Kidnapped By The Viking

HEAT LEVEL:
Down & Dirty

Stolen by the enemy…

In thrall to his touch!

Mercian princess Aelfwynn’s hard-earned escape from a tumultuous life at court to a nunnery is thwarted when she’s kidnapped by rugged Viking Thorbrand from a rival clan. She expects this dark-hearted warrior to have wicked intentions, but he’s not the savage beast she expects. There’s something about him that calls to her and soon it’s the shockingly addictive pleasure she finds with her captor that’s the biggest danger of all…

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Kidnapped By The Viking

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“…she was deprived of all authority and taken into Wessex.”

The Life of Aelfwynn, Daughter of the only Lady of the Mercians as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 918 AD

The Northman stood in the middle of the old road like a mountain of stone and dread, a giant blocking the way through the darkening wood.

At first Aelfwynn thought she was hallucinating him. It had been so many hours of cold, uncomfortable riding from the fortified burh of Tamworth where she had watched her mother, the much-beloved Lady of the Mercians, die six months ago. They had set off before first light, setting a brisk pace despite the season’s wintry fog. Aelfwynn had felt every muddy, frozen, treacherous bump too well this sad day, due in part to the tired old horse that was all her uncle had allotted her for the long, hard journey south into his grand kingdom of Wessex. But her heart was heavy, and that made every ache and pain seem the greater.

Her mind had danced away from what awaited her in the new, quiet life she would start at Wilton Abbey. Her heart had longed for what she left behind, what she’d lost, what could never be regained.

And then he had appeared like a nightmare.

A nightmare Aelfwynn had suffered through many times, both waking and sleeping, thanks to the many battles she had witnessed in her lifetime—or had not witnessed personally—yet was forced to wait in dire apprehension to see who would return and who would not. She was a grandchild of the great King Alfred of Wessex. She had been born of his eldest daughter Aethelflaed and was her royal mother’s only issue. Fighting off the many savages who rose against them in repeated attempts to take their lands and call themselves its rulers had consumed them all for as long as anyone could recall.

She blamed the relentless scourge of Northmen like this one—or the terrible Danes, or the bloody Norse—for the loss of her mother this past June and her elderly father seven years before. These hostile, warfaring men from the east, their havoc and their raids and their conquests, never truly stopped. Conquer them in the west and they rise again in the east, her mother had always said. Then north, then south. The only constant was bloodshed.

Always and ever the bloodshed, staining the very earth beneath Aelfwynn’s feet.

But blame and blood alike did naught to clear her path this evening.

This Northman was broad and tall, dressed in furs and wool that did nothing to conceal the truth of him. That he was a warrior was obvious in the way he held himself, a silent yet distinct threat. The snow that had been falling bleakly since the frigid midday settled on his wide shoulders, dusting his head and dark beard, but he appeared to notice neither that nor the rearing mounts of the two men of questionable strength her uncle had grudgingly spared for her.

Instead his gaze, a dark and powerful force, hit Aelfwynn like a blow, making her glad she had the hood of her own cloak to hide her in some small way. Though she knew that no bandit would mistake her for a commoner, even without the men guarding her on this journey. She rode a horse instead of walking, for one. And her clothes were too fine. Her cloak and the headdress beneath, wrapped around her head and neck, were wool—and she only hoped he could not see the finely wrought jeweled pins that held her headdress in place that would as good as shout out who she was to the whole of the kingdom.

“Stand down!” cried one of her uncle’s men.

A bit late, to Aelfwynn’s mind.

The Northman did not yield. He gave as much notice to the order as did the stark trees that lined the road.

“We travel under the banner of King Edward of Wessex,” cried the other. “Dare you court his displeasure?”

“And yet I see no king before me,” said the Northman, his voice a low, rough rumble that made Aelfwynn feel almost dizzy, so much so that her skittish old horse began to drift sideways, toward the forest where nothing good lurked.

Nothing good left anywhere, it seems, she thought with a touch of self-pity that shamed her even as it swelled in her, with a giant in the road. She corrected her mount and strove to cast off her own dark, unworthy thoughts, feeling the warrior’s gaze on her all the while.

