~ Excerpt ~
Conor mac Ferghal welcomed death.
He pushed a dying raider from the point of his sword, moving closer to the thick of the fighting that centered on two giants on a mist-shrouded hill. Their dress and the wicked-looking battle-axes they wielded bespoke their Viking heritage. Even in the heat of battle, Conor admired the way the fair-haired warriors worked together, standing back to back and holding their own despite the odds against them.
And the odds were against them, Conor knew. His admiration of their skill would not stop him from vanquishing them. He would have vengeance, and he would give no quarter. He wasn’t known as the Devil of Dunlough because of his charity.
A shout cut through the screams and groans of the wounded and dying. “The Angel of Death! The Angel of Death comes!”
Everyone, friend and foe alike, seemed to halt as a form materialized from the cloying mist. A pale horse broke through, bearing a rider wrapped head to toe in bleached garments that seemed to make rider and horse more apparition than reality. The conical iron helmet and sword gleamed in the weak afternoon sunlight as the pale warrior drove the horse up the hill to the Northmen.
“Stand your ground, men,” the Devil called, crashing the hilt of his sword into a raider’s face. “Remember what befell our village. Leave the supposed Angel of Death to the Devil of Dunlough!”
The pale warrior now stood beside his companions, wielding the shimmering sword in graceful, deadly arcs. As he drew ever closer, Conor noticed how the taller two men protected the smaller. Their leader, perhaps? The Viking’s conical iron helmet, with nose and eye guards, concealed from Conor all but a pair of startling lavender eyes that blazed with hatred and a chin devoid of even the slightest beard.
Very few of the Northmen went without beards. A youth, then. Conor refused to feel compassion for him. Becoming a warrior meant preparing to fight and preparing to die. He had seen younger ones than this meet their end in battle, mere boys who did not deserve death. This one did. Pushing to the forefront of his men, the Devil engaged the enemy.
The young Viking moved with a lethal ease that belied his years, parrying the blow Conor dealt him. He smiled as the familiar bloodlust coursed through his veins. It was always thus, when he found an opponent worth his skill and concentration. The darkness would come later, after the blood had dried.
The two combatants matched each other blow for blow, neither uncovering a weakness in the other. This one would not go down easily. The thought had no more than crossed Conor’s mind when one of the Viking’s companions stumbled. The youth buckled, thrown off balance as the other Northman fell at their feet. When the young Viking turned to the fallen man, Conor seized the opportunity, slashing his adversary deep in the thigh.
The resulting cry of pain was so feminine that Conor checked the killing blow that would have bit deeply into the leather tunic and cleaved the man in two. It was a futile effort. The tip of his sword pierced the pale leather and embedded itself in the Viking’s side. He gave Conor a look of utter disbelief before slumping to the ground, his hand stretched toward his fallen companion.
Conor took a deep breath, seeking the freshness of the early spring breeze over the smell of blood and death as he scanned the field. His opponent had been the last to fall. Even now his men availed themselves of whatever riches they could glean from the fallen among their enemies, a curious mixture of Irish and Northmen. Satisfied that all was secure, he knelt beside his fallen enemy. With a sense of foreboding, he removed the iron helmet. What he saw stole his breath.
The Viking was not the untried youth he’d thought, but a woman, the most striking woman he had ever seen. The helmet had obscured a heart-shaped face with high, sharp cheekbones and near translucent skin. Hair so pale it was almost silver was pulled into a plait as thick as his wrist. Her brows were gossamer wings, as were the sooty lashes that fluttered against her cheeks. A blade-thin nose perched above full, pouty lips and a defiant chin that reduced her features from ethereal to fascinating. The skin was pulled taut across her cheekbones and throat, an indication of the unkind life a bandit led. Even in unconsciousness there was a guarded demeanor to her expression that gave her an air of otherworld mystery.
Conor glanced up. Ardan, his second, stood beside him, protecting him as always. Ardan was a hardened warrior with a ruddy, weathered face and red hair sprinkled with gray. He had the unswerving loyalty of one whose life had been saved many times by the man he gave allegiance to. A man of few words but great wisdom, Ardan had been Conor’s friend since the younger man’s days in fosterage, and one of the few people he trusted without question.
The surprise on Ardan’s face matched his own. “Yes, it is a woman.”
Ardan spat down the hill. “You’ve strange luck with women trying to kill you.”
