Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Vikings Underground #2) (Page 23)

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Vikings Underground #2)(23)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

Such was why bride hunters did all they could to ensure that the women they stole were not already mated. In this case, no bride hunters had been involved. The wench had unwittingly stumbled upon New Sweden’s stronghold. And Ronda, married by Outsider laws or not, would be sent to the marriage auction block, just as all unwed women were.

No law in New Sweden could save her from the inevitable, since no law in the Underground recognized the ceremonies of Outsiders as legally binding. For Ronda’s sake, he hoped she had never been mated.

So many questions; so few answers. No answers would be forthcoming until Ronda woke up from her head injury.

Swiping sweat from his forehead, Nikolas recalled the eve when he had first captured her:

He had thought her beautiful, deadly, and a liar. Beautiful and deadly had been verified, but the latter had proven false. Just as the woman he’d first thought to be a spy had claimed, an Outsider’s bird had crashed into the mountain. A search of her clothes had revealed identification that further backed up her claim.

Now all he could do was hope, for Ronda’s sake, that she settled into her new life without too much mourning for the old one.

Chapter Five

Ronda regained semiconsciousness with a small, whimpering groan. She floated in and out of awareness, uncertain if the sound had come from her or from someone else. The pain at the side of her head had waned into a dull, barely noticeable twinge. She struggled to open her eyelids, but they felt like lead weights.

“The patient finally awakens,” an old voice crooned in a thick accent. The voice was familiar. But why? “I thought I’d mayhap lost you yestereve.” Her chuckle sounded more like a cackle. “Your feistiness has been the talk of the entire village. You should have known better than to stand against Lord Ericsson. Goodness, child, the warrior must outweigh you by a hundred pounds!”

Memories came flooding back. Helicopter crash. Dead crew. Underground civilization none knew existed. White slavery…

With much effort, Ronda forced her drug-heavy eyelids open. It took her a protracted moment and several blinks to bring the old crone she’d seen in the cavern into view.

“He probably weighs a hundred pounds more than most men.” She paused, her throat feeling dry and scratchy. “I’m not exactly a slim, delicate flower.”

Indeed, Ronda was more on the rounded side than the beanpole side. In excellent shape, but she’d always been what her mother referred to as “voluptuous.” A pretty word for chubby. Still, being “thin and in” had never much mattered to Ronda. She had been born with ample hips, a plump tush and thighs, and large br**sts. That’s just the way God had made her.

The old woman issued another cackle. “ ’Tis an advantage down here in New Sweden to be fleshy. Warriors like a soft wife to ride after a long working day.”

Ronda’s cheeks pinkened. She wasn’t a prude, or even shy, but she’d never heard a woman of such advanced years speak so candidly about sex. And she had no intention of being in this colony long enough to provide one of those giants with free amoré.

“New Sweden? This place is called New Sweden?”

“Aye. ’Tis the stronghold of New Sweden, leastways. The name of our village is Lokitown.” She held up a wet cloth to Ronda’s head. “ ’Twas Loki, the fire god himself, who led our people to this underground enclave over a thousand years ago. And so, for Loki was the capital seat named.”

Riiiiight, Ronda thought. The fire god. These people are insane! “Hmm, I see.”

The old woman frowned. Her face could rival a basset hound’s with its folds and creases. “I think you make jest of our people.”

“No. No!” For some reason Ronda felt bad that she’d hurt the old woman’s feelings. She was an unwilling captive, but the lady had probably been responsible for saving her life. She owed her respect if nothing else. “Well,” she sighed, “maybe I was. I’m sorry. Everyone’s entitled to their religious beliefs.”

The old woman seemed appeased. “Soon they will become your beliefs too.”

Ronda highly doubted that, but said nothing. She watched the healer tend to her head wound, gently rubbing a waxy substance into a particularly tender spot at her temple.

It slowly dawned on Ronda that her clothing had been removed. She was nak*d under these warm, woolly blankets. Who had removed her clothing? The old healer was far too weak to do so herself.

She stilled, a terrible realization jarring her. The old woman wouldn’t have told her where she was and hinted that there were more such underground colonies if she didn’t believe that Ronda would never escape this place.

A sinking feeling stole over her. “What will you do with me?” Ronda murmured.

The old woman sighed. “I mean you no harm, child.”

“And the others?”

“It depends on what others you mean.”

Ronda’s eyebrows formed a golden arch over her dark gaze. “I don’t understand.”

“Soon you will.” She stopped at her task and looked Ronda in the eyes. “I wish ’twas words of encouragement I could give to you, but so long as Toki rules here, ’tis a life of uncertainty for us all.”

“I thought Toki was your god. Why would your own god harm you?”

The old woman clucked her tongue. “Loki, child. Loki, with an L. I speak of New Sweden’s current jarl—ruler. His name is Toki, with a T.”

“I see.”

Sort of. Her head was spinning and she felt more confused than enlightened. “So what will become of me?” she softly inquired again.

The old woman’s sigh was longer this time. “You will go, as all unwed females of breedable years do, to the marriage auction block. ’Twas once a place of honor and hope, a symbol of our people’s continuity of life. But under Toki’s regime? Bah!”

Ronda closed her eyes. Oh, God. If she didn’t find a method of escape, she would end up nak*d on a stage in shackles, groped by men she didn’t want touching her, and sold off to the highest bidder.

Her eyes flicking open, she watched the old healer wash the waxy substance from her hands under a spigot and then clean up the herbs she’d put into the potion. “Will you help me escape?” Ronda asked. A stupid question, maybe, but her only hope.

The old woman slowly shook her head. “That I cannot do.”

