Read Thief Online

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

Thief (4 page)

“And now God’s answered this lonely widow’s heart-held prayer by sending you.”

Somewhere in the back of Caden’s throat, the wet bread lodged. The coughing it triggered drove lance after lance through his wound with each strangle of breath. His head grew light, a lack of consciousness momentarily pulling him up out of his misery. When he came to himself again, he was surrounded by Alyn, Father Martin, and Lady Myrna, who looked on the verge of tears.

“I apologize, milord, if I’ve upset you,” she fretted. “’Twas too soon to heap another burden on you.”

“She doesn’t want you for a husband, twit.” Concern overrode Alyn’s stab at levity.

“What then?” Caden managed. Had they left the cursed lance in his back? With every movement his wound felt as though it were still there, being twisted by a vicious hand.

“God sent you to me to find my lost daughter.” Myrna fluffed the pillow behind his head. “But for now, you need to rest and regain your strength for your mission. Will you take more broth?”

Caden shook his head. He wanted to know more about this mission. Unfortunately, he was too weary to form the questions in his mind, much less voice them. He closed his eyes like a babe, and the world around him drifted away.

Chapter Two

Across the fells and moorlands to the east of Lothian, the salt scent of the German Sea and the rush of waves upon the Bernician shore were blotted out by the cluster of humanity and goods of Din Guardi’s marketplace. Exotic fabrics and spices from the East, tableware from the Mediterranean, the finest wines and oils the continent had to offer—all were on display to tease and tempt the buyer.

Yet where Sorcha, adopted daughter of the late merchant Wulfram, stood, the pungent stench of the slave warehouse surrounded her. A line of British captives, shackled in irons and despair, left the raised dais one by one, sold to work in some thane’s hall, barn, or fields. They were able men, not of warrior stature—for those would have died fighting their Saxon captor—but still fit for common labor.

Then came the women, the more comely ones examined with looks and touches that made Sorcha shudder. Her betrothed, despite being twice her age, sometimes looked at her with the same raw hunger.

As her adopted father’s best friend, Cynric of Elford had watched Sorcha grow up. She’d seen him as a fatherly figure, but now she was a woman, and he was, for all his kindness and generosity, a man. For a year she’d kept him at bay, asking time to mourn her parents, who perished in a fire that had consumed their home and tavern near their business at a port warehouse.

The image of Wulfram and Aelwyn’s smiling faces squeezed at Sorcha’s heart. But for a twist in the Wyrds’ way, Sorcha might have perished as well. Instead, she and her mother’s friend and servant, Gemma, managed to leap from their loft bedchamber to the roof of an adjacent building. Her parents were not so fortunate.

With their home in ashes, Sorcha and Gemma moved to Wulfram’s warehouse near the waterfront and, with what assets had not perished in the fire, finished part of it as their new home. Living among the swarms of strangers and seamen who came into the port below Din Guardi’s great rock wasn’t the safest place for two women to live alone, but then, Sorcha and Gemma were well acquainted with the use of a sword or knife. Not that they’d had to use either. Those who lived and worked in that section looked out for their own….

“Each lot is more sorrowful than the last,” Gemma said, pulling Sorcha from the horror of that night. Though she stood on an empty wine cask, the dwarf strained on tiptoe to see over the heads of the crowd.

“Aye,” Sorcha agreed. Some would marry and be lifted above their lot as a slave, but ’twas still an indignity to a free soul.

“Better them than me,” Gemma observed. She was not without heart but was pragmatic to a fault.

Gemma had been born on the same day as Sorcha’s adopted mother, both to a troupe of gleemen or entertainers. Copper-haired Aelwyn grew into a tall, lithe beauty, while her brown-haired counterpart’s growth was stunted by the whim of the Wyrds. Aelwyn’s voice and sharp wit earned her a living as a singer to the common folk, while Gemma’s unique size, sleight of hand, and light fingers filled the needs song did not.

A wail, followed by a harsh command for silence, drew Sorcha’s attention to where a barrel-chested oaf tugged a string of dirty and disheveled children, some in rags, toward the platform.

“Here come the little ones.”

