Three weeks. We’d been on horseback, traveling day and night through the harsh wilderness north of the mountain that loomed above us all. We’d outrun the wintry storm that had the north locked in its deadly grip. It only rained down here; constant, huge storms rolling off the far away sea and getting caught by the mountain range. The weather I could handle. The thought of what lay ahead, I could not.
Murdoc and Rollo kept quiet for the most part, only breaking the silence to joke with me. I’d told Murdoc where I’d hidden the jewels, to do anything in his power to save Maeve’s beloved family if I could not follow through with Agnar’s orders. He’d agreed, though I could see in his wise stare that he believed me a fool.
The landscape changed drastically; the hills were covered in thick, green grasses and scattered with huge, sharp rocks. There were more mountains in the distance, their caps frothed over with fresh coats of snow. There weren’t many towns along this route; the wilderness here was untamed, willing to kill in an instant. With five hundred men in tow, we slowly pushed on.
We were headed to a large, once-nomadic clan called Dal, who’d began to settle the land. They were prosperous, becoming a hub for trading, the link between the grasslands and the sea. They worshipped strange beings, their virgin women clothed in white, the rest in dark hues. It was rumored that they prayed to statues carved to resemble men. Clearly, they embraced status symbols in every aspect of their culture.
We sat clumped around a fire. Tomorrow night, the first wave of the raids would begin. Tonight, the Brotherhood drank their stashes of whisky and fought, readying themselves to conquer these unknown people. The excitement was tangible in the air, especially for those young men who’s first pillaging this was.
Rollo nudged me, breaking my stare away from the leaping flames. Although we’d outrun the snow, I could feel it in the crispness of the air as it bit at my nose. I glanced to him. Our last raid, Rollo had tried to claim a young woman, knowing once Agnar saw her that he’d take her. In that way, Rollo had sought to save her, to give her a chance at a better life. Agnar had fought Rollo, knocking him out and taking the girl for himself. A few days later, she’d stripped naked and walked into the rushing river near our lands. I could see in Rollo’s eyes the hatred that was building.
“What ye thinkin’?” He asked. I shrugged, putting my flask to my lips, wishing for oblivion to overtake me tonight. Murdoc approached with his arms full of firewood. He dropped it near our feet, the split logs knocking together.
“I’ll no sleep with all their damn racket.” He growled.
“Once again, Murdy, yer showin’ yer age.” Rollo bounced with laughter. I smirked, turning my stare back to the flames. I saw her face clearly in the fire, dancing before my very eyes. I craved her touch, her smile, the feel of her warmth beside me as we fell into blissful sleep. She had felt more distant with each passing week. Now, it seemed she stood before me, beckoning me to follow, follow her to the peace that was death. Did I truly want to die, to leave her family in the hands of Murdoc? I trusted the man with my life, but I felt split in two; they still needed me.
I tipped back my flask once more, draining the fiery substance until my chest burned. The trees overhead swayed in the wind as howls of wolves greeted our ears.
I knew how raids started by instinct now. I lay, pressed flat against the muddy ground, staring down into the sleeping town. I moved my hand just barely, pointing to a cottage on the far left of the lands. Murdoc nodded slightly, pointing to the cottage next door. Since this was such a massive raid, we’d have to split up. I wasn’t keen on the plan, but we’d cover more ground this way. Blood hammered through my veins as my excited nervousness built. I’d been bred a warrior, that much was clear.
I could feel Agnar watching my every move; I’d have to be especially quick, knowing he’d follow me to ensure I held up my end of the bargain. A high whistle sounded from behind. The raid had begun.
It was utter chaos as I shoved my way down the hill, outrunning every man, the cottage locked in my sights. The lazier men hit the first homes they came across, eliciting screams and wails. Their men were no fighters.
Mud flew up behind me as I pushed forward, rain smattering my face, drenching me. No one followed, save for Murdoc. He reached his chosen cottage first, bursting through the door. I pulled to a breathless halt as I stood before the one I’d chosen, glancing around. Agnar was lost in the mayhem. I climbed the two wood steps, pushing open the unbarred door, met with only darkness in the small space. The smell of candle smoke met my nose. Someone was in here. I closed the door, trapping us in the utter darkness. There was no fear in my heart. I could hear shallow, frightened breathing from under the bed. I ignored it and began to rummage around the tiny place.
No silver, no gold, nothing of any value. Only a few books, some clothes, ancient candelabra, and whoever was hiding under the bed. I reached into my pocket, grabbing a jewel. I held it up to the dim light streaming in through the window. It was an emerald. I dropped it, hearing it roll near the bed. I moved to the door, satisfied that I’d found nothing of great worth, ready to help Murdoc in his own search.
It burst open before me, the hulking figure blotting out the torchlight from the neighboring cottage. Agnar.
“Find anythin’?” He asked.
