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 (6 page)

“Knowledge has been abused since time began, by both men of God and nonbelievers. But it has been used for good by both as well,” Modred argued. “We have learned from each other, coexisted in peace here in Albion. Rome would deny the free choice God gave us.”

His late wife’s image came to Caden’s mind, as angelic outside as she was evil within. Knowledge had certainly fallen into the wrong hands with Rhianon and that conniving nurse of hers.

Modred’s hands tightened about the stem of his goblet till Caden expected it to snap. “The time will grow darker, Father, if we allow Rome to dictate to us, as the Pharisees did the Jews. Is such control not what Christ rebelled against?”

“He also said,
‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you,’”
Malachy quoted.

“Matthew 7:6,” Modred acknowledged. “But Rome considers anyone who is not of the church swine. Why, Princess Eavlyn is no nun, yet she is gifted, educated on the Holy Isle. Is
she
swine?”

Caden rubbed his temple where his brain clenched in effort to follow the conversation. The only headaches he was accustomed to came from a hard blow in battle or too much ale in celebrating a victory, but never words.

“I am a woman of God, milord,” Eavlyn objected. “That I serve Him as Esther did, an enemy king’s wife, does not change the fact that I serve Him and His children.”

“And have you not learned from good, yet nonbelieving druids as well as godly ones?” Modred asked. “It is the loss of
their
knowledge I fear. We have much to learn from each other in a kingdom where we can exist together as neighbors.”

“Gentlemen, I can see no resolution to the dilemma of the church this night,” Eavlyn interjected, her hands held up in surrender, “but you are welcome to seek it without me.” She rose from the bench, giving Modred a slight bow. “Tomorrow’s journey will come early. If it please milord, I will retire with my maid now.”

“I pray my fervor has not offended you, Princess Eavlyn,” the king apologized. “I have nothing but respect for your service to God and our kingdom.”

Plain Eavlyn grew radiant before Caden’s eyes. “Oh nay, my liege. It has been most invigorating.” Her face fell. “And vexing.”

“And I plead old age, milord, and a long uphill walk to ask your leave,” Malachy said after the lady retired from the board.

“I’ll walk you back to Trebold Law,” Caden offered, glad for a chance to be free of Modred and the conversation.

The scrape of hearth benches being moved to the side so that the entourage might bed down around the fire for the night followed Caden and his elderly companion out into the cool night air.

“All of Albion is in trouble,” Malachy said halfway up the hill. “We are surrounded by the enemy, but we will not despair.” His feeble clap on the back turned into a fatherly embrace. One Caden accepted out of respect. Maybe something more. “With God on our side, son, we have nothing to fear. Believe it.”

“Aye, Father,” Caden replied. “I believe it.”

He’d seen God heal his father’s bitter madness and protect his brother Ronan and Glenarden from overwhelming odds. Caden just didn’t know if God was on
his
side.

Chapter Four

Eadric would take only three of the children on the dale ponies he’d acquired over the roll board. Sorcha wrapped her cloak tight about her shoulders in the cool morning air and stared, hopeless, at the shore where cottars wrestled their cobles, or small fishing boats, off the sand to try their fishing nets in the overcast sea beyond. The familiar wash of the water on the sands, the salty essence of the air normally embraced and invigorated Sorcha, but not today.

Not when she had to choose one child to remain behind.

Yet her cousin was not being hard-hearted. Just practical. Three youngsters day in and out on a pony across wetland, hill, and dale, accompanying a man who’d never had bairns of his own? What had she been thinking?

She hadn’t. Impulse was a weakness. Now, not only did she have to choose a child to remain behind, but she had to explain it to her betrothed, who’d already agreed to Gemma’s coming with Sorcha.

“I promise I’ll return for the fourth child in the spring,” Eadric assured her. “Even if I have to travel alone with the wee one.”

Just till spring. That’s what she’d tell Cynric. For now, she had to face four very excited children and tell them one had to remain behind. And it wouldn’t be the siblings.