“True.” Conor let the comment pass. If any other than Ardan had said the same to him, that man would not get home under his own power. “At least this one had the decency to meet me face to face on the field of battle, unlike my dear-departed wife.”
He fingered the scar that ran down the left side of his face, a gift from his late wife. “This land will fall into the sea before I let a woman put an end to me.”
Seeking a pulse, Conor touched the fallen woman’s neck, wondering at the frisson of awareness that coursed along his fingertips. He found her life-beat. It was there, but weak.
As he brought his hand away, his fingers brushed a neck-chain. He pulled it free of her tunic to discover an exquisite crafted cross hanging on a braided silver chain with a gilded Hammer of Thor. He grinned in spite of himself. ’Twas obvious the woman meant to be well prepared when she left this world.
Tucking the pendant back into the woman’s tunic, he lingered over the satiny feel of her skin. So delicate to be so deadly. He shook his head to clear it of such inane poetic thoughts and rose to his feet.
“Is she?” Ardan asked.
“Dead? No. The Angel of Death? I believe so.”
Ardan cursed under his breath, a long and colorful sentence that would have stunned Conor with its length in other circumstances. He felt the urge to curse himself.
The Angel of Death.
Conor had dismissed the stories as colorful tales spun by bards at the royal court. The idea of a woman, Viking or Irish, garbed completely in white and riding into battle was impossible to believe. Yet the proof lay before him.
Ardan regained his composure. “Why would herself attack our village?”
“A good question.” Conor’s voice was flat. “The village has naught to offer but cottages of fishermen and the tenants who raise tribal cattle. Even the Irish riding with her and her Northmen should know that our treasures, such as they are, are kept close to the dun.”
He looked down at the unconscious woman. “The stories call the Angel a defender of the defenseless. Perhaps the stories are false. Unless someone sent her.”
If Ardan was surprised by Conor’s statement, he did not show it. And why should he, Conor thought. After all, someone was always after the Devil of Dunlough.
Ardan prodded one of the mail-clad Vikings with his foot. “Her man could be one of these two.”
For an inexplicable reason, the idea that the legendary Angel had followed her lover into battle made Conor’s jaw clench. He forced himself to calm. “You could be right, Ardan. They were defending each other.”
“This one lives yet.”
The Devil wiped his blade on the second Viking’s breeches, then sheathed it. “Bring them,” he ordered, calling for his horse. With an ease that belied his size, he swung astride. “Send for the priest to bless the dead and dying. If the Angel and her companion survive the journey, I will have Gwynna tend to their wounds.”
“You won’t execute them then?”
He shook his head, steadying his mount with a quiet word. “Someone sent the Angel of Death to slay me. I would have answers from her before she dies.”
Ardan issued orders, then swung aside his own mount as the famed warrior and her still-living companion were thrown over a horse without ceremony. “Where do you think she’s from?”
“I don’t know,” Conor replied. “There are Viking strongholds aplenty here. Sitric Silk-beard holds Dubh Linn, and more Northmen control Waterford, Wexford, Limerick and even Dun na Ghall to the north. She could be from any of those.”
A frown shaded Ardan’s features. “If she was, we would have heard of her before Clontarf.”
Clontarf. The word caused a chill deep in Conor’s soul, even two years later. Clontarf, where the tenuous peace that the High King Brian Boruma had forged through decades of warfare had been shattered with his death. Where Irish and Viking fought against Irish and Viking for the ultimate control of the island.
Where Conor had lost his soul and gained a kingdom.
“Have a care with our war-prizes,” he told a thin, red-haired youth as he secured the Vikings to the mount. He turned his own mount towards home and away from the mesmerizing figure. “We’ve a way to go, and more war bands could be about.”
Ardan drew alongside him. “Think you she was sent by Ulster?”
“It is probable,” Conor answered. “There’s little love lost between us, though you’d think with the other three kingdoms as well as Connacht fighting old Máel Sechnaill for the High Kingship, they’d have more sense than to send their men to sure death against us.”
“Who said that Ulstermen had sense?”
The men around them laughed at the joke, and Conor let them have their mirth. They’d had little to laugh at over the last two years that he’d been ruler of the tuath and chieftain of the tribe. He knew he was a prize worth catching for his many enemies. Near six and a half feet tall, he towered over his men. With his penchant for wearing black while his men wore the saffron yellow warrior’s leine, his dark brown hair that was almost black, and the ever-present scar, many thought him more demon than Irishman.
