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 (9 page)

“And these are my mother’s also.” Tunwulf reached into the bottom of the trunk and withdrew a fabric-covered chest with three drawers.

The first drawer contained a necklace from the Far North made of three golden strands of amber with ear cuffs from which dangled three strands no more than the length of a finger joint. The second contained a gold torc with one end spiraling into a Cymri medallion with a large emerald from the East at its center. And in the third drawer were brooches, both gold and silver, some jeweled or inlaid with colored glass, all exquisitely formed by both Cymri and Saxon jewel smiths.

“’Tis a king’s ransom,” Sorcha gasped, unable to believe what Tunwulf displayed on the tabletop. “You must take these back.” If word got out that she and Gemma housed such a fortune, every thief on the waterfront would be after them. “It isn’t safe to keep them here.”

“But they’re yours,” Tunwulf protested halfheartedly. Surely it vexed him to see Cynric so generous with what he considered his. “Father insists.”

“And if you want her to wear them at the wedding, then you’ll take the jewels now,” Gemma explained. “Unless you’d invite our misfortune.”

After a moment of silence, Rhianon placed a beringed hand on Tunwulf’s thick bicep. “Perhaps the women are right, dearest. The docks are full of unsavory sorts. I can’t understand why your father has allowed his bride-to-be to remain in such a place, singing in taverns to survive.”

“Because I asked for a year to grieve my parents and pick up the pieces of my life,” Sorcha said in Cynric’s defense. “Lord Elford is a kindhearted man.” More than she could say of his son, who profited from slaves taken during his renegade raids into Cymri territory … after the women had been brutalized and the children half-starved.

Tunwulf spoke up. “And now it’s time you acted like a woman betrothed to the ealdorman of the king. Father expects you to move to the royal keep from hence until your wedding.”

“Since you speak Cumbric so well,” Rhianon injected, “
I
suggested he ask the prince to appoint you as an attendant to Princess Eavlyn.”

The clothing was wonderful. The jewels beyond anything Sorcha ever imagined wearing. But it would take more than the contents of that trunk to prepare Sorcha for royal court, much less attending a princess. Unless attending meant entertaining her or showing her how to thimblerig. Sorcha grew clammy beneath the weight of her shift and plain woolen dress.

And what would become of Ebyn and Gemma? The laddie needed someone to care for him. Just the thought of leaving her cozy, if humble, abode without Gemma and Ebyn made Sorcha feel as if her great plan for the future was closing in on her as fast as a Leaf Fall fog.

“I need to sit,” Sorcha said, dropping onto the other bench.

“When?” Gemma asked. She came up behind Sorcha and rested comforting hands on her shoulders. “When is all this to happen?”

“Why, as soon as possible,” Rhianon replied. “The princess is already at Din Guardi.”

“Fortunately you are close to my mother’s size, so your” —Tunwulf shifted his words before insulting Gemma again—“
companion
should be able to have your clothes ready by the morrow.”


Tomorrow!”
The blood drained from Sorcha’s face and straight out her toes.

“And I shall be with you,” Rhianon reassured Sorcha. “You needn’t worry about the princess. I can instruct you how to act and help you dress, since Gemma won’t be allowed in the royal bowers.”

Much as Sorcha wanted to take comfort in that, she couldn’t. The same inner warning that troubled her last night about the stranger was ringing again. But this time her circumstances had gone from bad to worse. Whatever would she do without Gemma?

Chapter Seven

Caden had finagled the location of Sorcha’s home out of the port reeve and hastened toward it as soon as his wits were about him. An attendant waiting with a cart and two horses in front of the warehouse told Caden that Sorcha had visitors. Patience not being one of his virtues, Caden paced in the alley until he heard the door open, followed by voices.

Curiosity drew him to the corner in time to see a well-dressed man and a woman emerge, leaving Sorcha standing at the door pale as ash, as though she might be sick at any moment. The gentleman placed a box in the cart and then helped his lady companion atop a fine bay. He must have said something humorous, for the lady threw back her head and laughed, her velvet hood slipping off.

The haunting familiarity of the laugh, followed by the sight of an upswept mass of golden hair and a face Caden could never forget drove him flat against the wattle-and-daub wall of the building as though belly-punched by a battering ram. Now it was he who felt sick. But for the wall’s support, he might have slumped into the mud. By all that was unholy, he had seen a ghost. The ghost of his late wife, his curse and downfall.

“Rhianon.” Just the whisper of her name formed a cold knot of dread in his chest, squeezing the very breath out of him.

But how? She’d leapt off a cliff to her death. Dozens had seen it.

Caden remained in place until he heard the horses’ hoofbeats and creak of the cart wheels retreating toward the stockade fortress that towered over the sandy beachhead. When he peered round the corner again, the street in front of Sorcha’s establishment was empty, save for a fishmonger pushing a cart of special orders for the taverns and houses in the finer section of the village. Tuesday—also known as Tewsday—was the Din Guardi market day, but fresh seafood sold any day of the week.

