Written for a contest several years ago, this story was also partly the result of a dare among fellow writers: who could write the best romance? According the strangers and friends alike, my name sounds like that of a romance writer.
Unfortunately, I write more in the fantasy / adventure vein, and romance among characters is difficult for me to write well. This time, however, was one of those rare instances when the story wrote itself.
Enjoy! And if you don’t, well, an honest critique is always welcome. It’s how I learn and improve.
By Honor Bound
She does not kneel. She does not bow her head. She does not utter frightened allegiance. She does not beg. She could be one of the Northwomen, strong, proud.
Bearskin cloak broadening his shoulders, the chieftain strides forward.
She does not flinch.
He strikes her with the back of his hand.
Her head snaps sideways. She almost stumbles but she stands, chin up, eyes defiant. Touching the red trickle running from her mouth, she licks the blood from her fingertip.
Watching from a short distance, Soren feels a surge of lust.
He smiles at his father’s frustration. The chieftain towers over her, his fists clasping and unclasping as if clutching for stolen power; in silence, she robs Asgard of control.
Long waves of honey-brown hair hang down her back and over her shoulders, falling past her hips. Despite the bruise blackening her cheek and jaw, her skin glows golden. She is accustomed to the sun. Through the tight-fitting sleeves of her silken kirtle, her arms show the sculpting of one to whom physical labor is not unknown. She is not the usual prize.
At her feet lays the pierced, bloody body of her betrothed, a fine-clad stripling with more heart than skill. Soren feels little pity for him. Better to die in glory, sword in hand, than to die slowly in the shadow of a woman stronger than he.
The chieftain growls an order, and men bind her hands behind her. “Put her on a horse!”
“On whose horse, Asgard?” one warrior asks. “We lost no men this day.”
A wicked eyebrow cocked, the chieftain grins. “Choose.”
Fighting, immediate and brutal, breaks out around her. She will belong to the man with whom she rides, as his slave or his wife.
“Soren? Have you no desire for her?” Asgard asks. “A woman in need of breaking?”
Soren considers her calm face and uncowed posture. “Not broken. Won.”
Asgard grunts. “Then win her. And bring the blood.”
Soren dismounts his sturdy north-bred horse and strides through the fray. Fools! To fight but leave the prize unguarded.
He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and takes her to the only building still standing in the ruined village—a hut clinging to the hillside like a goat clinging to a mountain.
The fighting fades. A hush follows. He knows the men watch.
Kicking shut the door, he stands her on her feet, cuts her bonds then crosses his arms, studying her in the dim light sifting through cracks in the hovel walls.
Hands at her sides, she again defies the expected, not rubbing her wrists where the rope chafed them, and breathes in quiet evenness beneath the fitted silk of the kirtle. Gray-green eyes, the color of the sea under a stormy sky, gaze at him with unnerving steadiness. A plain leather belt girds her hips, the tongue of it falling between her thighs, a suggestive circumstance that stirs him once more.
Won. Not forced.
“I am Soren.” He is irritated at the unsettled feeling in his stomach. “Asgard, my father, gives you to me.”
“My betrothed is dead”—her voice as detached from emotion as the sun from the earth— “I belong to no one, nor do I give myself to any man.”
“Pride will not save you.” Soren uncrosses his arms and steps forward. Her posture makes her appear taller than she is; the top of her head does not even meet his chin.
He fumbles to find his argument. “Those men will take what you will not give, and your pride will diminish with each taking until the woman you are now will not know the woman you will become.”
Her smile, small though it is, curves full lips into rosy sarcasm. “The barbarian speaks with gilded tongue. If more of your kind wielded such skill with words, your wives would come more willingly to bed.”
He speaks more mockery than truth. “We take them fierce, and breed strong sons.”
“Who yields the strength?” Sea eyes glitter with battle. “The forceful fathers, or the long-suffering mothers? The wind howls against the mountain, but gentle rain carves the stones.”
He reaches for her. She spits in his face.
Dragging a finger through the warm spittle running into his beard, he places it into his mouth with deliberate mockery.
Her lip curls.
“Highness,” he wipes his face with a battle-stained sleeve, “there is only one way out of this hut. Only one way my honor remains unchallenged. Only one way your pride remains untouched.”
Fear crosses her face for the first time since the body of her beloved was tossed at her feet. As if to calm her fluttering heart, she raises a hand to the low neck of her kirtle—and draws a knife.
He flings up his forearm, hears the blade drag across the leather vambrace then twists the knife from her grasp. Hand to her throat, he pushes her back against the center post of the hut.
Her nostrils flare, her eyes narrow. Her pulse is warm beneath his palm.
“Clever, highness, but now what will you use? Teeth? Claws? Kicks? Those have never prevented me before.”
The shadow of sorrow behind the contempt in her eyes, and the slenderness of her throat beneath his broad hand, checks his anger. He nods toward a stool in the center of the floor and releases her.
Back as straight as a ship’s mast, she sits, smoothing the kirtle over her knees, turning the tongue of the girdle so that it drapes at her side.
