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January 2012, Avon Books
ISBN-10: 006201904X
ISBN-13: 978-0062019042
July 2005, Leisure Books
ISBN: 0843951605


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Playing possum...

Ian blacked out for only a second, but he remained still, flat on his stomach, arms stretched forward, one hand holding his assault rifle.  He deliberately kept his eyes closed to a bare slit.

He waited while the woman circled him tentatively, checking for signs of life, he would guess.  First, she toed him on the side to see if he would move, which he didn't.  Then the nutcase pinched his if that would cause him to move.  He barely felt a thing.

He'd only got a brief glimpse of her before being struck, but, man, she was some kind of wild thing.  She would scare the bejesus out of someone in the dark, for sure.  Plus, she reeked to high heaven.

He could easily jump her now, but decided to wait and see what she was up to.  More important, who she was, out here in the middle of Arab nowhere.

"Cat Two to Cat One.  Contact?  Contact?  Cat Two to Cat One." Cage kept saying into Ian's earphone. 

When in hostile territory, real names were not used over radio lines which could be intercepted.  Since this was Operation Rodent, each member of Ian's squad had named themselves Cat One, Cat Two and so on.  The upper chain of command had names of well-known cats, such as Garfield and Sylvester.  It was a joke among the teams that none of the flag ranks would take the name Puss, as in Puss in Boots.

When the woman moved to his legs, he whispered into his throat mike, without moving his lips.  "Cat One here.  Do you read?  I'm okay."

"Roger.  I'm watchin' your six.  Need help?"

"Not yet.  Woman here.  Watch for others.  Alert team."

"Did you say something?" the woman shrieked, coming back to his head area.

He made a soft groaning noise to cover up.  Then went back to silence.

"Bloody hell, I best hurry afore he wakens," the woman said in an odd accent.

Ian decided to play possum for a while to see what was up.


My cave is your cave, honey...

Madrene started to drag the man farther into the cave by his outstretched arms.  He was still face-down.

"Loki's Lips!" she swore under her breath.  "He must weigh as much as a war horse.  Must be I am weakened by my escape... and lack of food."  In the end, it took her a considerable time to pull and shove his large body, huffing and puffing the whole while. 

The villain appeared to be as tall as the men in her family, from his helmeted head to his booted feet.  Lean, but well-muscled.  Instead of Arab garb, an odd fabric covered his wide shoulders, narrow waist and long legs.  It was a mixture of browns, green, and blacks...a combination that would blend well in a wooded area.  His hands were covered with fingerless gloves.  In one of those hands had been a strange, molded object made of iron, or some similar product; it had been slipped from his fingers when she'd started tugging.  Was it a club?

I should just kill him, one part of her said.

Yeech! the other part countered.

It would be done in self defense...of a sort, her hardened side argued.

Hmpfh!  Killing is killing.

Mayhap I will kill him later.

Yea, later is good.

Madrene had no idea why she hesitated.  She had killed in the past.  She was not proud of the fact, but it had become a reality of her life after being left alone to safeguard Norstead.  Fighting men needed a leader, and she'd been forced to take on that role.  But usually it had been done to save her life or that of one of her hird of soldiers.  And if she ever faced Steirolf again, she would surely find a way to send him to the cold halls of Nifhelm.  She sighed with resignation.  She needed to know more about this man before dispatching him to the afterworld.

Was he one of Fakhir's men, come to take her back for punishment?  That would merit death.  Or some other man with ill intent?  That, too, would merit death.

What a fool I am!  I should have killed him outright.   But she could not bring herself to do so until she discerned his intent.  It was a weakness of hers, she supposed.  Her father and brothers would not have hesitated.

I should turn him over and see if he has any hidden weapons.  Nay, I must needs restrain him first lest he awaken.  With quick efficiency, she removed his large cloth pouch with shoulder straps off the man's back.  Then she tore two long strips from the hem of her robe, thus leaving it only mid-calf.  Wrenching the man's arms behind his back, she bound his wrists tightly.  She did the same for his ankles.  After that, she went outside the cave to survey the area for any of his comrades that might be lurking about.  There were none.  She swept the ground with a leafy branch to hide any foot prints.

When she came back inside, she saw that he still lay face-down in the same spot.  She rolled him over with a bare foot.

"Eeeeek!" she screamed.  It was a monster she had captured.  Not only was his face black with only his eyelids and lips showing up white, but there was an appendage coming out of his ear and around his face to rest in front of his mouth, like a grasshopper.  A man-beast, that is what he must be.  A troll.  She had heard of such in the sagas spun by the skalds of old, but never believed in them.  Till now.

Bending over, she touched a fingertip to his cheek and saw that some of the black came off.  Ahhh.  Face paint, like the Scottish warriors wear when going into battle.  So, this must be a soldier of some sort.  A troll-soldier.  Hmmmm.