It did not bother him, the moniker that he’d acquired. Devil he was, through and through. And despite the name, despite the scar, men of the tribe flocked to Dunlough for the honor of serving the mac Ferghal. Flocked to fight beside the man who threw them into battle again and again, a man who made himself a target, the center of many battles. It was his duty, he told himself. He fought because he had to, and he fought with a zeal that went beyond the typical Gaelic zest for life.
No one knew what that zeal cost him.
He wrenched his thoughts back to the present as the dun came into view. Bards often said Dunlough was cradled in the bosom of Eire, and he agreed. Hidden in the northwest of Connacht, bounded by rugged, rocky hills to the north, crystal lakes and streams to the south, the mountain Slieve Torc to the east, and the ocean to the west, Dunlough was as wild and glorious as its people. The dun itself sat on a verdant hill surrounded by earthen walls. A stream ran around the base of the wall and cascaded down the hill where it joined a larger river on its way to the dark lough that gave the dun its name.
Oh, people had laughed when his father’s father and his father before him started adding stone to the timber and thatch. They stopped soon enough when they came to seek solace from raids by Vikings and Ulstermen alike.
The dun had grown to a considerable size over the last two centuries. Its solid construction ensured that the people of Dunlough were well protected. Indeed, the remoteness of the northern part of the kingdom protected it from the brunt of the trials and tribulations that encompassed the rest of the island.
Of late, the warriors of Dunlough were riding out to challenge raiders, not armies. Rumors spoke of the Gaill-Gaedhel, the “foreign Irish”, riding again. Mercenaries descended from the mixing of Irish and Viking blood, their ferociousness had caused them to be called “the sons of death”. They cared little for who they attacked as long as plunder was to be had.
That thought had Conor drawing sharp on his reins. Sons of death and the Angel of Death. Were they related? His village had been attacked. The Angel of Death was nearby.
Coincidences were not something that Conor had much faith in. If the woman was truly the notorious Angel of Death, why was she in Connacht? Why attack his poor village? Why look at him with such hatred in her eyes?
He would have been well within his rights had he slain the Angel in battle. But the Viking female had captured his curiosity. No, she would not die soon.
The Devil was a patient man. He would find the answers he sought. When he did, all the angels in heaven and hell would not keep this angel safe.
“How many dead?”
Abbott Brochadh folded his hands. “Four. Two more may die before sunrise. One lost an arm, one an eye and two are lame.”
Conor’s hand clenched around his tankard as the priest recited the names. Each man’s face floated before his eyes, settling into his memory. Dunlough’s warriors were a fierce and proud group, unafraid to face death in defense of their homes. Conor’s people would celebrate their fallen heroes tonight. He would not participate, nor did his people expect him to. The bhean sidhe would be wailing on Slieve Torc tonight, and there Conor would be.
Repressing his guilt with thoughts of retribution, he thanked the priest. When the holy man took his leave, he turned to Ardan. “Has my sister seen to our fair-haired guests?”
Ardan took a deep swallow of his ale before replying. “Lady Gwynna and Old Aine are with the white witch now. The brother could still die.”
“Brother?” Conor sat forward, his tankard crashing against the table. “Why claim you such a thing?”
“Old Aine is certain.”
If the old healer believed it to be so, it was enough. Rising to his feet, he moved to the hearth, digesting the news. A brother. That would certainly explain the horrified look on the Valkyrie’s face when the man slammed into her during the battle. ’Twas apparent she cared for him. That care could be a weakness, one that Conor would exploit most ruthless to acquire the answers he sought.
Ardan turned on the bench to face him. “Are you certain we have captured the Angel of Death?”
“’Tis certain she fits the rumors we’ve heard for the last several months. Know you another female warrior riding about our land?”
“You should have beheaded her when you had the chance.”
Conor raised an eyebrow. “In her condition? It would not have been fair.”
“There was no need to be fair. The accursed witch wanted to kill you!”
“True, but there must be more here than we see. Besides, if the Viking female is the Angel of Death, she is worth much more to us alive than dead.”
“And if not?”
“Then she will pay, in one manner or another, for what she did to our village.”
