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 (8 page)

“That would be lovely, Utta. I was just saying good night to this fine gentleman,” Sorcha replied to the coded question. It was a signal among the tavern staff for discerning when a patron caused, or looked as if he were about to cause, trouble.

The unsuspecting Caden was about to take a trip to the land of temporary darkness and painful awakening. Mann, the tavern keeper, waited just around the partial wall on which Sorcha had hung her cloak—with a club that had sent many an unruly patron on such a journey.

“Leave me be now, sir,” she warned him, her voice loud enough to garner the attention of the people trying to settle on the floor. “I’ll have none of your nonsense.”

Sorcha made to push past him, but Caden grabbed her arm.

“Let me go,” she demanded, “
then
I’ll talk.”

But as she pulled away, he mistook her action as intent to escape. His fingers tightened like iron tongs, making her wince in pain. Yet there was a plea in his words. “It wasn’t like you thought, lassie.”

What? Sorcha looked past him, widening her gaze as if to shout “No!” at the tavern keeper before he carried out his intent or gave himself away.

“Your father died,” Caden continued, “trying to find—”

But it was too late. Down came the club. The tall stranger crumbled to his knees, his face a mirror of surprise, and sprawled forward on the gallery step. Sorcha jumped back with a gasp.

Across the room, some of the Cymri guests who’d witnessed the attack started to their feet, but Mann held up his hand. “I’ve no quarrel with you, sirs. This ’un was in his cups and manhandlin’ the lady,” Mann explained hastily. “I doubt yer countrymen take that sort o’ thing any more kindly than mine.”

The two men hesitated, uncertain, glancing from Sorcha to the unconscious Caden … and to a few of the Saxon patrons who were also stirring, ready to defend Mann and the ladies.

“But I’d forego yer lodgin’ coin, if one of ye’d help me settle him amongst ye, till he comes around.”

Money talked to Cymri and Saxon alike. They came forward, eager to help.

Fingers shaking, Sorcha pinned her cloak, her mind racing as to how to get the man’s money back to him without being seen.

“Go home, lassies,” Mann told her and Gemma, who stood ready by the door. “I’ll tend to this ’un as always. No doubt he’ll think better of botherin’ women, come tomorrow.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow’s eve, Mann,” Gemma said, stepping outside and leaving Sorcha little choice but to follow. The scrape of the stranger’s boots on the floor as his countrymen dragged him across the room echoed in Sorcha’s ears as she hastened after Gemma and closed the door behind her.

“Would you’d left Caden’s purse on his belt,” she told Gemma as they departed from the flickering light of the lantern beside the entrance. “I was trying to think of a way to give it back.”

Gemma stopped midstride. “’Twas
yours
. He said as much. Your inheritance.”

“My inheritance was land, Gemma.”

“If there is one,” Gemma countered. “He fancied you, and that is certain.”

Yet his appraisal had been different from others who simply sought a wench to warm their night. Gathering her cloak closer, Sorcha hurried even more toward the alley. Gemma practically had to run to keep up.

“And you can’t pay Wada with
land
tomorrow, unless it is here in Bernicia with a clear title from its lord,” Gemma argued. “Slow down!”

Sorcha had to force herself to obey. She wanted to put as much distance between her and the stranger as possible. “He’ll know we took the money.”

“No one saw a thing, him included.”

Which of course was true. Gemma was good at her craft.

“And even his own kind saw he gave you trouble. ’Twas more than reason enough for Mann to do what he did. That Caden of Lothian is a giant.”

Sorcha could imagine just how large he must have appeared to Gemma. She rounded the corner of the street and stepped into an alley leading straight to the beach. Without the sun to warm it, the cold blown inland from the water made Sorcha shiver to the bone.

“I hope the children are sleeping in some hall this night,” she thought aloud as they rushed through the alley to Water Street. Was it only that morning they’d left?

“Eadric will find them shelter,” Gemma replied with absolute certainty. “When there’s no chieftain, there’s always a farmhouse to welcome a bard. And the babes have warm cloaks.”