Just then, his eyes shot wide open, which made his appearance even more bizarre, the white of his eyes surrounded by all that black.  Immediately, he tried to lurch upward but realized that he was restrained hand and foot.

She jumped backwards, just in case.

He let himself fall back to the ground and looked up at her.  He seemed just as surprised and repulsed at her appearance as she was at his.  "Jesus, who are you?" he asked.

English.  The troll-man spoke the Saxon English.  Just my luck to be saddled not only with a troll, but a bloody Saxon as well.  "Nay, I am not Jesus," she replied.  The man's head wound must have rendered him senseless.


"," she said, very slowly, so he could comprehend her meaning.

"Holy hell!  I know you're not Jesus.  Who are you?"

"Madrene," she said, before she could hold her tongue.  'Twas not wise to give the enemy too much information.

"Yasmine?" he repeated, mishearing her.  His eyes went wide with wonder.

"Yea, that is who I am.  Yasmine."  What a dolt! 

Narrowing his eyes, he reverted to the Arabic tongue and asked, "Are you Yasmine?"

"I already said I was," she snapped back, also in Arabic.  A double dolt, that is what I have here.

"You speak Arabic."  The troll-man smiled then, which made him look almost appealing, and at the same time ridiculous in that black face with white eyes and teeth.  "Sonofabitch!  Talk about wandering in a field of shit and landing in a gold mine," he muttered to himself, or was he speaking into that appendage. 

Well perhaps not that appealing.  "What is your name?" she inquired in English, a language which came easier to her tongue than the Arabic, since it was more like her own Norse.

He hesitated, then disclosed.  "Ian MacLean."

"A Scotsman!  I should have known," she said, throwing her hands up with disgust.

"What's wrong with a Scotsman?" he asked, working himself into a sitting position, then wiggling his arse back so his head rested against the cave wall, his long legs outstretched.

"Hah!  Sneaky thieves, that's what they are.  Always stealing cattle and such.  And they eat that horrible haggis."

He shook his head as if he couldn't believe what she was saying.  Betimes she had that effect on men.  "Are you the one who knocked me out?"

She nodded.


Questions, questions, questions!  Does everything have to have an explanation?  She shrugged.  "Every soldier knows to take the offensive.  Attack before being attacked."

"You a soldier?" he scoffed.

"Betimes."  I should have knocked him harder.  She could tell that her answer surprised him.

"What makes you think I would have attacked you?"

Now that is a silly question.  "You were carrying a club."


She pointed to the iron object.

"That's a weapon, for chrissake.  An assault rifle, to be precise."

Madrene hadn't a clue what he just said.

"Let me go," he demanded.

Does this man truly not understand that I am the one in charge here?  "Are you demented?  Nay, I will not release you.  In fact, I am thinking about killing you."

He arched his eyebrows.  "What's stopping you?"

How do I know?  "That is not for you to know."

He seemed to accept her answer...for now.

The man is extremely calm, considering his position.  "Are you not fearful of death?"

He pondered her question a moment.  "I'm not afraid to die... but I don't want to."

A logical answer, she decided.

"Your English sounds...odd," he remarked.

"Nay, your English sounds odd."

"Now that we have established that we're both odd, what is that ungodly stink in here?"  He sniffed several times, then looked pointedly at her.

Her face heated with embarrassment.  "Well, you would smell, too, if you had not bathed in more than a sennight, especially in this heat," she said indignantly.  In truth, her underarm scent was enough to turn her own stomach.

"A sennight?  What's a sennight?"

"Seven days."

"Why didn't you just say a week?"

"Huh?  Were you sent by Fakhir?" 

He frowned with confusion and repeated back to her, "Was I sent to fuck her?"  Then, "Fuck who?"

"Oh, you vulgar beast!  I said Fakhir, not...that other word."

He smiled again.

And Madrene felt an odd flutter in her stomach, not unlike butterfly wings.  She supposed it must be hunger pangs.

Just then, she could swear she heard talking coming from his ear/mouth appendage accompanied by a sort of buzzing noise.  Rather like a bee buzz, she decided.  He really was not human then.  "Are you a bug?" she blurted out.  The buzzing, as well as the talking, stopped.

"No, I'm a SEAL."

"That is ridiculous."  I better watch him closely.  My blow to his head must have turned him barmy.

"No more ridiculous than asking me if I'm a bug."

Should I just humor the man?  "Where is your glacier?  Did it melt in this excessive heat?  Ha, ha, ha."

"I am not a bug.  I am a SEAL," he said, not at all amused by her little jest.

I have had enough of this nonsense.  The lackwit is trying to make me out the lackwit when it is clear that he fits that description better than I.  "You buzz like a bee.  You have a bug-like appendage sticking out of your ear.  You're ugly as a...bug."

"Are you for real?"

