Half a day later the coastline emerged slowly out of the sea. The ship turned, ran straight into the heart of Alba, and mountains rose up on every side. Peeping over the edge of her blanket, Emer saw high hills fringed with trees, but not a single dwelling. The inlet narrowed and the bustle of the crew announced that landfall was imminent. She rose to her knees and peered over the high gunwale. The water was browner than the indigo of the open sea, and weed decorating the rocks at the water’s edge indicated that the loch was tidal a long way inland.
Steep mountainsides rose to one side, with no breaks for landfall. On the other, mountains backed bright meadows that ran down to the shore, and a smooth shallow headland jutted out, pimpled with a cluster of buildings and bright colours where wives and children waited to welcome their men home from the sea. The sail rattled down, and oars took the ship in an arc towards the jetty. Fear of the unknown rose and lodged like a lump of dry bread in Emer’s throat. She sank back in her corner, hauled the blanket over her head and ignored the screams of excited children and women. The glad cries of homecoming she could not share, that made her want to weep for what she had lost.
Gangplanks rumbled out and men trundled barrels ashore. When everything grew quiet, she squinted out over the folds of the blanket. The older lord and many of the crew had gone. Flane stood by the mast. She hoped he would forget about her. She closed her eyes and prayed to St Patrick as hard as she had ever prayed in her life. Emer never heard the soft footsteps, and when a hand yanked the blanket away, she jerked back so fast she banged her head against the stern post. “Ow.”
“Get up.” He was laughing, but his rich voice was firm and authoritative. She ignored him. When his foot drew back, she guessed his intention and scrambled to her feet rather than be kicked. He was so much taller now that she was close to him. She refused to look up. Her eyes were level with the smooth brown skin of his chest. The laces of the leather jerkin were open and he wore no tunic or undershirt. Muscles and tendons moved and flickered beneath the brown skin only a finger’s width from her nose. The scent of him curled into her nostrils.
“Come with me.”
Emer stood rooted to the deck. Flane reached the gangplank, turned and beckoned. Emer scowled and did not move. Flane clicked his fingers. Astounded, Emer lifted her chin, turned her head and stared pointedly out to sea. From the corner of her eye she saw one sailor nudge another and both stopped what they were doing to watch what would happen next. Memories of the overseer and his cane flashed through her mind, and she decided moving might be her wisest choice even though he treated her like his favourite hound. Pride stiffened her spine as she came to a halt before him.
“My name is Flane.” He tapped his chest and repeated the words, as if she were stupid, and then sighed. “Trust me to pick a girl who doesn’t understand the language.” He drew his dagger, and the fierce blade flashed silver in the sunlight. Emer’s heart leapt into her throat. Would he kill her because she could not speak his language? What other reason could he have? She met his blue glance for an instant even as she took a swift step back, ready to run, heedlessly, in any direction.
He caught her wrist and dragged her in close. Her heart thudded wildly at the sudden contact of chest, hip and thigh. Panic stricken, mesmerised by his steady blue gaze, she stood there in the thin sunlight with the sound of water lapping against the ship and the smell of him in her nostrils. She drew a swift, choked breath of air. Her last moment in the world had arrived. She shut her eyes, waiting the bite of cold steel at her throat.
Dear Lord, accept my soul this day…He hooked one finger under her leather slave collar. Surprised, she opened her eyes and flinched at the sight of the steel blade flashing wickedly in the sunlight.
“Steady, steady,” he murmured, as if to a nervous animal. “I thought you’d rather be free of this.” He gave a couple of gentle tugs on the leather collar at her neck, and before she grasped his intention, the blade sliced through the hated thing. She never even felt the coldness of the blade. He dangled the strip of leather with its attendant piece of rope in front of her. “Do you want to keep it?”
Furious at being frightened and then gentled like a nervous mare, Emer didn’t hesitate. She seized the hated collar and hurled it far out over the loch. He laughed. “Good for you. Now, come with me.” A mixture of shame and indignation burned through her as she followed Flane over the heavy timbers that made up the jetty. Head down, dodging coils of rope, empty sacks and closed kegs, Emer decided she would take the removal of her slave collar as the first of many positive things that were about to happen. She did not realise Flane had stopped walking until she almost collided with the pale leather of his jerkin.
“You understand me,” he stated.
She backed off a pace or two, and looked up warily. “Yes.”
The Norsemen first settled the islands two hundred years ago and many islanders now spoke Norse with their neighbours. Dutifully sewing tunics and chemises under her mother’s watchful eye, she had learned the language by listening as her father taught it to her brother. She had picked it up faster than Donald, and teased him about it. Her chin wobbled at the warmth of the memory and she pressed her lips together to keep the tears at bay.