“Aye.”

Ahead was the door to their home. After checking both ways to see if any mischief makers were about to give two lone women trouble, they hurried across Water Street and into the welcome haven.

“I hope little Ebyn was no trouble this night,” Gemma remarked, heading straight for the banked fire in the hearth to add more turf. “He was fascinated by the weaver’s loom.”

Sorcha hardly heard her. What was it Caden had last said? The words hadn’t quite registered at the moment.

It wasn’t like you thought, lassie. Your father died trying to find—

To find what? Her? By Freya’s mercy, had she been wrong all along?

Sorcha’s mind spun along with her emotions but refused to settle on any conclusion. Except that Sorcha had not seen the last of Caden of Lothian. She was no soothsayer, but that much she knew.

Chapter Six

The throbbing lump on the back of his head forced Caden to use every bit of his self-control not to take the tavern keeper’s club to the man himself. But for the witness of Caden’s fellow Cymri that Mann had misunderstood Caden’s intentions toward the lady, he would have.

Although, Caden berated himself, a seasoned warrior with keen senses should have known someone was behind him. But by the time he realized the alarm widening Sorcha’s incredibly green eyes was not because
of
him, but because of what was about to happen
to
him, it was too late.

And no one could account for how he’d lost his purse. He’d been unconscious, so it could have been any one of them. Perhaps the tavern master, who generously waived the fee for spending the night on his floor, although Mann had seemed genuinely distressed that he’d had to knock Caden senseless. He’d even had the woman Utta tend the swelling with a cloth wet with cold water.

The barmaid’s compassion seemed real, and the willow-bark tea helped ease the throbbing in his head, although there was a lump on the back of his head the size of a goose egg. But his pride stung most at falling for one of the oldest tricks in time, his instincts dulled by a pretty face. That weakness had led to his first fall, and, by all that was holy, it was not going to ruin his second chance.

The wind off the German Sea swept in at dawn but gentled by midmorning. Inside their home, Sorcha and Gemma counted out their earnings from the night before while Ebyn targeted the hearth with a string slingshot and dried peas, courtesy of Gemma.

“We have
more
than we need,” Sorcha declared, stopping her companion from taking another coin from the leather purse lifted from the Cymri stranger. She’d measured their gold and now the silver on her scale until it came to the exact amount due Athelstan. And half the Cymri’s purse remained.

Gemma grinned, hefting the purse in her hand. “We can put
this
toward spring stock.”

“My
husband
will purchase spring stock. My dowry will be the goodwill of my vendors and patrons.”

And Athelstan would never be part of her life again.

“You want to return it.” Gemma’s words held no question, just surprise.

“What if we claimed we found it outside the tavern, as if it had fallen from his belt while he relieved himself?”

“Half of it?” The skeptical arch of Gemma’s brow hit its mark.

Sorcha heaved a sigh. “You’re right.”

But what if the stranger spoke the truth about her mother’s wanting her? She’d spent the night tossing and turning, the part of her that missed Aelwyn urging her to find out more and the wounded child within telling her to forget about her birth mother.
If
she existed.

Yet someplace in Sorcha’s soul, she believed it was true. But why hadn’t her birth parents tried to find her before now? Some of the children captured with her had been ransomed, but not her. Resentment sank in its teeth.

“Your grief haunts you, child, as it still does me from time to time,” Gemma said, placing a gentle hand over Sorcha’s. “Aelwyn has only been gone a bit over a year now.” Her dark eyes glazed over. “At least—”

A sharp knock on the door jolted them both. Ebyn scurried under the table as Sorcha rose to see who it was. If it was Wada, he was early. The clink of coin behind her told her Gemma gathered the moneylender’s due and, Sorcha was certain, hid the stranger’s purse, lest Wada help himself to that as well. His employer’s status as a relative of the sheriff made the thug a bold one.

Sorcha unbolted the door and opened it. “I wasn’t expecting you till eve—”

It wasn’t Wada, but this visitor wasn’t much better.