He gestured for Ardan to follow him as he turned to the door. They walked down a short stone corridor to a thick wooden door. Clasping the braided cord around his neck, Conor pulled out a key, fit it to the lock and threw open the door. “Come, Ardan, and tell me what you think of these weapons.”
The older man followed Conor into the room, a small, circular chamber lit by two well-placed torches. The only piece of furniture was a narrow wooden table that occupied the center of the room. But it wasn’t the table that drew the eye.
It was the weapons.
They hung everywhere, these instruments of death. Great battle-axes, broadswords, short-swords, spears. Bows and arrows and shields. By any standard it was an impressive collection. What made it extraordinary, Ardan knew, was that every last weapon had once belonged to one of Conor’s enemies.
Only four swords, grouped alone near the door, had not belonged to adversaries. They belonged to Conor’s elder brother and three nephews, all lost in the great battle two years prior.
Ardan approached the table. It held a striking array of weapons: a broadsword, two short-swords, two great axes, and a rune-etched leather quiver full of arrows. A leather sheath with a long knife and leather scabbards and baldrics for the swords. A chainmail shirt and helmet with mail attached at the neck were at the bottom of the pile. All were covered with dried blood.
“Fine craftsmanship,” Ardan said in approval, fingering the runes on the scabbard. “More than a mercenary raiding fishing villages could afford. Unless they were stolen?”
“I do not think so.” Conor pulled free the broadsword. The blade gleamed in the torchlight, catching the runes etched upon it. A grand amount of silver wire chased a massive purple crystal on the pommel.
“Look at this jewel,” he said, turning the pommel to Ardan. “The Angel’s eyes are the same color.”
“You noticed the color of her eyes while she was trying to kill you?”
“The eyes are the windows to the soul. You yourself taught me that to read eyes is to read my enemy’s intent.”
He replaced the blade. “I was not so caught by the unusual color of her eyes that I wasn’t aware of her hatred. And it was hatred, Ardan, as if I had personally wronged her.”
Perplexed, Conor shook his head. “I have never seen the Valkyrie before today, and I’ve not fought Northmen in two years.”
They left the weapons room, returning to the hall. “There must be more to the Angel of Death and her brother than the fables we have heard,” Conor said. “I would have you find those answers. Start at the village. Discover all you can about our guests.”
He moved to the main hearth. “You have two days. Get a good night’s rest and set out at dawn.”
“Two days?” Ardan’s incredulity shone through in his voice. “Do you mean to summon a law-giver to decide the Angel’s fate?”
Conor’s voice grated above the crackling of the fire. “I will decide the Angel’s fate. It is possible our friends to the north are responsible for this day. If so, you will discover the truth soon enough. If not, once the Angel realizes I hold the very minutes of her life, she will tell me what I seek. I promise you that.”
Ardan left. Conor stared into the flames, fingering the scar on his cheek. For the second time in his life, a woman had tried to kill him. The first time had been his wife, but she had been near insanity. This woman, the Angel of Death, was far from it.
He remembered the look in those amethyst eyes as she swung her blade toward his skull. Hatred and the white-hot desire to kill.
He had never seen the Angel of Death before, and as far as he knew, she had never seen him. In fact, the latest tales about her had come from the south, near Limerick. So why had she been so intent upon killing him? Had he killed someone she knew, someone she loved?
Conor shook his head. He felt neither love nor hate for the fair-haired foreigners. Northmen were well and embedded in the fabric of the island, intermarrying with nobles and freemen alike, establishing trade and even fighting with the Irish against their kindred. And to be sure, there were just as many natives committing deeds as heinous as those contributed to the Northmen. He did not go out of his way to kill anyone, foreign or native, save an Ulsterman foolish enough to cross his border. Perhaps the Valkyrie’s morals were not so noble.
Leaving the fire, Conor headed deeper into the dun. He stopped at a stout door flanked by two guards, one of whom opened the door for him. The chamber inside was little more than a cell, its only luxury an anemic fire burning in the minuscule hearth. The smell of burning peat failed to dampen the scent of blood and sweat and pain.
Two more guards and Conor’s sister were by the pallet on the floor. The sentries looked as if they had been in a scuffle. Their tunics were in disarray, scratches and welts covered their faces and arms, and both had more than a little blood on them. Gwynna applied a cloth to her patient’s forehead. Old Aine sat on a stool near the hearth, asleep.