“That’s good. We’ll deal well together.” Emer doubted it, but did not dispute his statement. “Your life will not be hard here.” A tingle of hope ran through her, and she hoped he meant it. But …he was a Viking, and he…owned her. It was her duty to escape if she could.
She ventured a question in the new language. “Where is this place?”
“It’s called Skuli’s Steading. It’s about sixty miles from the Alban king’s settlement at Inverness.”
“I do not know Inverness.”
“Sixty miles as the crow might fly would take you to the eastern seaboard and Inverness, but Skuli’s Steading is my home.”
If she concentrated hard, she understood him. “Home!” Emer let out a snatch of bitter laughter. “How far is Skuli’s Steading from my home? From an island called Pabaigh?”
“Pabaigh?” He shook his head, frowning. “Is it close to Skye?”
Emer shrugged. “I don’t know. My aunt is there.”
“Skye lies to the south of here. Maybe someone there will know of your island.”
He never knew the impact of his words. As realisation dawned, tears pricked her eyes and she stared at the sky through a sudden blur. Thank you, Lord. She’d guessed they were sailing north, away from Africa, but fear still gripped her that the ship headed to some distant part of Gotland or Russland. She looked round. This was the destination. Skye was nearby. There would surely be a chance to escape now. Elation streamed through her at the thought she might see home again.
Flane took hold of her arm, and she was very much aware of the warmth of his hand on her skin. His pale brows angled towards his nose, and he drew breath to speak and then changed his mind. They stared at each other in silence. Stubble pricked through the sunburned skin of his jaw, and sunlight glanced off a single gold earring. The breeze blew a wisp of straw-gold hair across his mouth and in a casual, habitual gesture he hooked the hair behind his ear, but what held her still was the intensity of his eyes.
In a small voice, Emer asked a question. “Why me?”
The smile that grew slowly across his face was confident, knowing. He let go of her arm, lifted his hand to her face, let it hover in the air for some moments before he touched her cheek. The back of his bent fingers glided gently down to her jaw. “You are lovely.”
“You paid silver for me because you like how I look?”
“What else could it be? I saw you huddled against the stockade in the slave market and…I don’t know. I felt that…I wanted to do this.” His palm cupped the back of her head, pulled her forward and his mouth descended on hers. His warm tongue probed her mouth. With a grunt of shock, Emer recoiled and struggled against his broad chest.
He let go of her. “Don’t tell me you’re shy.” His lazy grin mocked her.
“I do not allow men to handle me.”
“We’ll soon see about that. Why do you think I bought you?” One silver eyebrow tilted up. “How did you get into the slave market?”
Emer took another step away from him, poised to run if he should try and grab her again. “Vikings seized me, dragged me to their ship – I still have the bruises, look – and sold me. Satisfied?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, girl. I didn’t snatch you. I paid out good silver for you and brought you here.” His arm indicated the Steading and the hillsides. “Is this not better than the slave market? You ought to be grateful, so get rid of that pig-headed look. You could have done a lot worse.”
“Pig-headed! Worse? My father is chieftain of Pabaigh!”
He leaned close, blue eyes sparkling. “I have only two words for you.” He spoke slowly and with emphasis. “Moorish Africa.”
Emer recoiled, and then inhaled slowly. She should not let him see he frightened her, even if her heart beat like a mad thing and her knees trembled beneath her gown.
“You may not like where you are, but you would like Africa a lot less. We passed a Moorish galley just as we left the Liffey. You escaped Africa by that much.” He indicated a tiny space between his thumb and forefinger. “I can always sell you on to the Moors if you don’t please me.”
Emer shuddered. No one ever got home from Africa. It was even worse than Russland.
“Well? Will you please me?” She met the laughing challenge of his blue eyes, and something opened and warmed within her. It was an odd sensation, totally unexpected; as if she stood before a huge glowing fire and the heat reached out and enveloped her. She could not remember any man having such an effect on her. Perhaps…he was certainly more handsome…better looking than…anyone on Pabaigh.
She caught at her thoughts. He should be her husband, not her master. “My father would repay the silver, if you returned me to him.”
He shook his head, grasped her arm and walked her towards a wooden hut built out over the loch. “Soon everyone will know you belong to me.”
The phrase “belong to me” echoed in her ears as Flane pulled her into a warm, dim interior of the hut, full of dark corners, firelight and steam. Shadowy women in various states of undress clustered around a central hearth. No one seemed unduly disturbed at the interruption, though some discreetly covered themselves.
Flane addressed one of the women. “I brought a girl back from Dublin. She needs to get rid of the lice. I don’t want to be scratching like a dog fox tomorrow.” Emer glared at him. He caught her look, and must have interpreted it correctly, for he reached out and held up a strand of her snarled, tangled hair. “It was a slave market. You couldn’t have avoided it.”
He left, and Emer stared wide-eyed around the shadowy hut.