He sneered and drew his sword, tracing the tip across the absurdly smooth neck. Soft. Little, soft southern lord.
The boy shifted but Hrafn kept the point against the visible, fluttering pulse in the smooth, white neck. He snorted softly. The boy had never shaved. He could only imagine the red beard the boy would grow. If he ever grew a beard. At least it would cover the ridiculously fragile chin.
A flicker of a smile crossed the boy’s face and he rolled over.
Hrafn pressed the blade into the soft throat. A bead of blood swelled. Once the eyes opened, he growled, “Pleasant dreams, my lord?”
The boy looked up at him, a scowl of fear and hate. He looked to his companions, bound and gagged by Hrafn’s men, pulled back into the surrounding trees in the glade.
“Well, my Lord Lackbeard, what can you tell me?”
“Let me go. I hunt Grendel.”
Hrafn threw his head back and laughed. “The sorcerer beast? And what does my Lord Lackbeard think he can do against the monster?”
He slid from under the point of the blade and sneered, “Your method of sneaking up on him in his sleep will not work.”
“Oh, aye. I’m sure the guards he posts do not sleep through the night.”
The boy scowled again, rubbing his neck where the point of the sword had grazed him. He looked at the size of the sword, then up at Hrafn. Hrafn nodded. Yes, if he had wanted to hurt the boy, the lad wouldn’t have known it, but been dead in the heap with his companions.
“Who is your father?” Hrafn asked.
The boy shook his head. “I hunt Grendel.” He set his small shoulders. “Without killing the monster, I am dead anyway.” He shook his head again, and said, “The monster killed my love. I go to kill him.”
“Your love, eh?” Hrafn laughed. “I didn’t think you had a cock that worked.” He flicked the sword point at the lad’s breeches, but he did not flinch away. Hrafn roared with delight. “So your cock doesn’t work!”
The lad blushed, grimaced, then said, “My cock works well enough, thank you. At least, I don’t have to scare unsuspecting travelers to make me feel better about its size.”
Laughter and jeers rose from his men.
“Are you saying you are not afraid of me, Lord Lackbeard?”
The lad shrugged convincingly. “I am dead already. What more could you do to me?”
Hrafn peered down at the lad. “You honestly mean to slay the beast?” A solemn nod. Hrafn held his hand out to the boy and helped him up. “We also hunt Grendel, which is how we came upon you.” The lad looked up at him, and shrugged again. “Once the monster is slain, we’ll get who your father is. I have a feeling I will not get it from you now.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“My lord? Is that right?”
The boy’s eyes flashed up to him. The ‘My lord’ was such a natural part of his speech. He was the son of a nobleman. The boy realized his mistake at the same time.
“Actually,” Hrafn said. “If you would like titles, you may address me as Your Grace, not my lord. I am Hrafn, Duke of <dukedom> and younger brother to his royal highness, Sigfrøðr, crown prince of <beowulf stuffs>.”
He gasped when Hrafn said, “Your Grace.” Hrafn wrinkled his forehead as the boy dropped into an awkward, low bow. When he stood up, his eyes were much too bright. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Your Grace is sufficient.”
“Thank you, your highness,” the boy whispered, dropping his head.
Hrafn shrugged. “As you will.” He nodded to his men and the other captives were released.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” the smaller man said, watching the boy.
The larger man nodded and bowed.
“Do not make it obvious I am the leader,” Hrafn said. “I understand the beast picks off leaders.”
“Grendel is evil, through and through,” the boy said.
“What is your name, Lackbeard?” Hrafn said.
He shook his head. “Just Adam.”
“Very well, my Lord Lackbeard. We’ll come to it in time. Perhaps I can use you to kill the beast for me and I’ll be done with both of you soon enough. How did you escape the sorcerer’s wrath?” Hrafn asked.
The smaller man said, “Adam, sir.” He looked to Lord Lackbeard and with a note of awe said, “Saved us both. Grendel tore through our companions, as you can see.”