"What?  You think you are dreaming me?  Methinks you might be an idiot."

"There's only one idiot here, and it's not me."  He exhaled with a whoosh like men are wont to do when women have outwitted them.  "Have you ever heard the proverb, 'Silence is golden'?"

"Are you saying I talk too much?"

"If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck."

"Is that another proverb?  If so, it is lackwitted."

"I like provers, and that's a very good proverb.  By the way, how long have you been living in this cozy cave?"

"Since this morn," she answered.

"Are you alone?"

"Dost see anyone else here?"

He bared his teeth at her sarcasm.  "Does anyone else know about this cave?"

"I hope not."

"Why are you here?"

"I am running away."  Now, why did I tell him that?  Why am I telling him anything?

"From whom?"

"That bloody Arab who calls himself my master."  My tongue must have a mind of its own.

"Really?  That's interesting.  So, you're not with him by choice?"

"Of course not.  Do I look like a harem houri?"

"Not like any whore, I've ever seen."  He gave her a sweeping head to toe scrutiny, and it was not complimentary.  Her grimy feet and exposed calves got special attention. 

"I do not appreciate your insult."  She put a hand to her head and figured her hair must look like a haystack.

"What insult?"

"Calling me a whore."

"Hey!  I'm not the one who mentioned a whore first."

She tilted her head before understanding came to her.  "You halfbrain!  I said houri, not whore."

He grinned then.  "Someone tried to make you into a harem girl?" 

The oaf!  Apparently he'd known what a houri was all along.

"Pfff!  Nine men tried these past three years.  None succeeded.  I have developed a knack for making a sultan's manpart wilt.  So, best you not try any of that bedplay with me."  If I had a needle and thread, I would sew my mouth shut.  Be quiet, Madrene.  He is quite possibly an enemy.  Stop giving him information.

His jaw went slack with astonishment.  "This is the most incredible conversation I've ever had with a woman.  Let me get this straight.  You escaped from some Arab sultan, and--"

"The last one was a sheikh."  It was a flaw in her personality that she always needed to correct mistakes.

"You escaped from an Arab sheikh, in fact nine different Arab sheikhs--"

"Three were sultans, two were caliphs."

"Stop interrupting."

"Interrupting is one of my talents, or so the men in my family always complained."

She could swear she heard laughter coming from his appendage.

He exhaled with exasperation, just like her father used to do when she nagged him endlessly.  "You escaped from nine different Arabs who tried to make you their harem girl, and you were passed from one to the other because you can make their cocks wilt."

"Precisely."  She smiled at him before she caught herself and frowned some more.

"How did you get to be with the first...sultan?"

"Ah, that is a long and painful story."

He glanced at his bound legs.  "It doesn't appear as if I'm going anywhere soon."

"I am a noble woman in my own country."

"You're not Arab?" 

"Nay."  Why he was surprised she could not say.  Surely she did not resemble Arab women, not with her light hair and fair  skin.  Mayhap they had darkened during her sojourn in this land.

"Where do you come from?"

Once again, she cautioned herself not to disclose too much information.  She thought a moment and said, "The Rus lands."

"You're Russian?"  Shock showed on his face and he muttered something about the Pent-dragon going to be interested in that  information.

One thing stood out to Madrene in his mutterings.  The word dragon.  Yea, he must indeed be a troll who lived in the land of dragons.

Just then, there appeared to be a lot of chatter coming from his appendage.

"Lower the volume on my headset," he ordered her.

"Huh?  Who are you to give me orders?"

"My headset.  Turn it down, dammit."

"Why do you want me to turn down the set of your head?  Does it hurt?"

"Adjust the frickin' volume, here, near my ear."  He jerked his head, indicating the part of the appendage that came out of his ear.

Peering closer, she decided it might not be a part of his body, but a part of that thing in his ear.  But she was taking no chances.  "Nay.  It might bite me."

"Bite you?  I have landed in a looney bin.  No, bite me!" he said with chagrin.  If his hands were free, he would probably be tearing at his hair as her father had been wont to do on occasion when exasperated with her.  She guessed she knew what his expression meant.  'Twas like Askil the Angry used to say "Eat my nose!" when he was especially angry.

"Bite me?  Is that another of your ridiculous sayings?"  She raised her chin haughtily and said something she never in her old life would have dared say, "Nay, I will not bite you.  Bite me!"  She felt herself blush like a young maid.

His brown eyes--and, yes, she could see in the dim light from the cave's opening that they were brown as clover honey--almost bulged with astonishment.  She was astonished herself and wished she could take the words back, especially since she belatedly suspected a different meaning to those words.  But she was ne'er one to back down once she'd taken a stand.

"You are priceless, sweetheart," he said and began to laugh... and laugh...and laugh.

"Mayhap I will kill you after all," she said.

The brute continued to laugh.

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