Sunday, 8 April 2012

Hostage of the Heart by Linda Acaster

September 1066: the northern militia has been raised to support the new English king against Norse invaders, leaving the Welsh borderlands dangerously unprotected. Rhodri ap Hywel sweeps down the valley to reclaim by force stolen lands, taking the Saxon Lady Dena as a battle hostage.

But who is the more barbaric: a man who protects his people by the strength of his sword-arm, or Dena’s kinfolk who swear fealty to a canon of falsehoods and refuse to pay her ransom? Betrayed as worthless, can she place her trust, and her life, in the hands of a warrior-knight shielding dark secrets of his own?


The door burst open and more men appeared, some carrying heavy buckets, some pushing barrels. There was a good deal of excited chatter, and the doleful Welshmen quickly began to change their humour. Dena sank back against the wall with a sigh. The brewing-house must have been plundered. Contemptuous Welshmen were bad enough; drunken Welshmen would be unbearable.
A man came to Rhodri, spoke a few unintelligible words, and left two rawhide mugs on the table.
‘I’m told there’s not a morsel of food to be found,’ Rhodri said to her. ‘It’s shameful that Wybert does not think highly of his lord’s niece.’
Dena risked a glance in his direction, and found him grinning at her through bared teeth.
‘Ah! The lady is not dead! Sitting so still with your head bowed, your face hidden beneath that square of cloth — you look like a toadstool under a tree!’
Glowering at him, she did not rise to the goad. The man was bored and wanted a plaything. She wouldn’t give him the pleasure, or any excuse for more.
‘Your face looks pinched, my fair Lady Dena. Does the sound of my voice fill you with such dread?’
My fair Lady Dena…? What was this a trail to?
‘I have no cloak. I feel the cold,’ she replied.
‘Do you wish to sit closer to the fire?’
Dena looked down the length of the hall to the hearth where the majority of the Welshmen were taking their ease amid the open casks.
‘I prefer to remain cold.’
Rhodri chuckled, more softly than she’d expected.
‘If I were a true nobleman, I’d give you the clothes off my back. But I’m not, am I? I am Welshman — a barbarian. That’s what you call us, isn’t it? That’s what those prancing fools at Edward’s court called me— "our captive barbarian".’
Dena looked up at him in surprise, and he mocked her expression. ‘Are you shocked that such as I have sat with a king of England?’ He pushed himself from his seat on the table and stood tall and proud so that she might admire him. Dena drew her lips into a thin line at his conceit.
‘You’re not impressed?’ He sounded truly astounded, and she realised that she’d been drawn into a game. And they called Wybert wily, she reflected.
Turning her scornful gaze aside, she hoped to end the contest of wills on a winning note, but he pounced on her, trapping her between arms of flowing metal as he leaned his weight against the wall. The more she tried to back into the logging, the more he lowered his face to hers.
‘No? The whores of Edward’s court liked the barbarian in me. They vied with each other to buy me with gifts.’ He paused as he looked down at her, the taut muscles of his neck relaxing. ‘But you aren’t such a woman. From you, a man would have to steal his kisses.’
He made the slightest of movements, but enough to convince her of his intentions. Her chest heaving with fear and anger, she turned her head and glared at him.
‘Do so, and I’ll scratch out your eyes!’
He faltered, a temple braid tracing an arc across her cheek. A smile crept across his face, one of genuine pleasure rather than of teasing, and his dark eyes searched her face for… for what, Dena didn’t know.
‘My cowering maid has a fire in her belly. Envied will be the man who beds you,’ he tweaked an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps it will be me.’
She filled her lungs ready to curse him to Hell, her colour rising with her fury, but her tongue was stayed by the curious silence of their surroundings. She inclined her head to look beneath his mailed arm, and to her distaste found every Welshman intent on the proceedings. She groaned her shame, wishing the ground would open up and swallow her. Rhodri played to his audience, bantering with them in his own tongue and gaining uproarious laughter.
‘What did you say to them?’ Dena demanded almost beneath her breath.
‘That the lady does not appreciate my advances — more or less.’ But she could see by the sparkle in his eye and the gestures of his men that the truth of it was far more than less.
Pushing his weight off the wall, he turned to the table behind him and picked up the mugs to hand one to her.
‘Here, with no food, no cloak and no fire, it is all the warmth you’ll feel this night.’ He drained his mug in one draught, tilting his head like some coarse pedlar so that he might not miss a drop. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he smacked his lips appreciatively.
‘At least you Saxons know how to make ale!’ He turned to the men, calling for more.
Although Dena thought hard for some cutting reply, the image which flickered into her mind froze the breath in her lungs. She could see them working in the brewing-house as clearly as if she were standing again in the doorway — Wybert and Mildthryth. Gwylan had told her that Edwulf had taken this hall by sending a diseased beggar among them. Wybert, Edwulf’s steward, his second man, hadn’t been leading the people to safety. He and Mildthryth had been in the brewing-house pounding herbs with pestle and mortar. They’d been poisoning the ale. That was why Wybert was so adamant about taking all the food: the poison would work faster on empty stomachs.
Dena looked at the mug cradled in her hands, into the ominously dark liquid within. She couldn’t drink it, she couldn’t! But she had to, she knew she had to, or the Welshman would suspect and Wybert’s plans would fail. Edwulf’s people, her people, would be caught in the forest and murdered.
‘What’s wrong with your ale?’
At Rhodri’s question, she sprang upright as though she’d been pierced by an arrow.
‘Nothing,’ she snapped back.
‘Then drink.’
‘I—’ Her voice quaked. With an inner heave, she pulled her scattered wits together. ‘I have a weak stomach. I’ve had it since birth. Ale makes me ill. I can drink only mead or clear spring water.’
Rhodri threw back his head and guffawed. Dena took heart and strengthened her jaw as though she were merely rebuffing another of his gibes. He could laugh all he liked, as long as he believed her.

Hostage of the Heart is also available as an mp3 download from

Linda Acaster has written short fiction across genres as disparate as Crime and Fantasy, Romance and Horror. Ten have been collected into an instructional ebook “Reading A Writer’s Mind: Exploring Short Fiction – First Thought to Finished Story”. As well as Historical novels, she writes contemporary Fantasy with a strong historical thread.

Catch up with Linda at


Jenny Twist said...

Great excerpt, Linda. I love your writing

Jen Black said...

Hope it does well for you!

Linda Acaster said...

Thank you Jenny and Jen. Good of you to drop by.