When Conor moved toward the pallet, Gwynna climbed to her feet. He felt a momentary pride. His sister was a gifted healer, having learned herb-lore from the oral histories of generations of Dunlough and Druid women like Aine. Danu knew he’d put her skills to test on more than one occasion and would again.
Blood drenched the front of her dress and her face was pinched with fatigue. Concerned, he led her to the room’s only chair and poured her a cup of wine. He nodded toward the guards. “I take it that your charge did not submit willing to your care?”
Gwynna pushed a lock of hair from her forehead. “She awakened while the guards were carrying her in. She thought they were taking her to be executed and ’tis certain she does not wish to die.”
“Fought like a hellcat, she did,” one of the guards added. “Beg pardon, milady.”
Amused, Conor folded his arms as Gwynna glared at the guards. “You both will be after a bit of ale,” he observed. “Help yourself to the barrel, and tell Cook to prepare a meal for Lady Gwynna and Aine.”
The guards made a hasty retreat. Conor poured his sister another cup of wine, which she gulped with a sigh. “That is an extraordinary woman you have captured.” She patted her face dry with a clean cloth. “She threatened to consign me to the bowels of the Viking Hel if I took her leg off. She also threatened me with further horrors if I did not save her brother.”
Noting the wry pout to Gwyn’s mouth, he asked, “What did you do?”
Aine stirred herself then. “True to your blood, she was,” the old woman said, her eyes the color of moss. Her hair was pure white, her lively face unlined. She could have been thirty or sixty or two hundred. In Conor’s twenty-five years, Aine had always been old.
The Druid woman got to her feet. “Gwynna told her that if she could not lie still, she would shave her bald.”
A tired smile of remembrance lit Gwynna’s face. “It worked.”
Conor coughed what passed as a laugh from him. Gwynna joined in, then hushed him with a glance to the pallet. “She sleeps for now. Let’s keep it that way, so I do not have to threaten her more.”
“What of the man? The one you believe to be her brother?”
Gwynna didn’t answer him at once, causing him to swing towards her. Her cheeks were flushed, as if with fever, and she appeared flustered. “Gwyn?”
She jumped, startled. “I have done my best, with Aine’s help. But his wounds are dire. I will return to him when I am done here.”
Moving to the makeshift pallet, Conor stared down at his would-be slayer. With the dirt and blood bathed away, and the pain eased by slumber, the warrior’s beauty shone through. The luminous quality of it struck him like physical blows. Pale curls that had escaped the braid were stained gold by candlelight. Those full lips would be devastating in a smile, even with the defiant chin jutting above the slim neck. He knew her skin to be as smooth as satin. Did her lips taste as sweet as they looked?
He shook his head, disturbed by his winsome and overwhelming reaction to this woman. “I can see why they call her Angel.”
Aine returned to the bed, Gwynna beside her. One gnarled hand touched a pale cheek. “The Angel of Death. Among her people, such a one is gifted with the ability to see signs and portends, and prepares the dead for their final journey.”
“How do you know of such things?” Conor asked, surprised.
The old woman gave him an enigmatic smile. “It is my calling.”
Her voice filled with pity as she gazed down at the pale woman. “So young to have such a name.”
“How old do you think her to be?”
“No more than our Gwynna, I would say, a score of years or so. She is not new to the warrior’s way. Her arms are strong enough to handle a sword, and she has calluses on her hands.”
“What could have happened in her life to make her take up the sword?” Gwynna asked.
Conor stared at his sister. “What do you mean? ’Tis obvious she enjoys it, else she’d not have ridden about Eire these last two years.”
Gwynna shook her head again. “You may know the way of a warrior, brother, but I know the way of a woman. Look at her. Her beauty is undeniable. Her manner is that of someone accustomed to being obeyed. I am sure she is of noble lineage, despite the lash marks.”
Solemn eyes regarded him. “She has several old scars. Some are on her back, and another trails along her left arm to her wrist.”
“Perhaps she was an unruly slave.”
It was Aine who answered. “I’m doubting that, my lord. I do not believe she was born here. No one knew of the Angel before last year, and ’tis certain a woman like that would be memorable. She probably came from Denmark or Anglia.”
“Betrothed to a powerful man, and one she did not favor,” Gwynna added, clearly taken by the tale. “Perhaps her brother was banished for some reason and she left with him. What else could make her turn from a life of wealth and privilege?”
