The band of horsemen crested the hill and stopped. Though most of the harvest had been completed, there was plenty of work still to be done, and the farm below was a hive of activity. The pungent smell of wood smoke from the temporary sheds that had been erected for the long slow process of curing lay heavy in the air. Thralls and family members milled about, tying together sheaves of wheat, sorting through apples from the small orchard nearby or readying root vegetables for cold storage in the cellar.
Roman stayed at the back of the party, watching the scene and his master, Wulfgar, with unease. The thane presided with silent authority, the battle-lords and warriors of his hall gathering around him, awaiting his command.
“They seem prosperous enough, eh? Roman, come here,” Wulfgar ordered curtly, turning back to look at him with narrowed eyes.
Roman’s stomach lurched, but he obeyed. He didn’t want to be a part of this. Had he any choice, he would much rather have been back at the hall, poring over one of the new volumes that Wulfgar had recently gifted to him. But the thane had desired his presence, and as a slave, Roman had no choice.
“My lord?” Roman asked quietly, keeping his head respectfully lowered.
“What did Sverri tithe for this year?”
Parchment rustled as Roman consulted a leather-bound ledger and recited the short list of goods the crofter had sent, knowing Wulfgar was mentally tallying up the difference. His fingers clutched the journal, his stomach churning. He had to wonder what the fate of those people down below was going to be.
“Sverri’s always been a damned skinflint. This time it’s going to cost him. Osric!”
Roman averted his eyes as another man rode up on the thane’s left, loosening the ties on his sword. “Shall I drive them into the hills and burn the buildings?” The battle-lord’s voice betrayed an eagerness Roman recognized all too well.
“Not quite yet, Osric. I want to hear what Sverri has to say for himself. Gather everyone, thrall and slaves, too, to bear witness,” Wulfgar commanded, and Roman watched out of the corner of his eye as Osric relayed the thane’s orders to the other battle-lords. Wulfgar raised his hand and signaled, and the warriors thundered down the hill. A man below bolted toward the crofthall, shouting a warning, and women dropped their baskets to gather the children.
Wulfgar gathered his reins. “Roman, I want you to record the proceedings.” Kicking his heels to the horse’s flanks, the thane rushed down after his men.
Roman tucked the book back in its place and urged his own steed into motion. The fact that Wulfgar hadn’t immediately ordered the buildings razed gave him some measure of hope for the people who lived in the croft. The thane was displeased with Sverri, not the rest, but then, Wulfgar was usually reasonable once his initial anger had cooled.
By the time Roman reined in his horse at the base of the hill, Osric was at the crofthall bellowing for Sverri to come out while Wulfgar watched with a hard smile on his lips.
The thane’s brows snapped together when, instead, a young man of perhaps eighteen summers stepped out. The crofter’s eldest son. Roman searched his mind for his name. Ah yes, Aron.
Kicking back his heels and urging his horse forward, Wulfgar glared down at the young man. Roman admired the way Aron didn’t flinch under the thane’s hard gaze. That was more than could be said for most who found themselves facing Wulfgar’s displeasure.
“’Twas your father who was summoned, boy. Go you and fetch him to me now.”
“My lord, my father is unwell. I stand in his stead.” The words were terse but respectful. Wariness marked the young man’s stance as his pale blue eyes flicked between Wulfgar and the battle-lords.
Pity filled Roman. Standing in his father’s stead was not likely to end well for the young man. Wulfgar’s displeasure was never a pleasant thing.
Wulfgar regarded the young man, his fingers stroking the ends of his beard. The people of the croft hall, now gathered, made a mostly silent bunch as they huddled together behind their spokesperson, though Roman could occasionally hear a muttered prayer to Thunor. Osric stepped out of the dwelling and nodded his head.
“It seems you speak sooth today, boy,” Wulfgar said.
Aron stiffened, his eyes flashing. “I always speak the truth, my lord,” he said with quiet, intense pride.
