Authors: Connie Mason with Mia Marlowe
Copyright © 2012 by Novel Ideas, Inc.
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Judy York
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We’d like to thank our editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, and our agent, Natasha Kern, for putting us together to work on this collaborative effort. Leah’s and Natasha’s insight and encouragement have been invaluable.
And special thanks to you, dear reader. We appreciate you and hope you love the world of
Lord of Fire and Ice
. Without you and your imagination to bring life to our words, it’s just ink on a page. We dedicate this story to you!
“So that’s the great and mighty Brandr,” a grumbling voice said from somewhere above him. The speaker snorted and loosed a bark of a laugh. “Doesn’t look so great now, does he?”
Brandr tried to pry his eyes open, but they were crusted shut. His tongue was too thick for his mouth. Rough hands lifted and then dropped him into the back of a cart. The wood bit into his bare backside as they jostled over a plank road. He was vaguely aware that he was bound, hand and foot.
Odin’s Lost Eye, what did they put in that mead?
His lids scraped across his eyeballs like wind-driven sand. Familiar northern stars wheeled overhead, brittle and cold. The stars of the South were hazy and soft, but he’d learned to track them across the sky in the faraway city where he’d served the Byzantine emperor. After a five-year sojourn, he’d been grateful to be nearly home. Brandr and his companions were only two-days’ sail from his father’s
when they tied up on one of the islands dotting the mouth of Hardanger Fjord. His chest had constricted in aching joy to see the Great Bear lumbering across the sky and the fixed Lodestar as high in the black heavens as it should be.
But Brandr had forgotten that while stars don’t change, people do. Obviously, the folk of this island were no longer his father’s allies.
A heavy weight pressed against his throat each time he swallowed. A thrall’s collar burned shame into his neck. He was a warrior, the son of a respected
and a fire mage of no little power. The iron at his throat wiped all that away.
Brandr tried to focus his gift and call up enough fire to sizzle off the rope knotted at his wrists, but all he managed to do was singe the hair off the back of his hand. Whatever he’d been drugged with left his mind too disordered to attempt a fire mage’s solution.
How could he have been so thick witted? True, that serving girl was fetching, but he should have been more wary. When she poured mead between her breasts and invited him to lick it off, he’d been happy to oblige.
“Let this be a lesson to you, brothers,” one of his captors said. “Never follow your cock into more trouble than you can get out of.”
Brandr’s friend Harald always warned him about the same thing. Now he’d been proven right. Brandr would tell him so, if he ever saw his friend again.
Women were his weakness, and he’d known his share in the South. As a Northman, he towered over the populace of the Byzantine capital. With his fair hair and big-boned frame, Brandr was a novelty. The women of the great city were curious to learn if he was similarly proportioned beneath his scarlet uniform of the Varangian Guard.
None expressed disappointment.
But while the women of the South were inventive in the use of their tongues, none of them could speak his. He’d let his delight in hearing good Norse again lower his caution. When his friends returned to their longship, Brandr had stayed on at the mead house, drinking and dallying with the all-too-willing serving girl.
By the time he realized the euphoria and dizziness he felt wasn’t the result of high spirits and mead, he was stumbling and slurring nonsensical words. The drink had been tainted with an opiate, but the realization came too late.
Now he was bare arsed and gagged with a leather strap. His beard and hair had been shorn off like a yearling lamb. If this were a skald’s tale, he’d have laughed at his predicament, judging it fair recompense for stupidity.
But this was no tale.
The cart stopped, and his captors lifted him out. They carried him into a longhouse, through the common room where most of the inhabitants snored on broad benches lining the walls. Some had divided the space by hanging skins to enjoy a bit of privacy for their family. Most of the residents simply sprawled in the open, safe in their communal slumber.
The smoky central meal fire had subsided to glowing embers, but as Brandr passed by, the flame flared to life. He mentally ordered it down, but the blaze flickered a cheerful greeting. If he couldn’t control his gift well enough to free himself, he couldn’t chance letting his captors know he possessed it.
The aroma of a nourishing stew lingered in one of the pots. The smell of even wholesome food made Brandr swallow back rising bile. A burning acidic taste clung to the leather strap in his mouth.
