THE BARGE WAS a red cherry upon sunlit waters. Kristján gripped the edge of the ship, gazing out into the horizon. The sails were pretty as white petals, tinted a bluish-gold. Crates, chests, and barrels lined the solid oak walls, the browns reminding him of home and hearth.
Tears cooled on his skin, and amidst the swirling tide, his brows met icy water with regal dignity, sending a silent prayer to Addum as his home was wrenched from his grasp.
“Get back to work,” a voice snapped behind him, kicking over the bucket of water he was using to wash the deck. Kristján scurried to pick it up, the dirty water spilling over and muddying all the progress he’d made in the last hour. The place was an open cesspool.
The rest of the men snickered, their sunken eyes greedily watching him. Anger flared inside his chest, but he stamped it down quickly. It was no use in a place like this. The more he reacted, the more they found reasons to provoke him. Most skrælingjar received the brunt of their disgust anyway.
Kristján was so used to being kicked in the dirt that he didn’t even know what it felt like to be clean anymore. Bastards. He cursed the lot of them. He began mopping again, ignoring the sneers behind him as the world narrowed down to one task.
The Black Riff was a disgusting place. Filled to the brim with sordid men, criminals escaping all kinds of punishments. Narfi watched from the quarterdeck, his red beard a brilliant flame as he shouted orders to his men on the docks. Every time their eyes met, Kristján wanted to sink beneath the floorboards.
Narfi had dragged him out of his room in the wee hours of the morning, putting him to work in the kitchens, cleaning and doing the dishes, and emptying chamber pots. Most of it would’ve been fine, if Narfi didn’t insist on watching, then patting, Kristján’s ass whenever he needed to bend lower for an exceptionally harder task. It would get worse before it got better.
Kristján was well informed about vile men. His mother made sure he kept a small dagger in his shoe just in case. More than once he’d had to fight off his fair share of alphas who got too handsy. For now, he’d bide his time until he could figure out a way to escape.
“Skrælingjar!” a man called. “The captain is requesting you.”
Placing the mop and bucket aside, he headed toward the quarterdeck, but the minute he stepped away it was kicked over again. Kristján flinched as the water spilled, the murky water sloshing against his feet. Laughter rang like bells behind him, but he kept moving to ignore the jeers.
Narfi’s fur coat pooled around his knees, while the sun licked over his scalp, covering it in a golden haze. He kept his hand on his axe, body poised, and he turned when Kristján approached him.
“Skrælingjar,” Narfi clipped, lips curling into a smile. “You missed a spot.”
Rage quickened his blood. It thrummed through his veins hot and thick threatening to overwhelm him. It was too much. Kristján tried to breathe around it, but it lodged in his throat like a thorn. Mother’s death was like a boot against his chest. He felt raw, beaten. There was no way out.
Narfi’s eyes were black beady pits, devouring every reaction as if starved. Kristján’s back straightened, but it was too late to hide his fury. Narfi caught it quickly, eyes gleaming and latching onto it like a lifeline.
“Do you disagree?” Narfi stepped toward him with the face of a leopard. Vicious intent corded in every muscle. Kristján inhaled slowly, lowering his gaze to the floor while the men around him chuckled.
Narfi grinned, bleak and twisted. “You look so much like your damn cousin.” He spat the words, but they were curdled on his tongue. “I’m sure if I closed my eyes, you could be…”
Disgust knotted his stomach. Kristján’s jaw worked, lips quivering as Narfi swayed toward him, taking another whiff of his scent. “Too bad the sight of you is enough to make me lose my lunch.” Narfi pivoted away just as quickly. “Besides, I brought you here for a reason.”
Kristján released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and listened carefully.
“The prisoner we spoke about…” Narfi continued. “You’ll feed him once a day and report to me on his condition. You’ll attend to his every need unless I say otherwise. If he says anything, you will notify me immediately, understood?”
“Good…now get the fuck out of my sight. You’re polluting my air.”
Kristján didn’t need to be told twice. He scampered across the deck quickly, ignoring their hate-fueled gazes as they dragged across his skin. Salted pork and flour marinated the air when he reached the kitchens. Kristján waited as the cook sloshed some broth in a bowl along with a biscuit and shoved it at him. “Prisoner is through there.” The cook pointed to a long corridor, to a stairwell where the air was thick and damp.
Balancing the tray, he walked slowly until he found a door at the end of the hallway. Strange noises were coming from within, and he hesitated. What the hell?
