The sun set the western ocean afire as it slipped below the horizon. Its golden orange rays highlighted the three rough-hewn wooden posts firmly planted on the beach. A single form hung from hands bound overhead to a metal ring near the top of the thick post. Cherry-red hair escaped from her twin braids in wild curls framing her round face. Freckles warred with bruises to cover her ruddy fair skin. She shifted her weight to her other foot, taking some strain off her arms. They’d tied her up the night before and her shoulders now ached worse than the rest of her battered body. The tattered remnants of her undershift did little to cover her from the lecherous stares of the raiders lounging around the rough camp. One sauntered over, licking his lips and raking her with his gaze. He took a long drink from the goatskin of watered wine he carried. He wiped his mouth with the back of his dirty hand. His wicked grin and lusty eyes knotted her very empty gut but she refused to show any outward sign of fear.
“Want some of this?” he taunted and held it toward her. She refused to even acknowledge his presence. Her lips swelled from being struck and cracked from lack of water. Her mouth felt like old dried leather. But she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her beg. She knew they wanted to break her before selling her as a slave. I’d rather die of thirst!
“Get off me, you goat-humping demon spawn!” She kicked at him when he got close enough. He laughed cruelly and slammed his body against hers, holding her tight to the pole. He grabbed her chin and almost choked her, pouring the bitter wine in her mouth. She swallowed some before spitting the rest back at him. He tossed the bag at another man who’d come to watch the sport.
“Looks like you need another lesson in manners!” The filthy raider grinned, exposing rotted teeth. His fetid breath made her head spin and her stomach knot in protest. A stench rivaled only by that of his unwashed body. He kept a firm grip on her chin with one hand while he pawed at her breast with the other.
She waited for a chance. He had to let go to unfasten his pants and quick as a snake she bit his cheek and kicked up with her knee. He managed to dodge the kick, barely. His companions laughed and jeered, egging him on. He dropped his pants and slammed his forearm against her upper chest, pinning her to the pole, and proceeded to maul her with the other hand. He pressed his lower body against her but kept his stinging face clear of her teeth. She felt his cock harden as he rubbed himself on her.
A shadow crossed before the setting sun but he ignored it, intent on seeking his pleasure. They both knew that if it was a ship, it would have to dock on the other side of the cove as the beach here was too shallow. That would give him plenty of time to scratch his itch. And no one but raiders used this cove so they were likely friendly.
But the ship didn’t turn for the dock. It sailed straight at them. Someone called out a warning. Pants around his feet, the man turned, brows drawn down in confusion. Others began to gather, trying to see into the setting sun. Too late the shape became clear. A slick ship with an arching prow and stern, square sail and a single row of oars on either side. Northmen! And coming in fast. She laughed at the panicked men scrambling to find weapons. The man in front of her seemed unable to get his pants fastened in his haste. They fell back around his ankles tripping him on his way to his battered old sword and shield.
The dragon-headed ship growled up onto the gravel beach. A bloodcurdling shout from the ship and ring mail clad warriors with long blond braids swinging jumped over the sides. A tall man leaped the short distance up the beach, catching her tormenter in the gut with the curving blade of his five-and-a-half foot long war axe. The curving blade sliced cleanly through, sending a slight spray of blood from the tip as it ended its arc.
She laughed at the man’s shocked face as his guts spilled over the pants he still tried to secure. “Spineless dog-humping whores! Now who’s laughing?” she taunted the dying man gleefully.
The blond barbarian warrior smiled at her from under his helm. She spit at him.
“That one’s mine!” he called to his comrades, dodging a spear thrust easily. He whirled the axe in an arc, smashing the man’s spear. He turned with it and followed through with a blow that shattered the man’s skull from the side.