Conor frowned. His sister’s words had the effect of making the Viking woman more human, and he didn’t like it. “We will find out soon enough, if she wakes.”
“Her left arm deflected most of the blow to her side,” Gwynna informed him, “but the wound was still deep, as was the gash on her leg. After I convinced her of my skill, she allowed me to stitch the wounds. When I finished, she shuddered once and slipped out of consciousness.”
He couldn’t help but admire a woman with such mettle. Most women became queasy at the sight of blood. He doubted if even his sister could quietly watch someone stitch her up.
Ruthless, he dampened his growing regard for the Viking. Admirable or not, she was responsible for many lives this day, including the people in the village. “Will she live?”
When Gwynna nodded, Conor strode to the door. Yanking it open, he beckoned the two guards inside. “Take the Viking to the pit and put her in chains.”
Gwynna was aghast. “Conor, you cannot mean that. She is a wounded woman!”
He swung to face her. “A woman who tried to kill me and did kill several of our people, or did you forget? Even now she should be dead.”
“And why is she not?”
Aine’s quiet question halted his diatribe and movements. How many more would question his actions? It was his right to destroy her. Yet when and why had he made the decision to spare her? It could not be that he was taken by her comeliness. He knew firsthand how treacherous a beautiful woman could be.
“The Angel of Death is a prize many have sought,” he finally said. “She will be of use to Dunlough.”
Aine’s mossy eyes measured him, and Conor wondered what she witnessed. “You’ll do what you must, and well we know it. But remember this, Conor mac Ferghal: with this woman, things are not always as they appear to be.”
Conor inclined his head, acknowledging her words and the tone in which she’d said them. Christian or pagan, one did not fail to give Aine the respect that was her due. Her utterances were always full of wisdom when they could be understood.
“I will remember what you say, but neither of you will gainsay me in this. She is not called the Angel of Death for sport. Until I know the truth about the Valkyrie, she is to be a prisoner.”
It was the first thing she was aware of. Agonizing pain that arced up her legs to her side then to her arm. Endless, unrelenting waves of pain that hammered at her will.
Erika welcomed the pain. At least it kept her from dwelling too much on her failure.
Without opening her eyes, she sensed her surroundings. Her neck, legs and arms were shackled together, with just enough length in the chain to allow her to lie in sparse straw. She wore only a thin shift too small for her and a blanket riddled with holes. Stalks of straw pierced through the threadbare material and into the skin of her legs and back. Tightness surrounded the aches in her right leg, left arm and left side. Bandages.
Someone had treated her, Erika realized. Why go to the trouble of healing a prisoner? Why hadn’t the tall warrior killed her when he had the chance?
She remembered the hill. She saw Larangar take a thrust to the chest. A cold certainty told her that her dearest friend was dead. But what of Olan? What of her twin?
She struggled to remember. After his mail broke, deflecting a blow meant for her, several arrows had hit Olan. Yet she could still, weakly, sense her twin in the back of her head, the sense that told her he was alive.
Lars dead, Olan near death, herself captured—and to what purpose? She had failed in her duty, failed to destroy the vile creature that ravaged the poor village they had ridden through. She had promised the villagers vengeance, and she had failed them.
The failure cut deeply. Never before in her life had she been unable to fulfill a vow she’d made.
Mentally she cursed her fate. In her mind she could still see him, the towering warrior who was her nemesis. As tall as Larangar and Olan—who were considered giants—her personal demon had been dressed completely in black, with dark hair spilling past his shoulders, eyes like thunderclouds and a menacing scar that ran from his left temple through his close-cropped beard to his chin. He fit closely to what the Irish monks described as the Christian devil.
Erika ground her teeth in frustration, for a moment close to tears. Angrily, she brushed them away. Tears would not save her, not from a man heartless enough to ransack a village full of women and children. She forced herself to remain still, even though the pain made her want to writhe and scream in agony. Her mind raced with plans, for she knew that while there was breath left in her body, there was still opportunity for vengeance.
She would make the Devil pay for what he did. Or she would die trying.
By the feeble light of a single torch, Conor watched the Valkyrie feign sleep. The earthen room, scarce large enough for both of them, had no windows and only one heavy, ironbound wooden door. Light was not a common occurrence for the occupants of this pit. Yet the light found her, illuminating the silvery braid and pale skin, making her seem an apparition.
