Authors: Linda Windsor
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Christian, #Religious, #Love Stories, #Celtic, #Man-Woman Relationships, #redemption, #Kidnapping Victims, #Saxons, #Historical Fiction, #Scotland, #Christian Fiction, #Alba, #Sorcha, #Caden, #Missing Persons, #6th century
Sorcha let the leather sack, useless as a weapon now that the harp was gone, slide from her shoulder and thrust her pilfered knife upward. But something struck her wrist. Something wooden that surely broke the bones. She cried out in anguish, blinded by the pain. Even if she still clutched the knife—and she couldn’t tell—it was useless. Nausea squirmed in her belly, while her senses groped upward, clawing for the numbness of unconsciousness. But the Wyrds were not finished with her.
Nor was Wada. He clamped an iron fist about her arm, pulling her upright. Sorcha saw the club in his free hand coming down again. She threw herself against her assailant, making it hard for his swing to impact … much. It glanced off her back, but nothing broke.
“I been waitin’ for this a long time,” Wada swore, trying to shake her free.
Sorcha had to think fast, or she’d be the next person he dumped into the water. With a groan, she let her body go limp, as though she’d fainted. Wada cursed as her dead weight pulled her free of his grasp.
It gave the villain pause. Pause enough to think beyond clubbing. A warm, helpless woman was more than Wada could resist. He seized her wrist—thankfully the uninjured one—and started to drag her away from the glow of the distant cresset and toward the beach. Sorcha used the delay to gather her wits. She’d lost her bag and her only other weapon. She couldn’t even put up a fight with one wrist shooting bolts of pain straight to her brain.
Heavenly Father, save me!
Wada dragged her onto the sand, which was cold but softer than the cobbled dockyard. “’Twill take more than a prayer, ye feisty little slut.”
A prayer? With nowhere else to turn, Sorcha had instinctively mimicked Princess Eavlyn’s pleas for her life. What had the thief said when he was about to die? Because Sorcha knew she was.
That was it. She mouthed a prayer.
Heavenly Father, remember me, a sorrowful thief. Remember me….
The words surged like a prow through waves of her agony. Sorcha clenched her fist, the injured one, with new resolve. It hurt and was slippery with blood, but it worked.
Suddenly Wada let her go. And no wonder, for he’d dragged her into the pitch of the night. Sorcha could imagine him tearing at the laces of his trews and seized the opportunity to thrust herself away. His heavy foot came down hard on her abdomen. Breath rushed out of her lungs, nearly taking consciousness with it. If he leaned any harder, he’d crush her ribs. If he hadn’t already.
Still she eased up her knee, envisioning exactly where to kick. And kick she did. As hard as she could.
Wada shrieked, dropping to one knee—off balance enough that Sorcha’s second kick sent him reeling and moaning on his side in the sand. She scrambled away from him, but her limbs moved as though leaden. As she dug in the damp sand to rise, Wada grabbed the hem of Tunwulf’s oversized tunic. With a vicious yank, he pulled her to him.
“I’m goin’”—he drew in a pained and ragged breath—“to kill you.”
The garment held her enough for Wada to get one giant hand on Sorcha’s neck. And then the other.
“An’ then I’ll have ye” —he pulled in another breath—“’fore the warmth flees that luvly body o’ yours.” The biting crush of his fingers cut off her air.
Her outcry bottled inside her chest. As she tried to pry his hands away, the sounds around her—the whisper of the waves, her assailant growling like a beast that had tasted blood, the kick of her feet in the soft sand—all started to mingle into a giant hush.
Except for Wada’s taunt. “An’ not a soul’ll care.”
Sorcha clung to those two words.
Until two more exploded out of nowhere. “
Caden’s image floated into Sorcha’s mind. Bone cracked like thunder in her ear. Hers? Wada jerked violently behind her. The strength in his hands faded until they fell away from her neck.