Part of the longhouse had been walled off into a separate chamber with a stout wooden door. One of the men carrying Brandr rapped on it softly.
When there was no response, his captors loosed a collective sigh. The one bearing Brandr’s feet dropped them and banged on the door with his fist.
The door flew open.
“What’s the matter with you bunch of trolls?” a woman demanded in a hissing whisper. “It’s the middle of the night. Some of us plan on working tomorrow. Why aren’t you lackwits abed?”
Brandr strained to lift his head enough to snatch a look at the speaker. Backlit by the light of an oil lamp, her dark hair was as sleek as a selkie. She wore it unbound, shimmering over her shoulders and past her hips. She was younger than he expected, given her surly tone, and far more comely. Her cheekbones were high, with soft hollows beneath, a mark of bone-deep loveliness that never fades.
But a pair of frown lines marred her brow. Judging from her scowl, her temper was as black as her hair.
“We’ve brought you something, Katla.” The speaker signaled for the other two to haul Brandr over the threshold and into the lamplit chamber.
One of them was a spotty-faced boy, Brandr realized with annoyance. He’d let himself be taken by a lad with no more than thirteen or fourteen winters to his credit. Once they cleared the doorway, the men dropped him without warning.
Brandr groaned. Instead of packed earth, this woman’s chamber had hard slate flooring with no give to it at all.
, he suspected.
She lifted her lamp and glared down at him. Her eyes slanted up at the corners, catlike. The light was too dim to determine their color as they swept over him in a quick, unflinching assessment.
“What do I want with this, Finn?”
“Consider him a peace offering, sister,” Finn said. “It was wrong of us to try to force you into a match. But if you won’t accept a husband, you need a strong thrall to do the heavy work for you.”
“I keep an ox for the heavy work.” Katla flicked a glance at Brandr’s genitals.
“Want us to geld him for you?” Finn offered as he pulled out his belt knife. “Should make him more biddable.”
Brandr swallowed hard against the gag. Trussed up as he was, he’d be hard pressed to fight off a gelding blade. He glared at the woman, sending her a silent threat. The flame of the oil lamp flared higher. Better she should have them kill him outright than unman him.
“No, don’t,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “It would only make him eat more.” Then she waved a dismissive hand. “No, no, he’s not staying and neither are the rest of you. Take him away.”
“All right, you heard her, brothers,” Finn told the others, who started to heft Brandr up again. “We’ll sell him to the next bunch of traders who comes by from Birka then. Katla doesn’t want the son of Ulf, after all.”
“What?” She stopped Finn with a hand to his forearm.
“You heard me aright,” Finn said with a satisfied grin. “This is Brandr Ulfson, back home from the South.”
“Stay,” she ordered. “I will have him.”
A warning bell jangled in Brandr’s brain. Most people never had a thrall offered to them freely. If they did, they’d never turn one down, especially one as obviously strong and healthy as he. But this woman hadn’t wanted him until she heard his name. Her expression showed a mix of curiosity, grim satisfaction, and…fierce joy.
I give him to you,” Finn said, clearly enjoying the upper hand with his sister, a situation Brandr suspected was as rare as a mild winter, “you must promise to take a husband. There wasn’t a thing wrong with any of your last five suitors, and you know it.”
“None of them was
“They would have brought wealth and cattle and lands to our family,” Finn said. “You’re too young not to marry again. You owe it to us, Katla, and you know it. You’ve got a tidy holding here, more than most widows receive from their husbands.”
Brander realized Katla was responsible for this farmstead and all the souls sheltering in her longhouse. No wonder she was so surly. She was a woman alone with the weight of a man’s responsibilities on her shoulders. She’d have to be tougher than a man too, in order to earn the same respect. And it didn’t appear her brothers were helping her overmuch, except in schemes to line their own pockets. A comely widow like Katla with a prosperous farmstead could mean a windfall to the men in her family.
“But what about us?” Finn went on. “Would you deny your brothers the right to your bride-price? Say you’ll accept the man of my choosing, and I’ll give you the son of Ulf.”
She frowned and worried her lower lip, weighing her options. “I suppose you’ll never leave my hearth and make your own way if I don’t marry again.” She sighed. “Very well. Choose three men, and I’ll pick one as a husband. But I won’t tolerate a fool.”
