The sweetest surrender is love...
Fleeing from troubles at home, young Aleyn signs on to the crew of a merchant trade cog off the coast of Eire, but he has no idea what dangers await him on the open water. Viking raiders patrol the shores like hungry wolves, taking whatever they wish, and when Aleyn's ship is attacked and the crew killed, he finds himself the helpless prisoner of Ranulf Eriksen, a ruthless, powerful Viking jarl who commands the longship Lymskyr. Aleyn expects to be killed or sold to the Saxons as a slave, but Ranulf offers him a bargain: his body in exchange for his freedom. Faced with the choice of temporary whoredom or lifelong slavery, Aleyn chooses to give himself to the handsome and oddly-compelling Northman. What Aleyn could not have foreseen was how much two lonely people in extraordinary circumstances could learn about each other in so short a time. Ranulf, too, is unprepared for the strength of his feelings for Aleyn. As his Viking crew begins to suspect Aleyn of using witchcraft to meddle with their leader's wits, Ranulf must defend his lover from the murderous intent of his men without further risking his own tenuous hold on power.
861 A.D. - The Northern coast of Ireland
The pounding on the hatchway door rose to a final fury before the thick wood cracked and split asunder. The Dubhgall, the dark foreigners that some called Vikings, dropped down and flooded the small compartment below the deck, their bloodied axes gleaming wetly in the red sunset at their backs.
Aleyn crouched against the bulkhead, holding his puny knife outward.
The Vikings crowded in, their shouts dying down when they saw that no one confronted them. No one, that is, except Aleyn, just short of twenty summers and on his first voyage out.
It’s likely to be my last, he thought woefully. The rest of the crew was dead, he was certain. He had taken refuge here when it was apparent that the cog would be overrun by the Vikings that had spied them running south with the wind along the coast of Eire. He did not even have a proper knife to defend himself against these axes and swords. The knife he held now was good for little besides cutting cheese and apples at supper. Hiding had seemed the best course.
One dark, bearded warrior raised his axe, and Aleyn took a deep breath and prepared to charge forward into death. Suddenly, the Northman’s weapon was pushed aside by a large hand covered in studded leather. Aleyn looked up, startled, as the Viking chieftain shouldered his fellows aside and stood looking down at Aleyn with a flat expression of boredom.
The Dane was bigger than any man Aleyn had ever seen. His face was all hard angles, with burning blue eyes above the sharply-defined shelf of his cheekbones, and he had the long blond beard and hair that all the Fingall, the pale Vikings, seemed to have. All, that is, that Aleyn had ever seen.
This one would be the jarl, then. He had an air of command about him and was more richly dressed than the others, with costly chain mail over his leather jerkin and a round iron helmet which he swept off with a careless gesture. Freed from the helmet, his yellow-gold hair came nearly to his waist. The warrior whose axe he had so rudely seized backed down without a word.
“Put the knife down, Irlander,” the jarl said in quiet, but very comprehensible, Gaelic. His voice was equally flat and bored, as if words were something that came to pester him and the only way he could be rid of them was to spit them out.
“You speak my language,” Aleyn blurted in shock.
The jarl nodded. “I do. They do not, so put the knife down before they spit you like a boar.” His mouth - full and curved beneath the bright gold beard - split in a grin. “A small boar.”
Aleyn could say nothing to the accusation of smallness. Put beside these folk, he was sure that was what he looked like. To his own people, though, he was no worse than average. He had straight brown hair that always seemed to stray into his eyes, a slender nose, and a body that spoke of long years of work and effort. He was muscular and lithe as a cat, even if he was yards shorter than these men.
Maybe not yards, Aleyn thought dubiously as he reluctantly dropped the knife. The bearded jarl nodded again and spoke a few guttural sentences to his men, obviously questioning them. He turned back to Aleyn.
“Where is the silver on this ship?” the jarl asked.
Aleyn blinked. “Silver? We carry what you see.”
The jarl hawked and spat on the deck. “What, grain and wool? That’s all?”
Aleyn nodded. “Easier to carry grain by the coast than by wagon,” he said nervously. “And the wool is worth much.”
“Fah!” The jarl looked disgusted. He eyed Aleyn appraisingly. “Your people fought well. That is why we had to kill them all.”
“They were not my people,” Aleyn managed in a shaking voice. “They were from the Black Sea, eastern men. I only took ship with them a few weeks ago.”
The jarl’s blue eyes raked Aleyn’s body, and he felt a stone of dread drop into his belly. He had a sudden urge, which he resisted, to wrap his arms around his body as the jarl continued to inspect him. He suddenly felt naked and defenseless in front of these warriors, and thought longingly of his knife. Not that it would have done him any good.
The jarl stepped closer and took Aleyn’s chin in his gloved hand, turning his head this way and that to see the set of his features. “You have all your teeth?” He did not wait for an answer, but prodded Aleyn’s mouth open with his thumb to peer inside.
Aleyn had a passing thought to bite him, but thought better of it. Every other man on the cog was already dead. He had not known the crew very well, and he had no immediate wish to join them. Best to be smart, stay alive, watch and wait. If they did not kill him right off, perhaps there would be a chance for escape.
The jarl hummed in approval when he saw that Aleyn’s teeth were white and sound. Aleyn pressed his lips together and the Viking took a moment to trace the outline of Aleyn’s mouth with his gloved finger. Supple leather glided warmly over his skin. Aleyn was paralyzed with outrage. He forced himself to attempt to pull away, but was held fast by an iron hand gripping his upper arm.
“This has a sweet shape,” the jarl murmured for his ears alone, his thumb lingering on Aleyn’s lower lip. He ducked his head to look searchingly into Aleyn’s eyes. After another long moment, the Viking nodded to himself as if confirming some inner suspicion, and released him. “How old are you?”