He took a threatening step forward, the floorboards creaking under his hefty weight. He reeked of ale and dirt and rain. He glanced around, his shrewd eyes not missing a thing. He pulled open the bedside drawer, reaching in and pulling out a white shift. Something a woman would wear. My heartbeat rushed into my throat. He held the fabric to his grimy face and inhaled deeply, his eyes closing as he relished the scent that clung to the clothing.
“Ye know, the virgins of this clan wear white.”
I could hear the smirk in his voice.
“She must be here somewhere, wouldn’t ye think, Killian?” He said. I only glared back at him, praying whoever was hiding would stay that way. Something slipped then, under the bed, a stray arm or foot sliding against the rough wood floor. The noise caused my stomach to plummet, my eyes to close. Agnar pushed past me. I heard her intake of breath, heard as he dragged her out from under the bed. When I finally opened my eyes, I was met with two, round blue ones. She stared at me, her mouth open in fright, unable to speak or move. Her brown hair was long, braided, sweeping down to her waist. Even in the darkness, she was strikingly beautiful.
Agnar’s grip on her upper arm tightened, causing her to wince and whimper. She was tiny, akin to faeries my mother used to tell me about, her pixie-like face flushed.
Agnar let out a low whistle.
“Seems as though it’s yer lucky day,” he shook her arm. He stared down at her, lust heavy in his eyes.
“Come, Killian. Claim yer woman.”
His voice was biting, sarcastic. He exited the cottage, walking her to the middle of the town. Everything burned around us, red hot embers glowing as they drifted to the muddy ground. The rain had ceased. The girl’s eyes widened even further, watching as her home was torched, as men fought and died, as the women were raped. Agnar turned to face me, his thick forearm wound around her neck. Her hands clawed at his arm, her chest heaved with anxious breaths. I could feel the look I wore on my face; Murdoc and Rollo had told me before that it would strike fear into the bravest of men. I quaked with rage, breathing in sharply through my nose as Agnar’s hand roamed over the front of her body. She closed her eyes, her breathing even more rapid. I took a menacing step forward. Agnar’s eyes stopped me.
“I’ve been so fair to ye Killian,” he said, his fat hand reaching for the strings on her pure white dress. He gave them a sharp tug, pulling open the front of her shift, exposing her chest. Her lips trembled, her bare feet nearly dangling as he gripped her tight to him.
“So I’ll give ye the final choice,” he slid one hand into the opening of her shift, over her breast, gripping it. The skin across my knuckles felt as though it would split. How I longed to watch Agnar die a torturous death at my hands. I felt the tremors of rage rock my body.
“Claim her, or I will,” he planted a wet kiss on her exposed neck. “I’ll keep ye alive long enough to watch as I claim her, and yer woman’s mother and her sister.” He said. The shaking of my body ceased; the power that rage brought with it had vanished as I envisioned Morna and Meredith falling prey to Agnar.
“I’ll kill those bastard boys one by one in front of yer eyes.” He called. The young woman’s round, innocent eyes pierced my soul. I couldn’t do it, but I had to.
“The choice is yers,” he smiled, his hand slithering down the length of her body to pull her shift up. My rage returned, more potent and forceful than ever before. Her eyes stared into mine, so frightened. She began to mouth something over and over, tears spilling onto her cheeks.
The weight of her words nearly crushed me. She cried out as Agnar slowly bent her over at the waist, gripping her braid, his eyes never leaving my face. I snapped, unable to bear it any longer.
“Give her to me.” I growled. Skepticism and remorse flitted across his eyes as he straightened her back up. Her cheeks were blotched and rosy in the firelight. A small crowd had gathered to watch, their eyes hungry as they stared at the woman before them; it was rare that any woman they claimed were of such ethereal beauty.
Angry, he shoved her to me, my arms open and ready to catch her as she stumbled into them. I set my hands on her waist to steady her, her own hands surrendered on my chest as she stared up at me. She shook like a leaf hanging on a branch in the icy wind. Her innocence was clear to see as she averted her eyes, chewed her bottom lip. I glanced past her shoulder, seeing Agnar cross his arms and glare at me, seeing Murdoc and Rollo move forward in the small crowd. A piercing scream sounded to our left from a nearby cottage. The woman in my arms shuddered.
I looked back to her, sensing her eyes on my face. I set my jaw.
“Ye know what I must do?” I whispered to her. Her eyes wide, she nodded once. I spotted an overturned wagon of hay to our left, the straw spilling out and making a natural bed. I walked forward, forcing her to walk backward. Her eyes roamed around, jumping from one atrocious scene to the next. I slowed our pace, causing her to look up to me.
“Just look at me, alright?” I whispered. She nodded, obeying immediately, her chest rising and falling all too rapidly.
“What’s yer name?” I asked, trying any tactic to distract her.
“Em-Emmelyne.” She said. Such a perfect name for a beauty like her.