The shift Gwynna had found for her was too thin and too small. He could see the supple length of her legs beneath its hem. Even in the sputtering light, he noticed the flat stomach and a surprising small waist for so tall a woman. He could also see the firm, high breasts that pushed against the flimsy fabric of the bodice.
How long had she walked the warrior’s path? Years, ’twas certain. Her grace with a sword could not be learned in a year’s time. Yet if a sword did not protect a man at all times, truer than true it would not protect a woman. How many men, he wondered, had she given herself to when her sword proved useless?
He felt the desire that had sprung alive in him and shook his head, erasing his sudden need. He had been too long without a woman if he was attracted to this bloodthirsty wench.
His anger returned as he remembered the faces of the dead. “Open your eyes, Angel of Death,” he ordered. “I know you are awake.”
Against her better judgment, Erika obeyed the harsh command. Every part of her body ached, even her hair. Opening her eyes only intensified the torment. But she would look upon the face of evil and prove herself unafraid.
Her devil, she discovered, was a man.
He sat on a rough-hewn bench. A torch protruded from the packed earth of a wall, casting meager light between them. It was enough. His legs were well muscled and covered with dark hair. His leine, a knee-length tunic made of soft wool, did nothing to conceal the girth of his shoulders and chest, broad enough to support the strength evident in his powerful arms. She could not see his face clearly, obscured as it was by shadows and dark sheets of hair that hung past his shoulders, but she could see his eyes.
His eyes glinted in the dim torchlight. Erika would swear she saw both the lightning of Thor’s hammer and the fires of the Christian hell burning in their depths.
She was doomed.
“Are you the one called Angel of Death?”
The Devil’s voice rumbled deep and harsh as he spoke fluid Latin. She barely quelled the shudder that snaked through her. It was easy to believe that she had entered eternal punishment. She had failed to protect the poor of this verdant land, a land that she had fallen in love with at first sight. Now she would have to pay for that failure with her very life.
Every extremity shrieking in protest, Erika struggled to a sitting position. Flames of pain danced before her eyes, stealing her breath. She might well die this day, but as long as her heart beat, she would fight the man before her.
Defiant and proud, Erika raised her chin, the heavy iron collar biting into her neck. Even that small act caused pain to radiate through her. Through gritted teeth she finally answered him in Gaelic. “My name matters not. You need only to know that I am your enemy.”
A low sound wafted toward her. It took a moment to recognize the noise as laughter because it held little in the way of mirth. “I admire your courage, but it will not do in the stead of sense,” the dark warrior admonished her. “I know you are my enemy. I would have you tell me why.”
Erika’s temper climbed, driving her to her feet despite her agony and the heavy chains. “You dare to question the cause for enmity between us?” she asked, disdain rising like bile in her throat. “You, who are the embodiment of all I hate about this land?”
The harsh accusation brought Conor to his feet. He stepped forward, out of the shadows. “You would do well to guard your tongue, Lady Death. Men have died for less than your insult.”
To his surprise and secret pleasure, the Valkyrie did not recoil at the sight of his ravaged features. She thrust her face forward, her eyes sparking with fire and passion.
“Are you so easily wounded, Devil, by words alone?” she asked. “Prepare to be slain, then, for I have more darts to let fly!”
Conor growled. He had never struck a woman on purpose in his life. He was not about to begin, no matter how much she goaded him. “I warn you again, Viking wench, to guard your tongue. The sole reason you yet live is to answer my questions!”
The pale-haired woman had the temerity to laugh. “Then you would do well to attempt to kill me now. For I have nothing more to say to you than this: pray for God to cleanse the blood of innocents from your hands, for if I am able I will send you to Him for judgment!”
For a lightning-quick moment, Conor almost laughed. Attempt to kill her? He could snap her neck with one deft twist of his hands. Attempt indeed! Then he registered the rest of her vehement declaration.
Settling his hands upon his hips, lest he fit action to thought and take her beautiful head from her shoulders, he summoned the iron calm that had served him for years. “What do you accuse me of?”
The earthen chamber fell silent, save for the muffled sputter of the torch and the Viking’s own tortured breathing. Conor could see perspiration beading on her forehead and lip, and her nostrils flaring with each labored breath. He knew resolve alone kept her upright.