The woman laughed again. “Nice! But let ’em suffer more!” she called after the tall warrior bounding farther up the beach in pursuit of fleeing raiders. She’d never seen northmen before. They moved with the lethal grace of wild wolves in a flock of sheep. Against the well trained northmen, these ragged raiders didn’t stand a chance. Filthy pig-loving goat suckers deserve worse. She felt a great satisfaction as the head of a former tormenter tumbled across the sandy gravel. And then it occurred to her that these northmen weren’t here to rescue her. She tried not to think what the northland beasts would do to her. Or her sister. It sent cold shivers through her, and despair replaced the euphoria of a moment ago. The Wild Isles, her former home, suffered their raids regularly. Nothing caused more terror than the sight of one of their dragon ships landing. They killed at will and took what they wanted. Horrific stories abounded of captives tortured, raped and sacrificed to their bloody gods. A sharp chill shivered down her spine as she watched a northman ignore a wounded raider’s plea for mercy and behead him in a single stroke.
* * * *
Raiders scattered into the shadows of the green woods with northmen in hot pursuit. A fair-sized group of raiders made for their ship moored on the other side of the bay. The few still on the ship started to cast off but there weren’t enough to man the oars. The northmen leaped aboard and death followed. A few raiders threw down their weapons and surrendered. Leif glanced at the shore to see how the battle fared there. His older brother had it well in hand. He motioned toward the closed hatch leading to the small hold. One raised it while the others stood ready to attack. Not even a wheeze came from the low-ceilinged hold. Leif dropped in first to check it out. Nothing but stolen goods.
* * * *
Eirik, Leif’s older brother, surveyed the cove carefully. It lay between two rocky promontories. The one to the south stood twice as high as their ship’s mast. The other side rose just shy of one mast length and both had the remains of old fortifications on them. The ruins of twin watch towers and a stone pier stood as a last testament to a settlement long abandoned. The forest of oak, beech and some pine had long since overgrown the keep and surrounding farmland. Someone had recently added a wood watchtower on the northern point. Some of the old stones from the keep and walls now made a well-used fire ring and wind breaks on the south side of the stream. A good defensive position—any who came in would have to dock across the cove and cross the stream. Except northmen, whose ships could land just about anywhere. Eirik shook his head in scorn. They hadn’t bothered to man the watchtowers or they’d have seen the Dragon’s Fire coming in plenty of time to mount a defense.
The tall poles stood to the far southern side of the camp, well above the storm surge on a swell of sand and beach grass. They would be visible to anyone entering the cove, especially from the north. Only a woman hung from one. Several heavy stone pillars stood in a rough line behind the fire ring. Standing about three foot tall and spaced close to four feet apart, they had iron rings on three sides. Eirik wondered if they’d once been used to moor boats. Now, three young women, a small bundle that might be a redheaded girl and a couple of well-dressed merchants were chained to them.
“Gather the slaves, captives and any survivors!” Eirik ordered sharply. “We’re losing daylight—light some torches and gather all the loot here as well. Cedric, set up watches on both points and in the woods. Don’t want to get caught with our pants down.” He watched with narrowed eyes as men jumped to follow his orders.
Eirik turned to Cedric. “Any losses or wounded?”
Cedric shook his head no. “No losses and just a scratch or two, mostly from some brambles back in the woods.” He shook his head in disgust. “Hairless raiders! Hardly worth drawing steel for.”
* * * *
“Get away from me, you filthy northern demon spawn!” the redhead yelled, kicking and twisting to avoid the two men now pawing at her.
“Hey!” Fridgeir shouted as he crossed the beach in a few long strides. “I claimed that one already! Get your randy hands off! Floki, Knut!” A drop of blood fell from the edge of his war axe.
“I didn’t hear any claim!” Floki shot back, “and I got here first!” His hand moved to his sword.
The woman couldn’t help snickering at the two men squaring off to fight over her battered body. She kind of hoped the first one would win. He sounded almost kind, for a savage northman! The one closest smelled nearly as bad as the dead raider. She had no doubt he’d live up to his peoples’ reputation for brutality.
Eirik walked up. “Enough, Floki—Fridgeir claimed her when he gutted this pig.” He toed the dead raider. “Looked like he was making use of her so that gives Fridgeir first right. You and Knut start gathering the dead. I want the bodies stripped of valuables and piled in their ship’s hold.”
