His heart slammed against his chest.
"Let her go, or I swear I will kill you myself. I, too, can have no mercy." She looked back at him, a winged dark brow rising. "Chieftain, I do find you . . . curious." she said. The sound of laughter was in her voice. "Let us barter with the chieftain here. He desires it, so leave the lass her head!" she ordered.
"Lucian! Give over nothing for me! Barter nothing for my life!" Igrainia cried fiercely.
"She asks to die!" the woman said.
"Don't touch her!" Lucian commanded.
The woman smiled slowly. There was a curve of cruelty to her lips. With the wind now raging around her, she seemed a greater menace than any storm.
"I will try to refrain," the woman said. Her fingers curled around the gold pendant she wore.
He was as still and silent as she.
"Now-give over your sword."
"Let her go with the rest of them," he said, indicating his wife.
The woman watched him a long moment, then walked toward him. It seemed that she barely stirred the water. He did not believe in such things, but by God, she walked over the water.
He heard the whisper rise from the shore. Christianity had come here, to the British Isles, several hundred years ago.
But old superstitions remained.
Witch! Aye, she was some kind of witch. She practiced magic, the darkest kind.
Illusions! he told himself.
Don't believe what you see!
"You do not need her," the woman told him. "You will have me." Illusion! he reminded himself. Deny her!
But his lips were heavy; his throat seemed rigid; words would not form. He looked at her, and fought to shift his gaze.
He managed to speak at last. "I have no need for a witch such as you." Her subtle smile deepened.
And he did lie.
She had a power.
There was something about here . . . something that created a fire in his groin, a hunger unlike any he had known. He wanted to touch her. With his wife, whom he adored, standing in peril before him, with an audience of warriors and farmers and children, with God above ... he wanted her. In the water, the dirt, the mud. Now. He burned.
He fought for his senses. Strained, ached. "Let her go. Let her run after the children then." She cocked her head at him, her eyes amused, ever more intrigued.
"Tell me to come to you."
"Invite me ... to know you."
"Know me, madam, have what you want; do what you will. But let the woman go!" Her smile deepened with wicked triumph and she turned. "Let her go." The men released Igrainia.
Her eyes met his. For a moment he was released from the woman's uncanny hold. God, how he loved his wife! Her eyes, her laughter, the softness of her voice, her quest for knowledge, her love of books, learning, art...
He inclined his head. Run! Help me fight for my own life, knowing you wait for me.
Igrainia's eyes held his a moment longer.
Then she ran after the children. He knew that the Viking warriors could easily run after them again. His men were dead, broken, injured, shattered. The Viking crew knew it, too.
But they knew as well that the longer they tarried, the longer they faced the danger of other clans hearing of their arrival on the coast, and coming en masse in fury against such an invader.
"The woman has gone," the raven-haired witch announced; then she turned to Lucian, irritated at last.
"Perhaps I should take your fool head to prove to all that we will take what we want." He stared at her, his anger a sudden wall against her.
"Perhaps someone should take your fool head, and you'll see that the world is not your playground alone."
"Your sword, chieftain," she said.
He held still.
"Is your word no good then?" she demanded.
Slowly he stretched out his arm. His sword fell into the water. It glittered beneath it.
She nodded and started to walk away. He heard a noise to his rear.
He spun around. Vikings had moved behind him. He felt a crack of steel against his head, and went crashing down into the water. Pain went into a land of darkness. ...
He knew that he remained in a strange place, a place of darkness, as time passed. No time at all, eons of time. Dreams began, and he fought those dreams. He ached, he burned, from head to toe.
I will heal you. . . .
She was there. The dark-haired witch.
His teeth gritted. Get away, vile, fetid witch.
Her laughter seared him.
I will heal you as you have never known yourself healed. I will give you a strength you have not ever imagined. You invited me.
Ah, but you did invite me. . . .
Then he knew a pain that caused him to scream like a child, like a woman, fierce and exquisite, horrible and thrilling, climactic and terrible. Sweat saturated his body, pleasure-deep, decadent, shameful-wound up with the pain. He was strangling in the length of her dark hair, in agony, shuddering with desire, and still, he was certain none of it could be real. It was all part of the darkness and the nightmare.
