Aetherlin stared at the man through the leaping flames of the firepit. Hrald, Jarl of Dunholm. Her hands clenched in want of a weapon. Fire cast his shadow to the far wall as if he were a denizen of Hell itself, his tall frame looming and pale eyes glittering in the orange-red reflection. Breath hitched in her throat.
He wore fitted leather leggings and an open vest over his muscled chest. Lengths of dark hair brushed his wide shoulders. Gold bands wrapped his biceps and forearms, a badge of his prowess in battle and the respect of his tribesmen. His forehead creased in his determined expression, although the quirk of his cruel mouth bespoke lascivious thoughts. About her. And what he would soon do to her.
In spite of the message of anger and resistance she sent with her glare, he did not relent in his survey of her. She wore a red marriage dress with scrolling needlework and golden thread. Her attending lady had wept as she dressed her, ordered by her father Aetherwulf, Earldorman of Gloucestershire. These were not garments Aetherlin would have chosen, cut low to reveal the curve of her breasts, to present her body as if a fattened goose. But then, she would not have chosen this day, this man. Or perhaps any man at all.
“Loose your hair, maid,” Hrald commanded, his deep voice echoing through the empty hall.
Her body stiffened. Again she thought to refuse, to turn and run. But the great hall had been emptied and the door barred. She had been given to him, to be his chattel just as the hall itself, the trenchers and tables, the servants moving in the adjacent kitchens and storerooms, his pledged warriors and lesser vassals going about their evening tasks in the courtyard, the stables.
In a fury, she yanked off the narrow silver band holding the linen scarf and flung them to the floor. Her thick braid took more time as her numb fingers combed through the long wavy strands, separating and spreading them over her shoulders and chest. Golden glints of firelight reflected on the red-blonde hair. Aetherlin could not look at him, but she knew his gaze stayed on her—it burned like coals on her skin.
He said nothing for a time. The fire’s crackle barely matched the noise of her heart thudding in her ears. Did he mean to possess her here, in the public hall?
“Now the dress,” he demanded.
His voice had taken a husky tone. That recognition startled her. She wished it did not matter whether he cared about what she did. Surely he did not want her, but rather embraced the power, lands, and wealth that came with the marriage. Still, his reaction caused her to flush.
Her glance flew to his face. What did he intend, forcing her to undress in the main hall? Anyone could enter, even though he had dismissed them all. Would he shame her? What man treated his bride so coarsely?
A fiend. A filthy, bloodthirsty Dane.
His eyes had narrowed and his body leaned slightly forward, so that the spiraling patterns carved into his leather vest picked up more of the fire’s light and seemed to move of their own accord. Likewise, the inked design of dragons rippled over his muscled arms as if alive. His dark hair brushed at his wide shoulders, casting his clean-shaven jaw in shadow.
Why did he not simply rip down her clothes like the ravening beast he was? The sudden thought of such an act caused her heart to leap against her ribs. Her fingers stumbled at the clasps. The heavy woolen dress fell to the floor around her ankles. She stood in the linen shift, waiting, her breath shallow and fast.
“Do you think I wish only to see your undergarments?” he questioned in a hard voice.
“I think you wish to lower me, so that I am the least of all possible things,” she snapped back. “Expose me, like a village girl at the hands of your men.”
He laughed. “Beauty and spirit. It seems I’ve bargained well.”
He came nearer to her side of the fire and braced a heavy boot against the rock hearth. She feared what he might do. Her tongue slipped along dry lips.
“But you will please me,” he said, lowering his voice slightly. “The rest of it, bride. Now.”
(More of this story in a future publication…)