Floki scowled but stalked off with his buddy without another word.
“Hey! Start with this one!” Eirik called after them. The two men turned and sullenly dragged the dead raider off.
Fridgeir grinned at his new prize, removing his helm and handing it and his long axe to Arinbjorn, his shield partner. His deep blue eyes sent a gaze raking over her much like the others had.
He noted the sheer number of bruises and cuts that covered her better than the tattered remnants of her clothes. The bodice of her dress had been cut open, leaving a faint blood trail where the knife had cut her between her firm-looking, well-shaped breasts. Not overly endowed but still nice. A good balance to her hips made for easing birthing. Her strong legs trembled slightly as she took some of her weight off her arms. He wondered how long she'd been hanging there. She wasn’t as tall as most northwomen but the top of her head would likely reach his nose and her sturdy frame carried good muscle over it. Not a weak midlander, no. A true women of the Wild Isles! Beaten or not, a real prize and all his. He grinned.
* * * *
She looked him over just as closely. Twin braids of golden blond hair hung past his shoulders and a beard to match hung neatly down past the neck line of his ring mail. All that face hair made it hard to judge his age but she guessed mid-twenties, maybe a bit older. A warrior in his prime. A wool tunic of forest green hung just past the end of his mail, barely covering his hips. Good quality wool pants of a slightly darker shade of green covered his lower half. Leather bracers held the sleeves tight and matching greaves covered his legs from knee to foot. He pulled off his metal-clad leather gloves and tucked them in his leather waist belt. Only a long knife hung from it, no sword. His ring mail, matching greaves, gloves and bracers looked of good quality and his war axe boasted a large blade with the haft wrapped in hardened leather and metal bands for strength. Iron caps decorated with swirling patterns covered both ends of the haft. She figured he had to be a man of status and means to own such weapons. Under other circumstances, she’d find his masculine lines irresistible.
“Looks like you pissed someone off pretty bad!” His voice held a note of admiration.
“Get away from me. Dog-humping northern demon spawn!” She kicked at him as soon as he got close enough. Anger drowned out the fear that tried to choke off her breath. No way I’ll let him have his way with me without a fight!
Fridgeir laughed and pinned her to the pole with his body, keeping his legs carefully where she couldn’t kick him. He kissed her. She bit his lip. He laughed and nipped her back.
“Leave me alone, demon-spawned Northland beast!” She struggled to kick him or bite him but he easily dodged all her attempts. He gripped her chin and deep blue eyes filled with mirth and longing locked on hers. A sob rose in her throat. Will they never stop?
He tightened his grip on her jaw just enough to stop her from turning to bite him. He saw the pain and fear she tried to hide behind her fight. It cooled his ardor. “Take it easy, I’m not going to hurt you,” his soft but strong voice whispered in her ear as his lips gently caressed it. He stepped back and took his long axe from Arinbjorn.
Her breath froze. Despite his words, she feared he meant to at least beat her with it. Instead with a loud thunk he cut the ropes holding her up. She collapsed to the ground, numb arms hanging useless and exhausted legs unable to hold her trembling body. Total shock kept her motionless for a few heartbeats.
“Here.” Njals, a blond young man of perhaps seventeen or eighteen, handed him a cloak he’d fetched from the ship.
Handing his axe back, Fridgeir lifted her to her feet and checked the ropes binding her hands. She struggled to get free as he wrapped her in his cloak but lack of food and water sapped her strength as much as the abuse she’d endured. Nicely bundled, he tossed her over his shoulder to carry her to where the others gathered near the fire ring. Under the filth, blood and bruises he could tell she was fit and healthy.
“Put me down, you overgrown pig herder!” She struggled, but her bound hands were tightly wrapped inside his cloak. She managed to worm enough to bite his neck. She hoped he would drop her and she could get free. To be held by northmen meant almost certain death or at least horrors even worse than she’d already endured. Everyone knew they enjoyed torturing and mutilating their captives. Desperation fueled her struggles.
