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
“Ian is quite right,” Sorcha replied.
“But you had gold. I saw it,” Wynnie protested through a mouthful of food. “Queens have gold.”
“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Gemma scolded gently, dabbing off the dribble that escaped onto Wynnie’s coarse linen shift.
“Aye,” Sorcha told the girl, “I had a piece of gold, part of which I’ve spent to share food and lodging with you this night and every other until you return to your homes.”
To her surprise, Ian handed Aine over. Like a living doll with bright blue eyes, the child was so engrossed in the meat pasty, she didn’t seem to care that Sorcha was a stranger.
“You won’t be going with us?” Ian asked. He selected one of the biggest pies and bit into it eagerly.
“Nay, I have a friend who will take you. He’s a bard.”
“What is that?” Wynnie stopped eating, alarm and suspicion creeping back onto her round face. Having been reared in a remote farming village, chances were she’d not been to a fair or tavern. Sorcha hadn’t at that age.
“A bard is a traveling entertainer who sings at fairs, taverns, or in noble courts,” she explained.
“I’ve seen them,” Ian assured the girl smugly. “They also put on marvelous plays, dance, and sometimes juggle and do acrobatic tricks.”
“Actually, that kind of entertainer is a gleeman.” Sorcha pointed to Gemma. “Gemma and my mother were gleemen … and I sing and play music as one myself, though I’ve had some bardic training.”
A glaze of confusion settled over the older children’s faces.
“Unlike gleemen,” Sorcha told them, “a bard has to study for years and years to memorize the great songs of his people—”
“And to learn how to compose new ones in a rhyme and meter that will not be lost through the ages,” Gemma added as she removed the fourth child’s bindings.
“So I’ve memorized songs, but not as many as a master bard.” Though she’d picked her cousin’s brain clean. “And I can read and write but am not good enough to write bardic poetry.” There just hadn’t been enough time with Sorcha’s helping her mother and father in their businesses.
“Ach, Ebyn,” Gemma tutted, examining where the rope bindings had rubbed the younger boy’s wrist raw. “I do not like the looks of this, but I’ve a salve that will heal it.”
“Is it magic?” Aside from his name, these were the first words Sorcha had heard Ebyn utter.
“I’m no fairy, lad, just a wee woman who didn’t eat what my mother told me to when I was your age.” Gemma tossed up her hands. “Now look at me. Too old to be a child”—her dramatic twirl made her skirts flare—“and too small to be a woman.” Catching her skirts, she floated down into a graceful bow.
Ebyn smiled for the first time, perhaps since he’d been captured. Like Wynnie, he was seven, the same age as Sorcha when she’d been plucked from the love of her family and brought into this foreign place. At last he was relaxing.
But a sharp knock on the door sent the boy scrambling beneath the food board with Wynnie not far behind. Ian grew still and pale. Sorcha handed his little sister off to him and went to the entrance.
“Get on with you,” she shouted through the heavy plank door. “’Tis too late for business at this hour, and you’ll wake the babes.”
The mention of sleeping children usually sent drunken patrons or seamen who stumbled home to the wrong door from waterfront taverns on their way.
From the other side came a rich baritone Sorcha knew only too well: “My heart is sore, for I’ve been long from the bower of my fire-haired lady….”
With a laugh, Sorcha unbolted the door and flung it open. Leaning against the frame, grasping a harp in a bag tucked under his arm and brandishing an incorrigible grin, stood her cousin Eadric. A raven-haired rogue, the illegitimate son of an Elmet chieftain and Aelwyn’s sister, Eadric had a voice and a charm that left maidens’ hearts broken and twined with longing in his wake.
“Eadric!” Of Elmet, or Cumbria, perhaps Powys or Glamorgan. His home was where his harp was. So tonight …
“You can come out from under the table, Wynnie, and meet your first bard. Children,” Sorcha announced, “may I present Eadric … of Bernicia.”