It was his head, nothing but the blow to his head
Because she was there, too. Igrainia. Calling to him, a siren's song. She stood out on the water, and her arm was outstretched, her palm was up, she reached to him, called to him. Her honey-colored hair billowed behind her in the breeze ... or floated in the water, he was not sure which.
She could touch the sea.
For some reason, he could not.
He called her name in his soul. He could not reach her.
He awoke later, aware of the lapping of water against the hull of a boat. His head thundered. He ached all over, his muscles ravaged and worn and strained. He opened his eyes. Wood above him. He lay in the covered hull of a Viking dragon ship, on a bed of furs. His arms pained him, his shoulders ached . . . his neck, sweet Jesus, he felt as if it had been sliced from his body. Wet, sticky...
"You are with us."
His eyes focused. She was there, sitting at his side.
"I live, it seems."
She smiled and shrugged. "You rested well?"
He had no intention of sharing his dreams with her. "Go to hell, madam, and burn there forever."
"Are you hungry yet?"
He lied. He felt as if rats gnawed at his insides. He was painfully hungry. It was a hunger that seemed to hurt all of his flesh.
She handed him a skin.
He wanted to refuse her. His mouth was dry, his lips parched. If he didn't seize the skin from her, he was going to die.
He took it and drank deeply, not even dunking of the contents. They spilled down his chin, dropped upon his hand. He stared. The drop looked like blood. Something inside him seemed to curl in a knot.
He looked at her sharply.
"Where are we?" he asked coldly.
"About to make landfall," she said.
She stood, leaving him with a sweep of fur behind her.
Darkness had fallen. Her crew was awake, laughing, riding the waves that rose high in the night.
He didn't know how long he had slept, so he didn't know how far they had come.
He staggered up, holding fast to a support beam to stand.
The warriors were aboard, donning mail or armor, grabbing their weapons. Talk and laughter filled the ship as sails were brought in, and they slipped as far as they dared into the channel to disembark.
Suddenly the talk and laughter rose to a deafening pitch; horses were brought from below; men and animals leaped from the ship to the shallows, making for the shore.
Only a few stayed aboard.
The settlement had slept.
It was awakened.
Fierce, high battle cries went out on the night air.
And the attack was begun.
Screams rose as homes in the small fishing village were raided and sacked. He heard prayers, and they were not spoken in the Gaelic of his homeland, nor they were cried out in that of the Irish.
They had come to the edge of the Hebrides, he thought. Islands held by Viking jarls.
They attacked their own kind!
Attacked hard and viciously, showing no mercy. Men ran in the night, screaming, to be brought down with the weight of battle-axes in their backs. They were not his own people, but he gritted his teeth and could have wept, the carnage was so swift and terrible. He longed to fight, even to die, rather than witness such senseless, cruel brutality.
Then suddenly he saw that the survivors were being herded onto the beach. The raven-haired woman was there, walking among them.
Oddly, at his great distance, he could see the eyes of men. See their hatred, see their longing to strike out at her as she stepped so lightly among them. He could see so clearly. Hear them, Lord God, it seemed he even heard their thoughts, knew their sweat and their fear. . . .
It became a clamor in his head. He pressed his palms to his ears.
She walked among the men, and from behind a white-haired warrior she suddenly caught the hand of a girl. The slender beauty had hair that was gold in the moonlight and spilled below her back. The woman dragged her away; the old warrior would not bear it. He stepped forward, drawing his sword.
The woman turned. One of her men stepped forward. The old fellow didn't have a chance. A sword flew hard and sure.
The white-capped head departed the body and bounced onto the sand.
The girl seemed not to see her father die. Her eyes were on the woman's. The woman touched her chin, and the girl lifted her head. She loosened the tie at her throat, and the simple wool shift she had worn fell to her feet.
The whole of her seemed to shimmer silver and gold and innocent in the moonlight.
The woman leaned over to her throat, stroked it, bit into it.
Lucian was horrified. But. . .
His loins throbbed, his lips were dry and parched, the gnawing had begun, a gnawing like rats in his abdomen, scratching, clawing. . . .
God, he thirsted....
He could hear her, hear the raven-haired beauty drinking, hear the blood spurting, the girl's heart pounding, and that pounding coming slower ... and slower.