Sorcha gasped, again and again, gulping volumes of sweet air. The heat and stench of Wada’s body drifted away from her. She tried gathering her scattered senses. Through the mist she made out a large figure dragging him toward the water. Caden. It had been his voice, hadn’t it? The one that said, “I care”?
Relief ricocheted through her as the two figures blended into the night. She heard a splash followed by Caden’s voice. “You’ll never harm another soul, you blackguard.”
The words gave her peace. Peace enough to realize she was still alive and so were Caden and Utta. Her feet moved, her legs worked. And so did her hands, though it hurt when she pushed herself up. Alive.
The Christian God remembered her?
Caden interrupted her thoughts. “Are you hurt?”
Or was it Caden?
“N-no,” she rasped. Alarm edged in. What if she couldn’t sing? Her voice was her survival. That, and her inheritance.
“My bag!” Sorcha lunged away from Caden on spindly legs and would have sprawled on the sand but for his quick reaction. The same hands that had just snapped Wada’s neck caught her and drew her to him. Just as strong, but gentle. “My bag,” she repeated, as he cradled her in his arms. “I need to find my bag.”
.” His sarcasm smacked her.
“Oh, I … of
, I thank you. You saved my life.” But she had to find her inheritance before someone else stumbled upon it. More than four-legged vermin lurked the docks. “Will you help me find my bag? Everything I own is in it.”
Sorcha heard rather than saw Caden’s resignation. “Be quick, else they’ll follow us by the trail of corpses in our wake.”
It was visible once they reached the cobbled surface of the dock. Despite the thick mist, she could make out the dark lump containing her valuables in the distant glow of the cresset. Sorcha gathered it to her chest.
Thank You, Heavenly Father … if it was You who saved me.
The stars might have favored them, but the clouds didn’t. Their dark cover burst as Caden and Sorcha left the warehouse. What the downpour didn’t soak through the oilcloth that Sorcha had found for them, the long walk through standing water to the riverside did. Between the high tide and the rain, even the elevated path was flooded.
Caden didn’t even bother to remove his boots when he shoved the small flat-bottomed boat they’d bought with a chunk of Tunwulf’s torque into the water and hopped aboard. Soaked couldn’t get any wetter. Nor could the boat’s owner have grinned any wider when he’d been paid enough to buy a new craft to replace the dilapidated one he’d sold them.
Sorcha sat huddled in the bow beneath a tarp and shivered visibly in the dim glow of an oil lantern hung on the bow. She’d been uncommonly quiet since the attack on the beach, which was far better than hysterical. Caden was accustomed to Rhianon’s more dramatic nature.
Rhianon. Caden dug into the water with the oars. He couldn’t seem to accept that his wife was finally gone. Not after she’d survived her first dance with death. Nor could he imagine why her end wasn’t more satisfying for him. When all was said and done, she’d been no more than a pitiful thing whose own work had been turned against her. The betrayer betrayed.
Sorcha stirred at the other end of the coble and started to set a second pair of oars into the coble’s oarlocks.
“I can do this,” Caden called to her. “You should look after your wrist.”
Once they’d reached the warehouse, he’d wrapped it as best he could. It didn’t seem broken, but the skin had split on the bone, and it was swollen and badly bruised.
“I’m freezing, sitting still,” Sorcha called back.
“Aye, but using one oar will have us going in circles.” He heard her laugh and drank it in like medicine. His heart had yet to recover from hearing the skirmish and being unable to locate them in the dense mist. If ever God had a plan for someone, it was Sorcha. Had Caden not found them when he did—
His fists tightened about the oar handles as though to squeeze out the dampness in the wood. Snapping Wada’s neck was too good for him. A bull of a man taking a belaying pin to a woman. It turned Caden’s stomach. Especially when that woman was a tall redhead with a voice like an angel and a heart as wild and unpredictable as a gypsy.
