Authors: Jen Black
Far After Gold
Far After Gold
was first published as a paperback
by UK publisher Quaestor2000 Ltd in 2008.
The publisher ceased functioning in 2009.
This edition has been re-edited before publication by Orchard Hill Books
Copyright © Jen Black, 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher
ORCHARD HILL BOOKS
Table of Contents
The overseer’s cane caught Emer’s shoulder. She cried out at the bruising sting of it, flinched away from him and tripped over someone’s feet.
‘One more word out of you,’ he bellowed, ‘and I’ll see you on the next ship for Africa!’
Against such a threat, the pain seemed insignificant. Scrambling to get out of his way, she reached the back wall of the slave compound, sank to her haunches in the dust and hugged her knee as she used to do when a child. Trembling with fright and anger, she bit her lip to hold back tears.
A hundred paces away, the huge wooden doors of the stockade creaked open. Around her, male slaves stood straighter, but the women, fearing the worst, clutched their children. Men thought buyers offered an opportunity to get out of the slave market, but the women feared separation from their children. Emer, one of the few very young women in the compound, squeezed her eyes shut, and then decided she had to see what was happening and opened them again.
The buyers marched across the compound. The older man held himself well though his face was seamed with years and his beard streaked with grey. Strength and confidence shimmered in the air around his much younger companion, and sunlight bounced off his silver-gilt hair. Emer swallowed against a sudden rush of fear. They looked like Norsemen, and everyone knew the stories of how they treated their slaves.
The overseer cracked his whip in the air. Male slaves moved forward and the women and children stayed where they were. Emer stood at the back of the group. Her heart still beat faster than usual, and she bit her lip as she watched the strangers. Though she’d only been in the stockade a few days, the foul, stinking compound and crude shelters seemed a better option than being dragged away to some other miserable future.
The buyers walked among the male slaves, and chose young men who would no doubt work in their fields and barns. Emer hung her head and breathed a silent prayer of thanks that she had been spared.
Alerted by the shuffling of feet in the dust around her, Emer looked up and stiffened. The buyers had spoken to the overseer, who barked out a command. The women shuffled away from Emer when the guard strode forward and seized her arm. Yanking her out of the line, he dragged her to the front of the group.
Emer found it hard to breathe. Frantic prayers ran through her head.
Not me! Dear Lord, don’t let him take me!
She tried to free her arm, would have run if she could, but the guard’s rough grasp tightened, making her yelp in pain.
The gilt-haired stranger beckoned her forward. The guard hauled her across the dusty ground as if she were a child and pushed her to her knees before him.
Panting, Emer risked a swift, upward glance. The older man frowned at her, dislike in his eyes. Emer bit her lip and dipped her head so her hair fell over her face. It was the only privacy left to her.
“Forget her, Flane. Take the little redhead at the end. She looks biddable.”
Emer froze. She understood enough of their language to follow the conversation.
The young man snorted at the suggestion. “She’s hiding behind all this hair.” His large hand grasped Emer’s chin and jerked her head up. “Ah, that’s better.”
She could not avoid his challenging eyes. Her fear and hatred must have shown, for he frowned. Her heart plunged and she couldn’t think beyond the thudding in her ears.
Flane. The older man had called him Flane. Her mouth dried under his intense gaze, and the skin of her face prickled as blood drained away.
“This one’s prettier,” he said.
The older man grunted. “You’ll be buying trouble.”
“I don’t think so, Skuli. She’s frightened, that’s all. She’ll make an excellent bed slave.” He turned to the overseer and spoke in the language of Dublin, which she didn’t understand.
The overseer smirked, and gestured to the guard to get Emer on her feet.
Flane walked away, but glanced back over his shoulder and caught Emer’s gaze. One eyelid dropped in a wink. Suddenly the sense of what he’d said reached her brain. He wanted her as a bed slave. Emer scowled. Fear tied her stomach in knots, and she wondered if she might be sick. A bed slave, according to her mother, was a woman of the lowest social class, desperate to take up with any man who could afford to keep her. Wives tolerated such women because they were not a threat. No man ever married his bed slave.
Emer had never expected to meet one, much less become one. She stood in the dust while the buyers and the overseer completed their business and wondered why she could not take a good, deep breath. She felt winded, yet she had suffered no blow. Clasping her arms about herself gave her little comfort.
The word bed slave bounced around her thoughts. It required no explanation and left no doubts about what would be required of her. She bit her lip. At least he wasn’t fat or old. She’d seen more young men in the last few days than she had seen in her entire life on Pabaigh. But none of them could match looks with this gilt-haired stranger.
Her anxiety increased as a hefty shove sent her on her way out of the compound and onto the wharf. The stink of river mud hit her nostrils, and the breeze carried the chill off the water. Ships of various sizes were moored at the quayside like so many piglets with their sow. Men working with boxes and sacks stopped and stared, and Emer flushed under their salacious glances. Her gown was skimpy and tight, showed off far too much of her figure and her hair was a tangled mess after a week without a comb. She folded her arms across her bosom and stared straight ahead where the half dozen male slaves walked.