Roman caught the way Wulfgar’s eyes flared as he nodded and could see the young man’s demeanor intrigued the thane. Mayhap that meant Wulfgar would be lenient.
“I value an honest man. So tell me, young Aron. Why has Sverri skimped on his tithe yet again?” The thane’s voice hardened. “Haven’t I protected him from those who encroached upon his borders? Haven’t I been there the numerous times he’s called upon me for aid?”
Aron met Wulfgar’s gaze unflinchingly. “Aye, you have done all that and more, my lord.” Aron glanced back toward the dwelling, reluctance in every line of his body. “My father… does not manage his resources well.”
Wulfgar snorted. “I thought you said you spoke the truth. Sverri is a greedy bastard who insults my intelligence. Unlucky for you and yours he chose this day to fall ill. You know the penalty for thievery, do you not?”
Roman saw the young man pale, and the familiar smile on Wulfgar’s face told him clearly how the thane was savoring Aron’s reaction. He also knew the thane well enough to know he wasn’t going to take Sverri’s hand if he was sick. The shock might kill him, and Wulfgar would be unwilling to pay a weregild for the likes of Sverri Eriksson. He wouldn’t cripple the young man for standing in his stead either. Roman was curious to see what Wulfgar would do under such circumstances. Mayhap he’d give the family leave to pay in the spring.
Wulfgar nodded to Osric. “Bring Sverri and burn them out.” Roman bit his lip, concentrating on the journal in his lap. It was going be a hard winter for Aron’s people.
“No! You cannot!”
Roman’s head jerked up at the sharp cry. Aron’s stance was defiant as his wide eyes darted between Wulfgar’s men, who made ready to follow orders and moved toward the mud and wattle croft hall. It had not rained in days, and the thatch would ignite quickly.
Wulfgar’s brows arched with a humorless laugh. “I cannot? You forget yourself, boy. The decision is not up for debate.” The thane gestured to Osric, but Aron darted forward, skidding to a halt when the thane’s men unsheathed their swords.
Aron’s startling blue eyes locked on Wulfgar, and his chin tilted with a stubborn angle. “Let me fight your champion. If I win, then you leave our home standing.” He narrowed his eyes in a fierce challenge. “What do you have to fear from an untrained crofter like me?”
Roman’s breath caught, and he almost spilled ink on his tunic. Sweet Jesu, Aron was going to get himself killed. Roman admired the young man’s courage, but Aron was daft if he thought he could win.
“Accepted. Osric, to me.” Wulfgar swung down off his horse as Osric approached. “Try not to wound him too badly, if you can. I believe I have plans for this one.” The thane spoke quietly, but Roman heard as well. He had years of practice. He froze as the implication of Wulfgar’s tone became clear, drawing a steadying breath and focusing on his transcribing.
Osric nodded and turned, drawing his sword with a vicious grin.
Wulfgar’s eyes gleamed as he studied Aron, and Roman’s stomach clenched as he glanced at the young man and saw him as Wulfgar would. Aron was pretty for a lad, almost too pretty, with his smooth skin and clear blue eyes, and his obvious pride would call to Wulfgar’s instincts.
Someone had tossed the young man a sword. Roman watched as Aron swung it a couple of times experimentally. It looked as if he’d handled one before, but it really didn’t matter. Only one person had ever beaten Osric. Roman couldn’t miss the look in Wulfgar’s eyes. He saw it every time the thane took him to bed, only for the first time in years, it wasn’t directed toward him. Roman was sure Aron’s fate would come down to one of Wulfgar’s infamous impossible choices. Things usually did.
Pushing those thoughts aside, Roman turned his attention back to the ongoing fight. Aron’s instincts impressed him. The young man had quick wrists and feet, and his determination didn’t falter as Osric played with him, forcing him back. He bit his lip at the soft cries of the womenfolk as Osric struck a stinging blow to Aron’s sword, knocking it out of his hand. The young man rolled out of the way of Osric’s downswing, gathering up his sword as he rose to his feet again.