Leaf Fall took hold with the first frosts searing the foliage from green to shades of red, gold, and brown. Today the air was crisp enough to make a cloak welcome to some, but a nuisance to Caden as he looked over the fields from the dun at the top of Trebold Law. He’d lost most of September abed. To rebuild his strength, he’d insisted on helping around the tavern and making the climb daily to visit Malachy, Lady Myrna’s brother-by-law.
Alyn had set off for Glenarden to visit their elder brother and his wife before returning to Llanwit to resume his studies, and Father Martin, too, had taken his leave. But not without one last sermon.
“Ours is a Lord of second chances, Caden. Make good use of this one,” the priest told Caden before taking off in a northerly direction along the old Roman road toward Din Edyn.
Never specific, Caden had grumbled to himself. But Martin read his mind like a tavern sign. “There’s an old proverb you’d do well to ponder, son.
‘Love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.’”
Caden loved his neighbor … as long as said neighbor left him be. Yet his life was a dungeon, a chamber of endless torture, in spite of Trebold’s gracious treatment. Myrna had nothing but the highest regard for him. Her brother-in-law, Malachy, picked up where Martin had left off in fishing for Caden’s soul during their games of draughts and even suggested that Trebold Law might be Caden’s if he could charm the long-lost Sorcha.
A decaying hillfort with half its surrounding fields lying fallow,
Caden thought as he surveyed the land below. The old Caden would have leapt at the chance to have an adoring people and land of his own. The people of Trebold Law thought he was a hero, the warrior who saved the High King. But a man who’d nearly murdered his family for power wasn’t worthy of even this ramshackle place where the earthen works and the remains of a stockade were so overgrown, it was hard to tell where one ended and nature took over.
Nay. The sooner Caden fetched Sorcha home, if the lady was to be found and fetched at all, the sooner he could return to the battlefront, where the enemy was clearly defined and deadly enough to suit him.
A horn’s blast pulled Caden from his dour speculation to the north road from Din Edyn converging at the ford that was the tavern Trebold Law’s only hope for survival. As if in answer to his heart’s plea, the double eagles of Lothian fluttered in the wind above a large procession.
“What is it?” Above Caden, Malachy ventured out of the patched hall, his cloak whirling about his scrawny frame in the fall breeze.
“King Modred’s company approaches,” Caden replied.
Malachy grasped at his chest in dismay. “The shame of it that we’ve no laird to properly greet him. I’ve failed my brother’s wife miserably.”
Caden grinned, familiar with the old man’s cunning. “I’ll help Lady Myrna entertain the king at the tavern,” he promised. Given his way, Malachy would hasten back to his church and hand Trebold over to Caden with or without Sorcha. And in truth, it felt good to Caden to have such a fatherly figure hold him in high esteem, even if that esteem was foundless.
“You know how much we need you, son,” Malachy told him. “And we’re grateful God has sent you to us.”
The word twined around Caden’s heart, so tempting to accept. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.
By nightfall, the downstairs of the tavern had been converted into Modred’s hall, with the king seated at the center of a food board that had been set up along the left side of the central hearth. The room was filled with the delicious aromas of roasting beef and venison. To Caden’s surprise, he was seated at the king’s board with Princess Eavlyn of Dunfeld to his right and a now-composed Malachy on his left. The irony was not lost on Caden. He’d used to be pleased as a hornet in honeyed mead to dine in the company of royalty; yet now he’d rather be fetching wood for Myrna’s cook fire or lurking in the shadows of the buttresses supporting the high timber walls.
“But you saved my uncle’s life,” Modred reminded Caden when he demurred at the invitation to join the king’s guests.
Caden was starting to regret that. Or at least the attention it garnered.
And now he was expected to accompany the royal wedding party to Din Guardi. It was an excellent excuse to have free access to the town in the atmosphere of truce and pick up the search for Sorcha of Trebold where her true father had left off so many years ago. According to Myrna, Sorcha’s father, Fintan, died of a fever from a trip to the coast in search of the child. He thought he’d seen her on the waterfront, but she disappeared in the throngs. He’d asked at every cottar’s house and business stall about his missing red-haired daughter, but the moment he mentioned her name, no one knew anything. Worse, the poor man was set upon by brigands and left for dead. Fintan made it home to his wife, but only just, before the fever took him.