“But—”

She held up a palm. “ ’Tis not a possibility. Ever. Were you freed, you would tell other Outsiders of our existence.” She shook her head when Ronda opened her mouth to protest. “Not even a master as just as Lord Ericsson would allow you to go.”

The giant? If he was considered just, she’d hate to see what this Toki character was like. The giant’s smile while watching her from below had been cruel, mocking, as though he wanted her to be humiliated and sold to another. He’d thought her a spy.

“He stayed with you, you know.”

Ronda blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Nikolas—Lord Ericsson,” the old woman explained. “He stayed with you and nursed you to health for most of these past two moon-risings.” She nodded. “ ’Tis only for so long that an old woman like me can stay awake and on her feet.”

The giant? Somehow Ronda couldn’t see him playing nursemaid to anyone, let alone her. “Oh,” she said dumbly, unsure of what to say.

Oh, no—had he removed her clothing? Barely tangible threads of memory returned in brief flickers, impressions.

A man—cradling her, cooling her fevered head, reassuring her with his large presence. Quiet singing in a foreign tongue—a deep, soothing voice that comforted her with what was probably a child’s lullaby. Holding her hand. Telling her to stay strong…

Him?

“Rest, child,” the healer said as she headed toward the stone chamber’s wooden door and knocked twice. “You’ll need it.”

“Nay.” Nikolas waved a dismissive hand at Old Myria. “The finest healer in all of New Sweden you may be, but a match-maker you are not.” He frowned. “I still remember the last wench you thought would make me a fine wife. Mayhap she would have, but she smelled of swine and possessed no teeth.”

The old healer harrumphed. “You exaggerate. She had teeth.”

“She had one tooth. And a half-rotted one at that.”

“A person needs but one tooth, milord. ’Tis all I have left and it serves me fine.”

Nikolas rolled his eyes. “You are ninety and three. She was twenty and two!” He returned his attention to the task at hand: watching the oils be bottled and prepared for the bartering stalls. This shipment he would barter in New Norway, where they were forever low on oils. ’Twould fetch him much profit in the form of more weapons. “I am busy,” he grumbled. “Carry yourself to your chamber.”

Myria frowned. “Thy head is thick. Niko, the girl is scared. And can you blame her? She saw her fate before being captured by you.”

“And? What makes her different from the other wenches put through the same humiliating ordeal?”

“You captured her,” she hissed. “Not Toki’s henchmen. And because you captured her, milord, you can save her from being sold off to one of the jarl’s sadistic soldiers.”

Hunter’s Right. The law was so old and sacred that not even one so daft as Toki would think to gainsay it. It decreed that whenever an unwed warrior captured a bride, he had the right to keep her for his own rather than barter her to another.

Nikolas sighed. Odin knew he was having difficulty keeping his thoughts away from the Outsider wench. She was fiery, that one. The type of woman who commanded respect. That she’d managed to thwart him once had captured his attention in a way no wench ever had before. Finding out she was indeed the innocent she’d claimed to be made her only that much more desirable. Stripping her of clothing and bathing her nak*d body…

Nikolas pinched the bridge of his nose and slowly exhaled. “Her story proved true. That much will I credit her.” He turned to face the old woman. “But, Myria,” he murmured so as not to be overheard, “you know the time to seize New Sweden draws near. The last thing I need is a wife to distract me from—”

“Who is to say she will distract you?”

He snorted at that. “Like as not, she will attempt to flee from me and the Underground at every turn!” He narrowed his eyes at the tiny woman who thought to change his mind. “I don’t need a troublesome wife to keep in hand while I fight to overthrow the corrupt Toki.” His jaw tightened. “All of our destinies are at stake here—the wench’s included.”

The old healer’s eyes were weary with age, but sharp with wisdom. She was silent for a long moment, simply staring up at him from beneath her cowl. “You have the right,” she whispered, “to know a little happiness of your own in this lifetime, Niko. Do not make every moment one where you take on the worries of the world. When you meet the gods in Valhalla, go to them having led a full life.” She frowned, then clucked her tongue before wobbling away. “Think about it,” she threw out over her stooped shoulders without looking back. “ ’Tis all I ask.”

Nikolas stared after Old Myria long after she’d trailed out of his sight. Ronda was to go up on the auction block on the morrow. Mayhap…

A wife? That wife? Nay.

He couldn’t believe he’d taken the old healer’s words under consideration for even the space of a breath. Even if he did wish to take advantage of Hunter’s Right, a wench so beautiful of face and form might not want him for a husband.

Beauty was attracted to beauty—a lesson he’d learned the hard way long ago. He had been besotted with Toki’s step-sister, as a boy. When he became a man and Berta had gone to the marriage auction block, he’d sought to barter for her hand in matrimony. By then Nikolas’s wealth was vast and had earned him a title, so he thought he’d make her a proper husband. But each time Nikolas had raised his hand to up the ante on the previous bid, Berta had paled. Again and again and again.

“Do not permit that hideous beast to bid on me!” he’d overheard her beseech his uncle, her stepfather. “For the love of Frigga, do not allow me to be sentenced to a lifetime of being pawed at by that big, ugly hulk!”

His heart had sunk. Nikolas had quietly withdrawn from the auction, and ’twas the last time he’d sought a bride.

An overlord he might be, but Nikolas’s hands were still calloused and rough, proof of his upbringing as a laborer. His body was massive—huge and heavily muscled—not the lanky, regal posturing of a man born to wealth and status. His chest was riddled with battle scars, his face rugged rather than pretty. Most wenches nigh unto swooned just looking upon him.

Nikolas blinked, his mind returning to the present. Nay, he would not claim Ronda. The wench had no choice but to remain amongst their people. She deserved a husband she could at least bear to look upon.