He watched the retreating figures growing smaller along the causeway leading to the royal seat atop the rock. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. He hadn’t gotten a head-on look at her face, but that laugh and profile he knew by heart. Perhaps the woman had simply borne an uncanny resemblance to his late wife. And Rhianon couldn’t have a twin. If so, neither her mother nor the secondborn would have survived, for it was commonly thought that the secondborn was spawn of the Devil. Both mother, for consorting with a demon, and her child would have been put to death.

Faith, he needed a drink. More than one. But Caden had put drunkenness behind with Rhianon and his past. Like a pretty face, it made him vulnerable. Besides, he had no coin to pay for it, even if he
were
of a mind to go back to his old ways.

Instead he walked past the warehouses along Water Street toward the strand of sand spreading north of the towering Din Guardi stronghold. Caden passed small craft, turned bottom up just beyond the reach of the tide line. Some children dug with sticks in the sand for mussels, while younger ones chased seabirds from their feast among the slippery green algae left behind by the ebbing tide. No doubt the children belonged to the fishermen who lived in the mean, isolated cottages along the barren strip.

Caden wasn’t sure how long he’d walked before his breath returned to some semblance of normal. As he propped himself against one of the cobles, he allowed the combined sounds of laughter and gulls and the sun dancing off the waves to work like a balm to his rattled nerves. If God were anywhere, He was in these things.

“The heavens declare the glory
of
God; and the firmament sheweth His handywork,”
a voice boomed behind Caden, almost as if the Almighty had read his thoughts.

Except that Caden knew that particular voice well. He pivoted away from the sea to see Father Martin standing behind him.

“Martin.” It wasn’t much of a greeting, but the priest’s uncanny timing left Caden a bit disconcerted.

“Psalm 19:1,” Martin informed him with an enthusiasm that ordinarily would have annoyed Caden. Strangely, he was intrigued.

“And the firmament is shouting glory to God this day, is it not?” the priest asked.

“You grow more like Emrys by the day,” Caden grumbled. Merlin Emrys was another one known for coming and going like a spirit.

“I will take that as a compliment. Although the heavens and firmament were speaking to you, holding you enrapt from what I saw. What was God saying to you?”

“God said nothing. We aren’t on speaking terms.”

Peace
.

There it was. Exactly what Caden was seeking … and hadn’t found. Until now.

“God reaches out to us in many ways, through nature as well as people,” Martin advised him. “Sooo”—he dragged the word out—“many ways.”

Was it possible God had been speaking to
him,
who begrudged admitting that the Creator was real? Caden believed in some higher power. God, Jesus, Spirit—it was confusing. All Caden knew was that calling out for Jesus had saved him from a fate worse than most could imagine. He shivered involuntarily.

“I find God most in nature.” The priest inhaled the salty air until Caden thought his chest might burst … although Father Martin always looked as if he would burst. Indeed, the priest’s face glowed. Martin preempted Caden’s question. “You want to know why I am so filled with joy, no?”

“You are brighter than usual,” Caden admitted.

“I am,” Martin agreed, “and for good reason.” He turned Caden toward the north shoreline and pointed farther down the coast toward a rise of land and rock in the water. “I am a hermit by nature. So I walked to that island this morning to escape the press of this heathen place. To pray for their souls.”

“Have you been endowed with the gift to walk on water like your Christ?” Caden drawled, for as far as he knew, an island was surrounded by water.

Martin ignored his skepticism. “God parts the sea with the tide twice a day to reveal a causeway of sand to the Isle of Medcaut. ’Twas
that
I crossed. Sure, my feet sank in it, but not enough to dissuade me. It was as if I was being called there. Have you ever felt drawn to isolation with nature?”

That he and a priest had anything in common left Caden even more dumbfounded. “Aye. I’m here, aren’t I?” For the first time, Caden noticed that Martin was barefoot; his boots were tied to his waist. “You crazy priest, you’ll catch your death of cold.” Caden pointed to the seagulls running from the incoming tide and then after it. “Not even God’s creatures want to wade in that icy water.”

Martin chuckled. “My feet are not cold, son. My joy is such that it warms me head to toe.” As if to verify his words, the old man lifted his foot for Caden. “Go on, see for yourself.”

Caden seized the man’s foot and then his arm to keep him from falling backward into the sand. “Father, have you indulged in too much monks’ mead?” He’d never seen the man so giddy. Although his feet
were
as warm as Caden’s booted ones.

“I have partaken of the Living Water, my son.”

Caden groaned. Holy talk.

“While I prayed on the island for Princess Eavlyn and for God’s Saxon children, He showed me a vision.” Martin’s gaze took on a faraway look, as if this vision were still there in a realm invisible to Caden. “I saw a monastery, there on the very ground on which I knelt. It started as a circle of stones with hundreds of eider ducks nestled among them. And it grew and grew, an Iona for the Sassenach.”

Martin continued to stare through pools of emotion at the marvel with such fervor that Caden’s scorn died on his lips. Whether he hallucinated or nay, this holy man truly grieved for the lost souls of a people who had murdered his own in Christ and pillaged what he held sacred.