“More mead, milady?” Myrna asked the princess.
“Thank you,” Princess Eavlyn replied, folding delicate, gold-ringed hands in her lap.
His dinner companion was comely enough, with unremarkable brown hair and eyes. She ate like a bird and had little to say to anyone, save pleasantries.
Modred had changed tactics from battle to peaceweaving since Caden had last seen him. The poor lassie had been promised to a heathen prince, one of Hussa’s many sons. In theory, Prince Hering of Burlwick would rein in the Saxon raiding parties on Modred’s side of the Tweed in exchange for marriage to a Lothian princess descended from Petros, the brother of Joseph of Arimathea. Hence the Celtic Church would have planted the seed of victory for Christ and the apostolic bloodline in heathen Bernicia’s ruling family.
“I’m sorry Father Martin was unable to join us,” Malachy told Princess Eavlyn. “I’ve missed conversing with my fellow priests, though young Caden has been delightful company and a challenge at draughts these last weeks.”
“Father Martin is already at Din Guardi, working with the Saxon witans on the nature of the ceremony,” Eavlyn replied. “Their word for marriage is
which means a gamble or wager.”
Caden nearly snorted his beer through his nose. “Aye,” he managed, “I can see that.”
Ignoring his outburst, Eavlyn continued. “The witans will make their sacrifices to their gods, and Father Martin will bless the wedding in Christ’s name before the eyes of God.”
“You are a courageous woman, Eavlyn, to willingly go into that den of heathens,” Malachy observed.
“If we do not go to them with Christ, who will?” she asked simply.
It was no secret that a majority of the British church balked at the idea of taking the Word to the barbarians who’d pillaged their churches, murdered their priests, and savaged their women. They’d not forgotten how Ida had killed a weaponless priest for praying for a Briton victory. The heathen considered such an act of war, holding not even the knowledge of druid or priest sacred.
“I understand you’ve studied under the Lady Vivianne on the Holy Isle,” Malachy said, turning the subject.
At the mention of the Holy Isle, Eavlyn’s dull demeanor came to life. “Mostly the Lady Ninian, Father Malachy.”
Malachy had mustered himself together enough to make the trek downhill with the help of a servant. Instead of wearing his royal but worn tunic and braes, or trousers, the elder had donned priestly robes of undyed linen and wool, nicely embroidered with golden thread about the neck, cuffs, and hem by the women at the monastic settlement of his former home. Balding negated the need to shave his forehead in the druidic tonsure of the Celtic Church.
“Then you’ve had the pleasure of meeting her teacher,” he said.
Passion kindled in Eavlyn’s fawn-brown gaze. “And conversing about God’s great creation, especially the heavens.”
“How fares Merlin Emrys?” Malachy inquired.
Eavlyn’s smile faltered. “His health limits his travel … but he is thankful that it has given him longed-for time with his studies,” she recovered brightly.
“I envy him.” Malachy sent a meaningful glance Caden’s way before returning to his conversation with the lady. “So you are learned in astronomy.”
“My teachers say I have a gift for it.” Genuine modesty brought color to Eavlyn’s pale complexion, unlike the rouging on her attendants.
Caden stiffened, wary. He knew astrology was like his sister-in-law Brenna’s nature magic, a science and studied as such by priests and druids alike. There were signs in the heavens that measured time, predicted weather, and guided farmers and seamen alike in making their livings. But it also led to soothsaying, something not approved of by the church, at least as his pious mother, Aeda, had warned him. Fortune-telling was more foolrede than blasphemy in Caden’s mind. Foolishness.
“Did you see your future marriage in the stars?” he asked.