Roman started to smile, then quickly banished it. He knew Aron wouldn’t win, but he was tempted to cheer him on. Aron started swinging with less precision, struggling to land a blow on Osric as his frustration grew. Roman’s stomach knotted, and he found himself unable to look away, all but holding his breath until Wulfgar signaled Osric to end it.
Osric came at the young man with a flurry of blows that Aron tried to fend off, but the outcome was inevitable, and soon the young man fell to his knees, empty-handed. Osric’s blade pressed against his bare throat, just nicking the skin so that a drop of red stood starkly against his fairness. Aron glared up at Wulfgar, his pride intact even though his shoulders heaved as he tried to catch his breath. Roman bit his lip and looked away at the flash of excitement in the thane’s eyes.
“You lose,” Wulfgar said, moving his horse close so he loomed over the boy.
Roman’s quill hovered over the page, glancing at the young man who only continued to glare at Wulfgar. He couldn’t recall anyone glaring at Wulfgar so hatefully and getting away with it. Aron knelt there, and Roman could see in his eyes the mixture of bravado, fear, and failure at having lost. He remembered those feelings, sweet Jesu, did he. Though really, there was no shame in it. Osric’s skills with a blade were legendary.
Wulfgar waved his hand, and Osric lowered his blade, sheathing it and stepping back. For a moment, Aron remained on his knees, then rose warily.
The thane let the boy stew for a while, saying nothing and making no move to order his men to finish the job before finally breaking the silence. “It takes courage to challenge me, boy, but unfortunately courage will not save your family and home.” A slow smirk curved his lips. “However, I’m going to grant you another chance to do so.” Aron’s eyes grew even more wary, and Roman’s apprehension rose as Wulfgar continued.
“You have a choice, young Aron. Your family dispossessed and your home burned to the ground as I intended, or you return with me to my hall for a period of one year as my thrall.” The thane’s smile was slow, as if amused by the righteous fury that rose in the young man’s eyes. “Make your choice, boy, and make it quickly.”
“That is no choice, and well you know it. My lord,” Aron ground out, shaking in fury.
A stab of resentment twisted inside Roman. At least Aron had a choice, even if it might temporarily strip him of his dignity. It was still a choice.
“No!” a feminine voice cried out.
Roman immediately regretted his harsh thoughts when, at the sound of the voice, the young man’s eyes closed, sorrow clear on his youthful face. A woman broke away from the small crowd of people and rushed to Aron’s side, dropping to her knees before him. She wrapped her arms tightly around the young man’s waist, and he opened his eyes to look down at her. “You must not, Aron.” She cast a frightened look in the thane’s direction. “Not with him,” she whispered frantically. “Please, my son. We will manage.”
Roman watched as the young man drew a steadying breath and met the thane’s gaze. “I agree to your terms,” he said, his eyes snapping cold blue fire. He had to force the words out, and he didn’t look at his mother as he said them.
“Good choice, Aron Sverrison,” Wulfgar said. “Somebody get him a horse.” He turned away from the scene, discounting the crofters’ presence to talk with his men.
Roman blew on the ink to dry it before stowing the journal away in his pack. He noticed Wulfgar had failed to mention what Aron’s new duties would be and wondered if the young man would have been as quick to agree.
“Sverri!” Wulfgar roared, standing up in his stirrups and addressing the silent dwelling. Aron’s mother wept in the background. “Next time I have to come back here, it will not be your son you forfeit.”
Wulfgar sat back in his saddle as the croft’s thralls brought out Aron’s horse. Roman looked away as the young man shook off his mother’s desperate grasp, his heart twisting in sympathy.
Roman hung back as the group started toward the hall, lost in his own thoughts. This was going to change things, and he couldn’t help the apprehension that shattered his usual calm. Change never boded well, he’d come to learn. The worries followed him as he urged his horse forward.