Upon entering the house, Sorcha avoided Wynnie’s excited gaze as she rushed for Eadric in one of the new cloaks Gemma had made the children. Wynnie was very helpful around the house, a natural with a needle.

No longer wary of Eadric, the little girl grabbed the bard in a fierce hug. “I can’t wait to leave. Will we be home in time for the harvest celebration?” she asked, breathless. “I love the dancing and all the food.”

Sorcha groaned inside.

“You’ll be home much sooner than that,” Eadric promised. “Three days on my ponies, if the weather holds.”

“Ponies!” Aine squealed, proudly mimicking a whinny.

“What if it storms?” Ian held Aine a little closer, concern grazing his young face.

“I have many friends to offer us shelter along the way for a song and news of the land,” Eadric assured him.

“Bards are welcome wherever they go,” Gemma informed the lad.

Ian was clearly impressed. “Maybe I should be a bard instead of a cooper, like my da. I could see the whole world.” Although he’d thought Din Guardi was all there was to it beyond his home when he first arrived.

“You don’t choose to be a bard, Ian. You’re chosen to be one by another bard who thinks you’ve potential,” Eadric explained. “Then it takes twenty years of studying with the masters.”

Ian grew aghast. “I’d never live that long!”

Sorcha couldn’t help but join the others in laughter, but there was no joy in her heart.

And Gemma could see it, plain as the nose on her face. “What’s wrong, lassie?”

All eyes shifted to Sorcha, the atmosphere sobering. “Eadric can only take three children with him,” she announced. “One must stay with us until spring.”

Wynnie caught her breath, her gaze searching Sorcha’s with reluctance, as though she feared to see her name there. Making his thoughts on the matter clear, Ian pulled little Aine so close that she wailed in protest.

But from the fire where he’d retreated after breakfast, Ebyn jumped to his feet. “Me,” he exclaimed with more fervor than Sorcha had ever seen in the child. “I’ll stay.”

Eadric clapped Sorcha on the back. “Problem solved. Now the rest of you gather your things. We’ve a long day ahead of us.”

“Don’t you want to go home, Ebyn?” Sorcha asked quietly while the others scrambled under Eadric’s authority to get ready. That the child would offer to stay was an idea that never occurred to Sorcha.

Shrinking back into withdrawal, Ebyn shook his head, staring into the fire. “I like it here.”

Except that
here
wasn’t going to be
here
for long. Sorcha was to marry soon.

She hugged him. “I’m glad you do … but I’m sure in the spring your parents will be even gladder to see you when Eadric takes you home.”

Again, Ebyn shook his head. Silhouetted against the firelight, his chin trembled. A single tear left a glittering trail in its wake. “They’ll just sell me again.”

The Crowing Rooster near the market at the mouth of the Oose was packed with patrons. Traveling merchants and seamen who chose to winter over in Din Guardi mingled with the influx of peoples here for the royal wedding under the low-beamed ceiling separating the tavern from the keeper’s living quarters upstairs. While Sorcha tuned her harp, her thoughts centered on the little boy who’d told her so much in those few heart-wrenching words.
They’ll just sell me again.

No wonder he’d said so little about his home life when the other children shared theirs. At least Sorcha had been abducted, even though her parents hadn’t come after her. His parents couldn’t afford to keep him, the youngest of seven children, and Talorc had promised he’d find a good home for the boy.
At the slave market,
Sorcha fumed.
Curse the man!
Now she wished Gemma had taken his entire purse.

But she was grateful that the rest of their precious gaggle was on their way to their homes, where they’d be welcomed and loved. For tonight, Gemma had talked one of the women from weavers’ row into allowing Ebyn to spend the night. They both needed to be at the tavern, where drink was as plentiful as the coins in the purses of the patrons.

Eadric and his company had no sooner vanished into the early morning mists than a knock came on Sorcha’s door. She’d thought perhaps the bard or one of the children had forgotten something, but when she opened it, there stood Wada, a round giant of a man with missing teeth and fetid breath, who worked for the moneylender Athelstan.