“Hello, Tunwulf. Milady,” she added, upon noting her betrothed’s only son had brought along his female companion. Mistress, so it was said.

“Good day,
Mother,
” the young man mocked. He put his hand to his mouth. “But wait—I am premature, aren’t I?” Tunwulf, a few years Sorcha’s senior, made it no secret that he resented his father’s notion to marry her. Should she give Cynric a child, he would have to share his inheritance of Elford.

His humor was made worse because Sorcha had refused Tunwulf first. She’d held off his clumsy advances with Wulfram’s sword.

“Will you invite us in?” the lady demanded haughtily.

“Of course.” Sorcha would wager what fortune she had that Tunwulf hadn’t shared that tidbit of information with his consort. For all his noble upbringing and education, the man was no more than a renegade with allegiance to none but himself, his purse, and his appetites.

Sorcha backed away to let them enter. Beyond, a servant struggled with a trunk from a two-wheeled cart to which their riding horses were tied. “Are you in Din Guardi for the royal wedding?” she asked.

The last she’d heard from Cynric, Tunwulf had been leading a band of miscreants to wherever they might find plunder beyond Bernicia’s border. It not only made relations with Mercia and their British neighbors more tenuous than they already were, but it was an embarrassment to Cynric that his allegiance to Hussa meant nothing to Tunwulf. It was the father who fought at the king’s side, while the son served himself.

“Tunwulf wasn’t going to attend, but I persuaded him. After all, Hering might well be the next king,” the lady said.

What
was
her name? All Sorcha could recall was that she was a Briton, an outcast from her home for practicing witchcraft by all accounts. Not all Britons were Christian, but those who were could be a hysterical lot. Not that Sorcha believed in magic. Magic was no more than illusion performed by a master gleeman. Manipulation, not otherworldly spells, was the art of women like this one.

“Wise advice, Lady Rhianon,” Gemma said. “Will you have some tea?”

“Yes, do sit down,” Sorcha murmured.

Leave it to Gemma. Sorcha’s companion forgot nothing, including the obligation of hospitality.

Where
were
her wits? Sorcha fretted. She hadn’t had a clear thought since last night.

At that moment, Ebyn shot out from under the table. Lady Rhianon shrieked as if she’d seen a rat. Tunwulf swore at the boy, who promptly, rather than effectively, hid behind Gemma.

“Ebyn is a lad we took in. He’s very skittish,” the little woman explained, undaunted. “An orphan.” She motioned toward the bench at the crude board. “Do sit while I make the tea.”

“Is he
another
of your rescues?” Tunwulf asked. “You know all of Din Guardi thinks you lost your mind when you lost your parents, the way you’ve been purchasing Cymri brats.”

“I
was once one of those Cymri brats,” Sorcha reminded him. “But how I spend my money is no one’s concern but my own. Your father and I agreed on that before the contract of our betrothal was made.”

“Were you my betrothed, that would not happen.”

Tunwulf’s estimation of himself was more than she could tolerate.

“That, sir, is why I did not accept
your
offer,” Sorcha threw back at him.

Given the sharp slant of Rhianon’s blue gaze toward her companion, Sorcha would have won her bet. Tunwulf
had
been keeping his secrets.

The man laughed as the noose of his deception tightened about his neck. “Silly woman, that was a
test
… to see if you fancied Father for his kindness, as you profess, or his wealth, which I will eventually inherit.”

Well played. Though if the woman believed him, Sorcha had sorely overestimated her.

“All except the property he has gifted to me,” Sorcha reminded Tunwulf. “And should the Wyrds bless us with a son, well—”

She didn’t have to finish. A shade of furious red betrayed Tunwulf’s true feelings.

Fearing her own discomfort at begetting a child with a man twice her age might betray her, Sorcha turned abruptly to fetch four wooden cups from the cupboard containing her and Gemma’s food stores and limited tableware. Flat bread served mostly for plates when there was meat to be had. The cups doubled as bowls or porringers.