Aleyn rubbed his jaw and scrubbed his hand across his mouth. “Nineteen,” he said through clenched teeth. “I was born under the winter moon.”
It was spring now and the ship was laden with a heavy haul of wool from the spring shearing, bound for their far eastern lands, which had poorer grazing country where folks would pay well for such bounty. Aleyn had been looking forward to the long journey and the sight of new things, which he was now sure he would never see.
The jarl gestured for his men to leave and they smirked and laughed and one of them slapped his companion on the back in some private joke. In a moment they had climbed the short ladder and were gone and Aleyn was alone with the hulking Viking.
Although he fervently hoped he was wrong, Aleyn thought he might know what the jarl wanted. His hope of escaping unscathed vanished like a puff of air when the man stepped even closer to him and put his hands on Aleyn’s shoulders. He dragged a hand through the softness of Aleyn’s chestnut hair, and Aleyn flinched when his strands caught on the studs of the jarl’s gloves and tugged painfully.
“You,” he stammered. “What do you want from me?”
The jarl just looked at him, and Aleyn noticed that he was even more handsome when very near, a thought which he quashed quickly.
“My name is Ranulf.”
“Ranulf,” Aleyn repeated, but did not repeat his question. Ranulf had begun to massage his shoulder with his other hand, almost like a caress.
“You’re not very big,” Ranulf said “but you would fetch a good price on the block.”
Aleyn was puzzled for a second, then horrified. “Slave block?”
Ranulf tilted his head. “There is another kind?”
Aleyn felt like he was in a bad dream. Ambushed on his first sailing out, the ship taken, the crew killed, and now this big oaf of a Viking pawing at him and rating his value as a slave!
He tried to push the man away. “Stop it. Let me go.”
Aleyn glanced at his fallen knife on the deck and longed to have it in his hands. No brigand, no matter how comely, had a right to put hands on him.
Ranulf saw the direction of his gaze. “What will you do, Irlanderman? You think you can reach that knife before I break your back? Death is no bargain, boy. I could make you a better one.”
His words made Aleyn pause. Bargain? Aleyn’s own not-inconsiderable sense of self-preservation began to kick in. Perhaps it would not be necessary to die today. “What do you mean?”
“You can refuse me, and I will sell you to the Saxons as a slave, or you can try to kill me, in which case I would have to kill you. Either way, you will lose.”
“So what does it matter if I die trying? Anything is better than being a slave!”
Ranulf snorted in amusement. “True. Spoken like a Viking. You have hot blood in you, boy. Worthy blood. That is why I make you this offer. It may be two moons before we depart for my home in Ribe. There are still many settlements to raid, many witless tradesman sailing their goods on this witless coast.”
Aleyn ignored the insult. “What is it you want?”
“Lay in my bed at night,” Ranulf said, his face very near to Aleyn’s. Aleyn could see that his eyes were the color of the summer sky, and that his beard was like brushed gold. “Let me use your body when darkness covers us. In the daylight, you will work with the rest of my crew, and I will treat you fairly. On the day I set sail for Denmark, if you have done your part well and been agreeable in all ways, I will set you free on your own shores, and neither take you as my slave nor sell you to another.”
Aleyn could barely breathe. Slave or whore, which was worse? He could hardly tell. He was also wary of tricks. “Alive on my own shores?” he specified, then was horrified at himself. Was he even considering this?
Ranulf chuckled again. The air of boredom and detachment was gone from him, and Aleyn began to suspect that this Northman had many faces, and he was seeing one that the jarl rarely showed anyone.
“Alive and unharmed and perhaps not even regretting. I am no green youth with fumbling hands. You will find much pleasure in my touch.”
Aleyn stared at Ranulf, aware that his breathing was quick and frightened as a rabbit’s. He often thought longingly on the forbidden beauty of men, but he was vigilant to keep that secret buried inside him. How had this Viking seen it so easily?
“How can I trust you? You murdered my shipmates. They were innocent-”
“Not innocent,” Ranulf growled, his expression going dark. “Your king did not pay this year, so any ship on his coast is fair game. Your people knew of this. Why do you venture onto the water when you know we are out here, if not to challenge the rights of the strong, which Odin has granted us?”
It was insane reasoning, or at least Viking reasoning, and Aleyn could make no sense of it. He knew nothing of policies or kings, other than one had just died and his name had been Maelseachlainn. Of the new monarch, he knew nothing. He was also aware in some primal way that there was no changing Ranulf’s mind of the justness of his convictions. The Viking evidently believed that the victors deserved any spoils they could take and the weaker were born to endure it. How could he argue with logic like that, especially when he could not even defend himself?
Aleyn swallowed hard, not knowing how to answer or proceed, so he merely waited. After a long moment, Ranulf put his hand under Aleyn’s chin and tipped his face up.
“It is yes, is it not?” he said gently. “You will do this?”
Aleyn took a shaky breath and closed his eyes. “Yes,” he said in a faint whisper.
“What is your name?”
“Aleyn,” he answered.
“A-leyn,” Ranulf repeated, but he said it strangely, pronouncing it as a Viking would.
Ranulf released him and Aleyn’s eyes flew open. The Northman stepped back and Aleyn watched him in dread, knowing what was about to happen. To his surprise, Ranulf bent down and picked up Aleyn’s fallen knife and shoved it in his belt.
“Take what things are yours from this place and come with me,” Ranulf commanded, then turned and made for the ladder, leaving Aleyn to stare after his broad, armored back in utter shock. The Viking ascended in three short strides and was gone.