Even as Sorcha mouthed the words, she was seized with empathy for the frightened children led like livestock across the slaver’s dais. For just a second, she was one of them again, snatched from a loving home by barbarian invaders, monsters with swords who trussed her up and marched her over hill and dale into a foreign land with a language that sounded harsh to ears accustomed to the lilt and flow of her native tongue.

Though only seven when she was taken from Trebold Law, she’d heard stories about the Sassenach barbarians. Would the brigands kill her and eat her? she’d wondered, trembling. Would they sacrifice her to their heathen gods? Where were her parents? Why hadn’t they come after her? Or would they never come? Was the blood staining the clothing and blades of her straw-haired captors that of her loved ones?

With each day that passed in the new land, her mother’s last words, a promise called out to Sorcha as she was dragged away from her homeland—that God would bring her home again—turned a child’s hope into contempt. If her parents’ Christian God was so good, was even real, this would not have happened.

Sorcha shook off the flashback. “I count four.”

At least she’d been one of the lucky ones. Wulfram and Aelwyn had purchased her and adopted her as the daughter of their hearts. Aelwyn had been barren, and Sorcha might have been her own, given her mane of fiery red hair. But where Aelwyn’s eyes were summer blue, Sorcha’s were a winter green—the soft color of pine needles, so Wulfram often teased, or a gemstone fire when she was angry.

“Three,” Gemma disagreed with a stubbornness twice her size. “We can only afford three.”

Scorcha knew her friend was right. Having spent what little coin they had after her parents’ deaths on building a room in the warehouse for a home, they’d had to borrow from the moneylender to purchase the spring supplies this year. And the betrothal gift that Cynric had given her had gone toward previous auctions. If she asked for more, the thane might think her dowry—the business—was not worthy of marriage.

“The littlest one won’t remember. A child-starved mother will give her all her own mother would, same as Aelwyn did you,” Gemma reminded her.

Sorcha couldn’t deny that Aelwyn
Wulfram loved her with all their hearts. But that didn’t erase the memory of Sorcha’s birth mother. Myrna’s loving face was forever etched on Sorcha’s heart.

“So, Sorcha, I see you’ve come for more children to while away.”

Talorc, the Frisian slave trader whose
were on the auction block, ambled over to Sorcha. Giving Gemma a less than dismissive glance, he set himself between the two of them for Sorcha’s undivided attention.

Gemma jumped down from the cask before she was knocked over. “Watch yourself, trader, or you might awaken tomorrow as the swine you are.”

“Ach, you’ve no more magic than me.” The Frisian scoffed at the threat as Gemma gave his tunic a hard tug of indignation. “Careful, little woman, or I’ll sell

With a sniff, Gemma hustled to Sorcha’s other side, but something told Sorcha it was not because of fear. Gemma was too quick for all that excess flesh and bone to catch her.

“Talorc, I am a person of business like my father before me,” Sorcha said. “These children will fetch me a profit as well as you.” Sorcha’s smile was as empty as her growling stomach. In their haste to make it to the market in time for the auction, she and Gemma had failed to break the fast.

“Exactly what is it you do with the urchins?” the man asked, fingering his necklace of gold coins and buttons, a financial reserve, as well as a boastful sign of his wealth. “I hear you keep them about from time to time, and then they are gone. Does
turn them into toads?”

“You said you don’t believe in the magic of little people,” Sorcha replied.

Although a good many did, something Gemma used to her advantage when it suited her purpose.

Talorc peered around Sorcha. “No, but I do believe someone would pay dearly to have her as a pet.”

Sorcha sank her fingers into Gemma’s shoulders in time to stay her friend’s impulse to respond, although she could well imagine what was going on in Gemma’s quick mind. Something about a knife and rendering Talorc so he would never sire children.

“Gemma is a free woman,” Sorcha reminded him sweetly.

The sad thing, though, was that what Talorc said was true. The wealthy had kept dwarves as pets since the pharaohs, although most were pampered to the utmost in exchange for their unique presence and entertainment. Sorcha had even heard it said that parents tried to arrest their babes’ normal growth with diet and potions, both within the womb and without, to produce the same result.