“Given Father’s age and health, that’s not a likely event,” Tunwulf pointed out. Though the clench of his fist revealed he wasn’t as certain or pleased as he made out.

“Actually,” Lady Rhianon began as she drew off a pair of kid gloves as rich as the vibrant royal cloak she wore, “
you
are going to the royal wedding. Thane Cynric asked Tunwulf and I to deliver something you might wear, since most of your belongings were lost last year. Not that a tavern singer would likely know what is appropriate for such an occasion.”

And a slut would?
Sorcha bit her tongue. “That is very kind of Elford’s lord … and you. But—”

A knock, followed by the servant’s “The trunk, milord,” sounded from the other side of the door.

Sorcha swung about to answer it. “But I’ve work to do at the tavern,” she said over her shoulder. “I am no man’s wife yet.” Still, her heart was atwitter at the idea of a new dress—

“But you may be singing, Sorcha,” Tunwulf called after her, “at the royal court of Din Guardi.”

“What?”

“What?” Gemma echoed Sorcha with equal astonishment, stopping midstride toward the table with her steaming pitcher of tea.

Sorcha turned to question Tunwulf, but he motioned toward the door and rose to take the trunk from the servant.

“It was Rhianon’s idea,” Tunwulf told her as she lifted the latch and pulled the door open.

Without so much as a thank-you to the poor man, the younger Elford took the small trunk from him and dismissed him.

“Will you come in and warm yourself by the fire?” Sorcha asked the servant.

The servant shifted his gaze beyond Sorcha to Tunwulf. Whatever he saw made him shake his head. “Nay, milady. I’ve got to get back to me pony. ’E don’t like bein’ left alone, ye know.” He pointed toward the sun, now high overhead. “’Tis a fine enough day for this time o’ year.”

“Wait.” Sorcha picked up one of the cups Gemma had poured and returned to the door, where she handed it to the meanly attired cart driver. “Sip on this.”


Rescuing
children.” Tunwulf glanced toward the corner, where Ebyn sat quiet and wide-eyed. “
Serving
servants.” He snorted. “If you are going to do honor to our house, you must learn to act the lady and”—he put an arm around his companion—“my Rhianon is going to teach you.”

“My father was a
king
in Gwynedd,” Rhianon replied.

Sorcha longed to ask her, why then did a princess consort with the likes of Tunwulf? “I have never been in a royal court,” she admitted instead.

Rhianon left her tea to open the chest. “Come, see what I’ve chosen for you. The dresses belonged to Tunwulf’s late mother, but I’m sure your dwarf can alter them to fit you.”

“Gemma is not mine,” Sorcha corrected. “She is a free woman and dear friend.”

Rhianon’s mouth drew into a rosy
O
of dismay. “I’m so sorry, Gemma. I’d just assumed—”

“You’re not the first, milady.” Gemma had clearly not made up her mind on Rhianon either. Elsewise, one could mince an onion with the edge of her words. “And I
am
handy with a needle.” Curiosity spurred her closer as Rhianon lifted the lid.

To Sorcha’s astonishment, the late lady of Elford had excellent taste. No dowdy colors here. There were two overdresses with gusseted skirts for fullness—one of the softest moss-green wool, its long sleeves and hem bedecked with a darker contrasting shade, and another of fine russet trimmed in a tablet band of russet and black chevrons. To complement them was a stiff brocade robe, in shades of bronze that fell to the knee with dark fur trim. And there were the most delicate of linen undershifts with embroidery such as Sorcha had never seen. And ribbons and veils and strings of glass beads and pearls—

“I assured Lord Elford that you will be the most beautiful woman there.” Rhianon held up the green dress to Sorcha, her blue gaze dancing with the delight of a sister.

Perhaps Sorcha had misjudged her. From Gemma’s approving smile, Sorcha knew that Rhianon had chosen well for her. Sorcha had sold the makings for such finery through her father’s business but had never worn anything like this.

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