When she’d told him that she was returning to Trebold, Caden could have clicked his heels. And when she’d been accused, he could not stand by mute, not knowing Rhianon as he did—even if speaking implicated him. Caden had been ready to put his life on the line for Sorcha’s.
He didn’t agree with all her ways, but being with Sorcha made him feel alive. Whole again. Even in this mess. She and her family gave him something worth fighting for.
Love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.
Something told Caden this wasn’t exactly what Father Martin meant when he quoted the old proverb. When was it? Weeks ago?
Caden dug the oars into the water again. “Well, I’m out, Father.” He grinned, squinting to make out the spear length of dimly lit water where marsh grass encroached on either side of them, blocking the view of what lay around the bend. “And running blind for my life
my neighbor’s. The rest,” he added softly, “is up to You, Modred, and Martin.”
Half of Bernicia would be on their trail by morning. Hopefully, diplomacy would hold the other half back.
The rain was the forerunner of a bitter wind. Not a night to be out, and certainly not one to weather in a boat. Especially a leaky one. Whether Utta’s cousin knew of the leak or not didn’t matter now. Caden was too far into the water-lashed moorland to turn back when he realized that Sorcha bailed out more than rainwater. And to beach the boat in the rushes and try to find sound land afoot in the dark was just as dangerous. Quicksand riddled the moors, so that only those familiar with them might pass through safely. Still, Caden kept the craft close to the bank, searching for a solid place with his paddle, only to find it met with muck ready to suck them in.
“I guess the stars aren’t with us after all,” Sorcha yelled above wind that made it too dangerous to hoist the sail, even if either of them could spare the time between bailing and rowing.
stayed in tonight,” he shouted back.
Despite her injured wrist, she’d bailed water tirelessly for who knew how many hours, while the wind blew more than its share of water back in. Now and then, she’d start a banter or sing, as if to boost her spirit. The harder the wind blew, the more spirited she became. With Sorcha at his side, Caden almost felt as if they could beat the weather.
“Do you think the Christian God is with us?” The question was a sharp shift from songs of sea voyages and fickle stars.
Caden didn’t know what to answer. He hadn’t known God long enough to be sure. He hoped so. Thought so. “We’re still breathing, aren’t we?”
“Were you praying earlier?”
Irritation brushed Caden. He struggled enough talking to God without an audience. “Aye.”
“What did you pray for?”
“Now what do you think?” Caden dipped the paddle in again, and it sunk easily beneath the pressure he applied. If he had to, Caden would beach the boat on the rushed heathland and stay there until daylight.
“Do you think He heard you above the wind?”
“How about you pray as well, just to be sure?” Anything to stop the questions. They made him uncomfortable, and God knew, he was uncomfortable enough, cold and soaked to the skin as he was.
“Do you believe in angels?”
“Never met one. Now pray … by yourself,” Caden added gruffly. “And bail.”
“I’m bailin’ all this pail will hold,” Sorcha shot back. “And if you were much of a Christian, you’d care about my soul, now that we’re about to drown.”
“We’re not going to drown. Stop talking nonsense.”
“Aye, we are,” she said. “Every time I move my foot, more water comes in.”
Caden was tempted to tell her not to move her foot, but something about her grim demeanor drew his attention to the bottom of the craft. Not that he could see a thing, save a small ball of lantern light swinging wildly over Sorcha’s head. “Tell me.”
“My foot’s near through a rotten spot in the bottom of the boat.” She forced a laugh. “I’m wishing I’d never given the cottar an ounce of gold.”
Adrenalin shot through Caden. Or perhaps it was fear. Regardless, he crawled forward and ripped off the canvas tarp, which the wind had rendered as useless in keeping Sorcha dry.
“Listen to me now, Sorcha of Din Guardi. We are not going to die. I believe in God, and I believe in angels.” To his astonishment his mind and heart joined forces to put fervor in his statement. “Now you must believe in me when I say that I will do everything I can to see you safely home to Trebold. God didn’t get us this far to let us drown.”