Eavlyn smiled, tolerant of the skepticism in Caden’s voice. “Nay, sir, my future is not in the stars, but in God’s hands. But the heavens suggest probability, based on observation from the time when God set the stars on their courses, that it could be a good one.”
“So the Sassenach aren’t so different. This wedding
a wager,” Caden reasoned. “A probability.”
Aye, she was a druidess, one of God’s, but still able to confound a man with fancy words and theories of no use on the battlefield. Give Caden weather signs and eyewitness reports on the enemy’s position and strength.
were worth pondering.
our Creator God and His Word
” she clarified emphatically. “As such, while it appears from the long-established meanings of the heavenly signs that this marriage will work, it is not certain. For that, I place my life and future in God’s hands.”
Evidently eavesdropping on the conversation, Modred turned from her father, Blaise, to the lady. The candlelight danced off the coronet sparkling on his onyx-black hair, not yet cut in the tonsure of the Celtic Church he also served. Still another contradiction in the myriad of his character.
“Milady, such matters are for scholars and lost, I fear, on some of our most valiant warriors. Even our Pendragon,” he added, as Caden bristled at the insult.
Modred’s sting was smooth as silk, for it put Caden in good company and rang of some truth. Arthur was educated as a warrior king, accomplished in the art of war with the devotion of his sword-brothers. For other matters, like diplomacy, he leaned on Emrys.
“’Tis no secret my uncle’s tutelage on the Holy Isle was short-lived, compared to that of my mother and her sisters,” Modred explained. “He is more like his father, Aedan—better suited to bashing heads than to the exchange of ideas.”
Yet Modred pondered his lofty ideas while his uncle risked life and limb to bash Saxon heads south of the Tweed in his stead. Caden had little use for his slippery liege and his half-truths, but serving Lothian put Caden closer to the Saxons and risk, the only thing he lived for.
“That is why every king needs a merlin to balance action with wisdom, that the people may be best led,” Eavlyn said, her words worthy of a queen. “Those who embody both are rare indeed.”
“Indeed we are.” Modred raised his goblet, Romanware gilt studded with garnets. One of his attendants had unpacked it earlier from a box that contained the king’s personal tableware. Suddenly the Lothian lord burst into laughter, as though the comment had been a jest.
Caden pretended to sip from his leather drinking mug. He was on Modred’s pay as a mercenary, but he didn’t have to drink with him. Lothian was high enough to drink to himself.
Malachy wasn’t fooled either. “Ah, but you must remember, young king, that Merlin Emrys has never stopped Arthur’s education of mind and spirit. Our Pendragon has become kingly in both since his callow days in Aedan’s court.”
“Come now, Father,” Modred drawled, annoyance darkening his gaze until the black center nearly consumed its dark brown rim. “We all know that with Emrys retired to his observatory in the west, Arthur becomes more devoted to Rome than to the British church. He wears the Virgin’s image on his shield. He only flies the Red Dragon for fear of losing the non-Christian kings in our Cymri alliance.”
“Roman or Briton, we are one in Christ,” Malachy insisted.
“If Rome has its way, we will not only lose the Grail customs of Arimathea but our freedom of faith and the pursuit of learning. Only priests and nuns may study creation and the mystic healing arts … the very arts passed down from the magi and Hebrew priests. Christ taught them to the apostles.” Modred slammed his fist on the table. “That is why Arthur
come to his senses and distance himself from Rome’s influence. Faith, since he returned from the Holy Land, he has not been the same.”
Was it possible that it was not greed and revenge against Arthur for the death of his father alone that motivated Modred, but his position in the Celtic Church of Britain against the Roman doctrine his uncle supported?
Though what difference it made whether Britons observed Easter at the Passover instead of the new date set by Rome, or considered Saturday as its Sabbath instead of Rome’s Sunday, eluded Caden. But then he wasn’t exactly religious and didn’t intend to be.
Malachy struggled for a response, a sign to Caden that there was some merit in Modred’s words. “We live in a dark time,” the old priest said at last. “A time where such knowledge in the wrong hands is abused.”