At first, Sorcha’s heart lodged in her throat. Had she lost track of time? The money she owed Wada’s employer wasn’t due until Freya’s day. She had at least another day to try to make up what she’d spent on the children. She had enough to repay Athelstan for what she’d borrowed last spring but was short on the toll.

Sorcha had no doubt that Athelstan would exact his tribute for the service in some despicable way. A broken arm or smashed knee was his usual punishment. Thankfully, Sorcha had gotten by with a grudging promise that Wada would return the next evening for the full amount. The gods only knew what might befall them if she didn’t have it.

She and Gemma
had
to work this crowd tonight. The more the men drank, the more generous they became, especially to a comely wench with a pleasant voice. And men did consider Sorcha comely and talented with harp and song. She was her mother’s daughter. Though sometimes it won her unsolicited attention. That’s where her skill with the dining dagger at her waist proved helpful, for she was Wulfram’s daughter as well.

Harp tucked under her arm, Sorcha made her way to the corner where a small raised gallery had been built for the entertainers. All around her, the royal wedding of Hussa’s son, Hering of Burlwick, to the Briton princess Eavlyn of Dunfeld, dominated conversations. The princess’s entourage had arrived that afternoon with trumpet blasts loud enough to wake the dead.

Even now a cluster of the Lothians, clad in their multicolored cloaks, sat in a corner of the room, while the room buzzed with speculation.

“I hear this Lothian princess is descended from a sacred Briton lineage through her father and Pictish royals by her mother.”

“Prince Hering is no fool. Lothian Picts inherit rule from their mama’s side of the family. If Mama has no son—”

“Some say she has knowledge only our witans are privy to. She reads the stars.”

So did Sorcha. But only for signs of the weather. There were some who saw even more. The idea of watching the heavens night after night and charting what one saw sounded boring to her notion. Her element was the tavern joys of happy hearts, the latest news, and stirring song.

“With Hussa’s many enemies, this princess may prove an asset worth having.”

“A man must conquer territory with whatever sword is best suited, eh?”

Men.
Sorcha bit her tongue at the crude innuendo. In truth, she felt a kindred spirit with this princess, each of them having to marry without love. That the Wyrds played them as pieces on a board of political and social survival vexed Sorcha sorely. As for the influence of the ancient Saxon gods and goddesses, she gave up on them when their images burned along with her parents, who’d sacrificed far more to the idols than they’d received in return.

“Hering has already given his betrothed a hundred twenty hides of land in Burlwick as the bride gift at the betrothal.”

Cynric had offered Sorcha ten hides of land when the betrothal was negotiated, enough to support herself and that many families, should the marriage not work out to both their satisfaction. She was to receive that many more if she bore him a child. ’Twas more than enough to support her and Gemma
and
continue helping captured children.

A sudden rush of cool air stirred the smoke from the central hearth and drew Sorcha’s attention to the entrance, where a giant of a man with wild flaxen hair strode in … alone. The moment he ordered beer from Utta, Sorcha knew he was another Briton, a warrior by his strapping build. And handsome enough, in a wild way. His face was rough-shaven and his clothes worn, yet of quality. But what caught Sorcha’s eye most was the fat purse from which he paid Utta for his beer.

Instead of joining his countrymen, he settled on a bench near the wall and cast his quicksilver gaze about, like a hawk searching for an unsuspecting mouse. To her surprise, Sorcha seemed to be his prey. But instead of appearing threatening, like Wada’s snaggle-toothed smile earlier that day, the smile he sent her way stirred her blood from the inside out till she surely glowed like a torch.

He raised his drink to her as she began to play the harp, a tune her fingers knew well without the aid of thought. But the words, ah, they were a lost clash of attraction versus warning behind the coy smile she tossed him. Was his purse worth the risk?

Ebyn’s pitiful reply played through her mind.
They’ll just sell me again.

Aye, Sorcha decided. This would be the last time. Soon she’d be a lady and never have to steal again. With that, she began to sing.

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