The water was high enough to cover most of Caden’s calf as he wadded the tarp into a tight ball.
“On the count of three, I want you to pull your foot from the crack and back away,” he shouted at her. “I’m going to plug the hole enough with the tarp to get us into the shallows. We’ll be safe there until morning when we can see what we’re up against.” Caden tried to read her face, but with her back to the light, it was impossible.
“Now then, on the count of three,” he said, ready with the makeshift plug. Not that he had any idea the shape or size of the rotted spot. He’d have to seal it by feel.
Abba preserve us.
“Two …” Sorcha grabbed her stuck boot with both hands.
The boot would not come loose.
Caden tried helping her pry it out, but it was wedged firmly. “Can you take it off?”
Before Caden could stop her, Sorcha rose unsteadily, leaning on his shoulder, and used her other foot on the low seat as purchase. With a jerk, her foot came out, followed by a fountain of seawater. Caden threw himself into plugging it with all his might. His feverish fingers worked blindly around the length and width of the opening. More and more rotted wood gave way. He tucked more of the tarp in until, finally, it was plugged. At least as far as he could tell. As he squinted at the dark bottom of the craft, he suddenly realized a faint glaze of light from the bow lantern that hadn’t been there before. Sorcha no longer blocked it. His blood turned as cold as the water sloshing about in the boat.
“Here!” she gasped, somewhere on the riverside to his left.
Caden thought he saw a reflection of a white hand in the watery veil between the bow light and darkness. He reached for it and caught something.
’Twas her cloak, nothing more.
Slinging it aside, he dug into the water again and again found a fistful of material. Unlike the cloak, there was substance to it. Struggling substance.
Sorcha surfaced, gasping and sputtering.
Her arm had pulled out of the sleeve in Caden’s hand, but there was still enough of the woman in the garment to haul toward the vessel. He brought her in carefully, for the water level inside the boat had grown deep enough to make it unstable. But just as she reached for the side of the boat, she began to thrash about.
“My inheritance!” she screamed. “’Twas on my shoulder.”
The little fool thrust away from the vessel hard enough to tip him over. “Easy, lassie. We’ll look for it once you’re in—”
Suddenly the water gave up the tunic, but Sorcha was not in it. Caden lunged to catch her by the hair, the shirt, whatever he could seize. Water started over the side, leaving him no choice but to sit upright and start bailing.
“Get back here, ye eel-slippery madwoman,” he bellowed. He had to save the vessel. It was their only hope in the marsh.
“Not without”—Sorcha’s voice babbled downstream—“my fortune.”
The river current wasn’t quite as strong winding through the heathland as through Glenarden’s steep banks. But bail or go after her? Indecision skewered his thoughts till only one remained.
Abba help me.
Caden threw down the pail and began to tug his heavy boots off. A lighter boat would give him more time to bail … time to find Sorcha before her love of money—
“Got it!” a triumphant, if breathless voice hailed from downstream.
Caden eased the craft around to cast what light he had in her direction. His heart beat against his breastbone like a smith’s hammer. She swam toward him against the current as if it hardly existed, the leather pouch strap looped over her head.
If they lived through this, he’d kill her. Fear locked with relief in his throat. Caden started bailing again. Until the water that had seeped in through the bottom was cleared, the boat wouldn’t hold even Sorcha’s light weight.
The boat tipped precariously as she grabbed its side.
“Stay put!” Caden barked. “I’ve water to bail out before you dare come back—”
“What?” Astonishment formed on her face.
“The boat’s full of water, you dimwit! And I don’t swim like a stinkin’ otter!”
She burst out laughing. As if that were the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
“Funny, is it?” Maybe she was in shock again … though he preferred the silent response.
Sorcha shook her head, seized by another fit of giggles.
Caden fancied hauling her in by that long slender neck of hers for the fright she’d given him. “Just pray that tarp’ll hold when your weight’s back in here,” he grumbled.