“As for my business,” Sorcha continued, “I and my network of associates find child-starved homes for them inland where they’ll be raised as natural-born sons and daughters, not slaves.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie. Gleemen and bards, or scops as they were called in Bernicia, were welcome anywhere in the isles no matter their nationality, as long as they might sing their stories in multiple languages or simply entertain with their theatrics or acrobatic abilities. A few in Sorcha’s close circle had heart enough to help her return these children to their rightful homes. Any rewards were shared, with her portion used to save future captives. Sadly, gratitude was all most broken families could afford.

“The reward must not be much, else you’d rebuild your home.” Talorc laughed at her sentimentality, but the humor didn’t reach his eyes.

It seemed to amuse her betrothed as well, but Sorcha had been adamant that she’d remain free to help those whose position she’d once been in. Or maybe it was her way of dealing with her grief this past year. A distraction to fill the emptiness of her loss.

“Milady’s business is none of yours, Talorc,” Gemma reminded him. “Now leave us be so we can attend to it.” The dwarf motioned Talorc along, like a queen dismissing a minion.

“Hah,” Talorc guffawed. “If only you were big as yer mouth was.”

Gemma cocked her head at him. “Big or nay, we’re
big enough to tell the thane of Elford all about you.”

Talorc raised his thick hedge of brow at Sorcha. “So it’s true. You’re to be a lady of Elford Hall now.”

Sorcha nodded. The skim of his jaundiced gaze over her body reminded her all too much that it soon would not be her own. But Elford’s wedding gift would go a long way toward her purpose, she reminded herself. And at the rate her mission to help the children had dwindled her resources, she should consider herself honored that her late father’s sword-friend would even consider her. After all, she was not truly Saxon.

“No wonder you haven’t found another place to live,” Talorc remarked. “You’ll have the great hall at Elford as your own.” He glanced at Gemma. “And a jester besides.”

Before Gemma could come back at him, Talorc walked away, chuckling.

“Chuckle away, oaf,” the dwarf said under her breath. “I’ve three Byzantine gold pieces for the insults you’ve hurled.”

Alarm struck down the sense of being soiled by Talorc’s presence. The trader’s purse hung on the verge of falling by only one of its pull strings. “Gemma! Not here where—”

Sorcha broke off as Gemma raised a finger to her lips. “I only skimmed the top,” her companion said with the demeanor of a well-fed cat. “He’ll never know when the bag came loose or if he lost anything.”

There was no thrill like that of a well-executed theft from someone who deserved it. Sorcha knew that firsthand. But here in the marketplace, where she and Gemma were well known and respected …

Sorcha ushered Gemma closer to the auction block. “Let’s just do our bidding and get the urchins home, eh?”

That evening,
bedraggled youngsters scrambled for small meat pies that Gemma had purchased for them in the marketplace, since neither Sorcha nor her companion claimed to be decent cooks. The eldest, a lad from a village in the nearby British kingdom of Elmet, gathered up his little sister and offered his pie to her. Sorcha put aside the hearth poker and left the warmth of the now-growing flames to help out.

“You’re a good brother, Ian. But I’ll help Aine, so you can join the others.”

Ian, black-haired as the rest of them, hesitated. Ten years if a day by Sorcha’s guess, he was clearly hungry and exhausted. And thanks to Talorc’s unwitting contribution, they were able to purchase his sibling.

“I’ll get a knife to remove that rope off your wrist now that you’re safe in here.”

Sorcha hated keeping them on leashes like dogs, but she had seen the fear and panic in their eyes and known that they might bolt away in the marketplace and wind up lost and hungry on the streets, no matter how she reassured them in their native tongue that she was going to see them returned to their families.

“Are you a heathen queen?” the eldest girl asked as Sorcha cut away the binding on Ian’s wrist.

“Queens don’t live in places like this,” Ian told his fellow captive with a degree of authority. The boy looked at the heavy beams overhead, supporting a loft mostly used for storage. Since the fire, Gemma and Sorcha lived and slept in the downstairs quarters, even though the loft was just as toasty with the rising heat from the hearth.

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