“I will use whatever means necessary to gain the answers I seek,” he told her in a voice chilling in its softness. “I will have answers.”
The mercenary refused to answer him. Conor could do naught but stare at her. How comely she looked, glaring in pure Viking defiance. He wondered if she knew how her breasts pushed against the delicate fabric of her shift when she breathed.
“Where are my belongings?” she demanded. “And my—my companions?”
“The pain makes you rude, Angel,” he admonished her. “Your weapons are locked away safe. Most of your garments are ruined, but more will be procured for you. If you need them.”
So, she was to be left with nothing. Erika knew then that she would die. She could accept that. It had always been the destination at the end of the path she had chosen. But by Odin, she would take this despicable cretin with her when she left this world!
Despicable or not, her adversary was not unpleasant to look upon. She thought the men in her homeland were giants, but this man matched the size of many a Viking warrior. There was an air of masculine grace and prowess about him that was unmistakable. Just looking at him caused something to thrum deep inside her. Those gray eyes bored into her own, digging beneath her surface.
The pain made her more than rude. It made her fanciful as well. Blinking to clear her thoughts, she demanded, “Will you tell me the fate of my companions?” Her jaw clenched as she jerked her eyes away from him to stare at the wall. She would not ask again.
She heard him take a foundering breath. Would he tell her? “The elder Northman is dead,” he said bluntly. “The younger man still clings to life, but my healer is not optimistic.”
Larangar. She wanted to shriek at the grief that welled inside her. Another two days, and her close-kin would have been on a ship bound for Anglia. She clung to the belief that he had found his way to Valhalla and was even now drinking with their fathers. She could not bear it if he was denied. Then his blood would be on her hands, as surely as if she’d felled him herself.
Pushing the anguish away, Erika summoned anger as her shield. Weakness spread through her with each breath. If she wanted to vanquish this ignoble cur, she would have to do it now.
“You wish to know what I accuse you of,” she said heavily. “I accuse you of being a thief and a coward and a murderer!”
“What?” His roar of outrage could flatten the stoutest of men. Even Erika was not immune to it. Her legs crumpled beneath her, and she collapsed nerveless onto the coarse straw.
“You would feign ignorance of your heinous deeds?” she demanded, wheezing as stars danced on the periphery of her vision. Her arm pressed against her side in a futile effort to staunch the pain that throbbed with every heartbeat. “You—you murdered the women and children of that village for nothing more than fish, pelts and a few pieces of silver!”
“How dare you accuse me of raiding my own village?”
“I have seen Irish as well as Viking attack villages and monasteries,” she answered, gasping. “Your protest means little to me. Devil or no, I will kill you. You will pay for what you have done.”
She pushed him too far. Infuriated, Conor swooped down on her, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her upright. It was no small accomplishment—though slight of build, the Viking had weight to match her height. He brought her close until a mere breath separated them.
“What I have done?” he echoed, his anger blazing like a summer squall. “You are the one who will pay for what you have done!”
She stared at him with eyes as hard as the amethysts they favored. “Threatening wounded women—that is so like a coward,” she sneered. “Is that how you earned your name?”
“Woman, you try my patience!”
“What will you do? Kill a defenseless woman? Surely you have more honor than that, Devil?”
Unthinking, Conor backed her against the wall. “What would you know of honor, Angel of Death?” he asked, his voice brutal with rage. “You and your Gaill-Gaedhel attacked one of my villages while most of its men were away. Women, old men and children had to defend their selves and their homes against a band of ravening outlaws that you led.”
The amethyst eyes widened with shock. “Who are you?”
“I am Conor mac Ferghal, chieftain of Dunlough. That village is part of my tuath, and its people of my tribe.”
“That village…belongs to you?” she whispered, her voice numb.
Conor was thunderstruck. “You admit to raiding my village?” he roared, giving her a savage shake. “I should kill you now!”
If possible, she became even paler. Her eyes became glazed even as she stared at him. When she spoke, her tone was soft, breathless, but the words were like daggers. “You lie…men call you Devil. Only a man with such a name would hurt those pathetic souls.”
Forgetting her grievous wounds, he gave her another vicious rattle. “You are the one responsible for the deaths of my people. You are the one who will pay. Do you understand me?”
Her only answer was a moan. Conor watched in horror as the Viking’s eyes fluttered shut and she went limp in his grip.