“Ah, Caden,” she gasped, unhitching the leather bag from about her neck and tossing it into the boat with a splash. She looked as if she might say more but hadn’t the wind for it. Instead, she stood up and shoved the boat away from her.
It hit ground.
Caden swiveled in disbelief toward what was a narrow strip of sand edged by marsh grass.
“We’re on land, lovely man,” Sorcha crowed as triumphantly as if she’d put them there. “Well, are you going to sit there and gawk or help me push the boat up, so we can empty it?”
Gawk, was it? Faith, he’d thought he’d lost her, and now she taunted him. Caden swung about, about to spit fire, but it died dead as yesterday’s embers on the tip of his tongue.
Sorcha stood waist-deep in the lantern light, bright-eyed as a sea imp, the soaked linen of Tunwulf’s shirt clinging to every curve God gave her. No otter, but a siren.
Now he gawked.
Until she hoisted hands to her hips, breaking the spell. “Well?”
Caden hefted one leg over the side, then the other. His feet found the bottom, soft but sound. The icy water swirled around his thighs, but, God help him, he wasn’t cold enough to stop the fire spreading within. Faith, ’twould be a longish night.
They managed to pull the coble up on the ledge of sand and mud. The rain eased to a drizzle, as though the worst of the storm had passed, but everything they possessed was soaked, as was the spongy turf beyond the waterline. After unfastening the faithful lantern from the bow, Caden made out gale-bent thorn a distance inland. But whatever lay beyond that was shrouded in pitch darkness.
Certainly no light flickered from a cottar’s window with the promise of dry warmth. But they were alive, and Sorcha had her inheritance.
When she had fallen over the side, it had come off as she struggled with Tunwulf’s oversized cloak. She couldn’t bear the thought of it’s sinking to the bottom of the burn like some pagan’s offering to the gods. But she’d lunged in the direction of the current. Two groping strokes and she’d found it. Sorcha shuddered and climbed to her feet.
“Looks like we’ve no choice but to bed here till morning,” Caden announced. “But we’ll have no fire. Bracken’s too wet to light.”
“If your God didn’t get us this far to let us drown, He’ll not let us freeze.”
She turned the bench planks in the coble sidewise to cover the hole where her foot had slipped through a loose bottom board. If she hadn’t shifted when she did, her foot might not have found the leak until it was too late. What if they’d been farther away from the bank, in deeper water?
“We’ll wring out our cloaks and huddle,” she said, refusing to dwell on what might have been. “Many’s the cold night Gemma and I kept warm with blankets and body heat.”
When Caden didn’t answer, she turned to see him staring at her. No, ’twas at her harp bag hanging on the lantern post.
“Then fetch out whatever you’ve got in that pouch that’ll serve for bedding and wring it dry as you can.”
The coble was wide enough for the two of them … just. Sorcha settled in on the hard bottom, cushioned only by the finery she’d worn just hours ago. The jewels were still tied in a gossamer headdress in the bottom of the bag, along with a mantle of gold and copper-like thread, neither the worse for water or wear. It was more than could be said for the rest of the clothing. Thinking to use the bag as a pillow, Sorcha placed it at her head while Caden secured the tarp over them to keep out as much of the light drizzle as possible.
To her surprise he removed the bag and thrust it between their bellies, where the craft was wider. “That was my pillow,” she protested.
Caden chuckled and slipped his thick arm beneath her neck until her head rested in the curve of his shoulder. “This will do for your pillow, milady. There’s no room for both, and I can’t very well toss my shoulder elsewhere now, can I?”
“This is better,” she replied after a moment of adjusting. “At least it’s warmer and not nearly as lumpy.” A shiver rippled through her. “I hadn’t noticed the cold as much till now.”
To her delight Caden cradled her closer. “Fighting for one’s life tends to overcome the senses till the battle’s done.”