Chapter #4

TIME PASSED LIKE water dripping from a tap. The ugliness of the place deepened with each day as the men grew rancorous, no longer satisfied with kicking his mop and bucket. Filthy skrælingjar, the men muttered in the dark, wolfish irises blazing yellow. Once, they cornered him beneath the deck ready to strike, but Narfi emerged from the shadows, hand coiled around his axe. “Get back to work.”

The men had scattered like rats. Narfi’s eyes were scorching against his skin. Although he said nothing, his eyes told a different story. It was because of Narfi’s protection that Kristján walked away unscathed, but that would only last for so long.

Everything comes with a price.

Eventually, Narfi would collect in full.

Under Narfi’s lustful gaze, he did his duties, emptying the chamber pots and attending to the prisoner, all the while rage spread like molten lava in his core. Nathanial’s face often appeared in his dreams. Light and full of laughter during a time when he came to visit with his family. Although Kristján’s mother had been disowned, her sister, Nathanial’s mother, Lady Anný, visited frequently in secret.

Strange rumors emerged at court. Even in youth, Nathanial was devastatingly handsome, aloof, alluring, a ripening fruit ready to be plucked. Lord Elvar, his uncle, wasn’t an easy person to please and he always seemed to scorn Nathanial’s lofty behavior.

Kristján heard later that Nathanial was cornered by a few jackals at court and raped so viciously his insides had torn. When Kristján had seen him afterward, it was like all the light had been sucked out of his eyes. Lord Elvar whisked his family away and then returned several years later as if nothing had ever happened.

After that, Nathanial stopped coming.

Stopped communicating.

It was as if they never existed.

Then his mother got sick, and Kristján didn’t have the luxury to worry about his cousin anymore. That was then. Nathanial was nothing more than a stranger now. Kristján went down to the kitchens at his usual time, and the cook gave him a tray with a little more food on it. The prisoner was doing a lot better since Kristján was administrating medicine to him daily.

A part of Kristján looked forward to seeing him. He was becoming addicted to the piquant smell of cedar. He knocked on the door like usual before he entered, and the man on the bed thrashed, his feverish skin soaking the sheets. Kristján placed the tray on the table, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Nate…” the man whispered frantically. “Come back to me.”

“Shhh.” Kristján cupped his cheek. “Relax.” He mixed some medicine with the broth and fed him slowly. “Eat.”

“Yellow corydalis,” the man breathed. “It was in the yellow corydalis.” He drank down the broth slowly before succumbing to sleep once again. Kristján lingered in the room, wishing that he could stay instead of heading back to do his chores. This room had been somewhat of a sanctuary the past few days. The man writhed on the bed, twisting and turning restlessly. Kristján felt a pang in his chest.

It reminded him of his mother.

Her final days before she succumbed to her fever. Tears burned his eyes and soon he was fisting the fur, biting into his lower lip. Something inside his chest cracked and he knew he couldn’t let this man die here. Kristján touched his brow. It sparked beneath his skin like a thunderbolt.

Everything about this man set his soul ablaze. Who are you? he wanted to ask, but instead began humming a sweet melody. “Nectar sweet…” the man muttered.

Kristján’s bottom lip trembled, and he broke like a dam, sobbing into the sheets. His pain felt fierce and endless, as if he was worthless. A piece of meat to the wolves. Nobody cared. Nobody listened. “Don’t…” The man was delirious, reaching out and wiping his tears. “Please.”

Kristján cried harder. If this man were awake, he’d probably beat Kristján to death just for touching him. That was the way of the world. Skrælingjar would always be considered less than human. “My mother always wanted to see the sea,” Kristján said through tears. “But she’s dead now. My best friend. She’s gone.”

The man’s hand reached out to touch Kristján’s cheek. “I’ll…be your friend…don’t worry…”

Kristján laughed wetly. Being friends with a criminal? It was ludicrous. He leaned into the warmth still. The smell of cedar made his head spin.

“You don’t hate me, right? To you, I’m not ugly.”

A startled laugh ripped from the man’s throat, but his eyes were unfocused as if he were seeing things that weren’t there. “Ugly? You’re a siren. A damn siren. I must have died and gone to heaven to spend one night with you, Nate.”

Who’s Nate? Was it short for Nathanial? Kristján wanted to ask, but he knew if he did it would shatter things between them. Instead, he continued, humming, ignoring the sputtered nonsense from the man’s lips and basking in the moment.

For now, he was wanted.

And, if he wished hard enough, loved.

KRISTJÁN WOKE EARLIER than usual. Heart thudding in his ears as he went to the man’s room, a light snore greeted him and Kristján went about changing his chamber pot and using a basin of water to wipe him down, noticing the fever seemed to have gotten worse overnight. He checked the medicine, only to frown when he realized it had an unusual scent.

Huh. There was a foul odor wafting from the small vial. He was just about to taste it when a large hand wrenched him down. Kristján cried out, dropping the medicine onto the floor, arms flailing as he came face to face with the prisoner.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Kristján reeled as if he’d been slapped. All the air rushed from his lungs as rich evergreen eyes dug into his chest. The man’s eyes were glassy and rimmed red, but the determination to stay lucid burned brighter than the sun.

“Speak!” the man spat, hands coiling into a fist on his shirt. He looked murderous, the veins throbbing in his neck. Copper skin was glistening in the low light, drenching it in gold, and his brows were drawn together into a harsh line. The air became thick and stifling, and the smell of cedar spiked, suffocating Kristján, but he held his ground.

“I’m nobody—I just bring the food—”

The man’s lips curled. “A slave.”

Kristján nodded frantically, terror gripping his insides. The man’s black hair was shaved at the sides, but the back was long, and the cornrows stopped at the nape of his neck. “Who owns you?”

“N-Narfi,” Kristján stuttered.

The man’s eyes were strange. They darted around the room, as if unable to focus on anything specifically. “What did he poison me with?”

Poison? Kristján’s heart slammed against his ribcage. His tongue felt like lead. You’ll attend to his every need. No wonder why Narfi didn’t even flinch when Kristján asked for medicine. “I—I don’t know—I’m new—I don’t know anything—”

“Shut up!” he hissed. “You—you—” His eyes rolled in his head, and he fell back, dragging Kristján with him. Wrapped in the stranger’s arms, Kristján’s entire body locked in fear. The man’s eyes snapped into focus, and he leaned in close, inhaling deeply. “Nate…is that you?”

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