Aelfwynn wanted nothing more than to shout him down, the way her men had tried—if in voices that betrayed the distinct lack of courage that had likely led her uncle to pick them for this distasteful task of very little glory. She wanted to follow up her orders with the dagger she carried, tucked beneath her clothes as she knew the Northman’s own weapons surely were too. But if she’d learned anything in the course of this long, grim year, it was how to hide. If she’d given in to her darker impulses, even once and no matter how good it might have felt, she would not have survived.

She had been raised in her father’s court, then served as her mother’s foremost companion during the seven years Aethelflaed had ruled after his death. A year ago she had been confident in her place. Her mother had feared nothing, no man and no army. Aethelflaed had taken on the Five Boroughs then held as part of the Danelaw, the agreed-upon territory of the invaders who had ferociously set siege to these lands for more than a hundred years. In the last year the Lady of Mercia had sacked Danish-held Derby, accepted the surrender of Leicester, and had been offered the loyalty of the Christian leaders of York—but had died before she could accept.

Leaving Aelfwynn to carry on in her stead.

But Aelfwynn had long since accepted that she was not her mother. She feared too much—and wore that fear too plainly. Men and armies alike, Danes and Northmen and Saxons and all who had swarmed around her, whispering in her ear about what Mercia must do to distinguish itself from its ally to the south—the Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by her uncle Edward, who considered himself less an ally and more the rightful king who had graciously permitted his sister to wield power at his pleasure.

A favor he did not intend to extend to his niece, particularly when her loyalty could not be as easily assured as that of his sister.

I could marry you to an ally, he had told her when he’d come to claim Tamworth, laying waste to what remained of Mercian dreams of independence and embodying all of Aelfwynn’s fears. But allies have a terrible habit of turning into foes, do they not?

Had Aelfwynn listened to those who whispered to her, had she acted on what they’d implored her to do or even spoken forthrightly in his presence as her mother would have done without a second thought, he would have treated her like one of those foes. No one would have blamed him.

Well did she know this. Her silence—the meekness she wrapped around her like a thick, woolen cloak no matter how she felt within or how the heaviness of it scratched at her skin—had saved her. It was why she was even now headed to live out her days at an abbey when her uncle could far more easily have killed her.

No one would have blamed him for that, either.

This is mercy, niece, he had told her when he had rendered his decision, his gaze a glittering thing, not quite malice and yet nothing near affection, either. My gift to you, in memory of my sister.

Then, as now, Aelfwynn bowed her head when some small part of her longed to follow her fearless mother’s example and fight. Lead armies. Raze cities. Control kingdoms. Strike down her enemies and make them cower before her—but there had been only one Lady of the Mercians. Aelfwynn was all too aware she could only ever be a disappointment in comparison. She had been.

And not only because what she truly wanted was not these games of war, but peace.

Thus she did now, as she always had, using what few tools she had at her disposal. She made herself small and seemingly pious, her prayers a pretty melody in her best church Latin against the falling night.

“I have come for your lady,” the Northman told her uncle’s men, his voice neither pretty nor melodic and yet the effect was much the same. He still didn’t move, as if he truly was hewn from stone. “I have no quarrel with you. Yet rise against me or attempt to stop me here and I will paint the trees with your blood.”

His voice was so quiet and dark, his prayer a threat, that it made Aelfwynn’s very skin pull tight. A chill ran through her. Yet all she could do was what she had done since her mother died. Keep her head down and hope that once again, the forces she couldn’t possibly fight took pity on her instead. Whatever it took to stay alive.

The Northman sized up the men who flanked her, as if their weak characters were stamped up their faces. “If you leave now, no one will ever be the wiser.”

“The lady is for Wilton,” said one of the guards. Though it came out more a question than a statement. “She is bound for the nunnery by order of the king.”

“These roads are treacherous in winter,” the warrior said quietly. But when Aelfwynn snuck a look at him, his gaze was intense. And trained on her once more. “Bandits and wolves abound, and precious few kings among them. Who can say what tragedies might befall such a delicate creature out here in the dark?”