“Done!” Finn signaled for his brothers to drop Brandr.
He went down hard on the slate again with no way to protect himself. Fortunately, the opiate they’d given him also seemed to dull pain.
“I’ll send the first man to you on the morrow,” Finn promised.
“There’s no rush,” she said acerbically. “You get only three chances. Make them count.”
Katla’s brothers filed out, and she barred the door behind them. Then she walked around Brandr a couple times, giving him a more thorough examination. He followed her with his eyes, noticing that when she passed between him and the lamp, her night shift was thin enough for him to see the shadowy shape of her legs.
When she glanced at his genitals again, he couldn’t help his body’s response, swelling to his full state.
It was not the reaction he was accustomed to.
Then she picked up a skinning knife from the top of a trunk in the corner. Had the bloodthirsty wench turned down her brother’s offer to geld him so she could do it herself?
His erection softened.
“Get your eyes back in your head,” she ordered. “You look like a demented owl.”
She bent down and cut the leather strap that gagged him near the knot behind his ear. “I’m not going to maim you. Not unless you do something to irritate me.”
He spat out the gag, grateful to be rid of its foul taste. “I’m glad to hear it. If you unbind my hands, I can take care of my feet myself.”
“I am aware of that,” she said dryly. “We have things to discuss first.”
He failed to stifle a yawn. “Say what you have to say quickly. Whatever your brothers drugged me with is making me sleepy again.”
She sat down on the end of her bed and studied him as if he were a type of fish in her net she couldn’t identify. She seemed undecided on whether to keep him or throw him back. “You’re taking that iron collar more calmly than one would expect.”
“I’m alive…and whole.” His head was starting to pound, but his thoughts were flowing clearer now. “A live man’s luck can change. A dead one’s never.”
“My husband is dead.” Her eyes narrowed to glittering slits. “Your father killed him.”
So that’s why she wanted him. Ulf the Ruthless was responsible for his predicament.
“Didn’t he offer a
?” Brandr’s father had a wicked temper, but once the battle lust cleared, he was practical about his debts. He usually paid off those he’d offended in the required amounts to keep matters from escalating into a full-blown feud.
“I wouldn’t dishonor my husband’s memory by accepting blood money,” she said.
“My father generally has a reason when he kills someone. Most of the time. It seems to me, your dispute is with him, not me. He’ll not ransom me, if that’s your plan. He won’t believe I was stupid enough to let myself be enthralled. And if I did, he’ll figure I deserve it.”
“No, he won’t.” When she crossed her arms under her breasts, her nipples stood out stiffly beneath the thin linen of her night shift. She didn’t seem aware of it.
“Then you don’t know my father.” Brandr bit the inside of his cheek to keep his body from rousing to her again. “The old bastard was winter hard when I left five years ago. I expect he hasn’t thawed a bit.”
“Probably not, since he now occupies a place of honor in the ninth circle of
’s cold hall.”
All the air fled from Brandr’s body in a whoosh. Ulf the Ruthless was a bull sea lion of a man. All Brandr’s life, his father had ridden him mercilessly, never satisfied, never recognizing that Brandr would have given his left hand to please him just once. Never understood Brandr’s strange affinity for the flames. Never trusted the gift of fire and refused to try to understand.
Now he was no more.
Just when Brandr had learned to control his unusual gift and was bringing his father the most potent weapon the decadent South possessed, the secret of Greek fire.
“Ulf Skallagrimsson’s ship was lost with all hands in a storm off the Orkney Islands last season.” She cocked her head and eyed him as a robin eyes the worm she intends for breakfast. “So, you really didn’t know your father is dead?”
He set his face into a grim mask. She certainly didn’t deserve a peek into the maelstrom of his emotions about his father’s death, especially since he didn’t know how to name them yet himself.
“You won’t have any better luck ransoming me with my brother. Our father taught us not to be burdened overmuch with family feelings.”
She shrugged. “I hadn’t thought of trying to get Arn the Leper to pay a ransom for you, but when I tire of you, it’s a consideration.”
, strange world, is it not? You sojourn all the way to Miklagaard and come back”—her gaze traveled over his length again—“perfectly healthy and sound. And your older brother stays home and is struck by a wasting sickness.”