“This boy, this lad, saved you when these men and horses were crushed like nothing?”
“Aye, Your Grace. You wouldn’t think it to look at… him.”
“Stuart, sire. And this is Butler. He don’t talk much.”
“Do you talk?” Hrafn asked the tall, burly man.
“Aye. Just find more use in listening than yammering,” Butler said, big voice booming from a big chest.
“Well said, friend,” Hrafn said. He looked at the big, black warhorse and said, “I’ll take that horse.”
“I wouldn’t, your highness,” the boy said. “He’s got a temper.”
“Lord Lackbeard intends to teach me about horses?”
The boy shook his head. “I would rather get on with killing the monster than waiting for you to heal from getting thrown.”
A moment’s anger flared through Hrafn. Who was this boy? He was clearly the son of a lord and used to speaking however he liked.
“You realize I’m a prince, boy?”
The boy narrowed his eyes, then spat, “Your royal highness.”
Hrafn moved to strike the boy, but the boy looked up at him with purple-blue, dead eyes.
“I hold your life, boy.”
“And I am already dead, your highness. What is physical death compared to a dead soul?”
“Reflect on this, then, Lord Lackbeard.”
He struck the boy full across the face, sending him sprawling in the dirt.
Butler picked him up and brushed him off with the deference he would show a princess.
“Do you know who this lad is?” Hrafn demanded.
Butler shrugged, and went back to tending his young lord.
“Once this monster is dead, I’ll take it from you. You will tell me, he’ll be ransomed and I’ll be done with the lot of you,” Hrafn huffed.
Lord Lackbeard only shrugged and waited.
She fumed. Never in her life had she been treated thusly. She knew being captured was a distinct possibility and her disguise was her first defense from being raped.
Butler sat at her side, a silent stalwart defender. Not that she could trust him. Even less so Stuart. It would take little for him to betray her.
She looked up at this prince, striding around the campsite. Tall, strong, jet black hair and hazel eyes, brown and green flecks swimming in a sea of blue. If he was less attractive he would have been harder to hate.
She watched him move and briefly pondered if she could best him with steel. She might be small and fast, but he could easily overpower her.
Butler looked at her watching the princeling and said, “No.”
She scowled and turned away to watch the fire.
Things must be well in hand for these Vikings if they were out hunting Grendel. She longed to know about her father’s castle but knew asking would break her composure and she would be exposed.
Hrafn went to saddle Fury and the horse laid his ears back and snapped at him. His men laughed, then snickered quietly. Hrafn looked at her, then said, “Lackbeard, saddle your beast.”
“Yes, your royal highness.” Every ounce of loathing, drop of condescension and shred of hatred filled her voice. She stood and went to the big black horse, murmuring to him softly, just mumbles. The horse lipped at her shoulder and she laughed. She saddled him, then turned to hand the reins to the princeling. “His name is Fury. You should know that.” She paused and then spat, “Your royal highness.”
“Stop calling me that,” he growled, annoyed. She was going to make sure she was more trouble than she was worth.
“Then what shall I call you?” Another pause, then a disdainful, “Your royal highness.”
“Jesus lord!” Hrafn snapped. She immediately crossed herself. “Anything but that. Hrafn is fine.”
“Yes, your royal—” his hand darted out and grabbed her neck, pulling her close. He was big and strong and wild.
“Shut your damned mouth and ride your damned horse.”
He shoved her against the horse and she stumbled between the horse’s legs. The big horse froze, then snorted and nosed at her hair. She rose up with her hand on the horse’s shoulder, the horse still nuzzling at her.
He gestured to Stuart and said, “Ride with Lord Lackbeard. None of my riders can spare the weight.” He sneered at her, then said, “The wee lord. Your father must be so disappointed in his wee lordling.” He laughed, then said, “Perhaps I call you Lady Lackbeard. That seems more fitting. Aye.”