“I’m Killian.” I said. She only stared back. We made it to the heaping pile of straw as I removed one hand from her small waist, unfastening the clasp that held my thick plaid shawl in place. I whisked it off and lay it behind her on the hay.
“How old are ye?” I asked.
“I’m sixteen and five months.” She whispered, her voice trembling. I hooked my boot behind her ankle, my hand on her upper back as I dipped her gently down onto the straw. The proximity of her body to mine sent a jolt of heat through my veins—something I was not expecting. I hadn’t laid with a woman since Maeve had died, and my body was clearly going to betray me now. I stood straight, peering down at her cold, trembling form on the makeshift bed below me. Thousands of jumbled thoughts ran through my mind, though the most persistent seemed to be focusing on Emmelyne’s pure exquisiteness. As I stared at her face, my thoughts of Maeve seemed to fade from my memory.
She would be mine after this, plain and simple. I’d had to share Maeve with her customers. Knowing I’d be Emmelyne’s first sent another jolt through me; we’d share something that would be solely ours. But how could I take that from her in such a way as this? A plan dawned on me, a dangerous idea that I knew may not work, though I had to try.
Another wail erupted nearby, Emmelyne’s head turning sharply to the noise. I knelt down onto my knees, one on each side of her hips, cupping her face in my hand and turning it to me. Her hands visibly shook near her chest. A few long strands of her brown hair had come loose and now drifted across her face in the wind. My heart lurched, yearning for her already. Damn my instincts.
I reached for the hem of her thick winter shift, pulling it up enough for the task while still giving her as much privacy as possible.
“Emmelyne,” I said, trying her strange name on my tongue. It fit, fit as snuggly as her body beneath mine. Even Maeve had not complimented me in such a way.
“You-You can call me Emmy,” she said, her wide eyes brimming with tears. I smiled, nodding.
“Aye, suits ye.”
A gust of wind brought with it the stench of burning flesh and smoke. I used one of my knees to nudge her thigh out of my way, exposing her to me.
“Killian.” She said, seeming to try my name out. My heart lurched again, sensing already that I’d do anything to save this young woman.
“Yes?” I asked.
“He’ll not hurt me, if you and I do…this?” She asked, her naturally round eyes hopeful. I nodded.
“If we do this, no one else will be able to touch ye, save for me.”
She nodded in understanding.
“I’ll no hurt ye, and I’ll do my best right now…to make it…easy as possible.” I stammered, embarrassment setting in. I brushed my thumb along her jawline, feeling her lean in to my hand.
“May I?” I asked, unable to wait any longer, fearing Agnar may become agitated. She smiled a tremulous smile and nodded, though the fear was clear in her eyes.
“Yes, I’m ready.”
I nudged her thigh further.
“I promise ye…I swear it, that I’ll keep ye safe, no matter what the cost.” I whispered, bending close to her ear.
“I trust you.” She whispered back. Those three words were my unraveling. I reached for the ties on my breeches, unfastening them. She let out a small gasp as she felt the sharp edge of my dagger pressed against her hip bone. Her hand searched across the straw until it found mine, until she gripped it tight. I smiled reassuringly, winding our fingers together. She blushed deeply at our closeness, though she was utterly confused at the trick I was pulling. She made a sound at the back of her throat as I twitched the blade, slicing through her delicate skin.
“Are ye alright?” I asked. She nodded quickly, confusion clear in her eyes as I ground my hips against hers for our spectators. If I could make it appear as though I’d taken her innocence without actually doing it, Agnar would never know the difference.
“I…” She began. It took all my strength to fight my animalistic urges. I wanted to truly claim her, to bind her to me, but I would forever hate myself.
“I wasn’t told it would be like this,” she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed, her back arching, myself aching to release myself in her. I pulled her close to me, growling, the primal urge nearly overtaking me. I’d never wanted anything so badly before. There seemed to be a fire within me, starting in my chest and spreading rapidly through my veins, burning through me as quickly as flame rushed through the dry wilderness. Coming to my senses, I pulled away, glancing down at her bloodied shift. I smirked, knowing my plan had been foolproof. The blood from the cut on her hip, combined with the closeness of my manhood to her womanhood, made everything appear very real. I felt bad for the confusion in her eyes, knowing I’d have to explain to her this wasn’t how it was truly done. A hand gripped my shoulder tight, ripping me away from her. I reached for my discarded sword, whirling, my eyes meeting Agnar’s. He was livid as he stared between her sprawled legs, having lost such a grand prize.
“If ye so much as look at her wrong, our laws dictate all the ways I can kill ye.” I growled, my sword just under his chin. Fear flickered behind his mask before he smirked.
“You’ll have more than me to worry about with a beauty like that on yer hands.” He answered.
He turned and stalked off, picking up a burning barrel and throwing it in his rage.