Fridgeir laughed. “Little closer to the base here, if you want to turn me on. Or more over here and much harder if you were trying for a vein.” He pointed to the appropriate spots on his neck then dumped her in a heap on the ground, still too tangled in the cloak to get free.
“Northern goat lover!” she yelled, and spat on the ground in his direction. He ignored her taunt, simply stood grinning at her—with an unmistakable look of anticipation in his face.
* * * *
“They were already expecting my ransom.” The scuffed, pasty-skinned and chinless merchant spoke arrogantly for a man bound and on his knees in the dirt. “I’m sure it will suffice to secure my release.”
Eirik wasn’t fooled by the man's demeanor. The pale, soft man stank of fear. A wolf’s grin crossed Eirik’s blond-bearded face, showing straight white teeth. “Depends—how much for a hairless worm like you?”
“Five weights of gold, but that includes my son and daughter.” He nodded to the equally chinless and pasty-looking young man bound nearby and then to the bundle that turned out to be a young redheaded girl cowering with three other young women.
“And what about your son’s new wife!” Fridgeir’s redhead captive hissed as she struggled to get free of the cloak.
“She’s your son’s wife?” Eirik asked, looking at the swollen and bruised face of Fridgeir’s claim.
“Was—she’s been defiled. We’ve no more use for her.” The fat trader pointedly dismissed her while his son stared at the ground, looking rather unhappy
“You goat-sucking, spineless, pig-loving man-whore! First you do nothing to protect me from those stinking dog-humping raiders and now you’ll let these filthy northern demons drag me off!” she hissed at him as she fought with the cloak.
Eirik gave Fridgeir an approving smile before looking the young girl over. He seriously doubted the girl could be the merchant’s daughter. Both he and his son had the dark brownish hair and even-toned skin of a midlander. Curly red hair and freckles marked the girl as coming from the Wild Isles. That red hair and youth made her worth a lot, farther inland or near the inner sea. Especially since she had to be virgin—she looked no more than eleven maybe twelve. For reasons that eluded the northmen, men of the inner sea seemed especially hung up on having virgins. Paid a lot extra for women lacking any bed skills. It made no sense to northmen but that didn’t stop them from making good coin off it.
“That girl’s worth more than your ransom in the right places. But I’m sure you know that already.” Eirik's eyes narrowed dangerously. “Think I’m a witless raider? Try to play me again and I’ll cut out your tongue!”
The trader swallowed hard. Eirik inhaled the sweet smell of fear growing stronger on him. “I’m sure we can come to some agreement. I’ve already a buyer for her—we could split it. A full four weights of gold.”
The fiery redhead snarled at the merchant. “You lying man-whore! You swore you’d protect her! Gutless goat-humping weasel!” Righteous anger spurred her attempts at freedom. With a last wiggle she got free. She leaped at the merchant, kicking him over before the northmen could react.
“Get her off me!” he screamed like a frightened child. Hands bound behind his back, he twisted and tried to squirm away from her rage. She pinned him down by sitting squarely on him clawing at his face with her bound hands. The gathered northmen roared with laughter at the sight. A mostly naked, bloody and furious woman clawing like a wet cat at the fat trader’s face—best entertainment they’d had in days. Blood ran where she marked him as he desperately writhed, trying to dislodge her.
* * * *
Laughing almost too hard to stand, Fridgeir pulled her off. She managed a quick kick to the trader’s groin, making him scream even louder. She laughed and fought Fridgeir’s hold. He held her firm against him. She twisted her head and bit his cheek leaving clear impressions of her teeth just above the line of his blond beard. The feel of his strong male body triggered a panic that set her to struggling harder. “Let go of me! Dog-humping demon spawn!” she screamed while trying to kick and twist her way loose.
Fridgeir simply shifted his hold, lacing his arms under hers with her hands behind her head. “Keep it up and I can snap your neck! Though I’d rather not.” His voice sounded more amused then angry.
Self-preservation set in and she heaved a breath to still the panic she felt. Getting herself killed wouldn’t save her sister.