She sat astride Fury and Stuart mounted behind her. Once they started moving, she softly said, “Thank you for concealing my identity.”
“I will do my best, Adam.” He looked up at Hrafn leading the column and said, “How is your face?”
“I’m sure Grendel would say his injuries more than hurt.”
“Oh, aye,” she laughed. “I wish I would have killed the accursed beast. But with each meeting, I hurt him worse. Eventually, he will be dead.”
“How many times have you faced him?”
“Three times now.”
Stuart exhaled sharply. “It will soon be over.”
“Aye. And I will be dead, too.”
He tsk’ed. “You are young! You are—”
“Do not tell me what I must do!” she snapped. “I have had duty thrust at me my whole life and—” she stopped when she saw everyone looking at her. Her voice had slipped into a tone of command and she immediately said, “Forgive me, my lord,” to Hrafn up the column. She dropped her voice and said to Stuart, “I have been scolded thusly enough times.”
“Forgive me, my … lord.”
She shrugged. “Of course. It was easier when I was by myself. I didn’t have to guard myself from that.” She shrugged again and settled into the saddle. Stuart settled in behind her and very carefully put his hands on her hips. He gasped a little and she laughed. “Aye.”
“I am shamed. I tried to flee Grendel.”
She laughed in acceptance of what he was admitting. “Aye.” The column sped a little and she adjusted the reins, then said, “Does that help or hurt your courage?”
He laughed in turn. “I’m not sure. I’m just glad I’m not on your bad side.”
She looked back at Butler following them.
“No, his horse couldn’t keep up with Fury. Even with both of us on him. And I wouldn’t appreciate you leaving him with our hosts.” After some time, Stuart said, “How did you know the silver would work?”
She came back to Stuart and said, “At the feast to announce my betrothal, the beast broke in and killed my…”
“No. Killed my knight. I thought that was a broken heart. But he killed my knight, then was going to kill my lord father. I cut him across the chest with a dinner knife.”
“A dinner knife?”
“Aye. I cannot speak of my Duke, but, I tried to use his sword against Grendel.” She lifted her hand and showed the shining white scar down her thumb. “I hit the beast with the blade and it did nothing. I checked the edge and got this. It was— when I awoke, it was how I knew it had all happened.” She sniffled softly and wiped her nose.
“Don’t cry, my … lord.” He tightened his grip on her hips. “I do not trust these Danes.”
She laughed suddenly. “Oh aye. I can trust the men who planned to rob me.”
Stuart laughed with her. “Aye. But we’re countrymen now. Common enemy.”
“I would ally with Satan now if it meant killing the beast.”
“No more talking!” Hrafn yelled down the line.
She put her head down and they rode in silence.
Little Lord Lackbeard sat by the fire, gazing at the shimmering coals.
“Lord Lackbeard,” Hrafn snapped. The boy looked up at him questioning.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Your silver sword and dagger. Tell me of them.”
“Silver can pierce the beast. Fury is shod with a silver alloy. How he hurt the beast when we were attacked.”
“Silver tipped arrows?”
“Aye. It would work, my lord.”
Hrafn picked up the silver sword. It was beautiful work and just the size for the boy. Sapphires glimmered in the pommel. A rich sword from a rich house. “Who made this for you?”
“I can not tell you until my task is complete.”
“You are an obstinate creature, Lord Lackbeard.”
“My only dream is to kill the beast Grendel, my lord. Everything else is trifles.”
Hrafn sat across the fire from the boy. “You truly believe you can kill Grendel?”
“I would give my life to try. He was grievous injured three nights past. If we can find him now, he will be weak. I drove my dagger through his belly.”
“You think it still alive?”
“I could not hit a solid blow.”
“What will you do differently?”
“Run him through with the sword. Cut his head off. Whatever I can.”
“Lord Lackbeard, I have half a mind to give you back this silver sword.”
“I would thank you, my lord. Once my task is done, you can have my name and everything. Then, none of this will matter.”
