I’d never dreamed a building could be so huge.
My neck craned back as the soldier marched me through a small, open door in the foot of the castle’s massive gates. The castle wall’s skull-topped spikes loomed so high above us they seemed to scrape the very underbelly of the sky.
There was another road inside the castle’s gate, this one leading through a cobblestone courtyard. At first glance, the courtyard almost reminded me of the square in Evenfel in front of the White Bull, although this version must have been at least three times larger. Manure piles, heaps of hay, and a scattering of small, wooden shacks huddled against the stone walls as if seeking shelter from the vast darkness of the sky. Two soldiers bearing King Nøkkyn’s ferocious sigil emerged from the shadows beside the gate, shoved torches in our faces, and started barking questions. I hardly cared what they said, or how my captor responded. I stared around the courtyard in a daze, stunned by the enormity of Nøkkyn’s fortress.
This would have been my home.
If I hadn’t met Fenris along the banks of the Lucky, if Bryn and his friends hadn’t showered me with mud and piss as I carried eggs along the road to town, then this cold mountain of stone would be where I lived. Perhaps one of the narrow slits in the dark towers would have been my window.
My chest tightened with a surge of gratitude so intense it almost brought tears to my eyes. Thank the Nine Realms for Fenris. Even if it cost me my very life, thank the stars for my husband. I would take our cramped cave in the Ironwood over this heap of rock a thousand times over.
My captor shoved me between the shoulder blades, and I stumbled forward. The guards watched me closely; the first cold fingers of dread traced their way down the back of my neck. Biting my lip, I glanced down at my body. Týr’s white shirt, my wedding dress, was now stained beyond recognition. The horse’s blood had dried, turning the front stiff and dark, and the left side was still dripping wet from the water that pooled in the bottom of the skiff.
Even at its best, Týr’s shirt barely reached the middle of my thighs. Now, after I’d been hauled up from the docks over the soldier’s shoulder like a net full of wiggling fish, the dress rode high, barely covering my sex. With my hands bound behind my back, there was little I could do to preserve my modesty.
“So, she’s the one who escaped?” one of the gatehouse guards asked.
My captor grunted. The guard leaned closer to me, grinning as if he were considering devouring me. His breath stank of onion, raw and sharp.
“I can see why the King’s upset,” he said.
I flinched as he reached forward and pinched my nipple through the rough fabric of Týr’s shirt. My captor’s hand closed around my shoulder like an iron vise, and he yanked me backward.
“None of that, now,” he growled at the guards. “Escaped or not, she’s property of the King.”
“I’m not,” I cried, seething.
Both guards laughed. Their onion breath washed over me.
“Oh, she’s a feisty one. Seems a pity to waste her, doesn’t it?”
My captor dragged me past the heat and light of the guard’s torches, his hand still gripping my shoulder. The guards laughed behind us.
“Don’t do that again,” he said. His voice was so low I could barely make out his words. “Don’t speak.”
He shoved me forward until we reached a wide set of carved stone steps. Another guard walked toward us, this one holding an elaborate lamp in his hand. He was older, and his graceful movements spoke of contained power. For a moment I was back in the skiff, watching the soldier slit the throat of the fisherman in one smooth, graceful motion. Shivering, I took an involuntary step backward and struck the muscular chest of the soldier who had abducted me.
“Svensen?” the guard on the steps asked.
My captor pushed me forward, into the flickering circle of light cast by the lamp. “It’s her.”
The guard raised an eyebrow, then turned without a word. He climbed the steps slowly, vanishing into the darkness at the top.
I trembled as the lamp’s weak light was swallowed by the hungry shadows at the top of the stairs. I didn’t want to lean against the man who had just slit someone’s throat in front of me, but I felt like my legs were about to fold beneath me, spilling me across the stone courtyard.
The soldier who must be Svensen tightened his grip on my shoulder, sending a fresh bolt of pain through my arm. Tears flooded my vision, turning the blazing torches at the foot of the stairs into a kaleidoscope of flame and heat. But the pain cut through my weakness, and I found I had the strength to stand after all. I hardly noticed when his hand retreated.
My mind narrowed as I stood at the foot of the stairs to Nøkkyn’s castle. My body ached and burned around me. Somehow, I pulled away from the castle, away from my own pain and discomfort, from the memory of the three fresh graves in my family’s potato field and the howling emptiness of grief inside me. I slipped away from my former life as gently as the fisherman’s body fell to the floor of his skiff. And I remembered my husband’s words. You’re not a whore, Sol. You’re my wife.
“I’m not a whore,” I whispered under my breath. “I am the wife of the Fenris-wolf. And I am not afraid.”
Behind me, the soldier’s feet scraped the courtyard as he shifted position. I raised my eyes to the stairs, determined to hold my head high. Come what may.
The older guard reappeared. He walked toward us with the same fluid grace. This time, I noticed that he refused to meet my gaze. Even when he stopped less than an arm’s length from me, his eyes slid quickly over my face and body, as though he were much more interested in the pile of manure beside my feet or the mouldering skulls atop the gate.
“He doesn’t want to deal with it tonight,” the older guard announced.
“So, where shall I put her?” my captor asked from behind me.
The guard shrugged. “The dungeons?”
His words made my gut roll, but I bit my tongue and locked my knees, determined to show no fear.
Behind me, Svensen grunted. “You take her, then.”
The older guard’s lips twitched in what may have been the barest suggestion of a smile. “Not on your life. You know where the dungeons are.”
Svensen’s feet scraped the cobblestones again, and his hand once again closed around my shoulder. I suppressed my shiver.
“This way,” he said, tugging me toward the enormous staircase.
The Monster and the Prisoner comes out on March 26, but you can pre-order it now and save a few bucks.
Like what you’ve read? Join my newsletter and I’ll send you a free copy of Tam Lin, my sexy modern take on the Scottish folktale.