was he a Scottish border thief or Viking raider or some new peril? When he strode toward her, she brandished her torch.
“Declare yourself, I say!”
Brave words. What will you do if he doesn’t?
He halted, cast in silhouette against the bloody sun. One hand rose, clumsy in a steel-ringed gauntlet, and hoisted off his helm. The wind unraveled a mane of tawny hair behind him.
She circled sideways, lifting a hand against the light. With a sinking heart, she took him in: utterly foreign, stern and unrelenting, with scything cheekbones, the blade of a nose, keen eyes glittering. Copper whiskers blazed against cold-reddened skin.
Katrin stared into those eyes, heart bumping against her ribs. By his coloring, he looked like a Viking. May all the saints defend her if he was.
Bracing his helm beneath one arm, he said gruffly, “Have no fear, girl. The wolves are fled.”
Ah, but a woman has more to fear than wolves. At least he spoke a civilized tongue, clear of the guttural Danish accent.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I am Eomond, sword-theyn and captain for Ethelred, king of England.”
Her belly knotted. Surprise and uncertainty fluttered in her chest. Not a Viking after all—unless he was lying. But if he came from her royal uncle, she would fare no better.
“What purpose brings you to Courtenay Hall?”
His eyes swept left and right across the ruins. “Girl, take me to your mistress.”
She suffered a stab of bitterness. Clearly she’d grown so shabby since her exile this royal emissary thought her a baseborn serf. Her green kirtle was fine-woven, but she wore no jewels, just the brooch that pinned her cloak. Her hair still streamed, unbound and wind-tangled, around her slim frame. She knew men called her fair, but no man would think her a lady now.
“You seek an audience with Lady Katrin?” Still wary, she held the smoking torch between them. “What is your business with her?”
“That business is best discussed with the lady.” The man called Eomond pushed out a breath. “Odin’s pain, girl, I mean you no harm. Lower your weapon.”
A flash of humor chased across his face. How could he not scorn her feeble defense? If this formidable figure meant her ill, she would hardly be able to fend him off with a dying torch. Reluctantly, she lowered the brand, thoughts racing.
The king of England had banished her to an unwilling marriage, sealing the fealty of a border lord who was the key to England’s defense against the Danes. He’d offered no assistance when Maldred of Courtenay died, leaving her unprotected as plague decimated the land. That she survived the pestilence while it mowed down her neighbors like summer wheat, that she contrived to keep starvation and bitter cold at bay, owed nothing to Ethelred.
So she viewed this emissary with no good will. At this late hour, the king couldn’t mean to aid her.
Settling on a strategy, she sent a swift prayer toward Heaven. Forgive the lie, but it’s needful.
“Lady Katrin isn’t here. Perhaps you’ve noticed this keep stands in some neglect.”
He eyed the fire-blackened timbers. “Neglect indeed, when serving girls must fend off wolves in the bailey with little more than bare hands and courage. ’Twas a brave thing you did, girl, standing your ground.”
For an instant, she burned in the dark flames that kindled in his gaze. Sweet Jesus, he unsettled her. Perhaps he meant nothing more than casual appreciation for a fair face. But, unguarded and alone, she couldn’t afford to draw his interest.
Katrin turned away from his stare. “It requires little courage to defend one’s own life. What else was I to do?”
“I’ve seen grown men behave less bravely.” Suddenly, he closed the distance between them. When he lifted the dead torch from her grasp, her heart lodged in her throat.
Now he was too close, overwhelming her with the size of him. All men looked massive to her in their armor—even Maldred, though he hadn’t been tall.
Of course, Maldred hadn’t needed size to frighten her.
But this monumental fellow towered over her like a war-engine. She was painfully conscious of her own slight frame, wrapped in a few layers of wind-whipped wool, vulnerable before his armored strength. Swiftly she slipped aside, catching fistfuls of her flying hair.
For the moment, he didn’t pursue her, except with words. “You say Lady Katrin isn’t here—which I can well believe, to see the place. Are you alone?”
“Nay.” She slid him a guarded glance. “My—the steward and his wife are here. I was trying to find them when the wolves came.”
“Strange they didn’t come to your aid.” Thoughtful, he skimmed the heights, where the jagged palisade stood black against sullen skies. His warhorse stomped, blood-bay coat rippling, mane lashing the air with black flame.
Frowning, the sword-theyn pivoted and strode across the yard, then vanished behind the stable. Abruptly, his footsteps stopped.
Seized by the cold hand of dread, Katrin ran after him, knowing there were specters in these haunted ruins she feared more than him. Something was badly amiss, and she’d known it even before the wolves attacked. At once he reappeared, gauntlet raised in warning.
“Come no closer.”
“What have you found?” Fear tightened her throat.
“I daresay I’ve found all that remains of the steward and his wife. The wolves had at them. Some days ago, by the look of it.”
“May God have mercy on their souls,” she whispered.
Faithful to their last breath, her old friends had kept their vigil, with nary a word of complaint. She should never have asked it. She should have found someone else, except there was no one else. There were too few of them left in these dark days. All her choices were hard ones.
Eomond glanced grimly around the ruin. “Girl, where is your mistress? Time is short.”
She hesitated. “My mistress is…at Foresthold, her hunting lodge in the wood. We removed there when this keep fell, and the Danes surged south. There were too few fighting men left after the battle—and then the fire—to hold this place. It stands too close to the road, and there was…trouble.”
“A story often told in these dark days. The loss of this keep was a disaster for the realm. Ethelred hasn’t been able to close this gap to the Danelaw since Courtenay fell.” He glanced at her sharply. “I must demand you take me to your mistress now.”
“Why, so I shall.” Foreboding prickled her skin. What charge from the king can be so urgent, after years of exile and neglect?
She could see no immediate escape, but at least her mind was working again. Somehow she must deal with this unwelcome emissary—her uncle’s sworn man, the Devil’s own minion come to serve his master’s purpose.
Whatever it was he wanted, she’d do what she must to thwart him.