“You won’t run away?”
“Killing Grendel is more important than my freedom. I swear on the soul of my love.”
Hrafn shrugged, then handed the sword back to the boy. “I’m keeping the dagger.”
The boy shrugged, but held the sword to his chest, shutting his eyes, tears welling in the corners.
“Adam,” Hrafn said softly. “The only goal this company has is to kill the beast Grendel.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Something about his fervency and the way the fire caught the red of his hair touched Hrafn. “Lord Lackbeard, have you any sisters?”
The boy frowned and looked up, confusion openly on his face. He paused a moment, then said, “Sisters, my lord?”
“Aye. That look like you but with no cock. Surely, I don’t need to spell it out.”
The frown deepened and he considered. “No, my lord. I am the only one.”
“Your father will want you back then?”
The boy shrugged, then wrapped his arms around himself, his sword in his lap.
“No?” Hrafn pressed.
“I suppose so, my lord.” The sullen answer confused him. Whatever the lad was hiding, Hrafn was getting close.
“I wouldn’t rape your sisters,” Hrafn began. “I couldn’t be a lord here in my own right if I am ravaging the noble houses, could I?”
“That’s not a comfort, my lord, when it is one’s sisters in question.”
“So you do have sisters?” Hrafn smiled.
The boy scowled and was quiet.
Hrafn was pleased, like he was winning. The boy was slight, small shoulders and short, but carried himself with the posture of breeding and privilege. Yes, his sisters would be fine women.
His big companion, Butler, moved to sit next to the boy. “You, Butler! Do you know this boy’s sisters?”
Butler looked at the boy a long minute, considering, then said, “No.”
“Come now, it can’t take that long to decide if you know someone’s sister.”
Butler shrugged, but continued to sit next to the boy.
Beads of sweat hung on the boy’s forehead. It was a cold night and no reason for him to sweat. Hrafn watched with a detached delight. Whatever this boy was hiding was going to be worth finding.
Butler sat next to her, solid and at her shoulder. The prince, Hrafn, was either seeing enough of her femininity to make him think of women or he could tell. This invader, this Viking meant to stay? And where would he choose for his seat? Certainly her father’s castle, Dawnspire. Without her there, without an heir, the castle and earldom were ripe for the picking.
She cursed Grendel again for yet another blight on her life.
She wasn’t sure how prepared Butler was to defend her, but she didn’t want to find out either. Her silver sword could not stand up to steel blades; it could do nothing but slay the monster.
“No, my lord,” she finally said. “I shan’t tell you of my family until the beast is killed. Then and only then will I tell you anything else.”
Hrafn shrugged. “The sooner the better. I miss the hospitality of Dawnspire.”
She tensed to rise up and strike him, but held back. Grendel. Grendel. First, slay demons, then take back her homeland. There was nought she could do with a silver sword anyway.
She bit back at the burning bile in her throat and looked at Butler. He put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. She flinched back and said, “Ouch!’
Hrafn looked at her and said, “You are hurt?”
“Not badly. Grendel threw a horse at me.”
She saw the disbelief cross his face. “He… threw a horse at you?”
“Aye. I may be slight, but I am not so lacking of skill and speed to get hit full by a horse.”
Hrafn laughed suddenly, his eyes closing, his head thrown back. It was a rich sound. The fire caught the line of his neck from chin to chest and Aoife found herself watching it with some fascination.
“I’m glad we caught you, my Lord Lackbeard. I think I like you very much.”
A little wiggle in her tummy gave her pause. She should hate that he said he liked her. She shouldn’t be watching the way the fire played off his body. Her Duke. This was betrayal. She was betraying him. That was too much and she felt the bile rising. She swallowed it down and said, ”Pleased to be of service, my lord.” She stood up and said, “I will be retiring. Thank you, my lord.” She got up and went to Fury, hanging her arm around his neck and weeping into his mane, tears for the loss of her love and devotion as Hrafn’s words touched her soul again.