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
was Sorcha. Caden could see the resemblance to Myrna the moment he laid eyes on her. Her hair was touched with fire, yet unblemished by the snow of her mother’s age. It almost looked hot to the touch. Hot as the fierce blush that colored her creamy complexion and deepened the green of her gaze. This fair minstrel had to be the one he sought. How many Sorchas could there be in Din Guardi of that description?
The port reeve had not steered him wrong, although the man was reluctant to give up any information until a gold coin warmed his hand. Even then, Caden had to convince him that he had a small inheritance for Sorcha from a relative in Aberwick, a lady Caden had worked for.
“Our Sorcha an heiress,” the reeve exclaimed. “The Wyrds must be makin’ up for the way they’ve treated her of late.”
Caden learned, while treating the man to a drink near a warm tavern fire, how she’d lost her parents in a fire a little over a year ago, well-respected folk who adopted the seven-year-old captive. That her father’s sword-friend and gesith, or companion to Hussa himself, had offered to marry her.
“Though the ol’ thane’ll have his hands full, mind ye,” the reeve said. “That one has a mind of her own. A bit queer, if ye ask me. Most maids her age are wedded, bedded, and raisin’ their own children by now, not buyin’ ’em at the slave market. Says she an’ that dwarf of hers finds good homes for them.”
So Sorcha had her mother Myrna’s good heart. Caden tucked that and all he’d learned away in his memory. His red-blooded reaction to her smile was harder to cast aside. But it had been the same the first time he’d seen Rhianon. And since being freed of his late wife, he’d run from any woman who affected him so, making him vulnerable to her manipulation.
Unbidden, the last time Caden saw Rhianon came to his mind: her clothes stained with the blood of the men she’d murdered, her hair wild and matted with brush from hiding in the woods. Hissing and snarling at the priest who approached her, she’d turned and leapt over a crag, taking their unborn child with her into the depths of the river below. Caden had lost a part of him that day that he still mourned, but his grief was for the innocent babe, not his late wife. Caden shuddered. He’d rather face a battle-crazed Saxon or Orkney Pict any day.
A dwarfish woman nudged him with a wooden cup, startling Caden from the nightmarish memory. “If you liked the song, a copper for milady’s cup will bring on another.”
“Aye, I did,” Caden said, fishing a copper from his purse, “though my understanding of Saxon is limited.”
Truth was, he’d rather sit with his countrymen on yon side of the hearth, where he’d understand all being said. Here, it was more difficult, although camping and fighting side by side with Saxon warriors for hire had taught him enough to gather the gist of conversation.
“Milady sings in Cumbric as well.” The little woman shoved the cup at him again. “Have you a request?”
Caden parted with another copper. “Any song in Cumbric will do.” And then he added a silver coin. “And I would like to speak to the lady when she is finished this night.” What was it the reeve called the dwarf? “Gemma.”
Gemma’s dark eyes narrowed. “You have the advantage of me, sir, for I do not know your name.”
“Caden.” A man without a true home, Caden hesitated. “Of Lothian.” For now.
“Well, Caden of Lothian, milady does not meet men after her work here is done. She and I go straight home as decent women do.”
Caden nearly laughed. For someone so small, Gemma’s indignation was big … and sharp enough to whittle a man’s esteem down to her size. “I assure you, Gemma, my intentions are completely honorable.”
One of the dwarf’s eyebrows arched with skepticism.
“I’m come to deliver an inheritance to the lady.”
In essence it was so. Trebold would be hers—if this impending marriage did not stand in the way.
Gemma’s other brow hiked. “You might as well go on and practice your lies on someone else. Milady has no other family than myself.”
Caden pulled the strings to his purse closed and let it fall into his lap. The hard jingle of coin was not lost on Gemma. “There is more coin … just to talk. That is all I ask.”
“Good,” the dwarf replied. “Because that is all you will receive.”
Caden watched as the little woman wove her way through the crowd to where the lovely minstrel finished another melody for a group of foreign merchants nearby. It was a hearty song that they sang with her about a cuckolded husband, if he heard right. One tossed a silver ring into her cup, and no wonder. The lady had a gift.
Still laughing at something one of the men said, Sorcha lent an ear to Gemma. The joviality on her face remained, but her startled gaze shot Caden’s way. His news had unnerved her, even frightened her, if he was any judge of women. Then something caused her green gaze to snap, sparks lashing out at him.
Caden hid his surprise behind a sip from his mug. By any standard, this was a strange reaction to learning one was about to receive an inheritance. That he’d found Sorcha’s whereabouts on his first day in Din Guardi almost convinced him that maybe God was helping out a bit, opening a door for this second chance the priest spoke of. Though the bribe and mentioning the lady had an inheritance coming to her certainly didn’t hurt … until now.
Sorcha struck up a familiar tune, all the while glaring his way. It was in Cumbric, earning a cheer from the Cymris’ far side of the room. She sang of a handsome swain and master of lies, who left a trail of broken hearts in his wake … until he met a maid who was his match and left him broken and alone.
Whatever Gemma had told her, it had not set well with the lassie.
Caden would never understand women. He’d have wagered Sorcha might leap at the chance for an inheritance, if it meant not having to marry an old codger as a brood sow.
By his father’s bones, Father Martin’s proverbial door of service to mankind that led out of the dungeon of one’s self became more cumbersome by the hour.