To her surprise she was left to walk alone. She looked about the busy wharf and thought of making a run for it. If she vanished into the crowds streaming through the gate into the settlement of Dublin, she could easily hide and avoid her pursuers.
The leather collar at her throat proclaimed to the world that she was a slave, and she caught hold of the dangling end and brought it round to lie between her breasts. She had seen one young man jerked off his feet when a guard caught and yanked the leather tail. By some miracle the man’s neck had not broken, but Emer had no fancy that the same thing should happen to her.
The gate into the settlement loomed not far ahead. She gnawed her lip and debated her chances of gaining her freedom. A swift glance over her shoulder showed the gilt-haired stranger walking not two paces behind her, talking with his companion. Twenty crew men escorted the slaves and fended off beggars and children who petitioned the Norsemen. The crewmen would give chase if she ran.
Emer walked on, every muscle tense. She stared fixedly at the massive gate, but her mind issued sharp warnings. She didn’t know anyone in Dublin, had no silver, and there would be no roof to shelter her. She would starve. Or she would end up in a ditch with her throat cut after some man raped her.
She dithered, and acknowledged the truth of it all even as she walked by the gate, and then the chance was gone.
Surely she would be better dead than someone’s bed slave? Emer frowned. There must be a streak of cowardice in her, but she didn’t want to die, and especially she didn’t want to be raped or starved to death. A better opportunity would surely present itself if she kept her wits about her. She set her jaw at the mutinous angle her family would have recognised and strode on. There would be another chance. There had to be. She would get back home one day soon, no matter where she was taken.
The crew chivvied the slaves up the narrow gangplank onto the waiting longship. Sent to the half-deck below the steering oar at the rear of the vessel, Emer hesitated, wondering what she should do. Flane bounded on deck, grinned and pointed to the corner where the side strakes swept in to meet at the towering sternpost.
He didn’t speak, but Emer understood his gesture and huddled down with her knees drawn up to her chin. She pulled her skirt close about her ankles, and looked up. She had cover of a sort, for the pointed stern of the ship formed a shallow cave in which she cowered.
It was a standard longship: big enough to answer the call whenever the chieftain sent around the war arrow, but more often used to carry goods. The other slaves, still roped together, had been pushed amidships, where they huddled miserably among the provisions being packed around them. She knew enough of ships and boats to appreciate that it would be cold sailing across open water, and longed for her thick woollen dress, big cloak and ankle boots.
She might freeze here on the stern deck, but it was preferable to a journey in the cramped space beneath the half-deck, where seawater seeped through the caulking and she would have to fight for space with rolling barrels, kegs and sacks.
Flane tossed a rough wool blanket to her. She flinched in surprise and then snuggled into its rough folds even though it smelled of oiled wool, knowing it would repel spray and cold winds. His gesture aroused curiosity, and her thoughts tiptoed around the strange, scary experience of being owned by another human being. She found, oddly enough, that she felt no difference at all. She was still Emer, daughter of the chieftain of Pabaigh and beholden to no one.
She watched Flane and wondered how long she would be able to hold on to that belief in herself if he treated her badly. Most of all she wondered where the ship was going. If it was heading for Moorish Africa she would throw herself overboard.
The ship passed down the river, avoided the shifting sand banks at the river mouth and ventured out into the estuary, where men began running about the deck and heaving on thick ropes. Emer watched as the red and white sail leapt up the mast in swift jerks, and saw it shudder as the wind caught it. It was a strong wind, and the ship lurched forward across the water. Spray, fine as mist, rose in the air and coated her skin.
Flane moved confidently about the ship. With nothing better to occupy her, she studied his clothes and decided the comfortable leather jerkin and sleek sealskin trousers tucked into hide boots were well made and fitted him well. Such garments, well made, were costly, and he must have a good seamstress tucked away somewhere.
Silver armbands gleamed on the smooth brown skin of his upper arms, and pale hairs, soft as the silky covering of a beechnut, straggled over the stiff dark leather of his wristguards. Emer shuddered beneath her blanket. Her fingertips tingled, as if they knew how the silky hairs would feel if she stroked her hand down his arm. Caught between repulsion and fascination, she forced her gaze away from him.
But his bright yellow head caught her eye every time he moved. He carried his heavy sword on a leather harness slung over his shoulder for ease of movement and his general air of confidence suggested he would use it well. A sheathed dagger hung from a leather belt chased and tipped with silver, and his boots were made of deer hide.
When he could find nothing else to do, he returned to the stern of the ship and chatted with the older man. They stood on the deck below her, where they had some shelter from the wind, and their words carried back to Emer. It wasn’t long before she realised the conversation was about her.
“She’s an attractive little piece, Flane, I’ll grant you that. But Katla’s not going to like what you’ve done.”
“Katla doesn’t have to like it, Skuli Grey Cloak.”
His tone was deferential, as befitted a young man to his chieftain, but there was an amused undertone she hadn’t expected. She looked at his confident stance and guessed that little scared him. Flane certainly wasn’t afraid of Skuli Grey Cloak.