Something within Caden crumbled at the realization. Martin didn’t act holier than Caden. He
was
holier. To pray for an enemy—

“I may not live to see it, but God has shown me that these children will not be lost,” Father Martin said, coming back into the focus of This World. “Nor will you be lost, Caden of Glenarden.”

At the mention of his former home, Caden hastened to repair the defense that separated heart from spirit. “God may forgive me, but Glenarden will never.”

Ronan had said as much when Caden last saw his eldest brother.

“God is not finished with Ronan either, Caden. We are
all
unfinished works being sculpted by His hands.”

Caden wanted to rebel, to resist that infectious warmth he’d seen in Father Martin.
God wouldn’t dirty His hands on the likes of me
.

“Father, I saw Rhianon today.” Caden couldn’t believe the words that came out of his mouth of their own accord. Something more powerful than his cynicism was at work. “She’s alive.”

Astonishment claimed Martin’s face. “Are you certain?”

“No—” But Caden was. At least part of him was. He knew the woman he loved.
Once
loved. “Yes, I’m fairly sure.”

“Where did you see her?”

“At Sorcha’s home.”

Martin leaned against the overturned boat, more thoughtful than alarmed. “So you found Myrna’s daughter as well.”

“Aye. And she wants no part of her inheritance or her mother. But ’tis Rhianon that troubles me.” Caden helped Martin unfasten his boots from his belt.

“You still love her?” Martin asked, pulling stockings out of them.

“Nay, never again,” Caden averred. “She’s a witch … a demoness  … a—”

“You’ve ample grounds for a marriage annulment.”

Marriage!
Caden grew cold all over. He hadn’t thought about being still wed to the woman.

Martin pulled on one stocking and hastily donned a boot over it, as though the mention of Rhianon had chilled him.

“Father, I—”

What exactly did Caden want to say? Just her image caused his chest to knot. And the nausea … it all came back to him. Feeling as if he were being turned inside out by some hideous force he had no power to fight. Watching from somewhere outside his body as he did horrid things and not being able to stop himself.

And if Rhianon had survived death, then she was even stronger. Panic knocked Caden to his knees, cold perspiration soaking him from the inside out. “Father …” His voice cracked. “Can she do it again?”

Caden couldn’t help himself. The warrior sobbed like a terrified babe and clung to the priest so hard he feared he might break the man. “I cannot f-fight what I cannot see! I would face an armed Pict or Sassenach with my bare hands, but this …” He caught his breath. “Father, how can I stop her demons from taking me again?”

Father Martin stroked Caden’s hair. “My son,” he said gently, bracketing Caden’s face and raising it to his. “A demon cannot occupy a place where Christ dwells.”

How Caden wanted to believe that. “What must I do?”

“’Tis already done. You have called to the Christ to save you in your darkest hour—”

Caden shuddered at the memory. It had been nightmarish, yet so real.

“—and thereby acknowledged Him as your Savior.”

And the nightmare had ended. At least the spiritual one. His dreams had haunted him since.

“But I am not worthy. Not fit to kiss
your
feet, much less call on Jesus.”

“Yet He saved your life when you should have died …
twice
.”

At Ronan’s sword point and again at the Saxon’s.

“Son, Jesus has been with you all along,” Martin told him.

“How?” Caden hadn’t realized he’d voiced his question until the priest replied.

“You are a changed man since that day you cried out for His mercy, Caden of Glenarden. Even though bent on your own destruction, you are still changed.”

No more drunkenness. No womanizing.
But that was from fear.

“I have seen it,” Martin continued. “Your fear of weakness has been gradually leading you toward faith. To total acceptance of Christ’s saving grace. What you must learn is that in that very weakness you yourself admit, Christ becomes stronger
in
you. He enables you to do great things in His name.”

The path to Sorcha had certainly been smoothed—if Caden didn’t count the lump on his head or the fact she was betrothed to one of Hussa’s companions. And there was that voice, so faint, yet entrenched in his mind. Had Caden been conversing, even arguing with God instead of himself?

“I need proof,” he said. “I’m not a spiritual man. Give me something I can see or feel. A cross.”

Martin gave him a benevolent smile, the kind a father gives a thickheaded son. But at this point, Caden didn’t care. He wanted to understand what was happening to him. To get back in control.

“Fine clothes do not make a king,” Martin told him. “Likewise, wearing a cross has no power. It’s just a symbol that professes faith, that Christ lives within. The power comes from belief.”

“Is there nothing then?”

“Yes, and it will come from within you. Like love, you cannot see it, but you will feel it and know it is there. And you will see its results, its fruits,” Martin explained. “They may not be instant, but they will come, one change, one conflict at a time. Where you fell short of God’s grace yesterday, you will succeed tomorrow. Pottery is not formed at once, but requires constant shaping, reshaping, hardening, glazing, baking. Our spirits are clay in the Master Potter’s hands.”

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