Sorcha didn’t know who the lion-maned stranger was, except that he was no friend of hers. An inheritance indeed. If her birth parents thought anything of her, they’d have come for her, not waited till they’d gone earthways to reach out to her. And sending a pouch of coins! As if that could take away the fears she’d lived out until she realized that Wulfram’s and Aelwyn’s harsh-sounding words were meant to comfort her. That they meant to love her and nurture her as their own.
Like as not, this Caden had already helped himself to what there was of the money. That is, what he didn’t toss to the serving wench Utta for her more than willing service. But then, Utta was one of those women born flirting. And with some customers, she deserved every copper her winks and smiles earned.
Sorcha winced as she plucked the wrong chord to the ballad she sang and forced her attention back to her work. Not that anyone seemed to notice. Not even the stranger, who rarely took his gaze away from her. And that distracted her all the more. Leers, she could ignore, but this scrutiny probed as though he were trying to see who she really was behind the facade of song and a comely face. And no one, save Gemma, saw that Sorcha.
When the tavern keeper at length rang the bell mounted by the door to signal the end of drink service, some of the patrons had already cleared benches to make their beds on the floor. The wealthy merchants had departed for a hostel or one of the haws some maintained year-round. But the Cymri stranger had not moved from his bench, except long enough to relieve himself outside.
Sorcha put her harp in her bag and slung it over her shoulder. It had been a decent night’s revenue, she thought, taking up the heavy cup Gemma had passed about. But it was filled with coppers mostly, not nearly enough to pay Wada tomorrow … which meant she wouldn’t have the satisfaction of throwing the bag of money that Gemma had told her of back in the stranger’s face. She’d have to take it and be thankful, at least to the Wyrds. It was times like this when her upcoming marriage promised more relief than concern.
“You’ve the voice of a siren, Milady Sorcha.”
Sorcha gasped at the nearness of the stranger, for she’d only lost track of him in the time it took to pick up her cloak.
“And you’ve the footfall of a ghost,” she shot back. Already she could feel her skin warming, when such an approach should make the blood rushing it flee. “And a smart man, as I recall, should run fast as he can from the sirens I’ve heard about.”
“Hah, a sharp wit and tongue to match.”
The stinging compliment disconcerted Sorcha all the more. “I’ve no mind to speak long, so say what you must.”
A momentary scowl grazed his face, but he kept his voice cordial. “Fine then. Your mother, your birth mother, nursed me to health from a near fatal wound. I promised to—”
Her birth mother … alive? Sorcha wrestled between disbelief and shock. After so long? It had been a contrary solace to think that her parents had never searched for her because they couldn’t … because they were dead.
Surely it was a lie.
But how could he know she was adopted?
“I … I’m sorry.” Sorcha shook the seesaw of her debate to catch up. “You promised to
“I promised her I’d come to Din Guardi and search for you.”
“Come to buy me back with
I suppose?” Sorcha eyed the plump purse tied to the man’s belt.
That would more than pay off the moneylender.
Instinctively, the man’s hand went to it. “Nay, lassie. This is mine. ’Tis land your mathair offers … and her love.”
Bitterness smacked down Sorcha’s rise of hope. “Her love,” she scoffed. “’Tis too late for that. I had a good mother
father, parents who would have hunted for me to the ends of the earth if I’d been taken from them. But
.” She silently cursed her stinging eyes. “My blood folk left me to the whim of the fates, and thankfully the Wyrds were kinder than they. Wulfram and Aelwyn are the parents who filled a child’s broken heart with love, not this woman who sends you so late with an offer of land. I’ve no more need for it than for her.”
“The land can save you from marrying an old man and submitting that lovely body of yours to him.”
So that silver gaze had been feasting on more than Sorcha’s inner self. Which, by Freya’s curse, seemed to ignite on its own at the thought that this Caden knew so much about her.
“Cynric offers me land and wealth, as well as his love,” she replied. “Old he may be, but he is kind and gentle, a sword-friend of my departed father who has known me all my years here.” She lifted her chin at the man in defiance of the plaintive gaze. As if he needed her to say yes to going with him. Sure, such need reached out and touched her, making her shiver with uncertainty. “So you can see, sir—”
“Caden,” he reminded her.
“You can well see,
I’ve no need for anything you have to offer, so step aside.” And why should it matter so much to him whether she went or stayed?
“You heard her. Off with you, now.” Gemma, who’d been helping Utta make beds on the floor about the hearth, tugged on the stranger’s tunic as though to pull him away.
Caden gave the little woman a cursory glance. “I will,
, when I’ve finished with the lady.”
Gemma marched off, mumbling under her breath as if to make the man think she might be conjuring some sort of spell, but his chuckle belayed any concern he might have. Yet, when he turned back to Sorcha, his purse was no longer at his side.
Oh, Gemma, not this one!
Every alarm in Sorcha’s body told her this Caden was not one to be trifled with.
“There’s nothing left to say, sir,” Sorcha declared. Maybe if she could get Gemma alone, they could figure a way to return it. “Tell her to keep her land.”
But the man moved to block her path down from the raised gallery. “I have lots more to say, milady. I’ve not come all this way to leave unheard. Have you Sassenach no sense of hospitality?”
“Sorcha, we’d best be goin’ home soon,” Utta called to her as she drew on her shawl, making ready to leave. “Mind if I walk with ye?”
“We’ll talk a bit more, thank you, miss,” the stranger told her.
Polite, but bullheaded.