Whimpering sounds like a wounded animal reached his ears and Kristján knocked before opening it. The room was unbearably hot. The fireplace crackled and popped while the flames licked upward. A heady scent of cedar punched through his chest, and he staggered, nearly dropping the food. Vertigo almost made his knees buckle. The rich, pungent aroma filled his nostrils in a wave so tantalizing that Kristján could barely breathe. He scrambled to place the food on the night table, body quaking when his blurry eyes latched onto the source.
A visceral reaction shot straight through him like a bullet, shattering his ribcage.
Gods, he was stunning.
Fur blankets covered the man’s naked torso, but his entire body was glistening in sweat, the rise and fall of his bronzed skin labored, his lungs rattling. Cornrows adorned his scalp, while his meaty arms were trembling, and his head tossed from side to side. His eyes were scrunched closed, while puffs of air were pushed between full lips. Sun-kissed skin made Kristján’s heart roar in his ears. The man’s massive chest was wiry, while his eight-packed dipped below the comforter.
Heat burned Kristján’s cheeks, and he looked away quickly, ignoring how his skin flushed at the man’s V-shaped pubic bones. Kristján placed his hand over the man’s forehead and found it was ripe with fever. He grabbed a nearby basin and filled it with ice water, trying to cool his skin with a dampened rag.
Alpha. Kristján’s cock twitched. He felt delirious as he cleaned the man, careful not to arouse him, and gently brought the broth to his lips. The man stirred, nearly knocking the bowl off the tray in one feral swipe. Kristján jolted as hot soup scalded his hands, but he managed to pull away before it dropped. The man was whispering beneath his breath, eyelids fluttering as if trapped in some unspeakable nightmare.
Kristján felt it down to the marrow of his bones, as if a string from his heart had twined around this man’s ribcage and tugged violently. Who are you? Nothing made sense. Kristján touched his furrowed brow and instantly, the man’s expression smoothed.
Cedar brimmed in his lungs.
Kristján felt drunk.
As if he’d flung himself off a cliff and plunged to the depths of the sea. He wanted to nuzzle into this man’s neck, burrow himself in his skin and stay there forever. The man made a strange noise in his throat, and Kristján stuffed more pillows beneath his head, then brought the broth to his lips.
The man ate slowly, lips coiling around the spoon while some broth drizzled down his chin. Kristján mopped it up with his hands, mindful of his long nails so as not to pierce his flesh. Kristján licked his dry lips, pulse racing. Everything seemed far more confusing than ever before.
He fed the man and made sure the fire was stoked before he had to take the tray back, but the moment he tried to leave the man whimpered. Kristján froze, thoughts whirling.
What should he do? If he stayed, he’d get in trouble because he had other duties. Kristján warred with himself, then placed a cool hand over the man’s forearm. “I’ll be back.”
The man calmed, falling back into a restless sleep. Kristján stepped outside the room, closing the door before he almost ran headfirst into Narfi.
“How is he?”
Kristján jumped, hands clutching the tray in a white-knuckled grip. “O-okay. He needs medicine for the fever.”
Narfi’s face was carved from the ice as he stared down at him. “Done.”
They stood there in stony silence for several moments before Narfi spoke again. “You will…attend his every need, understood?”
Kristján’s eyes darted to the floor, and he licked his dry lips. “Yes, Captain.” It was only a matter of time anyway. Kristján was well aware that he was Narfi’s slave, which meant he could do whatever he wished. “I’ll…do what is required.”
Narfi lifted his chin and turned his head from side to side. His large, rippled thumb pinched his chin and dragged across his smooth skin. “It’s fucking uncanny…”
Narfi looked odd.
Black eyes alit with a fierceness that made Kristján stumble back. Narfi’s face hardened, eyes narrowed into pinpricks. “Get back to work.”
Kristján hurried around him, eager to get away from his suffocating scent. Narfi watched after him, eyes blazing. The day passed in an exhausting blur of chores. Once the ship was far at sea, the men were busy with their duties and didn’t have time to bother him anymore.
Yet the threat always loomed over his head like an anvil.
Narfi’s expression haunted his dreams. Kristján knew what men like him were like. Wicked. Soulless. It made his skin crawl. Narfi wanted him, that much was clear, but most Þrælar would rather chew off their left arm than admit it. At least, not in the light of day.
Kristján barred his door that night.
Praying to Cephy, Goddess of the Sea, for safe passage.
Hiding beneath the covers, it wasn’t until deep into the night that the doorknob jostled insistently. Fear made him fold, clutching onto the blankets as he willed his heart to calm down. It lasted only for a moment, before the sound disappeared, along with fleeting footsteps. Relief did not come. Instead, his anxiety intensified. He’d be back. You look so much like your cousin. Bile burned his throat.
Kristján knew he had to get the fuck out of here.
But how could he?
Trapped on a ship as a slave, bound for Dalvík.