Tapping the knife against his leg, he leans against the crude stone chimney. “The coastal kings are known for their prim ways. Oh, they have their secret lovers, but they have their public queens. And great price is placed on the purity of those queens.”
He pauses, searching her face for understanding. There is only hatred.
“You are pure, else no marriage contract would have been sealed between your father and that of your beloved.”
“Beck is not—was not—my beloved.” Her hands clench on her lap. “He was more brother than lover. He was kind. Brave.” Grief does not overcome her. Lifting her chin, she looks up at him, devoid of tears. “No matter what you do to me, Beck will be avenged.”
The man who wins her will never truly be the conqueror. Yet desire flames in him. He must have her.
“My father requires proof your defenses are breached, highness. Either you give yourself willingly, and I present the blood to Asgard, or I take you by force, and still present the blood to Asgard.”
She seems not to hear, her eyes thoughtful where once they were angry. “How is it you speak so well? You could almost be a noble in my father’s court.”
“Osric and his court are dead.”
“I am aware of my loss.”
How can she sit there, so calm and controlled, while everyone she knew or loved lays dead in the ruined streets?
A wild horse, anger gallops through him. He reins it in, slowing and deepening each breath. Whether angry at her stillness or at what was stolen from her, he refuses to surmise. Such thoughts are not for warriors.
“My mother was, like you, the daughter of a coastal king. It is her speech you recognize.“
“Did your father love your mother?”
“He named her wife.” The tendons in his neck tighten. “You seek to turn the point, highness, but—“
“Why did he give you me?”
“Perhaps you remind him of her.”
“Then why not take me himself?”
“He has women enough.”
“Will you strike me as he did?”
Soren shoves the knife into his belt and yanks her up from the stool. “You are mine.” He bends until their faces are a breath apart. “If you shame me today, I will shame you every day hereafter.”
“Gone is the silver speech,” she murmurs. “Without it, bedding will be an empty thing. For us both.”
“If words are what you want, I’ve words aplenty.”
She tugs at his belt. His body responds, hot and urgent. He reaches for her other arm to draw her to him.
Steel taps his chin. She holds the knife to his throat.
Slowly, he releases her and steps backward.
“I care not for your honor or your shame.” She retreats, placing only a wall of air between them, for he stands before the door.
Fury wars with lust. He says through clenched teeth, “You will regret those words, highness, after my father’s men have had you. Many times.” He forces a smile. “Drop the blade. Take pleasure in the inevitable.”
“It is you who will regret.” Her knife does not waver. “If I do this thing, none of the coastal kings will ransom me.”
“No ransom will be asked.”
The knife tips in her slackening fingers.
“Even if Asgard sought treasure through ransom,” he draws his war-sword from its battered leather sheath, “what is your knife to this?”
He burns, wanting her to come willingly to him, but his persuasions are at an end.
“You are a harsh suitor, Soren Asgardson.” She turns the blade toward her breast.
A chill stabs him. No warrior contemplates self-murder, for the soul is then doomed to wander forever, a dark haunt without hope of peace.
He leaps forward, sword thudding to the floor as he reaches both hands for the knife. Its tip scrapes her skin before he wrests it from her. He flings it to the floor. It lands with a clatter, crosswise to the sword.
She stares at him in unspoken combat. Soren gives way first, unable to batter against the despair in the sea-colored eyes.
“This takes too much time.” His words are sharp. “My father’s men expect to hear your cries by now. Or see me return with you across my shoulder, tamed into submission. They already question my honor.”
“If I do what you ask, do you swear to be kind to me from this day onward?”
He stares at her. Kind?
“Will you protect me from all others, and treat me as you might one of your own women? With the dignity accorded their strength?”
He sees again the black bruise left by Asgard’s hand, feels emotion he cannot name.
“Will you call me by name?”
“You swear to all of it?”
Voice hoarse, he replies, “Yes, high—“
Her name on his lips both disturbs and pleases him. Some captives fight, some go limp. The latter he does not want, and the former are often too much trouble. But this one grants him a gift that is already his by right, and gives it so humbly he is undone.
His body clamors for satisfaction; his self craves her esteem. To have the admiration of a strong woman only adds to the honor of a man, for her strength girds his.
Kneeling, he grabs the knife and draws the blade across his upper arm, where his sleeve hides the wound, and lets blood drip onto a dirty blanket crumpled on the broken-down bed.
“This will be Asgard’s proof.” He keeps his gaze on the blanket.
Rowena kneels, taking the knife from him, the touch of her fingers sending lightning bolts along his skin. Slicing off a piece of her kirtle, she binds the cut and pulls down his sleeve to cover the bandage. Only then does he look at her.
Her eyes watching his, she slides the knife back into her bodice.
He can scarce draw breath.
Leaning forward, enveloping him in her honey-colored hair, she takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
The kiss soft, her lips softer, when she withdraws, he is lost.
After a long gaze-locked moment, she takes the bloodstained blanket. “Honor what you swore, Soren Asgardson”—she hands him the war-sword as if she is already a wife preparing her husband for battle—“and your bed will never be cold.”
c. 2007, EE