Aelfwynn’s breath shortened. She stopped pretending to pray, because her uncle’s men were looking at each other, then back at the Northman, their dread and reluctance all too obvious.

They did not look at her. As if she was incidental to their decision.

“My uncle is a powerful man and Mercia is now his,” she reminded them, hoping the formidable giant before them would take heed as well. “Do you dare cross him?”

The warrior regarded her steadily as if the night did not thicken around them. As if he had yet to notice the snow.

As if he already knew how this would end.

“Better to ask yourself if you dare to cross me,” he said in a deep, foreboding rumble.

Aelfwynn found she was holding her breath, a strange tumult within her. She did not know if he spoke to her uncle’s fearful men—or, more worryingly, to her.

She prayed truly and silently then, that others might come along this way and put a stop to this as her uncle’s men could not. Though she knew too well only fools and monsters would be out in this weather, so far from shelter on a night like this. And it was all too apparent there were both on this lonely stretch of ancient road, herself the greatest fool of all for imagining she might escape the grief and chaos of this darkest year unscathed.

In truth, she should not have been surprised when the two men—still without so much as a glance in her direction—turned their mounts around in a flurry of kicks and cries, then galloped back the way they’d come. Cowards to the end.

Aelfwynn hastily cast off her shroud of meekness, kicking her poor old nag—

But he was there, the great giant of a Northman, without seeming to move at all. He took the reins from her—and control of her useless mount—that easily. And then he waited, gazing at her with that same darkly fierce calm, very much as if he was daring her to fight him when her men had not.

She had a knife strapped at her thigh, the bands digging into the hose she wore on her legs. But how could she reach it with him right there? She doubted he would stand idly by as she dug beneath her outer woolen cloak and the under cloak beneath it, trimmed in fur. Much less her pretty dress with its embroidery and the necklaces that had been her mother’s, or the linen underdress against her skin—all before she could access her knife while seated high on her horse.

He was too big, too close. He would stop her as he’d stopped her useless horse, and there was a gleam in his dark gaze that made her wonder if he knew not only that she carried a knife, but precisely where she had secreted it on her person before she’d left Tamworth this morn. It only made her that much more aware of how powerful and dangerous he was, even without the weapons she could now glimpse beneath his cloak.

“Release me now,” she said with as much dignity as she could manage when her hands shook. “And I promise, no harm will come to you.”

He considered her. “But what are your promises worth when you cannot defend them? Nor yourself?”

Aelfwynn folded her hand into the folds of her thick outer cloak so the Northman could not see her shake. She longed to draw the drapery of her headdress over her face but dared not. She knew too well how fear enflamed men’s darker passions and knew better than to fan those flames herself. She thought of her mother, battle-ready and ever cool, and inclined her head.

It made her belly twist a bit, deep inside, that he was so much bigger and taller than most men and she did not need to look too far down to meet his gaze.

“It is as my men told you. My uncle is Edward, King of Wessex.” She waited for some expression of awe or fear, in case he had missed both the banner her men had carried with its golden dragon and her uncle’s name. No awe or fear appeared on the warrior’s countenance, like carved stone. “He is of late in Tamworth, almost a full day’s ride from here, and he will not look favorably upon it should I come to harm.”

“Is that so?” He sounded almost amused, though there was little hint of it on his harsh face. His attention never wavered. “Your uncle does not look upon you with favor, Lady Aelfwynn. Or he would not have stripped you of your birthright and taken Mercia for his own, would he?”

She went cold, then hot. Terror made her lips numb, no matter how she tried to tell herself it was the snow. “How is it you know me?”

“Who does not know you?” the Northman asked with a certain quiet menace, a gleam in his dark eyes that she could not read. But she could feel it as if he’d set his hands upon her flesh. “You possess a greater claim to Mercia than the man who calls it his, yet live.”

She knew she did not imagine the hard emphasis he put on those last two words.