“Got yourself a wild one! Better be careful she doesn’t bite it off!” Giermund teased while others continued to laugh and enjoy the show.
“That’s what gags are for,” he shot back. Northmen snickered while Arinbjorn helped him get her tightly wrapped up in his cloak and back on the ground at his feet. She didn’t make it easy.
They turned back to the merchant. “Where were we?” Eirik asked after he caught his breath from laughing. “Oh, yes the girl. Only half? I can manage more than that on my own.”
The merchant managed to squirm back onto his knees. He kept a wary eye on the redheaded woman as he returned to negotiating. “But you’d have to find the right buyer. I’ve already got it arranged.” He glared at the redheaded woman and smirked.
“No! Leave her be, you cock-sucking goat lover! She’s just a child.” The redhead tried to fight her way loose again. Fridgeir placed his foot meaningfully on her neck.
She glared up at him. “Demon-spawned northland beasts!” At his cocked brow she got quiet but glared daggers at him.
Eirik looked at the young girl closely. “How old are you, child?” he, asked settling on to his heels to look her in the face. She cowered away from him.
The wild one answered for her. “She doesn’t speak, not since that man thing, the Witch King, destroyed our village. She’ll be twelve next moon cycle. She’s not even a woman yet! Leave her alone!” She hissed and struggled until Fridgeir leaned slightly on her neck.
Eirik studied the girl and Fridgeir’s new slave. “Sisters,” he stated as much as asked.
The redhead glared but answered, “Yes. Please don’t hurt her, she just a child.” Her voice took on a pleading note.
Eirik looked meaningfully at Fridgeir to see if he wanted her as well. Fridgeir looked at his feisty prize then back to the girl, and he gave a subtle but uncertain shrug.
“For now, the girl stays with us, hairless worm.” Eirik turned back to the merchant. Fear and anger warred on the man’s face. Eirik wondered who he’d promised the girl to and for how much. “Now—how soon will that ransom arrive?”
The merchant refused to meet Eirik’s stare as he replied. “Another day and they were to take me to Alhenia to meet my brother and get the ransom.”
“Liar!” the redhead snarled. “They spared five of his men and enough crew to sail their ship. He sent them to Alhenia. From there, they have to ride a good two days to Jonnah’s crossing where their main compound is. After they return to Alhenia they’re to sail north until they see the watchtower on the lower cliff. That was three days ago.” She smirked at the merchant, who glared angrily at her, then blanched at the cold look on Eirik’s face.
Eirik nodded thoughtfully. “Hmm…we’re three days north of Alhenia, so we have at least…what? Four, maybe five days? Fridgeir, Arinbjorn, keep the girl with you and safe, for now. Let’s see what else we have here. Hroald, Ingvar, tie these two beardless worms to those posts with enough rope to sit and no food or water.” He turned and indicated the trader with a jerk of his head. “Maybe it’ll help him speak the truth next time.”
Eirik doubted the soft, squishy-looking man could take a night hanging on the post but just being tied to it might help loosen his tongue. He ignored the merchant’s mewling protests as they dragged him and his son over. The redhead laughed and taunted him. Eirik turned his attention to the rest of the loot.
Torches were lit to help them sort through the goods and decide what to take. They’d had word the merchant was selling to the Witch King and would be returning with a good deal of gold. The raiders got to him first but they weren’t too hard to find. Eirik’s people kept track of most of the raiders in the area for just this reason. Every now and then, they took something he wanted. This camp was well known to the northmen and the first place they’d looked.
Fridgeir chained his new woman to a stone post a few feet from the fire ring, with just enough room to sit up while he helped sort through the loot. He took the precaution of binding her feet with a leather strap that would let her walk slowly or let him spread her legs enough. He smiled suggestively at her as he secured them and ran his hand up one shapely calf. She snarled and tried to kick him. He grinned bigger. Arinbjorn finished securing her sister to the post next to her.
“Better have a gag ready, shield partner, and something to tie her feet to!” Arinbjorn teased. “They don’t call them the Wild Isles for nothing!”