Aelfwynn held herself still, trying not to panic. She wished she dared fling herself from the back of the horse he held placid and docile, as if both it and she were his. If she risked the jump and the landing, she could run off and take her chances in the looming woods. But the Northman had not been wrong about this lonely place. These roads were dangerous even in the bright light of a summer’s day. But tonight it was three weeks before midwinter. She would find nothing in these stark, watchful trees save a choice of brutal deaths.

In the distance, a wolf howled, and Aelfwynn could not contain the shudder that moved through her at the desolate sound.

“You would do well to question what your uncle had planned for you,” the warrior told her. He indicated the woods, the road. The last of the pale light that hovered low in the trees, a grim warning. “The night comes, yet you are nowhere near shelter. If you had been set upon, what defense could your men have offered? I ran them off without so much as drawing a weapon.”

I have been set upon, she thought while her heart pounded. By a Northman.

What manner of man was this, to offer her calm words and strange riddles when he could so easily cut her down instead? When she could see the dark havoc in his gaze and knew him for what he was—a man as unlike the two who had abandoned her here as it was possible to be. A man who could take on the woods, the wolves, and any other threat he pleased.

A savage Northman who would not hesitate to spill blood, claim spoils, and pillage as he wished.

“What good is it to tell every truth,” Aelfwynn managed to murmur, wishing the old words her mother had always said brought a better comfort this night. But the cold and her panic and his pitiless gaze were taking hold no matter how she tried to fight it.

“A fine saying.” The Northman’s hard mouth curved and she felt it scald her insides, a fire and a shout at once. “Will it save you, do you think?”

Aelfwynn searched his face, his punishing and steady gaze, for a mercy that wasn’t there. This close, she could not help but notice details about him that seemed to lodge themselves beneath her skin. That his hair was dark beneath the snow, fixed in braids that kept it from his face. His beard was the same rich shade, threaded through with more snow that he appeared to notice not at all. His gaze was dark too, and stirring, though his eyes had the look of midnight—a deep, rich blue. He was a harsh warrior, this much was evident, but he was regrettably not as hideously brutish as Aelfwynn might have liked.

On the contrary, he was hard to look away from. He had moved so swiftly, despite his size. And he held himself in the way some men did, as if they were a thing that happened to the earth and not the opposite.

He was as magnificent as he was terrifying, and Aelfwynn was entirely within his power.

Her mother had been raised on military tactics handed down by her own father, King Alfred, who had routed the scourge of Northmen, Norse, and Danes aplenty in his day. Aethelflaed had always expected she would one day command armies and had prepared for it, in study and action, including her infamous decree that having borne her husband a single child a near decade into their union, she would risk herself in childbirth no more.

She would have advised her daughter to plot, not panic.

Aelfwynn missed her grievously.

But her uneasy months of politics and pretense were behind her now. There was only this man and the woods, the song of the wolves, and a reckoning here in the coming cold night whether she wanted it or did not. She could not pray it away. She could not outrun it.

He had captured her without unsheathing his sword. That was her shame to bear.

And bear it she would, if only she lived, out in the dark with a knife she couldn’t reach to wield on a horse that would not run, her uncle’s men long gone, and safety a mere story told around fires in the halls of her youth. She had left all she knew behind and what remained was…herself.

Only and ever herself.

Something shifted in her, then. A plot, perhaps. Not that blind panic that made her feel as frozen as the old road below her.

I am my mother’s daughter, Aelfwynn told herself. Whether I look it or not.

And to prove it, she did not shrink from the man who watched her so closely, his gaze too knowing, too bold.

Instead, she smiled.

“I doubt you are lingering in a darkened wood, covered in snow while the weather worsens, to play the savior. You will save me or kill me as it pleases you, I dare say, and well do both of us and the wolves themselves know it.”

She sounded cool and disinterested when inside, Aelfwynn felt lit on fire. But she did not let her smile drop, for hers was the blood of kings and queens of old, and she too would fight.

In the only way she could.

The Northman’s midnight eyes blazed.

Aelfwynn did not look away. “Yet you need only tell me what I must do to stay your hand, and I will do it.”

End of excerpt

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Print: Apr 27, 2021

eBook: May 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0263283969

Kidnapped By The Viking

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